the shifting plates … your precious life

Faultlines
by Rev. Robert Walsh
 
Did you ever think there might be a fault line
Passing underneath your living room:
A place in which your life is lived
In meeting and in separating, wondering and telling,
Unaware that just beneath you
Is the unseen seam of great plates that strain through time?
And that your life, already spilling over the brim,
Could be invaded, sent off in a new direction,
Turned aside by forces that you were warned about but never prepared for?
Shelves could be spilled out,
The level floor set at an angle in some seconds’ shaking.
You would have to take your losses, do whatever must be done next.
When the great plates slip and the earth shivers
And the flaw is seen to lie in what you trusted most,
Look not to more solidity, to weighty slabs of concrete poured
Or strength of cantilevered beam to save the fractured order.
Trust more the tensile strands of love that bend and stretch
To hold you in the web of life that’s often torn but always healing.
There’s your strength.
The shifting plates, the restive earth, your room, your precious life,
They all proceed from love, the ground on which we walk together.
Thank you to my friend Sarah, who shared these beautiful words with me after my father’s death this past month.

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Word of the year 2018

Well, my word came to me.  After last week’s convoluted and unstructured thoughts on a new year, and a freezing cold week with lots of snow, I know what my word is.

Simple.

I thought it might be peace, calm, or grace, but the word I keep coming back to is simple.

This word featured in this year’s first weekly quote here, which no doubt helped frame it as a word for me.  “I am beginning to learn that it is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all.” Laura Ingalls Wilder said this and oh, yes, it’s true.

I know what matters to me – that’s only become more clear in the last, dark months. I referred to radical perspective on Instagram, and I want to keep hold of that even as life returns to a more normal cadence (although, truthfully, one thing I’ve realized in the last several months that there is no such thing as “normal”).

My very clear sense of what I prize most has been a beacon in the last few months, and I want to honor that this year.  I want to keep that simplicity of focus and that determination to pare away what doesn’t matter.  I want to focus on those I love most and, after that, on my work and my writing.

I want to keep it simple.  There’s no use in anything else, I think I already knew that, but the last months of pain and sorrow have certainly brought it home.  So in 2018 I will be focusing on the simple things.  They’re what matters, as Laura Ingalls Wilder says and as I already knew.

What’s your word for 2018?

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the real ones

I am beginning to learn that it is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all.

-Laura Ingalls Wilder

A mantra for 2018

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A New Year

The top of this year’s Christmas tree, with our angel.  That this tree came within an inch of our ceiling, by dumb luck, is one of the small joys I mention here, whose shimmer I’m newly aware of, and whose presence is a balm.

It’s no secret that 2017 was very, very difficult year for me.  The weeks between November 26 and the end of the year were without question the darkest of my life, in what was already its hardest season. My word for 2017 was deliberate, and for the first nine months of the year, it felt about right.  I dedicated yoga practice to the word deliberate, when I (occasionally) meditated, I allowed that word to guide me and to surface.  I thought about how I could be careful with my time, my choices, my attention, my life.

And then we lost Matt’s father and my father in two months, and our lives veered off the rails.  Deliberate became, frankly, irrelevant.  I can honestly say that since late September the notion of making careful choices hasn’t crossed my mind. I’ve been writing obituaries and eulogies and thank you notes, crying unexpectedly and often, comforting children who are both scared and sad, talking to a spouse who is facing eerily similar circumstances.  We both miss our own dads most of all, of course, but we enjoyed close relationships with each other’s fathers, too, and so Matt and I are both mourning two important men simultaneously.

The day after Christmas, I described this holiday season on Facebook as “shot through with light and suffused with both love and loss, but mostly, honestly, bewildering.” On Christmas Eve, in the church service we always go to, I was in tears several times.  During the prayers of the people when the minister asked the congregation to speak the names silently or aloud of those who have died in the last year, Matt said “Kirtland Mead” and I said “John Russell.”  There is so much about right now that feels surreal.

But even the midst of these dark, confusing days, I am aware of a deep thrum of gratitude.  I wrote about it the morning after my father died, and right after John died I spoke about it unceasingly to Matt.  Both men had full, rich lives, and left tremendous legacies and long shadows.  We are immensely fortunate to have known, loved, and been loved by them.  There is no tragedy here, at least in my view.  There is a lot of sorrow, and a fair degree of shock, but also an enduring feeling that life is good.

Anyway.  There was also much that was good in 2017, though those developments have been thoroughly occluded by the sorrowful events of the year’s end.  Both Grace and Whit started at new schools that they love.  Both Matt and I are in new professional roles, mine in a company I co-founded. One thing that gives me comfort is knowing that both my father and my father-in-law knew of all these developments before they died, and they knew everyone was doing well.  I’m glad for that.

Despite this sturdy sense of gratitude, it was still a holiday season marked predominantly by sorrow. In the midst of all the darkness, though, I’ve been able to see beauty.  I’m still unpacking all the gifts that the box of darkness that the autumn of 2017 handed me, but one of them is surely awareness of small joys.  I wrote on Instagram that this fall had given us radical perspective, and I think that’s connected.  A lot, and I mean a lot, of things cease to matter, when a few things matter so much. It sounds paradoxical when I write it, but somehow realizing how few of the things that cause me and those around me angst and frustration really matter opens the door to awareness of the beauty in many commensurately small things.  Does that make sense?  I’m not sure.  In the wake of devastation, when there is such an overwhelming focus on one (or two) heartbreaking events, a deep well of thankfulness for small comforts has sprung up.  For those of you who have helped provide those: it is appreciated. We have been borne up and carried by the love of friends and family in these last weeks: there’s no way for me to thoroughly express my thanks for that.

I don’t yet have a word for this new year.  I’m mulling some over – peace, calm, grace have all come to mind.  What I want most fervently is a less eventful year.  I want for my family – the family I came from and the family I built and live with – to have some months ahead of quiet joy, of small pleasures and creeping peace.  I want my mother and my mother-in-law to laugh again, and I know they will.

In past years my New Year’s posts have been about lessons learned the year before, about things I want to carry into the new year, about words that guide me.  This is less structured than that, I realize, but perhaps that’s apt: life is a mish-mash of feelings right now, mostly dark with some shimmers of light.  I do have trust that we’ll make it through, all of us.  And I hope you do too.

Happy 2018.

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there is still so much here I do not understand

Toward the Solstice, 1977

The thirtieth of November.
Snow is starting to fall.
A peculiar silence is spreading
Over the fields, the maple grove.
It is the thirtieth of May,
Rain pours on ancient bushes, runs
Down the youngest blade of grass.
I am trying to hold in one steady glance
All the parts of my life.
A spring torrent races
On this old slanting roof,
The slanted field below
Thickens with winter’s first whiteness.
Thistles dried to sticks in last year’s wind
Stand nakedly in the green,
Stand sullenly in the slowly whitening,
Field.
My brain glows
More violently, more avidly
The quieter, the thicker
The quilt of crystals settles,
The louder, more relentlessly
The torrent beats itself out
On the old boards and shingles.
It is the thirtieth of May,
The thirtieth of November,
A beginning or an end.
We are moving towards the solstice
And there is so much here
I still do not understand.
If I could make sense of how
My life is tangled
With dead weeds, thistles,
Enormous burdocks, burdens
Slowly shifting under
This first fall of snow,
Beaten by this early, racking rain
Calling all new life to declare itself strong
Or die,
If I could know
In what language to address
The spirits that claim a place
Beneath these low and simple ceilings,
Tenants that neither speak nor stir
Yet dwell in mute insistence
Till I can feel utterly ghosted in this house.
If history is a spider-thread
Spun over and over though brushed away
It seems I might some twilight
Or dawn in the hushed country light
Discern its greyness stretching
From molding or doorframe, out
Into the empty dooryard
And following it climb
The path into the pinewoods,
Tracing from tree to tree
In the falling light, in the slowly
Lucidifying day
Its constant, purposive trail,
Till I reach whatever cellar hole
Filling with snowflakes or lichen,
Whatever fallen shack
Or unremembered clearing
I am meant to have found
And there, under the first or last
Star, trusting to instinct
The words would come to mind
I have failed or forgotten to say
Year after year, winter
After summer, the right rune
To ease the hold of the past
Upon the rest of my life
And ease my hold on the past.
If some rite of separation
Is still unaccomplished,
Between myself and the long-gone
Tenants of this house,
Between myself and my childhood,
Between the childhood of my children,
It is I who have neglected
To perform the needed acts,
Set water in corners, light and eucalyptus
In front of mirrors,
Or merely pause and listen
To my own pulse vibrating
Lightly as falling snow,
Relentless as the rainstorm,
And hear what it has been saying.
It seems I am still waiting
For them to make some clear demand
Some articulate sound or gesture,
For release to come from anywhere
But from inside myself.
A decade of cutting away
Dead flesh, cauterizing
Old scars ripped open over and over
And still it is not enough.
A decade of performing
The loving humdrum acts
Of attention to this house
Transplanting lilac suckers,
Washing panes, scrubbing
Wood-smoke from splitting paint,
Sweeping stairs, brushing the thread
Of the spider aside,
And so much yet undone,
A woman’s work, the solstice nearing,
And my hand still suspended
As if above a letter
I long and dread to close.

(Adrienne Rich)

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Earthquake

sunset over the reception after my father’s funeral, 12/3/17, photo by Grace

How shall the heart be reconciled/ to its feast of losses?

I’ve written about these lines, from Stanley Kunitz’s beautiful poem The Layers, many times.  That fact makes me shake my head now … I never knew what loss meant, until these weeks, so it feels naive that I was writing about it at all.  Maybe I was getting ready, in some strange way. I do think all our experiences add up to where we are, and in retrospect things make sense, so perhaps the circling around impermanence, and loss, that I’ve been doing here and in other writing, has been some kind of preparation or prescience.

In October, I shared a photograph on Instagram with a caption about how September had felt like an earthquake for our family.  I almost worry about sharing this piece today, for fears of what tremors lie ahead. Am I jinxing us? Every time I think the earth has stopped shaking, there’s another rupture ahead.  This one, my father’s death last month, is for sure the largest for me.  By a mile.

Dad was the center of my world, his is the voice I hear in my head, he was my first and most essential advisor, counselor, and sometime critic.  My mother, who I’ve described as “like the sun, surrounded by orbiting planets,” is an integral part of my daily life, much more than Dad ever was.  But his influence in some ways loomed even larger, and until the day I die it will be his approval and opinion I seek above all others.  His loss is immense, and to come on the heels of of my father-in-law’s death feels almost inconceivable.

I designed our holiday cards before Matt’s dad died.  They feature a photo that’s not great of us four, notable because we are in motion.  The whole card was about things being blurry due to change: 2 new jobs, 2 new schools, half of our nest now empty.  At Labor Day, this had already been a huge year of transition and change.  And then came September and November, and back to back deaths, and suddenly we are deep in grief on top of breathless from all that’s new. It occurred to me only as I wrote this post that it’s these two men’s names that I have, one my middle, maiden, and professional, and one my married and legal.  I’m proud to have both of their names, and grateful for the enormous ways that both shaped me.

I’m struggling to catch my breath and to find my footing.  I keep thinking of Kunitz’s lines, and about how this autumn has truly been a feast of losses. There are two other lines of writing I’m thinking of a lot these days.  One is Mary Oliver: “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”  Dad gave me a box of darkness, in his death, yes, but also, I’m beginning to understand, in his life.  The seam of sorrow that ran through his heart I recognize in myself.  He and I talked about light and darkness often, but it’s one conversation I remember particularly vividly.  He quoted a passage from Paradise Lost from memory.  He was comfortable with life’s poles, and knew the way that one enriched the other.  I have written about this a lot, and I suspect it’s his single most enduring gift to me.

The other passage I keep hearing in my head is Khalil Gibran: “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being,the more joy you can contain.”  I have long believed this to be true, and I already knew I was capable of deep sorrow and deep joy both.  These last few months, however, have shown me new depths of loss and sadness, and I suspect it will take a while for me to experience the commensurate joy.

I really do feel like I’m standing in the rubble of an earthquake, and what’s new since the last time I mentioned an earthquake in October is my fear there are more startling, unanticipated shocks coming. Maybe there are.  I can’t focus on that now. What I do know is that I’m changed forever after this fall, and I’ll never stop missing my father-in-law or my father.  I am still deep in mourning, but even from this dark, dark place I feel undeniable gratitude that both of them were in my life.  “Though much is taken, much abides.”  Indeed.

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to notice each thing

We are here to abet creation and to witness it,
to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed.
Together we notice not only each mountain shadow
and each stone on the beach
but we notice each other’s beautiful face
and complex nature
so that creation need not play to an empty house.

~ Annie Dillard

Thank you, First Sip, for reminding me of passages I love that I needed to read right at that moment.

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Things I Love Lately

Raising Dudes that are Manly in All the Right Ways – This piece on the Good Men Project is resonant for me in general, and in particular right now as I think about the fact that my son has lost two grandfathers in two months.  My husband, and his father, is a good (great) man and I know he’s paying close attention, but this feels like a particularly salient list right now.

Books I’m Giving this Holiday Season – I write a post like this every year but this year it got a little lost in the shuffle of my Real Life.  My father loved books, and I know I inherited my passion for them from him, so it feels appropriate to re-share this now.

Little Fires Everywhere – I loved Celeste Ng’s book and will review it more fulsomely before long.  This story is entertaining and thought-provoking at the same time, as well as beautifully written.

OK, fine.  I’m not loving a lot lately.  I’m sorry.  It’s been a difficult few weeks in an already-difficult season.  But I would really welcome your suggestions for things I should read, watch, or listen to over the holiday break.  What are you loving lately?

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

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To a Daughter Leaving Home

More than a few people sent me this poem when Grace was leaving for school, which was lovely.  I’ve long known and loved it, and it feels particularly poignant right now, right after the first week that she was home since leaving.  And you know what?  I miss her – we all do – but it is so clear she’s in the right place.  These last weeks have been very challenging for us all, but even in the midst of that, I know she’s okay, which is a huge gift.

(I wrote this before my father died, so there has been a huge rupture since, but the sentiment is still true).

When I taught you
at eight to ride
a bicycle, loping along
beside you
as you wobbled away
on two round wheels,
my own mouth rounding
in surprise when you pulled
ahead down the curved
path of the park,
I kept waiting
for the thud
of your crash as I
sprinted to catch up,
while you grew
smaller, more breakable
with distance,
pumping, pumping,
for your life, screaming
with laughter,
the hair flapping
behind you like a
handkerchief waving
goodbye.

-Linda Pastan

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Kirtland Chase Mead

June 9, 1943 – November 26, 2017

Remembrance from my father’s memorial service, December 3, 2017

I am Lindsey, Kirt and Susan’s older daughter. Thank you for being here today to celebrate my father’s life. There is a line in Steinbeck’s East of Eden in which the characters lament the coming death of their beloved father. How could they think of anything without knowing what he thought about it? This is exactly how I felt about my father my entire life. All that mattered was what he thought. Dad’s has always been the voice I hear in my head, and I suspect – and hope – that never changes.

Dad was, as we said in the obituary, a Renaissance man. He was a man of towering intellect, occasional gruffness, and, perhaps, less well-known but equally importantly, hilariously apt one-liners. Two that come to mind for me often are his assertion that “there are two words that separate us from the animals: may and well.” I have taken that particular adage to heart and think of it every time my children respond to “how are you?” with “I’m well.”

Another thing Dad said often that’s come to mean a lot was his repeated comment to his daughters: “I’m sorry, you must be mistaking this for a democracy.” As a child, of course, that sentence drove me nuts. As a parent, I think he was onto something.

Dad had unapologetically high standards. When I graduated from Princeton magna cum laude, his first words to me were “what happened to summa?” Sometimes his demand and expectation of excellence felt onerous, but most of the time it inspired me. He was invariably curious about my life – asking each and every time I saw him about Grace, Whit, and Matt, the new company I founded this year with wonderful partners, and my writing, usually in that order. He told me often, and recently, how proud he was of Grace and Whit (the expression he used, just last week, was “is there anything they can’t do?”). It’s a gift to be so certain of his love and esteem, and I know it.

My father was an engineer. He had a master’s degree in Physics, a PhD in Engineering, and an abiding trust in the ability of science, logic, and measurement to explain the world. At the same time, he had a deep fascination with European history and culture, often manifested in a love of the continent’s cathedrals. His unshakeable faith in the life of the rational mind was matched by his profound wonder at the power of the ineffable, the territory of religious belief and cultural experience, that which is beyond the intellect.

I grew up in the space between these worlds. This gave me an instinctive understanding that two things that appear paradoxical, like these beliefs, can be both totally opposed and utterly intertwined. From my father I learned that at the outmost limits of science, where the world and its phenomena can be understood and categorized with equations and with right and wrong answers, there flits the existence of something less discernible. The finite and the infinite are not as distinct as we might think, and the way they bleed together enriches them both.

My Dad, who had a three-ring binder full of mathematical derivations he had done for fun (in fountain pen), also stood next to me in cathedrals in Italy, looking up at stained glass windows with frank reverence on his face. For all of his stubborn rationality and fierce belief that everything can be explained, he also always suspected, I think, that some things could not. In fact I think for my father, despite how trained and steeped he was in the language of equations, proofs and derivations, the parts of the human experience that cannot be captured by the empirical were the most meaningful.

This contradiction existed in how he thought about sailing, too, the other primary through-line of his life. Sailing was about careful navigation, measurement, and the angles between water, sail, and wind. And yet at the same time sailing was for Dad about something far less tangible, a fleeting and effervescent way of being in the world, an ability to sense and feel the boat and to make infinitessimal adjustments that made the boat move more smoothly and faster. I often told Dad that he was the person with whom I felt safest on the water, and this is true despite some very bumpy sails. His favorite point of sail was to windward. There was both precision and something far greater guiding my Dad’s hand on the tiller.

There are so many things Dad taught me that I can’t possibly list them, but this was his greatest gift: the belief that there is meaning beyond that which we can prove, and that a life of celebrating that can be a rich one indeed.

Dad often quoted Peter Pan, and his cry “Second star to the right, and straight on ‘til morning!” Dad’s with the stars now, and I’ll remember that every time I look up at the night sky that he so recently explored with us. I think of Grace, Whit, and Dad standing in the street in Marion viewing Venus when it was visible two summers ago. One of my dear friends from college emailed me after Dad died about how he was “part of the firmament,” as a way of conveying her shock at his loss. I loved that image, and one morning this week driving to the bus I asked Whit to look up the formal definition of firmament. It is “the heavens or the sky.” So I think he’s still – maybe even more – a part of the firmament now.

I wish you fair winds and following seas, Dad. And I thank you.

***

Two photos of my children and my father that I love

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