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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

 

Homeplace

Dear Friends,

It is easy to recognize the gifts when you are exploring a place that is new to you, easy to witness them piling up, one after another after another, to barely keep up with the unwrapping, to know there is no way these gifts are going to fit into a backpack or a suitcase or a handbag, that you are going to have to leave some behind when you fly back to your home after two weeks of meandering around a foreign country by car and on foot.  That’s what we did, my friend, Mary O’ Donnell, and I; we rented a car, took off from Dublin, Mary behind the wheel, and we headed to Ireland’s west coast, first to Galway then north along the Wild Atlantic Way and over to Northern Ireland, to Derry and Belfast, and finally back to Dublin again.  Each day was spacious, and jam-packed, too, and the hikes were glorious, the connections with people life-changing, the synchronicities plentiful.  We tapped our feet to Irish music, listened to a storyteller in a pub’s cozy upstair’s room, bought ourselves more than one Donnegal wool sweater,  discovered brown bread and renewed our love for butter.  We ate fresh hake, walked miles of wild beach, and, at night, sometimes, or in the early morning, I wrote in my journal.  And now, I look at these entries and the e-mails I sent back home and I realize I can retrieve the gifts, at least some of them, in story form.  And so, it is the time to open them up, these vignettes from the trip, to remember and to savor them, and to share them with all of you.  Here is one that I just retrieved, and more will follow in blog posts in the coming weeks:

 

I have made a new friend.  Actually, in every stop-over place, as Mary skillfully and graciously has driven us around the whole of northern Ireland, from Dublin to Galway, across the northwest coast to Derry and now to Belfast on the east with the Irish Sea in sight, as we now make our way back to Dublin again, our starting point, we have connected with people, so many of them, a whole list with names like Marita and Shawn, Bernadette and Paeder.  And Seamus.  He is the friend I am talking about.  It’s not like I hadn’t heard of Seamus before.  I’ve known of him since my graduate school days in the early 90’s.  But he was a mere acquaintance back then, Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet, someone with a poem now and again in The New Yorker, someone whose work I might have found in an anthology, someone, a few years later, who won the Nobel Prize.  His poems were approachable, fun to read out loud, a window into life in Ireland, and that was the extent of it.  Until Dublin, that is.

It was nearly two weeks ago, within hours of landing in that charming city, on one of the first errands to buy road maps, in a store across the river from our hotel, that I spied a book, a new hardcover stacked by the check-out counter, 100 Poems by Seamus Heaney.  And I picked it up, this book, decided it would be my first purchase in Ireland, and the woman behind me in line saw what I was holding in my hand, started talking to Mary and me.  Her young granddaughter had read one of his poems in class the other day, she said, and had cried  — it touched her so.  “You must see his exhibit,” she added, “It’s wonderful.”  So, that’s how we spent our first afternoon in Ireland, at a retrospective exhibit of Seamus’ poetry and life.  Though Seamus Heaney died a few years ago, he was very much alive in this exhibit, his words, boldly beautifully, displayed across walls, his photos life-size, young Seamus, old Seamus, eyes twinkling.  He was writer and teacher, political activist and family man.  We were mesmerized, broken open by his words.  And we carried them with us in quotes and poems on our phones, read them to each other that first night and the next day as we drove west to Galway.  A friendship had been kindled.

But it was yesterday in potato-growing country that both Mary and I dug in deep, committed to this friendship.  From Derry, Mary drove us to Seamus’ hometown, a small farming village in Northern Ireland, to the brand-new modern structure on the village outskirts called Seamus Heaney HomePlace, to a many hour immersion through room after room of poems and photographs, and headsets for listening to Seamus read his own words, to a whole family, a whole town, a way of life illuminated through a poet’s words. I left the building wobbly-legged and busted-heart-open.  And this is what I want to tell you; it wasn’t just about Seamus.  This exhibit was extensive, a labor of love by all who created it, including his wife and his children.  And Seamus Heaney’s life and work were honored, for sure.  But through his writing and through his living, he bore witness and honored the others, his family who, for generations have lived close to the land, his home place village, the whole of Ireland.  In a land of storytellers, he became master storyteller, honoring us all who have lived and breathed.

Mary and I left the exhibit loaded with books and pamphlets, with cell phones filled with photos of photos, photos of words.  But the HomePlace and Seamus Heaney himself gifted us with so much more.  I can’t quite put it into words, this gift from the poet and the people who love him so.  Perhaps it is only in the language of poetry that we can explain it, or perhaps it is beyond words all together.  I just know I felt it, that our lives are exquisite; each one of us worthy of a HomePlace exhibit.  And I relish the details we share with one another, the stories we tell through action and word.  And I am ready and eager to pick up pen and share my own.

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On the Trail

Out beyond ideas of wrong doing and right doing, there is a field.  I’ll meet you there.  Rumi

There is something special about walking the same stretch of trail day after day throughout the whole of a season.  That’s what I did this past summer, June through August.  Nearly every day, usually in the morning, I donned flip flops, or running shoes and set off on the rural two-track a mile west of my home in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  And there are gifts to behold in the comfortable familiarity of such a practice.  Most mornings, I could count on it, the heron that lit off, flapping its mighty wings over the first marsh on my left and the snowshoe rabbit who raced across the trail at rapid speed as I approached the one-mile mark.  There were the frogs basking in the sun and the ones hopping off into the thicket and the unfortunate ones squished by the occasional four-wheeler that shared the same trail.  Each day, I looked for the kingfisher perched on the bleached tree skeleton in the midst of a river bend and the plowed-down grasses where the beaver had dragged their branches to the water’s edge.  This trail became my comfortable friend, something to know intimately.

And there was the paradox, too.  Yes, there was the familiarity, the comfort in this daily ritual, but there also was the reminder that no day, no moment, no trail is ever the same.  The change is constant.  First, it was the dandelions blooming, and then the wild strawberries, and they gave way in July to the raspberries and blueberries. Blooms transformed into berries and daisies bowed down to Joe Pie Weed.  There were scorching sunny mornings and misty rains, gentle breezes and gale winds.  Twice a porcupine crossed my path and once a garter snake slithered in front of me.  There were warblers and woodpeckers, cedar waxwings and wood ducks.

And there were people too.  There were the occasional athletes flying by on fat-tire bikes and the young woman runner and the man my age with arm in a sling who walked at a rapid clip.  And there was the man with the mustache and the young spaniel who owned the pick-up truck.  Many mornings, I met him in passing.  And this is what I want to tell you; it has to do with the paradox and change and connection.  The first time I saw his pick-up, I flinched.  And I put him, even before setting eyes on his puppy and his face, into a box.  And I put myself into a box as well.  The bumper of his truck was plastered in stickers, messages that shouted out that we were on different teams, different sides of a country and world polarized.  I didn’t feel welcome in his bumper sticker world, and I admit that I don’t think I was welcoming him either into my morning walk of a meditation.  And then we met, for the first time, his puppy wet and mucky and eager to bound in my direction.  He held his dog tight and our hello felt curt.  Or perhaps it was my imagination because as the days and weeks flew by and June turned into July, our smiles became warmer as we passed each other on the trail.

One morning, a cloudy still day during blueberry season, I ran into him as I made my west and he was making his way back east.  For the first time, our hellos evolved into conversation, a conversation that he initiated.  He’d seen a bear, he said, up by the power lines where he had been blueberry picking.  His puppy had wanted to chase it.  The man with the mustache was lit up.  I was lit up too.  We were two people who weren’t afraid of seeing a bear, two people excited about the wild.  We were on common ground.  And this was the beginning of something special.  I found myself looking forward to our encounters, hoping I’d see him on my morning jaunts.  He flushed a covey of partridge.  I spied teal by the third bridge.  We shared our nature sitings.  We became friends, trail friends, out beyond the boxes that we so easily put ourselves into.  One of the last times that we passed each other, he’d done it again, seen three of them this time, a mother bear and two cubs, and he wanted me to know.  I was someone who would appreciate such excitement.  And he was someone who I could count on.  And I was someone who he could count on as well.  I felt it.  We would help each other out if need be.  We cared.  And isn’t that what it’s all about?!?

I haven’t seen my friend with the mustache lately.  I stopped my daily ritual in September, traveling instead to other places, other trails.  And I have to say I’m glad to be thinking of my summer practice again, and of him, the man with the mustache.  His smile is genuine.  His demeanor sincere.  And our friendship cordial.  I want to bring this cordiality, this sincerity into all my encounters.  It is easy to get caught up in the polarity, the vicious energy of tribal teams on opposite sides of what seems like an impossible cavern to cross.  But I’m here to tell you that the Persian poet Rumi is on to something.  There is a field or a trail or a workplace or a home where we can meet, out beyond ideas of wrong-doing or right-doing where there is indeed common ground.  My friend with the mustache and the puppy and I found it this past summer, and I am grateful.

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On the Trail: Ishpeming, Michigan, Summer, 2018

September Harvest

(This blog post was originally written long-hand in Iron Mountain, Michigan while gathering with my writing sisters at one of our homes this past week.)

 

It is like the seed put in the soil — the more one sows, the greater the harvest.  Orison Swett Marden

The thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest.  William Blake

Though no pumpkin sits on our doorstep, and our garden, the one in our side yard that used to grow chard and kale, cherry and heirloom tomatoes, snap peas and crisp beans, the garden we used to care for with mulch and compost, is now thick with mint gone wild and bunnies raising family after family, though we now buy our vegetables at the farmer’s market from someone else’s garden, I still feel it, my personal bounty in this season of harvest.  I feel it as I sit here in my writing sister’s country home nestled in a hardwood and pine forest atop a bluff with a garden down below, a garden that would be the envy of any serious farmer.  There is a part of me that breathes deeper surrounded by all this earthiness, all this domesticity, with squash piled high on the back porch steps and kale still growing strong in tidy well-weeded rows.  I loved the garden we once kept, the pea-plucking and squash-pulling, the tomatoes ripe on the early autumn vines, but that has not been my harvest this year.  I instead pluck what is mine to pluck, place it all in my metaphoric basket, my bounty abundant, my heart sumptuously soft as any sun-soaked tomato.

You see, I have been traveling on my traveling feet this past September, flying high over this country’s ripened fields, first westward over plains and mountains and a huge span of the South Pacific for a Labor Day weekend in Hawaii, then, days later, eastward to the coast of Maine, then westward again over soybeans and sunflowers to sunny Idaho and snowy Montana, to Red Lodge and a family wedding in this gateway town to Yellowstone National Park.  But this isn’t what I want to tell you, that I’ve uprooted myself three times in the past four-and-a-half weeks to travel far and wide.  Not at all.  I could not possibly squeeze this arial view from a plane’s window into a market bag, a metaphoric basket.  It is the details I want to share, the savory ripe grounded close-ups that I pick from the vine and place lovingly, carefully into a place where I can taste the goodness as I reminisce.

There is the hike along cliffs overlooking a bay, a rambling hike on a sunny Sunday afternoon, the first ever with my younger brother and his wife who have recently moved back to our birth town in Maine.  Their adult daughter, who was visiting, also joined us, and the water, the water was green that day, the color of emerald stones.  I place that color in my basket, and the fairy houses of sticks and moss and shells that we passed along the rooted way.  There was the sweetness of it all, connecting with a brother and his family.   And, that evening, singing Irish ballads in an Irish pub in our coastal town with the locals, some of whom are really Irish — I place that evening with family and friends in my basket, and the sand beneath my feet the next morning, the wide expanse of beach, the whole of the sea washing in, splashing over my capris, salt-soaking my skin.  It is a harvest that I relish, a relish of a relish.  I tasted Maine on this particular trip east in mid-September and I will store it, the taste of it all, in my memory’s root cellar and I will feast on it again and again.

And Hawaii.  The ridiculousness of executing such an endeavor, a weekend trip over Labor Day to the South Pacific with a honey of a spouse — that truly is a honey of a thing, something that every market basket should include.  And ridiculous can be quite tasty.  Just ask a cucumber that has grown askew like a twisted-up long skinny carnival balloon — and our ridiculously wonderful two-and-a-half days of Pacific blue, hibiscus red, of swaying palms, a full ripe moon and windy and wavy, I can wrap my arms around the whole of it, carry it easily, add it to the cornucopia of my harvest.  My harvest is magnificent and I am savoring it now, tasting it with the utmost of satisfaction.

God is in the details, the gestures that might seem insignificant — a tiny cherry tomato of a gesture might make all the difference to a grandson or granddaughter, might make all the difference to a grandmother, as well.  And that is how I topped off my September of bounty, with what seems like a million tiny gestures and moments on the third trip, the one back out west to Idaho and then to Montana for a family wedding.  I wish that you could see my grandkids.  They are the pumpkins in a pumpkin patch and I just dwell among them and bask in the brilliant orange of autumn.  And orange is the color of creativity, of fire, of zest and zip, and I am brave and I am zesty and zippy when I am with these little ones.  Yes, my harvest contains the oceans, Pacific and Atlantic, the wide western sky, but it also contains the sheer fun, the bust-me-wide-open exultation of being with grandkids.  So what can I place in my basket, what sweet fruit of a detail from each of them?

Here is a nugget for you, a fruit that I will share.  I stood on the sideline and witnessed my six-year-old grandson lined up in the front row of an afternoon karate class, his eyes locked to his teacher’s eyes, his hands clenched in soft fists, his stance strong and grounded ready for his teacher to issue the command.  I am placing my grandson’s sincerity, his gentle-strong sincerity into my basket and I’m going to eat of this fruit.  And his three-year-old cousin calls me Grandmama and is unleashed around me and I around her.  I place our skidaddles, our dilly-dallies, our nonsense talk into my basket, the reminder that silly is wise and pleasure is a food I want at my table.  And the six-year-old’s sister, who toddles and juts out her jaw and shows off her bottom snaggleteeth and scrunches her shoulders and is as cute as cute can be when she runs to me — how can this not be included in a basket of bounty?  And the youngest of them all, eleven-month-old brother to three-year old skidaddler, is as sweet as any harvest peach and pats me on the shoulder when I pick him up and trusts me with his everything and adores my spouse, his grandpa, and their specialness, I’m hoarding it and it’s going into my basket.

It’s all going into my basket, bounty overflowing and me greedy in my gratitude, grateful beyond measure and eager for more.

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September Harvest, 2018

 

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

 

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