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Unity From The Inside Out

We are like islands in the sea — separate on the surface but connected in the deep.  ~ William James

The ocean connects us all. ~ Florence Nico Zappile

I remember the November day that President Kennedy was assassinated.  I was seven years old that autumn, in second grade, and it was sometime after recess that the school’s secretary barged into our classroom.  I think she blurted.  I think she didn’t whisper it into our teacher, Mrs. Babcock’s ears, that it was from the secretary I first heard the news — our president had been shot.  And later, at home, I’m sure the television set was turned on, that my parents and neighbors and older siblings were all talking about it, that our president had died of his wounds, that the country was in turmoil.  I only remember snippets, that my mother and my Aunt Barbie were planning a late afternoon trip to Portland and a trip to Portland, forty minutes drive from our home in Bath, Maine, was a big deal.  I remember I was excited, that I was going to be a part of this adventure.  And then I wasn’t. I had done something wrong, I think.  Perhaps I had sassed my mother or had hit my little brother or just had fallen apart in a full blown temper tantrum.  Whatever the reason, I was no longer included and was furious.  And I do remember the fury, how it was all-consuming, how I didn’t know what to do with it, how it swept over me and before I knew it, I had flung my china animals off their home on the mantel in my bedroom and the Siamese cat with the white fluff glued onto her tail had broken into pieces on my hardwood floor.

Today, almost sixty years later, on this November morning of Election Day, I am remembering Kennedy and the television set blaring out news and my fury and the broken Siamese cat I loved.  It is easy to get pulled in by the news, always available now at the tip of our fingers, easy to get caught up in the latest poll statistics, in fear and dire scenarios, easy to absorb all this energy, all these emotions coming at us, to take it all in and claim it as our own, easy to lose sight of our own inner truths and feelings. 

At least it is for me.  And I suspect it was easy for the little girl I was back then too, the day our president was shot in the head, to soak in the emotions of those around me, that my out of control tsunami of feelings was about more than a naughty impulse on my part.  I didn’t know how to filter and discern and limit outside forces when I was seven.  And I didn’t know how to express my own sorrow.  I’m better at it now, not perfect, but better.  And I know it is crucial to do so.  Whatever the outcome of this election —  and I am invested in an outcome I believe fervently will set this country and world on a more inclusive respectful earth-loving trajectory — we need to wake up tomorrow in touch with our own insides.  We need our filters, our discernment, our own inner flames.  It will be those flames, our passions and desires and beating open hearts that carry us forward.  It will be our inner guidance, our own direct connection with the divine, that brings us the next impulse, the next step, the next action in creating this world we are envisioning.  And this empowerment is always available to us, to each of us.  And from this inside place of power, with hearts open, we can remember that we are all connected.  As my sister’s six year old granddaughter said this past August, while sitting on the rocks by the ocean in Maine contemplating her grandma who had recently died, “It is so beautiful here.  The ocean connects us all.”

So what am I doing today, on this day when I have already voted and am tempted to keep my finger glued to my cell phone, tempted to be pulled in before nothing is known?  I’m taking off, setting out on a pilgrimage, calling it “Door to Shore.”  With my backpack filled with food, I’m walking my way eighteen miles from my house to Lake Superior, following the old mining railroad grade on the Heritage Trail.  I will have my cell phone close to me.  I will check now and then for texts, probably will peek at the news.  But for the most part, it will be me, alone, with my breath and the fresh Upper Michigan air, and the white pines and balsams, the bare-boned hardwoods, with that inner flame, fueled by all of this walking, ready to carry me forward, ready to connect me with all of you, from the inside out, into tomorrow and the next day, into a future we will create together.

Unity Garden

Unity Sign by Elizabeth Yelland

The Gift

I received a gift this holiday season. It wasn’t wrapped in bright-colored paper, not easy to place under our tree. It was a text, clear and bold and unwrapped, ready for me to feast upon, sent by my nephew, a photo of a painting, a watercolor by Elmer Porter, a dear family friend who gave it to my brother and his wife when they married. I had never seen it before and was surprised at how deeply it moved me.

It brought back memories. On sunny summer Saturdays during my childhood, my mother would pack a picnic lunch of sandwich-makings, cookies and fruit, and we kids would stuff our towels, sweatshirts, bathing suits into our canvas LLBean bags while our father brought our bright red eighteen foot wooden strip boat into the haul-off rock and, one by one, we would totter our way into the boat and off we’d go with the turquoise skiff, Splinter, sailing behind us. We’d travel the seas on those Saturday mornings, to Jenny Island or Wood Island, and often to Spring Beach, the cove on Hermit Island directly across Casco Bay from our cottage home. It was a day at Spring Beach I loved the best.

Those memories are part of what moved me. When I looked at the painting. Saturdays at Spring Beach were grand. Our dog would find the shade and immediately begin to dig and dig the most impressive of holes to lie in while we kids scrounged the rocks for baby crabs and starfish hiding in crevices beneath the seaweed, and we looked for pieces of feldspar and fancy shells on the beach, made sand castles, swam and swam and swam. Our father would cheer us on and was steward of the boats. This painting of Elmer’s brought all this back to me, the beach, the skiff, the long sun-kissed, water-soaked days, the friendship with Elmer and Dorothy Porter. And that was gift enough for me in this text sent by my nephew, to embrace these memories, to appreciate this painting by the dearest family friend.

But there was more. And I think “the more” is what brought me to tears. My mother would feast on picnic food with us, dip into the water for a swim, but then she would disappear, and so would Elmer and Dorothy, his wife. For you see, my mother not only packed the picnic; she packed her watercolors and paintbrushes, the big sheets of heavy paper, all that she needed for a day of painting. I’ve seen many of her watercolors of Spring Beach, but I’ve never seen what it took me a moment to notice in Elmer’s painting. There on the cliffs that surround the cove in the far corner of the painting is a tiny figure and when I look closely, I know it is my mother. Elmer, as he painted included my mother as she painted. And I have never seen a painting of my mother painting.

And I smile through happy tears at this Christmas gift. Elmer has painted a wonderful free-spirited watercolor. And we can imagine him sitting on the rocks on the other side of the cove noticing for a moment my mother on the cliffs facing the open sea, her paper on her lap, claiming a Saturday at Spring Beach for her art. Both of them sharing their different points of view, their different perspectives. I feel the connection between them as they create, and the gift of both of their paintings, so different and, yet, both reflecting their love for this place.

I think of us all this holiday season, how we live from our own deep centers, with our own perspectives, points of view, passions, how we paint our own magnificent lives. And yet, we are not alone. There is the person on the other side of cove, other side of the street, other side of the world. And we need each other, really need each other, are connected in so many ways. It is the figure in the painting that makes an extra special Christmas gift. It is connection with your dear friends and family that makes life extra special. I wish for us all this holiday season and beyond, time to play at our own passions, and time to share our perspectives with each other.

Happy Holidays!

And may 2022 be a year when we find ways to connect.

It is mid-May in northern Michigan, the aspen leaves unfurling, the trillium splashed across the forest floor with snowy blossoms.  We are traveling west along US 2, through this impossibly green world of trees bursting into leaf, of forests waking up, of dandelions and trout lilies and marsh marigolds.  We are waking up too, on Day One of this adventure to visit our kids and grandkids in Idaho.  Cam has just retired from forty years of dentistry and we are on the open road surrounded by all this springtime.  In the evening, we set our tent at a site on the Minnesota/North Dakota border. We eat fiddleheads Cam has picked the day before, slightly blanched, sprinkled with salt, dressed in olive oil.  We take in their wild, tender taste, allow something new to unfurl inside of us.

Buffalo roam wild in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  About a dozen of them have made the campground and surrounding area in the park’s north unit their home.  They graze and stand and tromp wherever they wish to be.  They don’t budge for cars, or for us, the campers who are temporarily moving into their space in this Badlands’ world of rock and sage brush and cottonwood trees.  I have never been this close to buffalo before, don’t know how to connect with them, think of my friend Marty and his Big Foot poems. Buffalo, like Big Foot, feel ancient to me, heavily grounded on this earthen plain, of the earth in a way that I, who flit among fiddleheads and trillium and marsh marigolds, don’t understand.  We watch them graze on grass, among the cottonwoods, lit up by the rose-colored dusk, and, in the morning, stand still in awe as the clan trot by our campsite so close on the other side of the two-track road, busting brush. breaking sticks, grunting in guttural tones, in a language foreign to me.  One male leaves the group, crosses the road, finds his way to the grasses that line our site, leans his humungous head down, begins to eat.  And twenty-five feet away, I sit down quietly, begin to eat too.  

South of Bozeman, we drive up a canyon, camp in a grassy patch beside a rushing stream.  Clumps of snow still sit along its banks, while the woods, carpeted with yellow mountain lilies, sing of springtime.  Before we settle in for supper and sleep, I follow a narrow path along the stream, up and down hills, pine-needle carpeted, rocky, mossy, messy.  The air smells of fir, and, oddly, this trail in the mountains of Montana reminds me of Maine, the path to the point by my childhood cottage, the path I have walked what seems like a million times.  I am comfortable scampering through these woods, back on familiar ground, with the wild flowers and unfurling ferns and fairy moss again.   

We visit Aunt Anne and her daughter, my cousin Carla, in Bozeman.  Like the path I followed by the stream, she reminds me of Maine, this New England aunt who uprooted herself nearly two years ago at eighty-eight, sold her home in Cundy’s Harbor, moved to this assisted living facility to be near her daughter.  We peruse a binder of recent writings, poems and essays she has published in a local journal.  My aunt is bringing her heritage and the flora and fauna of New England to this mountain town through her creative efforts and I’m inspired.  Mary Oliver’s book of selected poems lies on the table before us.  “Each time I read one of her poems,” my aunt tells me, “I well up.  They are so beautiful.”  I reply to my naturalist, animal- loving, environmentalist, poet aunt that she reminds me of Mary Oliver.  I share fiddleheads with her.  

We are in Moscow, Idaho with our kids and grandkids and I am stunned by the lushness of this small college city in late May.  It flourishes this time of the year.  The Palouse hills surrounding it are bright green with fresh crops of lentils, wheat, prairie grasses, and the lilacs in town, so many of them, are impossibly laden with blooms and heady scent.  And the poppies!  The poppies are bursting out of their furry pods.  We live in a VRBO in the heart of it all and the grandkids ask how long we will stay.  Twelve days, we reply.  Twelve days!  We all sigh.  Twelve days seems a very long time, time enough to soak in all this unfolding.   

Grandpa Cam and I are walking from our sweet VRBO home to East City Park four blocks away with the girl cousins, our two granddaughters, just turning four and nearly six.  These girls have known each other forever.  They climb up and scoot along the stone wall, the six year old leading, the almost four year old mimicking her older cousin.  They are up on the wall, they are down on the sidewalk, they are up on the wall, they are down on the sidewalk, they are skipping and bounding, the younger making fart noises with her mouth, waving her hands madly, both of them bursting into laughter, both of them bursting like the poppies.   

I open a small beaded bag I keep in my suitcase.  It is my traveling altar.  I reach in, take out the prayer beads, the affirmation cards, and something else.  I am stunned, had forgotten about it, don’t remember where it came from.  Perhaps I have had it forever, this silver coin-like talisman with a buffalo etched into its surface.  

We are not a quiet family.  I light the candle that sits in the middle of our VRBO’s kitchen table, set out the art supplies, prepare the salad, and then they descend, the four grandkids, their parents, a herd of buffalo, not quite a stampede but definitely a tromp through the sage brush bushes of this home that is a quiet haven when Grandpa Cam and I are alone.  It isn’t the badlands.  It is the good lands, but we are loud and we are messy and there is no way to tame the tromp.  I suspect the answer is to surrender, to embody buffalo, to let it be.

Our youngest grandson who is three-and-a -half spends a whole day with Grandpa Cam and me, alone, just the three of us.  This is special, the first time for him, without older sister or cousins.  We drive east twenty-five miles, eat breakfast at an Amish Cafe and Creamery.  Our grandson and Grandpa Cam drink huckleberry milkshakes with ice cream made right on the premises.  We then visit three different play areas.  He learns to operate the toy excavator.  We say hello to Buddy the rattlesnake who lives in a terrarium at the crystal shop, buy stickers at the art gallery.  Our grandson wears a bug sticker on his nose.  It is a good day.  

Our oldest grandson will be nine in July, wears glasses, loves words.  We write them down, so many words on pieces of paper, act them out in family games of charade.  He brings a magnifying glass with him when he spends the night with us.  It is a prop, he says, for one of the words.  “Detective” is his word.  We guess it easily, but we know there is something bigger than this game of charades, know this grandson of ours, so sincere and sweet-natured, is seeing the world through big eyes, magnifying its magnificence.

We hike the trails on Moscow Mountain up and over ridges that edge the town, just the two of us, Grandpa Cam and I.  The days are getting warmer and the clear western air smells of fir and pine and the dampness of stream.  Wildflowers dot the woods — white lady slippers, a yellow sunflower-looking plant, tiny purple lupine, columbine — flowers familiar but in slightly different form than their eastern cousins I know from northern Michigan and Maine.  I want to sing to these trees we walk among, these huge glorious ponderosa pines and cedar, to the clear air, to this time hiking on the trails.  It grounds me to be here on this holy ground and I remember buffalo.  Buffalo stands strong, rooted, yet a part of a tribe too.  I need this time to ground myself in my own being.  And I return from these hikes refreshed, ready to join the clan again.

Twelve days flies by, isn’t such a long time after all.  And good-byes are not easy, that’s for sure.  It is etched in our minds, a pang in our hearts, the image of the two of them, our son and almost six year old granddaughter sitting on the tailgate of their truck watching us back out of their driveway.  She is sobbing, holding back nothing, and I am trying to be strong, waving, blowing kisses, wiping away tears.  This is all still fresh for us as we walk beside a tributary of the Kootenai River on a trail in a wildlife refuge shaded by cottonwoods in ninety degree heat two hours north of Moscow on the Montana border.  We need this hike, need to talk, need to process this time with the kids.  Can we do it?  Do we want to do it?  Do they want us to? When Cam’s office building sells, we will have the money to buy a second home, a small place of our own in Moscow, where visits can be longer than twelve days.  Under the cottonwoods with a blessed breeze off the Kootenai, our talk is bare and honest and, like our almost six year old granddaughter, we hold back nothing.  Our kids are amazing parents.  I wish I had told them that more often during this visit.  And the love between us all is palpable despite the fact that sometimes it is messy, a buffalo tromp through the brush of interpersonal communication.  A great blue heron lifts up from the grassy marsh and we lift up too, decide the answer is yes, of course we want to take this leap, that the answer was always yes.  

This is new for us, this route south through Montana.  We have said good-bye to our campsite on a mountain lake, have bought a huckleberry pie at a tourist stop just west of Glacier National Park, have hiked up a trail through a forest of yellow lilies, have gasped and sighed and whooped out loud at the magesty of mountains, still snow-capped, and the brilliant aquamarine rivers beneath them alive with early-June run-off.  We’ve done this before, following US2 east after visiting kids and grandkids.  But now, instead of watching all this Rocky Mountain splendor disappear through the rear view mirror, we have made a turn, are traveling along the front range, the snow-capped mountains still present for hours on our left.  At rest stops, we walk down gravel roads toward these mountains, read placards that tell us that the grizzlies, pushed off these prairie lands into high ground, are slowly returning, that buffalo once roamed here, that billions of years before them, there were the dinosaurs.  We stop at a dinosaur museum and Cam takes a photo of me with my arms wrapped around a statue of a brontosaurus.  I text the photo to the grandkids.

Time is so strange.  We leave the dinosaurs and enter the land of family once again, in the middle of Montana, in the rolling foothills outside of Lewistown.  We haven’t visited Cam’s sister and her husband in years, in more than a decade.  Cam has never been to their log home, this homestead with fields, two horses, chicken coop, the stream running below it.  Lilacs are still in bloom outside the great-room window and this part of Montana is lush and green in early June. We are in the present, sitting around the table eating the huckleberry pie, the six of us— our niece and her husband have driven three hours north from Columbus to join the reunion.  We share updates, and time folds in on itself and no time has slipped by at all and we are the ages we are now and we are the ages we were when we last saw them and we are the immature teens we were when I first entered the scene and this is the table Cam sat at each morning when he was a little boy.  

I wake up to a Chesapeake Retriever’s nose poking against me, to his strange teeth-showing snarl-grin, to his vigorous tail -wagging.  I’ve tucked the kids and grandkids and our twelve days together into my heart where our stories are safe and sacred, and have plunged into a day with dogs, Cam’s sister’s two and our niece’s three.  Five big dogs share walks along the stream, sprawl out with us on floors in the house, follow us as we collect chicken eggs with Cam’s sister.  Four of these dogs nuzzle us as if they know we are family and have been part of their pack forever.  It is the fifth dog, Taz, the one who remains wary, who tugs at my heart.  She started her life as a stray on a reservation north of here, has some wild coyote genes mixed into her family pool, loves her dog brother and these cousin dogs who visit often, and the people she knows, but we’re the strangers and she barks at us when we near her house and stares from the corner of the living room, making sure we don’t get too close.  I can sense her good nature, understand her caution.  Don’t we all have a part of us that is wild, a part ready to defend against danger, a part that has trouble relaxing into the goodness that is all around us?  Blessedly, on this day, I am a puddle of relaxation.  Every once in a while, I glance over, try to look as casual as possible, smile at Taz.  I want her to know that Cam and I are family too.

There is no shade on this twenty-five mile gravel road that winds its way up and down steep hills through a part of Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, and the temperature on this morning in early June is rising rapidly into the high 90’s.  But here we are stopping at every interpretative sign along the way.  I promised our brother-in-law we would do so and I’m keeping my promise. Before bed last night, he shared with me how he was a teenager when he first kayaked down the Missouri through this refuge with his grandparents on a visit from Kansas, how he had no idea then that he’d be spending his entire career devoted to this place as a biologist with a focus on saving the black-footed ferrets from extinction.  In the sweltering heat, we read our way through time, from dinosaur, to buffalo and the native people, to Lewis and Clark, to ranchers and hunters, to the ferrets and our brother-in-law’s quest to help them thrive again in a world where they once prevailed.  We are a blip on this timeline, a blip in this land’s rich history, and yet our lives in the present moment blaze in living color.  Each life a compelling movie — not just our brother-in-law who is saving the ferrets with unrelenting passion, but all of us, the bright stars in the movies of our lives.  This whole trip spills over with people’s stories and this present blip on the timeline takes center stage in my mind

Did I mention we have been driving a rental Tahoe for this out west adventure? Well, we are, and it has served us well with its sturdiness on open prairie roads in high winds, with its spacious interior for all our gear, with its good gas mileage and easy driving.  Except now, we’re at a loss, aren’t sure how to get the spare tire out from under it.  I think it happened a few days ago when I ran over something metal on the road near Cam’s sister’s place, this slow leak that became a fast leak as we crept along the last few miles of gravel in the wildlife refuge. Thankfully, we made it — barely — to the intersection of the road that will take us north to Malta and US2.  So here we are, in one hundred degree heat trying to seem competent.  I find the section of the
owner’s manual that instructs us on tire changing, Cam gets out the tools for releasing our impressively flat tire.  I try to flag down the few passing cars, Cam starts taking things out of the back of the Tahoe.  We’re hot and we’re inept and we have no cell phone coverage.  And then it happens.  It always does.  Things work out.  In this case, our savior is a guy from Louisiana driving a surveying truck.  What would have taken us forever, takes him twenty minutes.  He knows just what to do, and he does it with grace and a friendly face full of sweat because it is so hot, and then he follows us on the hour drive all the way to Malta and finds us the tire store that will mend our flat.  And while our leak is being mended, we walk three blocks to the dinosaur museum, buy a Tyrannosaurus Rex puzzle and a furry stuffed animal kitty for our granddaughter’s birthday.  It is worth repeating to myself, “Things are always working out!”

It is too hot for the rain cover, so we lie here on our mats on top of our sleeping bags under the stars.  A breeze blows in off the wide Missouri River, through the cottonwoods in our campsite in Eastern Montana.  It is us and the stars and it is music, the music of the wind, and the last calls of the birds mingling with something else, something wonderful.  A friend from home has texted a video.  Her daughter, in her early teens, has kept it up throughout the long pandemic, her love for music, her passion for piano, has honed her incredible talent.  And this night that finds us by a river refuge, finds her, this teen daughter, at the piano.  Her teacher, her parents, her relatives have created a safe inside gathering for this celebration, and, now, almost in live time, we are savoring it too.  It is incredible.  I don’t know the names of all the composers, don’t read music or have a musician’s ear, but I know I am listening to something heavenly.  For precious moments, I become part of it, the stars, the wind, the music.  It happens sometimes that life sweeps us up in its arms and brings us perfection.   

It is easy to fly along at eighty miles per hour as we head for the North Dakota border, to fly along the plains as if we are riding horseback with the buffalo, as if we are racing the dinosaur, as if our feet are not even touching the ground.  That is how we feel this morning, as we travel eastward, toward our home in Upper Michigan, toward the ferns that I’m sure have now unfurled into forest fans, toward a second course of lilacs and poppies and peonies.  We are traveling home filled with the west, carrying it with us.  As we fly along at eighty miles per hour, my hand at the wheel, Cam reads me the news. His dental office has appraised at the asking price and the sale is a go.  We will soon have the money to buy a small place of our own in the town we have grown to love, in the town our kids call home.  It will be our home now too for longer visits with family.  I think it is possible to be this happy, to stretch our arms wide, to haul it all in, the Maine coast that Aunt Anne and I love with heart and soul, the impossibly magnificent Rockies, the western pines and cedars, the Great Lake at our upper Midwestern doorstep, the people we love, the dinosaurs and buffalo, to live it all, one glorious breath, one glorious footstep, one glorious mile at a time.

Seal-skin Soul-skin

During my growing up summers in Maine, I swam daily in the cove with my siblings, my mother often joining us.  I dipped under the surface, fluttered my feet, opened my eyes to the swaying banners of kelp, the green sea grass dancing with the tides. Sometimes, I glided among mackerel fish and herring and once a seal bobbed on the surface nearby. My father called me a mermaid.  I stayed in the water until my skin turned mottled and blue, until my teeth chattered, and, even then, sometimes refused to place my feet on dry land.

It was the 60’s and Andre was a pup.  From our cottage home in Fish House Cove, we heard tales of a harbor seal who lived northeast of us in Rockport, was rescued and raised by the Harbor Master and charmed locals and tourists alike with his bountiful display of tricks, who found fame on the local news.

Sometimes it is the seal card I draw from the animal deck.  When I do, I know it is time to pay attention.  The message on the card tells me to immerse myself in artistic and creative expression, to roll with the tides, to plunge into the depths.

A decade ago, my sister and I, both visiting our mother in Maine, hiked the shoreline at Popham Beach.  Mom was old by then, in her nineties, no longer able to paint with her watercolors, to tend her seaside garden, to join us here on this expansive stretch of sand by the sea just five miles from the cottage where we spent our childhood summers, where our mother still lived.  The breakers thrashed against the beach that day.  I think it was September, Hurricane Season, and the surfers were paddling their boards out past the churned water, then riding the swells into shore.  And that’s when I saw it, a shiny black head bobbing among the boards. It was a seal, lifting its torso up out of the water, then diving down under the curls, playing among the surfers — I told my sister that this was a good sign, that we needed to surf our way through our own creative waves.

By the 80’s, when our boys were little, Andre’s fame had grown.  All over the world, people knew of this seal who was flown to the New England Aquarium in Boston each November when Rockport’s harbor froze, who played with the other aquarium seals all winter, was released each April back into the sea where, year after year, he swam the 230 miles northeast to Rockport.  And each year, when the world received the news that he had once again made it home to harbor and family, there was a communal sigh of relief, of joy.  My mother loved Andre, gifted her two young grandsons, our boys, with a book, “Andre, the Seal”.  

My husband just retired from a forty year career in dentistry, more avocation than job, and the two of us have been swimming in an ocean of emotion, tides and tears flowing into shore.  These past few weeks, I have thought of the cove, have wanted to slip into the water under a full moon sky and a sea of stars, have wanted to immerse myself in salt-filled waves, all body, no thought, to emerge from my swim, replenished, ready for something new.

It was in late April that my mother called me, breathless.  She saw him, she said.  Out in the cove.  As she relayed the story, I could smell the sea through the airwaves one thousand miles inland in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He hauled himself up into the turquoise skiff, she told me, the one she now used for flounder fishing, and he sprawled out on the stern’s wide seat, slept all afternoon.  She was sure it was Andre.

My mother carried a tin box of watercolor tubes, thick paper, her camp chair out onto the rocks, painted the cove in all its moods, sometimes gray and misty, the lobster boat and skiff looming in the fog, sometimes cobalt blue high tide sparkly with the rocks glimmering in shades of gold and brown.  She lugged buckets of seaweed up the granite stairs from the beach to place atop her garden’s soil, scrounged the low tide mark for sea moss and mussels, cooked mackerel and flounder she caught herself. My mother wore her seal skin, gifted us our own.

Last evening, I told my husband I would work on my creativity center’s taxes, have them ready for the accountant this morning, but I couldn’t help it.  The sea was calling and I had to go.  I lit a cobalt blue candle on a dark green plate, set myself down on the blue-green rug, surrounded myself with an ocean of poems, poems I’ve written, rough still, in need of the waves’ gentle polishing.  I slipped into my seal skin last night, dove down deep, explored the world beneath the froth, then surfaced again, held up by the buoyant salty sea.

Each May, when my mother was in her seventies and early eighties, I traveled east by car, alone, without kids and husband.  I knew the way, followed the lakes, Superior and Huron, then the wide Ottawa River for miles and miles through Ontario, Lake Champlain in Vermont, the Saco River in New Hampshire, until, finally, I crossed the line into Maine.  It was on the final stretch, when I traced the banks of the wide tidal Kennebec to the sea, when I turned into the driveway, saw the cottage all lit up and waiting, when I stepped out into the thick salt air, breathed in the slight scent of fish, seaweed, balsam fir, when I heard the waves washing the shore, it was then that I knew I had made it.  I was home.

Remembering Auralie

(I wrote this memory for my sister Auralie’s Facebook Page a few days after she made her transition in early June.)


Bridges don’t fall from the sky.  They don’t rise from the ground.  People build them.  Eboo Patel

I have a million Auralie stories.  I’m her sister.  And all I have to do is conjure one up now to feel her buoyant spirit.  Many of our sister stories are funny, some  hilarious.  We’re sisters who carried the love of a good laugh from childhood into our adult reunions back east in our beloved state of Maine.  And these stories will sustain me and I’m sure many will find their way into print.  But now, I want to share an Auralie story of appreciation.

Twice Auralie traveled from her adult home in Connecticut to the wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where my husband Cam and I have lived most of our adult lives, once when our kids were small, and again, years later, along with her grown daughter Tina, to attend one of our son’s weddings.  Both times, with Auralie enthusiasm, she threw herself into the trips to Lake Superior’s rocky coves and beaches, to eating a U.P. favorite, Cornish Pasties, to embracing our friends with her openhearted ease.  All of this is wonderful, but it was at the wedding attended by our kids’ friends and our friends, and my husband’s family from Lower Michigan that I clung to the happiness that my sister and niece, my people from my childhood home place, had made their way to the celebration.  It meant the world to me.

I have learned recently from her two kids that Auralie had a fear of bridges.  I don’t remember this from childhood.  I think it must have developed later when she moved from Maine to a town in Connecticut that was built in the 1600’s, a town with rickety narrow bridges, bridges that must have made her feel vulnerable.  But the day of our son’s wedding, she stood steady on the bridge she built for me between my adult world in the northern woods of Michigan and the world of coastal  Maine where she and I romped the in the woods and swam in the sea.

At one point during the reception, music and voices blasting in the background, she wrapped her arms around me and whispered in my ear with buoyant wonderment as she looked over at the groom, my son.  “He looks and talks just like Daddy!”  I was seventeen when our father died, Auralie, twenty-two.  No one else at that packed wedding celebration had known him in the flesh.  No one else could have told me that — no one but my bridge-building sister.  And for that I will be forever grateful.

Our kids, the cousins, together in Upper Michigan, June, 1984


At the wedding, 2005


A rainbow over our house two days after Auralie’s transition, June 2020

For Auralie

For Auralie                                                                                                                    (1950-2020)

With heart and hands, my sister sits at a                                                                 wheel, spins porcelain clay, as if by magic,                                                               into tiny delicate bowls, glazes her vessels                                                                              in colors of the sea, fires them with a blaze                                                                        of passion, then lays them out like sea glass                                                             on the beach for family and friends.

I can’t fit my sister into a poem, or paragraph,                                                         into one of her perfectly-formed bowls.                                                                   Her spirit is far too big to be contained,                                                                             her laughter as boisterous as waves thrashing                                                                  the shore, her sparkle, brilliant like sunlight                                                             dancing across her childhood cove.

But I will try.                                                                                                             I will wrap my arms around the millions                                                                        of memories, around the ocean of love                                                                     she so generously shared                                                                                                          and I will stuff it all into my own                                                                               heart’s bowl and carry it with me, a gift                                                                          I will cherish forever.











Photographs of Auralie’s bowls taken this summer on Sister Point, our forever wild piece of land in coastal Maine, by Auralie and Helen’s beloved niece, Emily Haskell.



Without leaps of imagination, or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities.  Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning.  Gloria Steinem

So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable.  Christopher Reeve


I woke the other morning with a dream still fresh in my being, vivid and in color and eager to be remembered.  I stood on the sandy bank of a river in my dream, a tidal river, I think, and the current was swift, and when I placed one foot into the moving water, I could feel it, as though I were awake, the way my leg tingled with the cold, the way the current began to pull at me.  I knew I needed to get to the other side and I couldn’t see how I could make it happen.  The river was too strong, its grasp fierce and unrelenting.

It was two days earlier in waking life, on a sunny Saturday early evening with a north wind blowing and the air clear and refreshing, that my husband Cam and I traipsed from Wetmore Landing along Lake Superiors’s rocky shoreline.  And two miles into our hike, as we approached the tip of Little Presque Isle where mainland and small tree-covered sandstone island are separated by an isthmus of water, we came upon it, a crisis unfolding.  On calm days, it is easy to wade waist deep out to the island and it is a popular playground for those with an adventurous spirit.  But on this day, the wind had kicked up and the waves had risen to three-feet high and the water had become confused.  And there was the current and the riptide and the adventurers trying to make their way back to the mainland.  It had blown them off their course and when we arrived, a rescue already was taking place.  Bright orange life rings and preservers had been tossed to those in trouble.  Others were holding onto a paddle board as a man wearing a preserver was pulling them through the current toward shore.  The coast guard had been called and a boat was on its way, and the Search and Rescue, ambulance and sheriff showed up as we stood by and prayed.  And all made it to shore and all were okay and the story’s ending was a good one.

But I do wonder whether the incident that we witnessed in the bright waking hours of a Saturday early evening was working its way through my dreamtime in the predawn two days later.  It had felt visceral to me that Saturday, watching the young people fighting the current and plowing their way back to the safety of the shore.  When we were their age, Cam and I had experienced a similar struggle with current.  We had crossed a river in coastal Maine just a few inches deep at low tide to play in the waves on a long sandy stretch of beach line.  And, we had body-surfed for hours, eaten a picnic lunch in a warm patch of sand, watched the terns dive into the water for herring.  And before we knew it, the tide had poured in and the river had filled up and the water was swift.  Holding backpacks and running shoes, we stepped into the current, then paddled through the swiftness to the other side.  And, though I was a strong swimmer during my college years, the power of the undertow frightened me.  It is hard to remain clear-headed when you are being pulled from your center by the current.

And maybe my dream, my nighttime dream, also has to do with the river of energy being carried along during this pandemic.  There is the news media filled with corona counts and a sense of divisiveness and a power to draw us in, to pull us down to a place where we can drown in its waters, and there is uncertainty in the air for sure.  For the most part, I have done okay, only dipping my foot now and then into the media’s swift current, and breathing in the air’s uncertainty with a sense of adventure that we, the big “we”, the global “we” are being offered the opportunity to forge something new from this chaos, something more expansive and loving.  It has been easy to stay positive as I hike the trails through the Upper Peninsula’s forests and lake shores, as I stay connected with friends on Zoom and at safe distance in person, as I write my poems and essays, as I spend time with Cam.  Yes, this has been easy — and I breathe it in with great gulps of appreciation.  But what about family?  What about travel beyond these sweet forest borders?  What about grandkids and kids who live more than a thousand miles to the west and siblings and cousins who live more than a thousand miles to the east?  What about a rendezvous with these kids and grandkids in one direction and a memorial service in the other direction for a sister who passed in early June?  And what about visiting a mother-in-law who lives in the south of Michigan?  When I try to figure it all out, when I add to this mixture a husband who is facing his own challenges back in the world of dentistry during a pandemic, I’m at a loss.  The river seems wide, the water wild and my ability to cross questionable.

Sometime in late April, I began to envision it.  I didn’t have to try; it just came to me in daydreams, a clear image of the two of us.  I think by then I knew that plane travel would be risky for quite a while, that Cam and I needed to figure something else out, another way to connect in person with family.  It was always a brief snippet, my envisioning, a back road, and the two of us in a vehicle big enough to sleep in, and music playing and us singing and this wonderful wild feeling of freedom.  And in May, I began to say it out loud, that a small motorhome or camper van was the way to go, that maybe renting one would be a possibility, that we could do it, travel west and east this summer.  And then June rolled around and dentists returned to work and things became more complicated and we didn’t act, not soon enough it seems, or with a clear notion in mind.  So here we are, Cam and I, near the end of July, on the banks of a river wondering how to get to the other side.  We have not found a motorhome available to rent; others must have had the same daydream.  But we have claimed some time in August and are looking at the river and knowing there must be a way to cross it.  And that daydream, of the back road and the vehicle big enough to sleep in, and us singing, and a sense of freedom, it’s still very much alive in me.

So I’m not sure how it happened in my dream a few nights ago.  There I was, standing in the sand at the edge of the river, knowing the current would have its way with me, knowing it was too dangerous to even try, just standing there, and that’s when the dream shifted.  I’ve had dreams before where I’ve flown with the lightness of a bird, one time in autumn across the whole Upper Peninsula of Michigan looking down at a sea of blazing gold and red trees.  It’s a wonderful feeling to fly in a dream.  And this felt wonderful, too.  All of a sudden, I was lifted up, by what I don’t know, lifted up above the churning swift water, and carried to the other side, just like that, with ease and grace.  And there I stood on the other side.  And that’s when I woke up.

And maybe I’m waking up now in this moment, realizing I can be there on the other side of the river, in the place I want to be, feeling the open road, the sense of freedom with a partner I adore and connection with family.  Maybe we all can let go of the struggle, let go of fighting against the current, maybe we can allow ourselves to be lifted and uplifted to a place where solutions come easily and new feel-great possibilities open to us, and our dreams manifest in ways better than we can imagine.


Lake Superior Shoreline:
July 2020

My Sister

Happiness is not ready-made.  It comes from your own actions.  Dalai Lama

Dare to live full the one precious life that is yours.

I want to tell you a story, one close to my heart.  My sister entered hospice a few weeks ago.  She plans to die at home in the apartment in Connecticut she shares with her husband of twenty-two years.  But this isn’t a story about dying.  This is a story about living.  My sister is a buoyant soul.  Her name is Auralie.  It was a hard name to own as a girl in the sixties when Sally and Nancy and Lynn and Sharon were the norm in our New England town.  More often than not, it was mispronounced in a myriad of comical ways at swim meets when she would step up to the block to compete in the distance events that were her specialty.  We would laugh and she would take it in stride because she was a good sport.  But I don’t think she realized until she was an adult how appropriate a gift our mother gave to her at birth with this name that shines bright with the word “aura”.  Auralie is funny and fun and competent and creative — a potter, a weaver, a seamstress extra-ordinaire — and her aura is a powerful beam of light that uplifts those around her.

And now, as her body loosens its hold, as her voice, that was always boisterous and hearty, weakens and slows its tempo, as she settles into the letting go of this physical world, her aura still is beaming that light.  And this story I am sharing with you shines of Auralie’s aura, and of a generosity between cousins.  It was in the midst of the pandemic, before Easter, after some medical tests, that Auralie heard the news, that things had worsened and spread and the prognosis was months to live.  Her doctor, who had become close, was flustered when he made this dire pronouncement, told her that he always wore a tie, never had forgotten, but on this day, in the midst of a pandemic and having to tell her this, he was tieless and vulnerable.  Of course, Auralie and her husband were devastated that day in early April; we all were.  But she couldn’t stay dimmed for long, especially when sharing with someone who is probably her best friend.  “I’m going to buy him a tie!” Auralie exclaimed to our cousin, when relating the whole story.  And our cousin replied, “I can do better than that; I can send you a whole box of them.”

You have to understand that Auralie and our cousin bonded early.  Our mother, a widow, with two young children, re-married in the mid-fifties.  And, it was at the wedding, while eyeing that amazing cake and soaking in the sea of happiness, that these two four-year-old girls, born within six weeks of each other, one the daughter of the bride, the other, the niece of a beloved uncle who was the groom, became fast friends with a love of cakes and joyful celebration.  And during the next few summers, before our parents built their own cottage in the cove on the other side of the point, the cousins lived within a holler of each other, our family in the old saltwater farmhouse and Karen’s family on top of the granite hill in the lodge that was once the main building of our family’s summer camp.  Though I was a baby and toddler during this time and can’t remember specifics, I’ve heard stories of their back and forth message-sending, their sharing of candy and cookies, their romps in the woods.  Our father named his bright red lobster boat “The Auralie” and the cousin-shared boat rides were filled with salty spray and sea sparkle and boisterous loud fun.  And later, I witnessed their exuberance first-hand.  During the school year, we lived in town; our cousin’s family lived in the country, and, many a night, our cousin spent with us in our rambling sea captain’s home.  I remember Auralie and our cousin’s laughter, their escapades and cookie-making, their bumping down our long winding staircase on their bottoms, their secret language that a younger sister could only observe from the outside.  I want you to know I have my own Auralie stories, an ocean of them — our sister-friendship is remarkable and the five-year-gap in our ages didn’t stop us from being the best of friends growing up.  But this is about our cousin.  And Auralie.  And their friendship.  I’m sure their stories also can fill an ocean and their bond has lasted through all these decades of living.

And there are the ties.  In her twenties, our cousin married her beloved Dane who was a generation older, and their marriage, immersed in home on their tidal river in Maine and travel to his native Scandinavia, was deep and true and filled with creativity and spanned over four decades until his passing a year ago.  “I have a whole box of John’s ties,” my cousin told Auralie, and Auralie shared this with me in a phone call three weeks ago before hospice, before her voice became weak, before confusion began to set in.  “I’m going to give them to my doctor when I see him on Wednesday.”  And a week later, when I next spoke to her, while walking on my favorite two-track on a sunny May morning with spring breaking through the long wintery cold-streak in northern Michigan, Auralie’s voice, though slower, softer, was also sunny as she told me of care packages, how our cousin had sent Fig Newtons, their childhood favorite.  “What about the ties?” I asked.  “Did you give your doctor the ties?”  “Yes!” she replied, her aura shining through.  “I did!”  “What did he say?”  That’s when she told me, “He tucked his head and he cried!”

Later, on that same walk, I called our cousin, told her what Auralie had just told me.  “I think your friendship is amazing,” I said, my voice faltering with the truth of it all.  And she replied, “I think your sister is amazing, to scheme of gifting her doctor a tie, to find humor and delight in the midst of sadness.”  So there you have it.  My sister is amazing.  And so is our cousin.  And the sparkle in an exuberant person is a resilient thing.  That afternoon, under the brilliant blue sky of early May, while standing next to that largest of lakes, I handed my husband a crystal and he held it in his palm for a moment, then called out, “for Auralie!” and tossed it into the harbor.  We watched it plunk into the water, watched it begin to sink, watched it for what seemed like a very long time as it spun and sparkled and finally found its way down into the depths beyond our reach.

The Cousins and the Cake: April 1955

When sailing uncharted waters adapt and innovate.  Arthur Ainsburg

My destination is no longer a place, rather a new way of seeing.  Proust

We all have a hungry heart, and one of the things we hunger for is happiness.  So, as much as I possibly could, I stayed where I was happy.  Mary Oliver



My sister-in-law scrounges the beach for sea glass, places wave-smoothed pieces in a pocket or bag.  Her eye is keen.  Her appetite hearty.  She knows which colors are most valued, knows the stories behind shards of pottery, has been collecting for years.  And now that she and my younger brother have moved back to coastal Maine, our family property is her favorite hunting ground, and, during this time of social distancing, it is the hike out through the pine and balsam forest to Sister Point and the hours spent on the Point’s ledges and shell beach that bring her a sense of peace and safety.  “Helen,” she texts, “we found sea-worn stoppers to two antique bottles!  And a couple of days in a row, marbles, old-fashioned glass marbles have washed up to shore.”  In this cocoon space of letting go of familiar routines, this time of limiting our world to home and neighborhood walks, there are treasures to be had, treasures that flow in with the tides to the shores of our own lives.  We just need to soften our eyes in order to discover them.


“Leave what you can.  Take what you need.”

On my daily walks, I pass the card table set up at the end of a neighbor’s driveway, drop off two packages of Annie’s Macaroni and Cheese, peruse the nonperishable items left by others.  Bottles of ketchup and mayonnaise stand next to a four-pack of paper towels.  Packages of pasta mix, baby food, a bag filled with children’s winter hats — they are all lined up, carefully displayed.  It is has become our neighborhood country store, our metaphoric beach to scrounge, and each day there is something new that the tide brings in.  I’ve been tempted by the Bettie Crocker Blueberry Muffin Mix.  I love muffins and I love blueberries and it would be a treat, all right, but I heed the sign that says, “Take what you need.”  Some little kid is going to appreciate those muffins more than me, and, besides, it is the table itself, set out with such generosity and inspiration that satisfies my appetite, and the broad smiles of neighbors as they add their items to the store’s merchandise, and the knowing that the friend who generated this brilliant idea takes bags of what is left at the end of each week to feed more little kids who are self-distancing and hungry like the rest of us.


My husband and I always seem to be hungry.

We buy a whole chicken at the co-op.  A whole chicken!  I, the almost-always-vegetarian, hardly ever eat chicken, perhaps once a year, but we’ve been thinking about it for weeks, since a dear friend in Maine texted a photo of the chicken she roasted on a bed of root vegetables.  You’d think it is Christmas or Thanksgiving, the way we fuss over our chicken, stuff it with cloves of garlic, lemon, salt and pepper, the way we slather its surface with butter, tie its legs together with string, lay it on the bed of chopped fennel, beets, carrots, potatoes, whole peeled shallots, the way we splash on the olive oil, and ever so carefully place the pan with all its fixings in the oven to roast.  We pour love into that chicken.  That’s what I want to tell you, that we have the time now to be careful, mindful, loving as we prepare our food.  We, my husband and I, have been home together, just the two of us, for seven weeks now, since I returned from visiting the kids and grandkids in Idaho, since he broke his femur in a mountain bike accident the evening my plane touched down in Marquette County.  And when I say we’ve been home, I mean home, really home in our house, cocooned.  Time has opened up for us and food has never tasted so good.  Oranges and grapefruits and kiwis, greens grown in hoop houses in our Northern Michigan county and delivered to a drop-off site once a week, pancakes for breakfast drizzled with syrup from maple trees tapped during this cocoon time by a friend who lives close by, homemade soups for lunch, suppers that fill our plates to overflowing, a banana cake that I, who haven’t baked in years, mix up and prepare for a finale after our feast of roasted chicken.  Yes, we are almost always hungry, and we have remembered that food is essential and can bring us pleasure.


We are not the only ones who are hungry.

In the gray dusk of a cold April evening, I scoop the sunflowers seeds and the oats into two cut-off plastic jugs, carry my offerings into our yard that borders a thicket of trees and a small marshy swamp.  I fill the feeders, scatter seeds on the ground, then turn back toward the house, and, as I do so, I peek around to see three of them trotting up the hill from where they had been lurking among the white pines and birches, on this side of the marshland.

For all the years of our marriage, we have fed the birds from two feeders and a small cage filled with suet.  And yes, the gray squirrels — a family of them with tiny white ears– and the red squirrels, and a bunny who finds haven under our deck also eat the seeds we pour into the feeders and the leftovers we scatter on the ground beneath.  And I want you to know that we didn’t intend on feeding them, too, the herd of deer who have spent the cold months at the edge of our neighborhood, in the borderlands between wilderness and domesticity.  And yet, the past few winters, hard on us all, have stretched long into April, and the deer have joined the backyard menagerie.

And now, I am cozy in the warmth of our home, over by the window, looking out into the yard.  The doe and her two fawns, the button-buck and his sister, have circled around the feeder, their black noses almost touching each others’s as they cock their heads to the side, as they stick their pink tongues out long, as they lick the feeder for seeds.  And a cowbird sits on the feeder’s rim, too, not budging from its perch, the four of them nourishing themselves in this wintery moment on an evening during the spring of our cocoon.


I hear a Vwump.  It is a sound I know well, one that doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I cringe.  A bird has hit the bay window in the kitchen, probably one from the flock of juncos flitting from tree branch to feeder to deck-post to tree branch to feeder.  I scramble over to the window, see a tiny feather stuck to the pane, run into the living room to get a better look out to the deck still covered in mid-April snow.  And there it is, sweet and tiny, the black junco with the white belly, just sitting there, legs a little splayed, looking dazed.  I think it might be blinking its eyes.  And I claim a moment, just a moment to decide whether to go out and pick it up.  And that’s when it happens, in that single moment, with me, still looking at that tiny junco.  A hawk — a hawk! — wings spread wide darts down faster than I can even think and scoops up that junco in its talons from our back deck — from our back deck! — and is gone, gone before I can even catch my breath.  And when I do, I scream.  No, I don’t.  I holler.  That’s not right either.  I howl.  I howl to my husband, to the hawk, to nobody and to everybody.  I howl for that tiny black junco with the white belly.


I know how to howl.  I know how to howl when I’m upset or angry or scared.  And I know that more than 60,000 people have died these past weeks of a virus sweeping across our country, know there is sadness and sickness and fear and people who are truly hungry and don’t have money for chicken dinner feasts, and I know that hawks are hungry too and their hunger can show up in my very own space.  And I do howl sometimes, wild and loud like the wolves.  But the thing is, howling is cathartic and freeing and I can’t stay upset when I’m howling like that.  So I howl out my sadness, my anger, my fear, and then I sing and I dance and I have compassion, and happiness bubbles up and that’s what I want to tell you — this morning, I woke up happy.


My husband and I have been married for forty-three years.  And it astounds me to think of it now, that, until our hunkering in time almost two months ago, unless we have been traveling, I have rarely woken up before him, even on weekends.  For those forty-three years, five days a week, his alarm has sung out at six in the morning and he has sprung up and out of bed on automatic pilot, still half asleep.  Last summer, during a hike on our favorite two-track, he shared with me that he wondered whether he really was an early morning person.  Well, now he knows.  We both know.  As I lie in bed journaling and writing e-mails to friends, he is curled up beside me, making puff puff breathing noises, fast asleep.  He seems to feast on sleep, this deep rest he’s receiving in the cocoon of our home.  And when he awakens to the east sun flickering through the trees and into our bedroom or to the wind whistling against the house or to me gently nudging him, he is satiated by sleep.  And I feast on it too, the slow waking up, the warmth of a partner, the luxury to visit as we start our day.  It is a gift that the tide of this unique time has carried into shore for us, a gift we didn’t know we were hungry for, one that has filled us with satisfaction.


I could eat the whole sky today.  It is almost May and the weather has shifted.  And it is sunny and the breeze blows in from the south and the sky is blue, true blue, blue from horizon to horizon and there is nothing but blue.  I have never seen a sky like this.  Not once in my whole life.  There are no clouds, no pale half-moon, and no streaks.  That’s what makes this different.  There are no criss-cossed lines, no dashes of white, no familiar rumbling-sound breaking up the impossibly-blue of this blue sky.  The airplanes are parked and quiet.  And, on this neighborhood walk in late April, I want to engulf it, all this blue, want my cells to swim in this uninterrupted sea of blue, want to spread myself out in it too, become one with this wide space that surrounds me.  It has done something to me, witnessing it, embodying it, feeling its spaciousness.  I point it out to neighbors as they pass by in their family units.  “Look at the sky,” I exclaim, “at all this blue.”  I don’t want to forget it.  And yet, there is something else brewing too, on this spring-like day when two crocuses are blossoming in our garden of melting snow and the weather has shifted and I’m walking into the soft breeze.  I can almost taste it blowing in with the breeze.  I’m hungry, not just for this moment where I’m eating the sky.  I’m hungry for the smell of the sea and the point of land that is my ancestral true north and the people I love on the coast of Maine.  And I’m hungry too for the prairie land of northern Idaho and the ponderosa pines and the forest of tall cedars where the quiet is holy and fragrant and unyielding, hungry to be present with my kids, to hold my grandkids, to play unfettered, no FaceTime in sight.  And as I walk along through quiet streets, as I pass the card table of generosity — our metaphoric beach set up for scrounging — I know, that for today, this is where I choose to be, right here, on the ground in this neighborhood where I have lived for over thirty years, greeting new and old friends as we pass each other under this sky, this blue clear unstreamed sky.


The Generosity Table that Tanya Marra Allen has set up in her driveway by the street during this time of self-distancing: Spring, 2020


Our chicken dinner feast: April, 2020


The deer at our feeder: 2020


The guy with the broken femur, walking without his cane in Marquette’s Lower Harbor: mid-April, 2020


First blossoms in front yard garden: Late April, 2020


We delight in the beauty of the butterfly but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.  Maya Angelou

Personal transformation can and does have global effects.  As we go, so goes the world, for the world is us.  The revolution that will save the world is ultimately a personal one.  Marianne Williamson

“I’ll be back in the beginning of May, for the Ren Fair.”  I practically sang those words a month ago to my two oldest grandkids, who, at four-and-a-half and seven-and-a-half, can comprehend about how long it is between my evenly-spaced visits.  And, in the beginning of March, it seemed perfect, to plan my next trip out west to coincide with Moscow, Idaho’s Renaissance Fair, a rousing three-day celebration of spring’s return.  Moscow, a small college town in northern Idaho’s panhandle and home to our sons and their families, doesn’t hold back at this annual festival of merriment held in the largest of their city parks.  There’s a huge May Pole and May Pole dances, and art booths and face-painting booths and booths selling garlands of flowers to wear in your hair.  There are stations of food and drink, a stage set up with live music and dancing, and haystacks surrounding it to sit upon when you just want to soak it in.  There are llamas and goats and ponies to ride and fairy wings to strap on when you feel like fluttering above the crowds and fairy dresses and tie-dyed shirts and costumes galore and a huge paper mache dragon with a snarling head that weaves its way in and out of the milling people fueled by the tiny feet of a line of little kids.  It is as if the world busts free in Moscow, Idaho after the dark months of winter and the unpredictability of early spring into a blossoming fluttering pollen-laden joyously-raucous song and dance of newly-imagined possibility.  “Of course, I’ll be back for the Ren Fair,” I told the kids.

And I meant it a month ago.  And then things changed, things shut down, almost immediately after I flew home to Upper Michigan.  A virus swept across the sea and the land, and we, the people of this earth, were required to go inward, to spin ourselves cocoons of safety, to ride out this early spring storm from our home-spun shelters, no buying tickets for the next trip west, no planning ahead, no holding on to the way things used to be.

In early August, in the small wild garden that nestles up to Joy Center’s entry, the butterfly weed blooms bright with orange clusters of flowers.  This past year, these plants began to look chewed up, ragged — and the culprits were right there, present in plain sight, plump and perky and black and yellow zebra-striped.  Caterpillars were devouring the leaves, and becoming more plump by the day.  I never found the cocoons they later spun, but one sunny Sunday at the end of the month, Cam and I stopped at Joy Center to water the plants, and there they were.  Two of them.  One fluttering above the coneflower, the wild onion, the sunflowers, the other spread out in the sun on the paved walkway.  Two wide-winged and brilliant and brand-new monarch butterflies.  We were present for there arrival, the one on the walkway just drying its wings, still unable to fly.  It felt like a miracle.  How could it be that those plump zebra-striped caterpillars transformed into something so different, so light-filled, so expansive?

And I think about the monarchs now and wonder whether there is something for us to learn as we settle into our own hand-spun cocoons.  It’s just a guess, but I’m thinking that caterpillars hunker into their protective casings and allow the next stage to happen, with no resistance, no trying to hold on tight to their caterpillarness.  And I’m guessing that they have nourished themselves for this journey, taken as good care as possible as they embark on their transformation into butterflyhood.  And I also am thinking that they don’t try to figure it all out, where a wing will sprout, a leg will grow.  They just let it happen.  I see that for us now, that this is a time to nourish ourselves, to sink into the slower pace of the cocoon, to just allow the transformation to take place as we listen to what feels right and good in the moment, what opens our hearts and brings a lightness to our spirits.    In the deepest part of me, when it is time to break free from our cocoons, I sense we all will be changed.  I sense that the changes will be a good thing, that we will be lighter, more loving, more expansive, our world more connected.  But how can I — how can any of us — from inside a cocoon know exactly what this world will look like, what we will look like?  It’s not time to know.  It is time to be exactly where we are, safe in our cocoon homes, in the in-between time.

And when we do bust free of this protective covering, perhaps there will be dancing in the streets and live music and fairy wings we can strap on and little kids fueling paper mache dragons and raucous laughter and booths filled with art and food and garlands of flowers to wear in our hair.  Perhaps we won’t have to plan it.  Perhaps it will just happen.

Joy Center monarchs: late August 2019


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