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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

Camino del Norte: At Least You Can Do It!

My Work is Loving the World  Mary Oliver


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


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

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

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

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


We can do it!

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

Fully Human, Fully Alive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Marquette’s lakeshore: November, 2015

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 deepest desire of the human soul is to live in the ecstasy of love; all other desires are rooted in this one.  Jalaja Bonheim, The Hunger for Ecstasy

. . . it is never too late to embrace our desires or to experience the rapture of being fully alive.  Jalaja Bonheim, The Hunger for Ecstasy

Honoring our true desires and dedicating ourselves to realizing them are not selfishness.  On the contrary, these practices awaken a beautiful generosity in our hearts.  Jalaja Bonheim, The Hunger for Ecstacy

What about the snake?  How could I have forgotten the snake?  It sat in the middle of the road, thick-bodied and coiled, sizzling in the hot summer sun of a July afternoon.  We screeched the car to a halt, ran back to see if it was okay and it rose up to greet us.  I would have given my life for that snake.  I stood there in the middle of a fifty-five-mile-an-hour highway, waving my arms, beckoning the traffic to the side, while my fellow traveler, she stepped forward close enough to pick it up.  But how do you pick it up, something like that, something bigger than any snake you’ve ever seen, bigger than the rattlers out west, something that rises from its coil and looks you in the eye and opens its unhinged mouth and hisses?  How do you stay hinged yourself when you are in the presence of power like that, pure unbridled, unhinged power?

And that’s what we had been talking about as we drove south along M-35, my friend and I, about projects stuck in the closet, about dreams ready to uncoil themselves, about hair standing on end because it is so darn exciting, about unhinged power ready to thrust itself forward.  And that’s when we saw the snake.  I remembered all of this the other night, months later in the midst of a freezing cold winter.  I remembered the sizzling hot snake and the car ride south and the talk of creative projects and of growing desire.  It was at a Valentine party, a Joy Center workshop nourishing our inner goddess and we were eating pure handcrafted chocolate and we were drinking cacao sprinkled with cayenne and cinnamon and we were lifting our mugs to the sky and we were cheering heartily and that’s when something opened inside of me, that’s when something surrendered itself to all of this dizzying sizzling chocolate of life.  And what am I trying to say here?!?  How could I have forgotten the snake?  How could I have forgotten how she lifted herself up, insisting that we stop, take pause, recognize her for what she is, pure power, pure desire.  And what is so wrong with desire?

I have been stuck in the trees.  I have been tangled in the roots.  I have been etched with lines and walled by stones.  When did I become so tame?   That’s what I wondered the other night.  It’s fine to rub your hands against the rough bark of a tree, to feel its mighty roots beneath your feet, to feel your own mighty roots.  But what about the snake?  What about the sheer power rising up through that tree?  What about the poems that rattle around inside of you, poems that can’t be squeezed from something as rigid as wood, as solid as stone?  There are snakes that slither into the middle of the road and there are bees too.  Have I forgotten about the bees?  I used to know the sweet taste of nectar, the stickiness of honey.  I used to let sticky into my playground.  I remembered the snake the other night and I remembered the poetry of bees and I remembered how good it feels to ride the waves of a chocolate desire.  And I remembered something else, too, that these things need to be talked about, the snake in the middle of the road, the project tucked away in the closet, the hunger for something that you don’t quite know yet, the stirring inside that simply can’t be ignored.

And the others, they need to know these things too, that you can let sticky into your life and you can enjoy the taste of chocolate, and those dreams, the ones you’ve tucked into the closet, the ones that have coiled themselves into a dormant ball, you can take them out and watch them grow.  Because the snake, the one in the middle of the road — it is not dead.  It is merely soaking up sun, merely waiting for the moment when you beckon, and then, it will rise up and it will meet you, eye to eye.


Snake Spiral:  Helen Haskell Remien

Snake Spiral:
Helen Haskell Remien

Finding Grandpa

Everything we see is a shadow cast by that which we don’t see.  Martin Luther King Jr.

Whatever your life’s work is, do it well.  A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better.  Martin Luther King Jr.

“I’m on a Grandpa Quest!”  That’s what I told the young man at Wuksachi Lodge when he asked what called my husband Cam and I up to Sequoia National Park on this misty forty-degree Friday afternoon in late January.  That’s what I’ve been telling everybody.  The words ring true to me, though I’m not exactly sure what I’m questing for.  It started last summer, this quest of mine.  Or maybe the roots of this longing started way before, when I was a little girl and my Grandpa was the art that decorated our walls and the stories our family told about someone we called Grandpa Haskell who was famous in his day for these etchings and watercolors and theater posters that he had created, someone who had died tragically — the tragedy is what was emphasized — in a car accident at the height of his career thirty-one years before I was born when my father and his twin were four.  So what brought this quest to the forefront eight months ago?  What compelled me to make it a one-hundred day project last autumn, a daily dose from the archives of original letters and articles and sketches and remembrances of this grandfather who was more myth than human, more framed etching of a mighty tree than flesh and bone?

I know some things.  I know that it’s not healthy to hold someone, living or dead, as your family icon, someone you make larger than life, someone who overshadows the rest of you mere humans with your very human quirks and your own precious gifts.  I know that I didn’t want to live in my grandfather’s shadow anymore, and perhaps there were ways that I still was doing so, and that was one reason for my quest, to untether myself from his massive root system and to discover more fully my own connection with Source.  I wanted to see him as human, to get to know him as human.  I also wanted to get to know his art again.  I had stuck it in the closet and under the bed and into acid-free notebooks, the piles of etchings and watercolors that I had inherited.  That was my rebellion — and also perhaps a part of my growing up — for years, to hang on the walls of my adult home the art of my contemporaries, art that spoke to me, art that had nothing to do with my grandfather.  And during my one-hundred days of Grandpa this past autumn, I not only received a holy grail of information about his life, but also found myself transfixed with his art and his creative process.

So here I was in California over Super Bowl Weekend on the first day of an archeological-dig-of-a-road-trip with my husband who has also found himself drawn into the Grandpa Quest, visiting the places that Grandpa explored and etched and painted one hundred years ago.  Here I was on this misty Friday afternoon an hour before sunset in the heart of Sequoia National Park on the first hike of our two-day adventure in this land of the giant trees.  It was hard to see clearly these trees that surrounded us on this trail that wound its way up even higher in elevation than our lodge that sat at 7200 feet.  The mist was thick and pink-toned and moist and the air was pine-scented and patches of hard-packed snow clung to the forty-degree ground.  We were very much in the moment as we trudged up the trail, very much in the moment as we craned our necks skyward and gazed at the misty tips of these ghost-like trees.  And I’m sure that Grandpa was on our mind.  Had he hiked this very trail on his visit to the park in 1914?

I have an image of him, my grandpa, now that I’ve read through the archives.  I know that he was a big man, tall and fit, with a large head and hands.  I know from his own words, and from those who knew him both professionally as an artist and personally as a friend that he was exuberant, enthusiastic, that his voice boomed and bellowed and he laughed easily.  I know that he was generous with other artists, and strived for excellence with his own artistic pursuits, that creating art was a lifelong passion, as was his sense of adventure, that he studied the masters in Paris for extensive periods of time, and traveled this country by train and Model-T, that he loved his property in Maine, the farmhouse, the barn with cow, the gardens and forest and the sea.  I know that he loved the sea, and I know that he loved this land too, California, with its wide expanse of possibility, with San Francisco that stole his heart the summer he attended the World’s Fair, and Monterey and Big Sur, with the rolling hills and the mountains and this west coast ocean and these trees.  I know that he loved these trees.

You can have an image of someone, a grandpa, for instance, and still not feel like you know him at his essence.  I think it’s harder to know someone after he is no longer living in his body if you never knew him when he was present in that same body.  Sometimes I feel my mother’s presence, and I am warm inside.  I know its her.  I know her touch and her smile, know what it is like to be in her midst.  The same is true for my father — or countless others who have been near and dear to me in this lifetime and have made their transition back to nonphysical.  So I count what happened next on the trail as a real gift, one that I want to etch into my mind the way that Grandpa etched these trees into his copper plates.  I wasn’t trying to make anything happen.  I was simply trudging up the mountain and gazing off into the misty forest, over at a faint foggy sketch of a tree, and that’s where he appeared to me, not a concrete-material vision with my body’s eyes, but in my mind’s eye as clear as a sunny day.  He walked right out of the foggy space where that tree was standing.  It felt like something different than imagination.  I could see him in my mind’s eye wearing khaki pants, a wool shirt, his leather boots.  I could hear his booming buoyant voice.  And he bound with a vigor right over to the trail, this grandpa I had never known, and he joined us for the rest of that first-day hike.  It sounds corny, I know.  But I don’t care because I viscerally felt his essence that afternoon and I liked the Grandpa who I met.

And then the next morning, the sun rose over the Sierras and the air was crisp and high-altitude clear and that mind’s eye image of Grandpa as man in khakis walking beside me was no longer in sharp focus.  It was Cam and I at breakfast at the lodge and Cam and I playing among the mighty ones, those giant Sequoias that Grandpa had etched during the summer of 1914, and Cam and I climbing to the top of Moro Rock and Cam and I traversing the side of a mountain on the High Sierra Trail in the late afternoon sunshine with a view of snow-capped Mt. Whitney in the distance.  And sure, we thought of Grandpa, found the exact angle that he had etched the giant of the giants, the General Sherman tree that I knew so well from the etching-print that hung in my childhood home.  And we wondered whether Grandpa, too, had climbed the knife-edge of Moro Rock, had explored the Crescent Meadow with its moss-covered trees, had hiked on this glorious trail that overlooked the high mountains.  And where had he stayed in this national park that was new and even less developed one hundred years ago?  We wondered these things as we played in the park, as we created our own present-day experience.  And the next day, when we drove southwest on the windy roads back down to the coast, Grandpa was still very much on our minds.  How could he not be when we were looking out at hillside after hillside dotted with California oak trees, snapshot images that could have been lifted right out of one of his west coast etchings?

All weekend long, our present-day plan was splashed with these Grandpa wonderings.  As we traced the Pacific coastline from Cambria through Big Sur, Monterey and Santa Cruz back up to San Francisco, with the mighty Pacific crashing into beaches and cliffs in great splashing waves, as we looked out at some of the most stunning scenery we’d ever seen, at five dolphins playing by a cove, at hundreds of sea lions fishing in the waters off a beach, at a sea otter floating on its back, at Cypress trees leaning windswept toward that blue blue sea, we could understand why Grandpa had fallen in love with this part of California in the summer of 1914, had returned the next year, and again a few years later for an extended period of time with his two small children after his beloved first wife had died in the flu epidemic of 1918.  It didn’t matter that he hadn’t shown himself again in that clear wool-shirted way that had been such a gift during our first misty walk among the spruce trees and pines.  We, my husband and I, were having a blast.  And isn’t that what a grandpa wants for his grandkids?  We were appreciating what he had once appreciated one hundred years earlier.  We were looking though our own artist’s eyes while, at the same time — I would venture to say — also seeing the world through his.

And that clear wool-shirted Grandpa who hiked with Cam and I through the pink-misted dusk that first day of our adventure, I can close my eyes and conjure him up.  I know him now in a way I didn’t before.  And the evening that we returned home from San Francisco, we hauled out the notebooks filled with etchings, the piles that are still sitting on the floor, and we sifted through them all and we gasped.  The cypress we saw along the windswept coast — we were sure that they were the same trees that Grandpa had painted and etched so long ago.  And a California etching that had meant so little to us before — just another western hillside — was titled Moro Rock.  He had been right there, one hundred-and-one years ago in the exact spot where Cam and I began our climb up this knife-edged mini-mountain just a few days earlier and he had documented it in a way that now so many years later is bringing us pleasure. In fact, all of his west coast etchings, the ones in my possession, seemed more alive to us, more pleasurable to examine.

And then, as we climbed into bed, jet-lagged and happy, I read to Cam from Grandpa’s oldest daughter’s journal.  I had perused these pages scrawled in her backward-slanted penmanship many times before, but, now, they, too, took on new meaning.  She had been four the summer that they traveled by train from the east coast to San Francisco, had been a part of this adventure to the thrumming big city, and then south, to Monterey and the glorious coastline.  I knew that.  I also knew that she mentions in her writings a camping trip to Yosemite, and an encounter with a mountain lion who runs off with their ham.  But what I read next aloud to Cam that night sent thrill bumps up my spine.  It wasn’t Yosemite after all.  She just had stuck the wrong label on the right place.  Our place.  She describes the camp site that the mountain lion visits as being close to General Sherman — not a part of Yosemite after all, but a highpoint in Sequoia National Park.  They had camped within walking distance to the lodge where Cam and I had stayed.  And the mountain lion story, one of the childhood myths I knew about Grandpa, has now become real to me.  I have a vivid image of where that tent was pitched and where the lion emerged from the woods.  This all makes me feel happy inside.  This all makes me feel as though I have, not just an inheritance of etchings and a family myth of someone who once was famous, but  a grandpa, a grandpa who I’m getting to know and love.


Out of the Mist: Sequoia National Park, January 30, 2015

Out of the Mist: Sequoia National Park, January 30, 2015


General Sherman:  Ernest Haskell, 1915

General Sherman: Ernest Haskell, 1914


Helen Haskell Remien and General Sherman:  Sequoia National Park, January 31, 2015

Helen Haskell Remien and General Sherman: Sequoia National Park, January 31, 2015


Sequoia National Park: January 31, 2015

Sequoia National Park: January 31, 2015


High Sierra Trail: Sequoia National Park; January 31, 2015

High Sierra Trail: Sequoia National Park; January 31, 2015

Moro Rock: Sequoia National Park, 1914

Moro Rock: Sequoia National Park, 1914


Moro Rock: Sequoia National Park, January 31, 2015

Moro Rock: Sequoia National Park, January 31, 2015


By Big Sur, California; February 1, 2015

By Big Sur, California; February 1, 2015


Windbent Cypress: Ernest Haskel, circa l 1918 -- 1919

Windbent Cypress: MontereyErnest Haskel, circa l 1918 — 1919


Watercolor of Cypress Trees: Monterey, California; Ernest Haskell

Watercolor of Cypress Trees: Monterey, California; Ernest Haskell


Windbent Cypress: Monterey, California; February 1, 2015

Windbent Cypress: Monterey, California; February 2, 2015


Windbent Cypress: Monterey, California; February 1, 2015

Windbent Cypress: Monterey, California; February 2, 2015




Living in my own unfolding novel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Falka: etching by Ernest Haskell

The Falka: etching by Ernest Haskell




















Let’s Play!

Play is the exultation of the possible.  Martin Buber

It was the trees that first caught his attention, so many of them, and the colorful signs hanging from their branches and the metal star shimmering in the light, and then his eyes caught hold of something else, something made from deck boards nestled among those trees.  It was a stage!  He couldn’t believe what he was seeing.  Grandma had a stage and he was free to play on it!  And that’s what he did, back in early June, my just-turning-two-years-old grandson, Viren, on this, his first visit over to Joy Center during his six-week stay in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula this past summer.  He played on that stage and his Grandma (yours truly), she played too.  They stomped and they jumped and they marched and they sang — they did all this until he spied the rocks, the ones behind the stage, the big boulders hauled in from a gravel pit, big enough to be quite a climb for a two-year-old.  There were mountains to summit and fairy houses to explore and wind chimes to ring and he hadn’t even skidaddled over to those front steps and through the door that his Grandma was now holding open for him, the door to a place she called the Joy Center.

And with a beckon and a call, this two-year-old king of play was drawn in because the door was open and there was more to explore.  A kitchen with snacks and water from a well.  A living room with a ceiling as high as the sky.  There were rainbow-colored banners sweeping across that sunlit expanse and a wooden floor and no furniture at all and a perfect place to slide on stocking feet and to plod like an elephant and screech like a monkey and to order your grandma to hop like a bunny.  This place was made for playing, with stairs to practice careful-climbing and a loft that was lofty and a room filled with hats in all shapes and sizes.  This place was made for playing and Grandma, she was feeling quite puffed up, quite ready to it show off in its full-blown glory.  So down they went, down the two flights of stairs, grandma and grandson, to the lower level, to soft comfy chairs and books to read and a whole room dedicated to glue sticks and glitter, to paper and crayons and paints, to so much stuff that by now, this Grandma, she knew that her grandson must be dazzled.  She herself was dazzled seeing all this through the eyes of a two-year-old.  “Grandma must be the coolest grandma in the world.  Grandma works in a playhouse.  Grandma plays for a living.  Grandma plays at living!”

Grandma works at a playhouse!  I delighted in saying this to Viren each time I would leave my home and walk the short distance to Joy Center this past June.  “Grandma’s going to work!” I’d say as I scampered off to a yoga session.  “I have to work now!” I’d sing as I waved good-bye on my way to Out Loud’s open mic night.  Thank you, Viren, I say now as I remember all of this.  Thank you for reminding me that Joy Center indeed is a playhouse.  Thank you for reminding me of what I’ve always known, that play is a noble vocation, that it is expansive and high vibe, and, most of all, that it is downright fun.  Thank you for being the inspiration as Joy Center buddies and I planned this year’s anniversary party.  “Why not set up play stations?” Amber suggested.  “What would Viren want to do?” Raja asked.   So that’s what we did the other day as we celebrated the six year birthday of Grandma’s community playhouse.  We set up play stations, created a nursery school for grown-ups and kids alike, with art and book-making and coloring and writing centers, with a market place of handmade treasures in the loft and a stage outside where we could hula-hoop.  And snacks too because every playhouse worth its weight in fun needs to have a snack station with Sherri’s out-of-this-world-amazing finger-food meals and Adonna’s homemade chocolate!

And then we played.  All afternoon and into the evening.  We played in clusters around the art table creating books and collages.  We played alone surrounded by the trees on the downstairs’ deck.  We played in deep conversation and while shopping for the perfect item made with the loving hands of a friend.  We played while cheering on the hula-hoopers and while taking a turn ourselves.  We played while listening, while talking, while laughing, while eating, while singing, while breathing.  We played in reverence and we played irreverently, and it all felt holy to me, this way that Joy Center was filled to its brim with the power of play.

Joy Center is a playhouse.  This summer, Viren reminded me of that.  And he also reminded me that there are a multitude of ways to play.  Some are rousing and foot-stomping, and some are quiet and contemplative.  Some take you deep inside yourself and some are expansive and wide-winged and as light as a hula-hop twirling through the air.  And at Joy Center you are welcome to experience it all!  Let’s play!

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