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 putting things to bed.

The rain is falling outside for the first time in weeks; it’s a sound I love.  It’s also surprisingly cold, and the leaves are suddenly coming down faster, and it makes me realize that this weekend, or maybe next is peak leaf weekend.  And then we’re heading downhill fast toward the dead of winter.

I try not to think this way, most of the time.  I try to stay more centered in where I am and what is beautiful there.  And so I’m supporting those habits by spending a lot more time appreciating the rituals of fall, especially since this is the first year in a while I’ve had that luxury.  (Babies do not permit a great deal of house-and-garden time, at least not mine.)  So here’s what that looks like:

1. Mums on the steps, orange, white, and maroon.  A daily reminder of what’s lovely and right, even when we’re barreling past them with arms full of squealing, squirming kids en route to or from some hideous ordeal like the grocery store.

2. PUMPKINS on the steps.  This is totally new to me, since I’m one of those freak shows who sees the pumpkin primarily as a foodstuff rather than an item of decor.  But today at the farmers’ market, as I’m asking Ezra if we should buy one pumpkin “to look at and then to eat,” our farmer Trent Emery (of Emery Farms; love them a lot) points out that he has sacks of ten pumpkins for ten bucks.  Sugar pumpkins.  In great shape.  Decorate and then devour.  That’s right.  Who am I to say no to a sack of pumpkins?

3. Leaves actually getting raked.  Since it’s been so dry, they’ve been incredibly easy to manage, and it’s become my little twenty-minute workout to whisk them into the driveway and then on down the slope to our Massive Epic Leaf Pile at the bottom.  The kids are doing a banner job of breaking them down into the leaf-crumbs that I like to put all through my garden beds, so this is a win-win-win.

4. Finally doing some serious weeding of the garden and, eventually, harvesting the last of things.  But if the weather is mild, we can harvest kale without protection through early December.  Putting the garden to bed isn’t quite as finite and rhythmic a process as one might imagine.

5. Mulching the perennial beds.  Poor things, they straggle through the summer without the moisture they need because I’m cheap and water-conscious (okay, and lazy), and then fall comes and they get an inch of mulch and suddenly revive.  Makes me realize what lovely gardens I’d have if I, you know, tended them.

All this settling in, tending to, quieting down has made me think more about the kids’ bedtimes, and ours, too.  After all, we’re organisms in need of rest as well.  I’ve tended to focus on the obvious: the stories, the sips of water, the schedules and routines.  But I find the outside gives me new perspective on the insides, too.  My understanding of the value of blankets shifts after watching the plants respond to the mulch: it’s not just about keeping out the cold, but about snuggling, protection, nests.  My imagination of my children’s needs shifts after thinking through the garden soil and its many forms of symbiosis: no organism stands alone, and sometimes we want company and stories together, and sometimes we just need the nurture of one primary caregiver.  Sometimes we need water, sometimes mama milk, sometimes a snuggle-animal, sometimes light, sometimes dark.  We probably meet the needs anyway, since that’s pretty much our job, but there’s a difference between scattering fertilizer and layering compost.  There’s a difference between rushing through a story and giving the characters their full voices.  I save the singing for the crib-time, after the nursing, just as I save the compost for the spring, just as I rarely water.  But why?  My garden survives on this rhythm, but it could do better.  Listening and watching and smelling and being THERE can help us understand the whole range of organic needs that our people and plants profess, including the need to thrive, to blossom, to yield fruit, to be the whole and stunning miracles they can be.

On simplicity and plenty.

My idea of bliss is spacious: open fields, airy rooms, bright spaces.  I’ve always thought it was an aesthetic thing, but as I’m reading (again, in parts) Kim John Payne’s Simplicity Parenting, I realize that’s it’s more than that.  As usual, aesthetics are also ethics, and I believe in a lifestyle that is simple, natural, deep, and direct.

Yesterday was our fifteenth wedding anniversary, and while we had a lovely night out, the day itself was hard.  I’d been looking forward to it, because I had both boys and a playdate in the morning AND a visit from another friend in the afternoon.  But the boys were more or less intractable.  We spent much of the morning in a tussle to get TO our friends’ house and the rest of it in a tussle to get back home.  I’ve never seen so much crying.  It occurs to me, of course, that what they want is simple downtime — to rummage through their toys, invent new games, lie on the floor under the table, eat an oversized apple in a particularly messy and inefficient way.

Payne’s book makes the case that such downtime is not only valuable for kids; it’s necessary.  For them and for us.  Our lives are too complicated, too fast, too crowded, too loud, and the net result is that we don’t have much space to permit our feelings, our processing, our development, our SELVES, to show up.  We feel sad about something so we put on a movie.  We have a window of time between meetings so we hit Pinterest.  Even the guilty pleasures we adore sometimes drop away from our lives, squeezed out by a sense that we don’t deserve such luxury and that anyway, we don’t have time.  Reading is like that for me.  But it’s astonishing how time stretches out when we let it.  I check the clock after fifteen minutes of reading because I’m sure it’s been an hour already.  Singing does that.  Gardening does that.  Lying on the floor with our kids does that.

Time with our kids, and SPACE with our kids, is like that.  We filled up Ezra’s walls with pictures of animals because he loves them, but before long he seems not to care about them anymore, and the room just looks smaller, cluttered, with less room for air and light.  The single bird-feeder, mounted outside his window, does far more for entertainment, learning, and connection to the animal world than the twenty pictures all over the walls.  And yet, when I try to reduce the book collection, as Payne recommends, I hit a wall.  There are a few things I don’t love, but mostly his two-shelf collection is carefully chosen and thoroughly wonderful.  How to get it down to twelve books, and why?  Perhaps a commitment to rotation more often would soothe my concerns here…or perhaps we try to winnow in other places.

Because I do think there’s a place where abundance still does mean abundance.  A collection of fabrics that I love makes me feel rich, as does a well-chosen shelf of books.  A stack of good magazines, arranged in a lovely basket, ditto.  A coffee table obscured by heaps of books and magazines, however, makes me crazy.  So the line between simplicity and plenty is a moving target for me, highly conditional, field-specific, and storage-dependent.  I revile the notion of storing lots of stuff — why?  WHY? — but I honor the desire to keep what really matters.

I come back, over and over again in my life, to the Craftsman principle articulated by William Morris: “Let there be nothing in your home you do not know to be useful or find to be beautiful.”  With kids, I grant you, that’s a bit of a stretch, but then we’re not shooting for ideal.  We’re just looking to feel at home in our lives.  So we keep tacking back and forth, then, clearing out and making way, hoping the new air and light will help us make best use and beauty of all the chosen objects of our lives.

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 27. Just about done.

There are days when it’s fine and good to push yourself.  You set goals and try to reach them.  You hope your kids can reach them with you.  Or you make sure everybody else is at daycare because you have Things To Do.

Then there are other days.  Most days, in fact.  The best you can do is hope to keep people happy and try not to rock any really big boats.  I kind of hate those days.  And of course, today was one of them.

It started out well: playing at home, making dinosaur fossils in play dough and generally making a cheerful mess in the kitchen.  Then a friend texted and we went downtown to the big park and playground to hang out with her and her kids.  That, too, was fun.  Lunch/snack at a nearby favorite eatery; much gawking and admiration of the 150′ crane that’s helping put lights onto City Hall; general merriment with the many statues and walkways and columns in our beautiful downtown landscape.  (Jack Johnson’s “Jungle Gym” played in my head the whole time.)

But once naptime came and went, it was survival of the fittest.  And none of us is very fit.  It occurred to me, again (this happens a lot lately) that I/we need a vacation.  And I mean, from all of it.  From the bustle, the worry, the job-hunt, the child-management, the being-managed.  And of course, we’re like the most utterly privileged people in the world, so that makes me feel bad for needing a break.  But still…

What does a break look like?  What does it mean to take time off when you’re a family and there’s no such thing?  How do we find the downtime we so desperately crave?

It occurs to me that things change so unbelievably fast — from tired to wired in the two minutes it takes to drink a quarter-cup of mango juice.  From wired to tired in the one minute it takes to get out of the tub.  And for us grown-ups, too — at 6 pm I’m enjoying a glass of wine, wishing the kids were down so we could watch a movie and catch up with each other and maybe make brownies or something fun.  And by 7, when the kids are actually down, I just want a quiet cup of tea and no conversation at all and a little time with my current novel.

Which brings me to my current dilemma: this blog.  I’m finding the mandate of daily posting surprisingly rewarding, and I’m thrilled at the resourcefulness I’m able to marshall (shut up!  It’s hard doing this every damn day! Of course it’s not Steinbeck!).  But I’m also looking forward to October and the end of the mandate.  Once I’m no longer “required” to post daily, what happens next?  What do you other writers do?  The discipline is useful, but it honestly feels like an imposition when I insist on putting something out there every day.

Anyway, these are the forms of “just about done”: with kids, with parenting, with being awake, with being civil, with writing, with posting, with processing the world in so many ways at once.  It’s just plain hard to be always on.  What do you do to let down, to “be done”?

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.