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Archive for September, 2014

Finding Your Way Home

My life is based on movement, and my challenge is to make home wherever I am.  Majka Burhardt

It happened every time.  We would be driving toward the center of town on Sixth Street past Eastside Park and the neighborhood of craftsman-style homes with sunflower-and-lavender-front-yards, up the gradual incline for several blocks until we crested the top of the hill, and that’s when he would say it.  Perhaps it was the white-steepled church that sat on a grassy lawn halfway down or the house next door with its purple trim, perhaps it was the hill itself that seemed so familiar.  I’m not sure what it was that acted as cue for my two-year-old grandson Viren, but just as the nose of my rental car would point itself down that steep decline, I would hear his voice pipe up from the carseat in the back. “Good-bye my home!” he would say.   And then as our car would dip past the white-steepled church, I’d catch a glimpse of him gazing down Jefferson Street and he would add, “I miss my home!” with what seemed like an ocean of longing.  And then it was over.  Just like that.  And we’d be at the bottom of the hill watching the cars and the trucks zoom by and we’d be looking forward to what was going to happen next in a  day filled with things that were going to happen next.

I’m sure that six weeks earlier, when Viren and his parents moved from the townhouse that sat a short distance down Jefferson Street from that white-steepled church into the 1960’s tri-level home several blocks away, Viren’s words and the feeling behind those words was genuine and deep.  And he still might have been feeling it deeply, this missing the comfort of the familiar a month-and-a-half later.  Who am I to say?  One thing I can say for sure is that his trampoline-like jump back to buoyancy was remarkable, that if he indeed still was feeling that hollow pit of “missingness”, he didn’t linger there.  In the blink of an eye, he was back in the moment, wide-eyed and eager and ready to play.

I thought of Viren’s buoyancy the morning after I flew back to my home in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula after a week of play in Moscow, Idaho.  I woke up in my own bed, in a house that I love with heart and soul, with the glimmer of sunlight flickering through sheer curtains and the pine-scented air blowing in.  And yet the pine-scented air didn’t seem quite as fresh as usual and the art on the walls, it didn’t shine with its familiar vibrancy.  I found myself mimicking him.  “Good-bye my home!” I said out loud.  “I miss my home!”  And there it was, the ocean of longing — and then the dry hollow feeling that is leftover when the tide recedes.   Lying in bed that morning, there was much that I was missing.  Not just my two-year-old grandson playmate, but his parents, too, and our other son and his wife who now live mere blocks away from the tri-level that Viren now calls, “New House”.  I was missing the sweetness of family in this sweet Idaho town that they are now calling home.

And that morning, Viren became my role model.  If he could make that trampoline leap into feeling better, I knew that I could too.  And I knew that hopping back on a plane and heading west to Idaho wasn’t going to fill this inner place of longing, nor would it help to head east to my roots, to Maine, a place I love with equal fervor.  I knew that finding my way back home wasn’t about an outer place at all,  that it was an inside job, that “home” was an abode within, somewhere beneath heartbeat and breath, a place where the door is always open and the hearth warm and inviting, a place available in any moment.  I also knew that, when I settle into that place, the outer world takes on a glimmer and a shimmer and everything seems more inviting to me.  And why would I want to cling to the missing, to a hollow empty feeling, when the glimmer and the shimmer and the appreciation for all that I had just experienced in Idaho and the eagerness for all that was present for me now was available by simply walking through that inner open door?

I’m not sure how Viren takes the journey back to that inner home when he’s feeling out of sorts.  I just know that it seems easy for him, that he doesn’t cling to the sad or the angry or the grudge.  Sometimes it is his trains, Thomas and the others, who sit on the table in “New House’s” family room that settle him into alignment, or something good to eat at the Co-op, or a jaunt to one of his favorite play areas.  He has his ways that are unique to him.  And I do too.  So that first morning back in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, in the house that has been my outer home for twenty-five years, I started right away, with my breath and my journaling and my puttering and my unpacking.  And through it all, I called on my greatest tool, an easy and powerful game that I play, one that brings me back into alignment every time.  It is the “I love” game.  And it is like inner honey filling up the hollow and the dry.  It is sweet and it is tangible and it is easy.

It is not possible to hold on to what you are missing when you filled  to the brim with love.  And there is always something that you can love.  There’s the fluffy white cat curled up in the crook of your arm, and there is the fridge downstairs filled with greens and cucumbers and summer squashes and peppers, an abundance of harvest that your husband has bought at the farmer’s market a few days earlier, and there is your husband himself who has vacuumed the house and cooked for you a pot of your favorite dried beans, and the birds at the feeder and the air that is smelling fresher now that you are filling yourself up with love, and there is the balsam tree and the giant white pines bordering the yard behind your house, and the memory of those tall western cedar, and the magic of it all, the here and the there and the everywhere.

And before I knew it, that first morning back, I was home again, really home, and I was singing a new tune.  “Hello, my home!”

Viren at Moscow Mountain: Idaho, early September 2014

Viren at Moscow Mountain: Idaho, early September 2014






Living in my own unfolding novel

She had a strange sense of time tucking inside itself, folding, dovetailing with minute precision.  Mair Ellis, character in Rosie Thomas’ novel, The Kashmir Shawl

Something emerges within you that is deeper than you thought you were.  Eckhart Tolle

I tucked myself in each night with a novel, a multi-layered story that swept through time and place and drew me into its pages with a delicious sense of intensity.  As I allowed the novel to carry me across the sea to Wales and then onto India, a part of me also stayed grounded right where I was, on this side of the Atlantic with the waves whooshing in and out again against the rocky coastline that hugged this cottage’s hedge of  lilies and freshly-mowed lawn.  And each night, before settling into my cozy bed and my good read, I opened the door to the deck and let the breeze blow in — I couldn’t get enough of it, the smell of the sea and the sound of the waves and this novel that I was hungrily devouring.

It was both an exotic treat and a habit, familiar from long ago, this nighttime ritual I followed while staying for a week at the cottage in mid-coastal Maine this past summer.  It is a short drive from this 1950’s-built Saltbox rental property, a mere two-and-a-half miles by car or foot to the land that my grandfather bought back in 1906, the land that included the farmhouse my cousin still calls home, and the spruce and balsam forest with its mossy ledges and the two coves and the point of land between and the cottage that sat at the head of one of those coves where I spent my childhood summers.  Tracing the shoreline by boat, past cottages and through the inlet called the Carrying Place and around the tip of Cap Point, its an even faster jaunt, the trail that links my present-day week of July evenings spent nestled under quilts reading a novel to my childhood summers at Fish House Cove.

Was it the sea breeze and the cozy bedtime ritual, familiar from childhood, or the deliciousness of immersing myself into the story that called to me each night?  I truly can’t say because it was all woven together into a transfixing whole.  It was only a few pages into the novel when I discovered that although the main character was Welsh and her ancestors’ stories were far different than the stories of my ancestors, there were similarities in the present moment where we, the protagonist and I, found ourselves.  The novel begins shortly after the protagonist’s fathers’ death with a bittersweet scene taking place at her childhood farmhouse in rural Wales, on land that has been in the family for generations, with the protagonist and her two siblings dividing up the property’s treasures as they prepare to sell the land to a local sheep herder.  I know what this is like, to gather with siblings and divide up possessions and let go of a piece of property that you have held dear forever.

And it was what happened next in this novel that sent shivers of excitement up my spine.  The protagonist finds, tucked in the bottom of her mother’s bureau, a shawl, an antique carefully-woven Kashmir shawl, and a lock of dark hair and an old black and white photo of three young women looking directly into the camera and laughing.  She is certain that her mother’s mother is one of the women in the photo and the Kashmir shawl must have been hers, too, from the time that she spent as a missionary’s wife in India in the years before the Second World War.  Thus begins the protagonist’s quest, a journey to find out the shawl’s story and to learn about this grandmother who she never knew that takes her to the high mountains and hill towns of northern India, a journey that mingles past and preset for the protagonist and for us the readers.  The grandmother’s-young-woman-story is presented in vivid details, weaving in and out of the protagonist granddaughter’s quest and creating a gorgeous panoramic view that seems to transcend time and space.

I closed the book each night with the taste of India on my tongue and a genuine love for these characters and a curiosity about how it was all going to unfold.  And then, as I turned out the light, there was the screen door rattling and the breeze and the damp smell of ocean and the weight of thick blankets, and then there was a faint sound of a bell-buoy and I was home again in this cottage that felt like home, drifting off to sleep and thinking to myself, “I’m living in my own unfolding novel!”

You see, past and present were mingling for me, too, not just because my childhood home was a few miles away, or because I found my adolescent wings while working at an inn a stone’s throw from this Saltbox gem, not just because it had almost seemed magical, too unbelievable and easy for the pages of a novel, the way that this cottage rental had found its way to me through three friendly strangers met over brunch at the local cafe.  There was more.   There were the family’s back stories, the ones lived out before my memories of family picnics and boat rides and and hikes along juniper-lined paths, stories as compelling to me as the ones that my novel’s protagonist and I were uncovering each night.  There was my grandfather, well-known artist who bought the family land, who lived and etched and painted in this town until he died in a car accident in 1925, grandfather more myth than real, until now, that is, when he was taking up whole chapters in my “novel”, the one that I found myself living in July.

It started a month earlier at my high school reunion, when a friend I hadn’t seen in forty years, an artist- historian-architect, took an interest in my grandfather, and my friend’s curiosities and his searchings were bringing my grandfather alive for him and for me, too.  I began to see my grandfather all fleshed-out, tall and rugged and at the helm of his sailboat or paddling his canoe with his artist tools in his leather suitcase protected somehow from the elements, heading out to an island to etch for the day, maybe to Ragged Island, the one that I could see, a month later, from my rental cottage’s deck.  In chapter’s woven between my present-day gatherings with siblings and cousins and jaunts to the beach during that week in Maine, my grandfather lived in the pages of my imagination’s novel, as did his two wives, the first who died in the 1918, and the second, my grandmother, as did his children, too.

We knew things as readers that the protagonist of my nighttime novel never knew, rich details of her grandmother’s bold and adventurous years as a young woman in India.  And that was okay.  The protagonist solved some mysteries, felt the love and the connection that was there, held dear to the stories that did come her way, and tied tender bows around those parts of the past that have counterparts in the present.  I am doing the same.

The Falka: etching by Ernest Haskell

The Falka: etching by Ernest Haskell




















The Queen of Fearless Comedy

Don’t follow any advice, no matter how good, until you feel as deeply in your spirit as you think in your mind that the counsel is wise.  Joan Rivers

What are people going to do?  Fire me?  I’ve been fired before.  Not book me?  I’ve been out of work before.  I don’t care.  Joan Rivers

I have no methods; all I do is accept people as they are.  Joan Rivers

I received a text last Thursday, mid-day, from my husband Cam, a brief four words:  “Sorry about Joan Rivers.”  I was in the midst of a week-long visit with our sons, their wives, and grandson, Viren, in Moscow, Idaho, and was sporadic at checking in on matters of popular culture.  Yet, I had kept up enough to know that Joan Rivers was in a precarious state, that she was hovering in limbo on life support.  And Cam, back at home in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, had kept up because he knew that Joan wasn’t just a celebrity icon to me, that I considered her a friend.  As corny as it sounds, I think that Cam considered her a friend as well.

We were kids in the sixties, too young to stay up past midnight for a glimpse of Joan stepping in as guest host for Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show, too young to witness her busting down gender barriers and breaking through humor ceilings with her outrageous uncensored over-the-top jokes.  Sure, I remember seeing her now and then during the seventies and eighties on television talk shows and in magazine photos, but this young version of Joan isn’t who Cam and I have befriended.  It’s the old Joan, the plastic-surgeried puffy-haired still-pretty-and-fashion-forward Joan who is as relentlessly and ruthlessly and lovingly funny as ever.  You see, we are Joan Rangers.

I was drawn in because of my love for fashion, but it was Joan who got me hooked, week after week, on Friday evenings.  It has been a ritual for Cam and I these past few years, the five mile walk on the Lakeshore Trail in Marquette, dinner at Sweetwater Cafe, and then the hour sprawled out in front of our TV watching of all things, Fashion Police.  I’m sure at first for Cam it was a husbandly thing to do, to watch what his wife wanted on a Friday evening, but soon, he too was engaged in the action.  How could you not be?!?  As Joan and her three fashion deputies gave us a run-down of the week in fashion, ticketing what they deemed disasters and awarding the-on-the-mark-in-their-eyes-successes, we found ourselves playing along, participating in such games as “Rack Report”, and “Guess Them From Behind”.  You could call it silly and superficial, and yet it left us energized and happy.  And it was Joan at the helm, always on the edge, always allowing that sea of funny and outrageous and unbridled and sometimes offensive to move through her, laughing at us all, laughing at herself, laughing with us all.  And we, the audience in the studio and the millions of people watching in our homes, we willingly and lovingly became the Joan Rangers, saluting with her, playing along with her, allowing ourselves to be outrageous too.

It is outrageousness that energizes me the most, and it is outrageousness that also terrifies me.  When the high school kids perform their improv at Joy Center, my heart beats fast in my chest and I sit on the edge of my seat and I wonder what will come out of their mouths next.  And on some level, I pray that they won’t pick me to be in one of their skits, and, on another level, I pray that they will pick me.  It is brave to allow what is inside of us to find its way onto the page or onto the stage or into the workplace or into our art or into a conversation with a friend or a stranger.  It is brave to be unbridled.  And it is freeing, to let it rip, to let yourself play that fully.  A few years ago, the next morning after an improv workshop at Joy Center, I found myself laughing out loud as I walked around the neighborhood, out loud to myself the way the critical part of me would envision a crazy woman laughing, and I didn’t care if I looked crazy.  I think I was remembering how funny and outrageous we all were the night before, remembering the silly and irreverent and ridiculous things we’d said and done, but it was more than that; something visceral was happening inside of me.  I was feeling free.  Freed up.  When we allow ourselves to let go of what others think, when we release our inhibitions, when we say what it is on our minds and act what is in our hearts, it is pure Source that flows through us.  And it feels good.  And sometimes it feels funny.

One day, a few years ago, in the beginning of my Fashion Police friendship with Joan, I googled her and found a quote that touched me deeply.  She said that she had always wanted to sing gloriously or act with the skill of Meryl Streep, but those weren’t the genes she was given; she was given the funny gene.  And by God, she played it.  In the few days before the procedure that led to her passing, she was still playing it, publicly, outrageously, funnily.  Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?!?  To get out there on the stage of our lives and play, play what we’re given to play, full-out and free.  I, a Joan Ranger, salute you, Joan!

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