Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Slow down

I had a particularly pleasant drive home from work yesterday evening.

It was supposed to be an awful commute. The meteorologist on the radio had been warning for days that the dreaded “wintery mix” would kick in during the late afternoon and reach its peak right around 5 p.m. Rush hour would be a mess, he warned, with cars slipping and sliding everywhere.

This alarmed me somewhat. Rick and I took a leap of faith last fall when we bought our second Prius, conceding that we were trading in any possibility of easy winter driving for the enticement of minimal fuel usage. Priuses are terrific vehicles, as we knew from having owned our first one already for eighteen months, but they’re not known for handling the snow.

So I should have continued to feel nervous as I watched the snow begin to fall outside the office window late yesterday afternoon. It appeared that the radio meteorologist had nailed it: wintry mix starting late afternoon, making for an awful commute.

Yet my commute wasn’t awful at all; it was lovely. I simply made a conscious decision before I left the office not to let fear prevail. Yes, it’s snowing, I told myself. But you will be driving home on an interstate highway. It will be well plowed and well lighted. Just drive slowly and chances are good that you’ll be fine. As our minister emeritus likes to say, quoting Jesus, “Be not afraid.”

And I wasn’t afraid. I just decided I’d drive slowly. Other people were doing the same. It felt safe. It felt easy. It felt relaxing. All this despite the wintry mix.

It underscored for me how much of a service we do ourselves to just slow down – sometimes slow down drastically. My dangerous commute in bad weather was fine because I resolved before I started that I would drive as slowly as I wanted to. No one honked at me or seemed annoyed. Those who wanted to go faster pulled into another lane, but plenty of people stayed behind me as well. I guess they wanted to go slowly too.

Two weeks ago I had dental surgery and came home from it with an overwhelming feeling of pleasure in the fact that I’d cleared my schedule for the next two days and could spend the whole afternoon reading. This past weekend I had been planning a trip to Maine that had to be cancelled at the last minute; as a result I was home all weekend having made no plans. I was sorry not to be in Maine, but again, it was a weekend absolutely free of scheduled commitments. I could move as slowly as I wanted from one thing to the next – or not move along at all.

Being in the car during rush hour wasn’t really all that much like being at home with no plans, but all three events reminded me of how good it is to have enforced slowness imposed upon us once in a while. I arrived home safely with not so much as a skid. Or a honk. It’s hard to slow down, but sometimes it’s necessary and sometimes it’s just good. I felt safe and sane for having taken my time, and I was reminded once again that the right time to slow things way down isn’t only on snowy highways, but any time you just need to step out of the fast lane for a little bit.

Friday, January 25, 2013

A little chaos with your serenity

As I drove home during rush hour yesterday evening listening to my local NPR station, the two top stories on the news were about the recent cold snap which has sent temperatures into the single digits and the prevalence of flu this winter.

And although I feel bad for people who have the flu right now and even worse for people suffering in the frigid temperatures, there was something comforting about the thought that there are certain things like flu and inclement weather that affect all of us, to one degree or another.

Sometimes society just seems so disparate, so bifurcated in every possible way: affluent versus destitute, sick versus well, Republican versus Democrat, for versus against gun rights or abortion or capital punishment or any number of other things. So even though neither the cold snap nor the flu virus can really be construed as good news, I took some comfort in the fact that these were problems on which we could all agree, more or less. Yes, getting the flu is awful. Yes, it sure is cold out. Yes, we all have this in common.

It’s not just a matter of small talk, of common interests we can all chat about while in line at the coffee shop. It’s knowing that to some extent, what knits us together as a society is our problems as much as our pleasures. My son, who is in eighth grade this year, has been studying dystopias in his English class. He was surprised that a common element in literature about dystopias is often a sense of happiness, or at least complacency. But, these novels show, uniform contentedness isn't always a productive emotion. Not having any apparent problems may also mean that no one is working together to fix anything.

And this is what struck me about the news yesterday: sometimes what’s wrong is what’s right, in a peculiar way. Sometimes when we can agree on a problem, we work together better than when there isn’t any problem, or at least no problem on whose terms we can agree.

A few weeks ago, this quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche arrived in my in-box: “One must have chaos in oneself in order to give birth to a dancing star.” It’s not exactly the same point, but it made me think about how often I and my peers – busy middle-aged women juggling jobs, families and creative pursuits – talk about finding serenity, peace, inner stillness. All of that is good and important indeed, but the quotation reminded me that, as Happiness Project writer Gretchen Rubin likes to say, sometimes the opposite of a profound truth is also true. Serenity helps us to think and do and create, but so does chaos. And keeping that in mind might help, maybe just a little, when chaos hits.


Tuesday, January 22, 2013

On writing essays

Last week on a Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, writer Barry Lopez, who won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 1986, explained why he wrote a particular essay about himself this way: “I’m just a writer. And the only thing I can do is…[to] say, This happened to me. I know many of you have experienced this. Here's what I've been thinking. What do you think?”

In those few short sentences, Barry Lopez has stated what writing personal essays is all about. It’s something that people ask me sometimes, both in the context of blogging and traditional print journalism, which are both channels of media in which I publish my own personal essays: Why do you, or why does anyone, write personal essays? What is the function of this particular form?
As Lopez said, we write essays to state what happened to us; in the hope that some note in our writing will strike a resonant chord with a reader who will then say “Yes, that’s how things happened for me, too.” But it’s more than just a search for common experience; it’s the wish to open a dialogue about how the experience felt and perhaps what it meant. Or, as Lopez puts it, “Here’s what I’ve been thinking [about this experience]. What do you think [about the similar experience you had]?”
Once in a while, I’m invited into classrooms to talk to students about writing. I always tell them to consider two opposite stances as they cast about for a topic for a personal essay. “First,” I always tell them, “readers are interested in reading about you doing something they too have done, so they can see how your experience was similar to or different from theirs. And second, readers are interested in reading about you doing something they haven’t done, so that they can find out what it was like.” When I visited my son’s fourth grade class several years ago for a day of personal writing, one child wrote about camping. “I used to go camping when I was your age too,” I told him. “I’m curious whether you feel about camping the same way I felt about it.” Another girl wrote an essay that started with a memorable pair of sentences: “Have you ever gone waterskiing in Mykonos? I have!” I most definitely have not, I told her, but I can’t wait to read what it’s like to go waterskiing in Mykonos.
Since I write essays both for our small-town community newspaper and for the Boston Globe, it’s not unusual for me to run into someone who says “You know what essay of yours I really loved, because I knew exactly what you meant?” I usually have a few seconds to try to guess what essay they’re thinking of – and I’m always wrong. Last weekend this happened twice. In one example, the woman was referring to an essay about why it’s fun if you live in the country to vacation in the city; the other reader mentioned an essay about getting bad news from far away while dealing with a hurricane at home. In neither case could I have possibly guessed which essay either woman was thinking of when she said she knew just what I meant.
There are long, complicated ways to describe the writing process, but what appeals to me about Barry Lopez’s words is their simplicity. “This is what happened to me. You might have experienced the same thing. Here’s how I feel about it. What about you?"
Exactly. That’s all we’re doing when we write essays. My experiences are a lot different from Barry Lopez’s – only starting with the fact that he has received a National Book Award and I have not. But both of us write in hopes of striking a resonant chord with a reader. Essay – the word comes from the French verb essayer, “to try.” That’s just it: we’re trying. And sometime we succeed.


Friday, January 18, 2013

Downtime, thanks to dental surgery

Periodontal surgery – specifically the infamous gum grafting, in which (gross-out alert: the squeamish should stop right here) a section of the roof of your mouth is excised and grafted onto your receding lower gumlines, after which sutures are applied to both the palate and the gumline – is probably not the idea way to score a couple of days off, but I have to admit I’ve been savoring the downtime.

After scheduling the dental surgery for Wednesday morning, I blocked off Thursday and Friday on my calendar as well, and I prepared ahead, bunching up on interviews and deadlines in the first half of the week so that I could leave those days entirely free.

I’m glad I did, too. After arriving home from the periodontist’s office around noon on Wednesday, I just wanted to go to bed. And it was great not having to tell myself “Bed, yes, but while you’re lounging around, finish that arts column….” I’d planned ahead, and it paid off.

The day and a half that followed were truly restful, despite the discomfort of recovering from dental surgery. Yes, my mouth hurt, but the house was warm and quiet, and I didn’t even think about trying to do anything productive. The first evening after the surgery, Rick made me a bowl of milky oatmeal; the following day I ate a vegetarian stew my mother made with tomatoes, spinach, onions and cous cous, cooked to a soft pulp that required no chewing. And then I went back to bed and read a book I’d been trying to get to for months.

I suppose I should plan life out better, so that it doesn’t take dental surgery for me to be able to lie around reading all afternoon. I suppose there’s an argument for doing that even when you feel fine. But at the moment, that’s just not how things are for me. My life is not unusually hectic, not at all, and yet between work, creative pursuits, family time and housework, there’s always something laying claim to my attention.

But not this week. This week I’m indulging. Aspirin, ice pack, pillows, novels. It’s still not quite enough to compel me to rush to schedule another dental surgery. But it makes knowing that I need to undergo another one a year from now seem not so very unappealing.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Coffee, Buddhism, and the NFL

A few months ago, I interviewed a professional football player who wanted to talk not about his career in the NFL but about his Buddhist practices.
“I’m not a coffee drinker,” he told me. “But when I sit down with someone who is drinking coffee, you know what I love? I love when they haven’t even taken their first sip yet and the coffee is poured and they just breathe in that cloud of steam. I love the way they breathe so deeply, fill themselves up with that cloud of coffee steam, as if it’s a source of joy and fulfillment.
“If you asked them what the best thing about a cup of coffee was, they’d probably say drinking it,” he went on. “They’d say the flavor or the heat or the caffeine kick. But when I watch them, I can tell that the best part for them is actually the part they might not even notice: that cloud of steam they breathe in with so much pleasure.”

I wasn’t sure what coffee had to do with Buddhism, but he went on to clarify the connection. “I don’t even drink coffee, but this is kind of how I feel about life,” he said. “It’s handed to you, and you have to let that cloud of life-vapor, like coffee-vapor, hit you, and just breathe it in as deeply as you can and hold it in your lungs and let it become part of you, let it fill your body and your mind and your spirit. Let that hot blast of life fill you up and become who you are: lose yourself in the pleasure of breathing in that great big lungful of life.”
I love this image. I myself do like coffee, and just as he said, I never really think about or appreciate that cloud of steam. I like seeing a full hot mug of coffee in front of me because I’m thinking about drinking it, not inhaling it. But he’s right: the best part is breathing it in before I take the first sip.

You don’t know, when the hot coffee is in the mug in front of you, if it’s going to be the best cup or the worst cup of coffee you’ve ever had, but you can count on having the chance to savor that big hot steam cloud. And too with most days: you don’t know if you’re about to have the best or worst experience of your life, the best or worst game, the best or worst relationship, the best or worst day or year.
But the football player’s words made me think about how you can still breathe it in, just let life fill up your lungs and exalt in its ambience, in the way it fills you up with its potential every morning before you even take your first sip.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Retreat weekend, no agenda

A friend asked if I could go for a walk with her this weekend. No, I said, regretful to miss out on the walk but not regretful at all for the reason. "It's our annual retreat weekend."
Inevitably, the question followed as it does whenever I mention the retreat weekend to friends who haven't participated: "What do you do?"
We do nothing, I have to respond. Well, not nothing. We walk, talk, read and write. But what's so great about it is that it feels like we're doing nothing.
That's a retreat? people sometimes respond. Don't you have any more of agenda than that?
But the twenty or so of us who attend every year actually joke about how little agenda we have. In fact, the retreat house manager sometimes ribs us about how loose our agenda is compared to her other guests.
We know this. We've heard stories from other groups who use the same retreat house. They go for soul-searching. They dig deep into their psyches.
We, on the other hand, go for walks. We dig deep with the tips of our snowshoes.
Which isn't to say that soul-searching doesn't happen on our retreat. It just doesn't happen with much of an agenda. Important and meaningful conversations transpire over meals, by the fireplace, in the double and triple dorm rooms, on long walks along the country roads near the house. We learn about each other. We inspire each other.
I started attending the retreat when my kids were still very young and I was desperate for chances to get away, to think, to have silence, to sleep late, to write. Now, almost a decade later, it's different. I'm not so desperate anymore, with both kids in school all day, leaving me alone to write for hours, and then both kids sleeping well past nine o'clock on weekend mornings, I'm not so deperate for a good night's sleep either.
But in a way, it's almost more fun now because I have even less of an agenda than I used to. I used to head to the retreat house with stacks of books and articles to read, essay ideas to explore, journal pages to fill. The idea of a free 48 hours was so thrilling as to be almost overwhelming in its potential; I would totally overburden myself with all I wanted to accomplish.
Not anymore. Now I go just to be there. I go to walk and talk and write and read. But with no particular idea of what I need to have to show for my efforts by Sunday afternoon. I don't have specific issues to expurgate or goals to outline.
So maybe it's not everyone's idea of a retreat, but it's the habit we've fallen into every January: a retreat just for being away together. And regardless of how little of an agenda we have, everyone always seems to take all they want from the experience.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Perfect conditions

All it took was one good snowfall of six inches or so late last month followed by a cold snap to make perfect conditions for sledding. And as I had been telling the kids, perfect sledding conditions may come along only once per season – or maybe, such as with last winter, not at all during any given winter season – so they need to do all the sledding they can while the conditions last.

And they have been. They’ve sledded on the driveway, at NARA Park, at friends’ houses. They understand that sledding isn’t like swimming, for which you can pretty much count on two dozen or more days on which to do in any given summer. Sledding conditions are complicated, and when you get them, you have to grab them.

But last weekend I had to remind myself that the same is true of snowshoeing. Good conditions for snowshoeing come along only occasionally in any given winter, and you can’t make excuses for letting those opportunities slip by. So on Sunday, when my mother suggested that we take our snowshoes over to Towle Field for an hour, I knew what the right answer was.

But even as we started out on the trail, I felt preoccupied by all the other things on my To Do list for the afternoon. I had intended to dust and vacuum. I should prep some dinners for the upcoming weeknights. I should run loads of laundry. I should read the Sunday New York Times.

But at a certain point, I recognized that all of those “shoulds” were distracting me from this critical reality: I was out snowshoeing. And I love snowshoeing. Last winter I didn’t get out on my snowshoes at all, not one time, because we had only about two days with snow. By fall, I was already thinking about how much I hoped to fit in some snowshoeing this winter. And there we were Sunday, with a free afternoon and perfect conditions.

With that in mind, I tried my best to will away thoughts of housework and article deadlines and focus on the fact that after over a year of waiting, I was back out on snowshoes. I can’t explain even to myself why I enjoy this so much. There’s no thrill to snowshoeing, and there’s not really any particular challenge. It’s really just taking a walk in the snow.

But there’s something that feels so majestic about marching along on top of the snowdrifts, and something so therapeutic about forging through the slight resistance of the powder. It gives a feeling of both height and strength which no other sport gives me.

Not surprisingly, the dusting and laundry were still there when I got home after an hour of trekking through the snowy forests and fields.  None of that work had gone anywhere in my absence: like a faithful pet, it waited patiently at home. With darkness falling early, I still had hours left in the day for housework and deskwork. But I’d also managed to fit in one perfect hour of snowshoeing. So maybe I was right to just listen to my own advice for once. Because as I always tell the kids about sledding, those conditions are rare enough that you just can’t let them pass you by.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Cold and colder

There is a lot to love about early January.
And even those parts not so easy to love seem to summon respect.

Yesterday morning's run was as cold a run as I've experienced in years. My legs under my running pants were freezing. My fingers inside my gloves were freezing. My face was freezing unless I tucked it inside my scarf, in which case it was hard to breathe.

Frigid temperatures while running may not be my favorite part of winter, but they are a part I respect. January should be cold. It's the shortest (almost) and darkest (almost) part of the year, with none of the institutionalized cheer of December and none of the prospect for thaw of February. It's the heart of winter.

And paradoxically, it feels like a heart. It feels like within the chilly, still, nighttime air, buried under the snow, suspended inside the icicles, lies the promise of something wonderful. The promise of nature cycling along. The promise of a long darkening autumn leading to a frigid winter which in turn will lead to a spring thaw.

Of course, in New England the seasons don't progress quite that methodically, especially in the 21st century. Frigid days often break for a sudden unseasonable melting. Just yesterday, my son was recalling two years ago when he went running in a t-shirt on a seventy-degree January day over a slick of ice -- a conflation of weather circumstances that made running simultaneously delightful (becauase of the warmth) and wildly treacherous (because of the melting ice).

My feeling is that if it's winter, there should be snow, and this year there is. After a nearly barren season last winter, we have about six inches of powder on the ground already. On New Year's Day I took the kids sledding, and the conditions were better than I've seen them in years: packed powder without a drop of melting going on. Eventually, I found it too cold to stay outside and ended up warming up in the car for the last thirty minutes of their 90-minute sledding session, but I was happy to see that they were more stalwart than I was and stayed out as long as they could to enjoy a great afternoon of sledding.

So yes: the weather is cold and bleak and still. But shouldn't January be that way? The merriment of December is behind us; the promise of spring still lies far ahead. It's time for in-gathering: taking in the stillness and letting it permeate our souls, until all is still and quiet, at least for a moment or two. 

Let the rest of the year teem with activity and action: vacation fun in the summer, busy schedules in the fall, baseball and walks and hikes in the spring. WInter commands stillness, at least for some of the time. As the days stay dark and cold, all is quiet, at least once in a while. And it seems important to honor that stillness, and the cold, and the quiet, as this brief time of year rolls around once again.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Not resolutions

As soon as we returned from our New Year’s Eve dinner, Holly hurried upstairs and pulled out her journal. “What are you writing about?” I asked her. “I’m writing my New Year’s resolutions,” she said.

Earlier this week, a friend mentioned in an email that she was thinking about making a New Year’s resolution and wondered if I was making any.

I used to make New Year’s resolutions, and then in more recent years I started thinking more in terms of New Year’s goals: not things I was certain (rightly or wrongly) that I would do, but things I was firmly committed to trying to do.

But this year, as soon as my friend asked in her email whether I was making any New Year’s resolutions, I realized how different I was feeling this time around about starting a new year, and how somehow both resolutions and goals seemed somewhat irrelevant.

It’s not that I don’t have plenty of room for self-improvement. It’s just that when I look back on the preceding year and especially the latter half of it, it seems like so much of what governed the course of my life was nothing I did or didn’t do but things that happened to me, or around me, or to all of us. Events beyond my control over which neither resolutions nor goals would have held much sway.

After all, you can’t make a New Year’s resolution not to lose any friends to cancer. You can’t resolve that in the new year, you won’t have to explain to your kids that children sometimes lose their parents, or that parents sometimes lose their children. You can’t resolve away poverty or despair among people who have even less control over their circumstances than you do. You can’t make a New Year’s resolution not to live in a society where people crusade for the accessibility of submachine guns.

I don’t mean to sound despairing. It’s not that we had such a bad year ourselves, not at all. My family, both immediate and extended, stayed safe and healthy and well. We took some great vacations, accomplished some satisfying work, and saw the kids be both happier and more academically successful in school than we ever would have dared hope.

But I’m afraid for the most part this is just the reality of middle age catching up with us. Statistically, we are destined to lose more friends in the upcoming years than we did in the preceding ones. And the world doesn’t appear to getting safer or saner or fairer, either nationally or globally.

If we are as fortunate as we’ve been in the past year, 2013 won’t bring tragedies or losses too close to home. But that’s not a resolution; it’s a fervent hope. Things will happen, both good and bad. And while I don’t mean for my lack of resolutions to sound like, well, a lack of resolution, or a sense of passivity, I think better than making resolutions or setting goals for the upcoming year will be thinking about my reactions and responses.

I can’t resolve to keep these things from happening; I can just hope to keep improving in the way I respond to them: to be ever more helpful, compassionate, understanding, proactive.

It’s not really what I’d call a resolution. But right now, it feels like the most useful thing I can do.