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Idaho in June

There are two ways to live your life.  One is as though nothing is a miracle.  The other is as though everything is a miracle.  Albert Einstein

It was late in May, on the plane from Amsterdam to Bilbao, Spain, en route to our eight-day Camino trek along the Basque Coast, that Cam and I first heard the name.  We were sitting with a family who lived in the Netherlands, the mother, from Brussels, in our row, and the father, who was Scottish, and their two middle-school-aged children in the seats in front of us.  They all spoke English and our conversation was lively and broad-stroked, traversing a world of subjects, and, yet, it kept returning again and again to the name.  Isla.  The daughter’s name was Isla.  Neither Cam nor I had ever heard this name before.  We liked the way it rolled off our tongues, easy and free.  “It’s beautiful,” I told the twelve-year-old girl.  And Cam agreed.  If we were still having kids, we added, we’d name our daughter Isla.  And I wrote it down in my journal, the long letter i, the silent s.  “Like island,” the father chimed in, “a Scottish name of strength.”  For some reason, we couldn’t get enough of it, were still circling back as we exited the plane and walked through the jet bridge to Bilbao’s airport, the family at our side.  “Good-bye,” we said to our new friends.  “Good-bye, Isla, with the beautiful name!”

And I brought that name, still fresh on my tongue, out west with me, when I traveled to Idaho three weeks later.  It was the tenth of June and the baby, our almost-five-year-old grandson Viren’s sister, would be born a few days later.  She already had a name, one that our son and daughter-in-law had chosen six months earlier, one that would remain a secret to us until her birth on Monday morning.  So in no way was I being a pushy grandmother, intending to influence what had already been decided, when I told the family that Grandpa and I had heard the most beautiful of names on our trip to Spain.  “Isla.  Have you heard it before?!?”  Our daughter-in-law said that she had heard of it, and that was that.  No more mention of Isla.  Until two days later on that Monday morning.  Viren and I had spent Sunday night at our favorite motel, La Quinta, a familiar treat for the two of us when I visited Idaho, and he was still asleep when my cell phone rang.  “Mom, you guessed it,” our son exclaimed.   “Her name is Aila.  Except its the Finnish version with a silent first a.  We chose the name months ago”  It took a moment for me to register.  She was born, and she was healthy, and her name was Aila.  How could that be?!?

How could that be?!?  Life is amazing.  Life is filled with miracles.  Our Aila is beautiful and I will tell her the story of her name, how her grandparents, on a trip to Spain, fell in love, with the name Aila and the possibility of a girl with that name.  I will tell her that we didn’t know it then, but she was that girl we dreamed of that day on the plane a few weeks before her birth.

There are the miracles, the ones that cause your jaw to drop in silent awe, the ones that are too big for tidy explanations.  There were other jaw-dropping moments the day of Aila’s birth.  Our daughter-in-law and son wanted a little time with Aila before the two of us, Grandma and Viren, arrived at the hospital, so it was downtown to the fountain we headed, the place where we throw our pennies and make our wishes.  And I, the Grandma with the purse filled with coins, dug in and pulled out a handful for Viren, enough pennies for a whole family of wishes.  And I noticed one seemed different.  And I put it aside, and later at breakfast before our drive to the hospital, I held it up to the light.  And I never hold pennies up to the light, but I did that morning.  And I gasped.  It was an old penny, a Grandma of a penny, and it’s birth year was my birth year, 1956.  And I knew that this penny, along with the story of her name, was meant for Aila.

And maybe it is easy to open to the miracles on a day when a baby is born, when you witness her brother first glimpsing her tiny face, and her mother holding her as if she has done this forever.  Maybe it is easy to remember that life itself is a miracle when you glimpse tiny fingers and tiny toes and the perfection of a newborn being.  But the sun rises every morning and the sky is filled with stars at night and there is the moon that we can follow in its monthly cycles, and every day births something new.  It is all a miracle, the moments that seem extraordinary and the ordinary moments as well.  The evening of Aila’s birth, we all gathered back at the hospital, in the suite of Aila and her parents — the aunt and uncle and almost-two-year-old cousin Addie, the grandparents, and, of course, Aila’s brother, Viren.  And we broke open the sparkling apple juice and we cut slices of the chocolate ice cream cake and we toasted our newborn baby and we toasted her parents and we toasted her family  — and toddler Addie fell quickly in love with her newborn cousin and learned to say Baby Aila’a beautiful name and ate a whole adult-sized piece of the ice cream cake and we laughed and we were loud and we were quiet too, and it was all quite ordinary.  And it was all quite extraordinary.  And it was all a miracle.

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Welcome to the world, Baby Aila!!!

Our family in Moscow, Idaho, savoring the miracles, the ordinary and the extra-ordinary moments:  June 2017

El Camino del Norte

(Transcribed and slightly edited from an e-mail I wrote in the midst of an eight-day walk in northern Spain at the end of May, 2017.)

 

 

Uncover the courage that lies beneath your fears.  Joan of Arc

We are here to love each other.  That is why you are here.  That is what life is for.  Maya Angelou

Body work is soul work.  Marion Woodman

Dear friends,

It is early morning in this five-hundred-year-old farmhouse and the sun has not yet risen over the fields and the woods on the outskirts of the mountain town of Gernika, Spain.  I wonder what we’ll be eating for breakfast.  It is not the most exciting meal of the day here in the Basque country of northern Spain.  It is usually just bread and olive oil and a piece of fruit, but this lodging is an organic farm run by a sweet couple in their forties and I am hungry and I have high hopes.  And right now, before the family rises to greet us, I have the time to write.  But what do I want to write?  I am still digesting the wisdom from the gifts I received seven months ago when my friend Mary and I trekked north on a three-week pilgrimage along the Atlantic coast of Portugal and through the medieval towns of Spain to Santiago Compostila.  And now, here I am again, on another Camino adventure, this time with my husband Cam, in the midst of an eight-day walk following the yellow arrows and sea shell symbols on the first leg of El Camino del Norte from the town of Irun on the French border to the Basque capital city of Bilbao where we’ll fly back home again after more than a week of carrying all that we need in packs on our backs.

I’m thinking now of the words a fellow pilgrim shared with Mary and me last October as we sat at the breakfast table in the Spanish town of Finisterre looking out over the Atlantic Ocean on the day we were preparing to catch a bus, then a train back to Lisbon as our three-week walk was winding down.  He said with the smile of one who had walked many a Camino that our pilgrimage wasn’t ending, that this was just the beginning.  And we both understood what he meant.  We got it, that life, every day of it, every step of it, is a pilgrimage and it is our job to stay present and aware, to look for and appreciate the miracles, to do our best to love this world we inhabit.  So, in some ways, this current eight-day pilgrimage is no different, just more opportunity to expand into love.  And yet, it is different, too, than our day-to-day-at-home living.  It is an adventure with clear intention, and few distractions.  It is ordinary life on steroids, magnifying for us what is possible if we pay attention.

I think that Cam, who hasn’t experienced the magnifying-glass effect of a Camino before, is more astounded than me by the way our needs are provided with ease and perfection.  When we are parched, desperately craving water, out of the blue sky and thin mountain air, there it is, around the next turn in the trail, a tavern selling the coldest best-tasting agua con gas (sparkling water) you could imagine.  When Cam and I tell a day-long pilgrim companion, a twenty-year-old from a small village in northern Italy, that Italian food is our very favorite, and, our young Italian friend replies in detail about the wonders of his family’s cooking, it has to happen.  In the middle of a mountain hamlet — not even a town or a village, just a few sheep and cow farms — a restaurant appears, in the golden light of dinnertime, after a long day of climbing up and down mountains in the heat, right in the midst of Basque country where Basque food seems to be the only fare served up, an Italian restaurant, where the chef prepares for us the most sensual meal of seafood pasta and grilled vegetables and homemade bread and local olives and garden greens we have ever tasted.  When we walk into a bar for a drink of cold water, a group of older men are watching a sport event on the television screen, a world-class bike race, and the American who Cam has followed for a decade is crossing the finish line in first place, right at that moment.  When my pen runs out of ink, I don’t even flinch.  One is handed to me by the young Canadian pilgrim leaning against the post in the seaside town of Getaria.  It is like that when we are present and allowing, the world opens up with its generosity  — and a pilgrimage reminds us of this.

And then there are the people.  Mary and I experienced it on our Portuguese Camino last October, the kindness of strangers that was palpable and heartbreakingly beautiful.  And now, Cam and I are experiencing it also.  Towns are farther apart in the Basque country of northern Spain, but when we approach one, the people show up for us, as if by magic.  On our most strenuous day of hiking thus far, over mountains with very little shade and blazing sun and heat rising above ninety-degrees, our water supply was waning in the late afternoon and Cam was ahead of me, rounding a corner toward the downhill that would take us into Markina and the promise of something cold to drink and a place to rest our overheated bodies before continuing the journey uphill again to our destination.  I was whining to myself and frankly wondering whether I would whither or wilt or just give up, when a shirtless man, my age or older, came dancing down the trail behind me, a local resident of Markina out for a walk who spoke Basque and Spanish, a little French, but no English.  And he walked with me, and somehow we communicated as he perked me up and kept me going until I caught up with Cam.  And then I, in my broken Spanish, asked him his name.  “Sante,” he said.  “Like Santiago!”  His name was saint, and he was my saint, one of the many that we have met along the way.

And the fellow pilgrims have been a joy.  There is the British couple in their forties who are writers and funny and kindred spirits.  And the Polish couple our age.  He doesn’t speak any English and very little Spanish, but this doesn’t stop him.  He plunges into huge conversations with gusto and an abundance of joy and you get the gist, that he loves his wife and his family and the students he teaches, that adventure feeds his spirit.  He has tied a pine cone onto the bottom of his pack and it wags like a happy tail as he marches ahead of us.  There is the twenty-five-year-old police officer from Frankfort who is wearing Cam’s knee brace and walking slowly and filling us with hope for the future, with his world view that is expansive and his kindness that knows no borders.  There are people from Germany and Australia, a French family, a Danish and American walking together.  There are three old men from Barcelona and two young women from the south of Spain.  There is the tall handsome man from Paris who stepped out of his home and hasn’t stopped walking for nearly two months, some of it along the sea where he has allowed himself to be polished smooth.  He is a bright light and I felt the glow of it in his presence.  Cam and I are appreciative beyond measure to meet these people, to hand them one of my angel cards, simple cards with a single word of inspiration, appreciative to connect in big and small ways.

And our days!!!  They stretch out long and are filled with an openness that just can’t be contained in an embrace or a game plan.  We study our route in the morning at the breakfast table, decide where to stay for the night, then abort the mission when something better comes along.  We have walked farther than expected twice.  Three days ago, we arrived at our agra-touristo house in the mid-afternoon, cancelled our reservation and the certainty of a room of our own and walked out into the sublime early evening sun shining over the mountain farms.  And, three hours later, with some trepidation and a good dose of delight plunged into our very first hostel bunk- room experience.  We have moved through a landscape of absolute beauty — the sea, the mountains, the country roads, the woodland paths.  And it all has been an adventure, an adventure under the magnifying glass of life lived with focus, a breathtaking adventure.  And it has taxed our breath, this breathtaking adventure, up and down, up and down, all day, sometimes through relentless heat.  And perhaps this is the most spiritual part of all, how our bodies, our beloved bodies have risen to the occasion.  The first two days, my quad and calf muscles hurt so much that I could barely climb the stairs at night.  Now it is no effort.  And I have learned to dunk my head under the water fountains that occasionally show up along the way, to wet my whole body down.  My pack is feeling lighter.  We are persisting!!!  And now, I am feeling bittersweet.  Two more days of walking and then we’ll be flying home.  I don’t want it to be over.  And it’s not.  This day is opening up for us, opening up with the light pouring in the window and a rooster crowing and birds singing their Spanish bird songs.  It will be a long day of walking, cooler after last evening’s thunderstorm.  And there will be magical moments and human kindness — I just know it.  And there will be beauty around each corner if we are open.

Love, Helen

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The Real Thing

The real thing is not the goal, the real thing is the beauty of the movement.  Osho

My own laugh is the real thing and I’ve had it all my life.  Phyllis Diller

Ain’t nothing like the real thing  Marvin Gaye

It was glorious.  The sun had broken through the clouds and the world was sparkling as I traipsed down the two-track trail west along a creek-sized river near my house.  I was surrounded by bird call — the warblers, the white-throated sparrows, the black birds all singing into the clear blue of the sky on this mid-May early evening a month ago, and I was singing too, in my heart, to be out in the wilderness surrounded by all this bird call, all this sun, all this fresh clear springtime air.   A pair of mallards lit off from the cattail marsh as I turned on a bridge to start my walk back home again.  And I glanced up at the white pine on the other side of the inlet, its tassels glistening, and, for some reason, I thought of my mother.

Maybe it was the birds or the whoosh of spring in the air that brought back my mother — a lover of birds and springtime — to me in that moment.  Or maybe it was the day, this particular day, Mother’s Day, that lit me up with an appreciation for my own mother.  Whatever the reason, she was clearly present and it was a good thing to be filled up like this with all these mother thoughts.  I can’t remember for sure, but I might even have spoken the words out loud, out through the marsh and into the trees.  “Mom,” I might have said in my own speaking voice.  “I love you, Mom! And I have no regrets”  That’s what I was thinking as I stood there on the bridge.  It’s true.  I have no regrets.  My mother and I were in a clear-sailing place those last years of her body-life.  I relished each and every trip back to her cottage home at the head of Fish House Cove, in Maine.  Our time together was slow and savory, as satisfying as a home-cooked meal.  And actually it was filled with home-cooked meals and laughter and silence and good thoughtful conversation.  We had cleared what had needed to be cleared and the air was as sweet as it was now in this pine-scented Mother’s Day moment.  And then I added a postscript as I started walking again.  “Mom, I don’t need a single thing from you.  I already feel your presence.”

Sometimes my mother comes to me with a sign, an unexpected visit from a cardinal or an eagle soaring overhead at the exact moment I’m thinking of her.  Sometimes it is in the breeze that kisses my cheek as a mother-memory flashes through my mind.  Sometimes it is a phrase in a book or something a friend says, something that captures the very essence of my unique mother.  In this moment, however, I was so satiated with mother-appreciation that it truly was enough — no sign needed, no added whipped cream to an already wonderful Sunday evening mother-daughter connection on a two-track trail in Upper Michigan.  And perhaps that’s why I was so startled when it happened.  I hadn’t walked for more than thirty seconds when it occurred, the singing — not a quiet song-in-my-head type of singing and not a bird-chirping singing either.  This was a real honest to goodness blasting out into the ethers heartfelt twang — and it was coming from my breast, shouting out from within my very own flesh!  “Real thing.  There ain’t nothing like the real thing baby.”  It took me a moment to realize what was happening, that it wasn’t my breast suddenly taking flight in a country western frenzy after all.  It was my cell phone.  With no pockets in my summery frock, I had tucked the phone into my sport bra at the beginning of this journey — and now it seemed to have grown a life of its own.  I pulled it out and looked at its face.  It was the Zac Brown Band in the midst of a song, “Real Thing.”  I had never heard of the Zac Brown Band before this moment, nor had I ever listened to this song.  But the lyrics were clear — “the real thing baby” — and I was clear, too.  This was no simple boob-dialing.  This message was from my mother, the real thing.

As I tucked the phone back in my bra that evening and continued to walk, I began mulling over this dramatic mother country western moment.  What did she mean by it — the real thing?  This didn’t seem like a mere connection, a cardinal bird or an eagle saying, “I’m here, Helen, present with you.”  This was conversation, perhaps even maternal wisdom with a message for me.  Right away, I thought of the talk I had given that morning at the Unity Circle.  The topic had been patriotism and I had shared my personal journey as citizen of this country and this world, how the thread tying the timeline of stories together has always been integrity, mustering up the courage to live from the inside out.  I’m not sure what it means to be a patriot.  I’m not sure how my talk went over that morning.  It felt a bit clunky, if I’m honest with myself, but it felt real, too.  And I know that it feels good when I’m lit up from the inside, connected to the divine spark, to the same light that glimmers through the white pines and ripples across the stream that flowed beside me that evening.  And I know that when I live from this place, from an inner stream flowing and unbridled, there is sure-footedness and confidence in my actions.  It feels good to live like this.  It feels real.  And, in that very real moment of connection, perhaps that was what my mother was telling me.

 

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Spring tipping into summer in the north country: May 2016  (Photos by Helen Haskell Remien)

 

Uncle John

(This post is part of a series of essays that I’ve written about the Camino walk that my friend Mary and I embarked on last October.)

 

To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower.  Hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.  William Blake

I have found that if you love life, life will love you back.  Arthur Rubinstein

True explorers want to go where no one has gone before.  Abraham- Hicks

It started with a spoon, a silver spoon, tucked into my backpack as talisman, a reminder of my roots, my actual roots as I rubbed it each morning on the bottom of my feet for extra-grounding and my familial roots as well.  I had inherited it, this spoon, tarnished and bent, when I was a girl, given to me by my grandmother with our name “Helen” engraved in cursive on its stem.  And for some reason, it had called out to me when I was preparing for this three week pilgrimage on the Camino route along the northern coast of Portugal and Spain and into Santiago de Compostila.  It had wanted to come along.  So here we were, sitting at a table in the hotel’s breakfast nook, my spoon and I, and my friend Mary, in the border city of Valenca, Portugal on a spacious morning of rest and replenishment after our first seven days of walking the many kilometers of coastline on boardwalks and beaches and cobblestone streets along the Atlantic sea.  And, as we sat there, we were marveling at what I had just noticed that very morning.  The design at the stem’s flair, on both front and back, and on the back of the bowl of the spoon itself was that of a scallop shell, the symbol for this Camino pilgrimage, the image that marked each way-marker beckoning us forward, the type of shell that was tied to almost every pilgrim’s pack and was said to be carried by St James himself as he walked along these same paths.  And here it was, the scallop, clearly carved into my Grandmother Helen’s silver spoon!

“Tell me more about your mother’s family!” Mary encouraged as we soaked our bread in olive oil and peeled our local clementine oranges.  The spoon and its scallop engraving opened up a conversation that morning about the Perry side of my family.  Mary already knew a little, four years earlier had attended my mother’s memorial service in Maine, had heard stories about my mother and my mother’s mother, Grandma Helen, and her father, my Grandpa Perry.  “Does she have any siblings?” Mary asked, settling in for a session of breakfast storytelling.  And I’m not sure why, perhaps it was the spoon, sitting there between us, that encouraged me to dive deep into Perry-family memories.  I told her about my Uncle Fred, and his wife, my Aunt Nancy, how I adored them, and the four boy cousins who lived in Massachusetts in a big sprawling house with a swimming pool and tennis court and hosted our family’s Thanksgivings every year.  I shared how my mother was devastated when her younger brother Fred had died when she was in her seventies, how she and Aunt Nancy were like sisters, how they traveled together to Florida in February each year after his passing.  I told an ocean of stories about my family before I focused in on Uncle John and the cove he calls home in coastal Maine.

I reminded Mary that she had met my Uncle John and my Aunt Anne at the memorial, how he was the one who shared stories of his older sister, my mother, in front of the congregation during the service.  “Uncle John is the best!” I exclaimed.  “Everyone loves Uncle John!  He exudes life with every step he takes, and lifts you off the ground with his hugs!”  I told Mary that my uncle was brilliant with his engineering mind, but it was his enthusiasm that swept over me like a wave of invigorating pleasure and inspired me every time I was in his presence.  He was as bright a character as the rhododendrons he and Aunt Anne grew on their coastal property.  And he had sailed his way through the great lakes and all along the coast of Maine, had climbed the face of cliffs and knew the White Mountains of New Hampshire with heart and soul, and he and Aunt Anne were partners in these adventures, both naturalists and spiritual-seekers, and, together, with their beloved dogs had camped their way across the country on many a trip out west to visit their daughters, my three girl cousins in California and Washington.   I told Mary that my Uncle John seemed to know something about everything, but not in a know-it-all way, that he was generous and kind and loved us all, his nieces and nephews and his great nieces and nephews, his beloved girls, his granddaughter, his life partner, Anne.  I told Mary that I was so glad to have an Uncle John alive in my life and living in Cundy’s Harbor, Maine.

That evening, like every other evening on our pilgrimage, after our day of walking, Mary and I feasted on a meal of local fish and greens, salad and fresh-made bread, and the most wonderful of olive oils slathered on top of everything.  And now, we were back in our hotel room, organizing and re-packing for the next day’s journey.  I stuffed the silver spoon into its special pocket and took out my cellphone to check my e-mails.  And that’s when I gasped.  Or maybe I didn’t gasp.  Because I was on the Camino path and synchronicities were the norm.  It was an e-mail from my brother that brought me the news.  “My Uncle John died!” I told Mary.  “It was peaceful and easy and he was looking out at the cove.  His heart just gave out.”  I immediately wrote to my Aunt Anne and to my girl cousins, told them that I was on a pilgrimage, that I would be carrying my love for them and Uncle John all the way to Santiago and to the sea beyond.

And that’s what I did.  All the way to sea, I held them dear to my heart.  And the next day, in a moment of walking alone on a country road surrounded by grassy fields and up a hill to the opening of a eucalyptus and pine forest, I noticed a Camino trail marker, an ancient granite stone engraved with the traditional scallop shell pointing me into the woods.  And on top of this marker was an altar piled high with rocks and wildflowers and tiny treasures placed there by fellow pilgrims as they journeyed by.  I thought of Uncle John and I picked up a pebble from the dirt road, held it as I welled with appreciation for my uncle and his well-lived life, and, like my fellow journeyers, I added the pebble to the altar’s offerings.  And I started to walk.  And I honestly can tell you that it hadn’t been more than a moment and I hadn’t gotten to the woods yet and that I was under nothing but a canopy of blue and white-clouded sky, when something told me to look up, and that’s what I did.  I looked up at the sky and I saw it, way up in the sky, a tiny feather floating down, and it wasn’t my conscious mind guiding me as I looked up, as I reached out my arm.  And somehow, it didn’t even seem remarkable at the time; in fact, it seemed quite ordinary.  Because my uncle, who lifted us up with his hugs and with his buoyancy — why wouldn’t he offer a feather-light gift?  I just stood there, looking up.  And with my body still and my palm wide open, it landed with ease and I clutched it for a moment, then placed it in my pocket and made my way into the woods.

 

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Uncle John and Aunt Anne lounging on their hammock:  Cundy’s Harbor, Maine

IMG_0536At my aunt and uncle’s house, Cundy’s Harbor, Maine:  July 2013

What do you stand for?

To heal ourselves we must heal our planet, and to heal our planet we must heal ourselves.  Bobby McLeod

What is easy is sustainable.  Birds coast when they can.  Adrienne Maree Brown

In the photo, our son is three-and-a-half, and the year is 1986, and the grass is greening and he is wearing a short-sleeved shirt and cobalt-blue Oshkosh overalls printed with chipper crayon-colored sailboats and he is smiling into the camera as he clutches, in one hand, a yellow balloon and, in the other, a placard on a stick.  It is mid-May, Mother’s Day, and he, along with his family, is about to begin moving down the main street of our town in a march for peace.  The sign he carries was given to him by a grown-up friend at the rally and he carries it proudly, holds the message as high as his arm can reach “No more guns.  No more bombs.  I just want peace in my life.”  He is sincere as he looks at the camera and at me, his mother, behind the lens.  And I smile now as I look back at this photo.

It is true.  I am sure that he and his older brother, at the deepest level of their being, did crave a peaceful world, a welcoming home life, that the message rang true as he held it up for all to see on that sunny Sunday afternoon thirty-one years ago.  And yet, there was the stick, the stick that held up the sign.  In a red hot minute, that stick could have become something quite different, a perfect weapon for a pre-school member of the neighborhood superhero power team, something to thrash about in the ferns and threaten imaginary foes.  And the “No more guns” part of the message — I’m not sure he would have given it his one-hundred-percent okay.  If his father and I had allowed toy guns in the house, I am sure our two boys would have been thrilled.  We are rich and complex creatures, we human beings.

The next year, in late June, I said good-bye to the two boys and my husband, and traveled to Nicaragua for three weeks with a Witness for Peace group from my home state of Maine.  It was a calling for sure, something I needed to do, to stand up to our government’s policies in this way, to open myself to a different culture and a people who were fighting for their empowerment.  And, indeed, it was a beautiful and heart-opening experience and I was forever changed.  It felt like a cause bigger than myself, and, also, if I was honest, something selfish as well.  It was a three week adventure for a gal who was just discovering how much she loved adventure, a time-off from mothering, a journey in which I found a piece of my own empowerment.  And when I returned home, I needed to soak it all in.  I remember feeling happiest that summer, not when I was donning an activist role and showing my slides or writing letters to the editor, but when I was walking along the lake or hanging clothes on the line.

In yoga, we unfurl both of our palms, and, in one palm, we place a piece of ourselves, perhaps, the “sun” part that is active and thrives on movement in the outer world, and, in the other, we place another part of ourselves, perhaps the more introspective “moon” that dreams in still-waters and intuitive power.  Or, in another moment, we might place the part of ourselves that holds up a placard and believes fervently in its message as we march forward at a rally for peace and inclusivity and for the health of our beloved planet, and, in the other, the fun of a stick to thrash at ferns.  I am finding this helpful now, this unfurling of my palms.  I feel it again, my activist who fervently wants to hold my arm up high with a message like my son held up all those years ago.  I am called to letter-writing and petition-signing and to rallies with placards.  And, I also am deeply and forever in love with my handcrafted life, the day to day precious activities of care-taking home and relationship, the writing of poems and essays, the adventuring in nature, the chunks of time for travel, the delights that offer themselves in every moment when we pay attention.

So how do we reconcile it, how big we are as humans, how much we carry inside, how conflicted it sometimes all can seem?  In the ancient language of Sanskrit, yoga means union, to yoke together, to bring together.  So, that’s what we do in yoga, we place both of our palms at our heart center, at the center of our body, at the center of love where all things are possible.  And that’s what I am doing now, holding it all in my heart, the fire and passion that is rising to speak out for this beloved planet and its inhabitants, to envision a world of inclusivity and civility and kindness in the present moment and for my grandchildren and for their grandchildren.  I guess I could call this the activist part of me.  And here it sits in my heart of hearts along with the other palm’s contents — the absolute preciousness and joy and fun of the ordinary/extra-ordinary moments in my everyday life.  And here I stand, on my own two feet, with all of it, the magnitude and magnificence of a life that is big enough to hold what seems like paradox after paradox.  Just as you stand, just as we all do.  And, if we allow our greatest journey to be one that is inward, one where we pause now and then and really listen, we’ll hear it, our own heart’s beat, our own drum’s calling like the calling of no one else’s, and we’ll know, we’ll just know, what we stand for, what we move for, what is calling to us, what is bringing us into alignment, what is making us happy and fulfilled, precious moment after precious moment.

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What do I stand for?  What do you stand for?  And with whom do we stand?

(A superhero on an advertisement in the Minneapolis airport, and my two grandkids.)

I embrace my inner superhero and I stand with these beloved grandkids!!!!!!

Pleasure

 

(This essay is one of several about the walk along the Portuguese Way that my friend Mary and I took last October. It will be compiled into book form in the coming months.)

Many of us pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that we hurry past it.  Soren Kierkegard

Every moment has its pleasures and its hope.  Jane Austen, Mansfield Park

I finally figured out the only reason to be alive is to enjoy it.  Rita Mae Brown

Keep a green tree in your heart, and perhaps a singing bird will come.  Chinese Proverb

It is easy to forge ahead when there is a mist in the air and a downpour is imminent and the day has been long and the town you are trudging into as the rain dampens your coat, which isn’t quite waterproof, isn’t a town at all, not like you had envisioned with its ancient walled beginnings, but a full-blown city instead and the twenty-five kilometers you’ve already walked only gets you to its outskirts and you know you can’t cheat and take a cab even though one is sitting in the lot in front of you because you’ve told yourself you are walking the whole way.  It is easy to forge ahead, to press the adrenaline button and keep on trucking because you find it a strange kind of fun to challenge your limits as you move yourself north in mid-October along the Portuguese Way to Santiago de Compostilo, Spain on a three week pilgrimage.  And it is easy to lift up the positive in such a situation when an adorable young woman who doesn’t speak English finds you a map, grabs you by the elbow, whisks you forward on those busy city streets filled with the traffic of rush hour, and points you in the direction of that ancient walled center where your hostel is waiting.  And though it takes a magical spell to wind your way through the charming old section with its narrow cobblestone streets, you make it to your room and to your dear friend who has sore feet on this particular day and doesn’t feel the least bit guilty that she has hitched a ride.  And, it is easy still to muster up some optimism  because you are on a pilgrimage and you love the way your body feels after a hard day of pushing it forward — and you don’t even mind the dark cloud of a downpour and the chill in the air, don’t even mind that the place you are staying on this gloomy night is stark and cold and the shared bath is even colder, and you love the feeling of the bed beneath you and you thank the gods and the goddesses and your own two feet for carrying you mile after mile after mile, for transporting you to this place of stillness where sleep comes easily.

There is something in you that can rise up above all this drizzle, that can remain upbeat in the midst of a storm.  But what about the next day, when the clouds have lifted and the scent of eucalyptus wafts through the fresh post-rain air and the streams gleam and the meadows shimmer and there is a sparkle in the people you meet and you feel it, too, the sparkle, the lightness in your step, and you arrive at your next overnight destination earlier than expected, a town with a beautiful name, Caldas de Reis, on a beautiful river, and you catch sight of friends who you have met along the way and you wave a buoyant hello and you traipse on to the place where you will be staying on this shimmering glimmering early evening?  What about then?  Can you relax into it?  Can you really receive it, the sunlight, the warmth, the paradise that awaits you?  Can you breathe it in deep, all the way down to your bones that you are worthy of this, the light reflected off the bend in the river, the exhilarating rush of a waterfall just feet away from where you now stand, an old manor house and cotton mill renovated into an elegant palace, the splash of red-flowered potted plants on every step and in every doorway, the candle-lit patio, the enchanted bridge, the lushly-lined pathways?  Can you take it in, that tonight it is yours, all this beauty, all this charm, that tonight you and your walking partner friend are alone in this palace, a palace that cost you mere dollars more than the hostel you stayed in the night before?

And there is a room waiting for you with crisp white sheets and plush comforters and thick terry bathrobes and a hairdryer.  And opera music — there is opera music streaming through the heady air while you sit down to a table so lovingly prepared for you by the young woman who is the only other person who seems to be here this day and quickly becomes your friend.  And can you stay present with all of this, the cloth napkins tied with delicate bows, the grilled fish and roasted vegetables, the spring green soup, the tomatoes, warm and ripe and drizzled with olive oil, the bread hot from the oven, the young friend who prepared this meal and is delighting in your happiness?  Can pleasure arise from this place of ease?  Can crisp cotton sheets, a hot water shower, a meal fit for the gods and goddesses be a part of the happiness package?  Can you press the save button and know that it is within you now and always, the clear flowing river, the kindness of a stranger who delights in making you feel at home, the free reign of a palace, the memory of grilled fish and roasted vegetables and music, the most beautiful music you have ever heard?  Can you claim it with heart and soul?  Can you say it out loud and with conviction that you’re done with it, with the thinking that you need to rise above a black cloud into the space of buoyancy?  I know that you know it now, that it is here for you in every moment, the taste of pleasure and the music of the opera, that it can stay with you as you walk into your next day — and into the next and the next.

 

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Our wonderful home for the night in Caldas de Rais, Spain; October 2016

Grandchildren

“Sometimes, ” said Pooh, “the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.”             A.A. Milne

Why fit in when you were born to stand out!  Dr. Seuss

Last night I dreamed about the house on Washington Street.  It was a magnificent house, one worthy of an uplifting dream, a sea captain’s mansion in a shipbuilding town in coastal Maine with its winding halls and front and back stairways and closets big enough for after-school clubhouses and an attic with dance floor and puppet theater and cedar closet playroom.  It was every child’s dream to live in such a house and, indeed, I did during my elementary school years — and, last night, it was alive again fifty years later.

It was tulip season and I was seven, just finishing first grade, when we moved into our new home.  And, even though our house seemed like a castle to me — partly wonderful with its six fireplaces and elevator in the hallway and huge kids’ bathroom with claw foot tub, and partly scary, too, with its never-ending corridors and closets and a back wing that might very well be haunted — we weren’t royalty and the house wasn’t in pristine shape and my mother spent the next months and years painting room after room after room.  It wasn’t a whim for my parents to buy such a humungous dwelling.  My mother and father, who were raising four kids, knew that, in the coming years, their aging parents, three of them, would be moving to Maine, in with us in our mansion-castle-house on Washington Street.  So, with future grandparent-plans in place, we settled into our new home, and the scary stopped being scary and the wonderful became more wonderful and we four kids took over the attic playroom and the clubhouse closets and the front and back stairways and we made every bit of that castle our own.  And, eventually, some years later, it did happen; Grandma Helen and Grandpa Perry and Grammie Emma moved in with us, and our house, the wonderful home that I dreamed about last night, was big enough to hold us all.

And it was Grandma Helen that I found myself thinking about a few days before my dream, remembering her gold bracelet, the one that her sister, my Great Aunt Florence, the jeweler, had made for her, the one with eleven circle charms on it, each inscribed with the name of a grandchild, remembering how I sat on her lap when I was small and fingered each charm, each name, of the boy cousins and the girl cousins and each one of my siblings and one for me, too.  Grandma Helen was not a run-around-the-house-with-us type of grandma, a spunky take-us-for-walks sort of gal.  She was old and arthritic, with swollen ankles and a walker and she sat in her chair and we came to her.  That’s what I was hinking about, how it was the simple things that seemed special when I was with my Grandma.  She loved her grandkids.  I know that for certain, felt it in the charms of her gold bracelet and in the warm feeling that soaked into my bones when I cuddled up next to her.  During mornings at Washington Street, I watched her brush her long wavy hair and twist it on top of her head into a tight braid, watched her pull on silken layers of old-fashioned undergarments and pat perfume behind her ears, watched her clasp the blue lapis necklace that is now mine around her neck in a ritual that readied us both for the day ahead.  She spent hours knitting baby sweaters and booties and taught me to knit and to purl and though her knitting lessons didn’t take hold like they did for my big sister, I remember how fun it was to try.  And, when I was older, Grandma Helen hauled out her tiny measuring tape, and, with all the professionalism of a real taylor, wrapped it around my Barbie’s breasts and waist and hips and made for my doll the most marvelous off-the-shoulder perfect-fit yellow mermaid-style dress.

And though I don’t have a physical bracelet with the names of my grandkids — Viren and Addie and Baby Girl Not Yet Born — etched on their own special charm, I wear a metaphoric one, jam-packed with the precious details of our time together.  That’s what I was thinking about when Grandma Helen’s bracelet popped into my mind in the Seattle Airport on the way back from a recent visit with my kids and grandkids in Idaho, how it wasn’t a dramatic eight days, no one lost a tooth or had a crisis or won a nobel prize.  It was not the type of week that makes for a good story, complete with lessons learned and fresh new perspectives carried forward.  The moments of the week were strung together into a a bracelet of the ordinary, moments that maybe only a grandmother and her grandkids feel are extraordinary.  On the two days that I spent alone with one-and-a-half-year-old Addie, I plopped her on the toilet seat and she watched as I smeared my face with lotion and brushed my eyelids with make-up.  She gasped with delight and clapped her hands as I poked the wires of my dangle earrings through the holes in my ears.  And together we chose our outfits for the day.  Addie is a sponge for words and seemed to learn a hundred new ones each day of the week.  And her cousin Viren, who is four-and-a-half is also a sponge for words and is spelling out every street sign and billboard that he spies from his carseat.  And Viren skipped, a buoyant exuberant lift-up-each-leg-sort-of-skip, down the hallway, the whole length of it, the night he and I stayed in the La Quinta Hotel, and I followed him, slipping into my own exuberant skip as I caught the fumes of his enthusiasm.  I could tell you a million things, how Viren climbs in Addie’s Pack and Play, unzips the little door for her to join, then together they grab the sides and shake and scream and Addie’s fine hair turns electric and sometimes she is wearing one mitten and one sock and the two cousins think it is just the most fun in the world and their grandmother does too.  The week was like that, every day filled with those moments, moments that I now wear on my metaphoric bracelet.  I am glad that I am a grandmother.  And I am glad that I remembered my Grandma Helen’s bracelet and the precious ordinary details of our time together.  And I am glad that I dreamed of the house on Washington Street.

In my dream, I am out west, perhaps in Idaho, and the setting is part family reunion, part yoga retreat, and it is sunny and warm, and, sometime during the activities, I notice it, the house of my childhood, sitting there on a grassy knoll.  And I am amazed, confounded, in awe of how such a big place could have been moved across the country.  But there it is, in front of me, and I am filled with excitement.  I prop Addie on my right hip, take Viren’s hand, exclaim to my older brother who is present with us too, “Come on!  Let’s go in!”  I think I know as I am moving through this dream that this house that was so magnificent and fun in childhood is even bigger now, big enough to hold even more of us, east and west, young and old, living and present in spirit.

And from this dream, I woke up happy.

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The house on Washington Street in coastal Maine; Grandma Helen and baby Helen,1956; Addie and Viren in the Chariot in Moscow, Idaho, March 2017.

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