Posts tagged: gratitude
June 5, 2013

The Poetry of the Everyday

In my high school sophomore English class, our desks were separated along the two long sides of the room facing each other, half of us with our backs to windows that looked out into a courtyard.  A walkway passed between the desks, and it was here one morning after the second bell rang at 7:35, that my teacher stood and read What the Living Do by Marie Howe. Before the last lines I was in my seat, facing two different boys I had crushes on, crying before 8AM.

That was seventeen years ago. How little we change, really. I thought of this recently when I climbed onto the brown leather seat of my bike and was filled with the same thrill I had on the sidewalks of Drexel Drive, streamers flying from my handle bars. We love what we love, and what we hold dear we hold dear, from the first moment on and on.

And so it is with Marie Howe. Each Friday, I have a long stretch of rote, yet time-consuming tasks to accomplish at work. I listen to On Being each week while I go through them. And guess who was on recently, speaking in a voice I never imagined would be so round and robust. She read her poems, and I was back in moment just like that one in 1996, breath caught in my throat like so much rushing life. Listen to it.

I had no idea that the gate I would step through
to finally enter this world
would be the space my brother’s body made. He was
a little taller than me: a young man
but grown, himself by then,
done at twenty-eight, having folded every sheet,
rinsed every glass he would ever rinse under the cold
and running water.
This is what you have been waiting for, he used to say to me.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This—holding up my cheese and mustard sandwich.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This, sort of looking around.

This is why I love On Being so much, and why, when I am programming modules on a webpage while I listen, it is an especially welcome distraction. I imagine Krista Tippett sitting in a dark studio with her guest, and Minnesota’s bright snow-sun or mosquitoes outside the room. There they talk about what we don’t always have time or energy or even the language to ask when we’re meeting someone for a coffee. What’s at the heart of meaning in your life? How do you create beauty and change and delight?

Or: Folding sheets, rinsing glasses, mustard sandwiches. What makes a thing suffused with so much more than it is? Why does it matter so much?

Later in the talk, Marie explains an assignment she gives her writing students. They must write ten observations. No metaphors, no interpretation, just life as it is.

It’s very hard for them. Tell me what you saw this morning, like in two lines. I saw a water glass on a brown tablecloth, and the light came through it in three places. No metaphor. But to resist metaphor is very difficult because you have to actually endure the thing itself, which hurts us for some reason. We want to say it was like this, it was like that, we want to look away. And then they say, well there’s nothing important enough, and that’s the whole thing. The this, whatever it is.

Weeks later, everything’s changed.

The fourth week or so, they come in and clinkety, clank, clank, clank, onto the table pours all this stuff, and it so thrilling. I mean it is thrilling. Everybody can feel it. Everyone is just like wow, you know. The slice of apple, and then that gleam of the knife, and the sound of the trashcan closing, and the maple tree outside, and the blue jay. I mean it almost comes clanking into the room. And it just, it’s just amazing, you know [...] On the fifth or sixth week, I say OK, use metaphors. And they don’t want to. They don’t know how. Why would I? Why would I compare that to anything when it’s itself?

Why are the details of our world so important? Why do I love Marie Howe’s poetry, and care so much about the table set with low candles and sweet williams in jam jars, the begonias I planted  on Mother’s Day, and the streaks of mud still on my calf two days later? January’s soft-bright winter light, that the coffee is hot in its little white cup, and that the cherry trees down the block erupted in ruffles of prom dress pink and a few weeks ago turned into a thrash of green leaves just as suddenly.

Here’s the best I’ve come up: our lives are speeding forward on a timeline we may or may not find agreeable. Either way, there will never be a moment just like this one. Just as soon as we notice the light hitting the water glass in three places, we’ll be off: onto the late train, the to do list, the minutes on the clock. But if we can first just notice that thing, whatever little reality it is, the world around us becomes more animated and our connection to it moored there for a moment. Clinkety clank clank clank. Is that grace? I don’t know. Whatever it is, when I notice it, I feel alive from hair to heel.

Which brings me to this, as close to gentle instruction as I can come. I was returning home to Brooklyn after planting those begonias in a shady spot in front of my mom’s porch. We were saying goodbye in the dark cool of the TV room. “Don’t take anything for granted,” she told me as we hugged, and I answered into her shoulder, “That’s hard.” And she said, “Enjoy. It’s the same thing, isn’t it?”

April 17, 2013

What’s Right

On Monday night I came home from work feeling a little more alive. It can take a surprising slap of a disaster to do that. On the sidewalk, I looked into people’s faces. When the D train traveled over the Manhattan Bridge, I looked up from my reading and out the window––at the piers stretching out into the mirrored surface of the water, the tall buildings reflecting that golden hour of the evening. When I got home, I kissed Sebastian in the doorway a little longer and moved through a yoga class as my bedroom went from warmly lit by that orange-red sun to dark. Look up, the teacher said time and again, in tree pose, in crescent. There’s an optimism there.

Did you know we are genetically wired to remember negative moments more than good? It’s our DNA’s way of keeping us alive. We’ll remember the bitter snap of winter, the terrifying snarl of a wild animal. We have to work hard against this predisposition, which is why everyone from Buddhists to psychologists suggest we keep a gratitude journal. My blog posts have felt a little heavy to me lately, and I wanted to counter that by listing what was right. In light of recent news, looking for the good took on a new weight.

Today I am 31. I know! It sounds like such a grown-up age, one that comes with a mortgage and a mid-life crisis not too far behind. I still feel like a silly girl inside, one who sings impromptu made up songs and wants to take tap dancing lessons. I have a feeling that never goes away, does it? Last week, anticipating my birthday, I felt disappointed at how much this year looks like last. I live in the same apartment, in the same neighborhood I’ve called home for nine years. But last night I went to sleep thinking how different something can feel from the inside, even when it all looks the same. And this morning I woke up. I’m looking up at the horizon and working against every ancient cell that wants me to remember what’s wrong. Here’s what’s right:

The daffodils are blooming on the hillside in the Quaker cemetery tucked inside Prospect Park. My muscles are sore, whether from the first bike ride of the season or a yoga class on Sunday. I have muscles. Right now, I’m sitting on a chair, my feet up on a matching ottoman, slip-covered by my mom in white cotton duck and driven into Brooklyn in the back of her black minivan as a surprise for my birthday last year. Next to me, on a square table salvaged from the street, is a jade plant that’s been hanging on for years, despite improper care, and my little Copenhagen coffee cup. On my left is a window that looks out on to a parking lot. There is a vine climbing across the screen with popcorn kernel-sized red buds. These are just within the little dotted circle I draw around my day, and I haven’t even mentioned the spare and beautiful first pages of the novel I began on Sunday night, or the way the morning sunlight hits our living room or the new coffee shop I’ve started visiting, where the owners are in love and punk rock and relentlessly cheerful. I haven’t mentioned this space, which is a tribe that feels more important to me than ever. I haven’t even gone outside the circle of the past few days, or out into the larger circles beyond my little life, into our communities, humanity, the universe. As Melissa wrote recently in the comments, “We are mere specks in this universe. Our only task is to put good energy into it.”

But I will leave it there, in this small, sweet little circle filled with good energy and within which there is plenty right.

March 1, 2013

Forgetting and Remembering

I wouldn’t call it a health kick, because I ate three and a half slices of pizza last Tuesday night, even if it was with a side of kale. But I do find myself on the yoga mat more nights than not or watching my breath rise and fall even as I sit at my desk. I bought a cheap bottle of lavender essential oil on ebay and pour it into a hot bath with epsom salts a few times a week. And I find myself sinking into novels that take me out of myself. (World War II will put just about any set of travails into perspective.) I think what I would call it is a self-care groove. I am trying to make my home, my weekends, and the hours that bookend work as supportive and replenishing as possible.

“When there is a crisis,” a friend told me Tuesday night (before the pizza), “there’s enormous potential for change.” I find that true for myself in the past couple months as I’ve been met with emotional upheaval and stress, the specifics of which I’ll save for another day. But we all know what that feels like, in whatever form it’s taken in your own life, to be rocked to your core.

What I find so perverse about my own situation is how much I love its thick silver lining. A crisis can put everything into relief. What I care about, what’s important, what truly matters–those things stay. Connecting in meaningful ways. Cooking good, simple food. Taking thoughtful care of myself, my life, and the people in it. But whatever is toxic, draining, and inconsequential I just don’t have the energy or patience for. There’s no room for it right now. Even those words don’t quite capture the black and white sense that drives my life right now. Let me try again: life’s been edited down to my own version of the essentials. All that matters is what matters.

So what does that look like? I try a little harder to keep the house tidy so that in the evenings, when I light the taper candles in the windows and on the coffee table, there’s a real sense of calm in our home, a needed foil to whatever the day has served. I say no to social things sometimes, when I know what I need is to not spend $70 on a night out, but to make a big pot of grains for the week and climb into bed a little early. I wonder with one breath if my friends think I’ve gone boring, and with the next breath I let it go. There’s no room right now for that kind of worrying.  “It’s extremely clarifying,” my mom said to me one sunny morning on the phone. It was the word I’d been looking for.

There are times in my life when I’ve successfully done what’s best for me. As I get older, it seems a little easier (at times!) to not be quite so self-defeating. I find myself struggling a little less with the question that’s long plagued me: why is it so hard to do what’s good for you? But there’s something a little deeper going on right now. The choices I’m making feel important. I think what I’m talking about is life at its most nourishing. A walk in the park on a cold afternoon isn’t just me, squinting in the sun and navigating around slicks of mud. It feels like something more, like embodying my best self, or stepping into the flow, or doing what some part deep within me, beneath the shoe choice and the hair style and stretchy jeans, wants to be doing.

Sometimes I feel like this blog tracks my journeys as an Odysseus-like traveler, out into the world of distractions and proving oneself, and then home again to something more meaningful. I circle back to the same ideas over and over and declare “aha!” each time. But maybe that’s just the nature of navigating through this world looking for meaning. We remember what’s important, have moments of clarity, and then over time, forget again. Tara Brach said recently that there are moments of extreme clarity in life: when a baby is born, when someone is dying, when we say our wedding vows. But there are smaller moments too, like when we are chopping vegetables for a meal with friends, or when we allow ourselves a few moments before we launch into the day to sit quietly with our breath, or when we are riding the bus and look out the window and can hardly fathom the brightness of the blue sky. We remember.

There have been quite a few moments recently when standing at the cutting board in our poorly-lit kitchen I had such a contented feeling. One of those times was a couple weeks ago, when I had Monday off and spent the morning baking a cake for old friends coming over who we hadn’t seen in much too long. Peeling the apples, chopping them, listening to the low hum of the mixer beating eggs, oil, and sugar into a rich, sweet batter kissed with cinnamon–there was a sweet, steadying rhythm to it, not unlike how I felt on that walk in the bright and muddy park. Something inside our body knows, even before our heads do, when we’re on the right track.

Continue reading “Forgetting and Remembering” »

February 8, 2013

Grounding, Sure-Footed, and Simple

We touched home at JFK on Sunday night, and I could already feel a cold creeping up. It reminded me of stormy fights that brew just when it’s time to say goodbye; at least getting sick would make it easier to leave beautiful and charming Copenhagen. Which I want to tell you all about in potentially florid detail–all those vacation breakthroughs and epiphanies and a sense of wide-eyed awakeness. Right now I’m still sorting through them and testing them against the light of real, everyday life.

I am also blowing my nose into oblivion. But I was enormously grateful to open the freezer and find I had the foresight to freeze a bit of this soup before our trip. It has bunches and bunches of greens in it, dill and a lively squeeze of lemon. It’s soup at its best: filled with the kind of clean, bright flavors you long for in the dark of winter or after too much indulgence or when you are sniffling endlessly. It feels nourishing, as if just breathing its lightly-scented steam will put you right again. It’s the kind of food we need when we’ve had major upheaval: it’s grounding, sure-footed, and simple. It’s what I was craving before I set off on what I called my Life Design Inspiration Trip, and what I’m wanting even more now that I’m home.

For all of you with mid-winter colds, heartaches, or who are just experiencing the dull, panging ennui that February so often brings on–this one’s for you.

Continue reading “Grounding, Sure-Footed, and Simple” »

That is happiness; to be dissolved into something completely great.
- Willa Cather