the words with which I try to say what I see, think, or feel

Bless the notebook that I always carry in my pocket.
And the pen.
Bless the words with which I try to say what I see, think, or feel.
With gratitude for the grace of the earth.
The expected and the exception, both.
For all the hours I have been given to be in this world.

– Mary Oliver, Good Morning

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Great New Books: best books of 2014

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As you may know, I’m delighted to be a part of the Great New Books team.   Collectively we recommend books we’ve loved (“new” generally means recent though not brand-spanking-new).  I’m proud of the way Great New Books has stuck to the philosophy of only recommending books we truly love.  In a book review climate littered with not-so-genuine raves, I find this to be somewhat rare.

This week, we’re sharing our favorite books of 2014.  Spoiler: I wrote about one of my top 3, but the other 2 were covered by others on our team!

I hope you’ll click over and read about the team’s favorite reads of 2014.  In the next weeks we’ll also talk about our most-anticipated reads of 2015 and our favorite classic books.

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Questions for Writers

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Kristen’s blog, Little Lodestar, is one of my regular reads.  Last week she asked as series of nine provocative questions that I have not been able to stop thinking about.  I wanted to share them here, along with my answers, and pose them to all of you at the same time.  I’m endlessly fascinated by and hungry for the details of the lives of writers, the sources of their inspiration, and the particular decisions they make on a given day.  I am impressed by Kristen’s deliberate effort to call herself a writer as that is something I struggle with myself.

This blog, and the online world I found through it, has brought me many surprises, but one of my most favorite has been how supportive the blogging community is.  My interest in Kristen’s questions and in your answers is just a further manifestation of that support and community. I found the comments on Kristen’s post engrossing and look forward to learning more here.  Another way this community works is that it was my friend Nina Badzin who originally gave me the idea to share these questions, and my answers, here.  She did the same yesterday and I hope you will click over and read her thoughts on the writing life and on Kristen’s questions.  Nina and Kristen are both writers for whom I have the utmost esteem and affection, and I am grateful every day to have met them in this online world.

Without further ado, I’m happy to share Kristen’s questions and ask any of you who are willing to answer them here in the comments (or on your blog!).

1. Do you share your work with your partner or spouse? Does it matter if it’s been published yet? (I share with my husband something that I submit elsewhere only AFTER it’s been published, and I am pretty certain he does not read my blog 90% of the time.)

My husband reads my blog most of the time, though I think the attention that it receives varies depending on the day.  I show him my published pieces too, though don’t know that he’s really focused on most of them.

2. How much of your family and/or closest “friends in real life first” read your stuff…let alone give you feedback about it? (Comments from my family and friends, either online or in person, are overwhelmingly rare. I’m totally fine with that, but I am curious if this is the norm for others.)

Many of my family members and close friends do not read my blog, though some do.  Those who do rarely comment but when people do reach out to me it means a huge amount (enormous thanks to those of you who do this!) My feelings about this topic are complicated. Agree with Nina that it’s a lot to ask that people read.  On the other hand, I’m deeply grateful that some people read.

3. What do you do with the pieces that continually get rejected–post on your blog? Trash? When do you know it’s time to let it go?

Sometimes I post on my blog.  Sometimes I just let them go.  The truth is I don’t submit a whole lot.

4. Are there pieces you write for one very specific place that, once rejected, you just let go of, or do you rework into something else?

The only specific place I really write for is my blog, so I don’t run into that much.  Or, if asked specifically (for someone else’s blog or for a magazine or something).  I have written a complete memoir and half of another one, both of which I let go of.  I wrote about that particular letting-go process a couple of years ago.  That was a big one.

5. What is your main source of reading-based inspiration (especially you essayists)? Blogs? Magazines? Journals? Anthologies? Book of essays by one writer?

Blogs, books, and poetry.  I read several blogs religiously, many more regularly, and I read fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.  I always have a book on my bedside table and read before bed almost every single night.  Actually I do read every single night, but now and then it’s a magazine instead of my book!

6. What tends to spark ideas more for you: what you see/hear in daily life or what you read?

That’s such a good question.  I would say I draw inspiration from both of those sources; what I see and experience as well as what I read.

7. Who have you read in the past year or two that you feel is completely brilliant but so underappreciated?

Another excellent question.  There are many bloggers writing today whose work I think is as good or better than what I read in more traditional channels; I think many are underappreciated.  I wish more people read poetry, because as a genre I think it’s wildly underappreciated.

8. Without listing anything written by Dani Shapiro, Anne Lamott, Lee Gutkind, or Natalie Goldberg, what craft books are “must haves”?

Stephen King’s On Writing comes to mind.  I dip into Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay from time to time.

I would sincerely love to hear any of your answers to any of these questions.  Thank you Kristen for the inspiration!

 

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Things I Love Lately

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A favorite picture from right now, last night, which I shared on Instagram.

What I Learned Today in SchoolJessica is my oldest and dearest friend, and she’s also both a hugely talented teacher and a wildly beautiful writer.  I adore her reminder that school should be, her her words, “a space — real, imagined or virtual — of learning.”  Her what I’m reading page is full of excellent suggestions and the brief, digestible stories she tells every day are inspiring and thoughtful.  I can’t say enough about this beautiful, thoughtful new blog.

On Walking the Walk – I was so reassured by this piece on Yogapata, profoundly moved to hear the admission that we all sometimes struggle to do as we say.  This seems particularly true when it comes to the voices in our head; if we could all speak to ourselves with the compassion and love that we so often show to others, things would be entirely different.  I highly recommend this short essay.

51 of the Most Beautiful Sentences in Literature – This Buzzfeed article was just like reading one long, glorious exhale.  What a reminder of the crystalline power of language to move us, touch us, make us less alone, make us see the world in a different way.  There were sentences I know well and those I’d never heard before on here.  Reading this list reminded me of how much I want to re-read Four Quartets, so that’s on my bedside table now.  So many of my favorites and many that I’ve shared on this blog are on this list (Rosencrant & Gildenstern, Cheryl Strayed, Eliot, Harry Potter).  Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.

Embrace the Intrusions – I adore this piece by Andrea Jarrell, which I just found.  She beautifully evokes the push-pull demands and complicated myriad identities that mother-writers, especially those with young children, often feel.  I love the advice to embrace the intrusions.  This piece reminds me of Anne Tyler’s quote that “it seems to me that since I’ve had children, I’ve grown richer and deeper.  They may have slowed down my writing for a while, but when I did write, I had more of a self to speak from.”

I just read Mary Oliver’s latest book, Blue Horses, and am reading my friend Rebecca Pacheco’s Do Your Om Thing: Bending Yoga Tradition to Fit Your Modern Life, which comes out this spring.  I look forward to reviewing closer to the release date but suffice it to say that I love this book.

I’m also ready to say that my top 3 novels of 2014 were All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, Euphoria by Lily King, and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

What were your favorites of the year?  What should I read over the holidays?  What’s on your mind, your bedside table, your kindle, and your heart lately?

I write these Things I Love posts approximately monthly.  You can find all of the previous ones here.

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the echo of a precarious faith

“…but behind each piece, animating every attempt, is the echo of a precarious faith, that we are more intimately bound to one another by our kindred doubts than our brave conclusions.”

-Charles D’Ambrosio, Loitering

Thank you again to my dearly beloved friend and kindred spirit, Lacy, for sending me this beautiful line.

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Story People & words on holiday cards

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I love Brian Andreas’ work and I have for a very long time.  We have two Story People prints hanging in our bathroom and one in each of Grace and Whit’s rooms.  I gave prints to each of my bridesmaids at our rehearsal dinner.  It’s impossible for me to read Brian’s pieces without my eyes filling with tears.  He touches something inside of me so primal, so essential, so true that I don’t even have words for it.

Brian’s writing is particularly on my  mind these days.  I’m grateful that Shawn Fink reminded me of a post I’d written in 202 about what holiday cards mean to me and about how important I think the words we share can be.  This seems the opportune moment to share that for our 2014 holiday card, our family used a line of Brian Andreas':

Time stands still best in moments that look suspiciously like real life.

Grace and Whit hand-wrote some of their favorite moments from 2014, which I included on the card, along a family photo and one of each of the alone (see at the bottom of this post).

Brian is an artist and a poet and if you don’t know his work, I encourage you to find out more about him.  I simply want to share some of my favorites today.  One of his poems, more than any other sentence in the English language, I think, captures what it is for me to live on this earth.  Given that I live my life swimming in sentences, I think that’s really saying something.

“She said she usually cried at least once each day not because she was sad, but because the world was so beautiful & life was so short.”

And there are so many others that I love.  A sampling:

I will always remember the way she’d laugh & clap her hands watching us play & then later, before bed, she’d gather us in her arms & whisper, Have you ever seen a world so perfect? (the kind of mother I want to be)

Someday, the light will shine like a sun through my skin & they will say, What have you done with your life? & though there are many moments I think I will remember, in the end, I will be proud to say, I was one of us.

Sitting there in your pajamas & all the time in the world & if I could keep any moment it would be this: watching you & holding my breath with the wonder of it all.

Are you a princess? I said & she said I’m much more than a princess, but you don’t have a name for it yet here on earth. (on Grace’s wall)

Anyone can slay a dragon, he told me, but try waking up every morning & loving the world all over again. That’s what takes a real hero.

2014 holiday card

Additionally, I really adored working with Dawn Lindley of Lindley Creative on this year’s cards.  I highly recommend her work!

 

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The Here Year: Gratitude

I was thrilled when Aidan chose Gratitude as the December Here Year theme.  As I just wrote last month, while I love the explosion of gratitude-related posting and Facebooking and general conversation around Thanksgiving, I actually would love to spread the awareness of our good fortune out throughout the year.  It’s one of the things I care most deeply about as a person and as a parent.

For me, gratitude is inherently intertwined with paying attention.  By listening to, watching, and observing the details of my own life, I automatically put myself in a thankful mood.  I notice things to be grateful for in every corner.  The adage that gratitude turns what we have into enough comes often to mind.  Trite, yes, maybe, but also profoundly true.

I used to share posts regularly with photos and short snippets of things I’d noticed, that I wanted to mark, celebrate, and honor.  I realize Instagram has become the place I do that, most days.  What I hadn’t really put together before now was that those posts – this blog itself, in fact – and now, Instagram, are my way of saying thank you.  By making sure I noticed my own life, I was cultivating gratitude for it.

So, with a deep bow to an instinct that was powerful before it was clearly articulate-able, I want to return to that.  A few shimmering moments in my ordinary life lately that I noticed and for which I am deeply thankful.

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Almost-full moon rising, 4pm. Picked Grace up from hockey practice, watched her as she tossed her hockey bag in the trunk and then slid into the front seat. Before my eyes my little girl has become a graceful young woman. I gasped at the startling beauty of a flock of birds flying overhead and then drove home, towards this rising moon, more beautiful somehow for its almost-full imperfection, the jagged bottom corner. Oh, this life.

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One evening last month, when Grace was on a multi-day field trip for school and Matt was traveling for work, Whit and I curled up on the couch and did some DEAR (Drop Everything And Read).  It was one of my favorite hours of November.

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I had the most delightful, warm coffee with Rebecca Pacheco, whose blog, Omgal, I have long loved.  She graciously gave me an advance copy of her book which I cannot WAIT to read.  She also affirmed for me that the online world can indeed be a source of real, genuine, deep relationships.  I don’t know Rebecca that well (yet) but look forward to spending more time with her and feel hugely grateful to have connected with her.  And stay tuned for a review of Do Your Om Thing: Bending Yoga Tradition to Fit Your Modern Life, which I already know I’m going to love.

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Grace opening a birthday gift from my dear, beloved Brettne.  There’s something about the sight of my daughter holding two books I so passionately loved as a girl myself (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and To Kill a Mockingbird), sent to her from a friend who means a tremendous amount to me and whose love of books is even deeper than my own that brought tears to my eyes.

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One of my favorite traditions is our annual visit to a local farm to buy our Christmas tree.  We went yesterday morning.  The truth is, there was some (“some”) tension and grouchiness before we went (on my part) and it wasn’t the smoothest visit.  There was some pouting (perhaps also by me) and some short voices to each other (to put it mildly).  But still, I’m thankful that we went all together, that we picked the beautiful tree that’s in our living room now, and even that we got this picture, which makes me laugh because it really conveys the perfectly imperfect nature of everyday life.

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the intangible mysteries of life

One would be difficult, but the short stories of Flannery O’Connor landed hard on me. You could feel within them the unknowability of God, the intangible mysteries of life that confounded her characters, and which I find by my side every day. They contained the dark Gothicness of my childhood and yet made me feel fortunate to sit at the center of this swirling black puzzle, stars reeling overhead, the earth barely beneath us.

– Bruce Springsteen

This interview with Bruce about books he’s read and loved is a revelation to me.  First of all, he’s a voracious reader (confirming my view that most of the people I’m intrigued by in this world turn out to be readers), and second of all, he evokes the power that books can have over us.  That last sentence about the stars reeling overhead just takes my breath away.

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Holiday rituals

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Christmas is my favorite holiday.  This month is a special time for those of many faiths, but since I am Christian I will refer to Christmas in this post.  I hope it does not offend.  This is also a season that is now driven by an overwhelming institutional materialism that really bothers me.  Do I buy presents for my children and other people close to our family?  Yes.  And I enjoy it.  But do I feel a mounting unease at what Christmas seems to have become, all around me?  Yes.

I’ve written a lot about ritual and how important it is to my family.  That’s more true at this time of year than at any other.  More and more, our small family traditions feel like a beachhead against the rampant commercialism out in the world.  I find myself turning inward, this year as I’ve done in the past, touching our small olive wood creche from Jerusalem almost reverently and hanging a boxwood wreath on the front door with a deep feeling of joy.  I’m not sure exactly why, but our rituals feel more important than ever.  So I wanted to share some of them.  I’d love to hear how you mark this season, if it has meaning to you and your family, whatever your faith.

We burn an Advent candle on our kitchen island (see above), and every single time I light it I think about how important one of my most treasured themes – darkness and light – is at this time.  Dusk falls earlier and earlier, but we have our small steady candle in our kitchen, and the light of our every day lives.

We only buy presents for the children in our families, our godchildren, and a couple of very dear friends.  This cuts way back on the shopping we have to do, and allows me to really focus on choosing gifts for the people in my life that I know will be most delighted by them.  I do give a lot of books, but there are games and electronics and clothes in there too.

ornaments

Every year I tie a celadon satin ribbon around the large boxwood wreath on our front door and put out some special decorations around the house.  Our stockings aren’t as special as I would like (I’m still working on the needlepoint stocking I started when Grace was born) but our tree brims with memories.  We pick out a tree in a couple of weeks, not and on that day each child chooses a new ornament.  So we have all the new ornaments from each year, as well as a sterling bell marked with the years that Matt’s mother always gives us and many other dear ones.  A wooden bridge to commemorate the Covered Bridges Half Marathon, an Adirondack chair for Basin Harbor Club, a golden snitch and so many more.  Every year I also have a personalized ornament made for each child (silhouettes one year, doll-like fabric faces another, their names on porcelain disks another) .  I grew up with the annual tree trimming being a huge celebration, and like my childhood trees, ours is sentimental more than elegant.  Years ago Grace asked me why our tree wasn’t “as fancy” as many of those she saw at others’ houses.  I told her that our ornaments may not match, but they were full of meaning.  After a long, appraising look at the tree, she concluded that our tree may not be fancy, but it was “full of love.”  And how.

For several years we’ve participated in a program with the local homeless veterans shelter.  We receive one vet’s holiday wishlist and buy gifts for him or her.  Grace and Whit help me wrap the gifts and write our veteran heartfelt cards.  Christmas carols feature in our traditions: one weekend afternoon we bake and decorate cookies and dance to carols in the kitchen and we sing them after dinner on Christmas Eve with my oldest and dearest friend and his family.

It was that friend whose family was at the heart of the annual Solstice tradition, which ended in 2012 and which I still miss.

If this season is holy to you, how do you mark it?

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10 Things I Want my 10 Year Old Son to Know

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It feels like just moments ago that I reflected on the things I wanted Grace to know, deep in her marrow, before she turned ten.  But now it’s Whit who’s staring double digits in the face.  In less than two months he’ll be ten, and there won’t be anyone with a single-digit age in our house anymore.  Just as with Grace, I keep thinking about the values and truths I want Whit to know, the things I wish I could make him as certain of as he is of his own heartbeat.

Even as I think about and write these things down, I know that I can only do so much to impart them to him.  I know that what I do is more important than what I say.  I know that I had better have been modeling these themes already, since with 10 years under his belt he’s already picked up and internalized a lot of values from me.

With a desperate hope that I’ve done an okay job helping to exemplify and teach these messages, here are ten things I want my son to know before he turns ten.

1. Treat other people with respect.  Women and men both.  The headmistress of your school and the homeless man outside the subway station are both equally deserving of your kindness.  You do this already, instinctively, but please, never stop.

2. Rowdiness and physical activity are both normal and fun.  Rough-housing is okay.  I know I sometimes shush you more than I should, because my personal preference is for quiet, but I’m working on that, because being physically active and even rambunctious is totally fine.  There is a line, however, because violence is not okay.  Learning where this line is is crucial.

3. No means no.  Period.  No matter who says it and in what context.

4. Don’t hide your sensitivity.  You feel everything tremendously deeply: time’s passage, memory, wistfulness, love and loss.  Don’t let the world convince you to stuff this down.  You can be strong and feel a lot at the same time.  In fact, feeling a lot makes you stronger.  That’s true regardless of whether you’re a boy or a girl.

5. You can’t make another person happy, not me, not Dad, not Grace.  Nobody.  Furthermore that’s not your job.  I know this, we all do, and I hope you always remember it.  You are responsible for your own self and for the way you treat others, which can surely impact their moods.  But nobody should ever make you feel responsible for their happiness.  What makes me happy is knowing that you are thriving, challenged, enthusiastic, joyful, aware.

6. Pay attention to your life.  There is so much to notice in the most every day moments.  The other day you told me, before bed, that “the things you hate are the things you wish you had back.”  I asked what you meant and you said, “well, like in Beginners, we had nap, and I didn’t like it, and now I would love to have rest time every day at school!”  But then, after a few moments, you added, “well, at least I feel like I noticed it.  That’s good, I guess.”  And it is.  I haven’t figured out how to stop time, but I do know that paying close attention to your experience rewards us with full days and rich memories.

7. Find your passion.  It doesn’t matter what it is, but “I’m bored” isn’t something I want to hear.  Ever.  You are surrounded by interesting things to explore, learn about, and experience. I’ll support you in whatever you want to pursue, if it is hockey or coding or violin – or all three! – but you do need to find something that you want to throw yourself into.

8. Entitlement is the absolute worst.  I am a strict mother and often feel badly about discipline or sharp language, but one thing I’ll always react to (and I’ll never regret doing so) is if you display even a whiff of entitlement or brattiness.  You don’t do it often, and I don’t think it’s your natural orientation towards the world, but please always remember how immensely fortunate we are.  It is an enormous privilege to live as we do every single day.  Through small things like Sunday Night compliments, occasional volunteering, our Christmas Homeless Veteran relationship, and thank you notes I have tried to instill our family life with awareness of our great good fortune.  That is, I believe, the best bulwark against entitlement there is.

9. Even if you don’t start something, you can be wrong.  I think always of MLK’s line about how the silence of our friends hurts far more than the words of our enemies.  The ringleader is at fault but so are those who go along with him.  Please have the courage to stand up to the popular kids when circumstances arise when they’re doing the wrong thing.  They haven’t yet, but I know they will.

10. I love you, no matter what.  Messing up is a part of life.  The point is learning to let go and start over.  This I know I’ve modeled, probably too well: you are being raised by a mother who’s not afraid to show you her flaws and demonstrate failing, apologizing, and beginning again.  I will always love you, even when you behave in ways I don’t love.  But I also expect you to keep showing me that you know the point is to learn from our mistakes, recognize and acknowledge when we’re wrong, and begin again.

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