Posts tagged: simple pleasures
December 22, 2012

Fight Back with Normal Life

I awake each morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. ––E. B. White

My friend’s father, who is one part Santa Claus, one part Ron Swanson, has a saying for difficult times: fight back with normal life. When heartbreak hits or unconscionable violence and loss leave us breathless, we can find our way by embracing the small, tick-tock routines of a clockwork life. We jog by the river. We load the dishwasher. We tuck in hospitable corners. We may not feel like getting out of bed, but we do. We put one foot in front of the other down the hallway, the stairs, and all the way out the front door and through our day.

The only way through, I heard a meditation teacher say, in what may or may not have been a paraphrase of Robert Frost, is through.

In difficult times, our routines can anchor us so that instead of getting swept up in worry or tears or frets about the future, we can stay right here in the familiar––maybe even comforting––actions of the day at hand. We clear the table, we mail an insurance claim, we call our moms. We fight back with normal life.

I’ve been thinking of this saying since last Friday. And I’ve also been wanting to tell you about a new ritual I have with a coworker, inspired by something we heard on a Tara Brach podcast. Every day for the past two or three weeks, we’ve sent each other three specific things we are grateful for. Working by a bright window, today’s rain, a scone for breakfast. It served as a welcome relief when the day got stressful, but after a week or so, when novelty wore off and our enthusiasm waned, we nearly lost our new ritual to the forces of old habits. We forgot. And then one night, walking home down Sixth Avenue, I had to text to tell her: about the night air, so drizzly and unexpectedly mild, the hot bath I planned to have at home, the lights on our tree. She texted back right away about her anticipation of building a fire, a new handbag fit for a PanAm stewardess, and the winking pink flowers on a midday walk. We were back on track.

It turns out, as powerful as it is to be heard, hearing her daily bright spots was even better than sharing my own. It reminded me of my first job after college where I loved reliving with each customer who pushed through the door my favorite moment of the day: that first cup of coffee. And so it was with my friend. With each little detail she counted, my day got a little sweeter, and I could feel my eyes open wider: oh yes, that.

As the weather has turned colder in New York, I see more people sleeping in subway stations and wrapped in blankets on the street begging. I hate the feeling of walking by, in too much of a hurry to stop and help, but also not certain what the right thing to do is. Where is the balance between helping everyone and turning a blind eye? What do you do? I asked a friend. You can sit with people and talk, she suggested, or share food you might have. Her simplest idea struck me as the most powerful: just try to really see them.

There is a lot of bullshit in this world, just as there are horrors so unexpected and unexplainable they can make even the leader of our nation cry. Both can make us lose sight of what matters and of hope. But we can fight back with normal life. We can open our eyes and be sensitive to the experience of those around us. We can help. And we can have one moment of sweet, honest exchange about things that, no matter how mundane or seemingly trivial, imbue this briefest flash of life with meaning and beauty, with love and connection.

And I am grateful for that.

October 11, 2012

Leaning into the Light

Here are some truths:

I sniffled and sneezed my way through Brooklyn and midtown last week before changing into my pajamas each night before dark and pulling the bed covers over my lap, hours before an acceptable bedtime. During that same bout of head cold suffering, I somehow tweaked my back so that a wincing tender spot ran from my right mid-back, up the inside of my shoulder blade along my spine and marched achingly up my neck to my ear. I groaned like an old woman turning over in bed.

When I climb the subway stairs in the evening and arrive above ground, the world is closing in on full darkness, and it’s not yet 6:30.

We ate ramen noodles for dinner on Tuesday.

And yet.

I smelled the first fire of the season on Monday, woodsy smoke lingering in the air as I rounded a corner near the library.

At the farmer’s market on Sunday, when the dahlias looked frowsy and trampled, I bought an armful of untamed eucalyptus branches. Also four honeycrisp apples, an acorn squash and a pumpkin. Carrying the tall branches down 5th Avenue, Sebastian remarked I looked like a koala bear. At home, I pulled out a tall mason jar, a footed orange planter, and a slim vase of milk glass for arrangements on the dining table, atop a bureau, and in our bedroom. Each time I rise from bed for a glass of water or to fetch a book, the leaves brush my arm and fill the room with their medicinal fragrance. I can never quite decide if I like the smell or not.

I roasted the squash in the oven side by side until their ribbed walls collapsed, then cut them open and scooped out their seeds. I cubed the acorn squash and cooked it with tender red lentils and turmeric in a stew, but the pumpkin fell apart and could be scooped out of its skin, as soft and formless as a puree. I warmed it last night in a pan with butter, olive oil, and soft translucent onions, before adding crushed tomatoes and thyme. We ate it with hot spaghetti and a scoop of goat’s milk ricotta. I felt like a farmsteader.

I am talking about small things, of course. More so than usual, I find myself lately holding up each day’s tiny, quiet moments as if they were nuggets of gold I’ve panned for in a river. In a way they are. Earlier this fall I read a book that felt like a wise, intimate companion, The Journal Keeper. Phyllis Theroux writes that she uses her journal to “lean into the light.” It’s a phrase that’s stayed with me. Does it take more effort to lean into the light than into darkness? I don’t know, but as someone who has at times been subsumed by darkness so cloaking there seems no light at the end of its narrow tunnel, leaning is the endeavor I care most about these days. It’s what I’m scribbling about in my little red notebook and right here. Leaning, panning for gold, finding it in a bowl of ramen soup and the insides of a pumpkin.

October 2, 2012

Bright Spots

Happy fall, says the sign at the Locktown Grange, and so say I.

Today was the kind of day when city rain soaks through your shoes, leaving your tights damp. Beating a few eggs for dinner feels like therapy. Now, zucchini is cooking on the stove, and a pot of water is set to boil. That zucchini, sizzling away in a cast iron skillet, is my bright spot today. So, too, are those eggs, soon to be scrambled, as is the scoop of ricotta that will go with the whole mess of it. Then the couch, and Parks and Recreation, and every other little joy that comes from closing the door on the wet, rain-soaked world and coming home.

These photos are from a walk I took over the weekend while I was out at my mom and step-dad’s farm. That’s a horse, up there, who lives around the corner. Leaves floated onto the blacktop every time the wind blew, and dry, brown-stalked dandelions stood by the side of the road, tall and scraggly save for the clusters of seeds, dense and puffy as cotton.

Before my walk I searched my high school bureau to find a pair of socks. Among the mismatched pajamas and flea market half-slips was, to my great delight, a note and a stack of tea bags from my beloved high school English teacher. She wrote:

How often, in a poem, do we mangle the real beauty we were moved by? How poorly in our art do we reflect our world…and yet, we cannot stop trying. We are driven to create, write, sculpt, and share our crude reproductions of the fine and perfect stuff of our lives.

They were words unearthed at just the right time. I thought about them all through my walk, looking up at the changing leaves, at the blue jay that stirred inside a thicket, and at the vast overcast sky. I hope her note might be a bright spot for you, too, whatever your (fine, crude, perfect) creation may be. It is always worth a try.

June 3, 2012

A Sunday Well-Spent

I saw this written on my friend’s kitchen chalkboard last week and had to snap a pic as a reminder to myself. There are few things as sweet as starting the week with all your ducks in a row, the fridge filled with fresh food, the bed made up with clean sheets. Better still if you’ve had moments of repose and respite, a bit of sunshine, an ice cream cone, and arrive home in the early evening, arms filled with enough flowers to allow a stem or two in each room. Here’s wishing you a lovely, sweet Sunday evening and a pleasant start to the week ahead, friends.