The Here Year: vulnerability

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Aidan has chosen vulnerability as this month’s Here Year theme, and I’m thrilled by that selection.  I hear that word a lot.  People ask why I’m so comfortable making my self vulnerable on this blog, and I also am quick to say that it’s people who are real and vulnerable themselves who most interest me.

But what does the word really mean? I fear that “vulnerability” has become a bit of a catchphrase, in the vein of “authentic,” and I want to really understand it.  I turned to Google and found one definition that I particularly liked: “the inability to withstand the effects of a hostile environment.”  It reminded me of years ago, when I learned about a syndrome called atopy: “a group of symptoms that demonstrate acute sensitivity to the world.  I am reactive to the air, to the very stuff of everyday life.  Just living in the world is a stress on my system.  This seems like a physical manifestation of my emotional porousness.”

So, yes.  I am familiar with vulnerability.  When I talk about being porous to the world, maybe I am simply describing vulnerability.  But it’s not quite that simple.  People ask me all the time whether writing this blog makes me feel vulnerable.  I’m not sure I know how to answer that, to be honest.  In some ways, yes.  Clearly I write about personal topics and share the prickly, complicated contents of my heart and spirit.  But in other ways, no.  And candidly, part of the reason I’ve backed away from writing a book-length memoir is my unwillingness to share certain aspects of my life.  I’m comfortable being vulnerable when it comes to my own issues, wrinkles, and flaws.  No question.  But when it comes to being open about others in ways that make them vulnerable, I balk.  This is true with my husband and children in particular, and I realized that with a book-length memoir the expectation for disclosure was much higher and more universal than it is on my blog.

So here I am, happily sharing things that are true and honest, trying to be candid about the good and the bad.  One of my favorite posts I’ve ever written, It’s Not All Shiny, dealt with this particular question, that of the gulf between reality and perception.  I share photos on Instagram with the hashtag #everydaylife in part to try to show the good and bad and messy and beautiful.  It’s true that one of my most fundamental goals in life is to see the glory and the holiness even in the most mundane moments.  I wrestle with this, because I doubt myself and think: does that mean I’m glossing over the ugliness?  But I don’t think so, ultimately.

Maybe the practice of showing what is and trying to see the beauty in it is the essence of vulnerability.  Do you think so?

For me, vulnerability is wound around being present to, and in, my daily experience.  I can’t really engage with my life – with the dark hole at the center of it, with its joys and pains – without letting down my guard.  The practice of showing up here day after day for years on end has forced me to confront both the beautiful and the difficult aspects of this life of mine.  That has made me vulnerable.  To myself, to those close to me, to anyone reading.  I’m still understanding the precise contours of the relationship between vulnerability and presence, but I know they’re strongly related to each other.

I’m looking forward to thinking about and writing about vulnerability this month (I also have a great guest post planned!) and am eager to hear your thoughts on the topic.

 

 

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this heart-heavy openness

When your children arrive, the best you can hope for is that they break open everything about you.  Your mind floods with oxygen.  Your heart becomes a room with wide-open windows.  You laugh hard every day.  You think about the future and read about global warming.  You realize how nice it feels to care about someone more than yourself.  And gradually, through this heart-heavy openness and these fresh eyes, you start to see the world a little more.

– Amy Poehler, Yes Please

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A quiet break, the Phantom Tollbooth, skiing on rocks, a foam sword, and New Year’s Day at the beach.

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We had a very quiet winter break.  Two weeks at home.  A few days before school got out, on 12/19, I joked to a friend that while some downtime sounded good at that moment I was also pretty sure we’d all be at each others’ throats within a couple of days.  I’m happy to say I was wrong.

Last year Grace made a scavenger hunt for Matt and me which brought home how meaningful the smallest moments can be.  This year, the universe gave me the same message again.

We made Christmas cookies and our Advent candle burned down to a stub.  We saw our family, both those we were born into and those we’ve chosen through dear friendships, in the days leading up to Christmas.  It is my family’s tradition to celebrate Christmas Eve with Ethan‘s family.  This family was one of the cornerstones of my childhood and they remain very important to me.  Grace and Whit both used a saber to take the top off of champagne bottles, we sang Christmas carols, and we talked at dinner about the world, travel, photography, gratitude and love.  On Christmas Day both of our children slept in and Whit came racing downstairs at 8:30 and asked, without hesitation, “where’d you put my book?”  Not: can I open presents?  But: where is my book?  If there is a pinnacle of motherhood for me, that might have been it.  I had had to take away The Phantom Tollbooth the night before when I busted him reading it by headlamp at midnight.

On Christmas Day we saw my parents for present-opening and then Matt’s parents and brother and family for dinner.  After that the four of us went for a walk in the cold, clear darkness.  We walked around our familiar neighborhood, and I felt a deep sense of contentment take root inside of me.  This is Christmas, I thought to myself (that’s when we took the photo above).

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We went skiing for the day, enjoying warm temperatures but working hard to avoid the rocks poking through the thin snow cover.

We went to a Harvard hockey game which was great fun, though I was shocked by the negative cheering and booing of the other team’s fans, among whom we sat.

We spent a lot of time at home.  I did some work.  Grace and Whit read books, enjoyed their Christmas presents, watched movies, did a lot of skating, and played with friends who were also local.

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The outrageous, saturated blue of the sky and an Instagram from Kelle Hampton made me think of these words from Barbara Brown Taylor, which I love.

On New Year’s Eve, we celebrated as a foursome, as has become our custom.  We had a nice dinner by candlelight, played a family game, had brownie sundaes, and watched a couple of episodes of Modern Family.  Matt and I went to bed before 11 and Grace an Whit stayed up to watch the ball drop.  The next day they told us that Grace heard a noise downstairs that made her nervous so Whit came down (his bedroom is a flight up) with his foam sword and shield to protect her.  The heart palpitates at the chivalry, no?

New Year’s Day dawned bright, clear, and cold.  We drove to one of our family’s truly holy places, and walked on the winter beach.  Grace and Whit slept in, so it was later than it is often is, which means we weren’t alone on the beach.  We watched people dashing into the freezing water and dogs prancing along the frozen sand through eyes that watered from the cold wind.  I photographed our shadows.  We didn’t stay long, but it was gorgeous.

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It was a lovely, full, empty two weeks.  Full of love and empty of expectations.  Maybe that combination is the secret of life.  I cracked my shins on altars regularly.

Welcome, 2015!

 

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What I learned in 2014 and what I hope for 2015

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I believe the past, present, and future are all woven together in ways I can’t fully understand.  I also believe that a central task of adulthood is accepting, making peace with, and celebrating our individual pasts and histories.  This is the only way we can embrace what is, let alone what lies ahead.

So, onward into 2015.  Last year I opened the new year with some reflections on what I’d learned the year before (as well as with that paragraph above, which I think bears repeating).  I wanted to do so again.  Some of these are new lessons, others are continued of lessons that I seem to need to need to re-learn over and over again.

What did I learn in 2014?

No amount of being here now helps ease the essential pain of time’s passage.  It gives me rich memories, yes, but it doesn’t change my sorrow at how fast this life flies.

The cliche that raising a tween and teen is the most difficult part of parenting seems to have some truth in it.  That I feel I can say that as I embark on this new phase fills me, I’ll admit, with something approaching dread.

The best way to clear my head when I feel sad or angry or upset about something is to go for a walk.  To gaze up at the sky and the branches, to feel the air around me, to observe the familiar streets near my home.

40 is officially the age when you start taking your health seriously.  That means that when something’s wrong, all the what-ifs rear their ugly heads and suddenly have credence.  The worst could be.  But it also means that on a daily basis I feel aware of the great miracle that the human body is.  I strive not to take my own health for granted.  I’m sure I don’t do nearly a good enough job, but I do try.

My soul speaks in poetry.  It’s not an accident that so many years ago, I chose to write my senior thesis in college on poetry (and I love the instinctive choice that I recognize now as some kind of deep, essential knowing).  It’s most often poetry that runs through my head, and it’s in reading poetry that I feel most at home, most soothed, most comfortable.

Let go.  I must keep learning to let go.

There’s no marathon in my future.  There’s probably not even another half marathon.  30 years of running has accumulated on my knees and the wear is beginning to show.  I hate, hate, hate this fact.

Perhaps the biggest thing I learned in 2014 is how dearly I love my own life.  What I most devoutly want in 2015 is more these days, more of my shining, painful, ordinary life.  My wish for the new year is as simple and as arrogant as that: more of this.

What did you learn in 2014?  What do you hope for in 2015?

 

 

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the puzzle and excitement of everything he didn’t know

And yet, even as he thought of all these things, he noticed somehow that the sky was a lovely shade of blue and that one cloud had the shape of a sailing ship.  The tips of the trees held pale, young buds and the leaves were a rich deep green.  Outside the window, there was so much to see, and hear, and touch – walks to take, hills to climb, caterpillars to watch as they strolled through the garden.  There were voices to hear and conversations to listen to in wonder, and the special smell of each day.

And, in the very room in which he sat, there were books that could take you anywhere, and things to invent, and make, and build and break, and all the puzzle and excitement of everything he didn’t know – music to play, songs to sing, and worlds to imagine and then someday make real.  His thoughts darted eagerly about as everything looked new – and worth trying.

“Well, I would like to make another trip,” he said, jumping to his feet; “but I really don’t know when I’ll have the time.  There’s just so much to do right here.”

– Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

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Looking back on the year: September, October, November, December

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These were months when I was reminded over and over again of how swiftly time flies (even more than usually reminded, that is).  I joined my friend Allison in a new series, This is Adolescence, which I kicked off writing about eleven.  Grace started running cross-country and turned twelve.  I wrote about Whit’s imminent tenth birthday and the things I want him to know.

Some of my favorite posts:

Time, and a Map of What Matters

This is 40: the Thick, Hot Heart of Life’s Pageant

Time Folds Like an Accordion

State Championships

Ten Things I Want my Ten Year Old Son to Know

I shared a quote weekly.  One of my favorites was:

There would seem to be nothing more obvious, more tangible and palpable than the present moment. And yet it eludes us completely. All the sadness of life lies in that fact. – Milan Kundera

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Looking back on the year: May, June, July, August

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It was Matt’s birthday.  I joined my friend Aidan’s Here Year project.  We celebrated the end of 3rd and 5th grades with a family ziplining trip.  Grace, Whit, and I go to Niagara Falls.  It is jaw-droppingly gorgeous and wildly, tackily commercial at the same time.  Grace and Whit both go to sleepaway camp for 3.5 weeks.  For the first time since I began blogging, I took an entire month off (August).

Some of my favorite posts:

Mothers and daughters

The not-deciding deciding

In the noticing is the magic

Overwhelming awareness of this life’s sweetness

I shared a quote every Friday.  One of my favorites was:

Allow beauty to shatter you regularly.  The loveliest people are the ones who have been burnt and broken and torn at the seams yet still send their open hearts into the world to mend with love again, and again, and again.  You must allow yourself to feel your life while you’re in it.

-Victoria Frederickson

 

 

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Happy birthday, HWM

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Happiest of birthdays to my younger sister, beloved companion on the road and of the heart, the person for whom my son is named, and only person who truly understands where I came from.

I wrote this several years ago, but it’s all still true.

Yesterday I finished two of the three books I brought to Florida. I started the third, a book I’ve dipped into on and off throughout the years, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. It’s a gorgeous book, one whose words are swarming around in my mind, but it’s dense and not something I am able to sit and read cover to cover. So, from my seat by the pool (don’t be too jealous: I was wrapped in towels against the cold) I emailed Hilary and asked for her views on a couple of books I was considering.

She answered immediately, with a thoughtful perspective on each one. Of course she had read them both. She also chimed in that she had written her college application essays on Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which I had not known though I’d have picked Annie Dillard as one of her favorite writers. I do know that Hilary’s book recommendations are always excellent. And I know that her writing is lucid and wise and beautiful. “A two star hotel far from the center of town” … I think not.

I thought about how that exchange epitomized many things about Hilary to me. She is well-read, she is generous, she is responsive, she is thoughtful. Hilary is one of probably three or four people in this world who I would genuinely call brilliant. I am in awe of her intelligence. She’s the one who called me on how I missed a major sub-plot in Middlemarch because I skimmed so aggressively (aside: Dux did the same thing re: Vanity Fair and my skimming – I think there’s a theme here with me and enormous Victorian novels). She’s modest, so you might never know, but she’s read everything Jane Austen ever wrote, and a whole lot more besides. She inhales literature and has an educated point of view on all sorts of political and legislative topics that are totally foreign to me. This may be the difference between reading NYT.com and only twitter.

Hils is also profoundly committed to the things she cares about. She and T live more in accordance with their values than anyone I’ve ever known. I admire that deeply. They are educators first and foremost, committed to both the craft of pedagogy and to the larger administrative and leadership issues around education, broadly defined.

She is a generous and loyal friend. Everybody I’ve ever gotten to know through Hilary has been absolutely wonderful. I really don’t say that lightly. She does not become close to people who are not bright and genuine, open and honest. It is my privilege to have met some of these people. I could name some of you bloggers, but I won’t. You know who you are! :)

Hils, thank you. Thank you for the ways you make me feel not crazy, not alone, not so sad. Thank you for your example of a way to live a life of integrity and purpose. Thank you for your wonderful, patient mothering. Thank you for having shared Q kamir and ADC and the tadpoles on the Berlin wall chunks with me, and for the way those joint experiences allow you to understand the soil we both grew in as nobody else does.

Happy birthday, Schnuff.  I love you.

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Looking back on the year: January, February, March, April

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Whit turned nine.  It was a cold, cold winter in Boston.  I kicked off my How She Does It series with an interview with my beloved friend Kathryn.  We took a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Galapagos.  Whit experienced a loss on the hockey ice that none of us will ever forget.

Some of my favorite posts were:

The prism through which all of life is seen

The ugly and the broken, the beautiful and the beloved

An elegy to what was and a love letter to what is

The noise can be too much

Children of the 21st century

First and lasts

Can’t have one without the other

I shared a quote every Friday.  One of my favorites was:

Do not ask your children
to strive for extraordinary lives.
Such striving may seem admirable,
but it is a way of foolishness.
Help them instead to find the wonder
and the marvel of an ordinary life.
Show them the joy of tasting
tomatoes, apples, and pears.
Show them how to cry
when pets and people die.
Show them the infinite pleasure
in the touch of a hand.
And make the ordinary come alive for them.
The extraordinary will take care of itself.

– William Martin

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A darkness full of light

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December 22, 2011, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

These are the darkest days.  And they are so full of light. Yesterday was the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, which I regularly refer to as the holiest day of the year for me.

I find the darkness is deeply comforting.  Maybe because I can see all the light and glory that’s contained within it.

I always remember the moment I realized that I loved the darkness.  It was many years ago, in Devember 1996.  I was sitting on the 31st floor of a building downtown, at my first job, and I stood and watched the sun set out a window.  I had an interior office, so maybe I was walking back from the kitchen or the bathroom. I don’t know, but I wasn’t sitting at my own desk which was in a small room with a whiteboard on the wall with a running list of “things you don’t want the bargain version of” (I recall only “surgery” and “sushi”).  I had many hours of work ahead of me; it wasn’t anywhere near the end of my day.  But the sun slipped below the horizon and it was dark.  And I was struck with a powerful sense that this was absolutely okay.  For years the short days had troubled me, and I’d railed against them, but suddenly, that evening, I felt differently.  I was reassured by the dark.  I felt held by it.  I was dazzled by the beauty of the lights that spangled the buildings all around mine.  I also felt a new, bone-deep certainty that the days would lengthen and that the light would come again.  We were just turning, all of us together, the 31st floor, downtown Boston, this state, this country, this world.  Somehow the dark made me feel in a visceral way connected with the world’s population, not just now, but through history.

We are all turning.  And we always have been.  Maybe this essential truth is part of why I’ve had T.S. Eliot’s we must be still and still moving in my mind non-stop for days (well, and the fact that I re-read Four Quartets last week).

People often assume that I find the darkness of the winter difficult and depressing.  Perhaps oddly, I don’t.

That evening so many years ago feels now like a harbinger, like one of those moments when the future glinted through the present like a strand of gold thread running through fabric.  Somehow I sensed then what I know now, that the dark is full of staggering, startling, serendipitous beauty.  These days, I’m certain that without dark light has no meaning.  To see the dark’s glorious, shadowy beauty we have to surrender to it.  We have to let go of our fear of the dark.  We may prefer the light, but the truth is there’s nothing to fear in the dark.  Once we let our eyes get accustomed to it, we can see the treasures that dark can hold.

Light and dark is a theme that runs through my life and which animates much of my writing.  I speak often of the darkness at the heart of the human experience, of the black hole around which my own life circles.  For me, that darkness is impermanence and the unavoidable, brutal truth of life’s brevity. Yet without that darkness, would life’s stunning, breathtaking beauty have as much power.  I doubt it.  The inexorable turning forward of my time on earth is the shadow that hangs over my every day and a truth so blinding that to look directly at it feels like staring into the sun.  Even as I write about embracing darkness in order to see the beauty it contains, the metaphors of light flood in.  But aren’t total darkness and blinding brightness almost the same thing?

Every year light and dark get closer and more interconnected for me, not less.  Every year I feel the rhythms of the earth’s turning and the solstice more keenly.  We are always turning, towards the radiance and away from it, and the subtle changes of light and dark beat somewhere intimate and essential for me, as though in my own bloodstream.

It is Wendell Berry’s lines to which I return in this season, over and over again:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.  To know the dark, go dark.  Go without sight, and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings, and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

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