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Archive for April, 2013


(The following essay is included in the May/June Joy Center snail mailing.)


Count your blessings.  Proverb Quote

“You’re blessed,” she said, as she handed me the receipt and the pens that I was buying for my upcoming trip.  She said it without an ounce of envy; she said it with a smile, this beautiful woman at the office store.  And I felt my shoulders relax more deeply and I smiled back at her.  I am blessed.  And I am appreciative of my blessings.  I’m heading off on an adventure today, Mystery Trip 2013, with a husband who I have known since I was eighteen, and we’ve still got it, nearly forty years later, a spark that keeps us together.  It’s my turn to surprise him this time around, in a game we’ve been playing for a decade.  Choose a destination, anywhere in the world, and hold the secret tight for as long as you can, preferably until you climb aboard that last plane that carries you to wherever you’re going.  I’m thrilled to feel the thrill still, after all these years, thrilled to lead him astray in this way, thrilled to watch his excitement grow, thrilled to think of his thrill when he finally finds out where his feet are going to land.  I know that I am blessed, appreciative that I have the means to carry out such an adventure, that I can pull out my charge card and reserve a room for us anywhere in the world, appreciative of my bounty.

And I want to tell you that there is more to it, this being blessed, more than the outward trimmings of a comfortable home and a playful partner and a charge card at your fingertips.  I want to tell you that it’s here for the taking, in all moments – the blessing, the appreciation, the gratitude.  A week ago, as the dusk sky, over the high prairie of Wyoming, slipped into nightfall, I found myself in the small town of Wheatland surrounded by these wide plains and the icy roads and no other villages in sight, in Wheatland, after a several hour adventure of trying to make my way from the Denver Airport to Laramie in the aftermath of a snowstorm.  And I confess, that it didn’t feel like a blessing to have I-80, the direct route to my destination where my son, daughter-in-law and baby grandson live, blocked off, shut down, off-limits, didn’t feel like a blessing to discover, when I arrived in Wheatland, a stopover on my alternative Plan B for getting to Laramie the next morning, that every hotel in town was filled up, overflowing, in fact, with others, like me, stranded by the weather.  It didn’t feel like a blessing when my charge card, the one that I’m used to wielding with some sort of power, was impotent.  A charge card isn’t worth a penny when there’s no bed for the taking.

And yet, the blessings were many.  I had rented a Subaru at the Denver Airport, and I’m a gal who knows how to drive a Subaru, through snow and over ice and on roads that are slushy.  And my kids and my husband – they were a phone call away, and they, from Michigan and Knoxville and Laramie, cheered me on.  And there was the dispatcher – and I’m not even sure what a dispatcher is – whose number was given to me by the front desk woman at the Best Western, the dispatcher who tried her darndest to get me a room somewhere in town, and, when she couldn’t, directed me to the Armory.  And there was the Armory.  The Armory!  And a friendly greeting party, two women, who told me, when I said that I had no place to stay, that there was room at this inn, and the Great Dane, who, on her long loping legs, ran over and greeted me, and the two toddlers, and their parents, who were also stranded, and the twenty other people, and the smell of a cake baking, and a cot to sleep on.  Honestly, I am blessed and my bounty is great.

And when I return home from this trip, the one that is about to happen, the one that is still a secret, I’ll come back to my life here in these northern woods – and the snow, it will be melting, and maybe I’ll ski, one final time, and then the trout lilies will poke through the thawing earth and the trillium will bloom and the robins will start building their nests.  It’s a bountiful world and I’m appreciative of this bounty.  And Joy Center is filled with it, the bounty, the abundance, the joy of expansion, and it’s ours for the taking.  It’s here for each one of us.  The yoga, the meditation, the art and personal growth workshops, the presentations and performances.  The music, the movies, the storytelling.  Let’s count our blessings.  And let’s share them with each other.  Happy Spring!!!


Determination gives you the resolve to keep going in spite of the roadblocks that lay before you.  Denis Waitley

“Things are always working out for me.”  I say this often, whisper it to myself as I wipe the sleepy-seeds from my eyes in the morning, sometimes say it out loud as I move through my full and lively days, and I speak it again as I nestle into my pillow at night.  I believe it, that things are always working out for me, that, on some level, things are always working out for all of us.  And the working out – it’s usually easy.  And it started out that way in the wee hours of last Wednesday morning, with smooth dry roads leading me to Marquette County’s airport and an on-time lift-off and a smooth sailing ride to Detroit and an early departure from Detroit to Denver.  In fact, I was feeling downright cocky, in my upgraded to First-Class seat, sipping my bottled water and writing e-mails to friends.  “I’m off,” I said, “on my grand adventure, off to visit grandbaby Viren and his parents in Laramie for the weekend!”  “This is easy for me,” I added, as we flew high above the plains of Nebraska.  “I love traveling!”

And it might have been right about then, as we soared above those cloud-covered plains and into Colorado, somewhere east of Denver International Airport, that the ease in my morning brushed up against the glitch, the weather glitch, the glitch that slowed us down and kept us circling and circling and circling, until, an hour after we were supposed to land, we finally touched down on the runway in Denver.  I had talked to my son, Pete, the day before, and it had seemed as if the storm would be heading east before I began the two-hour car-ride part of my journey heading north to Laramie.  But clearly, as the snow swirled outside our now-on-the-ground plane’s window, I could see that the weather might be an issue.  By cell phone, Pete and I came up with a new plan.  I would start the trek north, drive to Boulder for lunch, and then be on my way toward Fort Collins and Cheyenne before turning onto I-80 for the final thirty-minute stretch of the drive.  It was reassuring – the sun was shining in Laramie, and the towns I’d be driving through were overflowing with motels and restaurants, just in case this spell of snowy weather kept up. Things are always working out for me and I was on a mission.  In my mind’s eye, I could see him, that little bundle of buoyant always-moving joy, my nine-month-old grandson, and I was determined to get on the road and give it a go.

Even though it didn’t seem that necessary – the snow wasn’t sticking to the pavement in Denver – something told me to dig a little deeper, pay the extra eighty dollars for an upgrade to an all-wheel drive.  And so it was a Subaru that I was driving an hour later through the streets of Boulder on an afternoon in mid-April, and it was Christmas carols that were popping into my head as I slushed along, as I stared out at trees weighted down with eight inches of heavy wet new snow and sidewalks completely covered.  It was a Subaru, and I’m comfortable behind the wheel of a Subaru, and I’m confident driving through snow, and it really wasn’t that bad, nothing a gal like me who lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, isn’t used to.  That’s what I told Pete during our next phone call, the one as I headed into Fort Collins.  And later still, as afternoon tipped into evening, that’s what I told my daughter-in-law, Shel, as I, in my Subaru, approached Cheyenne.  “But wait a minute, Shel,” I added into my cell phone, “I think I just saw something odd; I think I just saw a sign that said that I-80 is closed.” “Do you see semis parked along the exit?” she responded.  And it was then, as I approached the turn-off that would take me on the homestretch to that cooing, babbling, pointing, giggling, crawling, walking-on-furniture, brilliant, adorable grandson of mine, my heart sunk.  “Yup!” I said into the phone.  “There they are.  Hundreds of them parked along the side of the road.”

Now, there are times when you come up against a roadblock, one that won’t budge, and you know that it’s in your best interest to let go, that it’s just not working out, that it’s just too hard to continue; there are times when it’s wise to say that this just wasn’t meant to be, not now at least.  And it’s your gut that tells you that the timing is off.  And your gut, it doesn’t lie.  Well, my gut wasn’t saying any of this; my gut was saying that it was time to move forward, that when one road closes, find another.  And that’s what I did, thanks to the man and the woman at the Holiday Inn Express in Cheyenne.  They suggested I head north on I-25, away from my destination, to Wheatland, then south again and a little west on the two-lane road into Laramie.  “You can do it!” they handed me a map.  “You can do it!” they cheered me on.  Things are always working out for me!  And off I went, chugging along in my all-wheel-drive, off I went sixty miles north at forty miles an hour, in the final hours of daylight, away from the hundreds and thousands and what seemed like millions of parked trucks, away from the city packed with people who had run into a roadblock that the man and the woman at the Holiday Inn Express said might be standing for days, off I went following the lone semi-truck all the way to Wheatland.

And I’m not going to lie to you, it wasn’t easy, this trip that was supposed to take two hours, Denver to Laramie, this trip that ended up taking the majority of two days.  I’m not going to lie to you, it wasn’t easy swallowing my pride along with the final mouthfuls of nuts and kale chips, and walking through the door at the Armory in Wheatland at nine o’clock when all the motels in town were booked solid with stranded travelers.  It wasn’t easy heading back south on that same road the next day and turning onto the now-open I-80 along with the millions of truckers that were once again on the go, albeit slowly, only to be turned around twelve miles from that baby’s house in Laramie when the road, for some reason, closed.  It wasn’t easy ending up again in Cheyenne, the stuck-city, and having to find a another new way to get to my destination.

But I will tell you this, if you’ve never stayed in an Armory, it is a heart-opening experience and an army cot can be comfortable and the people gracious.  I can tell you that truckers look out for each other and are kind to gals driving Subarus, and their road advice can’t be beat.  I can tell you that determination, along with a gut that says to move forward, carries you far.  I can tell you that there is always an alternative route to your pot of gold, when the one that you thought would take you there is blocked.  I can tell you that things are always working out for me, that, in the late afternoon of Day Two, Highway 287 out of Fort Collins, newly opened after being closed for a few days, was my yellow brick road to Oz.  And the pot of gold?  It was waiting for me in Laramie when I arrived just in time for dinner.

Viren at the park April 21, 2013

Viren at the park
April 21, 2013

Il Postino

You must give birth to your images.  They are the future waiting to be born.  Rainer Maria Rilke

I fell in love all over again on a Sunday evening a week ago.  In a deeper way than before.  Perhaps it was the bright sprigs of forsythia already in yellow bloom that Pia brought into Joy Center in a tall clear vase, and the Chilean fish stew, perhaps it was the food that the others brought as well, the pasta dishes tossed with fresh vegetables and drizzled with olive oil, the white beans mixed with garlic and spinach and basil so tasty that you might forget that it was snowing outside on this April evening, perhaps it was the fruits soaked in white wine and the gelatos lined up on the counter for us to dive into, perhaps it was all of this deliciousness, the meal set out before us and the company of friends and the talk of poetry and warmer places by the sea, all of this that made what came next seem even better this time around.

It was in the mid-nineties, almost twenty years ago now, that I first saw the movie, Il Postino.  I was captivated by it then, this gorgeous story set in the 1950’s on an island off the coast of Italy about the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s friendship with a young postman.  We saw it together, Cam and I, on the big screen, in a time before our nest had emptied, in a time before we had traveled to Italy twice, before we had swam in those sparkling blue waters of the Mediterranean, before we had hiked along the cliffs above those waters, before it  had a familiar glow: the sea, the coves, the fishing boats, the singing full-bodied speech of Italy.  And now, here we were again, the twenty-year-older versions of ourselves, Cam and I, and our Joy Center friends, on a snowy blowy Upper Peninsula Sunday, our bellies filled with the warmth of a delicious meal, watching this movie again.

I expected that I still would love it.  I expected that I would swoon as I had nearly twenty years earlier over those scenes where the postman, mail sack slung over his shoulder, pedaled his bicycle up the hill away from the village center on gravel roads that clung to the sides of steep seaside cliffs, swoon as he approached Neruda’s cliff-hanging cottage, swoon as the sea sparkled behind them, swoon as we, the audience, met Neruda, the famous Chilean poet.  For me, twenty years ago, it was as though I was meeting an old friend as I watched the scenes of Pablo sharing the power of words and the heart within them with the younger postman and aspiring poet, Mario.   The movie wasn’t my first encounter with the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Poet Laureate of Chile.  I had known of Pablo Neruda for years, had read his odes, his poems of the sea, his poems of passion and social justice, had shared them with high school students and college freshmen, had witnessed how these poems ignited in us, like they did in the character, Mario, our own longings and poetic hearts.  Yes, I expected to swoon over the scenery and the  sheer beauty of the language and the sweet sweet story.  And I expected to fall in love all over again with Pablo Neruda.  What I didn’t expect was for the movie to become more than just a movie, for the evening to become a huge poem growing inside me, something larger than my plain everyday words could describe.

I’m sure that the food — food that tasted of the sea and the shore — and the company of friends, and the remembering of that first time watching this movie with my guy, and the magic of being transported on a snowy April evening to someplace warm, I’m sure  that all of this was igniting these poetic feelings.  But it also was something more.  Before beginning the movie a week ago at Joy Center, I shared a story with my friends, a story that I had remembered hearing all those years ago, one that I had read in a review of the movie after already watching it, how the actor who played the postman had died of some sort of heart condition shortly after finishing production.  And as I watched the movie come alive for me on Joy Center’s wall this past Sunday, this knowing had an impact.  It all blurred together, the story of the postman, Mario, who discovered his inner poet in the presence of the poet, Neruda, who found his passion, and was living fully this passion as the story approached its conclusion, who was at the peak of so much possibility, and suddenly, no longer alive, his story blending for me with the actor’s story.  It wasn’t just the character who I fell in love with this time around, the sweet postman on an isolated island off the coast of Italy in the 1950’s; it was also the actor who played the character in a movie produced in the 1990’s whose story parallels the story of his character.  I felt his presence, this actor, as though he too had hauled up a bolster and had plopped himself down on Joy Center’s floor and was watching this movie, his movie, with us.

I loved him, this man who had given his all to the part, this man who I googled when I returned home later that evening.  Massimo Troisi is his name and he not only brought a brilliance to the character, Mario; he brought a brilliance to the script as well, co-writing Il Postino with the movie’s director.  He was funny and handsome and was known as the “Steve Martin of Italy”.   I learned these things through my research.  He believed in this project, like his character, Mario, was on fire, and he knew that a childhood heart condition could be fatal, knew that he needed a transplant, was intending to get one soon after finishing the movie.  It was less than a day after the camera stopped rolling that he lay down on a bed at his sister’s house, fell asleep and died.  He was forty-one years old.

I think that the first time around, I was stunned by the character Mario’s death.  I think that I might have deemed it a tragedy.  I remember that I felt sad.  That is what I want to tell you; I didn’t feel sad this past Sunday.  I felt full, full of the poem growing inside of me, full of life.  We also learned that evening that Pablo Neruda’s bones just had been exhumed in Chile, that they are being examined to see if he was poisoned by the dictatorship that took over Chile in the early 1970’s.  And that was such a strange juxtaposition, to think of Neruda’s bones when he was very much flesh-and-blood- alive on the screen, very much alive in the poems we were reading, very much alive in the Joy Center air.  And the postman — how can I be sad when the postman was on fire when he died, and Massimo, too!

And so after the credits rolled down the screen and the music subsided, the projector was turned off, and we, the friends who had gathered at Joy Center for dinner and a movie, all said our good-byes and trudged out into the snowy April night.  But it didn’t feel like the end to me.  It felt like the glorious middle of a story that really is too big, too rich to ever have an ending.

Praise a Word

If you praise a word, it turns into a poem.  Caitlin Weber (fifth grade)

When I was in fifth grade, Maureen Jumper was one of my best friends.  In those wide open hours after school, we swam together at the local Y, and traced the streets of our hometown in coastal Maine — one foot deftly placed in front of the other — on the stonewalls that lined the sidewalks.  We created mischief in our minds, and giggled and ate whole tubs of Hallet Drugstore’s homemade ice cream.  But what I remember most were the Friday night sleepovers, how we hauled out the books, the nursery rhymes and the limericks and the fairy tales of our younger years, and the blue-bound hardcover of my mother’s, and we read to each other.  I remember how we both loved poetry.  What was it about those reading sessions that made them as satisfying as an evening spent sprawled out in front of the TV watching our favorites like The Monkees and The Wild, Wild West?  There was a mystique in the books themselves, some as old as my mother, in feeling their heft and skimming their yellowing pages and hand-colored drawings.  And of course there were the poems and the stories printed onto those pages — some familiar, some new to us – that held our attention and made us smile when we read them silently.  But it was something else that made these Friday nights feel so fun.  It was the process we followed.  With seamless ease, we, two ten-year-old girls, created guidelines and a structure that brought these poems to life.

When we breathe our breath into a poem, when we speak its words out loud with the fullness of our own voice, it is as if we are communing with the poet, as if we, too, have made these words become real and alive on the page, and it doesn’t matter whether the words were written eons ago, whether they were written across the sea in England or France or somewhere even more exotic; they become our words and we are transformed, made bigger as we embody this gift we are reading.  Somehow, Maureen and I, two coastal girls from a blue-collar town in Maine, knew this was so.  We took turns, the two of us, shuffling through the pages and choosing the gems that drew us in, and with our biggest voices – and both of us had big voices – and with a dramatic flair, we read to each other.  And it wasn’t just the reading that was so deeply pleasurable; it was the listening, too.

Years later, when I was in my thirties and a graduate student at Northern Michigan University, the poet Robert Bly made a spring-time visit to campus.  Before reciting a single poem, Bly, with his shock of white hair and a silken vest, stood on the stage facing an auditorium packed with students and faculty and fans, and told us, not to listen with our heads, but to listen, instead, with our breath and with our hearts, and with every cell of our bodies, not to try to figure it all out, but to experience it in our beings.  And it was a wonderful invitation, and, although I now can’t recall in detail more than one or two of the poems themselves, I still remember how good it felt to soak the words in deeply.  They live in me, in my cells and my bones and my breath, like the poems that Maureen and I read to each other twenty-five years earlier, like the poems, a few years later, that I read with other friends, the poems of Kahlil Gibran and Rod McKuen, and the poems written out for us on the backs of the album covers of our favorite musicians.  I breathed in, not only the melodies, but also the words of James Taylor and Cat Stevens and Paul Simon.

And what makes it a poem anyway?  Can’t any word, any phrase, any image that we conjure up become a poem?  Can’t a conversation that is heartfelt and sincere be poetry?  Can’t that song in our hearts, that song that rose up to the surface after all these years, that song that you slow-danced to in ninth grade with your almost-grown-up quivering almost-boyfriend who was wearing a burgundy shirt and smelled of Old Spice, can’t that song, that memory and the feelings that it awakens in you now, can’t that be a poem?  And the children’s book, the one that you read to your baby grandson, the one that has no rhyme or reason, that doesn’t even flow off your tongue in an easy way, can’t the two of you create a poem out of that experience?  And the drip drip drip of the melting snow in April in these northern woods, and the chirp of a cardinal blown off course and onto your feeder and the squirrels scampering across the crusty ski trails — isn’t there a poem in there somewhere?  Sometimes it is a formal thing, this life of poetry, a sitting down at a table and scribbling word-images into a journal, or maybe it is a book, already bound and published, ready for you to read to yourself or aloud to a friend, or perhaps it is a performance like the one that Robert Bly treated us to all those years ago, like the ones on Wednesday evenings at Joy Center this month of April.  Poems, written down and honed and shared, are gifts for us to cherish.  And then there are the times that life itself feels like a poem.

A year ago, during the first weekend of February, my cousin, Diana, sat in the chair by my mother’s bedside at Winship Green Nursing Home and held her hand.  And she brushed my mother’s wavy hair.  And when my ninety-three year old mother closed her eyes and went inward, Diana whispered to her the names of the birds outside the window, and I wonder if this whispering felt like a poem to my bird-loving mother.  Three cardinals in the bushes.  A flock of gulls flying overhead.  Juncos on the snowy ground.  And in the days and hours before my mother’s dying, Diana hauled out the book of poetry, the book that she had brought from home to read to my mother, the book of poems that I had written.  And while my mother lay there, sometimes sleeping, sometimes awake and listening, Diana read to her.  And it is a dear poem for me now, to think of my cousin breathing life into my words, a dear poem to think of my mother soaking in these words, breathing them in, in the final hours of her breath.

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