Softly, calmly, immensity taps at your life

Tree

It is foolish
to let a young redwood
grow next to a house.

Even in this
one lifetime,
you will have to choose.

That great calm being,
this clutter of soup pots and books–

Already the first branch-tips brush at the window.
Softly, calmly, immensity taps at your life.

- Jane Hirshfield

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The best books of the year so far.

Last week I read Nina’s excellent review of her favorite books of 2014. It made me want to write my own. I realize I’ve mentioned several of these books before, but here they are in one place. I highly recommend her picks (some of which are mine, too!) and am eager to hear what you’ve been reading.

We are just past the midpoint of 2014, and here are my favorite books of the year so far:

All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr. I’m reviewing this for Great New Books in a couple of weeks so I will save most of my commentary, but suffice it to say that Doerr’s book has a firm place in my favorite novels of all time.  Probably top three.  All the Light is that spectacular. I can’t stop thinking of the book’s glorious imagery and can’t recommend it highly enough.

10% Happier – Dan Harris. This is a rare book that both Matt and I adored. Dan’s story is honest, open, convincing, inspiring, funny. I already meditated somewhat regularly, and now I do it with more conviction and commitment. This is a marvelous book.

Euphoria – Lily King.  I could barely put down King’s compelling story of anthropologists in the jungle of New Guinea.  She draws three characters I couldn’t stop thinking about and touches on themes of identity, feminism, love, subjectivity, and power.  I loved this book.

Americanah- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  This book came highly recommended by some of the readers I most highly esteem (I’m looking at you, Lacy) and it did not disappoint.  Americanah is a rich, sprawling saga about otherness and true love, about all the ways that we can be from a place and yet not feel at home, about what America really means.

Love Life – Rob Lowe.  I picked up Lowe’s latest memoir after reading his guttingly powerful essay on Salon about taking his son to college.  The book is similarly moving, and running through it is an intensely familiar sense of the bittersweetness of parenting and life itself.  Beautiful.

Eleanor & Park – Rainbow Rowell.  I’d heard so much about this book, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Rowell’s protagonists are fully-felt, deeply-human misfits who are as surprised to find connection in each other as we are.  Nina loved this one too, and her review is wonderful.

In the Body of the World - Eve Ensler.  Ensler’s illness narrative is difficult to read but a compelling page-turner at the same time.  She draws stark parallels between her own female body and the world at large, in so doing crafts a powerful love letter to this dramatic, painful, human, joyful life.

Paradise in Plain Sight – Karen Maezen Miller.  I loved Hand Wash Cold, so was eager to read Maezen’s new book.  She didn’t disappoint: the memoir is full of the plainspoken but deeply resonant writing I now associate with Maezen.  While I’m not a gardener myself, I found myself gladly following her through her own yard, and ultimately coming to see, with her gentle but firm guidance, that paradise truly is right here at my own feet.

Homesick and Happy- Michael Thompson.  I’m a longtime and devoted Thompson fan, and this book hit on a theme that has been central to my sense of myself as a parent from the very beginning.  Helping our children let go, and move away from us, is our most essential parenting task.  Camp is one way that we can help them do this.  Perhaps he was preaching to the choir, since I’m a firm believer in sleepaway camp, but Thompson’s book reminded me of what this endeavor is all about it.  It made me cry  more than once.

Crossing to Safety – Wallace Stegner.  I just re-read this for the fourth time, for my new book club.  It’s the only book that I have ever read four times.  And it just keeps getting better.  This time I was struck by the masterful way that Stegner shifts in and out of the first person as he tells the story. 

What are you reading now and what have you loved lately?  I would love your recommendations as I have some plane flights and downtime ahead!

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In the noticing is the magic

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Last week, my dear friend Pam left a comment here in which she mentioned her realization that “in the noticing is the magic.”

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that.  Pam’s one powerful sentence startled me, and has suddenly made so much clear.  I write ad nauseum about all the magic I see in my regular life, about the beauty that I experience in the most mundane moments, about the glitter in the grout.

My children see the way the extraordinary shimmers inside the ordinary, and there’s no question that it is because of them that I can now see it too.  The ways in which my children have taught me to see are myriad.  Some are literal, like toddler Whit crouching on the sidewalk to admire a dandelion pushing up between two bricks or eight year old Grace telling me point-blank that my life is full of magic.  Less directly, by stripping bare that brutal truth from which I spent so many years trying to distract myself – that time passes so swiftly it takes my breath away – Grace and Whit have taught me to slow down and to pay attention.

Our lives are full of holiness.  That much is true.  I can’t stop seeing it.  But my revelation – thanks to Pam – is that it is the seeing that makes it so.

Last week, on our second day in Niagara Falls, we went on the Maid of the Mist.  Whit wanted to stand downstairs.  Grace wanted to stand upstairs.  I negotiated this particular impasse and spent half of the boat ride with each of them.  There was some petulance and pouting by Grace and some arguing by Whit and finally I told them to quit it.  After the boat docked we made our way up the wooden walkway underneath the falls, our sneakers soaking wet, the mist pounding us (“mist” seems like a euphemism for a drenching, heavy rain).  I had to walk in between the kids because they were mad at each other.  We didn’t see much on our way up because we were focusing down, on the slippery trail and big puddles.  At the top we turned around. A rainbow.  All three of us gasped.

Magic.

That evening, Grace and Whit squabbled and I yelled at them and threatened to take away the post-dinner water park visit they’d so looked forward to.  They pulled it together, and we went to the water park, and then to watch fireworks over the Falls at 10:00.  It is telling that I can’t remember what they fought about (though I do recall raising my voice and that uneasy, ugly feeling after doing so).  I can remember standing with a child on each side of me, head tipped up, watching the night sky explode with brightness over the breathtaking beauty of the nighttime Falls.

Glitter.

And then we went to bed.  I slept fitfully for the second night in a row because the hotel air conditioning alternated on and off all night long.  In the morning, I lay awake and watched Whit sleeping in the next bed, his monkey, Beloved, clutched under his chin.  Grace’s tousled dark head was just visible on the other side of him.  I don’t know that there’s a sight I love more than my sleeping children.  And all together in a hotel room?  That’s pretty much my favorite thing.  I didn’t care that I was exhausted.  I just watched the shadows of Whit’s eyelashes on his cheeks.

Beauty.

It isn’t that I’m paying attention because my life is magic.

It’s that my life is magic because I’m paying attention.

Thank you, Pam.  You’ve given me my new mantra.  In the noticing is the magic.

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As Much As the Sky

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“And in between those days and now there yawns an enormous gulf, an eternity of bathtimes, so many of which, if I’m honest, felt like a chore that I had to suffer through, a final slog before the relief of bedtime. How did I not value every single one? Splashing in the water, tickling Whit’s neck, I want them all back. The truth that I can’t—the basic fact of time’s swift passage—stands between me and the sun. My whole life is lived in its shadow. I blink back tears.”

Click here to read more of As Much As the Sky.

I’m honored to have my first piece up on Mamalode today.  I’d so appreciate if you would click over and read it – I have long admired Mamalode and it’s a privilege to be published there.  Comments here are closed but I would be very grateful to hear from you there!

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no further away than the ground beneath my feet.

Time after time I realized that everything I want or need – the living truth of life, love, beauty, purpose, and peace – is taught to me right here, no further away than the ground beneath my feet.

- Karen Maezen Miller, Paradise in Plain Sight

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Niagara Falls

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It’s touristy and Grace didn’t like her hot dog and Whit got a blister from walking, but oh, the falls are majestic. Their power, noise, and beauty are frankly as awe-inspiring as I had imagined.   Plus Grace and Whit got a third stamp in their passports, which was a thrill.  This summer is flying by, a fact made more bitter by how sweet the days are.

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Overwhelming awareness of this life’s sweetness

road

Grace and Whit have just finished two remarkably joyful and relaxed weeks with my parents on the coast of Massachusetts.  One day last week, I left Boston early in the morning and went down for the day to work from there so that I could surprise them at camp pickup.  My work phone has been screwed up anyway, and there’s wifi, so, I thought, why not?

It turned out to be a weirdly, unexpectedly difficult day.  I seemed to be clunking through the world, knocking things over literally and figuratively, Whit was entirely unimpressed to see me at camp pickup (“why are you here?  OK, fine, I’m going to bike home, see you there”), they bickered on the tennis court, and it was hot.  I was generally out of sorts.

The three of us did have a lovely dinner on the back porch in the cooling, beautiful evening air, and we walked to the ice cream store and down to the yacht club to look at the harbor.  This has become a tradition that Grace and Whit like as much as I do.  As we strolled home, Grace sighed and told me how much she loved beautiful evenings like this one.  The air felt soft on my arms.  Dad and I had a fascinating conversation about Walt Whitman (whose work I’m ashamed I don’t know well enough; I’ve already ordered Leaves of Grass) and Grace and Whit calmed down and got in their pajamas and Mum came home from her meeting and suddenly, facing my departure, I felt a swell of keen sorrow. I didn’t want to leave.  As it sometimes does, my life crashed over my head and my responsibilities felt heavy.

I tucked Whit in and he rolled onto his side, his eyes gleaming in the dark.  “I love you,” he said, and gave me our secret sign that means I love you.  “I love you too,” I told him as I stood in the door.  “I’ll see you on Saturday.”

I went down to the kitchen to say goodbye to Grace.  With the eerie ability to see into my thoughts that both she and Whit sometimes display, she gave me a hug, and said, “tomorrow, when you’re at your desk, Mum, just remember that I’m cheering you on.”  My head snapped back to look at her.  Only half an hour ago she’d been pouting that I wasn’t spending the night.  When did she grow into this empathetic, mature young woman who knew how to put what I needed first?  My eyes filled with tears and I nodded.

I hugged my parents and Grace walked me out.  She stood barefoot in her pajamas on the sidewalk and watched me get into the car.  I told her I loved her and she gave me our secret sign and then, as I turned the car on, she leaned into the open passenger window.  “Mummy,” she said, her wet hair wavy on either side of her face, “You’re my wonder woman!”

“Oh, Grace,” I said to her, shaking my head.  “I don’t know about that.  You’re my wonder girl, though.”

I was blinking back more tears as I drove away, and as the road turned left the whole expanse of the sunset came into view.  I gasped out loud.  The sky was striated with red, orange, pink, and I pulled into a parking lot to try to take a picture.  I couldn’t get a good angle so I kept driving, but I did take one of the fading light as I got onto the highway (ab0ve).  As it so often does, the sky acted on my spirit in an ineffable, undeniable way, and I felt the aggravation and challenge of the day ebb almost instantly away.  I thought of my parents, who had each been so fully themselves that day, of my children, arguing on the tennis court and yet appreciating the glorious evening and then knowing exactly what I needed at the end of the day, of this place I had so long loved.  I felt deeply rooted in the world, a sensation akin to the sturdy joy I’ve written about before.  My awareness of this life’s sweetness overwhelmed me, so sharp I felt it in my chest.

And watching the sun go down, I drove home.

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wreck your heart in prayer

There are two kinds of nun, out of the cloister or in. You can serve or you can sing, and wreck your heart in prayer, working the world’s hard work. -

Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm

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Deep in the heart of summer

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We are entering the heart of summer.

These are the days that I live for the weekend, when the children stay up late and we laugh a lot and jump off the boat into the ocean and curl up on the couch and watch Wimbledon until the middle of the day.

They are the days when we lie on grass and watch fireworks, gasping out loud at the finale, with one loud concussive boom after another and the night sky lit up with sparkling white, gold, blue and white.

They are the days of four cousins biking to the ice cream store alone and eating hamburgers on the back porch and swimming out to the line (as far as you can go) as the rain from Hurricane Arthur began to come down in earnest.

They are the days of beach towels and bathing suits strewn on the back porch to dry in the sun and bed-headed Grace and Whit wandering downstairs when they wake up and family tennis.

They are the days of the annual Fourth of July parade and the WW2 veterans making me cry and the marching bands moving me in some inexplicable, powerful way.

 

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The thing is, I’m already starting to mourn this season as I live it.  This is a familiar sensation for me, this nostalgia for something even while I am still very much in it, but rarely is it more keen than during the summer.  Every year it’s earlier, the date when I can feel the whisper of fall underneath all the summer, and I cling desperately to these days.  No matter how hard I try to be here now, though, no matter how much I hope that immersing myself in my life will make time slow down, the moments fall through my fingers like water even as I grasp.

It was hard to come home from the long weekend, honestly.  I loved seeing my sister and her family and some old, dear friends.  There was mess and chaos but there was also so much love, and so many memories.  I was sad on Sunday night, preparing to re-enter regular life, and part of that sorrow was that a part of the year that I so dearly love was over.  Another Fourth of July is gone, and I feel disoriented by how quickly this life is flying by.  Two years ago I posted pictures from the annual parade and when I view them tears fill my eyes. Just as I said then: everything and nothing changes.

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Things I Love Lately

One – That my friend Pam’s musings on the first month of her husband’s year-long deployment made me nod so vigorously is a testament to her power as a writer.  In many ways our lives look utterly different.  In the ways that matter, we are walking down a parallel path, and I’m hugely grateful for her companionship, her wisdom, and her candor.

 10 Things No One Tells Women about Turning 40 – Holly Seymour’s piece made me laugh and it reassured me that there are joys and unforseen delights ahead as I pitch headfirst into 40 next month.  I want to be able to say all of these things about myself in my 40s.  Here’s hoping I can.

Shonda Rimes’ Dartmouth commencement speech – I really love everything about this.  Hard work, not dreams.  Don’t be an asshole.  Having daughters and working motherhood and not being able to do it all.  Letting your heart beat so, so fast.  It made me cry.  Thank you to my dear friend Sarah for pointing me to this speech.

I’ve been reading some fantastic books lately.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr has joined the very small pantheon of My Favorite Books of All Time.  It is stunning, breathtaking, spectacular.  Doerr’s lyrical, evocative, powerful writing reminds of my favorite fiction writer, Ondaatje.  Read it.  You won’t regret it.

I could not put down Lily King’s Euphoria.  I described it on Twitter as “evocative, thought-provoking…Identity, feminism, love, power, subjectivity. Beautiful.”

I absolutely loved 10% Happier by Dan Harris and it is one of the very few books that both Matt and I devoured.  Dan’s compulsively readable story is relatable and honest, not to mention incredibly convincing.  I related to so much of what he shared and came away ever-more committed to a meditation practice that has been spotty for years.

This past weekend I read Eleanor & Parkby Rainbow Rowell, which I’d heard such wonderful things about.  I loved it as much as I hoped I would.  I couldn’t put down the funny/sad story about belonging and connection and adolescence.  I highly recommend!

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

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