The World I Live In

I have refused to live
locked in the orderly house of
reasons and proofs.
The world I live in and believe in
is wider than that.  And anyway,
what’s wrong with Maybe?

You wouldn’t believe what once or
twice I have seen. I’ll just
tell you this:
only if there are angels in your head will you
ever, possibly, see one.

– Mary Oliver, Felicity

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Start with what you know

I love Jeanette LeBlanc‘s writing.  All of it.  I particularly adored a piece of hers that I read recently, Start With What You Know.  She evokes so powerfully the writing life, the tension and urge and essence of the white hot need to come to the page.  I was inspired to share my own list of what I start with, of what I know.


this, the sunset out of my office window, is something I know to be true

I think most clearly in the morning, and I like to start my day before the sun is up.

I like my coffee with coconut milk and coconut sugar.  Hot, and more than one cup of it.

Life is messy and most people carry some scars and wounds with them.

Drinking alcohol doesn’t really work for me most of the time anymore.

I’m more attuned than most people to aches and pains and changes in my body.  This only makes me a hypochondriac if I act on every discomfort.  It makes me aware and sensitive if I remember to sit tight and wait.  Most things pass.

Writing is an essential part of almost every day for me.  I need to write what I see, what I think, what I feel.

I feel a lot.  Good and bad and everything in between.  I ride roller coasters inside my emotions every single day.  The challenge is creating more space between the feeling and the reacting.

My spidey sense about other people is rarely wrong. I need to trust it more.

Nothing puts me more quickly and firmly in touch with the ineffable, deeply reassuring energy that throbs through the universe than being outside.

When you write what you know, what do you start with?

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Things I Love Lately

What It Really Means to be Happy – I love this piece on Tiny Buddha, which asserts that happiness is an orientation towards our lives rather than a single mood.  Oh yes.  As someone who has publicly decried the emphasis on “happiness” as life’s ultimate goal, this piece really spoke to me.

9 Learnings from 9 Years of Brain Pickings – Thank you to Tracy, who sent this link from Maria Popova’s wonderful site to me.  It won’t surprise you, probably, that my favorites are #4, “build pockets of stillness into your life,” #6, “presence is a far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity,” an #8, “seek out what magnifies your spirit.”  The whole list – concise, wise, powerful – is worth reading.

Motherhood is Always Saying Goodbye – “Mothering holds within it, then, ancient wisdom that comes from millennia of women devoted to the hard practice of letting go.”  Yes.  Nothing I can say to add to the glory of this piece, which asserts that motherhood and life itself is about letting go and living with farewells but YES.  I often find the work on Literary Mama resonant, and this essay touches me more than most.

I’m reading Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family and finding it compelling, both a call to action and a reminder that I am doing okay.  I had the privilege of meeting her last week, which was absolutely fantastic.

We are back into Homeland and I continue to think it’s incredible.  Top 40 again continues to dominate my playlist (which is almost entirely in the car) – right now, loving Rob Thomas’ Hold On Forever and I’m still not sick of Passenger’s Let Her Go.

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

I write these Things I Love pieces approximately monthly.  You can see all previous posts here.

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an acknowledgment of great fortune and a prayer of thanks

Pru asked if she was okay, and June answered with a question that seemed to Pru to be more of a comment on June’s struggles with Lolly: Did you ever have a family?  Pru said she sounded completely wiped out, at wit’s end.  She asked June if she wanted to walk back with her to the house, but she politely declined, saying she needed to be alone a little while longer.

Pru told us that night that she’d never felt as grateful.  That her answer to June’s question had been yes, but not as a commiseration, or as an explanation of fatigue, as it seemed to be for June, but both as an acknowledgment of great fortune and a prayer of thanks.  With Mike on the line from Tacoma, and Mimi and I huddled over her iPhone on speaker in the kitchen, Pru whispered to us, Thank you.

– Bill Clegg, Did You Ever Have a Family


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The end of childhood

“The end of childhood,” the author intoned from the stage, “is pretty universally thought to be start of middle school. Generally, seventh grade.” Tears sprang to my eyes and I slid my gaze sideways, glancing at my seventh grade daughter sitting next to me. We were at an event at our local library, a panel of Middle Grade authors, a Monday night in late September. I looked down at her long legs, taking in her feet, in my Jack Rogers sandals. I peeked at her face. She was staring at the stage, rapt as some of her favorite writers talked.

Grace was three weeks shy of 13 that night, and she and I sat in the audience it felt as though many themes of her life and mine collided in my head and my heart. Here she was, a new middle schooler, the end of her childhood upon us. How is this possible, I thought, able to sense the baby and child she was and the woman she’s rapidly becoming animate, all at once, in the liminal creature sitting next to me?

It was as though I left that library auditorium for a bit. My mind cartwheeled through the years and I thought about letters I wrote to Grace every year on her birthday. I remembered the piece I wrote about the ten things I wanted her to know when she turned ten. Already, that was three years ago, and here she is, on the brink of being a teenager and, apparently, at the formal end of childhood.

I have been keenly conscious of time’s passage my whole life, but having children brought a new sharpness to that awareness.   And in the last months the sense that my time with Grace living with me and nearby is limited has reached a fever pitch. Everything feels heightened, poignant, crucial. I think constantly of the lessons I want to make sure to have imparted to her, knowing that there’s more road behind us than ahead when it comes to years with her living under our roof.

My mind snapped back to the panel on the stage in front of me as the moderator began taking questions. I leaned over towards Grace, clasping her hand in mine and squeezing it. She leaned her head onto my shoulder and we both listened as the authors answered questions from the audience.

I left the event with the authors pensive, even melancholy, which to be honest is the state in which I live much of my life. That night after tucking Grace in, and listening to her prayers, which are so familiar that I can say them along with her, I leaned against her closed bedroom door. Every single time I say “I’ll see you in the morning” to a child in a darkened bedroom I am aware of what an incandescent privilege it is. I went up to my desk after a moment at her door and sat at my desk. I looked through the birthday letters I had written to her, feeling the throb of loss and gratitude that I now recognize as the central rhythm of my life.

I know there are many, many adventures and challenges ahead in the teen years, but 13 does feel like the end of something.

I wrote this last month after a wonderful event at the Cambridge Public Library, and today, now that Grace has crossed the bar (Tennyson’s Crossing the Bar springs into my mind here) into her teens, felt like the right moment to share it.

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13 Years Old


As a junior bridesmaid at the wedding of a dear and long-time babysitter, September 2015.  You were so grown up, standing up at the altar, I gasped out loud.

Dear Grace,

Well, it’s here.  You’re thirteen.  Today.  This fact is inconceivable and inevitable at the same time.  And extraordinary.

In the last six months you’ve turned into a full-blown young woman in front of our eyes, and I stare at you with outright awe on a regular basis. Sometimes you sense my gaze on you and turn, looking over at me and saying, “what?” as you flick your ponytail off your neck.  I always smile back and shake my head, murmuring “nothing.” My colicky baby, my pigtailed little girl, she’s all gone now, absorbed into this long, lean person who’s almost my height and who wears my shoes (though they’re getting tight) and who runs way faster than I do.  The only time I can still glimpse the baby you were is when I creep in to kiss you goodnight before I go to bed.  Your face in slumber contains shadows of the baby and little girl you were.

You really are a teenager: on a regular basis you cycle between moods with such velocity I can’t keep up. Still, so far, we always come back to the bond we’ve shared for 13 years.  I’ve written often about my fears about these years, and, suddenly, they’re upon us.  In some ways, I’m glad they’re finally here.  As usual, I was daunted by the dark cloud of anticipation and fear, and the arrival of the rain has brought with it a kind of relief.  I studied the mother-daughter bond in these years, and the often-painful separation that marks it, 20 years ago, as a senior in college.  And now I am living through the process I studied so closely.  Then, I identified as the daughter, striking out from her mother, but now, I’m on the opposite side of the table.  I knew this season would be emotional, but it surprises me daily how much.

Here we go.  You’re lately demonstrating a new kind of groundedness. There’s a lot of social drama this year at school, and an undercurrent of both nascent boy-girl tension and friendship uncertainty animates many of your days.  You have been talking about wanting to remove yourself from this drama, and that makes me very happy to see.  We speak often of focusing on school, and family, and running, and of distancing yourself from influences that make you feel bad.  I know I can’t insulate you from the social whitewater that swirls around seventh grade – and furthermore I know I shouldn’t, even if I could – but I’m proud to see you choosing to step away from it as much as you can.  I hope that home continues to be a safe place, a bulwark against the anxieties of school.  A place where we can keep curling up next to each other to read, give compliments at family dinner, watch Survivor, and talk about what happened in your day.

Sports have become a very important part of your life.  You played tennis a lot this summer, and well.  We cheered you to the 12 and under championship at our tennis club.  You’re a new but passionate hockey player.  Cross-country continues to be your primary focus, and these days you run at least five days a week. You demonstrate a commitment and determination to succeed in sports that is as foreign to me as it is inspiring.  You are also a real team player.  At one of your early cross-country meets you finished and then, when I said it was time to go (I had been standing around in the rain for a while!), you told me you wanted to cheer on the rest of the team.  And you did, standing at the finish line cheering every person on by name the very last runner crossed.  Late last week you were voted one of the team’s co-captains, and we could not be prouder.

You love to write and read and are making a real effort not to say that you’re “bad at math.”  You’re not.  Science is probably your favorite subject and you still want to be a vet when you grow up.  You have a job, walking a neighbor’s dog twice a week.  You often bring her by to see me as you head out, and each time I notice the tangible bond that exists between you.  I’m sorry that we don’t have a dog.  I’ll be honest and blame the fact that I work from home and that we don’t have a yard as much as your brother’s terrible dog hair allergy.  I hope that your relationship with Gracie, the well-named chocolate lab three doors down, can assuage some of your grief and frustration that we don’t have our own puppy.

You’re so responsible and organized that sometimes I forget that you are just thirteen.  I never ask you about your homework or remind you what needs to be taken to school on a given day.  You simply have it all under control.  You room is the neatest and least cluttered in the house.  You have beautiful handwriting and you read and type quickly.  I hope that your devotion to order and your deep desire to make others happy leave room, somehow, for some mess.  It’s only in midlife that I’ve learned the magic that can exist in chaos, whether virtual or literal. I was a kid much like you, Grace, with a deep-seated need to please and perform.  I know from many years of devoted map-following that you have to learn this lesson for yourself, though I’m still looking for ways to help guide you to it.  I also know you’re living your life, not mine.  I am standing at the side of your race course, cheering you on.  I know you can’t really see me, because you’re in the woods.  I can’t always see you.  But I’m here, and I’m going to cheer until the end of time.

Last Friday you texted me in the morning: “last school day as a kid!” Tears filled my eyes immediately.  I would like to think you can still be a kid, at least some of the time, and at least here, at home, with me.  But I know we’re heading into a new season, embarking on a new path.  As always, all we have is trust and instinct and love.  But boy, do we have a lot of that.

I love you, GBP, always have, always will.  You’ll always be the girl who made me a mother, my first child, the baby who arrived after 2 straight days of back labor, screaming.  You burst everything open that morning at 11:20 am, October 26, 2002, and it’s never been the same again.  It hasn’t always been easy for me to reckon with that, as I know you know, but my God, I’d never, ever do if differently.  Welcome to your teens.


previous birthday letters to Grace: twelve, eleven, ten, nine, eight, seven, six

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Big Magic

Creativity is sacred, and it is not sacred.
What we make matters enormously, and it doesn’t matter at all.
We toil alone, and we are accompanied by spirits.
We are terrified, and we are brave.
Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege.
Only when we are at our most playful can divinity finally get serious with us.
Make space for all these paradoxes to be equally true inside your soul and I promise – you can make anything.
So please calm down now and get back to work, okay?
The treasure that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say yes.

– Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

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I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s contentment that I’m after.  Not happiness, simply, but contentment.  It’s taken me a long time to get to this, but the truth is that “happiness” has never felt like my goal.  Furthermore, it seems impossible to attain.  I could never wish for a permanent smoothing out of my emotional terrain, because I think some (maybe a lot of) sorrow is part of the deal for me.  But I’ve written about a new, sturdy sense of joy that underpins my life in the last year or two, and the best way to describe it is, I think, as contentment.

It was with interest that I read What Selfie Sticks Really Tell Us About Ourselves in the New York Times this summer.  I had recently written my own thoughts on selfie sticks here, after all.

The sentence I kept coming back to was this one:

Interestingly, nonarousing emotions like contentment are negatively associated with sharing selfies or other content.

I love the image of contentment as a “nonarousing emotion” and that is entirely resonant for me.  What I’m after, at this point in adulthood, is a life defined by being peaceful and placid, something I recognize would seem boring to a younger person.

I am on Instagram, I love Twitter, and I’m on Facebook.  I’m certainly not against social media and in some cases it brings me joy.  So I’m not sure how I feel about the assertion that sharing content is associated with “arousing” emotions.  I’m not a big selfie fan (or sharer) but I do share photographs (often of the sky) and tweets.  I also know that nonarousing emotions are what I seek.

Is this inconsistent?  Maybe it is.  After all, I’ve written many times about the famous Whitman lines, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”  I do like some aspects of social media, though not selfies.  I have also never really struggled to put my phone down, in literal and metaphorical ways.  I don’t have a hard time turning away from the online world to engage with the real one, on the whole.  I could definitely do this better – I reckon almost all of us could – but it’s not a source of major tension for me.  Maybe this is part of why I don’t feel super emotionally conflicted about this point.

I don’t have a neat conclusion to this post, but I’m curious about what you think.  Do you agree with the statement that sharing content online – particularly selfies – is negatively correlated with nonarousing emotions?  Do you think being on social media by definition means one leads a less contented life?  I’m not sure, and I’d love to hear your reactions.


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How She Does It: Stephanie Clifford


I read Stephanie Clifford’s Everybody Rise without even realizing how many friends and connections we had in common (it turns out we went to the same high school).  The book is compulsively readable, fascinating, and entertaining.  Clifford makes salient and sometimes uncomfortably true points about the emphasis a specific part of today’s world places on money and heritage and amusingly, compellingly evokes a certain corner of society.

Many critics have called Everybody Rises heroin, Evelyn, a modern day Lily Barth, and the novel certainly reminded me of Wharton, updated for the social media generation.  Clifford’s book transports you to another world, makes me laugh, and makes you cringe all in space of a few pages.  I highly recommend it!

Stephanie Clifford herself has many balls in the air (more, ultimately, than Evelyn does!).  She’s a reporter at the New York Times, a successful novelist, and a mother.  I was so happy when she agreed to be this month’s How She Does It feature.  Without further ado – her answers.  And I urge you to buy and read Everybody Rise!

Thank you, Stephanie!!


1. Tell me about the first hour of your day?  (I often describe mine as being “fired out of a cannon”)

It is, counterintuitively, one of the most peaceful parts of my day. When I was writing “Everybody Rise,” I’d get up at 6, make myself a decaf coffee, and go to my desk, where I’d write until 8. (It took five years of doing this!) I had my baby – he’s now 2, so not so much of a baby anymore – when I was close to having a draft of the book done. Happily, he’s a late sleeper, so I was able to keep up the 6-8 routine, working on new drafts, once he settled into a sleep pattern.

These days, he starts chatting to himself at about 7:40, and by 8, that becomes full-on yodeling. My husband and I tend to trade off – one of us gets him up and dressed while the other one showers, and the other gets him breakfast while the first one showers. Then I feed the cats, feed myself, and put my lunch together (there aren’t many healthy options near where I work, so I bring my own lunch). My son and I often have a little time to play before I have to leave for the day – he’s really into toy fruits and vegetables right now, so we’ll pretend to cut them or put them in a shopping bag.

2. Do you have a work uniform that you rely on for getting dressed?  What is it?

I hate pants. Can’t explain it, can’t defend it, but I tend toward a skirt and sweater in fall and winter, and a simple shift dress in spring and summer. I used to wear glorious shoes, but I hurt my foot a few years ago, and I have a standing desk, so now I’m resigned to really functional shoes: Frye boots (the hard soles help my foot), Dansko sandals, and – horror of horrors – clogs.

3. How do you and your spouse reserve conflicts about scheduling?

We talk the night before about who needs to do what the next morning – if I need to leave early, he’ll get the baby up and fed, and vice versa. I’m a reporter for the New York Times, and since I cover Brooklyn courts, I mostly work out of the courthouse. That’s closer to home than my husband’s job, so I am usually the one who’s home at 7 to take over from our babysitter. We do have a regular Saturday-night sitter, which has been fantastic – it means we get out together at least once a week, without having to scramble for a sitter last-minute. It was easier than I expected to get one – I looked on Sittercity, a babysitting website, for neighborhood sitters and was up-front with them that I’d like them to work most Saturday nights, and we’ve had great luck with that.

4. Do you second-guess yourself?  What do you do when that happens?

Oh, yes. Most of the time I summon my sister, who is wise and frank, especially about parenting. Her basic message is “Whatever you’re doing, you’re doing well. Don’t worry about it.”

 5. What time do you go to bed?

I try for 10:30. It doesn’t always happen.

6. Do you exercise?  If so, when?

Yes. Six days a week. It’s not for fitness, though that’s a nice side benefit, but for mental health. In a high-stress world, it’s one thing I can count on to calm me down. I usually fit it in when I get home from work, but if that’s not going to happen, I’ll get up even earlier than usual, or even slip to the gym during lunch if it’s a slow day at work. I came up with lots of exercise options – a gym near my work, a stroller that I can run with, a space in our house where I can work out while the baby plays, exercise DVDs (I’m currently into PiYo, and those are as short as 20 minutes) – so that however little time I have, and wherever I am, and whatever the baby’s up to, I can fit something in.

7. Do you cook dinner for your kids?  Do you have go-to dishes you can recommend?

I don’t right now – he eats at 5, before I’m home, so our terrific babysitter does this. On weekends, I’ll often make him something like an omelet with cheese and vegetables, to sneak in those vegetables before he realizes they’re in there.

My husband and I try to cook most nights for ourselves, and the baby often gets leftovers. I love to make things ahead: if I have a slow Sunday, I’ll sauté and freeze huge amounts of greens in small batches – spinach, collard greens, Swiss chard. That means on weeknights, we can have greens without any hassle. I do the same with tomato sauce, doing a huge vat of it at the end of summer and freezing it in small portions. I add pepper flakes for arrabiatta, or vodka, cream and parsley for vodka sauce, or put it on polenta with some sautéed mushrooms. And, whenever I’m making a stew, or Swedish meatballs, or pot roast, or anything that freezes well, I triple the recipe and freeze the extras. It means we can have dinner on the table within 15 minutes of arriving home.

8. Do you have any sense of how your children feel about your working?

He’s such a little guy that it’s hard to tell, but he cheerfully waves to me every morning when I head out – it’s not something that upsets him. He does get actively annoyed when I’m on my laptop or cell phone when I’m spending time with him, so I’m trying to stop that.

9. What is the single piece of advice you would give another working mother?

Go easy on yourself. There’s such pressure to do it all right now, and it’s ridiculous and way too hard on women.

And, inspired by Vanity Fair, a few quick glimpses into your life:

Favorite Artist? Piet Mondrian. There was a great exhibit a few years ago on his lifetime of work. Seeing how he started with realistic paintings of trees, and how that turned into his colorful blocks as he tried to simplify everything, was fascinating.

Favorite jeans? Current/Elliott white jeans.

Shampoo you use? Maple Holistics sage shampoo. Good for itchy scalp and doesn’t feel as aggressively chemical as some of the options out there.

Favorite book? Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth. Lily Bart was a big inspiration for Evelyn in Everybody Rise – someone on the fringes of a group who wants so badly to be at the center of it.

Favorite quote? T.S. Eliot: “For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” I found this in a pleasingly tiny red book called “The Mindful Writer,” by Dinty W. Moore. I read it nearly daily when I was writing Everybody Rise. He pulls quotations from authors and artists, then applies Buddhist thinking to those. I’m not Buddhist, but there’s a lot to learn from that spirit of mindfulness. The book, and this quote in particular, was especially helpful when I had bouts of writing anxiety.

Favorite musician? Stephen Sondheim. “Everybody Rise” is a line from one of his songs, “The Ladies Who Lunch.” His lyrics are so clever and sharp, and no one captures New Yorkers as well as he does – their wit, their yearning, their difficulty in connecting. Evelyn is dealing with all of that in “Everybody Rise,” and I listened to Sondheim on repeat while I was writing.

Favorite item (toy, clothing, or other) for your children? The BabyBjorn soft bib. It’s plastic and machine washable, and has a big pocket to catch spilled food. It’s genius.


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I feel connected

I look up at the stars.  I feel connected: legs to earth, shoulders to sky.  I squint my eyes and see the lines that link stars to make constellations, feel their umbra extend down to me, connecting me with this parcel of land that I stand on. Everything is united: my children, the clouds, God, the moon, the mother of my children, the Ford station wagon that will overheat soon if I do not get back and keep going.  Under this sky I am connected to all I left behind in Tennessee, all the friends and patients who wished me luck….

I remember the acts of human kindness that illumine our world.

– Abraham Verghese, My Own Country

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