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Handcrafted Life

We are important and our lives are important, magnificent, really, and their details are worthy to be recorded.  Natalie Goldberg

Thirteen hundred miles I would drive through the north woods of Ontario, through the city of Ottawa, and down through upper New York State, across Vermont and New Hampshire and into Maine, at least twice a summer, as I brought my boys, in their pre-teen and early teen years, to Camp Chewonki.  For half of those car rides, it was the boys who were the entertainment.  On the way to camp, they played card games in the back of the suburban, using the cooler as a table and the mini chocolate chip cookies as their gambling money, they told jokes, sang the songs that were popular among middle-schoolers in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and, one year, Christopher, in great drawn-out-longer-than-the-movie style, entertained me with the whole plot of Dumb and Dumber.  And, on the way home, a month later and a camp session wiser, it was kayak and canoe and hiking adventures and Minute Mysteries first told in their cabins at rest time and quiet expansive musings that filled our over-sized car.  Despite bouts of Christopher carsickness and cranky moments for all of us, I knew this two and a half day travel adventure was precious time with the boys who were growing up fast.

And I also knew that the time alone, on the other trips to and fro, was precious as well.  How often does a mother who is also a teacher and a wife get time alone?  I savored those long days of driving, sopped up the scenery, field after field of purple and pink lupine, wide sparkling rivers that I followed for hours, mountains, green tree-covered rolling hills in Canada and Vermont and the rugged granite peaks of New Hampshire’s White Mountain range.  It was wonderful, the hours of quiet contemplation, and when I tired of the quiet and the rumblings of my own mind, I listened to tapes.  It was the mid-nineties, and Clarissa Pinkola Estes best-selling book, Women Who Run With the Wolves, was my favorite roadmap into the wilds of my own wolf-friendly being.  A Jungian psychologist and a master storyteller, Estes wove deep meaning into the stories and fables and myths that she shared, and, in the process, awakened something alive and vibrant in me.  I loved listening to her voice on tape, up close and personal from my driver’s seat in the suburban, as though I were in the front row and she was speaking directly to me.

I soaked in the stories as I drove along, the story of Seal Woman who falls in love with a fisherman and drops her seal skin to raise a family on land, learning, in the process, that life is balancing act, that she will wither and die if she doesn’t slip back into the sea from time to time, and the story of Bluebeard, that part of us that bops us on the head in our nighttime dreams and reminds us to wake up, to wake up to our daytime dreams and start to live them – and the story of the Red Shoes.  That was my favorite.  As I remember it, a little girl is tempted by a devil-like guy to put on these red shiny shoes, shoes that mesmerize her with their sparkly beauty.  And that’s all fine and good to wear sparkly red shoes.  What gal doesn’t want to sparkle with the color red at times?  There was a glitch with these particular red shoes, however.  They didn’t belong to her; they had a life of their own and they forced her into a frenzy, a frenzy of dancing and dancing and dancing, not in joy, not from her own inner spirit’s longing for movement, dancing as though she was possessed, dancing into a state of utter and complete exhaustion.

And it’s not the story that has stuck with me all these years; it’s Estes take on it, that we need to wear our own shoes, that we need to stand on our own two feet, that there are no short cuts to a life well-lived, no glass slippers or gilded carriage or magic potion that is going to carry us forward or lift us up skyward into something better.  And what’s the something better anyway?!?  I remember really taking it in, Estes’ words back then, that our lives need to be handcrafted, our metaphoric shoes made with our own two hands, our dance, unique and organic.  And I confess that, in the mid-nineties, I dreamed of fame and fortune, of leading workshops on the national level at my favorite summer camp for grown-ups, the Omega Institute, of writing books that were widely published.  I confess that sometimes I still dream of fame and fortune.  And yet, I knew then and I know now that fame is an illusion and that the handcrafted life, the one that Estes talked about as I drove along Highway 17 in northern Canada on those trips east, the one that is mindful and precious and really our own, that that is the life that is worth living.

And why am I thinking about this now?  It has been nearly twenty years since I’ve listened to those tapes.  And the kids, the boys, who sprawled out in the back of the suburban in their grubby-green Chewonki tees and told their middle-school puke jokes to me, their appreciative audience, are now grown men who sometimes wear a suit and tie.  It’s like that when you live a handcrafted life.  It’s like that when you slow down enough to appreciate the moments, the moments of skate-skiing along a newly-groomed trail and hearing the rustle of the oaks still clinging to the trees, the moments of standing next to your guy in your warmed-up gussied-up kitchen on a howling snowy Saturday evening as you both chop and sauté and create something new.  It’s like that when you slow down; you savor it all, the present nip of winter in the air, the fresh snow, your own ski boots, the ones that fit your feet and your life perfectly, and you also savor the string of moments that you carry with you as you ski along, the ones that you’ve stitched together, carefully and mindfully, moment to moment, year after year, with your own, your very own hands.

Grandma Annie, Chris and Pete at the cottage after camp: Maine, 1994

Grandma Annie, Chris and Pete at the cottage after camp: Maine, 1994

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