Fan mail


Moments ago, I finished Lisa See’s astonishing Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. It is a lovely work, rich with authenticity. Magic words like hers hint of the invisible realms here among us; they gather sounds from who-knows-where and convey truth never before told. These words become the songs we can’t forget, the stories we call our own.

This is the tale of two Chinese women, two laotong, or “old sames,” betrothed in friendship nearly all their lives – lives shared at a distance by the exchange of secret writing known as nu shu. Isolated, afraid, bound by status and duty, they speak to one another via the brush strokes written on a fan shuttled between their farflung homes. And in these few, rare marks, they tell each other everything.

She had not written to leave a good name for a hundred generations. She had written to tell her friends of her thoughts and emotions, and they had written her in the same way.

Reading these words earlier today I thought instantly of this. And you. And me. And the thousands and millions like us, who write because it opens the heart on a hard day, or eases the hurt on a lonely night. We write by ourselves and for ourselves, an audience of one that is by this very reading an audience of two, sharing a secret, silent song that is no different from those on the hidden and long-forgotten fans, because we are indeed the same, we are all the same, and our song is the same never-ending song.

It is for now a close cousin to my favorite book, which I wish with all my heart that you too would read.

Nearly full

Tonight I laid awake for a long time. I went into my daughter’s bedroom and watched her sleep. I saw the deep shadows and the midnight glow. She did not stir.

I went because the nights are numbered, and I do not know the count.

Dem bones

1. I never play along. I never forward chain emails. I’ll never do a meme. I don’t even know what the word means.
2. But I’d do anything for Isabel.
3. First, I’m not a victim of anything or anyone.
4. Second, I’m old enough to be your mother.
5. I might even be your mother.
6. Except that I have no other children that I know of.
7. Two years ago, I was bedside at the death of my father, who was a hard man in the sudden grip of a long-expected cancer. I felt his life recede like the tide, and my legs grew weak. He did it all beautifully, and it was his finest hour.
8. We adopted his dog Molly, who surprised us by being the best dog in the world. She made our home complete, and she never leaves my side.

Isn’t it amazing how things turn out?

Famous last

I can’t get pregnant.
I think it’s a boy.
I’ll breastfeed.
I’ll still be working.
She’s due Sept. 23.
She looks like me.
She’s a genius.
She’s an Einstein.
She’s a Mozart.
She’s sleeping through the night.
She likes it.
She’s a good eater.
It’s just the sniffles.
It’s just a tummy ache.
Fevers can’t go that high.
This won’t hurt.
She’s not afraid of the water.
She’s not afraid of the dark.
Lights out.
She likes vegetables.
She doesn’t know that word.
She doesn’t watch TV.
She didn’t hear us.
She won’t remember.
Wait until your birthday.
No means no.
I’ll never buy another goldfish.

On balance


I gave a talk last week about Work-Life Balance at a corporate retreat. Truth be told, it was my first. The audience was politely attentive. Going in, I wasn’t sure that there was much to say about the topic. Going out, I don’t feel that much different. Perhaps you can illuminate the way better than I can.

You see, our lives are never out of balance. They can’t be out of balance. Where are the mountains toppling? Where is the sun sliding out of the sky? Of course we think our lives are out of balance nearly all the time. We think that way except for the split second every other year in which we feel–ahhhh!– okay.

So this work-life imbalance that we give such credence to is nothing other than the nature of human existence. It is what the Buddha termed in his First Noble Truth as “suffering.” Life is suffering. The word he used was dukkha, or unfulfillment.

Yes, we’re unfulfilled. Can’t be otherwise as long as we operate our lives in separation, in ignorance of reality. By that I mean operating from the egocentric mind, the dualistic mind, the mind of me that repeats over and over in hysterical crescendo “You, you over there! You’re driving me crazy! My job is driving me crazy! My kids are driving me crazy! My spouse is driving me crazy! And you, yes you, dear reader out there in readerland, you’re driving me crazy! All of you are asking too much of me!”

Because so little can be honestly said about how to fix this, this little syndrome that is nothing other than the eternal human condition, I boiled it all down to three little rules. Three rules to restore the balance you think you’ve lost.

3 Rules to Life Balance

1. There is no right way to do anything, only a right now way. Wherever we are, we think of someplace else. I should be over there. No, I should be back here. Here, there, here, there. What is the right thing to do? That kind of thinking is what really makes your head spin. Stop that. Be where you are. When you’re at work, be at work. When you’re at home, be at home. When driving, drive; eating, eat; sleeping, sleep. Get out of your head and tell me, right now, where’s the problem?

2. You have all the time you need for what’s important to you. What is most important? Whatever is right in front of you. Why? Because that’s the only thing that exists! In truth, you already have ample time for what is important to you. It just might surprise you to see what that is. What do you keep putting in front of yourself? Food? Drink? Computer? The average adult spends 28 hours a week watching TV. The average woman spends 8 years of her life shopping. These probably aren’t things that you would consciously set as your priorities, so consciously set your real priorities. And when you do, you’ll see that Rule 3 proves itself.

3. How you do anything is how you do everything. I borrow this from writer/teacher Cheri Huber, who paraphrased my main man Dogen: “If you find one thing wearisome, you will find everything wearisome.” Pay attention, be present, cultivate focus in one facet of your life and you will enjoy it in all facets of your life. Because an attentive person is an attentive person! A happy person is a happy person! A balanced person is a balanced person!

So strap on your shoes and dance.

I can only hope that I have less to say on this topic in the future.

Think (not)

Ode to Mindfulness (not)

Oh, how mindful I am!
Let me count the ways:
I think good thoughts
I think deep thoughts
I think about making things better
I think I’m grateful
I think I’m spiritual
I think I
I . . .
I . . .
Forget.*

*It’s not what you think, it’s what you don’t think.

Words fail

I can’t imagine. I won’t wonder. I don’t have to make up a thing.

Making childhood last

Sunday was Georgia’s 8th birthday. We had a costume party, a pageant of make-believe featuring her in the dual leads as both herself, coyly turning 8, and as Lucy Pevensie, regally self-possessed as the Queen of Narnia. For weeks, Georgia was lost in lustrous imaginings of this wish come true.

She is, at this cusp, the very best of all. Still sweetly a child pretending to be everything she is and could be, yet so nearly a tween. But then, being the best of all is what I’ve always found her to be; it’s what I’ve found each year, after the anguish of anticipation, under the opaque folds of doubt and uncertainty. Every year is the best year yet.

How I wish they would last! How I wish it all wasn’t so soon to pass. How well I know better.

It’s with that yearning, that wistful backward glance, that I offer this modest summary for your consideration.

5 Ways to Make Childhood Last

1. Wake up. Let your children wake you up. Better yet, let them drag you out of bed. How much of your life – how much of their lives – do you spend in this ceaseless struggle to get more sleep? Give up already. I promise you, one day too soon the house will grow empty. Then sleep will once more evade. Seize the day! Seize the night! This divine mission to bring us into full awareness of our lives is the reason your child has come. So crack a lid and get this party started. If you could just once see the exhilarating potential they wake to every day, you’d know why children don’t want to waste a minute to slumber.

2. Break the rules. Brownies for breakfast. Painting your hair. Jumping on the beds. Staying up late and missing school. Adventure! Daring! Build your house on rules, but then have the good sense to barrel right through them from time to time. Breaking rules brings your home to life. It brings you to life!

3. Get on the floor. For one hour a day, get down on the floor and surrender to play. Not play on your terms – where you choose the game, control the action, and make corrections – play on their terms. Set a kitchen timer to keep track. Your children need one hour of undistracted attention from you each day. The trouble is, we spend 16 hours avoiding it.

4. Hold hands. Kisses grow scarce. Cuddles are outgrown. Your scrumptious love bugs will soon be parceling out the affection in piddling doses. How then to keep close? Hold hands at every chance. It’s the last, best way to stay in touch. It’s practical, it’s intimate, it’s precious, and it’s the ageless sign of peaceful coexistence. And when your child finally lets go of your fingertips, you’ll know one thing for sure. All this time you thought you were guiding them forward, they were really leading you here. To the point of letting go.

5. Say it a million times over. I love you. I’m proud of you. You’re funny. Good idea! I like it. That’s perfect. Yes! You make me smile. I missed you. Good choice! I had fun with you today. I believe you. I’m glad to see you. Let’s play. Blow me a kiss. Sit on my lap. Let me tell you a story. Once there was a little girl who turned into a queen. Happy birthday Lucy! You can be anything and anyone you wish.

How I know she’s mine

When she went away for the weekend, she left her dolls a list of things to do.

Chores 
Make beds 
Make breakfast 
Get dressed 

The future calling

I m at the airp. I don’t want 2 leave at
all and I feel sick like I am gonna barf:-&
I wish we lived here sooooooo bad
I miss u and the Molly see u soon Love Georgia

About a month ago my 7-year-old picked up my cell phone and said, “Mommy can I text you?” and I said, “Honey, you don’t know how to text.” What I should have said is “I don’t know how to text,” because I was wrong about her. What do I know? Where have I been? About a month ago she was born and how she got this far already is completely beyond accounting. I look at her now, I look at her beauty, her freshness, her supreme inalterable isness and I’m weak with it still, helpless, humbled, awed by the immensity and inexpressibility of love.

Worth it

I made $318 on my garage sale on Saturday. All of it will go straight into my daughter’s savings account. Was it worth it?

I spent the better part of a week sorting out stuff, cleaning, hauling and pricing it. Was it worth it?

I spent $11 on a city license and $25 on a classified ad. Was it worth it?

I spent 30 minutes scraping petrified Elmo stickers off a hand-me-down Barbie SUV so I could sell it for $2. Was it worth it?

I spent 7 hours in 90 degree heat peddling piles of junk off the pavement. Was it worth it?

Of course it wasn’t worth it.

Is this man worth $252 million? Maybe today you think so.

Is this man even worth $400,000 a year? Hmmpf.

For that matter, is this woman really worth $260 million, no matter how much worthwhile work you might think she does?

Of course they aren’t worth it. Because nothing is worth it. Because worth doesn’t really exist. It’s just a figment. A fickle, fleeting, baseless phantasm of (usually) self-serving judgment. It’s an imaginary yardstick to measure the imaginary value of the imaginary differences between us. It’s one more way in which we separate ourselves, by a value judgment, from life as it is, from what we are.

Because there are no coincidences, today there was an article in the paper about a whole valley of impoverished millionaires, not one of them able to be satisfied, all of them blaming external circumstances for their relentless anxiety about not being worth enough. I’m afraid they’ll never find enough worth. They’ll never acquire satisfaction. It can’t be got.

That’s why all this talk about the worth of this versus that, child versus childless, working versus staying at home, work-life balance, the Mommy Wars (yeah, sure) and all the attitudes and platitudes about the various ways we live just wears me out. It’s simply another unwelcome invitation to kink up our wrinkles and knit up our britches, and that, dear readers, isn’t wor

Life in 10


My husband and daughter just left to spend a long weekend with my in-laws in the Midwest. Presiding over the morning hustle, prodding the motion along, I saw how clearly we are balanced on the brink, how surely life teeters up and then totters, ahem, in the other direction.

1. Did you choose your outfit?
2. Did you pack your suitcase?
3. Did you get dressed all by yourself?
4. Did you brush your teeth?
5. Did you make your bed, feed your pets, and wheel your own luggage to the car?
6. Did you remember to check in online?
7. Did you pay your last two driving tickets?
8. Did you get your new bifocals?
9. Did you pack your cholesterol pills?
10. After losing track, leaving late, doubling back, jumping the line and racing to the gate, did you get there on time?*

Of the three members in our little tribe, one is certainly on the ascent.

* Technically yes, but I don’t want to know the details.

Empty chair

Here’s a little charmer for you. This chair is up for grabs at my Saturday garage sale. My dad made it for Georgia when she was who knows how tiny. Dad is gone now. Georgia is no longer what you’d call tiny.

This is the kind of thing that many people carry along much farther than my towrope goes. And I know why. Just looking at it catches my breath. So much sentiment. In truth, far more sentiment than you can use. Dad was the kind of fellow who liked to tinker with the idea of family. He carved and tinkered and sanded and polished with the idea of us all, at his workbench 1,000 miles away, and then the two times a year he caught sight of us, he scowled over a crossword in his lounger until we went away again. I don’t fault him. I know too well the feeling.

So the chair came by parcel post, with an urgent letter before and an impatient phone call after, long before Georgia was old enough to sit in it. Oh later, I’m sure, she sat in it for a bit, but never for as long as we all held onto the idea of her sitting, the sweet, imagined picture of her sitting in a chair handmade by her grandpa. Her dolls have been sitting in it since.

This morning I picked it up and put it in the garage and snapped this picture on the way. I remembered a story about another empty chair.

When I was 16 I asked for a chair for my birthday. A little white rattan chair. Thirty-five years later I wonder just what kind of teenage girl I was, asking for a chair on my 16th birthday? (Oh yes, I was me. Of course I was looking for a place to sit.)

In my cramped family and my crowded house, I asked for my own place to perch, and I got it. That chair then followed me into dorm rooms and apartments, into my first marriage and its three successively larger houses where no one ever occupied it anymore. When all the reasons to keep that life going got up and left, I emptied the big house on Avalon Drive. I had a big garage sale and put the little chair out front. That day, a man paid me in crumpled bills, then hoisted the chair over his shoulder, and rode off with it on a bicycle! I watched it go, certain that by that evening, someone would be sitting in the little chair once more. I felt good, the best I’d felt in a very long time.

Like all ritual, all ceremony, the weeks you prepare for a garage sale deliver the real goods. When you open the closet doors, dive into the jumbled drawers, and stare down the gritty shelves; when you see the dust that you live with, it reminds you that all is dust.

Soon, some little one will sit in this chair. My heart brims with the good of it.

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