Tradition and adaptation, metaphor and flying

I have written a lot about traditions, and how they can form the scaffolding of family life. That’s certainly true for us.  For many years our family’s calendar has been dotted with traditions big and small.  As the kids have grown, some of these have fallen by the wayside and others have shifted but remained present.

There’s both tension and the possibility of power, I’ve come to believe, in how we adapt our traditions to fit our changing lives.  Many years ago, I took Grace and Whit to Storyland for a night at the end of the school year.  It was a wonderful trip – so great that we went back the next month.  For several years we did that, and then one year we did something else (a treetop course at Cranmore) and this year we went ziplining.

We got to Gunstock on Saturday morning and signed lots of waivers.  Matt took a pass on ziplining because of his leg, so Grace, Whit and I went up the chairlift together.  As we rode to the top of the mountain, we watched some people pass on the zipline to our left.  I could not believe how high they were or how fast they were going.  I took a deep breath and caught Grace’s eye.  What were we in for?

We ziplined a short distance from the chairlift to the top of the longest, highest zipline of the course.  The kids went together, ahead of me, and I followed them. As we wound up a rickety spiral staircase to the platform I felt dizzy ad paused.

“Are you okay, Mum?” Whit asked me from above.  I nodded, but waited a moment to regain my bearings.

“I’m a little nervous, too,” he whispered to me when I reached the top. I felt the world swirl below us, and standing with my feet further apart than normal, to feel balanced, I reached for my phone to take a photo.

They got ready to go.  The lines soared away from the platform, and with a thumbs up over their shoulders, they did too.  I stood and watched them go, leaping into the great wide open, flying away from me.  The metaphor hit me over the head and I stood alone on the platform, slightly stunned and grateful at the same time.

In a few moments it was my turn.  Channeling their openness, I stood while the attendant hooked me to the zipline, and then I jumped.  And I flew.

When I arrived at the next platform, I saw Grace and Whit standing there, waiting for me, grinning.  I had tears in my eyes as I landed and joined them.  I thought back to another day, years ago, when the three of us flew.

We went to the hotel we have stayed at for so many years, had dinner at our beloved Red Parka Pub, played at the water park, and fell asleep in a small room.  There are few things I love more than the four of us sleeping in one room.

Everyone fell asleep before me, and I lay in the dark room, thinking back to the early Storyland years. They were animate in the room, I felt, and the 5 and 7 year old versions of Whit and Grace floated in my memory.  I miss those years, desperately, but I’m so glad we’ve found a way to keep celebrating who the children are – who the four of us are – right now, and to keep our family rituals alive.

As we drove home on Sunday, Grace noted that she loved our annual celebration trip, and I swallowed hard to hide the tears from my voice when I agreed with her.  Oh, me too.  It is only by releasing our grip on what was that we can fully embrace what is.  The truth of that hit me hard this weekend.  I miss the days that were, but my God, that sorrow isn’t going to get in the way of my grabbing the days that are.

This is ritual at its most powerful, I believe: a way of honoring what was and of celebrating what is.  A reminder of the sturdy underpinning of family life. A confirmation that something bigger than each of us holds us, and a plain say of love. This is who we are, Grace and Whit: a family that honors June each year, and one that trusts that when you jump off a platform into the sky, you’ll fly.

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so wondrously simple

Being yourself seems like the most effortless thing in the world – duh, who else are you going to be? But it’s deceiving, tricky, a summons laden with meandering and failed attempts – and then at last, so wondrously simple.

-Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life

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The moment of change is the only poem. – Adrienne Rich

Once again, a time of change. Oh, the change makes music. – James Taylor

I am living in a poem, in a time of glorious music.

Everything is changing. Grace and Whit are both going to new schools after 8 and 10 years respectively at the school around the corner. Grace is leaving for boarding school.  Matt and I are both in new jobs, and mine is in a brand new company.

Literally nothing is the same as it was last year.

And of course so much is the same. Our parents are healthy, as are our siblings. We are surrounded by love and immense good fortune. We still live in the same house, on the same street, and the same tree across the street that I’ve watched for 16 years now is in full-on summer bloom.

We have each other.

But I’ll be honest: what’s new is more present for me than what’s constant. I feel buffeted by change and upheaval, most of all by Grace’s impending departure but by everything else, too. I struggle with change.  I always have.

But now and then there are glimpses of another way of being, and they are as fleeting as they are seductive. Like a bicycle slipping into gear, once in a while I have a sensation of freedom, as I can briefly embody the be-here-now philosophy I wish so desperately was mine all the time. It is as though for a passing moment, I feel permission to just live the moment I’m in, without being paralyzed by my concerns about what is coming. To be clear: even these glimpses are new. I am accustomed to traveling through my experience with a white-knuckle grip on each day, my desire to inhabit the moment frankly equaled by my inability to release my worries about what’s coming.

So it feels like a benediction, or a blessing, to let go of this for a fleeting moment.  Is this what life in the moment really feels like? Maybe this is what sports psychologists refer to as flow. It does remind me of the sudden, startling ease of hitting a ball with a tennis racquet’s sweet spot: everything feels smoother, simpler, easier.

I have no doubt that these moments are grace.

What I don’t quite know is what brings them to me, or whose permission I’m receiving to simply enjoy my 14 year old as she is, rather than fretting overwhelmingly about her moving out.  I wish I could figure out what triggers these moments, since I want to live more that way. Somehow, I suspect that working hard to figure out what it is that allows this grace to pass through me is a lost cause, though, or a fool’s errand.  If anything, these moments of fleeting being-here-now seem to whisper that the secret is in letting go of my grip, not tightening it.

My practice this summer – a brief, shining window before our new formation this fall – will be to simply allow these transcendent experiences to descend, and to welcome them as they come.  I will try not to worry about when I’ll next be allowed to peek into life without the penumbra of what’s coming looming.

I will hear the music of the change.


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very lovely

Dear old world’, she murmured, ‘you are very lovely, and I am glad to be alive in you.”
~ L.M. Montgomery

I loved Anne as a child, with the particular passion of a red-headed girl finding a kindred spirit, and was delighted to find this beautiful line on Tamara Willems’ lovely blog.

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Tomorrow, both children graduate – Whit from sixth grade and Grace from eighth.  At the school they’ve both been at since they were four, sixth grade and eighth grade are inflection points (the other is twelfth grade), so they each have graduation ceremonies.  As you can probably imagine, I’m perpetually in tears these days and expecting an emotional day tomorrow.  I did my last pickup at the gym. I packed the last lunch of my career as a mother. Etc.  Etc.  Etc.  The lasts are coming thick and fast right now, and I’ll be honest, I’m trying to catch my breath and keep my balance.

This time of year always feels this way to me, limned with endings and loss despite its perch at the moment that my favorite season, summer, bursts into reality.  I have written a lot about how this season of ends and beginnings feels for me.  This year the complicated emotions are stronger than ever, with both children moving on (and in particular with Grace leaving for boarding school).

There’s something about the word, commencement, that captures all the conflicting emotions that are bound up in this moment. This moment every year, but perhaps, most of all, this moment in my life right now.  Grace and Whit are, as I’ve written before, taking flight.  I’m so proud I ache, but I’m also keenly aware of something big coming to an end.

So much radiance.  So much sorrow.  Inextricably wound together, twisted through every hour. Tomorrow, we commence.  Onto the next thing, into the onrush of time, keenly aware of all that’s glorious and all that’s lost, always, at the same time.


Years ago I described the fleeting nature of time as the black hole around which my whole life circles, the wound that is at the center of all my writing, all my feeling, all my living.  Certainly that seems to be borne out by what it is I write, over and over again.  At the very midpoint of the year, the sunniest, longest days, I find myself battling an encroaching sorrow, an irrefutable sense of farewell.  The proof is in my archives.

The world bursts into riotous bloom, almost as though it is showing off its fecundity.  The days are swollen and beautiful, the air soft, the flowering trees spectacular.  The children gleefully wear shorts to school, the sidewalks are dusted with pollen and petals, and we round the curve of another year.  We start counting down school days, we say goodbye to beloved babysitters who are graduating from college, and I find myself blinking back tears.

Every year, I’m pulled into the whitewater between beginnings and endings that defines this season.  I can barely breathe.

It’s all captured in the event that so many of us attend, year after year, at this time: commencement.  It was my own commencements that marked this season, for years: from grade school, high school, college, graduate school.  And then there was a time when, though I wasn’t personally attending commencements, I felt their presence, sensed the ebb and flow of the school year.  It seems that my spirit and the very blood in my veins will always throb to the cadence of the school year.  And now it is my children who commence, who close a year and begin another, wearing too-long hair and legs, vaguely tentative smiles, and white.

Commencement.  Isn’t this word simply a more elegant way of describing what might be the central preoccupation of my life?  You end and you begin, on the very same day.  You let go of something and while that I-am-falling feeling never goes away, you trust that you’ll land.  And you do, on the doorstep of another beginning, a new phase, the next thing.

No matter how many times I’m caught from the freefall of farewell by a new beginning, though, I still feel the loss.  As much as my head understands that endings are required for them to be beginnings, my heart mourns what is ending.  That a seam of sorrow runs through my every experience is undeniable; it may sound depressing, but I genuinely don’t experience it that way.  It is just part of how I’m wired, and it’s never closer to the surface than right now, as this school year winds down, as we celebrate the beginning that’s wrapped in the end, as we commence.

These words (since the break), were first published in 2013

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a life of noticing

Both poem and painting offer their combined visions – rimed with pathos and irony – as an enduring truth of life: the world often doesn’t notice us. This understanding has been a crucial urge for most of what I’ve written in fifty years. Mine has been a life of noticing and being a witness. Most writers’ lives are.

– Richard Ford, Between Them

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Things I Love Lately

Finishing a Memoir with Months to Live – I adored The Bright Hour, and this piece about the book’s writer, Nina Riggs, just took my breath away. Nina is so brilliantly captured in these reflections by Tita, and her vivid, generous approach to life leaps off the page.  Read the piece, and read the book, I urge you.

Dear Girls, Life is Too Short for Crappy Friends – This contains wisdom whether you’re a teeanger or a mid-life adult (or, probably, beyond). Grace is thick in the heart of figuring out what friendships means, and I am remembering all the angst of those years. I keep promising her she will find her people, and I know she will.

Locating Happiness – Thank you to Amanda Magee for drawing my attention to this gorgeous piece.  “What is it about middle age? I do not seek out happiness as a goal or object and yet it comes to me in innumerable small ways, as long as my eyes are open and my heart is pliable.”  Yes.  This.  Exactly this.

My favorite chocolate chip cookies – I know I’ve shared this recipe from Smitten Kitchen, before, but it remains my all-time favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe.  I make these all the time, and they literally never fail. I make them with regular chocolate chips, or a mix of dark and regular chocolate chips (not chocolate chunks).

What are you reading, loving, and thinking about lately?  Books on my list include: Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning (Claire Dederer), Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy (Sheryl Sandberg), Her: A Memoir (Christa Parravani), and Deadfall (Linda Fairstein). What else should I be sure to read this summer?

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

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Look for that pinprick of light

This is your assignment.

Feel all the things. Feel the hard things. The inexplicable things, the things that make you disavow humanity’s capacity for redemption. Feel all the maddening paradoxes. Feel overwhelmed, crazy. Feel uncertain. Feel angry. Feel afraid. Feel powerless. Feel frozen. And then FOCUS.

Pick up your pen. Pick up your paintbrush. Pick up your damn chin. Put your two calloused hands on the turntables, in the clay, on the strings. Get behind the camera. Look for that pinprick of light. Look for the truth (yes, it is a thing—it still exists.)

Focus on that light. Enlarge it. Reveal the fierce urgency of now. Reveal how shattered we are, how capable of being repaired. But don’t lament the break. Nothing new would be built if things were never broken. A wise man once said: there’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. Get after that light.

This is your assignment.

-Wendy MacNaughton and Courtney E. Martin

I love these gorgeous words that I found on Being Rudri.

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Happy birthday

Dear Matt,

Last year was nobody’s favorite year.  Not yours, not mine, not Grace’s, and not Whit’s.  A host of things were challenging, but none more than your injury.  At the end of August, you tore two of your hamstring tendons and wound up in surgery.  It was a stressful and scary week while we figured out what to do, but finally we connected with an excellent doctor and the path forward felt clear.  You spent almost two months this fall sleeping in our living room, recovering slowly from an injury that was described to me by your doctor as the “worst in sports medicine.”  As I’ve told you, when he came out to talk to me after your surgery was complete, he said, ruefully, I’m not going to lie to you, you wish it was his Achilles or his ACL.  It wasn’t.

And yet.  Your character shone in those months. It feels strange to say this but in a way I’m nostalgic for the fall.  It was an intense time – both kids preparing for standardized tests and applying to new schools, my busy season at work, you flat on your back in the living room.  But somehow life was distilled, too, down to what mattered.  I’ll never forget the Labor Day visit from two of my oldest and dearest friends, and the warmth I felt as we all sat around the living room and laughed, eating cheese. It was an evening I will always remember as incredibly special. You were one of the first boyfriends and then husbands to enter the scene of my college friends, who remain largely the most important people in my life. Your relationships to and with them is a source of true joy for me, and I remembered it over and over again this past fall.

Your attitude was excellent.  You steadfastly refused to let me have Comcast install a television in the living room, a decision that surprised me as much as it impressed me.  You read books.  You were positive, resolute, and focused on your physical therapy and gradual improvement.  We would go for slow walks up our (short) street, which took 20 minutes round trip. You were loving and proactive with helping me as much as you could.  I know I wasn’t always a picnic to be around, and I’m sorry about that. Beyond your injury there were actually a lot of other things that contributed stress to our lives.  I’ll just say that in the last part of 2016, a lot went wrong.  But something essential went right, too: I learned a lot about who you are this fall, and I won’t forget it.

We are heading into a new season of our lives now, as Grace heads out of the house, and you know I’m anxious and emotional about it. Still, this past fall taught me there’s nothing we cannot endure together. I look forward to many years ahead, on crutches or on foot (hopefully the latter), and thank you for being the best, most patient partner I can imagine on life’s surprising, beautiful, startling roads.

Happy birthday, Matt.

I love you,


I have written to Matt on his birthday for many years now (and it’s one of the only times of the year I write about him!)

2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010.

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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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