Monday, January 31, 2011

The lengthening days of late January

The lengthening minutes of daylight at this time of year seem like a small miracle, year after year.

Just as in mid-November I’m surprised anew every year at how early and how dark-gray the gathering dusk is, each year by late January I’m surprised to see a white-gold glow stay in the late-afternoon sky until five o’clock or later.

Why these things still surprise me is hard to say. Not only have I seen four decades of seasons; I’ve seen many of them from the same location. Yet still, the fact that the sky stays light later and later as January reaches toward February still feels like a daily blessing, a small touch of grace to end the afternoon.

Maybe it’s partly that a year like this with so much snow increases the brightness somewhat by reflecting it back. November tends to feel so dark not only because of the early sunsets but also because most years, including this past one, the predominant colors of November are gray and brown, with the ground turning dull in color, the leaves falling off the trees, and no snow yet. These past few weeks, not only has the light lasted longer but there are piles and piles of snow gleaming it back into the atmosphere.

At the church I used to attend in Framingham, the Womenspirit group celebrated a Winter Solstice reenactment every year, narrating the Wiccan legend of how the stag, representing light, must re-conquer the wolf, representing darkness, on the Winter Solstice to ensure that brightness will again prevail with the oncoming spring. The idea that early civilizations might not have been sure that the shortening days would eventually reverse course is fascinating to me, whether or not there’s any accuracy in it. I love the idea that you don’t really truly know, until you see the lengthening daylight of late January, whether summer will return or whether the days will just grow increasingly shorter and darker.

We’re definitely still in the midst of winter. The snowbanks are four feet high alongside our driveway, and more snow is forecast for midweek. It’s still only January – albeit the last day of January – and there’s little question, groundhogs notwithstanding, that we have plenty of time left to immerse ourselves in winter.

But at five o’clock I can’t help noticing that the sky is still bright. The stag has defeated the wolf yet again. Spring, then summer, will return.

Friday, January 28, 2011

What time of day should I run?

When I saw that Jason Blacker had written a blog post for runaddicts.net entitled “What time of day should I run?”, I couldn’t help clicking over to take a peek, even though I already had a pretty good idea of what the article would say: "Run whatever time you like! There is no best time!"

That’s true, but most runners have their favorites. Mine varies, though, depending on the time of year and on the current rhythm of my days. As the article says, early morning gives you the advantages of the quiet of dawn and the elation of being done with a run before the day has really even gotten started. Midmorning often means avoiding rush hour. Early afternoon can give you a needed boost of energy to get through the rest of the day. Late afternoon or early evening is often a good way to transition from the workday mindset to relaxation time. The later hours of the evening, if you are fortunate enough to have a running route where darkness isn’t an insurmountable obstacle, has its own magic: like dawn, it tends to be a quiet, private, nearly secretive time to be out.

Some of my most memorable runs have been memorable specifically because of their time frame. Once before a full day of air travel, I started my run at 4:40 a.m. It was cold and dark and really not much fun, but I spent the rest of the day in airports and on planes with the satisfaction of knowing I’d already fit in a workout, and it was probably the longest turnaround time I ever had between one day’s run and the next day’s run. The latest I ever remember going out was at about 9:45 p.m., one hot August night when my son and I were running every day together. He had wanted to wait until after his baseball game; but once he was rested and fed, he realized he’d left his running shoes at a friend’s house across town, so out I went to pick them up. Running that late, although odd, wasn’t bad that day, though: the August heat and humidity were finally subsiding after a very warm day.

These days, my favorite time to go running is midmorning on a weekend and just after my daughter climbs onto the school bus on weekdays. One of those preferences has physiological origins and the other is psychological in nature. Midmorning on a weekend, after a filling breakfast and a large mug of coffee, just seems to be when my energy is highest. Weekday mornings after Holly leaves for school is when I feel most free, with the whole workday still stretching ahead of me and with the knowledge that I’ll probably have an uninterrupted six-hour stint for writing once I finish my run.

Ultimately, just about every runner would probably agree: there is no bad time to go running. Run when it’s convenient and safe for you. Experiment with different options. Enjoy the differences: quiet, noisy, warm, cold, busy, relaxed. Have fun, no matter what time of day or night it may be.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The yoga project begins

Yesterday was Day One of our yoga project.

First, let me offer a few reassurances. This is not going to be another streak. No one has yet tried to convince me that there’s any inherent value in doing yoga 365 days a year for decades on end. Nor is there a national association like the one I belong to for runners, only dedicated to people who do yoga every single day instead of run. Plus “yoga streak” just sounds weird.

And one final reassurance: no matter how well or poorly the Yoga Project goes, I won’t write a memoir about it.

Okay, maybe that last reassurance was a little bit rash. After all, it’s been ten weeks since I finished my last book and I’m starting to feel a little desperate for a topic for the next one. But I can promise that right now, the plan is not to write a book about trying to make yoga a family activity.

Yoga had been on my radar for a long time. My mother taught yoga back in the 1970s in our garage. By today’s standards, that sounds almost like an oxymoron: “Inhale deeply, while trying at the same time to avoid breathing in the gasoline fumes.” But back then, she was cutting-edge. In fact, a former neighbor said to me recently, “Isn’t it funny how your mom was ahead of everyone else on the yoga thing?”

More recently, several of my friends have become highly committed to yoga – one close friend’s husband even referred to her as a “yoga nun” at one point – and my sister is an avid practitioner as well. All of them urged me to give it a closer look, but like many runners, I have trouble equating physical wellness with anything that doesn’t involve peak heart rate (and I realize that some yoga does involve peak heart rate, but not usually the beginner’s kind).

And, of course, there’s always NPR telling me what I should be thinking about. In the past month, I’ve heard no less than three NPR interviews with Claire Dederer, author of the newly published Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses. The fact that I listened to all three interviews while out running did not in any way lessen the nagging feeling that this was something I should probably be doing along with everyone else.

I thought it would be hard to find the time, but two factors I hadn’t counted on dovetailed to obviate that issue. First of all, I realized that at least in the early dabbling phases, I didn’t actually have to drive anywhere to do yoga; I could try it out with the comfort of my own DVD player. (Having to drive anywhere is usually enough of a deterrent to me to kill any plan whatsoever.) And second, when I asked the kids if they were interested in trying it, they said possibly. So it didn’t have to mean I was taking time away from something with them.

The kids wanted to start right away, and I hadn’t made it up to the library to check out some yoga DVDs as I’d hoped to (because that would have meant driving somewhere). So we checked out our Netflix streaming options. There were two choices: basic yoga and yoga to treat depression. I suspected either would be fine but we went with the basic.

And for our first day, I was pleased. All three of us started out together. Tim and I both got the giggles a few times trying to understand the video instructor’s French accent as well as some of her instructions (“Did she just say ‘Relax your face?’” Tim asked at one point.) Holly stepped on her own toe and decided to sit on the sidelines for the rest of the workout, but she watched patiently for the next 35 minutes. There were a lot of poses I didn’t expect to be able to do until I tried them. When it was over, Tim and I both felt a little bit groggy but none the worse for wear.

So we’re going to try to stay with it. Not every day, but a few times a week. Today I finally made it up to the library and checked out three different yoga DVDs. “Good luck with the yoga!” the librarian said as she scanned the discs. “Oh, it’s for the kids; it’s something they want to do,” I said. She smiled knowingly.

I’m not sure why my instinct was to hide my yoga project from her. I guess I just need a little more time to see how it pans out. I expected to wake up this morning with sore muscles, though, and nothing hurts a bit. It’s taken me years to believe that I can actually do something physical that doesn’t involve aerobic target zones and pounding the pavement, but I’m ready to try. So is Tim, and Holly plans to join us again as well.

No books about it, I promise. Or almost promise, anyway. Blog posts, of course, are a whole other story.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

January running

We’re in the thick of winter – and it’s the thickest thick of winter I can recall in many years. We have piles and piles of snow on the ground, record low temperatures this week, and more snow (plus sleet and rain!) in the forecast.

Needless to say, that poses a challenge to runners.

My problem is not generally the cold, though when the temperature is lower than about 20 degrees, I admit that the cold can be hard to counter. But the real problem right now is the snowbanks. Carlisle’s Department of Public Works simply does not have the manpower to clear the footpaths throughout the winter, and the houses along our meandering country pathways are not close enough together to expect homeowners to clear their own stretch, like in the city. Running on the road, though feasible at other times of year, is a terrible idea right now because the snowbanks are so high as to make it very difficult to get off the road if need be when a car is approaching. As a runner, I may be tempted to do it anyway; but all it takes is a short drive while I imagine encountering a runner on the roadway next to my car to realize there just isn’t enough room for both.

Fortunately for me, the plow driver who has been maintaining our long dirt driveway this winter is doing an excellent job of keeping our own roadway nicely packed and neat, and that makes it possible to continue running through the winter. We’re almost a half-mile off the main road, with three other houses on the same common drive; simply by running to each house and then out to the road, I can log a full mile.

But, of course, I like to do more than a mile. And once in a while I push myself to do the circuit of all four houses and the end of the driveway two or three times in a row, but it gets very, very dull. Retracing my steps is never something I enjoy, on any running route; doing it on my own driveway, day after day, defines tedium. It’s true that the scenery here never gets boring – surrounded by trees and meadows, our setting provides an ever-changing panorama of the seasons and nature – but somehow that’s not so easy to appreciate as winter wears on and on.

I admit it: I’m bored. And cold. Committing to a daily running streak is a great discipline, and with 1,264 days under my belt, I’m not ready to give it up now. But this is definitely one of the low points, and if ever I dreamed of taking some time off from running, this is that time.

Nonetheless, being a little bit exasperated with the limitations that winter weather puts on daily running serves a useful purpose as well. It reminds me once again of how much I love running under better conditions. Before starting my running streak, this was the part of the year I took off from running. I’d give it up for the whole of winter and early spring. And then as the snow started to melt, there would inevitably come a day in March – or even during a particularly mild spell in late February – when I couldn’t wait to get back out for my run. My body would start absolutely craving the feeling of the asphalt under my running shoes and the cold air hitting my face.

Now that I run every day, I don’t get that craving that comes from a respite anymore. But restricting myself to a mile or so on the driveway every day has nearly the same effect. It’s only late January, and I have every reason to believe the limitations of winter running will impose themselves for another month or more, but when the snowbanks melt, I’ll be ready. I’ll be even more eager to leave the safe dull confines of the common driveway than I am now, and my usual daily two-miler through the town center and back will have never looked so good.

With spring comes the end of hibernation. Once, my hibernation involved no running at all; now it involves one boring mile a day. The snow will melt, and when that happens, I’ll be more than ready to hit the road – the big road, with its myriad choices of running routes and wide variety of scenery – once again.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Reflecting on gratitude

I subscribe to the “Word for the Day” from gratefulness.org, and not only do I receive an inspirational and usually thought-provoking quotation from the site every day in my email inbox, but most of the time I even remember to read them.

The fact that I’ve stayed on this mailing list for about six months is itself a break in tradition for me. I don’t know whether or not other people have this same habit, but I tend to subscribe to online newsletters or daily emails that I think sound interesting and then within two days of signing up wonder why these people are cluttering up my mailbox again. Various posts from Amazon.com; the occasional cooking advice from Epicurious.com; daily recipes from Whole Foods; the ubiquitous Fly Lady: in every case, I saw one promo, believed this was someone I wanted to hear from every day, and then within a week of subscribing found myself scrabbling frantically for the “unsubscribe” button.

But I’ve resisted that reflex when it comes to “Word for the Day,” because so often these quotes are so worthwhile. For that matter, simply requiring myself to stop, read the quote, and reflect on it long enough to decide whether it’s relevant to my life or not is a good discipline for me in slowing down and absorbing text. More often than not, the daily reflection contains at the very least a kernel of thought-provoking sustenance.

And so the ones I like, I keep in my in-box until I feel like I’ve worn out my capacity to reflect on them, whether that happens inside my head, in my journal, on my blog or in some other format. I cull quickly, though; the point isn’t to storehouse these quotes. I keep only those to which I truly believe I’ll take time to give more consideration.

Yesterday I took a moment to scroll through the ones I’d saved in the past few weeks and came across this one from Sarah Ban Breathnach: "Gratitude is the most passionate transformative force in the cosmos. When we offer thanks to God or to another human being, gratitude gifts us with renewal, reflection, reconnection."

Admittedly, it’s fair to say the idea of pausing to observe gratitude is not a new idea for me. As I’ve mentioned before, one of the manuscript readers (or “beta readers”) of my recently published memoir actually grew so weary of my mentions of gratitude for all the good things in my life that she actually scribbled “Enough already!” in the margins, at just the point where I was waxing grateful for the lack of terrorist attacks in my neighborhood. All right, maybe that one was a touch of overkill. But in general, I’m grateful. I’m grateful for all kinds of things.

Nonetheless, I don’t always see it as Sarah Ban Breathnach does: “the most passionate transformative force in the cosmos.” (Because frankly, if that is in fact that case, I’m sort of surprised I’m not more, well…transformed.) But the next part is thought-provoking as well: “…gratitude gifts us with renewal, reflection, reconnection.”

So where does the truth lie? Am I merely a Pollyanna, as my manuscript reader suggested when she confessed to being exasperated with all my expressions of gratitude? Or am I indeed on a path of continuous transformation, exerting positive energy throughout the cosmos?

Just in case it’s the latter, I’ll take a moment for gratitude today. I’m grateful that after the pump malfunctioned yesterday in the barnyard, leaving me with no way to fill the animals’ trough with water other than shoveling in heaps of snow, it inexplicably started working again several hours later; and I’m grateful that the electricity stayed on all day – last week’s five-hour blackout left me with a full season’s worth of appreciation for heat and light – and I’m grateful that I made strong inroads on the work that I have on deadline this week for three different clients.

Gratitude is definitely a positive force. One that transforms the cosmos? Probably so, if applied liberally enough on the macro level. Today, I’m grateful on the micro level for those things that worked out well yesterday. And I’ll continue to look for reasons to express gratitude today.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Pursuing the goal of an Internet hiatus

I need to make a greater effort to impose Internet hiatuses on myself.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while: ever since ten months ago when I traded my desktop computer for an ultralight “notebook”-style laptop. With the rather old-fashioned desktop, which lived permanently in my second-floor home office, hiatuses enforced themselves. I’d walk away from email and Internet simply because I had things to do in other parts of the house.

But the laptop is easy to bring along when I’m in the kitchen, which is where a lot of my non-office time in the house is spent. That means I know as soon as a new email pops onto my screen. I can look up a book on Amazon at a moment’s notice. I can check the weather forecast or see who’s doing what on Facebook – whenever I want to.

And naturally, like just about every other 21st-century Internet user in the world, I eventually realized it was too much. Too much distraction, too much ceaseless information. I was losing my ability to stay inside my own mind and exist without constant input from the outside world – whether the outside world consisted of an email from my sister or an op-ed piece in the New York Times.

I needed a change, and I was able to get a preview of what that might be like last weekend when I went to a retreat house in northeastern Connecticut. I brought my laptop with me because I planned to do a lot of writing, but I didn’t know if it was even possible to get on line from the retreat house and I didn’t plan to ask. This would be my enforced 48-hour fast from the Internet.

Except fate intervened in a small way when on Friday night, one of the retreat leaders asked me for some writing exercises and I thought of one I’d read about in a newspaper essay recently. I couldn’t reiterate the exercise myself; she’d need to see the original essay if she wanted to use it. “Just tell me the name of the essayist and the publication where you saw it, and I’ll get it on line,” she said. “This house has wireless access, you know. The password is the same is the phone number.”

It was too late to block my ears and sing, but I did not want to know that, because I didn’t want any temptations. I told the retreat leader that she could use my computer, but she’d have to access the article herself; I didn’t even want the little number popping up on my screen telling me how many new emails I had. I didn’t want even the slightest temptation to hop on line.

And for the rest of the weekend, I didn’t. Even after having been given the password, I stayed away, and it felt wonderful. My mind felt clearer without so much information to choose from. I’d brought a few books and a couple of newspapers with me to the retreat, and that was enough reading material for me: I didn’t also need the entire universe of free online periodicals and blogs. I was staying in the retreat house with 17 other women, and that was companionship enough for me: I didn’t also need the social reinforcement of email, Facebook and Twitter.

But as so often happens after retreats of any kind, the question was how to maintain it once I got home.

Being self-employed as a writer, I don’t feel the same guilt as an office worker might when I occasionally log onto Facebook during the workday – as I see it, Facebook is the equivalent for me of water cooler conversation, the kind of social break that renews my energy for the next segment of work I need to do – but it would still be better if I used it less during work hours. Email isn’t so easy, of course, since that’s how I communicate with clients about ongoing and upcoming assignments. If I put too many restrictions on my own use of email, I won’t get any work anymore.

But weekends and evenings are another story. I’m trying to implement a new habit of shutting down my computer by 6 p.m. and staying away from it for the next two or three hours; a quick check-in before bed for email and other messages is okay. On weekends, I would really like to step away altogether from the Internet and all its potential for hyperactive distraction, just as I did at the retreat.

True, not all email communication is frivolous, even during the weekend. But I can try to get away from it a little more. I can try to remold my brain into the neurological patterns it had before there were so many options for communication. And I can hope that in doing so, I find my way to a higher plane of focus and concentration.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Winter kitchen

I’ll confess that I’m not a committed locavore. I thoroughly respect the importance of not supporting the long-distance transport of food (and I often wonder what happened to the unfortunate copywriter who came up with Trader Joe’s ‘bringing you tastes from around the world’ campaign at exactly the same time that the ‘eat local’ movement kicked into high gear). But I also can’t imagine making the choice to give up bananas, grapefruits, English cheeses, chocolate, coffee and avocadoes simply because I live in New England. (Though if, like trailblazing locavore and author Barbara Kingsolver, I had to choose just one of the above to keep, I too would choose coffee.)

Even during high harvest season in New England, I like to be able to add a squirt of tropical lime to a batch of salsa I’ve prepared with tomatoes and garlic from the neighbors, or some Asian-imported tofu to a stir-fry of broccoli and corn from our Farmers Market. And I’ve noticed that even my friends who do espouse strong locavore principles in the summer talk about it a lot less once January arrives.

Still, my need for Florida citrus throughout the winter not withstanding, I find I’ve been preparing a lot of winter-inspired foods recently: foods that reflect the chill and darkness of January even if they aren’t truly based on root vegetables picked in September and hauled up from the cellar.

I’ve been making vegetarian soups a lot this month. Minestrone, with big white kidney beans, frozen kale, and canned diced tomatoes. Corn chowder, thickened with diced white and sweet potatoes. Black bean soup flavored with cumin or curry powder (definitely not from a local spice crop). And I’ve made gallons of vegetarian chili, using pinto beans, fire-roasted canned tomatoes, frozen corn, Yves brand meatless “ground beef” substitute for texture, adobo sauce for flavoring.

The current batch of vegetarian chili in my fridge reminds me of something from a children’s story or folk tale: it’s the bottomless pot of soup. I made it nearly two weeks ago. When it was down to its last quarter of a pot, we were invited to a last-minute dinner get-together during a snowstorm, so I cooked some barley and added it to stretch the chili farther, but then we never made it to the party, so I kept it. I didn’t think it would last more than a few days, but every night in the fridge it thickens, so every day when I heat it up for lunch I add water. Then the next day, it’s thick as soup concentrate once again, so I add more water. The chili goes on and on.

Luckily, there’s nothing I’d rather have for lunch. A few years ago, when I had an office job and was brown-bagging every day, I noticed that it takes me approximately the same amount of time and labor – some washing, some chopping, some stirring – to make one sandwich as it does to make a whole pot of soup. But one lasts a day and the other lasts a week. Or longer and longer, in the case of the vegetarian chili.

In another month or two, I’ll be tired of hot, savory soups and be craving the crisp fresh flavors of late summer: raspberries, strawberries, apples, arugula, peppers, tomatoes: foods best eaten as soon as they are picked. Unlike the chili, they barely last a few days, let alone a few weeks. But now it’s the darkest longest part of the winter, with the days only just beginning to lengthen almost imperceptibly, and I’m still in a soup mood. Stirring, heating, sampling, seasoning. Hot winter fare for a long cold winter.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The brightness of a gray January day

What a luxury it was to be at home by myself yesterday, writing, catching up on deskwork, looking out at the steel gray sky.

I was away for all of last weekend; it was natural that when I returned from my two-day trip, the kids and I wanted to spend as much time together as we could. Monday was a holiday; we spent the day playing games, organizing the house, sledding, baking.

On Tuesday, an early morning snowfall, combined with a forecast for rain and sleet later in the day plus the fact that it was scheduled already to be an early-release day for the kids, resulted in a snow day. And I have to admit I was a little surprised by my reaction when the automated voicemail came in on my cell phone at 6:15 a.m. announcing the school cancellation. Somehow we’ve passed those earlier parenting days when unexpectedly having the kids home from school caused me to worry about all the work I’d fall behind on; yesterday upon realizing they’d be home all day I acknowledged a little twinge of delight, because snow days are fun these days: we play, we sled, and I manage to get my work done.

Toward mid-afternoon, the power went out for several hours. After dinner at our local pizza parlor, we layered on sweaters and sweatshirts, gathered candles and all played Uno together in the warmest part of the house, then cheered when the lights went back on.

Still, it was a joy to have the tide turn yet again yesterday morning, as the house emptied out, with Rick off to work and both kids safely packed onto the bus. I sat in an empty house for the first time in five days, happy to have hours spread out ahead of me for focusing on writing, desk work, replying to an accumulation of email correspondence, and sketching out some plans for work yet to come.

Yesterday had neither the awesome beauty of the previous day’s snowstorm, with its fast-falling curtain of feathery snowflakes, nor the brilliant blue-skied splendor of the chilly but sunny day preceding the storm. Yesterday was quintessential January, with a dull gray sky and temperatures just a shade above freezing resulting in a scrim of sleety drizzle falling all day, making the snow crusty rather than feathery and the tree trunks wet and brown instead of white.

I felt nothing else so much as grateful for the quiet that pervaded the house, for the heat that coursed out of the vents at regular intervals warming the air around me, for the bright lights of the kitchen shining down on my keyboard, for the clean running water as I washed the dishes. Snow days, Monday holidays, even power outages all have a romantic aspect. Anything out of the norm that lets us break the usual routine and spend extra leisure time together does. But there are days when nothing beats normalcy, and yesterday was one of those days. I was very happy to be at home writing about winter while winter coursed on just outside my well-sealed windows. In another couple of months, this weather will seem dreary – the crusty grayish snow, the soggy melting, the colorless sky – but right now it just says January, with its quiet meditative mystique. And yesterday, I welcomed it all.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Puzzling over Howard Thurman's statement about what the world needs

During the retreat I attended last weekend, my friend Tammie read this quote from the late author and theologian Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

What an appealing notion, I thought at the time. It turns out I don’t need to be so preoccupied with what I should be doing to improve the world. I just need to do what makes me come alive…and the rest will fall into place. I’ll intrinsically be providing whatever it is that the world needs of me.

But as I continue thinking about it days later, I just can’t buy the idea that it’s really that easy. Am I really allowed to believe that going snowshoeing for two hours is what the world most needs from me? It’s true that that would make me feel invigorated, and cheerful, and as a result I’d probably be feeling productive and hands-on and ready to take on the world. But longer-term, after that rush of endorphins subsided?

Admittedly, maybe Thurman didn’t mean “come alive” quite so literally as I’m taking it. There are other ways to look at the concept of enlivening besides an endorphin rush. But even if I substitute other things that make me feel most full of a sense of vitality – mental and spiritual as well as physical – I’m not sure they are the things that most benefit the world: hiking with my children, gazing out at the ocean, listening to Tim explain how he deconstructed a math problem, overhearing Holly write a song, sitting quietly in church listening to the choir, standing outside my front door staring out over snow-covered fields on a winter evening.

It’s an issue that strikes close to home to me, because unfortunately, over the past year I’ve felt an increasing sense of disconnect between the things I agree to do because I think I should – because they are the deeds I think I owe the world – and the things I want to do.

Grateful as I am to live in a town with wonderful schools and a welcoming, inclusive church, both of which my family participates in fully, I occasionally feel slightly resentful of the volunteer roles I’ve agreed to fulfill at both places. I feel at times like we create work for ourselves by identifying a hole that needs to be filled before fully assessing whether there is really any long-term value to filling that hole. In other words: we operate by seeing that a need exists, and assuming that therefore it must be met, rather than by confirming the certainty that meeting that need will have long-term positive consequences. In my most frustrated moments, I’m reminded of what my kids do when they find a sheet of bubble wrap: methodically make it their function to pop every bubble, simply because the bubbles exist on the sheet and generate a satisfying little burst when you pop them, and not because any greater result than a sheet of deflated plastic bubbles will exist when they are done.

So I go along, organizing a Walk-to-School Day Event one day and making up cookie plates for the church fair the next, and neither necessarily makes me feel alive, though the walk itself will be rewarding and so will seeing friends and neighbors at the church fair.

And I’m just one small example. Other people I know are doing far more to make the world a better place: staffing food pantries, tutoring prison inmates. Would they say the duties make them come alive? And if so (and my guess is that my parents, who are prison volunteers, actually would say that), how is it possible that my going snowshoeing or meditating by the ocean carries just as much value to the world?

As usual, I don’t know the answer. It’s wonderful to think that Thurman is right, and that I am doing the right thing when I pursue what touches my soul rather than what seems to contribute to the greater good. It’s a very affirmative idea. But for now, I think I’ll try to keep doing both: the seemingly self-indulgent things that make me feel most alive and the altruistic things that seem to me like the right and necessary actions to help make the world a better place.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Sledding on Martin Luther King Day

I probably should have found a Civil Rights presentation or volunteer project to take my kids to yesterday. Instead, rightly or wrongly, I let them go sledding.

The snow here is nearly two feet deep right now: thick and powdery. They tromped up and down the slope in the field adjoining our house until they had made their own smooth path; then they sailed down it on their slick plastic sleds, over and over again, until more than an hour had passed.

While they sledded, I did my daily run: back and forth along the driveway and past the sledding hill until I’d covered two miles. Then I stopped next to the hill to watch them. I let the dog off leash once the run was over; it took her a surprisingly long time to work up the courage (or simply the intelligence) to hurdle the snowbank at the edge of the driveway, but once she finally did, she bounded easily across the field to where Tim was lying in the snow after a particularly good slide. Belle jumped on top of him with all four paws, but he didn’t mind. Sledding involves plenty of snow, rolling around and physical contact; one more dog added to the mix didn’t cause any problems.

“Mommy, watch what I can do!” Holly yelled over to me, echoing the words that kids universally invoke when swimming. I pulled off my headphones and focused on her. Though I thought she simply wanted me to admire her skill at deploying gravity to lie on her sled and fly down the slope, she had in fact mastered the ability to stand on her sled like a snowboarder – and all that in the short time it took me to run two miles’ worth of driveway lengths. “That’s really good, Holly!” I called back to her, and I meant it. I was impressed with her balance and her courage.

My kids always get along well when they’re sledding. I don’t know if it’s the fresh air, or the exertion, or the enjoyment of the activity itself, or the fact that it’s just the two of them up on the hill, but the usual petty sibling rivalries that riddle their daily interactions when inside the house seem to float away on the brisk winter wind. Together they egg each other on, cheer each other’s best and fastest runs, commiserate over particularly messy tumbles when the sled hits a bump.

It was cold out; after an hour they’d had enough and headed inside for hot chocolate. Nothing beats sledding on a cold winter day, especially a day off from school. As a parent, I feel a little bit guilty that I didn’t make the point of the holiday – celebrating the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. – more the focus of their day. Instead, I let them go sledding. They still have so much left to learn about human rights of all kinds and the many other ways that Dr. King attempted to address injustice. Next time I’ll try harder to make it an educational holiday for them.

But yesterday, for better or worse, I let them go sledding.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Annual retreat

This past weekend was Winter Retreat for me. Every year since 2005, on the third weekend in January, I’ve joined a group of fifteen or twenty other women to travel to a retreat house in northeast Connecticut. We have only a very general agenda for how we plan to schedule the two days ahead: mealtimes are designated, as are a couple of discussion sessions, a crafts project, a Saturday evening film screening in the retreat house’s comfortable living room, an informal Sunday morning worship service in the retreat house’s chapel space.

But no one in the group cares who does and does not participate in the loosely scheduled events, and it ends up being a weekend when everyone who attends is free to spend their time however they wish. There aren’t too many weekends in my life devoted to spending my time however I wish, and I’m always grateful for this one when the date arrives each year.

In the past six years, not very much as changed about how I like to spend this time of freedom and non-commitment. If anything, it always crystallizes for me how specific my four areas of interest are when it comes to free time: running, walking, reading, writing. And in between, conversation and bonding with the other retreat participants. But the social aspect is lesser to the amazing opportunity of devoting so many long hours to the other four.

On Saturday before breakfast, I took a six-mile run through the countryside that surrounds the retreat house. This area, as I learned when I wrote a travel article about it a few years ago, is called Connecticut’s “Quiet Corner.” In the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was a favorite rural vacation destination for New Yorkers, especially those in the publishing and newspaper industries. Families would pack up and head to these rolling hills so that the parents could savor the quiet and the children could swim in the ponds and play in the meadows.

Today, the area seems to be about half preserved farmland and half suburbia. Being on a retreat here isn’t exactly like being deep in the White Mountains or the Outer Cape. Cars pass along this country road regularly, and there’s a Walmart less than two miles away. But that takes nothing away from the sense of escape we all bask in here. As I ran three miles out and three miles back, I passed beautifully preserved antique farmhouses, bungalows, and small shingled homes. The air was chilly, and vapor froze on my eyelashes, but I was grateful to be able to take more than an hour for my run without feeling like I was needed anywhere else – and even more grateful for the breakfast of eggs, scones, fruit and muffins prepared by the retreat house’s kitchen staff while I was out.

And then after a hot shower, a sense of absolute freedom for the hours that lay ahead. Some of the women were gathering for a morning discussion on six-word memoirs and an afternoon project making Joy Boxes; others were taking the time for themselves, as I was. I wrote for hours throughout the course of the day, reflecting on the year just passed and sketching out tentative hopes for the year just beginning. And then when I couldn’t think about writing anymore, I walked for an hour, down the road in the opposite direction from where I ran. Tired after that, I read, and then later joined the other women downstairs by the fireplace to work on putting photos from 2010 into my photo album. The latter has become a yearly tradition for me; since this retreat always falls in mid-January, after New Year’s I order prints of all the photos I think worth keeping from the previous year and then take an hour or two during the retreat to put them all in my album.

After dinner I read until I fell asleep. Sunday morning, another run – four miles this time, and it wasn’t nearly so cold. Then more time for writing and a little bit of reading before lunch and the trip home. Other years, I’ve felt more desperate for the escape and the solitude the retreat offers. These days, life is at a point where there isn’t as much of a lack of solitude in daily life for me. When I started attending this retreat, Holly was two years old; I was home full-time with her, and Tim was only in kindergarten and home a lot as well. These days I’m alone for six hours a day while they’re at school.

But I don’t spend their time at school reading, going for walks, or writing in my journal; I spend it working on paid writing or editing assignments. So it’s still a magnificent luxury to get away once a year for two days of this kind of self-indulgence. I write, I read, I walk, I run. And I go home ready for another year, feeling rejuvenated and slightly amazed that I had the luxury of these two days once again.

Friday, January 14, 2011

"One Little Word" challenge: Year 2

A year ago, I blogged here about the “One Little Word” project, which I learned about from writer/artist Ali Edwards’ blog. It poses the challenge of finding one word on which to hitch your star for the upcoming year. Or, as Ali explains it, “Essentially the idea is to choose a word (or let it choose you) that has the potential to make an impact on your life…a single word to focus on over the course of the year.”

I chose the word “possible,” knowing as I did so that as an adjective with which to forecast an entire year, my word ran the risk of being so neutral as to be incontrovertible. “Anything’s possible,” I told myself. “Sure, I guess that’s possible.” “Could it be possible?” I felt a little like I was copping out on the intent of the challenge by choosing such a wishy-washy word, but it still felt like the right one to me.

Being new to the “one little word” challenge, I’m not sure if I’m supposed to evaluate my word choice or not from the perspective I’ve gained one year later. In a way, my response now to the word “possible” is the same now as it was when I chose it: “Possible? I suppose so. Anything’s possible, right?”

And in the year just passed, some things were possible and happened; others that seemed possible did not come to pass. A year ago, I looked ahead with uncertainty to various aspects of my life, unsure of what outcomes were likely to lie ahead, and that seemed like the best I could do as a new year began: admit the infinite range of possibilities.

A year later, I’m feeling compelled to try the same thing again, only this time a word came to me unbidden: “succeed.” Definitely not the noun form, “success,” but the verb. And with it comes the grade-school definition of a verb: an action word. Success is an end in itself, a goal reached, a conclusion safely arrived at: but succeed, an action word, is a process.

In choosing it as my Word for 2011, I take on the responsibility of making it relevant. I may not reach every measure of success I dream of in 2011, but I will take actions throughout the next twelve months that count toward the process of succeeding. I won’t arrive at every final goal I hold in my heart, but I will require myself to demonstrate more steps than missteps, more actions than reactions, more positives than negatives, more good moods than bad moods. In this way, I’ll try to make every day an act within the process of succeeding. Not success; not that ultimate final goal. But succeed: the ongoing process of executing actions with positive outcomes.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

With apologies to Virginia Woolf and the room of my own

I feel like I owe Virginia Woolf an apology. In college, when I read her groundbreaking essay “A Room of One’s Own,” I was just taking the very first baby steps into the vague idea of a potential career in writing, but it all made sense to me: the idea that to write, a woman needs a room of her own.

Twenty-five years later, I have that room of my own. But I don’t use it anymore.

My home office is technically our spare bedroom, but it’s set up as both study and guest room, with a single bed, a night table, a beautiful angled glass-topped desk that Rick picked out for me as a birthday present and a comfortable adjustable desk chair. When we first moved here, I was amazed at what a luxury it was to have my very own home office. And when my freelance writing career became more-or-less full-time after I left the corporate sector two and a half years ago, I basked in the luxury of having my very own second-floor room to write in, clean and tidy, its windows looking out into the woods. “It’s just as Virginia Woolf said,” I told myself. “I now have what every woman who wishes to write needs: a room of one’s own.”

So I can’t quite explain why over the past few months I’ve migrated elsewhere to write. Since the kids went back to school, I’ve been working mostly at the kitchen table. The kitchen table – where women with no extra space in their homes at all tend to set up shop when they need to do paperwork! It’s as if I’m breezing past the laundry room to scrub our clothes against a rock in the stream.

But somehow my office started to feel a little bit too…well, austere, to me. It was a place for working, in a formal and compartmentalized way. Whereas in the kitchen, I can refill my coffee as often as I want to. I can heat up lunch while I’m doing a phone interview. When my 12-year-old arrives home from school in the midafternoon, I can make him a snack and oversee his homework. Previously, his arrival home from school meant the end of my work day; once I left my office space, it seemed there was no going back, but now I settle him in with something to eat, he pulls out his homework, and we work companionably together for an hour or so.

Various factors led to my departure from my office. Until last spring, I didn’t own a laptop computer, so there was no choice: I had to work at my desk because that’s where my computer was, and it wasn’t going anywhere. But not long after a friend gave me her hand-me-down ultralight notebook computer, I realized I could take it wherever I wanted to work. At the same time, I discovered that if I were sitting at the kitchen table looking out into the backyard, I could let the dog loll around outside while I was working. She’s trustworthy enough to be out on her own, but I wouldn’t have done that back when I was all the way up on the second floor.

Now, it seems as if I’m getting more enjoyment out of my surroundings. Most days, I write in the kitchen, looking out over the yard, but some days I set up shop in the sunroom and watch the southern exposure of light spreading over the fields that surround our house. Other times I pack up my materials and head up to the public library: I know it makes little sense, but sometimes I concentrate best when surrounded by other people.

Meanwhile, my office sits mostly empty other than the occasional overnight visitor using our guest-room facilities. I feel bad about the magnificent molded-steel-and-glass desk, and I think often about Virginia Woolf’s claim.

But then I remind myself that her “room of one’s own” can be taken on both a literal and metaphorical level. She meant that women who write need a space in which to do it, but also they need privacy, solitude and time to think. With two children who are in school all day and a husband whose office is fifteen miles from home, I have all the privacy and solitude I could possibly want. My “room” is made up of all the elements of my weekdays – the quiet empty house, the lack of appointments and other scheduled events during the workday, the dishwasher and clothes dryer and other myriad automated devices that keep the house running so easily -- not just the four walls of my office.

So it’s good to have a room of one’s own, and it’s good not to need one. With heat and sunlight filling the kitchen, coffee close at hand, and the dog happy to be able to lie outdoors on the warm planks of the patio, I’m content with my new workspace. And I feel certain that Virginia Woolf would understand why.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Snow day!

It’s a snowy day. It’s a Snow Day! Forecasters have been predicting a big storm for the past several days; by late yesterday afternoon their claims were dire enough that the townwide notification system went into effect regarding a school cancellation.

My kids knew when they sat down to dinner last night that there’d be no school today, which to me somewhat changes the flavor of a snow day, as my predominant memory of these same events when I was their age was sitting with bated breath by the radio at 7 a.m. waiting to hear if our town would be named. And my parents always reminded us we had to do our homework the night before, even with a forecast like this one, just in case. Townwide electronic notification wasn’t an option then. So knowing at 6 p.m. the night before takes away some of the key elements of a snow day, in my opinion.

On the other hand, Tim went off to a sleepover at a friend’s house, which he couldn’t have done had we not been certain about the school cancellation; and Holly and I stayed up past her bedtime watching a movie.

When the kids were really little, being snowed in was nothing I looked forward to. I felt plenty resourceful as far as finding things to do with the kids at any time of year and in any weather, but really little kids don’t have much fun outside when it’s snowing hard. And then for the few years that I was working full-time in an office setting, snow days were something to be dreaded: I’d still be expected to put in a full day in the office, childcare arrangements be damned. Staying home with the kids meant pulling the “mom card” and admitting that parenting responsibilities beyond your control were keeping you from work, something to be avoided at all costs in the corporate sector.

But these days, it’s fun – as much fun as I remember snow days being when I was a kid. Holly is lucky enough to have a close friend next door who’s always willing to slog through the yard to our house and play with Holly on a snow day. Tim has the job of shoveling my parents’ front walk, which he usually does with relatively good cheer. We play games. We watch movies. We hang out. We try our hand at making bagels (which never really works out very well, but once a year or so we roll up our sleeves and give it a try anyway) and oatmeal chocolate chip cookies (absolutely foolproof). If I have work on deadline, I know the kids are self-reliant enough that I can fit it in. And although they’re still not fond of going outside when it’s snowing heavily, once the precipitation tapers off, I know I’ll be able to get them out for a trip or two down the hill on their sleds. Maybe I’ll even go snowshoeing this afternoon.

One of the picture books I remember best from my childhood was The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. I had it in conventional hardcover form; Holly had the board book version when she was a preschooler. I’ve always loved that book, about a boy named Peter who plays all day in the snow. My favorite part comes at the end, when Peter wakes up the next day and is delighted to see that still more snow has fallen.

I’m not necessarily hoping for another snow day – or another foot of snow – tomorrow, but I like the genuine childlike elation behind the way the book ends. Snow and more snow – perfect! It’s exactly how I felt at that age. Then that feeling ended with parental and professional responsibilities. But now it’s back. Snowstorm? I’m ready. It’s January, and that’s what winter is for.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Self-publishing: Not my first choice, but my best choice

It was my high school friend Peter who told me to get rid of my “but.”

He was impatient with the way I kept saying “Yes, I finally finished writing my book, but I ended up self-publishing it.”

“No need to keep saying ‘but’ as if it’s something to apologize for,” he told me. “You’re in fine company. Virginia Woolf, e.e. cummings, D.H. Lawrence, Tolstoy, Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau were all self-published authors as well.”

Though some of those claims may be apocryphal, Peter’s comment opened my eyes to the need for me to stop apologizing for my failure to garner a contract with a big-name publisher for my recently completed running/parenting memoir, The Mother-Son Running Streak Club. The important thing, as he pointed out, was that I’d gone to the effort to write a book.

I’ll be up front about this: self-publishing is hardly any author’s first choice. What writer doesn’t dream of publication through a grand commercial press, or even a small but highly respected literary press? When I signed with a literary agent 18 months ago, she filled my head with visions of the publishers she was accustomed to working with: Random House, Putnam, Algonquin, Hyperion.

But things didn’t pan out. After a year, although my agent and I had received reams of encouraging feedback from editors, we still hadn’t found a match. As I came to realize, a publisher isn’t just someone who thinks you’ve written a worthwhile book with literary merit; it’s someone believes there are at least 20,000 members of the reading public who would willingly part with $24.95 to read your book. That’s a tall order, no matter how hard you’ve worked on it.

And there was no question in my mind that I’d worked hard. It was August of 2007 when I suggested to my then 9-year-old son that we set a challenge for ourselves of running a mile or more together every day for a year. Only a few weeks into the project, I began to think about writing up the experience as more than just an essay or two but into a book-length memoir. First I’ll see if we actually manage to run every day for a year; then I’ll concentrate on the book, I told myself.

Tim and I did run together every day for a year, and writing the book took me another whole year. So when it was done, I felt like I’d completed two huge challenges: the running and the book. It wasn’t so important to me to have 20,000 people read it; any readers at all would be an increase over the number who would see it if it remained stashed inside a desk drawer (or, more accurately, stored on a memory drive).

And that was ultimately what led me down the path of self-publishing, an arena that has changed significantly in the past decade. In the 1980’s, my mother self-published the first of her two cookbooks, and I knew well what this had entailed: making a ballpark estimate of number of books to print; storing cartons of books until they were sold; packaging books as orders arrive by mail; countless trips to the post office to fulfill customer orders.

Today, the new print-on-demand companies have eliminated all of these steps. Using companies such as CreateSpace, writers simply submit an electronic file that can be generated in high-quality paperback format whenever an order is submitted online. Readers who want a copy of my book order it directly through Amazon.com, CreateSpace.com, or my own website and it gets mailed to them by the printer just as any other online order would. I don’t have to wrap, bundle, warehouse, or make trips to the post office; nor do I even know who is doing the buying, unless they opt to ask me directly for a copy, since I also keep a small supply on hand.

Once I’d decided to call off my search for a commercial publisher and take the plunge with self-publishing, I had no regrets. Ultimately, I just didn’t want to wait any longer to get my book into print. The year depicted in the book ended as Tim was turning ten, and he’s twelve now. If I was going to be enthusiastically promoting the work, I felt like this needed to happen while Tim was still at least a minor, if not exactly a child.

So I went back to the manuscript and did some more revising. I sent a draft to about ten colleagues for review and feedback, and then did yet another round of revisions. I solved the problem of how to create an eye-catching cover by asking a friend who is a talented professional photographer to take some action shots of Tim and me running; for payment I made her a chicken pot pie, and after a little graphic design help from my husband, the manuscript was off to press.

And now, the book is out. I like hearing from friends and acquaintances that they’re reading it, and I appreciate the critique it’s attracted so far. If some of my friends recommend it to some of their friends, I’ll reach that target of selling a few hundred copies. That hardly makes me a great success from a publishing standpoint, but it means that I’ve met my goal of writing and publishing an account of the parenting experiment I undertook, and for now, that’s enough of an accomplishment for me. Someday perhaps I’ll be lucky enough to work with a “real” publisher, whether on this same project or a different one. But as my friend Peter suggested, for now it’s time to get rid of the “buts” and just take satisfaction in a project finally executed.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Doing church

Although my parents and I practice the same religion – Unitarian Universalism – and live next door to each other, we attend different churches. They are members of First Parish in Concord; I go to the First Religious Society in Carlisle.

Last month, my father invited me to attend church with them because he wanted me to hear the student minister. Due to an impending snowstorm, however, the student minister was absent and a different minister gave the sermon. Afterwards, my father apologized for encouraging me to attend, though no apology was needed and the circumstances were clearly well beyond his control.

“That’s okay,” I answered at the time. “No matter what the service is like, any time you attend church, you feel better having gone than you would if you didn’t go.”

I thought of that again yesterday morning back at FRS in Carlisle as I sat in the pew waiting for the service to begin. “I have a lot to do, but at least I’ll have the benefit of knowing I ‘did’ church,” I told myself, and then wondered just what sentiment lay beyond that somewhat senseless thought. It was as if for a moment I caught myself believing that going to church is like going to the dentist: you leave after an hour with a tangible reward – such as freshly polished teeth – that no one could dispute you are the better for having, regardless of how the hour itself went.

But church isn’t actually like that, I reminded myself. It’s not like that at all, in fact. I’m not leaving with the benefit of a good teeth cleaning. I can’t prove that there’s actually any aspect of my life at all that I’ve improved by having attended church this morning. So why do I feel like there is, and why did I say to Dad that one always feels better if one attends church than doesn’t?

After all, we’re Unitarians. Church attendance is not part of our creed. We can attend services, or we can stay home and read Ralph Waldo Emerson and Gandhi, or we can write poetry, or we can go for a walk – none of those puts us on weaker footing than any other choice as far as our standing as Unitarian Universalists.

And yet someone there’s no question in my mind that a simple one-hour visit to church on Sunday mornings makes a positive difference that staying home would not. Just being in a community of other church-goers is stimulating. We greet each other; we hear each other’s personal updates – health, visitors, travel – we push ourselves to reach out to those we feel less comfortable around. There’s music at church that I wouldn’t play at home. There are reminders about community activities, but also about problematic world events that I know I should be thinking about even if I stay home on a Sunday morning but, in reality, might not. There are words of wisdom, insight, or provocation in the sermon, words and ideas I might not have sought out if I were alone with a choice of what to read.

Sometimes as the service is starting, I indulge in a sullen mood. “I could be at home right now,” I think to myself. “I don’t know why I bothered to come in. There are all kinds of ways to learn and grow, intellectually and spiritually; I could have stayed at home and read, rather than going to the effort of getting myself here to church.”

But the feeling always passes within the first few minutes of the service, because I know intuitively that what I told my father is true for me. Regardless of the content of the sermon – and most sermons are great, including the one I heard yesterday, but every church community has the “off” day now and then – I’m a better person after an hour of worship than I was before. It may not be as quantifiable as going to the dentist, but it’s something that on some level I can’t dispute. At church, quite simply, we reach beyond ourselves. And I think it’s that stretching, that exertion of mind and spirit, that compels me to attend.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Facing down blog ennui

Kate Hayes coined the term “mid-blog crisis” in a post earlier this week on her blog, Adventures in Parenting, to explore her feelings of ennui, which she likened to a midlife crisis. I know just how she feels.

Like Kate, I’ve been looking at my blog occasionally and thinking “Why do I do this again? Does it matter to anyone? What would be the downside of giving it up?”

I’ve been blogging for 17 months now, ever since I signed with a literary agent who was willing to represent my running/parenting memoir. I was very new to social media at that point; in our first phone conversation, my agent urged me to put together a website, start a Twitter account, and blog regularly. I did all three, and for many reasons I think her advice was excellent. I really like having a website up; I get a lot of enjoyment as well as occasional professional reinforcement from Twitter; and the blog has been a fantastic exercise in regular writing.

But when I say regular writing, I have to take a moment to stop and roll my eyes. For reasons I cannot to this day re-create, I somehow decided when I launched my blog in August of 2009 that I should blog five days a week, every week. Even though I knew of plenty of other bloggers who posted just a couple of times weekly, I had the idea that for me it needed to be like a job: show up at that blog Monday through Friday. And like a job, since that time, I’ve taken only national holidays and two weeks’ vacation per year off from blogging.

Other people who know me will probably roll their eyes at this. I know: Another daily obsession? The mile-or-more-of-running and the 1000-words-of-journaling a day aren’t enough as far as the diurnal rituals? Well, in all fairness, the blogging one isn’t quite as severe: the running and the journaling are seven days a week, and the blogging one is only weekdays.

Still, like Kate Hayes, sometimes I stop and remind myself of just how little it matters. Plenty of friends and acquaintances mention reading my blog in passing, but even more people tell me it’s hard for them to keep up with it. Really, reading my blog is not supposed to feel like a chore; you won’t miss a thing if you take a day or two off now and then. So I have to admit that the majority of my blog readers would probably be happy rather than disappointed if I stopped posting every day.

And yet here’s the advantage of blogging every day: unlike when my essay writing consisted of one or two newspaper pieces a month, I no longer maintain a seemingly endless backlog of story ideas that I’ll probably never get to. Now I get to everything. After all, I need a new idea five days a week. That enables me to burn through a lot of ideas, rather than stockpile them the way I used to. And it also reminds me that you don’t need to sit down with a great idea already formed in order to write a good piece. Many of my favorite blog entries – which went on to become published pieces in commercial publications – unfolded on days that I thought I had nothing to write about. Writers are fond of the phrase “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”, and never is this more clear to me than when I’m fulfilling my daily blogging requirement. Even if I thought I had nothing to say, I often (though not always!) prove myself wrong.

My agent’s reason for urging me to get a blog up and running was that she wanted me to build an audience for the eventual publication of my book. But my book has been out for two months now, and when I run the numbers on who the purchasers are, I don’t necessarily think the blog has had much of an effect. What I do think it has had an effect on is the quality of my writing. Daily practice at anything simply makes us better at it. And while I’ve had a daily journaling habit for nearly two decades and in the past would have said the same thing about the merits of that – it’s a daily practice that improves my abilities every time I do it – blogging pushes me one step farther in terms of quality control. Unlike when I write something for the Boston Globe, I don’t spend a great deal of time judging the literary quality of what I write every day in my blog, but unlike when I write in my journal, I try to ensure that at the very least it’s coherent and not too lengthy for even my most committed fans (Hi, Mom!) to be willing to read.

So despite my incipient blogging crisis, I’ll persist, and I hope Kate Hayes will as well. As I always say about daily running, the single best reason to blog every day is so that you never have to take time to decide whether or not it’s a good day for blogging. Good entries, bad entries, and all that fall between: I’m not ready to give up yet.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

How early is early?

One of the first lessons I took in as I began my informal study of Thoreau this week was how much he valued the early morning hours. To hear Thoreau tell it, we could all be much more exalted, efficient, morally well-served and aesthetically blessed individuals if only we took better advantage of the early morning hours by starting our day earlier.

“The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour,” he wrote. “Then there is least somnolence in us; and for an hour, at least, some part of us awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night. … All memorable events, I should say, transpire in morning time and in a morning atmosphere.”

Reading these words, I became an instant convert. “That’s it!” I thought to myself. “To take another step toward the person I want to be…I just need to be up earlier in the morning!”

But then I remembered something. I already get up at 5:30. Just how early did Thoreau mean? For that matter, just how early did he himself arise?

If I continue with my 2011 goal of becoming more familiar with his work, maybe I’ll be able to deduce an answer to that question. Even if he doesn’t name the time at which he rises, I imagine there are clues in his writing. Where he so often focuses on observations of nature, there must be numerous passages in which I could match his description of available light to the season to figure out whether he was bathing in Walden Pond – which the same passage referred to as his first activity of the day – at, say, 7 a.m. as opposed to 4 a.m.

On weekdays, I set my alarm for 5:30 so that I have time to write my 1000 words of Morning Pages, per the method of writing instructor and author Julia Cameron, and ride my stationary bike for 45 minutes before the kids wake up and need breakfast. (Actually, the image of my kids waking before I’ve had a chance to finish exercising and demanding breakfast right away is something of a mental relic from when they were babies. These days I have to nudge them into wakefulness several times and urge them to ingest something in time to catch the bus. So it’s not a matter of them being demanding, just the demands of the school day and its time-specific schedule.) When I’m done biking on weekday mornings, I wake the kids, make their breakfast, give the dog her breakfast, let the dog out and back in, and then head out to the barnyard to give the cows and sheep their breakfast, with the goal of getting back to the house in time to eat something myself before I have to hurry to catch a shower and still get Holly out to her bus on time. (Tim takes responsibility himself for being on time to catch the middle school bus, but I still have to ensure that all the pieces are in place to get him out there: food, vitamin, teeth-brushing reminder, lunch packed and ready to go.)

Nonetheless, Thoreau’s description of the value of greeting the dawn seduced me momentarily. So that’s what I need to do!, I thought to myself. Thoreau did not have children who needed breakfast, nor did he have livestock to feed, and he certainly didn’t have a schoolbus schedule to comply with. He also didn’t feel obligated to spend 45 minutes on the stationary bike; he spent much of the day walking through the woods of Concord and probably had no need of supplementary exercise.

But all of this is really beside the point. Just how early would I have to set my alarm for to gain even more benefits of the morning than I already do? Maybe 4:30. Objectively, I can imagine that in the heart of the summer I would witness breathtaking sunrises if I were up at that hour, and surely reap some of the rewards of this greater exposure to the natural world that Thoreau espouses. At this time of winter, though, I don’t think 4:30 would feel all that much different from 5:30. It would still be cold, and dark as pitch, and I’d still be drowsy.

And so for now I don’t plan to recalibrate my mornings. A year ago, I wrote of the resolution to get up earlier on weekends, when unlike weekdays I don’t really have to. That resolution succeeded somewhat. It’s hard for me to resist the temptation to bask in sleepy splendor on Saturday and Sunday mornings until about 7, or more specifically until the 7 a.m. news headlines have been read on NPR, but I’m usually up by 7:10. That’s a whole hour earlier than was typical before I made that resolution a year ago.

It’s a start, and for now it will have to do. I’m pragmatic enough to acknowledge that rising earlier wouldn’t make me able to write like Thoreau or even to see the world through the perspective of Thoreau, and at the moment I don’t feel like the hour my alarm goes off is a worthwhile target for self-improvement. To me, 5:30 on weekdays feels early enough, and I’ll just have to seek extra self-improvement after the sun comes up to compensate for whatever I’m missing out on.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Un-decorating after New Year's

It’s sort of a holiday Jack Sprat story, I suppose: my children and husband love putting the Christmas ornaments up, and I love taking them down.

They look forward to a mid-December Saturday each year when the three of them file up to the attic and then march down with plastic bin after plastic bin. I think we have four in all, plus a few smaller cardboard boxes, housing our Christmas d├ęcor. Then there’s the tree stand and the tree skirt. The Christmas storybooks have their own box as well, and even though Holly doesn’t read picture books anymore at other times of year, she still likes to pore over Santa Mouse, the pop-up version of the Nutcracker, The Polar Express, Christmas at Noisy Village (my favorite) and all the others. So when she gets tired of the decorating process, she heads up to fetch the carton of books and places it near a comfortable armchair for pleasure reading throughout the holiday season.

I don’t remember ever taking a stand against helping them with the decorations; it’s just evolved into an unspoken tradition. There’s so much else for me to keep busy with around the house on December weekends. So somehow it just always happens that they do this job while I’m baking Christmas cookies, preparing packages for mailing or composing our annual Christmas card poem.

When New Year’s rolls around – the day itself, or the day after, if that happens to be on a weekend as it was this past year – I do the undecorating without any help, and that’s fine with me. I find it so soothing to take each little bauble and trinket from its place on the tree or table or shelf, wrap it in a sheet of tissue paper of newspaper, and place it back into one of the plastic bins.

To some extent, the appeal of this process is obvious, especially for someone who prioritizes domestic tidiness as much as I do. Our rooms just look so neat and spare after the decorations are put away. Once we’re accustomed after a few weeks to seeing their shiny shapes and bright red, silver, and gold hues, the spaces they’ve left behind look even cleaner and clearer in their absence than those same spaces did before the ornaments went up.

But the peace of mind that this job brings me goes beyond mere housekeeping. I like saying goodbye to the ornaments. I like thinking about how they’ve borne witness to yet another joyful holiday season, marked by family get-togethers, parties, visits from friends, and the ritual of gift-giving on Christmas morning, but that now it’s time for us to foray into the New Year without them, to focus on our January goals and upcoming plans free of the responsibilities that the holiday season always entails.

Of course, there’s never any guarantee that these ornaments will witness another happy holiday season with us, and I’m far too suspicious a person by nature to promise the ornaments that we’ll be reunited with them under the same circumstances in a year. But I’m willing to take that chance as I bid them farewell for the next 11 months. At some point during the summer I’m likely to be up in their corner of the attic, and I’ll cast them a quick passing glance, sweating in the heat of August and almost unable to imagine another snowy December day when we’re ready to take them out yet again. But for now, it’s good to see them go, knowing that clean, bare surfaces and the clean slate of a new year are taking their place.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Running, symptoms, and lessons from 2010

The idea of a long run midmorning on New Year’s Day was appealing. I thought about how good it would feel to get out into the fresh cool air and meditate on the year ahead: set goals for myself, imagine possible outcomes, focus on areas for improvement.

Instead, I found myself reflecting on the ways in which an unexpected situation – namely, the sense that I had an incipient sinus infection – served as a metaphor for the year that had just ended.

The sense that a sinus infection was about to take hold over me was unpleasant in itself but didn’t really put a damper on my wish to hit the six-mile route I’d already planned out in my mind as I indulged in a little sleeping-in that morning, in the wake of New Year’s Eve festivities.

And besides, I didn’t have a full-blown infection, just the approximate symptoms of one.

So I set out. But it wasn’t as much fun as I anticipated, because even though I was feeling generally fine, I couldn’t stop worrying. What if it got a lot worse? What if after a couple of miles I started to feel really uncomfortable? What if it turned into actual pain? What if I developed a fever?

But you don’t even have a sinus infection, I told myself. You just have symptoms. You’re probably absolutely fine. Besides, it’s a New Year’s Day, so just be brave. This isn’t like the middle of the week when you can call your doctor and ask her to prescribe antibiotics just in case things get worse. Sure, you could put in a call to the practice, but it’s closed for the holiday: you’d have to wait for a call back from the covering physician, and explain your symptoms, and figure out where and when you wanted to pick up the prescription…that’s way too complicated. Just keep running and stop worrying about it.

I reminded myself again that I didn’t have an infection, just symptoms.
And then I told myself that my worrying was ruining what was supposed to be a peaceful, meditative, six-mile run on a mild sunny New Year’s Day.

At that point I started to feel better. I stopped worrying and the symptoms lessened. I started to enjoy the sunshine, the scenery, the tranquility of having the road almost to myself on this holiday morning, the sight of a snowman in a front yard, a red-tailed hawk circling over a field, the aroma of baking from a house I passed.

Then, inevitably, I noticed how many similarities existed between my condition on that run and much of what had transpired in my life in 2010. It was almost as if the incipient sinus infection stood as a symbol for lessons I may or may not have assimilated, but certainly had plenty of opportunities to do so, throughout the previous twelve months.

For example:

• I nearly ruined my chance to enjoy what I was doing because I was too busy worrying about what might happen in the near future. Even though I was feeling fine, the prospect of hypothetical problems kept me from focusing on what was actually happening.

• At the same time, I tried to tell myself that what all signs pointed to couldn’t possibly be true. Although I had the three or four primary symptoms of a sinus infection, I kept telling myself I didn’t have one, rather than accepting the fact that most of the time, if enough signs are pointing in the same direction, chances are it’s an accurate reflection of the truth.

• And finally, there was the conclusive realization that it was just good sense to take precautionary measures. Even if I was bound and determined to will myself back to perfect health and refuse to admit the possibility that an infection might still be brewing, trying to reach the physician on call at my doctor’s office and asking for a prescription for antibiotics early in the day rather than waiting until the middle of the night was a sensible solution.

Inexplicably, by the end of the day I felt all better. The symptoms were gone. And that was great; I was delighted to have started the new year on such a promising note. But if I needed one last review of the lessons of 2010, I’d had that as well. Don’t worry so much. When irrefutable information presents itself, use that to draw logical conclusions. And pursue sensible measures to improve the chances of a positive outcome.

Illness as metaphor: a peculiar phenomenon indeed, but I paid attention. And I very much hope not to make any of the same mistakes in 2011. Here’s to wisdom. And health.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Sunlight and mist

Somewhat unexpectedly, I’m starting the year with some breathing room.

Usually, the kids’ return to school after a vacation – be it Christmas vacation, summer vacation, either of the two that fall in between, or even a long holiday weekend – finds me almost frantic to get back to work, with a pileup of deadlines to meet, stories to pitch, facts to check, and corrections to submit: a range of work-related items I simply couldn’t find the mental focus to take care of while they were home.


But last week wasn’t like that. It’s not really that my client list or writing load has diminished any – which is a good thing – but just that a lot of work was due just before Christmas, leaving almost none due after. It’s time to replenish the pipeline as the new work week begins.


But in the meantime, as I wait for responses on pitches I’ve just sent off and edits on work I submitted before Christmas, I’m in a little bit of a lull, which is a rare situation for me. So I’m thinking about ways I can improve my writing, and particularly my blog, in 2011.

For one thing, I’m hoping to learn more about nature writing, particularly by becoming better acquainted with the work of Henry David Thoreau. I’ve already collected several books toward this goal; the trick now is to read them, in hopes that they will educate me about how to describe the scenery around me, which of course is nearly identical in topography to – and just six miles away from – the Walden Pond landscapes about which Thoreau often wrote.

A man's interest in a single bluebird is worth more than a complete but dry list of the fauna and flora of a town,” he said, and I need to keep this in mind: the goal is not simply to have the natural world be more often the focus of my writing, but to make my observations worthwhile and meaningful.


Late yesterday afternoon, just before sunset, I looked south over the pasture where the cows graze when it is not covered with snow, as it is now. A very foggy day was ending; the air was so whitened with misty vapor as to look almost as if snow were falling, but the air was warm, nearly fifty degrees. Most of the day – including the 7:30 a.m. hour when I went for a three-mile run – had featured heavily overcast skies, but the clouds were parting as dusk drew near. Although the air was still suffused with mist, a thin yellow film of sunlight beamed down from the sky, so that if you looked straight ahead over the pasture you saw the thick white mist but if you looked upward you saw the parted clouds with sun shining through.


What a perfect metaphor for the New Year, I thought to myself. A thick haze if you look straight into it, but a beam of sunlight and clearing skies if you look just a little bit higher. I resolved to keep that image in mind as I took my first steps into 2011. A lot is hazy about what lies ahead right now, including but also beyond my near-term workload. Above it, though, is light shining through, just as light always eventually does. I’ll remember as this new year begins to try to look beyond the thick haze, remembering that illumination is within sight if you just remember in which direction to cast your gaze.

Thoreau could say it much better, I’m certain, but it’s a start.