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My Sister

Happiness is not ready-made.  It comes from your own actions.  Dalai Lama

Dare to live full the one precious life that is yours.

I want to tell you a story, one close to my heart.  My sister entered hospice a few weeks ago.  She plans to die at home in the apartment in Connecticut she shares with her husband of twenty-two years.  But this isn’t a story about dying.  This is a story about living.  My sister is a buoyant soul.  Her name is Auralie.  It was a hard name to own as a girl in the sixties when Sally and Nancy and Lynn and Sharon were the norm in our New England town.  More often than not, it was mispronounced in a myriad of comical ways at swim meets when she would step up to the block to compete in the distance events that were her specialty.  We would laugh and she would take it in stride because she was a good sport.  But I don’t think she realized until she was an adult how appropriate a gift our mother gave to her at birth with this name that shines bright with the word “aura”.  Auralie is funny and fun and competent and creative — a potter, a weaver, a seamstress extra-ordinaire — and her aura is a powerful beam of light that uplifts those around her.

And now, as her body loosens its hold, as her voice, that was always boisterous and hearty, weakens and slows its tempo, as she settles into the letting go of this physical world, her aura still is beaming that light.  And this story I am sharing with you shines of Auralie’s aura, and of a generosity between cousins.  It was in the midst of the pandemic, before Easter, after some medical tests, that Auralie heard the news, that things had worsened and spread and the prognosis was months to live.  Her doctor, who had become close, was flustered when he made this dire pronouncement, told her that he always wore a tie, never had forgotten, but on this day, in the midst of a pandemic and having to tell her this, he was tieless and vulnerable.  Of course, Auralie and her husband were devastated that day in early April; we all were.  But she couldn’t stay dimmed for long, especially when sharing with someone who is probably her best friend.  “I’m going to buy him a tie!” Auralie exclaimed to our cousin, when relating the whole story.  And our cousin replied, “I can do better than that; I can send you a whole box of them.”

You have to understand that Auralie and our cousin bonded early.  Our mother, a widow, with two young children, re-married in the mid-fifties.  And, it was at the wedding, while eyeing that amazing cake and soaking in the sea of happiness, that these two four-year-old girls, born within six weeks of each other, one the daughter of the bride, the other, the niece of a beloved uncle who was the groom, became fast friends with a love of cakes and joyful celebration.  And during the next few summers, before our parents built their own cottage in the cove on the other side of the point, the cousins lived within a holler of each other, our family in the old saltwater farmhouse and Karen’s family on top of the granite hill in the lodge that was once the main building of our family’s summer camp.  Though I was a baby and toddler during this time and can’t remember specifics, I’ve heard stories of their back and forth message-sending, their sharing of candy and cookies, their romps in the woods.  Our father named his bright red lobster boat “The Auralie” and the cousin-shared boat rides were filled with salty spray and sea sparkle and boisterous loud fun.  And later, I witnessed their exuberance first-hand.  During the school year, we lived in town; our cousin’s family lived in the country, and, many a night, our cousin spent with us in our rambling sea captain’s home.  I remember Auralie and our cousin’s laughter, their escapades and cookie-making, their bumping down our long winding staircase on their bottoms, their secret language that a younger sister could only observe from the outside.  I want you to know I have my own Auralie stories, an ocean of them — our sister-friendship is remarkable and the five-year-gap in our ages didn’t stop us from being the best of friends growing up.  But this is about our cousin.  And Auralie.  And their friendship.  I’m sure their stories also can fill an ocean and their bond has lasted through all these decades of living.

And there are the ties.  In her twenties, our cousin married her beloved Dane who was a generation older, and their marriage, immersed in home on their tidal river in Maine and travel to his native Scandinavia, was deep and true and filled with creativity and spanned over four decades until his passing a year ago.  “I have a whole box of John’s ties,” my cousin told Auralie, and Auralie shared this with me in a phone call three weeks ago before hospice, before her voice became weak, before confusion began to set in.  “I’m going to give them to my doctor when I see him on Wednesday.”  And a week later, when I next spoke to her, while walking on my favorite two-track on a sunny May morning with spring breaking through the long wintery cold-streak in northern Michigan, Auralie’s voice, though slower, softer, was also sunny as she told me of care packages, how our cousin had sent Fig Newtons, their childhood favorite.  “What about the ties?” I asked.  “Did you give your doctor the ties?”  “Yes!” she replied, her aura shining through.  “I did!”  “What did he say?”  That’s when she told me, “He tucked his head and he cried!”

Later, on that same walk, I called our cousin, told her what Auralie had just told me.  “I think your friendship is amazing,” I said, my voice faltering with the truth of it all.  And she replied, “I think your sister is amazing, to scheme of gifting her doctor a tie, to find humor and delight in the midst of sadness.”  So there you have it.  My sister is amazing.  And so is our cousin.  And the sparkle in an exuberant person is a resilient thing.  That afternoon, under the brilliant blue sky of early May, while standing next to that largest of lakes, I handed my husband a crystal and he held it in his palm for a moment, then called out, “for Auralie!” and tossed it into the harbor.  We watched it plunk into the water, watched it begin to sink, watched it for what seemed like a very long time as it spun and sparkled and finally found its way down into the depths beyond our reach.

When sailing uncharted waters adapt and innovate.  Arthur Ainsburg

My destination is no longer a place, rather a new way of seeing.  Proust

We all have a hungry heart, and one of the things we hunger for is happiness.  So, as much as I possibly could, I stayed where I was happy.  Mary Oliver

 

I

My sister-in-law scrounges the beach for sea glass, places wave-smoothed pieces in a pocket or bag.  Her eye is keen.  Her appetite hearty.  She knows which colors are most valued, knows the stories behind shards of pottery, has been collecting for years.  And now that she and my younger brother have moved back to coastal Maine, our family property is her favorite hunting ground, and, during this time of social distancing, it is the hike out through the pine and balsam forest to Sister Point and the hours spent on the Point’s ledges and shell beach that bring her a sense of peace and safety.  “Helen,” she texts, “we found sea-worn stoppers to two antique bottles!  And a couple of days in a row, marbles, old-fashioned glass marbles have washed up to shore.”  In this cocoon space of letting go of familiar routines, this time of limiting our world to home and neighborhood walks, there are treasures to be had, treasures that flow in with the tides to the shores of our own lives.  We just need to soften our eyes in order to discover them.

II

“Leave what you can.  Take what you need.”

On my daily walks, I pass the card table set up at the end of a neighbor’s driveway, drop off two packages of Annie’s Macaroni and Cheese, peruse the nonperishable items left by others.  Bottles of ketchup and mayonnaise stand next to a four-pack of paper towels.  Packages of pasta mix, baby food, a bag filled with children’s winter hats — they are all lined up, carefully displayed.  It is has become our neighborhood country store, our metaphoric beach to scrounge, and each day there is something new that the tide brings in.  I’ve been tempted by the Bettie Crocker Blueberry Muffin Mix.  I love muffins and I love blueberries and it would be a treat, all right, but I heed the sign that says, “Take what you need.”  Some little kid is going to appreciate those muffins more than me, and, besides, it is the table itself, set out with such generosity and inspiration that satisfies my appetite, and the broad smiles of neighbors as they add their items to the store’s merchandise, and the knowing that the friend who generated this brilliant idea takes bags of what is left at the end of each week to feed more little kids who are self-distancing and hungry like the rest of us.

III

My husband and I always seem to be hungry.

We buy a whole chicken at the co-op.  A whole chicken!  I, the almost-always-vegetarian, hardly ever eat chicken, perhaps once a year, but we’ve been thinking about it for weeks, since a dear friend in Maine texted a photo of the chicken she roasted on a bed of root vegetables.  You’d think it is Christmas or Thanksgiving, the way we fuss over our chicken, stuff it with cloves of garlic, lemon, salt and pepper, the way we slather its surface with butter, tie its legs together with string, lay it on the bed of chopped fennel, beets, carrots, potatoes, whole peeled shallots, the way we splash on the olive oil, and ever so carefully place the pan with all its fixings in the oven to roast.  We pour love into that chicken.  That’s what I want to tell you, that we have the time now to be careful, mindful, loving as we prepare our food.  We, my husband and I, have been home together, just the two of us, for seven weeks now, since I returned from visiting the kids and grandkids in Idaho, since he broke his femur in a mountain bike accident the evening my plane touched down in Marquette County.  And when I say we’ve been home, I mean home, really home in our house, cocooned.  Time has opened up for us and food has never tasted so good.  Oranges and grapefruits and kiwis, greens grown in hoop houses in our Northern Michigan county and delivered to a drop-off site once a week, pancakes for breakfast drizzled with syrup from maple trees tapped during this cocoon time by a friend who lives close by, homemade soups for lunch, suppers that fill our plates to overflowing, a banana cake that I, who haven’t baked in years, mix up and prepare for a finale after our feast of roasted chicken.  Yes, we are almost always hungry, and we have remembered that food is essential and can bring us pleasure.

IV

We are not the only ones who are hungry.

In the gray dusk of a cold April evening, I scoop the sunflowers seeds and the oats into two cut-off plastic jugs, carry my offerings into our yard that borders a thicket of trees and a small marshy swamp.  I fill the feeders, scatter seeds on the ground, then turn back toward the house, and, as I do so, I peek around to see three of them trotting up the hill from where they had been lurking among the white pines and birches, on this side of the marshland.

For all the years of our marriage, we have fed the birds from two feeders and a small cage filled with suet.  And yes, the gray squirrels — a family of them with tiny white ears– and the red squirrels, and a bunny who finds haven under our deck also eat the seeds we pour into the feeders and the leftovers we scatter on the ground beneath.  And I want you to know that we didn’t intend on feeding them, too, the herd of deer who have spent the cold months at the edge of our neighborhood, in the borderlands between wilderness and domesticity.  And yet, the past few winters, hard on us all, have stretched long into April, and the deer have joined the backyard menagerie.

And now, I am cozy in the warmth of our home, over by the window, looking out into the yard.  The doe and her two fawns, the button-buck and his sister, have circled around the feeder, their black noses almost touching each others’s as they cock their heads to the side, as they stick their pink tongues out long, as they lick the feeder for seeds.  And a cowbird sits on the feeder’s rim, too, not budging from its perch, the four of them nourishing themselves in this wintery moment on an evening during the spring of our cocoon.

V

I hear a Vwump.  It is a sound I know well, one that doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I cringe.  A bird has hit the bay window in the kitchen, probably one from the flock of juncos flitting from tree branch to feeder to deck-post to tree branch to feeder.  I scramble over to the window, see a tiny feather stuck to the pane, run into the living room to get a better look out to the deck still covered in mid-April snow.  And there it is, sweet and tiny, the black junco with the white belly, just sitting there, legs a little splayed, looking dazed.  I think it might be blinking its eyes.  And I claim a moment, just a moment to decide whether to go out and pick it up.  And that’s when it happens, in that single moment, with me, still looking at that tiny junco.  A hawk — a hawk! — wings spread wide darts down faster than I can even think and scoops up that junco in its talons from our back deck — from our back deck! — and is gone, gone before I can even catch my breath.  And when I do, I scream.  No, I don’t.  I holler.  That’s not right either.  I howl.  I howl to my husband, to the hawk, to nobody and to everybody.  I howl for that tiny black junco with the white belly.

VI

I know how to howl.  I know how to howl when I’m upset or angry or scared.  And I know that more than 60,000 people have died these past weeks of a virus sweeping across our country, know there is sadness and sickness and fear and people who are truly hungry and don’t have money for chicken dinner feasts, and I know that hawks are hungry too and their hunger can show up in my very own space.  And I do howl sometimes, wild and loud like the wolves.  But the thing is, howling is cathartic and freeing and I can’t stay upset when I’m howling like that.  So I howl out my sadness, my anger, my fear, and then I sing and I dance and I have compassion, and happiness bubbles up and that’s what I want to tell you — this morning, I woke up happy.

VII

My husband and I have been married for forty-three years.  And it astounds me to think of it now, that, until our hunkering in time almost two months ago, unless we have been traveling, I have rarely woken up before him, even on weekends.  For those forty-three years, five days a week, his alarm has sung out at six in the morning and he has sprung up and out of bed on automatic pilot, still half asleep.  Last summer, during a hike on our favorite two-track, he shared with me that he wondered whether he really was an early morning person.  Well, now he knows.  We both know.  As I lie in bed journaling and writing e-mails to friends, he is curled up beside me, making puff puff breathing noises, fast asleep.  He seems to feast on sleep, this deep rest he’s receiving in the cocoon of our home.  And when he awakens to the east sun flickering through the trees and into our bedroom or to the wind whistling against the house or to me gently nudging him, he is satiated by sleep.  And I feast on it too, the slow waking up, the warmth of a partner, the luxury to visit as we start our day.  It is a gift that the tide of this unique time has carried into shore for us, a gift we didn’t know we were hungry for, one that has filled us with satisfaction.

VIII

I could eat the whole sky today.  It is almost May and the weather has shifted.  And it is sunny and the breeze blows in from the south and the sky is blue, true blue, blue from horizon to horizon and there is nothing but blue.  I have never seen a sky like this.  Not once in my whole life.  There are no clouds, no pale half-moon, and no streaks.  That’s what makes this different.  There are no criss-cossed lines, no dashes of white, no familiar rumbling-sound breaking up the impossibly-blue of this blue sky.  The airplanes are parked and quiet.  And, on this neighborhood walk in late April, I want to engulf it, all this blue, want my cells to swim in this uninterrupted sea of blue, want to spread myself out in it too, become one with this wide space that surrounds me.  It has done something to me, witnessing it, embodying it, feeling its spaciousness.  I point it out to neighbors as they pass by in their family units.  “Look at the sky,” I exclaim, “at all this blue.”  I don’t want to forget it.  And yet, there is something else brewing too, on this spring-like day when two crocuses are blossoming in our garden of melting snow and the weather has shifted and I’m walking into the soft breeze.  I can almost taste it blowing in with the breeze.  I’m hungry, not just for this moment where I’m eating the sky.  I’m hungry for the smell of the sea and the point of land that is my ancestral true north and the people I love on the coast of Maine.  And I’m hungry too for the prairie land of northern Idaho and the ponderosa pines and the forest of tall cedars where the quiet is holy and fragrant and unyielding, hungry to be present with my kids, to hold my grandkids, to play unfettered, no FaceTime in sight.  And as I walk along through quiet streets, as I pass the card table of generosity — our metaphoric beach set up for scrounging — I know, that for today, this is where I choose to be, right here, on the ground in this neighborhood where I have lived for over thirty years, greeting new and old friends as we pass each other under this sky, this blue clear unstreamed sky.

 

The Generosity Table that Tanya Marra Allen has set up in her driveway by the street during this time of self-distancing: Spring, 2020

 

Our chicken dinner feast: April, 2020

 

The deer at our feeder: 2020

 

The guy with the broken femur, walking without his cane in Marquette’s Lower Harbor: mid-April, 2020

 

First blossoms in front yard garden: Late April, 2020

Transformation

We delight in the beauty of the butterfly but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.  Maya Angelou

Personal transformation can and does have global effects.  As we go, so goes the world, for the world is us.  The revolution that will save the world is ultimately a personal one.  Marianne Williamson

“I’ll be back in the beginning of May, for the Ren Fair.”  I practically sang those words a month ago to my two oldest grandkids, who, at four-and-a-half and seven-and-a-half, can comprehend about how long it is between my evenly-spaced visits.  And, in the beginning of March, it seemed perfect, to plan my next trip out west to coincide with Moscow, Idaho’s Renaissance Fair, a rousing three-day celebration of spring’s return.  Moscow, a small college town in northern Idaho’s panhandle and home to our sons and their families, doesn’t hold back at this annual festival of merriment held in the largest of their city parks.  There’s a huge May Pole and May Pole dances, and art booths and face-painting booths and booths selling garlands of flowers to wear in your hair.  There are stations of food and drink, a stage set up with live music and dancing, and haystacks surrounding it to sit upon when you just want to soak it in.  There are llamas and goats and ponies to ride and fairy wings to strap on when you feel like fluttering above the crowds and fairy dresses and tie-dyed shirts and costumes galore and a huge paper mache dragon with a snarling head that weaves its way in and out of the milling people fueled by the tiny feet of a line of little kids.  It is as if the world busts free in Moscow, Idaho after the dark months of winter and the unpredictability of early spring into a blossoming fluttering pollen-laden joyously-raucous song and dance of newly-imagined possibility.  “Of course, I’ll be back for the Ren Fair,” I told the kids.

And I meant it a month ago.  And then things changed, things shut down, almost immediately after I flew home to Upper Michigan.  A virus swept across the sea and the land, and we, the people of this earth, were required to go inward, to spin ourselves cocoons of safety, to ride out this early spring storm from our home-spun shelters, no buying tickets for the next trip west, no planning ahead, no holding on to the way things used to be.

In early August, in the small wild garden that nestles up to Joy Center’s entry, the butterfly weed blooms bright with orange clusters of flowers.  This past year, these plants began to look chewed up, ragged — and the culprits were right there, present in plain sight, plump and perky and black and yellow zebra-striped.  Caterpillars were devouring the leaves, and becoming more plump by the day.  I never found the cocoons they later spun, but one sunny Sunday at the end of the month, Cam and I stopped at Joy Center to water the plants, and there they were.  Two of them.  One fluttering above the coneflower, the wild onion, the sunflowers, the other spread out in the sun on the paved walkway.  Two wide-winged and brilliant and brand-new monarch butterflies.  We were present for there arrival, the one on the walkway just drying its wings, still unable to fly.  It felt like a miracle.  How could it be that those plump zebra-striped caterpillars transformed into something so different, so light-filled, so expansive?

And I think about the monarchs now and wonder whether there is something for us to learn as we settle into our own hand-spun cocoons.  It’s just a guess, but I’m thinking that caterpillars hunker into their protective casings and allow the next stage to happen, with no resistance, no trying to hold on tight to their caterpillarness.  And I’m guessing that they have nourished themselves for this journey, taken as good care as possible as they embark on their transformation into butterflyhood.  And I also am thinking that they don’t try to figure it all out, where a wing will sprout, a leg will grow.  They just let it happen.  I see that for us now, that this is a time to nourish ourselves, to sink into the slower pace of the cocoon, to just allow the transformation to take place as we listen to what feels right and good in the moment, what opens our hearts and brings a lightness to our spirits.    In the deepest part of me, when it is time to break free from our cocoons, I sense we all will be changed.  I sense that the changes will be a good thing, that we will be lighter, more loving, more expansive, our world more connected.  But how can I — how can any of us — from inside a cocoon know exactly what this world will look like, what we will look like?  It’s not time to know.  It is time to be exactly where we are, safe in our cocoon homes, in the in-between time.

And when we do bust free of this protective covering, perhaps there will be dancing in the streets and live music and fairy wings we can strap on and little kids fueling paper mache dragons and raucous laughter and booths filled with art and food and garlands of flowers to wear in our hair.  Perhaps we won’t have to plan it.  Perhaps it will just happen.

Joy Center monarchs: late August 2019

 

Where the north wind meets the sea  There’s a mother full of memory  Come, my darling, homeward bound  When all is lost, then all is found    lyrics All is Found, Frozen II

I lost it last night.  I think I’d been teetering on the edge all day, nearly three weeks into Cam’s broken femur, two weeks into all of our lives being uprooted.  I felt it yesterday, the need for time alone, a day with nobody home but me, the usual kind of day back when things weren’t topsy turvy, when I could write and putter and drive into Marquette for errand-shopping, then ski to my heart’s content into the early evening while Cam prepared for bike riding or his own after-work projects, and, perhaps, after the ski, a plunge into a Joy Center event that was certain to bolster my creativity and set my spirit soaring.

So last night, at the end of the new kind of day I am living, after a bountiful supper — because we are eating bountiful suppers — as the sun sunk over the neighborhood homes, Cam and I settled into our new evening routine, a few hours of television-watching, either Antique Roadshow or a Netflix murder mystery or maybe, just maybe, a movie that seemed perfect for the night at hand.  It happened last night, for me, the perfect movie presenting itself.  As I flipped through Movies on Demand, I noticed Jane Austen’s Emma was available, a movie that should have been at the cinemas right this minute, with me sitting center stage watching.  I lit up.  I felt a treat in the works.  And then Cam saw the price and he freaked.  Twenty dollars for a movie we are watching on our television in our own living room.  He was stormy.  He was adamant.  It was too much money.  Now you have to understand, Cam was probably teetering on the edge all day too, dealing with his own upside down world.  And Cam certainly is not the boss of the TV controller or the house or me.  We have worked hard over the years to be equal partners in this relationship that constantly is being recreated.  But in that moment, I couldn’t take it.  I felt like a kid whose last toy had been yanked away.  No flowers on my kitchen bay window.  No friends to play with in person.  No chocolate.  Or oranges.  No Superior Culture kombucha. No Friday night fish taco dates with my guy.  No Cam walking briskly by my side on the bike path or able to do the things he does that make my life easy.  No No No.  I burst out crying and I couldn’t stop.  My inner dam had broken and I couldn’t halt the flood.  The weird thing was that I also was witnessing the whole scene, thinking to myself quite objectively that I must need this release, and knowing deep down, things are just as they are meant to be.  That’s the thing about this time we’re living through — we can know that there is something big going on, that we, as a global people, are softening, opening our hearts, finding kindness and generosity and connection.  We can know that the world is changing and will continue to change for the better.  And at the same time, we are allowed to grieve our losses, even if they seem petty in the grand scheme of things.

My four-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter lives from her beautiful heart, doesn’t need a global pandemic to remind her to shine her brilliant light out into this world, to charge ahead unbridled.  And on my last visit to Idaho three weeks ago, it was Elsa and Anna and Frozen II that were sparking her passion.  Many a day she requested her mother sweep her long blonde wavy hair to the side and twist it in a thick Elsa-like braid.  And by the time I was visiting, she had mastered the words to all the songs from both Frozen movies, and I found myself singing the songs along with her.  I was struck by the song she belted out most often, the one closest to her heart in the moment, a haunting ballad, All is Found.  It is not an easy song to sing, lilting high and changing rhythm then flowing like a river, but she gave it her all while I was visiting, in the early morning and before bed, while walking down the country road by her house, in the car on the way back from a Sunday ski expedition.  Her hands on her heart, her arms sometimes wrapping around her four-year-old-body, her passion, deep and soulful, was contagious.  Three weeks ago, when the virus was just a slight dot on the map in our country, the last stanza of this song already was feeling profound to me. “When all is lost, then all is found.”

That is what I want to tell you, that most of the time, I am not grieving my losses.  I may not have fresh flowers on the kitchen bay window, but I’ve cut lilac twigs from a backyard tree and the green leaves are unfolding in a tall vase in the living room now as I write.  Even though there is no dark chocolate in the house, we have homemade blueberry sauce, an awesome accompaniment to any treat.  Cam and I both love to cook, love good food, and, in our busy before-self-distancing, before-broken-femur lives, rarely had time on weeknights to create the feasts that have now become a daily ritual.  We are texting more often with both families in Idaho, all of us together, and Face-timing with grandkids, and Cam and I are spending precious time just being together.  From car, both of us wave more profusely and smile more broadly, to neighbors and strangers as they drive or walk by us.  And I treasure the six-feet-apart visits with neighbors and strangers on walks in the fresh air.  And I treasure the fresh air.  And I treasure that our beloved food co-op is doing everything it can to keep employees and shoppers safe, and food seems to multiply as Cam and I use every bit of everything in our creations.  And our neighbors are plastering windows and doors with cheerful hearts to remind each other that we are connected, that we are in this together, even as we self-distance, even as we let go of things in our old lives we held dear.  I’m closing my eyes now and envisioning my granddaughter singing with heart and utter sincerity those final words to a song that is a ballad for our time.  “When all is lost, then all is found.”  And tonight, Cam and I have a Friday date — we’re watching Emma.

The holiday wreath is finally gone and yesterday, I decorated our front door with hearts created by each of our grandkids and sent over a month ago for Valentine’s Day.

 

 

Enchantment

The world is full of magic patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.  W.B.Yeats

Life’s enchanted cup sparkles near the brim.  Lord Byron

I saw partridge tracks this morning pressed into the snowy crust on Joy Center’s driveway, and the paw prints of a single fox, and the tiny trail of a mouse or vole scittered across the walkway.  Even though events at Joy Center have been postponed for a while, it felt as though our beloved cottage-sanctuary was being cared for by the animal friends who feel safe in the woods that surround it.  In the years before I dreamed Joy Center into being, even then, I called that piece of property Fairy Land and felt a pull to its mossy and pine needle carpet, its balsams and pines, and the raspberry bushes along the ridge.  And when I breathe deeply enough and allow myself to be immersed in the moment, maybe on a ski or a hike or an amble in nature, maybe in a group of people sharing from their hearts, maybe alone writing or reading or stretching in yoga, maybe at Joy Center, when I’m really present, the whole of the world can feel enchanted, a fairy land shimmering with light.  In this time of self-distancing, of physical isolation, of fear that is palpable if you choose to taste it, I don’t want to lose this ability to see the world through eyes that are enchanted.

Several times a week, I listen to the podcast series, Beyond the Ordinary, hosted by John Burgos. A few days ago, an intuitive guest was sharing a prayer for our planet, one she had written with the help of her nonphysical guides and angels — and someone else, Walt Disney. That’s right, Walt Disney had come to her with a strong message stating that we need our enchantment now, more than ever.  I have to say, as surprising as it was to consider Walt Disney as a guide for us at this time, I found comfort in the notion.  It brought me back to childhood Sunday evenings, our whole family hunkered together in our rumpus room, bowls of popcorn or cereal in hand, watching as our black and white TV suddenly burst alive with fairy dust and magical-talking animals and a wise mustachioed man introducing us to The Wonderful World of Disney.  I don’t want to forget that I have a choice, that I can follow Walt Disney’s lead, that I can open my eyes to the enchantment that surrounds me, that is within me, even now, especially now, during this challenging time.

I don’t want to push aside magical moments, moments that have the power to transform if I allow them to soak in deeply.  During my eight-day visit with kids and grandkids in Idaho in early March, I had the honor to spend time alone with each of the four grandkids, as well as time embracing the hustle the bustle the glorious chaos of the whole buoyant bunch. Magical moments were bountiful, with all four beloved little ones, and now, three weeks later, I’m remembering a particular twenty minutes of enchantment I spent with my almost-three-year-old  granddaughter, a blond-haired blue-eyed elfin.  She’s the one who never babbled, not exactly, before finding her way to exceptional full English-language sentences.  Instead, as a baby and toddler, she chortled and warbled in a melodic bird-like call.  It was something to behold.  And somehow, this granddaughter, who speaks so clearly, so fluently, began this chortling during my recent visit.  And I began to chortle back to her.  And we proceeded to communicate in this language that had inflection and melody and something that felt like meaning just beyond my adult comprehension.  I wondered whether we might be speaking in the language of fairies. At any rate, it felt profound and fun, and then it was over, and we were back to the everyday, ordering green smoothies at the local juice bar and chatting about my very dirty car back in Michigan.

I know I can focus on what has the potential to scare me — and there is much in the news to weigh a person down — or I can focus on what delights me.  For years, Cam and I have consistently fed the birds from a backyard feeder, and, early this winter, the deer joined the finches, the chickadees, the red and gray squirrels in munching on sunflower seeds.  First it was a mother and her twin fawns, and then a another mother and fawn.  We began scattering the seeds on the ground.  And now, it is a tribe, at least twice a day, that fill up our back yard with their antics.  We know many of them personally.  There is the young injured buck with the black mop of fur on his head, the doe with the fur scraped off her back, several mothers and fawns.  When the evening light shines on them, they become ablaze and the scene is our own version of The Wonderful World of Disney.

So I’m hunkering in during this time of self-isolation, eating well, nourishing body and soul as best I can, but I’m not closing myself off, from the kids and grandkids on FaceTime and phone, from the neighbors six feet away as we walk the streets by our homes, from family and friends who e-mail and text often and thoughtfully, from strangers I hold dear in my heart, from the deer in the backyard and the first sprigs of crocus breaking through snow, from the enchantment that is present in each and every moment if I breathe deeply enough and open to its magic.

 

My friend Gala on the bike path in Marquette, March 2020

Our deer friends helping themselves to bird feed at our backyard March 2020

A snowman I came upon in the woods at Al Quaal, Ishpeming, Michigan, March 2020

The return of spring, time of holy equality.  The landscape is still winter rough and wind-blown.  Walk outside and feel the raw possibility.  The world is made of stories, and we need to change the narrative.  Poised in the season’s symmetry, ask: what does another world look like?   Oak Chezar  WeMoon Calendar 2020

 

It has become a tradition for my seven-and-half-year-old grandson and me.  Each time I visit our kids and grandkids in Moscow, Idaho, my grandson and I claim a night together at La Quinta Motel.  It started six years ago, one evening, as I was saying my good-byes to him and his mom and dad before leaving their small townhouse to make my way to the motel, when, all of a sudden, he toddled to the door, clutched my leg and began to point emphatically at his coat, insisting on coming with me.  I’m not sure if it’s the freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies the staff offers us, the excitement of a big screen TV or our special time together that has kept this tradition alive, but he and I have carried it forward and into my most recent visit west two weeks ago when we found ourselves once again sharing our La Quinta overnight. After unpacking our books and pajamas, I set off for the bathroom.  I had a project.  That day at the Co-op, I had splurged on locally-made facial products, firming facial toner, nectar serum, brightening eye cream,  overnight moisturizer for mature skin. “I may look younger when I come out!” I announced to my grandson before shutting the door.  “It’s going to be exciting!” I added.  Though it was exciting to care for my sometimes-neglected skin, I had been joking.  And I thought he knew it.  But when I opened the door, he walked up close, looked at me carefully for what seemed like a long while.  And then he pronounced with the utmost of sincerity, “Grandma, you look the same!”

I tell you this, not only because I love my grandson, his honesty, his heart that always seems to be open, his ability to not give a rip what a face looks like; I also share this snippet from my recent Idaho trip because sometimes change takes time and transformation in process doesn’t look like change at all.  It is now two weeks later and I honestly think my skin might seem a bit healthier, my under-eyes a bit brighter, and, ultimately, it’s not that important to me.  On this first day of spring, a day where it is rain-snowing and gray-skied and not that spring-like at all, what is important to me is to remember that transformation is taking place, deep inner transformation.  As we all hunker in for a while, as we practice what we now call social-distancing, as it seems that our towns and cities have screeched to a complete stop, change is in the air.  Beneath this seeming stand-still, the earth is waking up.  There is a thrumming, drumming, pulsating, health-producing dance taking place under the surface.  The trees feel it  — the sap is beginning to rise.  The animals feel it — the red squirrels are chasing each other up and down the back yard white pine.  And we will feel it too, this waking up, if not now, soon.  What raw possibilities are rising in me? I wonder.  And in you?  What new narratives do I want to tell myself as I awaken to my inner springtime?  What new narratives do you want to tell yourself?  And as a culture, as a world so deeply connected to each other, so deeply a part of this waking earth, what new narratives do we want to spread across the cities and towns, the mountains and seas of this beloved planet that we call our home?

Moscow, Idaho, early March 2020

May blessings outnumber the shamrocks that grow, and may trouble avoid you wherever you go.  Irish Blessing

On this sunny, windy-brisk October mid-morning, we almost refused to buy the walking sticks sold at mountain’s foot, near a statue of St. Patrick.  It’s not that we didn’t feel the sacredness of this one-day pilgrimage up and down Croagh Patrick; my friend Mary and I, still in the first week of an Ireland immersion, were eager to climb the ancient path in the footsteps of pilgrims who have been doing so for millennia.  It just didn’t appear that high or that difficult, not like trails we both had experienced through the Rockies or Alps or Pyrenees in Spain, and, besides, for two women in our sixties, we were in pretty good shape.  However, our salesperson was persuasive.  There was no merriness in his Irish lilt; just concern.  We could break an ankle or a leg or take a terrible topple, he warned, so we relented, each of us paying the equivalent of five dollars, and, with walking sticks in hand, began our journey up the well-marked path.  And we were right.  Crough Patrick is not as high as those Rockies in our country’s west.  And our walking stick salesman, he was right too.  We needed the extra support.  This well-marked, well-trodden trail was a challenge from the get-go — wobbly boulders, often wet, sat in the midst of the trail.  And, as morning, tipped into afternoon, as we made our way toward the summit, the trail became a bed of loose shale-like rock, nothing but loose rock.  We leaned on our sticks.  We placed one foot gingerly down to see if the ground felt stable, then placed the other, never releasing our hand-carved wooden support system.  At one point, we crawled our way up a particularly steep shale incline, clutching the sticks as if they were our life blood.  And then, there we were, on flat stable ground, no walking sticks required.

I wonder this St. Patrick’s Day about the mountains each of us are facing, wonder what support we are leaning upon, wonder if we can find the adventure in our particular journeys.  In the year 441, St Patrick fasted for forty days on the summit of Croagh Patrick. It is windy on the summit, so gusty that there were moments it felt as though Mary and I were going to fly away.  And the weather is moody, rain clouds blowing in without an ounce of warning, and then sunshine again.  It was a lovely place to linger for a while, to munch on oranges and cheese and crusty bread, a place sacred and special enough to scatter some of Mary’s husband’s ashes, but it was not a place I wished to meditate or fast for forty days.  That was St. Patrick’s calling, not mine.  And I do want to tell you, that despite the loose shale, the moody weather, the call to complete mindfulness, the day was filled with joyous moments and laughter, of sun breaking through, sometimes lighting up the white sheep that navigated the mountain in a brilliant blaze.  And there were the rainbows!  Rainbows in Ireland over the most sacred of Irish mountains!

So here we are, each one called to navigate this time, our won sacred mountain in a way that feels right and good to us.  I’m not too proud to hold tightly to a walking stick when needed.  And I’m not too stubborn to clutch what no longer serves when it is time to let it go.  I am calling this an adventure, a time to be mindful of our steps, yes!, but also to laugh as freely as Mary and I did as we placed one foot in front of another, as we climbed that sacred mountain before us.  So here’s to the rainbows shining down on all of us and the Irish blessings that are lighting our way.

 

Helen and Mary on the summit of Croagh Patrick, County Mayo, Ireland, October 2018

Unshared joy is an unlighted candle.  Spanish Proverb

My life became unhinged a week ago, as did my husband Cam’s.  I arrived home from the airport at midnight, as Friday was tipping into Saturday, after a fabulous eight days with kids and grandkids in Moscow, Idaho. I wasn’t blindsided. I had found out in Minneapolis at the airport.  It was a phone message from Cam that had alerted me that there had been a tumble.  While snowbiking, he had tried to stop before an icy incline and pressed his foot, not into snow or dirt or stone, but, instead, into the lightness of air, and that’s when he became unhinged.  He lost his grounding, and, instead, flew, bike and all, over the trail’s side, and after a flight that seemed doomed from the get-go, he landed again six feet below, on very large, very hard rock.  His left hip area took the full impact of the fall.  And somehow, with his biking buddy for support, as dusk turned into dark and temperatures plummeted into the teens, he hobbled himself the half mile or more out to his car, using his precious snow bike as walker, and then, while I spoke to him on the phone, he was driving himself the eighteen miles home to Ishpeming.  When I entered our house three hours later, I found him upstairs in our bed wide awake and I think a little scared.  I knew that I was scared. It is scary to have your world, your very way of being, unhinged.  Somehow, we got him down the thirteen stairs, through the hallway, out the garage door, over to the passenger side of his car, and to the local hospital.  It was hours later, at the Regional Hospital, that he had the surgery, and the addition of rod and pins that now give strength to a left femur bone that wasn’t made for such a flight.

So, that’s our personal story of lives unhinged, uprooted, schedules thrown into the abyss, new waters to navigate.  Cam will be fine. The doctors, nurses, staff all told him that he’ll be on that bike again in no time.  And yet, our week has felt wobbly and new, discombobulating, unhinged.  At first, this was all very personal.  And then, it became global, for all of us, as day by day by day, more of what we have found familiar and comfortable and fun has been taken away temporarily.  It is a new place we are navigating.  We are unhinging for the common good.  So what do we do?  How do keep ourselves safe and sane and soulful during this time?  Friday felt especially challenging as the personal and the global mingled, as I helped Cam with his needs and appointments, as I took heed of the changing cultural climate and decided to give Joy Center a pause during this time.  The day slipped away without any of the things that usually feed my spirit.  Or so I thought until I texted friends at bedtime.  “I need to find my joy again,” I said.  “It is my usual set point.”  And then I listed them, five things on this challenging day that watered something inside me.  Surprisingly, it wasn’t that hard to do.  There was the piping hot chaga tea when I was chilled to the bone and the smiles I shared with my friends at Globe Printing and the new haircut from the day before that was zippy even when I was not.  And there was the Ametrine geode that I have been saving for, one large enough to sit on our living room floor and cast its beauty and high vibration  throughout our house.  In the chaos of the day, I almost had forgotten about this amazing crystal.

So that’s our challenge.  In the midst of the rescheduling, in the throes of discombobulation, in the new world we find ourselves, they are still there, the many seeds of joy to water.  Yours will be personal.  Pay attention; water those seeds with your self-love, and they will thrive.  I know they will!  I send my wholehearted love to each one of you, and, as I do so, I feel it, my inner joy garden smiling.

 

Quivering Seeds

If you have put castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.  Now put the foundations under them.  Henry David Thoreau

Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations.  I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead.  Louisa May Alcott

I am large, I contain multitudes.  Walt Whitman

 

I can feel it.  It’s in the air, and the breeze blowing in from the south and the light growing stronger daily, this hint of a new season coming our way.  Even though the parking lots in our northern world are coated still with ice and the cross country ski trails groomed to mid-season perfection, there’s a quivering of seeds starting to take hold in farmer’s hoop houses and a waking up of trees as the sap begins to rise.  It’s exciting, it’s stirring, this world beginning to quiver and wake up.  As I skate-ski on those groomed-to-perfection trails, as I push off in heart-pumping glides in a sport I have loved for over thirty-five years, I can feel it, this quivering, this waking up rising within me too.  The seeds I planted during the frozen weeks of early January, dreams that only held a faint shape in the still time, now are quivering with sap-rising possibility.

There are the dreams I planned on planting, like the participation in the community Hundred Day Project, my focus, “An Infusion of poetry”, and the upcoming trip with husband Cam in late spring to continue our Camino walk on the northern coast of Spain, and a another dream to find someone to lead a dance class at Joy Center for all of us who long to move our bodies to music in joy-filled non-judged-or-tightly-choreographed expression.  These particular dream-seeds I placed consciously in the dark soil of early January, but what about the wayward ones, the wild seeds that are taking hold outside what I thought was my well-groomed clearly-defined garden plot?

For nearly twenty years, I’ve been inviting yoga participants to bring their whole selves to the yoga mats, the parts they know, the parts they don’t know, the parts they like, the parts they don’t like, the whole and holy package of who they are.  And then I have reminded them that the word “yoga” in sanskrit means union, to yoke together what are seemingly disparate parts of themselves.  I share these words with the utmost of sincerity, in my yoga voice which comes from someplace deep inside that is amazing to me, that is strong and wise and relaxed, and calms me down immediately and brings me to a place of well-being every time I settle into finding it.  And I need to tell you that it was nowhere in sight the other day at my friend’s birthday party at a local coffee shop.  In fact, I forgot all together about my “inside” voice — the voice I appreciated others using at this same coffee shop when I often hunkered in to work on my poetry project.  As the birthday party gained momentum, I found myself bellowing and guffawing with celebratory enthusiasm and it wasn’t until a young woman at a neighboring table abruptly rose from her chair and marched over to the counter, that I sucked in my boisterous sharings and panicked with a flashback to those high school days when my friends and I were kicked out of our local library for fits of out-of-control laughter.  Fortunately, the young woman was just ordering herself another coffee, but it was a reminder that these parts of ourselves, the parts we deem unruly, have energy and a desire to be heard.

And that brings me to my wayward dream-seed, the one that started to sprout in early February.  Okay, it is not a new dream.  It’s been lurking inside me for over a decade, probably forever, but it always has seemed like a joke, something fun and funny to think about once in a while, with no real substance, no foundation beneath it.  So three weeks ago, it was the name that brought some grounding to this dream, an outrageous name my friends and I created, a name my good-girl gardener still isn’t ready to bring out into the spotlight of public sharing, though my wild child cracks up each time she says it.  And it is a center stage name of a center stage dream, a punk band old lady name, because that is my dream, to be a part of such a band.  The day my dream began to quiver with new life, I shared this name with my husband of forty-plus years.  And frankly, I was surprised, a little freaked out.  I could see he thought that this could actually happen.  When I tried to be funny, to make it a joke, telling him that there were some minor issues, the fact that I was tone deaf and didn’t play an instrument, he replied with the utmost sincerity, “Don’t let that get in the way of your dream, Helen.  And besides,” he added, “every old lady punk band needs a hopper!”  Bless him.  He was right.  I’m excellent at hopping!  I felt encouraged, like it was feasible  And the energy that this woke up in me was a tsunami whoosh of unbridled joy and laughter.  And don’t we all crave a tsunami of unbridled joy and laughter?

I tell you this with my deeply-rooted relaxing yoga voice.  I tell you this with my boisterous too-loud-for-the-library-and-coffee-shop voice.  I tell you this with all parts of me, the parts I know, the parts I don’t, the parts I like, the parts I don’t like.  I tell you this with the whole holy package.  Walt Whitman was right.  We contain multitudes.  And it is not our job to create fences around ourselves, to only nurture the dreams we consider safe.  Instead, we simply need to listen to what is quivering inside, what is bringing us new life, what is feeling joyful and maybe even funny.  So here’s an invitation I send out to all of us.  Let’s allow our dreams to grow roots, the ones that are quivering, the quiet ones, and the one that are noisy, the reverent dreams and those we deem irreverent.  Let’s embrace the whole holy package of who we are.  It is the season, and the seeds, they are quivering.

In this moment there is infinite potential.  Victoria Moran

Dear friends,

In the tender beginnings of a new year, a new decade, it is a Christmas story that I want to share with you, that I want to carry forward and allow to blossom inside me as I make the leap into 2020.

In early December, I set an intention to stay present, to savor the moments, to take care of myself, to not get swept up in the hustle and bustle of the holiday season.  And I did savor the moments.  I could list for you thousands of precious details from this past month.  But alas, the moments, they came fast and furious and the holiday-wave gained momentum and I found myself surrendering to the  last minute rush just trying with my best effort to body surf to a shore where everything was ready for the family celebration on Christmas Eve.  The tree, our most perfect balsam ever, was decorated with the ornaments collected over forty-two years of marriage, the presents were wrapped, our fridge filled to the brim with holiday treats, our cupboards laden with foods the grandkids would adore, the toys set out exactly the way the grandkids expect.  We, my husband and I, albeit exhausted, were eager for our son, daughter-in-law and their two kids to arrive.

And that’s when the meltdown occurred.  Not our inner meltdown.  We were holding it together pretty well.  Nature’s meltdown.  The temperature in our northern world began to rise into the upper thirties and our momentous snowbanks began to rise too into a thick layer of misty fog, and our son, daughter-in-law and grandkids, on Christmas Eve, were trying their hardest to fly into this northern world that was melting rapidly.  In the early evening, after a long flight from the west coast, they sat on a plane in Minneapolis for more than an hour before being hustled back into the airport, re-booked for a flight the same time the next day.  And twenty-four hours later, on Christmas night, with the fog perhaps a little less murky, the plane set off on its route to Iron Mountain and I set off, too, on the hour and fifteen minute drive to pick them up, only to learn as I approached the airport that they had been diverted at the very last minute and were enroute to Detroit, an eight hour drive south of our home in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  And the saga continued.  All flights were filled for the next day, and no cars were available for a one-way rental.  Our Christmas celebration was in a fog-induced holding pattern.

Along with the disappointment of a Christmas with our family postponed, there were the gifts for my husband and I.  Any last minute preparations that we had forgotten were now in tip top shape; the walk along the shores of Lake Superior in the fog on Christmas afternoon was sublime; my drive to Iron Mountain on Christmas night was haunting and misty-wonderful as I listened to holiday music and remembered sleigh bells and my aunt and uncle’s ponies and the sleigh ride we once took wrapped in blankets on quiet country paths in foggy coastal Maine.  But, it’s not the two of us that I want to tell you about.  It’s the family stuck in airports and motels for three nights and four days that is the focus of my story.  My son and daughter-in-law were stellar.  They kept it together, day after holiday day, disappointment after disappointment, diversion after diversion. They found motels with swimming pools, fought to get their baggage back from wherever it is hidden in airports, in order to have the things essential for a seven-year-old and a two-and-a-half-year-old at Christmas time.  They scrounged down food when airport restaurants were closed for the night and most stores were on holiday hiatus.

And the kids, our grandkids, they thrived.  On Christmas Eve, once situated in his motel room — and he loves motel rooms — our seven-year-old grandson hauled out his art supplies and got to work. No stockings for Santa to fill?  Not a problem.  No decorative lights strung up to brighten Santa’s way?  Not a problem either when you have markers and paper and a whole floor to spread out upon.  And the Christmas tree?  There it is was, in ten minutes, a tree colored green with a rainbow of decorations and a magnificent star far brighter than the one on our perfect balsam.  His mother borrowed scissors and tape from the motel’s front desk, and he cut them all out, the tree with its radiant star, the stockings, one for each of them with their names clearly written on the white fluffy borders, the string of lights in bold brilliant colors, and he taped them to the wall, decked the room with holiday cheer, and, along with the milk and cookies, left a sweet note for Santa to place the gifts underneath each stocking. And, lo and behold, the next morning, just like our seven-year-old-grandson knew it would happen, Santa arrived. He didn’t need the fancy tree or the hand-knit stockings or the fridge filled with holiday treats or the carefully- wrapped presents or the perfectly-vacummed house.  And later that night, after racing with his two-year-old sister through the Detroit airport’s colored-light-filled tunnel and playing by the fantastic fountain, with great enthusiasm, he told a Delta agent that this was the best Christmas ever.

And the celebration continued.  On the Third Day of Christmas, the sun shined and the drive to Iron Mountain was easy and the perfect balsam still glimmered and shimmered and we joyfully unwrapped perfectly-wrapped presents and ate feast food and played with the Grandma-and-Grandpa-house-toys and we cuddled and snuggled and watched holiday movies and the house was happy.  I could feel it, the happiness in a house messed up and tousled and no longer perfectly-prepared.  I can still feel it, the happiness in the make-shift, the enthusiasm that all is possible in the moment when we carry with us a positive attitude, along with our paper and markers.  Let’s bring this remembering, this ease and lightness, into the new year, into the new decade.  Happy 2020!

 

 

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