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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!

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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.

A Yooper Winter

It is the life of the crystal, the architect of the flake, the fire of the frost, the soul of the sunbeam.  This crisp winter air is full of it.  John Burroughs

Winter in the country is very white.  There is black grit on all the shoulders of the roads and on the big mounds from the plows, and all the cars are filthy, but the fields are dazzling and untouched and pristine.  Susan Orlean

It is a bold statement for someone like me to make, someone not born here, a transplant from Maine in early adulthood to this Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  But, after thirty-eight years, thirty-eight winters, I’m going for it, proclaiming it out loud and to the world. I am a Yooper.  And we Yoopers are a hardy lot.  And this winter, this winter of weather, our Yooper hardiness has been tested to the max.  The Finns who have lived in this Yooper country for centuries have a word for it, Sisu.  Call upon your Sisu, they say, your tenacity, grit, resilience, hardiness.  And a winter like this will do that to you, Finn or non-Finn, force you to dive deep into your own bones and find that Yooper strength, that resilience, your Sisu.

I come from a family of weather-lovers, New England-born folk living along the coast of Maine, in the mountains of New Hampshire, in the wooded lots of Massachusetts.  My mother, queen of the weather-lovers, from her cottage home at the head of a cove in Maine, had a front row seat to calm blue-sky off-shore breeze days, to the windy ones, too, and the rousing nor’easters of autumn and the snow squalls of winter.  She observed and obsessed about weather and it was a favorite for us, in our frequent phone conversations, to exchange weather reports, mine from the Upper Peninsula, hers from the cove.  And this winter, if she were still living in her body, the phone conversations between the two of us would be filled with the drama of weather and she would be thrilled with vicarious pleasure as I relayed the details to her, not needing to embellish a bit.  First there was the early snow, I would say, feet of it before Christmas, then the cold, the bitter cold, plunging into a two-week sub-zero Polar Vortex, then, the one-day thaw and the rain that pounded down all night long and froze as temperatures once again plummeted into single digits.  And the ice.  I would tell my mother about the ice that clung to the trees in early February and is still clinging to the branches along the high ground a month later, how the trees snapped and broke, how the branches fell and the birches bent down low over the roads, and then, I would say the snow, it kept on falling, all month long, nothing melting as the storms, one after another, piled up.  And then, there was the storm of storms, late in the month, the one that blew the snow with its fifty mile an hour winds into drifts so high we can’t see out onto our deck.  That is the weather report that I would tell my mother, the weather report we Yoopers have been living for the past few months.

Yooper-winter-living isn’t for the faint-hearted and the word hardy contains the word hard and I’m not saying that there hasn’t been hardship in this winter of winters.  Up close and personal my husband Cam and I have felt it along with our Yooper neighbors.  There are the pine branches that have fallen in our backyards and onto our decks, the never-ending shoveling and snow-blowing, the bitter cold biting our faces and stunning our breath, the ice damns clinging to our roofs and the water leaking into our houses, the trails we love to ski and bike along covered with miles of debris, the car rides on icy roads and in blinding white-outs.  Yes, there have been challenges.  But Sisu is a word that also contains joy, the joy of meeting those challenges with a shovel, a chainsaw, an all-wheel drive vehicle, a down coat and a warm hat, the joy of rising above them and finding the fun in it all.

And that’s what I want to tell you, what I would have told my mother, that we have had fun, my husband and I, as we’ve plowed and plodded through this Yooper winter.  And the gifts, there have been gifts to behold.  There are the outside gifts, how every day, every single day, we both have found ways to meet the weather head-on.  In the bitter cold, I remembered the hat my cousin Abby, the milliner in New York made for me years ago, a wonderful faux fur hat with fabrics and buttons that are family heirlooms, and this magnificent hat warmed my head and my heart on the coldest of the cold days as I marched my way through the snowy woods.  And the trees, the trees coated with ice, glistened and sparkled on the days the sun shined and the world became a dazzling fairy-land, a magical kingdom that defies description.  And one night, under a half-moon sky and Orion shining down on us, Cam and I snowshoed on his bike trails, panking them down in preparation for an upcoming race.  As we wound our way along the narrow paths with snow up to our waists on either side, the trees sparkled in the light of Cam’s headlamp and the quiet snow sang to us and the cold nestled into our bones and we felt it, our joyous Sisu.

And the gifts of this winter of weather have crept into the inside of our houses as well.  After the cold and the snow and the vigor of exercise, the warmth of a furnace, a fireplace, brilliantly-painted walls has been as welcoming as the coziest of hugs.  The Finns know how to warm up those cold bones after the outside play.  And I remembered this too, during the Polar Vortex.  How could we have forgotten it, that like our Yooper neighbors, we have a sauna, in our basement, barely used since the boys grew up?  This winter, it has been our saving grace, our nightly ritual, to heat up that cedar-lined room, to fling water onto the Lake Superior stones, to breathe in the heat, the steam and the sizzle, to lie there and relax and let it all seep in, the warmth, the knowing that we are resilient and hardy, that we have grit, that we can sleep well on this night and that tomorrow, we will face it, whatever the weather brings, with Sisu and spunk.  We are Yoopers.

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Wearing hat created by milliner cousin Abigail Aldridge while tromping through the woods during the Polar Vortex: Ishpeming, Michigan, late January, 2019

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Lake Superior during Polar Vortex: Presque Isle, Marquette, Michigan, late January, 2019

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Lake Superior during Polar Vortex: Presque Isle Park, Marquette, Michigan, late January, 2019

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Back Yard Havoc: Day One of Ice Storm, February 4, 2019

 

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After the ice storm and the snow: Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, February 16, 2019

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Skiing in a bounty of snow: Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Mid-February 2019

 

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A Weekend in Sedona, Day-after Historic Snowstorm: Late February 2019

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The View to Our Deck: Late February, 2019

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Joy Center: Late February, 2019

Not My Finest Five Minutes!!!

The only way to be creative is to try everything.  We learn by making mistakes.  We must have the courage to start all over again after each failure.  Only then do we really absorb, really start to know.  Alexey Brodovitch

It wasn’t my finest five minutes.  Believe me, I admit it, and I intend to make a full confession later in this essay.  But first, let me fill you in.  There’s a backstory to be had.  And it begins with the ringing in of this new year.  From the first wee hours and days of 2019, I’ve felt it, a call inward to clean up shop, to release any inner clutter that keeps me from being as authentic, as connected to the almighty source of creation as possible.  I’ve said it aloud, over and over.  It is not a time for pretense and masks and people-pleasing antics.  “Step fully into your power,” I remind myself as I move through my days.  And how do I even know what that means, to step fully into my power?  I suspect that the better I feel, the more alive and vibrant and openhearted, the more in alignment with the words I speak, the actions I take, the more aware of synchronicities and moments that feel magical, the more fun I am having — I suspect that it is then that I am fully in my power, the big power, I mean, the power that connects me to the divine.

And I’ve been doing okay with it all, actually more than okay, meeting the inner clutter eye-to-eye, greeting the old dusty stuff with a sense of enthusiasm.  “It’s time for you to go!” I’ve been exclaiming, with a cheerfulness in my voice.  “Make room for more light!” I’ve been adding.  And I’ve been sharing this enthusiasm for inner house-cleaning and authentic-living with my buddies, including Marty, my poet friend who I have known since we were in grad school together in the early nineties.  Marty, Upper Michigan’s Poet Laureate, has been facilitating a monthly poetry workshop at Joy Center for nearly two years now, a wonderful evening of Marty’s stellar poetry selections and prompts, of writing and sharing, an evening that usually includes a circle of people who travel to Joy Center from all over Marquette County and sometimes beyond.  Not in February, however.  It was one of Upper Michigan’s many blustery blizzardy nights and it was just Marty and me in the circle that evening.  And in between the poems, the prompts, the writings and sharings, we chatted about this topic of authenticity.  We both had just watched the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, about Fred Rogers, and Marty had seen the Netflix special, Springsteen on Broadway, the television version of Bruce Springsteen’s raw and real Broadway show.  By evening’s end, we not only had written three poems mingling music with words; we also had concluded that Mr. Rogers and Bruce Springsteen were mentors for us, providing a template for living from the inside out.  They weren’t pulled by outside forces, we decided.  They were brave, and, if they could do it, we could too.  And then we made a friend date, to carpool together the next Thursday, to an open mic night at the cafe/store/gathering place Preserve.

I want to tell you that I don’t feel the urge to attend many open mic nights outside of Joy Center, that Joy Center usually satisfies that need for me, but there was something about this particular event, the one at Preserve, the one that would most likely be filled with a younger crowd, that pulled at my inner strings.  It felt right to me.  And I also want to tell you that I didn’t feel particularly nervous about this gathering, didn’t sense I would have to call on the bravery I so admired in Mr. Rogers and Springsteen.  After all, my poems were polished, the ones I would share from a published book, and I had experience, years of experience reading and speaking in front of groups at Joy Center.  If anything, I was thinking that I would share the wisdom of my sixty-plus years with these twenty-somethings.

It was a busy one for me, the day of the poetry reading, with back-to-back-to-back commitments, and plenty of chai to keep me going.  And that might be what brought on my first tinge of caring what people might think.  By late afternoon, I noticed my hands were shaking, a case of caffiene-overload.  What if this crowd of millennial poets thought I was nervous?  I breathed that thought aside, gave my poems a once over, then drove over to Marty’s to pick him up.  By now, it was dark and foggy and it was misting out and I wasn’t doing a very good job talking with my travel companion as I navigated a road that was hard to see.  I think, if I’m honest with you, there was a combo effect going on with the shaky hands by the time we arrived at Preserve, caffeine plus nerves.  I wasn’t grounded; I could tell.  I tried my hardest to breathe deeply, to smile a genuine smile as I placed my name on the sign-up sheet, but all I could think about was my shaky hands.  And then things got worse.  I noticed a microphone.  It truly was an open mic.  We don’t use a mic at Joy Center — I don’t know how to use a mic.  And then people started reading, their genuine authentic poems, and I relaxed a bit, placed one shaky hand on top of the other, tried to listen with my heart and I truly thought it was working, thought I’d be okay.  And that brings me to my five minutes, the allotted time for each poet.

It was my turn, and up I went, shaky hands and all.  And that’s when I noticed that the lights were dim, really dim, and there was no stool to sit on, and that’s how I always do it.  I sit down and tuck my legs underneath me and I breathe and then I begin.  Instead, I found myself standing there with the mic in my face and the laryngitis that was just about gone back full force and the words of my polished poems in my published book a blur on the dimly-lit page.  Mr. Rogers always started his television show by singing his song, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood . . ” as he he slipped into his comfortable homemade sweater and sneakers.  On the documentary, he is shown doing the thing he does every day, finding the zipper on that sweater and giving it a zippy-zip as he sings his zippy song.  Except this day, it doesn’t zip, on the first try, on the second try.  And Mr. Rogers, he isn’t fazed.  He just looks at his television audience and say, “I’ll try again later,” and moves onto his sneakers.  That’s bravery for you; that’s being present.  And that’s not what I did.  After Marty found the flashlight on his phone and gave it to me to hold with my shaky hand, I plunged in, started reading without a breath, held my breath throughout, I think, raced through the poems with a croaky voice, a shaky hand, and sixty-year-old eyes.  I jumped ship, wasn’t present at all.  And maybe that is what it takes to be authentic — to stay present, no matter what, shaky hands, dim light, faulty zipper and all.  I witnessed this kind of presence in the college students.  Their words often were fierce and brave, but it was their presence that moved me.  Like Mr. Rogers, they inhabited their bodies, inhabited their five minutes.  I was both humbled and inspired.

And later, it was shame, embarrassment, self-judgement that reared up from the depths to be de-cluttered.  But I’m happy to tell you that this inner house-cleaning didn’t take long.  I found myself laughing.  It wasn’t my finest five minutes, for sure.  But it was kind of funny and I didn’t melt.  And I didn’t slither back to my seat either.  And next month, on the second Thursday, I’ll be back, back in the saddle, back at Preserve for open mic.  And I intend to haul up a stool, sit with my knees tucked beneath me, intend to bring my backpacker headlamp so I can see the words on the page of whatever feels good to me that night — polished or unpolished, who cares!!!!.  And I plan to breathe, to connect with the moment.  And who knows what the moment will bring, a smooth-sailing performance, or something choppy.  It doesn’t matter, because the next time, I plan to be present to enjoy it.

Happy New Year!!!

Live Life as though everything is rigged in your favor.  Rumi

I’m thinking of my father as I sit here in the stillness of a house not yet beginning to stir.  He was the early bird in our family, up before dawn, like I am today, this first day of a new year.  He claimed the quiet hour, the precious newness of the pre-dawn morning for himself, and for his writing.  I inherited his natural optimism, his buoyancy, but not this propensity for early morning rising.  Today though, it comes naturally.  I’m dwelling in a different time zone, Pacific Time, here in northern Idaho, in a rental home with our kids and grandkids on a grand lake surrounded by mountains and a ski resort where we all will be playing later in the day.  I want to wrap myself in this silence, wear its spaciousness as I move forward into the bustle of a day filled with toddler and pre-school busyness, with skiers waiting in lines and whooshing down hills and filling the lodge with the clunk clunk clunk of heavy boots and jolly banter.  It feels huge to me, this universe of possibility contained in a single moment of quiet.  And I know that sometimes it is all we need, just a moment or two to settle ourselves, to breathe deeply, to tap into what my father must have tapped into as he tapped away on his manual typewriter, that it dwells within us, this ocean of quiet, and it is ours to claim not just in the freshness of the early morning, but anytime, even in the midst of a noisy frenzy.

Just two weeks ago, with the holiday season moving forward at full-throttle, my days packed with to-do lists and packages to mail and family obligations and commitments to keep, I found myself there, in that inner frenzy place, my mind charging forward like a train out of control.  I found myself there as I opened the door and stepped into an evening as yoga instructor at Joy Center.  There hadn’t been a moment to spare in this day, in this week, or so it had seemed to me as I rushed around lighting the candles, filling the water pitcher, setting up mats.  I babbled to yoga friends who had arrived before me.  I couldn’t help myself, couldn’t fake a calm that didn’t seem anywhere in sight.  And frankly, it felt good to babble, to expose the inner frenzy to the welcoming atmosphere of Joy Center.  And so, I brought it all to the yoga mat, my harried self and out-of-control mind, brought it all to the moment where we passed around the singing bowl, shared our names, a singing bowl chime, a breath, brought it all to those next few moments of lying still, allowing the words to flow through me, words that rose from somewhere deeper than the frenzy.  “Well-being abounds.  Light surrounds us and is within us and permeates all the cell of our bodies.  We are spacious beyond measure.”  I said these things.  I felt these things.  For almost two decades of guiding yoga sessions, I have said these things over and over and over again.  And they always ring true.  Yoga always brings me to a deep place of inner calm.  But this is what I want to tell you. I don’t think I’ve ever been so stunned by it, by the way that I — that we — can allow a mindset, a mood, a jumble of body sensations to transform from frenzied-panic to the knowing of well-being in such a short time.

I include a pose in almost every session of yoga, a great sideways stretch in half-circle, first on one side, then the other.  “There is always another way to look at things,”  I say, as we turn to experience the stretch on the opposite side.  “There is always another perspective.”  And then we include a counterpose, a gate we make with our extended bodies, and I ask, “What gate is opening inside ourselves?  What new possibilities are rising up, possibilities we have never considered before?”  And now, in the wee hours of a new morning, I sense that it is all wrapped up in the same package, a reminder gift for us, that when we claim the spacious breath of a moment, when we stretch ourselves into it, wrap it around us, when we remember that it is always within us, too, then the gates can relax and can open, and the new possibilities — they can present themselves to us.

I hear a rustling upstairs, the pitter-patter of tiny footsteps skittering across a hardwood floor.  And the dog in his kennel, he is rustling too.  My father whistled when he walked, woke us up with a chipper smile.  No matter what the outer weather, no matter what our resistant response, he brought sunshine into our waking and I see this now as a great gift.  Soon my arms will be filled with a raucous bundle of grandkids and the kitchen will be a bustle with coffee-making and breakfast eating and ski-boot packing and my moment of outer quiet will be over.  I am not usually a morning person and I can’t whistle for the life of me, but I, like my dad, will carry the spacious stillness within me, and greet this new day and this new year with a chipper smile, open to a sleighful of possibilities.

 

 

 

If you come to a fork in the road, take it.  (Sign in front of a roadside cafe in the Connemara, Ireland West Coast)

I want to make something clear to you from the get go.  It wasn’t just that I didn’t want to do it, wasn’t just that I was scared of the narrow lanes and the twists and turns and the tall hedges and the driving on the opposite side of the car on the opposite side of the road and the flocks of sheep that seemed to amble out into the middle of it all when you least expected it.  No, it wasn’t just that I didn’t want to; I couldn’t.  I wasn’t capable.  It was a stick shift that propelled our Ford Fiesta midnight-blue rental forward, and I had no idea how to drive a standard, so, on our two-week adventure exploring the north of Ireland, it was up to my traveling companion Mary O’Donnell to command the driver’s seat.  And command it, she did.  I also want to make it clear to you that she did a banner job.  Mary barely had to glance down at the rubber car rental bracelet she wore on her left wrist reminding her to turn sharp on left, wide on right, and, when the owner of the sweater shop in Clifton told her in a lilting Irish brogue to just put me in the hedge, we laughed because Mary almost always kept the passenger side of the car off the sidewalk and herself on the correct side of the road.  So with jovial willingness to plunge right in, Mary drove us northbound, while I, the gal in the passenger seat, held the maps and the guidebooks and the cell phone with the Maps App that almost always helped us in a pinch.  My job was to navigate.  And I might as well confess to this too.  I wasn’t that great a navigator.  Storytelling and entertainment were my fortes, and, as far as I was concerned, getting lost was part of the fun.

It had already happened once a few days earlier, as we headed out and around the Connemara Peninsula in western Ireland’s County Galway, the getting lost thing, I mean.  And I am not entirely certain it was my fault.  It was a cold and misty late afternoon and we had just bought our Donnegal wool sweaters at the boutique in Clifton and were hoping to make it to the National Park for a short jaunt before heading north toward Westport in County Mayo where hotel and dinner were waiting for us.  Before starting our rental, Mary had turned on her cell phone’s Maps App and the App-knight-in-shining-armor-man-voice was guiding us through the streets of Clifton and out of town to the longer scenic route that would traverse the shoreline, then take us over to the Park.  He was doing an okay job of it, I thought, so I didn’t feel the need to pay close attention, could instead admire my new purchases and the quaint storefronts and pubs we were passing along the way.  It was only when I looked up at the road in front of us and realized it had shrunk down to the size of a paved one-laner that I decided Mary’s man-app might not be cut from a perfect cloth after all, and I had better grab the atlas in front of me on the Fiesta’s floor.  And I did my best, gave it the college try as I honed in to the map’s depiction of the Connemara and the only line that traced the outer edges of the peninsula, the line that must be the one-track we now were finding ourselves traveling on.  “It’s Ireland,” I said to Mary.  “The roads are narrow,” I continued.  “There’s only one line out here and it’s a loop.  We’re fine,” I assured her.  “Pretty soon we’ll be seeing the ocean and it will be at our side the whole way.”  I continued with this voice of confidence and comfort, repeating it over and over, “It’s a loop, Mary!  It’s a loop!”  It was a good twenty minutes later, with nary another car in sight, and no ocean at our side, that we knew something was amiss and the line on the map was not the line we were barreling down.  We were in the middle of rolling rocky hill and brown grassy bog country, starkly beautiful and wild, with mountains in the distance, and we had taken a wrong turn.  This one-laner didn’t even make it onto the map.  But this is what I want to tell you.  It was fun.  It was funny.  It was an adventure.  We climbed rocky outcroppings, said hello to sheep who might not have seen such excitement in a very long time.  We laughed, took photos, and then we turned around and retraced our non-loop route back to Clifton.  It was that easy.

So I wasn’t concerned at all three days later when it happened again.  This time it was mid-day and the sun was shining and we were north now just leaving Yeat’s country in County Sligo, heading toward Donnegal where we intended to spend the night.  And we had a plan, a schedule for the afternoon that included a short hike around a lake and a visit to a castle on some tiny peninsula, and, time, between these two things, buckled into our respective seats, Mary, in the driver’s, me, in the passenger’s.  And, if I’m being completely honest, I have to admit that I was feeling a bit antsy, a bit cooped up.  I wanted to be outside in the sun, wanted to be moving my body, wanted an adventure.  But I hadn’t tried to get us lost.  That’s the truth.  It had seemed like the correct turn-off to the lake.  Granted, our Bed & Breakfast host with that strong Irish accent had spoken so fast that it had been hard to understand what she was talking about, let alone decipher her directions.  So, here we were, once again on a one-laner, once again with no body of water in sight, once again needing to turn our Fiesta rental around.  Except it wasn’t as easy this time.  There was a closed gate in front of us making it impossible to move the car forward, and the bonnie green grass that lined our wee little road wasn’t as friendly for Fiesta-back-up as it was seeming from our car-window-view.  It was a warning from the driver in a car that had just turned around in front of us that clued us in on the ground situation.  “Be careful!  The grass is sopping-wet-peat underneath; we almost got ourselves stuck!” the woman hollered in a serious tone.

Stuck!  Not us!  We smiled, waved her on her way.  And with what seemed like a great degree of calm and confidence, Mary chose her back-up spot, avoiding the bonnie green grass altogether.  With brow furrowed in concentration, she put the Fiesta in reverse, backed it up over a small cement entry, stopping within inches of a cattle fence.  And I, with hearty enthusiasm, commended Mary on her brilliant turn-around skills.  And I sat there, buckled into my passenger seat, continuing my positive affirmations, as she locked in the emergency brake, creeped the car forward across the one-laner, and stopped in a spot that seemed to me just maybe a wee bit too close to the ditch.  That’s when I bailed.  I’m not sure what was going through my mind when I hopped out of the car.  Perhaps I was taking my role of navigator seriously in that moment, wanting to beckon Mary backward from an out-of-the-car vantage point.  That might have been the reason for my bail-out, but I suspect it was something more narcissistic, something more like self-preservation.  At any rate, I positioned myself on the sidelines trying to sound helpful.  “You have plenty of room!” I called out, motioning with my hands and waiting for Mary’s next move.  Back, back — my hands beckoned back, my voice sounded chipper, and that’s when it happened, in slow motion it happened, the lurch that lunged the car, not backward at all, but forward instead, and all I could do was stand there, stunned.  Mary, the competent driver, the one who had kept us on the Irish side of the road, the one who had mastered the art of sharp left, wide right, had gotten herself in a pickle, had gotten herself in the ditch, actually not quite in the ditch because a rock, a massive rock, had stopped the car fender with a smack.

Mary was looking sheepish when she got herself out of the Fiesta.  It had been an honest mistake, a simple case of thinking the car was in reverse when really it was in fourth.  Anybody could have gotten the two mixed up.  Well, not anybody, because, as you remember, I didn’t know one gear from another, didn’t have any idea how to work the clutch.  So, the complete lack of skill, the knowing that I couldn’t have gotten us north to County Sligo in the first place, made my reaction to this incident even more appalling.  I found myself gleeful, laughing out loud, chortling and snorting and taking photo after photo, texting them back to family and friends.  What was going on?!?  Where were my manners?!?  Mary, on the other hand, gathered her wits, hauled out her cell phone, and called the host at the Bed & Breakfast we had just left, the host who had given us directions to the lake we never found.  That turned out to be a brilliant move because our host hooked us up with the local police, the Garda, and Mary made that call as well, and the Garda, they were on their way.  I think that is when Mary started to lighten up.  And I think that is when I realized the reason for my glee.  I was now in my element, outside in the fresh air, not in the passenger seat at all, but, instead, in the midst of a story, not the story we had planned for our afternoon in Ireland, but something else, something unexpected and exciting, an adventure unfolding before our eyes.

And unfold it did.  After locking up our rental-in-a-ditch, Mary and I began walking into the sun, into the glory of the afternoon, out toward the main road, retracing our route from one-laner to one-laner.  We waved to the sheep, to the cows, to the bonnie green grass, then squinted our eyes as we focused our gaze forward, figuring we would meet them, we would greet them, the Garda who would unstick what was stuck in the ditch.  Except, they didn’t meet us head on; they snuck up from behind, had found some alternative route, had already taken stock of our Fiesta debacle.  They knew who we were, no introductions needed.  And though they informed us it was a wee bit too stuck for a simple push out with their Garda-strong arms and that a friend’s assistance would be needed, their tone was sunny day chipper.  “Hop right in!” they invited, gesturing us into their white-with-yellow-stripe Garda car’s backseat.  And Mary, she was sounding sunny day chipper too!  “Do you want us to put these on?” she asked with a smile, lifting a pile of police hats and jackets out of her way.  I looked over at my cohort, nervous-giggling under my breath as I buckled myself in.  Mary O’Donnell, I believe you are flirting!  That’s what was going through my mind.  And why not?!?  These Garda, these younger-than-us fifty-ish-year-old-Garda, they were cute, and friendly, and they seemed to be having a good time of it too.  “Where are you gals from?” one of them asked.  And Mary responded, with the charm that comes with the name of O’Donnell.  She told our Garda guys about the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, how it’s close to Canada, how the color of the hardwoods in October is sublime, how Lake Superior is the largest of lakes, how we live in a place of magnificence, somehow, making all this background explanation sound adorable.  I, on the other hand, barely could garble out the words that I lived in Ishpeming, Michigan.  I’m not sure if my sudden attack of toungue-tiedness was because I was sitting in the back of a police car on a one-laner in Ireland, definitely a first for me, or whether we somehow, the four of us, had been transported back through time and it was high school again and the day was sunny and there was fun to be had and I was feeling a wee bit nervous.

I think that was it.  Although we two lassies are grandmothers in the autumn of our lives, on this particular October day, it was summer break on the back lanes of northern Ireland.  And who doesn’t want to feel young again on a day like this?  This getting stuck in the ditch, this taking a plunge from our planned-out itinerary, it unstuck something in us, something exciting and fun and bubbly-young, and maybe it unstuck something in these two Garda guys as well because they didn’t hurry off.  We didn’t even notice that the breeze was brisk and chilly as the four of us stood there beside the car-in-the-ditch because adolescents don’t notice such things when they are in the midst of an adventure.  It was easy to chat with our Garda-guys.  They told us stories about the places we had just explored, the places where we were heading to next.  And we told them stories about our lives too.  I had loosened up, maybe even was flirting a wee bit.  “Are you going to arrest us?!?” I asked.  “You don’t have to wait,” the two of us teenage sixty-year-olds told our Garda guys.  But wait they did, a good hour or so, for the two friends with the pick-up and the car-in-the-ditch rescue plan, and they helped with it all, the attaching Fiesta to pick-up, the pulling it out of the ditch, the puffing up of dented-in fender.  It was a jovial end of the story, the hand-shaking, the photo-taking, the paying of sixty euros to the guys with the truck.

Except it didn’t feel like the end for Mary and me — because once you have awakened your inner adolescent lassie or lad, there is no forcing that gal or guy back to sleep again.  We hopped back into the almost-like-new Fiesta, and the Garda guys, they hopped back in their Garda-striped car.  And I’ll be darned if they didn’t escort us, the Garda guys, as Mary, behind the wheel, tried her hardest to keep up on winding back road leading to winding back road leading to winding back road, a whole hour of northbound, until they, the Garda guys,  beckoned us seaward, to a beach, a wide-stretch of white sand and sea, out in the middle of nowhere, and they waved their good-byes and we waved our good-byes, and we, the young-again gals, the lassies who were laughing freely by now, clamored our way down to that beach, to the salty north Atlantic, and our short cropped hair felt long again, and if there were two white horses waiting for us, I believe we might have climbed onto their backs and galloped ourselves down that beach, our adolescent-long hair flying freely in the wind.

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Our afternoon adventure in County Sligo, Ireland: October 2018

The World is full of magical things patiently waiting for our senses to grow stronger.  W. B. Yeats

. . .  we talked in a kind of ocean depth of memories where magic fish swam past as we evoked our parents and Joy’s sisters, all dead now but with us for an hour in that exquisite room where time past and time present flowed together.  May Sarton

How do I conjure it up for you?  The perfection of the moment.  Here we were, my traveling buddy, Mary O’Donnell, and me, at the end of a very long day, the second of our two-week adventure together in Ireland, the first in Galway, a west coast town spilling over with music, thrumming with creative energy.  We just had feasted on chowder and brown bread, fresh garden greens and wild mushroom risotto.  Our stomachs were full, our bodies happy after a brisk walk from restaurant over the river bridge to this bar recommended to us by our dinnertime server.  And now, we had settled in, on stools at a tiny table directly in front of a small stage in the upstairs’ room of this quaint old pub.  Outside, the wind had picked up, a storm was brewing, but, inside, it was warm and invitingly cozy.  And time, at least for Mary and me, in our sleepy jet-lagged state, was unhinged and hazy, and it seemed almost as if we were in the midst of a delicious dream — and, in a way, we were, because, in front of us, on the stage, speaking in a strong Irish brogue, was a master storyteller lulling us in with tales of pirate ships at sea in storms like the one now blowing in across the wild Atlantic, tales of feuding families of yesteryear, of ghosts floating through the heathered bog-lands that make up much of Ireland.  I relish being transported by a good story, savor the remembering that life is comprised of layer upon layer of mystery, that characters roaming the bogs and thrashing about on three-masted schooners during mighty storms, characters who might have lived centuries ago, can be very much alive in the moment.  For me, these characters lived on in the howling wind of that first stormy night in Galway, and it was perfect.

This feeling of stepping out of time, of connection with something bigger than the here-and-now reality, stayed with us throughout our adventure in Ireland.  It’s not like we weren’t present in the moment.  We were, acutely so, in this enchanting land where there was something new around every corner and in every moment.  We were present, while eating fresh hake and boiled potatoes in a tiny fishing village, present while climbing up a mountain trail of rocks and loose-layered shale, present while hearing a haunting ballad in a pub in the center of a town, present with these things, for sure, and with the people who charmed us each and every day with their Irish fun-loving hospitality, while, at the same time, sensing there was something else, too, something more subtle and mysterious.  We could almost see them, the fishermen of yesteryear who cast their nets in the waters off these coastal villages and the thousands and thousands of beings who trekked up the rocky shale mountain trails before us and the balladeer who sang that song, the very same song we were hearing in a village pub, maybe in the very same pub, hundreds of years earlier.  Mary and I traveled north by car along the Wild Atlantic Way on the west coast of Ireland, all the way to the tip at Hornhead, then over to Derry and Belfast in Northern Ireland, and, finally, back to Dublin where our adventure had begun two weeks earlier — and the presence of those in other realms, they were our traveling companions throughout.

Two poets in particular tagged along with us as we bumbled our way north on narrow country roads.  Mary was driver of our midnight-blue Ford Fiesta rental, and I sat beside her in the passenger seat, with maps and guidebooks and the poems of William Butler Yeats and Seamus Heaney.  While Mary steered us northbound, through County Galway and County Mayo and into Sligo, I read to her, the poetry of Yeats whose mother’s family were prominent settlers in Drumcliff, County Sligo.  We breathed life into Yeats’ words and Yeats himself became our personal guide as we explored this county that was his spirit’s muse.  We traipsed through the mossy woods of his poetry and followed the shore of the glimmering lake and hiked the trail to waterfall’s top and watched “moth-like stars . . . flickering out.”  He was with us, very much alive, his words mingling with our actions. It was all poetry and it felt like a wink, visiting his churchyard grave two days later as we headed north out of Drumcliff.  He wasn’t static and still and buried in the ground, not to us.  We had wandered with him, “through hollow lands and hilly lands . . .” and it had been wonderful.

And then there was Seamus.  We never would have ventured out through the rolling rocky farmland in County Derry, Northern Ireland a few days later, never would have wound our way along narrow hedge-lined lanes to the village of Bellaghy if it hadn’t been for Seamus.  We had been reading the poems of this Nobel Prize-winning writer since leaving Dublin and we now considered him a good friend, called him by his first name, Seamus, as if we had known him forever.  His focus on Irish landscape and ordinary life in the countryside added a depth to our daily experience, and his descriptions of the wet earthy bogland and the memories of times gone by encouraged us both to pull from the rich Irish soil our own personal memories and ancestral-stories.   And this visit to Bellaghy, Seamus’s birth town, to the exhibit of his poems, of photographs, of archival materials donated to the National Irish Library by the writer himself in 2011 just two years before his death, stunned us with its intimacy.  We left the Home Place building in Bellaghy not only with a deeper sense of Seamus, our friend, but of his family, the town, of Ireland itself, all vividly brought to life with his words.

And perhaps we were ripe for such an expansive way of seeing the world on this trip, for we carried with us our own attachment to mystery.  Inside a black velvet box sat a small silver and turquoise vessel and inside the vessel were some of the silty ashes that once had been Mary’s husband Mike’s body.  Mary carried this with her and I carried something too, in a secret pocket on the inside of my autumn jacket — a small pink-beaded rosary that fit in the palm of my hand.  Our dear friend’s thirty-eight-year-old son Nathan had died just days before our trip and his mother loaned this to us, the precious gift that he recently had given to her.  Bring it with you, she had said; fill it with the magic of Ireland.  And we did fill it with the magic of Ireland.  And Mary did scatter Mike’s ashes in the wild bog-lands of the Connemara and on the summit of Ireland’s most sacred mountain and above the cobalt blue thrashing sea on the cliffs of Sleive League.  But, I want to tell you that Nathan and Mike filled us up too and brought their own magic to our trip.  Their presence was palpable.  In the hour of Nathan’s funeral, a swan in Galway swam right up to us, then guided us out onto the break wall.  And there it was, a small Catholic chapel, the perfect place for us to be in that moment, one moment in a trip when so many others also felt Mike and Nathan-inspired.

So, it was all there for us, Mary and me, the tales of old mingling with present moment connections, the ancient pagan ruins and the lit-up pubs, the poets and the poetry of the ages, the dead and the living all very much alive, all singing in the sea-salted air, all there like layers in a peat bog, preserved and easy to access, all realms seeming real and rich as we made our way in our midnight-blue Ford Fiesta around the north of Ireland, and it was perfect.

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Angel Wings on a beach in County Donnegal: October 2018

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A swan in Galway, Ireland: October 2018 (photo by Mary O’Donnell)

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Helen and Mary on top of Croagh Patrick: Wild Atlantic Way, Ireland, October 2018

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Nathan’s rosary and Mike’s ashes, Croagh Patrick: October 2018

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Benbulben, County Mayo, Ireland: October 2018

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Slieve League, County Donnegal: October, 2018

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Yeat’s Country: October 2018

 

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