so many stories

pile-of-booksDedicated to Oliver Sacks, whose words live in me like so many stars.

I have gotten to the point in the novel I am reading that I’ve known was coming – the point that the whole book was about. It is when the young German soldier hears the radio broadcast and recognizes it as coming from the same source as the radio broadcasts he magically picked up on his homemade receiver before the war, when he was a boy. He is still just a boy, but now he is a boy with a gun, a pawn of the Reich. What he and his sister had prized so dearly as children were mesmerizing stories about science narrated by a mysterious Frenchman. Those broadcasts had been a suggestion of a larger and beautiful world. The broadcast he picks up now, as he and his unit slowly sweep across Europe listening to the hidden airwaves, is on behalf of the Resistance, riddles and enigmas filled with meaning.

It is exactly the kind of broadcast it is his job to ferret out. But I am guessing he will not ferret it out. Rather, the story will save him by reconnecting him to the innocence of his younger self. The story is the lifeline.

I wonder about all of the books I’ve read that I only hazily recall. So many books especially in that ten-year gap between graduate school, when I could finally put away Foucault, and motherhood, when I was too tired. The novels of Kaye Gibbons, which were published in a smaller format than most books, making them all the more special. The work of Laurie Colwin, which ended all too abruptly when she died young from breast cancer. A Hundred Acres before I’d ever heard the name Jane Smiley and Midnight’s Children before Salman Rushdie became a household name. So many other books that I cannot scrape from memory – books by authors who did not go on to great acclaim. Who perhaps published a single work. That one about the boy and his mother, traveling by night, living in a car. The woman returning to rural Illinois after her divorce. A retelling of the life of Gertrude Stein.

So many stories. Each of them in my veins. Remnants tucked away in the soft reserves of memory. And each containing their own kernels of who I was.

If there is one place that is hard for me to go, it is the children’s room of our local library. The essence of my kids’ younger selves are too palpable. The way it has all gone so fast hits me too strongly. I can’t breathe when I’m there. It’s too much.

All of those books that we would check out in greedy heaps and then the absolute pleasure we would take in coming home, that very afternoon, and going through them, one by one, taking in the pictures, the characters, the words. For a week, we would read and re-read them, before returning and restocking. Fingering the spines. Pulling one from here and two from there until our arms were full.

Now, it takes me weeks to read a book. I’ve always been a slow reader, but I am so far from those 20-something days of nowhere to be, nothing to do. Reading is something jammed between other things. A moment to be stubbornly grabbed. And so the absolute riches of those children’s storybooks and how you could devour a stack of them — like being allowed to eat all of the candy on Halloween night – and the way they were a shared treat between my children and me – this was absolutely one of the most joyful aspects of my life.

I wonder:  When I am dying, will I hear all of these stories again. Will some benevolent narrator recount them all, tuning into a hidden brainwave? The books that my dad read to me as a kid and the books that I read to Bella and Tobey. The novels from my Seattle days and the ones I read in college and high school. All of the stories. Each of them unwinding in my memory and filling me with their wisdom, carrying me from one plane back to a place of pure innocence.

here’s what I don’t want to forget…

MeadowThe bee working its way petal by petal around a no longer blooming wild flower high in the Rockies. I watched it for an hour, mesmerized by its wings, its diligence, its low, constant hum. Impressed by how it is at once proverbially busy and in sublime meditation.

Lounging in the sticky heat of August next to the swimming pool in which I grew up. Swimming a few lazy laps down the black line, wondering how many times it’s been repainted since my childhood days of morning practices. Drying off, allowing myself to heat up to the point of languid discomfort, then diving back in, headfirst, bathed in the coolness, my eyes opening into the light blue luminous quiet. Resurfacing and floating on my back, gazing at the clouds, the trees. Knowing that within weeks this will all pass.

Lying in bed, in the hammock, on the sofa, on an air mattress in a tent with a headlamp and reading reading reading Anthony Doerr’s beautiful prose from All the Light We Cannot See. Such as: “And when April finally comes, reeking of sawdust and corpses, the canyon walls of snow give way while the ice on the roads remains stubbornly fixed, a luminous, internecine network of invasion:  a record of the crucifixion of Russia.” Heart stops. Read again, this time aloud. A rose blooming in my mouth.

Kayaking down the Mississippi with Tobey in the rain. The day growing quieter as we move away from the core of Minneapolis, moving down river mile after mile. Peering into the deep green of the banks, imagining a life lived in the reeds, apart from the city, on borrowed scraps and found objects, dinner from tins of beans and edible plants, nights with the stars and the constant of the river.

This was a summer of quiet and reflection. Trees rustling against my window. Tomatoes growing lazily. Letting slowness seep into my being. This is what I don’t want to forget now as the calendar becomes layered and time literally seems to be queued to a higher frequency. Just this week I can feel Speed scraping its feet nearby, nervously awaiting the race that is the school year. Can I hold a thin cord to these days of ease? Can I live among the reeds?

walkabout

11223624_10207617678906804_4526121224993734212_oLast week, Chris and I took a walkabout to Colorado. We got in the car loaded with unlikely gear, a few maps, and no set destination. It was just what we needed – this spontaneous adventure. I am turning 50 next year and sometimes I find myself thinking that there’s perhaps something I can’t or shouldn’t do. Does one do “this” at 50? The pain I’m having in my elbows lately – that’s 50. The graft for gum recession – definitely 50. But sleeping in a tent, hiking all day, eating PB&Js, then staying up late staring at the stars and riding an inner journey – that doesn’t feel so 50.

It’s just a number; it’s actually all about how you feel, right? One of those sayings that is easy to believe when you’re ten years away from it. But here I am, knocking on the half century door and it’s harder to believe from here. I’d hoped that by now death wouldn’t be so scary. Or that I’d have a handle on my kids’ growing up and moving away. By now, I’d be thumbing my nose at age. Not so.

And so last week when I was up in a meadow at 11,500 feet above sea level, I was struck by abundance. If you hang out much in the world of spiritual seekers, this word will pop up – sometimes annoyingly so. My midwestern pragmatist roots have a hard time with “abundance.” Part of me wishes I could embrace this way of thinking – it will all come! – but the granddaughter of a farmer whose father lost his farm in the Depression only to have the son earn it all back and lose it in the farm crisis – I am too often focused on dearth – the money I don’t have, the trip I’m not able to take, the house repair that is just around the bend, the medical procedure that might be necessary. I am definitely grateful, but I manage to hold gratefulness and this profound fear about lack in my palm at the same time. One reigns during the day, the other inhabits my 3AM mind – that mind of clouded thinking when everything seems just almost wrong.

In the meadow – which was vast, stretching in one direction to the Medicine Bow mountain range and in the other to the Snowy Range – I sat and took in the wild flowers. I could identify scarlet Indian paintbrushes, plum lupines – much daintier than the ones I’d seen in meadows in Maine, and then there were small purple daisies, a lemony sunburst of a flower, a white fuzz of a flower. So many! And these were just the ones in bloom. They were interspersed with the carcasses of the recently deceased – a kind of lily that was now but a hard green pod filled with seeds and some kind of long clover that the bees were still trying to suckle despite being a week or two away from its height.

The flowers were a blanket dotted with rocks. An impossible array of shapes, sizes, and hues. Right next to each other were flat gray slabs; ropy, rosy blobs; and sparkling white castles. How could so many different boulders, stones, and pebbles have been pushed up from the earth in one place, as though God were starting a rock shop right here in this meadow?

And the clouds. As much as my attention was on the ground it was also skyward. Fat cumulus clouds took on the shape of a pig’s rear end – an elephant’s profile – a mittened hand. Higher up, cirrus clouds pulled themselves apart like cotton candy.

This meadow, so quiet and yet so overcome with activity, so eternal and yet ever changing, was a reminder to me of my constant becoming. The fears that are now present are relatively accessible because I have faithfully, mindfully worked to clear the internal woods. Once there was so much brush, so many heaps of pebbles, so many tangles of vines and bramble that a particular fear didn’t have a chance of being keenly felt. Or if it was felt it was so confusing as to disrupt the entire system, whereas now there is a much sparer field in which I can relatively easily identify that which terrifies me. Hard as it is – it is better to see the monster clearly than to continue to approach it as a mysterious force hidden from view.

Abundance was one lesson of our walk about, the other was the beauty of one’s own backyard. We searched one day for a suitable place to spend a few hours in meditation only to end up several hundred yards behind where we were camped. That same evening, we got in the car intending to seek a vantage point for watching the sun set, only to drive less than 45 seconds and realize that just around the bend was the perfect spot. Simultaneously, a friend back in Iowa who has been searching for a place to which to move his business found a spot literally around the corner from his old office; this after weeks of heart-wrenching searching.

Right here. Right now. You have enough. You are enough. So simple. I know this and yet I clearly do not know it. It took 11+ hours of driving, high altitude, and some sleepless nights on an air mattress for me to remember again – eternal, infinite, whole.

what if you were more?

images-1I am enough. This is the message emblazoned on cards, t’shirts, and letterpress posters. Women write it across their chests in marker and then post to Instagram; others tattoo it on their forearm so that they can remember this simple message all of the time.

It’s a good message. For sure there are many days and dark nights when my “not enough” voice is yowling. Not smart enough.  Not pretty enough. Not thing enough. Not talented enough.  Not successful enough ….

But I was struck today in reading a very beautiful poem — a response to an interview with the very kick ass Sister Simone Campbell — by someone I’ve never heard of and couldn’t find anything about via Google, Josh Draves-Kellerman, that there is more:

Today, I feel my life changing
I feel a burning in my chest.
What is that flame desires
I know my whole-heart holds.

Wind around me tells small tales
of unrest, my heart-body
hears love, laughter, life of many colors
while I sit and listen to the rain.

He feeds my third eye with ripe
fruits of labor and passion,
lays my path and holds me close
while I patiently align myself with I.

One clear day revealed the pristine
beauty of life outside me,
and my only words became
I am enough.

This is a beautiful poem that speaks to me; thank you for sharing it, Josh. But when I listen to Sister Simone, she is so clearly MORE than enough. She is full of humor and broad thinking. She is both exacting of others and forgiving of them — forgiving of Paul Ryan! I can’t imagine this woman writing “I am enough” on any part of her anatomy. This nun who lobbies against the economic disparities in our country.

“I am enough” gets us up in the morning. It gives us permission to be in the world, not holding back with fear or self-loathing but to matter sufficiently to be right here with everyone. I’m not sure, though, that “I’m enough” challenges us to do more. In fact, I have a sense that “I am enough” can even be a crutch:  we use it to get so far, and then we take a sigh of relief and go into maintenance mode.

Is there a next step? Can we heal into I am enough and BEYOND? How do we get to I am so full, so very very enough that I have love and presence to share. Because is what I hear from Sister Simone and other gutsy women who have pushed the envelope not just for themselves but for others.

I think of the families who spoke yesterday at the bail hearing of the shooter in South Carolina. “I forgive you,” several of them spoke to him. As viewed on my computer screen, it was such a surreal scene: Dylann Roof on a TV screen standing in the hallway of a prison, cuffed and staring straight into the camera; the families off screen; the judge the only viewable witness with his back to the camera; and then the voices of family members of the victims — “I forgive you.” What astounding largess of heart.

Sister Simone speaks of how the sin of the first world is of demanding security — whether feeling “safe” in global politics or needing enough clothes, enough food, enough gas for our cars. “It’s all illusion. rather, we’d be better off if we made peace with insecurity.”

So what if we made peace with the ways in which we’ll never be enough, always imperfect BUT ALSO with the ways in which we are so damned enough. Heal ourselves – it’s so vitally important — but be brave enough to imagine that we might not be enough like a cup of broth that just makes it to the top of the cup, but instead that we are ENOUGH like a bubbling cherry pie, spilling over the rim, bursting with flavor.

birth day wish for myself

IMG_1571Here is what I know this Birth Day. I know that spending three days in relative silence has been amazing for my soul and I need more of this. I know that I miss my kids but that they are out there shining their beautiful hearts and meeting new people and adding to their already deeply layered life experiences (even if one of them is doing so without a sleeping bag or a towel!.

I know that being outside supported by nature, digging my hands in soil, feeling the sun on my face is incredibly healing … and that i will continue to seek in the coming years for a way for this to be my daily life – not just three months a year. California, you live in my soul – a place of mystery and deep possibility. Don’t worry – I’m coming.

I know that I am blessed to be surrounded by the din of animals and kind neighbors, of a partner with a BIG heart who paints on a large canvas, of a family that spans traditions and definitions and supports each other, of a workplace that values People over work.

My body is an amazing gift. In a yoga class in Madison this weekend – an unexpectedly very HOT and steamy class – I just had to say out loud:  thank you thank you, I am soo very grateful. (The woman next to me either didn’t hear or felt the same.)

I know that the exploration is never ending. Open one door and a myriad of others appear. Ever deeper into the mystery. The mystery of pain and sorrow, of joy and discovery, but ultimately of resting in oneness. The Great Hammock of Oneness, stretched out in front of the Pacific Ocean beneath this blessed tree … that’s my vision for this beautiful year that is about to unfold.

Oliver Sacks: broken heart / full life / mending beyond imagination

imgresYesterday driving home from Madison and listening to Oliver Sacks in a recent interview with RadioLab. He is angry and ineffably saddened by the cancer prognosis that will shorten a rich life. Not surprisingly, he is working on multiple books despite being told that he has months left. He is also laughing, full of awe, and wholly himself. For me, Oliver Sacks is a longtime touchstone of sanity and the kind of generosity that blossoms from a creative intellect but expands far beyond the mind, emanating from the heart. If I could save someone, if I had the equivalent of a “Tim Gunn Save” for people I love, Oliver Sacks would be on that list.

Years ago, when I put together a list of people I’d like to have involved in my book about journals, I reached out to the good doctor. He is not an Artist, but he is the kind of creative person of whom I could imagine a visual journal being a regular practice. Somewhere in my house I have Sacks’ handwritten response. [Postscript: I came across this short letter, which was actually typed but with a charmingly messy hand drawn squid, literally two hours after writing this post; I hadn’t seen it in years and was unsure if I even still had it!] Kind-hearted and impish, he said how he wished he kept such a journal but regrettably he did not, and good luck with my project. It was a letter that could easily have never been sent or fobbed off to an assistant or dashed as an email. Its existence means so much to me and speaks volumes about how we can live our lives. In the interview — as in his new memoir — Sacks speaks of a life of romantic solitude.

Chastised by his mother for being homosexual and then rejected by two men he loved, he settled into a life of other pleasures that included weight lifting, motor cycle riding, swimming, hallucinogenics, and to their very great luck a wide ranging curiosity for working with the people who were his patients. After decades of celibacy, he fell in love at the age of 77. That this amazing soul was only loved and fully seen in the final decade of his life had me in tears as I drove through the green of southwestern Wisconsin with its deep cut-aways of limestone — a dissection of the complexity of the earth that we so easily forget.

Sacks had much success but he hardly had an easy life. As a kid, he and a brother were sent north from London during the Blitzkrieg where they went hungry and were abused by a teacher. He suffers from “face blindness” and acute shyness. Melanoma in one eye nine years ago is the root cause of his current cancer. For me, the lesson in knowing more about Sacks and the dearth of intimacy he had in his life is appreciating how he gave so completely from his heart despite his heart being so unmet. That he gave at all, much less so prodigiously in the form of writing, intellectual curiosity, and doctoring, is a testament to what lives in us despite deep wounds. Move forward – heal thyself – and give. That’s why we’re here.

birth

breakfast-in-bed-1897One amazing thing about giving birth to a daughter — and there are many — is that you are continuously re-meeting yourself. The circularity is intense – perhaps the most thought-provoking, soul-searching, and ultimately celebratory relationship of my life.

When I was pregnant, I didn’t want to know if the baby was a boy or a girl. I wanted to go in without assumptions about who this person was or would become. Leave the door wide open to grace. I took a tiny outfit to the hospital that had bunnies on it (I took the exact same one when baby #2, whose gender was also a mystery, arrived two years later). We painted the nursery sage green. And we waited for whatever being wanted to appear.

I can’t deny that I was elated when my doctor announced that she was a she. I wasn’t sure what I would do with a boy. Two years later I would find out – and that journey continues to be endlessly fascinating. My son and I crush on each other; push each other; crack each other up by saying “scrotum” in funny accents. But mainly I feel that I have the privilege of watching an alien species – a sweet, super smart one – evolve before my eyes.

Bella, though, is both the mirror and the road not taken. As a baby and toddler she was a reminder of the wide-open soul that I was, of a person who perhaps was not fully met in the world – not fully understood. Few of us are, but to feel that through her often helped me to care more for myself. As she’s grown, there have been moments when I’ve felt like I was watching myself – as she chose the topmost perch on the playground from which to observe all of the other kids, for instance – and others when I marveled at her gutsy choices.

Although she sometimes feels that life is hard, that she’s had a bad day, that she is small and slightly bruised, that people don’t fully see her or hear her, that her heart is waiting for something more juicy and beautiful than any of the options yet to be presented, she also taps down into a deep root and pulls up more self-knowledge than many adults I know. She intuits when to be still. When to draw. When to dance. When to commune with the dog. When to nap. When to leave a sport that no longer serves her. When to reconsider a relationship that doesn’t feel balanced. All of this takes wisdom. Because she’s always had this wisdom, she can’t yet understand how rare and precious it is.

There are nights — more than I’d like to admit — when I work out how many more years or months until Bella leaves home. I ache at the thought of it. She holds my ankles when my mind is going a hundred miles an hour in twenty directions, patiently finding my car keys, reminding me of what I’d meant to get at the store. And I do the same for her. We are yin and yang, with each of us taking turns.

But I also am so intrigued by the woman she is becoming and so in love with every bit of her that continues to morph and come into a new focus – her own being, separate from me but with lovely little hints – like an imaginative dish cooked from the premise of an old standard. If I am a roast chicken, she is a tagine with Asian overtones. I look forward to any possibilities to collaborate and dance together as adults. (A recent inspiration was this article about successful mother / daughter poet / painters, Susan Howe and R.H. Quaytman.)

Each May, I revisit that day of birth – hers and mine. Irises bloomed outside, but the chill of the day led me to draw a steaming bath. My water broke as I stood, the fluid from my body spilling into the tub. During the ensuring two hours in the hospital’s hot tub, I opened from 2 cm to 10 cm and then started to push — “But we didn’t practice that part!”. Standing shaking in a shower afterward, my ring slid from my finger into the drain. Wide awake at 3:00 AM, marveling at the experience, at this beautiful creature at my side, my doctor quietly sat next to me and held my face in her hands:  “And now you know you can do anything.”

Which is exactly what I want to tell my daughter. She binge watches shows – How I Met Your Mother, most recently – and loves sugary snacks. I wince. Part of me is (too) often nudging her beyond these habits into a more vibrant world; “There’s so much out there!” But I think of myself watching reruns of Hogan’s Heroes and eating Archway iced oatmeal cookies. Patiently, through crud and beauty and everything in between, evolution takes place. Not pretty nor for anyone’s daily edification, it’s a process of its own pace.

I chose a Mary Oliver quote for Bella’s birth announcement and I return to that poet now, an older woman who can be stridently urgent about seizing life’s beauty:  “I know, you never intended to be in this world. / But you’re in it all the same. / So why not get started immediately. / I mean, belonging to it. / There is so much to admire, to weep over.”

But she is also someone who appreciates patience and the process of becoming:  “Things take the time they take. Don’t worry. / How many roads did St. Augustine follow before he became St. Augustine?”

I am still becoming a mother. I keep learning more about this relationship of being one and letting go, of birthing and dying, and becoming one thing and then another. So many layers. Each one a blessing. My daughter my teacher and my student, my daughter in and out, near and far – each iteration a road into and beyond myself.