honoring the end as much as the beginning

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Silver bells from our tree lined up after we took them down on 1/3/16.  Time for some silver polish?

On January 3rd, we took down our tree.  I woke up that morning and went for a run during a glorious sunrise, and then came home to a regular morning of coffee, laundry, and, eventually, ornament removal.  And all morning I felt sad.  Really sad.  Like, sitting in the chair by myself with tears rolling down my face sad.

I couldn’t get out of my own way.  Our tree was coming down, and we were wrapping up another Christmas.  Our 14th as a family, our 11th as a family of four.  I’m a nostalgic person, prone to melancholy – we’ve established that – but this sorrow was unusually acute, even for me.  How many more years do we have when the children will relish the quiet, slow week at home with us between Christmas and New Year’s?  How long until they no longer embrace enthusiastically our family traditions, like celebrating New Year’s Eve as a family of four?  I’m not a fool.  I know these days are numbered.

It was my wise friend Julie Daley who gave me words for what I was feeling.  On Instagram she noted that what I was doing was honoring the ending of something, and she said that always carried grief with it.  Her words hit me with the force of a sledgehammer.  Yes.  That’s precisely it.  I’m a porous person, that’s not news to anyone who knows me, but still, sometimes I’m bewildered by how bittersweet this life can be and by how much loss is contained in every single day.

Even as I write this I realize how tiny this goodbye is.  Everyday life is full of farewells, and if we’re fortunate, they’re mostly small.  I thought of my friend Lisa often during this Christmas season, a friend who walked with all of us who knew her right to life’s final farewell.  Her courage in that process astonishes me still.  I suspect it always will.  Bidding goodbye to another holiday is a huge privilege, of course, compared to her experience.  Compared to anything real.  I know that.  Trust me, I do, and still, I’m sad.

But I’ve been musing over this notion now for weeks, the concept of honoring the ends of things.  The idea that the end is as sacred as the beginning, while something that feels deeply true to me, also seems somehow counter-cultural in American life, with our quasi-obsession with newness and the start of things.  I think of a vase of flowers, drooping and faded, or of those who are elderly, or of even the darkest, end days of the year.  All of these things make me feel some vague sense of unease, but as I get older I also recognize their particular beauty.

I think also of Whit’s off-the-cuff comment, one I think of almost daily, that Grace gets the firsts, but he gets the lasts.  How true that is.  And both are vital, essential, powerful. We are marked and shaped as surely by the beginnings of things as we are by their end.  The start of something (birth being the most fundamental example) is holy, no question about it, but so too is the end (death, here, in this analogy).

Despite our societal discomfort with endings – and my own – I think witnessing the individual losses and farewells and losses is crucial to fully living this life.  At least, for me, there’s no other choice.  So thank you, Julie, for helping me understand the grief that is so much a part of my daily experience. It is this: honoring the ends.  I don’t love how this sorrow feels as it courses through my days, but I feel certain that it makes the joy more vivid.

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Saying yes

Years ago I wrote about not understanding what people meant when they called their children their greatest teachers.  And then I wrote about suddenly getting what that means.  I wrote about that on Karen’s beautiful blog.  And Grace and Whit are still teaching me things, over and over again.  Most recently, the lesson was about the difference between saying no and saying yes.

I read Shonda Rhimes’ Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person at the end of last year and it made me think.  A lot.  I fretted: was I just saying no to things too much?  I talked about this reaction, and this question, with Grace and Whit.  Maybe I needed to start saying yes to social engagements more, to going out?  What did they think?  Was I saying no too much?

They looked at me in abject horror.  I stared back, surprised by their reaction.  “What?”

“No.”  Grace said firmly, shaking her head.

“Mummy,” Whit interjected.  “You aren’t saying no to things.  Don’t think of it like that.  You’re saying yes to us.”

And once again, I was reminded of that when I stared into these two faces.  Grace, olive skin, brown eyed, her features angular and lean and those of a young woman now, and Whit, blue eyed, fair, blond.  I looked at their two cleft chins, just like mine, the planes of their faces as familiar as my own.

Right.

I’m saying yes to them.  Yes, I am.  And to writing, and reading, and sleeping, and the things I’ve chosen as my priorities.  But most of all, I’m saying yes to them.  To Grace and Whit.

What are you saying yes to, these days, this new year?

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Life itself is like a story

The storyteller’s claim, I believe, is that life has meaning – that the things that happen to people happen not just by accident like leaves being blown off a tree by the wind but that there is order and purpose deep down behind them or inside them and that they are leading us not just anywhere but somewhere.

The power of stories is that they are telling us that life adds up somehow, that life itself is like a story… it makes us listen to the storyteller with great intensity because in this way all his stories are about us and because it is always possible that he may give us some clue as to what the meaning of our lives is.

~ Frederick Buechner

Yet another beautiful passage I found for the first time on First Sip.

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Word of the year 2016

In 2011 and 2012 I chose words of the year.  Then, in 2013, 2014, and 2015, I struggled to do so.  The struggle made me realize that I hadn’t chosen words in 2011 and 2012 so much as been chosen by words.  Trust and light just bubbled up in my consciousness, made themselves known as themes and priorities and metaphors.

This year that happened again.  My 2016 word of the year presented itself to me over and over in the last few weeks.

Ease.

I’ve written about ease before.  The word “ease” is part of a loving kindness meditation I have repeated to myself many, many times.  In June 2012 I wrote of ease:

That’s what I want.  Everything else I say I want can be folded into this single thing.  I want to live with ease.  To let the clouds of my emotions and reactions skid across the sky of my spirit without overly attaching to them.  To let the weights of sorrow and joy, which are part of my life in near-equal measure, slide off my shoulders rather than staggering under them.

And yes.  That’s what I want.  Everything I wrote then, three and a half years ago, resonates now, even more brightly, with the undeniable urgency of something I need to acknowledge, embrace, and own.  This is what I want.

I’ve mused many times on the invisible calculus that brings certain quotes and poems to mind at certain times.  It’s similar to the way I can’t forget the case of my oft-abandoned novel, the fact that my default tense in writing is present, the strange timing that causes me to look out the window at the moment of sunset more days than not.  All of these are glimpses of the vast design, as far as I’m concerned.  The subconscious mind brings things to us without us logically understanding how or why, but their importance cannot be denied.  I love these experiences, these ways that something beyond our comprehension glints through the fabric of our lives, this reminder that there’s something out there larger and more complex than we can possibly imagine.

I believe that is at work in my sensing of the word ease wherever I turn.  And ease is inextricably linked, for me, to another phrase that I think and write about often: let go.  It has to do with releasing my white knuckle grip on my own experience, with continuing to relinquish my attachment to how I thought it would be, with accepting the ways that my particular wiring and wide-open heart predisposes me to both heartache and joy.

So, with wide open eyes, arms, and hearts, and a deep wish for ease, here we go, into 2016.

Do you have a word?  What is it?

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What I know

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Our family resolutions, on New Year’s Eve, with our up-much-later-than-usual tree visible in the background.

I’ve started the last few years writing about things I know, which is my version, I suppose of resolutions.  This year, Grace asked all of us to write down three resolutions on a paper star and hung all 12 of them from the chandelier in our dining room.  Over dinner, with our star-shaped resolutions spinning gently in the air above us, we talked about them.  Mine were pretty simple: Be here now, meditate 5 minutes every single day (I want to take a several-times-a-week habit and commit to it as a daily one in 2016), and stop snapping at my family.

In general, though, I don’t much go for making resolutions.  Rather, reflecting on what the year that’s closed has taught me feels like a good way to move forward into a new one.  So, with that in mind, I’ve been mulling for several weeks what I know now.  These dovetail, I find, with the resolutions I articulated when Grace asked me to.

I know that I need 8 hours of sleep.  I also know that I am prone to insomnia.  These two incontrovertible truths are often at odds with each other.

I know that the fastest way to gratitude and awareness of my blessings is paying attention to what’s right in front of me.

I know that I love most of all the three people I live with.  It is too easy to treat those who are closest to us poorly.  We trust them, and so we fall apart with them.  But this is backwards.  They deserve the best of us, not the worst.

I know that I happier when I move my body every day.  Yoga, walking, running, spinning; it can take lots of shapes.  But it helps me sleep, it helps me be present, it helps me inhabit my physical self and thus my own life.

I know that my intuition about people and situations – which I refer to as my Spidey Sense – is very rarely wrong.  I need to start trusting it more often.

I know that poetry is my lingua franca, the language my soul speaks.  I need to read it often.

What do you know?  What are your resolutions, if you make them?

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How we pay attention

Most of us spend our time seeking happiness and security without acknowledging the underlying purpose of our search. Each of us is looking for a path back to the present: We are trying to find good enough reasons to be satisfied now.

Acknowledging that this is the structure of the game we are playing allows us to play it differently.  How we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience and, therefore, the quality of our lives.

– Sam Harris

Thank you to Dina for drawing my attention to this beautiful quote, which I did not know before (italics hers, and mine too).

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2015 in retrospect: October, November, and December

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literally the only picture of the four of us taken in this three-month period

Grace turned thirteen.  A teenager.  O.M.G.
Grace had a good cross-country season, and I was overcome, yet again, with the metaphors the sport presents.
We celebrated Thanksgiving with all of my father’s family.  It was wonderful.

My favorite posts:

Contentment
My writing life, and our only true zero-sum resource
A weekend of light and darkness
Stillness in motion

My favorite quote that I shared:

Ultimately, I see mindfulness as a love affair – with life, with reality and imagination, with the beauty of your own being, with your heart and body and mind, and with the world.
~ Jon Kabat-Zinn

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2015 in retrospect: July, August, and September

IMG_7458We celebrated the Fourth of July with my parents, my sister, and her family.  We all loved having all the cousins together.

We picked the kids up from 3.5 weeks at camp.  We missed them when they were gone and it was a joyful reunion.

We spent a week on Lake Champlain, which has become a cherished tradition.  It was marvelous.

We spent Labor Day hiking to a Appalachian Mountain Hut cabin overnight with some of our dearest friends.

We celebrated our 15th anniversary with dinner the four of us.  I took some heat for that choice, but it felt absolutely like the way to mark 15 wonderful years, and we loved our dinner.  The photograph above is from that night.

My favorite posts:

Excited and sad at the same time
The Second Half
Do people still read blogs? 

My favorite quote I shared:

I hope you’ll discover, as I have, that its not what lands you in the dark woods that defines you, but what you do to make it out.

– Joseph Luzzi, In a Dark Wood

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Happy Everything

Christmas 2015 card

Thank you, Sugar Paper, for your help with our card.  I love it.

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2015 in retrospect: April, May, and June

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Grace’s hockey team won their league, and I had tears in my eyes watching them standing as the anthem played.

Grace played the donkey in the sixth grade performance of Shrek, and it was a triumph, enormously moving to watch.

Whit celebrated his 10th birthday by indoor skydiving, and I marveled at his courage and joy.

I had vertigo.  Terrible, terrible, terrible.

I celebrated my 15th reunion from business school.

My favorite posts:

The primacy of interiority
The season of amazement

Everything is changing
What’s next for me as a writer?

My favorite quote I shared:

As for me, I see both the beauty and the dark side of things; the loveliness of cornfields and full sails, but the ruin as well.  And I see them at the same time, at once ecstatic at the beauty of things, and chary of that ecstasy.  The Japanese have a phrase for this dual perception: mono no aware.  it means “beauty tinged with sadness,” for there cannot be any real beauty without the indolic whiff of decay.  For me, living is the same thing as dying, and loving is the same thing as losing, and this does not make me a madwoman; I believe it can make me better at living, and better at loving, and, just possibly, better at seeing.

– Sally Mann, Hold Still

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