On being a social creature.

I’ve always been social.  Part of it is clearly personality; much of it is growing up in a context where social connections outside of the home were vital — in the original sense of not just important but necessary to life.  And social anxiety has been part of the scene all along, as well, complicating mightily the basic impulse to connect.  But here’s what I know now that I’m forty:

1. People are awesome. They are interesting and complicated and varied and often not in the ways you’d expect.  There’s always more to learn, about them and therefore about you.  And there’s always poignancy, humor, rage, disapproval, astonishment, respect, and joy in knowing others.

2. I like to have people in my life.  Not just my completely fabulous husband and sons…other people, too.  I want people who do different things, think different ways, hold different values.  And I want people who are like-minded, too, who model for me how I want to be, what I wish I had the courage or the skill to achieve.  I like the beauty of other people: their style, their generosity, their quirky natures.  They take me out of myself and remind me how much bigger and more important the world is.

3. I like my people to like my other people.  This is what we call community…well, either the liking bit or just being-together-despite-not-really-liking, but in this era of isolation, I’ll go ahead and say that community in my life is having a group of people who all like each other and choose to spend time together.  I like us to have reasons to get together at least once a month.

4. For whatever set of reasons, that’s really hard to achieve.  When I lived in Iowa, I was part of a group who all valued good food and good company and who all got a little bored (and maybe antsy?) living in such a small town.  So we started a Thursday night potluck dinner.  Location rotated; themes were often international; food and companionship were always excellent.  I’ve missed that like crazy.  I tried, when we first moved here, to arrange lots of gatherings, but I always felt that no one came, so I gave up.  I slipped into the culture of isolation that, we are told, is typical to the cold Northeast.  But I don’t like it.  So I’m not going to do it anymore.

5.  Announcing that people are awesome and that therefore they will gather with other awesome people seems like a good strategy.  I launched that recently and got some positive responses.  And yet it continues to feel strange to engineer our social lives to this extent…we persist in the illusion that community develops naturally, that we fall together with the people we like to be together with.  And maybe that’s true for those who have careers and lives they’ve managed to fill with evenly balanced activities.  For me, and for many people (especially moms) I know, it’s a much harder thing.  We need the intentionality or else we end up alone, every night, watching Netflix with a glass of wine.  (Which could be a lot worse, which is why we do it.  But you see my point here, I think.)

In a nutshell, then, my strategy is like my friend April’s.  When I saw her by surprise at one point, she held out her arms and said, “Hug me!”.  Exactly.  People rock and I adore them and they need to hang out with me more.  And hug me.  And clearly it’s up to me to tell them so.

On vision and its alternatives.

There was a heavy mist this morning, the kind that layers itself into a dense fog, wiping out the neighbors, the trees, the lane lines, everything but the headlights of approaching cars.  A morning like this takes faith: that you’ll see the sun again; that you’ll find your way; that terrifying or immovable objects won’t materialize before you.

The year I turned twenty-two, everything had changed for me.  I was in therapy; I had broken off a toxic long-term relationship; I was beginning to see with my own eyes and to understand that I had a heart.  (Note: graduate school is not always the best environment for this kind of learning, but you take what you get.)  It was wildly uncomfortable.  Feeling lost and alone and bold and exhilarated, I took off by myself over fall break, heading to the coast of Maine in my little Toyota and ultimately ending up at my dad’s little lakeside cabin in New Hampshire.  He was away, and I had the place all to myself.

The morning of my actual birthday, I awoke to a vague and even brightness: the gloaming before sunrise broadcast through a heavy fog.  It was cold enough for more layers than I had brought, and I buttoned my father’s old wool shirt over my own clothes.  After stoking up the woodstove against my return, I went out into the dew-soaked grass, along the mulch path to the canoe, overturned on its sawhorses.  I flipped it, thrilled to be handling a boat again, and lifted it by its gunwale down to the shore.  The water was one of those things you take on faith; until it holds you up, you can’t quite be sure it’s there.

I knew the shape of the lake, and the point of entry to the bog at one end.  I headed there, my j-strokes silent and sure in the stillness, my vision awake but helpless in the whiteness.  I felt the bog before I saw it, the scratching arms of swamp laurels against the canoe, the susurration of pickerelweed beneath the keel.  I spent a timeless hour in there, paddling slowly or not at all, soaking in the smells and sounds of the water and its creatures.  At last, hungry and aware that the mist was rising, I made my way back to open water, just as the sun turned yellow.  I watched the first breeze swirl the lifting fog, saw the water shift beneath it, a conversation so sure and swift I ached to belong to it.

I had no idea, you see, where I was, and no idea where I was going.  I was disembodied, alone in a craft I could both trust and handle, and entirely unclear on what was ahead.  It was when I began to see: what’s ahead is not, perhaps, what matters.

Barbara Kingsolver says, in Animal Dreams, “What keeps you going isn’t some fine destination.  It’s just the road you’re on and the fact that you know how to drive.”  I always thought the destination mattered, too, that if you didn’t have a map and a plan and ideally a pretty firm schedule, you’d never get anywhere.  And that seemed to work okay for me until, oh, thirty-five.  But then I had to learn it all over again: being here, and loving it, is how we live.

We complain about the fog because it makes it harder for us to see.  But “seeing” is perhaps the problem.

Kingsolver again, this time in Prodigal Summer, says that moths fly all crazy-like because they lack binocular vision.  We humans focus on a thing in the distance and head for it in a straight line.  This is our paradigm for progress, for productivity, even for pleasure.  We “achieve,” with all the interwoven senses of attaining and possessing and completing.  But what else do we filter out in order to make this kind of movement, this achievement, possible?  A moth moves not by vision but by olfaction, testing the air at impossibly frequent intervals for the highest concentration of the scent they desire.  They adjust their flight path accordingly, first one way, then the next.  And while they look lost, confused, even foolish to our straight-line minds, they do find what they seek.

We, on the other hand, so often find what we thought we sought.  What we did once seek.  But our desires may have changed; we may have missed important possibles; the very air in which our “goal” hangs may be toxic in ways we simply could not see.

A little less light?  A little more fog?  A quieter, more sniffing-out approach?  A spot of stillness, where we let the light shine down however it will, and welcome it?  I can’t say.  And I wouldn’t, anyway.  But I will add that as I headed down the road this morning and the wind blew orange leaves from below my wipers, I smiled into the fog before me.

On counting with children. And aging.

We’re at the breakfast table.  Ezra (3) says he has no idea how to count to twenty.  Papa says, “Of course you do!  You count to twenty all the time in your counting book!”  Ezra denies this.  He insists he has no idea.  I offer this: you count to ten and I’ll count with you up to twenty.  So we do.

At twenty, Ezra wails, “But there are lots of other numbers!”  Indeed.

So we keep counting.  At twenty-three, I realize that we’re enumerating the years of my life, and I try to recall each one.  I know I loved twenty-eight, the birthday I first held my PhD and had a job I loved and a husband and a house and two beautiful dogs and a keen sense of gratitude about all of it.  Thirty was lovely, too, building a new community of amazing friendships in a new and welcoming area.  Thirty-three and -four were stressful for a bunch of reasons; thirty-five was when I got pregnant, finally, and went through massive, life-altering and transformative changes deciding to leave my job/career.  “Thirty-six is how old I was when you were born,” I say to Ezra.  “Thirty-eight is how old I was when your brother was born.  Thirty-nine is how old I am today, and forty is how old I turn soon.”

Hurray!  Birthdays!  We love those!  A brief flurry of shouting.  And then…

“Forty-one, forty-two, forty-three…”

And I head for my computer, smiling to myself, because how can little kids offer such wisdom and perspective?  After all, that’s what this birthday thing is, right?  Another step, another day, another year, stretching out in front of us.  God willing.  I hear Ezra chanting from the kitchen: “Fifty-four, fifty-five, fifty-six…”

Things that shut down.

Happy October!  The federal government is shut down.  Or, at least, much of it.  I hear that the military is exempt; I hear that gas and oil drilling operations are exempt, and some other stuff.  I can’t imagine the calculus of deciding what our nation needs to keep moving forward, except for this: we need a government.  We need one that works.  One that is willing to honor existing laws — which, despite popular confusion, includes the Affordable Health Care Act. We need to live in a place where people are willing to have hard conversations and imagine that the folks on the other side are genuinely interested in finding solutions, in understanding different others, in forging a common welfare that sustains us all.  Who are those people?  Why are they not in government?

There are a range of obvious problems: the press eating away at anyone in public life; the unthinkably large price tags of even running for office; the broken two-party system that forces a polarization of views and a false unification of important difference.  We need, frankly, common threats to make us unite behind something.  If the Tea Party were a separate political party (and please!  When will those radical independents get the nerve to cut the apron strings?  Get off the teat!), imagine the fascinating realignments in Congress.  Heck, we might even have an actual conversation about something instead of partisan bickering.

But more than all these obvious problems are the subtler ones: our failure, as a society, to understand how knowledge works, and rhetoric, and logic itself.  We don’t know how to HAVE conversations, or even civil arguments.  We don’t ask good questions or seek to learn what we don’t know.  It’s like our fear of loss, of pain, of discomfort have left us so overwhelmingly anxious that all we can do is cling to our little bit of the world, thumbs in our mouths, rocking.

Our minds shut down — liberals as well as conservatives (whatever those terms even mean any more).  Our hearts shut down — we become unable to imagine the world from the standpoint of a hungry child, even if that child is one of our constituents.  We lose the capacity to even conceive of a greater good where my joy is bound up in your joy, where I genuinely cannot feel happy or whole unless I know that my neighbors, too, are taken care of, at least in basic ways.  A dog-eat-dog world is scary, my friends, and I don’t see the moral virtue in pretending that since you’re a big dog, the system works.  I suppose it does if you’re a dog.  But then please, stop pretending you’re a human.

As I write this, the LifeFlight helicopter passes over my house on its way to the hospital with some urgently ill patient.  I just came from a warm get-together of new friends and their family where, among other things, I learned that they lost a daughter, a sister, in a car accident as a child.  These griefs are real and immediate and timeless and tangible.  They work to shut us down, but they can’t — because we have lives to live.  Other children to raise, other patients to transport, other honorable and important work before us.  Shutting down is not an option.  It’s a child’s choice, or an addict’s, to withdraw from the problem until the problem goes away.

This position is even harder to sustain when you yourself may, in fact, represent the problem.

I want to write the word “leadership” and the word “integrity.”  I want to write “hope” and “transparency” and “faith” and “systems change.”  I want to map out the solutions, not just to this impasse (I can’t even call it that.  This is a tantrum) but to our whole broken society.  But that’s my own form of shutting down: imposing my vision instead of someone else’s.  So maybe we can ask, instead, how we can come to understand one another better, how we can try to respect a system that seems so dysfunctional, how we can begin to imagine solutions other than our own.  Maybe that’s a kind of exercise we need.  (The answer, of course, likes in books and careful, mediated dialogue…or so sayeth the lit-teacher/organizer.  Surprise.  And yes, please let me know if you’d like details on how to do this.  I consult, did I mention?)

On wading in: Day 30.

This is the last post of my September commitment, an exploration of a month-long journey to “wade in” to the currents and eddies of my life.  It’s hard, producing something every day that you’re not plain embarrassed to post; it’s hard finding meaningful ways to look at your life when you’re tired and scattered and worn down.  But like most writers, I find regular practice does in fact support more and better writing; like most mindfulness practitioners, I find regular commitment does in fact sustain clearer vision and deeper breathing.  No news here.

I thought I’d like to sift back through the posts of this month and pull together their various tools or insights, the images I liked the best, the ideas you seemed to like the best.  But then I realized that that would feel like more dodging — the kind of subtle, artful dodging I’ve come to understand as my most pernicious habit.  I’d do it under the guise of critical review, or summative reflection, or some other noble impulse, when it’s also really a way for me to avoid saying anything new.

So here are some things that have been sticking with me, in the ways that my “wading” approach to life encourages:

Our favorite farmer at the market comes from Somalia and spent years in the Dadaab refugee camp before coming here.  She participates in the market through a program called Fresh Start (formerly the New American Sustainable Agriculture Project), which engages new Mainers who used to farm back home in farming here, offering land and lessons in climate and crops.  Every week after we buy what we need, she sneaks around from behind her stall and tucks into our bag, or hands to one of our small boys, something extra: a pepper, a head of broccoli, a delicata squash.  It is a gesture so kind and familiar that every week it breaks my heart open a little.  And I want to ask her — someday I will — if during those brutal years of flight and transition, and even now in the difficult journey of her life, if she hoped to feed a family like mine.  Because she feeds us.  She is our farmer and she gives us nourishment.  I love her strength and power and generosity, and I am grateful for it, for her, for the funders and organizers and smart people who made it possible for someone kicked off her own patch of earth to nourish others from a new one.

Also, just today: my boys and I raked the driveway leaves (drier than the fog-ridden lawn-leaves) into a big pile and jumped and tossed and buried each other in the heap for a lovely warm half-hour.  Then Ezra wandered up the driveway a bit to gather a new handful and began to scream.  I turned toward him, running already, as he bent over, batting at his face and clothes and screaming, screaming, screaming.  Just a few weeks before, he’d noticed a yellow-jacket hive in the maple over the driveway, but it had clearly been there all summer and we had never had any problems, so we let it be, hoping for an early frost.  But all of a sudden, they swooped in on this tiny man, stinging him four times on the face and neck and twice on the hand.  One sting, on his eyebrow, actually drew blood.  He was sobbing and shaking in full-blown panic — of course!  — as I batted away the remaining bees and hauled him down the driveway toward safety.  It took nearly an hour for the tremors to subside completely, and an hour more for him to externalize enough to look out the window and explain that those yellow-jackets were the ones that had stung him.  His left eye is still swollen shut, but he’s back in the saddle now, and I can’t help but marvel at the resilience of his being.  A massive, painful assault, out of nowhere, in the middle of a joyful morning’s play, and he can squint his way back to a recognition that maybe they thought he was a danger to their nest.  I am astonished all over again at the courage of a human who hasn’t yet lived for four years on this earth.  (Or maybe, I suppose, that’s the ticket.)

As we leave September now and head into October, things pick up speed: our fifteenth anniversary; many, many family birthdays; various programs and projects I’m working on will move ahead more quickly.  But I want to carry this month of transition, of intention, of courage and hope, with me into the rest; I want to remember that time is both more finite and more elastic than I pretend; I want to choose more often the life-giving activities that make more of me and of us.  I want to develop my capacity to know what I’m avoiding and to look at it in clear light; I want to dive in more deeply where and when I can.  (There, I should add, is my one pleasure at releasing this commitment to daily posting: some of these ideas need longer exploration and more research, and there’s been no time on this schedule.  But soon, soon.)  Thanks for reading along on these daily posts!  I look forward to hearing from you as it all keeps unfolding.

On wading in: Day 28. The competing priorities.

I used to be a totally type A person because that’s how I made things work for me.  And they DID work.  Really well.  Except for a whole bunch of things I didn’t really understand well, like relationships and trust and forgiveness.

As those got more important, or my failures in those departments grew more conspicuous and problematic, I changed.  It was a pretty big pendulum swing.  The main problem then became that my efforts to be “relaxed” and to let life do its thing meant that I wasn’t honoring my basic desire for structure, planning, and organization.

So I’ve been working these last few years on learning how to bring the right set of tools to the right task.  But it’s really hard because these approaches seem far more all-encompassing than just tool-boxes.  It seems like the transition from structured and planful to present-in-the-moment requires time and energy and attention that I’m not yet in the habit of cultivating.

Today is a good example.  It was a gorgeous day, a break-the-bank golden, bottomless blue day, enhanced by the crisp breeze and hot sunshine and occasional drift of leaves to the grass.  I awoke with seven hundred plans (yes, at 4 am): scrape and paint the exterior windows that need it; ditto for the old bench I want to repaint; pot up the cuttings of lemon basil that have rooted; mulch and edge garden beds; transplant the cedars, elderberries, and maybe even cherry trees that have been lounging in the “nursery bed” for years.  There were Ambitions.  But entering Ezra’s room this morning, in the dark, after he called out for me, I had that wonderful sense of Christmas.  Here is this sweet, precious gift with all his ideas and behaviors and wants and I get to be with him!  Every person in my house is a stunningly perfect blessing, and sometimes I can actually SEE that and KNOW it.  Today was one such day.  So how does anything else really matter that much?  We made pancakes and smoothies and played outside for a while and then the day got ahold of us, and we ended up doing only one actual Thing. (Well, two, but one was a mandatory grocery-store run, so that doesn’t count.)

I look at this month almost gone and I feel much the same way: where are the plans I had for building my consulting practice?  For finalizing my public humanities discussion series?  For advancing the other ongoing projects?  Nothing has languished, exactly, but nothing is taking on new momentum.  Perhaps that’s not a problem; perhaps it’s not time. But I wish I had more faith in my skill at managing these competing priorities of my life: intentionally shaping and designing it vs mindfully living in it.

On wading in: Day 22. The things I’m still avoiding.

It is clear to me that this month has involved a lot more wading into life than usual.  It shows up in the games we play with the kids, the conversations we have together, the increased singing, the greater appreciation of what’s around me, the enhanced interest in our slow-food processes of homegrown goodness.  (Today, for example, we started off with pumpkin-oat waffles; enjoyed a fabulous leftover white-bean-and-buttercup-squash soup for lunch; found a rack of lamb in the downstairs freezer that we roasted with garlic and rosemary, accompanied by sliced broiled delicata squash and kale sauteed with garlic.  It’s a hardship.)

These are the areas of life that soothe me, that fill me up and calm me down.  And I’m glad I’ve learned to love those, to try to live within them, because for much of my life I would have coded such satisfaction as “boring,” not understanding the depth of joy and contentment and the peace that they bring.

But every so often I am reminded that there’s more to me than this.  There are big important issues that I want to work on, skills and gifts that ask me to do more.  I tend, lately, to suppress those, to nod and smile while focusing elsewhere.  It’s the spiritual equivalent of facebooking while your kids are talking.  And it’s one of the things that needs to change.

See, I’ve assumed all along that the Big Important Stuff cannot peaceably coexist with the daily habits of joy.  But it also seems true that perhaps they cannot peaceably coexist without one another.  So now I ask, again, what it looks like to bring them together.

Some aspects of that are already in place: public humanities work that seeks to explore how we can talk civilly with different others across disagreements; other public humanities work that offers novels as a way to understand our relationships to land, culture, and food; board work that tries to open new avenues to social impact instead of just programmatic outcomes.  But there’s more.  I wonder: would more and different kinds of writing be a way in?  A new blog on the horizon, this one focused on the professional concerns I seek to address?  Who knows.

For now, I am glad to have this discipline here and this set of lenses through which to examine the life I lead.  But I also see that I can rise to the risk I set for myself.  Perhaps it’s time to pose a new challenge: go to the heart of what matters in professional life as in personal.  It was my way for fifteen years; there’s no reason it can’t be again. The fact of being a parent makes me a better person, a clearer thinker, a more compassionate human.  And it also helps me see more clearly what matters and what doesn’t.  Instead of feeling pushed out of my professional world (as most of us do, who “step off the track”), perhaps I can just speak my truths wherever I am, whatever they may be.  Scary — but after all, what’s the alternative?  I worry about arriving at the end of this stage of life and feeling that I bottled up too much, that I didn’t participate in conversations I needed.  Fear of rejection, mostly, is what keeps me mute, and fear is what I’m most ready to release.

Sigh.  We’ll see how this shakes out.