Posts tagged: life lessons
August 30, 2013

Look Back, Move Forward

I have been out in an old country house much of the summer, falling asleep to crickets. There, in my childhood bedroom, on the bottom of a rattan bookshelf, were nineteen years of journals lined up like little time bombs. I thought it would be fun––funny, maybe?––to start reading through them again. That was one of my more short-sighted moments. Once plucked off the shelf, one by one, I read them late into the night like suspense novels, unbothered by time slipping into early morning. I couldn’t stop. They were by pages humbling, hilarious, humiliating, and I had to know everything I’d forgotten. Every adolescent embarrassment, every disappointment, every obsession. Would Jenny and Blake break up? Would Alex lean over my library carrel one cold winter morning? Was my writing any good, and how would I know? There are snaps into depression and the kind of grandiose bravado that must be the stock-in-trade of the insecure. My college journals felt more familiar––I still remembered much of that time’s happiness––but they were every bit as aching to revisit.


The boy-craziness––going strong now for coming on twenty years––didn’t surprise me. It was there in sixth grade passing notes with Kevin addressed to our grown-up selves (“How is work on your latest novel going?”) and still there, more fiercely than ever, in the summer after my senior year of college. What did surprise me, in a stabbing and bittersweet way that stuck in my throat for days, was how much the world of language and ideas had once meant to me. All the evidence was right there: when I sat in a rear pew of a church listening to Li-Young Lee read and felt so moved by a sense of wonder there was nothing to do but cry. Jenny and I drank coffee on the front steps of Wallace and talked about beauty. On dates in Wisconsin diners over plates of chicken fried steak and white gravy, I talked about Mrs. Dalloway with a boy I loved. I vandalized a Hélène Cixous library book with my furious underlining and wanted to be a mash-up of Naomi Wolf and Susan Sontag. There are few moments as distinct with accomplishment in my life as the early evening I skipped home after presenting my senior thesis filled, finally, with a buoyant sense of freedom and release. I was surprised to see how completely I’d lost my tether to a world of curiosity.

There was another sense of loss, too, maybe even more profound. All that youthful excitement, all those portentous moments, all that intense longing. Desire sets out into the night, and the world is full of potential, adventure, promise. It’s like Joan Didion writes: “I could stay up all night and make mistakes, and none them would count.”

At some point things do start counting, or I started to sense that they should, despite being a young(ish) woman still unencumbered,  no mortgage, no children. But years ago a grown-up ballast planted me firmly in a material, adult world. Work a good job. Contribute to a 401(k). A body that was once the form for joy and mischief, high-heeled feet pumping the pedals of a red bicycle, is now scanned for suspicious moles and malignant lumps. The trouble with remembering just how vibrantly alive you once felt is realizing how very quiet a part of you has been.


But part of reading was seeing something that’s never changed. Any “realization” about what matters most to me in life is really just me circling back on something I already knew, echoes. Take this: Earlier this summer I thought I’d figured something out. I was smoothing the soil in my first little garden plot, where I crushed up egg shells and dropped them in holes dug for young tomato plants and pushed a wheelbarrow full of rotted manure on an uneven gravel driveway. I worked in the hot sun and had streaks of dirt on my face when I went inside for a glass of water. I stayed there in the country at my parents’ house for weeks, watching the raised beds explode with basil and spicy, bitter Asian greens. City ambitions––some idea of what “success” is––were crowded out by the quiet, familiar hum of rural life. In the evenings, after the work day, I closed my laptop not motivated by what I could achieve but by what I could experience. It turns out there are miles of country roads around my mom’s house I had never seen, and I steered my bike on them, past barking dogs and swimming holes. The air was thick with summer smells, mown grass and hay. When the wind blew through the trees, the sound was like rushing water.

Whatever that is, my adolescent self already knew it. I wrote long passages about being a baker, living in a cottage in Maine. I wanted to be this painting when I grew up.  I felt connected to something bigger than myself, bigger than my sadness or school drama, when I was outside slicing through snow in a back field on my cross-country skis, or running the same roads I rode this summer, chasing the  exhilaration, wanting that same hit of being alive.

And so that is what’s been on my mind during this long summer silence from here. Those past selves, still always within us, no matter how dormant they might feel. Can we invite them back in, into this seat on the bus, into the short weekend? They are why I have the same abandoned thrill on my bicycle, why I still step into a pair of red high heels I once wore to catch a cowboy’s eye. Three weeks ago, I found a large, empty cardboard box downstairs in my parents’ living room and carried it back up to my bedroom. I dropped the journals in it, stacked high and lining the sides. It wasn’t with a sense of a sadness that I folded down the top and pushed it to the back of the closet. I felt maybe more myself than ever.

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 5, 2013

Easing into Spring

“May” by 5ftinf

At the vernal equinox, I stayed with a dearest friend in two bright rooms in the rear of a bungalow in Los Angeles. The setting felt like a tropical version of The Secret Garden: just off the street, in the middle of a vibrant neighborhood, was an L-shaped garden curling around the side of her house, so that from every window and through the screen door the view was close, fragrant, and green. I kept asking her to say the name of each plant, just so I could hear the extravagant words again. Kalanchoe. Bougainvillea. Ranunculus. Honeysuckle and jasmine perfumed the air like a grande dame, and riotous pink flowers climbed over head. Waxy, dark green succulents sat in orange clay pots along the brick walkway. I’m not one to talk about the energy of a physical place, but looking out her windows in the morning at all that lush growth, I felt something special there.

We went on a couple of hikes. The view was obscured by fog one day as we scrambled up a steep, narrow path my friend had never wanted to take alone. The way down was long and dusty, our sneakers slipping on the too-smooth surface. At one point I looked up from my shoes to see how much further we had to go. It was a long way and I groaned and cursed. Don’t look, my friend said. And then she said something meant as a practical piece of advice to keep me from skidding on my ass and knocking her down in the process, but which sounds really cheesy and instructive in this context. It was something along the lines of keeping my eyes on the next step.

We sat later in her garden with frozen pineapple vodka drinks (hello, California!), and  I thought again of that passage from Bird by Bird I had just excerpted recently on the blog:

E. L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.

I have been exhausting myself with thinking lately. If I see another article about 10 ways to live your passion or 5 steps to embracing abundance, or if I make another list of what makes me feel most alive, or write a mission statement, or craft a 5-year plan, I might just pack it up. This happens sometimes. I’m comfortable in my inner world, but sometimes it starts to get a little claustrophobic in here. It is too plush and confined, with way too many thoughts and feelings not acted upon. It’s like a Victorian drawing room.

And so it is spring! What a perfect time to get out of thinking and into doing! Only not so much. An encouraging April horoscope had me frozen in my tracks. Wait, what new path am I supposed to be forging? I am (and you, too, Aries sisters!), apparently, unstoppable during our “cosmic birthday” April 10. But for what purpose? Circulate, put it out into the universe, make those dreams manifest! I can’t take the pressure. That, too, feels exhausting.

Here’s the thing: I’m not sure I can think myself out of every problem. Lists are helpful to a point, but I keep forgetting the two bits that come after brainstorming: surrendering (full stop here to really think about that one) and putting one foot in front of the other. I get stuck in a giant, swirling whirlpool of ideas and plots about how to scale the mountain ahead of me, when what I need to do is close the notebook, and feel my way. Put one foot in front of the other.

On Tuesday night, another friend told me about the Taoist concept of wu wei, which she described as the action of non-action. It’s not doing nothing like a purposeless layabout; it’s “the cultivation of a state of being in which our actions are quite effortlessly in alignment with the ebb and flow of the elemental cycles of the natural world. It is a kind of ‘going with the flow’ that is characterized by great ease and awake-ness, in which––without even trying––we’re able to respond perfectly to whatever situations arise.”

I think this concept is hard for a lot of us. We are goal-oriented doers, achievers, and list-makers. If I gave all that up, how would I get anywhere? Tara Brach’s recent podcast on self-compassion broke this same wall down in such a startling way, I couldn’t embrace the basic idea. What would it mean to be OK just as we are? What the hell would happen if we gave up all the busyness of improving ourselves and our lives? I mean, honestly: can you even imagine? I’m afraid that releasing a vise grip of what looks like control will plunge me into complacency. But complacency is a far cry from “effortless alignment” or “great ease and awake-ness.”

I don’t have answers, but I hope asking the questions counts for something. I do know that perhaps more than ever, this spring feels like an opening. Not to leading with intellectual force, but taking a cue from subtler models, like the neighborhood crocuses who had a false start in mild January and are back for good this time. We just have to hold out hope for how natural the process of blooming really is.

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.

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