We need you

You’re not too much. You probably haven’t shown the world nearly enough. We need you to be your strong, imperfect, direct, funny, brash, hilarious, sometimes intimidating self. We need you to surround yourself with people who don’t need to diminish you in order to feel more secure. We need your ideas, your vision, your leadership, your presence… all of it, 120 proof. If we need a chaser after being around you, that’s up to us to figure that out.

-Steve Wiens, An Ode to the Women Who Are “Too Much

I may be shy, but I’ve also been told more times than I can count to take it down a notch, that I’m too intense, that I need to stop taking everything so personally.  I’ve been offered unasked-for feedback more than once.  I say sorry too much, and so does my daughter. I love this short piece and am sharing it with her.

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what we do every day

What we do every day matters more than what we do once in a while. – Gretchen Rubin

If this blog has a theme (and it doesn’t, as I’ve established), it would likely be wonder, but close behind that is a preoccupation with daily-ness, with the small activities, thoughts, and emotions that make up our days and therefore our lives.  I think at least daily of the quote that last year’s family holiday card featured: “How we spend our days, is, in fact, how we spend our lives.” – Annie Dillard

Or of the salient reminder that  “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” (I’ve seen this ascribed to Aristotle, Cicero, and others, so I’m not sure precisely who to attribute it to).

I also like the Gretchen Rubin’s assertion of the importance of what we do every day. So I’ve been thinking about what I do every (or most) day(s).  And, conversely, what I rarely do.  Just as I think we can look at a week or a month of our lives and view our time allocation as a map of what matters to us, I think we can draw conclusions about what we care about through looking carefully at what we do (and do not) do regularly.

Every day I read, most days I exercise, every day I work, every day I spend time with Matt, Grace, and Whit, most days I text or email with a small circle of dear friends and family. Every day I brush my teeth, every day I change into pajamas at the earliest opportunity (sometimes in the morning if I’m working at home), most days I cook for my family, most days I do laundry. Most days I take pictures of the sky, some days at sunset.

Rarely I go out, rarely I talk on the phone for personal reasons (though I do all day for work), rarely I watch TV

What do these small, mundane acts say about my priorities?  I think they say my family, my work, and our home comes first.  I think they say that I’m an introvert who prefers my pajamas to a night out.  I think they say sometimes I need to work harder to get exposure to the wide world out there.

I’m comfortable with what my priorities look like when I stare in the mirror, when I map out what I do every day, how I spend my days, how I spend my life. Far from perfect, but entirely aligned with my values.

What do you do every day, and what do you do rarely?  Do you like what these answers say about what you value?

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dead reckoning

So we navigate mostly by dead reckoning, and deduction from what clues we find.

-Robert Pirsig, Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

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Sturdy Joy 2.0

I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s piece in Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, In Praise of Stubborn Gladness, in one fast gulp, my heart in my throat.  Just the title made me gasp, because it reminded me of my own musings on what I called sturdy joy.

Gilbert, writing about a poem by Jack Gilbert, evinces a perspective on what it means to live fully in the world that’s so familiar and resonant to me it felt like I was reading my own thoughts (albeit far more beautifully expressed):

When it comes to developing a worldview, we tend to face this false division: Either you are a realist who says the world is terrible, or a naive optimist who says the world is wonderful and turns a blind eye. Gilbert takes this middle way, and I think it’s a far better way: He says the world is terrible and wonderful, and your obligation is to joy. That’s why the poem is called “A Brief for the Defense” – it’s defending joy. A real, mature, sincere joy – not a cheaply earned, ignorant joy. He’s not talking about building a fortress of pleasure against the assault of the word. He’s talking about the miraculousness of moments of wonder and how it seems to be worth it, after all. And one line from this poem is the most important piece of writing I’ve ever read for myself:

We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world.

This defines exactly what I want to strive to be – a person who holds onto “stubborn gladness” even when we dwell in blackness.

I went back and re-read this passage, and the whole essay, several times.  Maybe it’s this stubborn gladness that’s at the root of this blog and has been for years.  I know that “wonder” is one of my most-used words here, and it appears in pages and pages of blog post subject headings.  I don’t have much to add to Gilbert’s perfect lines (both of them, Elizabeth and Jack) other than to say yes, yes, yes, and me too, me too, me too.

I’ve written a million times about the fact that I’m as much shadow as sun, about my unshakable experience of life as an amalgam of light and shadow (and that each enriches the other), about how “untrammeled joy” isn’t part of my vocabulary.  All of that is true.  I believe the world’s a ruthless furnace, no matter how you look at it, and our lives are pocked with loss, sorrow, difficulty, and melancholy.  None of that takes away from the brilliant flashes of joy that can – and do – exist throughout, though.  If anything, life’s unavoidable shadows make the joy it contains more lambent.

Here’s to vivid experiences, to living along the margins of light and dark, to experiencing both fully, and to having, along the way, a deep seam of stubborn gladness, of sturdy joy.  Amen.

 

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we, every one of us, are in it

The world is beautiful and dangerous,
and joyful and sad,
and ungrateful and giving,
and full of so, so many things.
The world is new and it is old.
It is big and it is small.
The world is fierce and it is kind,
and we, every one of us, are in it.

-Mark Twain, The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine

 

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Things I Love Lately

Practicing Who I Will Be When my Kids are Out of the House – I love this piece by Lauren Apfel (whose work overall I find particularly thoughtful and thought-provoking).  Now that I have one child out of the house, this topic feels resonant and clsoe to me.  This is the line I can’t stop thinking about: “Because I can’t help but wonder if the sense of loss one experiences upon the children’s leaving is proportionate to the amount of identity given up through their raising.”

Between Me and You – I started reading Allison Winn Scotch’s latest and it grabbed me immediately.  Not only because the epigraph is one of my all-time favorite quotes, but also because of the story, and the voices.  I can’t stop thinking about the characters.  It’s out in January but you can pre-order now!

Roxane Gay Lists 13 Rules for Female Friendships – What a wonderful list by Roxane Gay.  My favorite is #1.  And 5C is good too.  Oh, there’s just so much richness here.  Amen.

Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process – I love this book, which is full of short, lovely essays by some of my favorite writers. I find myself an uninspired season writing-wise and this book reminded me of why I sit at the computer on a regular basis.  Now I just need to find my words again.

52 Mondays – I found this blog through an illustrator I love (Sujean Kim) and the “backstory” page really resonated.  I love the posts, but even more I love the notion that the practice of writing (like the practice of meditation, as she mentions in one post, and like life itself) is about showing up.  Just doing the work.

What are you reading, thinking about, and loving lately?

I write these lists approximately monthly.  You can see them all here.

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the heart of faith and the light of the world

I want to make poems that say right out, plainly,
what I mean, that don’t go looking for the
laces of elaboration, puffed sleeves. I want to
keep close and use often words like
heavy, heart, joy, soon, and to cherish
the question mark and her bold sister

the dash. I want to write with quiet hands. I
want to write while crossing the fields that are
fresh with daisies and everlasting and the
ordinary grass. I want to make poems while thinking of
the bread of heaven and the
cup of astonishment; let them be

songs in which nothing is neglected,
not a hope, not a promise. I want to make poems
that look into the earth and the heavens
and see the unseeable. I want them to honor
both the heart of faith, and the light of the world;
the gladness that says, without any words, everything.

~Mary Oliver “Everything”

Mary Oliver is my favorite poet, and I was grateful to be reminded of this poem on Barnstorming.

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Fifteen

after playing doubles on Sunday

Dear Grace,

On Thursday you turn fifteen.  Fifteen! You seem so, so, so much older than you did when you turned fourteen.  Part of that is that you’ve gone away to school, and the slight distance this has provided has let me see the long shadows you cast more clearly.  The fact that I’m standing just a bit further away allows me to notice things I did not see before.

The outlines of the young adult you are fully visible to me now, and I could not be prouder of the person you’re becoming.  You are mature and thoughtful, disciplined and sensitive, hard-working and caring.  You have grit and determination and a deep seam of joy in your spirit.  You made the transition to school quite seamlessly – and that was a big transition – but it is what came in the first weeks at school showed me who you really are.

When Grandpa died unexpectedly, you responded with a mix of heartache and wisdom, of self-knowledge and strength that quite frankly blew me away.  You miss him a lot, and there are some tears.  But you are also aware of his continuing presence in your life in a visceral way and thankful for the years he had on earth post-transplant in a way that I suspect will stand you in good stead as an adult.  One thing we say to each other a lot is “don’t be afraid to catch feels” (quoting that great poet of modern life, Calvin Harris) and you have shown me in this last month that you aren’t.  You are sensitive and you have strong feelings (I have no idea where you got these traits) and one of the things I most fiercely wish for you (and have for years) is the ability to acknowledge those truths about yourself without letting them swamp you.  I think  – and tell you – all the time of the Jon Kabat-Zinn quote, “you can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”

And you are learning to surf.  It was a wavy first couple of months of fall, there’s no question about that.  You’ve demonstrated what I consider to be remarkable poise as you get to know a new school.  For a while I’d ask who your friends were, and you always answered to me that you were “friends with everyone – there are so many great people here.”  I finally stopped asking.  You have a firm view that it makes sense for now to keep an open mind and to let close friendships develop organically rather than rushing to find your clique.  I think this is a great way to approach a new community.

About the second week of school I remember a conversation where you said you had been so focused on the transition to boarding that you sort of forgot that you were also going to be going to school. You were saying this ruefully, acknowledging that there was a lot of work to do.  But with characteristic elan and organization you have shown that you are capable of wrestling these new challenges to the ground.

You’re running a lot, and your first weeks at school you had your first-ever shin splints. This was a frustration that slowed you down in the first few races and likely stemmed from not having trained enough this summer.  Lesson learned.  Metaphor acknowledged. I am certain you will do better next year!  One result of the injury was your running in a JV race one day and winning the whole thing, out of a substantial, multi-school field. It may be the one race you outright win in high school, and it was a big thrill.  I am sorry I did not see it, but am glad my cousin, aunt, and uncle were there!

You’re in the woods, in so many ways.  But your step is sure and you are running your own race, and I’m standing cheering, even when I can’t see you.

You are growing in confidence every year, testing out your voice and learning to stand up for yourself.  I was proud of you for choosing your own school, not mine, when you made the big decision of where to go for high school. It was your choice, and I hope that fact always makes you feel proud, as it does me.  But you selected your own path, and I don’t think that was an accident.  You told me once this school would always be yours. That brought tears to my eyes.  It’s yours now and it always will be.

Teenage girls get such a bad rap in our culture, and I have to say, so far you’ve made this very easy on me.  You are a delight to be around, and I feel our relationship has never been closer.  Sure, we butt heads now and then, but the truth is it isn’t very often.  I think you know how wildly, enormously proud I am of you, and how that pride grows every day.  It feels like two seconds ago you arrived after a very long, very painful labor, in a torrential downpour, but it also feels like a lifetime ago.  I can’t imagine my life without you in it, that’s for sure.  You will always be the person who made me a mother, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am that it’s you who the universe decided would be my first child.  We’re learning together, and have been every step of the way.

I love you, Gracie Girl, Gracie big pants, my first born, my only daughter, my beloved soulmate, the girl I love more than any other in the entire world.  Happy fifteenth birthday.

Love,

Mum

For many years I’ve written to Grace on her birthday. Previous letters are here: fourteen, thirteen, twelve, eleven, ten, nine, eight, seven, six.

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the thousand minor details of each day

We struggle with, agonize over and bluster heroically about the great questions of life when the answers to most of these lie hidden in our attitude towards the thousand minor details of each day.

-Robert Grudin

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Relative

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

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

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

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

I’ll always wish I could find out.

 

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