Relative

I’ve always, since I was a child, been interested in the relationship between the individual and the whole.  How do we calibrate our feelings on a larger scale?  I remember wondering how those “rate your pain on a scale of 1 to 10” signs in a hospital worked.  How does my 7 compare to your 7?  As an aside, I can tell you on that particular issue it was Grace and Whit’s births that helped me locate my own personal 10. The questions ripple out, though: when I see the color green and call it “green,” how do I know that it’s the same color that you see when you notice that something is green?  Is there any reason, in fact, to assume that those are the same thing?

The bigger question that interests me, I think, is how my personal experience fits into or correlates with the larger experience of the world as a hole.  I’ve always hungered to understand how the absolutely singular experience I’m having on this planet relates to the universal.  I think we all do.

This is what is is at the core of good writing, after all: making a specific, particular story shine so brightly that it somehow accesses something larger than its own individual details. Part of the impulse here for me is to understand: how does my experience relate to yours.  And another part of it is to find meaning: is there something larger that I can glimpse by putting my own individual story next to yours, and next to yours, and next to yours?

What I do know is that at the end of the day, I can never know if your headache is the kind of pain that would send me to the h9spital.  I can never know if the cornflower blue sky that you remark on looks the same to me.  I can never know what your love, and your loss, and your joy, and your sorrow feel like.

I’ll always wish I could find out.

 

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the courage not to turn away

Now I know, for what little it’s worth, what it means to be a girl growing up. Maybe you can choose not to put on the cloak, but then you’ll never be free, you can never soar. Or you can take on the mantle that is given you; but what the consequences may be, what the mantle might do, what wearing it may entail, you can’t know beforehand. Others may see better, but they can’t save you. All any of us can do for another person is to have the courage not to turn away.

-Claire Messud, The Burning Girl

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Anticipation

I had to let the dust settle a little bit.  Over the last few weeks I have been reflecting on the summer and on the big event that capped it, Grace’s departure for boarding school.  I started this post in mid-September, and obviously, since then there have been even bigger events in our family.  Matt’s father’s death, and the weeks that followed, have clearly overshadowed Grace’s leaving for school.  That said, I’ve done a lot of thinking about what this summer and early fall were like, as Grace left, and that’s what I want to reflect on today.

And I can now say that the anticipation of Grace’s leaving was worse than the reality of it.

There’s no surprise here.  Anyone who knows me – even those who don’t! – knows I suffer from acute fear of what’s coming, and a keen, preemptive awareness of loss and endings.  I’m sure I learned that in my peripatetic childhood, which was marked by a big goodbye every four years.

The summer was glorious but it was also overshadowed by my anxiety and sorrow about what was coming in early September.  Every time someone asked me how I was doing – whether a dear friend or a kindly neighbor – I would burst into tears.  Literally. Regularly I started talking and had to stop because I found myself in tears.  This happened at the post office, at the dry cleaner, in the street as I brought groceries into the house. It’s fair to say that my sadness about all that was ending almost choked me.

The day itself came.  Yes, it was hard.  But the truth is, the day before we dropped her off was worse than the day after.  I miss her, desperately.  Our family is figuring out its new formation, and I think often of Launa‘s image of the shopping cart’s four wheels and how wonky things can be, how fast, when one wheel is off-kilter.

But the worry that hovered around the edges of this summer was, predictably, worse than the reality of life this fall.  I don’t know if in my preemptive grief I had done a lot of the hard work already.  I don’t know if I imagined a world so bleak that the truth of life now feels light in comparison.  I don’t know why, but I feel … okay.

Part of why I feel okay, I suspect, is my unshakeable belief that I truly lived the years with both kids at home.  I sank into them, and appreciated them, and loved them.  This belief reminds me of the last, devastating, glorious lines of Catherine Newman’s piece about facing the departure of teenage children:

“That was the time of our lives,” I’ll say to him.
And he’ll say, and this will be true, “At least we knew it.”

These last years, a blur of tucking Grace and Whit in, of the Science Museum giving way to Snapchat and homework and races and games, might well have been the time of my life.

You know what?  I knew it.

And the lesson, yet again, for me is that the anticipation of a transition is worth than its reality. I seem to need to keep learning this lesson over and over again. Grace is happy, and we are proud at how she’s adjusting and of how comfortable she seems. Her first few weeks of her great adventure were, of course, a lot rockier than we’d imagined.  And still, she persevered.  The three of us at home and figuring out our rhythm. I know there is joy ahead.  In fact there’s already joy right now.  I’m also not giving up hope that what lies ahead may hold its own wonders.

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the story comes from within you

Jaya, I’ve awoken to something recently, and it has inspired me during this time in my life.  Here it is: life is scary, and it’s glorious.  You are never going to get it all right. You’ll get it deliciously messed up, and that will be a part of figuring out who you are…

I want you to have faith and hear yourself when you’re just barely holding it together. I want you to be able to talk to friends about their gray areas and be open about your own without judgment. You will succeed and fail in equal measure. Both experiences are worthwhile. They will both define you. The truth is, the minute I surrendered to the flow of the mess of life, everything came together magnificently: my longing for art, my skill as an actor, and my capacities as a friend and mother.

The beauty of being a woman today is in savoring the minutiae of life, all the moments that add up to you…I want you to live in the space that’s your own, your own delicious mess. The story comes from within you.

-letter from Laura Dern to her 12 year old daughter, in InStyle, September 2017

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Things I Love Lately

Night Walks With My Teens (Who Are About to Leave Me) – My adoration and admiration of Catherine Newman’s work is not a secret, and this may be my favorite piece of hers I’ve read so far.  To say it resonated, as I faced a daughter leaving, is an understatement.  This is a must read.

Sophie & Lili watercolor portraits – I love these portraits, fro photographs, and it’s possible one will be under the tree for a family member.  It is getting tight for the holidays, but what great gift ideas these are for birthdays, mother’s and father’s day, and, really anything.

Lovebug priobiotics -I’m a big probiotic fan and have long taken them myself as well as made sure Whit and Grace do.  This new line, whose name I adore (my mother called me “lovebug” when I was a child) is my new favorite.  We are all taking them.  Marvelous.

With Love, from the Naked Ladies in Goggles – I love this piece in Lenny by Susannah Meadows, because it so gorgeously captures everday life and the ways in which female friendship can sustain us.  I wish I had a locker room like this.

The Unfeathering of the Nest – Oh, my.  Weeping.  So much of this resonated when I read it, 1.5 weeks before Grace left, and does still, now.  I have known this day was coming and still, it feels so, so hard.

I Am the Keeper – Every word of this is familiar to me.  I’ve written before about being the filler (of the Britas, of the gas tanks, of the spirits, of the lunch boxes) and the emptier (of the backpacks, of the outgrown clothes, of uncomfortable emotions).  I wouldn’t want any other primary role in life, but it’s a lot.

I write these Things I Love posts approximately every month.  All of my previous posts are here.

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this world is still a miracle

This world, after all our science and sciences, is still a miracle;
wonderful, inscrutable, magical, and more,
to whosoever will think of it.

-Thomas Dekker

Another perfect passage that I found on Barnstorming.

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John Adams Russell

October 4, 1944 – September 23, 2017

What I wrote about John this weekend on Instagram:

The world lost one of the greats yesterday, John Adams Russell. It was my privilege and honor to be John’s third and final daughter-in-law and to spend 19 years in the light of his love. John was fiercely committed to his family and one of the great joys of my life is knowing how close his relationships were with my children, who he called Whitty and My Amazing Grace. John received a life-saving heart transplant almost 15 years ago and since then (and probably before, but my knowledge isn’t as good) he embodied grace and gratitude. While he faced several health challenges over the last 15 years I never once heard him complain. John loved this wonderful world. He truly appreciated both the big, glittering moments (dinner atop the Eiffel Tower, having his whole family gathered for his and Marti’s 50th anniversary) and the small, quiet ones (a simple dinner with Marti on the back porch in Florida, a FaceTime exchange with a grandchild). He fought hard to stay here a long time and we are all thankful for the memories that allowed us to make. His awareness of his great good fortune and his loyal love of family are examples to me and will be all the days of my life. Rest in peace and godspeed, John. We love you and always will.

***

I have so, so many wonderful photographs of John.  The one above may be my favorite.  Like me, he liked to take photographs, and many of the pictures I prize from family celebrations came from him.  He was also an avid texter – Grace taught him how to use emojis, and we often joked she had created a monster.  I still have several text strings from him on my phone, and I don’t think I’ll ever erase them.  He was present and he was engaged and he was absolutely a vivid, bright, huge part of our lives.  His loss leave a huge hole.  This is the first thing I haven’t been remotely able to protect Grace and Whit from, and they are mourning.  We all are.

All we can do is focus on the immense gratitude we feel for his life, and our keen awareness that he got almost 15 extra years because of a gracious heart donor and his or her family (be an organ donor!!!) and because of his fierce fight.  He stayed here because he was determined to, of that I feel sure.  I’m so thankful he did.  He knew five grandchildren he wouldn’t have otherwise, and experienced more joys than we can count.

One of the primary lessons for me of these sad and difficult days is that we must say what we feel no matter what.  John died suddenly at the end, and did not have the opportunity to say formal goodbyes to a lot of people.  There’s sorrow in that, yes, but what it’s made us consider is that nobody, not a single person to my knowledge, was unsure how John felt about them.  He was an emotive and expressive man who said “I love you” a lot and the fact that my children and husband know without equivocation how he felt about them is a huge gift.  Don’t wait to say how you feel.

I’ve written a lot about John, but the piece that most specifically recounts the aftermath of his heart transplant is here, at Brain, Child. We were just so fortunate.  So lucky.  So blessed.  Yes, we were.  And we knew it.  And so did he.  What an enormous gift.

It is hard to choose favorites of my many photographs, so I wanted to include the pictures I have of the first time John met Grace and Whit. They adored him.

October 26, 2002.  A month before his heart transplant, and he basically broke out of MGH to come see Grace.

Easter 2005.  Whit was 2 months old and as you can see delighted to meet his grandfather.  This may be the only photo I have of Whit with Grandpa where he is not grinning ear to ear.

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the edge of some new light

Driving west tonight, the city dissolves behind us.
I keep feeling we’re going farther than we’re going,
a journey that started in the deep inkwell
out of which our days are written.
Nothing is said to indicate a monument,
yet I perch on the edge of some new light.

-Naomi Shihab Nye, Lights from Other Windows

Thank you to my dear friend Denise for sending this right when I needed it.

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To my Daughter Leaving Home

Dear Grace,

When you were little, before you could say “v,” you used to talk about having adwentures.  Nana wanted to get me a vanity plate for my car, actually, that said ADWENTURE.

And now you’re off on your biggest adwenture yet.

Back in the days when our adwentures took us to the Children’s Museum and the Aquarium, I had a conversation with a dear friend from college.  In that conversation, which I remember vividly, I said that my most devout hope in raising a daughter was that she grow up to be smart and brave (I might, now, add kind and thoughtful to that).  Well, you’ve exceeded every hope I ever had.  You are smart and brave, and it is those traits, along with your love of adwenture, that are propelling you on this next step.

This present is both precisely the future that I dreamed about – a brave, independent daughter, flying towards her dreams – and the hardest thing I’ve ever done as a parent.  I’ve known this day was coming – the day you would leave – since you were born.  Our family believes in boarding school so I always knew this was a distinct possibility; it was a likelihood, even. And yet it has absolutely knocked me over with how hard it is, the saying goodbye. I know you know this since you saw me tearful a lot this summer.  I am sorry about that, but I also know you know it’s the shadow side of how much I’ve loved this season.  It’s not an exaggeration to say that these years with small and then larger children at home have been my favorite of my life.  So far!  Who knows: what’s ahead may dazzle me.  I hope, and frankly sort of expect, that it will.

One thing that will never change is how much I love you.  That’s only been growing since we greeted you, with your shock of dark hair and wailing cries, after a long, long, long labor.  I will never be able to fully express to you how grateful I am that it was you that the universe decided would be my first child.  I delivered you myself, that morning of October 26, 2002, and since then, in ways big and small, we’ve felt like a team.  You’ll always be the person who made me a mother, and we’ve learned a lot together.  That’s not over now, by the way.  There’s a lot I still want to talk to you about and teach you, and vice versa.  Our reality may look different now, but I know our bond is only growing stronger.

You’ve made being a parent easy, Grace.  It hasn’t always felt smooth, but I know the bumps have been small.  Had I listed all the things you are when I described my fantasy first child, the other person would have told me I was asking for too much. You’ve surpassed every dream I had for you. You make me prouder than I can possibly put into words.

So, my brave and smart daughter, my child who is taller than I am and a full-blown young woman, I’m watching you with tears in my eyes and joy in my heart as you dash towards your newest and biggest adwenture.  You are in the woods, and I’m standing at the finish line cheering, waiting for you to emerge.

Run your own race. I say this all the time and I know you know it. Study hard, run fast, get some sleep, make some lifetime friends and connect with an amazing teacher or two. I know firsthand the power of a school like the one where you are to change your life. The years  before now have been golden, Grace, and I’ll never forget them.  I’m just as sure that what lies ahead will be wonderful.  Hold my hand, and let’s go.

I love you, and I always will, and I am truly excited to watch you fly.

Mum

 

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the most authentic endings

The temptation towards resolution, towards wrapping up the package, seems to me a terrible trap.  Why not be more honest with the moment? The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning.

-Sam Shepard

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