Reinvigorate your purpose and passion for life.

Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive.  And then go and do that.  Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.  Howard Thurman

“What makes you come alive, Helen?  What lights your inner fire?”  I ask these questions often and the answers that rise up from within become bread crumb markers that I can follow as I open to fully engaging with each day in a way that feels authentic and good from the inside.  And so, here I am, on the first morning of November, as a dim sun shines through the bare branches of the maple in our back yard, as frost coats the mums that sit on the deck, as jays and chickadees gather at the feeder.  It is a morning for hot tea, a warm sweater, for hunkering in and fanning the inner flame.  So I ask myself again, “Helen, what makes you come alive?  What lights your inner fire?”

And this is the exciting part, the sparks beginning to fly part.  I have no idea what is going to emerge from the inner bonfire of this morning’s personal passion.  What brought me alive yesterday or last week or a month ago is old news, already decomposing with the pumpkins in the compost pile.  The fire, my fire, at least, must be tended to daily in order for it to burn bright and bold, in order for me to feel bright and bold and fresh and new.  And isn’t that how we want to feel, vibrantly alive from the inside out, eager and open to the gifts in the present?

So, here goes.  I am tossing a log onto the fire as I answer my own questions, fully expecting that I will be warmed from the inside out.  What makes me come alive?  What lights my inner fire?  Today, in this moment, it is a deep breath and the tea, an herbal blend my friend Leanne concocted herself from her own gatherings, and the quiet of my house and this time to write.  It makes me come alive to claim the time to write, to let the words flow freely, to allow myself to be surprised by what emerges from this inner fire.  Right now, it is the smell of celery and garlic still clinging in the air from the soup I made last evening in between the door bell rings of trick or treaters.  And that brings me alive, the balance between mindful acts like chopping carrots and onion and parsley for a lentil soup, one that I have made from the same recipe for thirty years, and the whoosh of excitement at the door of something new, a sloth last evening, a shy two-year-old lion, a mermaid whose scales shimmered, a trio of bloody zombies, two living breathing video characters, a truck wearing a sweatshirt.  It brings me alive to open my door to the new, to the possibility that trucks can wear sweatshirts and zombies can say thank you.  There is so much that brings me alive!

Don’t stop, Helen; let it flow.  It brings me alive to walk by the lake, the big lake, Superior.  Big water brings me alive, in all its moods, in its stillness on this cold calm November day, and in its wildness, too.  I love the storms of November!  I’m enlivened by them!  I love thrashing waves, feeling the power of the mighty, the wind that nearly bowls me over.  I love bracing myself against this wind, love watching the surfers in their seal-skin wetsuits, paddling out into this wildness, then sailing themselves into shore as I, on the shore, hollering out into the wind, a hooray, “You are wonderful!”  I love telling people and trees and chipmunks and great blue herons that they are wonderful because they are, because we are.  It brings me alive to remember what I love.  It lights my fire.  I love the seasons, this subtle season of late autumn, of milkweed pods and brown ferns, of pumpkins and crispy frosted air.  I love stomping on puddles of ice, shattering the ice into crystalline bits.  I love doing this alone and I love doing this with kids.  I love kids, love my grandkids, love feeling unleashed around them, love the way my heart opens wide enough to contain the whole world when I think of them.

And this isn’t all.  There are so many logs I’m tossing onto my bonfire today, so many things that make me come alive.  So I will continue asking the questions as I push the save button on this writing, as I gather myself together, as I drive down to that lake that excites me always, as I meet a friend and take a walk, as I remember to say to you that you are wonderful, because you are wonderful and you too have an inner fire that can burn bright and bold and fresh and new.

 

Fu

I thank God, for all that is good, and dear, and beautiful.  Anne Frank

Because of great love, one is courageous.  Lao Tzu

I am in a shop filled with gemstones in Moscow, Idaho with my son and three of my four grandkids, staring into the eyes of a thirty-year-old rattle snake named Buddy when I feel the buzz of a text against my cell-phoned skin.  All the kids in this northern Idaho college town know of Buddy who was plucked from a downtown street as a tiny baby and placed in this roomy glass terrarium next to two amethyst mini-caves where he has lived his long life ever since.  Locals say he rode into town on a bail of hay from somewhere down in the canyon, and here he is now, pure muscle and forked-tongue, on this Saturday of Labor Day Weekend, slithering and rising and captivating our full attention, until I feel it again, the buzz of my cell-phone.  And I check it this time.  And that’s where I hear the news, in the crystal shop, with my son and three of my grandkids and Buddy, the snake, who has indeed become our buddy.  “Fu died.”

 

I told the grandkids they could scamper upstairs, that they were welcome in Grandma and Grandpa’s room, that they could climb up onto our bed and snuggle with our cat Fu anytime they needed to get away.  “She’s old; you need to be gentle,” I told them.  “But she likes to cuddle,”   And it was touching, the way they all took me up on the offer, the just-turned-seven-year-old and his two-year-old sister this past July during the three-week visit of one son and daughter-in-law, and the just-turned-four-year-old and her not-quite-two-year-old brother when our other son and daughter-in-law flew east to Upper Michigan in mid-August.  Fu slept, usually curled in a ball of white fluffy fur on the folded blankets at bed’s end, while the kids nestled next to her, one or two at a time, catching their breath between the flurry of summertime activities.  Our bedroom became a haven of calm in a sea of busyness and Fu seemed to welcome the grandkids’ company into her world of ease-filled catnapping.  This I expected.  Fu has always been sweet and cuddly, a cat who greets us at the door and lets us carry her around like a baby, our empty-nest baby these past sixteen years.  What I didn’t expect was the eagerness in which she flopped her way down the stairs and dove right into the chaotic world of a house full of people.  There she’d be, stretched out long and relaxed or sprawled on her back, belly exposed, front paws curled under in pleasure while a toddler flew by on a beeping and whistling Fisher Price truck, while a seven-year-old created art books at the table beside her, while grown people hustled and bustled about and a four-year-old petted her fur with enthusiastic strokes.  Fu was in her glory, a catnip-filled chewed-up toy placed next to her, a ping pong ball at her feet.  The busier the better, it seemed.  While I sometimes craved the quiet, Fu often thrived in the tsunami of noise.  And thrive this summer she did.  After her first real bout of illness in late April, a urinary tract infection gone bad, she bounced back by late May, her fur once again pure white fluff, her pantaloons billowy and stylish, her mane regal and fitting for a gal with the name FuFu Princess.  “It is a good summer,” Fu seemed to be saying, “and I like the company I’m keeping.”

 

“Fu died.”  I say it out loud.  I say it out loud in a shop filled with stones and a snake named Buddy.  I say it out loud to my son and my seven-year-old grandson and his four-year-old-cousin and his sister in the stroller.  “Fu died,” I say.  “I’m sorry, Mom.”  My son wraps his arms around me, and I am crying and I am too wrapped up in my own wrapped-up self to stay wrapped up in my son’s generous arms or to notice my grandkids’ reactions or to find my guy, Grandpa Cam, who has sent me the text and is with our other son and daughter-in-law and the other toddler grandkid somewhere right outside this crystal shop door at a farmer’s market filled with produce and crafts and baked goods and music and thrumming life.  I know it is Raja who has called Cam, Raja, who with Amber, his wife, is staying with Fu, back at our home in Upper Michigan, who is family to Fu and to us, too, and it his him now that I must call.  I leave my son and my grandkids and push my way through the street packed with people, past stalls of tomatoes and peppers and peaches, past flowered aprons strung on strings, past the guy who is tap-dancing in front of a barbershop quartet.  And I find it, when I turn the corner, what I need, the quiet of an alley behind the Co-op, and an overturned milk carton, a place where I can sit down, and that’s when I call our friend Raja.

 

“I am not going to get a white-long-haired FuFu cat!  It will shed everywhere!”  These were my husband Cam’s words in late June when he heard our college-aged kids had been cat-shopping.  Beloved Boots, our oldest son’s sixteen-year-old black short-haired non-shedding gal with the white feet had just died in my arms a few weeks earlier as I sat on our couch with our boys just minutes before heading to the airport to catch a plane to yoga-training at Kripalu in Massachusetts.  One son drove me to the airport, the other buried our Boots-cat under the white pines in our back yard.  For eleven days at the yoga training, I had stretched and breathed and cried my way to the other side of grief and had returned home, open and willing to face an empty-of-animal home for a while — because, after all, aren’t you supposed to wait a respectful amount of time before plunging back in to full-out love for another animal?  Not in our household.  Our two sons, and older son’s girlfriend, had been to the shelter several times when I was away, and that’s where they had found her, in a small cage littered with toys and a ping pong ball.  It was our older son’s girlfriend (now his wife) who knew she was the one.  “She’s perfect!” they told me.  “She bats the ping pong ball around like crazy when they let her out to play.  And besides she’s desperate, Mom.”  The three of them told me how she bashed her head over and over again against the metal door of the cage and opened her mouth wide and meowed the loudest meow you’ve ever heard.  “You need to see her!” they pleaded.  And I did, again and again during that last week of June.  And I too fell hard for this soft snowball of white fluff — and my husband, he didn’t have a chance, and, on the Fourth of July, he is the one who bought the healthy brand of kitten food and set up a bed for her in the basement playroom, and he joined us as we brought her home, our sweet little white-long-haired-shedding FuFu Princess.  

 

I am sobbing, don’t care who hears me from my milk-carton-perch.  “How did it happen?” I ask.  “She was fine!” I add.  I think I say this several times because she was — she was fine when she followed me from room to room on Thursday evening, fine as she sat upright, front paws a little askew as I packed my suitcase, fine as I made myself a snack, as I straightened the living room for Amber and Raja, fine on Friday morning, early before dawn, when Grandpa Cam and I set off on our Labor Day trip to Idaho, fine as I said a flighty quick “See you later, Fu”, and galloped out the door.  And now, I am yelling these words into my cell phone, yelling at my dear friend Raja, wanting to blame someone, and, of course, I can’t, can’t blame Raja, because he too loves Fu as I love Fu, as Grandpa Cam loves Fu, as we all do, and Raja is crying too, and he is probably sitting in this very moment next to our dead cat or driving her home from the vet because that’s where it happened, at the vet’s.  He is still crying when he agrees with me, tells me that she was fine, on Friday, that she ate the rest of the lake trout, enjoyed being outside, cuddled with Amber and him.  It was just this morning, he adds, that she seemed lethargic, that she wouldn’t move from the fireplace hearth, that he carried her to the car, drove her to the vet’s office, that she didn’t seem scared or in pain, that she simply stretched out her back legs, took a breath and died.  How can that be?  That’s not how it’s done.  There has to be some indication, some foreshadowing, some struggle.  You don’t just die, don’t just leave us without a proper good-bye.  I want to cling to the phone, to Raja.  I want to make it not true.  I want my white fluffy FuFu cat.

 

I named her myself, called her Leetle-lee.  I think it might have meant “kitty” in toddler language.  And I loved her for years, loved her stuffed animal body that fit perfectly in my little hand, loved her white fluffy fur that I patted and pulled and pressed against my cheek, loved her perky pink-lined ears until they hung there, dangling by thread.  We slept together, Leetle-lee and me, first in my crib, then in the twin bed in the bedroom I shared with my baby brother.  I wished my Leetle-lee was real.  I wished my Leetle-lee into becoming real.

 

I have re-joined the family at the center of the farmer’s market near the city’s downtown play area where the band is playing something loud and raucous and far too cheerful.  My seven-year-old-grandson hands me a bouquet of flowers as my four-year-old-granddaughter clings to my arm.  I glance over at Grandpa Cam who is standing at the bottom of the slide waiting for one of the two toddler grandkids to fly down, and then I turn away.  I don’t want to see him right now, don’t want to start crying again.  It is better that we keep going, at least it feels that way in this moment, so I scoop up the two older kids and say, “Come on!  Let’s get a treat.”  And that’s what we do, before noon; we get ourselves mounds of locally-made thick creamy ice cream in sugar cones.  This is not normal healthy-food-conscious Grandma Helen behavior, and these two grandkids know this, and I think they might be feeling a certain amount of glee.  And an hour later, when I find myself with three of the four grandkids, the only adult in our older son’s house, I do it again, this time as a bribe.  I need to move, to get out into the sun, to escape stillness and stuffiness and too much thought.  It is cookies this time that I use to lure them into outdoor play, old-fashioned chocolate chip cookies that were meant for tonight’s after-dinner treat. The three grandkids quickly make a bee-line for shoes piled by the door as I stand nearby, handing out the sugary treats, and that’s when I say it.  “You know I’m usually a pretty good grandma,” I tell them.  “And it’s carrots and peas and healthy things we have for lunch,” I add.  “But today, I’m sad and I don’t feel like being a good grandma and we’re having cookies.”  I notice I’m feeling a little better as I say this, a little more feisty as we set off for the play area across the street.  I ask my oldest grandson to create an imaginary graph for us, and he does, in his own fashion, zero being a fabulous grandma and ten being a horrible one.  I nod in affirmation, commend him on a good graph.  “I’m sad today, and I’m a seven.  Not horrible, but pretty bad,” I proclaim.  And they seem fine with it all, the ice cream and cookies for lunch, the not-so-good grandma, the time at the play area.  And frankly, it’s a relief, not trying to pull myself together and strive to be a zero when seven feels just about right.  I plop myself down on one of the swings, push off, and begin to pump, and when my four-year-old granddaughter politely asks for a turn, I tell her no, that I’m not sharing today, and I note the shock on her face, and I glean what little pleasure I can in being bad, for thirty seconds longer, that is, before relinquishing the swing, relinquishing my badness and just allowing myself to feel sad again.

 

It was star-spangled, the Fourth of July we brought our FuFu Princess home from the Humane Society.  The whole family felt it, the birth of something new, something exciting that couldn’t be contained.  But we tried that Independence Day to reign it in, to provide some reasonable boundaries for our new little kitten.  We carried her down to the basement playroom, showed her the litter box in the corner, the little bed of blankets on the couch.  “This is where you are going to stay,” we told her, “until you show us you are potty-trained.”  And she meowed that loud open-mouth-wide meow and somehow managed to to climb up those basement stairs and follow us into the kitchen.  “Okay”, we said, pouring kitty litter into another container.  “You can stay with us on the first floor.  But that’s it.  We’re not carrying you upstairs to our bedroom until you’ve proven the kitty litter box is your bathroom.”   And we didn’t have to worry about it, the carrying her up the stairs, that is, because, that evening, she managed it on her own, and, by bedtime, there she was nestled against my cheek sleeping soundly.  And there I was, in love with our new little princess.  That summer, we were all in love, the whole family.  Our older son’s girlfriend cuddled with Fu — that’s what we were calling her, Fu — on the couch while watching television, our younger son wrapped her around his neck like a shawl and professed that he would teach her to fetch, and we all found ourselves on hands and knees tromping through the house, hiding behind furniture, waiting for our gal to pounce and tag us lightly with her paw.  And one Saturday, my husband Cam and I rushed home from a wedding reception before the dancing even began because we couldn’t stand it, to be away from our fluffy white kitten.  And as Fu grew into her long-bodied thick-furred royalty, we learned things about her, that she could zip past us in a flash when we opened the front door, that she could sprint like a cheetah then challenge us to catch her, that she could sound wild and killer-coded when sitting in the kitchen window transfixed on a bird at the feeder.  We learned there was this fierce whimsical independence in our fluffy Fourth of July cat, and yet, when we picked her up, she turned rag doll, stuffed animal limp, back legs dangling.  She allowed her dad, that’s what Cam was calling himself by now, to sprawl her out on his lap, belly up, and clip each one of her nails.  And she allowed the rest of us to carry her around as if she was our personal play thing.  This was a cat who knew how to have fun, a cat who knew how to haul us into her fun.  And sure enough, she did it, hauled us into her fun year after year after year.  And our younger son, he was successful.  He taught her to fetch.

 

She wraps her toddler hand around my little finger and we set off on our downtown adventure.  We have just finished breakfast at the juice bar — green smoothies, a quinoa/egg breakfast bowl, fresh fruit and yogurt.  It is now Thursday, and I am working my way down my seven-year-old grandson’s Grandparent Graph, a pretty-good-healthy-breakfast grandma again, a grandma who is allowing spurts of happiness to mingle with her FuFu grief.  How can I not feel happy when this two-year-old granddaughter grips hold of my pinkie with such purpose, calls me Grandma Helman and nearly skips us forward toward the corner where we will turn onto Main Street and once again go visit Buddy the Snake?  It seems like these past few days since Labor Day Weekend have stretched on into years and I now have moments where I am immersed in grandkid play and don’t even think of her, and then it hits me, the punch in the gut, the remembering that I will be returning home tomorrow to a FuFu-less house.  And it is happening now, the punch-in-the-gut-thinking-of-Fu-thing, as my granddaughter and I approach the corner, and I remember the sympathy card I bought at a small boutique in town, a cat card with the words, “We imagine our cats everywhere, after they are gone.”  This is all a flash in my mind, an instant of considering the quote and then refuting it.  I don’t believe that it is imagination, this noticing our loved ones everywhere after they pass.  This is what I am thinking as we walk, that it is a conversation, that our loved ones talk to us from the other side.  And in the instant, the very instant that this flash of a thought takes hold, I hear it, the roar of a semi passing by on this center-of-town street, and I look up and see it plastered all over the back of the truck, a photograph, a ridiculously huge photograph of a white fluffy kitten.  In this moment as my granddaughter and I round the corner on our quest to spend time with Buddy, as the truck disappears from sight, I am not quite there, not quite ready to have a conversation with Fu in this new form, and yet, I’m stunned by this fluffy-cat-truck-message and fully conscious that this conversation is available to me when I am open to it.  I know this as I step through the entry of the shop filled with gemstones, as my granddaughter and I make our way to Buddy’s terrarium home.  And here he is, curled in a ball, waiting for us.  I believe in the healing power of snakes.  And I know the jaws of a snake are not fused together.  Perhaps this morning Buddy will open his mouth wide, wide enough to swallow my grief, so I can once again feel my cat’s loving presence.

 

Fu was napping on her folded blanket at the foot of our bed, her white fur lit up by the afternoon light.  It was late August, a hint of fall in the breeze that wafted in through the open window.  As she slept, I packed.  Grandpa Cam and I would be leaving in two days for Idaho to visit our kids and grandkids over Labor Day weekend, and Amber and Raja would move into the guest room and become Fu’s people.  But now, I was here, and I did what I do so often.  I snuck up to the bed, to my sleeping cat, and I leaned against her head and whispered into her ear, softly, the words I had been telling her for sixteen years.  “I’m so glad you were born.  I’m so glad you came to live with us in this lifetime.  I love you.  I love you.  I love you.”   

 


For though we often need to be restored to the small, concrete, limited, and certain, we as often need to be reminded of the large, vague, unlimited unknown.  A.R. Ammons

It was not raining on that third morning of our Camino pilgrimage.  In fact, the sun seemed to be breaking through the dark clouds as we slung our packs over our shoulders and headed out of our hotel onto Castro-Urdiales’ seaside boardwalk.  My husband Cam and I were feeling downright buoyant as we followed country roads and an ancient path along grassy meadows high above the sea.  The freshness of spring filled the air with the smell of sweet grass and roses — a whole field of roses — and the views of lush valleys and the sea beyond set our spirits soaring.  We sang out our “Bon Camino” greetings to the farmers working in the fields, to the occasional pilgrims we met on our route, to the donkeys, the cows, the goats and the sheep who were our curious companions along the way.  Yes, we were feeling chipper, a slight bit cocky even, as we made our way westward following the Camino’s yellow arrows and scallop shell tiles through villages and along country roads.  The predicted rain was holding off and the morning was unfolding with a welcome ease.  When our stomachs began to growl with hunger in the late morning, there it was, a bar on the outskirts of a tiny village.  And when the man behind the counter at the bar did not understand a word we were saying in our pitifully-broken Spanish, there she was, a young mother with her eight month old baby, eager to practice her crystal-clear English and translate for us exactly the sandwiches we were craving on that crusty good bread.

Yes, we were in the flow on Day Three of our adventure.  And so what if the sky was seeming a bit darker when we left our village bar at noon — and the wind,  well, there might have been a slight gust of wind as we got ourselves back on our pilgrim’s path, but our bellies were full and our bodies replenished and the moisture in the air was too fine to be called a sprinkle and certainly wasn’t going to dampen our buoyant spirits.  And an hour later, when I reached down to pluck a mint leaf from the weedy-lush hedge at the side of the trail, and my hand skimmed across the nettle plants that mingled with the mint, and a pain shot through my finger tips, I laughed it off.  No, it wasn’t going to get to me, a little sting, from the stinging nettle.  And the rain — because now there was no denying it, that fine mist had turned heavy on us — well, it was bothersome, for sure, but manageable.  We slipped into raincoats, stretched the waterproof covers over our packs, and I changed from flip flops to running shoes.  And okay, I admit it, I was feeling a bit judgmental.  Cam looked ridiculous in his thirty dollar rainy-weather get-up from Walmart, the pants slopping around his legs, the jacket hump-backing over his pack, but I kept my mouth shut.  I really did.  And when we traced the tidal estuary on a back road with the slimmest of shoulders, I focused my attention on the the egrets standing in the tall grasses of the river marsh and the cars rumbling toward us, not even listening to Cam, who might have been grumbling as he walked at a steady clip in front of me.

I kept it together, my kindness, my sense of wonder, my pride in being able to uplift, and it all seemed genuine enough, as we once again found ourselves in the woods, this time in a eucalyptus forest, on a paved path.  I commented out loud at the sinus-clearing smell of the trees on a rainy day.  I pointed to birds, small birds and large hawk birds, birds that were new to us.  And when we approached a town with a market where we could stock up on snacks and pockets full of clementines, I let out a whoop and a holler — and I might have been coming on a little strong, a little loud, a little too verbal to someone in a thirty dollar rain coat with wet socks just trying to hang on.  But he, my Camino buddy, needn’t have worried because it was the hill that quieted me down.  It wasn’t a hill.  It was a mountain.  And the road, a paved one-laner on the other side of the town with the market, shot right up it, no switch-backs in sight.  I huffed and I puffed and I assumed that Cam a few feet in front of me was doing the same.  Who cares about the smell of eucalyptus when you can barely breathe a short little mouth breath.  It was my Everest and it took my full-bodied effort to make it to the summit.  But make it, I did, and my guy did as well.  And up there on the top of Everest were cottages, and farms with large lumbering dairy cows, and a tiny stone church.  And it was charming and we were wet and the path we were following had turned muddy, and that’s when Cam lost it, up there on top of the mountain, the mountain that we were going to have to descend at some point to make our way into the town of Liendo and our sixteenth century pousada where we’d be sleeping that night.  He just stopped up, up there in the rain, refused to budge, said he could not go on.

And that’s when I turned tough. I found my inner drill sergeant, told Cam to buck up, told him he didn’t have a choice, that we had to keep going.  I was stern.  I was mean.  I was relentless.  The uplifter had become a tyrant.  And lo and behold, it worked.  My guy swigged a gulp from his water bottle and started walking again.  And that’s when I decided that I wasn’t so buoyant anymore, that I was feeling a bit heavy myself, that I could use my own dose of uplifting, and I certainly wasn’t going to get it from the guy in front of me in the ridiculous rain gear.  So I called upon my dad.  I don’t do it often, but there is something about the Camino that opens us up.  Maybe it is the exhaustion of having already walked twenty kilometers in sopping shoes.  Maybe it is the holiness of the path on which you are walking.  For whatever reason, it was my dad who I asked, on the high ground in the late afternoon, to uplift me, my dad who had died when I was seventeen, my dad who was my childhood uplifter.  And maybe the airwaves are a little less clogged on the high ground of a pilgrimage because he came through to me, loud and clear.

I heard his voice in my head and I felt his essence.  He told me how proud he was of me.  “Just look at what you are doing!” he said.  “You are amazing!” he added with enthusiasm.  “And so is Cam!  I’m so proud of you both!”  And that’s when I looked in front of me at my guy, saw him in his Walmart rain gear, placing one foot in front of the other, making his way downhill now on a more windy two-lane manageable mountain road.  My dad was right.  We were amazing.  And that’s when my dad added the clincher  “Be nice to your husband,” he said.  He wasn’t stern, not a drill sergeant at all.  He said it with kindness.  “Be nice to your husband.”  And I want you to know that I took my dad’s words into my heart — perhaps they were always in my heart — and I caught up with Cam, told him my dad was proud of us, told him that I was proud of us.  And it didn’t matter that it still was raining as we walked into Liendo and found our sixteenth century pousada.  It was a good day and we were in the flow.

Day Three of our Camino pilgrimage, beginning in Castro-Urdiales and finishing our 27 kilometer day in Liendo, joining many other pilgrims at a sixteenth century pousada in the early evening.

My Work is Loving the World  Mary Oliver

 

Early in June, my husband Cam and I returned from an adventure in Europe.  We are walking El Camino del Norte, a route along the northern coast of Spain from east on the French border to the sacred city of Santiago de Compostela on the western tip, over 800 kilometers, and we, thus far, have hiked two one-week segments, the first segment two years ago and the second two months ago, have covered about 350 kilometers of our pilgrimage journey, carrying our clothes and essentials in packs on our backs and covering an average of 25 kilometers a day.  Hanging from a strap on my pack is a circular plastic tag that I had customed-made with a wide-winged peace dove and Mary Oliver’s words, “My Work is Loving the World” carved into its surface.  And that is my greatest intention on these pilgrimages across Spain, to soften my heart and spread my wings to this world I inhabit — that we all inhabit — to allow its gifts to soak in each day, to stay present to the moments.  And now, in a series of essays, I share a handful of these gifts with you.

 

I want to tell you that it was early on, before leaving the ground at our Marquette County Upper Peninsula airport on a Thursday afternoon, that a mantra for our El Camino pilgrimage became clear.  Sitting across the aisle from us on our small regional jet was a friend of my husband Cam’s, and, as Cam spoke to him of the monumental walking we were about to embark upon, sometimes over mountains, and often in the rolling hills along the northern coast of Spain, and always carrying packs on our backs filled with everything we were taking on this week-long journey, the friend replied in a chipper tone, “At least you can do it!”  These words stuck with me, and with Cam too, were etched in our minds from the moment the plane made its way down the runway and lifted us off into the wide wings of an overseas adventure.  Yes, at least we could do it, or believed in our hearts we could do it.  And isn’t that the most important thing, to believe something so fervently, so fully, that you know that it can be true?  And I knew this could be true, that Cam and I, two college kids who fell in love forty-five years ago, could do it.  It didn’t matter that we were now in our sixties, were grandparents who carried the scars of all these decades of full-body living.  It didn’t matter because the youthful vigor, the desire to challenge ourselves physically and spiritually, the excitement of opening to something new was as alive and fresh as it ever had been.

At least we can do it!  I said these words to myself, over and over, said them as we flew across the Atlantic on an overnight flight, said them as we paced the terminal at the Amsterdam airport for hours and hours the next day while waiting for our plane to Bilbao, the capital city of Basque Country, our end-point two years ago and starting point for this year’s trek, said them in the early evening as we were plunked out of a bus onto Bilbao’s busy city-center streets, and the next morning, backpacks strapped on tightly, said them again as we officially stepped out of our hotel and started following the Camino’s yellow arrow and scallop shell signs painted and tiled on buildings and sidewalks and telephone poles, followed the river and these arrows out of the city northbound toward the sea.  The Camino is a pilgrimage, with ancient roots, hundreds and hundreds of years old, that follows these arrows through countryside and towns and cities, along the many historic pathways across Europe and into Spain all leading toward the sacred city of Santiago de Compostela where the relics of St. James, one of Jesus’ twelve apostles, are housed in the city’s magnificent cathedral.  And Cam and I were on the path, on El Camino del Norte, the northern route to Santiago, and we felt it, something larger than any one religion or tradition, the way we were joined together with all those who have walked these pathways before us and with us now, something holy and good-feeling, something that was palpable in these bodies of ours.

And that’s what I want to talk about, these bodies of ours.  And our spirits.  Because I can’t separate the two.  It was a body experience, for sure, this walking on sidewalks along the river through the industrial and residential suburbs of Bilbao on that first morning, and it continued to be a body experience throughout the whole seven-day Camino journey, over one hundred miles of walking on goat paths and country roads, on old railroad grades, through fields and into cities and villages and resort towns, across sandy beaches onto rocky trails.  How can you not be present in your body when it is the vehicle carrying you forward?  How can you not feel the ground beneath you, whether hard and paved or rockbound and slippery or soft and grass-covered?  The moments are pressed into feet and shoulders, hips and thighs when you spend most of your day in movement.  And there were the packs slung across our backs.  We felt those packs on our shoulders and on our hips and middle backs, and it all required our attention, a tightening every now and then of the strap belted around our hips, a loosening of the one across the sternum, a shift here, a pull there in order to provide more comfort and ease.  Even in the discomfort, we felt it, the way our bodies were alive and eager and on board for this adventure.  And it was in these uncomfortable moments that our mantra became a handy reminder.  “At least we can do it!”  And when our walking feet, mine often in Teva flip flops, Cam’s in leather-bound hiking boots, found a bounce in their gait, when the packs slipped into place and our spines into alignment, that’s when we didn’t have to think about it, the way spirit infuses our bodies with a palpable vibrancy.  And that’s when we could relax our shoulders and our breath and settle even more fully into our bodies carrying us forward.  And that’s when our senses could open up to the feast of gifts along the way.

And what gifts there were!  It was springtime in northern Spain and the world, that first day, was washed fresh after an overnight rain, and it was all new to us, the river opening in a wide mouth to the sea, the sun breaking through morning clouds, the bus suspended by cables twenty feet above this river-mouth taking us across to the port city of Portegillete, the city band alive with music on a cobblestone side street, the bike path that took us up up up into the hills outside of town and westward twelve kilometers to the ocean again, to early evening blue sky and blue sea and a wide stretch of beach and silky warm sand on tired feet and a tiny village beyond where we spent that first night in an apartment overlooking the village square.  And along the way, it had been the smell of spring that my body had most savored.  It surprised me, how good it was to smell grass again after six months of cold frozen winter in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  Green grass and unfurled leaves had never smelled so good, and the sweetness of roses, and the musky smell of white blossoms on trimmed-back bushes, and honeysuckle.  There was honeysuckle.  It is the best to walk along the sea and smell the headiness of honeysuckle while eating a juicy clementine from the market in the port town you have just passed through.  And in the evening of that first day, as we traced the banks of a small tidal river to our village destination, there it was, with us still, the slight bounce in our tired gaits, and the mantra we had carried with us since leaving our home airport: “At least you can do it!”  Yes, indeed.  We can do it.  And today, we had, and it felt good.

 

We can do it!

Photographs from the first two days, starting in the Basque city of Bilbao, passing by the Guggenheim, following the river to the ocean, staying in the village of Pobena the first night and the second night in the beach front city of Castro-Urdiales where we explored the medieval cathedral and ate fish stew and grilled octopus in a restaurant on a point by the sea.

Welcome!

A smile is the universal welcome.  Max Eastman

When you open your heart to a stranger, you have welcomed another heart into your home.  Anthony T. Hinks

 

I’ve been thinking about the word welcome.  Though I say it all the time, sincerely, gladly, as I open the front door of Joy Center and greet the people entering, it was a segment on NPR’s All Things Considered a few weeks ago that coaxed me deeper and more expansively into the word’s meaning.  I just happened to turn on my car’s radio as the journalist began speaking about the flow of refugees wanting to enter the United States at the southern border, how they are not all from South and Central America, how many of them are from several countries in Africa, have traveled by plane a great distance across the Atlantic Ocean to South America where a harrowing overland journey awaits them on their way northbound.  Like the refugees from South and Central America, these people are fleeing economic hardships and human rights abuses and risking their lives as they make their way through dense jungles and crime-filled areas where robbery is a common occurrence.  The journalist focused in on one African family, a mother, a father and three young children, told how it took them many months to travel on foot from South America, through the thick-jungled forests of Central America, how they carried the children on their backs as they crossed wide rivers, how they went five days with no food at all, drinking rain water to give them the energy to continue, how they then waited two months at the Mexican border before they were allowed to enter the United States.

This story was touching my heart, for sure, but it was what the journalist shared next that caused me to gulp back tears then let them flow.  When the African family finally was granted entry, they were taken to a nearby shelter, and, within two weeks, were bused twenty-five hundred miles from the border, to New England’s most northern state of Maine, my home state, a state that had been primarily Caucasian until an influx of Africans were made to feel welcome in the 1990’s and is now known for its generous social safety net. The journalist told how the mayor of Portland, Maine’s largest city, was leading the cause in setting up temporary shelter, and figuring out how the city and state would cope with this overflow of people needing housing and employment.  In the meantime, local residents were flocking in to help, donating money, bringing food to the people in the shelters.  The journalist reported that the mayor was sure they would figure things out, that it would all work out.  “Maine has a long history of helping its neighbors” the journalist reported the mayor as saying.

That’s when it became personal for me.  That’s when I couldn’t stop the tears from flowing.  I thought of the monthly Church suppers when I was a child, of Miss Thom’s clam casserole, Aunt Mil’s tomato aspic, Aunt Barbie’s green beans and onion rings, my own mother’s wonderful cornbread-topped church supper dish, how we were embraced with the warmth of community at these suppers and food was a main attraction.  Mrs. Stadler also flashed into my mind as I listened to the broadcast, how she always in early summer walked from her cottage to ours carrying a rhubarb pie fresh from garden and oven, how welcomed I felt by her smile and her delicious pie, how these neighbors became family to me, how good it felt to be taken into the fold.  And I envisioned these Africans new to the United States, new to this northern climate and culture being greeted with flocks of people carrying casseroles and corn bread and fresh-picked lobster in stews and rolls, being greeted with smiles and home-cooked meals and a hearty, sincere “You are welcome”.  When the journalist had asked the father in this family what it was like to live in Portland in the make shift-shelter, he replied, “It is paradise.”

I don’t know the answer to an overflow at the United State’s southern border or an overflow of people, for that matter, at some events at our sweet cottage Joy Center sanctuary.  And I don’t know how it feels to flee a home country because of fear for your life, or what it feels like to journey through jungle and river and danger to grasp at something that might bring you safety and peace and a new beginning.  I do know, however, that I can take a cue from the mayor of Portland that we can figure things out, that it will work out, that I can expand my view of neighbor and neighborhood.  And I do know what it feels like to be welcomed when I’m the hungry traveler, when I’m in need of a smile or a meal or simply a listening ear.  And I do know what it feels like to be the one, the one who opens her arms wide and smiles a big sincere smile as she stands at the door of her ever-expanding life and says it loudly and clearly and warmly, “Welcome!  You are welcome!”

Murals in a Sancutaury at the Aubergue in Guemes, Spain: May 30, 2019

 

 

The Artist’s Way

In order to keep my creativity alive, I just try to enjoy life to the fullest.  G-Dragon

Creativity is a mansion.  If you’re empty in one room, all you have to do is go out into the hallway and enter another room that’s full.  E. Gary Gray

I remember the moment the idea came to me, a gentle nudge in mid-January.  It was cold in our northern world on this particular evening, Polar Vortex cold, too cold for my skis to glide across frigid dry snow, too cold to trudge beside the howling lake on the icy path, too cold to form a rational thought or make plans in any orderly fashion.  So it was through neighborhoods, shielded by homes and trees, that I walked and shivered and let go of thinking of anything at all except the sharp sting of the arctic blast.  And that’s when it popped into my head, a warm thought, more cozy suggestion than militant command, a forward-fun thought that sounded something like this: “I wonder if it would be a good thing to commit to the twelve-week process of The Artist Way again.”  At least four times in the past twenty-five years, I have made my way though Julia Cameron’s book, alone a few times and twice with a circle of friends, chapter by chapter, week by week, delving into the exercises and themes that encourage a reclamation of our innate creativity.  However, this process had not been on my radar for years, until that cold January night, that is.  There was something engaging in this friendly persistent voice inside my head and I took it to heart.  By the time I returned to the warmth of my car, I was on board, would order a new copy of The Artist’s Way and plunge myself into this twelve week journey with grit and gusto.

A few day later, I mentioned my Artist’s Way plan to a fellow Capricorn friend as we celebrated the mid-January birthday that we share, and her eyes grew wide.  “No way!”  she cried out.  She too had heard a voice in her head, felt the nudge to reacquaint herself with this twelve-week journey, even had hauled out an old copy of the book.  “Let’s do it together!” we both exclaimed.  “It’s going to be powerful!” we added.  And indeed it has been powerful.  Each week, on our own, we have read a single chapter, dipped into the tasks at chapter’s end, committed to three pages of daily free-writes, have claimed time for Artist’s Dates, and then, on Thursday mornings, in the coziness of a local coffee shop nestled in an old house, we have met, shared stories and insights and have cheered each other on.  This process has been a container for me and for my friend, too, during this long long winter in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a cauldron providing focus and heat and vibrant energy.  I have stirred this cauldron pot and it has stirred me too.  And the gifts have been plenty, both expected and unexpected.

I am no stranger to committing segments of my days and weeks to the practice and process of creative endeavors.  For over thirty years, I have written longhand in journals, have computer-typed essays and blogs, have copied down quotes, have forged out the paths for longer projects too, projects that have evolved into books and books-in-process.  It is from my own decades of experience and from bearing witness to the process of others that I have come to expect the gifts to emerge when we say “yes” to a practice, a practice that is lighting our inner fire, that is bringing us heat, even in the depths of a cold and howling Upper Peninsula winter.  So, I expected gifts, creative gifts, to bubble up as my friend and I traveled the artist’s way path through this book.  I expected the excitement of claiming more time than usual for my writing, and more time for reflecting on new dreams that might be taking seed during the dark months of winter.  And indeed, as the wind howled, as ice clung to the trees and snow flew sideways, I felt warm inside, filled with color and delight and spacious hours set aside for the tasks in The Artist’s Way book.  It was the focus of these spacious hours, the focus of what exactly brought me excitement and delight that threw me for a loop, that felt like a belated birthday surprise.

“Glue sticks rock!”  That was the message my Artist Way partner sent to me in a text one week during our three-month adventure.  And I sent her back a two-thumbs up of agreement.  While a voice in my head was full of “shoulds” — “Helen, you should be typing up those essays, should be sorting through the archive of Perry/Whitehead ancestor photos and writings, should be diving back into the Grandpa Haskell project, already a half-written book, for goodness sake” — while the blogs remained half-written and the projects stayed tucked away neatly in boxes, the glue sticks and scissors found their way center stage.  My artist journal became a weekly source of pleasure, one that thrilled the artist child within me for hours on end.  Each week, I copied down quotes and poems, created collages with photos that called me in all sorts of ways, photocopied paintings that drew me in, and completed the end-of-chapter tasks with gusto.  One task instructed the participant to describe their childhood room — and, as I began to write about my room in our sea captain home in coastal Maine, I realized how fortunate I had been during those elementary school years to have a space set up to foster creativity, a room with two clubhouse closets, a fireplace and slate hearth perfect for chalk writing, two huge windows to peek out at neighbors, a spacious hardwood floor for coloring projects, and art supplies galore.  My writing became a six-page essay of enthusiasm.

And that’s what I want to tell you, that enthusiasm became my compass this past winter.  The “shoulds” flew out the window and play became paramount.  I realized that my practices had been becoming quite serious, that I had been focusing not only on process but also on product, that a blog must be published by a certain date, a book completed in a certain season, a to-do list checked off by end of day.  The child within doesn’t care about publication dates; the child within cares about play, and play is inherently creative and expansive and opens us up to new unexpected possibilities and pleasures.  And lo and behold, sometimes the play does lead us to polished products.  It was during the last two weeks of this journey that I felt compelled to peruse through two years of writings from our Upper Peninsula poet laureate’s monthly workshops at Joy Center, writings that I had cast aside as rough and raw and far too messy for serious revision.  And what I found instead astounded me, a treasure chest of poems-in-process, many nearly finished in their raw messiness.  It felt like the holy grail to me, gems discovered in perfect timing, gems that I now have polished with an ease and grace and a child-like wonder that can’t be forced.

And the gifts that spilled out of the cauldron-container for both my artist partner and me couldn’t be confined to a journal or notebook or a specific time set aside for the creative tasks at chapter’s end.  That is the thing I remembered clearly during this process, that it is the whole of our lives, every moment, that is an artist’s expression, a miracle waiting to be noticed.  I knew this already, but it was within the heat of the cauldron-container-process that I noticed it with more vivid appreciation.  I could hardly contain the excitement, the awe I felt when skiing on trails surrounded by trees glazed with ice, for weeks on end, shimmering, glimmering, an other-worldly fairy land of wonder.  And a Saturday supper, it is a creation to behold when the ingredients are fresh and a guy and a gal are playing together in the kitchen and a movie is waiting for them on Netflix after the feast.  Each week, I devoted space in my artist journal to record miracles and magical moments, and each week my list was long and satisfying.  Sometimes it was the simple things, a smile exchanged, a patch of sun that brought a startling warmth to frosty cheeks, the bold and welcoming colors in our toasty home, the heat of a basement sauna.  Sometimes it was more dramatic, an eagle sitting by the side of the road or flying overhead just as I was thinking a powerful thought.  Sometimes the miracle moments involved release, release of any “shoulds” or old stories that were outdated and heavy, and the release was easy and light.  And there were moments that astounded me.  One evening after Dinner and a Movie at Joy Center, I felt compelled to tidy up the back basement, and stumbled upon a box in the corner that I had forgotten about, a box of small treasures from my mother’s cottage that had been sitting there for six years, and in this box was a ring made by my uncle for my mother, a wonderful modern sprawling ring that looks like an angel or bird on the wing, a gift from my angel mother that I now wear daily.

There is one page remaining blank at the end of my artist’s journal, a page I plan to fill with a collage of images pointing me forward.  I have finished the final chapter in The Artist’s Way and am now visiting our two sons and their families in Idaho.  It is spring here, tulips in vivid bloom, leaves unfurling, a new season beckoning.  Yesterday I ate lunch at school with my six-and-a-half year old grandson and a table crammed with first graders sharing knock knock jokes.  Afterwards, I followed them outside for twenty minutes of recess on the sprawling field of grass and the cedar-chipped play area.  And I soaked it in, the wildness of it all, the freedom, as the many classes of kids raced from one activity to another, as they hooted and hollered and kicked a soccer ball then sailed across the monkey bars then swung themselves high up into the sky.  It is within us all, this artist child, this desire to create, to play, to imagine.  We don’t need a twelve-week process to remind us that we are all artists, that our lives are our art, though a practice might bring us the heat we need to play with more gusto.  And let’s do it, in this new season of tulips and leaves unfurling.  Let’s play with more gusto.  Let’s allow ourselves to unfurl and blossom with the tulips and leaves.  Let’s live full-out and free.  Happy spring!

IMG_9310

IMG_9312.jpg

IMG_9313

IMG_9317

Tulips in Moscow, Idaho: May 1, 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Molasses

(Transcribed from longhand writing scrawled in a journal while meeting with writing circle on March 8, 2019.)

I know not why we should blush to confess that molasses was an essential ingredient in American independence.  Many great events have proceeded from much smaller causes. John Adams (by then one of the country’s founding fathers, writing to a friend)

“Helen Jo, hurry up!” she’d say.  “You’re as slow as cold molasses flowing uphill.”  That was our mother’s expression when her children would dawdle, and we, her coastal Maine kids, knew that this threat was an idle one.  Our mother loved slow-flowing sweet molasses, and we, her kids, loved it too.  We were a family of the sixties, ate from all the food groups, fish from the cove in the summer, chicken, beef and pork in the winter, potatoes baked or scalloped, a vegetable always, and salad, fresh from the garden until the frost wilted the heads.  And dessert — every night, we ate dessert.  Molasses was a favorite.  We loved our mother’s passion for molasses, the miracles she created by marrying it with spicy ginger.  There was Indian pudding, a New England favorite, corn meal, milk, ginger and molasses, thickened on top of the stove, baked for hours, then topped with ice-cold vanilla ice cream that melted into the steaming pudding.  And gingerbread.  Our mother cheated, bought Dromedary mix.  We loved her Dromedary mix gingerbread topped with a dollop of whipped cream or a slab of real butter, loved her crisp ginger snap cookies, too, and the soft round molasses ones she baked on snowy winter days.

On the lucky mornings when we woke up to the aftermath of a nighttime snow squall to discover that school was cancelled, after hours of inside play, when our raucousness was just too much for her to bear, our mother would hand us our woolen snow pants, our hand knit mittens, our stocking caps and shove us out the door.  It wasn’t a choice; it was a command, a command that led to hours of snow-fort building and toboggan sliding and   wild whooping abandon.  And then there would be the call, the permission to come back in, to the warmth of a humming furnace and radiators that warmed our bottoms and hands.  And there they would be, still piping hot from the oven.  The big round molasses cookies.  I wonder if it relaxed her, to have this time alone, in the quiet of her kitchen, with the ingredients she loved, the butter, the eggs, the flour, the ginger, and the molasses all mixed together in a glorious swirl.

Our mother grew up in Boston, the land of slow-cooked molasses-laden baked beans.  She was a Boston girl, lived just a stone’s throw from the city center, on childhood  Sundays traveling in with her parents and siblings to attend the Boston Swedenborgian Church, knew the Boston of the twenties intimately, and we her Maine-raised kids, each Thanksgiving, would pile into our powder blue 1957 Chevy station wagon, and travel the three hours to her old stomping  ground where we would gather with grandparents, great uncles and aunts, with cousins and their parents for our annual turkey feast.  From infancy on, I took this trip with parents and siblings and I have wondered whether I dreamed it, the story I remember our mother telling us as we would drive through the north end of the city.  I was little, after all, a pre-schooler, and it all seems hazy and improbable. But this is what I remember.  She would roll down the driver’s side window, and say to our dad and to us, “Do you smell it, the molasses?”  And we would sniff the air, and I think we would smell it, a faint sweet dark smell wafting in through the car window.  And then in my dream of a memory, she would plunge into the story, tell us how a giant tank of molasses burst wide open and molasses poured down the streets of Boston.

This dream of a story has stuck with me as molasses tends to do, and our mother’s love of molasses, I’ve taken it in as an offering, a nurturing gift, and dark blackstrap molasses, I love it just as she did.  And gingerbread, mine made from scratch and sweetened with prunes, is my birthday cake of choice.  And this is what I want to tell you, that it was this year, on my birthday, January 15, 2019, that I happened upon it, the article commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Great Molasses Disaster.  Oh my!  There’s a start, a startle, a gasp, even a whoop when a hazy molasses-laden dream shines bright in the light of day.  And that’s when it happened, in the light of the day, a little after noon, on January 15, 1919, after a week of sub-zero weather, during a melt-down thaw when temperatures sky-rocketed to forty degrees.  And this tank, full of molasses, was ready to transfer for processing and had fermented in the unseasonably warm weather, people surmise, and then it burst.  Our mother was three-and-a-half months old when a torrent of molasses more than fifteen feet high raged down the street in Boston’s north end at thirty-five hours an hour.  This is no sweet and sappy children’s story, no Candyland game of a tale.  This is tragedy.  This is horses and people drowning in a river of molasses, of a train toppling, of houses uprooted.  This is a mess, a messy molasses story in the home of Boston baked beans.

And our mother inhaled it all, I think.  She must have.  How could you not hear the tale over and over during your childhood?  The streets were sticky for years and our mother must have stuck to those streets and the harbor was brown and salty-sweet for months during the summer she learned to crawl and our grandparents must have told her what it was like to hear the first-hand accounts from friends in the north end.  So there its was, tragedy and drama, a river of molasses starting out hot and bubbly, then slowing down as it cooled and trapping whatever was in its path.  Our mother didn’t shy away from tragedy.  In some ways, perhaps she attracted it, sent out a tragic vibe that allowed sorrow to sweep in and stick to her.  In high school, she told me, she had a crush on a guy.  Not exactly her words.  Perhaps she said that she was shy and he was shy too, but there was something there, a spark between them.  And one day, at a football game, as he charged down the field, his heart simply gave out, and he died.  And that’s how her first husband, at thirty-three, died, in an internal explosion of heart, and then my father, he died too.

There was a sticky sorrow in all of this, I’m sure, and yet our mother was a buoyant soul, She didn’t dive down and drown in this sticky mess.  She, like her mother before her, soaked her beans in water overnight, then, pressure-cooked them with sweet onions and tomatoes and a chug chug chug of molasses.  Every Saturday night, we ate Boston Baked Beans.  Our molasses was contained in bottles, and gently slowly flowed in a trickle into the cookies and puddings and cakes.  And when our mother rolled down the window of our 1957 powered blue Chevy station wagon and asked, “Do you smell it?”, as she told us the tale of the Great Molasses Disaster, in my dream of a memory, I don’t remember any sorrow in her voice.  She was chipper and we were too, sniffing the air and smelling the faint whiff of a sweetness that far outlived any tragedy that had occurred decades earlier.

Tag Cloud