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QUINTESSENCE

To End The Year

YEAR'S END
by Richard Wilbur

Now winter downs the dying of the year,
And night is all a settlement of snow;
From the soft street the rooms of houses show
A gathered light, a shapen atmosphere,
Like frozen-over lakes whose ice is thin
And still allows some stirring down within.

I’ve known the wind by water banks to shake
The late leaves down, which frozen where they fell
And held in ice as dancers in a spell
Fluttered all winter long into a lake;
Graved on the dark in gestures of descent,
They seemed their own most perfect monument.

There was perfection in the death of ferns
Which laid their fragile cheeks against the stone
A million years. Great mammoths overthrown
Composedly have made their long sojourns,
Like palaces of patience, in the gray
And changeless lands of ice. And at Pompeii

The little dog lay curled and did not rise
But slept the deeper as the ashes rose
And found the people incomplete, and froze
The random hands, the loose unready eyes
Of men expecting yet another sun
To do the shapely thing they had not done.

These sudden ends of time must give us pause.
We fray into the future, rarely wrought
Save in the tapestries of afterthought.
More time, more time. Barrages of applause
Come muffled from a buried radio.
The New-year bells are wrangling with the snow.


A few years back I journeyed to Pompeii, and as Wilbur writes, stood moved in contemplation of the abrupt and unforeseen "ends of time" that catastrophe brings. Amongst the excavated ruins I stood silently before the casts of crouching, unsuspecting humans, now forever ghosts of time stopped by ash. While the calendar year end is neither traumatic nor an apocalypse of ultimate end, the last day of December nonetheless marks a transition from one standardized passage of time to the beginning of another. A calendar marks the end of then which has become now, and as such, deserves our reflection.

I wrote last time about defining the essential values in our lives to help streamline personal goals and time management, and in a larger context, help us live lives that have meaning to us. To end flopping from one day to the next, so busy and overwhelmed we struggle and hurry on to the next. Defining what is essential entails identifying also what is not. And in a modern fast-paced world where multitasking is deemed both desirable and beneficial, leaving things out feels terribly threatening. What if that one meeting we do not attend is the lost career-making opportunity? What if that skipped school party becomes the cupcake-omission that keynotes the PTA Hall of Infamy? Would one more hour at the gym forever end the battle with buffet pants and launch a triathlon career? What if the bedskirts (does anybody still use bedskirts?) hide dust bunnies the size of small gerbils, which in truth mark failed character? The vacation or charity project, handwritten thank you notes or paperless post, canning garden or poetry retreat, Boy Scout den leader or work project chair? Major and minor, the muses call.

As you contemplate your personal New Year ambitions, hopes and dreams, think in terms of what is essentially important to you. Leo Babauta recommends in "The Power of Less" that we create self-guidelines for everything from how often to read and answer email to writing blogs, posts on Twitter; that we protect days for focused creative work versus time set aside for necessary inbox tasks. Give your seedling dreams room to grow by weeding out the choking distractions. Nurture and allow the light in. Embrace a set of work and life limitations, and then commit to honest enforcement of the fence-lines and watch your progress toward your goals flourish.

Personally this means I set aside days for writing long from those for short projects. I used to be all about work, and home, partnering, parenting chores and challenges. I would ping back between those two poles like a Yo-Yo, sometimes knocking myself out in a tangle of well-intentioned string. Now? I group priorities together, creating time carved from things less important in my life. Streamline the quotidien, the ordinary. Think about all the moments that make up the day and choose how to spend them.

We'll never know which use of time is "best." Only that choices must be made. Time, as the year end reminds us, is both finite and passing even as we speak. Not everything can be done, not all of what life has to offer can be sampled, not all worthy goals met. Life becomes quite simply about the choices we give our hearts to. So give well.
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Back to Essentials

Most of us lead lives filled with too much stuff, too much information, too many papers, too much to do, too much clutter. Unfortunately, our time and space is limited, and having too much of everything is like trying to cram a library into a box: It can't be done, it's hard to enjoy the books, and sooner or later the box will break. Our problem is living without limits... Once you've learned to set limits, you will learn to make the most of those limits - by choosing the essential and then simplifying. That's when the power of limits can really be seen: When limits force you to reduce yourself to only the essentials.
~ from "The Power of Less," Leo Babauta

There is a nifty blog my med school daughter (the supreme time organizer) turned me onto awhile back, written by life style and efficiency guru Leo Babauta, called Zen Habits (ZenHabits.net). In the quest for making that which is limited (time, effort, resources) go as far and as efficiently and applied as meaningfully as possible, Leo developed a system of limits, focus, and task management tools that enabled him to do accomplish multiple goals as diverse as lose weight, become a marathoner, build one of the top 50 blogs in the world, double his income, become an early riser, write and sell two books, eliminate debt, complete two triathlons, etc. , and do so with quality time for self and family. His system, which I began reading over the holidays in the book "The Power of Less," is fairly straightforward: set limitations, choose the essential, simplify, focus, create habits, start small. One goal at a time.

Easier said than done, right? Of course, philosophically the idea of identifying and choosing to focus and organize one's life around the essential is very compelling. We all want what we think of it as happiness or success via prioritizing and follow-through. But as the author suggests, in today's age of relentless information flow and exchange, of continuous multitasking to ever expanding sets of goals, and generally over-committed professional and family life, "How do you know what's essential? That's the key question. Once you know that, the rest is easy." Babauta goes on to say that once we've identified the essential, then reducing projects, tasks, streams of information, commitments, clutter, etc., is a process of employing disciplined elimination in small increments and the formation of new habits that support life with LESS done BETTER.

I sit here at a desk that on the face of it fails one "The Power of Less" rule: de-clutter the desk. My manuscript in process, bent and dog-eared notes, edited print pages and research sit to the left of my laptop, and on the right, my inbox overflows with holiday shopping receipts, stacked sales tax records for my accountant, online bills to pay, and a slew of year-end solicitations from everyone from AAA to The Wildlife Federation Fund. Yes, my desk, where I've already misplaced my cell phone (under that pile of pen, book, coffee cup and notepad?) is an Epic Fail in the streamlined and prioritization department. Like most of us, my desk is both work space and bill-paying space, as well as home-planning space. How do I identify the essential? And therefore limit the inundation of things to do?

I thought about this question of essentials late Christmas night over a Macallan sitting in my living room, gazing reflectively at the beauty that is a decorated Christmas tree. The college kids were asleep, my husband away on call at the hospital, the fire crackling and falling to a low red glow in the stone fireplace. At that moment, the essential, as it always does at Christmas, seemed crystal clear to me: Number one, gathering together with the ones you love. Check, time for family. And then, thinking of my husband who had curtailed his holiday to return to the hospital, I realized that work, even on Christmas Day is important. Check, adequate time and rest for excellence in work (hence a nap, and an early holiday dinner with family). As I worked my way through the thoughts that presented themselves, from the importance of rest for the one kid post-surgery, and the importance of love to the kid with a new "significant other" coalescing on the horizon, the importance of meaning in occupation (that work matters, is done well, and results in feelings of security, e.g. providing for family), dedication to continuous acts of charity and kindness, to thoughts of professional contentment and the value of peer recognition and teamwork... Well, other than including fun and recreation, time to play, hadn't I just covered my basics?

Here then is where I will start working to eliminate the clutter in my world: everything from overwhelming on-slaughts of data and email to calendar commitments, right down to the essentials. My list looks like this:
Together time with family
Rest
Love
Acts of charity and kindness
Excellence in work
Meaning in occupation
Professional contentment
Time to play

What are your essentials? I'll explore more in the next blog on my own personal steps toward limiting the extraneous to focus on my personally identified essentials. And if you're in the mood (and have the time!), do check out Leo's blog - ZenHabits.net.
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The Family Tableau


MUSEUM
by Robert Hass

On the morning of the Käthe Kollwitz exhibit, a young man and woman come into the museum restaurant. She is carrying a baby; he carries the air-freight edition of the Sunday New York Times. She sits in a high-backed wicker chair, cradling the infant in her arms. He fills a tray with fresh fruit, rolls, and coffee in white cups and brings it to the table. His hair is tousled, her eyes are puffy. They look like they were thrown down into sleep and then yanked out of it like divers coming up for air. He holds the baby. She drinks coffee, scans the front page, butters a roll and eats it in their little corner in the sun. After a while, she holds the baby. He reads the Book Review and eats some fruit. Then he holds the baby while she finds the section of the paper she wants and eats fruit and smokes. They’ve hardly exchanged a look. Meanwhile, I have fallen in love with this equitable arrangement, and with the baby who cooperates by sleeping. All around them are faces Käthe Kollwitz carved in wood of people with no talent or capacity for suffering who are suffering the numbest kinds of pain: hunger, helpless terror. But this young couple is reading the Sunday paper in the sun, the baby is sleeping, the green has begun to emerge from the rind of the cantaloupe, and everything seems possible.


It is the 19th of December. The Winter Solstice is in two days, the Christmas and New Year holidays pushing forward on the heels of a tough week of national loss. American families are in mourning, in confusion about what is and isn't the nature of the human heart. This morning I happened across this lovely, muted prose poem by Robert Haas, a poet of great gravitas and dignity I had the great good fortune to hear read from his work at Stanford during his tenure as United States Poet Laureate. Somehow in revisiting this poem ~ a poignant gentle sketch of a family outing ~ I came to my own sense of hope again. Of possibility that all of us will, in the passage of time, heal. And in the fullness of days, find peace once more in our hearts and possibility for goodness in the day.

Let us look to the warmth of family and friendship for the truth of the human spirit. Let us join hearts in these holidays and keep faith in goodness.
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The American Story: Sandy Hook Elementary Massacre

The world
was whole because
it shattered. When it shattered,
then we knew what it was.

~ from "Formaggio," Louise Gluck

Dear Friends,
This terrible massacre of school children and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, outside Danbury, is still unfolding in its terrible details. I intended an entirely different blog today, but honestly, I find myself welling into tears at my desk. WHY? These innocent children, many of them among the very youngest, are dead. Eighteen confirmed as of this writing, but the numbers seem to keep climbing.

I cannot, as a mother, separate myself from the heartbreak and terror I know lies in the heart of each of the Sandy Hook Elementary families and teachers, their friends and relatives. Elementary schools are among our most close-knit education "families"...a dedicated community of educators, parent volunteers, and part-time librarians, language, art and gym instructors. The mission of elementary school is more than the teaching of learning fundamentals - it is also the encouragement of youngsters in early socialization skills: development of trust and comfort away from home, ease under the direction of unfamiliar adults, feeling safe in large groups. Sometimes the experience of school itself is a huge emotional and mental undertaking for the very young.

And then there are parents, who tremble on that first day and every day after they watch their children walk out the door on their way to school. We, who know our children are for the school day, solely in the safekeeping of others. How will any of us truly comprehend this horror come true - our worst nightmare? While I live in Washington, my own daughter went to school in Connecticut. We have dear friends there. Sandy Hook Elementary is every school. I do not know why this tragedy occurred here, or now. But I pray with all my heart for the families and faculty, staff and first responders. This is not the "American Story" we should be familiar with, but unfortunately, it is now the most common.

It is time to do something about gun control in America. Enough innocents have died at the hands of the violent. It is up to us to stop gun violence, in any way we can.
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The 2012 Holiday Book Drawing

Thank you everyone! The 2012 December Holiday Book Drawing is concluded. Thank you to all the many entries from across our book-loving nation and from as far away as Australia and Canada! The winners were chosen at random by good old fashioned toss of names in a hat. (We're low tech over here. Blame the snow.)

Congratulations to the five lucky winners ~ Chelsea T. from Vancouver, B.C.; Mike P. of Baltimore, Maryland; Suzanna M. from Dallas, Texas; Ginger K. of Thousand Oaks, California; and Rebekkah S. from Bloomington, Indiana. Your signed three-book sets are on the way to you by post, gift-boxed. Happy reading, and Thank You All for entering the 2012 Holiday Giveaway Book Drawing!

Hopefully next year's drawing will include my newest novel! Best wishes and thanks a million for your encouragement and continued support of my writing.
xo Glenda

PS ~ Out my study window the birch lean into the first flakes of new snow as if they were whispers. Reminds me of this poem by Frost. Enjoy!

THE SOUND OF TREES
I wonder about the trees.
Why do we wish to bear
Forever the noise of these
More than another noise
So close to our dwelling place?
We suffer them by the day
Till we lose all measure of pace,
And fixity in our joys,
And acquire a listening air.
They are that that talks of going
But never gets away;
And that talks no less for knowing,
As it grows wiser and older,
That now it means to stay.
My feet tug at the floor
And my head sways to my shoulder
Sometimes when I watch trees sway,
From the window or the door.
I shall set forth for somewhere,
I shall make the reckless choice
Some day when they are in voice
And tossing so as to scare
The white clouds over them on.
I shall have less to say,
But I shall be gone.


~ Robert Frost
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Parenting, The Advanced Course


We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations.
― Anaïs Nin

The holidays are a perfect for running smack into dysfunction. There was a fascinating interview yesterday on the TODAY SHOW (http://today.msnbc.msn.com Today's Moms, "The Toughest Part of Parenting: When They Grow Up,") with developmental psychologist Susan Engle. She veered into a personal discussion of the struggle and patience required in her own life observing her adult son struggle with significant life decisions in which she yearned to intervene, as one most certainly would in the face of risk parenting a younger child, but which to her surprise her son forbade her to do anything but listen. What seemed evident from her commentary is that parenting remains a prime directive our entire lives as parents but differing skills become beneficial to both parent and adult child as we mature.

For most parents, the words of Mark Danielewski ring true, "Maturity, one discovers, has everything to do with the acceptance of 'not knowing.'" As Susan Engle confided in her television interview, even if we could rush in and solve our adult children's dilemmas in life, we would be wrong to do so: self-discovery is one of the chief benefits of the rocky challenges of adulthood. An admission and acceptance of "not knowing" - whether you or your child fall intellectually on the side of knowing everything or nothing at all - becomes one bridge to supporting adult children through difficulty without falling into the trap of "directiveness."

But is the aging parent only allowed to sit on the sidelines, reeling from the punches, both emotional and economic, of children making less than stellar progress toward maturity or responsibility? For years there has been an established practice in family therapy which asserts that the path to smoothing over difficulties with adult children is through the practice of unilateral, unconditional acceptance and tolerance. Welcome, in other words to the Doormat Years. As a parent myself, I would challenge this as anything but a practice of self-effacement on the part of parents that enables self-centered thinking in the adult children in question.

All dynamic and meaningful relationships are to a degree conditional. "Supportive listening" should not equal disowning one's personal rights and liberties. Adult children are old enough to make their own decisions, yet this form of conventional therapy tells us the success of our long-term relationship depends on our ability to stomach the results. This is particularly downer advice for older remarriages and blended family dynamics. Not permitted to object to your own adult child's behavior? It is fairly certain then your point of view is not welcome regarding your spouse's.

An interesting book by Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, an expert on parenting adult children and family dynamics, and research scholar at Brandeis University, titled "Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships With Your Adult Children," focuses on constructive interaction. Let's not talk doormat, let's talk. Her research advises making the most of the relatively healthy years in the lengthening time span between empty-nest parents and adult children. Boundaries, flexibility, patience, the pleasures of independence. Relationship is only as valuable as the mutual give and take and respect present between parent and adult child.

It may not be that our children, as Susan Engle's son did, outright ask us to abide outcomes and not intervene, but I believe that in time, a little roughened at the edges by life, the kids we gave our very best to will one day knock on our doors for honest insight and advice. In the meantime, we can think about all the things we'd like to say, and spend our free time on the sidelines living lives put on hold to parent. Everyone has a little growing up to do.
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Final Thesis


OXYGEN
Everything needs it: bone, muscles, and even,
while it calls the earth its home, the soul.
So the merciful, noisy machine

stands in our house working away in its
lung-like voice. I hear it as I kneel
before the fire, stirring with a

stick of iron, letting the logs
lie more loosely. You, in the upstairs room,
are in your usual position, leaning on your

right shoulder which aches
all day. You are breathing
patiently; it is a

beautiful sound. It is
your life, which is so close
to my own that I would not know

where to drop the knife of
separation. And what does this have to do
with love, except

everything? Now the fire rises
and offers a dozen, singing, deep-red
roses of flame. Then it settles

to quietude, or maybe gratitude, as it feeds
as we all do, as we must, upon the invisible gift:
our purest, sweet necessity: the air.

~ Mary Oliver

A dear friend is losing her only parent. She has moved from caregiver toward wellness, to caregiver through dying. My friend and I have both been in this hard place together before. Through the loss of her sister and my husband and my mother to cancer within months of one another. My friend shifted priorities to co-raise her nieces, and parentless and widowed, I became a single parent.

Here we speak quietly again, my friend and I. Her journey moves with inexorable suffering and patience toward new loss. Her best friend, her mother. A few days ago, my friend, who is also a Buddhist priest, sent me this beautiful poem - words written by Mary Oliver during the days her partner lay dying. Somehow, this poem lingers in my mind. There is something intimate and sharp throughout. As double-edged as love itself is, as life is. Oliver's words expose the powerful strength born of human grounding within relationship and our simultaneous awareness of the erosion of presence itself. The hug and the sucker punch.

My friend possesses a gentle truth that for most of us remains unbearable to embrace. Transition at its core is about life, perhaps even more than simple living. The compassion and strength and presence we bring to dying, of oneself or others, is the final thesis on life. In these moments we say what we've come to say, or we never do. Breathe, and listen. As Oliver writes, "You are breathing/patiently; it is a/beautiful sound. It is/your life..." In the space between heart beats lies the singularity of presence. Love.

Today's words go out to my beautiful brave friend and her equally beautiful and brave mother."It is/your life, which is so close/to my own..."
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