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Listen, are you just breathing a little, and calling it a life?  — Mary Oliver

Taking a late summer stroll through the winding streets of Panarea—a magical island north of Sicily—I was talking to my friend about my writing.

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She’d asked me why I wasn’t blogging anymore. My goal had always been to maintain a positive outlook in the blog no matter what was going on, but that had begun to feel inauthentic. I was thinking about this when she asked her question—and instead I blurted out, “Since the election, I haven’t been feeling very positive.”

Now. I don’t share that to get political. Like, at all. I share it because it startled me, and I’ve been trying to make sense of it ever since. I’ve voraciously consumed the news over the last year, thinking I was merely staying informed. What I hadn’t realized was how deeply the rollercoaster of events was altering my worldview. I hadn’t understood how much it changed me.

When we’ve lost our way, how do we return to ourselves? 

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I have always been someone who feels deeply.

The page has always been my safe place for processing all those feelings. I don’t always know how to express them in person—if I’m quietly thinking, I can be seen as aloof and withholding; if I’m vocal and opinionated, it can come across as overbearing. But on the page, they find meaning and hope.

Until now. Now the words are stuck. The emotions feel big and complicated and aggressive in my body, but they won’t work their way out into the world. They just sit there, stuck in sludge, unmoving and unable to find a way out. So instead of writing, I read the news. Endlessly. And then I watch it on TV.

A few months after that Sicilian conversation, it occurred to me that I was in an abusive relationship with information. Too much of it isn’t helpful; it can actually feel toxic. But I like being informed, so I wrestle with balance. How can you stay connected to the world around you, while somehow managing to be completely disconnected?

I don’t know. But if you’ve figured it out, I want to hear about it.

Aside from that, life just feels so complicated. And exhausting.

Shopping in Whole Foods a couple of months ago, I found myself trying to pick up a dozen eggs on the way to the cash register. I stopped and stood in front of an entire wall display of eggs. There must’ve been 50 different varieties, each labeled with one of four classifications. Cage free. Pasture raised. Outdoor access. Mobile houses on pasture. (Wait…do chickens have mobile homes???) I was confused. Which was better for the chickens? Who had the best quality of life? What’s the difference between a pasture and the great outdoors? I wanted to be a good person, to make the right decision.

But. There. Were. So. Many. Eggs.

I became overwhelmed with indecision. I began to breathe heavily, and perspiration started to bead on my forehead. I felt ten seconds away from the onset of a panic attack. So I walked away, egg free.

Our lives are so complex. We have too many choices. I’m not sure this multitude of options is adding quality to our lives.

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Even my relationship with food—long my simplest and easiest partnership—is complicated. I’m allergic to everything. (Okay, not everything. But, so many of the things. How can you have creamy coffee when it seems you are allergic to dairy, almonds and coconut and aren’t supposed to have soy?) I took a break from my beloved cup of caffeine for two weeks and then, craving a steamy hot latte, I returned to it one Sunday morning. It made my heart race so fast I thought it was going to pound right out of my chest. I took a break from coffee and, in return, coffee quit me.

I find new gray hairs every time I visit the office ladies room, and a new wrinkle greets me each morning in my home bathroom mirror. Who is this person reflected back at me?

Can you return to yourself when you no longer recognize yourself? 

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All of this left me overwhelmed and wondering how I could ever feel hopeful again. I seek to make meaning in my writing, but sometimes I question whether it’s possible anymore. Did the optimistic l part of me move on, as people we know sometimes do? Or is she still living in me and just on a break, off somewhere recalibrating?

At the resort in Panarea during our Sicilian excursion, there was one young woman working in the cafe who took care of us every morning. Her joy was palpable, infectious. I asked her what her secret was—why was she always so joyful? Her eyes widened. She stretched an arm out in front of us.

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“Look where we are! How could you be anything but happy looking at this every day?”

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She had a point.

Months later, sitting at my desk, feeling spectacularly grumpy, I emailed a friend to discuss the foul mood I couldn’t seem to shake.

She wrote back, bossy with instructions. She ordered me to take my camera and go outside—that very minute—and to not go back to the office until I’d documented something beautiful.

All I can say is, I hope you have friends like this.

I did as told, ending up in Central Park for a brisk walk. The heavens did not part; rainbows did not magically appear in the sky; Moses did not part any sea. But on a cloudy and cool day, I found a respite from city life, if only for twenty minutes. My mind calmed down as I took in the fall landscape. Trees letting go of their auburn leaves. Birds swooping and soaring. Lake water flowing in a singular direction.

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Life moves on. The seasons change, and so do we. And we can focus on chaos and nonsense, or we can search with another purpose.

And so I am left with this: I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. I don’t know who I have become or are on the road to becoming. I don’t know when hopeful words will once again flow on my laptop. But there in the midst of the uncertainty and the rage and the questioning, beauty is lurking. It may be right in front of me at every turn while on vacation, and it may lay hiding in the dustiest of corners. But it is always there.

Beauty persists.

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And as I make my way back to myself, I persist, too.

 

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On my way home this evening, I read an email from my friend Rachel.  The subject was “Embrace Life.”  In the note, she wrote of a four-year-old girl in her neighborhood who had drowned a couple of days ago.  It reminded her about the fragility of life and how it can be sad and tragic and that we should embrace the moments that we have.

This made me grateful that I left the office at 6pm, an hour that sometimes gives me pause, as if my work isn’t valid unless I’ve put in a 10, 12, 14 hour day.  But the workaholic in me gave way to the enchantment seeker.  I left with a purpose.

I was chasing magic.

This weekend I went to the Conservatory Garden in Central Park for the first time, and I was charmed by it.  Because I went on a weekend, it was full of people and the hubbub of children.  It was a magical place, but I couldn’t drop into the stillness of it as I know I would on a quiet day.

I decided I would go there, hoping to capture a moment of that stillness before the sun set and the garden closed.

When I arrived, I walked through the magic gates—like Disneyland, only with flowers instead of Mickey—and found myself slightly disappointed.  The center garden had been tented over, probably for an upcoming event.  But I wandered and found the gardens to the right and to the left still open.

I sat on a bench under the tree I now think of as the “love tree” (see the previous post), its limbs all twisted and carved up with sweet sentiments, and noticed that the bench also happened to be under a tree of lilacs.  I closed my eyes, feeling the warm-cool air of the springtime evening, and breathed in.  The scent of lilacs is heavenly, alluring, captivating, perfect.  I’ve smelled them before in floral shops, but not like this.  This air was full of sweet lilac magic.

This, I thought, is joy. 

I sat on the bench for a while alternately taking in the beauty around me and closing my eyes meditatively, until, there it was.  Stillness.  I dropped into that feeling that I’d been searching for.

When it was time to go, I hopped on the bus, ready to go home.  As we ran into some traffic, I realized that we were about to go past the arrivals at the Met Ball in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Everyone who is famous in the world of fashion, design and entertainment attends.  It’s the center achievement and excellence.  At least for the night.

I decided to get off the bus and see if I could catch a glimpse of anyone famous. Onlookers screamed every time someone got out of an SUV.

As I watched, all I could think about were the dreams I had for myself when I moved back to New York almost 20 years ago.  I came to the city with big ambitions to be a mover and a shaker.  Of what, I wasn’t really sure.  I just knew I wanted to matter.

This, though fun, was not the dream.

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This was fun and funny and made me laugh.  (And, I got to see Tom Brady and Gisele.  They were…beautiful.)  But I did not come to this city of dreams to gawk from across the street at people who are living their best lives.  I did not come here to play small.  I didn’t come here to stand it the shadows of other people who get the glory and make the money.  I came here to be the woman I always dreamed of being.

I walked away, towards Park Avenue.

This, too, is why I came to New York, though I didn’t know it.  There is unexpected beauty everywhere.

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I walked over another avenue and got on the next bus towards home.  As I sat down, I eyed a woman talking on her cell phone, a little too loudly.  She was talking in that breathless way that people do when they just need to get the words out again and again and again, as if they are running from something.  She was scolding the person on the other end for not recognizing that, though she loves to garden, she’s getting older and, you know, older people have their limitations and should know when they cannot do things anymore.

As the bus made its way downtown, I kept catching a glimpse of the sun setting on the crosstown streets.  Whoa, I thought.  I don’t think I ever have seen a sunset like that.  There were streams of light the color of the lilacs I’d seen earlier, lavender and magenta and blue all blended together, with some peach thrown in for good measure.  It was what I imagine the heavens would look like.  Exquisite, breathtaking and otherworldly.

I kept seeing the sunset and hearing the woman yammering away, saying nothing really, but reveling in the fact that she was saying something, anything to not pay attention.  Every time I saw the sunset, I kept thinking, she’s missing it.  She’s talking and she’s missing it.

But then I would stop listening to her and think, I’m not going to miss it.  Every time the next block opened up, I paid attention.  I took it in.  I allowed myself to feel awed by the beauty, by the sun showing off proudly.

Look at me, she kept saying.  Just look at how beautiful I am.

And that is life.  There is sadness and tragedy, and there is the rest of it.  There is the perfume of flowers that cannot be spritzed on, rather but must be inhaled and experienced. There are dreams, long stowed away in a drawer somewhere, that are worth being brought out to see the daylight again.  They are valid and real and possible, no matter how old you are or how much other people tell you to it’s time to sit down and forget them.  They matter.

That is life.  It is meant to be embraced.

Last week, I talked to my father after brunch as we walked through the city, our weekend ritual.  I lamented how busy I’ve been.

“The days are all running into each other, ” I said. “I feel like I’m missing my life.”

We say things like this in our lives. We ask others to bear witness to the feeling, though we know that they can’t fix it. We look for clues to make it better, for someone to give us the rhythm to the song of our lives, for an offering of keys to unlock the door to the life that we know is waiting for us.

But we know that no one can repair the thing that we cannot even name. No one can create our dream life. That is a job that only we can do for ourselves.

And yet, we wait.

This morning I had the “Today” show on the TV, as I do every morning. I use the show to time my morning; I know that by the time the local news comes on it’s 7:26 and if I haven’t put my contact lenses in yet, I’m running behind. I keep one ear on the stories as I get ready, so I’m always paying half attention as I get ready for work.

Today they reported a story on a People magazine article on Valerie Harper and her brain cancer diagnosis, and it got my full attention. I grew up watching her on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Rhoda”, and I’ve always been struck by how accessible she seemed. Maybe it was because we all watched her for so many years that she really was everyone’s best friend next door. For that reason, it was sad news that tugged at my heart, though her outlook seemed upbeat.

But, a cover line on the magazine stopped me, a quote on what the illness has taught her.

“Don’t miss your life.”

Two years ago, I wrote about finding myself at the crossroads and not knowing which way to turn. And though I’ve made a few changes, that  unsettled feeling remains. I feel like I’ve been marching in place for ages.

What I know is that now it’s time. It’s time to begin moving. Towards what I don’t know, but something is calling me. Something bigger than what I’ve settled for, some place where the dreams that I’ve long forgotten live, some field where magic exists – even if it is in my city where the streets are gritty and full of litter. It’s time to trust that goodness and grace will light my path, illuminating the door that I must open, where life lives.

And so, I take the first step.

I came across this quote today, and I just love how it implores us to live fully and richly.  Enjoy!

Life is an opportunity, benefit from it.

Life is beauty, admire it.

Life is bliss, taste it.

Life is a dream, realize it.

Life is a challenge, meet it.

Life is a duty, complete it.

Life is a game, play it.

Life is a promise, fulfill it.

Life is sorrow, overcome it.

Life is a song, sing it.

Life is a struggle, accept it.

Life is a tragedy, confront it.

Life is an adventure, dare it.

Life is luck, make it.

Life is too precious, do not destroy it.

Life is life, fight for it.”

– Mother Teresa


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