So brief, so fragile

What fools we are, she thought, to love something so brief, so fragile, as life. And especially that handful of sweet, little-children years.

– Julia Fierro, Cutting Teeth

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Friendship, attention, and history

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The mountain lake that we hiked to on Saturday morning

This month, Aidan has chosen Friendship as the topic of our Here YearThe topic is near to my heart and the timing is perfect.  I just returned from my annual reunion with my dearest friends from college.  It was a marvelous, sunny weekend of laughter (a lot) and tears (a few) that reminded me yet again why these women are so essential to me.

I’ve written a lot about friendship, and I cherish my female friends.  As I get older I am more and more convinced of the importance of female friendships to our lives.  The women who live nearest to my heart come from a variety of places and times in my life, but this group of college friends are the single largest and most stable locus of identification for me.  They are my anchor and the first people I call with news, good or bad.  They are the women who hold my stories.  They are some of the few people in the world who know both who I am now and who I was then.  They were my bridesmaids and are the godmothers of my children, and we have attended graduations, weddings, and funerals together.

These are the friends whose lives have now been beating alongside mine for more than half my life.  They are the friends who know the specific part of Middlemarch that I missed because I was skimming a little too aggressively, what the trapezal is, all the lines to Jennifer Lopez’s performance in The Wedding Planner, the best roast chicken recipe, and how to work a 1970s-era one-piece ski suit.  The memories run incredibly deep.  We know the titles of each others’ theses and what we called our grandparents and why a DTR is  important and how we celebrated our 21st birthdays.

For me, this was the best reunion weekend yet.  All but one of us (those who were there) is now 40.  We are all mothers and wives.  We have a great deal in common, most of all the 4 years we spent on the same college campus in the mid 90s.  But our lives are also very different.  We run the gamut, professionally, personally, and geographically.  Somehow, as our flight from those years in New Jersey lengthens, and our paths diverge, we also feel closer than ever.  These women define where I came from and help me know where I am.  Something about this past weekend was simply magic.  Maybe as we hit our 40s we are settling into our skin.  Maybe it was the mountain air and spectacularly beautiful weather.  Maybe it was the triple cream brie and French Sancerre.  Probably it was a combination of all of these things.

I suspect part of it had to do with my – and, I think, everyone’s – increasing ability to be here.  For many years I’ve known that attention is love, and this weekend was a reminder of how true that is.

Friendship is made of attention. 

We listened to each other and in turn we felt heard (I can only speak for myself, but my strong sense is this feeling was common in the group).  I’m always amazed by how swiftly we slip back into comfortable patterns and by how easy it is to be around each other, because so much of our history is known and doesn’t need to be explained. .  This weekend was no different.  There is no way I can capture this strong, loving, dazzling group of women nor how fortunate and privileged I feel to be in their presence.  I simply love them.  That is all.  And I hope they always know that.

I wrote about this weekend, and these friends, in 2010, 2012, and 2013.

 

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73 Questions

I’m so grateful that Brettne pointed me to the Vogue video of Anna Wintour answering the 73 question challenge.  She’s hilarious, and, as Brettne said to me, I totally covet her office.  I was also fascinated by how the specific questions come together to provide a compelling portrait of a person.  I’ve often written about this, about how small details can tell us a lot.  In this case each question reveals a singular facet of a person and the 73 come together into a revealing kaleisdoscope.  I thought it would be fun to answer them.  I’d love it if you wanted to too!  (I’m going to change New York to Boston for my purposes).

1. How long have you been in the area?

I was born here, but we moved around a lot, and I came back for good when I graduated from college in 1996.

2. What’s your favorite season in Boston?

Spring

3. What’s your favorite activity in Boston?

Running along the Charles at sunrise

4. Would you ever leave Boston?

I don’t think so

5. What are three words to describe living in Boston?

Seasonal, bookish, manageable

6. What’s your favorite movie?

Hard to say – not a huge movie person.  But first reactions are: Stealing Home, all the Harry Potter movies, Old School.

7. Favorite movie in past five years?

Truthfully I have barely been to the movies in the past 5 years.  Maybe Where the Wild Things Are.  Though that may have been more than 5 years ago!

8. Favorite Hitchcock film?

I haven’t ever seen one!

9. Favorite TV show that’s currently on?

House of Cards

10. What’s a book you plan on reading?

Frankenstein

11. A book you read in school that positively shaped you?

To the Lighthouse

12. A book you read in school that you never think of?

Vanity Fair

13. On a scale of one to ten how excited are you about life right now?

Nine

14. iPhone or Android?

iPhone

15. Twitter or Instagram?

Close call, but Twitter

16. Vine or Snapchat?

Neither

17. Who should EVERYONE be following right now?

On Instagram, my friend @averdiroach, whose shots of where she lives take my breath away with their beauty.  On Twitter, Book Quotes (@ao_BookQuotes) and Mary Oliver Poetry (@MaOlPoetry) for beautiful snippets of prose and poetry.

18. What’s the coolest thing in this room?

The view out of the window

19. What’s your favorite Boston restaurant?

Probably the bar at the Harvest

20. What’s your favorite food?

French fries, chocolate chip cookies, a perfectly ripe peach, brie with fig jam

21. Least favorite food?

Any shellfish

22. What do you love on your pizza?

White pizza with arugula

23. Favorite drink?

Coffee in the morning

24. Favorite dessert?

Gooey chocolate chip cookies

25. Dark chocolate or milk chocolate?

Dark

26. Weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?

Brain, maybe – as a baby I was looked after by a French woman who fed us very authentic foods

27. What’s the hardest part about being a mom?

Not doing anything well enough

28. What’s your favorite band?

Literally, this stumps me.  Pathetic.  Cool about music, I’m not.

29. Favorite solo artist?

James Taylor

30. Favorite lyrics?

Waiting for my Real Life to Begin by Colin Hay

31. If your life were a song, what would the title be?

Be Here Now

32. If you could sing a duet with anyone, who would it be?

James Taylor

33. If you could master one instrument, what would it be?

Guitar

34. If you had a tattoo, where would it be?

On the inside of my wrist

35. To be or not to be?

To be

36. What’s Oprah like in person?

I wish I knew

37. What number of question was this?

37

38. Dogs or cats?

Dogs

39. Kittens or puppies?

Puppies

40. Dolphins or koalas?

Koalas

41. Bird-watching or whale-watching?

Bird-watching

42. What’s your spirit animal?

A bird

43. Best gift you’ve ever received?

My engagement ring, from my husband

44. Last gift you gave a friend?

A book

45. A person you want to have coffee with?

Mary Oliver

46. A historical figure you’d love to have coffee with?

Joan of Arc

47. How do you like your coffee?

With milk and sugar

48. Can I play a note on this piano?

Sure

49. What’s your favorite curse word?

Shit

50. What’s your favorite board game?

Sorry

51. What’s your favorite country to visit?

Africa

52. What’s the last country you visited?

Ecuador

53. What country do you wish to visit?

Chile – Patagonia

54. What do you see in this image right here?

?

55. Can you write down your favorite word that starts and ends with the same vowel?

alluvia

56. What’s your favorite color?

Orange

57. Least favorite color?

Don’t have one

58. What color dress did you wear to your prom?

Black

59. Diamonds or pearls?

Diamonds

60. Cheap shampoo or expensive?

Cheap

61. Blow-dry or air-dry?

Blow-dry

62. Heels or flats?

Sneakers

63. Can you give an impersonation of someone?

Not well

64. Can you do the same impersonation with a British accent?

No

65. My friend outside this window would love to ask you a question?

Sure

66. [Holding two different colored dresses] Which should I give my girlfriend?

The one on the right

67. Pilates or yoga?

Yoga

68. Jogging or swimming?

Jogging

69. Best way to decompress?

Read in bed

70. If you had one superpower, what would it be?

Time travel

71. Can you describe an experience you felt most nervous?

Speaking in front of a group (giving a toast or reading at my grandfather’s funeral)

72. What’s the weirdest word in the English language?

I don’t know why, but “ooze” and “unctuous” come to mind – clearly I have onomotaepia on the brain.

73. Last question: Is this the strangest interview you’ve ever had?

No

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The work of my heart

There are mothers
for everything, and the sea
is a mother too,
whispering and whispering to us
long after we have stopped listening.
I stopped and let myself lean
a moment, against the blue
shoulder of the air. The work
of my heart
is the work of the world’s heart.
There is no other art.

~ Alison Luterman

I’m familiar with Alison Luterman’s wonderful work (highly recommend!) but I didn’t know this poem before.  I am thankful that I found it on Claudia’s beautiful blog, First Sip.

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Time folds like an accordion

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On Friday, Grace ran her first cross-country meet.  She was nervous, I was not there, and she did well.  She did really well. I met her after the meet and we went straight to the airport to pick up her dearest friend from camp, J.  J is the daughter of my old and dearest friend, Jess, who I met at the same camp, when we were 12.  Grace and J were born 12 weeks apart to the day.  Their firm friendship, independent from ours though inextricably woven through it, makes me happier than I can articulate.

While waiting to pick Grace up, I tweeted that I was collecting my daughter from her first cross-country race.  Lacy tweeted back, “This makes me teary. The colt legs, the pony tail. Late light on the towpath. Go, Graciegirl, go!” That message sent me immediately and viscerally back into the fall light with my friend, a fellow redhead, walking along the towpath, the autumn light on our head.  Then and now collapsed together and I cried, alone in the car.

Grace arrived, I met her coaches, and we headed to the airport.  As we walked in, Grace took off running, her cross-country jersey billowing behind her, her ponytail bouncing.  She’s nearly as tall as I am now, long and lean, all planes and sharp angles, full of energy and a blooming, hopeful tentativeness that is both familiar and, somehow, sad.  I took the picture above and stood, feeling like the wind had been knocked out of me, as I watched her go.  Always, they are running away.  My own cross-country days, in the woods of New Hampshire, among trees whose leaves flamed and then dropped to the ground, felt animate around me, both yesterday and a lifetime ago.  It’s her turn now.  And rather than making me sad, it feels right.  I am grateful to be here to cheer her on.  I can’t wait to go to her first actual meet and to watch her take off, as my mother did so many years ago.

And the seasons, they go round and round …

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We got to the gate early.  As I watched Grace wait for her friend I found that my eyes were brimming with tears.  When my dearest friend’s daughter walked off the airplane towards my own willowy tween, I remembered holding her as a newborn, her tiny self curled on top of my belly which was swollen with Grace.  Over and over again, memory confuses and confounds me with its power: how can that moment be so far gone, never to come again, when it also feels sturdy, still here?

I trailed the two of them back to the car, Grace still in her cross-country uniform, J carrying her own bag, their lanky bodies almost exact mirrors of each other, and thought that they are now the age that Jess and I were when we met for the first time.  I also remembered the day I first discovered I was pregnant with Grace, February 15, 2002, when the first phone call I made was to Jess.  I will never forget that conversation, my whispered, fearful question, and her warm, loving answer.  And from that day forward there were these two girls, whose lives I hope will be joined forever by what they shared even before they were born.  I imagine them when they are our age, hopefully still as beloved as they are now, and it makes me glad, relieved, breathless with wonder.

It is so much, all of it: my youth, then, her youth, now, running, the leaves turning, friendship, history, all that has happened before and is still here.  Time folds like an accordion, then kisses now and spreads apart again, and the past surfaces through the present from time to time, enriching it and reminding me of where I came from.  And always there is my startlingly tall daughter, running away, faster than I could ever imagine, her mahogany ponytail bouncing as the sun goes down.

Sometimes this life is so beautiful it is almost unbearable.

I wrote this post last weekend, but this morning it occurs to me that it nicely straddles September’s and October’s Here Year themes, time and friendship. 

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Time, and a map of what matters

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This September has offered simply spectacular sunsets

September is almost over.  The world spins on.  Aidan and I are coming to the end of this month of the Here Year, whose theme has been time.  Time is perhaps the central preoccupation of my life.  How quickly it moves, how evanescent it is, the confounding nature of memory, the inexorable, unavoidable forward movement of our days: these are the themes around which my thinking and feeling and and writing and living circles.

I hear certain quotes and passages and lines from poems in my head all the time.  I’ve written about that ad nauseum.  It’s hard to say which I think about the most often, but it might be Annie Dillard’s famous sentence:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

I literally could not believe this more fiercely.  Yes, time is a zero sum game.  It is the only one this life actually has.  That’s bracing and often difficult to accept.  At least for me.  But I also have some good news: you can choose what to do with the time you have.  YES, I know: there are many things we HAVE to do that we might not choose.  Work is a big one.  I know.  I work full time.  There are many things I love about my job but it definitely contributes to the fact that on a near-daily basis I wish I had more time for my family, for my writing, for sleep, for myself.

When I look at a map of a week I see a lot of hours dedicated to work, and you might challenge my assertion here, saying “is that something you really value?” The answer would be yes.  I value contributing to my family economically, I like my work and colleagues, and it’s important to me to show Grace and Whit that I have something I enjoy doing to which my training and education contributed.  And the other hours?  They are mine.  Are there things I have to do in there?  Yes. Do I spend more time driving to and from practices than I want?  Sure.  But that reflects a value that I want to do that with Grace and Whit.  Do I spend more time doing laundry and packing lunches than I want?  Sure.  But that is a way for me to stay intimately involved in the details of my family’s life, and for me, that’s worth it.

How I spend my time tells me what I value.

Anne Lamott says that “it is our true wealth, this moment, this hour, this day,” and this is true, too.  How do we spend this wealth?  Let’s be deliberate and thoughtful about that.  Honestly, that is all I want.

Every hour of our life is a choice, a trade-off between competing priorities and desires.  We are all given the same number of hours in a day.  What do you prioritize?  What do you care about?  Where are you spending your time?In the last several years my own life has simultaneously narrowed and widened.  It has narrowed because I have substantially cut down on external (non-job and non-family) commitments.   I say no much more often than I say yes.  And even beyond commitments about my physical presence, I’ve withdrawn in a real way: for example, I spend much less time on the phone catching up with friends.But even in this narrowing my life has startled me with an unforseen richness.  It’s like I stepped into a dense forest but then I looked up to see an enormous expanse of the sky.  Somehow, in my turning inward, I have learned to see the glittering expanse of my own life.  Maybe it is not having the other distractions.  Maybe it is that is training my gaze I have opened my heart.  I am not sure.I spend my time with my family, I spend my time writing, I spend my time reading, I spend my time with a small number of people I entirely trust and wholly love.  I run at 5:30 in the morning because that’s the only time when the trade-off isn’t too steep for me.  It is very rare for me to have dinner, drinks, or lunch with a friend one-on-one.  The same is true for Matt and me with other couples.  On the other hand there are many evenings where I sit and read to the kids while they are in the tub, when I get into bed at 8:15pm with a book, and there are a great many days full of work.

Let’s all decide to no longer hide behind the excuse that we “don’t have time.”  The truer response would be “I don’t care enough to really protect the time.”  This may be harsh, but I think it’s also true.  Let’s take ownership of our choices rather than bemoaning their results.  Do you want time to meditate?  Time to go to yoga?  Time to spend reading with your children?  Well, something else has to go.  As I keep saying, time is zero-sum.

Think long and hard about how you spend your precious hours, the only currency in this life that I personally think is actually worth anything.  A lot of these decisions are made instinctively, without deliberate thought or analysis.  But that’s how life is, isn’t it?  We know what we care most deeply about, and we run towards it, chins ducked.  We protect fiercely time for those things and people and events we truly value.  And those things, people, events we never seem to have time for?  Well, that tell us something important too.

We each populate our hours differently, and our days, weeks, months, and years, are maps of what matters to us.  Look closely at yours.  Do you like what you see?

Parts of this post were written several years ago. Every word is still true.

 

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You must travel it by yourself

Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you.
You must travel it by yourself.
It is not far. It is within reach.
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know.
Perhaps it is everywhere – on water and land.

-Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

I found these beautiful lines in Sukey Forbes’ heart-wrenching and life-affirming memoir, The Angel in My Pocket.

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My Other Ex: Women’s True Stories of Leaving and Losing Friends

 

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It was a great honor to have my work included in Stephanie Sprenger and Jessica Smock’s first anthology, The HerStories Project: Women Explore the Joy, Pain, and Power of Female Friendship.  Friendship is an important subject to me (as evidence, my archives for that topic), and I loved the book, which touched on so many facets of female friendship.

Stephanie and Jessica have just published their second book, My Other Ex: Women’s True Stories of Losing and Leaving Friends, which is focused on one particularly complicated, thorny, and emotional of these facets.  The book unpacks the myriad experiences of friendship’s end.

These paragraphs, from Jessica Smock’s introduction to the book, provide a succinct and compelling summary of the project’s important goal:

“There is so much good, so much power, so much love, in female friendships. But there is also a dark side of pain and loss. And surrounding that dark side, there is often silence. Women feel that there is no language to talk about their feelings. There is shame, the haunting feeling that the loss of a friendship is a reflection of our own worth or capacity to be loved.

This book, we hope, is a step toward breaking that silence. We as women need to recognize the scars of lost friendships and make it okay to talk about them. And we must also teach our daughters how to manage conflict and emotion without resorting to these forms of indirect aggression that cause deep pain with no visible wounds. The life cycle is long, and many friendships will not last. Yet the end of something once powerful and important will bring sadness and grief, feelings that deserve to be acknowledged.”

I think the experience of losing a close friendship is a universal one.  I’ve certainly been through it.  I’ve felt deep heartache, profound guilt, and lingering loss that has stayed with me for a long, long time.  My female friendshpis are vitally important to me and the few occasions that I’ve seen one die have caused me real pain.

I love, too, what Jessica says too about helping our daughters develop the tools to both navigate friendships (many do not, in my opinion, need to end) and to honor their loss if it happens.  To celebrate the importance and life-enhancing value of female friendship while acknowledging that not all relationships last a lifetime.  I hope you will check out My Other Ex, which is full of richly layered and beautifully told personal stories.

I’m also happy to share that Jessica and Stephanie’s next collaboration is a book called Mothering Through the Darkness: Stories of Postpartum StruggleThey are open for submissions through December 1 and I hope some of you will consider sharing a story.  Postpartum struggle (what a wonderful way to describe what can be a kaleidoscope of experiences) is a topic very dear to my heart, and I’m really excited to read this next book.  I’m also hugely honored that Jessica and Stephanie asked me to join an esteemed panel of judges for the submissions.

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The telling power of shelves

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The first thing I do when I’m in someone home for the first time (or even not for the first time) is look at their bookshelves.  I can spend a long, long (probably a socially-unacceptably long) amount of time browsing the books they keep, display, and, presumably, love.  I think there is a tremendous amount we can learn from others by what books they have in their living rooms.

It’s connected to this belief, I think, that I love the rise of the shelfie.  I’ve shared a few of my own, recently and last summer (my Woolf and thesis section, and my poetry shelf).  I’ve captured the bookshelves at my parents’ house on the shore.  I have many, many more bookshelves to photograph and suspect I’ll keep doing that.  I’m often charmed by the random assortments of books that wind up together on a shelf.

Last year we had our first floor repainted and as part of that project I had to empty out our built-in bookcase and then reassemble it.  It was great fun to revisit all those books, and to decide who should sit next to whom on the shelf.  Ann Lamott next to Annie Dillard.  Classics all lined up together, their broken-in spines speaking of how carefully I read them way back in college.  A small section of anthologies I’ve had work published in.

I think often of the famous Cicero quote that  “a room without books is like a body without a soul.”  I agree entirely.  I read hard-copy books and always have, but I watch the world shifting slowly but irrevocably towards e-readers around me.  One of the primary questions I have about this is what will people put in their bookshelves, in a world without paper books?  Another quote comes to mind, this one Anna Quindlen’s: “I would be most content if my children grew up ot be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.”  On this dimension I know I would please Quindlen greatly.  I come by it honestly: my childhood was spent tripping over stacks of books and to this day my father likes to crack that “home is where you keep the books.”  A fun family outing for us is a trip to a used bookstore.

For now, I’m sticking with paper.  And I’m still, endlessly fascinated by looking at bookshelves, in my house and in those of others.  What are some of your favorite bookshelves?

 

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Little daily miracles

I read a lot this summer.  I re-read some, too.  One book I picked up again for the first time in years was To the Lighthouse.  It was my copy from college, and I loved seeing the underlining.  So many passages jumped out at me, then and now.

To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.

…she had known happiness, exquisite happiness, intense happiness, and it silvered the rough waves a little more brightly, as daylight faded, and the blue went out of the sea and it rolled in waves of pure lemon which curved and swelled and broke upon the beach and the ecstasy burst in her eyes and waves of pure delight raced over the floor of her mind and she felt, It is enough! It is enough!

…there is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change, and shines out (she glance at the window with its ripple of reflected lights) in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby; so that again tonight she had the feeling she had had once today, already, of peace, of rest.  Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that endures.

What is the meaning of life? That was all – a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark…

Was there no safety?  No learning by heart the ways of the world?  No guide, no shelter, but all was miracle, and leaping from the pinnacle of a tower into the air?  Could it be, even for elderly people, that this was life? – startling, unexpected, unknown?

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