Wednesday, January 13, 2016

A Letter to My Buddy Fran

Happy New Year Everyone!  I have not posted in awhile, but am so happy to be back at my desk after a busy fall and holiday season.  I'm kicking off my blogging year with a public letter to my friend named Fran, who I met at Cheryl Strayed's writing workshop last Spring.  Fran is a beautiful writer (check out her blog if you want to get lost in poetry and great personal narrative) and I'm writing to her today because she asked me for one single link, but it was on a topic that I really like.  In the beginning of the year I've offered myself a bit of freedom and open space, today I really let myself use it.  I offer you my wandering note to Fran in the hopes that others find The Harvard Study on Adult Development aka The Grant Study interesting and encouraging.

Dear Fran,
Thanks for asking for the link to the TEDx talk about The Grant Study, which is now referred to as The Harvard Study of Adult Development.  It has given me an excuse to collect my thoughts on this study, which has been a thread of interest for me for a long time.

The Harvard Scholars who run the The Harvard Study of Adult Development, say it may be the longest run longitudinal study of adult development that currently exists (so Harvard of them!).  It includes 724 men, 268 were “Harvard men” from the original Grant Study and 456 boys from inner city Boston who were part of a lesser known study called the Glueck Study.  I also read in one of the articles below that, at some point, women from Stanford’s Terman Study had also been folded into the group, though I am not sure what impact this has had.  But by and large the Harvard Study of Adult Development, often more casually referred to as The Grant Study, has considered the long term evolution of men’s lives.  

I don’t remember when I first learned about The Grant Study, but it feels to me like I learned about it when I was at Harvard or at least soon after I graduated, because for me there has always been, a sense of connection, as if these men were somehow my own predecessors, which in a way, they were.  I have a  fondness and affection for the study and the stories it contains, as if it gifted me a tribe of elders that I would never have known otherwise.  

That said, the learning so far has excluded stories from women and individuals of color.  So like with my actual grandfathers, I have to assume that my views may be different from theirs, and that the shape of what can be learned from studying these stories is less authoritative than any of us would like it to be.  And yet, as writers and human beings, as fellow believers in the art of narrative, I think we can allow ourselves the pleasure of absorbing wisdom and encouragement from the stories anyhow.

The particular link you were asking after is a TED talk given by Robert Waldinger who is the Fourth Director of The Harvard Study of Adult Development.  He is a Clinical Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School, The Director of Psychodynamic Therapy at Mass General, and oh by the way, Fran, a Zen priest, which in some odd way seems like it just might be the glue that makes all those other roles fit together.  The TED talk is a short one, just under 13 minutes.  Worth a listen.  

The synopsis:  “Living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective.”

In 2009 Joshua Wolf Shenk (author of Powers of Two: How Relationships Drive Creativity) wrote a cover story for The Atlantic about The Grant Study.  He dove deep into its history, chronicling its leadership and the evolution of its funding, revealing that at one point Phillip Morris offered some funds, and not surprisingly a question was added into the questionnaire for non-smokers about why they had never smoked.  It’s hard to say what speaks to me more in this article, the learning from The Grant Study, or Shenk’s analysis of the evolution of The Grant Study and its leadership. 

It’s difficult to boil this one down for you into a one line synopsis, but I found this bit about the study to stay with me, “Regular exercise predicted late-life mental health better than it did physical health.  And depression turned out to be a major drain on physical health:  of the men who were diagnosed with depression by age 50, more than 70 percent had died or were chronically ill by 63.”   If you have time, this article is worth it, if for no other reason to be swept away into Shenk’s mind, where you run across beautiful sentences like this one, “Perhaps in this, I though, likes the key to the good life—not rules to follow, nor problems to avoid, but an engaged humility, an earnest acceptance of life’s pains and promises.  In his effort to manifest this spirit, George Vaillant is, if not a model, then certainly a practiced guide.”

When George Vaillant released Triumphs of Experience, his latest book on The Harvard Study of Adult Development, The Atlantic covered The Grant Study again with Scott Stossel reporting.  The 2013 article is a short piece that serves up a selection of informational gems that make for excellent internet reading, including this tidbit, “Aging liberals have more sex.  Political ideology has no bearing on life satisfaction—but the most conservative men ceased sexual relations at an average of 68, while the most liberal men had active sex lives into their 80s.”  So Fran, knowing that you and I lean similarly politically, I think the future looks promising for us :-)  Similarly to the 2009 article, the writing is inspired and led me to learn more about the writer, Scott Stossel, whose 2014 book, My Age of Anxiety:  Fear, Hope, Dread and the Search for Peace of Mind, seems worth tracking down.

The Daily Beast and The Art of Manliness have both run articles on The Grant Study, which I guess makes sense because those websites seem pretty interested in man stuff.  And while my Cheryl Strayed, Elizabeth Gilbert loving self, does not often frequent those corners of the internet, I do enjoy flippant man writing too.  I don’t typically recommend The Daily Beast for wisdom, but you have to admit, this nugget could help you out on a bad day: “Life is long, Vaillant seems to be saying, and lots of shit happens.  What is true in one stage of a man’s life is not true in another.  Previously divorced men are capable of long and loving marriages.  There is a time to monitor cholesterol (before age 50 [if you are a man]) and a time to ignore it.  Self-starting, as a character trait, is relatively unimportant to flourishing in early life, but very important at the end of it.” 

And finally, if my summaries have not burned you out on the topic, you could go right to the source and read Vaillant’s most recent book, The Triumphs of Experience.  I own one of his previous books, Spiritual Evolution:  How We Are Wired for Faith, Hope and Love, which I think I will re-read, but that will be for another day.

Fran, thanks for giving me a reason to put these articles in one place.  It was a satisfying way to spend a morning, made more so by indulging myself in the thought that I was writing to you.  As I wrap this up, I am reminded of our time together at the Cheryl Strayed workshop on Maui, and of the one-on-one time we had reading each other’s writing.  I picked you out of the crowd that morning, because I had written something darker and riskier than I had ever written before.  And it was not fiction.  I picked you because you struck me as a person who could hold that, hear that, and be with me in that.  

I mention it here, because something about that interaction reminds me of where this whole letter began, with the Waldinger talk.  One thing he says in that talk is this, “It’s the quality of your close relationships that matters.”  And I would say, in a very short time and in a very limited set of interactions, you and I were able to enter into that kind of closeness and quality.  I want to mention it, because “warm and protective relationships,” feels a little g-rated, and our lives, for better or for worse will always be messier than that.  Warm and protective and high quality might also boil down to something like being true with one another, even when the stories we have to tell aren’t the prettiest.  So thank you for offering me the opportunity to be true with you that day.  It lives in my heart as a most important moment.

Sending love,


Thursday, October 22, 2015

Step into the cathedral of your life

Thanks Sheila Hamilton for hosting me on KINK FM!  So fun to get to talk about my book and about the role of community in our spiritual lives.  Here's an excerpt from the conclusion that listeners might enjoy.  Thanks again for having me Sheila.  Can't wait til you're in Palo Alto on December 4th!

For the first time in human history, marriage is truly a choice, not a social expectation, not an economic exchange, a choice. 

The past decade has seen the lowest marriage rates in the history of the United States. By and large, fewer couples are getting married and they are joining together later in life. According to the US census the number of un-married, cohabiting households in the US has increased more than ten times since 1960. Advancements in women’s participation in the workforce and the emergence of same-sex lifetime partnerships, underscore the fact that marriage, for the first time ever, is not a required social or financial arrangement between unequal partners, but instead an optional fork in the road of life that can be chosen by a pair of equal peers.

For couples like you, who choose marriage, the decision to marry, however, often feels less rational than the notion of choice implies. There is a sense that this pairing is inevitable, or that something irrefutable is drawing the couple along. One or both of the partners might have the experience of hearing the small still voice that whispers over and over again, “this is so right, this is the person, this is the time, this is it.” There can be the feeling that something bigger is afoot than what you two, as individuals, have planned for yourselves.

All these senses, these emotional sparks, are signs that individuals have entered the realm of their own spirituality, their own sense of meaning. A choice made in this context is not so much a choice as a calling, an enactment of deeply held sacred values. Considered alongside the changing external social dynamics, it is fair to say that in the course of just a few generations marriage has shifted from being a social requirement to a spiritual calling. 

Meanwhile, as the choice to marry becomes more spiritual in nature, the fastest growing religion in the US is, simply put, not having one. We are coming of age in families that have lost touch or are losing touch with the rituals and rhythms that traditional religions held together for us. The reasons for leaving traditional religion are legitimate, but we are losing more than the restraint that accompanied outdated systems. The thing we are losing is hard to put a finger on, but we can feel it. We drift from day today, always on, always connected, and yet having the sense of dislocation or of missing out on meaning. We know in our core there is something inexpressibly sacred about our lives, but we often find ourselves separate from the wisdom that tells us how to make regular contact with it.

However, contact with the sacred, because it is a part of our human nature, is inevitable. Thomas Moore says, “Our culture is in need of theological reflection that does not advocate a particular tradition, but tends to the soul’s need for spiritual direction.” And without effort at all, we find ourselves in the way of spiritual direction from time to time.

We feel into it at the edge of the sea, at the top of a mountain, in the loamy, pine-scented grove of thousand-year-old redwood trees. We touch it when we count the ten little fingers and ten little toes of a newborn baby. We smell it on the edge of the morning, when the dew is still fresh and the air is cold and wet. And, in a good wedding ceremony, we hear it in the hush of the invocation, in the cadence of the vows, and in the celebration of the final announcement of the couple.

Your wedding ceremony, if you have grown up without a religious tradition in your family, may very well be the first time you experience the sacred in a social context. And I hope it will not be the last. There is currently a proliferation of science and literature that will support you in seeking the sacred in your own individual life by establishing some kind of spiritual practice. Perhaps you will try yoga, or meditation, or journal writing because of something you’ve read or seen in the news. However, there is very little that is currently being written about the importance of community in our spiritual and psychological fulfillment. 

I hope the direct experience of your ceremony will be proof enough for you that community and a set of shared common values are essential elements in a well-lived life. Each of life’s milestones represents an opportunity to bring people together and celebrate our common journey. They are each, in their own way, an invitation to step into the cathedral of your life, to appreciate the sacred as it appears in a particular moment, to celebrate, to weave a life of deep meaning, and to align your community around shared values. My hope is that your wedding will light you up in such a way that you resolve to mark the arrival of new life, the seasonal changes, and the inevitable losses you will face in the context of community. I encourage you to act boldly in designing or requesting the rites of passage you, yourself need. 

This is not to say that you should go out of your way to create fake routines or exotic pageants that arise out of nowhere. Many times a simple toast or an intimate gathering to say out loud what a transition means to you is all that is required. More important than the pageantry is the vulnerability you are willing to share with your community. And sometimes, pageantry is exactly what’s called for at a particular moment. Either way when life touches you deeply and you allow others to be with you in that moment, magic happens. You create a feeling of belonging for yourself and for others that empowers you to step into your life with more grace and authenticity. You open yourself up to the possibility that your life is full of light and meaning.

In my view, our collective survival on the planet depends on compassion and the shared belief that all lives here on earth are worthy of respect. How better to grow our understanding of the spirit in all life, than to begin to recognize it in our own? When we take time to appreciate our lives, to allow every cell to wake up to the bittersweet beauty of our short time here, we sense a transcendent quality to our experience that is both tender and unbreakable.  There is a durable softness to the human experience that binds us together. Ceremonies are important in our lives because they are a kind of frame that help us experience and claim this aspect of what it means to be human.

My hope for you is that your wedding ceremony transports you into your new life as a couple with joy and ease, and that it instills in you the great spirit of celebration that lives in all of us.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

In Praise of Karaoke

Hi all, I have been missing you and missing posting lately.  And today I just have one thing on my mind, Karaoke.

If you haven't done Karaoke, and you are one of the people who sit on your urge to join in, but over and over just don't, please do it.  Just find a way to get yourself to do it.

For all my life I sat on the Karaoke sidelines, watching others have the fun.  Yearning to try, but red in the face with that shy shame feeling that haunts those of us who look at other people's singing and dancing with a strange combination of longing and embarrassment, I sat and sat.  And about three years ago, I decided that I would stand up. That someday I would do Karaoke.

Time passed.  I did not do it.  And I did not do it.  And then finally this summer I did.  I had to fly out of state and sing with safe people, but I finally did it.

Between channeling my inner Pat Benatar in We Belong Together, or convincing Graham to join me in a dramatic Don't You Want Me Human League duet (remember that one?!) I learned that I need more of whatever it is that happens in Karaoke in my life. 

It's hard to pin down exactly, but it has to do with music and the way music hits me in my body.  Whether I'm dancing or singing, songs land in my chest and make their way through me, somehow they bypass a part of my brain that desperately needs to be taken off line.  When a song really takes me, it can feel like I'm all body and soul, my thinking brain gets sidelined.  And I so need that.

I was reminded of Karaoke this weekend, when my friend Laurel and I went to see Elizabeth Gilbert talk about her new book Big Magic.  She was speaking in an auditorium that held a few hundred people.  At the end of the reading, she told an interesting story.

"At one of my last readings, a woman asked me, 'When you are not writing, what do you do for yourself?  You write so much you must do something else for yourself' and I thought about it for a minute and realized that the other thing I did for myself was Karaoke."

I was floored.

"It started out that a few of us got together on a Wednesday night to do Karaoke.  We loved it so much we went again.  And now it's a thing.  On Wednesday night I do Karaoke now.  I just do."

After this story, she explained that because she was on such an ambitious book tour, she was not signing books, but instead, asked us if we would be up for singing with her.  

"If you don't go to church, chances are that you are not singing.  And that is a sad thing.  We must be the first humans in all of humanity to go long stretches without singing."

The audience was clearly game.  She had us look up Take Me Home Country Road by John Denver on our phones and then we were off, singing all together.  It was that simple.  

As I sang the song I'd learned on a hundred road trips in the back seat of my mother's car, there were tears in my eyes, the kinds that are the river of your life calling you, asking you to do your very best to go all in.  And you are shy and embarrassed and maybe terrible singer, but you do it in any way.  You allow yourself to disappear into the crowd, to let loose and let the song be in charge.  And the music rises, past your ears above your head, filling the room up to the very rafters.  Its hum is thick and deep and it lifts you along, and you are not alone, for one singing minute you are a part of it.  No longer watching or listening or trying to decide, you are a part of the flow, a note in the song, a tiny speck carried along in the current.

Singing does this for me.  I want more of it in my life and want it for you too.  Karaoke, of all unholy things, strangely can help.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Celebrating my 15th Anniversary with the Release of My First Book

Please welcome to the world, my first book, Writing Your Wedding Ceremony.  It is available on Amazon today!

My book is a short, handy guide designed for couples who have opted to ask a family member or friend officiate at their wedding.  In addition, a number of readers have told me it's a very useful resource if you happen to be that friend or family member who has been asked to do the honors.  

Here are the three most important things about it:

1.  It's affirming for a broad spectrum of couples.   
My goal is to welcome all kinds of couples into the process of celebrating their lifetime commitment.  The guide works for same sex celebrations, second marriages, and it could even give you a good start on renewing your vows, if that's on your horizon.

2.  It's short and offered in an open source spirit.  
Use this guide to write a wedding ceremony over a weekend.  Feel free to copy and paste sections you like.  The more often we find common language for ceremony, the more powerful the process is.  If you do end up using sections, and feel comfortable sharing which sections you used, I would love to hear from you.   It helps a writer's learning so much to know how their words are working in the world.

3.  All of the proceeds from this book will go to Lambda Legal.  
The victory in the Supreme Court this summer was a major milestone for same sex marriage, but the work to ensure equality for all couples is not over.  As we saw with the Kentucky County clerk who refused to approve marriage licenses for same sex couples, conflict at the state and local level will continue to happen.  By buying this book you will be helping keep our LBGTQ community safe and supported.

I hope you will consider purchasing the book on Amazon today.   

It is currently available as a Kindle book.  You don't have to have a Kindle to read it. If you don't have a Kindle, all you need to do is download the Kindle app onto your phone or tablet and then purchase the book from Amazon.

If you know someone who is getting married and you'd like to give it as a gift, click on the "Give as a Gift" button that is located a few buttons down from "Buy it Now" button on Amazon.  The process is simple and easy.

Thanks for considering.


As it happens, this little book has had its own perfect timing.  Like all products of life on this planet, this project has had it's own inner clock, one, that I must admit, has confounded me at every step.  That is, until I started to believe that maybe this idea had a life of it's own, that maybe it was coming through me in it's own time, and my job was to do the work as it came time to do the work.  I know, you hear this and it makes no sense, yet, I believe it to be as true as sunlight.

I started back at this project last fall, after having put it down for over ten years.  That moment turned out to be just a couple of weeks before the Supreme Court released it's 2015 docket, in which it announced that it would hear Obergefell vs. Hodges.  The final edited manuscript arrived in my hands the day that decision was delivered.  And today, I offer you the final finished product on the very day I married my husband, Graham, 15 years ago.  

In a very literal way, this book was born that day.  I've written about how my wedding changed me on a website I started for the kids, called Roots to Grow.  The amount of time that has passed between then and now is mind boggling to me.  And yet, many things had to happen for me to complete the project, so in a way it makes sense.  What feels so strange though, is to look at the pictures of who I was when I started it.  For the first time in my life I look at Graham and me in our wedding photos and think, "Those were sweet kids."  They look like our younger siblings to me now, that young woman in the dress, with her short hair, and her beau, the young man in his first tuxedo.  

After fifteen years, life has shaped us into different people.  There was that car accident when I was in when I was 29.  And that yoga class I took when I was pregnant that introduced me to one of my soul mate friends.  Brett's bike accident.  My first article published.  Graham's  company founded in the sunny upstairs corner of our house.  Not to mention bringing three daughters into the world.  Big things and small things have made their mark. 

Like this book project, life is having it's way with us.  

In the case with Writing your Wedding Ceremony, the things life was asking me to do with it felt a lot like failure.  Things like not finishing it for many years, things like writing it very, very badly at first.  Things like showing that very, very bad version to a professional editor whose opinion I respected and feared.  All those moments, as they passed through my filter of judgement, felt pretty awful.  But when I look back now, I see that there was a hint of elegance to the order of things that had little do to with my own plans. And in the end, I am happy for the relationship between this book and me.  We've learned a lot together.

Thankfully, my relationship with Graham has included much less struggle.  The vast majority of our days so far have been blessedly happy, the ones that have been otherwise have been good medicine.  In those moments when we've argued, or hit personal hurdles, we've seen each other through.  And as any married couple knows, those see it through days are no fun, but in the end, they are the ones that forge something new.  They are the natural forces, rich with learning, that have transformed us from two sweet kids into partners for life.

At fifteen years we've seen enough of life to know we're lucky, that not all couples have the chance to develop a softened patina before the really tough blows start coming down.  To have had that chance is one of the biggest blessings of my life.  At fifteen years, I'm grateful for happy days, but almost more grateful for the tough days.  They have been our little tide pools of struggle where we learn to swim and keep each other afloat.  

Our marriage is one of the strong steady things in my life, and certainly, the most important source of strength for keeping my writing moving forward.

So as I offer this project to the world on our Anniversary, I just want to throw a shout out to Graham.  Happy Anniversary, Honey.  This one is for you.


Tuesday, September 8, 2015

My Wedding Book is on its way!

Blog friends, 
I am so excited!  I will self-publish my first book this month.  

It's a simple guide to writing a wedding ceremony that will be especially handy for couples who have chosen a family member or friend to officiate at their wedding.  

The book includes a reliable outline for a simple non-denominational wedding, a set of reflection questions for the couple getting married, the answers to which flow directly into the writing of the ceremony, and some tips about the writing process for a project like this.  

It's simple.  It's encouraging.  And what I love most about it is that it is a stake in the ground for what I really believe.  Whether or not we are part of a religious tradition, we all deserve to experience a rich and expressive spiritual life.  Each one of us is part of the larger, universal whole, and life milestone ceremonies, like weddings, give us the opportunity to experience our own belonging--in our family, in our community and as a part of the greater human family.

As a part of bringing this work out into the world, I have connected with a fabulous new progressive wedding magazine that launched in January.  It's called Catalyst.  Vibrant, edgy, delicious, disruptive--this magazine gives you a view into the weddings you've wanted to see, celebrations that are full of color, individuality, passion.  Even if you walked down the aisle years ago, you will feel a burst of liberation when you connect with how unapologetically real and diverse these celebrations are.

I've written a piece called "Nine New Vows for Modern Couples," that will appear in their print magazine in January, and this week I've written a blog post for them that examines whether or not Obergefell vs. Hodges, the recent Supreme Court case legalizing same sex marriage, discriminates against single people.  Go check them out.  The site sparks thinking and joy alike.  SO FUN!

Also this month, I'll be sending the book proposal to a few more agents.  Wish me luck!

Friday, August 28, 2015

Back to School 2015

This past Tuesday was the first day of school I had been planning for two years, the very first day all three of the girls would be dropped off at the same school.

I had come to plan it with precision, over the course of months, imagining myself returning to the fading velvet chair in my garage office to write.  This peaceful vision, which I’ve carried with me like a favorite stone for a couple of months, obvious now, but it was not generated out of a gentle journey.    

It had its beginnings in a dark, awful feeling I experienced the day I dropped Gwendolyn off at Fourth Grade and Chloe off at Second two years ago.  After leaving the girls in each of their classrooms, each with a teacher I knew would light up their days, I turned my back to the school gate and sobbed giant, swampy, complicated sobs.  I felt like I had been excavated, dug out to a dark hollowness, like inside me was a vast cave I had not encountered before.  It was denser and more frightening than the sweetness of missing girls.  I did not like it.  

Without allowing myself to delve too deeply into the feeling, which I don’t think I had the capacity to do at the time, I attached a simple explanation to it.  I imagined that women who worked, say at places like Google or Facebook, did not feel this gaping hole.  I fantasized that because they were valued by a company or a team, because they had an experience of who they were without their children, that they had a fullness I did not.

I vowed to myself that over the next two years I would figure out how I could also understand myself in this way.  I set out to discover a more about who I might be in the world, beyond the walls of my house, beyond my relationships with my children and partner.  It was time.

So that fall I enrolled in a program called Professional Reboot, organized by a Coach named Sherri Lassila.  Every Friday morning for two months a circle of about eight women gathered together to take stock of their values and to start take new action in the world around us.  One of the women wanted to create a program for sound healing.  Years ago she had had a mystical experience of sound in a french cathedral that had led her to take courses about the healing properties of sound.  The curiosity and desire to do more with music had been continuing to hang around her.  

One day she arrived at the circle and with a question in her voice said, “I had this idea the other day.  I thought maybe I could go over to the local nursing home and offer to do my sound healing for the residents over there.  I could do it for free, just to try doing it with people?”  The idea was clear and precise, and even though it came out of her mouth riding on an inquiry, it traveled to rest of us like the sound of a bell ringing on a sunny day.  The whole circle experienced the sensation of yes, our bodies humming, almost sizzling with excitement and support.  We responded to her, telling her, “Yes, you can do that, you totally should do that!”  That week she made the proposal to the nursing home, to which they also said yes.

After that, yes became contagious in the circle.  It was as if the physical feeling of “yes” had turned on for all of us, making it easier to recognize our own yeses.  The next week one woman was off investigating the possibility of creating multicultural placemats for kids, another was exploring her photography, I started to get more practical and realistic about becoming a writer.  I signed up for a class and submitted my work to a magazine.  And the magazine said yes.  Every time someone made progress, the circle took on a feeling of celebration and possibility.  Together we were breaking through the stagnation that had prompted us to sign up in the first place.  It was wonderful and juicy and so good that I decided I also wanted to train to help other women do the same.

It felt good to feel different than feeling excavated.  I was making progress, and a high pitched energy zipped me forward week after week.  With each leap I learned more about what I could do.  It was fun, but moving faster than expected.  By last April, the vision of myself in my faded velvet chair on the First Day of School had solidified.  

It’s been a whole summer since I’ve been blogging, and I’m not sure if you’re with me here, but can you feel how low I was two years ago, and then how speedy and high my growth forward was?  It was very herky jerky, just like one of those developmental spirals of disequilibrium that we see our children go through.  By April I could see it for what it was, and could feel that equillibrium was likely to return by September.

So this past Tuesday, the first day back to school that I had planned for two years, arrived.
Three backpacks paired with back to school shoes were laid out in the front hall.  School supplies were purchased.  Calendars set.  I was as organized as I’ve ever been.  It was their first day of school, and my first day leaving them off to go back to work, the beginning of a new chapter for all of us.  I wore a new dress to celebrate.

But after Eloise’s teacher sounded the rainstick and said, “OK Kindergarteners.  It is time to give your parents a big hug.  And moms and dad be sure to let your Kindergarteners know what a wonderful day they will have.  It is time to say goodbye,”  and Eloise and I had a very big hug and she ran to the rug, and I took one last look before I snuck out the door to begin the walk to my office that I had imagined for so long, there it was, that empty excavation feeling.

The sky was gray, and the red wagon I had walked Eloise to school in, bumped behind me feeling so light and so empty.  All at once I felt how over it was.  These last eleven years of babies at home, of mornings in the park, of naps, of food cut into bite sized pieces, of the homey feeling of preschools and the saintly women who work in those places, of girls just the right size for my lap.  And even though there were a thousand times that I yearned for the freedom of this day, and even though I have grown into a role that I love and will love for a long time, it did not protect me from feeling the emptiness in the end.  The reality of having the girls with me so closely, as they are in the summer, and then having them gone.  Of feeling so taken up, and then, in a way, left behind.  Perhaps it is a pattern of parenting, maybe mothering in particular, that you feel the weight of the child so very close, in your belly, in your arms, in your home, and then the absence of that weight and its aftermath.

These two years, I had been mistaken that there were other women who did not feel this.  There is no possible other role that could protect a person from the reality of the loss.  What I had been up against two years ago, and what I was up against on Tuesday was the truth about endings--that they come.  And when they do we are often depleted, empty completely.

Our lives require, well, all of our life.  We parent our hearts out so that our children can grow to become independent of us.  We live as fully into our days as we can, until we have no more days.  We are candles that will burn to the bottom of a wick and the only thing left after the the glowing light will be ash.  

Oh shit.  This again.

And that’s why I was laughing.  I had just passed through a stage in which I had temporarily forgotten that this is what we’re up against. The dark feeling of two years ago wasn’t just a dark feeling, it was the dark feeling.  

If I had understood this more clearly at the time, and I’m almost certain I was not able to, I don’t know if it would have mattered.  Understanding is not the same as experiencing. It is possible to anticipate in advance that loss will hurt, but how it will actually feel in the midst of the thing cannot be known until the moment itself arrives.  Preparation can only prepare us so much.   

At the same time, my herky jerky ride, and the zippy energy that has propelled me these last couple of years, have conspired to bring on some important strengths that are helping me today.  I have grown into work that gives me a way to take care of life in a daily.  My writing practice and my coaching practice both build muscles that me keep me close to the pulse and the infinite texture of things.  The vision of myself in my faded velvet chair, the one I have been holding like a favorite stone these last few months, has arrived.  It showed up accompanied by the same dark cloud I was working so hard to avoid, but yet, here I am.  Steady in my chair, lifted by the opportunity to write for a morning. I am looking at the difficult thing more clearly today than I did two years ago, and I still don't like it. But I have some new strengths that help me be with it a tiny bit more. And there is some peace in that.

So for as many days as I have to sit in this seat, I am grateful.  

Blog friends, I have missed you.  More than you know.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Dear Baby Mama

The other day I woke up before six to make my mother's blueberry buckle, it's a coffee cake we make when blueberries are become plentiful in summer.  I had just gotten word from a friend's husband that their baby had arrived safely on July 4th, just a few days after Gwendolyn's 11th Birthday.  It had not been an easy birth for this friend, and in a number of ways reminded me of Gwendolyn's (an experience I wrote about here).  

I woke up that day wanting to deliver her a coffee cake.  This felt irrationally important, but as I creamed the butter and the sugar, I understood it to be a instinct toward healing.  Among all the upside down confusion of my own difficult medicalized birth, one happy thing I remember is the banana bread my friend Katherine brought me.  It was sweet familiarity wrapped in aluminum foil, an anchor of loving normalcy, a reminder of the things that could still be counted on while everything else changed by the minute.   

Somehow offering that to another mom, showing up in her hospital room as evidence that the blueberries are still fresh and a coffee cake can still be made was important to me.  Maybe more important to me than to her.  She did me a great service receiving my cake, and for that I am grateful.  

When I walked into her room and saw her leaning back into the mechanical hospital bed, wearing a black nursing gown just like the one I had, it was like looking at an old picture of myself.

"Hey, friend, how are you?" I asked.

Her baby was swaddled tight, but not in her arms. She was nuzzled in with her grandma while Dad stood nearby.

"I'm ok," she said.  "The baby's good, " she smiled looking over to the left toward her own mother holding the baby.  "I'm ok."

We stared into each other's eyes, and for a brief moment, water rose to the edges of our lashes.  Neither of us would let ourselves cry.  She and her baby were safe and healthy.  This was a happy occasion, and yet, the tears were there.

So many tragic things can happen in a life, a c-section seems hardly cause for grief and anxiety, and yet for me, and I think maybe for my friend too, it was a difficult thing, made especially so by the fact that I had the idea that an educated, healthy, feminist woman should be able to avoid that kind of medicalized birth.  It turns out, this was the first of many ideals that motherhood was going to complicate for me.  

When I think about it now there are so many things I would tell myself.  So I decided to write some of them down.

Dear Baby Mama,

I hear you wondering what happened to you and wondering what you could have done differently to avoid the c-section and all of what felt so violating and wrong.  I know there is a part of you that wonders whether this is your fault, whether you should have negotiated harder with the doctor, or taken less drugs, or more drugs, or changed the outcome.  I know you wonder if you are a cog in some medical-political machinery and that you have absorbed the words of all those amazing birth activists who speak of gentle and ecstatic births. And the way you have absorbed it has made those births right and yours wrong.  

What I want you to know is that in this lifetime you will get to have normal births too, and what you will learn is that the minute your first daughter's cells started dividing inside you, you started to live a new kind of life that you have no idea about yet.  A life that you are not prepared for, a life that will catapult you into territory in which the ideas of good and bad, better and worse, or doing a "good job" won't serve you.  

You will learn in no uncertain terms that there are things that cannot be undone.  There will be scars and imperfections and disappointments.  You will not be able to improve things sometimes.  This will be terrifying for you.  But ultimately it will also be one of the best things for you.  It will be like an existential bell ringing to remind you that your job here is to live the experiences of your life--not to fix or control them, but to live them, to meet them honestly, and with as much love as you can muster.

You will learn this and forget it a thousand times.  You will want to recover from your surgery quickly and you will want want the baby to sleep through the night already and you will want your life to feel "yours" again as soon as possible.  You will want so many good normal things to come quickly, as if they will be signs that everything is alright.  

What I really want is to lean close to you and smooth your hair and whisper quietly into your ear, sweetheart, you are alright, it is alright, it is ok to let all this go.  In a hushed voice I want to say that that the bud breaks before it blooms.

People will tell you that in three months it will get easier, which is true in a way, but what really will make it easier will be to let your life be different, to let yourself be a little broken, a little tired, a little overwhelmed, or maybe even a lot of all of those things.  

This is the best thing that motherhood is going to teach you, that even at your worst, you are still ok, that good grades and promotions, publications and achievements, none of that can ever compare to you, just you, showing up for your life.  That, sweet one, is the beginning of love.  It is the beginning of everything good.  And as hard as it is, Baby Mama, you are doing it, on these first hard days you are doing it.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Widening the Circle

As we celebrate today, I am feeling indebted to the couples I know and the couples I don't know, who in the past were brave enough to claim their desire for love and for lifetime commitment.  This was daring and an enduring example of how individual fulfillment ripples out, widening the circle of what is possible for others.

I am also feeling grateful to Tom Lyons, my American History teacher who taught a  Constitutional Law class my Senior year of high school.   We studied Brown v. Board of Education, Bakke v. University of California, Bowers v. Hardwick and others.  In each case, Mr. Lyons presented us photocopies of the original US Supreme Court Decisions.  Reading the original texts, absorbing fundamental concepts in that classic seraph font, learning to recognize the italicized case names, and coming to know the legal voices of the various justices (Thurgood Marshall and Earl Warren became personal favorites), these learning moments characterize the pinnacle of my life as a student.  I cannot recall a class I loved better than that one.

When I graduated and spent a year at Georgetown University, I learned how our class came to have the opportunity to study those briefs.  In the years when history existed on paper, Tom Lyons always had an alum at Georgetown that he called upon to make the trip to the Supreme Court and photocopy briefs for him.  For a short year, I was that young student.  I can remember walking the rising white marble steps, filling out the order form for the briefs and standing at the Supreme Court copy machine.  Never has photocopying been so empowering.

My teacher planted in me a great love for these Supreme Court opinions, for their project and their beautiful language that is always aimed so precisely toward creating history.

So with my dear friends and my beloved history teacher in mind, I took great pleasure reading today's decision (and dissent too).  Rather than write one more word, I invite you to savor Justice Kennedy's legal voice.  Here are some of my favorite excerpts from his opinion.

"From their beginning to their most recent page, the annals of human history reveal the transcendent importance of marriage. The lifelong union of a man and a woman always has promised nobility and dignity to all persons, without regard to their station in life. Marriage is sacred to those who live by their religions and offers unique fulfillment to those who find meaning in the secular realm. Its dynamic allows two people to find a life that could not be found alone, for a marriage becomes greater than just the two persons. Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations."

"To the contrary, it is the enduring importance of marriage that underlies the petitioners’ contentions. This, they say, is their whole point. Far from seeking to devalue marriage, the petitioners seek it for themselves because of their respect—and need—for its privileges and responsibilities. And their immutable nature dictates that same-sex marriage is their only real path to this profound commitment."

"The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times. The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning."

"These new insights have strengthened, not weakened, the institution of marriage. Indeed, changed understandings of marriage are characteristic of a Nation where new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations, often through perspectives that begin in pleas or protests and then are considered in the political sphere and the judicial process."

"The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality. This is true for all persons, whatever their sexual orientation." 

"Same-sex couples, too, may aspire to the transcendent purposes of marriage and seek fulfillment in its highest meaning."

"The right to marry is fundamental as a matter of history and tradition, but rights come not from ancient sources alone. They rise, too, from a better informed understanding of how constitutional imperatives define a liberty that remains urgent in our own era."

"No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civiliza- tion’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.
The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth
Circuit is reversed.
It is so ordered."

Monday, June 1, 2015

The Merry Month of May

Last week our family in various configurations attended two school picnics, one musical, one end of year school board celebration, a last baseball game, three dentist appointments, a performance of Alice in Wonderland, an ice cream social welcoming new students to our school, and a volleyball game.  We hosted a party during which ten third graders played Minecraft for more or less four hours straight.  We had the good fortune to be guests at a barbeque where one of our favorite friends tested out his DIY rotisserie grill made out of bike wheels powered by a windshield wiper motor.  And we hosted two, much less creative barbecues at our own house.

I have missed, just flat out failed to show up, for at least two different appointments.  I've been the last contributor to the gift for the girl scout troop leader and the baseball coaches, thank you gestures that hardly come close to matching the gift of time offered.   I'm in danger of missing the boat on the end of year card in third grade and the end of year gift in preschool.  Both of those need attention this week, and I'm hopeful I will rise to the occasion in one way or another.

So yes, it really has felt like May is another round of December.  

Recently I asked a mom friend whose children are both out of the house whether May had slowed down for her.  The report she shared had me understand that with college aged kids the rhythm is a lot the same only the distance between engagements is far greater.  So now I know.  This May routine won't let up anytime soon, considering that Eloise will graduate from college in or around 2032, a year that sounds so foreign to me it feels like it's arrival is improbable.

The facts of this matter have caused me a fair bit of distress this month.  Until about last week, anxiety sprouted like like weeds, threatening to choke the life out of my life.  I had a hard time sleeping as I tried to work out how I might still hit deadlines I had made up for myself about the wedding book project.  I catastrophized, this is a particular specialty of mine, that after all this time, the thing would never actually happen, that my work was dead in the water, and the book was a figment of my imagination, though, it is so close to being complete.

But luckily, I am probably a reader before just about anything else--before writer, before meditator, before mother, maybe not before daughter, but before many things, I am and always have been a reader, and because of that, though writing is a solitary activity, I am never really alone in it.  Teachers sit at my desk, offering their stories like balm.  And while the intimate encounter on the page, never can compare with the, real encounter in the flesh, there is always enough there to find a crumb of hope, and often a lot more than that.

This month, I have been slowly working my way through a collection of essays, poems and stories by Raymond Carver.  The book is called Fires.  I have it here in front of me now, opened to the passage I underlined in purple last week.  It's just a few lines on a page, and yet it got to the bone of something so true for me that just a glance at the purple lines chokes me up.

"I remember thinking at that moment, amid the feelings of helpless frustration that had me close to tears, that nothing--and brother, I mean nothing--that ever happened to me on this earth could come anywhere close, could possibly be as important to me, could make as much difference, as the fact that I had two children.  And that I would always have them and always find myself in this position of unrelieved responsibility and permanent distraction...At that moment--I swear all of this happened in the laundromat, I could see nothing ahead but years more of this kind of responsibility and perplexity.  Things would change some, but they were never really going to get better.  I understood this, but could I live with it?  At that moment I saw that accommodations would have to be made.  The sights would have to be lowered."

Permanent distraction....The sights would have to be lowered.  

How does that sit with you?  That the sights would have to be lowered.  I think by now, the whole world knows that there is something afoot in Palo Alto on this topic.  Whether you are reading the New York Times or watching the sitcom Silicon Valley, you've probably caught wind of the galactic absurdity of high expectations that have come to symbolize, characterize, and satirize my hometown.   And when I say my hometown, I don't mean a place I just happened to end up.  I mean a place I chose to live, a place where I consider myself, for better or for worse, to be living among tribe mates.  Lowering expectations is not a popular position around here--and by around here, I mean, with me.   

Carver's passage is just the medicine I needed.  Because it was in this moment in the laundromat when he accepted something true about his life, in particular his life with his children.  "During these ferocious years of parenting, I usually didn't have the time or the heart, to think about working on anything very lengthy...The circumstances of my life with these children dictated something else."  Carver did what he could.  His life dictated something else. He wrote short stories.  He wrote essays.  He wrote poems.  He did not stop writing, he simply wrote what he could write in the time that he scraped together.  He made something of what he had rather than waiting for the the perfect circumstances to appear.  

Something magical happens when we accept the life we are actually having, rather than pining for the one we don't.  Things tend to get more practical, less grand.    We start to collect the pennies of our small change life (stealing a Carverism here) rather than overlooking them for the bigger bills.  It's not what we wanted, not nearly enough, and yet at the end of the day there might be a couple of pennies more in the jar than there were yesterday.  For Carver, his small change ended up accumulating into a body of work that any writer would kill for.  That he stopped fighting his life, that he lowered his sights--this decision of his delivered the words I needed to read last week.

They allowed me to release myself into the December that May has become, to actually join in the celebration rather than rail against it.  To be sure, as with everything in Palo alto there is an element of overdoing it, but the truth is, the longer days of May, June, and July have always called humans to festival.  The hours of sunlight tell us it is time to be out and about with our fellow humans.  In ancient Greece, this was the countdown to the Olympic Games, for Native Americans it was the season of the sun dance, and across time this has been the season for weddings, probably because mild weather makes for easier traveling to see kin.  

What trips me up is when I imagine that my "work" might be more important than the attending the ice cream social at school or celebrating my daughter who was voted most improved hitter on her baseball team where she played as the only girl.  Which is not to say that each of these little bits at the end of school year are the end-all-be-all either.  I don't want to romanticize the explosion of end of year specialness that could stand to be toned down.  The point is, there is both.  There is a time for one and a time for another, and a time for other things too.  For me to write and parent and participate in my community, I need to be willing to deal in small change and to switch gears when necessary.  And thanks to Carver, and other teachers I love, I remembered.  

Which was wonderful, because I would have been a fool to miss this.