Reinvigorate your purpose and passion for life.

Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

What lights your inner fire?

Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive.  And then go and do that.  Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.  Howard Thurman

“What makes you come alive, Helen?  What lights your inner fire?”  I ask these questions often and the answers that rise up from within become bread crumb markers that I can follow as I open to fully engaging with each day in a way that feels authentic and good from the inside.  And so, here I am, on the first morning of November, as a dim sun shines through the bare branches of the maple in our back yard, as frost coats the mums that sit on the deck, as jays and chickadees gather at the feeder.  It is a morning for hot tea, a warm sweater, for hunkering in and fanning the inner flame.  So I ask myself again, “Helen, what makes you come alive?  What lights your inner fire?”

And this is the exciting part, the sparks beginning to fly part.  I have no idea what is going to emerge from the inner bonfire of this morning’s personal passion.  What brought me alive yesterday or last week or a month ago is old news, already decomposing with the pumpkins in the compost pile.  The fire, my fire, at least, must be tended to daily in order for it to burn bright and bold, in order for me to feel bright and bold and fresh and new.  And isn’t that how we want to feel, vibrantly alive from the inside out, eager and open to the gifts in the present?

So, here goes.  I am tossing a log onto the fire as I answer my own questions, fully expecting that I will be warmed from the inside out.  What makes me come alive?  What lights my inner fire?  Today, in this moment, it is a deep breath and the tea, an herbal blend my friend Leanne concocted herself from her own gatherings, and the quiet of my house and this time to write.  It makes me come alive to claim the time to write, to let the words flow freely, to allow myself to be surprised by what emerges from this inner fire.  Right now, it is the smell of celery and garlic still clinging in the air from the soup I made last evening in between the door bell rings of trick or treaters.  And that brings me alive, the balance between mindful acts like chopping carrots and onion and parsley for a lentil soup, one that I have made from the same recipe for thirty years, and the whoosh of excitement at the door of something new, a sloth last evening, a shy two-year-old lion, a mermaid whose scales shimmered, a trio of bloody zombies, two living breathing video characters, a truck wearing a sweatshirt.  It brings me alive to open my door to the new, to the possibility that trucks can wear sweatshirts and zombies can say thank you.  There is so much that brings me alive!

Don’t stop, Helen; let it flow.  It brings me alive to walk by the lake, the big lake, Superior.  Big water brings me alive, in all its moods, in its stillness on this cold calm November day, and in its wildness, too.  I love the storms of November!  I’m enlivened by them!  I love thrashing waves, feeling the power of the mighty, the wind that nearly bowls me over.  I love bracing myself against this wind, love watching the surfers in their seal-skin wetsuits, paddling out into this wildness, then sailing themselves into shore as I, on the shore, hollering out into the wind, a hooray, “You are wonderful!”  I love telling people and trees and chipmunks and great blue herons that they are wonderful because they are, because we are.  It brings me alive to remember what I love.  It lights my fire.  I love the seasons, this subtle season of late autumn, of milkweed pods and brown ferns, of pumpkins and crispy frosted air.  I love stomping on puddles of ice, shattering the ice into crystalline bits.  I love doing this alone and I love doing this with kids.  I love kids, love my grandkids, love feeling unleashed around them, love the way my heart opens wide enough to contain the whole world when I think of them.

And this isn’t all.  There are so many logs I’m tossing onto my bonfire today, so many things that make me come alive.  So I will continue asking the questions as I push the save button on this writing, as I gather myself together, as I drive down to that lake that excites me always, as I meet a friend and take a walk, as I remember to say to you that you are wonderful, because you are wonderful and you too have an inner fire that can burn bright and bold and fresh and new.


Camino del Norte: Be Nice To Your Husband

For though we often need to be restored to the small, concrete, limited, and certain, we as often need to be reminded of the large, vague, unlimited unknown.  A.R. Ammons

It was not raining on that third morning of our Camino pilgrimage.  In fact, the sun seemed to be breaking through the dark clouds as we slung our packs over our shoulders and headed out of our hotel onto Castro-Urdiales’ seaside boardwalk.  My husband Cam and I were feeling downright buoyant as we followed country roads and an ancient path along grassy meadows high above the sea.  The freshness of spring filled the air with the smell of sweet grass and roses — a whole field of roses — and the views of lush valleys and the sea beyond set our spirits soaring.  We sang out our “Bon Camino” greetings to the farmers working in the fields, to the occasional pilgrims we met on our route, to the donkeys, the cows, the goats and the sheep who were our curious companions along the way.  Yes, we were feeling chipper, a slight bit cocky even, as we made our way westward following the Camino’s yellow arrows and scallop shell tiles through villages and along country roads.  The predicted rain was holding off and the morning was unfolding with a welcome ease.  When our stomachs began to growl with hunger in the late morning, there it was, a bar on the outskirts of a tiny village.  And when the man behind the counter at the bar did not understand a word we were saying in our pitifully-broken Spanish, there she was, a young mother with her eight month old baby, eager to practice her crystal-clear English and translate for us exactly the sandwiches we were craving on that crusty good bread.

Yes, we were in the flow on Day Three of our adventure.  And so what if the sky was seeming a bit darker when we left our village bar at noon — and the wind,  well, there might have been a slight gust of wind as we got ourselves back on our pilgrim’s path, but our bellies were full and our bodies replenished and the moisture in the air was too fine to be called a sprinkle and certainly wasn’t going to dampen our buoyant spirits.  And an hour later, when I reached down to pluck a mint leaf from the weedy-lush hedge at the side of the trail, and my hand skimmed across the nettle plants that mingled with the mint, and a pain shot through my finger tips, I laughed it off.  No, it wasn’t going to get to me, a little sting, from the stinging nettle.  And the rain — because now there was no denying it, that fine mist had turned heavy on us — well, it was bothersome, for sure, but manageable.  We slipped into raincoats, stretched the waterproof covers over our packs, and I changed from flip flops to running shoes.  And okay, I admit it, I was feeling a bit judgmental.  Cam looked ridiculous in his thirty dollar rainy-weather get-up from Walmart, the pants slopping around his legs, the jacket hump-backing over his pack, but I kept my mouth shut.  I really did.  And when we traced the tidal estuary on a back road with the slimmest of shoulders, I focused my attention on the the egrets standing in the tall grasses of the river marsh and the cars rumbling toward us, not even listening to Cam, who might have been grumbling as he walked at a steady clip in front of me.

I kept it together, my kindness, my sense of wonder, my pride in being able to uplift, and it all seemed genuine enough, as we once again found ourselves in the woods, this time in a eucalyptus forest, on a paved path.  I commented out loud at the sinus-clearing smell of the trees on a rainy day.  I pointed to birds, small birds and large hawk birds, birds that were new to us.  And when we approached a town with a market where we could stock up on snacks and pockets full of clementines, I let out a whoop and a holler — and I might have been coming on a little strong, a little loud, a little too verbal to someone in a thirty dollar rain coat with wet socks just trying to hang on.  But he, my Camino buddy, needn’t have worried because it was the hill that quieted me down.  It wasn’t a hill.  It was a mountain.  And the road, a paved one-laner on the other side of the town with the market, shot right up it, no switch-backs in sight.  I huffed and I puffed and I assumed that Cam a few feet in front of me was doing the same.  Who cares about the smell of eucalyptus when you can barely breathe a short little mouth breath.  It was my Everest and it took my full-bodied effort to make it to the summit.  But make it, I did, and my guy did as well.  And up there on the top of Everest were cottages, and farms with large lumbering dairy cows, and a tiny stone church.  And it was charming and we were wet and the path we were following had turned muddy, and that’s when Cam lost it, up there on top of the mountain, the mountain that we were going to have to descend at some point to make our way into the town of Liendo and our sixteenth century pousada where we’d be sleeping that night.  He just stopped up, up there in the rain, refused to budge, said he could not go on.

And that’s when I turned tough. I found my inner drill sergeant, told Cam to buck up, told him he didn’t have a choice, that we had to keep going.  I was stern.  I was mean.  I was relentless.  The uplifter had become a tyrant.  And lo and behold, it worked.  My guy swigged a gulp from his water bottle and started walking again.  And that’s when I decided that I wasn’t so buoyant anymore, that I was feeling a bit heavy myself, that I could use my own dose of uplifting, and I certainly wasn’t going to get it from the guy in front of me in the ridiculous rain gear.  So I called upon my dad.  I don’t do it often, but there is something about the Camino that opens us up.  Maybe it is the exhaustion of having already walked twenty kilometers in sopping shoes.  Maybe it is the holiness of the path on which you are walking.  For whatever reason, it was my dad who I asked, on the high ground in the late afternoon, to uplift me, my dad who had died when I was seventeen, my dad who was my childhood uplifter.  And maybe the airwaves are a little less clogged on the high ground of a pilgrimage because he came through to me, loud and clear.

I heard his voice in my head and I felt his essence.  He told me how proud he was of me.  “Just look at what you are doing!” he said.  “You are amazing!” he added with enthusiasm.  “And so is Cam!  I’m so proud of you both!”  And that’s when I looked in front of me at my guy, saw him in his Walmart rain gear, placing one foot in front of the other, making his way downhill now on a more windy two-lane manageable mountain road.  My dad was right.  We were amazing.  And that’s when my dad added the clincher  “Be nice to your husband,” he said.  He wasn’t stern, not a drill sergeant at all.  He said it with kindness.  “Be nice to your husband.”  And I want you to know that I took my dad’s words into my heart — perhaps they were always in my heart — and I caught up with Cam, told him my dad was proud of us, told him that I was proud of us.  And it didn’t matter that it still was raining as we walked into Liendo and found our sixteenth century pousada.  It was a good day and we were in the flow.

Day Three of our Camino pilgrimage, beginning in Castro-Urdiales and finishing our 27 kilometer day in Liendo, joining many other pilgrims at a sixteenth century pousada in the early evening.


A smile is the universal welcome.  Max Eastman

When you open your heart to a stranger, you have welcomed another heart into your home.  Anthony T. Hinks


I’ve been thinking about the word welcome.  Though I say it all the time, sincerely, gladly, as I open the front door of Joy Center and greet the people entering, it was a segment on NPR’s All Things Considered a few weeks ago that coaxed me deeper and more expansively into the word’s meaning.  I just happened to turn on my car’s radio as the journalist began speaking about the flow of refugees wanting to enter the United States at the southern border, how they are not all from South and Central America, how many of them are from several countries in Africa, have traveled by plane a great distance across the Atlantic Ocean to South America where a harrowing overland journey awaits them on their way northbound.  Like the refugees from South and Central America, these people are fleeing economic hardships and human rights abuses and risking their lives as they make their way through dense jungles and crime-filled areas where robbery is a common occurrence.  The journalist focused in on one African family, a mother, a father and three young children, told how it took them many months to travel on foot from South America, through the thick-jungled forests of Central America, how they carried the children on their backs as they crossed wide rivers, how they went five days with no food at all, drinking rain water to give them the energy to continue, how they then waited two months at the Mexican border before they were allowed to enter the United States.

This story was touching my heart, for sure, but it was what the journalist shared next that caused me to gulp back tears then let them flow.  When the African family finally was granted entry, they were taken to a nearby shelter, and, within two weeks, were bused twenty-five hundred miles from the border, to New England’s most northern state of Maine, my home state, a state that had been primarily Caucasian until an influx of Africans were made to feel welcome in the 1990’s and is now known for its generous social safety net. The journalist told how the mayor of Portland, Maine’s largest city, was leading the cause in setting up temporary shelter, and figuring out how the city and state would cope with this overflow of people needing housing and employment.  In the meantime, local residents were flocking in to help, donating money, bringing food to the people in the shelters.  The journalist reported that the mayor was sure they would figure things out, that it would all work out.  “Maine has a long history of helping its neighbors” the journalist reported the mayor as saying.

That’s when it became personal for me.  That’s when I couldn’t stop the tears from flowing.  I thought of the monthly Church suppers when I was a child, of Miss Thom’s clam casserole, Aunt Mil’s tomato aspic, Aunt Barbie’s green beans and onion rings, my own mother’s wonderful cornbread-topped church supper dish, how we were embraced with the warmth of community at these suppers and food was a main attraction.  Mrs. Stadler also flashed into my mind as I listened to the broadcast, how she always in early summer walked from her cottage to ours carrying a rhubarb pie fresh from garden and oven, how welcomed I felt by her smile and her delicious pie, how these neighbors became family to me, how good it felt to be taken into the fold.  And I envisioned these Africans new to the United States, new to this northern climate and culture being greeted with flocks of people carrying casseroles and corn bread and fresh-picked lobster in stews and rolls, being greeted with smiles and home-cooked meals and a hearty, sincere “You are welcome”.  When the journalist had asked the father in this family what it was like to live in Portland in the make shift-shelter, he replied, “It is paradise.”

I don’t know the answer to an overflow at the United State’s southern border or an overflow of people, for that matter, at some events at our sweet cottage Joy Center sanctuary.  And I don’t know how it feels to flee a home country because of fear for your life, or what it feels like to journey through jungle and river and danger to grasp at something that might bring you safety and peace and a new beginning.  I do know, however, that I can take a cue from the mayor of Portland that we can figure things out, that it will work out, that I can expand my view of neighbor and neighborhood.  And I do know what it feels like to be welcomed when I’m the hungry traveler, when I’m in need of a smile or a meal or simply a listening ear.  And I do know what it feels like to be the one, the one who opens her arms wide and smiles a big sincere smile as she stands at the door of her ever-expanding life and says it loudly and clearly and warmly, “Welcome!  You are welcome!”

Murals in a Sancutaury at the Aubergue in Guemes, Spain: May 30, 2019



The Artist’s Way

In order to keep my creativity alive, I just try to enjoy life to the fullest.  G-Dragon

Creativity is a mansion.  If you’re empty in one room, all you have to do is go out into the hallway and enter another room that’s full.  E. Gary Gray

I remember the moment the idea came to me, a gentle nudge in mid-January.  It was cold in our northern world on this particular evening, Polar Vortex cold, too cold for my skis to glide across frigid dry snow, too cold to trudge beside the howling lake on the icy path, too cold to form a rational thought or make plans in any orderly fashion.  So it was through neighborhoods, shielded by homes and trees, that I walked and shivered and let go of thinking of anything at all except the sharp sting of the arctic blast.  And that’s when it popped into my head, a warm thought, more cozy suggestion than militant command, a forward-fun thought that sounded something like this: “I wonder if it would be a good thing to commit to the twelve-week process of The Artist Way again.”  At least four times in the past twenty-five years, I have made my way though Julia Cameron’s book, alone a few times and twice with a circle of friends, chapter by chapter, week by week, delving into the exercises and themes that encourage a reclamation of our innate creativity.  However, this process had not been on my radar for years, until that cold January night, that is.  There was something engaging in this friendly persistent voice inside my head and I took it to heart.  By the time I returned to the warmth of my car, I was on board, would order a new copy of The Artist’s Way and plunge myself into this twelve week journey with grit and gusto.

A few day later, I mentioned my Artist’s Way plan to a fellow Capricorn friend as we celebrated the mid-January birthday that we share, and her eyes grew wide.  “No way!”  she cried out.  She too had heard a voice in her head, felt the nudge to reacquaint herself with this twelve-week journey, even had hauled out an old copy of the book.  “Let’s do it together!” we both exclaimed.  “It’s going to be powerful!” we added.  And indeed it has been powerful.  Each week, on our own, we have read a single chapter, dipped into the tasks at chapter’s end, committed to three pages of daily free-writes, have claimed time for Artist’s Dates, and then, on Thursday mornings, in the coziness of a local coffee shop nestled in an old house, we have met, shared stories and insights and have cheered each other on.  This process has been a container for me and for my friend, too, during this long long winter in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a cauldron providing focus and heat and vibrant energy.  I have stirred this cauldron pot and it has stirred me too.  And the gifts have been plenty, both expected and unexpected.

I am no stranger to committing segments of my days and weeks to the practice and process of creative endeavors.  For over thirty years, I have written longhand in journals, have computer-typed essays and blogs, have copied down quotes, have forged out the paths for longer projects too, projects that have evolved into books and books-in-process.  It is from my own decades of experience and from bearing witness to the process of others that I have come to expect the gifts to emerge when we say “yes” to a practice, a practice that is lighting our inner fire, that is bringing us heat, even in the depths of a cold and howling Upper Peninsula winter.  So, I expected gifts, creative gifts, to bubble up as my friend and I traveled the artist’s way path through this book.  I expected the excitement of claiming more time than usual for my writing, and more time for reflecting on new dreams that might be taking seed during the dark months of winter.  And indeed, as the wind howled, as ice clung to the trees and snow flew sideways, I felt warm inside, filled with color and delight and spacious hours set aside for the tasks in The Artist’s Way book.  It was the focus of these spacious hours, the focus of what exactly brought me excitement and delight that threw me for a loop, that felt like a belated birthday surprise.

“Glue sticks rock!”  That was the message my Artist Way partner sent to me in a text one week during our three-month adventure.  And I sent her back a two-thumbs up of agreement.  While a voice in my head was full of “shoulds” — “Helen, you should be typing up those essays, should be sorting through the archive of Perry/Whitehead ancestor photos and writings, should be diving back into the Grandpa Haskell project, already a half-written book, for goodness sake” — while the blogs remained half-written and the projects stayed tucked away neatly in boxes, the glue sticks and scissors found their way center stage.  My artist journal became a weekly source of pleasure, one that thrilled the artist child within me for hours on end.  Each week, I copied down quotes and poems, created collages with photos that called me in all sorts of ways, photocopied paintings that drew me in, and completed the end-of-chapter tasks with gusto.  One task instructed the participant to describe their childhood room — and, as I began to write about my room in our sea captain home in coastal Maine, I realized how fortunate I had been during those elementary school years to have a space set up to foster creativity, a room with two clubhouse closets, a fireplace and slate hearth perfect for chalk writing, two huge windows to peek out at neighbors, a spacious hardwood floor for coloring projects, and art supplies galore.  My writing became a six-page essay of enthusiasm.

And that’s what I want to tell you, that enthusiasm became my compass this past winter.  The “shoulds” flew out the window and play became paramount.  I realized that my practices had been becoming quite serious, that I had been focusing not only on process but also on product, that a blog must be published by a certain date, a book completed in a certain season, a to-do list checked off by end of day.  The child within doesn’t care about publication dates; the child within cares about play, and play is inherently creative and expansive and opens us up to new unexpected possibilities and pleasures.  And lo and behold, sometimes the play does lead us to polished products.  It was during the last two weeks of this journey that I felt compelled to peruse through two years of writings from our Upper Peninsula poet laureate’s monthly workshops at Joy Center, writings that I had cast aside as rough and raw and far too messy for serious revision.  And what I found instead astounded me, a treasure chest of poems-in-process, many nearly finished in their raw messiness.  It felt like the holy grail to me, gems discovered in perfect timing, gems that I now have polished with an ease and grace and a child-like wonder that can’t be forced.

And the gifts that spilled out of the cauldron-container for both my artist partner and me couldn’t be confined to a journal or notebook or a specific time set aside for the creative tasks at chapter’s end.  That is the thing I remembered clearly during this process, that it is the whole of our lives, every moment, that is an artist’s expression, a miracle waiting to be noticed.  I knew this already, but it was within the heat of the cauldron-container-process that I noticed it with more vivid appreciation.  I could hardly contain the excitement, the awe I felt when skiing on trails surrounded by trees glazed with ice, for weeks on end, shimmering, glimmering, an other-worldly fairy land of wonder.  And a Saturday supper, it is a creation to behold when the ingredients are fresh and a guy and a gal are playing together in the kitchen and a movie is waiting for them on Netflix after the feast.  Each week, I devoted space in my artist journal to record miracles and magical moments, and each week my list was long and satisfying.  Sometimes it was the simple things, a smile exchanged, a patch of sun that brought a startling warmth to frosty cheeks, the bold and welcoming colors in our toasty home, the heat of a basement sauna.  Sometimes it was more dramatic, an eagle sitting by the side of the road or flying overhead just as I was thinking a powerful thought.  Sometimes the miracle moments involved release, release of any “shoulds” or old stories that were outdated and heavy, and the release was easy and light.  And there were moments that astounded me.  One evening after Dinner and a Movie at Joy Center, I felt compelled to tidy up the back basement, and stumbled upon a box in the corner that I had forgotten about, a box of small treasures from my mother’s cottage that had been sitting there for six years, and in this box was a ring made by my uncle for my mother, a wonderful modern sprawling ring that looks like an angel or bird on the wing, a gift from my angel mother that I now wear daily.

There is one page remaining blank at the end of my artist’s journal, a page I plan to fill with a collage of images pointing me forward.  I have finished the final chapter in The Artist’s Way and am now visiting our two sons and their families in Idaho.  It is spring here, tulips in vivid bloom, leaves unfurling, a new season beckoning.  Yesterday I ate lunch at school with my six-and-a-half year old grandson and a table crammed with first graders sharing knock knock jokes.  Afterwards, I followed them outside for twenty minutes of recess on the sprawling field of grass and the cedar-chipped play area.  And I soaked it in, the wildness of it all, the freedom, as the many classes of kids raced from one activity to another, as they hooted and hollered and kicked a soccer ball then sailed across the monkey bars then swung themselves high up into the sky.  It is within us all, this artist child, this desire to create, to play, to imagine.  We don’t need a twelve-week process to remind us that we are all artists, that our lives are our art, though a practice might bring us the heat we need to play with more gusto.  And let’s do it, in this new season of tulips and leaves unfurling.  Let’s play with more gusto.  Let’s allow ourselves to unfurl and blossom with the tulips and leaves.  Let’s live full-out and free.  Happy spring!





Tulips in Moscow, Idaho: May 1, 2019














(Transcribed from longhand writing scrawled in a journal while meeting with writing circle on March 8, 2019.)

I know not why we should blush to confess that molasses was an essential ingredient in American independence.  Many great events have proceeded from much smaller causes. John Adams (by then one of the country’s founding fathers, writing to a friend)

“Helen Jo, hurry up!” she’d say.  “You’re as slow as cold molasses flowing uphill.”  That was our mother’s expression when her children would dawdle, and we, her coastal Maine kids, knew that this threat was an idle one.  Our mother loved slow-flowing sweet molasses, and we, her kids, loved it too.  We were a family of the sixties, ate from all the food groups, fish from the cove in the summer, chicken, beef and pork in the winter, potatoes baked or scalloped, a vegetable always, and salad, fresh from the garden until the frost wilted the heads.  And dessert — every night, we ate dessert.  Molasses was a favorite.  We loved our mother’s passion for molasses, the miracles she created by marrying it with spicy ginger.  There was Indian pudding, a New England favorite, corn meal, milk, ginger and molasses, thickened on top of the stove, baked for hours, then topped with ice-cold vanilla ice cream that melted into the steaming pudding.  And gingerbread.  Our mother cheated, bought Dromedary mix.  We loved her Dromedary mix gingerbread topped with a dollop of whipped cream or a slab of real butter, loved her crisp ginger snap cookies, too, and the soft round molasses ones she baked on snowy winter days.

On the lucky mornings when we woke up to the aftermath of a nighttime snow squall to discover that school was cancelled, after hours of inside play, when our raucousness was just too much for her to bear, our mother would hand us our woolen snow pants, our hand knit mittens, our stocking caps and shove us out the door.  It wasn’t a choice; it was a command, a command that led to hours of snow-fort building and toboggan sliding and   wild whooping abandon.  And then there would be the call, the permission to come back in, to the warmth of a humming furnace and radiators that warmed our bottoms and hands.  And there they would be, still piping hot from the oven.  The big round molasses cookies.  I wonder if it relaxed her, to have this time alone, in the quiet of her kitchen, with the ingredients she loved, the butter, the eggs, the flour, the ginger, and the molasses all mixed together in a glorious swirl.

Our mother grew up in Boston, the land of slow-cooked molasses-laden baked beans.  She was a Boston girl, lived just a stone’s throw from the city center, on childhood  Sundays traveling in with her parents and siblings to attend the Boston Swedenborgian Church, knew the Boston of the twenties intimately, and we her Maine-raised kids, each Thanksgiving, would pile into our powder blue 1957 Chevy station wagon, and travel the three hours to her old stomping  ground where we would gather with grandparents, great uncles and aunts, with cousins and their parents for our annual turkey feast.  From infancy on, I took this trip with parents and siblings and I have wondered whether I dreamed it, the story I remember our mother telling us as we would drive through the north end of the city.  I was little, after all, a pre-schooler, and it all seems hazy and improbable. But this is what I remember.  She would roll down the driver’s side window, and say to our dad and to us, “Do you smell it, the molasses?”  And we would sniff the air, and I think we would smell it, a faint sweet dark smell wafting in through the car window.  And then in my dream of a memory, she would plunge into the story, tell us how a giant tank of molasses burst wide open and molasses poured down the streets of Boston.

This dream of a story has stuck with me as molasses tends to do, and our mother’s love of molasses, I’ve taken it in as an offering, a nurturing gift, and dark blackstrap molasses, I love it just as she did.  And gingerbread, mine made from scratch and sweetened with prunes, is my birthday cake of choice.  And this is what I want to tell you, that it was this year, on my birthday, January 15, 2019, that I happened upon it, the article commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Great Molasses Disaster.  Oh my!  There’s a start, a startle, a gasp, even a whoop when a hazy molasses-laden dream shines bright in the light of day.  And that’s when it happened, in the light of the day, a little after noon, on January 15, 1919, after a week of sub-zero weather, during a melt-down thaw when temperatures sky-rocketed to forty degrees.  And this tank, full of molasses, was ready to transfer for processing and had fermented in the unseasonably warm weather, people surmise, and then it burst.  Our mother was three-and-a-half months old when a torrent of molasses more than fifteen feet high raged down the street in Boston’s north end at thirty-five hours an hour.  This is no sweet and sappy children’s story, no Candyland game of a tale.  This is tragedy.  This is horses and people drowning in a river of molasses, of a train toppling, of houses uprooted.  This is a mess, a messy molasses story in the home of Boston baked beans.

And our mother inhaled it all, I think.  She must have.  How could you not hear the tale over and over during your childhood?  The streets were sticky for years and our mother must have stuck to those streets and the harbor was brown and salty-sweet for months during the summer she learned to crawl and our grandparents must have told her what it was like to hear the first-hand accounts from friends in the north end.  So there its was, tragedy and drama, a river of molasses starting out hot and bubbly, then slowing down as it cooled and trapping whatever was in its path.  Our mother didn’t shy away from tragedy.  In some ways, perhaps she attracted it, sent out a tragic vibe that allowed sorrow to sweep in and stick to her.  In high school, she told me, she had a crush on a guy.  Not exactly her words.  Perhaps she said that she was shy and he was shy too, but there was something there, a spark between them.  And one day, at a football game, as he charged down the field, his heart simply gave out, and he died.  And that’s how her first husband, at thirty-three, died, in an internal explosion of heart, and then my father, he died too.

There was a sticky sorrow in all of this, I’m sure, and yet our mother was a buoyant soul, She didn’t dive down and drown in this sticky mess.  She, like her mother before her, soaked her beans in water overnight, then, pressure-cooked them with sweet onions and tomatoes and a chug chug chug of molasses.  Every Saturday night, we ate Boston Baked Beans.  Our molasses was contained in bottles, and gently slowly flowed in a trickle into the cookies and puddings and cakes.  And when our mother rolled down the window of our 1957 powered blue Chevy station wagon and asked, “Do you smell it?”, as she told us the tale of the Great Molasses Disaster, in my dream of a memory, I don’t remember any sorrow in her voice.  She was chipper and we were too, sniffing the air and smelling the faint whiff of a sweetness that far outlived any tragedy that had occurred decades earlier.

A Yooper Winter

It is the life of the crystal, the architect of the flake, the fire of the frost, the soul of the sunbeam.  This crisp winter air is full of it.  John Burroughs

Winter in the country is very white.  There is black grit on all the shoulders of the roads and on the big mounds from the plows, and all the cars are filthy, but the fields are dazzling and untouched and pristine.  Susan Orlean

It is a bold statement for someone like me to make, someone not born here, a transplant from Maine in early adulthood to this Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  But, after thirty-eight years, thirty-eight winters, I’m going for it, proclaiming it out loud and to the world. I am a Yooper.  And we Yoopers are a hardy lot.  And this winter, this winter of weather, our Yooper hardiness has been tested to the max.  The Finns who have lived in this Yooper country for centuries have a word for it, Sisu.  Call upon your Sisu, they say, your tenacity, grit, resilience, hardiness.  And a winter like this will do that to you, Finn or non-Finn, force you to dive deep into your own bones and find that Yooper strength, that resilience, your Sisu.

I come from a family of weather-lovers, New England-born folk living along the coast of Maine, in the mountains of New Hampshire, in the wooded lots of Massachusetts.  My mother, queen of the weather-lovers, from her cottage home at the head of a cove in Maine, had a front row seat to calm blue-sky off-shore breeze days, to the windy ones, too, and the rousing nor’easters of autumn and the snow squalls of winter.  She observed and obsessed about weather and it was a favorite for us, in our frequent phone conversations, to exchange weather reports, mine from the Upper Peninsula, hers from the cove.  And this winter, if she were still living in her body, the phone conversations between the two of us would be filled with the drama of weather and she would be thrilled with vicarious pleasure as I relayed the details to her, not needing to embellish a bit.  First there was the early snow, I would say, feet of it before Christmas, then the cold, the bitter cold, plunging into a two-week sub-zero Polar Vortex, then, the one-day thaw and the rain that pounded down all night long and froze as temperatures once again plummeted into single digits.  And the ice.  I would tell my mother about the ice that clung to the trees in early February and is still clinging to the branches along the high ground a month later, how the trees snapped and broke, how the branches fell and the birches bent down low over the roads, and then, I would say the snow, it kept on falling, all month long, nothing melting as the storms, one after another, piled up.  And then, there was the storm of storms, late in the month, the one that blew the snow with its fifty mile an hour winds into drifts so high we can’t see out onto our deck.  That is the weather report that I would tell my mother, the weather report we Yoopers have been living for the past few months.

Yooper-winter-living isn’t for the faint-hearted and the word hardy contains the word hard and I’m not saying that there hasn’t been hardship in this winter of winters.  Up close and personal my husband Cam and I have felt it along with our Yooper neighbors.  There are the pine branches that have fallen in our backyards and onto our decks, the never-ending shoveling and snow-blowing, the bitter cold biting our faces and stunning our breath, the ice damns clinging to our roofs and the water leaking into our houses, the trails we love to ski and bike along covered with miles of debris, the car rides on icy roads and in blinding white-outs.  Yes, there have been challenges.  But Sisu is a word that also contains joy, the joy of meeting those challenges with a shovel, a chainsaw, an all-wheel drive vehicle, a down coat and a warm hat, the joy of rising above them and finding the fun in it all.

And that’s what I want to tell you, what I would have told my mother, that we have had fun, my husband and I, as we’ve plowed and plodded through this Yooper winter.  And the gifts, there have been gifts to behold.  There are the outside gifts, how every day, every single day, we both have found ways to meet the weather head-on.  In the bitter cold, I remembered the hat my cousin Abby, the milliner in New York made for me years ago, a wonderful faux fur hat with fabrics and buttons that are family heirlooms, and this magnificent hat warmed my head and my heart on the coldest of the cold days as I marched my way through the snowy woods.  And the trees, the trees coated with ice, glistened and sparkled on the days the sun shined and the world became a dazzling fairy-land, a magical kingdom that defies description.  And one night, under a half-moon sky and Orion shining down on us, Cam and I snowshoed on his bike trails, panking them down in preparation for an upcoming race.  As we wound our way along the narrow paths with snow up to our waists on either side, the trees sparkled in the light of Cam’s headlamp and the quiet snow sang to us and the cold nestled into our bones and we felt it, our joyous Sisu.

And the gifts of this winter of weather have crept into the inside of our houses as well.  After the cold and the snow and the vigor of exercise, the warmth of a furnace, a fireplace, brilliantly-painted walls has been as welcoming as the coziest of hugs.  The Finns know how to warm up those cold bones after the outside play.  And I remembered this too, during the Polar Vortex.  How could we have forgotten it, that like our Yooper neighbors, we have a sauna, in our basement, barely used since the boys grew up?  This winter, it has been our saving grace, our nightly ritual, to heat up that cedar-lined room, to fling water onto the Lake Superior stones, to breathe in the heat, the steam and the sizzle, to lie there and relax and let it all seep in, the warmth, the knowing that we are resilient and hardy, that we have grit, that we can sleep well on this night and that tomorrow, we will face it, whatever the weather brings, with Sisu and spunk.  We are Yoopers.


Wearing hat created by milliner cousin Abigail Aldridge while tromping through the woods during the Polar Vortex: Ishpeming, Michigan, late January, 2019


Lake Superior during Polar Vortex: Presque Isle, Marquette, Michigan, late January, 2019


Lake Superior during Polar Vortex: Presque Isle Park, Marquette, Michigan, late January, 2019


Back Yard Havoc: Day One of Ice Storm, February 4, 2019



After the ice storm and the snow: Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, February 16, 2019


Skiing in a bounty of snow: Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Mid-February 2019



A Weekend in Sedona, Day-after Historic Snowstorm: Late February 2019


The View to Our Deck: Late February, 2019


Joy Center: Late February, 2019

Not My Finest Five Minutes!!!

The only way to be creative is to try everything.  We learn by making mistakes.  We must have the courage to start all over again after each failure.  Only then do we really absorb, really start to know.  Alexey Brodovitch

It wasn’t my finest five minutes.  Believe me, I admit it, and I intend to make a full confession later in this essay.  But first, let me fill you in.  There’s a backstory to be had.  And it begins with the ringing in of this new year.  From the first wee hours and days of 2019, I’ve felt it, a call inward to clean up shop, to release any inner clutter that keeps me from being as authentic, as connected to the almighty source of creation as possible.  I’ve said it aloud, over and over.  It is not a time for pretense and masks and people-pleasing antics.  “Step fully into your power,” I remind myself as I move through my days.  And how do I even know what that means, to step fully into my power?  I suspect that the better I feel, the more alive and vibrant and openhearted, the more in alignment with the words I speak, the actions I take, the more aware of synchronicities and moments that feel magical, the more fun I am having — I suspect that it is then that I am fully in my power, the big power, I mean, the power that connects me to the divine.

And I’ve been doing okay with it all, actually more than okay, meeting the inner clutter eye-to-eye, greeting the old dusty stuff with a sense of enthusiasm.  “It’s time for you to go!” I’ve been exclaiming, with a cheerfulness in my voice.  “Make room for more light!” I’ve been adding.  And I’ve been sharing this enthusiasm for inner house-cleaning and authentic-living with my buddies, including Marty, my poet friend who I have known since we were in grad school together in the early nineties.  Marty, Upper Michigan’s Poet Laureate, has been facilitating a monthly poetry workshop at Joy Center for nearly two years now, a wonderful evening of Marty’s stellar poetry selections and prompts, of writing and sharing, an evening that usually includes a circle of people who travel to Joy Center from all over Marquette County and sometimes beyond.  Not in February, however.  It was one of Upper Michigan’s many blustery blizzardy nights and it was just Marty and me in the circle that evening.  And in between the poems, the prompts, the writings and sharings, we chatted about this topic of authenticity.  We both had just watched the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, about Fred Rogers, and Marty had seen the Netflix special, Springsteen on Broadway, the television version of Bruce Springsteen’s raw and real Broadway show.  By evening’s end, we not only had written three poems mingling music with words; we also had concluded that Mr. Rogers and Bruce Springsteen were mentors for us, providing a template for living from the inside out.  They weren’t pulled by outside forces, we decided.  They were brave, and, if they could do it, we could too.  And then we made a friend date, to carpool together the next Thursday, to an open mic night at the cafe/store/gathering place Preserve.

I want to tell you that I don’t feel the urge to attend many open mic nights outside of Joy Center, that Joy Center usually satisfies that need for me, but there was something about this particular event, the one at Preserve, the one that would most likely be filled with a younger crowd, that pulled at my inner strings.  It felt right to me.  And I also want to tell you that I didn’t feel particularly nervous about this gathering, didn’t sense I would have to call on the bravery I so admired in Mr. Rogers and Springsteen.  After all, my poems were polished, the ones I would share from a published book, and I had experience, years of experience reading and speaking in front of groups at Joy Center.  If anything, I was thinking that I would share the wisdom of my sixty-plus years with these twenty-somethings.

It was a busy one for me, the day of the poetry reading, with back-to-back-to-back commitments, and plenty of chai to keep me going.  And that might be what brought on my first tinge of caring what people might think.  By late afternoon, I noticed my hands were shaking, a case of caffiene-overload.  What if this crowd of millennial poets thought I was nervous?  I breathed that thought aside, gave my poems a once over, then drove over to Marty’s to pick him up.  By now, it was dark and foggy and it was misting out and I wasn’t doing a very good job talking with my travel companion as I navigated a road that was hard to see.  I think, if I’m honest with you, there was a combo effect going on with the shaky hands by the time we arrived at Preserve, caffeine plus nerves.  I wasn’t grounded; I could tell.  I tried my hardest to breathe deeply, to smile a genuine smile as I placed my name on the sign-up sheet, but all I could think about was my shaky hands.  And then things got worse.  I noticed a microphone.  It truly was an open mic.  We don’t use a mic at Joy Center — I don’t know how to use a mic.  And then people started reading, their genuine authentic poems, and I relaxed a bit, placed one shaky hand on top of the other, tried to listen with my heart and I truly thought it was working, thought I’d be okay.  And that brings me to my five minutes, the allotted time for each poet.

It was my turn, and up I went, shaky hands and all.  And that’s when I noticed that the lights were dim, really dim, and there was no stool to sit on, and that’s how I always do it.  I sit down and tuck my legs underneath me and I breathe and then I begin.  Instead, I found myself standing there with the mic in my face and the laryngitis that was just about gone back full force and the words of my polished poems in my published book a blur on the dimly-lit page.  Mr. Rogers always started his television show by singing his song, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood . . ” as he he slipped into his comfortable homemade sweater and sneakers.  On the documentary, he is shown doing the thing he does every day, finding the zipper on that sweater and giving it a zippy-zip as he sings his zippy song.  Except this day, it doesn’t zip, on the first try, on the second try.  And Mr. Rogers, he isn’t fazed.  He just looks at his television audience and say, “I’ll try again later,” and moves onto his sneakers.  That’s bravery for you; that’s being present.  And that’s not what I did.  After Marty found the flashlight on his phone and gave it to me to hold with my shaky hand, I plunged in, started reading without a breath, held my breath throughout, I think, raced through the poems with a croaky voice, a shaky hand, and sixty-year-old eyes.  I jumped ship, wasn’t present at all.  And maybe that is what it takes to be authentic — to stay present, no matter what, shaky hands, dim light, faulty zipper and all.  I witnessed this kind of presence in the college students.  Their words often were fierce and brave, but it was their presence that moved me.  Like Mr. Rogers, they inhabited their bodies, inhabited their five minutes.  I was both humbled and inspired.

And later, it was shame, embarrassment, self-judgement that reared up from the depths to be de-cluttered.  But I’m happy to tell you that this inner house-cleaning didn’t take long.  I found myself laughing.  It wasn’t my finest five minutes, for sure.  But it was kind of funny and I didn’t melt.  And I didn’t slither back to my seat either.  And next month, on the second Thursday, I’ll be back, back in the saddle, back at Preserve for open mic.  And I intend to haul up a stool, sit with my knees tucked beneath me, intend to bring my backpacker headlamp so I can see the words on the page of whatever feels good to me that night — polished or unpolished, who cares!!!!.  And I plan to breathe, to connect with the moment.  And who knows what the moment will bring, a smooth-sailing performance, or something choppy.  It doesn’t matter, because the next time, I plan to be present to enjoy it.

Tag Cloud