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Archive for May, 2014

We are Many!

Of the many men whom I am, whom we are, I cannot settle on a single one.  Pablo Neruda, ‘We are Many”

After the bride and groom had cut into the cake, after the mingling and the photographs and the playing with toddler grandson, after the first of the guests had begun to leave and the sun had sunk down behind those Tennessee trees, that’s when I kicked them off, those black wedge only-for-fancy heels, that’s when my feet with their coral-colored toenails began to tap to the New Orlean’s-style jazz, that’s when my inner teenager came out to play.  She just pushed the others aside, the grandmother who is adept at propping an almost two-year old on her hip and showering him with love-hugs, the mother-of-the-groom who is just as adept at showering that love on a pair of newlyweds who she adores with heart and soul, the mingler who delights in flitting from table to table — she, the teenager, just gave them the brush-off, the “hey-ho, I’ll see you guys later!” as she jazzed her way toward the jazzed-up dance floor.  And it was jazzed -up with toe-tapping, arms-flying, fancy-footworking friends of the bride and groom, friends who had been enjoying the homemade wine and the groom’s home-brewed  beers.  It was just the scene for a fifty-eight-year-old teen, her long arms flailing, her loud voice whooping, her bare feet jumping around in only the way that a fifty-eight-year-old teen who always was a little awkward on the dance floor but now just doesn’t give a rip jumps around with her feet.  It was her time and there was nothing those others — the mother-of-the-groom, the grandmother, the mingler — could do about it.

We think we’ve got it all together, that we slip into our mother-of-the-groom dress, buckle up those fancy shoes, and voila!  We think we’re a neat and tidy package, playing a neat and tidy role.  In reality, however, we’re far more complex.  We have a whole wedding party of toe-tappers inside of us just waiting to come out and play.  Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet and nobel prize winner, reminds us of this in his poem, “We are Many”.  The teenager in me loves this poem, and, it was with teenagers that I first got to know it.  I was introducing a poetry unit to ninth graders while student teaching in the late 80’s and the focus was Pablo Neruda.  They loved the unit from the get-go.   They loved to bellow out his name.  “Pablo Neruda!!!” they would shout with glee.  And that inner teenager in me who adores teenagers couldn’t help but encourage this over-the-top possibly-obnoxious enthusiasm.  The students loved to read Neruda’s ode poems out loud, odes to simple things like salt and watermelon, and then they loved to write their own. An ode to a hockey stick.  An ode to hairspray. (It was the late 80’s!)  An ode to a beloved pet.  But it was the poem, “We are Many” that intrigued them the most.  Neruda confesses in his poem — “When a stately home bursts into flames, instead of the fireman I summon, an arsonist bursts on the scene, and he is I.”  I think the teens felt liberated reading these lines, reading the entirety of this poem.  “You mean it’s okay to admit it?” they would wonder. “That we actually have an inner arsonist!?!”  And so many other “inners!!!!”, too.    I think it delighted them to confess to a lively thrumming inner party!

And my inner teen, a few weeks ago at our son’s wedding in Knoxville, she was having a blast, a lively thrumming party of her own out there on the dance floor as the band members pumped up the volume for those last few numbers.   She was feeling at home, definitely more at home than she would have felt back when her body was technically teenage and more limber and also more self-conscious.   The whooping, the stomping, the hand-clapping came easy, the jumping into center circle and letting her body do it’s awkward jerky motions was a no-brainer.  And a while later, as the band was packing up and the chairs were being stacked, it took her aback, this lively teenager who was still center stage in the inner wedding party, to hear a gorgeous young friend of the bride and groom tell her that it was awesome the way she got out there and danced. “Isn’t that what teenagers do?” this inner teen thought to herself, forgetting that she had pushed aside the mother-of-the-groom who had been acting a bit more stately until this recent teenage invasion.

And that inner teen, the gal who laughs so hard she snorts, who jumps into the center of the circle and headbangs with the best of them, who slips into her most summery of clothes and rides the wave of adventure and would ride the wave of a surf board if one was put in front of her, I haven’t been able to stuff her back into the box.  And I don’t think I’m supposed to.  I certainly don’t want to.  It’s fun to ride that youth-filled wave.  I say let’s be as big and glorious as we are meant to be.  Let’s embrace them all.   The grandmother.  The mother-of-the-groom.  Yes, even the arsonist.  Perhaps we can build a bonfire, a big blazing bonfire — and, as the leaves finally unfurl up here in the northern woods of Upper Michigan, as the birds twitter and chirp and the peeper frogs peep and the trillium and trout lilies splash their color across the forest floor, we can dance around that fire, all of us, the whole glorious package of who we are.

Feeling like a teen: ice-surfing on Superior. May 30, 2014

Feeling like a teen:
ice-surfing on Superior.
May 30, 2014

A Wedding Weekend

Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field.  I’ll meet you there.  Rumi

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.  Rumi

Love exists within each of us from the moment we are born and waits to be discovered from then on.  Elif Shafak

“Appreciate these feet of yours,” I say in yoga each session as we stand, soles firmly pressed into the ground in Tadasana/Mountain Pose.  “Spread your toes wide, feel your connection with the earth.  Your feet will stabilize you, bring you a sense of empowerment as you plug into the earth’s powerful energy.”  I say this and I believe it.  I feel it, that surge of energy coursing up through my body as I stand in Tadasana, and I also feel the confidence that the pose gives to me, a reminder that my body is a strong enough vessel to contain this rush, at least when my feet are plugged in, at least when the surge of energy doesn’t feel a little too “rushy”.  But what about at a wedding?  What about at your own son’s wedding?  Can you still feel stable?  Can you still keep these feet of yours plugged into the earth?  Is your body really a strong enough container  to hold the volcano of energy that a wedding brings up?

I love my feet.  They are big and they are strong and they are tough.  I can scamper barefoot across rocks and pine-needle paths.  I can expose the soles of my feet to cold ocean water and gritty sand.  I believe my feet are happy feet.  But until last Thursday afternoon in Knoxville, Tennessee, until that hour of leaning back into the chair and chatting with the other mother-in-law who also was leaning back into a chair, until the scrubbing and the scraping and the filing and the nail-polishing, until that very first pedicure that we, the mothers of bride and groom, had ever experienced, I wouldn’t have said that these feet of mine are pretty feet.  And maybe it is a good thing to step into a wedding weekend on feet that are pretty and adorned with toenail polish in a brilliant coral-color, maybe a pedicure is just the thing to provide that added oomph of confidence, that reminder to stay firmly planted as the wedding-whoosh begins.

So that’s what I did; I stepped forward on gleaming-clean and polished feet, flip-flopped my way into a meeting with the rest of the bride’s family on Thursday evening, at a picnic at a park along the bank of the slow-flowing Tennessee River that runs near the house that soon-to-be-bride and soon-to-be-groom have shared in Knoxville for the past two years while working on post-docs.  The air was thick and sultry and fragrant and it was easy to relax into these feet, to kick off the flip flops, to press sparkly toes into the grassy-ground beneath them.  And it was easy to connect with these warm and friendly people who had traveled from the west coast to be here for this buoyant celebration.

And my feet, they did a pretty good job remaining earthbound later that evening while driving back to the airport to greet my guy, the father-of-the-groom, and the next day, at noon, during another airport run, they still stayed put in those Teva sandals, even as that almost-two-year-old-blue-eyed-blond-grandson-of-mine hopped out of his mother’s arms and skitter-raced down the airport corridor toward me.  “Gwama!!!  Gwama!!!” he cried and I pressed my feet down a little harder and felt the momentum building.  And that’s what happens during a wedding weekend.  The momentum builds.  The river runs faster.  More people arrive.  A grandma-of-the-groom,  an uncle-of-the-bride.  Brothers and sister-in-laws.  Nieces and nephews and cousins.  Friends of the bride, friends of the groom, friends of us all.  By car and by plane.  From west coast and east coast and places in-between.  It’s a wild ride, a river with rapids, a whoosh of excitement.  And my feet?  My beautifully-pedicured-gleaming feet?   As we gathered for a welcome dinner on Friday evening, it didn’t even cross my mind to notice the coral-colored polish or to check in with these polished-up feet of mine.

In our yoga sessions, as we move from Mountain Pose into Virabradasana I  — the pose of our inner warrior for integrity –as we step back with one leg, there often is a moment of losing our footing.  “It is okay to feel wobbly,” I say.  “Sometimes we lose our balance,” I add.   And then we find it again; we press our feet into the ground, and there they are; our own two feet.  And were there wobbly moments during the wedding weekend?  I had a few.  There was that sultry air, intoxicatingly warm and humid and filled with full-bloomed lushness — humid wet lushness that turned to rain on the morning of the wedding and transformed my relatively tame hair into something wild and ferociously unmanageable.  And that’s the coif that I brought to the wedding ceremony.  And there was the moment a few hours earlier, when under my tutelage, while I was scurrying to tame this wild mop on my head with a blowdryer and some spray, that adorable blue-eyed-blond-almost-two-year-old-grandson-of-mine put a party favor I had given to him to play with into the motel room microwave and somehow started a fire.  Sure there were wobbly moments.  We wobble and then we find them again, our own two feet.

But there’s something else that I say in yoga.  “We’re not just meant to plod along on the earth.  We also have a lightness in our being.  We also have wings.”  I’m glad for the practice of yoga.  I’m glad that I often feel a sense of grounding, that I can breathe deeply and say, “More please!  More of this good-feeling life!”  I’m glad for the pedicured feet that walked me into this weekend of celebration, that flitted and mingled and danced their way through precious moment after moment.  And a part of me would have liked to have breathed it in even more deeply, the smell of the honeysuckle wafting our way on a gentle breeze as we gathered for the ceremony, the heat of the sun that broke through the clouds at the perfect moment, the peonies spilling over with blossom, the absolute radiant joy on her face as Diana, gorgeous in her gorgeous dress, walked down the grassy path, arm in arm with her father, a part of me that would have liked to have mingled with even more presence, to have felt the river of emotion even more deeply.

And yet, there’s that moment of lift-off, when your feet leave the ground and none of those “would haves” or “should haves” really matter.   I’m remembering a moment now, one that I had forgotten.  In the grassy stone-walled courtyard in Knoxville’s arboretum where Chris and Diana were married, just as they had finished saying their vows, heartfelt handwritten vows, as they paused in the shade of the tree, holding hands, looking at each other, and bursting with radiant full-bodied smiles, it appeared, lifting off from the ground.   As if on cue for all of us to see, it floated right up in front of Chris and Diana — and then, up up up, this light-winged butterfly fluttered, up into that now-sunny sky.  There are some moments when we are just meant to fly!



Chris's brother Pete, the officiant: Knoxville, May 10, 2014

Chris’s brother Pete, the officiant: Knoxville, May 10, 2014


Diana and her dad: Knoxville Botanical Garden, May 10, 2014

Diana and her dad: Knoxville Botanical Garden, May 10, 2014


The ceremony: Knoxville, May 10, 2014

The ceremony: Knoxville, May 10, 2014



Cam, father of the groom: Knoxville, May 10, 2014

Proud Cam, father of the groom: Knoxville, May 10, 2014


Shelly and Viren: Knoxville, May 10, 2014

Shelly and Viren: Knoxville, May 10, 2014



Chris and Diana: before leaving for their honeymoon, May 2014

Chris and Diana:
before leaving for their honeymoon: May 12, 2014











Mystery Trip, Part Two: A Wedding

Your heart and my heart are very, very old friends.  Hafiz

Eat on and on, you lovers, at Eternity’s Table.  It’s feast is forever, and spread out for you.  Rumi

The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty “yes!” to your adventure.  Joseph Campbell

The Mystery Trip continues.  And Istanbul still lives in us a week and a half later, a sense of the exotic, the smell of the sea, the tantalizing pull of the spice market.  And it was on our way to the spice market that we found ourselves a bit lost on winding cobblestone streets, or perhaps we weren’t lost at all as we wove our way into the wedding district.  It was there, among the stores selling yards and yards of white lace and colored ribbons and Turkish east-meets-west long flouncy bridal dresses and sultan-silky groom costumes in a tiny kiosk filled with wedding candles and centerpieces that we found a bag of party favors, little cardboard boxes of good-luck henna decorated with the Turkish evil eye and the words, “Masallah” — blessings for the bride and groom — and, on a whim, we bought it.  And we carried this bag home with us along with a dozen or so fake rose-bud wire-strung halos that were sold everywhere on the streets.  And we packed it all up again a few days ago and we carried it forward, these treasures from Turkey, into the next adventure, into a trip south this time, to Knoxville,Tennessee.

And that’s where we find ourselves on this Saturday morning, in Knoxville, where the air is thick and warm and sultry and the roses are in full bloom and the leaves are lush and green and the city is just beginning to wake up.  And we are already awake.  Today our son, Chris, is getting married.  And he and Cam are picking up the flowers grown on a local farm and his friends will join them at the arboretum where the ceremony will take place later in the afternoon and they will set up the chairs and the tables and they will finish stringing the lanterns in the 150 year-old-stone-walled greenhouse, while Diana, his fiancé, and her mother visit the salon to style their hair.  Although there are the lists of things to do, this wedding, with sixty or so guests, baby-young, and great-grandma wise, with friends and family who have traveled by car and plane from San Diego and Salt Lake, from Michigan and Virginia, from New Jersey and Georgia, from all over the country, to join those two in the place where they are finishing their  two-year post-docs, this wedding feels easy, this celebration light and joyous.

Chris has a buoyant spirit and he is good-hearted and it just seems right and natural that he would attract to himself someone with that same sense of buoyancy, and, indeed, he has.  It is easy to love Diana.  She, like Chris, plunges into life with an eagerness for the adventure.  She, the surfer, from San Diego, bought herself skis when she moved to Salt Lake for her Doctorate, and, with determination and grit and the desire to go for it, flew down those rugged Wasatch Mountains and into Chris’s heart.  And into our hearts as well.  She is brilliant and she smiles easily and she eats as voraciously as I do and she loves the outdoors and she loves to travel and she loves our son and we love her.  And the two of them have entered this mystery of relationship with this sense of buoyancy and adventure.

Two days ago, I met Diana’s parents and her family, and Diana’s mom and I bonded as we dipped our feet in warm bubbling water and received our very first pedicures.  And later she handed me a gift, a quilted market bag that she had made for me, and inside, was a hankie, inscribed with Chris and Diana’s initials and this day’s date.  And I’ll probably need it this afternoon, as I witness a ceremony that is authentic and hand-woven and is officiated by Chris’s brother, our other son, the English professor.  I’m sure many of us will feel overflowing with emotion as we witness these two entering the next phase of their mystery trip, but it won’t be a solemn affair.  I’m sure it will be as buoyant and light-hearted as our buoyant and light-hearted son and the buoyant and light-hearted woman that he is going to marry.


Strolling in Istanbul, Turkey:   April 2014

Strolling in Istanbul, Turkey:
April 2014


Helen and Cam on Bosphorus Strait

Helen and Cam on Bosphorus Strait


Chris and Diana and their boys

Chris and Diana and their boys









Mystery Trip, Part One: Call to Prayer

Something opens our wings.  Something makes boredom and hurt disappear.  Someone fills the cup in front of us.  We taste only sacredness.   Rumi

Absolute attention is prayer.  Simone Weil

Each morning before dawn, it woke me up as it wafted in through our open window.  A few of the five mornings, it was a distant sound mingling with my not-quite-awake dreams, and other mornings it was crisp and clear and it soaked in deeply.  I loved it when it was crisp and clear, this haunting and inviting song.  In a language completely foreign and strangely familiar, it transported me to a place inside myself that was big and ancient and mysterious.  It was the Call to Prayer — waking up the devout, calling them to their local mosques, calling them into their day, calling my husband Cam and I deeper into this week-long adventure we call our Mystery Trip.

Five times a day, somewhere in this sprawling city where east meets west, where Europe is bridged with Asia, where ancient mingles with modern, some person from the depths of his or her being sings out this full-bodied wholehearted call that is piped through speakers fastened to the mosques’ minarets, and the song he or she sings reaches us all, travelers and locals alike, and we are invited, in those moments, to slow down, to pause, to pray.  And this past week, as Cam and I adventured into the thirteenth year of taking turns surprising each other with a mystery trip anywhere in the world — this year, his turn to surprise me — it happened, this call through the airwaves, as we traipsed down the narrow cobbled streets and moseyed through the bazaars and ate our grilled-fish dinners in this grand city of Istanbul, Turkey.

One day, it happened as we stood in line in the plaza waiting to enter the Hagia Sophia, a structure built in 532 A.D. that was once a mosque and before that a church and retains and embraces it all, the elements of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, the Christian mosaics, the grand mandalas of the Muslims.  As Cam and I and the crowd of people moved forward toward the outdoor ticket office, there it was again, the song rising up above the blooming trees, this time with two voices singing back and forth, singing to each other, to all of us, to the blooming trees, to the air, to Allah, and it lifted us up and carried us inside this gigantic and inspiring building.  And it was a prayer for me, being inside the Hagia Sophia, walking on marble floors that have been traipsed upon for millennium, touching the carefully laid-out cut-stone walls, gazing up at the mosaic-designed dome that seemed to reach all the way to the heavens.  It was a prayer for me to be present in this Christian/Muslim sanctuary that was now a museum for all of us; it was a prayer for me to be smiling among all these smiling people in this magnificent place.

And it was a prayer for me later that evening to be present in a ceremony of the whirling dervishes.  I have loved the poems of the mystic Rumi since I was a young women, have read them as meditations, have shared them in yoga classes as quotes during the pauses between poses, have copied them into cards and sent them to friends and family.  And I knew that Rumi had lived in the 13th century somewhere in what is now the Middle East, but not until this trip, when, on Day One, I noticed the posters promoting the whirling dervishes did I realize that it was in Turkey that Rumi had grown up and had prayed and had spun himself ’round and ’round whirling his poems into the wind for us to catch hundreds and hundreds of years later. He was the original whirling dervish, and now his followers are still whirling themselves into enlightenment in a ceremony called the Sema.  And on this particular night, Cam and I attended such a ceremony, a deliberate and intimate ceremony performed by five men and accompanied by live music.  We sat in the front row of a small circular theater close enough to feel the breeze produced from their long white skirts as these men twirled and spun around the stage, their heads cocked to the right and topped with tall hats, their eyes closed, their faces so peaceful that it was mesmerizing.  I was mesmerized.  I was.  It wasn’t just a performance, something put on to impress us.  It was genuine.  And prayerful.  And Cam and I left the theater that evening, holding hands and feeling buoyant.

And we brought this buoyancy to dinner later that evening.  And isn’t that a prayer too?  Isn’t it a prayer to sit across from your beloved and feast on fresh-baked breads dipped into a plate of herb-infused olive oil, to bite into a salad of local greens and find the surprise of pomegranates bursting in your mouth, to photograph your filleted-and-grilled-sea bass sitting on a bed of sautéed spinach and drizzled with some sort of exotic sauce because you want to remember how beautiful it is forever.  Isn’t it all a prayer?!?  The figs stuffed with roasted walnuts, the apricots dotted with tiny almonds, the honey-sweetened desert that is rich and grainy and has been a staple since the time of the sultans.  Isn’t it a prayer to loosen your grip and release your smile, to feel happy and light and at one with your world?!?

The Blue Mosque: Istanbul, turkey, April 2014

The Blue Mosque:
Istanbul, turkey, April 2014


Pomegranates: Istanbul, Turkey, April 2014

Pomegranates: Istanbul, Turkey, April 2014


Cat in Bookstore: Istanbul, Turkey, April 2014

Cat in Bookstore: Istanbul, Turkey, April 2014


Spices: Istanbul, Turkey, April 2014

Spices: Istanbul, Turkey, April 2014


A glimpse of part of dome:Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, april 2014

A glimpse of part of dome: Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, April 2014

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