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Archive for September, 2011

Leaving Normal

Normal is not something you aspire to; it’s something to get away from.   Jodi foster

(For my mother on her ninety-third birthday, September 29, 2011)

My mother’s father ran a tight ship.  Despite his mystic Swedenborgian upbringing, he strived to be normal.  You knew that Monday was leftover lamb and Wednesday was roasted chicken, and, in the Boston household of my mother’s childhood, you knew that Saturday was good old-fashioned baked beans and brown bread.  And if you were my mother, you knew not to stir your ice cream with a spoon, even if you did it because your head hurt when you ate it cold and hard.  You knew not to stir your father’s wrath.  A generation later, I remember his leather slipper, how he slapped it on the stairs at bedtime during his visits to our house in Maine.  “Quiet!” his slipper shouted.  “Keep yourself tucked in!  Keep yourself on a schedule.  Be normal!”

My mother is the one who left normal.  I’m not sure how long it took her, perhaps through a first marriage and widowhood in her thirties. But by the time I arrived on the scene when my mother was thirty-eight, she was moving off the charts.  No drugs for her in childbirth.  Breastfeeding, of course.  And sherry and wine, how good they taste.  My mother found the taste of bourbon and whiskey.  She found my father and his quirky family.  She found paintbrushes and canvas.  She found Euell Gibbons and wild asparagus.  She found the ocean at low tide, a grocery store of new tastes.  She found a dropline, a rowboat, a smashed periwinkle.  She found her inner fisherman.  She found a filet knife.  She found fish guts and blood.  She found the wild wind, the thrill of a hurricane, a carpenter to flirt with.  She found an outdoor shower and the chill of the sea on her breasts.  It’s my mother who left normal, the normal my grandfather, who probably was far from normal, tried to instill.

My mother found my father and they raised us and nothing seemed normal to me.  Our grandfather, a softened version of the one with the leather slipper, and my Grandma Helen, who cooked the normal food, they moved in with us, and so did my never-normal and now senile Grammie Emma and we lived in a huge rambling sea captain’s home and we ate artichokes which were not normal in the carrots and peas New England of the sixties.  And every Sunday, we attended our Swedenborgian church and that was definitely not normal, except we didn’t even go to church in the summer because the whole congregation, including the minister, took three months off – and who does that?!?  It’s not normal.  And I had a half brother and a half sister and that wasn’t normal and my mother learned to swear and she laughed at dirty jokes after a drink or two and we drove an old old car – we being my mother because my father’s eyes were bad and he couldn’t drive.  Not normal.

My mother couldn’t make something turn out normal.  She’d left normal on another planet.  When our eighth grade class was studying Scandinavia, my mother was excited.  She dug out her Better Homes and Garden Cookbooks from around the world and created a pickled dill-laced potato salad with creamed herrings on the side.  And she brought it in to school for the whole class to enjoy.  I was mortified; it wasn’t normal.  I never had to leave normal.   I inhabited the quirky land of not-normal from the moment I slipped drug-free from that mother who had left normal far far behind.

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Relax into Your Brilliance

I want to relax into my brilliance . . .  said by a friend

I am sitting outside in my front lawn, pen in hand, and FuFu, our white cat is sprawled long beside me, and we are facing the September sun and the warm breeze, and the rustle of maples and oaks and aspens.  And now, less than a block away, the school bus is screeching to a halt, and its doors have just flung themselves open and the kids are leaping out onto the street.  School is over for the day and I can’t make a fist.

I’d like to call myself to order, to march back into that classroom in my mind.  “I have some good ideas,” I yell out to my inner teacher who is nowhere to be found.  I really do.  I have an essay about India waiting to be pounded into a Taj Mahal extra-ordinaire.  I have a poem inside about my father, the way he piled the brush ino a huge mound on the beach at low tide, and threw the match onto the boughs of balsam as we, his children, watched the flames shoot high into the sky.  And I would write this poem down if I could find my inner flame.  I have stories inside and bits of wisdom and a song about an owl.  They are all in there just floating around like pieces of seaweed in a calm cove.

Two nights ago, I dreamed that I was floating, floating down the Ganges, the cold clear Ganges of the Himalayan foothills.  And the river was pulling me along and it was easy floating like this, filled with the chants of the ages and the colors of saris and the scent of sandalwood mingling with rich Indian spices.  And when I tipped my head back into the buoyant mother of all rivers, I was held up and I saw a mountain eagle above me and the fuchsia blossoms of a giant rhododendron hanging over the river’s banks and there was nothing I needed to do, nothing I needed to prove, and I was heading in the right direction, downstream toward all that I wanted.  And when I woke up, I was filled with the huge taste of my dream and a continent of contentment.

Sometimes it’s enough to pick up your feet and drift for a while.  Who needs a polished essay, a paternal bonfire of a poem, a neat and tidy story, a song about an owl?  Who needs a classroom in your mind when the mums and the sunflowers are in their autumn glory and the leaves in Ishpeming are the most crimson you have ever seen?

Sunflowers in Autumn

Call of the Wild

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky . . .

John Masefield, Sea Fever

In fourth grade, Mrs. Honsinger gave us an assignment: Find a poem that you love, any poem, and read it in front of the class.  I loved my nursery rhymes and the poetry of A.A. Milne in Now We Are Six, but I was no longer six and I wanted a grown-up poem so I approached my mother.  “Which poem should I choose?” I asked.  And she thought a moment, then guided me up the attic stairs, to the third story of our rambling sea captain’s home, to the marvelous playground of old clothes and quirky couches and piles of musty books.  And she pulled from these piles a blue-bound book of best-loved poems and she thumbed through the pages until she found what she was looking for – and she read it to me and I closed my eyes, and even though I was twelve miles inland from our cottage in the cove, I could smell the sea and I could feel something big inside of me, something wild and unnamable.  And then I read it out loud, in front of my mother.  Over and over, I practiced the lines, “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky . . .” until my mother’s favorite poem, Sea Fever by John Masefield, became my favorite poem, and my sea fever was as genuine as hers.

And we’ve shared this love for the sea, my mother and I, for “the  flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying,” over all these years with our sea-faring New England family; through boatrides and picnics and swims in the cove, through hurricanes and calm cool evenings, it has called to us, “a clear call that may not be denied”.  And two weeks ago, while eating lunch at Dionne Commons, my ninety-three year old mother closed her eyes as she chewed on a bite of her sandwich.  “It tastes like the sea,” she said.  I closed my eyes, and I tasted it too.  I had bought the crabmeat earlier in the morning from Kevin at Gilmore’s Fish Market, had mixed it with mayonnaise in my motel room at the Hampton, and, here we were now in Mom’s new home, tasting the waves and the gulls’ cry and the sparkle on the September sea.  It was intoxicating.

And while my mother napped, content, I think, with the taste on her tongue, I found myself hungering for more.  And the words came back to me, over all these years, the words I had first heard in the attic of our home, “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky . . .”  And I found myself saying them, out loud in the car, as I followed the banks of the Kennebec down to its mouth and the wide expanse of state park beach.  And in the late afternoon and early evening of a full moon low tide, I walked this expanse of sand, splashed in the waves, licked the salt off my skin.  I collected sand dollars and angel wings, smiled at people and sandpiper birds, and I looked out, again and again, at that sparkly September sea.  I was filled inside with the words of my poem and something big and happy, a splashing ocean of joy.

As I drove back up that road to Bath and the Hampton Inn, the full moon rose over the Kennebec.  And it was then, in that happy filled-up full moon place, that I remembered the flyer I had seen the day before stuck to the window of a local shop, “Songs of Ships and the Sea,” with Debra Cowan and John Roberts, at the Congregational Meeting Room at the Wintergreen Church.  And I felt the call again, after a day of crabmeat sandwiches and sparkling beach-combing, from inside me, the call to the sea and the music born of my seafaring ancestors.  So with sand still clinging to my feet and a sunburned nose, I walked that block by moonlight to the Wintergreen Church and I sat there with twelve others, intoxicated by the songs of the sea.  I loved the ballads, haunting and delicious and happy somehow in their sad sad stories.  I loved the shanties, those work songs of the sailing age that I first had heard as a school girl in this very same town. I loved the stories that wrapped around all of these songs.  And, when the second half of the performance began, it had already been enough, more than enough, a perfect dollop of whip cream after a perfect day.

But there was more.  The performers sat down again in front of their appreciative audience and said they were going to sing a favorite.  And while John played his concertina, they both started to sing, slow and deep the words came out.  And it took me a moment to let it sink in, a moment for it to register.  But it did sink in. “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky . . . And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by . . .”  I heard the words and there I was, present in my middle-aged body on a September full moon night and nine years old again and as ancient as the sea.  And there they were, all those sea-faring ancestors, sitting right along with me, and my mother, too, with her blue-bound book.  And I was happy beyond measure.

And I brought my happiness to my mother the next day – it was my gift to her – and I borrowed the CD player from the Dionne’s dining room and I closed my mother’s door, and I played it, John Robert’s version of John Masefield’s, Sea Fever; three times I played it for her, and we both mouthed the words that we could remember.  And I’m not sure what this all meant to my mother, but for me something good had happened, something bigger than the words, something as big as the sea.

Sea Fever by John Masefield

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,

And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,

And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide

Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;

And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,

and the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,

to the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;

And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover

And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

Don’t Hold Back!

There is a river of creativity running through all things, all relationships, all beings, all corners and centers of the Universe.  We are here to join it, to get wet, to jump in, to ride these rapids, wild and sacred that they may be.   Mathew Fox

“Mars will unleash ambitious fire-sign energy – passionate, creative and intense.”  I’m reading these words in our local newspaper’s horoscope for this week, the week that summer officially tips into autumn.  “It will be important to put effort into expressing yourself during this transit which lasts until November 10 . . . Don’t hold back . . . Mindfully apply yourself to putting something in the world that wasn’t there before.”

I felt this yesterday while walking along the lakeshore in Marquette, this wild, ambitious energy.  The wind, still warm with a hint of summer, was blowing in dark and billowy clouds, and the steel-gray waves were breaking frothy-white.  And, in the harbor, tiny boats, each with their one-white sail, were tipped nearly sideways catching that wind and riding those waves and it was a wild exhilarating sight.  And as I walked along, watching these boats, captained by students from the local college, I too felt like I was sailing on that bike path, soaring into something new, the wind of change pressing me forward.  It’s dynamic, this energy.  I feel it in my bones.  And I’m grateful for these bones of mine.  Because what would we do without a container, something tangible, a medium in which to focus?  Those college students were holding tight to their lines, steering their course in their tiny boats.  And their sails caught that wild wind and gave it a path.  The young men and women of Northern Michigan University had found the perfect play vessels for a windy Lake Superior day in mid-September.

Don’t hold back, the horoscope said.  How do we do that?  Keep ourselves from holding back?

How do we let it fly?  How do we ride those wild waves of creativity?  How do we let ourselves burn with the lightning bolt of inspiration?  How do we keep from drowning or blowing away or burning ourselves out?  Years ago, while in training to be certified as a yoga teacher at Kripalu, I lay there on my yoga mat at the end of a session in a candle-lit room with sixty other students in the early evening of a winter in Massachusetts.  And I felt it, in the stillness of the night, in my breath and bones and the blood coursing through me, I felt it, the wild river, the lightning bolt of energy, and, I heard it, our teacher, Yoganand’s words: “It’s safe to feel this alive.  It’s safe to feel this alive.”  I really heard it.  It is safe to feel this alive.  It is our birthright.  It is why we are here.

So, in this week of goldenrod and the last of the wild roses and the first hint of scarlet leaves, I probably will not hop into a tiny boat in Marquette’s lower harbor and hold tight to the line, but I will find other ways to ride the wind, other ways to “not hold back.”  Maybe I don’t even have to find the ways.  They’ll find me.  In every moment – while breathing in the smell of apples and leaves and frosty air as I hike my usual trail in Ishpeming, while sautéing perfectly formed oyster mushrooms that I bought at the local farmer’s market, while grounding myself in warrior pose and feeling strong and centered, a force to behold, while typing up a blog that has a life of its own, while laughing with a friend . . . in every moment, there it is, the wild river of life that was with me that evening on my yoga mat in Massachusetts.

Can it be that easy?  Don’t hold back.  Express something new.  Can it be a simple matter of trust?  I sense it can, that if we relax, feel ourselves connected to our bones and our breath, if we sink into the strength in these bones of ours, then, in every moment, we can allow it, this creative wind to blow right through us, and it will cleanse us and invigorate us and bring us new insights and possibilities.  And, it will keep on blowing, this wild wind of life, and, with the greatest of ease, it will find its way back out again, and we, each one of us, sailing our own little vessels, will put something into the world that wasn’t there before, something unique.

Stories hold power

You create through the stories you tell . . .

I didn’t even hear the flight attendant’s safety message, didn’t even notice when the plane had taken off.  Last Thursday, I already was flying high in conversation before we had left the ground at Marquette County’s KI Sawyer International.  We were instant buddies, my young seatmate and I, and our conversation traveled more quickly than any airplane could possibly move.  In five minutes, we flew in words from Albany where he works to Rhinebeck where he grew up to Boulder, Colorado where we both had spent a few days in the past three weeks.  “You went to the US Pro Cycling Challenge!” I exclaimed.  “My husband and I were there in Breckinridge just two days before!”  “You went to the Tour de France!” he cried.  “It’s my dream to go to the Tour!”  I had met my match, a bike-race fanatic who loves the thrill of the race and the complexity of the sport and the adventure of the journey, as much as I.  We shared our stories and they became alive again and these stories we shared grew wings and spread out into other stories of adventure.  And before we knew it, the plane had landed in Detroit, and we, my buddy and I, who both had forgotten to turn our cell phones off, had landed, too, in a different place transformed by our storytelling.

Stories hold power.  They are strong medicine, alive with vibration.  Stories can pull us down into the muck, keep us stuck, suck the life right out of us.  And stories can lift us to new heights, expand our possibilities, inspire us beyond measure.  It is our choice, which stories we tell, which stories we open ourselves up to hear.  For the past four years, my mother had the most wonderful helpers at her cottage home – women, who not only provided companionship and assistance and became like daughters to her, but also were wonderful storytellers.  When I would visit every few months, I settled in for the storytelling.  Jean’s stories, salted with the ocean and the local fishing village and her memories of Hagerthy’s General before Hagerthy even owned it, brought more color and flavor into the area that I love so much in coastal Maine.  I found myself adoring Christie’s free-spirit man when she told stories about how, in middle-age, she and Jerry had met and fallen in love.  I was back there in England with Sue, imagining her childhood of country quilts and a dormouse who nestled into the family’s house one winter.  And, when Judy was visiting, I sat back in my chair, said, “Tell us a story, Judy!”  And she would, while my mother and I listened.  Her stories were filled with syncronicities and magical moments, a rich feast of simple abundance told from her positive perspective.  I love these stories, the ones that people share with me, the stories that feel good to hear.  They nourish and inspire, make me bigger than I was before the telling, and, in some way, continue to live and breathe and evolve as they find their place in the collection of stories I tell myself.

When I’m preparing for a story-telling performance, I allow the stories in my inner collection to rise up, the ones that are ripe for the telling.  Sometimes I’m surprised when an old story, one that I had long ago forgotten, bobs its way to the surface and cries, “Tell me!”  I love remembering these stories, the ones that still gleam bright, and feel good to share, and I love sharing them from my present day perspective.  And sometimes it is the present day experience, not quite a story yet, that is begging for expression.  “Make sense of me; weave me into something that pleases you and moves you forward,” this glob of life that isn’t quite formed speaks out.  “You’ll feel better, more expansive when I’ve become a story.”  And it’s true.  As I hike in the woods of summer and skate-ski on the trails of winter, I let these not-quite-born stories develop in my inner creative dark room.  And lo and behold, they begin to come into focus.  They begin to take a shape.  They become a story!   And I do feel more expansive, in a new place, more up-to-date.  And this feeling grows when I share these stories, the old familiar gleaming ones and the new ones that have never before seen the light of day.   I light up, because there is nothing quite like it, this sharing of a story that wants to be told.  It’s a high-flying feeling; it’s travel at its best, this journey from teller to listener, from listener to teller – the story, a vehicle far more powerful than any airplane could ever be.

Don’t overwork it!

Don’t overwork it!   Abraham-Hicks

Did you know that the coyotes have been singing underneath our bedroom window?  It seems that way, at least.  For the past four nights, a chorus of coyote howls so clear and close that I can almost make out the lyrics, has serenaded Cam and I to sleep.  Their song is easy and loose and filled with spirit.  I don’t think they overwork their music.  I don’t think they struggle.

I’ve been struggling tonight.  I’ve been trying to make my words sing on the page.  I’ve been trying to write something clever and coherent, something that feels worthwhile.  In yoga, I say it all the time:  We are worthy.  We are enough.  We have nothing to prove.  And I believe it, that we are magnificent creatures, already more than enough, and our lives can be easy if we allow them to be.  It only gets hard, when we furrow our brows and clench at our pens and strive for some elusive form of perfection.

Tomorrow morning, I fly east for the weekend, back to Maine, to the land of my beginnings, for a new beginning with my mother who is two weeks shy of her ninety-third birthday.  I don’t think my mother struggles much anymore.  She, like the coyotes, does not overwork it.  If she can’t remember a name or an event, she simply says, “I don’t know.”  If it feels too hard to use her walker, she sits down and lets herself be wheeled.  My mother has thrown perfection out the window, out her west-facing window, the one she sits beside, watching the light that is perfect as it dances through the trees.  I won’t have to overwork it either.  I won’t have to fill the Dionne Commons, where my mother now lives, with my words.  She is not interested in clever and witty.  My song can be easy, the way it is supposed to be.

This past Monday, on Labor Day, Cam and I walked the shoreline of Lake Superior with our son and daughter-in-law who were visiting from Boulder.  The sky was a sharp blue and the air was crisp and clear and the waves splashed the shore, and it was easy walking and talking and  soaking it all in — the sand and the sun and the blue September sky.  We snapped photos of each other with the cobalt lake behind us.  And it was Shelly who suggested it.  “Let’s jump in the air!” she said.  So we did.  We jumped and we laughed and we snapped our photos of mid-air leaps.  We didn’t labor on Labor Day.  We didn’t overwork it, the jumps or the photos or the easy moments.  And later, that evening, when we pulled them up on the computer screen, these photos surprised us.  There was something in them, something wild and unleashed.  When we don’t overwork it, when we let ourselves go, there is a spirit, a glimmer, an inner howl as glorious as the song that the coyotes soon will be singing to me as I drift off to sleep.

 

Helen and Cam jumping at Lake Superior

 

 

Pete and Shelly jumping

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Letter from Joy Center

Every two months, I send out a snail-mailing, with a brochure of upcoming events and a letter to those on the mailing list.  What follows is the letter from the September mailing:

 

 The Universe will bring you all that you desire, but you must be able to accept what it brings.   Sonia Choquette

 

Dear friends,

Accept the gifts of the Universe.  I drew this message today from a deck of Trust Your Vibes cards.  Can it be that easy?  Can we turn off the negative chatter, and tune in to our own inner channel?  Can we listen, full-bodied and spirited, to what it is we truly want, to what makes us feel most alive?  And then, can we relax, get out of our own way, and allow the Universe to bring it to us?

I’ve been saying it lately:  “Bring it on, Universe.  Bring me more – more feel-great abundance, more vibrancy, more fun, more expansive joy-filled opportunities . . .”  It feels bold to put it out there like that.  “I’m ready,” I add.  And I am.  Week after week in yoga, I feel it; I know it in my bones and my breath and my heart.  Life is abundant and there are gifts waiting for us in every moment, and, when we breathe them in, appreciate their sweetness, we open the inner channels for more and more and more gifts to flow our way.  It was like that in summertime yoga.  On soft warm evenings, with the sun flickering through the pines, we lay out our mats on the Joy Center deck and we settled in and the moments expanded and each one was rich and full and the gifts were boundless.  The sky above us opened up and we could feel eternity.  One time, an eagle, a speck of black and white and sunlight high above us, flew by.  Dragonflies zipped this way and that.  Chickadees tweeted, a red squirrel sat on a branch watching us, and a cobweb, strung among the trees, glimmered, delicate and perfect.  No two moments were alike.  At the end of the sessions, the sun that was flickering though the trees as we began was now a streak of peach and fuchsia on the horizon.  Coyotes sang to us and my heart sang with them.  Life is abundant.  The coyotes know it.  The eagle knows it.  And when we go inward and breathe and connect to something deep and wise, we know it, too.

I love Joy Center.  I love that it is a tangible place in this world, a place that we can enter and feel welcome, a place that is inviting and invites us to enter our own inner center where we are always welcome.  And this autumn, Joy Center, is inviting you to participate in a rich cornucopia of offerings.  Check out the brochures so beautifully designed by Stephanie at Globe Printing.  Check out the offerings facilitated by a group of skilled artists/teachers/fellow journeyers eager to share.  From yoga and creativity consultations to art workshops and book-binding classes, from evenings of Write Now! to opportunities to share your own unique voice and expression in Out Loud, from a Fashion Exchange Friday to an evening performance, “More Please!!!.   From sessions of song to sessions of food to sessions of art to sessions of quiet, it is abundance at the Joy Center this autumn and you all are invited.

I also invite you to check out my blog, helenofjoy.com, where I am having an abundance of fun writing essays on whatever is bubbling up in the richness of the moment.  So, as we open to this new season of harvest, I say it boldly and joyfully: Bring it on, Universe, all the feel-great abundance and joy and vibrancy!  Bring it on!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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