If your eyes are open

“Don’t scorn your life just because it’s not dramatic, or it’s impoverished, or it looks dull, or it’s workaday. Don’t scorn it. It is where poetry is taking place if you’ve got the sensitivity to see it, if your eyes are open.”

– Philip Levine

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Things I Love Lately

An Open Letter to a Nursery-School Mom from a Sixth-Grader’s Mom: This piece by Catherine Newman, oh my God.  I love every word the woman writes (in fact, many years ago I shared some of her words with the not-ambiguous title of The Great Catherine Newman).  But this piece, oh.  Oh.  It gutted me.  I’ve often looked at the pre-K and K parents at school, marveled at how I was one of them moments ago, at how I looked at the parents of the Big Kids and had all the same questions.  They seemed glamorous and tired and old all at the same time.  And now I’m one of them (mostly tired and old, not so much glamorous).  Read this piece now.

Hope Floating: This raw, painful, beautiful piece by Robin Schoenthaler on Full Grown People made me weep.  I’m privileged to know Robin, and I love her work, every word of it, but this is among my favorite pieces I’ve read by her.  “Lying there laughing, I feel them like a flash flood, the raw and precious lives that led us here...”  Simply extraordinary.

The Definition of Hell for Each Myers-Briggs Personality Type: Thanks to Hilary for sending this to me.  Oh, so hilarious.

In a Mother’s Library, Bound in Spirit and in Print: Jessica sent me this marvelous piece, which I read shortly after the similarly-themed and likewise lambent A Mother’s Cookbook Shares More than Recipes (thanks, Randye Hoder).  I have my grandmother’s Silver Palate Cookbook and absolutely adore the record of her handwriting, so familiar it almost aches to read it, in the margins.  My father’s habit is to inscribe his books, in his fountain-pen script that I know as well as my own, with the date he bought them and where, in the frontispiece.  There is so much in the paper pages of books, whether cooking, novel, or nonfiction.  I love these two pieces for evoking that.

Salted Chocolate Chunk Cookies: I love chocolate chip cookies.  So much that we had them at our wedding, in fact.  I bake them a lot.  I made these this past weekend and they are without question the best chocolate chip cookies I have ever made.  Not exaggerating. I used a combo of regular chocolate chips and bittersweet chocolate chips.  I think the salt flakes on top are crucial. Thank you Nina Badzin for drawing my attention to this recipe.  Go, make them now!

I write these Things I Love posts approximately monthly.  You can find them all archived here.

What are you reading, thinking about, and loving lately?

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Close to the mystery

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It was my friend Lacy Crawford who recently used the expression “close to the mystery,” and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.  Close to that gossamer boundary between worlds, fo which I wrote years ago, close to births and deaths and transitions.  For some reason I think often of the scene with Sirius in Harry Potter where he passes between worlds (trying to be oblique here so as not to spoil this for anyone) … it’s magical and ineffable and beautiful and tragic at the same time.

Like life.

Close to the mystery.  Yes.  Lately I’ve been feeling awfully close to the mystery.  There have been joyful births and startling deaths which remind me of how brief, how golden, how fleeting and how fragile is our time on this earth.  There have been medical questions and scares and then reprieve, but the fears remind me, again, how faint the border is between what we know and disaster.  Of the fact that we’re all one phone call from our knees.

Maybe it’s this darkness that I sense around the edges of the most ordinary days that gives the light its texture, though.  I just read Heidi Julavits’ beautiful The Folded Clock and gasped out loud when I read “to be melancholy is to be self-haunted.”  Perhaps we all have ghosts within us, and for some people that haunting feels visceral, real, unavoidable, close, eerie but also, naturally, it highlights the beauty of our lives.

Maybe it’s the after-effects of vertigo, or maybe it’s this time of year, which always reminds me in a powerful, inescapable way of the earth’s ceaseless turning, but it feels these days like my hand is on the pulse of the universe’s magic.  I can feel the thrum of the universe under my palm, under my feet, in my every moment.  Sometimes this awareness if exhausting, if I’m honest, and I find myself snappier with my family then usual and more tired (though my midlife seasonal allergies may also have something to do with that).

As always, in this season of commencement, of endings wrapped around beginnings, I think of Adlai Stevenson’s famous commencement address, and of these lines in particular:

Your days are short here; this is the last of your springs. And now in the serenity and quiet of this lovely place, touch the depths of truth, feel the hem of Heaven.

And so I do, walking through the haze of pollen and magnolias and memories towards the inevitable goodbyes of early June, surrounded by graduation caps and gowns, sensing the mystery all around me.  The truth of this life’s fleeting and brutal gorgeousness is so echoingly loud around me I can’t hear anything else.  Something presses in on me from all sides, and sometimes I brush past heartbreak like skirting close by something unknown in the darkness.  The pulse of this mystery is the rhythm of our lives.  Mine, at least.

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The light left me, but not the memory of its glow

Illness – or, more specifically, the threat of death – has a way of putting an edge one everything, of bringing bounty where before there was none.  It’s not a question of making lemonade out of lemons or anything like that.  It’s a question of having the film pulled back from your sticky eyes, the bandages removed, the blinders ripped off so you can take in the view, which is filled with light, light, light.  The kind of light you don’t want to linger in, because it has an ominous, heavenly quality.  The kind of light that illuminates even the most delicate details, so you can see everywhere the scratched and the marred.  There was a time when I thought that I might die, when death seemed imminent, and I moved through a world that was brilliantly lit with this light and beautiful in its flamboyant decay.  And then, when I learned I wasn’t about to die, the light left me, but not the memory of its glow.

– Lauren Slater, Bloodlines (The Sun, March 2015)

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Mother’s Day 2015

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Mother’s Day in 2015 started at 6am with hockey and soccer. There was a homemade, elaborate afternoon tea from Grace and a Minecraft firework show from Whit, new running glasses from Matt and family dinner by candelight. I’ve said goodbye to sippy cups, cribs, carseats, and naps, and hello to social media, not knowing which yoga pants are hers and which are mine, so much sports gear, and constantly figuring out where the borders and boundaries are. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that my every day is filtered through the lens of nostalgia and I can’t stop thinking that there are more days with them at home behind us than there are ahead of us. As I get older, the truth is I am certain of less, but one thing I know for sure is that family life is holy. Being with these two, and Matthew Russell, is absolutely sacred to me. What an enormous blessing it is, all of it, even with the exhaustion and crankiness and moodiness, even as the shadows of the teen years loom, even with all the endings and losses and farewells. There are still so many adventures to be had, and a memory bank so rich and full that I could live in it forever.

I shared this picture, and these words, on Instagram on the evening of Mother’s Day.  It was a wonderful day, though not a perfect one.  Is there any other kind of wonderful?  Not in my life, there’s not.  I was tired, and I still don’t feel 100% (though I’m much improved), and Whit fought me at bedtime.  But there was also an early morning of heading out to various sports activities, and an impromptu visit with my own parents, which was very special for me, and both children decided, of their own accord and with no coaching from me, to give me presents that were experiences more than things.  I love this so, so much.

Grace worked for days and then on Sunday afternoon for a while on an elaborate afternoon tea on the back porch.  She had made brownies, tea sandwiches, and drinks in hand-painted mason jar water glasses.  She made a big sign that said “Best Mum” and also made a garland and decorated stand for the sandwiches.  It was absolutely adorable.  We sat on the (tiny) back porch and chatted while enjoying our ice water, jelly beans, brownies, and sandwiches.  I was and am floored by her thoughtfulness, her planning, her resourcefulness, and by 45 minutes I will never forget.

Whit made me a world.  In Minecraft.  It included signs on buildings that said “happy mother’s day,” a pig named (and labelled) “Lindsey,” and a fireworks show.  He walked me through the world on our (only) television, because he somehow figured out how to project his laptop onto the screen.  I was awestruck.  It was so creative, and so personal, and took so much work.  I watched the sunbursts of different-colored fireworks through tears.

I thought a lot on Sunday about my own matrilineage, but I also considered those friends of mine whose mothers are no longer with them (on this earth, that is).  I have had dear friends lose their mothers, in some cases mothers who were my other-mothers.  Part of what makes this moment on life’s ferris wheel so bittersweet is, of course, those losses, and their shadow over my life.  Our children grow up, and we age, and so do our parents, and we all inch forward, taking a pew closer to the front of the church, to the end of the line.  It’s so maudlin and negative to say that, I know, but I would be lying if I said it wasn’t on my mind.  My friends who had lost their mothers – and those mothers themselves – were strongly in my thoughts on Sunday.

So for all the laughter, and there was a lot of it (see below, two outtakes from the now-annual front-porch photo session) a faint vein of melancholy threaded through the day.  Who am I kidding, though?  That’s true of every day for me.  Allelulias and farewells, endings and beginnings, firsts and lasts, another day on this magical, spinning ball.  I’m both intensely aware of and fiercely grateful for all of it.

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Knowing the tide’s coming in, but still celebrating the sand castles we can build before it does

So many people told me to read Ongoingness: The End of a Diary by Sarah Manguso.  Tens and tens of them.  So many I lost track.  And I finally I did.  And wow.

Ongoingness is spare and sublime, a meditation on time and memory and motherhood and the meaning of life.  “The book’s themes are your themes,” said one friend, and I’ll just say that if that’s true, consider me honored.  Manguso writes a slender, powerful volume about the 800,000 word diary she kept obsessively for years without quoting from it once. On the book’s first page, she says “I wrote so that I could say I was truly paying attention,” which is the best answer I have to the answer of why I write, too.

I have many preoccupations in my life – and in my writing – but arguably the two chief ones are the speed with which my hours (particularly those with my children) fly by and the slippery, inchoate nature of memory.  I’m fascinated in a troubled, deeply-melancholic way by how swiftly my days pass, and I’m often nostalgic for my life even as I live it.  And I’m equally fascinated in a confused way that senses that there’s an order beyond my understanding about why I remember what I do.  It’s often the smallest, most mundane experiences that cement themselves in my memory, becoming the stones I turn over and rub in my pockets until they gleam, whereas the big, shiny “life moments” often recede into the slurry of my history.

I tried to record each moment, but time isn’t made of moments; it contains moments.  There is more to it than moments.

With this pair of sentences, Manguso seems to wrestle with this complex fact.  I think all the time of Ann Beattie’s famous line from Snow, that “people forget years and remember moments.”  What we remember seems random, but surely it’s not.  Just like there must be some rhythm I can’t quite sense about why certain quotes and passages and poems come to my mind when they do, I’m certain there’s a vast design whose pattern I can’t yet discern in why I remember what I do.

Manguso goes on to say that she “started keeping the diary in earnest when I started finding myself in moments that were too full.”  Like Dumbledore’s pensieve, she writes when things are “all too much,” whether to understand or merely to record.  Somehow the practice of writing in her diary allows her to release the pressure in her living, and this impulse is one I understand at a deep, inarticulate level.

Much of Ongoingness reminded me of Dani Shapiro, both of her work and of her teaching, which I’ve been immensely fortunate to receive.  The pages of Ongoingness contain a lot of white space, and there short passages are in dialog with each other.  This is a format that reminds me of Devotion, and which Dani and I have spoken about at length.  The structure of Ongoingness
mimics memory itself; Manguso’s musings and recollections don’t follow a logical pattern, they’re interrupted, and they echo off one another.

At one point, Manguso reverses direction, considers the opposite of her premise (“I don’t need to write anything down ever again”), and posits that “everything that’s ever happened has left its little wound.”  This passage reminded me of the samskara analogy that runs so vividly through Devotion, and of the concept – which makes sense to me – that our life’s experiences accumulate in our bodies, invisible in many cases, but resonant, and eternal.

Having a child changes entirely Manguso’s relationship to time.  “It had something to do with mortality,” she says, and reflects that “I am no longer merely a thing living in the world: I am a world.”  One of the central themes of Ongoingness is the way in which having a child altered her dependence on the diary.  Her son has become, in so many ways, her diary.  In his body, in the “unbearable sweetness” of his growing hair and changing self, she can now see her life recorded, captured, remembered.

“…when I am with my son I feel the bracing speed of the one-way journey that guides human experience,” Manguso observes, and I nod so vigorously my neck hurts.  Yes, yes, yes, I think, as the tears course down my cheeks.   I don’t have an 800,000 word diary, but I can relate to this.  It was becoming a mother, I think, that made me so keenly attuned to life’s inexorable, drumbeat passage.

“Look at me, dancing my little dance for a few moments against the background of eternity,” Manguso writes at the end of Ongoingness, and I think of my children frolicking on a sandbar at the end of the summer as the tide comes in.  Parenting – life itself – is like that, as I observed in This is Eleven: it’s knowing the tide’s coming in, but still celebrating the sand castles we can build before it does.

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Mothers and daughters

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Thanksgiving 2002.  Grace was one month old.  Three generations, who share the same middle name.  The red hair clearly didn’t translate.  Also, Grace seems displeased by Thanksgiving.

My fascination with and investment in the mother-daughter relationship is well documented.  Just last week I wrote about it for Brain, Child.  This is a long-standing interest of mine.  If I’m honest, the ferocity with which I wished for a daughter when I was pregnant sometimes scared me.  It also shocks a lot of people that we chose not to find out the gender of our baby (either time).  And then Grace arrived – somehow brutally slowly (40 hours of back labor) and instantaneously – and suddenly I had a daughter, my frantic wishes were answered, and I became the fulcrum, a daughter to a mother and also a mother to a daughter.

One of my most vivid memories of those first blurry and difficult weeks of motherhood was of an afternoon when Mum came over to sit with Grace so that I could nap.  I lay in my darkened bedroom, knowing that my infant daughter slept above me and my mother cooked in the kitchen below me.  Matrilineage flanked me in a concrete, visceral way and I remember feeling warmed by it, firmly aware of my place in the line of women that I came from and had, now, birthed and contributed to.

Mothers and daughters and daughters and mothers and the women out of whose soil we grow.

While I don’t write about her that often, my mother is truly extraordinary and I am fortunate to live only a mile away from her now.  Last fall I said that “one of my mother’s many gifts is her immediate and expansive warmth, the genuine way she welcomes everyone into her life.  She has always attracted people to her, and, like a sun, is surrounded by more orbiting planets than I can count.”  I aspire to be the kind of relaxed, loving, outgoing, the-more-the-merrier kind of mother that Mum was and continues to be.  Watching her with my own children, as I did over Easter, is one of the principal joys of my life.

Mum embodies the quote that she and I both chose (clearly, I was copying!) for our high school senior yearbooks: To miss the joy is to miss all.

Motherhood and daughterhood, while always on my mind, has been particularly so of late.  I’ve been thinking of lessons that my mother taught me …

1. Some of the best stuff in life occurs in the outtakes.  Keep your eyes open to the stuff around the edges.

2. Don’t worry about the small stuff.  Really.  It takes care of itself.  Keep an unerring focus on the big stuff.

3. It is not an issue to cook dinner for 14 people with an hour of notice. Or to routinely serve Thanksgiving to more than 30 people.  In fact it’s not really Thanksgiving without a random international student or someone your daughters have never met at the table.

4. Use the silver.  All the time.

5. Female friends are essential and are in many ways the single most important bulwark against life’s storms.  Invest heavily in those you know you love dearly.  Old friends are precious, and cherish them.  Family friends are a genuine gift.

6. Showers are always better outside.  Even in November.  In New England.

7. You can’t judge peoples’ insides by their outsides.  Don’t bother trying.

8.  When your new son-in-law brings you a whole pheasant that he shot to cook, just smile and make pot pie.  Serve it for Christmas Eve dinner.  It’s not a big deal.  To go further, there is nothing culinary that is a big deal.  At all.

9. Attitude is everything.  When Mum was injured several summers ago she demonstrated this in spades, and I can’t count the number of people – literally, tens upon tens – who reached out to tell me that her positive spirit and energy were tangible and would carry her through.  They did, and I admire(d) it.

10. There is a mysterious alchemy in the wind and the water that cannot be fully explained.  I watch her at the helm and understand what that there is something truly intuitive and beyond logical thought about sailing.

11. You can and should play tennis until you are 90 years old.  And possibly beyond that.

12.  Don’t waste your time and energy on negativity.  Of any kind.  Focus on the good in people, in the community, in the world, and eventually that positivity will become your default.  “It takes an awful lot of energy to hate,” Mum used to say to the occasionally irate, incensed child me.  She was always right.

13. Always write thank you notes.  By hand.  On paper.  In the mail.

14. Look forward, not back.  There are adventures to be had, gardens to plant, Scrabble games to play, trips to be taken, people to meet.  So much lies ahead, and turn your energy that way.

15. People flock to those who radiate energy and warmth like my mother does.  At an event recently a man I’d just met took me aside and whispered, “Your mother is a force of nature.”  I know, sir, I nodded.  I know.

Reposting this piece from last year, because I still feel it, I still mean it, if anything more than ever.

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it seems to me that there has been something simpler than I could ever believe

Just Now

In the morning as the storm begins to blow away
the clear sky appears for a moment and it seems to me
that there has been something simpler than I could ever
believe
simpler than I could have begun to find words for
not patient not even waiting no more hidden
than the air itself that became part of me for a while
with every breath and remained with me unnoticed
something that was here unnamed unknown in the days
and the nights not separate from them
not separate from them as they came and were gone
it must have been here neither early nor late then
by what name can I address it now holding out my thanks

– W.S. Merwin

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The season of amazement

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Magnolias remind me powerfully of college, and of this particularly, wonder-full time of year

I write often about wonder here (I think wonder is one of the most-often used words in blog post titles of mine, and probably in the text of posts, too).  It’s true that I feel awe and amazement on a regular basis, and that’s exactly how I want to experience the world. It’s not all good, of course: for example I feel nothing short of abject awe at how lousy vertigo feels.  I’m writing this on day seven and I still feel shaky, nauseous, and flat-out terrible.  I don’t even want to go on my kids’ favorite ride at Canobie Lake Park, the Turkish Twist, for two minutes.  I’ve been trapped on it for a week now.  This is terrible.  And in the true meaning of the word, awe-some.

A lot of the wonder I feel is good, though, and as I walked to do an errand last week (bobbing around on the sidewalk, because I still struggle to walk in a completely straight line), I looked up and noticed that during one of my days in bed the world had burst into insistent, almost ferocious spring bloom.  That this fact continues to amaze me, even in my fortieth year, makes me very glad.  I started thinking about the things that I hope always make me feel wonder.  I don’t ever want to be cynical, or jaded, or to take this world’s breathtaking beauty for granted.

I so many ways, spring is the season of amazement.  I hope I always feel a surge of surprised delight when I notice that the trees around me are jubilantly blooming, that the air has a new, softer texture to it, that the days suddenly seem long.  Like so many things in life, spring arrives very gradually and then, overnight.

So one thing I always hope to feel wonder at is the advent of spring.  There are others, though:

Internet access in an airplane.  In fact, airplanes in general.  I hope I always feel wonder at how it is that this enormous metal tube is flying thousands of miles above the earth, and that I’m tweeting a I sit there.  It’s downright incredible.

The speed of time’s passage.  Specifically, right now, that Grace is graduating from sixth grade.  I swear, I swear, it was just moments ago that my friends – some of whom I’m grateful to still call my friends – and I stood in that same gym, singing our class song, The Greatest Love of All, before exploding into summer, energy and enthusiasm and hormones all coming together into a tidal surge.

Dawn breaking across the sky and the gloaming before sunset.  The fact that we get to witness these majestic moments, every single day (well, most, of it’s not raining), takes my breath away.  Every day.

Organ transplantation.  It’s not a secret that this is a cause near to me, and when I stop and think about the notion that another person’s heart (and another, different person’s kidney) beats in the chest of someone I love dearly I can’t even process it.  The wonder is extreme.  It boggles the mind.  I hope transplantation becomes more common – please tell your next of kin of your desire to be a donor – but I hope it never ceases to amaze me.  Because it is truly extraordinary.

What amazes you?  What do you hope to always feel awe about?

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Still dizzy & the Mid

Still dizzy, so nothing new today.  I’ll be back soon, I hope!

In the meantime, I hope you’re all reading The Mid.  I love this site, dedicated to life in the “messy middle.”  I’m happy that that one of my favorite pieces went up there this weekend, about a night at hockey when I felt painfully aware of how often I allow my own exhaustion or aggravation to occlude the beauty of this ordinary, flawed existence.

It’s not new, but it’s still salient (to me), this desperate wish to be here now and of the simultaneous weight of my expectation that I can do so all the time.  Is my constant sense of failing to be present getting in the way of my actually being present?

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