On distraction.

It’s a well-known tenet of Buddhist practice that we all have monkey-mind: our thoughts leap about from place to place, seeking pleasure, worrying worry, pre-empting problems. I excel at this. Meditation, then, is about calming the monkey, sitting patiently with its antics until the time between leaps grows longer and the act of staying takes on some kind of reality. Or, perhaps, it’s just about watching the monkey jump. Silly monkey. Funny monkey. Desperate, sad, hungry monkey.

A central problem of modern life is that we don’t realize we are the monkey, and we don’t realize we have (or even might want) other choices. I get this. I’m all about meditation and being still and centered for about a third of every year, usually in fits and starts that last a month or two. And then I get so tired of being so present and so exhausted by my own inability to really be still that I seek comfort in distraction: Netflix, games, Facebook. The symptoms that I observe, that help me diagnose the problem and put me back on a path to some kind of health, look a lot like this: I now have Candy Crush Saga, Farm Heroes Saga, AND Cookie Jam on my iPad mini, and I play one until I run out of lives, at which point I switch to another. And so on. When, after an hour or two, not one game will let me keep playing without paying (and thank goodness I don’t have more disposable income or I’d be tempted), I become angry and then disconsolate. I don’t know what to do with myself. I laugh, of course, but it’s a little hollow.

I contrast this to my good times, when I feel present and centered in my life. I notice my kids and the garden and the quality and scents of the air. I feel stories and poems press in on me from all directions, and I even do an okay job at writing them down (though I persist in imagining that I will remember more than I can remember, and I feel the words slip through my fingers, spry and inky, gone for good).

So what works best, if I seek distraction but don’t really like it? Do I strive for a life composed solely of depth and meaning? Or is this the macro version of monkey-brain, the larger time-frame of noticing, so I can trust that noticing itself means that I’m on some sort of reasonable path? How do I practice sustaining the modes of living and working that feed me best, even when I also want the metaphorical french fries and disgusting fast-food burger? Let’s be clear: we all want these things from time to time. But the difference between a really good chocolate shake and a nasty-ass fribble (or whatever they’re called) is vast, and maybe the trick is to choose the really good distractions over the cheap and easy ones. Maybe the trick is like that eating-management plan some people have had to learn, where they realize they have never known what it’s like to be full, and they have to pay close attention to their sensations, stopping eating when they are sated instead of continuing on out of habit. I know what it’s like to be full. It’s glorious and magnifying and enriching and empowering. It makes all things possible, to live like that. So why choose the smaller version with the bad food and boring distractions? Sigh. Perhaps it’s too much muchness, this powerful life we have. Perhaps we still believe somehow that checking out will bring us peace. And after all, it’s very hard to stop. These are things I’ve noticed.

And these are other things I’ve noticed: yesterday, in the yard with the boys, we lay on the driveway to watch the clouds. (Okay, I did; they were all complainy about the sun in their eyes.) There were two osprey circling overhead, perhaps en route to the nearby pond. They called out their osprey calls, and Ezra called back. The clouds were mostly cirrus. Later, two hummingbirds flew invisibly fast from the hydrangea across to the apple trees.


On keeping it simple.

On days when the kids run amok and the rain pours down and everything seems to be breaking or peeling or falling apart, there’s only so much we can do to hold ourselves together. For me, that “so much” usually involves food.

I can’t bake in this humidity (well, I can, but we would all regret it), so I end up focusing a little more intently on the dinner process than usual. And that can have nice consequences.

The other day I made potato salad in the morning: my favorite kind, with new red potatoes from the farmer’s market and white wine vinegar and olive oil and pressed garlic and chopped lemon basil from the garden. I put it in the fridge with orders for no one to touch it, and come dinner time, it was astonishing: bright, intense, comforting, addictive.

To go with that, I had an unceremonious pound of ground beef from Clay Hill Farms, also acquired at our local market. I know it’s great beef, but honestly, I get a little bored with beef. I needed something Greek. Ish. So I got out the goat cheese and added maybe a third of a cup to the beef, along with a handful of chopped oregano and the ritual salt and pepper. Made some patties, fried them up, and OMG. Such good ideas. Add some fresh steamed broccoli (plain, for variety), and it’s a beautiful little meal.

I should add that we are slowly refinishing our kitchen table, which is where we always eat, so we are having most meals out in the screen tent on the deck. It’s kind of a hassle, but kind of a beautiful way to live outdoors more. Plus, we may eventually get a nice new kitchen table out of it, so there’s that.

This is where I want to wind up with something witty and reassuring about how kids grow up and it won’t be this chaotic forever, and aren’t we lucky that we get to be WITH all this astonishing youth and growth‚Ķand yes, I am lucky. And I’m also really really tired. Good food helps, but so would a long vacation. Solo. So I invite you to tell me: what are your ways of sustaining yourself, of keeping it simple? Cut flowers? Walks in the woods? Escape novels? Meditation? Bonus points for brilliant strategies I haven’t thought of. ūüôā

On all the muchness of summer.

It’s hard to know where to start after being gone so long. From writing here, I mean. I’ve been doing some poetry and a little garden journaling, but mostly I’ve been out living so hard that I can’t seem to put proverbial pen to paper when I’m done. The checking-out impulse has been strong with me. But eventually you hit the stage I’m at now, where checking out is no longer as delicious as checking in, and this is a good thing.

So an accounting, of sorts, for me as much as for you:

1. Change is in the air. I don’t know if it’s this super moon or what, but we’ve finally given away our sixteen-year-old furniture and reshaped the living room — there’s more space and more air and less room for sitting on one’s ass, and these all seem like good changes. For now. Winter would be hard in this configuration, with only one small couch for snuggling. There’s a new rug en route from Overstock, and we seem to be living in shades of red and orange. (Full confession: the couch is purple velvet, a deep grayish plum, but it’s covered with an ivory canvas slipcover right now lest anyone find us garish‚Ķ)

2. Since we brought the purple couch down from our bedroom and we wanted something else in there, we took the big blue chair and ottoman from Ezra’s room and put them in ours. It’s lovely and spacious and inviting. And best of all, we created, in the same corner of his room, a Nest. It’s an elegant affair: a folded bunk mattress on the floor surrounded by many sizes of pillows and stuffed animals, and he loves it so much he sleeps in it. It’s his favorite spot for reading and sitting quietly and rolling about in excess, and overall we’re thrilled with the whole situation.

3. Outdoors, the peas are done (those the groundhog didn’t eat): we have had enough to gorge ourselves senseless and to feel that every visit to the garden (morning, noon, or night) is an occasion for picking and eating, but we’ve had none to put by. I’m okay with that. The broccoli and cauliflower, on the other hand, were completely eaten, all 16 plants, by the groundhog, and I’m much less okay with that. But I’m breathing in and out and feeling mostly grateful that I don’t have a 22.

4. I’ve ripped out the pea vines to make room for the struggling melons, squashes, and cukes‚Ķa little composted rabbit manure from a friend, and they seem to be much happier. I’ve even discovered some beets languishing beneath the vines that now seem to want to size up, so we’ll see how that goes. And where other things were spent (bok choy, mizuna, lettuces), I’ve sown more carrots, some bush beans, and even an ambitious row of swiss chard. I heard we were getting a polar vortex and I figured why not take advantage? (For the non-gardeners among us, chard is in the goosefoot family, and many of those prefer cold weather for germination and even for actual growth — sowing chard now is bold and perhaps foolish, but for this little microburst of cold‚Ķ)

5. We finally had the tree guys come and they rescued the poor chestnut in the bottom of the yard, overshadowed and leaned on by some aggressive box elders. They also cleaned out the huge red maple of water sprouts and dead growth, which was quite a project, and they took down a diseased cherry and a frankly dead spruce. I’m inappropriately excited that I thought to ask if we could keep the chips, so we now have roughly three cubic yards of wood chips in a heap on the driveway, and I am filled with possibility.

6. The only other thing of note is that we haven’t been on a date in what seems like months (and may in fact be months), and I’m figuring that’s why I felt it necessary to buy a Vitamix. Refurbished, but still. It’s outrageously expensive and it’s going to be stellar.

Basically, I’m feeling a little ADD about life — bouncing around from house to garden to boys to work to writing to friends to family to crafts to community-building. I’m not seeing much of a common thread these days except me, raveled or not. So I’m just trying to go with it. And it is rewarding: the new sightline from the kitchen into the living room is so spare and clean; the boys can play with their trains in whole new ways; the self-sown bachelor’s buttons and asclepias are feeding whole generations of bees and other pollinators; the new variety of oregano (Pizza Night) is more delicious than any previously. The plans to make slipcovers for the Nest pillows are coming along, though no actual sewing has happened; the kitchen table is half-stripped and awaiting some serious sanding in the basement. It’s all in progress, all at once, and I’m just trying to be there with it, running lightly and breathing free.

On festivity and resistance.

In times of absurdity and ongoing crisis, it seems hard, if not wrong, to feel festive. ¬†At least, that’s one way that I struggle with the state of the world. ¬†And yet, as my friends who are artists and theologians keep telling me (indeed, as the world itself seems to shout), we have to celebrate anyway. ¬†We have to celebrate what we DO have, the people and places and purposes that fill us up, make us laugh, demonstrate glory and beauty and grace.

October is a tough month for me in this regard. ¬†We have our anniversary, a bunch of family and friend birthdays including my own, and the whole greatness of fall itself. ¬†And yet I always feel like, with winter coming and work to find and projects to take care of before the snow flies, we don’t have TIME for joy. ¬†But then a little voice, lounging in a comfortable chair in the back of my head, tosses a chocolate in its mouth and says, “why not? ¬†What the heck else should we do? ¬†Pout?”

Which makes perfect sense. ¬†The scraping and sanding and caulking and priming and painting might as well happen from a place of gladness, right? ¬†Why not sing while we’re up there? ¬†Why not marvel at these astonishing blackberry canes that gave us four years of fruit before succumbing to some fungal infection? ¬†Of course it’s a pain to pull them out, but how grateful I am to have this little patch of earth in which to grow things.

I realized yesterday that I have a tendency to treat the flowers in my yard like rare objects, hesitating to pick them and bring them in. ¬†Ezra has been helping me with this issue just by assuming that anything out there that’s gorgeous should come in, and that he should both carry it in and arrange it in its vase. ¬†But even then: I pick small vases and make small arrangements, several even, instead of one big one. ¬†Why is that? ¬†It seems like a logic of scarcity, and that just isn’t where I want to be these days. ¬†Abundance is.

Resistance is out.  Festivity is in.

That means maybe taking on a version of “Clay Days”: a friend whose nickname is “Clay” celebrates his birthday over a two-week period around the day itself. ¬†There are many parties and picnics and walks and bloody-mary-brunches and general good times. ¬†I want that. ¬†Maybe it means letting myself do, for a change, exactly what I want when I want. ¬†(Knowing me, this will not in fact lead to the chaos it might for others; it will more likely lead to more things getting done, perhaps with less advance planning.) Maybe it means making beauty for the sake of beauty. ¬†Examples: this morning before I took the boys to school I did two things that will cheer me up all day. First, I combined the flowers from several tiny vases into one larger arrangement of purple and green and orange, and I periodically pass by it and just stop and gaze. I’m soaking up its presence. ¬†The other one was making grape sorbet. ¬†I KNOW!! ¬†Grape sorbet. ¬†We have these concord-type grapes growing over our pergola, and last year I tried to make jam and it didn’t gel. ¬†But I froze it in jars, calling it “compote,” and yesterday I thawed one out and this morning put it in the ice-cream maker. ¬†Beautiful beautiful beautiful. ¬†We were all wildly impressed with ourselves.

So I say this: if we can’t play with flowers and make sorbet before school, what good is this life? ¬†If we can’t paint a bench a crazy color, or sip wine with crafting friends, then what do we think we’re doing? ¬†The serious stuff has a place, and I also need to remember that living in beauty, committing to abundance, is important stuff too. ¬†Bring on the festivity.

On wading in: Day 18. Perspective.

A quick post tonight, as it’s been a day full of perspective and I’m exhausted by it.
First, at the preschool where my sons go, I watched circle time where four new kids with special needs were being supported and held and encouraged and restrained by one-on-one aides. I was astonished to remember what I take for granted.
Second, at lunchtime, when all my kids wanted to eat was cantaloupe. Left to their own devices, they’d be fruit-bats, with the occasional dose of broccoli or peas. Here I am hollering: eat your cheese! No more fruit till you finish that sandwich!
Third, at the doctor’s office, when all our lungs were pronounced clear and our coughs pronounced viral, and I realized: this day’s a-wasting! We’ll grab the milk at the grocery store and then on to the playground!! Best post-doctor’s-office afternoon ever.
Fourth, when my neighbor pointed out a great blue heron stalking the vernal pools below our houses. He’s been walking around, avoiding loud mowers, but never doing more than flapping a bit. He didn’t look hurt, but why else was he there, in our tiny patch of weeds? It seems such a blessing to see one so close, but then it’s such a worry, that this glorious creature might need our help, and we stand here empty.
Fifth, and most of all, reading “The Grapes of Wrath.” In my warm home, with all my incredible resources around me and my healthy sons upstairs asleep. In a world that does not make sense but which has not declared war on my particular kind, at least not yet. I am blessed by being and blessed even more by being reminded and taught.

On wading in: Day 14. Too much crap.

You know the whole myth of organizing, that you can somehow make things orderly and clutter-free in an afternoon?  What crap.  Even the process of sorting and purging they explain as a simple decision-making feat.  But everyone conveniently skips the time-consuming and irritating steps of what to do with all the stuff.

If you need money, you don’t want to give away what you might be able to sell. ¬†But there are kids’ consignment stores, grown-up consignment stores, sporting-goods and other specialty second-hand shops; there are bookstores that are nearby (well, okay, one, and it’s an hour away) and then there are bookstores further away that would do a much better job selling your grad school texts. ¬†There are things your friends’ new babies might want, but they’ve asked you to hold off until they discover at birth if it’s a boy or a girl, because if it’s a girl then they have enough already and don’t want all your boring blue and brown stuff (which is SUCH a pet peeve of mine anyway). ¬†Even for donations, you have to figure out who is most “worthy” — Goodwill’s CEO makes way too much money and they use sucky labor practices, I’m told, to underpay workers with disabilities. ¬†So — Salvation Army? ¬†I’m not crazy about their politics locally, either. ¬†Ugh. ¬†Suffice it to say, there are whole sections of the basement devoted to the storage and sorting of the stuff WE ARE GETTING RID OF.

I confess that the idea of less is no longer just a dream: there is a whole (small) shelf in my closet devoted to housing some interesting old jewelry boxes and family gifts that used to live on my dresser and annoy me daily. ¬†Now they look tidy and kind of funky in that little space, and my dresser is a much more peaceful space. ¬†Today, I even went so far as to sort the pantry, using some new lazy susans and some old baskets from Chi’s little-used closet set-up. ¬†It’s reassuring to know that nothing in the pantry is old enough to be truly toxic, and once I cleaned out the cabinet of plastic bags (yes, we had a whole cabinet of those), there was even a better place to put the large gear we don’t often use (electric grill; Romertopf; huge roasting pan and rack).

It feels important to note that my recent bouts of productivity seem to be backfiring on me, though — there’s a tolerance building, so that now just sorting and cleaning isn’t enough. ¬†If I don’t LOVE the result and feel that our lives are transformed in some small way, then it isn’t enough.

Or maybe it’s just having all the people around who are always in the way. ¬†Maybe that’s the irritation. Anyway, I’m hoping a glass of wine and a good book will fix it.

On wading in: Day 13. Feeling for home.

Chi woke up with a brand-new fever of 102 and a version of lethargy I’ve never seen from either of my kids. ¬†The docs found nothing overtly wrong with him, but he wasn’t responding to fever meds appropriately (or the fever would have been even higher without them, perhaps), and he spent every waking minute nursing. ¬†Seriously, every waking minute. ¬†When he wasn’t nursing he was crying.

Fortunately for all of us, he then proceeded to take a five-hour nap and awake at least partly restored. ¬†It was a strange day. ¬†And while some of it (like the massive nap) was good, none of it was forseeable, so it all felt wasted. ¬†Add to this the second day in a row of pouring down rain, and we’re all a little lost and pissy.

But here’s the thing. ¬†As I nursed Chi to sleep this evening, I heard strange screechy sounds that I interpreted worriedly as the basement sump pump in distress (it’s been getting a hard workout lately). ¬†My anxiety level rose as I started to catalog the things in the basement we’d need to move or raise and the things that we’d just lose. ¬†And then it hit me: this is the teeniest, most trivial version of what people in Colorado are dealing with right now. ¬†(And elsewhere.) ¬†They are being evacuated from their homes, not knowing if they’ll see them again; they are at risk of losing their own lives and the lives of their loved ones; they are watching their roads and communities and beloved places washed away. ¬†Indeed, I’m realizing that we here are among a decreasing population who don’t really worry that much about catastrophic weather (except in winter, when it’s a big deal here). ¬†All over our country are folks losing homes to wildfires, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes. ¬†And those are just the “natural” disasters.

So as I sat in my son’s dark and quiet room, listening to the rain outside (and to what ended up being not an ailing pump but my other son’s Wild Discovery audio book on birds), I realized anew the bliss of being at home. ¬† Even just that little room, with its too-long curtains and the rocking chair that creaks, is a blessed place of rest and wholeness. ¬†It’s where both our boys slept their earliest childhoods, as soon as they left our bedside; it’s where special books and toys have gathered; it’s where Enrique, the bright balsawood parrot that Len brought back from Ecuador, presides over their young lives. ¬†To lose even this small space, let alone the whole house, with all its memories and beloved objects (not to mention the mortgage), would be devastating.

I hadn’t realized how much my wading in to my own life has led me out of others’ until tonight. ¬†I’ve avoided the news, I’m realizing, and curtailed my empathy, keeping what energy I have for my own experience and those right in it. ¬†But I’m reminded again tonight that there’s no zero-sum game here. ¬†Compassion is the wellspring and the water, and tonight it’s raining down.

On wading in: Day 11. Community.

It’s September 11th, which of course means many remembrances of an important crisis in our national and global communities. ¬†And yet a simple trolling of my facebook feed makes it clear how many disparate communities we contain — those who are celebrating first responders; those who celebrate patriotism; those who celebrate humanity broadly. ¬†There are those grieving particular losses; those grieving a loss of national innocence; those grieving a time when our world seemed kinder. ¬†And there are many of us who don’t post about these issues at all, assuming perhaps that our diverse sympathies and consciences are present where our social media messages are not.

But somehow for me the most important element of this day was stumbling upon Wentworth Miller’s speech to the Human Rights Campaign. ¬†(Watch it here.) ¬†In it, Miller (or Went, as we called him in undergrad) opens up some vast and intimate elements of his life, including his sense from childhood of never having been in community. ¬†In fact, he says, the notion of community, of a “we,” “felt like a lie.”

The resonance for me was extreme, though for different reasons. ¬†But the central experience of being alone, without comradeship or support, without any sense of safety net or solidarity, is one we shared. ¬†(It makes me wish mightily that I’d really gotten to know him in undergrad, but like many people, I was so busy “passing” for a happy, well-adjusted person that I didn’t have time — or know how — to make real connections.) ¬†At any rate, his words and concepts have haunted me all day.

And of course it happens that I watch his speech on my way to a project of sending notes to some former colleagues, so I’m really sweating this primal issue of non-belonging as I leaf through their wonderful engagements that ARE NOT MINE. ¬†I’m reading up on cool projects and new organizations and brilliant upcoming conferences that I’M NOT A PART OF. ¬†And it makes me sad. ¬†Deep down, bone-weary, age-old sad. ¬†And I try to comfort myself with thoughts of this community I’ve built…but I’m reminded again that we still don’t feel IN COMMUNITY here. ¬†It’s nice to have more friends, but the only time we’ve had a network, a net, a community per se is when we lived in a small town in northeastern Iowa and made amazing friends working at the same small college. ¬†There may have been some crying for what we’ve lost in the years since.

But what’s interesting to me about all this is the realism I have now. ¬†Yes, it’s tainted with cynicism, with self-protection, with a little dash of bitters, but I’m also grateful for what we have. ¬†There are many wonderful people in our lives; there are people we can lean on in difficult times; there are challenges and stimulations and love galore. ¬†And I AM clear that I want more — that I want it woven more tightly together, that I miss the sense of being on a team, even if that sense is illusory. ¬†But knowing this means I can build better, more intentionally, and maybe even find more peace with this place of halfway-there.

On wading in: Day 10. Doing what you love.

Quick post, because I’m running between things…things that I love! ¬†And I just wanted to revel, just a tiny bit, in the fact of this privileged state of doing what I love.

I get to do some very cool public humanities projects right now, and I had one lunch meeting and one phone meeting and some engaging prep work and reading on that today.

I get to play a leadership role in a very awesome and important board in my area and learn from fascinating, experienced people, and I’m off to chair my first meeting of said board. ¬†It’s such an honor!

And what’s funny here is that I spent the first, oh, nearly forty years of my life carefully saying no to things that didn’t seem lucrative or productive or fun…and I didn’t have nearly good enough vision to judge. ¬†Both of these opportunities are things I might have said no to at one time for one or another of those reasons, but here I am, loving them and loving being right in the thick of them.

This little blogventure is another of the things I’m doing that I love, as is the whole parenting-family-gardening-cooking-household-management thing…and indeed, the trick here may be, as wise folks have said, not just doing what you love but loving what you do. ¬†In fact, here’s a tale of how I learned that last part:

I’ve had lots of years of schooling at fancy places in what’s called “literary criticism,” and indeed, as you might imagine, that means I’m wicked good at seeing the flaws in things. ¬†My innate pragmatism and competence have led me to work where I not only SEE the flaws but get to work on understanding them and even perhaps fixing them. ¬†But I only got to that last part because I learned to love the process, to love the THINGS, flaws and all. ¬†One of my least-favorite courses involved lots of touchy-feely participatory process, and one of my classmates noted that my comments were always about shortfalls, hypocrisies, failures. ¬†Of course, I responded: that’s what critique is. ¬†She asked me then what I might be missing when I only looked at the bad stuff. ¬†I gazed mildly back at her, waiting for the punch line. ¬†It took me a while to get it. ¬†(I’ve since learned that this is about asset-based as opposed to deficit-based vision, but I persist in thinking, with her, that it might be a little bit about love. ¬†About generosity.) ¬†So I’ve been experimenting for oh, fifteen years or so with the loving part, and it’s hard. ¬†But surprise of surprises, it seems to work. ¬†Love works. ¬†Generosity works. ¬†And our work works better when we can bring those to it.

On wading in: Day 8. Coming to rest.

It’s Sunday, which is sometimes conceptualized as a day of rest. ¬†Those of you with small children may feel free to take a break while you laugh.

There.  Better?  Right.

At our house, Sunday is what we call a “whole family day,” which is much bally-hooed for its tendency to involve intricate train-track development sessions or reading marathons. ¬†But it also tends to be a kind of painful day for us grown-ups, because it feels like our last chance to get things done. ¬†So this morning is a good example: I’m running around trying to finish washing windows and start some other projects while Len entertains the beasts. ¬†It’s not satisfying but it feels necessary.

So I got to thinking about “necessary.” ¬†About my own capacity to over-do. ¬†About the other kinds of satisfaction we need, besides clean windows. ¬†(“Clean”: this is the first time they’ve had their outsides washed in eight years, and we maybe get to the insides every three or four years, so, well…there it is.) ¬†My point is that I have a hard time prioritizing rest.

“Rest” itself is a kind of a squishy concept. ¬†Sleep: sure. ¬†Laying down with a good book: yes. ¬†Watching an episode of something fun on Netflix: I can’t tell anymore. ¬†I think that’s rest, but then it never makes me feel rested. ¬† Going for a walk in the woods: yes, though for the opposite reasons. ¬†It is not really rest but it makes me feel rested. ¬†It rests my soul.

And perhaps that’s the crucial distinction these days. ¬†Perhaps our bodies (or at least, at this point in time, my body) can handle a lot more than we think they can, and perhaps the kinds of rest we need are heart-rest. ¬†Spirit-rest. For some people, that might mean church or some other kind of organized faith community; for some of us it might mean listening to the rain on the roof or sewing something or taking pictures of flowers your son brought in yesterday.

Any way you slice it, the hard part for me may not be resting per se. ¬†It’s COMING TO rest. ¬†I get to moving pretty fast, especially in the mornings, and especially when I have the bit between my teeth. ¬†To know that I should rest, to schedule rest and plan for it and intend to take it: these are things I can do. ¬†But to actually stop, to put down the sponge or the computer or whatever it is and intentionally CHOOSE rest: that’s hard.

So that’s my intention for today. ¬†To honor the many forms of rest (including love and creativity and conversation with friends and making pie) and to choose them over the many forms of busyness. ¬†To catch myself in the busyness and to gently let it go.