nourishment

I do not have a green thumb. I over-water, under-water, forget. But even with my black thumb, even I wouldn’t pour Coke on my plant on watering days and expect it to grow. Even I wouldn’t place chips and a Snickers bar on the soil and think I’d fed it. That’s nutty.

But of course I do that metaphorical thing to myself, in so many ways. I am now good about nourishing my body (all the fruits and veg!), but don’t think regularly about the other things that go into me. Marnie and I had hours of conversation a couple of evenings ago and we talked about self-care and doing our work. And of course I’ve been thinking hard the past few days about living my life on purpose, instead of flitting through it. I’ve been trying to uni-task (mono-task?) and just do the thing I’m doing. It’s GREAT. I couldn’t have done this during my busy years with young kids and teenagers and going to college and graduate school, obviously. Multitasking was our family M.O. back then. But that was then, and this is now, and I have the luxury of focus.

Here she is, Anne Carson. If you click the picture you'll go to a breathtaking story about her in the NYTimes titled "The Inscrutable Brilliance of Anne Carson"
Here she is, Anne Carson. If you click the picture you’ll go to a breathtaking story about her in the NYTimes titled “The Inscrutable Brilliance of Anne Carson”

And so yesterday I turned off the music, sat in the chair in my bedroom — a place I don’t usually sit — with Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. Marnie read a passage to me that left us both in deepest-heart tears, the heavy ones, the ones that come from seeing yourself in a work of art, of having yourself given back to you in a way that makes you feel like you’ve come home, finally. (Here is the NYTimes review of the book.) The people who have mentioned it to me, always with urgency, are the kind of people who think about big things. I sat with the book (the actual book, not a Kindle book) and my moleskine and my favorite pen and read. I read slowly, savored, stopped to reflect. I made notes, wrote out passages that meant something to me, wrote tiny annotations of thought. I read that book, and don’t want to stop until I finish, but I also don’t want to just frantically consume it — and I have other things to do. I read 50 glorious pages.

Reading such amazing writing made me think about nourishing myself and my own writing. I am not Anne Carson, cannot write like her because I am not her and don’t have her voice, but I want to do in my own way the kind of thing she has done. I want to find the way my book needs to be written, and I need to push and break and find a new way. And to do that I will need nourishment, I will need to read exceptional writing. I’ll want to spend my time feeding myself the kinds of things that fill that well. Besides reading Carson, tonight or tomorrow night I’m going to watch Ida, a beautiful complex movie. As David Denby said in his review of it in The New Yorker, the movie “again and again asks the question, What do you do with the past once you’ve re-discovered it? Does it enable you, redeem you, kill you, leave you longing for life, longing for escape? The answers are startling.” Those are questions that interest me, they’re questions that are relevant to me, and here Pawel Pawlikowski has been thinking hard about them too and produced a beautiful and thoughtful piece of work. More on the movie later.

Of course I’ll need to laugh and break into crazy dancing when Donna Summer comes on my playlist. And when I’m dancing, I’ll need to just be dancing. I’ll need to see my beloved people and be with them. But I can’t go where I want to go if I feed myself chips and Coke and a Snickers bar—Facebook feeds and news I don’t give a crap about and blank TV-watching. What words, ideas, thoughts do I want to fill my head with, especially as I grapple with my own writing? Not those, they’re not going to get me where I’m headed. Figuring things out, yo.

do that thing

heya toots! apropos of nothing in the post, but how can you not grin when you look at that face, I ask you.
Heya toots! Apropos of nothing in the post, but how can you not grin when you look at that face, I ask you. An old picture but a good one. Sweet Oliver!

Two nights ago I returned to walking — just bring it back. It doesn’t matter that it’s been a while since I walked like this, that I had been walking regularly and then lost the habit. That’s all irrelevant. Just bring it back. Just return to walking. I hadn’t downloaded the podcast I’d planned to listen to, so instead I listened to music.

One song after another on my playlist dragged me around in time. Some songs dragged me back decades, some to last year, some dragged my heart into sadness, some jazzed me up (Spice Girls!). And that is the very essence of the kind of multi-tasking I am hoping to let go of. I was not paying attention to my walk, I was not seeing where I was going, I wasn’t really there. My legs were walking but my mind was everywhere else.

Thank heavens I noticed! I had to switch the music to something not so distracting (I highly recommend any cello any time) and I kept returning my attention to my walking when it would drift. And you know what? I noticed my legs carrying me around, and how wonderful is that? I know a bunch of people right now who would give anything to be able to do that. I belittle my legs (chubby wiggly thighs, c’mon), call them short (like that’s a big problem?), hide them because they’re so white (and?), and there they are, just carrying me wherever my mindless mind sends me. I wouldn’t have noticed that. I wouldn’t have noticed the way the air smelled; it had rained that day and the air was humid, but there was a smell of damp dirt in the air and I love that smell. Wouldn’t have noticed it. I saw the carefully tended homes in my neighborhood, each with some frippery in the yard, evidence of the owners’ pleasures in their homes. Lights on inside, families feeling at home. I saw the sky and the way it was padded with gray dirty-ish clouds, and with tiny windows of blue peeking out in the intervals.

It’s so hard to do just the thing you’re doing. Just do that thing. If there’s something whirling around in your mind and you can’t let go of it, then stop doing the other thing and just focus on what’s worrying you! You can really only do that for so long, it turns out, even though it might feel like you’ll never be able to stop. Same with crying. Going ahead and doing that thing might just let you exhaust it for a while. And then you can go do the thing you weren’t really doing. Just do that thing.

Remember when we were kids and we’d lie on the floor and put a new album on the record player and just listen? We’d listen to one whole side, beginning to end, and then flip it over, maybe. On our backs, arms out to the side maybe, just listening. Eyes closed maybe, reading the liner notes maybe, staring at the album cover maybe, but otherwise just listening. When is the last time you just listened to music? I couldn’t tell you how long it’s been for me!

Being mindful can also make you much more grateful, I think. Being mindful during my walk led me to notice my legs and be really grateful that I can just do that, I can just get up and take a walk. I was telling a dear friend the other day that it seems like nearly everyone I know is dealing with a whole boatload of shit. Apparently I’ve moved into the age group informally known as the “whole boatload of shit” age group, because seriously. Things are falling apart right and left. Some things are growing out of control — bad news. Some things are breaking — bad news. Some things that have worked for a long time aren’t working so well — bad news. And then here I am, just blithely able to get up and take a walk whenever I want and I don’t even notice that. It feels like a silly thing to be so grateful for my legs, until I think about all my beloveds who are in that nasty boat.

Again today I’m going to try to just do the thing I am doing. And when I slip and start daydreaming, worrying, multi-tasking, when I notice that I’ll just bring it back. Today I get to have brunch with some of my beautiful girlfriends and my daughters, introducing these special people to each other. And I will just be there, I promise myself.

the anti-flailing project

coffeeIn my last post, I started the process of thinking about this next stage of my life. I’ll be 56 in November. My three children are grown (well, my daughters are; my 27-year-old son has a long way to go). My daughters are in happy marriages, doing the things they each want to be doing with their lives. I love their husbands and feel such relief knowing that my daughters are OK. My grandson is happy and healthy and much-loved by people far and wide and has his mommy’s arms around him. That part of my life is covered. I’m so glad I get to be part of their lives, doing what I can for them all.

I have work, home, family, friends, interests covered. (Hey! Aren’t I incredibly lucky?) What I’m missing is some kind of frame, some way of understanding my life in a bigger way than just the things I’m doing with my days. To start, I made a little brainstorm list “what do I want to do” and it was this:

  • read thoughtfully
  • write on purpose
  • meditate every single day and do yoga at least 4 times/week
  • walk at least every other day
  • make things (sew interesting clothing, make quilts — art quilts, knit)
  • spend time with people I love
  • listen to (and make) music
  • travel
  • make really good food

What occurred to me was that these are all things I do, to varying degrees, but what I meant while making the list had to do with focus and intent. Thoughtfulness, and…. there, it took me where I was going. Mindfulness. I do the things I want to do, but in a skating fast way, a doing it while barely noticing it way. I kind of race up to things and hurl some energy at them and get done. I read a lot, throw books back like an alcoholic throws back drinks, consuming and gorging. I know how I want to read, and it’s a little different than how I do it now. I write a lot, and want to approach it a little differently. Etc.

I’ve decided to approach this like my old 40-day Restoration Project. And in fact I’m revisiting some of the same things that mattered then — because they’ve always mattered to me, and because I go in and out of being able to keep them at the center. The specific complications of my life will have to be incorporated, and it’ll present a challenge. Eleven days a month I’m in New York, where I don’t have the same kind of privacy or space. So that is a very good challenge; it’s easy to do what you want with your life when you have everything just so, but life isn’t always just so.

This time I’m not setting an end date because I am wanting to make a wholesale shift. One of the great things about meditation is that it’s an approach. You sit and then you notice you’re not meditating, you’re not present, so you just bring it back. And the “just bring it back” is assumed for everyone, it’s not a failure it IS the work, and it’s an approach that’s appropriate beyond the mat. So on all these things I’ll goof up, I’ll slip, I’ll flail and thrash, I’ll despair, and I hope to learn how to just bring it back.

How you spend your day is how you spend your life. I spend too much of my day multi-tasking but not in a good way, not in a way that’s about making good food while being with people I love, for instance. But more like doing some work and glancing at the TV and checking in on Facebook and responding to a text. THAT kind of multi-tasking, and that kind of day spent, a fracturing. And therefore that kind of life spent.

Starting today, I return (just bring it back….) to my morning ritual. That has fallen by the wayside between Greece, and NY, and all that six weeks of stuff. Today I wake up earlier than usual because I have plans throughout the day. I stretch and think about how lucky I am to have another day in my life. Focus my first thoughts on what I want from the day on a human level rather than a getting-work-done level: I don’t want to waste this day, such a gift; I want to be compassionate to myself and other people. Take some deep slow breaths and stretch. Smile. A drink of water and out the door for a walk.

our dinnerI see Karyn for mid-morning brunch, then I pick up Marnie at Katie’s. I want to be fully present with Karyn. When I am at Katie’s I’ll hold and nuzzle Oliver, see my Katie girl, then Marnie and I will go shopping for food. Together we’ll make ourselves a wonderful dinner, spend the evening together talking, maybe go out to hear some music. Meditation before sleep. So by the end of the day, I’ll have soaked up people I love, I’ll have walked and meditated, I’ll have made some wonderful food, I’ll have given some love to the next two generations in my family, and maybe heard someone make music. THAT is a good day, especially if I am present for it all.

I don’t yet see the frame, the bigger picture, but I imagine that will come to me. For today, I just want to be here for it.

coffee spoons

When I was a young mother, staying at home with babies, one day I felt a kind of despair that my life was spent doing an endless series of tasks that were quickly undone. Making beds, washing dishes and doing laundry, cleaning bathrooms, wiping bottoms, shopping for food, mopping floors, mowing the yard, taking out the trash. Things done only to be quickly undone. Was this to be my life? And then one sunny morning while I was making a bed I realized that in fact those tasks were just the details of a bigger thing: I was making a home for myself and people I love. I was creating a time and space. Everything shifted, though of course sometimes I still despaired at the dishes or bathrooms.

brokenAnd so here I am all these years later thinking about the rest of my life, the years ahead. Going to the writers’ conference — even just the one day I attended — has made me feel like giving up on writing a book. It’s the impossibility of it, and that’s something I already knew. I see some of my clients (the ones who are such gorgeous writers, as “good” as any best-selling writer you’d ever love) struggle, getting nowhere with agents and editors at publishing houses, self-publishing and having to fight a hard fight every single day to get anywhere, and I just think oh for fuck’s sake. Hitting the jackpot and selling your manuscript for a big advance is still a roll of the dice. A woman I met at the conference had this happen to her, and just as the book was ready to launch, the publishing house was bought by another publisher (happens all the time) and everyone on her team was laid off. So her book was the bastard at the family reunion, and it disappeared into oblivion. When the book didn’t sell many copies — because how could it — she was seen as a writer whose books don’t sell. And she is a gorgeous writer, someone whose books I would pre-order every time.

The narcissist who led my workshop had every possible advantage. Educational advantages, sure, and family/wealth advantages sure, but it was the publishing advantages that left all of us kind of numb. Her mother is one of the biggest agents in NYC; she apparently discovered Didion, among a list of others that would make your jaw drop. So her mother sold the book for her after a big battle, and even with that built-in advantage the book nearly failed again and again. A woman in my workshop asked, with a bit of a shaky voice, “And if even you, with every possible advantage, had that kind of trouble, what hope do any of us have?”

Indeed.

And so here I am. What do I do with the rest of my life? There are so many things I love doing and they all make me happy. Spending time with my family, making things, playing my instruments, writing (for myself and smaller pieces to try to publish), cooking and baking, spending time with friends, reading. There are so many things I want to focus on a little more pointedly, like yoga and meditation. There are so many things I want to learn. Mandarin, for instance. Bagpipes. To return to the beginning of this post, when I think about simply BEING, simply living my daily life and doing all these things, I can feel that feeling of despair, like I’m measuring out my life with coffee spoons. Will that be what’s left of my life? Just piddling with this and that? What is the bigger frame for these things?

well.......if it's your thing it is!  it just happens to be mine.
well…….if it’s your thing it is! it just happens to be mine.

Right now, in this moment, I live a literary life. I make my living by reading. My monthly poetry group meets in my house, and my monthly book club is a tremendous highlight. I’m organizing a small writing group. Must I write and try to publish my book to have mattered in this world? No, and obviously. How about a bit of that: must I write my book? Would it still mean something if I finish it and do nothing with it, if I just write it for myself and whoever wants to read it?

And so here I am again, thinking about meaning, and the next part of my life. There are three Joseph Campbell quotes I’ve always loved:

  • “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.” (The Power of Myth)
  • “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.”
  • “Life is like arriving late for a movie, having to figure out what was going on without bothering everybody with a lot of questions, and then being unexpectedly called away before you find out how it ends.” (Creative Mythology)

I believe that being here right now is it, being present in the moment, savoring that. I believe that the meaning of life is to live it, and for me that means creating things and being with people I love. For me that means seeing as much of the world as I possibly can. Helping my children the rest of my life, being a good part of their lives. I believe that my life is a burst of light, flaring up into existence and then fading in the memories of people who loved me. I do believe these things, even as I also feel a bit of despair. What is the bigger project I am engaged in now? I know a bunch of you who read this blog are grappling with this too, and if you’ve figured out an answer, or a bit of one, or even what the question is, I would love to hear any of it.

[if you’re now in the mood for Prufrock, here is the poem. always so good…]

a beauty break

Finally yesterday it dawned on me: I am depressed. It’s an existential/meaning depression this go-round, and I’m working my way through some of it in private writing until I get enough of a handle on it to write about it here. Right now it’s too formless and strange. But essentially it’s “what will I do with the rest of my life now.” THAT old story.

I had an image floating around my mind, one that my son Will loved ten years ago, and I couldn’t remember the artist. It’s amazing what you can get with a Google search. I tried “sepia photograph man tree fire” and didn’t find it, then added the word Robert to the mix — I had a vague memory that was his name — et voila. Robert and Shana Parke Harrison. This is the Google image search so you can get a quick glance at what’s out there. These were the images I had in my mind, and tonally they fit my mindset.

Looking through the images made me think of Andy Goldsworthy, who you probably know. I find his work extraordinary, because he’s working with time. Here’s the trailer for one film about his work called Rivers and Tides:

[embedplusvideo height=”350″ width=”604″ editlink=”http://bit.ly/1lLzRR4″ standard=”http://www.youtube.com/v/AT3lveJmjY8?fs=1″ vars=”ytid=AT3lveJmjY8&width=604&height=350&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=1&chapters=&notes=” id=”ep2535″ /]

And here are some photographs of pieces he has placed in the world — the temporary pieces. There’s also a permanent piece at the Storm King Art Center just north of New York. (This link goes to the Google image search for his work.)

So much beauty there, and ephemeral. And of course it’s that ephemeral nature that makes it beautiful.

Tomorrow I fly home, hallelujah, so more from me on Thursday. xo

lesson learned (again and again and again….)

learnYou would think a 55-year-old woman who pays close attention – like me – would learn things. And of course I do, I’m not being ridiculous about this, but there are some lessons I just have to learn again and again, and it annoys the crap out of me.

There are all kinds of lessons I learn over and over, but if you dumped them into categories, the biggest category by far would be the “Taking Care of Myself” category. Sheesh I am just not good at that. I’m better than I have ever been, but it was a very low bar. I dash out the door and never pause to think Take water. Grab a bag of nuts. Do I have kleenex? What might I need, a sweater?  I might have brief periods of doing this and I always feel so proud, so grown up, but then I forget.

I think, Oh, it’ll be OK. I think, I’ll make it work.

The lesson I’ve just learned [again] is that I cannot be away from home for so long. I like to think of myself as flexible, as a person who can just go with it, who doesn’t need everything to be just-so, and those things are true but I also have a limit. And six weeks out of pocket pushed me to my limit. Actually, I think I got here at the start of four weeks (*note to self). I’m feeling very irritable, on edge, crying easily, feeling a bit frantic and tired of waiting.

Marc’s place, the apartment that used to be mine too, has never looked or felt like my home. There’s nothing about it that looks like me, that feels comfortable to me. Even when I lived here, I felt like a visitor for a whole lot of reasons. One small ongoing reason is that the bathroom cannot be really lived in, because of his patients. Since his office is here in the apartment, the bathroom has to be kept perfectly empty when they are here, so there was always this dance: every morning, carry out all the bathroom stuff; after the last patient leaves (sometimes 9:30pm), carry it all back. The weekends were glorious because we could just leave our stuff in the bathroom the whole time. (But in plastic bins, of course, because they’d have to be carried out on Monday.) It was a strange feeling to realize that I felt so much more at home at Sherlock & Peggy’s house — a place I’d visited just once — than I do here at Marc’s. That feels very sad to me.

Ordinarily I don’t have a suitcase, as I do this time. Ordinarily my travel bag is just my backpack holding my laptop, and my purse. I have toiletries and clothes here, in my one drawer and section of the closet. This trip, though, with clothes for two weeks in Greece, and clothes for the writers’ conference, and extra shoes and stuff, I’m just living out of the suitcase. And whatever I need, it seems I have to dig through the whole suitcase to find it. And the suitcase takes up precious floor space — precious because there is NONE — so it’s always in the way.

o I cannot wait to make this again...
o I cannot wait to make this again…miso and soba noodle soup with roasted sriracha tofu and shiitake mushrooms. click the picture to go to the recipe.

My sweet little home is clean (unlike Marc’s place, which hasn’t been cleaned since the last time I cleaned it, September 2012 don’t.get.me.started), and quiet. I have silence around me for thinking. I am uninterrupted. My morning routine is my own and beautiful, and important for me. My dinners are a pleasure to cook (in my clean little kitchen) and eat.

I have seen friends here in New York, precious friends I adore, and I miss them terribly when I don’t seem them for extended periods. So my “seeing friends” need has not been neglected, but my “seeing my Austin women” need has been starved.

So lessons learned, Queen:

  1. You need silence. And the little birds outside the window.
  2. You need your own little pleasures — morning routine, for example.
  3. You need a bit of space of your own.
  4. You need your home. Don’t be away from it for six weeks ever again except for dire circumstances.

I miss seeing Katie and Oliver, and Trey. I miss my bed. I miss my shower. I miss my kitchen, my morning coffee, the little birds. I miss my leather chair. I miss my sweet neighbors/friends, Nancy and Bob. I miss happy hours with girlfriends, lunches dinners walks whatever with them. I miss knowing how they are doing in a see-their-faces way. I miss turning out the lights and checking the locks and walking back to my bedroom. It turns out that I made myself the home I’ve longed for my whole life, the space where I can just be, and be comfortable and safe and myself. It’s past time to get back there.

tenderness

heartYesterday afternoon I drifted into one of my favorite emotional places. I think it’s been building for a while, and then my miserable experience with the writers’ conference walked me the rest of the way there. I feel tender toward the world, cracked open, wistful. (Wistful is my favorite feeling, wrote about it here.) Yesterday was actually less about wistful and more about tender, but those live in the same neighborhood.

Right now, as I move around the world unencumbered in my own little life, I know a number of people who are dealing with the imminent death of a close loved one, or are dealing with a frightening health crisis of a dear loved one, or are grieving a loss. I gather this will happen with greater frequency, the older I get, as loss happens more regularly. And of course our own hearts, in my family, are still crisscrossed with fresh scars from losing Gracie; the scars are now strong enough to resist tugging, but tugging hurts a lot. For me, big happiness and this kind of tender feeling are wrapped up together so inextricably I’ll always find one when the other is present.

On the first day of the conference, Peggy and I were in the car on the way to New Haven and she asked casually if I liked The Wailing Jennys, because they were on her iPod and we could listen as we drove. I love The Wailing Jennys! The mention of them opened my heart because Dixie introduced them to me by surprise-sending me their “Bright Morning Stars” CD. Beautiful three-part harmonies, gorgeous melodies, wistful songs. One song on that CD in particular carries a huge weight in my heart, the song called Away But Never Gone. I couldn’t remember the name of it, so I told Peggy that I especially loved one song, I’d know it when I heard it.

She started the music and tears filled my eyes — that beautiful music was imprinted with the moment, the happy happy moment of being with Peggy, on our way to the writers’ conference, that moment of such importance to me. All the elements were right there: Peggy, the gorgeous day, being in that moment, everything. I knew that forever more, when I heard anything from that CD I could be swept right back to the moment with Peggy, and Dixie would be there with me too.

Several songs into the playlist, the song I loved came on and I said, “That’s it! That’s the song I love so much.” It’s a very wistful song, as you can imagine from the title (Away But Never Gone, lyrics here). For me, it carries the heaviness of that period when I told Marc we should let each other go, because he was so incredibly lonely. I sent him that song and told him that it’s how I felt, that he would never be gone from my heart. I can’t listen without feeling that moment and thick, fat tears fill my eyes.

But Peggy has her own exquisite moment with the song too, her story not mine to share, but she shared it with me as we drove and the morning sun was like a kaleidoscope through our tears. I’ll remember that shared moment with her always.

One of my friends is nearing the end of a difficult treatment. One of my friends is not doing very well and life is feeling small and limited, and possibly changed in a long-term way. I think about those two people, I close my eyes and see the lives they’ve been living, lives spent with loved ones, lives spent helping others, doing things they love, ordinary lives, really, of the happy variety. Like mine. And I feel so tender toward the whole thing, toward what it is to live a life, to sweep up the happiness into our arms, to have our hands forced open as we lose things, hopes, experiences, plans, people. There is something so poignant to me about being here in a human life. We help each other live, we help each other die. We help each other with tiny loads and big ones. We help each other with joy, because it’s so much better shared, and we help each other with disappointment — also better shared, than managing all alone. My heart is full of fear and loss and anxiety and excitement and the future and the unknown and this beautiful moment.