Reinvigorate your purpose and passion for life.

Archive for April, 2012

Life as Art

(This is the letter that I sent out with the May/June Joy Center mailing.)

Life is your art.  An open, aware heart is your camera.  A oneness with your world is your film.  Your bright eyes, your easy smile is your museum.  Ansel Adams

Raja returned the book to me last evening, the one that I had shown to him at a gathering during the holidays, a book published in 1920 and given to my mother by her father on her sixth birthday in 1924.  It is the first in a series of six My Bookhouse books, In the Nursery, and it is the one most treasured by three generations of my family.  We loved it, all four hundred and thirty-two pages of nursery rhymes and fables; we loved it to pieces, literally.  “I think I can restore it,” Raja said.  So, four months ago, I handed him In the Nursery with its broken spine and scattered torn pages, and before reading poems at Joy Center last evening, he handed it back to me, in one precious piece.  “I feel as though I know this book intimately now,” he said.  “It was an honor to bring it back to life for you,” he added.

Raja and his wife, Amber, are poets and book artists.  But that’s not how I introduced them last night at their poetry reading, that’s not what has touched me so deeply and inspired me as I’ve gotten to know them both as individuals and as a couple these past few years.  I called them artists of life.  That’s how I see them.  A year and a half ago, this young couple attended a Joy Center Out Loud open mic event, and, instead of reading poems like they had done in the past, they ran out to their car during the break and returned with a bag.  And when it was their turn to share, they pulled from the bag two or three books.  And with lit-up faces and a world of enthusiasm, they shared how they had made them, these books in their hands, from paper and glue and thread and cardboard, how they had spent the past few nights staying up late and playing at this new hobby.

And that was the start of it, how they followed this passion, allowed their happiness to lead them, first into a book-art workshop at Joy Center a year ago and then to a book-art club each month and then to the Farmer’s Market in Marquette last summer and then into a full-blown business and a life centered around their love of language and books and art.  And what is beautiful about these two is that they bring this passion and delight into their living; it is all intertwined.  A walk in the woods becomes a poem.  A late night dinner is art in itself.  A trip downstate to visit family is holy and wholesome and food for their business.  And you feel it, the holiness of their lives, when you listen to their poems, poems written with care and passion and heart, poems that contain the whole world in their lines.  You feel it when you hold their books in your hands, the care and love that they put into each one of them.

It is the way I want to live, as though my whole life is art because it is.  What greater creation could we give this world than our own precious living?  Sure we have our hobbies and our passions, our poems and our songs.  Sure some of us paint on canvas and some of us etch into metal and some of us twist our bodies into magnificent living sculptures.  But what about the rest of the time, when we’re not picking up a crayon or a gluestick or a paintbrush or a pen?  What about all those other moments in a day?  Can’t they be art too?  Of course they can, and it is up to us, each one of us, to create the kind of art that brings us happiness.  So, I’m going for it, not only calling Amber and Raja “artists of life”, but also becoming aware of and celebrating this “art of life” in each one of us.

I love Joy Center, this safe beautiful place that welcomes us all.  It is a sanctuary where we can play with the arts, where we can stretch and strengthen and experience the poetry of movement in yoga and dance, where we can create a book, a painting, a piece of writing, where can share our stories, our songs, our dreams, where we can journey around the world through movies and slide shows and travelogues, where we can expand our perspectives and feel ourselves grow, where we can embrace ourselves more fully and freely and recognize that we have nothing to prove, that we already are a piece of art and that our lives, this process of living, is the greatest art of all.  Happy spring!










The Cardinal is Singing

(Written long-hand in Maine on April 14, 2012)

The realization that life can be lived at different levels, including some that cannot be described in words, offers an entry into wonderful and mysterious perceptions.  Roderick MacIver, Heron Dance

The Cardinal is singing again as I sit on my friend Muriel’s deck in coastal Maine.  From his perch above me in a backyard tree, he’s singing his heart out on this warm April morning, singing with everything he has in a high-pitched fever of clear pure notes.  And I think of my mother who delighted in cardinals and their springtime songs.  I think of my mother often.

She comes to me in flashes of memory, often placed at the cottage where she was happiest, where she mothered us when we were kids and lived out the last thirty years of her body-life.  I think of her with a sunburned nose, dressed in shorts and that shell we all begged her to wear – shells, that’s what we called sleeveless shirts in the sixties.  This one had a cream-colored background and an overall floral design and two of the large mod flowers were perfectly-placed, one blossoming on each of her ample breasts, and it was a while before she or anyone else noticed, but, after that, she couldn’t wear it without all of us breaking out into glorious snort-filled laughter.  I think of her, sometimes as the old less mobile version of mother, how, in the past few years, on my many visits east, I would follow this hunched-over-her-walker mother into her bedroom each night, how I’d watch her as she lifted off her bathrobe, hung it over the bedpost, then plopped down on her mattress with an exhausted relieved sigh, how I’d tuck her in and turn off her light and wait by her door for the stretched-out song-filled, many-syllabled, “Good night!”

I think of my mother in these flashbacks that are detailed and matter-based, my earthbound, earthy mother, and I have enough of these memories to savor and write about until my last pen-scrawl across the page.  And I celebrate these memories, these versions of mother, and, as I sit here on my friend Muriel’s deck in Bath, a town filled with my childhood, a river of these memories comes flooding in.  And then, there it is again, the cardinal still singing in this moment, calling me back, to the sunshine, to the greening grass, to the leaves just beginning to burst, to the here and the now, the cardinal still singing as if he’s leading the Saturday morning bird choir of Bath.

When I was a girl, my mother was the choir of our small Swedenborgian congregation.  On Sunday mornings, we met at our Greek-revival-style church just a few blocks from here on Middle Street.  My mother perched above us in the balcony with her friend, Jane Stevens, who played the organ, and she belted out those hymns, unbridled, in her clear soprano trill and we in our pews below her followed along as best we could.  And many years later after my mother had the stroke, the big one in her late seventies, she lost it, her clear soprano notes, and although this was a loss for a mother who loved her music, it didn’t stop her from singing with her peep peep peep.

I haven’t felt the loss of my mother these past few months since her passing in early February – really I haven’t – because she hasn’t seemed lost to me.  I feel her presence all the time.  During the week in March of melting snow and temperatures that rose to mid-summer highs, each day, I drove twenty miles north of my home in Ishpeming to the elevated ground to seek out the last of the skiing, and as I was navigating the bumps on the gravel road one steaming hot afternoon, almost at my destination, I thought of my mother who loves an adventure and loves the drama of weather, how I would have called her if she was alive, right then and there, and given her a report.  And as I was thinking this, in that very moment, the exact moment, I noticed something on the road in front of me, something big, something moving.  And then as I drove closer, it spread its wide wings and lifted itself up.  Right there in front of me.  It was an eagle!  And as I parked the car, it flew into a white pine beside the road and waited.  It sat there and waited in that tree while I slipped into my boots.  It sat there as I watched it.  It sat there watching me as I opened the car door, until I snapped myself into my skis, and, then, it once again spread its wings and lifted off, circling and circling higher and higher until it disappeared into the blue.

I’m telling you, things like this happen all the time.  I feel my mother’s presence not just in memory, but also in the air I breathe, in the moment, in the here and the now, and the strange thing is – I don’t have the language to describe it.  I can’t say she’s wearing that funny floral shell from my childhood days or that berry-colored sweater that she draped over her shoulders this past autumn.  I can’t say she’s forty and my brother is an infant or that she’s fifty-nine and I’m about to get married or that she’s ninety-two and we’re sitting in the white plastic chairs on her deck.  I can’t say I’m listening to her breath or smelling her powdery musky mother smell.  Like my mother, the one that I used to know before her passing, I’m a girl of matter.  I love describing the world through my senses, and now it is with my sixth sense that I am present with my mother.

On Easter night, after Cam had fallen asleep, I noticed the sketch pad lying on my creativity room floor, an old pad of quality paper that had been my mother’s, one that I think she gave me when I was building Joy Center or maybe one that I took from the cottage before we sold it this past summer.  I can’t remember when I received it, but I’ve been saving it as a treasure.  She had pasteled irises on one page, sketched a coastal scene on the next.  And the rest of the book was blank, ready for me, her daughter, to fill it in.  On this particular evening, however, it was the cover, water-worn and faded, that called to me.  I had the urge to wrap it in a collage of images that I had been saving in a box.  First, I glued on a delicate-winged fairy, one that delighted me, and was surprised when it didn’t feel right.  I love that fairy, but instead my hand gravitated to watercolors I’d torn from a Heron Dance Journal, ones that my mother had loved, a hawk, a heron, a silhouette of two people in a canoe at dusk.  I wasn’t just pulled to images that my mother would have liked.  It was more visceral than that.  It was as though my mother was with me, right there, playing along, choosing images, placing and gluing them onto the page through my very hands.  It was exhilarating creating like this on Easter night with a mother who is very much not lost.  And I love the cover that we created together.

So I can’t describe what my mother is wearing anymore.  I can’t paint a picture of her in the concrete ways that come easy to me, but she’s here, very much present.  And this morning, this sunny April morning, she’s truly leading the congregation from some perch above me, singing out in a gloriously clear pre-stroke cardinal voice.

Rhythm of the Tides

May the sun bring you new energy by day; may the moon softly restore you by night, may the rain wash away your worries; may the breeze blow new strength into your being; may you walk gently through the world and know its beauty all the days of your life.   Apache Blessing

I grew up with the rhythm of the tides.  When I was a little girl, I observed them in the summer firsthand as the ocean was either pouring itself into the cove or pulling itself back out again in a constant steady motion, six hours in, six hours out, twice, every day.  Before age twelve when we moved to the coast year-round, during the nine months of school, we lived fourteen miles “up river” in the shipbuilding town of Bath where we still felt the power of the tides as they worked their magic on the wide waters of the Kennebec River.  I took this rhythm of in and out for granted, this draw to the outer world of school and friends and family, and this withdraw back in again to the deep sea waters of my own soul.

When I was in elementary school, we lived in a sea captain’s home on Washington Street just a block away from the river.  Our house was huge and rambling, with an ornate front staircase and a steep one in the back by the kitchen, perfect for playing chase in huge upstairs- downstairs circles.  We had seven fireplaces and closets big enough to host neighborhood club meetings and a full third story attic with a puppet theater, and rafters that our cat climbed into and a psychiatrist-looking couch that the McGinnis family had left for us when they moved out.  Our old house held us all, four kids, two parents, three grandparents and a handful of country cousins who often spent the night in town with us.  And this sea captain’s home that we all lived in was still spacious enough to be a dream playground for the under-twelve set.  And play we did, hard and loud, in that attic dance hall of ours, and in the backyard and run-down carriage house where we carried out our pine cone wars.  It was glorious, this outer social play-hard time.  I reveled in it.

And I also reveled in the turning of the tide.  After a hard play session or a full day of school, I retreated to the inner world just as the clams and the crabs and the barnacles do when the ocean covers them with its watery blanket.  My room was in the front of the house and its two large windows offered me plenty of light.  It also had a fireplace, and, like many of the seven, this one no longer functioned to keep the room warm, but that was okay because we had modern heat and the fireplace was made of slate and it became my perfect chalk board.  I spent hours, or what seemed like hours at the time, playing school with my dolls or spreading the art supplies that my parents generously provided for me out on the hardwood floor, drawing and painting and breathing deeply and gathering myself together again in a grounded calmed-down package.  I needed the quiet of high tide.  I needed my own version of putter-play, of following my inner whims and callings.

I still do.  I love my active outer play-hard-with-friends-and-Cam time.  I love to host events at Joy Center and participate in the wonderful offerings that others create.  I love to eat out and go to the movies and dance my spirit silly.  I love to laugh hard with a group of people who are also laughing hard.  I need this tide-going-out social time.  It feeds my spirit.  And, I also need my putter-play, my tide-coming-in time.  I need spacious hours to reflect and write and roam in the woods alone.  I need the quiet music of my own breath and heart.  I need to go inward and listen to what really does bring me alive.  It’s a lovely balance, and, like the tides I grew up with, it is always in motion.

And, right now, I am savoring three hours of inner-tide time, sitting in a patio chair on a sweet round deck under the shade of a maple at my friend Muriel’s house just blocks away from that sea captain’s home in Bath where I spent my childhood years.  I am putter-playing with my journals and essays and poems.  Actually we are parallel playing, Muriel and I.  She is inside, typing away at her computer.  Muriel, who lived for ten years beside Mom in a home on the ledges of Fish House Cove, is working on two projects, one, a compilation of journal articles about Mom’s town of Phippsburg that Muriel wrote for various publications during this ten year span and the other a collection of personal recollections about the cove.  We designed this weekend of creative play a few months ago when I was in Maine just after my mother had died.  We are kindred spirits, writers and hikers and lovers of good food and fun, and it is my mother who brought us together and that is a special bond.  And, like my mother, we are drawn to the ocean, to its power and its salt-air wind and to its steady rhythm of in and out.  And soon, as the sun reaches its high point in the sky, the tide will turn, and we will be ready for something else, something active and social.

This afternoon, we are driving downriver, following the banks of the Kennebec to its wide ocean mouth, to Hermit Island, which is actually more of a peninsula than an island, for an afternoon of hiking along its shoreline and through its inner trails.  We will tromp along and chat of our projects and envision our dreams and I’m sure we will speak of my mother and perhaps we will end up on Spring Beach on this warm April day, to a place above the sand on the rocks where we can look across the mile of ocean to Sister Point and Fish House Cove, where we can rest for a moment of perfect balance before the tides turn again.



Spring is in the air!

Spring has returned.  The earth is like a child that knows a poem. Rainer Maria Rilke

We opened the windows wide and we heard them; the geese were back, flying overhead in flock after flock after flock.  All Saturday morning, in the bright breezy light, they sailed north on a tailwind, heading home into springtime.  And they called out to us in that song that can’t be put into words.  And our hearts swelled and it made us happy.  And later, while hiking on my favorite trail, I stopped to pick the tender leaves of a dandelion and I ate them, bitter and fresh and wonderful.  And right now, outside my kitchen window, a red squirrel sprawls out beside a white pine, her white belly stretched wide.  She’s pregnant with spring and so am I.  And so, in celebration of this season of birth and rebirth and finding our way home, this season of poems blowing in on a balmy breeze, here are two of my offerings for the day.  Happy Spring!

With One Palm Open

I  allow contentment to soak in.

With the other palm, I beckon some new desire.

A spring breeze blows through me this Easter week,

and I dream of summer,

a cool lake, a loon, a full moon.


The Night I Was Conceived

my parents opened the window wide.

It was April.  I love April, the way the snow crystallizes,

caves in on itself, the way it forms huge puddles,

and it feels good to breathe it in, this melting,

the warm breeze.

The night I was conceived

the peeper frogs called to their mates

and my parents heard them from their garret

bed in the Old House farmstead by the sea.

The night I was conceived

the peepers sang.

The earth loosened.

My parents moaned.


Cam and Tulips: Netherlands, Spring 2010



Caballo Blanco

If I were to be remembered for anything at all, I would want that to be that I am/was authentic.  No mas.  Run free!   Micah True (known as Caballo Blanco)

“You’re kidding me!  Not Caballo Blanco!”  I exclaimed into my cell phone as I walked along the bike path in Marquette last Friday.  I was talking to Shelly, my daughter-in-law, in Boulder, Colorado.  She works for the city of Boulder and is up-to-date on the latest of news.  “It’s the talk of the town, all over the papers,” she said.  “He took off for a twelve mile run somewhere in New Mexico on Tuesday and no one has seen him since.  People from all over the country – runners, his friends – are searching for him.  And I couldn’t believe it, Helen, when I just read your blog post.”

It’s true; I had just written a post about the Tarahumara Indians who live in the Copper Canyon of Mexico and are known for their joyful spirits and light-footed running ways, Indians who have found their way into our hearts and imaginations through the words of Christopher McDougall and his best-selling book, Born to Run.  And the main character in this inspiring story is a mysterious man from somewhere in the western United States, a free spirit runner, who lives and runs among these people and envisions a way to bridge the cultures and celebrate the freedom and joy of distance running – the freedom and joy that is in all of us – by organizing an epic race that will draw into the Canyon the fastest ultra-distance runners from all over the world.  This man is given a name by his Tarahumara friends: White Horse.  Caballo Blanco.

And all week, this same week that, unbeknownst to me, Caballo’s friends had been searching for him in the remote rugged area of Gila National Forest in New Mexico, I, up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, had been obsessed with his story, the story that was unfolding as my husband, Cam and I, immersed ourselves in this book that we were reading together.  My new Merrill barefoot running shoes arrived in the mail.  I bought more chia seeds from our local Co-op, the miracle food that brought vim and vigor to the Tarahumara and Caballo.  I began to think that maybe I, too, could run free.  There’s no doubt.  Caballo Blanco was on my mind.  And, last Friday, after my walk and talk with Shelly, I googled Caballo.  I was hoping that maybe Shelly had been mistaken.  But my news-savvy daughter-in-law, she was right.  Caballo was missing.

And as I dived deeper into my research, I learned more about him, how fifty-eight year old Caballo splits his time these days between Boulder and Mexico, how he, indeed, is bridging the cultures, has set up a foundation to raise awareness and funds for the Tarahumaras, how his race is now an annual event, how he is revered by his friends, north and south of the border, as somebody who is not only light-footed but light-hearted and generous.  And Caballo, the man known for his almost supernatural ability to run long distances, became my friend.  And, on Saturday, my friend’s body was found beside a stream in the Gila Wilderness Area where he had died of natural causes.  And today, on Good Friday, there will be a Memorial Service for him in Boulder at Chautauqua Park at the base of the Flatirons.  At four this afternoon, runners will gather and take off on their own or in groups.  They will sprint up these trails, up into the Flatirons; they will run with their own runner’s joy and run to celebrate their legendary friend’s buoyant spirit.  And when they are finished, they will meet back on the grassy fields of Chautauqua and share stories of our friend, Caballo.

And I have to admit that when I learned last Friday that Caballo was missing, I wanted to put Born to Run away.  I didn’t want this new conclusion, the one that was unfolding as the search for Caballo continued.  I wanted the happy ending, the one that the book was promising for Cam and I.  But then I remembered that the story is never really over, that maybe Caballo wasn’t going to make it out of this one alive in his body, but that the movie camera is still rolling, that there’s more to unfold.  I know this firsthand as I experience my relationship with my mother who died two months ago.  I feel her, not just in the pages of my memory, but in the fresh forward-moving story of my days.  She shows up sometimes as a bird flitting across a trail, other times as a chuckle moving through me; she shows up in my dreams.  And always, it is her essence I experience and it fills me.  She is not lost.  She has just changed as we all always change.

So where is Caballo today?  Well, I’m sure that you can find him this afternoon in Boulder under the Colorado blue sky, that he’s present with his friends as they run up the hills, lightly and joyfully, the way that he modeled for them, that he’s breathing- free with the breeze and smiling-wild with the flowers, that he is present in the stories and the laughter, that he is cheering his friends on.  And, this afternoon, in the crisp clear cold of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I think I’ll find him, too, as I slip on my new Merrills, as I inhale spring and spring off on my own running path, as I look to my new friend, Caballo to show me how I, too, can run free.

Tag Cloud