Navigating by the Stars

 

Kili

Hi!  Hope everybody is having a marvelous August.  It’s flown by here.  I’m looking forward to being back next week, but am popping on here to let you know I have a piece up on Medium today, Navigating by the Stars.  It’s about the 1998 trip to Kilimanjaro that I took with my then-new-boyfriend Matt, and about the lessons that began to dawn on me as we climbed slowly to the summit.  I’m still learning those lessons.

I hope you’ll click over and read my piece.  I’d love to hear what you think.

Photo of the summit of Kilimanjaro taken from our campsite two nights before, June 1998.

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Where I’ll be … August

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Grace, Whit, and my best friend from camp’s daughter, years ago, on the beach where I spent so many summers

It has been a tremendous privilege, not to mention hugely inspiring and educational, to join my friend Aidan in the Here Year.  She announced that she’ll be taking July and August to be here in her life, and in August I plan to join her.  For the last several years I’ve posted pictures in August, and I may still do that from time to time.  I’m not sure.

August is the deep, hot, swampy end of summer, and it’s also when I start feeling keenly the approach of fall.  The year turns towards its next season and as I’ve noted before I think my own sensitivity to endings may come from having been born in this liminal season, when transition hangs on the horizon, coloring everything.

This August Matt and I will have two weeks without the children, who are away at camp (after 1.5 weeks in July).  As I think of my children at the same place where I spent so many summers, I’ll remember yet again how seductive and confusing then and now can be, twining together into a cord of nostalgia and memory and love and loss.  We’ll pick them up on my 40th birthday and then we will have a week of family vacation in Vermont.  We’ll go to the same place for lunch on our way up, and visit the campus where Matt went to college; the drumbeat of tradition will soothe us all, remind us of the rituals that frame so much of our family life.

I intend to be here for all of it.

By the end of the month we’ll have returned to the schedules to which our real lives march.  Soccer practice will have started, we’ll have new sneakers for bigger feet, and I’ll be packing lunches again.

I’ll see you then.

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Another year, another camp drop off

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Leaving home, early Thursday morning

Last week we took Grace and Whit to camp.  This is Grace’s fourth summer, and Whit’s second.  The drop-off doesn’t get easier.  I’m realizing that’s because the experience forces me to confront where we are right now, and in so doing to reckon with all that is already past.  It is impossible to drop them off without realizing in a visceral way that the path forward holds ever-more dropoffs, ever more farewells, that the distance between them and me continues to stretch as we move forward.

Yes, yes, I trust in the red cord that ties our hearts.  I do.  But it’s still hard.

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Beloved, Bear, and Beloved’s Brother lined up on Whit’s pillow at camp.  He ran to join his cabinmates in a game so fast I didn’t even get a picture of him, so I took a photo of these much-loved faces instead.

For some reason, dropping them off and leaving without them – and, maybe most of all, coming back into a house that feels echoingly empty – brings me face to face with many emotions.

I am reminded that my everyday life is full of magic, a truth that Grace saw, and told me, before I ever did myself.  That happened the night before I took her to camp the very first time, and I still think of that conversation all the time.

I think of my dearest lifetime friend, who I met at this very camp many years ago.  When I walk through the familiar camp grounds it feels as though the ghosts of the girls we were swirl around me like dust.  I fall into the black hole of memory where individual moments flash and glint: when I first met Jess, the moment she pulled up to be my co-counselor in cabin 18 after we hadn’t spoken in several years, her gorgeous, sun-drenched wedding, the morning I called her in a whisper to say I’d seen a second, shadowy line on a pregnancy test.  There are a million other memories that drift over me like snowflakes, together forming a bank that is one of the essential bulwarks of my life.

When I think of it I fall into the black hole of memory where individual moments flash and glint: when I first met Jess, the moment she pulled up to be my co-counselor in cabin 18 after we hadn’t spoken in several years, her gorgeous, sun-drenched wedding, the morning I called her in a whisper to say I’d seen a second, shadowy line on a pregnancy test.  There are a million other memories that drift over me like snowflakes, together forming a bank that is one of the essential bulwarks of my life. – See more at: http://www.adesignsovast.com/2012/08/these-girls-our-girls-this-next-generation/#sthash.CTX137uz.dpuf
When I think of it I fall into the black hole of memory where individual moments flash and glint: when I first met Jess, the moment she pulled up to be my co-counselor in cabin 18 after we hadn’t spoken in several years, her gorgeous, sun-drenched wedding, the morning I called her in a whisper to say I’d seen a second, shadowy line on a pregnancy test.  There are a million other memories that drift over me like snowflakes, together forming a bank that is one of the essential bulwarks of my life. – See more at: http://www.adesignsovast.com/2012/08/these-girls-our-girls-this-next-generation/#sthash.CTX137uz.dpuf

Most of all, dropping Grace and Whit off presents me with blinding evidence of how much I love my own life.  Right now, this, this mess, this beauty, this noise, this holiness.  This.  These moments, which seem to run through my fingers ever more quickly.  I think of the glorious good fortune that my children will stand in the same outdoor theater that I did, their arms looped around their friends’ shoulders, singing Taps, and also of the keenly painful reality that the years in between those two events have evaporated so quickly I can’t catch my breath.  Then and now, past and present swirl together in a burst of rainbow memory, lit by flashes of lightning, and I swallow, and try to hold back my tears as I hug my children goodbye.

I thought of Churchill’s quote about how “this is not the end.  This is not even the beginning of the end.  But it is perhaps the end of the beginning.”  We left the end of the beginning back a while ago already.  And here we are, in the thick of it, life itself, teeming with both laughter and loss, joy and love and sorrow, every single day a tapestry of experience and memory.  Often this crazy quilt overwhelms me, and it did last week as we drove home from camp.

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Grace standing on the way to the beach.  I have walked through this passage hundreds of times.  Last summer Jess and I took photographs at sunset on this beach, and I treasure them.  

 

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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

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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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