The True Substance of Our Lives

Dear Friends,

This morning after my spouse and kids left in a flurry of bags, jackets, and hurried kisses, I left the dishes on the counter and sunk back into my chair at the breakfast table. Promising myself a few minutes of meditation before jumping into my own day, I poured myself a cup of luke-warm tea. Then, before I fully knew what I was doing, I reached for my phone. Four minutes later, I realized that my quiet time had been filled with work emails and instructional texts to my kids about after-school activities. The essential task – spending five minutes in intentional silence – had been sacrificed for a whole load of frenetic to-do’s. 

I imagine many of you can easily relate to this scenario. With so much clamoring for our attention, it is almost impossible not to lose sight of what is truly important.    

In my work in spiritual formation at an Episcopal church, I am privileged to spend many hours with folks in the second half of their lives. Unlike many of the elders I knew when I was younger, who tended to veil their vulnerability in the language of triumphant salvation or sugarcoat their struggles in a wash of sparkling sentiment, these elders are not afraid to talk openly and without judgment of a lifetime of twists and turns, sorrows and joys.Their lives are still a work in process, a testimony to the idea that one lifetime is not long enough to whittle down love, faith, and the art of seeing, to a perfect point.

I’ve learned so much from watching these folks in their 70s, 80s, and 90s sift through their lives.  They are actively paring back, letting go of many of the things they once counted vital to success and survival. Franciscan friar Richard Rohr writes, “All great spirituality teaches about letting go of what you don’t need and who you are not.” This work of spiritual decluttering is what so many of the elders in my community are actively leaning into. And it’s not easy work. This open-hearted re-ordering requires humility, honesty, imagination and faith. When we’ve done the work of stripping away all the nonessential layers that feel so important and pressing, Rohr says we’ll ultimately find that “the little place where you really are is ironically more than enough and is all that you need. . . .that place is called freedom.”

More than enough. All that you need. Freedom. These things feel far away this morning. At work, half-finished tasks seem to slap my face for attention. At home, the house, the dog, the girls, all need my loving presence to thrive. What about my own health and appointments I need to schedule? And did I mention that my oldest daughter is off to a college interview this afternoon?  What my elders teach me about this moment is that while the one hundred things commanding my attention this morning are fine in themselves, I should not mistake them for the true substance of my life. That true substance lies underneath all the busyness and urgent tasks that populate my mind and calendar. Far more intrinsic and essential is my identity as a child of God, a listener to the still, small voice that tells me what is deeply true about today. And what is deeply true is this: We are loved, and no matter what we check off our list by the end of the day, all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.

Peace,

Kim

P.S. I am indebted to a virtual “cloud of saints” for these ideas; this month, I’ve been sitting at the virtual feet of Richard Rohr and Parker Palmer.  Of course, so many writers and poets address these ideas–who are your favorites?  Please leave a message and share them with us!

Consider: Already/Not Yet

Dear Friends-

Last night it rained, a serious, no-nonsense rain, thrumming against the windows and glugging in the downspouts. There was no mistaking it for summer’s passing showers. This was an earnest rain, autumn’s first full-throated announcement.

This wet morning, I walked the dogs through a different world: same trail, new palette. The ponderosa trunks were rain-black. The broad-bladed grasses lay silvered and flattened. Along the trail, lacy blue clusters of elderberries dripped bright drops, and rosehips, the waxy red of a child’s crayon, presented themselves for the picking. The grasshoppers, which yesterday had scattered before the dogs like sparks struck from flint, had disappeared entirely. Instead, crows cawed overhead and a lone doe raised a wary neck as we passed.

What is it about the change of seasons that is so exhilarating? Why does the crispness in the air send that little hopeful frisson shivering through me? I’m not even clear about what I’m hopeful for, or if hope is the right word. But this morning each rain-glazed leaf seems intricately beautiful (as, surely, it always has been, had I eyes to see) and everything – including me – seems on the verge of becoming more deeply itself.

It’s a funny thing: this idea of becoming more deeply oneself. How can you be more –well, you?

There’s a complexity at the heart of this question; some sense that we are not yet all we are meant to be. In the faith tradition in which I was raised, this tension is called the “Already/Not-yet.” It holds that by virtue of being alive, we already participate in the divine. And yet, at the same time, our participation has not yet come into fullness. In essence, we are and are becoming.

I think it was this idea that I caught sight of while walking among the rain-sharpened colors this morning, as if somehow this daily walk had, overnight, closed the space between what is and what is possible. As the dogs furrowed among wet foxtail and timothy, the distance between the Already and Not Yet seemed diminished. That deeper, truer version of being shimmered almost everywhere.

Peace,
Lindsay

Consider: Taking our Place at the Table

Dear Friends,

A few years ago, I laid a feast before a dear friend who was struggling with debilitating clinical depression. I threw myself into the task. The everyday dishes would not work. Instead, I found the china, washed it carefully, laid it on the table. I made the most nourishing dish I could think of, my mother’s beef stew. I braised the meat, added a splash of red wine, pulled young carrots and unearthed small yellow potatoes from my own garden. I cut a bouquet of heirloom roses, placed them gently beside my friend’s plate. I was ready.

I thought that my offering, given with love, would be enough for my friend. I watched as she picked at her food, stared into space. The small bites she took were like sawdust in her mouth. She couldn’t seem to smell the flowers at all. Finally, she stood and left the table. I sat there, incredulous and sad, as the dishes grew cold and my heart pulsed with questions: Why couldn’t I have done more? Why couldn’t I have made the table more welcoming, the food more palatable?

Afterward, a good counselor told me words I have never forgotten: You could never be enough to fill her need.  

Through the years, I’ve had to learn that hard truth again and again. You can open your arms wide, but you can’t make your kids step into your embrace. You can take your friends on a drive past views that make your heart contract with wonder, but you can’t make them look up from their glowing phone screens. You can set the table, you can cook up the finest food, but you can’t make anyone join you. At the end of the day, you are finite, only human. You alone are not enough to fill the yawning needs of others.

But what a joy it is when people pull up a chair and fall to the feast! I see that joy reflected in my mother’s eyes when we finally find a crack in our busy schedules to jump on the ferry to join her for an afternoon. I feel it myself when my daughters lounge on our bed late at night, content to listen as we read a book out loud. Who wants dessert? Who wants coffee?

Sometimes the feast is shabby, the kind of thing I’d never post on Instagram. Sometimes it is nothing more than hot dogs eaten hastily, a vegetable if we’re lucky, and the family watching a show bleary-eyed before sleep. But we are together and trust tomorrow will yield more thoughtful food. That too is a feast I need to show up for with gratitude.

It’s sacred work: this business of setting the table again and again, while holding in check expectations of how that gift is received. But even if it isn’t received as I hoped, even if all that I laid in care can’t be enough, I don’t want to stop setting. Likewise, it’s also sacred work: this business of learning to show up at all the tables set for me, no matter how thrown-together they appear, how meager they seem. These days, I find feasts laid in unexpected places if only I have eyes to see them, and the intent to cultivate my sight.

So now, after a long day at work, I sit here in the gathering darkness. Across the street, a lingering ray of sunlight illuminates a squirrel as he ducks under the sinuous branches of the neighbor’s lemon-colored rhododendron. The garden glows with resplendent pink roses and violet salvia. Upstairs, my daughters chat contentedly. In the background, an inane pop song whines along, a tune with no apparent redeeming quality but one that makes my teens happy somehow. Soon I’ll get up and make them dinner. This evening is at once the feast I have laid and the feast that has been laid for me. I hope to take my place at the table, tonight, tomorrow, and every day that is given to me.

Peace,
Kim

P.S. We’re having a blast on our Instagram these days! If you are an Instagram user, pop-over for regular pics, quotes, and conversation. We can’t serve up a steaming mug of tea through the platform, but there’s still plenty of goodness to linger over.
P.P.S. And we’re back at The Backpage. A colleague of mine always says, “Just for funsies.” Funsies is a great descriptor of what The Backpage is really all about. Join us for some thoughts and a few chuckles.
P.P.P.S: It’s Lindsay here with the most important postscript of all: I just wanted to sneak in and give Kim a shout out! Her book, Reading Beauty, was recently awarded with a Children’s Choice Selection by the International Literacy Association. Well deserved. Way to go, Kim! Keep on nourishing young minds. And, like Kim’s heroine, may you all fall into your own Deep Read.

Consider: Solitude Invites Us

Dear Friends,

They are here again: the arrowleaf balsamroots.

I’ve been watching closely these last months, since the deep snow of this past winter finally allowed itself to be whittled away. It was a relief when open ground emerged then tentatively greened. Along the trail, silvery nodes extricated themselves from mud, then shot up, unfurling silver broad leaves. Now, sun-yellow flowers stud the whole hillside above my house. The dogs and I take our morning constitutional. A slight breeze stirs. The yellow heads of the balsamroot bob and nod, agreeing it seems with the goodness of the morning, of springtime, of life itself.

I tell you all this because for months things have been hard.

In Western Montana, our February, averaging just 16 degrees, was the coldest since 1898.  It snowed Every. Single. Day. Not heaps and heaps. Just enough to require substantial shovel work. Under an unvaried, cheerless sky, I cleared the driveway and sidewalks, re-doing work I had toiled over the day before. And the day before that. And the day before that. In the midst of those seemingly interminable February days, my husband had knee surgery, my daughter the flu, my son switched middle schools, my puppy chewed holes in the carpet, my novel got rejected – again. And while these small, private emotional debits compiled, the insane gale of the world-at-large kept churning out new debasements to our civic life. Unmoored from thoughtful, robust discourse, from the guiding lights of ethics and empathy, and even from the self-imposed railings of honesty and norms, our politics has degenerated into a grotesque caricature of public life.

Frankly, it’s wearying. After the winter – or perhaps after these forty-one years of sentience – I’m a little care-worn, a little buffeted.

“Most people,” Rilke writes, “have (with the help of conventions) turned their solutions toward what is easy and toward the easiest side of the easy; but it is clear that we must trust in what is difficult…it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult.”

If these last months have proven anything, it’s that I want to shy away from the difficult, take the handiest exit distraction provides. Rilke’s words feel like a chance to consider the ways in which I behave like “most people.” What unexamined conventions have I adopted? What habits of mind do I rely upon, not because they enrich my life, but precisely because they shield and divert me from the wonder and, let’s be frank, terror of being alive? It’s easier, so much easier, to duck one’s head and scroll Instagram than it is to keep one’s face to the wind of our deepest questions, our mortality, our hopes, our loneliness, our longings.

Solitude invites us to an interior expansiveness. I find that just inside solitude’s gate the way is populated with advertising jingles and grocery lists, political diatribes, frustration at my son for losing his soccer jersey, my sense of failure because I didn’t make it to the gym today, the comeback I should have used on that bully back in eighth grade. But that’s just the first mile. Once I’ve passed this by, who knows what vastness I’ll find.

“But listen to the voice of the wind/ and the ceaseless message that forms itself out of silence,” Rilke writes in his first Duino Elegy.  The wind is in the balsamroots now, nodding their heads, shaking their silver leaves. It’s in me, if I have ears to hear it. It’s in this busy, hard, beautiful, passing, poignant life. What I actually long for is to listen for that ceaseless message wrought from silence. Everything good tells me it’s worth the difficult journey.

Peace,

Lindsay

Consider: The Winds of Our Humor

Dear Friends,

They’ve gone. In a clatter of lunchboxes, a flash of new shoes, the quick zip of backpacks, the children have gone to school. The house is unnaturally quiet. The dog looks up at me, takes the situation in, then shambles to her pillow, turns three circles, and settles in with a sigh. “It’s just us,” I confirm her suspicions. She looks up once. Then rests her nose on her paws. All summer, my house has been abuzz with action. Neighborhood kids, moving in packs, descend like locusts at lunchtime. There’s balls bouncing and the hose going and scooter wheels click-clacking on the sidewalk. There’s teenage boys raiding my pantry. There’s a half-dozen water glasses on the counter that I sweep into the dishwasher only to find another half-dozen sprout in their place. There’s chalk on my driveway and an array of bikes tangled in the grass. At times, there’s sudden shouts, demands, and tears, oft-punctuated by the plaintive cry: “Mom!”

All this.  And then one day, there’s quiet. I can hear a bug tick against a window pane, the rhythmic click of the solar-powered Good Fortune cat that waves in a pool of sun on the kitchen sill. The refrigerator hums.

For most of this past year, I’ve been estranged from writing, and hence from some of the interior spaces I only reach through writing my way to them. When I’m intermittent with this practice of scratching at words, I find the paths quickly overgrow and I wake up – as it were – “in the middle of my life, in a darkwood, and the straightforward pathway is totally lost.”

I have a sense that all the tender sensibilities in me which are capable of responding to the play of the Spirit, have calcified and grown coarse from disuse.

Have you experienced these moments? The sense you’ve diminished, you’ve lost your way to some part of you that is, at once, expansive and finely-wrought. At times like these, exiled from the best parts of myself, my spirit feels crouched and limited.

My mind canvasses my environment for props: a quick check on news headlines, a brief dash through Instagram. But like all sham palliatives, the effect is illusory. In a moment, silence reasserts itself, like a bracing wind full in my face.

I realize I have only two choices: to continue the distraction-seeking behavior – a host of enticing possibilities immediately suggest themselves (podcasts, a run with the dog, even laundry – Wow, I must be desperate)  – or I can open a blank document, lean into the discomfort, and begin the humble task of applying myself to silence’s tutelage.

But when I’ve chosen silence, I’m immediately greeted, not by peace and a sense of fitness, but by the internal critic who questions everything from my sentence structure to my basic worthiness. This voice stridently opines that those fugitive brushes with the holy that writing has, at times, been my means of encountering, are gone. The track has gone cold. It will never be resurrected.

In a letter in October 1813, Jane Austen wrote, “I am not at all in a humor for writing; I must write on till I am.” The process of spinning gold from the straw of our days is hard-won. I think of how many things in life I could substitute into Ms. Austen’s advice: I’m not in the humor for eating my vegetables, for sitting in quiet prayer, for caring for my crotchety neighbor, for lacing up my tennis shoes and going for a run. The remedy is the same: do it anyway.

The point is that the opportunity to know ourselves, to touch in with what is true and best in us, to be like trees planted by streams of water, as the Psalmist says, is a work of persistence, commitment, and sweat (whether that’s physical, mental, or spiritual). It requires we go into the unwelcome quiet. It invites us to develop a discipline, or several. And when the winds of our humor are against us, to lean in and meet them full in the face.

Peace,

Lindsay

Consider: In the Garden

Dear Friends,

Near the end of Lindsay’s three-week trip to Italy, I received a brief text that spoke volumes about how, even in the most stunning of locations, we can begin to feel adrift, anxious for something to root us to our own rhythm again–work, ritual, a familiar tea cup, a bedside table stacked with books waiting to be read.  Of course, this restlessness can strike at any moment, even in the midst of the most peaceful day at home or the most hectic week at work.

During times of great restlessness, I feel tempted to fill the questioning silence with easy, accessible noise to distract me from my soul’s discomfort.  I have a rolodex of options: a purchase on Amazon, another hour at my computer, my favorite BBC shows, or my favorite extrovert option–planning a party or at least finding a friend for coffee.  These are fine things in themselves (and I do throw a good party), but by forty, I know myself well enough to recognize my old tactics. And I must honestly ask myself: what is my spirit actually panting for?  in Luke's garden

I find the response to my question in silence and listening, sometimes simply in the act of walking into the garden, falling on my knees, and weeding.  I need places where I can be long enough to find what I need to take me through another day of living and loving the people and earth around me.  Among the poppies and the clover and the roses, I find space to sort through all that clatters in my head. With my hands in soil, I grasp a few fundamental words that orient me to what is real.  There is robust beauty there, and poems to be found, like this one I finally wrote down after weeks of carrying it about with me.

Rhododendrons, Western Washington, Spring 2018

As our plane started its descent, we glimpsed them:
Thousands of rhododendrons
spilling pink and orange watercolor across the city’s somber pallette.
I thought of what a preacher told us.
This world is a warzone, he said, You get to be William Wallace
in Braveheart.  Can you think of anything better?
Later, hands cradling three ripe plums from our tree, my husband said,
I think this world is a garden.

Did you know there are some 800 varieties of rhododendrons,
holding early morning mist in Japan,
arching sinuous branches over forgotten Appalachian footpaths,
unfolding fuchsia petals in rugged Nepalese mountains?
In my suburban town near Seattle
they sing on every street corner.

Behind our pea trellis and the raised bed
sown with cosmos
rhododendrons crowd, shoulder to shoulder,
offering nectar to bees and hummingbirds.
Some days you can see my gladness
from the air, peach- and lavender-colored blooms.
On others, I am quiet, an evergreen leaf, pearled by rain.
This is God’s garden
and today I am content to hold the dew.

Peace,

Kim

P.S.  We’d love to know what metaphors spring to mind as you think of this world we live and move in.  As always, we are honored by all your thoughts and reflections as we share this journey into wonder together.

PS2.  To see Lindsay’s actual text from Italy, please check out the Back Page.

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Consider: Always we begin again

Dear Friends,

Remember us?  You haven’t heard from Each Holy Hour in awhile, but here we are, back again in your inbox. The reason for EHH’s prolonged silence rests with me. This past year, I said “yes” to too many things. In addition to our family’s full time business, parenting three kids, and writing, I took a position as a middle school teacher and, shortly after that – as if life were not full enough already – my husband and a business partner opened a gym. In their own right, each of these commitments has merit. As additions to a family life already running near capacity, the extra time, energy, and stress, these added were far more than anticipated. By February, my husband and I were both working with no margin, every waking moment accounted for with some obligation, each night dropping, spent, into scant sleep. The refrigerator kept running out of food. The dog rued her change of fortune with deep, exasperated sighs. Slag piles of laundry accumulated at the bottom of the clothes chute. More times than I care to remember, my husband and I ran out of patience with one another. 
IMG_4428
Though I knew I was running on empty, when my church asked me to speak on the topic of seeking God’s presence for a Lenten program, I agreed. I prepared my talk, clipped on the mic, and began confidently. Halfway into my presentation, I repeated the question upon which I’d been asked to reflect: What does it look like for me to intentionally seek deeper intimacy with God?Suddenly my eyes began to smart. I could feel my mouth pull out of shape. I choked out the next sentences in a voice that hardly sounded like my own.

“Seeking deeper intimacy with God looks like all the things I’m notdoing. It looks like being outside. It looks like a device turned off. It looks like writing my way into a deeper and more nuanced experience of my life. It looks like cultivating real relationships beyond my comfort zone. It looks like ennobling my life by keeping my mind full of the beautiful language, imagery, and ideas of our sacred stories. It looks like asking hard questions of my life and seeking to align myself with their answers, however challenging that may be. I know all these things. And yet, here I am telling you I’m notdoing them.”

There’s a peculiar malady I’m affected by, perhaps its symptoms are familiar to you, in which I resist admitting I’m in over my head. Though my hair may be visibly graying, though I’m slugging down coffee by the liter, though I’m touchy at the slightest suggestion that the milk is getting low and I should have thought to pick up another gallon, to acknowledge how thin I’m stretched is to admit personal deficiency. At the Lenten talk, this confession came out sideways, quick hot tears that spoke far louder than my carefully crafted speech.

Today is the first day of the school year being finished, and with it my job. In a steady June rain, I took the dog for a run. Eager to be out, she galloped down the trail, sniffing clumps of yarrow and rooting at the base of cottonwood stumps. The rain beat evenly on the mosses, the fallen logs, the heifers in the field. It dripped off ponderosa needles and wild roses. It worked its way through my clothes and shoes, soaking me thoroughly. The dog tore through a puddle in the trail, displacing the pollen collected on its top. Dashed to the puddle’s edge, the pollen encircled it like an aureole, a halo as sure as any that shimmers around a saint’s head.  It reminded me that rain or shine, the world is filled with holy things. I don’t have to prove my worth, or earn my way to this grace. It just is.

Recently, I came across a quote from Buddhist writer Jack Kornfield. “In the end these things matter: how greatly you loved, how gently you lived, how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.” It turns out that, though I loved teaching, and though the opportunity to extend my time at the school presented itself, I had to let it go. At this season, it isn’t meant for me. I don’t know that I let it go gracefully – rather fitfully and with considerable consternation. But, if I’ve learned one thing this year, it’s that I can’t hustle my way into loving greatly and living gently. I can’t say “yes” to every opportunity, even good ones, without losing things I treasure along the way – like you and the community we’ve built at Each Holy Hour. So, here we are.  As the Benedictines say about any contemplative journey, “Always we begin again.” 

Peace,

Lindsay

P.S. As always, we love your comments and interaction!

Consider: In the midst of winter

Dear Friends,

It is winter, the bleak midwinter, the interminable haul between the end of Christmas and the first crocus.  I’ve been remembering a grey, ugly January afternoon many years ago when we still lived in Pennsylvania, when the snow had turned black with car exhaust.  In those days, the kids were young and still needed me every moment; silence was rare, a solitary walk still rarer.  But that frozen day, I needed to be by myself.  I left the girls with Martin and tromped up a neighborhood hill to my dear friend, Nancy’s house.  I lingered on the curb and surveyed her garden.

It was rather a mess: the chard and lettuces had shot to seed long ago; a tangled vine curved around the front door.  I remembered that the summer before, robins had made a nest in the house eaves.  Nancy had instructed the entire family to stop using the front door in order not to disturb the fledglings.  A few short weeks later, she left the garden and the robins and lay down in a hospice bed; shortly afterwards, she died.  She had battled cancer for three years.  I watched as her three young children followed her casket up to the front of the church.

On that January afternoon, the robin’s nest was empty.  Nancy was a zealot for sustainability and permaculture, and her yard showed it: an almond tree’s bare branches rose above a tangle of spent basil.  Around the side of the house, there were still blackened stalks of tomatoes and limp pea vines.  There was the patch where she’d plucked the delicata squash last fall and handed it to me with great awe, as if it were a sacred thing–and it was, pin-striped yellow and green.

Nancy and I were much like sisters in those years; we swapped kids, spent long afternoons peeling apples for sauce.  She taught my daughter to read and I taught hers to sing.  In the sick, miserable months when I was pregnant with my youngest, she sat me on the stool in her kitchen and fed me soup out of her favorite pottery bowl.  We dreamed gardens together.  Late in her illness, I made her soup, I went with her to the clinic, and in the silence as she breathed in oxygen, I recited “The Owl and the Pussycat” to pass the time.

Now, in her winter garden, there was silence again.  I went to work, yanking up dead snarls of herbs, cutting back perennials, scooping up armfuls of leaves.  The dry, brittle plants I pulled and piled up for compost were the same she had tenderly put in the ground months before.  As I cleared the soil back to a dark, black richness, I felt the weight of this sacred duty, and the greatness of my love for her.  I felt, too, the surprising, miraculous presence of life.  Unbidden, even offensive to me who worked in sorrow, I smelled the coming spring.  I snapped back a dead perennial stalk and there was a flash of green.  The dried basil was redolent of summer; the earthworms, I knew, were curled tightly just below my fingers, sleeping until the earth would warm again.

A while after I tidied her garden, I accompanied Nancy’s family to visit her grave, still a unhealed gash in the pale grass.  Around us, farmland rolled away in a sea of undulating hills. Nancy’s children stood beside me, young and vulnerable, desperately missing their mother.  Nancy’s husband raised his eyes and searched the horizon.   “We look for the eternal spring,” he said.

IMG_0804I wondered at the time if those words came straight from the liturgy of the Greek Orthodox Church, to which the family belonged; for each word seemed to me to bear mysterious promise–like the perennials in Nancy’s garden.  We look for the eternal spring.  Those are the two things I remember from that season following her death: the silence of working in her garden, and the simple goodness of her husband’s graveside words.  Not gaudy or extraneous or saccharine, those words bound up pain and longing and faith at once, and I have carried them with me ever since.

In this new year, may we be present with each other, holding one another in silence, with love, with the goodness of sacred words.  May we find solace in the seasons of this beautiful world, and in the wonder that bids us look beyond the brittle stalks of winter.

Peace,

Kim

Consider: What We’ve Lost. . .or Not

Dear Friends,

In my twenties it was walruses.

“I’ll never become an expert on walruses.”  That was my wistful thought when I made the decision to move to Montana, fresh from college seminars on post structuralism, moral beauty, and environmental imagination. I had just spent six months in Tanzania, where I’d gained a passable ability to converse in Swahili, a taste for ugali, and a love for the bushbabies who clattered rocks off my metal roof each night. The world seemed excessively open and curious and I seemed full of agency.  I believed implicitly in the immortal words of Dr. Seuss: “You have brains in your head.  You have feet in your shoes.  You can steer yourself any direction you choose.”

I’d never cultivated particular interest in walruses, so giving them up as a possible life career caused me little more than the passing thought: here is a direction I won’t be going.

IMG_4680One door shut.

But all others seemed to gape open.

I’m nearly two decades beyond the time when I ruled out walruses once and for all.  And life looks incredibly different from forty as it did from twenty-two.  Less branching possibility, more prescribed probability.  Fewer trips to faraway continents, more trips to the grocery store.

Recently I read Amor Towles’ novel, Rules of Civility.  In the book’s final pages the narrator reviews her life.  As she thinks about her husband, her career and the life she built in New York, she reflects, “I have no doubt that they were the right choices for me.  And at the same time, I know that right choices are the means by which life crystallizes loss.”

I took a photo of that paragraph because I wanted to have it down just so.  Like Towles’ narrator, I love my life.  I feel the fit of each significant life choice and harbor no doubts about them.  I thrill when I walk out my door and think again for, perhaps, the thousandth time, “I can’t believe I get to live here.”  And, even so, I’m cognizant of the losses – all the walruses along the way – that indwell each gain.

I don’t mean this as lament; rather as stock-taking, as faithful render of life as I find it.  And there’s something compelling about all these losses.  They pile up not like so much inanimate dust, but like little flints that sometimes, when struck just right, still spark with latent energy.

As Towles’ narrator stands on the balcony thinking back on the right choices through which her right choices “crystallized loss,” she says, “I knew too well the nature of life’s distractions and enticements – how the piecemeal progress of our hopes and ambitions commands our undivided attention, reshaping the ethereal into the tangible, and commitments into compromises.”

The idea of piecemealing life has such an honest ring.  While I want my life to hum with the passion of worthy commitments, the groceries in the fridge persist in disappearing, my kids grow out of their soccer cleats, they clamor for homework help.  Bills arrive in the mailbox requiring payment. And that bathroom is not going to clean itself.  Life feels way too tangible and all too compromised.

But then, from somewhere deep inside something ineffable sparks and flares.  At times, these sparks seer and blister – things have gone by, doors are shut.  But sometimes these sparks seem to glimmer with a hint that all things treasured up in one’s heart are never gone, that all the branching profusion, though seemingly pruned years ago, is suddenly found miraculously intact.

in the snowIs it possible for both to be true?  Does the spirit obey its own physics – wherein things coming and going are all mixed up with one another, wherein losses are real and, at once, never truly lost?

Friend, whatever walruses you bear, bear them well and with love.  For we are all complex, expansive beings, and our hearts are immense and capable of holding much.

Peace,

Lindsay

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Self, Social Media, and What’s Real

Dear Friends,

This week, I suddenly became terribly sick of myself.  Let me explain—I’m not sick of the self who hikes, writes stories, reads with my kids.  I am sick of my facsimile-self, the one I trot out on social media platforms and in letters to editors and bookstore owners.  In the midst of promoting my first picture book, I am making myself literally nauseous.

This practice of being real with myself and others—I thought I had it figured out after the tumultuous, navel-gazing teen and early-twenties years.  And I’m thrilled that I’ll soon hold my first picture book.  But as a person who hates yammering on about her own work, the endless self-promotion required of writers these days makes my stomach churn.  It’s like gazing into a mirror too long, like snapping too many selfies (like the endless shots I find of my tween on my phone). In a culture where we’re trained to post carefully selective snapshots of our lives, I’ve been wrestling with this question:  How do I remain authentic in a society where, to get things done, to promote, you must adopt a certain measure of—well, if not deception, then slant?

In the Atlantic article “How to Hire Fake Friends and Family,” Roc Morin interviews Ishii Yuichi, the founder of “Family Romance,” a Japanese company that hires out actors to anyone who is willing to pay enough.  Say Thanksgiving rolls around and your prospective in-laws are looking forward to meeting your mother.  But she’s embarrassing: chews tobacco, swears audibly, shouts about politics.  Worry no longer!  Simply hire an actor who will play the perfect mom.  Yuichi has played the parts of loving fathers, acceptable husbands, perfect boyfriends.  His company has provided supportive colleagues, fall-guys, even healthy partners (complete with cheat-sheets of memories) to lonely people whose spouses are suffering dementia.

While Yuichi admits to occasionally feeling badly about long-term gigs (he’s been playing father to a girl who fully considers him her real father for years now), he defends his company by explaining that providing short-term comfort for people in an unjust world is legitimate.  As for being deceptive, he points out that culture is already on that bandwagon:  “I believe the term “real” is misguided. Take Facebook, for example. Is that real? Even if the people in the pictures haven’t been paid, everything is curated to such an extent that it hardly matters.”

But today, wearied from too much time on social media, I know that it does matter.  It matters deeply to me that I am known and know others in a real way.  As I walked down a sodden path in the park with my dog, I finally articulated exactly how I felt: lonely.

Of course though social media is new, the tension between appearance and authenticity has always been an issue.  Van Gogh spent much of his life wrestling between the poles of who he was (many dismissed him as a ne’er do well) and the pressure to appear successful.  In this letter to his brother, Theo, he vacillates between begging his brother to understand him and defending his authentic, searching self:  “What shall I say; our inward thoughts, do they ever show outwardly? There may be a great fire in our soul, but no one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passers-by see only a little bit of smoke coming through the chimney, and pass on their way.”

I love to think of the fact that many years later, I, with countless others, come to warm myself at Van Gogh’s soul as I read his letters.  In his words, often wrenching, often beautiful, I find a friend.

Sometimes our feelings of isolation go deep, beyond the reach of friends, and today at the park I felt that. So I told God: “I am lonely today.  Sit with me, please.”

And as I write to you today as honestly as I can, without tipping the camera to block out the pile of laundry on the floor or turning my face to show you my ‘best side’ or trying to convince you to buy something, I invite you.  Today, slow down; be present to yourself and to others.  Pursue genuine, authentic, communal soul-building.  Step up to the hearth, take a deep breath, and warm yourself.

Peace,

Kim

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