Alert to the extraordinary

One can learn to be alert to the extraordinary and press pause – to memorize moments of the everyday.

– Bill Hayes, Insomniac City

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The Alphabet of Right Now

Last night’s sunset

Four separate times on this blog I’ve shared my Alphabet of Right Now (2009, 2011, 2013, 2015). The time felt right for the fifth installment!

Part of the inspiration for this was the general every-other-year cadence I’ve been settling into with my alphabets, but it was also because of Amy Krouse Rosenthal, whose passing in March I noted with sorrow.  Her beautiful book, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, has been on my mind since hearing of her tragic death.  This feels like an exercise she might do, or at least one she would celebrate.  Without further preamble, here is my Alphabet of Right Now.

All-Boys – I’m really excited for Whit to be going to an all-boys school in the fall.  Random segue, but if you don’t know the work of Michael Thompson, I highly recommend it.  Just this weekend I read his interview about How to Invest in Boys and found it, like I found all of his work, resonant, wise, and powerful.

Bittersweet – The definition of right now. I am so, so proud of Grace and of Whit, but I also feel overcome with sorrow that this particular season of life is ending.  Both. At once. In every single minute.

Coffee – This is not a new “c,” but it’s an ever-more-important part of my days.  Years ago Matt and I bought a coffeemaker you could pre-set the night before, and every single morning, without fail, I’m delighted by the fresh coffee waiting for me.  It’s a highlight of my day.

Daylight – The days are so long now, and it’s light when we wake up and light past dinner. I know I’m not alone in loving the light. In recent years I’ve come to love the darkness, too, but there’s certainly a surge of something in this season, when everything feels light and alive in the world.

Early – I’ve been waking up really, really early. Earlier than usual. Sometimes I run, but sometimes I feel exhausted and I don’t. I wish I was getting more sleep, but I admit I like the quiet pre-dawn time to myself, too.

Friends – As always, my dear friends shape my life and provide structure, support, and laughter to and in every day.  Particularly now, as I look ahead to a different season of life, I am grateful for the friends whose nearness, literal or metaphorical, buoys me.

Graduation – Both Grace and Whit will celebrate graduations this spring, from 6th and 8th grade (and eah from one of our school’s distinct campuses) respectively. I know they’ll be particularly charged because both children are leaving their current school.  The end of the school year always carries with it a swirl of emotions for me, and that’s more heightened than ever this year.

Hockey Whit’s team won their division for the first time in our 5 years doing town hockey (and in a rematch of their only other finals outing, against the same team, in the same way). Then they lost the divisional playoff in heartbreaking fashion. As often happens, I found myself grateful for all the ways that team sports educate our children, for all the lessons on and off of the ice.

Italy – Grace, Whit and I had the most wonderful time in March in Rome.  For a week we were just the three of us, walking around, exploring, playing cards, eating pizza, on the verge of returning home and making big decisions and embarking on sweeping changes.  Our visit was sheer magic and I won’t ever forget it.

Jigsaw puzzles – I love puzzles, and do them often.

Kombucha – I am way into Health-Ade Kombucha, especially the Pink Lady Apple flavor. Highly recommend.

Lamott – I’ve always loved Anne, as do many, and her most recent book, Hallelujah Anyway, runs through my head on a daily basis.

Mysteries – I am deep in a phase of reading legal thrillers.  The whole Alex Cooper series by Linda Fairstein (which I wrote about for Great New Books), David Baldacci, John Grisham, Michael Connelley.  These aren’t all I’m reading (see “L”) but I am definitely enjoying plot-driven fiction right now.

No – Saying no is not new for me, but I’m saying no to basically everything that doesn’t revolve around family or work right now.

OpenI’ve written before about being porous, and I’ve never in my life felt more that way than right now. Everything – beautiful and brutal, glorious and gruesome, heartbreaking and happy – pierces me.

Poetry – I’ve been turning to Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Adrienne Rich, and other familiar voices as I grapple with a time of earthquake-style change.  There’s no question, as I’ve said before, that poetry is my lingua franca, the language my soul speaks.

Quotes – Are a lifelong preoccupation of mine. I cherish the small stack of quote books that I’ve been keeping since 1985.  I share some of my favorites here on Thursdays (and the archive is here).

Reunions – I am staring down my 25th reunion in a couple of weeks.  How is this possible?  Yet another experience of time’s ability to be both inexorable freight train and dizzying, telescopic roller coaster.

Summer – None of us can wait, for more unstructured time, for long weekend days together, for sitting on the porch with my parents, for tennis and swimming and sleeping in.  My favorite time of the year.

Teeth – Grace is about to get her braces off.  I’m looking forward to seeing her teeth again, though I know she’ll instantly look like the young woman she already is. Yet another end.

Uncertainty – Don’t like it, never have, never will. Unfortunately I feel afloat in a sea of uncertainty right now.

Veterinarian – What Grace wants to be when she grows up.

Waiting for My Real Life to Begin – It was Gloria, in March, who put this song back in my head, and now I can’t stop hearing it.  It feels particularly, utterly right for right now, a season of endings and beginnings where I need to remember all the time that this is just a moment in my life, and to see through the clouds of emotion that cloud my vision. I’ve written about this particular song before, but it remains central and seminal: just be here now.  It doesn’t escape me that it’s Grace’s real life that’s, in many ways, about to begin.

X – Impossible.

Years – Flying by. “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” – Zora Neale Hurston.

Zigzag – The way I experience life.  My experience of time is rarely linear: it spirals and returns again and again to memories that did may not have seemed important as I lived them, then abruptly spikes forward, accelerating into the unknown before returning again.  I think often the switch-back roads in the Alps we drove when I was a child, my dark-haired father at the wheel, my sister next to me in the backseat.  I always got carsick on those drives, and sometimes, as I confront time, I feel that way still.

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Every moment is a golden one

Life moves on, whether we act as cowards or heroes. Life has no other discipline to impose, if we would but realize it, than to accept life unquestioningly. Everything we shut our eyes to, everything we run away from, everything we deny, denigrate or despise, serves to defeat us in the end.

What seems nasty, painful, evil, can become a source of beauty, joy and strength, if faced with an open mind. Every moment is a golden one for him who has the vision to recognize it as such.

~ Henry Miller
Another beautiful passage I found on A First Sip.

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Hourglass

I was thrilled to read an early copy of Dani Shapiro’s Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage, which was also an easy choice for my most-anticipated book of 2017 on Great New Books. I’ve read all of Dani’s books, and I love her fiction and her memoir both.  Hourglass, in both tone and structure, reminded me most of her most recent books (and my favorites), Devotion and Still Writing.  It is a series of small pieces, both memories and essay-style reflections, delivered not in chronological order but in a way that makes seamless sense and in which the ways in which the stories jostle up against each other means as much as the content of each.

Hourglass, for me, is most fundamentally about what memory really means.  Dani explores this topic – which is central to my life – in multiple arenas: her own life, her marriage, with others she knows.  The progression of her husband’s mother’s Alzheimer’s is a salient and powerful reference point, and serves as another illustration that time and memory can evolve in ways that are neither linear nor easy.

Like all of Dani’s books, I underlined copiously and wrote in the margins of Hourglass as I read.  She refers to other quotes, literary works, and passages, which is something I love in other books, because it makes clear that the single volume I’m reading is a part of a larger, longer, broader conversation.  Which Hourglass (and all of Dani’s works) is.  In particular, Dani refers to Wendell Berry’s In the Country of Marriage, a poem I have shared here before and return to again and again.  Matt and I celebrated our 16th anniversary last fall, and I relate intensely to how Dani describes the landscape and vocabulary of long(ish – I realize 16 years, while it feels like an eternity, is not yet truly long) marriage.  Towards the end, she writes,

But I can no longer say to M. that we’re just beginning.  Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.  That solid yet light thing – our journey – is no longer new.  He identified my mother’s body. We took turns holding our seizing child. We have watched his mother disappear in plain sight. We have raised Jacob together. We know each other in a way that young couple couldn’t have fathomed. Our shared vocabulary – our language – will die with us. We are the treasure itself: fathoms deep, in the world we have made and made again.

Dani’s reflections on marriage were reassuring and resonant to me.  She returns to a phrase M. said long ago, “I’ll take care of it,” unpacking the various ways that feels true and not true over the years.  This triggered a memory for me, and that very action is at the core of why Hourglass is so powerful – isn’t that how life works?  We hear or experience something that sets off a recollection, and the collision between reality and the past enriches and informs how we live our daily lives.  This is the process that Dani so beautifully captures in Hourglass.  What I recalled, when M. said he’d take care of it (whatever it is), is a conversation with my father about the Dixie Chick’s lyric that I wanted someone to “keep the world at bay” for me.  Of course that is impossible, and my reading of Hourglass, and of Dani’s return to M.’s comment, tells us that in fact only we can “take care of” life’s true tasks for ourselves.

The scenes accrue in Hourglass, and the reader skips back and forth in time, witnessing Dani’s mother-in-law’s dementia and the growing of Dani and M’s son.  The pieces add up to nothing less than an adult life, and while this beautiful, lyrical book has many messages one of my favorite and the most powerful is the way that we are all the selves we’ve ever been, and we carry our pasts with us as we walk through the world.

I understand that I am comprised of many selves that make up a single chorus.  To listen to the music this chorus makes, to recognize it as music, as something noble, varied, patterned, beautiful – that is the work of a lifetime.

More than anything else, Dani Shapiro’s writing makes me feel less alone in this life.  She brings to life that great C.S. Lewis quote, “we read to know we are not alone.” I’ve told her this many times, and Hourglass is no exception.

There is no other life than this. You would not have stumbled into the vastly imperfect, beautiful, impossible present.

I read these sentences and blinked away tears.  Yes.  How is it possible that Dani is speaking directly to me?  Of course, that reaction is a testament to her extraordinary skill: a great many readers feel this way, and they should.  Dani touches something universal in Hourglass, in her description of time’s elasticity and the ways that the past lives on in the present. I loved this book.  I know you will too.

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the same materials to work with

It will always be confusing to think that that which is terrible and that which is beautiful have the same materials to work with: the brick and mortar and earth and stars of our immediate world. There is that which can kill us, and that which will save us, and we live among them, struggling to discern our way through. And it is terrifying, my love. It has never stopped being terrifying.

– Stephanie Saldana, A Country Between

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The last month, in observations and quotes

It’s been an eventful month.  I’ll write more about what happened, but March was full. Grace, Whit, and I went to Rome (see above), Grace and Whit both decided to leave their current school for new frontiers, Matt settled into his new professional situation, I did some writing, I did some reading. I thought about this blog a lot.  There were two quotes that kept running through my head.

The first: practice, and learning to write.

The mere habit of writing, of constantly keeping at it, of never giving up, ultimately teaches you how to write.

-Gabriel Fielding

It is this blog, and the practice of showing up here day after day, that has taught me to write. I still feel uncomfortable calling myself a writer, but I’m totally ready to say I write. I do. And I learned a lot of what I know here (the rest I learned from a handful of teachers, whom I met through this blog).  The act of doing has taught me a tremendous amount.  For someone who sometimes lives in her head, there’s a lesson in this. That’s a big part of why I personally don’t want to stop. And why I won’t.

From now on, I will write here twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays.  Thursdays will be, mostly, quotes.  That’s definitely a new, slower pace, but I think it feels right right now.

The second: new horizons.

“And suddenly you know: It’s time to start something new and trust the magic of beginnings.”

— Meister Eckhart

This is a time of tremendous change for our family.  Both Grace and Whit are headed to new schools in the fall. The fall of 2016 was busy in part because they were both applying out, and we heard decisions, revisited, and made decisions in the last month. This next step is an inexorable step towards the future and a reminder that both children are moving away from me in ways big and small but, unquestionably, permanent. One thing I’ve learned is that apparently-contradictory emotions can coexist within me, even in a single moment, and I’m living that now.  I am delighted by and sorrowful about the changes at the same time.

Matt and I are both in new professional situations.  2017 has been eventful so far and while all the news is good, there is a definite sensation of the ground shifting beneath our feet that is as unsettling as it is exciting. I’m trying to trust in the magic that these beginnings represent, but that’s never been easy for me.

I am clear that it is the right time for all of these new developments, but I’ve never liked change.  The truth is, I feel strapped into life’s roller coaster in a way that makes me fearful. It is beginning to look like spring out the window (photo below was taken at 7:05pm, 4/2/17). I’m trying not to let the reality of what’s coming cloud what is right now. This is not a new challenge for me, but it is without a doubt the defining one of the next several months. Wish me luck. Here we go.

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Some thoughts on next steps

Thank you, thank you, a million times thank you for all the thoughtful responses I received to last week’s post about feeling lost.  I can’t tell you how much every single message meant to me. It’s gratifying, of course, to know that my words touch people, even a few.

While I feel heartened and touched and deeply grateful, I’m still a little lost.  I feel like I’m repeating myself. That argues for a break, clearly. At the same time, I know that the near-daily ritual of sitting down and writing something has become hugely important to me.  I worry that stopping will be catastrophic because I’m so aware of the benefits of the practice. That argues against a break.

I’m going to split the difference which is either a happy hybrid or a total cop-out.  I’m going to take the month of March off, with a plan to return in early April.  The month of March also includes a week of family travel and some other stuff that is going on which I’ll write about soon.  So the timing is good.

I’ll be reading and watching the sky and I look forward to returning here.  Please know how much every single message means to me – both last week and in general.  I mean that.  Thank you.

See you soon.

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what is beautiful belongs to the eternal

Simone Weil wrote, “All the natural movements of the soul are controlled by laws analogous to those of physical gravity. Grace is the only exception.”

I had spent years trying to understand what she meant, but I think I was beginning to comprehend now – that there are those supernatural physics that allow for a flower to be stronger than an entire war. We can call that flower beauty, or grace, or hope. What is sure is that which is beautiful not only saves us, but it also belongs to the eternal, while the terrible passes away. Borders do not last. The names of countries do not last. And the names of flowers, they, too, do not last. But flowers themselves remain. Music remains. Certain phrases from childhood, sewn into our memories, passed down imperceptibly in the way we speak to children, they also remain, and will continue to after we are gone.

Childbirth remains.

Lemon trees. Fig trees. Stories remain.

I had seen jars from the Roman period, unexpectedly lifted up from the bowels of the sea, intact, after two thousand years.

Love remains, above all.

That night, while my husband and son were sleep in their beds, I made a list of what lasts: snowdrops and periwinkles, lullabies and prayers. And I knew that we don’t just carry beauty but that we cling to it, as a resistance against gravity. That perhaps, in the ed, that is the single task we must set out to do in our lives

– Stephanie Saldana, A Country Between

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Control is overrated

I love all of Courtney Martin’s writing on On Being.  I highly recommend you check her out.  But this piece, The Right Decision Is the One You Make, ripped me to shreds.  I’ve read and re-read it, and I urge you to do so.

Because of her gorgeous words about parenting, yes: “I’ve been on the steepest learning curve of my entire life, and madly, viscerally in love, and totally out of control. I never could have made a different decision. It feels as if it was made for me on so many levels. I am humbled, so completely and totally humbled by it all.”

But most of all, because of her wisdom about control. Her beautiful writing about how becoming a parent strips you of the illusory sense of being in control (and how it’s a false feeling, no matter whether you are a parent or not).  Martin calls life itself “terrifying and magical” whether you have kids or not, and that’s my impression, too.

I’ve written at length about my own often-crippling need to feel in control.  I’ve described the way I have “white knuckled” my way through much of my own life. But the truth is becoming a parent shifted that, and something fundamental inside of me, and because of that I relate in an almost-uncomfortably keen way to what Martin writes.

Grace’s arrival in our lives was unplanned.  That’s not news to anyone who knows me (or to her).  I wrote a whole book, in a drawer now, about those unexpected two lines on a pregnancy test and the way that they knocked my world off balance.  For someone who had planned her entire life, frankly, it was a pretty big shock.  The deep postpartum depression that followed after Grace’s birth had its roots, I’m convinced, in the unplanned aspect of my pregnancy.  Of course I recognize now the tremendous gift that this turn of events was; sometimes I wonder if I would have ever had babies, had I been fully in charge of the decision.  It’s never the perfect time, after all.

And the lessons that my experience of those couple of years – we are not pulling the strings of our lives, at all, the darkness can hold tremendous gifts, and the unanticipated path can be the most beautiful – continue to echo through my days now. The years of my pregnancies and with infants and small children at home, while some of the most exhausting and difficult of my life, were also the richest. With a decade and a half of retrospect now I can see that some of the themes that would shape my midlife took root.  I’m so grateful for that, and for having lived through an experience that was harrowing and beautiful, frighteningly dark and disorienting, yes, but also glorious.

Terrifying and magical, you might say.

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Help

The sky is full of glories these days.

Hi everyone.  It’s Sunday morning, and I woke up to a glorious sunrise which turned the white shades on that side of the house pink. One of my regrets about our house is that I don’t have a good angle to photograph the sunrise.  My instagram feed is a parade of sunsets.  What does this mean?  Am I oriented towards the endings of things?  I am not sure.  Could be coincidence.  Could not be.

I am writing to ask for help.

This is sincere, though I’m worried it will seem trite.  For the first time in 10 solid years of blogging I’m considering stopping.  I feel like I repeat myself, over and over again. I can’t think about anything other than time’s drumbeat passage right now.  It might be because Grace is considering high school options.  It’s probably mostly because Grace and Whit are growing so fast I can barely keep up.  That’s not new, of course: they’ve been growing like that since they were born.  But now, all of a sudden, the finish line’s in sight and every single moment is filtered through the reality of how numbered are these days.

I don’t want to keep writing a relentless series of posts about how sad I am.  I am actually not sad – I’m acutely aware, and sensitive, but not sad.  I’m intensely grateful, too.  But anyway.  I know that’s repetitive and dull.  I have also been wriring less and less about Grace and Whit, as they grow older and their stories are more and more their own.  So I need input from you.

What do you want to hear about?  I’m running out of steam, and I hate admitting it, but it’s true.

Help.

 

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