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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

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


You think that this is just another day in your life.  It’s not just another day.  It’s the one day that is given to you today.  It’s the only gift that you have right now.  And the only appropriate response is gratefulness.  So I wish that you can open your heart to all these blessings, and let them flow through you.  Then everyone whom you will meet on this day will be blessed by you.  Just by your eyes, by your smile, by your touch.  Just by your presence.  Let the gratefulness overflow into blessing all around you.  And then it will be a really good day.  David Steindl-Rast

Living in gratefulness takes away fear.  David Steindl-Rast

It’s not a “Please pass the mashed potatoes and a whopping big serving of gratitude!”  It’s not a “Fill me up, oh gratitude, and make me happy!”  It’s not like that at all.  It’s an inside job, this practice of gratitude, an inner Thanksgiving that satiates a hunger that runs deep.  And the prep work is nil.  It doesn’t require the washing and the peeling of potatoes, the chopping and roasting of squash, the stuffing of a free-range turkey.  It can be done anywhere.  Even here, on this Thanksgiving Eve, while sitting on a plane pointed west to Seattle with your husband sprawled out beside you sound asleep.

Why not start where you are on the journey to where you are going?   Why not fill yourself to the brim even before you and your guy drive the five-hours back east tomorrow morning over the Cascades and south to the Palouse and onto your adventure, even before you walk through the door to the home in Moscow, Idaho and greet them all, your two sons, their wives, your two-year-old grandson, even before you scoop them up in your hugs and your kisses?   Why not go for the inner feast before the outer feast?   Because even now, late at night and well past your bedtime, and not even close to your destination, even now when you’re over-tired and a little cranky and your partner isn’t going to chat, even now, there is so much to be grateful for.  Why not fill your plate with heaping spoonfuls of gratitude as you fly over Nebraska and Wyoming and Montana and into the wee hours of the morning?

Because that’s all there is to it.  It’s not hard once you get going.  In fact, it’s downright easy.  All you have to do is say it.  “I’m grateful!”  There!  You’ve done it!  Now feel it.  Feel it in your heart because your heart is a wellspring of gratitude.  The supply is infinite.  “I’m grateful.  I’m grateful for this plane that is sailing westward at 35, 000 feet above the earth, the earth that I am so infinitely grateful for, grateful for a smooth sailing ride, grateful for the hummus and crackers and olives and artichoke dip that I just ate.”  See how it works!  One thing leads to another.  “I’m grateful.”   You say it again and a steady stream of gratitudes flow from you with ease.  “I’m grateful, grateful for the moon and the stars, to be sailing among them, and for the movie that is playing in front of me.  Magic in the Moonlight.  Magic in the moonlight!  I’m grateful for the movie and for a title like that and for the remembering that there is indeed magic in the moonlight, grateful that I’ve watched the silver ripples of moonlight shimmering across the sea, grateful for the sea that I can almost smell right now even as I sit in this plane high above mountains next to my sleeping husband.”

And then there’s your husband!  “I’m grateful, so grateful for this man who I’ve known since we were eighteen-year-old  kids, grateful that I can pull that teenager out of him in a heartbeat, grateful that our hearts are beating, and that they break wide open when we really breathe deeply and  feel how much we love each other.”   And don’t lose your momentum now.  Keep it going!   It is a wellspring, this inner practice of gratitude, a geyser splashing you with happiness.   And now you remember something wonderful.  It was a simple moment really,  just a few hours ago in the Detroit Airport when you stopped in a store where you have sometimes bought clothes to wish the clerk who somehow seems like your friend a very Happy Thanksgiving.  You didn’t expect it, her wide-armed hug and the sweetness of connection.  So say it now.  “I’m grateful, grateful beyond measure for human kindness and human connection, for hearts that press into each other and love that spreads beyond boundaries.”

It doesn’t need to rhyme.   It doesn’t need to look pretty on the page.  There are no rules of grammar, no limits to its possibilities.  You can be grateful for anything.  Maybe your childhood cat.  Why wouldn’t you be grateful for your childhood cat?  You loved her more than life itself!  Her name was Snoozles and she was a petite calico with an inky black nose and her mother was Engine Charlie and it was on a Thanksgiving trip to your cousins’ sprawling suburban home in Wayland, Massachusetts that your parents said yes to bringing her back to Maine and it was the most wonderful Thanksgiving ever that year you were four.  Except for all the other Thanksgivings.  So go on.  Be grateful for the others, for all of them, for the Grandmas and the Grandpas and the mothers and the fathers and the aunts and the uncles and the cute boy cousins and the kindred girl cousins, for both sides of the family, for Cousin Julia’s giblet gravy and your father-in-law’s raw oysters, for your toddler sons and the turkey bones that they gnawed on, for toasts to health and toasts to family and toasts to the pilgrims who once lived pretty close to your cousin’s house in Massachusetts and toasts to the turkey itself  which sits in the center of the table.  It’s all so good!  Do you feel it now?  It just keeps spreading and spreading!  Grateful for the memories, grateful for the anticipation.   Oh, it is such a feast, such a feast, filling yourself up with gratitude!


Grandpa Perry carving the turkey

Grandpa Perry carving the turkey

Thanksgiving at Wayland with the Perry relatives

Thanksgiving at Wayland, Massachusetts with the Perry relatives

Magic in the Moonlight

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

Enter the enchanted woods, You who dare.  George Meredith

It felt magical, that walk home around the block from Joy Center last Thursday evening.  The air was balmy and the moon, filtered by a thin layer of clouds, lent a warm glow to the trees and to the road and to the sky above me.  And as I looked up, I wasn’t certain what I was seeing.  Was it clouds that were dancing across the nighttime sky or was it something else radiating out in wispy pinwheel patterns — the northern lights, perhaps?  And what was that sound that I was hearing carried in on the slight breeze?  It was a howling sound, I was sure — coyotes howling at the moon and the pin-wheel dancing sky.  And my heart, it was a happy open-hearted song it was singing and I felt in love with it all, the howling coyotes, the dancing sky, the air I was breathing.  I felt in love with life, rapturously in love with life, and with chocolate, too.  Yes, I felt in love with chocolate too.  Not just any chocolate.  Pure organic fair-trade chocolate, in roasted beans offered in a pottery bowl, and in a steaming blend of water, cocoa powder, and cayenne pepper served in handmade mugs, and in concoction after concoction of chocolate nibs and cocoa blended with spices and honey and coconut in exotic variations.  I was filled with chocolate as I walked that short magical route from Joy Center to home.

And was it the chocolate that made me feel so good, so open, so appreciative of life?  Adonna, our professor/facilitator and magician-extraordinaire of chocolate concoctions at the evening’s Chocolate as Medicine workshop had told us that, along with the antioxidants and the long list of healing properties, chocolate was filled with endorphins and I certainly was filled with rich dark pure chocolate.  So maybe it was the chocolate.  Maybe I was on a chocolate high.  Whatever it was, it stayed with me through my short night of sleep and onto the plane in the wee hours of the next morning as my husband Cam and I flew west to Boulder, Colorado for a four-day adventure celebrating our 37th wedding anniversary.  And Boulder is 5000 feet above sea level and the air is clear and sweet and the trails we hiked on each day took us through juniper and pine-scented forests and even higher into that clear thin air, and is that why the good-feeling stayed with me?  Did the altitude take over when the chocolate wore off?  Was it a Rocky Mountain High causing my euphoria?  Was that the reason I was in love with my beating-in-my-ears heart and my huff huff huffing breath and my limber legs and my sturdy big feet that stepped from Rocky Mountain rock to Rocky Mountain rock?  Was that the reason that I loved the blindingly blue sky and those snowcapped peaks more than words could ever say, why I loved that guy, too, the guy I call “my guy” who was hiking right in front of me?  Was it the altitude that had my heart all a’flutter and my head filled with euphoria?

And I wonder about the Boulder evenings too.   After our days of hiking, sun-soaked and fresh-filled with mountain air, my guy and I would head downtown, to Boulder’s pedestrian-only tree and sculpture-lined Pearl Street where the people promenade and the buskers perform their magic acts and the kids climb the rocks and scamper through the shooting-from-the-ground fountain.  And it was here, in the midst of this hustle, that the five young men and women would take out their string instruments and in front of some store would begin to play.  It was as good as chocolate.  It was as uplifting as the upward thrust up those mountain trails.  This music that washed through me in a glorious buoyant wave, swept me to a place where once again I was in love with it all:  the yogi on the other side of the rock sculpture garden twisting himself into a pretzel and squeezing himself into a tiny box, in love with the scampering kids, the lovers walking hand in hand, the guy with the cardboard sign asking for money, the crowds of people, the full moon rising up above that sweeping sound.  I’ve heard that violin music has the power to open your heart, and the full moon certainly can pull at the inner tides — and is that why I felt so good sitting on a bench on Pearl Street at the end of each day?

And who cares if it’s a chocolate high or a bout of euphoria induced by the thin air in the Rockies?  Who cares if it’s the outward gift of a string quintet or the full-rising moon?  Who cares what it is that sets are spirits flying ?!?  Aren’t we supposed to feel good?  Aren’t we supposed to sing with the coyotes and lift our eyes up to those pin-wheel spinning clouds and to the moon that is super full on a Saturday night?  Aren’t we supposed to fill ourselves up with wonder, with pleasure, with rich-tasting high-in-antioxidant treats?!?  Cam and I scrambled up the last hundred feet of jumbled rock to Lily Mountain’s ten-thousand-foot-summit, to its tiny cramped spectacular summit with its 360 degree view of snow-capped mountains and green valleys and the whole of Rocky Mountain National Park.  And as we sat there on that cramped summit, eating our lunch, admiring the view, our eyes caught something in the air, hovering in the wind, something unexpected and unbelievable.   It was a hummingbird fluttering in front of us, no flower in sight, no logical reason to be there.  The Native Americans believe that the hummingbird is a sign of happiness, an invitation to open to pleasure.  I’m glad to remember this gift that flew into our summit moment.  I’m glad to accept its invitation.  Pleasure is here for us in our foods, our music, in the very air that we breathe


Chautauqua Park, Boulder, Colorado: August 2014

Chautauqua Park, Boulder, Colorado: August 2014


InTune String Ensemble: Pearl Street, Boulder, Colorado, August 2014

InTune String Ensemble: Pearl Street, Boulder, Colorado, August 2014

Rocky Mountain High: Celebrating Our Anniversary, Rocky Mountain National Park, August 2014

Rocky Mountain High:
Celebrating Our Anniversary, Rocky Mountain National Park, August 2014

A Weekend in Paris

If we rush through life, we’re likely to miss the sweet moments that offer the only real thing we are here to experience: joy.  Ellen Yeoman

Every step I take in the light is mine forever.  Vivekananda

“We have all the time we need!”  I say it in yoga, session after session, and I feel it in a genuine full-bodied way as we lie on our backs, knees bent, feet planted in the ground, legs swaying side to side.  We have all the time we need, no reason to rush through the poses, to leap ahead to something that isn’t even present in this present moment.  I say it and I believe it and yet there are times that my days are so packed that I can’t imagine how I’m going to fit it all in and I often don’t and it never really matters anyway.  And perhaps it takes a weekend away, say a weekend in Paris, to remind a gal that what is true on the yoga mat is also true while living and breathing and moving through the moments and hours and days and years of a lifetime or two lifetimes  or three lifetimes or more.  “We have all the time we need!”

“It’s not long enough!” some of our friends exclaimed when we told them about this getaway to Paris that my husband and I had planned for the last weekend in February.  But it never seemed that way to us, this four-day jaunt across the Atlantic.  And perhaps that is one of the mind games that we humans can play to create a spacious life.  Cam and I  knew, for some reason, just knew that we were going to have all the time we needed.  We expected the two and a half days in the City of Lights  to open up for us.  And they did!  And frankly, even with this expectation, I was amazed at how they did.

Our initial flight this past Wednesday was set back a few hours, our connections messed up, and we didn’t even arrive in the center of Paris until the early evening on Thursday, and, yet, those hours on Thursday evening stretched out wide and slowed us down and glimmered with light and somehow we fit it all in, the list of things that we didn’t even know we had compiled.  We strolled along the banks of the Seine as the sun sunk down and the city lights sprung to life.  We stepped through the massive entry into the Cathedral Notre Dame and hushed our voices and felt the centuries slip away.  We wandered through the medieval cobblestone streets of the Ile St-Louis, gazed into the windows of the gray-stone shops, oohed and ahhed at display after display of candies and pastries and stuffed animals and puppets and hats and sweaters and scarves and shoes, each one, a magnificent work of art.  And, after a dinner on the Isle, we bought a lock from a young man on the bridge, wrote our names, “Helen and Cam”, in blue marker on the lock’s gleaming surface, clasped it shut onto the chain of millions of clasped locks woven through the bridge’s metal sides, tossed the keys into the gleaming nighttime river and kissed just as the young man instructed.  It was wonderful, this kiss on the bridge, this evening in Paris.  And the next day, there was more, the miles and miles of walking, slow and easy at times, brisk and spring-like at other times, a morning exploring the Marais, a noon-time meal at a cafe, another jaunt along the River Seine and through the grounds of the Louvre, winding and weaving and making our way over the river on Pont Alexander III to my favorite spot of all, the one that I’ve known my whole life, the Eiffle Tower.

And you might say, “Well, of course the time is going to open up for you in a place as magnificent as Paris!  Of course, life is going to be magnificent in this City of Magnificence!”  And I would say back to you that it wasn’t all magnificent, that there were moments of minor horror.  There was the moment, a shared moment for my guy and I, at the little restaurant of crepes, a place we thought we had remembered from our first visit to Paris seven years ago, that moment when we, hungry after a day of travel, bit into our buckwheat crepes that looked so good on the outside, only to discover that wrapped on the inside of each was an almost raw and very slimy egg and a layer of creamy canned-seeming spinach, and, in Cam’s case, a long skinny hot dog that was totally unexpected.  Do we still  have all the time we need when our food choices miss the mark?  When our life choices miss the mark?  Can we remind ourselves that there is another cafe, another bistro, another meal, another chance to get it right?  On this trip or the next or the next?  And, can we allow those moments when we don’t think that we’ve gotten it right, can we allow them to be perfect just as they are?  Can it become a highlight of a trip to laugh at the meals that disappoint?  At the moments that aren’t up to our feel-good standard?  Why not?!?  And can we bring this reminder home with us in the bags we’ve packed with the goodies of Paris?

And what about the two full days of getting there and getting back home again?   When a guy and a gal commit to a weekend trip abroad with the expectation that they are going to have all the time that they need, then the hours, the many many hours spent in airport lounges and in the airwaves better be a positive part of this experience.  We’re good travel companions, my guy and I.  We know how to charge through airports when charging is required, how to be silly when over-tiredness is begging for a deep full-bodied laugh, how to haul out the chocolate when a jolt of endorphins is the ticket to happiness.  We know how to play together and how to give each other space.  And all of these things came in handy during our weekend adventure.   And so did the sky lounges on either side of the trip.  Dare I say that two of our best meals were at European airport sky lounges, that the adventure of watching the Olympics from a European perspective in the lounges was a thrill?  Dare I say that it was fun, this time in airports and in the air, that we watched a movie together as we sailed through the sky toward home, that we got downright stupid in our silliness, that it’s with us now a day later, all the richness of this trip?

I do dare to say it, that we can we can tell ourselves that we have all the time we need, that our moments can open up, full-bodied and spacious and fun, that we can be gentle with ourselves, relax our shoulders and soften our to-do lists, that we can allow our days, the ones spent at home and the ones spent traveling to faraway lands, to unfold in ways that surprise and delight us.

Our first selfie:  Cam and Helen at Eiffel Tower: Paris, February 21, 2014

Our first selfie: Cam and Helen at Eiffel Tower: Paris, February 21, 2014

The Best Day Ever!!!

Heaven is where you’ll be when you are okay right where you are.  Sun Ra

It was a snowy blowy Sunday evening, the kind of evening that you want to hunker in with a bowl of steaming hot soup and watch a good movie.  And that’s what we did at Joy Center, the seven of us, several weeks ago now, at the last Dinner and a Movie Night.  I thought that no one would show up, that it would be Cam and I and our pot luck offering of dal stew, the two of us watching the documentary, “One Track Heart” about “chant master ” Krishna Das.   And the evening unfolding like that would have been fine — it’s an inspiring movie and Cam and I enjoy each other’s company — but what a delightful surprise when three cars plowed into the drifting driveway and five friends, carrying pots of homemade curry and fresh veggies and cranberry pie, hopped out and braced themselves against the howling wind and into the warmth of the Joy Center’s  kitchen.  As the wind and the snow swirled outside, we, nestled into the cozy warmth of our Joy Center cottage in the woods, feasted on salad and curries and mango-rice pudding and a cranberry pie that was sweet and sour and a perfect-tasting conclusion to a perfect-tasting meal.  And then, filled with the the spice-filled curries and the homemade deserts, we dimmed the lights and sprawled out on the futon-thick yoga mats, with pillows and bolsters, and settled in as the movie, this journey of Krishna Das’s transformation from Jewish boy raised in Long Island to devotee of Hindu guru, Maharaj-ji, to the most well-known of the western-world’s singers of devotional Indian Kirtan-style music.

And, several times during the evening, one of the women, who, along with her friend, had made for us all the most glorious of green curries,  exclaimed, “This is the best day ever!!!”.  She came prepared for a relaxing good-time evening, for a best-time-ever-evening, in her colorful flannel pajama bottoms, with her enthusiastic smile.  And it was contagious.  Each time that she proclaimed that it was the best day ever, her arms would fly up in the air and we’d catch a whiff of it, the fun emanating from something deep inside of her, the joy bubbling up into the rafters, and this bubbling joy mingled with the joy emanating from Krishna Das, playing his harmonium and chanting his joyful heartfelt songs, in person and present for us projected on the Joy Center wall.  “This is the best day ever!!!”  We were all saying it, as we paused the movie for heaping helpings of more of everything, saying it as the movie came to an end, saying it as we slipped one of Joy Center’s Krishna Das’ CD’s into the CD player and began to dance, saying it as  we washed the dishes and basked in an evening well-spent.

I thought of that mid-December evening a few days ago as I celebrated the new year with some dear friends.  We were sitting around a table, exchanging gifts and setting our  intentions for 2014 when one woman cried out, with the same genuine enthusiasm as my pajama-clad friend at Joy Center nearly a month ago, “I’m in a happy moment!”.    And at least to my ears, it sounded as though she was emphasizing the “in” — not that this was a happy moment or that she was having a happy moment.  She was saying that she was in a happy moment.   I could feel it, the way a moment nestles around us, the way that we can hunker into it with the same level of ease that we hunkered into Joy Center on that snowy-blowy Dinner and a Movie Night.  The moments are ours to enjoy in that intimate all-embracing way and it’s up to us to decide whether we see them as happy or not.  Sitting in a circle with beloved friends who I have known for nearly twenty years, opening gifts and looking forward into 2014, I, too, felt the happiness of the moment, the moment that I found myself in.  And another friend who was a part of that circle commented that it is a string of these moments that make up a lifetime.

And so here we are, welcoming in a new year, a necklace of moments strung together into days, strung together into  years, into lifetimes.   I smile when I think back to our rollicking heart-opening evening at Joy Center.  I feel it in the present moment and it makes me happy.  And I  feel my heart open when I reflect on the way my friend, with such sincerity last Friday, proclaimed herself in a happy moment, and this moment, a moment after the last happy moment,  it feels happy, too.  And in this next moment, when I gaze out the window by my desk to a sky that is a clear blue at midmorning and think ahead to an afternoon ski in temperatures that are beginning to warm up, I feel happy.  And so it goes.  One moment after another.  And later in the afternoon, I plan to play with my toddler grandson who calls me “Amma” and is silly beyond silly and wise beyond wise and tonight I plan to meander over to Joy Center and create and bind my own book under the guidance of my dear friends, Amber and Raja, at a Book Art Evening, and somewhere along the way, at sometime today, perhaps while being silly with Viren or while skate-skiing through these frozen woods or while choosing the paper to cover my hardbound homemade book, I’ll be like my pajama-clad friend, and raise my arms and cry out to the world, cry out to myself, “This is the best day ever!”

Viren in a happy moment:  January 2014

Viren in a happy moment: January 2014

Shouting ourselves alive!!!!

The Universe has shouted itself alive.  We are one of the shouts.  Ray Bradbury

I’m just going to say it:  I want it all!

Back at home this morning after a week in Moscow, Idaho where I had been visiting my son and daughter-in-law and toddler grandson, back at home as I allowed myself to be roused from sleep, the words were already there for me, clear and fully formed.  I want it all!  I want this glorious bed and the pillow that I’ve nestled into for years and the silk-screen painting of Lake Superior lit up by the moon that hangs on the sea-foam-colored wall across from the bed.  I want my bedmate, my soul mate, the guy I’ve known for almost forty years.  I want to cheer him on as I receive a text from South Dakota where he is now bow-hunting.  “Living my dream!” he says.  I want for him to live his dream and I want to live mine, too.

I want to feast on the time that I spend with that adorable grandson.  I want to take it in, to own it, that I really do think it is high-flying fun to sit on the floor and watch Thomas the Train on Net Flix, toddler grandson plopped on my lap, to cuddle close, to squeeze tight, to practically gobble him up as I say, “I love you!  I love you!  I love you!”  I want it all.  I want to gobble it up, to gorge on it, this life that I’m living.  And I want to say, “I love you!  I love you!  I love you!” to everything, the way that adorable grandson and I say it to his cars and his trucks and his menagerie of stuffed monkeys and puppies and squirrels.  I want to say it with the uninhibited innocence of a sixteen-month-old.  I love you friends and sons and daughter-in-laws.  I love you husband.  I love you strangers who smile at me and strangers who frown.  I love you snow that is gently falling right now and the sun that is up there somewhere brightening the sky.  I love you earth and I love you sky.  I want to say it with unbridled care-free toddler-like enthusiasm.  I love you!

I want it all.  I want to stuff it into my tiny book, the one that I made at Joy Center’s Book Art Club in September, the one I call “My Autumn Book.”  I want to squeeze this unwieldy life I’m living into the pages of this handcrafted journal.  I want to contain it.  I want to let it flow, too.  I want to say, “Flow through me Life!  Flow through my veins, ignite my flames, brighten my skin, brighten my days.”  I want for my cells to sing with the life I’m living.  I want it all, the hike to a waterfall in the autumn-colored Smokies on a mild afternoon with one son and, two weeks later, the hike up Idaho’s Moscow Mountain in pine-scented mist with the other son.  I want more and more of these heart-pumping hikes and I want to skate-ski, too.  I want for the snow to fly and I want to fly in this flying snow.  And I want to sing.  I want to sing the way my father used to sing, loud and full of gusto, no holding back.  I want to sing like that, and live like that, no holding back.

And what else do I want?  I want the comforts of home, my home, our home, the fireplace in the living room, the art on the walls, the embrace of a partner and the routines that I love.  I want the walks, the talks, the Friday evenings at Sweetwater Cafe.  I want to eat scrumptious foods, foods that are fresh and real, foods that titillate my senses and bring my body pleasure.  I want to feel  pleasure.  I want the deep sustaining pleasure of strong roots and a stable foundation and I want the wild too.  I want the Lake,  the grandest of all lakes.  I want it in all its moods.  I want  its thrashing waves.  Its crashing waves.  I want to be stirred inside.  I want the ocean too.  How could I not want the ocean?  I want the sea-smell in Maine, the fog that curls my hair, the salt that holds me up.  I want the Lake and the ocean and I want the mountains, the worn round mountains of the east coast and the jagged Rockies in the west.  I want the Alps, too, and the Himalayas and the Pyrenees.  I want the comfort of the old, the thrill of the new.  I want the reliable aging Subaru and the brand-new rental.  I want to travel.  I want to honor my traveling feet.  I want to wrap my arms, my long gangly eager arms around this whole thriving thrumming planet, to squeeze it close, to press my heart into its heart, and with the sincerity that I’ve learned from hanging around a toddler, to whisper and to shout, to sing and to scream, “I love you!  I love you!  I love you!”

Maine Adventure: Part Two

Deep in their roots, all flowers keep the light.    Theodore Roethke

It is an old old house, born in the early 1800’s, this salt-water farmstead that we grew up calling the Old House.  And a week ago Thursday, there we sat, at noon on a sweltering day, in the coolness of its cozy dining room, around the antique table, steadying our chairs on its pine-plank time-worn-sloping floor.  There were twelve of us – my cousin, Diana, who is living here in this family home that our Grandpa Haskell purchased, along with two coves and a point of land in coastal Maine in 1903, and her sister, Karen, and Karen’s husband, John, and the seven of us, Cam and I and our two boys and their gals and baby Viren, along with Cam’s mother and her boyfriend, Bob, who had joined us mid-week on our Maine adventure.  Our plates were piled high with fresh crabmeat scooped onto garden lettuce or tucked into sandwiches, and paprika-sprinkled egg salad, from eggs that we had gathered that morning from the coop at our country rental home, and cousin Diana’s potato salad, and juicy slices of ripe red tomatoes and crisp cucumbers plucked from the vine and Karen’s perfectly-gooey homemade brownies and her blueberry tart that was almost too beautiful to eat.  But eat it we did, all of it, this feast of food and festivity, as we, very much present in the present, savored each bite of conversation, each morsel of the meal’s goodwill.  And I wonder how it is possible not to chew on bits of the past, too, when you are four generations of family sitting around an antique table.

In almost every session of yoga, we turn one foot at a right angle outward and the other slightly inward, and we twist our standing spread-out bodies from Five-pointed Star into the Warrior Two pose, one arm pointing forward at shoulder height and one stuck straight back behind us at the same height.  It is a powerful pose, pressed into the outsides’ of our feet, firmly planted in the present moment.  And almost always, I say to look behind at the arm pressed into the past, that we don’t need to stay stuck here, that the past and its memories, the ones that matter in the Now, will rise up as we ground ourselves in our bodies, as we turn our torsos around to the present and to the future with a forward-focused momentum.  So there it was, rising up for us, as we munched on sea-salted crabmeat and juicy ripe tomatoes and slices of blueberry tart; there it was as we watched over the twelve-month-old – the toddling-toddler of our family’s new generation – as he reached for the photographs and the family treasures.  And when your inner warrior, that yogic-grounded part of you, is focused on the positive in the present, it is the positive from the past that makes its way up to the surface.

Before we sat down at the table, our sons, who have not spent time in the Old House since childhood, along with their partners and Cam’s mother and Bob, toured its quirky art-filled rooms, moseyed into Grandpa Haskell’s tiny studio where the press that he used to print out his etchings is still set up just as it had been before his death in a car accident in 1925.  It was with the excitement that comes when something clicks into place that our son, Pete, questioned me when he returned from the tour.  “Mom, is the photo on the wall of the studio my great grandfather?”  And when I nodded my head, yes, he added, “Now I know where the bald gene comes from!”  This great-grandfather, who has been more myth to my sons than flesh and blood, more well-known artist of the etchings that they’ve inherited, than man who walked through these same quirky rooms, was now becoming real, a handsome guy with a receding hairline like Pete who summered in this house and kept a cow in the barn and a sailing canoe at the water’s edge.  He was alive to us all as we sat around the table eating our food and sharing our stories.

And the stories were a rich summer-smorgasbord of memories.  There were the family stories, the flashbacks of us as kids, piled into the red lobster boat with a skiff trailing behind, heading off to a Saturday picnic at Spring Beach or sitting around this same table at holiday gatherings, memories of times before my birth, when the older cousins cranked the old-fashioned ice cream churner on the farmhouse lawn, with my father, their Uncle Ernie.  And there were the memories from outside this Haskell homestead that made their way into our noon-time gathering.  How does the mother of my husband, a gal who was born and grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who married her childhood friend and raised her son (my husband) and his siblings in that same town in the Midwest, end up here in coastal Maine sitting at the table on this summer-thick day?  What are the chances of a Wellesley gal, like my mother-in-law, getting back together with her college boyfriend who attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick, the town next to Bath where I grew up, a boyfriend who now lives in a coastal town in southern Maine?  It was the ice cream on the blueberry tart, the day’s sweet frosting to have the two of them with us, these college lovebirds, who, a year and a half ago and years after the deaths of their spouses, reunited.  It was an extra scoop of ice cream on a hot afternoon to listen in as boyfriend, Bob, sat close to cousin Karen’s husband, John, who also attended Bowdoin College at about the same time period, and spoke with enthusiasm of how he and Cam’s mother met on a blind date on a football Saturday in Brunswick, Maine back when they were in their early twenties.  How can it get much better than that?!?

And yet, the good times keep rolling into the present when you are open for them – and when you are in that open place, it is not just the memories that bob up to the surface to delight you with their presence.  The ancestors themselves, those family members no longer sitting in the chairs around the table, those beloveds who you think are gone – when you are in that open place, they make their presence known, too.  Sometimes it is in a body-shiver that they speak to you on a hot hot day as you mosey around the family grounds after a delectable noon-day meal, and sometimes it is in the cardinal bird sitting on the sumac bush, just sitting there staring back at you, at the head of Fish House Cove on the other side of Sister Point as you show your daughter-in-law the view that your mother savored daily from her cottage deck, that you feel her presence again and you hear her song telling you to enjoy the view.

And sometimes it just washes over you with the best feeling you could imagine.  And maybe it is unexpected, like it was for me two days later on another hot afternoon, when we, once again, found ourselves on the family property, this time, on the Fish House Cove side of  Sister Point.   As I stood on the Haul-off Rock, the one we used as our swimming launch-pad for years and years, I watched my daughter-in-law, the master swimmer, lower herself down the same rickety stairs and over the seaweed and into the Cove’s clear water, and I watched my son, Chris, and his fiancé raise the sail and catch the gusts of wind while balancing themselves in the Sunfish’s tiny cockpit, in the same boat that my father had bought for us when we were kids, and I watched my twelve month old grandson plop himself down in the inlet of shells with his father and his Grandpa Cam.  And, as I watched my family fully immerse themselves in life in the Cove, I felt him.  I didn’t just remember him or think  to myself that, if he was alive, he would have loved this scene.  I felt him.  I felt his happiness, his unbridled delight.   My father who died when I was seventeen.  My father, the steward of this land, the lover of the sea, the self-appointed tour guide who joyfully shared this place with all who visited.   And here he was, all around me, and I breathed it in, the salt air, the warmth of the day, my father’s happiness.

Setting Sail in Fish House Cove

Setting Sail in Fish House Cove

Viren on Shell Beach

Viren on Shell Beach

Dad measuring a lobster: 1950's

Dad measuring a lobster: 1950’s

Blooming Heather

A man (woman) travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.  George Moore

There’s nothing that moves your energy to a higher place faster than music.  Abraham-Hicks

It was a four-leaf clover of a trip from beginning to end, this recent vacation to Ireland with my husband, Cam.  I drank it in, the lush green landscape of the Emerald Isle’s interior, the dramatic cliffs hanging over the thrashing waters of the Atlantic, the soft mossy woods carpeted in mist, and the salty taste of the sea in the fish we ate for supper.  It was wonderful, all of it, the time we spent in Galway and the Aran Island of Inishere and the fishing village of Dingle and the literary bustling Dublin.  And throughout the eleven days of Irish bliss, it was the music that most fed my soul; it was the music that sent my spirit flying.  On Day One of our adventure, as Cam drove our rental car from the airport in Dublin across the country, I read out loud from the guidebook, shared with him that Galway, the college town on Ireland’s western shore that would be our home for the weekend, was the most Irish of Irish cities, where the people spoke Gaelic and the music from the pubs and the restaurants spilled out into the streets.  So, we had been forewarned.  And still, the wave of music that washed over us in Galway was a surprise, the way we were swept up in it and carried away and plopped down again, feet dancing, hands clapping, the way it awakened something deep and happy and foreign and familiar.  And we rode it, this musical wave forward, to Inishere and Dingle and Dublin.

And it’s easy on a vacation to ride a musical wave of pleasure.  It’s easy to see the exotic, the enchanting, the song bursting forth, not only from the buskers on the cobbletone pedestrian streets of Galway, but in the winds blowing in off the Atlantic at the Cliffs of Moher, in the lonely barren landscape of the Burren, in the castles and the walls of stone and the yellow flowering hedges and the fishing villages with their bright-colored boats with names like Lily Sue.  When your schedule is wide-open and the days are free of commitments, it’s easy to breathe deeply and soak it all in.  And that’s what we did.  We hiked on trails through the Burren, and along the Cliffs of Moher, walked through pastures of sheep, and around the exterior shore of Inishire, and, throughout it all, there was the music.  A woman, crouched over a harp, played for the sightseers at the Cliffs, and the sound of the harp mingled with the sound of the wind and my heart was opened by this harp music and all that sea and all that sky and all that spaciousness.  And in the evenings, we lingered with our meals of freshly-caught fish and springtime vegetables and Irish potatoes, lingered with the music of the meal and the music from the pubs and the music on the streets, lingered in a way that we don’t seem to linger when we are at home.

It was in the early evening on Sunday, the third day of the trip, the last in Galway, after many hours of exploring the Connemara Peninsula, that we found ourselves back in town with a camera that needed new batteries.  And so, bundling up in raincoats and bracing ourselves against the cold wet wind blowing in off the bay, we scurried down the streets toward a camera shop that we knew would be closing soon.  And outside the shop, even in the cold mist, even on a Sunday in the early evening, there was the music.  This time, a group of five young men with fiddles and guitars and accordions were leaping up and down and playing Irish folk music with a vigor that attracted quite a crowd.  They were on fire, these young men, and we, with fresh batteries for our camera, we were on fire, too, as we joined the clapping cheering crowd.  And our musical hunger for more was awakened by this joyful playing, and, when there was a lull, a pause, we kept on walking along the slick cobblestones, wondering what else might light us up.

And that’s when I saw him.  Or did I hear him first, the man standing still near the side of a building, no flashy instruments, no jumping up and down, the man in the jeans and the winter coat and the wool cap, the man with his hands in his pockets?  I can’t remember, but I must have looked up at some point, because I noticed that his eyes were closed.  And then I just closed mine and I listened and I was transported.  “Oh the summertime is coming.  And the trees are sweetly blooming and the wild mountain thyme grows around the blooming heather.  Will ye go lassie go, and we’ll all go together . . .”

For four and a half years, every third Thursday of the month, Joy Center has hosted an open mic night, Out Loud.  I love Out Loud.  For over two decades, when Joy Center was just a seed inside of me not yet sprouted, I dreamed of an event like Out Loud, the most open of open mics, a community offering in a safe place where everyone is welcome to share, where the messy and the polished are equal partners, where songs mingle with stories and stories dance with poems, where paintings make their way to center stage and someone might choose to bring in a show-and-tell that surprises and delights and teaches us something new.  Out Loud is alive and juicy, and you never know, from month to month, who is going to show up and just what they are going to share.  I love it when Josh shows up – he’s been coming to Out Louds for almost two years now.  And although he prefaces his sharings with new stories and musings, I’m pretty sure that we can count on him to sing us a song from his perch in front of the audience.  And when he does, he closes his eyes, and I find myself breathing deeper, and I find myself more fully present and I find myself sailing away, too, to someplace foreign, yet, familiar.  “Oh the summertime is coming.  And the trees are sweetly blooming . . .”  When Josh sings, I am in Ireland and I am a running in fields of blooming heather and I smell the mountain thyme . . .

And, now, I was in Ireland.  I really was.  In downtown Galway, on a blustery early evening at the end of April.  And, with my closed eyes, I could see it, my own rich life.  In that misty moment, I was back at the Joy Center, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, back in my own playground, a playground that is crammed with creative vigor, in a landscape as enchanted as Ireland in its own unique way, and it wasn’t the young man in the parka and jeans standing in front of me that I was seeing.  It was Josh singing the same song on a Thursday evening at Joy Center.  And when I opened them again, my eyes could see it all, more clearly, a rich stew of present and past, of here and there, of Josh and is heart-rending voice, and this young man with his hands in his pockets singing to us this Irish folk song on a cobblestone street in the most Irish of Irish cities, Galway.

  Singing Josh's song on the street in Galway, Ireland

Singing Josh’s song on the street in Galway, Ireland

Heart’s Frolic

It is love’s frolic that your heart most cares about . . . Rumi

When it is my turn to plan, I trust something deep, an intuitive tug that pulls me in a direction and plops me down somewhere on this spinning globe that we call home.  The first year, I was envious of our sons, the two of them, in their early and mid-twenties, more seasoned at traveling abroad than the two of us, the stay-at-home-in-the-emptying-nest parents.  I chose Portugal, two weeks in this European country with no plan at all.  It was Adventure I was seeking, and a trip we could create together, and a feeling of being foot-loose.  Years later, when the inner call came to climb on board a plane to India, it was something else, something big and unwieldy and out of the box that beckoned me eastward, a knowing that we would find some inner stability in a land that thrums and hums and leaves nothing out of its thriving dying blossoming-again on-fire-with-color-and-life culture.  And two years ago, at a time when my mother’s ninety-two year old body was failing her, and the family cottage was about to be sold, I was craving nourishment, and it was Sicily and her goddess Demeter and the golden fields of wheat and the olive trees and the fresh fish from the sea that wrapped loving arms around us and provided it.

These trips, these Mystery Trips, usually planned for a week or two in mid-spring, have been a game we’ve been playing, my husband, Cam, and I, for a decade now, taking turns once a year, surprising each other with an adventure, anywhere in the world, keeping it a secret from the other for as long as possible, maybe even until boarding that final plane, the one that will take us to our destination.  And this year, it was my turn to listen once again to my inner navigational system as it guided me forward with the scheming.  And it was never about the exotic this time, or the startlingly new.  It was something else, something that called out to me last September, while walking on the wide expanse of beach at Popham in my birth-state of Maine with my friend, Muriel, in a thick foggy mist, with the taste of salt on my lips and my hair flying free, something as familiar as this foggy day on the sandy shore of a sea I have known forever.  I was barefoot and the tide was coming in that afternoon, and, although Muriel and I could hardly see each other through the sopping salty fog, this idea was as clear as a sparkling blue-sky day.  And I said it out loud, into the Maine-thick fog, out loud to Muriel and to the sea.  “I want to go to Ireland for the next Mystery Trip.”

And maybe the breeze was blowing in off the sea that afternoon.  I think it was – blowing in the mist from Ireland and the fiddle music and the haunting melodies, and the poets, those poets that I grew up reading, their words, too, blowing in on that breeze.  And although I tried to convince myself that Scotland, where both Cam and I have solid traceable roots, might be a better choice, the songs of Ireland kept on blowing in my direction, and, in February, after an especially poignant open mic Out Loud evening at Joy Center, an evening where the Irish songs were indeed being sung, I booked our tickets to Dublin, for an eleven day trip to Ireland in late April/early May.

When you look out over the water, your bare feet sinking into that silty sand at Popham, sometimes all you see is fog, fog so thick you feel as though you could slice it into pieces, and other times, on the clear days, you feel as though you could see forever.  And it’s Ireland that is the first country in Europe that you fly over when you travel across the Atlantic, and it’s Ireland that we tasted as kids in Maine, in the potatoes we ate for dinner most nights and the songs we sang in school and in the faces of our friends, some of our best friends with sur-names like Shea and Doyle and Jumper.  It’s Ireland, along with England, that my father visited on his one trip to Europe as a young man, and I remember him saying that they have the same lobsters, the same seaweed, the same kinds of fish.  And so, it was never about the exotic or the startlingly new.  So, what was it that was calling me to Ireland this year?

Cam and I, a week after returning home, are both saying that we loved it, this recent Mystery Trip 2013, and, for sure, there was plenty to love.  And yes, there was the exotic, the enchanted, the startlingly new.  On the drive from Dublin to Galway, the grass on the rolling hills in Ireland’s mid-section was as green as green could possibly be: shamrock green, leprechaun green, the green of the emerald stone in the ring I inherited from my mother.  And the Cliffs of Moher took our breath away and the birds who lifted themselves up into the wind above those seven-hundred foot cliffs, wheeling and gliding there in front of us, high above the sea, were not gulls at all, but something new to our North American eyes, and the Aran Island of Inishere where we spent two days, with its barren landscape and its sea of stonewalls and its 15th century castle, was nothing like the spruce-covered granite-stoned islands that I explored as a child in Maine.  And yet, my father was right.  There was the familiar too.  The smell of the sea — I’d known it my whole life — and the fishing boats and the lobster traps and the mackerel fish on the pub and café menus and the barnacles on the rocks and the deep blue of the North Atlantic on a sunny morning in early May.  And there was something else, too, that felt welcoming and familiar, that invited Cam and I to relax our shoulders, breathe a little deeper, and settle in for a frolicking good time.  It was the people.

When I was in third grade, our teacher, Mrs. Brooks, gave us pencils for Christmas, with our names inscribed across their stems.  There was a typo on my Irish friend Sally’s set; Salty, it said.  And Salty, she was – for the rest of his life, she was Salty to my father.  And it’s a perfect name.  It’s a salt-of-the-earth name.  And we met people in Galway and Inishere, in Adair and Dingle who were down-to-earth and earthy and as salty as the sea that soaked into their skin.  People, who salted their language and spiced up their songs and placed their hands on our shoulders and chatted as if we had known each other for years.  And it felt as though we had, and, we, Cam and I, who have not drunk a drink that is stronger than a non-alcoholic beer in years, found ourselves swept up in it all, into the music and the stories and the humming singing fiddling life of the pubs.  And the music and the stories spilled out onto the streets of Galway and Dingle and we swam in a sea of music and fun.  And is that enough?  Can that be the reason to be called across the Atlantic on an eleven-day Mystery Trip?  For music and fun?  After all, it was the songs I had heard in the mist that afternoon back in September as I stood on the shores of the Atlantic in Maine, the songs from across the sea that were calling me forward.

One evening in Galway, after our afternoon/early evening hike along the whole length of the Cliffs of Moher, we sat in a seafood restaurant waiting for the main course of sea bass and baby asparagus to be served.  It was an elegant restaurant in the newly-renovated upstairs of tiny medieval building, with white linen table cloths and an innovative menu.  Yet, we, still dressed in our hiking clothes and smelling a little sweaty, didn’t feel out of place.  “Look!” Cam said.  “That guy is sitting like you!”  And I looked over, and sure enough, the young man, in a sweatshirt at the table next to us, was scooching, feet tucked under him, just like me!  And others were too!  And there were plenty of hiking clothes.  And buckets of laughter.  And boisterous conversations.  It was fun to eat in this restaurant, fun to chat with people in cafes and pubs and Bed and Breakfasts, fun to sing the words to the songs that we had known on some level our whole lives, fun to reverberate with the music and the laughter.  It was fun to find our tribe of salty fun-loving people.  And for that, my frolicking heart is grateful.

In Brigit's Garden, Galway County, Ireland

In Brigit’s Garden, Galway County, Ireland

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