both living and dying at the same time

All art holds the knowledge that we’re both living and dying at the same time.  It can hold it.

-Marie Howe

Every moment of life holds that knowledge, too.

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Matrescence 2.0

December 2002

I loved reading The Birth of a Mother in the New York Times, and not just because that photograph reminded me of one of my favorite photos of Grace when she was a baby (see above, December 2002).  I read the article, which asserts that matrescence (the process of becoming a mother – a word that I had never known and which struck me because it acknowledges that that is, indeed, a process) is important and under-examined.  I share this view.

What I’m living right now is not so much my own first matrescence – that took place a long time ago, and being a mother is firmly at the center of who I am.  It’s more the transition of my motherhood into a new phase, but it feels as material and as jarring in its own way.  I’m struck by how I read about maternal ambivalence and postpartum depression (which was very much a part of my own matrescence) and those feel long, long ago.  I’m entirely, absolutely, head-over-heels in love with my own children now, and don’t feel much – any – apprehension about those being the central relationships of my life (along with their father). Those early, complicated days, which I can recall vividly, but with effort, have faded into the background entirely.

The future, however, is full of uncertainty.  This moment may be defined by my own full-fledged embrace of motherhood, but I can’t escape the shadow of what’s coming. My reality is taking on a new shape. Grace is going to boarding school and our family life is about to change in a major way.  There is no question this is the end of something.  I realize this is the most first world of first world problems (and when I read books like The Bright Hour, I’m reminded to Get A Grip).

As soon as I got my feet under me as a mother, it feels like, this season is about to end. I know, I know, this is just another reminder that life’s only constant is change.  My children, at 12 and 14, are such entertaining people.  I love them, but I also truly like them. They’re my favorite human beings to be around, and they easily make me laugh, think, and, sometimes, yell and also cry.

Life’s ordinary rhythms have taken on an almost unbearable beauty.  The routine of morning wakeups, breakfast, and driving to school (3/4 of a mile so it doesn’t take long!) makes me cry every single day and I have to actively try not to count how few mornings like this we have left.  I am trying to be here now, I really am, but wow, it’s hard.

I realize that it is impossible that this transition is as much of an earthquake as Grace’s arrival, but it feels almost commensurately big. I think of Jon Kabat-Zinn, of his line that “you can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf,” I take a deep breath, I try not to look into Grace’s room where the folded piles of laundry I put there remind me that she still lives here, for at least a little bit more.  I try to appreciate the gorgeousness around me. No matter what happens, I will always be their mother. She isn’t going that far. I believe in the depths and fibers of my soul that this is the right next step for her.  I always said I wanted to raise a brave and a smart daughter, and here I am, watching her take flight. She is brave and smart. Everything is as it should be. I just didn’t know how much it would hurt.

April 2017

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thin places

There is in Celtic mythology the notion of “thin places” in the universe where the visible and the invisible world come into their closest proximity. To seek such places is the vocation of the wise and the good – and for those that find them, the clearest communication between the temporal and eternal.

Mountains and rivers are particularly favored as thin places marking invariably as they do, the horizontal and perpendicular frontiers. But perhaps the ultimate of these thin places in the human condition are the experiences people are likely to have as they encounter suffering, joy, and mystery.

~ Rev. Peter Gomes

Another gorgeous passage I saw (I had read it before, and actually think often of thin places, but I had forgotten the specific passage) on the absolutely perfect First Sip.

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The Bright Hour

The Bright Hour, Nina Riggs’ posthumously-published “memoir of living and dying” is about every mother’s nightmare and what I view as this life’s most essential, un-answerable question: how do I leave my children?  It’s also about saying goodbye to her mother after a long illness, and of doing that while facing cancer herself.

Depressing, right?

Of course the material is difficult, but The Bright Hour is not a gloomy book. I promise. It’s full of vibrant life and vivid details, written in clear, often-humorous prose, and I did not want it to end.  I did not want Nina to die, of course, but I also did not want to stop hearing a voice that had become as familiar and beloved as that of a friend.

This book is beautiful.  Walk, don’t run to order and read it.  As Will Schwalbe (another beloved author, find his lovely Books for Living here) says in his blurb, The Bright Hour belongs alongside Being Mortal and When Breath Becomes Air as a book about dying that “has powerful lessons for everyone about how to live.”

Oh, yes.

The Bright Hour begins with a scene of Nina running behind her son the first time he rides a bike, tripping, and discovering that her breast cancer (previously just “one small spot,”) has spread to her spine.  It’s a chilling, gorgeous scene that holds within in the rest of the book: living and dying, beginnings and endings, children spreading their wings as our own flight comes to an end.

The book is peopled with unforgettable characters, some of whom are also fighting cancer.  Most of all, there is Nina’s brave, book-loving mother, whose own death from cancer comes in the middle of the Bright Hour, and which made me cry (the scenes of her last days in the house) and laugh (the scene with Nina’s father considering an old Tupperware pitcher, in which they made lemonade, as a container for her ashes). Of her mother, Nina says, “her life’s work has been looking straight at things,” which seems like it applies to our narrator, too.  During Nina’s mother’s service, during an uncomfortable moment of silence, her brother observes, “It’s about honoring the unknowing and the awkwardness and the mystery of dying … it’s unsettling – and that’s okay.”  And the reader gasps, because that’s what The Bright Hour is about, too.

Nina is also, unsurprisingly, surrounded by wonderful friends.  Her text exchanges with Ginny, who is also fighting cancer, made me laugh. There is Tita, her best local friend, whose support and loyalty steady the book.  And of course there are her two crackling, fully-human boys, Benny and Freddy, and her steadfast husband, John.  I was particularly moved by the way she wrote about John, for example about their private joke that “at least I’m here with you,” a line from a baby’s LLama Llama book.  The intimate details of their life together made me ache, and reminded me of some of the private little things Matt and I share (the way we pronounced A-aron, or how we’ll once in a while say, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”  With these vivid, small details Nina evokes life itself.

The Bright Hour is not sardonic in the way of some books that are are about seeing the hilarious in bleak times.  No.  Instead, it is unabashedly in love with life, and Nina herself is extraordinarily clear-eyed in her ability to see the glory, beauty, and humor in her own life. Towards the end, she muses “I never stop being amazed by how simultaneously cruel and beautiful this world can be,” and I nodded through tears, because that is as clear as a neon sign to the reader.  The loss of Nina to cancer at 39 was a huge loss, for her family, her friends, for the readers who will flock to her words, for the world at large.  I urge you to read this gorgeous book, and plead that you not be afraid of it. Nine is a once in a lifetime person, and though I regret not knowing her while she lived, I’m hugely grateful that I read her words, that she put them down, and that I experienced, however briefly, the world through her eyes.

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what there is

To take what there is, and to use it, without waiting forever in vain for the preconceived – to dig deep into the actual and to get something out of that – this doubtless is the right way to live.

-Henry James

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In Between

April 16, 2017

Right now our family is living in between.  In between making decisions and those decisions becoming the fact of our lives.  In between being here and going.  In between the present and the future.  This applies mostly to Grace and Whit, both of whom will be going to new schools in September, but also to Matt and to me, because the texture of our daily lives is going to change.

Every season of life has its own rhythm and this one is jerky and discordant. I am trying to hear the music that exists in the dissonance, because I know it’s there, but I’m struggling. We’re all a bit more explosive then usual, unexpectedly grumpy or surprised by our own emotions at different moments. The shadow of what’s coming is occluding the radiance of right now, there’s no question about it.

I am finding this moment difficult to live in.  I walk into Grace’s room and hug her, just because I can, and then start crying without being able to stop. I set the table for Saturday night family dinner and have to sit down and weep, because I am aware of how few dinners like this lie ahead.  Grace and Whit are squabbling even more (way more) than usual and I’m not handling the bickering well.

I am definitely someone who experiences the cliche that the anticipation is worse than the reality.  Almost always.  It’s why I can’t really stand roller coasters: that endless ascent at the beginning?  I cannot bear it.  And this anticipation, this click-click-click rise to the top, with an inevitable swooping, heart-stopping descent on the other side, is longer than any I’ve ever lived.

These changes are all good.  I know that. But what’s coming is new, and it marks the undeniable end of something. Neither newness nor endings rank high on my list of favorite things, and to combine those with a wait under the cloud of what’s coming creates a phase that is not easy for me. I am breathing. I am taking photos. I am trying my best to be here now. That is all I can do.

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stop trying to fix

“Everything slows down when we listen and stop trying to fix the unfixable.”

-Anne Lamott, Hallelujah Anyway

The hardest thing in the world: Just listening.  Just being there.  Not trying to fix. Abiding.

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Things I Love Lately

To She Who Persists – I’ve been hugely moved by John Pavlovitz’s writing lately, and I recommend it all.  This piece in particular touched me, and made me cry.  When he refers to the “near infinite chain of strong, intelligent, capable women, having to shout to be heard above the hissing, frantic noise of insecure men in her midst, all desperate to silence her” I nodded, tearful.  And at the end, the words about his own daughter made me want to go look my own daughter (and son) in the eyes.  I hope they inherit a more equal world.

Hourglass: Dani Shapiro on Time, Memory, Marriage, and What Makes Us Who We Are – beautiful writing about beautiful writing.  Is there anything better? No. No, there is not.  Read Brainpicking’s gorgeous words about Dani’s most recent, luminous, spare, powerful book (she calls it “thoroughly transcendent,” and my review is here).

In the last couple of months I’ve read some gorgeous books.  Nina Riggs’ The Bright Hour (coming in June, and my review is forthcoming) is spectacular, I adored Dani Shapiro’s Hourglass (see above), Bill Hayes’ Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me moved me hugely, and not only because I so love the work of Oliver Sacks, and I could scarcely put down Courtney Sullivan’s wise, funny, thoughtful Saints for All OccasionsAs I mentioned in my alphabet of right now, I’ve also been working y way through the collected oeuvre of John Grisham. Contradictory? You bet.  I contain multitudes.

I’ve been driving and running in silence for several months. The driving thing isn’t new at all, but the running is.  I used to listen to On Being, or to Top 40.  These days I run with only my thoughts and the sound of my breath for company.  It wasn’t a deliberate change, just, one day, I went out without headphones, and I never went back.  Sort of how many life changes have happened, when I really think about it.

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

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

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Alert to the extraordinary

One can learn to be alert to the extraordinary and press pause – to memorize moments of the everyday.

– Bill Hayes, Insomniac City

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The Alphabet of Right Now

Last night’s sunset

Four separate times on this blog I’ve shared my Alphabet of Right Now (2009, 2011, 2013, 2015). The time felt right for the fifth installment!

Part of the inspiration for this was the general every-other-year cadence I’ve been settling into with my alphabets, but it was also because of Amy Krouse Rosenthal, whose passing in March I noted with sorrow.  Her beautiful book, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, has been on my mind since hearing of her tragic death.  This feels like an exercise she might do, or at least one she would celebrate.  Without further preamble, here is my Alphabet of Right Now.

All-Boys – I’m really excited for Whit to be going to an all-boys school in the fall.  Random segue, but if you don’t know the work of Michael Thompson, I highly recommend it.  Just this weekend I read his interview about How to Invest in Boys and found it, like I found all of his work, resonant, wise, and powerful.

Bittersweet – The definition of right now. I am so, so proud of Grace and of Whit, but I also feel overcome with sorrow that this particular season of life is ending.  Both. At once. In every single minute.

Coffee – This is not a new “c,” but it’s an ever-more-important part of my days.  Years ago Matt and I bought a coffeemaker you could pre-set the night before, and every single morning, without fail, I’m delighted by the fresh coffee waiting for me.  It’s a highlight of my day.

Daylight – The days are so long now, and it’s light when we wake up and light past dinner. I know I’m not alone in loving the light. In recent years I’ve come to love the darkness, too, but there’s certainly a surge of something in this season, when everything feels light and alive in the world.

Early – I’ve been waking up really, really early. Earlier than usual. Sometimes I run, but sometimes I feel exhausted and I don’t. I wish I was getting more sleep, but I admit I like the quiet pre-dawn time to myself, too.

Friends – As always, my dear friends shape my life and provide structure, support, and laughter to and in every day.  Particularly now, as I look ahead to a different season of life, I am grateful for the friends whose nearness, literal or metaphorical, buoys me.

Graduation – Both Grace and Whit will celebrate graduations this spring, from 6th and 8th grade (and eah from one of our school’s distinct campuses) respectively. I know they’ll be particularly charged because both children are leaving their current school.  The end of the school year always carries with it a swirl of emotions for me, and that’s more heightened than ever this year.

Hockey Whit’s team won their division for the first time in our 5 years doing town hockey (and in a rematch of their only other finals outing, against the same team, in the same way). Then they lost the divisional playoff in heartbreaking fashion. As often happens, I found myself grateful for all the ways that team sports educate our children, for all the lessons on and off of the ice.

Italy – Grace, Whit and I had the most wonderful time in March in Rome.  For a week we were just the three of us, walking around, exploring, playing cards, eating pizza, on the verge of returning home and making big decisions and embarking on sweeping changes.  Our visit was sheer magic and I won’t ever forget it.

Jigsaw puzzles – I love puzzles, and do them often.

Kombucha – I am way into Health-Ade Kombucha, especially the Pink Lady Apple flavor. Highly recommend.

Lamott – I’ve always loved Anne, as do many, and her most recent book, Hallelujah Anyway, runs through my head on a daily basis.

Mysteries – I am deep in a phase of reading legal thrillers.  The whole Alex Cooper series by Linda Fairstein (which I wrote about for Great New Books), David Baldacci, John Grisham, Michael Connelley.  These aren’t all I’m reading (see “L”) but I am definitely enjoying plot-driven fiction right now.

No – Saying no is not new for me, but I’m saying no to basically everything that doesn’t revolve around family or work right now.

OpenI’ve written before about being porous, and I’ve never in my life felt more that way than right now. Everything – beautiful and brutal, glorious and gruesome, heartbreaking and happy – pierces me.

Poetry – I’ve been turning to Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Adrienne Rich, and other familiar voices as I grapple with a time of earthquake-style change.  There’s no question, as I’ve said before, that poetry is my lingua franca, the language my soul speaks.

Quotes – Are a lifelong preoccupation of mine. I cherish the small stack of quote books that I’ve been keeping since 1985.  I share some of my favorites here on Thursdays (and the archive is here).

Reunions – I am staring down my 25th reunion in a couple of weeks.  How is this possible?  Yet another experience of time’s ability to be both inexorable freight train and dizzying, telescopic roller coaster.

Summer – None of us can wait, for more unstructured time, for long weekend days together, for sitting on the porch with my parents, for tennis and swimming and sleeping in.  My favorite time of the year.

Teeth – Grace is about to get her braces off.  I’m looking forward to seeing her teeth again, though I know she’ll instantly look like the young woman she already is. Yet another end.

Uncertainty – Don’t like it, never have, never will. Unfortunately I feel afloat in a sea of uncertainty right now.

Veterinarian – What Grace wants to be when she grows up.

Waiting for My Real Life to Begin – It was Gloria, in March, who put this song back in my head, and now I can’t stop hearing it.  It feels particularly, utterly right for right now, a season of endings and beginnings where I need to remember all the time that this is just a moment in my life, and to see through the clouds of emotion that cloud my vision. I’ve written about this particular song before, but it remains central and seminal: just be here now.  It doesn’t escape me that it’s Grace’s real life that’s, in many ways, about to begin.

X – Impossible.

Years – Flying by. “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” – Zora Neale Hurston.

Zigzag – The way I experience life.  My experience of time is rarely linear: it spirals and returns again and again to memories that did may not have seemed important as I lived them, then abruptly spikes forward, accelerating into the unknown before returning again.  I think often the switch-back roads in the Alps we drove when I was a child, my dark-haired father at the wheel, my sister next to me in the backseat.  I always got carsick on those drives, and sometimes, as I confront time, I feel that way still.

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