… I could feel it being painted within me

THIS MUCH I DO REMEMBER

It was after dinner.
You were talking to me across the table
about something or other,
a greyhound you had seen that day
or a song you liked,

and I was looking past you
over your bare shoulder
at the three oranges lying
on the kitchen counter
next to the small electric bean grinder,
which was also orange,
and the orange and white cruets for vinegar and oil.

Alll of which converged
into a random still life,
so fastened together by the hasp of color,
and so fixed behind the animated
foreground of your
talking and smiling,
gesturing and pouring wine,
and the camber of you shoulders

that I could feel it being painted within me,
brushed on the wall of my skull,
while the tone of your voice
lifted and fell in its flight,
and the three oranges
remained fixed on the counter
the way that stars are said
to be fixed in the universe.

Then all of the moments of the past
began to line up behind that moment
and all of the moments to come
assembled in front of it in a long row,
giving me reason to believe
that this was a moment I had rescued
from millions that rush out of sight
into a darkness behind the eyes.

Even after I have forgotten what year it is,
my middle name,
and the meaning of money,
I will still carry in my pocket
the small coin of that moment,
minted in the kingdom
that we pace through every day.

– Billy Collins

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This is our story

G Shrek

Last week was the 6th grade musical.  The play was Shrek and Grace was the donkey (there were several).  She’s been going to rehearsal a lot and I’ve had to run to Target to buy her a black tee shirt and then a black tank top, but on the whole I had very little visibility into the play.  We never practiced her lines.  We never practiced her songs.  We never practiced her dances.  I had definitely been very hands off when it came to her experience with Shrek.  So I was excited to see her perform last week.  It was absolutely marvelous.  Grace blew me away with her confidence and her humor – she was funny and she sang well and demonstrated a fair amount of swagger on stage.  It was great. I was proud and happy for her.  These reactions did not surprise me.

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What I was not expecting, though, was the swell of intense emotion, nostalgia, and joy when the entire cast sang the musical’s last song, This is Our Story.

We are witches, we are fairies
We are weirdos, I’m an Aries
We’re a giant different sampler here to try
We are puppets, we are rabbits
We are hobbits with bad habits
We’re a screwy but delighted crazy stew

We are different and united
We are us and we are you
This is our story, this is our story
This is our story

There was such tremendous power in watching these 55 children, many of whom have been in the same class since they were 4 years old, sing these words that I so loved.  .  Grace is twelve and a half, well on her way into the woods of adolescence, and there is much about life right now that doesn’t feel simple to her (or to me).  There are emotional and social and intellectual tangles aplenty at school.  But last week, as I watched children who I’ve known since they were nearly toddlers sing their hearts out, all of that was forgotten. Instead there was palpable joy and a tangible sense of triumph. They took it seriously, and they worked hard, and nobody was flip or blase.  They threw themselves into the performance, and I loved witnessing their enthusiasm, their commitment, and their energy.  I laughed and laughed, which I’d anticipated, but it was the throat-tightening rise of tears that took me by surprise.

This is their story indeed, and it’s my honor and privilege to be watching from a front row seat.

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Two years ago

it feels impossible not to acknowledge today, the marathon, the memory of two years ago.  I wrote this then and the picture gives me goosebumps.  Grace looked big then but of course now she’s two years taller and older.  At the last visit to the doctor, 5’1″.  And she runs more now – in fact my essay about Eleven for This is Adolescence revolved around the metaphor that cross-country has become (to me) for parenting.  Incidentally, it was a thrill to see that essay in Brain, Child’s newest issue.

But today is equal parts solemn and celebratory, with shadows of two years ago hanging heavily over a day filled with achievement for so many.  I have several friends running today, and I bow down to their commitment.  They are an inspiration to me, plain and simple.  So is my town, for the way we came together in the wake of a terrible experience two years ago.

City of my Heart

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On Sunday, the day before Patriot’s Day and the Boston marathon, Grace ran her first road race.  On the marathon course.  I was in New York for work, so I missed it, but I was sent this fantastic picture.  My heart swelled with both pride and shock, because really, how can my baby be that old?  That tall?

On Monday, Patriot’s Day, as you know, there was an explosion at the Boston marathon.  That tall, lanky girl, for whom I think the word coltish may have been coined, dissolved into a puddle of anxiety.  I told both she and Whit what had happened the minute I heard (they were home from school, sitting in the room next to my office), mostly because I was so startled by the news.  She hovered around my office all afternoon, lurking, asking constant questions, reading over my shoulder.

Right before the explosions, we had been talking about groups of people from the Marines (or Army, I admit I don’t know) who ran the course in their uniforms with backpacks.  Grace’s first reaction to the events, and to the few pictures she saw of the devastation (before I turned the TV off), was: “But those poor people just came home from war, where they saw this all the time.  They weren’t supposed to see it at home.”

Indeed, they weren’t.

I spent the afternoon toggling between bewilderment at this world that we live in, trying to understand what feels like a relentless wave of violence, and hugely heartened by it, as I received more texts and emails than I can count from people from all corners of my life (and the world) checking that we were okay.

But most of all, this: the city of my heart, my home, is bleeding and broken, under attack.

On our day of celebration, which starts at dawn with reenactments of the battles of Lexington and Concord and ends with the last runners limping across the finish line long after the sun has gone down.  Our day of inspiration and striving, of humanity at its finest: I am always moved equally by the runners who push themselves past all reason and by the spectators who come out to watch the river of dedication and devotion.  Marathon Monday is a pure celebration of our beating hearts and of our feet walking on this earth.  This day, this Patriot’s Day, our day, is now forever marked by explosions, lost limbs, dead children (my GOD – an eight year old – Whit is eight – how is this possible?), senseless death and hurt.

I hate that it happened on our day, on Patriot’s Day, on Marathon day.  I hate that this happened at all.

I ache for my city, the city I was born in, the city I’ve lived in since I graduated from college, the city I love, my home.

I know that many other cities in our country have been visited by tremendous pain and brutality over the last several years.  I feel a sense of “it’s our turn,” followed immediately by outrage that I could ever say that. What world do we live in where that’s the deal?

This piece was originally written and posted two years ago.

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what it means to live

“I don’t think poetry is based just on poetry; it is based on a thoroughly lived life. And so I couldn’t just decide I was going to write no matter what; I first had to find out what it means to live.” – Jane Hirschfield

Thanks to my friend Kris for pointing me to this perfect passage.

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Insides and Outsides

I’ve written before about the perilous gulf between perception and reality, and about the dangerous assumptions people make about others (okay, fine, me) based on outsides.

Outsides and insides are not the same.

When I was much younger, and struggling in a difficult period, someone very dear to me expressed frustration and disbelief.  How I could possibly be blue when everything seems to be going so well, he asked.  I have never forgotten that conversation.  It felt like he was challenging the authenticity of my emotions, and my initial reaction was anger.  I know now that his intentions were good.  But I had and since then have seen so many people who seem to have “perfect” lives struggling that I knew the disbelief was unfounded.  Even all those years ago I knew that how things looked was no reflection on how they felt.  My life, while far from perfect, was back then indeed on a smooth highway.  It still is.  I often describe my life – at 30, or 35, or, now, 40 – as exactly as I planned it and nothing like I expected.

This whole things-aren’t-always-as-they-seem works both ways.  Some people who seem to have “everything” aren’t actually that happy.  I also know that some of the most genuinely joyful and contented people I know are the ones whose lives may not look perfect and glossy on the surface.  I don’t know that it’s an inverse correlation, but it’s at least a random scatter.

This train of thought seems related, to me, to what I wrote about on Monday, to my reflection on David Brooks’ marvelous essay about shifting from emphasizing “resume virtues” to “eulogy virtues” in his own life.  This shift is similar to – maybe parallel to – a movement from relying on external indicators to the recognition that what matters is not visible on the outside.  Even as I write that I cringe a little: it sounds simplistic.  But I do think there’s something there.  And most of all, I just want to exhort everyone to stop making assumptions based on what they can see.  First of all, we can’t see the whole picture, ever.  What we see of other people is like the tiniest tip of the iceberg, and the lion’s share of their experience, of their entire person, is beneath the water, out of sight.

I need to remember this too.

Just as I started thinking and writing this post, I read these words of Anne Lamott’s on this very topic on my friend Rudri’s beautiful site.

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The primacy of interiority

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I often like David Brooks’ work, but I absolutely adored his piece The Moral Bucket list from this weekend’s New York Times.

ABOUT once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.

When I meet such a person it brightens my whole day. But I confess I often have a sadder thought: It occurs to me that I’ve achieved a decent level of career success, but I have not achieved that. I have not achieved that generosity of spirit, or that depth of character.

A few years ago I realized that I wanted to be a bit more like those people. I realized that if I wanted to do that I was going to have to work harder to save my own soul. I was going to have to have the sort of moral adventures that produce that kind of goodness. I was going to have to be better at balancing my life.

It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

Brooks goes on to talk about how our culture focuses on and applauds achievement and the building of “resume virtues” but provides very little guidance in the development of character and the “eulogy virtues.”  I read his piece with tears in my eyes, nodding, a deep echo of a familiar gong sounding somewhere deep inside me.  It strikes me that what Brooks is talking about is the primacy of interiority; about investing in and embracing who we are, not just what we do.

But if you live for external achievement, years pass and the deepest parts of you go unexplored and unstructured. You lack a moral vocabulary. It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody and people seem to like you, you must be O.K. But you live with an unconscious boredom, separated from the deepest meaning of life and the highest moral joys. Gradually, a humiliating gap opens between your actual self and your desired self, between you and those incandescent souls you sometimes meet.

This reminds me of something I’ve thought and talked and written about at great, often excruciatingly repetitive (I’m sorry!) length.  Yes.  For so many years I was so focused on external achievement, and I definitely felt the yawning open of the gap that Brooks describes.  I’m not sure I experienced it as humiliating, but it definitely was something I could no longer ignore.  It wasn’t a gap borne out of desiring some other self but rather an insistent awareness that I was missing my own life.  My inner life wasn’t, as Brooks says, as rich as I wanted it to be.

And now, of course, it is the opposite for me.  I’m dazzled by what I see behind my own eyelids, and my attachment to my home and my family and my quiet, ordinary life is so ferocious that I’m conscious of becoming alarmingly close to a shut-in.

It strikes me that the “eulogy virtues” are mostly about things that happen to us, whereas the “resume virtues” are about things that we do.  Perhaps a shift towards embracing the “moral bucket list” of Brooks’ piece happens in tandem with acknowledgement that life is mostly about responding what happens to us.  That our reaction and response and what we do with the raw material of our lives is what makes us who we are.  At least for me, that awareness has come as the second half of my life has dawned.  I don’t mean to downplay agency, which I do think we all have, but so much of life’s events are out of our control, and in my view we can tell a lot about who we are by our response to them.

I love that the New York Times published a piece that so strongly celebrates the power of a quiet, strong, honest, internal life, one built through setback and pain and loss and love.  I’ve noted before that I’m most drawn to people who have experienced some difficulty or challenge.  That vague pattern, which I’ve only become aware of recently, makes a lot of sense to me upon reading Brooks’ piece.

What I’m not sure of, though, is that these two things – a focus on the “resume virtues” and one on the “eulogy virtues” – are mutually exclusive.  That seems to be to be unnecessarily draconian.  I don’t think it’s as clear cut as walking away from a conventional life to live in isolation and focus exclusively on character development.  I think we can live in the world and be focused on the experiences and perspective that result in the attributes that Brooks cites as belonging to “the people we want to be.”

I guess it’s just a question of our priorities and our values, of where we spend our only true zero-sum resource, our time.  I am certainly grateful for my “resume virtues” and know that they help me in the world on a daily basis.  To disavow them or to deny how much those achievements contribute to my life today is disingenuous at best and flat-out dishonest at worst.  But my heart doesn’t live in those virtues, and I understand with a crystalline clarity that’s new in the last several years that the map of achievement doesn’t lead me to joy or contentment.  Where my heart lives is in the effort to be kind, brave, honest, and faithful.  it lives in deep love, the kind I feel for for Grace, Whit, Matt, and other dearly beloved family and those friends who are native speakers. That I know for sure.

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stirring everything it touches

I am a lake, my poem is an empty boat,
and my life is the breeze that blows
through the whole scene

stirring everything it touches–
the surface of the water, the limp sail,
even the heavy, leafy trees along the shore.

– Billy Collins (excerpt from My Life)

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Things I Love Lately

Great Children’s Books Celebrating Science – We are a houseful of science- and book-lovers, and this wonderful list on Brain Pickings touches both.  It doesn’t include our current favorite, On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein, but it’s a marvelous list nonetheless.

Tweet, Memory – Many, many beautiful words have been written about my friend Lisa Boncheck Adams.  Reading the eulogies that were delivered at her funeral, which I missed because I was abroad with Grace and Whit, brought me to sobs.  But this piece in the New Yorker by Dani Shapiro is my favorite.  Not least because Dani so beautifully describes a feeling I share, which is being private despite writing personal things.  But most of all because she brings Lisa and her brave, powerful, beautiful persona so vividly to life.  Flowers, corgis, illness, Sharpies, birthday cards, fierce love, and unwavering acceptance of reality’s brutal face: that was Lisa.

Primary – I absolutely love this new company, whose mission is to offer affordable, high-quality basics for children.  I just wish that my children weren’t about to age out of it, because I love the simple designs, bright colors, and quality fabrics, as well as the price point and the company’s focus and mission.

What Would My Mom Do? – This piece made guffaw at the same time as I felt its undeniable wisdom sink in.  Yes, we’ve gone too far, our generation has.  I love what Jen says about how her mother majored in the majors and minored in the minors.  I would say the same of my mother, whose example is one I strive to emulate every day.

Thirteen Windows – Kristen’s beautiful piece on Brain, Child brought tears to my eyes.  She captures so beautifully something I’ve thought about a lot, which is the way in which childbirth is our introduction to all the ways in which parenting is out of our control.  I love Kristen’s writing, and this piece is one of my very favorites.

Tinker Crate – I subscribed to Tinker Crate for Whit for his birthday and he’s loving the projects.  I’ve also sent Kiwi Crate subscriptions to other kids in my life.  I love this company and in particular the ways in which Tinker Crate supports children who like to build and make things.  Let’s hear it for the next generation of makers!

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

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

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Right Now

I really loved Stacey‘s post about Taking Stock (inspired by Tamara‘s) and thought I’d borrow her format here.  Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, etc, right?

It feels like we’re standing on the cusp of something, spring, perhaps, the turning towards a new season, and I want to mark it.  So, without further ado, here goes.

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These days, early April 2015, I am …

Reading … Elisabeth’s Egan’s marvelous debut novel, A Window Opens, which I just finished last night.  This was my most-anticipated book of 2015 and I cannot wait to review it.  The book comes out at the end of August and I highly recommend it.  You can pre-order A Window Opens now!

Watching … Playoff hockey, of the U12 and Squirt variety.  Grace’s team won their league championship and Whit’s been in playoffs too.  At Grace’s finals, pictured above, the teams lined up, faced the flag, and stood in silence while the national anthem played.  I did not know there would be such ceremony and it brought tears to my eyes.

Cooking … The recipes Grace chose from an entire flight watching Ina Garten on the Food Network.  Rice Krispie treats in the shape of Easter eggs, salad dressing, pasta primavera.  Yum!

Noticing … That though there are still piles of snow everywhere the birds are undeniably singing and the light is changing quality.  As I get older I’m more and more aware of the earth’s rotation, in so many different ways.

Drinking … Turmeric & ginger tea.  Probably because it’s still pretty cold, I’m still drawn to hot tea.

Wondering … How it can possibly be April already.  February was a blur of work and snow for me, but still, somehow, I find myself startled that we’re already over a quarter into this year.

Loving … Having my sister and her girls in town in this weekend.  It was a wonderful reunion.  I wish we lived closer to each other.

Thinking about … Poetry.  You all know it’s my lingua franca, and right now Grace is doing a poetry unit at school.  I read her Ithaka (again) recently (and her response, “isn’t this the poem that that teacher you loved loved,” took my breath away because I did not realize we’d talked about the poem, and him, so clearly), and we’ve been discussing Billy Collins.  It makes me both cry and smile to have a child with whom I can have these conversations.

Missing … My grandmother.  For some reason that’s not entirely logical, Easter always makes me miss my Nana, my mother’s mother.  I recall it as her most favorite holiday, and certainly think of her as the most religious of my grandparents, so I know she was moved by this deeply holy, somewhat somber moment in the Christian calendar.

What does right now look like for you?

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It’s all here

What scene would I want to be enveloped in
more than this one,
an ordinary night at the kitchen table,
floral wallpaper pressing in,
white cabinets full of glass,
the telephone silent,
a pen tilted back in my hand?

It gives me time to think
about all that is going on outside–
leaves gathering in corners,
lichen greening the high grey rocks,
while over the dunes the world sails on,
huge, ocean-going, history bubbling in its wake.

But beyond this table
there is nothing that I need,
not even a job that would allow me to row to work,
or a coffee-colored Aston Martin DB4
with cracked green leather seats.

No, it’s all here,
the clear ovals of a glass of water,
a small crate of oranges, a book on Stalin,
not to mention the odd snarling fish
in a frame on the wall,
and the way these three candles–
each a different height–
are singing in perfect harmony.

So forgive me
if I lower my head now and listen
to the short bass candle as he takes a solo
while my heart
thrums under my shirt–
frog at the edge of a pond–
and my thoughts fly off to a province
made of one enormous sky
and about a million empty branches.

– Billy Collins, I Ask You

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