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Archive for October, 2013

It’s not selfish to be happy . . .

(A letter sent to those on Joy Center’s snail-mail list.)


It’s not selfish to be happy.  It is your highest purpose.  Your joy is the greatest contribution you make to life on the planet.  A heart at peace with its owner blesses everyone it touches.  Alan Cohen

I was on a roll.  I had just posted my latest blog entry hours before, an essay in which I mused about my next book project, “I’m Not Too Much For Me!!!!!!” and I was filled up with this topic, filled up with how much fun it was going to be to explore the notion of being full of oneself.  And I was filled up with the excitement of the moment, too.  I was off on a weekend adventure, off to Knoxville, Tennessee last Thursday evening to visit my son and his fiancé, to savor the color and the sunshine at the peak of a Blue Ridge Mountain autumn, to hear the latest on their upcoming wedding plans, to play with these two people who I adore.

So, yes, I was full of myself, full of enthusiasm, and vim and vigor as I stepped onto Plane Number Two at the Detroit airport, as I sat down in Seat 2A and buckled myself up for the short trip south.   And it was in that state of mind that I met my plane mate in 2B, a man a bit younger than me with a strong British accent and a chipper chatty way about him.  He traveled the world for business, was in the States these days more often than at his home in a small town north of London.  And it didn’t take us long, two people who love adventure, both of us feeling good in this particular moment, to enter full-out into a buoyant conversation.  Before we even left the ground, we were riding high as we shared travel stories, restaurant tips, our favorite destinations.  And the conversation continued over the hum of the small jet’s engine as we made our way to Knoxville.  It was in the midst of one of my stories, one of my best, as I told my British buddy about the time that my husband and I were on a trek high in the Himalayas when a tiger, or some other sort of a huge cat, crept into our campsite and grabbed the back pack right out from under our cook’s sleeping body.  It was in that moment, as I was making my way to the story’s exciting part, that the woman in Seat 1B lifted herself up, looked around at us and whispered a harsh “shhhhhhhh.”

It’s not the first time that I’ve been told to hush my loud voice.  I heard it often when I was a child.  “You’re shrieking!” my mother would say.  “Talk a little softer!” she’d remind me.  We were a loud family, a family with big booming voices.  And we were chatters.  At least I was.  My father playfully stuck one of those strips of raised letters that were popular in the late Sixties onto our phone.  “Helen’s chatter phone,” it said.  So it’s not like I’m blind to my impact.  I know how to talk softly, how to soften my voice as I guide a session of yoga, how to whisper into my toddler grandson’s ear, how to listen to the silence and the sounds that rise up from the quiet of a wooded trail.  AND, when I’m in certain mood, a full of myself mood and the energy is rushing through me at jet plane speed, it feels good to let it rip, to go for it, full throttle.  It was like that last Thursday — the plane’s engine was so darn loud and our conversation was so darn fun and we really wanted to hear each other that it felt natural to be talking — or was I hollering?!? — at the decibel that apparently bugged the woman who was seated in 1A.   And when she shhhhhhhed in our direction, British Buddy and I stopped the conversation, made little whoops faces, and then we continued.  I think maybe I lowered my voice a bit — it was hard to gauge how loud I was talking with the engine humming in my ears — and I finished my tiger story and he shared his favorite stories and he told me the places he loves to eat in Knoxville and we laughed and we chatted and the shhhhhhhh was a mere blip in a high-flying trip.

So what am I trying to say?  Am I trying to say that there will be times when we are having a big buoyant time being ourselves, when we are riding high on our high-flying plane, times when we are not too much for ourselves that we are going to be too much for the people around us?  I think it’s inevitable.  And there will be other times when those around us are too much for us.  I want to be considerate.  I really do.  And yet, I know that we can’t control what other people think about us, how they respond to our behaviors and our beingness.   And I know that we are here on earth in these bodies to enjoy the ride, to savor the energy, and yes to express ourselves with these voices, loud and soft, to share our stories, to open our hearts, to have fun.  And that brings me to Joy Center, this place that I envisioned into being as a safe playground to experience the full gamut of who we are as creative beings, to experience our soft quiet wisdom and our loud foot-stomping joy, to share our stories and sing our songs and create our art, a place to be polished and to be raw, and, more than anything, a place where we can say, “I’m not too much for me!!!” and viscerally feel it as true.

So I invite you to peruse the brochure of upcoming offerings, offerings that speak to a wide-breadth of experience, and to find the ones that speak to you.  You are always welcome.

I’m Not Too Much For Me!!!!

There is just one life for each of us: our own.  Euripides

It came to me in a flash while running on my favorite trail back in June.   As I jogged along under a canopy of brilliant green leaves, it unfurled in my mind in the bold colors of early summer.  It’s not like all the pieces were in place on that mid-morning jaunt, but the focus of topic was clear and I was certain of one thing:  I knew what was going to be on the cover of my next book, and I knew the book’s title.  And when an idea as fresh as a summer morning rushes in with the breeze, it pays to take action.  And that’s what I did right there on the trail  beside a meadow scattered with blooming irises; I called Stephanie, my layout and design buddy at Globe Printing.  “I’ve got it!” I cried into the phone.  I was full of gusto!  I was full of  my blazing brainstorm!   “I’m Not Too Much For Me!!!” I blurted out in a decibel which might have been a little too much, a little too loud for the person on the other end of this impromptu call.  “That’s the title of the next book! ”   I continued in my big booming outdoor voice.   “And that little girl photo of me, the one with the mischievous grin and the missing tooth, we’ll put it on the cover!”  I was on fire with the idea of my fiery new project.

That was in June, before family came to visit and the summer called me outward and the book that I’d been working on for nearly a year, the one that I thought was ready to go to print, needed more attention.  By early July, the new idea with the full-of-myself cover, the one that had seemed ready to boil over, had lost some of its bubbles.  It wasn’t just the busy-ness of a busy summer that dampened my enthusiasm; it was something else.  Something was missing as I thought about this potential project.  The missing piece certainly wasn’t the topic.  I don’t just write about living full-out; I strive to live this topic.  And I certainly have an abundance of material — essays and poems and stories fill a sea-grass box in my creativity room’s closet.  So, if not the subject matter, I wondered what it was that kept me from jumping up and down and hooting and hollering and perhaps being too much for those around me when contemplating, I’m Not Too Much For Me!!!   It was something about the process that was seeming flat and boring.  I wondered where the edge was, the excitement, the flying through the air thrill.  It was the process of laying out the book I’ve just completed that made this project so darn fun; it was the playing with my buddy at Globe Printing and my friend Muriel in Maine; it was the gathering of Mom’s recipes from my siblings and the copies of her paintings; it was the connecting with Mom herself in this tangible poignant way more than a year after her passing that set my spirit flying.  And so, how can I set my spirit flying with this new topic, I wondered, this topic that focuses on setting my spirit flying.   I wanted a structure that excited me and I wanted playmates to join me on the journey.

And now, months later, with the nip of late autumn in the air and a hard frost covering the ground, I’m ready for some inner warmth, ready to light up with my new project.  I still don’t have the structure, the “something” that will provide a framework for my writings.  And that’s okay; I’m confident it will come, perhaps in another flash, maybe this time as I skate-ski on the trails that will soon be coated with snow, and when it does come, you can be sure that I’ll grab my cell phone and right there in the snowy woods, I’ll give my layout buddy a big booming call.  And in the meantime, I’ve found a playmate, someone who from Day One encouraged me to live full-out.  It was last summer, during the July of family and our trip back to my childhood home state of Maine that I remembered.  We were in the car, my thirty-year-old son Chris, his fiancé Diana and I, heading downriver toward our family’s land by the sea when Chris asked me about my father.  “You never talk about Grandpa Ernie,” he said.  “Tell us some things.”  And I did.  I told them that he walked with a spring in his step, that he played with language and made up words, that he hauled the brush from the woods and kept our paths to Sister Point clear and wide, that he made us a raft for the cove from pieces of driftwood, and that he drew people to him with his friendly smile, his listening ear, the mischievous twinkle in his eye, his generosity.  What I didn’t say that day in the car, what I hadn’t put into words yet, was that my father “got” me, that I don’t remember a time while growing up that I was too much for him.

And maybe when you feel you have lost a parent in your late teens, one who “got” you, it takes some time to realize that he isn’t really lost and that you can talk about him, that you can talk to him.   So here I am, forty years after my father’s passing, talking about him and to him.  I’m realizing that it is an incredible gift for a child, one whose wide snaggle-toothed grin looks downright diabolical, one who couldn’t sit still and bit her little brother, one who was often too much for her high-strung mother, a child so full of energy that she was sometimes too much for herself as well to have a parent who mirrored back to her her awesomeness.  Who mirrored back my awesomeness.  I’m not sure I could write a book with the title “I’m Not Too Much For Me!!!” if it weren’t for my father’s presence.  Ten years ago, while in the midst of a yoga session during my teacher training at Kripalu, after a long boot-camp-type day of activity, I was lying on my mat drawing my knees inward, wrapping my arms around myself and rocking a bit side to side.  It felt good to contain myself like this, and to feel all this life, an amazing amount of it, flowing through me.  In that moment, my father was present again.  I remembered that he used to hold me in his big grown-up arms in this very same way, that he used to provide the container so I could feel it back then when I was small, this  big booming life force, this big booming life force that I still crave on a daily basis.

So I’ll just see how it plays out, the  journey forward on this project.  And, in the meantime, I have the book’s cover sitting in my creativity room waiting to be filled up, and I have a father for a playmate, a father who looked though the lens of his camera, focused in, and snapped this cover photo with a grin as wide my own.

Here's the cover!!!!

Here’s the cover!!!!

Birthing a Book

(I’m almost there — the finish line is just around the corner.  By the end of the week, the book that has been my primary project for the past year will be sent out to print.  And it is the wrapping up that feels the most poignant, the reflecting on how this is a project that has been a lifetime in the making.  And somehow it is easier to write it as a blog post, this list of thank you’s that truly cannot be contained in a one-page essay.  So here it is, a draft of the final page from the book that I am about to birth: Ebb & Flow:  Celebrating Mom and Life at the Cove.)


Go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows.  Rainer Maria Rilke

Our lives move forward through time that we measure in quantifiable ways.  I see this forward motion as I travel to Maine and visit the Cove.  I see it in the trees, the ones no longer there and the ones that have grown huge.   The scraggly pine that clung to the rocks at Cap Point and was a focal point of our view from the cottage window during childhood summers in the sixties blew down in a gale decades ago, and the island cedars with root balls small enough to squeeze into bait buckets and carry back to the Cove after early morning boat rides are still there rising toward the heavens in a hedge that our father planted in the sixties.  I see it in the people, too, this movement through time.  The old ones have passed and the babies have been born, and we, the siblings and cousins of the fifties and sixties, are now the elders.  And yet, we carry our childhoods within us, and it is easy when you’ve been raised on rugged rock and slippery shores to find your youthful feet again when you return to the coast.  And the rocks, the feldspar and the granite,  the veins of quartz and the flecks of garnet, they hold their form — and the sea, it smells of salt and fish, just as it did during our youth.  And the tides, they are  a constant; they flow in and they flow out, and the moon hangs over the spruce trees and the sea gulls cry.  And when I am present, truly breathing into the moment, it’s all here for me — the stories and the people from my youth, the sun beating down on me on this day, a glimpse of tomorrow.  And this fullness of life, this richness of a place I hold dear and a mother who lived there for fifty years, this is what I’ve brought to the pages of this book.

Ebb & Flow reflects this forward motion of time as it chronicles the year of my mother’s passing, month by month, and yet time is unleashed as well and the pages are full of memories and poems and Mom’s sketches and paintings;  her recipes rise up as the tide pours in and a quote from her is left as the tide recedes again.  Ultimately, it is a celebration that has been years in the making.   And there are so many people who have been a part of this celebration.  I thank them all.  I thank those who have been involved this past year in the actual organizing of the book.  Muriel Hendrix, my dear friend and sister writer who spent ten years living in the cottage next to my mother at the Cove, I thank you for your brilliant suggestions as to how to structure the manuscript, for your careful editing of text and layout design, for the fun that we shared during weekends in Maine as we wrote and hiked and ate amazing meals.  And Stephanie Lake, this manuscript would be a cut-and-paste job stuck together with glue sticks and tape if it wasn’t for you and your ability to take my ideas, the ones that float around in my head, and make them look even better on paper.  What fun it has been to play with you this past year.  Your computer skills and your artistic flair shine through in the pages of this book and I’m forever grateful.  And Shelly Ruspakka, not only are you my daughter-in-law extra-ordinaire, but you are editor extra-ordinaire as well.  I thank you for your keen editing eye.  And to my fellow writers and friends and family who have cheered me on over the years as I’ve written and told my stories and poems and essays about this place that I love and this mother who lived there, I thank you all.  And a special thanks to Diane Sautter, who brought her fine editing skills to many of my poems, and to Paul Lehmberg who showed me that non-fiction writing can be fun and creative.  And then there’s the bigger picture, how this book could not have been written if it weren’t for the Cove and the time spent there.   And so I thank my siblings, and my cousins on the other side of the Point for sharing these memories, for their part in my stories and for the stories that are theirs to tell.  And to my father, who was steward of this land and captain of our ocean adventures and lover of life, I thank you wholeheartedly.  Your enthusiasm pours through me each and every day.   And to my mother, chief playmate on this journey, it has been an honor to stay present through this whole process.  I thank you for the spirit that you brought to your living, for your love of the sea, for the paintings and sketches and recipes that live on, for the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that you continue to guide and play with me as I move forward on my path.

Ebb& Flow: the book cover

Ebb& Flow: the book cover

Making the Old New

What might be taken for a precocious genius is the genius of childhood . . .  Pablo Picasso

If one cannot enjoy a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.  Oscar Wilde

I’m not sure where I felt it — perhaps it was in my throat or behind my eyes or maybe it was in my heart — this sensation that startled me with its intensity.   I had just walked off the early morning plane from Lewiston, Idaho and was finding my way to the terminal in Salt Lake City’s airport where my next plane was parked when it nearly took my breath away.  Was it sadness?  Or a fullness beyond what I’d experienced before?  An up-welling of love?  It didn’t matter exactly what the feeling was; I knew what it was about.  I had said my goodbyes the night before and it was bedtime and we were all tired and it didn’t hit me then as I drove to my motel by the airport, it didn’t hit me as I fell into bed after a day of hardcore play.   But now here it was on this second day of October, the inner uprising of emotion; I was missing the little guy.

And how could I not be missing him?   When I arrived in Idaho a week earlier and climbed up those steep townhouse steps, there he was in his mama’s arms waiting for me.  And when she placed him on the carpeted floor, my fourteen-and-a-half-month-old grandson Viren smiled his wide whole-face smile and he, who wasn’t a proficient runner when I had last seen him in mid-August, raced like a track star in tip-top shape into my grandma arms, and for a half-an-hour — a half-an-hour!!! — he couldn’t keep his little running feet still.  He skittered a cartoonish skitter-dance with those toddler-sturdy legs of his, this way and that, showing me wind-up toys, a pile of books, a balloon on the fly.  He danced in place and wore his excitement like a color-filled cloak of joy, no holding it back, no taming it down.  And that was just the beginning, the prologue to a week in which I followed his dancing lead, no holding it back, no taming it down.

There is much that I could report on after a trip to a new place, much that satisfied my seemingly insatiable desire for adventure.  The trees in Idaho’s panhandle are huge; they rise up on either side of the road as you drive northeast from the college town of  Moscow where your kids are now living and the road is windy and it makes your eyes, your eyes that are used to the forests of the northeast and the upper midwest, a bit dizzy as you sit in the backseat beside your grandson who has waked up from his afternoon nap and is playing with your pile of post-its.   And it’s worth the reporting to say that the town of Elk River, with its population of 125, seems to be plopped in the wilds of these tall trees, trees that now are shrouded with a foggy mist on this particular Sunday afternoon, and the cedar grove, the one that you have been searching for, that you and your son and daughter-in-law had thought would be a  tourist trap along side this windy road, is much harder to find than you had expected.  I enjoy this kind of reporting, to share an adventure like this, one that takes you out of your comfort zone, that takes you out of Elk River where you’ve just bought a huckleberry pie and down a two-track road for eleven miles as the rain picks up and the trees seem to grow even taller, an adventure that finally lands you in a parking lot in the middle of nowhere that really is somewhere and to a path and to the moistness in the air and to the smell of cedar and to the most magical grove of the largest fattest  trees you’ve ever seen and to the king of them all, a cedar over three thousand years old.  It doesn’t take  much effort for my legs to skitter-dance when I’m walking down a path embraced by giant cedars.  It doesn’t take much effort for my legs to skitter-dance on another day either when climbing a mesa with my family and looking over the fields and farmlands and native grasses of the Palouse Valley or while walking along the banks of the mighty Snake River as it winds its way to the mouth of the Hell’s Gate Canyon.

I’m a skitter-dancer for new adventures.  I’m enthusiastic and bold and my spirit loves those tall trees of the Inland Northwest and the power of a river that can cut through a canyon and the rolling hills of a valley that hosts grasses and albino earth worms found nowhere else.  So hooray that I danced with the cedars and along that river and on top of the valley.  But I wouldn’t be stopped in my tracks, swept over by an emotion as mighty as the Snake, as tall as those trees, if it wasn’t for my dance partner and our sweet skitter-times.  This little guy breaks my heart wide open.  And when my index finger holds his little hand and we venture forth on our own adventures, I remember how vast a trip around the city block can be, how exciting it is to bend down to the sidewalk and scoop up the acorns, to look up and realize that they fall from the tree, to greet the pumpkins in the neighbors’ front-yard patch with the wave of your hand, and a newly learned, “Hi!”, and then to wave that same little hand, “Bye-bye!”   Who needs the fancy restaurant that Mama and Daddy head off to when there’s a Co-op with a deli and an old man sitting at the table next to you who waves and smiles and doesn’t judge your table manners?!?  Who needs table manners when the food tastes so good and then it doesn’t anymore and it’s much more fun to toss it on the floor?!?  Who needs big trees when there are post-its to play with?!?  A city park with a slide that you can climb up all by yourself and a swing that sets you flying — what could be better than that?!?  And what could be better for a gal like me who loves adventures than soaking this in, this bundle of living breathing enthusiasm who I hold in my arms, who I squeeze close to me, who stays in my heart as I dance my own cartoonish skitter-dance of excitement?!?

Grandma and Viren at Snake River: Lewiston Idaho, September 26, 2013

Grandma and Viren at Snake River: Lewiston Idaho, September 26, 2013

High-flying Joy:  September 26, 2013

High-flying Joy: September 26, 2013

Stopover in Elk River, Idaho on the way to grove of Giant Cedar: September 29, 2013

Stopover in Elk River, Idaho on the way to grove of Giant Cedar: September 29, 2013

Wearing Grandma's Hat: September 30, 2013

Wearing Grandma’s Hat: September 30, 2013

The Whoosh of Autumn

Autumn is a second spring where every leaf is a flower      Albert Camus

It brought it all back to her as she walked down Oak Street toward the city center a few weeks ago, the shrill whistle and the chug chug chug of the approaching train.  As my friend Muriel scurried up to the tracks to watch for the first sight of the engine, she was transported to another time and another set of tracks faraway from this one in Bath, Maine.  She was a little girl again down south in Greensboro, North Carolina, visiting her grandmother and her aunt, a little girl running across the street from the old family house and up the hill and to the bridge by the tracks, a little girl squealing with delight as the sound and the sight of the engine filled her with its whoosh of wild energy.  And as she stood there on Oak Street all these years later remembering this little girl part of herself, she was startled back to the present by another little girl who was running up to the tracks with her father, who was joining Muriel in carrying on the ritual of the squeal and the jumping up and down and the power of an engine so close you can almost touch it.  And is that what it is that makes this particular ritual so compelling?  Is it the power that calls us to it, to be so close to a sound and a sensation that almost bowls us over?  Because it is a ritual that seems to draw us in.  My husband still wears the badge of a slight bump on his forehead that he received as a ten-year-old boy when he bumped into a tree while running his own full-throttle and wide-open race to the railroad’s tracks to check if the approaching train was going to flatten his penny.

I feel this charge in the air, this freight train feeling of energy on the move, how autumn in the far north of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is not a quiet season.  The air is warm and then it’s cold and the wind is howling and then it subsides and the owl is hooting at us in the darkening evenings and I don’t know what to wear and even on the calmest and sunniest of days, you can almost hear the maple leaves bursting into scarlet and the aspens whistling a golden tune.  And the chipmunks, they are scurrying from feeder to feeder, stuffing their cheeks with a winter’s supply of seeds, while the red squirrels are skittering and screeching their autumn song.   And my own mind is right there with the chipmunks and the squirrels, skittering and scattering about in the fallen leaves.  It’s my mother’s voice I hear as I try to rein my wayward mind back into the present moment.  “Just settle down, Helen.  Just settle down and breathe!”

And it’s a  good thing to settle down and breathe.  And it’s a good thing to nestle into the deep place of calm at your sweet center.  I know this and I appreciate the reminder from my mother whose voice still lives in my head.  Last week in yoga class, a student shared with us an autumn story, how she was taking photos of the sunset at her lakeside home when her eye zoomed in to the late-blooming blossoms in her cottage’s garden.  As she was focusing the camera, she noticed a bee, a bee nestled tight in the curl of a flower, a big fuzzy bee who seemed to be sleeping, or maybe even dead, and she snapped its photo and felt the sweetness of this sweet bee and this quiet moment at the end of an autumn day.  And then, the next morning, at dawn, she walked back to that same flower and the bee was nowhere to be seen.  It had flown away.  Maybe it had hummed away or buzzed away.  Maybe it had even skittered.  Maybe it, too, had felt the power of the season.

There are days in an Upper Michigan autumn when the north wind blows off the wildest of the Great Lakes and the waves thrash Superior’s shore and we Yoopers rush to the beaches and to the rocks with our surf boards and our cameras and our child’s sense of enthusiasm.  We are little girls and little boys again remembering the freight trains and the beach-waves and the thrill of a Universe that is bigger and more powerful than we can contain, a Universe that makes us feel alive when we breathe it in.   So, good that we take care of ourselves, that we heed the voice that says that we can rest for a while, the voice that says that we don’t always have to skitter about or charge full-throttle ahead, that we can pay attention to the path and the trees that might be in our way, that we can nestle into a flower and dream our honey-scented dreams.   Good for the quiet moments, and good for the moments of awakening, too, when we realize that there is frost on the ground and the wind has picked up and the coyotes are howling and the leaves are a kaleidoscope of color.  It’s okay to be stirred, to enjoy the rush, to race out to the tracks, to jump up and down, to squeal in delight as we feel autumn’s freight train of power.

Heritage Trail on the Equinox: Somewhere between Negaunee and Marquette

Heritage Trail on the Equinox: Somewhere between Negaunee and Marquette


Lake Superior: Presque Isle, Marquette, Michigan, October 5, 2013

Lake Superior: Presque Isle, Marquette, Michigan, October 5, 2013

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