We are here to witness

We are here to witness the creation and abet it. We are here to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but, especially, we notice the beautiful faces and complex natures of each other. We are here to bring to consciousness the beauty and power that are around us and to praise the people who are here with us. We witness our generation and our times. We watch the weather. Otherwise, creation would be playing to an empty house.

~Annie Dillard from The Meaning of Life edited by David Friend

Yet another beautiful passage I first read on Barnstorming

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Holiday book titles

I think books are the best present, always!  Here are some of the books I’m wrapping for those on my list this year.  I’d love to hear what books you’ll be giving for this year’s holidays.

Novels and memoirs:

Moments of Seeing: Reflections from an Ordinary Life, Katrina Kenison – This book glows with wisdom and glimmers with the traces of magic that can be found in our regular existence.  These essays make me feel grateful, and aware, and less alone in the world.  I look forward to sharing that with others.

Catastrophic Happiness: Finding Joy in Childhood’s Messy Years, Catherine Newman.  Newman, one of my favorite writers, captures the particular blend of startling heartbreak and riotous joy that animates every day of motherhood (for me, at least).  This book made me laugh and made me cry many times.  I have given this already a lot and have no plans to stop.

 The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead.  This novel lives up to every superlative that’s been heaped on it. Powerful, riveting, essential, Cora’s story has stayed with me in a visceral way since I finished it.

Mothering Sunday, Graham Swift – such a glorious book, small, written with lapidary beauty.  About how our lives can radiate forward from a single moment, about secrets and identity and being a writer.

SweetbitterI reviewed Stephanie Danler’s beautiful first novel for Great New Books, and I think often of its atmospheric, sense-soaked rendering of early adult life in New York.

The Atomic Weight of Love, Elizabeth Church – I loved this story of a woman’s growing into her own identity, strength, and wisdom, set against the landscape of New Mexico and with the backdrop of science, birds, and nature.

Picture books, cookbooks, and other:

Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, Randall Munroe – This has been one of my favorite books to give to kids and adults alike for a while now. It’s funny, thought-provoking, and beautiful.

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, Randall Munroe -Makes a great pair with the Thing Explainer.  Whit reads this book almost every night.  He’s fascinated by the questions that Randall asks and by the clarity, borne of deep knowledge and intelligence, with which he answers them.

How to Celebrate Everything: Recipes and Rituals for Birthdays, Holidays, Family Dinners, and Every Day In Between, Jenny Rosenstrach – This is the third of Jenny’s books that I pre-ordered and eagerly read and its’ by far my favorite.  The recipes are wonderful, but most of all I adore the philosophy that Jenny describes.  Ordinary life is full of occasions for celebration, and cooking is a great way to do that.  We’re not strangers to the random, just-because Tuesday night cake around here.

Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World, Rachel Ignotofsky – I love the visual element of this book, which features a drawing of a female scientist or engineer on one page and the story of her life on the facing one.  Both Grace and Whit were riveted by the book and learned all kinds of new facts.  I will be giving this to science-loving children I know of both genders.

I Wonder, Annaka Harris and John Rowe – I was moved to buy this book for the small children in my life based on Daniel Goleman’s blurb: I Wonder offers crucial lessons in emotional intelligence, starting with being secure in the face of uncertainty….” I have since read it and agree with his enthusiastic support of the book.

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Creed

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Saturday evening, sunset from our hotel room, Florida.  I shared another shot of this sunset on Instagram.

Whit and I were studying vocab words recently and we came upon the word “creed.”  He asked me what my creed was.

Without thinking too much, I immediately answered, “My creed is to pay attention.”

He looked at me and nodded, turning back to his list of words.  “Sounds right,” he said, under his breath.

But I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the word creed.  What’s my creed?

My creed is:

Pay attention to your life.

Tell people you love them that you do, and why.  Often.

Every human being has the same inherent value, and should be treated as such.

Say thank you.  Mean it.

Look at the sky.  Breathe the air. Get outside every day, even if only briefly.

Get enough sleep.

Everybody has their own demons.  You can’t know what’s going on with others.  Cut people slack.

Pay attention to your life.

What’s your creed?

 

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we are saying thank you faster and faster

Listen
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow for the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water looking out
in different directions.

with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us like the earth
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

– W. S. Merwin

One of my favorite poems, that always surfaces in my thoughts at this time of year.

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Thanksgiving

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The closest I’ve come to touching the meaning of Thanksgiving is 2002.  Grace was a month old, and Matt’s father, John, received a lifesaving heart transplant a couple of days before Thanksgiving.  Matt, Grace, and I spent the day with my family, including both of my grandfathers (see above, with my maternal grandfather and Grace).  In the evening, we drove back to see John in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit at MGH.  I think about the experience often, since it felt like I understood the meaning of Thanksgiving that day. The driving, our new baby, the warm embrace of my family, the presence of both of my grandfathers, and Matt’s father emerging from his miraculous surgery: the whole day was thick with holiness.

****

After Thanksgiving dinner, in the dark, Matt and I drove back to Boston, to MGH.  John was just starting to come out of anesthesia, Marti was at the hospital, and Matt wanted to see them both.  I had Grace’s carseat slung over my arm as we took the elevator to the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit (CICU) and walked through a maze of shadowy glass partitions.  Despite the faint beeping of machines, there was a deep, pervasive hush; the CICU was one of those places, like a church or a library, where you automatically whispered.  In contrast to the always-bright ward where John had waited for his heart, this wing seemed to be in permanent dusk.  The metaphor that this presented struck me as odd given that this was where John was supposed to wake up and begin the next phase of his life.

John lay in a bed behind two sets of sealed glass doors.  Marti sat beside him, robed in a sterile gown and wearing a face mask and rubber gloves.  She turned when she noticed us through the glass and stood up, peeling off her gloves and lifting her mask as she hurried through the double doors.  She crouched down immediately, without saying a word, and simply stared at Grace’s sleeping face.  I glanced at Matt, wondering if we should say something, and he shook his head slightly as if to say, no, leave her.  Long moments later she stood up, hugged Matt tightly, and asked him if he wanted to go into the room.

“Is it okay, Mom?  I don’t want to bring extra germs in there,” Matt looked worried. “You know, from Grace or something?”
“No, it’s okay, as long as you wear the gloves and mask.  Theresa will help you.” Marti nodded at the nurse who was stationed between the two sets of sealed glass doors.

“Okay,” Matt went in to the small chamber between the two doors.  He spoke briefly to Theresa and then I watched him shrug the paper robe on over his clothes and, after scrubbing his hands at a small sink on the wall, pull on rubber gloves.  Theresa helped him adjust the paper mask over his face and then stood back, looking him over, and then nodded her okay.  Hesitantly, as though he was stepping onto the moon, he walked through the second set of doors to his father’s bedside.  Even through two thick panes of glass I could see trepidation in his hazel eyes above his paper mask.

“He’s just starting to wake up,” Marti murmured at me, not taking her eyes off of the two men in the room in front of us.  Matt sat down on the stool on wheels that Marti had vacated, which was to the right of John’s head.  He then looked over at the glass wall and gestured at me, holding his hands up in the general shape and size of the carseat.  “Oh!  Oh!”  I leaned over and picked up Grace’s carseat, holding it up so that John, had he been looking, could have seen it.  Matt gave me a thumbs-up sign and turned back to his dad.

“Is he awake?  Could he see that?” I asked Marti doubtfully as I lowered Grace in her blue plastic bucket to the floor.

“I don’t know.  He’s been in and out of consciousness, I’m not sure what he can see.”

“Wait,” I said, kneeling down and unbuckling Grace, trying not to wake her as I pulled her gently out of the plastic bucket.  Squatting, I held her against my shoulder and felt her moving gently, her head turning side to side, her little nose pushing against my neck.  A waft of her baby smell washed over me and I closed my eyes briefly, holding still.  Then I stood up again, holding her in front of my face, knocking gently on the glass so that Matt turned to see.  I saw his eyes crinkle in what must have been a smile beneath his mask, and he turned to his father and tapped him on the shoulder.  I looked over at Marti who was beaming, looking not at Grace but at John.  We stood that way for several long moments before Grace began to squawk and I lowered her back into her carseat.  I’ll never know what John saw.  He can’t remember anything about those days.

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Moments of Seeing – a giveaway!

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Anyone who reads my work knows I revere Katrina Kenison‘s writing. Her books, which I’ve described as “a call and response chant with my own thoughts,” each touched me deeply.  I was thrilled when I read that Moments of Seeing was coming out.

I met Katrina years ago (the story of that fortuitous encounter is here) and since that day she’s become in person what she already was on the page: a reassuring, wise, thoughtful presence, a reminder of what my life might be, an inspiration, a mentor, a teacher, a friend. When I searched my archives for “Katrina Kenison,” I found fully three pages of posts that mention her. So I have been clear, I imagine, about my love for her work.  I’ve reviewed two of her books in full here: The Gift of an Ordinary Day, and Magical Journey .

On Sunday, November 13th, I went to see Katrina read outside of Boston.  I was still, I admit, feeling raw and emotional from the election and the days that followed.  I had not been sleeping well, and I generally felt a little quiet, more porous than usual, a little off.  Within minutes in Katrina’s presence I felt myself relaxing, reminded that there is still good in this world.  Katrina read a few pieces from the luminous Moments of Seeing and I sat quietly, letting her words wash over me.  The books’ two epigraphs are both quotes that mean a great deal to me. They are a mission statement of sorts, in my opinion, of Moments of Seeing but also of life itself.  Katrina embodies this philosophy, and so does this beautiful book.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

What is the meaning of life?  That was all – a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years, the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one. – Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

I keep writing about the ordinary because for me it’s the home of the extraordinary, the only home. – Phillip Levine

I’m thrilled to have a signed, personalized copy of Moments of Seeing to give away.  Please leave a comment here by 5pm on November 22nd.  I’ll choose a winner who will receive a copy of the book, with an inscription of your choice, from Katrina! For those of you interested in buying a copy (and I have a stack ready to give to friends for the holidays myself), you can purchase Moments of Seeing here.

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First, Lord: No tattoos

First, Lord: No tattoos. May neither Chinese symbol for truth nor Winnie-the-Pooh holding the FSU logo stain her tender haunches.

May she be Beautiful but not Damaged, for it’s the Damage that draws the creepy soccer coach’s eye, not the Beauty.

When the Crystal Meth is offered, May she remember the parents who cut her grapes in half And stick with Beer.

Guide her, protect her
When crossing the street, stepping onto boats, swimming in the ocean, swimming in pools, walking near pools, standing on the subway platform, crossing 86th Street, stepping off of boats, using mall restrooms, getting on and off escalators, driving on country roads while arguing, leaning on large windows, walking in parking lots, riding Ferris wheels, roller-coasters, log flumes, or anything called “Hell Drop,” “Tower of Torture,” or “The Death Spiral Rock ‘N Zero G Roll featuring Aerosmith,” and standing on any kind of balcony ever, anywhere, at any age.

Lead her away from Acting but not all the way to Finance. Something where she can make her own hours but still feel intellectually fulfilled and get outside sometimes And not have to wear high heels.

What would that be, Lord? Architecture? Midwifery? Golf course design? I’m asking You, because if I knew, I’d be doing it, Youdammit.

May she play the Drums to the fiery rhythm of her Own Heart with the sinewy strength of her Own Arms, so she need Not Lie With Drummers.

Grant her a Rough Patch from twelve to seventeen. Let her draw horses and be interested in Barbies for much too long, For childhood is short a Tiger Flower blooming Magenta for one day And adulthood is long and dry-humping in cars will wait.

O Lord, break the Internet forever, That she may be spared the misspelled invective of her peers And the online marketing campaign for Rape Hostel V: Girls Just Wanna Get Stabbed.

And when she one day turns on me and calls me a Bitch in front of Hollister, Give me the strength, Lord, to yank her directly into a cab in front of her friends, For I will not have that Shit. I will not have it.

And should she choose to be a Mother one day, be my eyes, Lord, that I may see her, lying on a blanket on the floor at 4:50 A.M., all-at-once exhausted, bored, and in love with the little creature whose poop is leaking up its back.

“My mother did this for me once,” she will realize as she cleans feces off her baby’s neck. “My mother did this for me.” And the delayed gratitude will wash over her as it does each generation and she will make a Mental Note to call me. And she will forget. But I’ll know, because I peeped it with Your God eyes.

Amen.

–  Tina Fey, Bossypants

I know I’ve shared this before, but this prayer runs through my head on a very regular basis, and now and then Matt and I quote parts of it to each other under our breath, when things with our teenaged daughter get a little rugged.  SO GOOD.

 

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Hair trigger

It hasn’t been a very calm few months at our house.  Which is strange, because in other ways it’s been very calm.  We haven’t done much other than work, physical therapy, and homework (me, Matt, and kids, in that order).  But everybody feels frayed and tense, not to mention tired, and we seem to be blowing up at each other with uncomfortable regularity.

Often the mornings are bad.  We bicker and argue over breakfast (and “we” here is usually the children and me) and then pile into the car to make the 0.75 mile drive to school.  There’s some escalation of the disagreement in the car and by the time I drop Grace and Whit off I am filled with a toxic mixture of sorrow and regret.  I feel awful about having argued with the kids, usually it is at least partially my fault, and I can’t shake it off.

While I have said over and over and over again that Grace and Whit don’t belong to us, I do know that Matt and I to a certain degree create the weather in which they are growing up. I feel terrible that I’m responsible for too many tense moments and thunder storms in the last months.

I started this post before the election results and it feels self-indulgent to write about how things are snappy inside our house when I worry about the state of the country generally. But at the same time, I realize that maybe the only thing I can possibly influence IS what’s inside my house, so I need to focus there. Since November 9th I feel enormously more sorrowful and anxious, but somehow, also more focused on keeping things peaceful at home.

There are several things that keep running through my head these last few days, but chief among them is the line that I have used two times on our family holiday card.

Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.

This is what I want to do, to be, to model.  I just have to figure out how to stop snapping long enough to do it.

How are you doing, out there?  I’m honestly curious.

 

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The new world

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Moon rising, November 12th.  This made me think of Desiderata, “With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.”  I hope that is true.

I went to bed on election night around 10:30, full of Tylenol PM and a deep foreboding about what was coming, even though it wasn’t yet official.  There’s no ambiguity that Hillary Clinton was my candidate. I woke up at 5:30 and checked my phone in the dark of our room and saw the news.  I went upstairs to see Matt, who had slept fitfully and moved to the couch around 3am.  I knelt next to him in the pre-dawn blackness of our family room, glancing up to see the tree that I have watched and loved for so many years.  I had tears streaming down my face when I woke him up.

How?

I don’t know.  He doesn’t know.  None of us know.  I woke Whit up and then had to go to work before Grace got up, so I left her a note.  I’ve felt numb for days and have been unable to express the strength and amplitude of my reaction.  It’s about losing the chance to have a woman president, and about the choice of a clearly sexist man over an incredibly qualified candidate who happened to be female, for sure.  But it’s about more than that, too. This John Pavlovitz essay says it best, in my view: this loss is about believing in a certain kind of world and realizing that almost 50% of my country believes in a different world.  It’s dark versus light, inclusion versus exclusion, being open versus being closed, fear versus faith.

Maybe I was naive. Clearly I was naive.  I have said over and over that I don’t know if I am more heartbroken or more shocked to have been so entirely, completely out of touch.  I had a festering anxiety about her winning that many around me said was ridiculous – the polls and data supported it being a done deal, I heard!  But I couldn’t ignore my tummy rumble and my fear.  Still, the basic fact of his win and her loss did shock me and does still.  This is the world we live in?

I’ve read a lot since Tuesday, but my favorite pieces so far are three: the John Pavlovitz one, the letter Aaron Sorkin wrote to his daughter and wife after Trump’s win, and John Palfrey’s comments. I need to write something to Grace and Whit but my thoughts aren’t yet clear enough. I love what Sorkin says about his daughter’s first vote, in 2020.  Grace will vote that year, too. And when she woke up to the news on Wednesday morning, one of her first reactions was dismay that she would not be able to vote for Hillary, and a woman, in 2020.  I know the feeling.  I share it.  I also love Sorkin’s reflections on his grandfather, which reminded me of how vividly present my grandmothers have been during this election season for me.

My favorite piece on this post-election world are these comments John Palfrey, head of school at Andover, made on the morning of November 9th. I share his cautionary, anxious sense that there’s a place in the world where tolerance of intolerance has gone too far, and his assertion that that time is now.  I love his exhortation that young people should consider lives of service and politics which reminded me of Hillary Clinton’s extraordinary, gracious concession speech in which she said “please never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it.”  Indeed.  And how.

The only way forward, though I walk it with a heavy heart, is to model open-mindedness and compassion for Grace and Whit and to keep believing in a world that believes in those values.  I believe we have to stand up to the kind of fearful anger that I worry will now rise up around America (already I’ve heard terrifying stories about behavior that horrifies me). Truthfully, I feel a little lost, a lot daunted, and extremely sad.  But there’s no choice but to move forward in this new world.

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I shall joyfully allow

I shall open my eyes and ears. Once every day I shall simply stare at a tree, a flower, a cloud, or a person. I shall not then be concerned at all to ask what they are but simply be glad that they are. I shall joyfully allow them the mystery of what C.S. Lewis calls their “divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic” existence.

~Clyde Kilby in “Amazed in the Ordinary”

Another beautiful passage from my friend Emily’s lambent blog Barnstorming, which is one of my absolute must-reads, every single day.

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