doubt and faith

“The fugue of doubt and faith experienced as argument and art is the music of our lives.”

– Adam Gopnik, foreword, The Good Book

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Best Books of the Half Year

A few years ago I copied my friend Nina Badzin in writing a post about the best books of the half year, and I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to reflect on what I’ve read at the year’s halfway mark (my 2015 post is here).  I wouldn’t say it’s a been the best six months of reading (I need more fiction), but I have nonetheless read some excellent books.

The good books I’ve read this year so far have fallen almost entirely into the non-fiction category.  I need good novel suggestions, clearly!

Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age – I adored my friend Katherine Ozment’s book, which I reviewed here for Great New Books.  So, so, so wonderful.

Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of LivingKrista Tippett.  This book, which elucidates the richness of this life while holding its essential paradoxes – in listening we are heard, in grief there is gladness, and, my favorite, the interrelationship of light and dark – moved me tremendously.  Dense and beautiful.

It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and WarLynsey Addario’s powerful book was transporting and riveting and made me think of Whit’s godmother, my dear friend Gloria.

Between the World and Me – There’s not much I can say to add to the extraordinary chorus of voices celebrating Ta-Nehisi Coates’ beautiful book.  I’ll just say this line, which encapsulates how I think about parenting, still runs through my head on a daily basis: “My work is to give you what I know of my particular path while allowing you to walk your own.”

The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship – I flat-out loved Paul Lisicky’s gorgeous memoir of friendship, love, loss, and life itself.  I reviewed it for Great New Books here.

Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood – I have been recommending Untangled to everybody with a daughter, teen or not.  Damour’s book is thoughtful, well-researched, and I found it profoundly reassuring.

A few novels that I’ve really enjoyed:

Georgia: A Novel of Georgia O’Keeffe – I loved Dawn Tripp’s story, inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe.  I wrote more about the book and how it touched me here.

The Course of Love – I’m about 3/4 of the way through Alain de Botton’s novel and I love it.  This book’s steadfast determination to honor married life, and the many joys and challenges that make up Adult Life remind me of another book I loved years ago, Carol Edgarian’s lovely Three Stages of Amazement.  “We seem to know far too much about how love starts, and recklessly little about how it might continue,” says de Botton early on, and the book unpacks this question beautifully.

Age of Consent – I devoured Marti Leimbach’s new novel last weekend, and closed the cover feeling uneasy and informed at the same time.  About mothers and daughters and the nature of desire and obsession, this book combines a courtroom drama with an intimate emotional story about wounds and recover.  Really good.

And a wonderful children’s book that we recently discovered:

Feynman – Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick have created, in Whit’s view, the perfect book.  It’s a comic about science.  I plan to give this to everyone that I’ve already gifted with Randall Munroe’s fantastic Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words.

What have you been reading that you loved?  I am very interested!

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This too shall pass

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Sunset, Back Bay, June 23, 2016

The end of June may be my favorite time of year.  The children are out of school but have not yet gone to camp/grandparents.  The days are achingly long.  Usually it’s warm but not blazing hot.  A couple of months of a slower pace ripple ahead of us, full of promise.  Even in the midst of these days that I love so much, I am aware of their almost-over-ness.  In the middle of summer’s highest fever pitch, I can sense a kernel of fall, an unavoidable awareness of what we’re turning towards.  I love these days the most of all, but they’re definitely threaded with loss.

I can find a farewell in anything, can’t I?

Yes.  I can.  This too shall pass.

Everything passes. 

This is the source of the seam of sorrow that runs through my entire life, but it’s also at the root of any resilience I have.  Both.  At the same time.

When Grace was a colicky infant and I was not sleeping and I was more depressed than any time before or since, it was the feeling that this was never going to end that terrified me the most. Of course it did.  It passed.  As did other difficult times in my life, personal, professional, medical, difficulties belonging to me or to those close to me.

Everything passes.

Of course this is true of the joys, too.  And my deep awareness of time’s ineluctable fleetingness is the dark hole around which my whole life circles, I know that now.  In the most joyful moments I wish desperately that things would not pass, and yet they always do.

Even in the moments I love most, there are unavoidable reminders of the way things pass.  These haunt me and bring me to tears.  I think of Frost’s line that “nothing gold can stay,” but then my mind also pinwheels to Lao Tzu’s, about how “muddy water let stand will clear.”

It strikes me that one of the tasks of our lives is to accept the drumbeat passage of time.  I originally wrote that we have to lean into it, but that, I suspect, will be impossible for me.  All the days of my life I expect to feel this faint shadow of loss, this specter of all that’s over even as I love the moment I’m in.  That’s just who I am.  That balloon floats above me, sometimes occluding the sun.  But I also remember that it’s precisely this inevitable passage that makes the difficult stuff pass, too, and that this too shall pass is a comment mostly rendered in hard times.  It’s relevant there, too.

The mud will clear.  The gold will dim.  It is comforting and terrifying, this truth, both.

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Nothing here is promised, not one day

…We chase the melodies that seem to find us
Until they’re finished songs and start to play
When senseless acts of tragedy remind us
That nothing here is promised, not one day.
This show is proof that history remembers
We lived through times when hate and fear seemed stronger;
We rise and fall and light from dying embers, remembrances that hope and love last longer
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside…

I loved every word of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sonnet when he accepted his Tony (one of many I think), but these were my favorite lines.  Especially: nothing here is promised, not one day.

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Things I Love Lately

14 Books that Connect Students With Valuable Scientists’ Struggles – I absolutely love this list (and On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein is one of my all-time favorite picture books).  Some of these are known to Grace and Whit, and others are on order.  I love the notion that kids learn from hearing tales of others’ struggle, endurance, and success, and agree entirely that there’s broader applicability beyond science.

It’s been an honor to be published a couple of times on Susan Cain’s gorgeous Quiet Revolution.  I love her work (and Matt finally read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking and really liked it a lot) and find it tremendously resonant.  The two pieces that I’ve been fortunate to share on Quiet Revolution are Together For N0w and We Never Talk.

Age of Consent – I devoured Leimbach’s new novel in a day.  It is compulsively readable, combining two of my favorite things – courtroom/legal drama and the mother/daughter relationship.  As I read I could imagine the movie this might get made into.  Thoughtful, entertaining, vaguely disconcerting: I highly recommend this story.

Feynman – This book, by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick, is my new favorite childrens’ book.  A graphic novel about the life of Richard Feynman, physicist par excellence.  Whit is obsessed and so am I.

I am listening to : H.O.L.Y. by Florida Georgia Line and On Being podcasts (pro tip: I listen to them on 1 1/2 speed on my iphone when I run).

I write these Things I Love roundups approximately monthly.  You can see them all here.

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don’t count anyone out

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Whit at bat.  He is #3.  In case you are curious, Babe Ruth played #3 for the Yankees.

This is Whit’s fourth year playing Little League in our town.  For the last three years he played in the “minor leagues,” for the Giants.  They were not a winning team.  For three straight years, they were bottom of the league.  6 of 8 minor league teams go to the playoffs, and Whit never went.  This year he was drafted into the “major leagues,” onto the Yankees.  It’s not a small thing for this Red Sox family to cheer enthusiastically for the Yankees, but we have, all season.

It has not been, shall we say, a winning season. Whit’s decided he’s a bad luck charm for baseball.  Heading into the final game they were 2-13.  Some of the losses have been close and others have been heroic (12-0).  The team is great and the coaches are wonderful and Whit’s improving and mostly it’s been a great experience, despite a fairly unrelenting series of losses.  The boys enjoy each other’s company and I’m consistently struck by how they talk to each other, on the field and off.  The coaches are mostly long-time coaches, whose own kids have moved onto older teams but who stuck with it out of passion and interest in the game.  The season is short and the commitment is manageable.  The other parents are great, from a mix of schools and across our neighborhood.  I love it, and so, mostly, does Whit.

We all came to the last game of the season expecting to go out with a whimper.  Hoping to keep the game in the “close” rather than “painful” category.  But this team of scrappy, mostly rookie players turned it around.  They shocked everyone – their parents and their opponents – by winning.  This meant that the other team was knocked out of contention for the top spot.

Our town’s major league has five teams.  One goes to the “mayor’s cup” (and the team we beat in the final game no longer had that option) and the other four go to the playoffs.  So Friday’s playoff game was Whit’s first in four years of Little League.  The Yankees came back to win it again.

Tuesday is the championship game.  I’m aware that this model of play – where the team with the worst record by a long shot can be in the finals – is flawed.  Still, it’s fun, and I’m struck by the lessons that fill team sports.  And I don’t mean the lessons taught by overzealous parents and expensive club sports (I have much ambivalence about the way youth sports have developed in our country or at least in my region).  Even in local, town little league, the learnings abound.

First and foremost, never, ever, ever give up.  You may turn things around in the last game of a disastrous 16 game season, but that’s worth a lot.

Respect your teammates.  Everyone on this team contributes and it’s a marvel to see.  There are no freeloaders.  Do your best.

Don’t goad others, for good or for bad.  Over the last few years, there have been boys at Whit’s school who have teased him for his poorly-performing teams.  I always encouraged him to try to ignore this line of talk, even though I know it stung. Similarly, we have always taught both kids not to draw attention to self when playing well (for example, dramatically celebrating goals is not ok in our house).  You can feel good and celebrate with your team.  But I know that Whit’s not teasing the kids whose teams he knocked out.

I did not play team sports as a kid, and so I’m learning all these things alongside Grace and Whit.  Hockey and cross-country have provided powerful lessons, and this season of baseball has too.  I’m grateful.

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Poetry is where we are ourselves

Poetry, I tell my students,
is idiosyncratic. Poetry
is where we are ourselves…
Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,
overhear on the bus, God
in the details, the only way
to get from here to there.
Poetry (and now my voice is rising)
is not all love, love, love,
and I’m sorry the dog died.
Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,
and are we not of interest to each other?
-Elizabeth Alexander, Ars Poetica #100

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Grace Without God

I am so happy to have review of Katherine Ozment’s gorgeous Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age on Great New Books today.  You can read my full review, and I hope you will, here.

In short, I loved Ozment’s book.  I hope you’ll read my review, but I also wanted to share a few additional quotes here.

“When we begin to tap into that connectedness, we sense the potential to participate in some bigger purpose that both humbles and elevates us.”

“I felt the rush I always get when I see my family before they see me, as if I’m holding a precious photograph. They are my solar system, my closest and most lasting tribe … I had felt a bit of what I thought of grace – an abundance of gratitude for something I never asked for – that day gazing at my tulip and, later, at my family from across the street.”

“What was sacred was that very moment.  I wanted to celebrate the smooth skin of my children’s curious faces, the roof over our heads, the rich traditions and great good fortune of being alive here on earth in the first place. I savored the way our voices, however unsteady, lifted as one. If I was going to celebrate anything, it was going to be the crooked, imperfect path of life that I and my part-Christian, part-Jewish, mostly nothing family had found ourselves on together.”

“Whether we call it science or religion, we’re all after a framework for understanding the mysteries inherent in being alive and the wonder we experience when we start to grasp them.”

“The key is not to flee ambiguity, shutting the door because we can’t answer the questions of why we’re here. Instead, we consider how we are here, how we exist in the world. We do this by embracing the messiness, the poignancy, and the knowledge that life will end.”

“I still don’t have answers to all the big questions. But I’m starting to see that becoming more comfortable holding the questions is the only way that makes sense to me.”

“Meaning came from the intense awareness of the moment itself, from my reverence for her, for this life we were joined in as family. I simply needed to remain still enough to notice.”

I loved this book.  My review is here at Great New Books.  I hope you will read the review and then order Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age, which comes out next week!

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What do people thank you for?

My friend Aidan recently asked a provocative question: what do people thank you for?

I’ve been pondering this for the couple of weeks since I read it.  The answer does not come to me that quickly.  That may be because I handle compliments poorly and generally react with redirection and discomfort or maybe it’s because the entire topic of being thanked makes me feel self-indulgent.  Even writing about it makes me feel a little uneasy, like I’m tooting my own horn.  But I’m forging ahead, because I do think there’s a lot of value in this question.

The value, of course, is in being aware of that which we do to which others respond.  And using that awareness to guide how we spend our time.  What people thank us for is probably something we ought to do more of.  At least that’s how I think about this.

People thank me for talking openly about my experience of life.  That is diffuse and hard to articulate, and sounds both enormous and tiny.  But more often than not, people say thank you for sharing my heartache at life’s small passages, for being honest about things that are hard, for keeping my finger on the pulse of that which hurts in daily life (for me, that’s time’s passage).

People thank me for taking pictures of the sky.

People thank me for talking about books I love.

What’s interesting, when I think about the things people thank me for, are they are all things I worry I do too much of.  I fret that I’m a broken record: another blog post about feeling sorrow mixed with joy at the world’s smallest experiences?  another Instagram photograph of the sunset from my office window?  another time asking “so, what are you reading?” at the baseball field?  And yet these things I worry I do too often are the things that people seem to appreciate.

This worrying about saying or doing too often that which objectively the world seems to appreciate is a dissonance I experience at a very deep level.  It reminds me of the feeling I have, more often than I like, that I am just too much myself.  Gail Caldwell called it feeling like “the volume of the world had been turned up a notch” and that has always made sense to me.

Even as I write this, with a cloudy, pale sunset to my left and my son and husband in the room to my right, I feel slight goosebumps up and down my arms.  Is this too messy to share, too self-congratulatory?  Am I revealing all the ways in which I’m too heavy, too serious, too sensitive, by sharing this?  I’m going to go ahead and hit publish because I think this is precisely the kind of honesty that people seem to react to, but for what it’s worth, it is still a complicated thing for me.

I think Aidan’s question is an excellent one, and likely points us to our true calling, or at least to the ways in which we can be most helpful to others in the world.  There’s discomfort in both the asking and the answering, at least for me, but I suspect that’s part of the value of the exercise.  Here I go.  Honest and candid, and a sunset, and a book, too (book review coming on Wednesday!).

What do people thank you for?

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Patience is as valuable as industry

Hurry is beside the point, useless, an obstruction.
The thing is to be attentively present.
To sit and wait is as important as to move.
Patience is as valuable as industry.
What is to be known is
always there.
When it reveals itself to you, or when you come upon it,
it is by chance.
The only condition is your being there and being
watchful.

~ Wendell Berry

Yet another beauty I found on First Sip.

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