other marvels

I have learned to release my expectations.  Sometimes, you have to be content to face east instead of west, miss the eclipse, feel the strangeness at your back, and know there will be other marvels.  You have no idea.  The world is full of them.

– Jillian Lauren, Everything You Ever Wanted

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The second half

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There is so much beauty in my front yard.  No, this metaphor doesn’t escape me.

Last Friday morning, I spilled an entire cup of coffee on my laptop.  It died immediately.  I spent the next several hours at the Apple store, then, once home, on the phone with Apple customer service because setting up the new computer did not work as smoothly anticipated.  And by that I mean it was not smooth at all.  I was particularly panicked because the computer’s hard drive was shot and the only chance I had at recover 25,000 photos and two books and a zillion essays was my external hard drive.

Thankfully, it worked eventually, but it was a long, emotional day, made harder because I was so furious at myself for knocking over the coffee in the first place.  Stupid and careless, yes.  Human, yes.

And let me say I’m aware of my great good fortune in even letting this be an issue.  Yes, I could go buy a new computer, and this is hugely lucky.  I know.  This is the definition of a first world problem.  All of what’s going on with me right now is a first world problem.

But somehow the computer, and the stupidity, and the unanticipated expense, and the overwhelming terror that I had lost so many things that matter to me just broke through some final, gossamer-thin reserve.  I lost it.

I’m just really tired. The truth is this has been a difficult half-year.  Since January there have been a parade of health concerns and unanticipated stresses in our lives.  I’ve struggled to sleep and we all know that makes everything more difficult. Everything is fine.  Yes.  Everything is fine.  But it’s felt like a slog, more than any other year I can recall.

There is still so much beauty.  I see it every day (which you can see on Instagram).  I hear poetry and quotes in my head on a daily basis, too, and they remind me powerfully of how extraordinary and rich my every day life is.  These observations buoy me; I described them in aggregate once as a sense of sturdy joy, and that’s what they are.  I bob on these swells of awareness every day.  What I’ve learned is that this can be true and I can still feel not-great.  I try not to complain, and I’m aware how miniscule my concerns are in the grand scheme of things, but the truth is I’m really worn out.  This has been a challenging 6 months.

And yet it is just life, isn’t it?  All of this.  The obstacles and the difficult days, the tiredness and the bickering children and all the ways adult life has wound more circuitously than we’d imagined.  This is life itself, and if I know one thing it’s that waiting for the challenging stuff to be over is the ticket to wasting your days.  These obstacles are life.  And as long as I can see the beauty, and bury my nose in the hydrangeas, and gasp out loud at a sunset, well, then I think I’m still doing fine.  I read my friend Tara Sophia Mohr’s post yesterday with a deep, settling feeling of recognition, identification, and thank-goodness-me-too.  This incarnation is not for the faint of heart.  No.  No, it is not.

Still, I wish a few days of ease, a few nights of sound sleep, some rest and peace.  That’s what I hope for now.  Today is the first day of the second half of 2015, and I’m ready.

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Best Books of the Half-Year

Last year my friend Nina Badzin wrote about her favorite books at the year’s halfway point.  I liked the idea, blatantly copied her, and thought it was a good idea to do it again.  So, here are my favorite books so far for 2015.  If you have read any of them, or if you do, please do let me know what you think. And I’d love to hear what you’ve been reading and liking lately.

I haven’t read many novels that have hugely struck me so far this year, but two have, and I’m recommending them to anyone who will listen.

A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan.  I adored this novel, which made me alternately nod in ferocious identification (refusal to cut off sandwich crusts?) and tear up with profound relatability.  I will be giving this novel to many women I know who will find the protagonist, and her middle place loves, losses, and thoughts deeply moving and familiar.  I was happy to review this book here.

The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan.  This book is laugh-out-loud entertaining and has a hopeful, emotional core that I found touching in unanticipated ways.  For anyone interested in the royal family or who already knows and loves the hilarious voices of Go Fug Yourself, this is a must-read.  The Royal We is my next Great New Books recommendation.

Most of what I’ve read that’s impressed me so far this year has been memoir.

Ongoingness: The End of a Diary by Sarah Manguso.  This spare, powerful book touches on many topics dear to my heart: time, memory, motherhood, loss.  I reviewed Manguso’s gorgeous book in more detail here, and I absolutely adored it.

The Folded Clock: A Diary by Heidi Julavits.  This book shares with Manguso a preoccupation with the ordinary moments of our lives and with how we record, collect, and remember them.  Julavits writes simultaneously about nothing and about everything, and in so doing reminds us that the meaning of human life exists in its most humdrum, mundane details.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.  I’m not at all familiar with falconry, which lies at the heart of Macdonald’s book, but it is a testament to the extraordinary, shimmering beauty of her writing that I felt I could relate to much of the story.  The word I’ve read most often in reviews of this unusual, bonfire-bright book is feral, and it is perfect.  Macdonald uses her relationship with Mabel, her hawk, to walk the line between domestication and wildness, and in so doing illuminates the way humans need both to be rooted and to fly.

Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann.  Another book which muses on the topic of memory and how we capture the experiences, both mundane and magic, of our lives.  I loved it.  Sally Mann’s prose is easy to read and musical.  Hold Still is a love letter to her husband, her children, and to the gloriously beautiful landscape and complicated history of the south.  Mann’s story reminded me, somehow, of Faulkner, and brought to mind silvery green Spanish moss hanging in trees; the south is its own country.

The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander.  This memoir gave me goosebumps.  Elizabeth tells the story of her whirlwind romance with Ficre, an Eritrean chef and artist, and of the year that follows his sudden and tragic death.  I loved Elizabeth’s voice, which echoes like poetry (she is a poet and an academic).  Over and over again, I gasped as I read and underlined madly.  This is a quick read but one that stays with you long after you close the cover of the book.

Everything You Ever Wanted by Jillian Lauren.  Jillian’s account of trying to get pregnant and ultimately pursuing adoption, and the first few years with her son, made me both laugh and cry.  Her voice is familiar and friendly, and the story is powerful.  I loved this book (and Jillian and I share a birthday, a coincidence I love). 

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the evanescent extraordinary makes its quicksilver

Art replaces the light that is lost when the day fades, the moment passes, the evanescent extraordinary makes its quicksilver.  Art tries to capture that which we know leaves us, as we move in and out of each other’s lives, as we all must eventually leave this earth. Great artists know that shadow, work always against the dying light, but always knowing that the day brings new light and that the ocean which washes away all traces on the sand leaves us a new canvas with each wave.

– Elizabeth Alexander, The Light of the World

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Selfie sticks at the Louvre

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Grace and my father at the Louvre.  All the selfie-takers were focused on the more famous art, and this room was deserted.

“The stick is the sword in the selfie army,” my 10 year old son observed as we walked underneath the Eiffel Tower, last month in Paris. I looked at him, laughed, and dodged another group of tourists gathering together to take a photo of themselves with the soaring steel gridwork of Paris’s most famous landmark in the background.

We were in Paris for a week. We saw the Mona Lisa, the Eiffel Tower, Napoleon’s tomb, more pieces of art and history than I can remember. We also saw dozens and dozens and dozens of people taking selfies. At the Louvre we couldn’t see the more famous works of art. We couldn’t see through the thick throng of phones, held overhead.

The people had their backs to the art. They were looking at them through the camera lens, and with their own smiling face in the foreground. Maybe I’m old. Well, actually, yes, I’m definitely old. But still, I found it shocking.

I was shocked because people weren’t looking at Paris. They were looking in the lenses of their phones. This once-in-a-lifetime experience was mediated through the lens of a phone camera. I’ve observed this before, particularly at school concerts and plays. I have been guilty of this, myself, of missing whole swaths of an experience or a performance because I was so focused on getting a good photo of it. All around me, in the lower school gym, there are glowing screens and parents videotaping a concert. Their witnessing of the experience is secondary to their recording of it. In the last few years, though, I’ve tried harder to put my phone down and to simply be here now – be here now, what my someday-maybe-dream tattoo will say, on my wrist – and trust that the memories I make are richer and more colorful than any photo would have been.

What I saw in Paris was different than what I’ve seen in the lower school gym, though. Yes, the parents and the tourists were both mediating their experience through a camera lens. But the tourists were experiencing Paris backwards, in order to make sure they themselves were in the photos.   They weren’t looking at the city; they had their back to it.

The truth is, this question felt uncomfortably close, because I’m often anxious about the solipsism inherent in writing personal essay. Is it the same thing as what I observed in the Louvre, people inserting themselves into every photo? It strikes me that it’s not. I write what I see, and my gaze is turned out, onto the world. The essays I write – and, perhaps more importantly, the ones I am drawn to reading– are insistently outwardly focused. They are about subjectivity only in so far as that is the filter through which the world is viewed.  This makes me think of the Aikra Kurosawa quote: “An artist is one who does not avert her gaze.”  When I read that passage, I think of writers and artists whose work I admire: their gaze is outward. 

What I witnessed in Paris, which made me sad, is the insistent viewing of oneself in every frame. The lens is literally turned. The photo, or the essay – and the experience – is self-reflexive. It’s about the subject primarily, rather than secondarily.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the young adults whose back was to Paris. Yes, it made me sad to see this, but what’s really going on? IS that generation insecure about their place in the world? What underlies their aggressive need to assert that they are there? Or has the culture become so self-centered that all that matters is our own experience of something, of documenting that we were there?

I’m not sure. But I do know that there’s something sad about turning your back to Paris, even if you get a great shot of your face with the blurry Mona Lisa in the background.

I wrote this piece after our March trip to Paris

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Solstice: light and shadow

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Saturday night after-dinner walk with ice cream.  The Bermuda flag is flying because the race to Bermuda just left from our town.

Yesterday was the summer solstice.  This is second to the winter solstice for me as a holy day, but it is an important one nevertheless.  The winter solstice occurs in the darkest week of the year, during the beginning of Boston’s cold, snowy months.  And yet it is somehow a more hopeful day for me than the summer solstice, which takes place at the height of light, the frenzied pitch of spring and summer’s fecundity, when the world positively bursts with potential.  I can’t help sensing, somewhere deep inside of me, that we’re now shifting back towards the darkness, towards shorter days, and from here on for the next six months we will be losing light.

That sounds pretty depressing, I know.  Particularly because I write these words while sitting in the living room of my parents’ house on the water, surrounded by books and half models of sailboats and with the ticking of the beautiful grandfather clock that lives in the corner of the room.  The clock features in my childhood memories of my paternal grandparents’ house in Long Island, and when I look up at it I sense them near.  Later in the day, I cut two peonies from a bush that my mother transplanted from her father’s garden and put them on our dinner table.  It only struck me on Sunday, Father’s Day, that it was likely not an accident that I felt both of my grandfathers so nearby all weekend.

There was some gloom on Saturday, despite it being so beautiful.  Part of that was the tangible presence of my grandfathers, who were vividly present.  Another part of it was both Grace and Whit were crabby, and more than once we tangled, tempers flared, and a few tears were shed.  It was far from a perfect Saturday.  There were raised voices, crossed arms, and hurt feelings.

Despite these shadows, the world is also awash in light.  On Friday night the four of us went to see Jurassic World, the very first time we’ve gone to a movie as a family of four, though I have taken the children to many, many movies by myself.  It was entertaining and full of messages that we discussed as we drove home.  Both children noted that nature seemed to do better when you didn’t mess with it (the movie focuses on a genetically-modified dinosaur). When we left the movie theater, around 9:15, light was still visible in the sky.  A sliver moon was rising on the horizon, and I tried to take a picture, overcome, as I so often am, by the beauty of the world.  These are the most heightened, light-filled days, and yet deep within me I’m aware of something shifting, below the reach of words or logic.

Hilary sent me a poem late last week that she thought I would like.  She was right.  I love the way this poet, who is new to me, touches on life’s ordinariness and beauty, the way she evokes the long view, the ancient vista, that essential sense of the eternal, age-old universe that throbs under my daily life and to which I feel closer at the solstice than at any other time of year.  We spin on.  The earth under our feet, the great green ball on which we live, this tiny speck in a universe whose enormity we cannot fathom.

My earthly time is sweetening from all of this, memories and ghosts and tears and crankiness as much as joy and ice cream and laughter and sunsets, I know that to be true.  It’s all a part of my life, shadow and light intertwined, even on the longest days of the year.

Solstice

Tess Taylor

How again today our patron star
whose ancient vista is the long view

turns its wide brightness now and here:
Below, we loll outdoors, sing & make fire.

We build no henge
but after our swim, linger

by the pond. Dapples flicker
pine trunks by the water.

Buzz & hum & wing & song combine.
Light builds a monument to its passing.

Frogs content themselves in bullish chirps,
hoopskirt blossoms

on thimbleberries fall, peeper toads
hop, lazy—

Apex. The throaty world sings ripen.
Our grove slips past the sun’s long kiss.

We dress.
We head home in other starlight.

Our earthly time is sweetening from this.

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beauty tinged with sadness

As for me, I see both the beauty and the dark side of things; the loveliness of cornfields and full sails, but the ruin as well.  And I see them at the same time, at once ecstatic at the beauty of things, and chary of that ecstasy.  The Japanese have a phrase for this dual perception: mono no aware.  it means “beauty tinged with sadness,” for there cannot be any real beauty without the indolic whiff of decay.  For me, living is the same thing as dying, and loving is the same thing as losing, and this does not make me a madwoman; I believe it can make me better at living, and better at loving, and, just possibly, better at seeing.

– Sally Mann, Hold Still

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Things I Love Lately

Helen Boggess – I’ve been following Helen Boggess’s beautiful work on Instagram for a while, and find myself adoring the words she shares and the gorgeous art she creates to showcase them.  I recently asked Helen to do a custom piece for me and in so doing stumbled upon this Tumblr of her work, which is a great place to lose yourself for hours.  It’s titled with a quote I haven’t heard before and which I love” “Where I create, there I am true” (Rilke).

Parenting, Not for the Moment, but for the Long Haul – I adore this piece of Jess Lahey’s in the New York Times.  I pay so much attention to the individual moments of my ordinary life here, and holding them up to the light, see their shimmer, but I also appreciate Jess’s wise and compelling reminder that the long arc of perspective is useful too.  I love her last sentence, and the way she calmly assures me that my children will be fine.  I want to celebrate their wandering, and she helps me do that.

The Thrive Portrait Project – I found Karen Walrond’s beautiful project through Asha Dornfest (who in part inspired my post last week about how everything is changing).  Karen’s project aims to photograph women over 40 and capture what it means to them to thrive in their lives.  The photographs are mesmerizing and the words are immensely powerful.  I’m in my 40s now too, and I really resonate with the concept that these can be fruitful, passionate, blazing years.

Everything You Ever Wanted – I’ve had terrible insomnia lately (not something I love at all) and Jillian Lauren’s memoir was a wonderful companion in the lonely early morning hours.  I was fortunate to hear Jillian read at my friend Aidan‘s house last month, and this book is as marvelous as she is in person: funny, warm, wise, and down to earth at the same time.  Jillian’s story reminds us that sometimes the path doesn’t look anything like we imagined, but it still gets us exactly where we need to go.

What Do You Believe In? – This post from Nici at Dig This Chick gave me goosebumps because I read it the morning after I published a post specifically about what I believe.  I also made me cry with its truth, the way it sweepingly embraces what was, what might have been, and what is.  “I believe in feeling all the feelings. I believe in big dreams and small movements. I believe in seasons, skipping stones, skiing, strawberries, saying yes, swimming, sleep, sunrise, snuggling and swing dancing. I believe what you believe. I believe in you.”

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

I write these Things I Love posts approximately monthly.  You can find them all here.

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Things I Believe

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walking home after an evening baseball game on the last day of school, June 4th

There are certain absolutes that I believe, and that I hope to pass on to Grace and Whit.  I know they’ve got some of these already, and others are still works in progress.

These are some things I believe:

That you should write thank you notes.  For gifts, for experiences, and within a week (preferably within a day).  Always.

That most bad days can be turned around with a bath or a shower and climbing into bed with a book in pajamas.  Preferably together.

That you should wave to and acknowledge cars who stop and wait for you while crossing a street.

That everybody cries for no reason sometimes.  It’s ok and normal.  It might even be good.

That these foods should be made from scratch: applesauce, chicken stock, marinara sauce, chicken noodle soup, chocolate chip cookies.  As a bonus, they all make your house smell great.

That you should not talk on your cell phone while checking out at a store.  Ever.

That you should answer “how are you” with “well,” not “good.”  And that the difference between “can” and “may” is vast.  Try to use the right words at the right time.

That you wear a shirt with a collar (Whit) and clothes that are not athletic attire (both kids) when you go to a restaurant.

That there’s great value in saying yes.  I try to remember that, though I definitely fail a lot.  Try to say yes.

That Dumbledore is the greatest, kindest, wisest, most powerful figure in all of literature.

That you notice when I’m there, even when I’m quietly watching from the sidelines.  One of the most important things we can do for people we love is showing up and staying near.

That I haven’t irreparably damaged you by working throughout your childhood (first part-time, now full-time).

That it all begins and ends with sleep.  I’m not super fussed about food (the only vegetables Whit has ever eaten are lettuce/kale/spinach) but I take sleep very seriously.

That what matters is trying hard.  In school, in sports, in life.  I care much more about the effort than I do about the result.

What do you believe?

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meeting what comes with the full force of your heart

“Strength means honoring your entire range of emotion, even your despair and heartbreak. Especially your despair and heartbreak. It means acknowledging each of those feelings, your questions, and ideas, and faith, and terror, and meeting what comes with the full force of your heart.” -Brenda Shaughnessy

I found this beautiful quote on Helen Boggess’s absolutely gorgeous tumblr, among so many other gems.

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