So taut I might snap

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It has been a very difficult few weeks in my world.  Mostly work-related, but I feel worn down and stretched thin and generally as though I am about to fall apart.  I read my friend Amanda’s piece, Love, Doubt, and Guilt Dance on the Head of a Pin at exactly the right moment.  Last Wednesday night, to be specific.  I’ve been dropping balls.  I’ve been snappy.  I haven’t been sleeping.  I haven’t been writing.  I feel pretty terrible all around.  I read her piece, particularly these lines:

It’s inevitable that we spend moments pulling ourselves taut; it’s how we grow. Stretching doesn’t make us weaker or put us at risk of breaking, it makes us stronger. We lean into work, surrender ourselves to intimacy, devote time to our kids, these are the ways that we nurture the different parts of who we are and the people we love. It isn’t easy and I don’t think any of it comes without debt or compromise, but each instance of enduring the tautness and learning from it helps us understand the things that we want to hold on to and the ways that we can contribute.

Oh, God, I read this paragraph and started to sob, alone in my office with the rain pelting against the windows and the rapidly-darkening street outside.  Is this tautness, this feeling of holding my very life together with held breath and wobbling scotch tape, helping me grow?  I sure hope so. One thing I don’t feel a smidgen of right now – not even a little bit – is ease.  Not at all.  I feel tired, and wired, and anxious, and sad, and overwhelmed.

I loathe complaining (just ask my children: there are a few surefire ways to set me off and one is complaining). The truth of my feeling not-at-all-good is at war inside my head with my own awareness of my tremendous good fortune.  How can I be whining, when so much is so good?  How is it possible that I can admire the beauty around me – and I do – and still feel like this?  I don’t have answers for that, though I can’t stop thinking of what Leslie Jamison writes on the back of Marilynne Robinson’s exquisite book of essays, The Givenness of Things:

…Robinson’s determination to shed light on … complexities – the solitude that endures inside intimacy, the sorrow that persists beside joy – marks her as one of those rare writers genuinely committed to contradiction as an abiding state of consciousness.

Contradiction as an abiding state of consciousness.  Maybe that’s what this is.  The darkness and light that mark my life are shifting like tectonic plates, creating small earthquakes inside of me.  They are both still there.  Even on days – weeks, months – when the darkness feels all-consuming, when I feel brittle and exhausted and spent, I have to remember that the good exists, flickering like a pilot light.  I need to trust it will return.  And I do.

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a tree too huge to see at once

I can remember only one of its exhibits, which I loved: a large wall of little doors, arrayed from floor to ceiling, each with a tiny handle. Some I could reach for myself, while my father would have to lift me to others. I must have worn him out with my desire to open and then close every single one of them. What was behind each door was a pane of glass, a window which gave onto a great – real? – tree, and each aperture revealed some different aspect of its life: nests, squirrels, spiders, stuffed birds whose glass eyes looked back with gleaming veracity. There was no way to ever see the entire tree at once, on the hundreds – were there? – of alternative perspectives the doors opened. This great curio cabinet, this museum of viewpoints, serves in my memory as a metaphor that resonates in many directions. The past itself seems to me like that tree, unseeable in its entirety, knowable only in its parts, each viewpoint yielding a different version of the story about what the whole might be. What is the world but a tree too huge to see at once, known only through the shaping character of the particular aperture through which we see?

– Mark Doty, Heaven’s Coast

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My child, in child’s pose

I looked over at Grace in child’s pose on the yoga mat next to me, noticing her closed eyes, her long eyelashes, the peace on her face.  My child, in child’s pose isn’t a child anymore.  A couple of weeks ago I took Grace to her first yoga class.  It felt like a big moment, introducing her to a practice that’s been an important part of my life for almost 20 years now.

I had to check my math.  I went to a couple of yoga classes in college, but began practicing regularly in 1998.  Which was 18 years ago.  It was surreal to be in a yoga class with my teenage daughter next to me.  I thought of my mid-20s self, when I was just learning the poses that are so familiar to me now.  I thought of the time that she announced herself to me in shavasana when I was about 20 weeks pregnant.  I thought of my first yoga class after delivering Grace, when I burst into tears with relief at being back on my mat.  I thought of the hundreds and thousands of times that I’ve flowed through vinyasa in my life.

All through class I kept looking over at Grace.  She could sense my gaze, I think, and each time she’d look over, and glance at me with a grin.  I could feel, somehow, the awkwardness of trying to twist my body into the poses for the first time (I thought, suddenly, of kything, the wordless communication that occurs in A Wrinkle in Time and where you can feel what another person feels) as I watched her watching me and the teacher, piking up into downward dog, wrapping her arms in eagle, bending forward to wrap her fingers under her toes in padahastasana.

Mostly, I found myself stunned by being here already.  I know, I know, this is a drum I beat ceaselessly.  But time’s whipping by so quickly my head is spinning.  The baby who turned over in my belly in a prenatal yoga class now stretched next to me on a mat, her limbs nearly as long as mine.  In shavasana (the word ease in my mind) I turned my head and saw Grace’s face, eyes closed, at peace, her arms at rest on the mat, her fingers curled slightly upward.  She was – she is – welcoming what is to come.

May I keep learning to do the same.

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The Ramblers

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I was thrilled to read an advance copy of my friend Aidan Donnelley Rowley’s The Ramblers, and I’m even more delighted to jump on the table in support of this book.

It. Is. So. Wonderful.

I read The Ramblers in one delicious gulp last fall and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about (or texting Aidan about) the characters since.  The three protagonists, Clio an ornithologist who carries deep scars from growing up with a mentally ill mother, her best friend from Yale, Smith, who comes from one of New York’s “perfect” and hugely wealthy families and is recovering from the sudden end of the engagement that she thought would begin her own happily ever after, and Tate, a college classmates of theirs who has returned to New York in the wake of his marriage ending and his company’s highly lucrative sale.

Clio, Smith, and Tate tell their stories in interwoven chapters and their lives are both absolutely their own and inextricably connected.  Each chapter opens with an epigraph, a practice I love in books.  The first voice we hear is Clio’s, and the use of Charles Darwin’s words, “if we expect to suffer, we are anxious,” sets the stage for a book that is by turns about anxiety and fear, discomfort and adaptation, where we come from and where we’re going.

We learn early on that Clio’s mother was bipolar.  This fact is at the complicated knot at the center of Clio’s life, and her relationships with her boyfriend and her father both exist in its shadow.  Her work studying the adaptation of birds, her discomfort really letting her older boyfriend know her, and her passionate attachment to the Ramble, a section of Central Park from which the book takes its name, are all important threads that run throughthe book.

Smith, so structured and fond of order that she runs her own company which helps people declutter and organize their lives, has recently faced the most disorienting disruption she could have imagined. Her fiance, with whom she had planned and envisioned her future, walked away suddenly.  In the wake of this loss Smith is working to determine to find her footing in a life that looks nothing like she imagined.

Tate, a photographer with a soulful love of poetry, recently sold an app that he founded with a friend for $40 million dollars.  His wife also decided that their marriage was over.  He has returned to New York after this abrupt turn of events and is, in many ways like Smith, trying to determine what he truly wants to do now.

Clio is the central character of The Ramblers.  All three central protagonists are compelling, but for me it was Clio’s themes that formed the book’s animating core.  Her mother haunts the narrative, and we hear her voice in the form of a letter towards the end.  In their own ways, though, all three characters struggle to define themselves apart from strong family legacies.  Clio’s mother’s bipolar is the clearest example of this, but both Smith and Tate also wrestle with where they’re from.

This is the way it works.  No one emerges from childhood totally unscathed.  You do the best you can.  And, if you are lucky, you find someone to do the best you can with.

All three of the main characters are, we see clearly, ramblers.  Towards the end of the book, in a Clio’s notes on a walk in the Ramble, she muses “Maybe that is the point after all?  To be lost?”  Clio, Smith, and Tate are all in their thirties, true adults, and all three reckon with this reality.  It’s time to make personal and professional decisions, and the questions that Clio, Smith, and Tate face beat through the book like a pulse.

Who am I?  Who do I love?  What do I want to do with my life?  Who do I want to do it with?

I can’t recommend The Ramblers more highly: the book is gorgeously written, deeply moving, and stays with you long after you finish it.

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the utterly vast spaces between us

In every important way we are such secrets from one another, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable – which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live. We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, intraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us.

― Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

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My problem with ease

I love my word of the year, ease.  I’ve been thinking about it a lot.  I make it my intention in yoga classes, I think about it before I go to bed at night.  And every time the word crosses my mind, I have an uncomfortable realization that I have a problem with the word.  Don’t get me wrong: it’s still my word, and it’s still my goal, and it’s still fundamentally what I want in life.  But it also brings up some complicated associations for me.

Perhaps because of my Puritan roots – which are both deep and irrefutable – I have long believed in my marrow that only things that are hard are meaningful.  Or maybe not only, but certainly that something being difficult makes it more likely to be valuable.  A tough climb makes the view more beautiful and all of that.

The other truth which is hard for me to admit is that I’ve always thought that a lot of people weren’t really trying hard enough.  The flip side of that is my deep faith that all problems could be overcome by just putting our mind to things and working hard.  This is part of why the deep postpartum depression I experienced after Grace’s birth was so disorienting for me: it was literally the first time in my life when gritting my teeth and just trying harder didn’t make something better.

That was a big, and hard, lesson for me to learn.  I’m still grappling with my basic belief that if things are easy they aren’t worth anything.  And with the notion that if I feel ease – if things flow – that means that I’m letting myself off the hook somehow.

I suspect part of why this word chose me this year is the creeping sense I have that the correlation between effort and meaning – a central tenet of my life up until now, as uncomfortable as admitting that makes me – doesn’t capture the whole picture.  I know that my goal isn’t a struggle- and difficulty-free life; in fact, maybe that’s part of my hesitation with this line of thinking.  I will never stop celebrating hard work, and I don’t want to.  But I do think that the automatic assignment of value to something hard – and, maybe more importantly, the refusal to grant importance to something that comes easily – is flawed.

Some of the time, things will flow.  Some of the time, I’ll have to put my nose to the grindstone and really work at something.  Both scenarios can be full of meaning, and value.  I just want to welcome both of those scenarios.  To invite both into my life.  With ease.

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the dying are the ones who have the most to teach us about life

I had a feeling that Paul Kalanithi’s memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, would be a powerful read.  In fact I called it a “once in a decade” book, before I even read it.  I wasn’t wrong.

I don’t think there’s a lot I can say to augment the rhapsodic reviews this book has rightly received, but I still wanted to add my voice to the loud chorus of people celebrating Kalanithi’s courage, his unflinching gaze, his poetic prose, his incredibly powerful first and last book.  This book is unforgettable.

There are so many things about When Breath Becomes Air that I loved, so many sentences I underlined, so many points where I cried.  Kalanithi was both a doctor and a lover of literature, and that particular combination is one of my very favorite to read (Verghese, Sacks, and Gawande are giants in my life, and Kalanithi belongs in their company).  Kalanithi sought to understand the boundary between life and death, and the ways that the irrefutable presence of the latter shapes the former.   In his own words: “Neurosurgery attracted me as much for its intertwining of brain and consciousness as for its intertwining of life and death.”  The book is one man’s meditation on this intertwining truth, which abruptly transitions for him from an abstract fascination to a brutal reality.

Though he was a profoundly gifted physician, it seems to me that Kalanithi’s soul was one of a writer, and a reader.  “Literature not only illuminated another’s experience, it provided, I believed, the richest material for moral reflection,” he writes early in a book dotted with quotes and references to books as wide ranging as T.S. Eliot and Thomas Browne.

One of my favorite passages in When Breath Becomes Air is Kalanithi’s musings on the inadequacy of scientific thought to really capture the “existential, visceral nature of human life.”  This reminded me of my writing about growing up in the space between my father’s faith in the rational mind and his abiding awe of the ineffable.  “No system of though can contain the fullness of the human experience,” writes Kalanithi, and I found myself nodding.  Indeed.  It cannot.  So much of writing – all of it? – is a writer’s attempt to capture his or her own experience, don’t you think?  We scratch on the glass, we grasp at something as it drifts through our hands, we try, as best as we can, to say: this is what life is for me, and maybe that will help you know what it is for you.

When Breath Becomes Air is short and reads quickly.  When I was most of the way through, I took Whit to a hockey game.  I walked out of the rink and felt the world had shifted.  Literally something was different in the air I walked through; it was crisper, clearer, more defined.  Kalanithi’s story rang in my head as I walked to the car to get something I’d forgotten.  The best books do this, of course: they change our experience of living in the world.

Lucy Kalanithi, Paul’s widow, wrote the afterword that concludes the book.  She writes a heartbreaking, beautiful account of Paul’s final days, and I read those pages through floods of tears.  She also asserts that Paul “found poetry more comforting than Scripture,” which is resonant for me.  Her last sentences are clear, sharp, strong, and perfect:

“For much of his life, Paul wondered about death – and whether he could face it with integrity.  In the end, the answer was yes.  I was his wife and a witness.”

Read this book.  It will shine a light on your life.  I promise you it will.

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Astonishing material and revelation

Astonishing material and revelation appear in our lives all the time.
Let it be.
Unto us, so much is given.
We just have to be open for business.
~Anne Lamott,  Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers

I’ve read Help Thanks Wow, and loved it (I’ve read all of Anne Lamott’s non-fiction, and none of her fiction – should I?) but I thank my friend Emily, whose glorious blog Barnstorming reminded me of these lines.

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Eleven years old

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Dear Whit,

Today you are eleven.  As I write this, a couple of weeks ago, I’m sitting at my desk listening to you sing along to 80s tunes.  Your favorite thing to do these days is to wear your new Beats headphones (thank you, Hadley) and listen to 80s metal (Living on a Prayer, Eye of the Tiger, Sweet Child of Mine, etc) as you do your homework.  You make me laugh so hard.  One recent morning, you were drinking milk in the kitchen while singing Eye of the Tiger.  I kept telling you to hurry, because we had to get to school.  You screwed up your face and sang louder.  I burst out laughing remembering how many times I drank beverages – admittedly, never milk – with Eye of the Tiger playing in the background.

You’re becoming who you are – or, more accurately, growing into who you’ve always been.  You are funny, funny, funny.  You’re also thoughtful and sensitive, the first person in the family to remember to ask how a doctor’s appointment was or a how a big meeting went.  You don’t miss a single beat, ever.  You have the memory of an elephant, which means I have to pay attention to what I say, because you will never forget it. Ever.  The combination of comedic bluster and deep sensitivity is at the core of your charm but also causes you some pain.  The ease with which you take things to heart isn’t always apparent, and you’re sliced by the world in ways that you – and that world, frankly – find surprising.

You are an avid hockey player (number 14, like your father before you, and your team’s leader in penalty minutes so far this year) and you play baseball, too (this year, you were drafted onto the Yankees in the major league, a tough pill for this Red Sox family to swallow, but your new coach and team seem great). Your truest love, though, seems to be science and inventing.  You’re a maker at heart.  This year your father and I bought you a workbench for the basement and set it up, and you love to go down to work with your soldering iron and various projects.

You want to be an engineer, specifically a robot designer, when you grow up.  If I was placing bets, I’m pretty sure you will do something in the engineering realm.  You are fascinated by scientific experiments and the periodic table and your favorite recent movie was The Martian.  In fact, you routinely mutter under your breath, “I’m going to have to science the *heck* out of this,” in homage to that movie.  You’ve always been a child who asks “why,” but lately I find myself turning to you with my questions.  For instance, on a morning run a few weeks ago, I wondered why it is that the sky is blue.  I honestly did not know.  And I thought, well, I can ask Whit.  So I did, and, naturally, you had an immediate and concise answer.

You still sleep with four animals (Beloved, Beloved’s Brother, and two others) and in the mornings you line them up carefully on your pillow.  This goes in tandem with the most cursory making-of-the-bed I’ve ever seen; the care with which you handle your dear animals and the speed with which you yank up your covers is, in combination, a great example of who you are. You remind me of my father, in your fascination with the way things work, in your absorption in a project, in your dogged desire to really understand a problem.  Just yesterday, my Dad (whose judgment about people I trust implicitly) told me that you will “carve a deep furrow,” and I agree with him.  It’s an honor to be standing here watching.

You love to read, and some of my favorite moments are when you and I sit in my bed next to each other reading.  I’ll forever remember 2015 as the year of Rick Riordan, because you spent much of it tearing through several of his series.  You also love Harry Potter, which I’m reading aloud to you.  This has been a multi-year effort, and something you and I both really love; I read all 7 with your sister in the same way.  We are halfway through book 6.  One of your Christmas presents was a tee shirt which says on the front “I Solemnly Swear I am Up to No Good,” and I wasn’t sure you’d wear it.  But you do, often and proudly.  In many ways, actually, Harry’s mischievous, thoughtful, and loyal nature reminds me of you.  He – and you – are excellent at some things and couldn’t care less about others.

You are funny and wise, and your observations about life, big and small, often stop me in my tracks.  You’re exceedingly aware of what’s going on around you and are able to make me giggle (like when you sang Ellie Goulding to me every day when I had vertigo, warbling “world is spinning round and round”) and cry (like when you observed that while Grace gets all the firsts, you get all the lasts) daily.  You are blond and blue-eyed and small and fiesty.  I know someday I won’t be able to carry you and curl into a twin bed with you to say prayers before bed, but for now, while I can, I will.  You still let me hold your hand sometimes crossing the street and come up to my office to deliver a hug when you get home from school.  I have so many, many wishes for you, my dear Whit, but one of the most fierce is that you never stop feeling the range of feelings you experience now.  I don’t want the world to tell you not to feel.  You do, and deeply, and it’s both familiar to me and something I’m proud of in a son (in a child of any gender, of course, but, somehow, this trait feels more threatened in a boy).

Your blue eyes, your blond hair, and your boy-ness startled me 11 years ago today when you were born in the wee hours of the morning, blazing into the world after a very short labor that I experienced mostly alone.  It was cold and clear and a blizzard began shortly after you arrived.  You were, and are, my last baby, my first boy, my dearly beloved son, the person who healed wounds I didn’t even realize I had from the deep postpartum depression I experienced after your sister’s birth.  I adore you unconditionally, and every single day that I get to spend as your mother is a privilege.

Happy eleventh birthday, Whit.

Love,

Mum

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Things I Love Lately

The Mother of All Loves – This beautiful piece by my friend Allison Slater Tate brought me to tears.  That’s not a surprise; I love Allison’s writing.  This is probably my favorite piece by her, ever.  Each word resonates.  I am grateful every day that Allison and I are walking along this parenting road approximately side by side (her first child is just months older than mine).  She describes the heavy-hearted hope and head-spinning wonder of parenting better than anyone I know.

48 of the Most Beautiful Lines in Poetry – I’m grateful Meghan shared this link with me.  Poetry is my spirit’s language, I’m sure of it, and this list has some of my very favorite passages on it.  It also has some that I didn’t know before.  Do yourself a favor and click through.  Glory awaits.

99 Rules to Live By – I love this piece on Medium (focused on men, but so applicable to women too).  So many are just plain true.  Some favorites are 16, 26, 38, 56, 61, 81, 95 (I loathe this saying).

I’ve started off the new year with some excellent reads. It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War by Lynsey Addario was compulsively readable and reminded me so much of my dear friend GloriaHome by Marilynne Robinson was as gorgeous as I knew it would be (and why I hadn’t read this before, when Gilead is possibly my favorite novel of all, is a great question).  And while I’m still finding words to describe how I feel about When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, I was enormously moved.  It’s safe to say that it is on the short list of books I’ve found most powerful in my entire life.

What are you reading, thinking about, and loving these days?

I share these posts of what I’m reading/thinking about/loving lately approximately monthly.  You can find all the others here.

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