the best is often when nothing is happening

Highlights and Interstices

We think of lifetimes as mostly the exceptional
and sorrows. Marriage we remember as children,
vacations and emergencies. The uncommon parts.
But the best is often when nothing is happening.
The way a mother picks up the child almost without
noticing and carries her across Waller Street
while talking with the other woman. What if she
could keep all of that? Our lives happen between
the memorable. I have lost two thousand habitual
breakfasts with Michiko. What I miss most about
her is that commonplace I can no longer remember.

– Jack Gilbert

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Paris

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“Why do all the good things go so fast and the bad stuff takes so long?”

Grace asked on our last night in Paris.  Oh, dear girl, I don’t know.  I blinked back tears.

We just got back from a week in Paris.  Years ago I wrote about my dedication to do everything in my power to make sure my children see the world.  We aren’t having the adventurous childhood that I was fortunate to have – living in three separate countries by the age of 12 and seeing more of Europe than I can possibly remember.  No, we are staying put.  I’m the unadventurous one.  But I do want Grace and Whit to understand that the world is large, and shining, and complicated, and thus to see that they are a very, very small part of it.  We’ve been incredibly lucky so far with trips to Jerusalem, Washington DC, the Galapagos, and now Paris.  We are not through with our exploration, that is for sure.  Watching Grace and Whit’s eyes light up when they experience something new is one of my life’s great pleasures.

Watching that in Paris was particularly poignant, because it occurred within layers of my own memory, and with my own parents watching.  We lived in Paris for four years when I was a small child (ages 3 to 7).  Last week, I often felt like I could sense the child me standing on the street corners.  We wandered past the door of our first apartment, played in the park that had been my sister’s and my favorite, and walked through Metro stops whose names I recall singing as a child.

I lived in Paris during the years that childhood memories solidify, like a boat emerging out of fog. Gradually and then without question. At 3, I remember very little.  Our first apartment is almost entirely lost to me, other than the evocative street name where it was and the long chain we pulled to flush the toilet. By 6, before we left, I remember much more.  Still, I was surprised by how much came back to me last week. I was surrounded by faint recollections as we walked the streets, almost more like sense memories than specific ones.  Even at the level of language, words I had no idea I remembered came to my lips. I understood far more of the conversations around me than I expected.

The photo above captures one of the moments where the past nudged into the present, folded like an accordion, and I felt dizzy.  I have many memories of playing in the Jardin Luxembourg with my sister, some vivid, some vague.  I also have pictures of us standing along those specific trees (probably at this very  time of year)  And yet last week it was I who was the mother, suddenly, already almost a decade older than my own mother was when she watched her American children (so much smaller than my own American children) running down the aisles between the trees and shrieking with laughter.

This time, I watched Grace and Whit run.  I pulled my coat around me tighter, glanced over at Matt, walking next to me, and tipped my face up to the blue-gray sky.  We passed the carousel where, as a child, I held a stick and tried to grab the brass ring, covered up now for the day.  Oh, time.  Oh, life.  It never ceases to take my breath away.

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Things That Make Me Happy

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I loved Aidan’s post about four things that make her happy.  Hers are big, important things, and I love what she shares.  For me, sometimes there are little things that make me disproportionately happy.  I’ve been thinking about some of those lately.  What are some hings – big or small – that make you happy?  I’d love to hear.

Clean sheets on my bed

8 uninterrupted hours of sleep

Fresh flowers (peonies, ranunculus, and parrot tulips are some of my favorites)

The smell of laundry

James Taylor’s music

Poetry

Putting on pajamas at the end of the day (“end” is relative)

Sterling silver picture frames

The sound of halyards snapping against masts

The sky

The necklace I have with charms that represent each child, plus one from my sister and an enamel heart and shrinky-dink binoculars that Grace made for me (because I like to notice things)

The words that I had engraved inside Matt’s wedding ring

My bookshelves of cherished titles

The ocean

Scallops as a design detail – on curtains, on clothing hems (my wedding dress had a scalloped hem)

 What makes you happy?

 

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I wish her safe passage

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her safe passage.

– Richard Wilbur, The Writer (excerpt)

I heard this for the first time at my niece‘s christening celebration many years ago.  And now I have a daughter who wants to be a writer and who is finding some of the stuff of her life to be heavy.  Oh, life.  I heard this for the first time at my niece’s christening celebration many years ago.  I still love it.

I am taking next week off to spend with the children because they are on break.  I’ll be back on the 23rd!  Maybe, then, most of the snow will have melted.  A girl can dream.

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Parenting a tween: an exercise in presence

Parenting is an exercise in presence.  This has always been true, of course, but it’s getting even more so as my children get older.   I wrote about this a bit a week and a half ago on Instagram: “Sunday night. Snow falling softly. Just back from hockey game (3rd of weekend). Thinking about how parenting a tween is an exercise in presence. It is about being there, often silently, often without acknowledgement. You have to trust that it matters, and that it is noticed, that you are there. You give presence and patience and awareness and believe it is felt even when you aren’t told so. It’s a reminder of what I have long known, that love is as simple and as difficult as being present with another person.”

What I do these days is listen, make dinner, pack lunches, drive a lot.  I drive to school, I drive to practices, I drive to playdates, I drive to games.  I pick up, sitting in the car, often mutely, and drive friends who chat animatedly in the backseat.  I tuck in, kissing foreheads and waiting for updates to come pouring out.  Once in a while they do, occasionally on a flood of tears, but often they don’t.  I just need to be there when the moment comes.

I try to be stoic in the face of frustrations and moods, knowing that my job is to be there, no matter what.  I think often of a wonderful essay by Jenny Rosenstrach in which she acknowledges that there is much we cannot do to protect our children from the vagaries of life in middle school.  What we can do, she says, is what she learned from her own mother.  We can make sure “they never doubt that home is the most comforting place for them to be. That is what you can do.”

These are the day so when I have to learn, all over again, that love is about abiding.  It is staying near.  It is working in my office rather than going downstairs, because Grace has decided to curl up on the couch in the next door room.  It is sitting on her bed reading before bed, even though it’s less comfortable than my own bed, simply because I know the quiet togetherness comforts her.  It is showing up to games, even when I’ve been told not to cheer too loudly, and watching, because the minute I glance down at my phone will be the instant she looks over.

Mothering these days is about knowing that I can’t fix everything – or, often, anything.  It is knowing that listening without trying to change is actually the most profound gift.  It is about trusting that she sees that I am there, and that she senses, somewhere deep and inchoate, that that is a demonstration of my love.  And I know, by the way, that this is all practice and training for parenting a teen, the days which hover on the horizon, whose advent is around the corner.  I definitely don’t feel ready.  But the days are coming, so I’ll gather what I have, which is my love, instinct, and a fierce belief in abiding, and I will do my best.  I’ll mess up, and I’ll begin again.

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Things I Love Lately

On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein- I love picture books.  I love books for kids about science.  I love books that make me cry.  This beautiful book, by Jennifer Berne, is all three.  Whit gave this his seal of approval, and it’s now my go-to book for gifting.  Watch out godson and other friends with sons in this age range.  This book is inspiring, reassuring, and gorgeous all at once.  I love it.

Bringing a Daughter Back From the Brink With Poems – I adore this story of a mother putting poems in her troubled daughter’s shoes.  This strikes me as brilliant parenting and I love the confirmation that poems can change live and touch into the deepest reaches of our souls.  Reminds me of the marvelous Williams line that “it is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

It Goes So Fast (Not a Parenting Essay) – Every word of my friend Allison Slater Tate‘s essay resonated with me.  I read it with tears streaming down my face.  We talk a lot about how fast it’s flown by with regards to the years with our children but that’s also true when it comes to myself.  I’m so thankful that Allison put this into words.  I’m grateful every day to be going through life in lock step with her (we were both a month apart, our first children were born months apart, etc).

Brightly – I am smitten with (and reading every page of) this marvelous site whose goal is to help parents develop lifelong readers.  There are articles about series and specific titles, more general reflections on reading as a parent and for children, and thoughtful content broken down by age of child.  This site is an inspiration.  (Thanks to my friend Stacey Loscalzo who pointed me to Brightly)

Currently in my head: Delicate by Damien Rice, FourFiveSeconds by Kanye West, Rihanna, and Paul McCartney, and I’m Alive by Kenny Chesney.

I write these Things I Love posts approximately monthly.  You can see all the others here.

What’s on your mind, your bedside table, your tablet, and your ipod?

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this is what the whole thing is about

Let the bucket of memory down into the well,
bright it up.  Cool, cool minutes.  No one
stirring, no plans.  Just being there.

This is what the whole thing is about.

– William Stafford, from Just Thinking

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The Here Year: Happiness

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Valentine’s Day evening, leaving a late dinner after driving home in a blizzard from a hockey game with Whit.  I was (t)here, and I was happy.

It’s hard to believe this is the last month of Aidan‘s Here Year, in which it has been my honor to participate.  And this month’s theme is happiness.

Happiness.  I have to admit I have conflicted feelings about this word.  I know most people would say that happiness is what they want in life. I think most people would also say that happiness is what they want for their child(ren).  But for some reason that goal never sits entirely comfortably with me.  I resonate more with the word joy, and even more, with contentment.  I’ve written before that these days I feel a sturdy sense of joy that is both new and hard-won.  This steady, difficult-to-dislodge feeling approaches what I think of as contentment.  I’m comfortable saying that feeling this is what I have always wanted.  I’m not sure what my reservation is when it comes to “happiness,” and realize it’s probably just semantics.  So, for this month, back to happiness.

The question is whether being here has made me happier.

The answer is yes.

But here’s the thing: it has also made me sadder.  There is no question that being present – a task which is at the core of the here year and which is also the central effort of my life – enriches my experience.  But it enriches all of my experience. Remaining inside my own life, living in the hours I’m allotted, paying attention to everything that happens to and around me, opens me up to both joy and sorrow.  I see more beauty and I see more heartache.  I haven’t figured out a way to have one without the other.

Recognizing this unavoidable truth in my own life has had significant repercussions.  It has changed how I think about goals for both me and for my children.  I’m not sure I think of happiness as the be-all and end-all anymore.  Happiness is a vital and meaningful part of my life.  A big part of my life.  But there’s also the reality I can’t get away from, the dark shadow that hangs over everything, the way that time moves on and pain comes and how the glow of morning light on bare branches makes me think of both exultant joy and heartbreaking loss.  I think often – daily, at least – of Virginia Woolf’s statement that ‘The beauty of the world…has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.”

I wish there was an easier conclusion, a simpler to-do: make this adjustment, look at the world this way, and you’ll be happier.  Life will be smoother.  Sadly, at least for me, that’s not how it works.  I still think there’s huge value in being present, in being here, though, and I would never choose to live another way.

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Do Your Om Thing

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I’ve been practicing yoga, with a frequency that has varied between daily and weekly, for over 15 years.  I’ve read parts of the Bhagavad Gita, I used to know the primary series by heart, and I’ve been on a week-long retreat that featured long periods of silence, a lot of vegetables, and 45 minutes of pigeon pose at a time.  All of this is to say that I’m somewhat familiar with yoga.  I’m not an expert, by a long shot.  But I’ve read a lot and practiced a lot and even written about it from time to time here.

Rebecca Pacheco’s Do Your Om Thing: Bending Yoga Tradition to Fit Your Modern Life is my favorite book about yoga that I have ever read.

Rebecca makes yoga tradition clear and compelling and unpacks things like the chakras and the koshas that I’d previously found confusing enough to be entirely off-putting.  She asserts something that we all know to be true but that I posit most of us have lost touch with: that yoga is about far, far more than the asanas.  But taking yoga beyond the physical poses is frankly hard, because the literature about yoga’s traditions and philosophy is opaque and difficult and because, especially in these days, we are all more distracted than ever.  In this book, Rebecca changes all of that.  These two quotes summarize what Do Your Om Thing is all about.

Yoga doesn’t manufacture a feeling of completeness; it offers tools for becoming present enough to realize it’s been there all along.

Internal quiet and connection to our deepest self form the essence of yoga.  It’s not fancy. It doesn’t balance on one arm.  But it’s the plain truth of yoga’s purpose, and it will change your life.

Do Your Om Thing is structured in four parts.  Part I, Yoga: Ancient and Modern, briefly covers Rebecca’s own story and path to yoga and then describes the famous “eight limbs” of yoga.  Over and over again, Rebecca shows how the sometimes dusty-sounding limbs of yoga have relevance to today’s life, and reminds us that being a yogi in 2015 is about understanding yogic tradition in order to apply it to modern life.  She quotes Zen master Sheng Yen, reminding us that “practice should not be separated from living and living at all times should be one’s practice.” In Do Your Om Thing she emphasizes that while yoga may be a series of sexy poses that will give you sculpted arms, it is far, far more than that.

Yoga is a way of being in the world.

Rebecca discusses each “limb” of yoga briefly and offers concrete guidelines for readers wanting to incorporate them into their regular lives.  This is one of things I love most about Do Your Om Thing: the way Rebecca makes something as diffuse and difficult to grasp as yoga philosophy utterly understandable, real, and actionable.

Part II, The Body, talks about the chakras, the seven energy points that reside along our spines, and the koshas, the body’s five layers.  Once again, Rebecca shares specific intentions, mantras, and asanas (with beautiful photographs) to go with each chakra.  As in the rest of the book, Rebecca’s clear, lucid writing renders understandable (and fascinating) something that I’d previously found challenging.

Part III, The Mind, discusses meditation.  Rebecca reminds us that “the quality and direction of your attention is the greatest determinant of the quality of your life.”  This section, and the brief discussion of meditation in part I, showed me that much of what preoccupies me in my life is in fact quite yogic in nature.  When I read this, I shivered:

It will always be tempting to fidget, flee, or Facebook update instead of inhabiting the present moment, which can be challenging and uncomfortable, even tragic and terrifying, at times, but it’s this lack of consciousness that leaves us feeling like we need yoga in the first place.  The feeling of missing our own lives, as they are happening.

Oh, yes.  This feeling, of missing out on my own experience even as I live it is one I’ve long felt and often written about.  Rebecca shares some helpful tools for beginning meditators and describes several meditation styles.

Part IV, The Spirit, which makes suggestions for “spiritual sustenance,” is my favorite part of the book.  Rebecca tells personal stories, including about her grandmother, to whom the book is dedicated and who believed that “life itself is a spiritual practice.”  Parts of this section of Do Your Om Thing brought tears to my eyes and goosebumps to my skin.

Thomas Merton once wrote, “Life is this simple: we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time.”  This doesn’t mean that life won’t be difficult of painful, characterized by change and loss; it means that a higher power, the wellspring for your spiritual life, whether you realize it or not, is holding a candlelight vigil or perhaps a roaring bonfire for you all hours of the day and night. It doesn’t sleep. It doesn’t leave.

Is the loneliness of which I’ve written, whose shadow limns my everyday experience, an ache for this higher power, a longing to trust in that candlelight or bonfire?  I suspect so.  Rebecca shares nine “suggestions for spiritual sustenance,” each of which I found profoundly moving.  She incorporates quotations from literature, stories and thoughts from others living an engaged life, and questions from ancient texts (such as the Bhagavad Gita).

The last section of the book, titled love, opens with one of my all-time favorite quotes: “In the end only three things matter: how well we have lived, how well we have loved, and how well we have learned to let go” (Jack Kornfield).  Rebecca closes with reflections on love, for the self, for other, for the world at large.  She reminds us that while yoga doesn’t have to be our sole workout, it is our soul workout.  “Find a way to make life the practice – one of humility, gratitude, and awareness,” Rebecca urges us.  And with this beautiful, thoughtful, wise book, Rebecca has given us an incredibly powerful tool to do just that.

Do Your Om Thing comes out tomorrow.  I can’t recommend Rebecca’s book highly enough.  I hope you’ll read it.

 

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Some folks hide, and some folks seek

How can one person be more real than any other?  Well, some people do hide and others seek.  Maybe those who are in hiding – escaping encounters, avoiding surprises, protecting their property, ignoring their fantasies, restricting their feelings, sitting out the pan-pipe hootchy-kootch of experience – maybe those people, people who won’t talk to rednecks, or if they’re rednecks won’t talk to intellectuals, people who’re afraid to get their shoes muddy or their noses wet, afraid to eat what they crave, afraid to drink Mexican water, afraid to bet a long shot to win, afraid to hitch-hike, jaywalk, honky-tonk, cogitate, osculate, levitate, rock it, bop it, sock it, or bark at the moon, maybe such people are simply inauthentic, and maybe the jackleg humanist who says differently is due to have his tongue fried on the hot slabs of liar’s Hell.  Some folks hide, and some folks seek, and seeking, when it’s mindless, neurotic, desperate, or pusillanimous can be a form of hiding.  But there are folks who want to know and aren’t afraid to look and won’t turn tail should they find it – and if they never do, they’ll have a good time anyway, because nothing, neither the terrible truth nor the absence of it, is going to cheat them out of one honest breath of the earth’s sweet gas.

– Tom Robbins, Still Life With Woodpecker

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