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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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.



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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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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the courage not to turn away

Now I know, for what little it’s worth, what it means to be a girl growing up. Maybe you can choose not to put on the cloak, but then you’ll never be free, you can never soar. Or you can take on the mantle that is given you; but what the consequences may be, what the mantle might do, what wearing it may entail, you can’t know beforehand. Others may see better, but they can’t save you. All any of us can do for another person is to have the courage not to turn away.

-Claire Messud, The Burning Girl

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I had to let the dust settle a little bit.  Over the last few weeks I have been reflecting on the summer and on the big event that capped it, Grace’s departure for boarding school.  I started this post in mid-September, and obviously, since then there have been even bigger events in our family.  Matt’s father’s death, and the weeks that followed, have clearly overshadowed Grace’s leaving for school.  That said, I’ve done a lot of thinking about what this summer and early fall were like, as Grace left, and that’s what I want to reflect on today.

And I can now say that the anticipation of Grace’s leaving was worse than the reality of it.

There’s no surprise here.  Anyone who knows me – even those who don’t! – knows I suffer from acute fear of what’s coming, and a keen, preemptive awareness of loss and endings.  I’m sure I learned that in my peripatetic childhood, which was marked by a big goodbye every four years.

The summer was glorious but it was also overshadowed by my anxiety and sorrow about what was coming in early September.  Every time someone asked me how I was doing – whether a dear friend or a kindly neighbor – I would burst into tears.  Literally. Regularly I started talking and had to stop because I found myself in tears.  This happened at the post office, at the dry cleaner, in the street as I brought groceries into the house. It’s fair to say that my sadness about all that was ending almost choked me.

The day itself came.  Yes, it was hard.  But the truth is, the day before we dropped her off was worse than the day after.  I miss her, desperately.  Our family is figuring out its new formation, and I think often of Launa‘s image of the shopping cart’s four wheels and how wonky things can be, how fast, when one wheel is off-kilter.

But the worry that hovered around the edges of this summer was, predictably, worse than the reality of life this fall.  I don’t know if in my preemptive grief I had done a lot of the hard work already.  I don’t know if I imagined a world so bleak that the truth of life now feels light in comparison.  I don’t know why, but I feel … okay.

Part of why I feel okay, I suspect, is my unshakeable belief that I truly lived the years with both kids at home.  I sank into them, and appreciated them, and loved them.  This belief reminds me of the last, devastating, glorious lines of Catherine Newman’s piece about facing the departure of teenage children:

“That was the time of our lives,” I’ll say to him.
And he’ll say, and this will be true, “At least we knew it.”

These last years, a blur of tucking Grace and Whit in, of the Science Museum giving way to Snapchat and homework and races and games, might well have been the time of my life.

You know what?  I knew it.

And the lesson, yet again, for me is that the anticipation of a transition is worth than its reality. I seem to need to keep learning this lesson over and over again. Grace is happy, and we are proud at how she’s adjusting and of how comfortable she seems. Her first few weeks of her great adventure were, of course, a lot rockier than we’d imagined.  And still, she persevered.  The three of us at home and figuring out our rhythm. I know there is joy ahead.  In fact there’s already joy right now.  I’m also not giving up hope that what lies ahead may hold its own wonders.

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the story comes from within you

Jaya, I’ve awoken to something recently, and it has inspired me during this time in my life.  Here it is: life is scary, and it’s glorious.  You are never going to get it all right. You’ll get it deliciously messed up, and that will be a part of figuring out who you are…

I want you to have faith and hear yourself when you’re just barely holding it together. I want you to be able to talk to friends about their gray areas and be open about your own without judgment. You will succeed and fail in equal measure. Both experiences are worthwhile. They will both define you. The truth is, the minute I surrendered to the flow of the mess of life, everything came together magnificently: my longing for art, my skill as an actor, and my capacities as a friend and mother.

The beauty of being a woman today is in savoring the minutiae of life, all the moments that add up to you…I want you to live in the space that’s your own, your own delicious mess. The story comes from within you.

-letter from Laura Dern to her 12 year old daughter, in InStyle, September 2017

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