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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.

 

photo-23

Marquette’s lakeshore: November, 2015

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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

nor’easter

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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