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Notes from the Cocoon

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



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.


“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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


I thank God, for all that is good, and dear, and beautiful.  Anne Frank

Because of great love, one is courageous.  Lao Tzu

I am in a shop filled with gemstones in Moscow, Idaho with my son and three of my four grandkids, staring into the eyes of a thirty-year-old rattle snake named Buddy when I feel the buzz of a text against my cell-phoned skin.  All the kids in this northern Idaho college town know of Buddy who was plucked from a downtown street as a tiny baby and placed in this roomy glass terrarium next to two amethyst mini-caves where he has lived his long life ever since.  Locals say he rode into town on a bail of hay from somewhere down in the canyon, and here he is now, pure muscle and forked-tongue, on this Saturday of Labor Day Weekend, slithering and rising and captivating our full attention, until I feel it again, the buzz of my cell-phone.  And I check it this time.  And that’s where I hear the news, in the crystal shop, with my son and three of my grandkids and Buddy, the snake, who has indeed become our buddy.  “Fu died.”


I told the grandkids they could scamper upstairs, that they were welcome in Grandma and Grandpa’s room, that they could climb up onto our bed and snuggle with our cat Fu anytime they needed to get away.  “She’s old; you need to be gentle,” I told them.  “But she likes to cuddle,”   And it was touching, the way they all took me up on the offer, the just-turned-seven-year-old and his two-year-old sister this past July during the three-week visit of one son and daughter-in-law, and the just-turned-four-year-old and her not-quite-two-year-old brother when our other son and daughter-in-law flew east to Upper Michigan in mid-August.  Fu slept, usually curled in a ball of white fluffy fur on the folded blankets at bed’s end, while the kids nestled next to her, one or two at a time, catching their breath between the flurry of summertime activities.  Our bedroom became a haven of calm in a sea of busyness and Fu seemed to welcome the grandkids’ company into her world of ease-filled catnapping.  This I expected.  Fu has always been sweet and cuddly, a cat who greets us at the door and lets us carry her around like a baby, our empty-nest baby these past sixteen years.  What I didn’t expect was the eagerness in which she flopped her way down the stairs and dove right into the chaotic world of a house full of people.  There she’d be, stretched out long and relaxed or sprawled on her back, belly exposed, front paws curled under in pleasure while a toddler flew by on a beeping and whistling Fisher Price truck, while a seven-year-old created art books at the table beside her, while grown people hustled and bustled about and a four-year-old petted her fur with enthusiastic strokes.  Fu was in her glory, a catnip-filled chewed-up toy placed next to her, a ping pong ball at her feet.  The busier the better, it seemed.  While I sometimes craved the quiet, Fu often thrived in the tsunami of noise.  And thrive this summer she did.  After her first real bout of illness in late April, a urinary tract infection gone bad, she bounced back by late May, her fur once again pure white fluff, her pantaloons billowy and stylish, her mane regal and fitting for a gal with the name FuFu Princess.  “It is a good summer,” Fu seemed to be saying, “and I like the company I’m keeping.”


“Fu died.”  I say it out loud.  I say it out loud in a shop filled with stones and a snake named Buddy.  I say it out loud to my son and my seven-year-old grandson and his four-year-old-cousin and his sister in the stroller.  “Fu died,” I say.  “I’m sorry, Mom.”  My son wraps his arms around me, and I am crying and I am too wrapped up in my own wrapped-up self to stay wrapped up in my son’s generous arms or to notice my grandkids’ reactions or to find my guy, Grandpa Cam, who has sent me the text and is with our other son and daughter-in-law and the other toddler grandkid somewhere right outside this crystal shop door at a farmer’s market filled with produce and crafts and baked goods and music and thrumming life.  I know it is Raja who has called Cam, Raja, who with Amber, his wife, is staying with Fu, back at our home in Upper Michigan, who is family to Fu and to us, too, and it his him now that I must call.  I leave my son and my grandkids and push my way through the street packed with people, past stalls of tomatoes and peppers and peaches, past flowered aprons strung on strings, past the guy who is tap-dancing in front of a barbershop quartet.  And I find it, when I turn the corner, what I need, the quiet of an alley behind the Co-op, and an overturned milk carton, a place where I can sit down, and that’s when I call our friend Raja.


“I am not going to get a white-long-haired FuFu cat!  It will shed everywhere!”  These were my husband Cam’s words in late June when he heard our college-aged kids had been cat-shopping.  Beloved Boots, our oldest son’s sixteen-year-old black short-haired non-shedding gal with the white feet had just died in my arms a few weeks earlier as I sat on our couch with our boys just minutes before heading to the airport to catch a plane to yoga-training at Kripalu in Massachusetts.  One son drove me to the airport, the other buried our Boots-cat under the white pines in our back yard.  For eleven days at the yoga training, I had stretched and breathed and cried my way to the other side of grief and had returned home, open and willing to face an empty-of-animal home for a while — because, after all, aren’t you supposed to wait a respectful amount of time before plunging back in to full-out love for another animal?  Not in our household.  Our two sons, and older son’s girlfriend, had been to the shelter several times when I was away, and that’s where they had found her, in a small cage littered with toys and a ping pong ball.  It was our older son’s girlfriend (now his wife) who knew she was the one.  “She’s perfect!” they told me.  “She bats the ping pong ball around like crazy when they let her out to play.  And besides she’s desperate, Mom.”  The three of them told me how she bashed her head over and over again against the metal door of the cage and opened her mouth wide and meowed the loudest meow you’ve ever heard.  “You need to see her!” they pleaded.  And I did, again and again during that last week of June.  And I too fell hard for this soft snowball of white fluff — and my husband, he didn’t have a chance, and, on the Fourth of July, he is the one who bought the healthy brand of kitten food and set up a bed for her in the basement playroom, and he joined us as we brought her home, our sweet little white-long-haired-shedding FuFu Princess.  


I am sobbing, don’t care who hears me from my milk-carton-perch.  “How did it happen?” I ask.  “She was fine!” I add.  I think I say this several times because she was — she was fine when she followed me from room to room on Thursday evening, fine as she sat upright, front paws a little askew as I packed my suitcase, fine as I made myself a snack, as I straightened the living room for Amber and Raja, fine on Friday morning, early before dawn, when Grandpa Cam and I set off on our Labor Day trip to Idaho, fine as I said a flighty quick “See you later, Fu”, and galloped out the door.  And now, I am yelling these words into my cell phone, yelling at my dear friend Raja, wanting to blame someone, and, of course, I can’t, can’t blame Raja, because he too loves Fu as I love Fu, as Grandpa Cam loves Fu, as we all do, and Raja is crying too, and he is probably sitting in this very moment next to our dead cat or driving her home from the vet because that’s where it happened, at the vet’s.  He is still crying when he agrees with me, tells me that she was fine, on Friday, that she ate the rest of the lake trout, enjoyed being outside, cuddled with Amber and him.  It was just this morning, he adds, that she seemed lethargic, that she wouldn’t move from the fireplace hearth, that he carried her to the car, drove her to the vet’s office, that she didn’t seem scared or in pain, that she simply stretched out her back legs, took a breath and died.  How can that be?  That’s not how it’s done.  There has to be some indication, some foreshadowing, some struggle.  You don’t just die, don’t just leave us without a proper good-bye.  I want to cling to the phone, to Raja.  I want to make it not true.  I want my white fluffy FuFu cat.


I named her myself, called her Leetle-lee.  I think it might have meant “kitty” in toddler language.  And I loved her for years, loved her stuffed animal body that fit perfectly in my little hand, loved her white fluffy fur that I patted and pulled and pressed against my cheek, loved her perky pink-lined ears until they hung there, dangling by thread.  We slept together, Leetle-lee and me, first in my crib, then in the twin bed in the bedroom I shared with my baby brother.  I wished my Leetle-lee was real.  I wished my Leetle-lee into becoming real.


I have re-joined the family at the center of the farmer’s market near the city’s downtown play area where the band is playing something loud and raucous and far too cheerful.  My seven-year-old-grandson hands me a bouquet of flowers as my four-year-old-granddaughter clings to my arm.  I glance over at Grandpa Cam who is standing at the bottom of the slide waiting for one of the two toddler grandkids to fly down, and then I turn away.  I don’t want to see him right now, don’t want to start crying again.  It is better that we keep going, at least it feels that way in this moment, so I scoop up the two older kids and say, “Come on!  Let’s get a treat.”  And that’s what we do, before noon; we get ourselves mounds of locally-made thick creamy ice cream in sugar cones.  This is not normal healthy-food-conscious Grandma Helen behavior, and these two grandkids know this, and I think they might be feeling a certain amount of glee.  And an hour later, when I find myself with three of the four grandkids, the only adult in our older son’s house, I do it again, this time as a bribe.  I need to move, to get out into the sun, to escape stillness and stuffiness and too much thought.  It is cookies this time that I use to lure them into outdoor play, old-fashioned chocolate chip cookies that were meant for tonight’s after-dinner treat. The three grandkids quickly make a bee-line for shoes piled by the door as I stand nearby, handing out the sugary treats, and that’s when I say it.  “You know I’m usually a pretty good grandma,” I tell them.  “And it’s carrots and peas and healthy things we have for lunch,” I add.  “But today, I’m sad and I don’t feel like being a good grandma and we’re having cookies.”  I notice I’m feeling a little better as I say this, a little more feisty as we set off for the play area across the street.  I ask my oldest grandson to create an imaginary graph for us, and he does, in his own fashion, zero being a fabulous grandma and ten being a horrible one.  I nod in affirmation, commend him on a good graph.  “I’m sad today, and I’m a seven.  Not horrible, but pretty bad,” I proclaim.  And they seem fine with it all, the ice cream and cookies for lunch, the not-so-good grandma, the time at the play area.  And frankly, it’s a relief, not trying to pull myself together and strive to be a zero when seven feels just about right.  I plop myself down on one of the swings, push off, and begin to pump, and when my four-year-old granddaughter politely asks for a turn, I tell her no, that I’m not sharing today, and I note the shock on her face, and I glean what little pleasure I can in being bad, for thirty seconds longer, that is, before relinquishing the swing, relinquishing my badness and just allowing myself to feel sad again.


It was star-spangled, the Fourth of July we brought our FuFu Princess home from the Humane Society.  The whole family felt it, the birth of something new, something exciting that couldn’t be contained.  But we tried that Independence Day to reign it in, to provide some reasonable boundaries for our new little kitten.  We carried her down to the basement playroom, showed her the litter box in the corner, the little bed of blankets on the couch.  “This is where you are going to stay,” we told her, “until you show us you are potty-trained.”  And she meowed that loud open-mouth-wide meow and somehow managed to to climb up those basement stairs and follow us into the kitchen.  “Okay”, we said, pouring kitty litter into another container.  “You can stay with us on the first floor.  But that’s it.  We’re not carrying you upstairs to our bedroom until you’ve proven the kitty litter box is your bathroom.”   And we didn’t have to worry about it, the carrying her up the stairs, that is, because, that evening, she managed it on her own, and, by bedtime, there she was nestled against my cheek sleeping soundly.  And there I was, in love with our new little princess.  That summer, we were all in love, the whole family.  Our older son’s girlfriend cuddled with Fu — that’s what we were calling her, Fu — on the couch while watching television, our younger son wrapped her around his neck like a shawl and professed that he would teach her to fetch, and we all found ourselves on hands and knees tromping through the house, hiding behind furniture, waiting for our gal to pounce and tag us lightly with her paw.  And one Saturday, my husband Cam and I rushed home from a wedding reception before the dancing even began because we couldn’t stand it, to be away from our fluffy white kitten.  And as Fu grew into her long-bodied thick-furred royalty, we learned things about her, that she could zip past us in a flash when we opened the front door, that she could sprint like a cheetah then challenge us to catch her, that she could sound wild and killer-coded when sitting in the kitchen window transfixed on a bird at the feeder.  We learned there was this fierce whimsical independence in our fluffy Fourth of July cat, and yet, when we picked her up, she turned rag doll, stuffed animal limp, back legs dangling.  She allowed her dad, that’s what Cam was calling himself by now, to sprawl her out on his lap, belly up, and clip each one of her nails.  And she allowed the rest of us to carry her around as if she was our personal play thing.  This was a cat who knew how to have fun, a cat who knew how to haul us into her fun.  And sure enough, she did it, hauled us into her fun year after year after year.  And our younger son, he was successful.  He taught her to fetch.


She wraps her toddler hand around my little finger and we set off on our downtown adventure.  We have just finished breakfast at the juice bar — green smoothies, a quinoa/egg breakfast bowl, fresh fruit and yogurt.  It is now Thursday, and I am working my way down my seven-year-old grandson’s Grandparent Graph, a pretty-good-healthy-breakfast grandma again, a grandma who is allowing spurts of happiness to mingle with her FuFu grief.  How can I not feel happy when this two-year-old granddaughter grips hold of my pinkie with such purpose, calls me Grandma Helman and nearly skips us forward toward the corner where we will turn onto Main Street and once again go visit Buddy the Snake?  It seems like these past few days since Labor Day Weekend have stretched on into years and I now have moments where I am immersed in grandkid play and don’t even think of her, and then it hits me, the punch in the gut, the remembering that I will be returning home tomorrow to a FuFu-less house.  And it is happening now, the punch-in-the-gut-thinking-of-Fu-thing, as my granddaughter and I approach the corner, and I remember the sympathy card I bought at a small boutique in town, a cat card with the words, “We imagine our cats everywhere, after they are gone.”  This is all a flash in my mind, an instant of considering the quote and then refuting it.  I don’t believe that it is imagination, this noticing our loved ones everywhere after they pass.  This is what I am thinking as we walk, that it is a conversation, that our loved ones talk to us from the other side.  And in the instant, the very instant that this flash of a thought takes hold, I hear it, the roar of a semi passing by on this center-of-town street, and I look up and see it plastered all over the back of the truck, a photograph, a ridiculously huge photograph of a white fluffy kitten.  In this moment as my granddaughter and I round the corner on our quest to spend time with Buddy, as the truck disappears from sight, I am not quite there, not quite ready to have a conversation with Fu in this new form, and yet, I’m stunned by this fluffy-cat-truck-message and fully conscious that this conversation is available to me when I am open to it.  I know this as I step through the entry of the shop filled with gemstones, as my granddaughter and I make our way to Buddy’s terrarium home.  And here he is, curled in a ball, waiting for us.  I believe in the healing power of snakes.  And I know the jaws of a snake are not fused together.  Perhaps this morning Buddy will open his mouth wide, wide enough to swallow my grief, so I can once again feel my cat’s loving presence.


Fu was napping on her folded blanket at the foot of our bed, her white fur lit up by the afternoon light.  It was late August, a hint of fall in the breeze that wafted in through the open window.  As she slept, I packed.  Grandpa Cam and I would be leaving in two days for Idaho to visit our kids and grandkids over Labor Day weekend, and Amber and Raja would move into the guest room and become Fu’s people.  But now, I was here, and I did what I do so often.  I snuck up to the bed, to my sleeping cat, and I leaned against her head and whispered into her ear, softly, the words I had been telling her for sixteen years.  “I’m so glad you were born.  I’m so glad you came to live with us in this lifetime.  I love you.  I love you.  I love you.”   


Camino del Norte: At Least You Can Do It!

My Work is Loving the World  Mary Oliver


Early in June, my husband Cam and I returned from an adventure in Europe.  We are walking El Camino del Norte, a route along the northern coast of Spain from east on the French border to the sacred city of Santiago de Compostela on the western tip, over 800 kilometers, and we, thus far, have hiked two one-week segments, the first segment two years ago and the second two months ago, have covered about 350 kilometers of our pilgrimage journey, carrying our clothes and essentials in packs on our backs and covering an average of 25 kilometers a day.  Hanging from a strap on my pack is a circular plastic tag that I had customed-made with a wide-winged peace dove and Mary Oliver’s words, “My Work is Loving the World” carved into its surface.  And that is my greatest intention on these pilgrimages across Spain, to soften my heart and spread my wings to this world I inhabit — that we all inhabit — to allow its gifts to soak in each day, to stay present to the moments.  And now, in a series of essays, I share a handful of these gifts with you.


I want to tell you that it was early on, before leaving the ground at our Marquette County Upper Peninsula airport on a Thursday afternoon, that a mantra for our El Camino pilgrimage became clear.  Sitting across the aisle from us on our small regional jet was a friend of my husband Cam’s, and, as Cam spoke to him of the monumental walking we were about to embark upon, sometimes over mountains, and often in the rolling hills along the northern coast of Spain, and always carrying packs on our backs filled with everything we were taking on this week-long journey, the friend replied in a chipper tone, “At least you can do it!”  These words stuck with me, and with Cam too, were etched in our minds from the moment the plane made its way down the runway and lifted us off into the wide wings of an overseas adventure.  Yes, at least we could do it, or believed in our hearts we could do it.  And isn’t that the most important thing, to believe something so fervently, so fully, that you know that it can be true?  And I knew this could be true, that Cam and I, two college kids who fell in love forty-five years ago, could do it.  It didn’t matter that we were now in our sixties, were grandparents who carried the scars of all these decades of full-body living.  It didn’t matter because the youthful vigor, the desire to challenge ourselves physically and spiritually, the excitement of opening to something new was as alive and fresh as it ever had been.

At least we can do it!  I said these words to myself, over and over, said them as we flew across the Atlantic on an overnight flight, said them as we paced the terminal at the Amsterdam airport for hours and hours the next day while waiting for our plane to Bilbao, the capital city of Basque Country, our end-point two years ago and starting point for this year’s trek, said them in the early evening as we were plunked out of a bus onto Bilbao’s busy city-center streets, and the next morning, backpacks strapped on tightly, said them again as we officially stepped out of our hotel and started following the Camino’s yellow arrow and scallop shell signs painted and tiled on buildings and sidewalks and telephone poles, followed the river and these arrows out of the city northbound toward the sea.  The Camino is a pilgrimage, with ancient roots, hundreds and hundreds of years old, that follows these arrows through countryside and towns and cities, along the many historic pathways across Europe and into Spain all leading toward the sacred city of Santiago de Compostela where the relics of St. James, one of Jesus’ twelve apostles, are housed in the city’s magnificent cathedral.  And Cam and I were on the path, on El Camino del Norte, the northern route to Santiago, and we felt it, something larger than any one religion or tradition, the way we were joined together with all those who have walked these pathways before us and with us now, something holy and good-feeling, something that was palpable in these bodies of ours.

And that’s what I want to talk about, these bodies of ours.  And our spirits.  Because I can’t separate the two.  It was a body experience, for sure, this walking on sidewalks along the river through the industrial and residential suburbs of Bilbao on that first morning, and it continued to be a body experience throughout the whole seven-day Camino journey, over one hundred miles of walking on goat paths and country roads, on old railroad grades, through fields and into cities and villages and resort towns, across sandy beaches onto rocky trails.  How can you not be present in your body when it is the vehicle carrying you forward?  How can you not feel the ground beneath you, whether hard and paved or rockbound and slippery or soft and grass-covered?  The moments are pressed into feet and shoulders, hips and thighs when you spend most of your day in movement.  And there were the packs slung across our backs.  We felt those packs on our shoulders and on our hips and middle backs, and it all required our attention, a tightening every now and then of the strap belted around our hips, a loosening of the one across the sternum, a shift here, a pull there in order to provide more comfort and ease.  Even in the discomfort, we felt it, the way our bodies were alive and eager and on board for this adventure.  And it was in these uncomfortable moments that our mantra became a handy reminder.  “At least we can do it!”  And when our walking feet, mine often in Teva flip flops, Cam’s in leather-bound hiking boots, found a bounce in their gait, when the packs slipped into place and our spines into alignment, that’s when we didn’t have to think about it, the way spirit infuses our bodies with a palpable vibrancy.  And that’s when we could relax our shoulders and our breath and settle even more fully into our bodies carrying us forward.  And that’s when our senses could open up to the feast of gifts along the way.

And what gifts there were!  It was springtime in northern Spain and the world, that first day, was washed fresh after an overnight rain, and it was all new to us, the river opening in a wide mouth to the sea, the sun breaking through morning clouds, the bus suspended by cables twenty feet above this river-mouth taking us across to the port city of Portegillete, the city band alive with music on a cobblestone side street, the bike path that took us up up up into the hills outside of town and westward twelve kilometers to the ocean again, to early evening blue sky and blue sea and a wide stretch of beach and silky warm sand on tired feet and a tiny village beyond where we spent that first night in an apartment overlooking the village square.  And along the way, it had been the smell of spring that my body had most savored.  It surprised me, how good it was to smell grass again after six months of cold frozen winter in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  Green grass and unfurled leaves had never smelled so good, and the sweetness of roses, and the musky smell of white blossoms on trimmed-back bushes, and honeysuckle.  There was honeysuckle.  It is the best to walk along the sea and smell the headiness of honeysuckle while eating a juicy clementine from the market in the port town you have just passed through.  And in the evening of that first day, as we traced the banks of a small tidal river to our village destination, there it was, with us still, the slight bounce in our tired gaits, and the mantra we had carried with us since leaving our home airport: “At least you can do it!”  Yes, indeed.  We can do it.  And today, we had, and it felt good.


We can do it!

Photographs from the first two days, starting in the Basque city of Bilbao, passing by the Guggenheim, following the river to the ocean, staying in the village of Pobena the first night and the second night in the beach front city of Castro-Urdiales where we explored the medieval cathedral and ate fish stew and grilled octopus in a restaurant on a point by the sea.

Fully Human, Fully Alive

I love how you are making yourself more and more receptive to truths in their wild state.  Robert Brezsny

This body that we have, this very body that’s sitting here right now in this room, this very body that perhaps aches, and this mind that we have at this very moment, are exactly what we need to be fully human, fully awake, fully alive.  Jack Kornfield

It was early evening, one of those glorious evenings last week where the breeze off the lake was mild and the air fresh, more like late September than early November in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  And there I was breathing it in, the last of the day’s sunshine still clinging to the air and to the trees and to the ripples dancing across Marquette’s Lower Harbor, there I was breathing it in, the freshness of this great body of water stretched out beside me as I walked on a path that I know by heart, a bike path that winds its way through the city, tracing this gem of a Lake Superior shoreline.  It is here for us always, this lake and this path and the gulls who I was saying hello to on this particular day and the break-wall that protects the harbor from the thrashing storms and the brilliant red coast guard station out on a point that is no longer a coast guard station and soon will belong to the people.  It is here for us always, the long sandy beaches and the rocky ledges and the place we call Picnic Rock.  It is here for us always, and I have never ever taken it for granted.  And yet, on this day, as the sun set over the sandstone buildings of the city, everything seemed sweeter, more precious than before.

There was the way that the sky seemed more blue and those little ripple waves in the harbor more shimmery and the smell of the lake more clear and life-enhancing than I had remembered.  And there was a glow in the air and a glow on the faces of the people I met along the trail.  And there was my body and it was moving, one leg and then the other.  It was finding a rhythm, arms swinging at my side, natural and easy, my pace picking up, my heart beating faster and happier.  And then I noticed that I was crying — I had gotten my stride back.  It had been a while.  I think it was July that I had last walked this path, and it had been months since my walking had felt this fun.  I had been back-ridden and bed-ridden, in healing mode with a health challenge, and, now, on this particular evening, I was once again among the walkers and the runners and the bikers, and it didn’t matter if my back was still stiff and my gait a little awkward and my pace not quite what it had been before.  It didn’t matter what I looked like on the outside.  I was doing it and it felt wonderful on the inside and “Thank you!” was my mantra as I walked along and my tears, they were an ocean of appreciation.

And that’s what I want to tell you, that I could see more clearly now, not only the shimmer on the lake and the glow on people’s faces  — I also could see how a part of me had been pinched off before, and it was me who had been doing the pinching.  I had pruned my tree of a body and life into a neat and tidy package of health and happiness, where there was little room for a stray or broken branch, where there was little opportunity to shoot outward and skyward into a place of growth and expansion.  And isn’t it a bit messy the way the trees in the wild let themselves grow?  And isn’t that what we really want, to be as wild and messy and out-of-the-pruned-in-box of right and wrong and this and that as we really are?   And isn’t it true that, at our deepest selves, we want to shoot our branches skyward like the trees?  I know that I do.  And, I know that it is from the place of contrast, of finding myself on ground that, at first, seems uncomfortably messy, that I give up the pruning and take the leap into wholehearted expansion.

I believe that it doesn’t need to swallow us up, this contrast.  Instead, I believe that it can be a beckoning, a reckoning to dig deeper into our core, into our alignment with Source until we uncover the gem, the desire that rises up out of this place of what what we do not want into a newfound clarity of what we do want.  Bethany Hamilton is a beautiful role model who reminds me that we don’t need to stay knocked down by the ocean swells of contrast.  I had heard of her before, this young girl from Kauai, who in 2004, as a teenager with a promising career as a professional surfer, was riding the waves with her best friend on the north shore of the island, when, between swells, while lying belly down on her board, arms dangling in the water, was attacked by a shark that snapped her arm right off, the whole of it, just like that.  And Bethany’s life was forever changed as she found herself swimming in a sea of contrast.  I knew that part of the story, remembered it from the news, how it was a miracle that she was alive, and more of a miracle that she ever climbed back on her board and rode those waves again.  But the story didn’t seem intimate to me until last week when I watched the biopic about Bethany, Soul Surfer.

What was it about this movie, about Bethany’s story that drew me in, and called me back to watch more than once?   The setting was glorious.  Those beaches and cliffs and tropical forests of Kauai’s north shore are a sight to behold, and the deep blue color of the Pacific is mesmerizing, and the aqua curls of those huge waves pull you right into their center.  It is almost enough to watch a movie just for the scenery alone.  But that wasn’t it.  It was Bethany — she didn’t stay stuck in her contrast.  Sure, it was shocking to her, shocking to witness a part of her beautiful young body no longer there, shocking to see instead a little misshaped stub at her shoulder, shocking to realize that she needed to learn a different way to do just about everything, including surfing.  Sure, she cried and she wondered why this thing had happened to her.  And then, she did the deep-digging, the soul-searching and she found her faith and her passion and she did it; she got back on that board.  And she learned a new way to paddle out to those waves, a new way to balance her weight, a new way to ride her way back into competition.  And she learned something else, too — and perhaps this is what called me back to watching the movie again and again.  As the world reached out to her, and, as her story inspired so many others, she realized that this thing that she loved more than life itself, this ocean and these waves and the board and the ride, they weren’t the most important thing after all.  There was something else.  And the last line in the movie — a line that Bethany spoke after her first post-accident National competition, when asked if she was given the opportunity to live that day over, would she have gone surfing — says it all.  “I’ve had the chance to embrace more people with one arm than I ever could with two.”

And that brings me back to my walk along the path last week.  I’m not Bethany and a shark didn’t snap my arm off below the shoulder and though I would love to, I have never surfed the ocean’s waves.  But I do know what it is like to love this body I live in, to trust its strength and its stamina, and to love moving within its breath and its bones on water and land in adventure after adventure.  And I do know what it felt like to find myself in a place of contrast in which this body wasn’t working like it used to work.  And I do know how to rise up from the contrast and do know desire, and, sure, I do want to get this body back in adventure-worthy shape.  And, I say, isn’t this walk, this walk where my stride is smooth again and my arms are swinging again, isn’t this walk on my own home turf an adventure enough?  And isn’t there something more that I’m learning as I walk this path, as I move myself forward on this journey of expansion?  We are all vulnerable. We all have our metaphoric shark bites.  And we all are strong too, and we all can take the leap out of the contrast into a greater place than we ever have been before.   And we all are in this together, on a bike path, or maybe in the ocean waves on a surf board, or maybe in a board meeting or classroom or a concert hall, in the country or the city, in this land or a foreign land, in a mosque or a cathedral or a  temple, we are all in this together, in a great playground of equanimity and love.



Marquette’s lakeshore: November, 2015

Our Marriage

In the starry part of their hearts true love lingered . . . (words on a piece of ceramic art hanging in our home)

It didn’t start out as a springtime romance, not like my high school crush that had blossomed a few years earlier with those first daffodils in April and had felt giddy and flighty and then had quickly faded as spring lost its initial oomph and became something else.  This was different.  It was in October that we met, late October, mid-semester at the University of Maine, and the leaves rustled under our feet as we walked the paths to class and the trees exposed their spindly branches and a darkness wrapped itself around the campus by the time we made our way to York Hall’s dining room.  It was a bare earth, bare bones time of the year, a time to turn inward and light a fire and invite the shadows out to play — it was the Halloween time of the year.  And that’s when the romance began to burn, on Halloween night, at a keg party-dance in Kennebec Hall with the music blaring and the beer spilling and all of us students stretching our limits in masks and costumes and bold-inducing props.

He was a good boy dressed up like a bad boy, this nineteen-year-old sophomore from the midwest, who was asking me to slow dance this Halloween night to the longest of songs, in-a-gadda-da-vida.  He wore a white undershirt and tight blue jeans and he had tucked an unopened box of cigarettes into his pocket and he stared at me with his intense blue eyes.  I was a good girl, a freshman from the coast who had worked that summer at an inn with eight other girls, all good girls learning to be bad, and we had watched the new movie by Woody Allen, Everything You Want To Know About Sex, and that’s where I got my Halloween cue.  I dressed up like a sperm that night, with my navy blue sweatshirt’s pointy hood tucked tight around my face and my extra-big chromosome pinned across my front and my flagella of a tail swishing behind.  He stared and I giggled and I pushed down my hood and let my hair fly free.  He tossed away the unopen box of cigarettes and began to smile, and somehow, through some act of grace, the giggling sperm and the James Dean look-alike became the girl and the boy that they really were.  And they danced their way that Halloween night into something real and deep and more filled with the shadows of the unknown than any college campus Halloween party.

And, as the snow began to fly and the semester gained its momentum, on those dark days of late autumn, he was drawn to my light.  And I was drawn to his confidence.  And together, me absorbing his courage, he basking in my sparkle, we created a space for each other, and this space became a path and this path carried us forward through finals and winter break and visits to meet families and more semesters and a summer on the coast and an engagement and a wedding nearly three years later in August, on the sixth, the hottest day on record in coastal Maine.  And that’s what I want to tell you now, that it is our anniversary today, our thirty-eighth wedding anniversary, and I find this hard to believe, that it has been thirty-eight years, and, yet, I also find it hard to believe that those two young kids who danced together on Halloween night were a version of the two of us.  I want to tell you that there have been many versions of each of us since that long slow dance, and there have been many versions of us as a couple too.  I have stepped into my own confidence.  He has discovered and delighted in his own ability to shine brightly.  We don’t need each other to fill in those pieces anymore.  So what is left in a marriage that has been around for thirty-eight years?  I want to tell you that I still like him, this good boy from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and he still likes me, too.  And that goes a long way in a long-term marriage, the liking each other.

And there’s something more, something deeper that I want to tell you about.  Sometimes when we’re not liking each other, we hate each other.  Sometimes those Halloween demons come out to play and we can’t stand the sight of our partner’s face.  Sometimes it is the big topics that raise our hackles, topics like money — and sometimes it is the petty differences in personality.  And that’s what happened on a Friday evening in late June.  You don’t need to know the details.  They don’t matter.  Just know that we were both tired and cranky and our visions for the evening’s unfolding were different and I ended up going out when what I really wanted to do was stay home and watch a movie, and he felt criticized and I felt pushed into something I didn’t want to do, and it culminated at midnight with us walking in the door to our usually hospitable house in a flurry of bickers.  It could have been worse.  It could have escalated.  But that’s not what I wanted that night.  He went to bed.  I turned on my computer.  And that’s when the grace arrived on the scene  — the amazing grace that is always present if we relax into it.  It arrived in a blatant form.  It was the headline that caught my attention, and so I pushed play, and there he was on YouTube, the president of the United States, Obama, in all his vulnerability, standing in front of a congregation in a church in South Carolina; there he was singing his heart out to a grieving community, offering up the healing balm of grace and his very own open heart in a rendition of “Amazing Grace”.  And it shifted everything; it softened my heart, too, listening to him sing like that, and, when I brought the computer upstairs and played the video, it softened the heart of my not-quite-asleep husband.

That doesn’t mean that there is no work to do, at least not along the path of our relationship.  We do our share of trail maintenance.  And our collection of tools, tools accumulated through the thirty-eight years of pruning the path, is impressive.  And so, the next morning after the bickering, we hauled out a tried and true method of listening to each other, and it was easy to listen, to see each other’s perspective, to like each other again.  And that’s where the grace comes in; it washes over everything.  And the love, too.  And maybe they are the same thing.  And I know they have always been with us — grace and love — with all the versions of ourselves.   And I know that our history matters, that it adds poignancy to our relationship.  And a richness that is beyond words.  And today on our anniversary, I thank those two young kids who chose, all those years ago at a Halloween Party in Kennebec Hall, to unmask themselves and take the plunge into something real.


Our Marriage

is a cove in Maine

silty sand, tiny wavelets, a wild sea

it is a full moon

and periwinkles clinging to shore

a stagnant green pool and a tree-bending


it is sumac and beach roses and

orange-lichened rock

it is a fish house painted sage

years ago and a rosy pink door

a mooring   a haul-off line

and two turquoise skiffs

it is the sole of an old sneaker

garnet flecks glittering

in the summer sun

(The poem was written at Joy Center a few years ago at Matt Maki’s Write Now! class)



Helen and Cam in dorm room at University of Maine: 1975

Helen and Cam in dorm room at University of Maine: 1975


Wedding Day: August 6, 1977

Wedding Day: August 6, 1977


Our boys: Autumn 1982

Our boys: Autumn 1982


Camping in Canada: August, 1991

Camping in Canada: August, 1991


At Peter and Shelly's wedding, May 14, 2005

At a son’s wedding:  May, 2005


With grand baby, Viren, November 2012

With grand baby, Viren, November 2012


Kythera, Greece, May 2015

Helen and Cam, Kythera, Greece, May 2015

Creative fire

What is the most compelling beautiful work I’m capable of creating at this point in my life?  Roderick MacIver

Creativity is conceived as a reproductive act with tangible result — a child, a book, a monument that has a life beyond the life of the producer.  Creativity, however, can be intangible in the form of a good life, or a beautiful act, or in other virtues of the soul such as freedom and openness, style and tact, humor, kindness.  James Hillman

What is the most compelling beautiful work that I am capable of creating at this point in my life?  During the lush and star-spangled and busy and crazily green-growing days of the first half of summer, I’ve held onto this question that Roderick MacIver poses, held on like a lifeline, like a Tarzan swing that I’m clutching with both my hands.  And, indeed, it is a two-handed hold that I have on this metaphoric swing.

In my one hand, I hold dear to the knowing that my greatest life work, my most compelling and beautiful creation is to live a life of presence, that the living itself is the greatest art that I could possibly manifest.  And what a month of living July has been!  Our son, daughter-in-law and three-year-old grandson have been visiting with my husband and me in Upper Michigan.  For the first two weeks of the month, a just-turning-three-year-old guy was my buddy, my first mate of household chores and Joy Center errands, and my hiking partner for several memorable excursions around the neighborhood and along the shores of Superior.  It was the dear art of living that Viren and I created on these summertime outings.  And one particular trek shines brightly as an afternoon I want to remember.  We called it our roots-and-rock-hike, and I said, “Be careful, this is a challenge!” and he said, “This is tricky!” and we both agreed that we were having a blast on this sunny sparkling seventy-degree day.  We parked at Wetmore Landing, followed the trail to the wide stretch of beach and to the path that traces the shoreline all the way to Little Presque Isle.  Viren wore a backpack; I carried lunch.  And it was the adventure that I am savoring now as I remember, the adventure that carried us along over the roots and the rocks and down a steep sandy root-ridden incline to our own private cove.  We were living a string of Huck Finn moments. The path was new to Viren, out of his box of routine activities, and out of my box as well.  I had let go of Joy Center responsibilities that day, let go of any possibility of a writing time, and off we had gone, carefree, letting freedom lead the way, letting the Lake and the rustling trees and the warmth of the sun beckon us forward.  And that sense of freedom, that sense of a stretched-out trail and a day spread out wide, it stays with a Grandma and her grandson for a long, long time and can be conjured up at a moment’s notice.

And after two full weeks of Viren play, I, the Huck Finn Grandma, said good-bye to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and I set sail — air sail, that is — for a different sort of adventure.  I flew west laden with a suitcase filled with gifts from Michigan friends for Viren’s baby girl cousin soon to be born, flew west over the northern plains and the mighty Rockies.  And I eased down into the country of rolling wheat and lentil fields and majestic cedars and pine, and I spent a weekend there in the Panhandle of Idaho with our other son and our pregnant daughter-in-law, and this, too, was sweet music for a summertime soul.  The air was clear and dry, and their cottage home was inviting, and it felt real, the impending birth of a baby girl.  I placed my hands over my daughter-in-law’s belly and it felt like a prayer, the roll and the tumble inside, and I whispered, “I love you, Baby Girl!”  And I treasured the three days in Idaho, the dinners out at farm-to-table restaurants, the Farmer’s Market on Saturday morning and the juicy peaches still warm and sweet with sunlight, the gentle hikes through the nearby forest, the coyote and the deer eating cherries dropped from the backyard tree.  And again there is a memory that I hold especially dear.  While our son, the dad-to-be, biked on mountain trails new to him, my daughter-in-law and I found a bench by a reservoir filled with blooming lilies and ripple-tiny waves, and we sat there for an hour with the breeze cooling us off and we spoke of grandparents, not of the current crop of grandparents, but of the grandparents we knew as kids.  I loved listening to my daughter-in-law’s stories, loved the expansiveness of that time on a summertime bench sprawled out and relaxing, an expansiveness that embraced these people who came before us, that brought them into the fold and made them real for my daughter-in-law and for myself, and for the baby girl who is about to be born.

And perhaps that is what I loved best in Maine, the next stop for this Huck Finn adventurer.  It was a triangular route I mapped out over the country, east from Idaho and south to Atlanta and north again to the rugged and rockbound coast of Maine, my home state, to a cottage that I had rented on the ocean just two miles from the land where I roamed as a girl.  And it’s not that I didn’t love the action in the present moment, the walk on the long stretch of state park beach with my friend and writing sister Muriel, the trek along the wide Androscoggin River with another friend Rebecca, a friend who I have known forever, the lobster dinner, the blueberry deserts, the gatherings with siblings and cousins, the overbites with niece, nephew and their baby, the boatride on the 1930’s Ruth with my husband Cam, and his mother from Michigan and her boyfriend from Maine.  This was all fabulous, this was all blueberry pie and salt air wonderful.

Yet, it was the rich bubbling up of the past that brings me such joy, that reminds me that life is even wider than the great Great Lake that is my dear companion in Upper Michigan, more expansive than the pure blue sky in Idaho that makes me want to soar with those western hawks, more mighty than the north Atlantic that makes my heart sing and my hair curl wild.  It was the connection with those no longer living in their bodies yet ever so present in the present that brought me to happy tears.  I felt them at the dinners and on the boat ride and when I peeked in the cottage windows of the now-vacant summer dwelling of my parents’ best friends.  And I especially felt this connection when my family congregated at the Maine Maritime Museum this past Sunday.  We siblings all just happened to be in Maine in a grand orchestration of perfect timing.  It was the opening of the “Lobstering the Maine Coast” exhibit and there he was, our father, one of the visionaries of the museum back in the 1960’s, once again hauling up his favorite trap in two photos on the wall — the hoop net, he called it — a round net that sunk to the ocean’s floor and collected all sorts of treasures that brought us to squeals.  And there it was, the red boat, the one I write about in essays and poems and stories, the one named after our grandmother, the Emma L, the boat that carried us to Wood Island and Spring Beach, the boat with the bow I straddled as a teen, gangly legs dangling into the splashing sea, the boat that served as lobster vessel for my father and later for my brother as well.  And thanks to my brother’s efforts, here it was now and forever preserved in a world- class maritime museum in our hometown, and here we were, the siblings, on the opening day, savoring it all.

That’s the kind of July it has been, a July so packed with gifts and places and people, with time stretched out wider than I could ever have imagined possible.  And how does a gal take this all in, absorb this expansiveness into her cells?  How does she push the save button on these experiences before swinging out over the sea of possibility and plopping down into the second half of summer?  It’s with a two-handed hold — at least it is for me.  I can’t move forward before breathing all of this into my bones in a blog or a poem or a story, without gluing the photos of the adventures shared with that beloved grandson of mine into a book made with my owns hands at a Joy Center Book Art event with him sitting on the stool next to me making his own book, without claiming the time for a pause and allowing the creative impulses of the moment to rise up.  And this creative work of integration is compelling to me, and beautiful to me, and as essential to the journey as the vibrant action moments.  It is the living and it is the making sense of the living that calls to me and it is all creative and all necessary if I’m going to swing myself forward.   And that’s what I am going to do right now on this first day of August.  I’m going to grab hold of that rope and fly out into this glorious sweet and sunny morning.


Viren selecting rocks; Lake Superior, July 2015

Viren selecting rocks; Lake Superior, July 2015


Diana, Moscow, Idaho, July 2015

Diana, Moscow, Idaho, July 2015


Moscow, Idaho; July 2015

Moscow, Idaho; July 2015


Fishing boat, Sebasco, Maine; July 2015

Fishing boat, Sebasco, Maine; July 2015


The Emma L., the boat of my childhood and one that my brother restored; Maritime Museum, Bath, Maine; July 2015

The Emma L., the boat of my childhood and one that my brother restored; Maritime Museum, Bath, Maine; July 2015


Photos of Daddy and his hoop net; Maritime Museum, Bath, Maine; July 2015

Photos of Daddy and his hoop net; Maritime Museum, Bath, Maine; July 2015








Now is the time to believe in magic!

Like the air you breathe, abundance in all things is available to you.  Your life will simply be as good as you allow it to be.  Abraham-Hicks

Now is the time to believe in faeries and to acknowledge all tiny tickles: desires, wishes, imaginings, beliefs, seeds of ideas . . . Carolyn Myers


“Breathe in the gifts that are waiting for you; Breathe out the resistance to accepting these gifts.”

I say it all the time.  In every yoga class, as we lie on our backs, one bent leg drawn in, hands clasped around the shin, as we allow our breath to deepen and our bellies to rise, I say it, and I sometimes pose these questions as we invite our thigh in a little closer to our torso on the out-breath in this yoga asana of letting go: “What feel-great abundance have you shut away in the closet?  What treasure are you resisting that could make your life feel even better?”  And although I listen to the answers that rise up from my own deep center as I say these words, the treasure that I remembered tucked away in my own home’s upstair’s hall closet on the Fourth of July never once made its way into my consciousness during these yoga sessions.

Perhaps it took a boy who was about to turn three, a boy with a buoyant sweetness in his spirit and a willingness to believe that anything is possible to jar my memory.  After our picnic dinner, as the busy holiday was winding down and bedtime was approaching, my grandson Viren and I were playing with a collection of barnyard animals — a cow, a chicken, a pig.  And it was the pig that caught my attention, the pig that set off the sparklers of insight in my mind.  It was flying.  Viren held it high and it whooshed through the air and this pig — this pig could fly!  And that’s when I remembered.  Nestled in tissue in a box in the closet was a whole flock of them, pigs that could fly.  Six months ago, in the depths of the U.P. winter, I had received this flock of flying pigs as a birthday present from a dear friend.  And, when the wind is howling and the snow is blowing sideways, what is one to do with a flock of crystal-clear fragile-glass flying pigs who are hanging from a garden mobile but to pack them away and wait for warmer weather?  And what better day to set them free but on the Fourth of July!

So that’s what we did, Viren and I.  We set them free!  We scampered into the hall closet, rummaged through a box in the back and found that flock of pigs lying there in their birthday tissue patiently waiting for their declaration of independence.  Grandpa Cam jumped on board the flying pig mission,  attached wire to the hook on the top of their mobile, then Viren and I found the perfect branch on our front yard apple tree, draped the wire over it and set those pigs to flying.

And that was good enough.  That was better than a Fourth of July scoop of ice cream, to witness crystal-clear pigs suspended in the summer air, their perky wings catching the light.  We didn’t expect anything else from the flock.  What could be better than this, pigs with wings, fluttering beneath the the branches of a magnificent apple tree!  So we said our good-byes to the flock, and, along with Grandpa, strolled through the neighborhood as the first stars pierced the Fourth of July sky.  And, by the time we returned home, the moths and the winged insects were wisping about the front porch entry and the darkened lawn was tucked in for the night.  Except it wasn’t.  Not exactly.  There was something happening over by the apple tree.  Something unusual.  There was a glow in the Fourth of July air.  And it wasn’t lightning bugs.  And it wasn’t sparklers either.  It was something else.  It was those pigs!  Those flying pigs, they were glowing.  They were shimmering.  And we, the three of us, I think we all were squealing as we fixed our eyes on those shimmering glimmering glowing pigs!

And so they fly there now beneath the branch of the sprawling apple, catching the light of the day, shimmering and twinkling far into the night.  And, once you get used to it, it doesn’t seem that unusual at all to host a family of flying pigs in your own front yard.  And I wonder about it.  What else might be stuffed in the back of our closets?  What surprise might appear if we rummage about?   And what might happen if we rattle the cages of our own closeted minds?    What gifts lie waiting to glimmer and shimmer and set us all free?

Viren at Marquette's SugarLoaf Mountain: july 2015

Viren at Marquette’s SugarLoaf Mountain: July 2015


On a hike with Grandma, Michigan's Upper Peninsula, July 2015

On a hike with Grandma, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, July 2015


Viren relaxing with FuFu, Grandma and Grandpa's cat, July 2015

Viren relaxing with FuFu, Grandma and Grandpa’s cat, July 2015


Grandma and Viren at Presque Isle, July 2015

Grandma and Viren at Presque Isle, July 2015




Islands of Sweet Secrets

quiet mind, i am divine — in this body of earth i carry the wild inside me    Marina Evans

We’re here to be blown away by the beauty of nature  Anne Lamott

My love for islands amounts to a pathological condition known as nesomania, an obsession with islands.  This craze seems reasonable to me, because islands are small self-contained worlds that can help us understand larger ones.  Paul Theroux

I come from people who love islands.  Casco Bay in Maine is dotted with them.  Mark Island and Ragged Island and Jenny where we celebrated Fourth of July each summer, Big Wood and Little Wood and Horse Island and Malaga, they all sat there in our piece of the Atlantic just waiting for us to explore them.  And explore them we did.  Our father led the way.  On weekend mornings in the summer when we we were kids, he woke up at dawn, hauled in the line to the turquoise skiff that would carry him out to the big red boat and he would set off in search of treasure.  And there is so much treasure to be found on islands!  There are flat smooth rocks, pink and perfectly-shaped for stepping stones down to the beach at the head of Fish House Cove.  There are small cedar trees to carry home in a bucket for the hedge out to the road.  There are beaches full of periwinkle shells and moon shells and flat delicate sand dollars to form into Dr Suess-like animals.  There are blueberries and cranberries and the sweetest of raspberries that just melt in your mouth.  And there is the sea itself that splashes the shores, gently on the island’s lee side and with high-flying spray on the island’s wild cliffs.

I loved our island summers, the Saturday picnics with sandwiches and deviled eggs and cookies and plums that our mother would spread out onto bleached pieces of driftwood, the hours spent scrounging for shiny rocks on the beach and baby crabs lodged in the cracks of the ledges under clumps of brown rock weed, the dips into the water as the tide poured in, the valiant excursions away from shore to see what lurked in the center of it all.  Our mother would haul out her watercolors and find the perfect spot to paint, our father would keep an eye on the boat, and we, the kids, would play our days away.

And perhaps it was the sweet memory of these island adventures of my youth that propelled me forward in my planning of the latest Mystery Trip.  Or perhaps it was the chocolate, handmade from the purest of ingredients and displayed with care on gorgeous pottery platters and served to us in abundant quantities at a workshop honoring our inner goddess just days before Valentine’s Day that got me thinking about islands and Aphrodite, the goddess of love.  In any case, Greece was calling me this past winter as I, the Mystery Trip spouse in charge of this annual surprise my husband and I take turns giving to each other, googled the birthplace of this goddess who rose from the sea, fully-formed, exquisitely graceful and standing on a seashell.

And it was Kythera that I found, an island off the southeastern tip of Greece’s Peloponnese Peninsula that is said to be the cradle of Aphrodite, an island described as being filled with sweet secrets and feasts of the soul.  And who doesn’t want to wash up on the shore of an island filled with sweet secrets, an island that is said to have beautiful hiking trails and green valleys and olive groves and small pine forests and hills of wild thyme and the best honey in all of Greece, an island of astonishing landscapes and waterfalls and springs bubbling up from the earth, of pristine beaches and mountain gorges, an island off the beaten path of touristy islands?!?  I could already taste the honey and feel the sea breeze long before my husband Cam and I set off on this adventure at the end of April.

Islands provide a playpen for our adventures.  The seas’ boundaries limit our exploration, and, somehow, the world within these limits seems more vivid and concentrated.  It was like that when we were kids.  Our island adventures were rich and sensory.  We tasted the salt and the sun on our skin and the raspberries were warm and sweet on our tongues and the scratches that streaked our legs from scrambling through the bushes stung when we waded into the salty sea.  And the water we waded into sparkled on its surface — and, underneath, when we pushed off and floated on our bellies, we saw the long green grasses swishing with the tide and watched as the the lobsters scuttled along the sandy bottom.

It was like that on Kythera for Cam and I, too.  Our eight day stay in the much bigger playpen than the ones of my youth was packed with sensual delights.  Our host at the family-run hotel, Pelagia Aphrodite, who spent the first twelve years of her life in Australia before her parents brought the family back to Kythera (the place of their ancestors) shared that there are so many choices in Australia, yet, in Kythera, where there are not as many, everything is concentrated with flavor.  And it was true.  The foods tasted as though they were prepared by the gods and the goddesses themselves.  And Cam and I, slipping easily into the slower pace of island life, lingered for hours over meals so fresh and tasty that it was like taking those ancient olive groves and that blue blue sky and that clearest of water, clearer than you could imagine, taking it all right into the very fiber of our beings.  How could a simple salad of ripe red tomatoes, thinnly-sliced onions, crispy cucumbers, and topped with a slab of feta, a few dark olives, a sprinkling of sea salt and herbs and a drizzling of that oil from the groves — how could it taste so heavenly?  Was it the smell of orange blossoms wafting in on an afternoon breeze or the cafe owners and servers who treated us as though we were family — and aren’t we all family on some level?!?  Was it the hiking for hours on ancient roads and trails with the sea always somewhere close by and a village to explore and a cove tucked around a corner and a beach just waiting for us to strip down and dip in that brought us to a place where we were willing to receive the gifts of the gods and the goddesses?!?

Islands build up our appetite — my mother always said it was the sea breeze that made us hungry.  And islands satiate that hunger too.  Late each evening on Kythera after one of those glorious meals, under a full moon, (And how was it that the moon just happened to be gloriously full and rising up from the sea during our stay on the island?!?) Cam and I would walk, arms linked and sea beside us, back to our fabulous home away from home.  I’m not sure I have ever felt so happy as I felt during those treks back each night, with the whole long day soaking into my cells.  And yet, when I remember my childhood island adventures, I feel happy, too.  After piling back into our boat, with treasures tucked in sweatshirt pockets, after the ride through the late afternoon chop back to Fish House Cove and our cottage home, these island adventures soaked into our cells, just as Kythera sings in Cam and I now.  I intend to savor the song!


Helen and Cam: Pelagia Aphrodite Hotel, Kythera, Greece, May 2015

Helen and Cam: Pelagia Aphrodite Hotel, Kythera, Greece, May 2015


On the throne of Aphrodite: Kythera, Greece, May 2015

On the throne of Aphrodite: Kythera, Greece, May 2015


Olive Grove: Kyhera, Greece, May 2015

Olive Grove: Kyhera, Greece, May 2015


Ancient Byzantine village: Kythera, Greece, May 2015

Ancient Byzantine village: Kythera, Greece, May 2015


Figs: Kythera, Greece, May 2015

Figs: Kythera, Greece, May 2015


The sea is everywhere! Kyhtera, Greece, May 2015

The sea is everywhere!
Kyhtera, Greece, May 2015


Kyhtera, Greece, May 2015

Kyhtera, Greece, May 2015


Avlemonas (fishing village): Kythera, Greece, May 2015

Avlemonas (fishing village): Kythera, Greece, May 2015


The clearest most beautiful water in the world! Kythera, Greece, May 2015

The clearest most beautiful water in the world!
Kythera, Greece, May 2015

The Power of Play

It is a happy talent to know how to play.  Ralph Waldo Emerson

This is the real secret of Life — to be completely engaged in the here and now.  And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.  Alan W. Watts

Fun is fundamental.  Doug Hall

In an ancient language, the ten of us chanted the words to a Buddhist mantra.  Over and over again, as we sat in a circle lit up by the glow of a beeswax candle, we repeated this powerful chant, an intention to focus and come into alignment with our deepest Selves.  And then the hum of our words faded and we settled into an inner space of silence.  It felt delicious to me, this gathering on a Wednesday night a week ago, the time we spent chanting together, and the silent afterglow as we brought this mantra into our own bodies and experience.  There was a honey-dipped sweetness in the air, a calm smile wafting around the candlelit room as we stretched our toes and our fingers and opened our eyes when the meditation part of the evening came to a close.

And then I’m not sure how it happened.  It started out softly enough, people sharing personal anecdotes from this thirty-minute experience, and others nodding in agreement or adding their own snippets or simply enjoying the inner silence.  I’m not sure how the energy rose, but it did, into a bonfire flame of passionate stories, veering us off in an entirely different direction.  It was the topic of “play” that shot up from the groundwork of this intentional chanting and the moments of silent meditation, not restrained grown-up play, but the raucous play of our youth.  And this conversation that brought us back to our childhoods was as delicious and high vibration as the silence had been just minutes before.

For one woman, it was hole-digging that excited her ten-year-old self.  “Each day, for about a month, I would race home from school to the hole I was digging in my backyard, and the neighborhood kids would rush over, too, and we’d dig.  Just dig.  And it was a blast!”  Hole-digging!  She was lit up as she remembered how fun it had been to simply dig a hole on her childhood lawn.  And then I remembered how I too had loved to dig holes when I was a kid, at the beach in the soppy low-tide-perfect-for-sandcastle-sand at the state park beach, and in the gray sticky clay sand of our own beach.  And I remembered how I had loved to splash in mud puddles in the fall and the spring, and how it was the best, the very best, when a thin layer of ice would form on one of these puddles and I was the kid who got there first.  There was nothing more fun than the crackle, the smash of a layer of fine delicate ice.  And during that evening a week ago, there was nothing more fun than the remembering of these fun experiences from our childhoods.

“Kids need to play!” my yoga friend, a retired teacher and media specialist, had said to me earlier that same day.  I agree with this statement.  Kids need to play.  And now I’ll add to it.  We adults need to play too.  It comes easy for the kids.  At least it does for my two-tipping-into-three-year-old grandson Viren.  “Grandma, you be Buzz Lightyear!  I’ll be Woody!” he hollered to me from the top of his neighborhood slide three weeks ago on my last visit to Idaho.  I’ve never seen Toy Story, wasn’t sure who Buzz Lightyear was, but when a grandson is ordering you around, you comply.  “Okay, I’m Buzz!” I responded in a deep B. Lightyear voice.  “Buzz, come slide down the slide!” Woody commanded from the top in a voice as deep as a guy not quite three can muster.  And what’s a grandma to do?!?  A grandma who isn’t quite as good at all this play-area play?!?  Well, I did it!  I climbed up, making sure the contraption was sturdy enough to hold me, and then I took my turn right behind that deep-voiced Woody.  Several times we slid down on our butts, Woody and Buzz, Viren and I, and then we ran through the field, our arms flying like planes in the sky.  Woody wiped out couple of times and Buzz hobbled a bit, but it was high-flying fun for two Toy Story toys, for a play-loving grandson and his willing-to-learn grandma.

Okay, so it might not appeal to you to put on the persona of a Toy Story Toy and slide down a slide. (Although I can tell you that sliding down a slide is up there on my fun chart with ice-on-puddle-crackle-smashing!)  And I confess that I really don’t care what I play when I’m with Viren; it’s the being with him that is the play for me.  Our tastes change.  What we loved at two or ten might not make our hearts dance in our present moment experience, but we can bring the spirit of that fun into whatever we’re doing now.  Chanting with a group is fun for me and going inward and noticing my breath and finding a still place somewhere down there in that body of mine while present with that same group of people also is fun.  I love sinking into that stillness.  It calms me.  I love sharing it with others.  And I love being silly.  I think my authentic self is silly beyond silly; I think my silliness rises from that place of deep stillness.  And that’s what happened at the gathering a week ago Wednesday.  The hole-digging woman and I couldn’t contain it, all this silliness.  In Joy Center’s foyer, as people pulled on boots and slipped into coats, we were laughing so hard, contorting our bodies, and allowing silliness to reign.  It felt sacred.  It felt wonderful.  It felt like being ten again and wise beyond measure and connected to something free and expansive and available in any moment.


Viren and Grandma Helen horsing around: Moscow, Idaho, March 2015

Viren and Grandma Helen horsing around: Moscow, Idaho, March 2015

The Importance of Being Earnest

(Snail-mail letter from Joy Center mailing for March/April, 2015)

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

I have found it, the holy grail.  Actually, it wasn’t me who found it.  It was my cousin Abby, a milliner who has lived in New York City for most of her adult life.  She discovered this golden chalice of information in the archives of New York City’s public library, right in the midst of Manhattan, this letter written by our grandfather in December of 1918.  It’s not like I haven’t seen letters written by him before — I’ve been on a Grandpa quest these past nine months, sifting through and soaking in a wealth of information left to me by my father (Abby’s mother’s twin and Grandpa’s son).  I’ve read published essays about my grandfather and by my grandfather, letters he wrote to his mother and to his sister from London and Paris, letters to art dealers, letters from other artists, and remembrances, too, by his friends and fellow artists after he died in a car accident in 1925.  And I’ve perused through the pile of art that I have inherited.  You see, that’s how I knew Grandpa, as an artist — internationally known during his lifetime and remembered for his etchings, engravings, pen-and-inks, lithographs and watercolors.  And these etchings and watercolors and theater posters adorned our walls when I was a little girl.  And the grandfather who created this art died more than thirty years before my birth when the twins were four.  And to us, his kids and his grandkids, he was more Famous-Artist-Myth than flesh and bone.

And that’s why I’ve been questing, to make Ernest Haskell, my grandfather, real for me.  And he was becoming real to me, this artist grandfather, before cousin Abby, two weeks ago on a Saturday morning while she and I sat in a booth eating breakfast in her Harlem neighborhood IHOP, handed me excerpts that she had copied from a letter she discovered in the public library archives.  During the autumn months of my quest into our family’s own archives, as I read the letters that Grandpa wrote home to his sister from New York and London and Paris, I found myself delighting in his exuberance and his humor and the determination he possessed to learn from the great artist masters during his lengthy period of self-study.  I found myself adventuring alongside him as he sailed the waters of Casco Bay near the salt-water farm that he owned and loved and handed down to us, his ancestors.  I found myself admiring his integrity and his ability to cave out for himself a handcrafted life on his own terms.  And, in late January, my husband Cam and I flew to California for a five-day trip tracing Grandpa’s trail to Sequoia National Park, to the very spot where Grandpa, one hundred-and-one-years ago, etched in copper plates the mighty Sequoias.  And then, we followed his path to the coast, to Big Sur and Monterey where he lived and created art among the windswept cypress.  Yes, his life and his art were already becoming real to me before this trip east to New York two weeks ago, to the city where he spent many of his winters, where he connected with other artists and art dealers and curators of art and the theater people he would immortalize in posters.

So what was it about this letter written by Grandpa in 1918 that made me fall head over heels in love with him?  (And was that what I’d wanted to do all along, not just to make him real, but to like him, to heart-open tears-in-my-eyes love him, not just as artist, but as person?!?)  It was less than a year since his wife had died in the 1918 flu epidemic and he was sole parent to two small children and he was hurting for money and writing to a friend with connections to patrons.  There was a vulnerability in this letter written by my grandfather, now an artist in his forties who had become well-known and acclaimed for the etchings that he had been creating for much of the last decade.  He was telling his friend that he had devoted himself to these etchings created in the tradition of Rembrandt, that he knew he had a gift, that a man’s eyes would only allow him to continue for a limited time, that he thought that fifty more etchings would complete his work in this medium.  He continued to say that he knew that etching wasn’t a popular art form of the time, that it was the era for the modernists, that he could make money doing portraits and oils, but that his heart was in etchings, that it was the gold that he possessed, the talent that was his, the treasure that he must manifest.

That’s when I knew I was in love with my grandfather.  He wasn’t seeking fame and fortune.  He wasn’t following popular trends of the time.  He wasn’t choosing the easy path of creating art that would sell.  He was listening to his own heart, and honoring his talent.  And I’m not sure whether he found the patrons that he was seeking.  I don’t think so.  We have never found evidence to indicate that he did.  But I’ll tell you this — in the next seven years, the years before his accident, he did complete an amazing collection of etchings, etchings that critics have felt are his finest pieces.  He did it!  He did what he had set out to do.  He did it while parenting those two children and marrying again and fathering the twins and living with integrity and guts and humor.  And the last lines of the letter are the ones that make me cry, the lines that bring the whole quest home for me.  He was telling his friend that he was not creating this art for the present moment; he was creating this art for future generations.  And oh my goodness, here I am, nearly one-hundred years later, reading the letter.  I am the future that he was creating for.  We all are.  And to me, it’s not just the art.  Though I’ll tell you, it is a treat to dive deep into these etchings.  It is something else, too.  It also is a treat to dive deep and to discover a mentor, a role model, a friend, someone who can hold your hand and cheer you on as you, too, listen to your own unique and precious callings.  I discovered that Ernest Haskell is indeed earnest, and is such a friend.

The Players Club, Gramercy Park, New York City: February 20, 2015 Ernest Haskell was a member, late 1800's/ early 1900's

The Players Club, Gramercy Park, New York City: February 20, 2015
(Ernest Haskell was a member, late 1800’s/ early 1900’s)

Cousin Abby at Player's Club, New York City: February 20, 2015

Cousin Abby at Player’s Club, New York City: February 20, 2015

Helen in Harlem: February 21, 2015

Helen in Harlem: February 21, 2015

The Puck Building, New York City: February 21, 2015  (Where Ernest Haskell did the printing of his art work)

The Puck Building, New York City: February 21, 2015 (Where Ernest Haskell’s lithographs were printed)

The Student Art League, New York City: February 21, 2015  (Ernest Haskell taught an etching class here during the winter of 1918)

The Student Art League, New York City: February 21, 2015
(Ernest Haskell taught an etching class here during the winter of 1918)

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