meeting what comes with the full force of your heart

“Strength means honoring your entire range of emotion, even your despair and heartbreak. Especially your despair and heartbreak. It means acknowledging each of those feelings, your questions, and ideas, and faith, and terror, and meeting what comes with the full force of your heart.” -Brenda Shaughnessy

I found this beautiful quote on Helen Boggess’s absolutely gorgeous tumblr, among so many other gems.

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What’s next for me as a writer?

I loved my friend Nina’s piece about mulling over what’s next for her as a writer.  It rang every bell.  I’m often asked if or when I’m going to write a book, for example, and I stutter when I try to answer.  And then I’m asked what my blog is about, and I’m similarly tongue-tied and inarticulate as I attempt to respond to that question.

An aside: if you know what this blog is about, and can summarize it in a sentence, please tell me!

The truth of the matter is I used to want to write a book.  Desperately.  And I have tried.  I’ve written one full draft of a memoir, a half draft of another, and most of a novel.  I’ve been rejected by both agents and publishers, though I am hugely fortunate now to have a remarkable, extraordinary, way-too-good-for-me agent, Brettne Bloom (who just last week announced the formation of The Book Group, the news of which made me jump on the table and hoot and holler).

My point is, it’s not that I haven’t tried.  I have.  And the process of setting aside manuscripts and ideas has been hugely instructional for me.  I realized that there are certain things I just don’t want to write a book about.  My daughter’s adolescence is one of them.  When I write here I can choose what to share.  The expectations for disclosure when it comes to a book-length work are much higher, and I’m just not entirely comfortable, at least right now, with the idea of writing a memoir.  It makes me uncomfortable to write so much about myself.

I recently had a reunion (graduate school) and so was catching up with people I hadn’t seen in years over the course of several days.  More than a handful asked about my writing, which was enormously affirming.  For any person who mentioned that my writing spoke to them over the course of the 15th reunion, thank you.  I can’t possibly tell you what it means to know that you read and are moved by some of what I share.  Thank you.  But I answered a lot of questions about my plans for writing and the truth is … I don’t have a good answer.

More and more, I think what I am is a blogger.  I love this blog.  I love to write here.  I love my readers, and the other blogs I read (which are numerous) regularly, and the online community I’ve been fortunate enough to find.  I also love writing essays, and I hope to keep doing that and submitting them (though as Nina says I’m really tired of lists and link-bait posts – I say this knowing full well that my two most read and circulated pieces are lists, 10 things I want my daughter to know before she turns 10, and a similar list about my son).  I’d love to be published more broadly either in print or online, and I’ll keep working at that.

But my true love is right here.  I can’t decide if my waning focus on a book is a sign that I’ve given up or that I’ve accepted something essential.  Letting go of the idea of writing a book has been a multi-year process.  I wrote about it in 2012, for example (this was about the first memoir-length work).  My life feels pretty abundant right now, with a full-time job and my rapidly-growing children whose stories are ever more their own (and thus not mine).  I can’t imagine stopping writing here and I have no plans to.  But does my lack of ambition about a book-length work mean I’m a quitter?  I hope not, but I’m not sure.

I’d love your thoughts on the conversation Nina started, either as a writer (what are you working on, what are your goals, what are your thoughts on blogging these days?) or as a reader (what do you like to read, where should I submit, what else should I be writing about, and am I giving up by not pressing on a book right now?). 

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A Window Opens

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Elisabeth Egan’s A Window Opens is both entertaining and poignant, a page-turning read that managed to move me to tears even as it made me laugh out loud. I’ve rarely read a book that felt so familiar, and I realized when I closed it that’s because Elisabeth managed to touch on so many topics close to my heart in this particular moment of life: aging parents, school-age children, marriage, work-home tensions, and the challenging ways that new and “revolutionary” retail intersect with those who love old-school, and traditional books.

A Window Opens follows a year in the life of Alice Pearse, a 38 year old mother of 3 who goes back to work full-time when her husband’s law career hits unexpected skids. She faces the return of her father’s throat cancer and juggles her new, demanding professional job with the needs of her three school-age children. Finally, Egan’s book makes some salient and provocative points about businesses that purport to change the world but, perhaps, are not quite all they seem on the surface.

Alice is a tremendously likeable protagonist, and I was immediately swept into her world. So much of what she’s dealing with is intensely known to me, and more than once I gasped out loud. For instance, Alice quotes my favorite Thornton Wilder quote (“do any human beings realize life while they live it – every, every minute?”), mentions that parenting small children can be like dealing with terrorists (Matt and I used to laugh that putting Grace to bed was like “negotiating with the Khmer Rouge at gunpoint”), and refuses to budge on the issue of cutting crusts of sandwiches. She won’t do it, and neither will I.

Alice is also a lifetime reader, a passionate lover of what her new employer calls “carbon-based books.” Her best friend owns an independent bookstore in their New Jersey town and Egan beautifully traces the ways in which their relationship changes as Alice joins Scroll, whose blazing, ambitious agenda is to revolutionize how people read.

There are many storylines woven together in A Window Opens, and each of them touched me, both at the level of a nerve and at that of the heart. While the book is clearly Alice’s, there is a rich and well-developed population of supporting characters around her.

Egan beautifully evokes the intimacy that exists between Alice and her long-time babysitter, Jessie. The scene of Jessie leaving on her last day made me cry, because it reminded me of our own long-time babysitter’s final departure. I was devastated, so much so that I had to take Grace and Whit on a walk around the neighborhood and trail them, hoping my sunglasses would at least partially mask my torrential tears. The genuine bond that develops between a mother (and, probably, a father; I just don’t know) and her trusted babysitter is a deep well of trust and love.

Alice’s parents, who live in a neighboring town, are also major characters in the book. Her father uses a device they’ve nicknamed Buzz Lightyear to speak after throat cancer caused the removal of his larynx years ago. He communicates often with Alice through text and email, and these appear in the book as well. During A Window Opens Alice’s father’s cancer returns, and his ensuing illness sends substantial shockwaves through the story. Towards the end of the book, as Alice finds herself in a difficult situation at work, her father’s cancer and the metaphor of voice echo in her mind. You have a voice. Use it, she tells herself, and I got goosebumps. Legacy and family and inheritance all combined in that single moment, and Alice, emboldened by the thought of her father, makes an important choice.

Most of all, though,  A Window Opens is a love letter to motherhood. Over and over again, I blinked back tears as I read details of Alice’s life with her three children, Margot (11), Oliver (8), and Georgie (5). Towards the end of the book, an architect who is drawing up plans for a kitchen renovation tells Alice that hers is “one of the ten happiest houses I’ve worked in.” This is abundantly clear to me, too, as I read the book, even though that happiness is shot through with challenge and struggle. There’s nothing simple or smooth about the year of Alice’s life that we witness, but her abiding love for her family shines through.
A Window Opens is replete with telling, vivid details. We see Margot catching her mother’s eye at an event at school, her glance telling her mother everything she needs to know about a certain tricky friendship. We see Oliver walking down to meet his mother at the train station every night when she comes home, sometimes in his Halloween costume and sometimes coming a little too close to a speeding car. We see Georgie’s face light up at the school nurse’s office when Alice shows up, having taken a taxi from Manhattan because nobody else was available.

Alice Pearse is a true heroine as far as I’m concerned. Her story is wildly entertaining – I could not put A Window Opens down and read it in a couple of days – and deeply affecting. Alice’s love for her husband, her children, and her parents is the beating heart of the book. Her narrative reminds us that sometimes all we really need is right in front of us, and makes palpable how almost painfully precious this ordinary life can be. After a long and difficult year full of questions and challenges, on the last page of the book Alice finds herself on a roof deck on the Jersey Shore at sunset. She looks around at her family, all of whom are still reeling from big changes, and observes to herself, “I was in the exact right place and I knew it.”

A Window Opens is about the reckoning that results in this knowledge.  It’s about figuring out who we love and who we most essentially are.  I adored Elisabeth Egan’s book and know you will do.  It comes out in August but you can preorder it now!

Disclosure: these are affiliate links.

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the magic that is waiting and looking

The notebooks are full of a fierce attention to things I do not know.  But now I know what they are for. These are records of ordered transcendence.  A watcher’s diary.  My father’s talk of patience had held within it all the magic that is waiting and looking up at the moving sky.

– Helen MacDonald, H is for Hawk

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Through the looking glass

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my sixth grade graduation, May 1986.  Sorry for the shadow and poor photo; the picture was so thoroughly glued to the page that I couldn’t take it off to scan it, and I wanted to include my father’s handwriting, because the carefully composed and annotated photo albums that he made are among my most-cherished things. 

Tomorrow, Grace graduates from sixth grade.

I remember the day that I graduated from sixth grade, in the same school, in the same building, better than I recall yesterday.

I’ll sit in the gym that I’ve picked her up from for many years, and once again, my own memories will collide with reality and I’ll fall down the telescope into that disorienting place where I am not sure what’s now and what’s then, what’s me and what’s her.  But even in this vertigo-like swirl of memory and emotion and time, something essential endures, the sturdy presence of my love for my daughter, a cord whose strength I’m trusting more and more.

I almost worry about saying that out loud, because I fear jinxing myself.  I’ve written at length (ad nauseum, even) about my fear of the distance that I know must mark these adolescent and teen years, and about what will happen to my relationship with Grace as we make our way through this time.  I know the red string that ties our hearts needs to stretch, and it will, but more and more, I’m also trusting that it will come back eventually.

We are again in the season of endings and beginnings.  Of commencement.  I feel like a broken record, but I find myself aghast, awestruck, frankly shocked by the velocity of time.  Life’s whistling past my ears ever faster, just as I was told it would.  Even as I join in the celebrations, which are bigger this year than ever, because graduation from 6th grade is a big passage at our school, I’m sorrowful in equal measure, and Stanley Kunitz’s feast of losses echoes in my head.

Last night was the sixth grade graduation party, and I was proud to watch Grace dance all night long, singing enthusiastically to everything from Journey to Katy Perry.  The moment I won’t forget was when all the parents were dancing with our sixth graders, belting out the words to I’ve Had the Time of My Life.  Once again, then and now collided, and I found myself blinking away tears.  Time is confoundingly elastic, and the past – in the song, in the memories, in the dizzying blending of then and now – felt animate, tangible, in the present.

At our sixth grade graduation, in 1986, we sang Whitney Houston’s The Greatest Love of All, and that night I co-hosted a graduation party with some friends at a local tennis club (I went on to celebrate my engagement to Matt, my 30th birthday, my mother’s 60th birthday, and a host of other meaningful occasions in the same space).  It was a sunny and beautiful day and my conviction that the future spread in front of me, glittering, assured, was tempered substantially by my parents’ recent announcement that we were moving to London after Christmas.  I recall sitting on the sidewalk outside of the tennis club crying about the departure, though I can’t recall if that was before or after the party.  I also remember that one of our longtime babysitters DJed and that the last dance was Phil Collins’ Separate Lives, played twice.

The full photograph above, which I cropped, includes the faces of three of my closest friends from lower school.  I’m grateful to still be in touch with all three of them.  I look around at Grace’s friends and wonder who she’ll still count dear in 29 years.

While it feels like only weeks ago that I stood there, it was almost 30 years ago.  Wow.  Tomorrow I’ll go through the looking glass again, into the place where time and memory and love and loss swirl together into a heady mixture whose power can bring me to my knees.

Only one thing I can do.  Blink back my tears, look at my only daughter, my first child, and be here now.

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Everything is changing

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Grace at my 15th year business school reunion on Saturday, sitting in my 1st year classroom, in my 1st semester seat. She’s closer to the age I was when I sat there than I am now.

I’ve long been a huge fan of Kyran Pittman‘s writing.  I loved her book, Planting Dandelions: Field Notes From a Semi-Domesticated Life, and I also follow her blog.  A few weeks ago she shared a Humans of New York post on her Facebook feed.  It was a picture of a man with his teenage daughter, and what he said was:

“I’m supportive of anything that keeps her focused and moving forward. All I can do is try to clear away as much bullshit as possible so that she can access her future. The older she gets, the less I can control, and the less I can protect her from. It’s a bit nerve-wracking. I did get her a Swiss Army Knife last week. Because you never know when you’ll need one of those.”

Kyran’s introduction was:

This is as great a teen parenting philosophy as I’ve ever heard. Getting them to adulthood with as many choices intact as possible, and the wherewithal to choose well–that’s what it’s about now for us.

And then she added:

Or as Asha Dornfest so aptly put it, we’re parenting with the end game in mind now. When they’re little the whole object is to keep them safe. And then one day it hits you, that was just a temporary assignment.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about these lines. Parenting with the end game in mind now.  Yes.  And the object is still to keep them safe, but the definition of safe has changed entirely.  It doesn’t feel accidental that I have this stop-and-go vertigo right now, that I feel a little unsteady on my feet, that the world feels like it’s whirling around me in a way a little more unnerving than usual.

Everything is changing, and the truth is it’s hard to catch my breath or find my footing.

Grace is sprinting towards 13, and her entire body and self are leaning towards the future in a way that I find both deeply reassuring and frankly terrifying.  She’s a young woman, and suddenly parenting feels different.  Of course I’ll be her mother until the end of time, even when we’re both gone, but the definition of motherhood has changed, and it feels a bit like an ill-fitting garment.  Certain things that I had just gotten used to are gone and others which I somehow thought I had more time to prepare for have arrived.

I’ve always, from my very first days of motherhood, believed that my children do not belong to me.  I’ve written that very sentence point-blank (as an aside, in searching for that link, I discovered that I wrote my daughter, who’s about to graduate from sixth grade, a letter on this blog on her first day of kindergarten – wow).  Grace and Whit are passing through me on their way to the great wide open.  They are not mine; it is my distinct honor and privilege to share these years with them.  But still, the realization that I’m in the second half – probably the final third – of this season jars me.  The losses pile one on top of each other. I’ve said before that while motherhood has contained more surprises than I can count the central one is probably how bittersweet it is.  I ferociously love my children, and the emotion I feel for them is the central guiding tenet of my life.  But even almost 13 years into being a mother, I’m staggered, over and over again by the losses that this ordinary life contains and by how frequently my eyes fill with tears.

My role these days with my tween is about abiding, knowing when to bite my tongue, being patient, and trusting that our bond will survive this passage.  It is making sure she has a soft place to land when she needs it but also gently encouraging her to step outside of that familiar circle to challenge herself.  It’s in that space beyond what is known that growth happens, even though it’s scary.  For us both.

It’s keeping the end game that Kyran and Asha mentioned in mind.  It’s knowing that what I want is an independent, brave, autonomous child.  After all, so many years ago, when I put 5 year old Grace on a plane alone, I said confidently that only a child secure in her attachments can venture away.  I still believe that.  I just didn’t realize how much it would hurt.

 

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literature is asking us to pay attention

“From the simplest lyric to the most complex novel, literature is asking us to pay attention. Pay attention to the frog. Pay attention to the west wind. Pay attention to the boy on the raft, the lady on the tower, the old man on the train. In sum, pay attention to the world and all that dwells therein and thereby learn at last to pay attention to yourself and all that dwells therein.”
― Frederick Buechner
Thank you to Claudia Cummins, whose gorgeous First Sip blog is among my most-treasured daily reads, for sharing this quote with me.

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A weekend in numbers

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A traditional weekend in numbers:

1 – number of full-blown housing structures erected and underway being built

14 – number of children in the (childrens’) Olde Tyme photograph (theme: Steampunk/Pirates/Civil War soldiers)

10 – number of adults in the (adult) Olde Tyme photograph (theme: Sister Wives/trappers/Puritans)

10 – number of children who started the night in tents Sunday night

9 – number of children who woke up in tents on Monday morning

1 – the times in my life I’ve gone to a hardware store and asked for a roll of roof felt, earth worms (night nightcrawlers), and a pound each of number 10 and 12 nails

1 – number of bottles of tequila killed

2 – number of birthday cakes consumed (large sheet cakes, one vanilla, one chocolate)

3 – number of people celebrating birthdays

8 (ish) – number of times I heard songs by Little Feet and Jack Johnson and the Grateful Dead and Lyle Lovett

2 – number of my goddaughters who were present (of a total of 2)

100s – number of photographs taken

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It’s impossible to quantify or even fully capture in words the love I have for the people I spent the weekend with.  It’s a tradition I love fiercely, this Memorial Day together in the woods of New Hampshire, swatting away blackflies and making sticky smores and dressing up in costumes for an Olde Tyme photograph.  I hope it never ends, even as I watch our children growing taller and moving towards the young adult phase of their lives.  I’m grateful to have known these women before these now-lanky adolescents were even born, and I fiercely hope I know them until long after they’ve grown into full adulthood.

I’ve described the way I feel about them before as a complicated equation of gratitude, and that’s still true.  They’ve taught me more things than I can possibly describe, but one of them is to trust that true friendship can morph and change shape as we grow while still remaining sturdy, solid, and there.

As we drove up to this house that our friends have so immensely generously shared with us more times than I can count, I kept thinking of Wallace Stegner’s lovely lines from the beginning of Crossing to Safety (which I read one, sitting in a bedroom in this very house, and found myself unable to keep reading because I was crying).

There it was, there it is, the place where during the best time of our lives friendship had its home and happiness its headquarters.

Friendship’s home and happiness’ headquarters.  Yes.  What outrageous good fortune that I was able to be there last weekend.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.  A million times over.

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Happy birthday

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Summer, 1998.  Marion, Massachusetts.  We were just back from Africa, not yet engaged, in the first flush of knowing each other.  I wrote about this photo on Instagram last Thursday:

Summer, 1998. Just back from 6 weeks in Africa and still 2 years from the day that our true adventure would begin, in the exact spot we are standing here. I look at this photo and see youth and love and also storm clouds, but as we witnessed on our wedding day, in this same harbor, and many times since, storms pass and in their wake comes beautiful, clear weather and lambent light, full of meaning and grace.

This is one of my favorite pictures of us, and one of the first I have (other than lots from Africa, though to be fair, those are mostly of just you or just me because we traveled mostly the two of us).  Two years after this photo was taken we were married in this same town, a few blocks away at the local church, and we walked to this spot in the rain (photo of that here).

As I mentioned in my Instagram post, the clouds cleared that night and a beautiful evening came after the thunder, lightning, and downpour.  It’s rained and stormed since 9/9/00, Matt, more than once, and you and I both know it.  You could argue there is some storminess right now.  But I’ve come to trust that the clouds will clear, and I hope you do too.

We met in January 1998, and the first birthday we celebrated together was when you turned 28.  That seems like moments ago, and also, of course, a lifetime.  Thank you for tolerating my strange quirks, my endless list of peeves, my hilarious-only-to-me tweets about you (and your choice of wiper speed), and my sturdy unwillingness to learn anything about sports.

Our first big trip was to Africa, and to the summit of Kilimanjaro, but since then we’ve been to Asia, South America, and Europe.  Two more continents to go.  The bigger adventures have happened right here at home, I’d argue, in the same small house we’ve lived in since our first anniversary.  This is the site of a million moments that add up, ultimately, to a life.  I only know a few things for sure, but one of them is that a happy life is made up of family dinners and compliments and bedtime routines and Little League games (even disastrous ones) and and evening runs around the neighborhood and hours spent shoveling and walking in snow gear to our car and camp drop-offs and bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches on weekend mornings.

There are a great many ways that life has turned out to be not like you expected, I know that, but I hope you can see all the ways that it is still breathtakingly beautiful.  The lion’s share of that is these two, below, who we made together and whose arrivals are probably the two seminal moments of my life.  Thank for tolerating that, too, even when I spat fruit juice at you and told you we couldn’t possibly have a baby while I was 7 cm and in heavy labor with Grace.

We’re beginning to glimpse the edge of life on the other side of this season, which fills me with sorrow, but also with a new kind of joy.  Last summer, we sat together and watched the sunset at my favorite place, just the two of us, and I felt something shift.  We were together before these two, and we’ll be together when they move into their adult lives too.  And how fortunate we are for that.  Thank you for all the good humor, hard work, and excellent coffee you bring to my days.

There is so much beauty in this life of ours.  And you’re an – the – essential part of that for me.

Happy birthday, Matt.  I love you.

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And now we are four (April, 2015)

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If your eyes are open

“Don’t scorn your life just because it’s not dramatic, or it’s impoverished, or it looks dull, or it’s workaday. Don’t scorn it. It is where poetry is taking place if you’ve got the sensitivity to see it, if your eyes are open.”

– Philip Levine

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