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Archive for January, 2012

The Tonic of Wildness

We need the tonic of wildness, to wade sometime in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and the booming of the snipe . . .  Henry David Thoreau

I found my shoulders relaxing and my breath deepening.  Every once in a while, as I sat there on Joy Center’s staircase pressing my face against the rails, I’d close my eyes and just listen.  I was present, in the moment, with a room full of people sitting in chairs and on the stairs this past Wednesday evening, present, in the moment, with B.G. Bradley at his camp in the summertime, interacting with, being a part of nature.  Before we all arrived for his performance, At the Lake, B.G. had set the stage – he had brought in a camp chair, a table, two antique decoys, a photo of his dog, his old camp boots.  And when the performance began, he tromped into the room in worn shorts, his flannel shirt, a floppy hat, singing a song, a song he sings as he hikes the woods and paddles the lake.  And, then, as he sat down and poured himself a cup of coffee, he began.

Throughout the evening, B.G. read entries from his camp journal, recited to us, in poem and prose, the mundane gloriously alive details of a summer spent unplugged from computer and cell phone and TV.  And with my eyes closed and my head pressed against the rails, I could envision it: the sweet warmth of wild raspberries on my tongue in June, the morning fog on the lake in July, the loons and their baby swimming close to the canoe, two eagles flying overhead.  And every once in a while, when the mundane exquisite beauty was almost too much to absorb, B.G. would break out in song or story.  And by August, by the final journal entries and poems of the evening, when B.G. described the monarch butterfly landing on the blossoming milkweed, it was enough for him, enough for the relaxed, August version of himself, and enough for us, this simple detail; the butterfly and the blossom held the abundance of the whole universe in it.

That’s what happens when we leave behind our cell phones and our computers and make our way out into the wild.  We feel a peace in our bones; at least, I did this past Wednesday evening.  I didn’t have to unplug for the whole summer.  I didn’t even have to leave the comfort of a heated Joy Center cottage on a winter’s evening.  I just had to crawl into that space within me where I, too, could remember how delicious it is to hear the call of a loon as it flies overhead, how precious it is to witness a fawn wobble on its newborn legs or a frog breathing its frog breath and glistening in the sun.  I love the wild and I need its tonic.


At the Beach: 1966

In the depths of winter, I finally learned there was in me an invincible summer.   Albert Camus

A foot of new snow hangs heavy on the pines in our backyard, the chickadees flit from snowy feeder to snowy feeder, and the rooftops are frosted in a thick coating of white – it’s a winter wonderland in our neighborhood and I’m a gal who loves winter.  In fact, I’m about to pull on the long johns, the ski pants, the high tech jacket and take off on a two-hour skate-ski on my favorite trail, the one that points me up into the wild hills and the land of the wolves.  I’m a gal who loves winter; yet, it’s the summer I have on my mind.  Perhaps it’s because my friend, B.G. Bradley, teacher/writer/poet/actor extra-ordinaire, is performing tonight at Joy Center, sharing in poems and stories his memories of summertime on a lake in northern Michigan.  Perhaps it’s because underneath all this glorious white, there is a kaleidoscope of color just waiting to burst forth and I can feel it in my bones.  Whatever the reason, I’ve dabbed my neck with the perfume, “At the Beach: 1966”, and I’m full of my own summertime memories of Coppertone and sea salt and sand between my little girl toes:

I loved the days that I spent with my friend, Sally, at Reid State Park, the great stretch of coastal Maine shoreline, with its huge sand beach, its breaker waves, its rocky peninsula of picnic tables, and the lagoon of warm water that filled itself up at high tide. I loved beach days during my childhood summers in Maine during the 1960’s.

My mother wasn’t a state park kind of mother.  Instead, she was satisfied with her small seaweedy beach, her seaside gardens, her days that stretched out wide and long.  She was satisfied to traipse out onto the rocks of her own little cove with her tubes of paint and her thick watercolor paper.  The intense sun, the smell of Coppertone, the beach umbrellas, the throngs of beach bodies, they were not for my mother.  But Sally’s round jolly mother, Mrs. Shea, she loved it.  She loved it all: the picnic lunches of fluffer-nutter sandwiches, the homemade chocolate cupcakes covered in thick boiled-sugar frosting, the days of sitting on the beach, sprawled out on a colorful towel reading a good book.  Mrs. Shea, she was a beach Mom!

And Sally and I were bold.  We weren’t afraid of the water because we were little mermaids; that’s what my father called us.  We rode the waves into shore, sometimes letting them smack right into us, letting them knock us down, pull us out to sea, letting them toss us back onto the sand again for yet another wild ride.  We inhaled it all, the salt air, the cry of the gulls, the whoops and hollers of our fellow swimmers.  And when we turned blue and teeth-chattering cold, we said good-by to the open ocean and scampered barefoot over the hot sand and the boardwalk path to the lagoon where we caught minnows in our plastic pails.  And, one time, Sally caught a teeny fish in her very own belly button.

And when I returned home again to our cottage and Fish House Cove, filled with fluffer-nutters and cupcakes and all the things that my artist mother didn’t like about the state beach, she would haul out her box of homoepathic remedies.  She would reach in and find the bottle marked, Hypericum.  And she’d measure out a splash into a glass of warm water, and, with a soft cotton ball, she’d swab this coppery-concoction onto my back.  I’d wince a little at the coolness, then I’d sigh, sink into the smell and the touch and the way my mother, my nonstate-park-mother, knew just what to do for my sunburned back.

Fish House Cove by Annie P. Haskell


What is soul?  It’s like electricity – we don’t really know what it is, but it is a force that can light up a room.   Ray Charles

We are each gifted in a unique and important way.  It is our privilege and our adventure to discover our own special light.  Mary Dunbar

It is inside me now, the image of the Eiffel Tower, blazing and brilliant, all lit up at midnight on the brink of a new year.  I brought this image home with me, along with Parisian candies and lavender soaps from the south of France.  I brought this sparkling tower of an image over to Joy Center and onto my yoga mat and into the first classes of 2012.  It has become a reminder of what is possible, that we, too, when we plug ourselves in, when we feel ourselves aligned with the earth beneath us and the stars above us, when we stretch ourselves out wide in Five-pointed Star or reach up to the sky as Mountain in Tadasana, when we live in this grounded, expansive way, on and off the mat, we remember that we, each one of us, are a blazing brilliant icon of light.

And it’s contagious.  When we are plugged in like that, feeling alive and vibrant and full of electric vim, others, in our presence, feel it too.  They bask in our brilliance.  And it doesn’t matter how old we are or what we look like on the outside.  I was reminded of that this past weekend while visiting my mother in Maine.  When my older brother hauled out the photos from Mom’s first wedding, formal photographs that we, the other three siblings, had never seen, we gasped.  Our mother was a beauty.  Five-foot-nine, long-legged and slender, with full-lips and dreamy eyes, our mother was movie star glamorous in these photos taken seventy years ago.  It wasn’t the first time that we had grasped this awareness.  One evening when we were teenagers, while watching a string of Alfred Hitchcock movies, my sister and I, huddled on the couch in delightful terror, suddenly became distracted.  “Who does she remind of?”  I asked.  “Who does she remind you of?,” my sister asked back.  Suddenly, the woman lying on the bed, poisoned and fading and professing her love for Cary Grant, whose handsome face was pressed against hers, was not the Swedish star of Hitchcock’s Notorious.  It wasn’t Ingrid Bergman at all; it was our mother.

Our mother wore her beauty lightly.  She wasn’t one to fuss with make-up or complicated hair-dos or the latest of fashion trends.  And perhaps she didn’t quite believe in it, that she was gorgeous inside and out.  Mom’s best buddy, Aunt Barbie, once told me that she was jealous of her tall, lanky friend back when they were teens.  And, when I repeated this story to Mom, she seemed surprised, replied, “It’s funny.  I never felt pretty.  I was shy and awkward and didn’t like to be the center of attention.”  In many of the early photos, the ones that show off her long legs and slender waist, Mom’s full lips are pursed in a tight smile.  And I’m not my mother and I don’t know what she was feeling when the photographer snapped those photos.  And it’s not up me to guess whether she was “plugged in” in those days, whether she was feeling the power of the worlds flowing through her Eiffel Tower of a body.  But I do know what it feels like when I am plugged in.  When I’m in alignment, I, in my middle-aged body, with my thinner lips and deep-set Haskell eyes, feel beautiful and powerful and happy, as though the whole world is coursing through my veins.  When I am plugged in, I feel like skipping and I sometimes do.  And when I am plugged in, I can feel it when others are plugged in as well.  There is nothing like witnessing a baby laughing or a runner running or someone you might not even know speaking from their heart.  It is palpable, this light we give off, when we are in alignment.

And I could feel it, this past weekend, this palpable light, each time I visited my ninety-three year old mother in her hospital room in mid-coastal Maine.  Mom, whose hair is now gray and a little wild, whose front tooth fell out a few years ago and tall lanky body has shrunk down petit and frail and broken-hipped, Mom who lay there in bed or was propped up in a chair, not her usual sun-kissed love-the-outdoors self, but pale and tender-skinned – Mom lit up like the brightest of lights when we entered the room.  It surprised me, how someone at the end of their body-life, who wants to die, can light up like that, all plugged in like Paris at midnight.  But it’s true.  My husband, Cam, felt it, too.  “She just lights up when she sees you!” he exclaimed.  And it’s wonderful to bask in that kind of light.  And it’s wonderful to feel alive with that kind of light.  And it’s wonderful to know that it is always available, no matter our age or where we find ourselves, that we can blaze as bright and beautiful as the Eiffel Tower until our last breath and beyond.

Mom at Ninety-two

The Blessing

You are born out of your mother for your own greatness . . . Lucy LaFave

I couldn’t believe my eyes.  There he was in our backyard this morning, flapping his wings into the wind and the blustery snow – a flash of brilliant red against the white world of January in the Upper Peninsula. I immediately thought of my mother.  Cardinals don’t come to our neighborhood feeders.  At least I don’t see them.  And they are not common this far north in Michigan, but, in the cove in Maine, a family of cardinals visited my mother’s feeder daily.  My mother, who knew the names of all the birds, was especially fond of her cardinals.  So, as Fu, our white long-haired cat, and I, watched the cardinal flit from feeder to feeder, I picked up the phone and called my mother.  I didn’t call her familiar number, the one that is programmed into my phone.  I called Midcoast Hospital and asked for Room 239.

“Mom!” I exclaimed.  “Mom!  It’s Helen!”  She seemed happy to hear my voice.  “There’s a cardinal in our backyard!  I think it’s a birthday present from you!”  I think she loved that idea.

While we were in France last week, my mother, on her way to the bathroom in the middle of the night, fell and broke her pelvis.  It was a bad break, one that would have required surgery to repair if she had been younger and stronger.  At first she rallied.  Any hope for rehab required her being mobile.  On Day One, she was out of bed, walking across her room.  The hospital staff was impressed.  By Day Three, she was sitting in a chair.  And then, something shifted inside; perhaps it was the pain that wore her down or perhaps she was just plain tired of the prospect of yet another rehab, after years and years of rehabs from broken bones and strokes.  I’m not sure what it was, but, on Day Four, my ninety-three year old mother sunk down in her bed and said that she was ready to die.  And her lungs began to fill with fluid and her breathing became more labored, and we, her children, knew that our mother was letting go.

I remember when the cardinals moved into the cove.  It was back in 1991, and I was a graduate student in my thirties at the time, and, while the boys were at summer camp, I spent a week in Maine working on my thesis.  However, I didn’t stay with my mother by the sea; instead I house-sat for a friend thirty miles away.  The relationship between my mother and I felt tangled in those days and I wanted my space.  One evening, the phone rang.  And it was my mother on the other end, my pre-stroke, pre-broken bones, still-driving-a-car mother in her seventies. “Guess who came to the feeder?!?” she cried.  “Cardinals!!!  Two of them!”  It was a good moment, a reaching out moment.  The cardinals brought us together.

My friend Lucy, this week, said to me and to herself, “You are born out of your mother for your own greatness.”  It seemed powerful to contemplate these words, how our mothers birth us, not to cling, but to expand outward into this world.  The umbilical cord is cut within minutes after birth, and there we are, each one of us, opening our mouths and breathing in our own greatness.  My mother used to tell us, my siblings and I, that she couldn’t understand when her friends clung to their adult children, that we were just on loan, and that it was her job to let us go.  And besides, she’d say, it’s an honor to be friends with you.  And, although, it wasn’t as easy as just saying the words and it certainly didn’t happen overnight, my mother and I have de-tangled the threads that kept us clinging, and we are good friends.

And so, on my birthday weekend, I, along with my husband, am flying east to be with my mother.  For the first time in thirty-five years, I will spend my birthday with my siblings, and with the woman who gave birth to me.  And I envision that I might hold her hand, might feel the heat glow between the two of us, but I know that it is not my job to hold on tightly, to cling.  Like the cardinal on the wing, it is my job now to let her go.

L’art de Vivre

L’art de Vivre – the art of living – is not just a pleasing French expression; it’s a building block for a sound life . . .

Above all, slo-o-o-ow down. Spend hours in cafes lingering over un café, make a habit of making unplanned stops, hop on the ‘l’art de vivre barge’, and surrender to the play of light as the Impressionists did.  Rick Steve

Sometimes it’s the unexpected packages, the ones you didn’t order when you signed up for the trip, the ones that aren’t dressed in fancy ribbons and bows, sometimes it’s these packages that hold the gifts that linger and have lasting impact.  Sure, New Year’s Eve was special.  Cam and I had flown across the Atlantic, through the last hours of December 30th, over Iceland and England and into the drizzly mid-morning of Grand Paris on the last day of 2011.  Sure it was special, walking along the banks of the Seine as late afternoon tipped into evening and the lights danced in pinks and golds across the water’s swirling surface.  And what could be better than tromping along the Champs-Elysees and the cobblestone streets around the Concorde and the Place de Madeleine, gazing into the glittery windows of designer shops and the patisseries filled with impossibly decadent French pastries?!?  And there’s nothing quite like it, to be leaning against the rails of an ancient bridge, with a statue of a goddess that you think might be Aphrodite beside you, and the barge ships filled with revelers passing below, and, in the distance, the magical icon that almost doesn’t seem real to your misty New Year’s Eve eyes – the Eiffel Tower.  And it is a sight to behold, to be standing in the plaza beside the Ferris Wheel, an hour or so later, with thousands and thousands of well-wishers, cheering and whooping and ushering in this new year, 2012, as that tower, the one that you’ve dreamed about since you were a little kid, lights up, sparkly and glittery and over-the –top sensational. Paris is noon-day vibrant in the wee hours of a new year, and that is a gift worth unwrapping.

And sure, it was a gift, all right, another whole day, the first of 2012, to frolic on Paris’s streets and boulevards, to explore the hidden treasures in alleyways and courtyards that don’t make it onto your big map of the city, and then to check in to a boutique hotel in your favorite district, the St. Germain, the part of Paris where your friends, Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Stein, hung out in cafes and talked of whatever writers talked about in the nineteen-twenties.  And it was a fancy-wrapped package, indeed, the venture across the bridge, to the other side of the city in the early evening, to the largest of the train stations, Gare de Lyon, to push through the throngs of people, under the gold-guild and muraled ceilings, to the ticket office and the long lines, to buy those two tickets for the next day, tickets on the fast train to Nice, the land of the artists’ light and the azure-blue sea.  We unwrapped these two days in a flurry of delight, flinging fancy Parisian bows and smacking our lips in full-bodied appreciation.

It was the next gift, the one we didn’t expect, that stopped us in our tracks.  Slow down, Rick Steve’s advises his fellow travelers as they allow in the gifts of France.  Slow down.  And that’s what happened; we slowed down.  We stopped.  Completely.  First it was the knee.  Twenty miles of fast-paced walking over two days in old Merrill boots that didn’t quite fit was too much for the guy’s usually nimble joint.  It swelled up puffy and he began to moan.  And before the gal could complain about his moaning, she, too, began to moan.  And who would think a stomach flu could be a gift?  But a gift it was.  First the gal was sick, and then the guy, in their beautiful newly-renovated boutique hotel.  And two days in Paris stretched into four, and the knee began to heal and the stomachs calmed themselves down, and the neighborhood became our neighborhood, and we, the guy and the gal, became a little more Parisian.  I bought French pajamas, loungy and cotton with a touch of sparkle.  Cam bought his favorite bread.  We watched live on our boutique hotel room’s television as the women of the World Cup Ski Racing Tour slalomed and giant slalomed their way down the mountains of Croatia.  And an evening of ski-racing on a television set while recuperating in the City of Lights, who would think that this was a worthy gift?!?  But it was.  We love ski-racing.  And our American television set doesn’t offer this to us anymore, and it was a highlight, this lingering evening of sparkling water and French bread and swishing skis.

And, finally, on the fourth day of the new year, after canceling the tickets twice, we, the guy and the gal, were off, on the fast track, in the high-speed train, whooshing our way south to La Cote’ d’ Azure for twenty-four hours of sunlight.  Except, we weren’t whooshing inside.  We’d heeded Rick Steve’s advise, even if we didn’t unwrap the present willingly.  We’d slowed ourselves down.  And, this slowing down inside while on the fast train, it became the greatest of gift of all.  We became friends with the Argentinean family who sat across from us.  We gazed out the window, taking it all in, the farm fields and cream-colored saggy cows, then the green rolling hills, and the snow-covered Alps to our side.  We gasped when we saw the castle on a hill outside of Avignon with the rainbow, brilliant and whole, wrapped perfectly around it – a gift ready for us to unwrap.  We were in sync with each other.  We were in sync with ourselves.  And our hotel room in Nice, the one we finally found our way to, it was the fanciest room we had ever seen, or so it seemed to our appreciative eyes.  And our dinner, the first full meal in days, at the tiny restaurant in the old part of the town, nothing could have tasted better than the freshest of market foods, chopped up raw, or slow-cooked to perfection, all drizzled in the local olive oils.  And the Baie des Anges, the Bay of Angels – Matisse and Van Gogh, they had been right, it was as azure as they had painted, and the light, the light, it was magical.  It was all a gift and we surrendered to it.

Dove overlooking the sea in Nice

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