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The Sailor

I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky,  And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by . . .  John Masefield, from the poem, Sea Fever

 

We met him on a Friday night under a sky filled with stars.

The tiki lights had illuminated our way as we followed the stone path that wove through the resort and led us to the beach, Waikiki Beach, where we were staying this past Labor Day Weekend.  People, hundreds of them, were spreading towels and setting up portable chairs on the sand, and the wall that separated resort from beach was packed with people sitting squished together as well.  It was my husband Cam who found the two of us a spot on the wall, right next to him, this tall lithe man wearing khaki pants and a porkpie hat.  His face crinkled into a smile as he scooted over, making room for us to sit.  It was the waiting game we were all playing, waiting for a display of fireworks that was promised to be spectacular.  And at first, we said little to our next door neighbor, just small talk about the luck of having a seat and the size of the crowd.  But as Cam and I watched the people stroll by, families with small children, couples, old and young, some holding hands, I kept glancing in the direction of our new friend on the wall.  His face beamed as he looked out at the scene unfolding in front of us.  There was a peace about him and a sincere delight with it all.

I’m not sure how the three of us made the transition from the shallow waters of small talk to the depths of true connection, but, once it happened, we found ourselves plunging in with heart and soul.  Cam and I had just shared that we lived in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and our new friend had replied that he had grown up in Wisconsin, knew the U.P., loved the wildness of its land and the Great Lakes, and we learned that he now lived in California, in a small town south of Santa Barbara.  We then confessed our secret, that we were feeling a bit naughty, hadn’t told anybody — he was the first — that we had flown here to Oahu for the weekend, a few short days of exploring the island before heading back home.   It would have seemed natural to have asked him, “What about you?!?  How was your flight?!?  How long are you staying on Oahu?!?”  I think that’s what we did.  And that’s when everything turned topsy-turvy and sea-wavy.  That’s when we learned his story.

Our new friend’s name was Steve, and Steve hadn’t flown to Hawaii at all.  And it was no whirlwind trip for him.  He had been here several weeks, in Honolulu, playing his own waiting game, waiting for a boom to be shipped to the island from the mainland, waiting for the seas to settle into a pleasing pattern after Hurricane Lane, waiting for the perfect moment to head back home to Santa Barbara.  You see, while Cam and I had hopped on two Delta flights and sailed our way through the skyways over the continent and South Pacific, arriving the very afternoon we had taken off, Steve had set sail from California, in a twenty-eight foot Cape Dory boat, and, after four weeks at sea, had landed at the marina next to this resort, with a broken boom, a ripped sail, a happy heart and an ocean of enthusiasm for his adventure.  Cam and I began bombarding him with questions.  We learned that he had been a sailor for years, loved his sturdy boat, that this trip had been on his bucket list, a post-retirement dream.

Honestly, if he had told us that he had climbed Everest or had meditated for a month in a cave in southern France or had ultra-run his way across the continent of Africa, I don’t think I would have been as mesmerized.  I am inspired and impressed, amazed to the max, by these extra-ordinary feats, but, somehow, I can wrap my mind around them.  But this story — I just couldn’t fathom it!  Cam and I were trying our hardest to envision it, the sea with its constant waves and wind, and the sky, the wide open sky, for days, and weeks, just the sea and the sky — and Steve in his twenty-eight foot boat.  No, Steve didn’t see many other vessels at all.  And sea life?  Flying fish, large flying fish and small flying fish were his companions, but no dolphins, and occasional sea birds, skimming close to the water, catching the fish, usually one bird sighting at a time, but then, at night, a pair of them together as they too settled into the darkness.  And the darkness!  The darkness wasn’t dark at all.  Steve was lit up, his whole body animated, as he shared with us about nighttime in the middle of the South Pacific.  He pointed up above the palm trees to the red-glowing planet that hung in the sky over our piece of the beach.  “In the middle of the sea, mars is so bright and red and luminous.  You wouldn’t believe it.  It lights up the world.”

It might have been then, at the moment of picturing a small sailing vessel and one sweet man alone with the whole of the sea and the whole of the nighttime sky, that I felt the shudder.  It was the hair-standing-on-end and crown-of-the-head tingle that arises within me when I’m in the midst of something big and profound and beyond my understanding.  And when I felt the shudder, I intuitively reached into my pocket and pulled out a small white wave-washed stone that I had picked up weeks earlier from the shore of Lake Superior at the Pictured Rocks National Park.  I handed it to Steve, and he rubbed his fingers over its surface, and I told him it was a talisman from Cam and me, that we would be thinking of him, sending him love and fair winds and safe passage.  He seemed appreciative, received it as a sacred gift, tucked it into his pocket, wanted to know all about the Pictured Rocks and the beach where the stone had been found.

It was shortly after moving to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, when the boys were toddlers, that Cam and I first camped at the Pictured Rocks.  We set up our tent in a spot nestled under white pines and beech trees above the cliff of dunes at the Twelve Mile Beach Campground, ate a dinner cooked over a fire, tucked our precious sons underneath blankets, and, together, from the top of the banking, watched as a scarlet sun dipped down behind the wide expanse of Lake Superior.  It was then, in the growing darkness, that I slipped down the dunes to the beach, brushed my teeth, then stood there transfixed.  I remember it still, the feeling I had that evening, something I had never experienced before.  It was the bigness of it all — the sound of the waves, and the white curls that somehow glimmered in the darkness, and the sky, so much sky, filled with stars, more stars than I could possibly imagine.  And me, alone on this twelve mile stretch of beach.  And I remember I felt God that night, whatever God might be, something bigger and grander than everything.  And I remember that I felt less significant than I had ever felt and more significant than I could ever imagine, that there were no words for what I was feeling that night so many decades ago.

Perhaps the memory was infused in the stone, polished by those Lake Superior waves, and picked up along the same stretch of shoreline this past summer, the stone that I gifted to Steve as we sat together on the wall.  Perhaps the memory is an ever-so-tiny taste of what it might be like to be in the middle of an ocean alone for weeks on end, just you and the sea and the sky.  I know that I discovered a depth in myself that night at the Pictured Rocks and an expansiveness, too.  And I can only imagine the depth and the expansiveness that one must feel when sailing across an ocean, alone.  We saw Steve again briefly the next evening.  He was sitting in the same place on the wall looking out at the South Pacific.  We told him that we were leaving the next morning, that we had thought about him all day, that it was the highlight of our trip to meet him and hear his story.  He replied that he had researched the Pictured Rocks, that the stone was tucked in a safe place, that it was a pleasure to meet us — and then, all lit up with the delight that seemed to be in his essence, he said that he, too, was leaving in the morning, that the winds and weather were favorable, that he was ready for this voyage that might take up to six weeks.  I gave him my e-mail and he promised he would let us know when he was once again on solid ground.  And the next morning, while walking along the beach before setting off for the airport and our one-day of travel home, we caught a glimpse on the horizon of a small boat motoring out to catch the wind, Steve’s twenty-eight foot Cape Dory.  “God Speed!” we hollered as we waved and wiped tears from our eyes, sensing that Steve and his boat rollicking in the waves and the wind were already on solid ground.

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Fireworks over Waikiki Beach: September, 2018

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The Pacific meeting the shoreline: Oahu, Hawaii, September, 2018

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Steve taking off, a spec on the horizon: Honolulu, Hawaii, September 2, 2018

 

 

An Homage to Summer

August has tipped into September and the goldenrod is in full bloom in these northern woods.  Nights are cooler now and the maples leaves are showing a hint of scarlet.  In this in-between time, I am savoring the warm days and the hikes by the lake and am reflecting back on these past few months with a sense of gratitude for a rich and fully-lived summer.  Here are three poems that I wrote in U.P. poet laureate Marty Achatz’ monthly Joy Center poetry workshops:

 

Saturdays in July

It is Market Day and our larder is full.

Bunches of spinach and braising greens,

pea shoots and kales leaves, stalks of chard,

all these greens stuffed

into the fridge, and round red radishes the size of limes

and tiny peppers, paper bags of oyster mushrooms, shitakes,

the scallions, the shallots, the garlic scapes,

fresh strawberries in cardboard containers, sweet tiny beets —

There is so much to love on Saturdays!

 

After the market,

the afternoon hike, a dip in the lake,

we chop together,

the garlic, the scallions, the chard,

the greens,

and we heat the stove,

boil the water as the summer breeze wafts in

and we find our rhythm

the two of us.

He splashes the mushrooms with olive oil.

I sprinkle on the sea salt.

He grills; I saute.

The pasta boils itself

and we toss it all together,

add fresh parsley, some parmesan,

a dash of cayenne.

We are not young anymore

but what we cook up

is peppery and succulent

and it pleases us every time.

 

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An afternoon hike: July 2018

 

 

 

A Summer Miracle

Tomorrow we will fly east

to the land

of my beginnings,

my husband and I,

and this time

we have a tag-along,

precious cargo,

our six-year-old grandson,

and I will show him things.

As we circle Portland Harbor,

I will point out the plane window —

the white caps, the lobster boats,

the Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse.

I will feel it fresh within me,

how Maine is my Hawaii,

my sweet-spot place.

I will say to him

as we step out of the airport,

“Breathe it in —

it is the the ocean you smell,

the fishy salt-tanged sea”

and I will sing to him a sea-shanty song

and he will let me sing, I think,

as I drive us north on 295

through Falmouth and Yarmouth

and I will tell him

that I used to drive to Maine

with his dad, too,

when his dad was a little boy,

how sometimes in Yarmouth

we would be stuck in traffic

for a very long time

during the Clam Festival Parade

and I will ask my grandson,

“Do you know that clams live in the muddy sand

and when the tide is low

they breathe their bubbles up to the surface

and we can dig for them?”

I will not be able to stop myself;

I will keep on chattering

pointing to things

like the giant wooden Indian

that lives in front of the general store

on the outskirts of Freeport,

and then we will enter Bath,

my birth town,

and I will show him the giant crane

the ships being built,

the wide tidal river

and I will say,

“This is where your Grandma lived

right here

in this sea captain’s home.

That was my bedroom over in the corner.”

But I won’t stop, not yet–

I will drive on

because we’re not quite there.

We will cross the Winnegance Bridge,

follow the banks of the Kennebec

toward the sea

and I will roll down the window

and it is the balsam he will smell

and the mudflats and the fish

and the waves thrashing the shore

and a huge dose

of his Grandma’s happiness.

 

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Grandson and Grandma on Sister Point; Phippsburg, Maine, July 2018

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Popham Beach at sundown: Phippsburg, Maine, July 2018

 

 

 

Lake Superior

I want to write about Big Foot

and moths, giant moths,

maybe a cecropia,

about the Milky Way in July,

a meteor shower in August.

I want to write about the quiet

of a humid night,

how sometimes I sweat and stink.

I want to write about smooth granite

and prickly pine needles

and dirty feet,

about heat soaking into balsam and pine,

into skin and bones.

I want to write about a tangle of root

around rock, and, yes, there is the lake too

in front of me

but I don’t want to write about it —

because what could I possibly say?

 

I will keep on walking the rocky rooty path,

pine needles prickling my feet,

keep walking in Big Foot’s steps,

content with my sweat, my stink,

with the stars

above me

and the moths,

the big ones,

fluttering about.

I will keep walking along the shore

without saying a word

about the mightiest, the greatest of lakes.

 

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On the shore: Marquette, Michigan, Summer 2018

 

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Befriending Bigfoot: Summer 2018

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Lake Superior: Summer 2018

 

A Duck Story

Dear friends,

(I want to share a story with you, one that touched my heart this past week.)

The secret of change is to focus all of your attention not on fighting the old, but on building the new.  Socrates

Change is the constant, the signal for rebirth, the egg of the phoenix.  Christina Baldwin.

It was on Saturday, a warm breezy August Saturday evening as we walked along Marquette’s lakeshore bike path, that my husband Cam blurted out, “You know what is going to be hard for me?  Letting the decoys go.”  It is on these walks that we catch up with each other, tackle the topics that are drawing us in at the moment, and, on this particular Saturday, we were envisioning a less rooted life, less grip on home and possessions, a good cleaning of the house where we have lived for thirty years.  And, of course, when we lighten our load, it will be the decoys that he will miss.

You see, it is ingrained in Cam, this love of birds, especially waterfowl — and, in his younger years, duck hunting used to be a part of this passion.  In fact, it colored our beginnings.  I met him in the autumn of my freshman year at the University of Maine.  I lived in Kennebec Hall, he in Aroostook and our meals were served across the street in York, and that’s where I first set eyes on him, in the dinner line on a balmy October evening.  He was with the Aroostook guys, I with the Kennebec gals, standing in a line that wound its way out of the cafeteria and into the hallway.  There was plenty of time to start a conversation as we crept forward.  And it wasn’t the red L.L.Bean chamois shirt he was wearing, the yellow CAT trucker hat, the faded jeans that caught my attention. It was the thing dangling around his neck that called me in.  “What’s that?” I asked pointing to the wooden whistle-type instrument he was wearing over the red chamois.  And that’s when he did it, drew it up to his lips, pursed, then blew into the mouth piece.  Granted, it wasn’t flute beautiful, the sound that quack quack quacked its way through the dinner line, but I felt the call, fluttered my wings and flew in a little closer.  So there you have it, a mallard duck-call brought us together, and the kiss that sealed the deal, a month later, was on a gray November afternoon on the coast of the north Atlantic, with the waves splashing the rocky shore and a black and white old squaw bobbing in the chop.  Ducks have always had a tender place in Cam’s heart and he brought me into the flock early on.

And six years later, after a wedding and a baby, while living one thousand miles inland in Ann Arbor, Michigan, it was the ducks that I believe saved my young husband from metaphorically drowning.  It was in his third year of dental school at University of Michigan that we moved into student housing, into a townhouse, complete with downstairs, upstairs, and a basement, a basement big enough for washer and dryer, a sewing space for me, and a workshop for Cam.  And it was there in the basement, in those precious moments where he wasn’t immersed in the rigorous beyond-stress-filled schedule of school, that Cam felt the pull to create something wild.  It started with a black duck decoy he ordered from L.L. Bean, one with a wooden head and a cork body, a template that he could use as he moved forward with his plan.  And then he set up shop with sheets of cork, and stacks of wood, and glass eyes and the broom handles he picked from the student housing dumpster.  And he worked like a fiend.  Mallards and golden eyes, bluebills and Canada geese, tiny black and white buffleheads, ducks on alert, ducks with bills tucked under their heads, ducks with butts perched high in the air.  Our basement became a raft, a raft of ducks that kept my guy afloat.  He lifted himself up, grew wings and flew himself through those last two tough years of school, then flew himself north, joined a dental practice in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  And the ducks, they flew north too.  And duck hunt Cam did, duck-call dangling around his neck.  He built himself a layout boat, and, with duck-loving buddies, hunted the lakes and bays and shorelines of the far north of Michigan.  Until, he didn’t anymore.  Lives got busy, his and his friends, and the ducks, Cam’s ducks, were tucked away in huge mesh bags, stuffed up into the rafters of our garage, where they have sat for nearly thirty years, landlocked, silent and undemanding, without as much as a quack.  But then this past weekend, Cam, who must have been thinking about the garage filled with clutter, awakened the flock.  As we walked the bike path, as we mused about new possibilities, Cam was contemplating about the old, the old carved decoys.  “Who would ever appreciate them?” he wondered.  “Who could possible care?”

So, that was Saturday.  And then it was the next day, Sunday, Dinner and a Movie Night at Joy Center.  And I’m not sure why I brought it up.  It had nothing to do with the The Post, the movie we were about to watch, nothing to do with journalism or Pentagon Papers.  Perhaps it was Cam’s comment about decoys the day before still stuck in my mind that initiated my babble as I began quacking out the story of the college dinner line and the duck-call around Cam’s neck.  Perhaps it was because BG had just arrived, BG, who had never been to a Dinner and a Movie Night before, BG, who I’ve known for over thirty years, BG, who writes poetry and essays, novels and plays about the the Upper Peninsula, his family camp on a wild lake, his love for duck hunting.  Perhaps I was being a good hostess bringing ducks into the conversation.  But I swear to you; I was not being matchmaker and no synapse in my brain connected any dots.  I was as shocked as everyone else when Cam looked directly at BG and asked, “Do you want a raft of ducks?”, as shocked as everyone else when Cam then scooted home and returned with two decoys, a bluebill and a bufflehead, a token offering of a much larger gift, shocked as everyone else when BG said, “You all don’t understand; this is the best day of my life!”, shocked as everyone else when he added, “This is like being ten years old and going to an uncle’s house and not being told ahead of time that it is Christmas.”, as shocked as everyone else when the two ducks sat beside BG like his new best friends throughout the entire movie, shocked as everyone else that Cam’s raft of ducks had so easily and quickly found their way down from the rafters and into the arms of someone who was about to set them free.

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Our toddler son playing with the ducks: Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1981.

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Cam with his decoys: Ishpeming, Michigan, August 2018

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BG and Cam, the letting go and receiving: Ishpeming, Michigan, August 2018

 

Mr. Rogers

Just being you is enough.  Fred Rogers

One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self.  Fred Rogers

There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.  Fred Rogers

It was a daily ritual in our house on Pansy Street in the early to mid-eighties, the kids — our two pre-school boys and their toddler girl pal who lived next door — the three of them, planted on our bed, upright and attentive, facing the television that sat on the bureau nearby, transfixed by what they were watching.  And I admit, this late afternoon ritual was a reprieve for me, a thirty minute deep breath in the day of a young mother of two rambunctious little boys, a time to wash a few dishes and maybe my own face, straighten the living room, perhaps brush my hair or stretch my body.  I wasn’t as attentive as they were to the program that aired five afternoons a week on our public television channel.  But, as I scurried about my grown-up tasks, I caught glimpses, both of the sincerity on the kids’ faces as they absorbed what was coming through the airwaves in their direction, and the sincerity of the man inside that little box of a TV who seemed to be speaking directly to them.  I also admit, that from my detached space of mother-on-afternoon-retreat, I was a bit of a snob, grateful for sure, for this man who was taking over my parenting duties in such a loving respectful manner, but perplexed and amused that a show that was so low-budget, so simple, so dorky to my adult eyes, could hold the kids interest day after day after day.  But my reaction didn’t matter.  Whether I understood it or not, it was a fact; our kids loved him.  Mr. Rogers was their friend, and, each afternoon, they willingly eagerly took up his invite and brought their full selves into his neighborhood — and his neighborhood, it became their neighborhood.

And this neighborhood that Mr. Rogers encouraged the little ones to enter, this space that bridged the television set with our own diverse rural and suburban and inner city neighborhoods, was a safe and welcome space for these pre-schoolers to dwell in.  And when I stopped now and then to check up on the kids, I too found my snobby-self tiptoeing into this world of Mr. Rogers, surprised by the way he and his puppets spoke freely of feelings, the way all feelings, both light and dark, seemed to be invited into the conversation, the way all guests and regulars, a diverse group of guys and gals and puppet friends, also were welcomed, surprised by the way that I, a reluctant adult who was judging Mr. Rogers as dorky, felt welcomed as well.

I remember one afternoon, peeking in just in time to catch Mr. Rogers in serious discourse with the three toddler kids on our bed.  Without a flicker of patronization, with his eyes locked into theirs, he was discussing fears, one fear in particular.  I can’t remember whether it was the toilet or the bathtub that was the focus of discussion.  Whichever it was, it struck a chord with the kids on the bed.  They were listening intently as he explained that it just couldn’t happen, that there was no way, that they were far too big to be sucked down the drain.  I’m not sure the toddler fear of being pulled into the pipes beneath our toilets and bathtubs even had been on my radar before — and there he was, the kids’ television friend, assuring them that they could relax, that they just needed some logical information presented in a loving respectful manner, that they were safe.  Each day, our kids were getting a huge dose of kindness and generosity, tolerance and respect, along with these substantive conversations.  Each day he was there for them.  He “got” them.  He had their backs.

And I, back then in the eighties took him for granted, took “it” for granted, the level of generosity and respect and tolerance that Mr. Rogers exuded to this television audience.  I see that now.  I hadn’t even thought about him in years, not until a trip to the movie theater a few weeks ago when I was reminded of his amazing ability to connect with the hearts and minds of the little people who revered him.  My husband Cam and I were settling into the theater’s tilt-back easy chairs, getting ourselves comfortable in anticipation of the romantic comedy we were about to see, when the previews began appearing on the screen.  And tucked between the action adventures and a comedy about dogs was a trailer for a documentary by an Oscar-winning filmmaker.  It took me aback, took me way back, this trailer espousing in the voiceover that, in these divisive times, we need Mr. Rogers.  We need his kindness, his authenticity, his ability to truly listen to people, little and big alike.  And then the trailer honed in on him, the man I hadn’t thought about in years, the man looking out at us with his kind eyes in the same way he had once-upon-a-time looked out at our kids, and, as he zipped up his familiar sweater, he began to sing his theme song.  That’s when I surprised myself.   I choked up. I was crying, real snot-and-tears crying.

During our Pansy Street years, Cam was a young dentist who worked a block-and-a-half away from our little ranch house.  Each morning, he would ride his bike, an old gold-colored Schwinn three-speed with chrome racks and a basket in front, to the dental center, his tie flapping in the bike’s breeze.  And, each late afternoon, he would ride it back home again, parking it beside the garage.  And then, with a burst of energy, he would barge into the house — we could count on it — marching himself right into the bedroom as those kids sat there watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.  And as he loosened, then whipped off his tie, he would start to sing it.  “It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor . . .”   With gusto, he would continue as he dropped the white button-down onto the floor and pulled on his comfortable t-shirt, and just like Mr. Rogers, he’d belt it out, “Would you be mine?  Could you be mine?  Won’t you please, won’t you please, please won’t you be my neighbor?”  And the kids, they would giggle, delighted with this ritual, delighted that their neighborhood was mingling with Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, delighted that it was all one big inclusive neighborhood.  And I was delighted as well.

Mr. Rogers is getting his own documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” and I am eager to see it.  I am delighted he is back in our lives, back in our consciousness.  It feels good to to be in the presence of kindness and generosity and inclusivity.  I don’t care if he’s dorky.  I don’t even know what dorky means anymore.  Perhaps dorky is what we need right now in this world.  I just know I want to be a part of his welcoming-all neighborhood.  I just want to be his neighbor.  Thank you, Mr. Rogers!

 

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It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood:  Autumn, 1984

And suddenly you know:  It’s time to start something new and trust the magic of beginnings.  Meister Eckhart

You are pulsing with divine life longing to spring forth  (from my calendar)

We begin again to dream, weave the work of our hands and hearts, to revision the world, and refresh ourselves, for we are the green shoots of renewal.  Sherri Rose-Walker

It was a Saturday night in March, a perfect time to try out our new subscription to Netflix.  We, my husband and I,  settled in with snacks and pillows and the trusty controllers, ready to dive into this wide world of exciting new possibilities.  But before we even pressed the Netflix button on that small black Roku stick, we got sidetracked.  Perhaps it was the song that drew us in, transfixed us into dropping the Roku all together and caving in to traditional TV and a PBS fundraising special.  Petulia Clark was our host and it was the British pop invasion of the sixties and seventies that was the focus — and the song; it was the Moody Blues, Nights in White Satin.  Of course, we’d be drawn in.  It was a slow-dance special, our slow-dance special at the University of Maine Friday night keg parties, and, on Saturdays, a highlight dance at the Bounty Bar in Bangor.  We hugged long and close and hot as we sort of swayed our way across the dance floor, seventies-style, to this song, and, here it was, forty-something years later wooing us in again on a Saturday night.

Except something was different.  The concert audience that was taking in the music wasn’t a crowd of college freshmen from back in the seventies, girls in halter tops and granny glasses and guys in plaid bell-bottom pants, all guzzling beer out of plastic cups because we could in those days, legally, when the drinking age was eighteen.  There were no halter tops, no plaid bell-bottoms, no adolescent fever-pitch swaying.  Instead an amiable group of gray-haired sixty and seventy year olds was smiling appreciatively, some of them singing along, all sitting comfortably in their audience seats.  No.  This was present day and the crowd — well, the crowd was old.  And so were the Moody Blues.  And that felt okay to me.  The magic of the song seemed to transcend time, still moved both Cam and I.  It was a little later, however, that I started to feel uncomfortable.  I think it was when Herman’s Hermits took the stage.  Okay, there might have been a time when I was in love with Herman, before college and Cam, before high school and Cat Stevens, before Junior High and James Taylor.  I’m talking way back, way back to Newell Elementary and fifth grade and the year I tore all the photos of guys I deemed cute from the pages of Tigerbeat Magazine and taped them on my bedroom wall, way back when I was sure I was going to marry Davy Jones from the Monkees.

I didn’t want to say it out loud, didn’t want to feel it, wanted instead to enjoy myself along with the concert audience when Peter Noone, who I used to know as Herman, turned on that exaggerated British accent and began belting out, “Mrs. Brown you have a lovely daughter . . .”   And I admit that he looked good, still had a youthful vigor and he seemed to be enjoying himself wholeheartedly as he bounced around the stage.  And maybe it was rude of me to interrupt his buoyant bouncing effort, to blurt out in the middle of Mrs. Brown and her lovely daughter, “Cam, this is ridiculous!”  But I just couldn’t help myself.  It did feel ridiculous to me on this particular Saturday night.  It was one thing to take the memory train back to a slow dance at the Bounty Bar with Cam and the Moody Blues.  It was another thing to find myself ten again in my house on Washington Street in Bath, Maine taping photos of teeny-bopper heartthrobs on my wall.  After all, it was March, and, on this particular day, the sun had been shining and the snow had melted into puddles on the road, and I was feeling squirmy inside, ready for something new and forward-focused, something spring-like and bubbling to present itself to me.  That’s when I thought about Bruce Springsteen.

Cam’s sister was the first to introduce us to Bruce Springsteen, the year after the Bounty Bar Moody Blues’ slow dances.  She discovered Bruce before he was a face to tape on the wall and Cam and I were hooked from the get-go, and have been fans ever since.  His lyrics are poetry and he pours body and soul into his performances and he is forever exploring his edge of the moment.  We turned the TV off, googled him and spent the rest of the evening reading about his one-man show on Broadway.  That’s what he’s up to these days, doing something new with the material of his life — sitting in a chair on a stage storytelling his New Jersey tales and mingling this with fifteen or so songs.  Oprah said the show was transformational.  Obama loved it.  Reese Witherspoon exclaimed that she melted into a puddle of humanity within the first fifteen minutes.  And on that March night, it was the freshness of Bruce’s new edge that energized me, that lit something inside, that got me wondering.  What’s my new edge?  What’s taking root beneath the surface that’s ready to sprout?

The puddles on the road froze back up, the snow that had been turning watery and corn-crystal-like in March became covered again with fresh layer after fresh layer of powdery wintery white.  And a month after that March evening of spring-like squirminess, I was still skate-skiing with my winter coat zipped up high on trails groomed as if we had pushed the reverse button and were back in January.  Whatever had been quivering beneath the surface sunk back into hibernation.  Until now, that is, when the sun is blazing brilliant even on the cool jacket-zip-up days and the below-freezing nights, and the snow is gently melting and the grass, green blades of grass are poking through.  I’m asking the question again, “What’s my new edge?”  I’m not sure.  I know the new is brewing.  I feel it.  A friend of mine read a poem to me the other day, written from the perspective of age looking back on youth, a poem about remembering the feeling of being twenty, the feeling of knowing everything and feeling it keenly with slow-dancing Moody Blues passion.  My friend and I both agreed that we want to feel that thrill again. And I believe we can, not by trying to resurrect the past, not by taping the old faces back on the wall, but by being present to what wants to be taped up on our metaphoric wall now, today, in this moment.  And if we relax and allow it, if we don’t resist and hold it under, the new, sure as spring follows winter, will poke its head out of the thawing ground and we will be face to face with something wonderful, something amazing, a new thrill to carry us forward.  Happy spring everyone.

Tell Me A Story!

One of the things I love about story is that it always sends us back home.  Terry Tempest Williams

I hope you will go out and let stories, that is life, happen to you, and that you will work with these stories from your life — not someone else’s life — water them with your blood and tears and your laughter till they bloom, till you yourself burst into bloom.  That is the work.  The only work.  Clarissa Pinkola Estes

I bribe my grandkids with stories.  It’s not candy or cupcakes that gets them into their carseats; it’s the stories I tell.  It’s an understandable battle a toddler wages, the postponing of the restraint of a free-ranging body into a tightly-bound buckled-up space.  I get it!  And so I, the visiting grandma, try to breathe as deeply as possible and call upon all the patience I can muster when toddler grandkid stands up backward in the seat and refuses to budge.  That’s when I say it, “I’ll tell you a story!”  And then I add, “when you sit down.”  Toddler grandkid hesitates, still wanting the control of being in charge.  But then I add, “Well . . .” stretching out each letter with emphasis and a great puff of breath.  That’s how I begin my stories.  “Well. . .”  And that does it; toddler grandkid, with a pirouette and a plop, is down and ready to be snapped in place.  And that’s when it gets fun.  I don’t know what story will rise up to the surface, what one will be a perfect match for that moment.  But I do know enough to trust the process, that we contain an infinite number of stories in our inner well, and, if we’re in tune, we draw up the one that suits the situation just fine.  My grandkid stories run the gamut, from childhood memories growing up on the shores and in the waters of coastal Maine, to Grandpa and Grandma adventure stories, to stories of tarantulas and rattlesnakes and scorpions.  Toddler grandkid and I are both entertained by these stories, and, I don’t mind the inevitable, “Again!  Again!  Again!”

So, there are stories that bring us entertainment and there are stories that bring us healing, stories that inspire, stories that delight, stories that provide us with courage and insight and a blueprint forward.  And if we are paying attention, if our will is aligned with the source of the well within, we can trust the story that is ready to be told.  And, as I was contemplating the power of story-telling, lo and behold, a story rose to the surface, one I hadn’t thought about in years, one eager to be told in this moment.  So here goes.  “Well. . . ”

* * *

My husband Cam and I left home in a raging snowstorm, a decade ago, two days before the new year, suitcases carefully packed, mine with scarves and flip flops and walking shoes, a favorite skirt, yoga leggings, a sweater, all the things I would need for a week in Morocco.  Our flight from the north of Michigan was delayed, making it almost certain that we would miss the connecting flight to Paris, so the local agent re-booked us on a later plane to Amsterdam, and then on to Morocco from there.   We arrived in Casa Blanca the next morning, to an airport bustling with people from all over Africa, some leaving, some arriving, to a helter skelter of humanity and piles of suitcases and trunks and giant canvas bags.  But alas, our suitcases were nowhere to be found in this helter skelter of confusion.  So, we made a detailed report of the missing luggage and were assured that our bags would arrive on a later flight.  And off we went, by taxi, south over miles of two-lane roads to the fishing village of Essaoira where we would be staying for the next six days.

Our home was an eco-boutique-hotel in the heart of the old walled medina of the city, and, there, we befriended an American, who had lived in Morocco for years.  She told us that Morocco takes you in both directions, frustrates you, maybe even makes you angry, then something in the culture brings you back, humbles you, opens your heart, touches your soul.  It was like that for us.  We loved our time in Essaoira.  It was a treasure chest of exotic, the market-souks lined with stalls of orange and curry-colored, red and yellow spices and stacks of baskets and shoes with pointy toes and scarves and hand-knit caps and piles and piles of glorious rugs, ancient streets winding this way and that and filled with everything imaginable.  And there was the harbor outside of the walls, with fishing boats moored to the docks unloading the day’s catch and the grills set up along the shore cooking every sort of seafood imaginable, and the sleepy-eyed camels with loose bottom lips, and the ramparts holding the force of the whole wild Atlantic at bay, and there was the sea gulls’ cry mingling with the call to prayer.  Yes, it was a treasure box of the exotic, a treasure box within a treasure box within a treasure box.  And sometimes we found this frustrating, the way it was easy to lose yourself in the maze of medieval alleyways, the discomfort with bartering, the language and cultural differences that made connection challenging, and a feeling that we couldn’t quite unwrap it all, the mystery of Morocco.

And then there was the luggage, which was indeed a mystery.  It didn’t arrive as assured on a later flight, nor did it arrive the next day, on New Year’s Eve.  Or, the day after, which was a holiday.  You have to understand — this was ten years ago, and our nest had recently emptied, and, in my early fifties, I had rediscovered an adolescent love for clothes, cute clothes, hip clothes.  It’s not like I had an extensive wardrobe, but I loved every single thing I owned, everything single thing I had packed.  Since then, I have traveled lightly, hiked trails for days in Europe with the few things I can squeeze into a hefty daypack.  But then, that week in Morocco, I was attached.  Every day, I pulled on the same brown yoga pants, the same turquoise top, draped the one scarf around my neck and tried to let go — and tried to believe the front desk people in our eco-lodge that our suitcases would surely arrive on the second day of January.  And they were partially correct.  With a smile and a look of wanting to please these American visitors, one of the men who had been helping us, rushed to our table at breakfast.  He was holding a suitcase, one suitcase, Cam’s.  Cam, who didn’t give a rip about his wardrobe, Cam who wasn’t attached to every single item in his closet, Cam, who told me later, he had been praying that if only one suitcase was to be found, please god, have it be Helen’s, he was the one who was handed a bag full of his things.  And I was furious and the front desk people were upset and so wanted me to be happy and kept assuring me that my suitcase would indeed arrive.  So that’s what it was like the week we were in Essaoira, a balancing act between diving full out into the wonder of it all, while trying to let go of the suitcase debacle and my obsession with clothes, while also trying to get to the bottom of the mystery of the missing bag.

On Day Five, I bought two scarves, a Moroccon tunic, a pair of earrings.  The wind had picked up the night before and a squall was blowing in off the Atlantic and I wore my new tunic, the earrings, a scarf to the ramparts where Cam and I stood with the local townspeople and the fisherman watching the mighty waves pound against the wall and fly high into the air.  We could taste the salt and the sea and I nearly forgot about my lack of luggage — until later in the day, that is, when we were given a tip.  There was a local office of the Casa Blanca Airport, one of the men who had been helping us at our boutique hotel said.  It’s a mystery why it took five days to give us this information, but we grabbed on to it and found our way through the maze of alleys and streets to a small airport office where a man who spoke perfect English gave us advice.  “Leave early for the airport,” he told us.  “Get back to Casa Blanca and look for the bag yourself.”

And that’s what we did.  The next afternoon, we said our good-byes at the boutique hotel, and to the medina and the fishing boats and the sleepy-eyed camels and we rode by taxi back over the two-lane roads, arriving at Casa Blanca as the January sun was setting over the horizon.  And this is the part of the story that I had wanted to tell you, the part that had popped into my head a few days ago — the airport part of the story.  We had single focus when we entered the terminal.  I stopped to talk to the agent at the desk, and Cam bee-lined to a corner of the room where suitcases were piled a mile-high.  I wasn’t even finished explaining the situation to the woman behind the counter when Cam came running toward us, exclaiming in his loudest of voices, “I found it!  I found it”  It had been lying there in that pile just waiting for us to claim it.  And this was wonderful enough, my suitcase and clothes back in my possession, but this wasn’t the highlight; this isn’t what I want to tell you.

We were so focused on our mission that we hadn’t paid attention to what was happening — the two giant planes landing on the runway, the people beginning to flock.  It wasn’t until we were walking back through the terminal that we noticed the white-frocked men and women, many with gray hair, some clutching canes, streaming in by the hundreds from those two planes.  Eyes were gleaming, flowers were handed out, pictures were taken.  We guessed it, as I asked one of the bearded white-frocked men, “Mecca?”  And he nodded happily and we smiled happily and the joy in the airport was palpable.  It is a quest, a spiritual mandate, a lifetime dream to get to Mecca and these people had touched it, experienced it, and we all were feeling its power.  And then Cam and I were at the doorway when we looked out and gasped.  Hundreds and thousands of people, holding signs and flowers and neatly wrapped presents, were standing there in the airport parking lot, crammed next to each other, as though waiting for the a rock band to arrive.  We stepped out into the nighttime air and hesitated.  What were we to do, two infidels dragging a suitcase needing to get to the far end of the lot?  At that moment, two men near the front, began to shout in loud voices sounding as though it might be a fight breaking out.

But it wasn’t.  Instead, the crowd began to part, the hundreds and thousands of them.  And there were smiles on their faces as a multitude motioned us forward, motioned us through the sea of relatives and friends waiting to reunite with their pilgrims.  And the sea carried us; that’s what I want to tell you.  I have never felt anything like it, this sea of pulsating love, and a kindness to allow two outsiders to not just witness, but to enter this sea.  We smiled, our smiles joining the sea of smiles.  And I knew, just knew then, as I swam my way through that sea, that this, this was the reason, that I had gone seven days without make-up or a change of clothes, seven days teaching myself to call my mind back from an obsession again and again.  I said it out loud, my voice joining the voices in the crowd.  I said it to Cam, said it to myself, said it to a sea of people.  “This is why I came to Morocco!”

 

*  *  *

And that’s my story!

That’s what I say to toddler grandkid as I finish up.  Sometimes I acquiesce when toddler grandkid then jumps in with the inevitable, “again.”  And sometimes it is a new story that bubbles up.  Today, I’m going to sit with this one, going to remember how powerful it was to enter into the treasure of love at the heart of the mystery of Morocco, to touch and be touched by such a sea of excitement and love and kindness, to remember how good it felt to know with certainty that my luggage being lost for a week was a good thing, that I wouldn’t have missed those airport and parking lot moments for all the clothes in the world.

 

 

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Handmade Book by Amber Edmundson

 

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Essaoira, Morocco, January 2008:  Photographs from our journal by Cam Remien & Helen Haskell Remien

 

The Lucky Ones

In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give and it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer

It is early morning in Idaho, not quite light out.  And there’s a fresh layer of snow on the ground after last evening’s squall.  It is unbelievable — having four little grandkids, all in one place.  It is high tide and low tide, with the joy of a full cove of ocean to swim in and a low tide beach to scrounge for treasure.  Helen Haskell Remien, e-mail written to friends in early March

As I sat on the bench, slipping my feet into my beloved ski boots, the door to the Forestville cross-country lodge flung open, and in popped a guy, flush-faced and smiling, an acquaintance I know from town and trail.  It was apparent that he was at the end of what I was about to begin, an afternoon adventure in late February, skate-skiing up and down and across the freshly-groomed and ridged miles and miles of tree-lined trails.  It was sunny, crisp and clear, and his words were crisp and clear and sunny as well.  “We are the lucky ones!” he cried out.  “We are the lucky ones!”  And as he sprawled on the floor, stretching his middle-aged body after his long ski, we chatted for a while, about the multitude of outdoor winter-play opportunities available for those who live in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the beauty of this part of the world and this sunny day that we both were claiming as our own.  He finished the conversation as he had started. “We are the lucky ones!” he once again exclaimed.

His words were a song, flowed from his lips with a confidence, a joy, an appreciation that was palpable.  I couldn’t shake them off.  They stayed with me, clung to me as if with velcro as I thrust myself up that first grand hill.  We are the lucky ones.  We are the lucky ones.  My heart beat out the rhythm — lucky, lucky, lucky — as I pushed and I glided myself into the hardwood and hemlock and pine forest.  They settled deep inside as I skied my way through that sunny afternoon, these words which had been sung from the lips of a friend, words that seemed to fly in the face of a belief I hold dear, that it is not luck that brought me to this trail on this particular day; that it was an inner calling, a desire to breathe the wintery air and the unspeakable beauty of a forest still blanketed in snow.  It is a vibration we set forth that draws to us what we label as luck.  This is what I believe.  And yet, and yet, these words, we are the lucky ones, I am the lucky one, have sunk into my heart and have remained there, sweet and good and true.  They have been my companion, and I have said them often during these past few weeks as February has spilled into March.

Under my breath, with breath, I said them, these words, as I flew out west over the northern plains a few days after that sunny afternoon ski, as I looked down at the snow-capped Rockies in Montana, as I landed smoothly, safely, joyfully in the land of kids and grandkids.  I am the lucky one.  I am the lucky one.  What are the chances?!?  Two sons, two daughter-in-laws, four grandkids — a kindergartener, a toddler, two babies (two babies at once!) — all of them there in one sweet town in northern Idaho, a town of wide-open and rolling prairie on the edge of the ridges and foothill forests.  And for nine days, in early morning sunlight, I walked among the trees and on the winding country roads and I was the lucky one.  I pet horses on their noses and learned about horses, and, later in the day, played school with a toddler, a baby, a black cat, and a kindergartener who was our teacher and I learned about planets from a five-and-a-half-year old and asteroid belts and stars and my world was expanded and I said it, out loud and to myself, I am the lucky one.  I cuddled with grandkids and my skin sopped it in, the luck, the love, the immense pleasure of living a mindful in-the-moment existence here on earth with a whole universe of possibilities surrounding me and spread out like stars above me.

Can’t it be both?!?  Can’t my vibration hum at a joyous rocket-fueled speed?  Can’t it draw to me amazement and beauty and pleasure?  While at the same time, can’t I say it, that I appreciate it, that I am indeed lucky, that the luck can emerge from this inner humming as it mingles with the outer world?  Can’t it be so, that I appreciate all that I have and all that I am, that my luck does not diminish your luck, that we all can say it, whether the day is sunny and the trail ridge-groomed to perfection or whether a squall is blowing in, stirring up something new, something exciting, something expansive?  We are the lucky ones!!!  We are the lucky ones!!!

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Noquemonon Cross-country Ski Trail: Forestville, Marquette, Michigan, February/March 2018

 

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Early morning on Idler’s Rest: Moscow, Idaho: March 3, 2018

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