Ah, spring break—scantily clad humans cavorting in tropical places, drinking too much. Or: if you have children, a chaotic trip to Disneyland. No—Legoland.
Or, if you’re me, an entire week to yourself.
The way our calendar works, my spring break falls a week before the kids’, and if this was once a little frustrating (I want my trip to Hawaii too, yo), in the last two years I’ve come to see it as The. Best. Thing. Ever. Basically, I have a week of paid vacation while everyone else’s life trundles on. Of course this year I was determined to make the best of it: writing, organizing my house, a decent nap or two, some good books, a yoga class, a haircut, what-have-you.
I’m not always great at relaxing, though, and I’ve had moments this week of feeling like I’m trying so hard to take a load off that I’m not really enjoying the rest. But I’ve also been trying as hard as I can to find some spaciousness in the daily grind, and here of a Friday morning, I’m feeling pretty successful. Yesterday, I did something that always makes me feel like a million bucks: I drove up to a meditation center north of here for a two-hour yoga and meditation class.
And the topic of the dharma talk was wisdom.
Now, I don’t always resonate with the teacher. I like her classes, but at times I’m not on the same wavelength as she is. But yesterday, perhaps because it’s the end of a week of spring break, I felt like every yoga pose was a balm for the soul, every word out of her mouth, brilliant. At the end, she asked us to think about wisdom, and the ways we cultivate it. She reminded us that wisdom isn’t a set of knowledge you acquire; it’s a skill, almost like a way of approaching certain things with confidence. Somehow in there she circled to this notion of choices, how we can be wise about the choices we make, and how, in different areas of our lives we might feel we have a great deal of wisdom—and in others, very little at all.
In the abstract, it might sound a bit, well, abstract. But it turned out the talk was exactly what I needed to hear at this point in my life, this week, when I’ve been writing but also feeling quite muddled about the different paths my writing could take and whether I’m taking the right one. There’s this God-forsaken novel, and then there’s this still-unpublished memoir, but what’s really calling to me are these poems about motherhood, and instead of being the kind of wise soul who thinks to herself, Gosh I’m lucky to have all of this creative stuff spinning out of me, and maybe I just need to make a clear choice down one path and see what happens—instead, I’m the kind of soul who immediately goes to God, I suck. I can never finish anything. I’m doing it all wrong.
The other perhaps more surprising revelation was when she asked us to think of a realm where we did feel wise. Perhaps mundanely, I thought straightaway of my new habit of meal planning. Then I thought of child-rearing. I thought how actually, in the domestic sphere, taking care of my people, getting dinner on the table, dealing with an emotional 8-year-old and a baby who likes to bite, I feel pretty solid in my wisdom. I’m not saying I don’t make a shitload of mistakes, or have dark moments, or even that I’m necessarily a “good mom,” but I don’t feel angsty about my ability to keep things together on the home front. And I feel centered and grounded in this path I’ve chosen, like it’s the right one. Even if I second-guess a decision (time-outs for the biter? Something more holistic?), it doesn’t destroy me. I don’t spend hours worrying that I’m doing something wrong.
And wow, talk about luck. I have more than one friend, amazing, amazing parents, who struggle so much with it, who worry all the time about whether they’re doing it right. (I also have more than one friend having to make the kinds of choices for her kids that are beyond anything I would wish on anyone.) I worry about EVERYTHING, you guys—but, I realized yesterday, not that much about my parenting or my ability to provide for my family. I figure (as this imperfect but charming article suggests) that I’m doing pretty well, and that might be good enough.
It was kind of amazing to put these things side by side: on one, my ingrained belief that every other writer on the planet is doing it better than I am (don’t even get me started on the amazing Lauren Groff—if you haven’t yet read Fates and Furies, get thee to your local independent bookstore), and my sometimes pathological inability to see my own strengths, opportunities and choices. On the other, my realization that if someone ordered me, “Make a palatable dinner for ten out of whatever’s in your cupboards, while both of your kids are home, NOW—” it would be stressful—but I’d do it. So now, of course, I’m wondering how I take wisdom from the latter, and contribute it to the former.
Maybe that’s a project for next spring break.
Where is YOUR wisdom? Where do you need more? Comment it up.
A hearty thanks to everyone who bought my book or came to my wonderful book launch at Octopus Literary Salon on March 10! I’m now suggesting folks buy it on Powells.com, since Amazon is still all messed up, or directly from me (link on my homepage).
Confession: I get really annoyed when people bandy about the phrase “carpe diem” or otherwise remind you to live each second as though it’s your last.
Sure, if you’re some privileged, white, yoga-going, money-possessing, unemployed, free-spirited amazing soul, that probably works for you. The rest of us, however, are working, raising kids, going to school, and fighting the good fight. It’s just not practical—or very pleasant, to my mind—to act like death is imminent so we need to freak out and cram everything in NOW.
That said, I’ve been really loving the mantra I picked up at a women’s meditation thingy I went to a while back: There is all the time in the world. The phrase, which is kind of like the opposite of “carpe diem,” has been getting me through some tough moments of late. The thing is, and this is mostly positive—I’m just wanting MOAR of everything as I emerge from my first year postpartum. More writing, more yoga, more time in nature, more music, more quality time with my kids, more political engagement, more relaxation. Is this possible? Probably not; there are only so many hours in the day. But instead of focusing on the lack of time, or being a maxed out, American mom on the brink, I’m focusing on this idea that there’s enough time to do it all. If something doesn’t get done today, it’ll get done another day. It’s deceptively simple, and sometimes, anyway, it works.
Here are some ways I’m voicing my new mantra:
Sure, spend only ten minutes on the novel. When it gets to feeling crunchy, don’t force it. Take a break and work on something else.
Go to yoga on a Monday even if it means an hour less of writing. Likely, the calming aspect of the class will make you more focused, anyway.
Sit still and watch Baby S play without panicking about what’s not getting done. This will be a blip in the scheme of things. Besides, it’s a real delight to watch him go.
Be in control of your space, but don’t panic if things feel a little chaotic on the domestic front. You can correct them later.
I feel kind of ridiculously new-agey as I write this, but I’m really finding the idea of there being all the time in the world revolutionary. I’m so good at telling myself I’m not good enough, that I don’t work hard enough, that I suck. But if I attempt to approach the world with just a little more space, I find myself a little more spacious: more open to creative ideas and opportunities, more open to joy.
One thing I want less of in my life? Social media. I’m really addicted right now. Some of it is fun—my Facebook author page, where I post articles and photos and updates of my new life with two kids, has been a fun venture. And I’m tryyyyying to pin all my blog posts on Pinterest (follow me!). But it’s too easy to give “all the time in the world” over to trolling friends’ status updates and depressing political news. It’s easy to see time spiral down the drain.
And another thing I want less of? Drinking. We spent every night of our vacation back East on the verge of tipsy. It was fun, but unsustainable. When we got back we teetotaled and ate vegetarian for a solid week (stay tuned for “A Week’s Worth of Vegetarian Dinners”! I also want MOAR food writing, and cooking, in my life). It felt really good to clean up a little, to emerge into my favorite season trying to find my own way to carpe diem.
What are YOU wanting more and less of in your life? I’d love to hear from you.
I’m back after a long summer of traveling, teaching, hanging out with my kid, and reading. I read all year long, but I feel that same excitement as many of you when summer rolls around, like I’ll tackle some big reading project or spend hours lost in a book while I sip iced tea at the beach. This summer, neither of those scenarios happened. I ended up reading in a very catch-as-catch-can manner (no Awesome Proust Reading Group after all). I picked up whatever I found at my parents’ house, basically. This included a re-read of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (as arresting as I’d remembered, and funnier, made more the so by the fact that I was reading my little brother’s copy from seventh grade, and his notes were in the margins. A doctor now, and never a real whiz at literature, he referred to Scout as “he” until page 54); Julie Powell’s memoir Julie and Julia, which I’d never expected to be as hysterical and likable as it was; Orange is the New Black, by Piper Kerman (also a nice surprise, and very different from the show. Much less sex. Sorry, everyone); Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs (a crime novel that was at once totally sappy and nonetheless very enjoyable); and, drumroll please, Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.
If you’re a sentient human adult in the Western hemisphere, you probably know that everyone is talking about this book. Marie Kondo seems to have arrived from another planet, one where socks have a life of their own, our possessions contain their own energies, and everything we buy must give us a thrill of joy. Kondo advocates going through all of your possessions, deciding which ones “spark joy,” and dumping the rest. In our stuff-laden culture, it’s quite a radical idea—and it earned her the #1 spot on The New York Times Best Sellers List.
This book hit me at a good time. I had definitely been angst-ridden about my closet and all the items I simply wasn’t wearing; I’d been looking around my living room feeling annoyed by the boxes of CDs, the papers, all the books, and my many knick-knacks, imagining a Scandinavian-style living space with nothing at all extra. That said, it’s a tall order to drastically pare down your life. Kondo suggests doing this in this order: clothes; books; papers; komono (miscellany); and last, memorabilia and sentimental items. So I decided that at the very least I’d do my clothes. In the order she suggested, roughly, I dumped every category out on the bed, picked up each item, and waited for a spark of joy.
Easier said than done. Was it joy I felt when I fingered the label on my Target-bought athletic socks, or simply relief that I’d finally purchased some, so I didn’t have to steal from my husband every time I went to exercise? Would I be wracked with guilt if I gave away the hand-knit scarf a friend had sent that I just couldn’t wear? I don’t know, but I do know that once I tabled questions like those and just went with my gut, deciding what to lose was a lot easier than I’d expected. I’d soon filled three large trash bags. In went the gauzy brown dress I’d worn to my brother’s first wedding, which, while pretty, also made me a little depressed every time I looked at it; in went the lingerie I’d been given for my own wedding and never wore; in went the killer black pumps that I always wanted to rock but couldn’t, because they hurt my feet so much it was absolutely impossible to walk in them. (The following week, at a yard sale we happened to be having, I sold the pumps to a very tall German woman who looked terrific in them, and the brown dress to someone who was going to give it to her daughter and told me I had “outstanding taste in clothes.” Ha! She should see me in my yoga pants most days.) I threw out an entire box of ratty cotton T-shirts I was holding onto for only-God-knows-why—probably because I thought at some stage that they would be useful. Forget useful, says Marie Kondo. Forget it altogether.
After discarding my clothes, I followed her system of folding. Besides getting rid of all the stuff that doesn’t bring you joy, she suggests you fold your remaining clothes so you can really see them—upright, in neat little packages, so you’re not digging to the bottom of a stack to find the right T-shirt or pair of underwear. And it works! While I may still be guilty of dumping my clothes on the floor at the end of the day, ahem, when I do put them away, I don’t throw them in the drawer and slam it like I used to. I take the time to very neatly fold. And now, when I look in my closet, I seem to feel just a little less angst around what to wear for work. Twice now I’ve very quickly chosen an outfit and felt good about it instantly (instead of changing thirty times and littering the house with discarded clothing).
My scarves-and-accessories drawer
I’m not sure if and when I’ll do the books category, though it does give me a little thrill to think of setting free some of the hundreds of books of poetry that I’ve accumulated over the years (and do not read). I will definitely do the papers category and the komono category in an attempt to free up my living room. I hope that Marie Kondo is right when she says, emphatically, that if you tidy correctly, you’ll learn exactly how much stuff you need, how much is right for you—and along with a clearer space, you’ll also have a clearer head and a clearer life.
The whole time I was reading, I kept asking myself: is this something of a metaphor for life? Could you “tidy” your life of activities, relationships, projects, and places that no longer bring you joy? I bet you could.
I knew Jim Foley, the journalist who was beheaded by the so-called Islamic State a few weeks ago. Not well; I don’t want to overstate it. Since Jim’s death I have learned that he was kinder, smarter, braver, and more complex than I ever had the chance to find out. He had many good friends who loved and respected him, and I know some of them in the same way I knew him—peripherally. Jim was my classmate in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst back at the turn of the century. I’ve noticed that much of the press talks about his undergraduate degree and his graduate degree in journalism, but he was a fiction writer, too. I didn’t have workshop with Jim—I wrote poetry, then—but I knew him in that way all of us knew each other in grad school: we went to readings together, we went to parties together. We drank a lot in those days, at people’s houses, at the smoky Northampton VFW, and even on campus. Jim’s was a familiar face, and he was sort of a gormless dude, as I recall, often laughing or lamenting some small personal failure; another classmate described him as a little “goofy,” and that jives with my memory.
Perhaps because I didn’t know him that well, I was shocked to learn a year or so ago that he had become a journalist, the kind who does incredibly brave things like going to war zones to report, and that he had been kidnapped in Syria. It hit me strongly when I found out, and I followed the case when I could. Jim also grew up in New England, and I would think sometimes about his family, his parents, what their days must have been like knowing their son was somewhere, lost, out of communication, possibly dead. When optimistic news blips would pop up—we think he’s alive—I would feel hopeful that Jim would get out of Syria as he had gotten out of Libya a couple years earlier. I thought once he returned safely I would friend him on Facebook or send him an email and tell him how impressed I was and how proud and how very glad that he was alive.
And then on a Tuesday night in August, at my parents’ house in New Hampshire, my mom pulled out her iPad and said, softly, “Oh no.”
It is a curious thing, when someone you knew, but weren’t close to, dies. Jim’s death was so horrific that many people who didn’t know him were affected, of course. His death was a symbol of so much that’s wrong in our world, so much that’s terrifying, and the sheer brutality of it was more than any human should ever have to endure. In the days that followed, Facebook exploded, and I felt the urge to connect, connect, connect with other writers from my MFA program. People shared stories and remembrances. Others expressed anger at the US government for not paying the $200,000,000+ ransom the terrorists had demanded for Jim’s head. (That, it seemed to me, was shortsighted, though I understood the impulse. But how many thousands of other people would that money have enabled ISIS to kill?) I felt myself watching from the sidelines a little, not sure how to mourn. My article in Elle had just come out, and when someone congratulated me all I could think was how utterly frivolous it was, my infertility, my essay. Who cared? Jim Foley had just been beheaded, and I kept feeling like there was something I was supposed to do about it. Only there was nothing to do.
The night after I learned that Jim had been killed—a Wednesday—I woke up in the middle of the night. My dreams had been dark, awful things, the stuff of premonition or occult—a man was saying, “you’re the best prisoner,” and then I was right there, kneeling alongside Jim in that desert. I woke up gasping. I have an active imagination. I had been down a road like that before, when, three years ago, a friend of mine was brutally murdered by her ex-boyfriend and I couldn’t stop imagining the moment of her death. So I stopped myself, tore myself away from that place thousands of miles away. It was very dark out. “I’m so sorry, Jim,” I whispered, and then I turned on the light (I was terrified of the dark) and got up to use the bathroom. When I climbed back into bed and shut the light I could not even see an inch in front of my face.
And then I heard an owl calling in the night. It wasn’t a simple call, not the great horned, but something longer, a “whoo whoo, whoo-whoo whooooo!” sound. After a few minutes, its mate answered, and I lay there listening to two owls calling for each other, an eerie, beautiful chorus. The next morning, I was the only one in the house who had heard it. It was, I discovered, a barred owl, the most common owl in New Hampshire. In the night, they call for their mates, and the two chorus back and forth like this.
I can’t tell you how comforting that sound was. I thought of how, in superstition, the dead appear often as birds. I didn’t think Jim Foley would come to the woods outside my parents’ house, but you never know. It didn’t matter. I felt his presence. It reminded me, somehow, of what’s basic and essential and good about this life, and while in days to come it did not change my anger or sadness or fear, it felt, somehow, like something profound, two owls calling for each other, finding each other, in the dark.