the fault in our stars

Of course I should have foreseen that it would take someone else’s writing to make me write again, as I am that type of writer.  A word, a phrase, an idea and metaphor and an entire body of work of someone else’s helps me to rediscover my own genius (I use this term loosely).

And so it was, or is, with The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.   The book is technically in the “teen” genre (or so says the baby blue sticker imposed on it by our town’s library) and was apropos recommended to me by my teenaged daughter #1.  This book is teen literature in the same way that the Harry Potter series is kid’s literature, meaning that it is and it isn’t only for the targeted younger reader, as its messages and themes are perhaps equally relatable when taken beyond face value as an adult.  And that is part of the insidious beauty of this book;  as an adult reader you have little expectation of greatness when picking up a teen book.  The main character is a funny, intelligent and irreverent teen, who happens to have a terminal illness, which she has thus far managed to dodge with one  miracle fictitious drug intervention.  The irony is that as adult readers, we can be unarmed by the insight into life and life’s mysteries offered by a teenage girl, who by identity and number of years walking the earth, has experienced so much less life than you, but also so much more given her inevitable (like us all) but accelerated (unlike most of us) march to the end of life.

The main character’s star-crossed lover has also looked death in the eye, but has beaten his cancer, at least for now.  He understands the tenuous dance between life and death, fear and love and all the lies between, and they become each others confidants in a world that is so real yet unreal for them.

There are so many single words, short phrases, clever literal and liturgical references in this book that make the writing brief, yet beautiful and poignant.  Some of the lines that struck me the most:

-A fear of oblivion and a recommendation to ignore it

-the late afternoon light heavenly in its hurtfulness

-there was no through (as in friends helping me through my cancer)

-incessantly reminding your lungs to be lungs (and at one point reminding them “to get their shit together”)

– the only solution was to unmake the world to make it black and silent and uninhabited again, in the beginning when there was the Word.

-the world went on as it does, without my full participation.

-some tourists think Amsterdam is a city of sin, but in truth it is a city of freedom.  And in freedom, most people find sin.

-that feeling of excitement and gratitude about just being able to marvel at it all

-if only my memory would compromise

-some infinities are bigger than other infinities

-I thought being an adult meant knowing what you believe, but that has not been my experience.

-I  believe the universe wants to be noticed.  I think the universe is improbably biased toward consciousness, that it rewards intelligence in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed.

-so much depends on this observer of the universe {my side note, which quantum physics has proven at a sub-atomic level}

-I owed a debt to the universe that only my attention could repay, and also that I owed a debt to everybody who didn’t get to be a person anymore and everyone who hadn’t gotten to be a person yet.

 

I was unarmed by the voice of a teenager inflicted with a terminal cancer, who can not breathe- the one vital life force we can most easily take for granted.  We can all take in her sermon-of-sorts because we aren’t expecting it, and we haven’t already steeled ourselves to the fact that it’s coming.

The book was made into a movie.  Who should play the lead male character was decided by a social media vote.  This is where I start to lose my visceral connection to this book.

My daughter asked if I wanted to see the trailer when I was about 1/5 of the way through the book.  “Absolutely not,” I said, “I want to picture the characters as I picture them, not by how and who they were cast.”  “Yah,” she said “I kind of wish I’d finished the book before I saw the trailer.”

I’m struck by the vast expanse between the star-crossed lovers with the remitted cancer and slow terminal illness, while my own teenaged daughter’s greatest current medical malady is acne, which I am gently reminded of while crying through the conclusion of the book, when her dermatologist’s office calls me to refill her prescription. And I thank my lucky stars that that’s the extent of her needed medical intervention.

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Calistoga

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biking through half-lit evenings
of childhood summers
cricket songs
in dark freedom
of pedaled breezes
hair flowing back
song of youth
I am older now
but perhaps more free
in mind, in body
but the remembrance feels freer than all

let me go
cricket songs echo
cloaked in cool darkness of summer nights

my face younger
my worries less solid
it all lies before me
the fears, the dreams
losses to come
wisdom to gain
suffering with a longer term purpose

I am older now
with children of my own
who don’t bike at night
that freedom generationally lost
like my own childhood
years ago

sky where roof used to be

Sky where roof used to be
where everything you’ve lost is found
air full of past
burn destructed and then reborn

belonging in harm’s way
courting gratitude
for memories held that don’t
wisp away like smoke
embers fall from grace

ledges of life
roughly reassembled
out of synchronicity
papery images of past

going home
I drive by
burned roof open to moving sky

This poem was inspired by actual events (I guess all poems are, in one way or another).

One morning, driving to school, we noticed that a house on a street near the school had partially burned. My youngest daughter remained fascinated by the sight of it for weeks, as did I. We wondered what the story was: who lived there, were they OK, and what caused the fire?

Then the story appeared in our local paper. A woman had lived in the house with her cat, she had Alzheimer’s. Her son lived next door. Early one morning she was sitting out on her front porch when a neighbor (not her son) noticed the fire and helped get her off the porch and save her cat. She may have left the burner on, heating water for tea, she can’t remember. No one was hurt in the fire and everyone is grateful. It was her dream house, it will be rebuilt.

A few days later, driving by the remains of the house I was struck by the phrase, “sky where roof used to be” as through the jagged hole in the damaged roof you could see the juxtaposed blue sky and the clouds moving through it. I was inspired to construct a poem based on that phrase and the story of the woman, and wanted to have a photo of the damaged roof with the sky. I kept meaning to stop and take the photo. One evening, driving home from back to school night, I remembered again that I needed to take that photo. I kept driving as I felt the pull to get home as I’d been gone for several hours. Then something inside compelled me to turn back and actually get the photo taken.

The next morning I drove by the house again and the roof remains had been demolished to make way for the rebuild.

I finished this poem a few days later.

earned vs. given

So many drafts, so few published posts… Here’s one just to skew that balance a bit…

I’ve been thinking lately about my kids’ views of my life and our family life.  I think it’s easy for my kids to look at me and think that I’ve got it pretty easy, and in many senses I do.  I work in a part-time, flexible, well-paying job. I have a great husband who provides well for our family. I am home with my kids and play a large role in their lives, which is important to me.   In recent years, I  have found time to pursue some of my personal interests (including writing this blog) and do meaningful volunteer work.  What my kids don’t seem to have a sense of, and I what I feel that I need to impart more to them, is how hard I’ve worked and the sacrifices that I have made to get to where I am.  There were many years of harder times: the long hours worked, the studying for professional exams, the sadness of having my kids in childcare while they were young, the paying off of  student loans over many years, exhaustion when the kids were young, and the personal and professional sacrifices my husband and I both made to have our family be our priority.   A lot of this happened before our kids were born or while they were too young to really remember.   I want my children to have an awareness of this, not to change their view of me, rather to give them a sense that getting to where I am now is not a given, that it requires hard work and sacrifice and  I don’t want them to be resentful if they don’t get to an ‘easy life.’  I also want them to have a sense that there are no guarantees that my ‘easy life’ will last forever.  There are many things that could derail my current path, some of which are within my control, but many of which are outside of my control.

Which brings me to earned vs. given.   Most things in my life have been earned by me as opposed to being given to me.  Earning something is ‘harder’ in many senses than being given something. But for me, the things that I’ve earned mean much more to me than the things that were just given to me.  While included in my general definition of ‘things’ is the material stuff, it also means job promotions, respect, wisdom and a vast array of other intangible things.

I’ve noticed that, broadly speaking, this generation of kids, more so than my generation and the ones that came before, has been given a lot of things.  And it seems to have bred a culture of entitlement in some areas- a false expectation that the world owes them more than it should.  There seems to be a belief that “If my parents have ________, then I should too.”  That blank can be filled in by many things: the latest smartphone, designer clothes, a luxury car, fancy vacations, an easy life, power and prestige, a flexible schedule, choice to do as I please, etc.  and the kids aren’t entirely to blame for having this mentality, as many parents have (knowingly or unknowingly) promoted it.  The missing piece that is being forgotten is that, for the most part, the parents have earned these things, while the child has not.    Most kids on the surface love being given all sorts of things (and will even demand them) and parents can feel good about all they are providing for their kids, especially if they were lacking the equivalent of most of these things in their own childhood. The short-term effects can seem positive.  Though in the long run, I think this mentality and the expectations that go with it, will bring all sorts of discontent and meaninglessness into the lives of our children, especially as they journey into adulthood.

What if this generation of kids can’t ever earn for themselves all these things that they’ve been given freely?  As a parent I do not plan to continue to support my children financially into adulthood, nor do I plan to allow them to live off my coattails-professionally or personally.  I want them to have a sense of earning things for themselves, and the pride of accomplishment, and the experience of living short-term sacrifices in order to attain  longer term gains.  But it’s hard to go backwards, it’s hard to downgrade and downsize from where they’ve been.  It’s also hard to work for something that you were just given before.

I think we are misguided as parents to try to make our kids’ lives ‘easy’ and to try to save them from life’s disappointments and pain; I think we have to have lived through the harder parts of life to truly appreciate the easier parts of life.  I think that many things that we are given have a hollowness to them and can’t be fully appreciated for what they are.  Truly, I think we all need to have meaning in our lives, to know that the things we’re doing matter and that our lives have purpose.   I believe that things that are given to us can eat away at our own fulfillment, while things that we’ve earned can enhance our sense of meaning  and purpose in our lives.

I’m curious to know how others feel about all of this.

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Looking back fifteen years

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Fifteen years ago today, my life’s path was forever altered when our first daughter was born.  She came into the world in an unexpected manner -breech, via a C-section- and has been doing unexpected things ever since!

I can remember exactly where I was in my life then.  My husband and I were six months into the ownership of our first home in the suburbs of Boston. I was in my late 20’s, on the fast track in my career, yet still tentative and unsure of my abilities in so many areas of life. Somehow, having a baby then seemed like a good idea.

And she arrived.  I remember the first nights home with her.  Due to my C-section, we were sleeping in our extra bedroom that was on the ground level of our house, so that I could avoid the stairs.  I remember her waking up every few hours to breastfeed and rocking in my glider, feeling totally inept and unable to protect her from the dark, scary forces that I was sure were lurking in the black darkness outside the bedroom window.

We had the summer to settle in and the world of being a parent started to feel a little less scary.  I joined a new moms group to remind myself that I wasn’t crazy and not be alone in my struggles.  I took long stroller walks with my new baby.   At times I would walk through a small cemetery that was near our neighborhood.  I remember one day, near the end of my maternity leave, noticing a headstone that I hadn’t read before.  Based on the dates of birth and death, it was for a baby that had died several months before its first birthday.   I stood there, frozen still, in my denim shorts overalls, red t-shirt and white canvas sneakers.  I couldn’t even begin to imagine the pain and grief that that family must have experienced.  I looked down at my own several month old baby and cried, trying to imagine how I would cope if I ever lost her.  I made a silent promise to myself that day to not forget.  To not forget this family and baby that I had not known, by reminding myself to hold and cherish every day that I had with my own baby.

And now a lifetime (hers so far) has passed.  In some ways it feels like so much has filled those years, and in some ways they’ve flown by inexplicably fast.  Looking forward, we’ve got a driver’s permit and a sophomore year of high school in our very near future.  But for now, I will say a prayer of remembrance and gratitude for the blessing that all my children are still here on this earth with me.

There’s a reason it’s called a living room

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These objects
are not yet ours
in our home
new and lovely, smelling of pleasant stores
visually appeasing
my sense of ownership
and borrowed space.

Too beautiful to be not functional
but the tempered balanced arrangement
scares my use until later
maybe I will light that candle.

For now I wrap myself in a throw
and then will attempt to arrange it
back like it was
rumpled yet beautiful,
actionless, yet foretelling diagonal movement.

Patterns and blues intermix
to break my matching rules,
yet it works better than matching
it complements
for matching creates precise limits
and I want to embrace it all instead
yet have a unifying sense
of belonging
together.

Just enough, not too many
singular pieces to be traded in and out in the future
perhaps repurposed in another room
or life
new with old, never completely starting over
bringing in pieces from the past.

In a room of living that I once said was dead, redundant space.

step out of your life

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I had the good fortune of being on a seven-day family vacation last week. It was a trip that was earned by my husband through his job.   His company planned the location and dates, and set up events and activities, while also allowing for plenty of rest and relaxation. It was lovely, and I am so grateful for having gone. Being away in a tropical place (lacking a kitchen, school, children’s regular activities, home to maintain and car to drive) truly allowed me to “step out of my life.” What I mean by “my life” is my day-to-day regular routine and way of viewing myself, others and my surroundings.

I believe that we all need a break sometimes. No matter how wonderful and beautiful we know our lives to be, we can easily lose sight of that. We can get stuck in focusing on the negative aspects of our lives. Or we can just live our lives unconsciously and have no recognition of what in our life is serving us well or not. We can get caught up in “busyness” and not allow our bodies to rest and our souls to bloom. We can lose our sense of wonder and awe for our world and the people in it. I was able to rediscover these things during our week away, and I am intentionally trying to maintain them now that I’ve stepped back into my regular routine.

Last week I was surrounded by a natural beauty much different from the environment of our home state. Coming home, I learned to rediscover the natural beauty that surrounds me on a daily basis, as it all looks new again. During an unseasonably warm evening a few nights ago, my youngest daughter and I took a leisurely exploration around our surrounding neighborhood. We noticed lots of things. The winter air was light with the promise of spring. The sunset was deep blue and orange. The trees waved happily in the light breeze. We took it all in hungrily.

There are times in our lives when we don’t have the opportunity to fully step out of our lives and take a true vacation. However, this does not have to prevent us from looking at our lives, our surroundings and our habits with a new lens. We can step away from certain habits and try something new, in order to ascertain whether our current habits are serving our lives well and whether they are aligned with our fundamental values and priorities.  We can look at the things around us with a renewed sense of appreciation and awe.

It’s easy to look back and remember how good things were, as in retrospect we tend to focus more on the positive. It’s harder, but much more rewarding, to truly see the good that exists in our lives today, right now, before it is gone. These are the thoughts that help us to be satisfied now and to sustain us in the future.

Aloneness and perspective

This morning I was cherishing being alone in our house. I actually like to be alone. I like the quiet, the stillness, the time to think and just be. With three school age children, a husband, a part-time job and the all the other normal aspects of a busy life, my life does not always offer times for me to be alone. So I was enjoying having time to myself and not having anyone there to make any demands of me or my time. But I started thinking about what if I were truly alone. What if I didn’t have the backdrop that three children would come home to me this afternoon, that my husband would return from his business trip this evening, that I could call a friend if I had been in need of company? Under a different set of circumstances, the exact same situation-the one the I was cherishing- could actually have been a situation of sadness and emptiness for me. So, in some sense, how we feel about an event or a situation is relative.

How many other events in our life can this sentiment pertain to? Think of how our mindset, our expectations and our circumstances can invoke different feelings for the exact same event. Parenting provides some obvious examples of this for me. When we are not rushed to be somewhere and not feeling pulled to be doing something else, we too can delight in the unplanned moments of wonder and discovery that occur with our children on a regular basis. But if we’re running late or have something else that we feel we really need to be doing, those stalled moments, where the task at hand falls by the wayside, can be frustrating and troublesome.

For me, sometimes I need to realize that things don’t always present themselves in my life at the most opportune or convenient time; to be open to their occurrence and be able to find the connection, or the joy or the lesson for me in that moment is my work. And in those rare moments where a desired situation does arise at an opportune time, I will continue to celebrate!