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Ode to Addie

Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.  Socrates

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

. . . be joyous and romping full force toward what you want!  Abraham-Hicks

It was a warm June morning in Moscow Idaho when Addie took off down Main Street full throttle.  She cocked her head to one side, raised the other shoulder, let out a high-pitched steady shriek and skidaddled as fast as her pink-sneakered feet would carry her — past the art gallery and the rock shop and the outdoor store, straight ahead in a bee-line for the fountain.  It was a moment to behold, a moment of high velocity pig-tail-flying joy.  And I her Grandma Helen witnessed it as I scrambled to catch up with this out-of-my-grip toddler.  A while later, while the two of us sat on a bench, drinking our smoothies, a grandpa-aged man approached us and gleefully pointed at Addie.  “I heard you, young lady!  You keep it up!  We need to hear voices like yours!”  And to me, he said, “Isn’t it the best?!?”

It is the best, an honor I hold dear, to hang out with the young people in my life.  Our two sons and their families live in the same town in northern Idaho, so, on visits west, I drink up an over-the-top healthy dose of grandparent immersion.  And claiming time with a two-year-old is about as fun and funny as it gets.  On mornings after her parents have left for work at the university, Addie and I prepare for our day of play.  When I was a girl, a highlight of my grandparent visits was knocking on the guest room door, and being invited in to watch my grandmother dress each morning.  It seemed exotic to me, the rituals of my grandmother, the way she carefully braided her long salt-and-pepper colored hair, powdered and perfumed her body, slipped into layer after layer of silken underclothes and a loose-fitting patterned dress.  I loved this waking up time with my grandmother, and remember it more clearly than anything else about her.  I’m astounded that I have now switched roles, am the grandmother being watched by the young granddaughter.  And I’m equally astounded that this ritual seems as exciting and as sacred to Addie as it once did to me.  We lay out my clothes on the guest room bed — the sparkle skirt is her favorite — and I slip into the sport bra and tank top and leggings with a lot less fanfare than my grandmother did with her mindful motions.  It’s the preening after the dressing, however, that really stirs Addie’s juices, the hands-on part, literally sticking her hands into the container of Grandma’s lotion and smearing it on her little arms and legs and face.  I wonder if I too was not just an appreciative observer of my grandmother’s rituals, but an active participant like Addie.  For Addie, lotion-smearing is right up there with skidaddling along Main Street toward the fountain and throwing pennies into the stirred-up water and drinking a green smoothie through a straw when the pennies have all been thrown.

In Addie’s world, the day begins with an enthusiastic “yes” and the “yeses” keep on coming!  Whether it is shoveling food into her mouth — she loves to eat! — or racing down the driveway on her pink kick-bike or running across the lawn with her five-year-old cousin Viren who has brought her into a game of police and robbers, Addie thrusts herself full-force and forward into her living.  Her strong bold color strokes and unique dance-moves reflect this exuberance for life.  And it is contagious, this exuberance.  I find myself joining in as she and I drive from her home in the woods up and down the country roads past wheat and lentil fields into town each day.  Our voices rise into a shout as we call out our observations.  “Little white house!”  “Big red barn!”  “Bird in the sky!”  “Horses on the hill!”  “Tall green tree!”  I’m not just playing along.  I’m genuinely excited.  I find myself wide-eyed and eager, ready for the next ordinary extraordinary “something” around the corner.  One car ride in particular stands out as a highlight among highlights.  It was late afternoon, and both Viren and Addie were sitting buckled in their car seats in the back of Grandma’s rental.  Viren had just finished a story about Lego Batman and it was Addie’s turn.  She said it to us, “Addie’s turn!”  And then she began her litany of likes.  “Addie likes Mommy.  Addie likes Dada.  Addie likes cousin Viren. . . ”  She named us all.  But she didn’t stop with family and friends.  She wanted a long turn because she had a lot to say.  “Addie likes trees.  Addie likes houses.  Addie likes Whiskers kitty.  Addie likes yellow.”  I felt as though her list could go on forever; there are that many “likes” in Addie’s world.

I pushed the save button that afternoon.  I don’t want to forget how good it feels to shout out appreciations to the world as you pass it by, to not pass it by at all, but, instead, to soak it in like a toddler does.  I don’t want to forget how good it feels to listen to a litany of “likes”, how good it feels to come up with your own list — on a daily basis.  Baby Aila, Viren’s little sister who is a few months old, made it onto Addie’s “like” list that afternoon in the car, and, when Addie is in the presence of her baby cousin, she lights up, gently touching Baby Aila’s face or hands.  And now, within a matter of days, Addie’s baby brother will be born and I’m sure of it, that Baby Brother will make it onto Addie’s list of likes.  I also was two when my baby brother was born, a few months older than Addie is now.  My grandparents came to stay with us and I remember that they brought candy and a box of cookies.  And I remember that my father walked with us, my older siblings and me, to the hospital in our neighborhood, remember that it was a brick building, that my mother held the baby up in a second story window for us to see from the grass below, that we had ice cream on the way home.  And I remember sitting on the radiator in our home eating the cookies.  I wonder if I too was exuberant with my likes.  “I like my Grandma and Grandpa.”  “I like my mama and daddy.”  “I like cookies and ice cream.”  “I like my baby brother.”   Addie is my toddler teacher and I certainly feel it now.

 

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Addie at two: August and September, 2017

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Treasure

Resources of abundance are raining down on you always.  Abraham-Hicks

Everyone on earth has a treasure that awaits him/her.  Paulo Coelho

Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure.  Paulo Coelho

There’s something about the promise of treasure that keeps us digging.  When I was a child, the digging was literal.  My younger brother and I were certain of it, that somewhere in that crack of a cove between the Fourth of July Rocks and Sister Point, the one on our coastal Maine property that was called Deadman’s Cove, there was a treasure buried under the rocks and shells and piles of blown-in seaweed.  Although we didn’t flesh out the details of the before-story, it had something to do with pirates and the dead man who we imagined was the namesake for the tiny inlet and a classic fairy-tale chest of riches stashed ashore for safe-keeping.  So, on many a summer morning, as we made our way out for a picnic lunch on Pretty Rock and an exploration of the tide pools at Sister Point’s tip, we clamored down the granite ledge to the shell-strewn bit of beach at Deadman’s Cove in the hopes that this would be the lucky one, the summer day when we would uncover it, our personal treasure.

And fifty years later, I guess I’m still digging for tangible hands-on riches, this time for treasure I think might be buried in my very own house.  When our two boys were toddlers, they inherited from their dad a gold mine of miniature toy cars from the sixties, the kind of cars that grandparents buy you for Christmas, fancier, sturdier and far more cool than the Matchbox set that I carefully tucked in my little plastic case.  There was an MG, an ambulance with doors that opened, station wagons and trucks and sport cars — and there was a Batmobile, my husband’s favorite, one he had purchased himself when the television show Batman hit the airways.  Our boys adored this canvas bag of cars.  As tiny toddlers, they lined them up on their grandparents’ patio wall in Grand Rapids, and, later, when the cars traveled north with us to our home in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the boys played with them for hours on the imaginary highways and farmlands and neighborhood streets of our living room carpet.  These cars were a treasure, a treasure I intended to pass down to the next generation.  And, it was when our older son and his wife announced that they were going to have baby, our first grandchild, that I remembered my stashed treasure and started digging for what I thought would be an easy jackpot.  That was six years ago this autumn, and, alas, I am still digging and they have remained as elusive as the pirate chest of riches in Deadman’s Cove.  I have looked all over this house for these gems from the sixties, in the obvious places, and, in the dark corners of the basement, have dug through boxes and pried open suitcases.  I am almost positive that I did not give these cars away  — why would I?!? — and I remain hopeful that I will retrieve my pirate’s bounty.

In fact, a week ago, I dreamed of the cars.  I think it was because Viren, our five-year-old grandson, and a passionate lover of cool-driving vehicles and everything Batman, was visiting.  I told him about my dream, how I woke up happy and filled with wonderment.  You see, in the dream, I found the cars, all of them, including the Batmobile, hauled them out of their hiding place and into the light of day and play.  It was a moment to behold.  And although my waking self could not remember the X that had marked the treasure’s spot, the dream had brought them alive for me again, so vividly alive that I resumed the search that next evening.  It was after Grandpa Cam had gone to bed that Viren and I plopped ourselves down on the carpeted floor of the upstair’s hall closet, a small walk-in where we keep our linens and suitcases and a few stray boxes.  I knew from past searches that the bag of cars was not among these items, but I was holding out hope for the Batmobile — and so was Viren.  I remembered that there was a box pushed underneath the shelving that was labeled with Viren’s father’s name, and perhaps, just perhaps, that treasure among treasures, the Batmobile, was tucked inside it among the other artifacts from our son’s youth.  So the two of us dragged the dusty treasure box out from its hiding place and into the middle of the closet floor, opened its lid, and began our exploration.

The box was filled to the brim, with a plastic bag of copper coins and another of shells from Florida, with a pottery mug that was once a Christmas present and another smaller wooden box that Viren’s dad had made in school, with a metal turkey won in a Thanksgiving Day running race and a fossil discovered on a family trip out west, all treasures, I’m sure, to a younger version of Viren’s dad — and treasures to us too as we examined each item during our archeological dig.  And when we reached to the bottom of the box, there was no Batmobile in sight.  But there was something else, something intriguing, a stack of about fifteen handmade books, lying there waiting for this moment, a gift from the past, from Viren’s dad at eight-years-old to his son crouched now beside me.  We laughed out loud as we perused these books, admiring the art, reading the stories.  Some were books that he had written at school, probably in second grade, and others he had created at home on recycled paper, bound with masking tape.  For Viren, it must have been pure wonderment, to witness his father as a boy not much older than himself, a boy who loved monsters and superheroes as much as he does now, a boy who created a giant cat named Cathra with powers strong enough to ward off Godzilla and a punk-haired alien who managed to get along just fine without a Batmobile or canvas bag of awesome cars.  And for me, it was pure preciousness, to giggle along with my grandson who was lit up with it all, and to see, with fresh eyes and a huge dose of admiration, the creativity and humor and charm of his wonderful father.

I think that I was the one who suggested making the phone call, but it was Viren who exclaimed that the car was the perfect place for us to talk to his dad who was miles and miles away in Idaho.  And he was right.  Under a nighttime of stars, after a five-year-old’s usual bedtime, with the car turned on in the driveway, and both of us sitting unbuckled in the front seats, we talked right into Grandma’s car’s marvelous speaker system, right through the miles and through the years to Viren’s dad about this treasure we had discovered from his childhood.  Viren’s enthusiasm filled the airwaves and his dad’s laughter responded as he remembered the books that he had written and illustrated so long ago . . . Our hands were never empty as my brother and I traipsed back over the rocks and through the huckleberry and balsam paths toward the cottage after our jaunts to the point.  There were stray buoys some days and long strands of dried kelp.  There were tiny orange and yellow periwinkles and sea moss for our mother’s pudding recipe.  There were treasures to behold and memories to hold onto and the deliciousness of the possibility that maybe, just maybe, there really was a treasure chest in Deadman’s Cove.  I haven’t given up on the cars, am still holding onto the possibility that I will find this canvas bag some day, and yet, in this moment, my hands are full, full of treasure, full of the knowing that Viren and I dug up pure gold last week and that the two of us shared this golden moment with his appreciative dad.

 

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The treasure we found in the closet: Viren’s dad’s books, circa 1987/8.

Busting Free

The limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible.  Arthur C. Clarke

Don’t get too comfortable with who you are at any given time — you may miss the opportunity to become who you want to be.  Jon Bon Jovi

Every time you create a gap in the stream of mind, the light of your consciousness grows stronger.  Eckhart Tolle

I couldn’t get enough of it, my daughter-in-law Shelly’s story of her half ironman race at Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho.  Although the race had occurred a year ago this past June, Shelly just shared the details with me when I was in Idaho recently visiting our kids and grandkids.  Listening to her account, I found myself with a burning desire to hear the same tale over and over again.  “And then what happened?  Tell me more!” I knew there was something deeper for me in all of it, something I couldn’t quite grasp at first telling, something more profound than a newspaper just-the-facts article of a sport event.

The story starts smoothly enough in the cold northern waters of a mountain lake with the swim portion of the race, smoothly because Shel is a smooth swimmer, a strong swimmer, a Division I college champion and a member of the Masters program who has kept herself swim-fit over the years.  I’ve witnessed the way she glides through the water, stroke after stroke, barely creating a ripple.  She said that the first third (the swim) of the half ironman was easy for her, and I’m sure that it was, that she ran out of the water with a smile on her face and an abundance of reserve stored up for the next portion, the fifty-six mile bike ride through town and up over the mountainous terrain.  She shared with me that she had been nervous about the bike ride, especially about a hill, not just any hill, an incredible monster of a steep mountain decline at the bike race conclusion that would lead her back into Coeur d’ Alene.  She shared that she had obsessed about this hill for weeks, scared of the speed that such a decline would invite.  But when she climbed onto her bike after the swim, there was that smile on her face and the reserve of energy and the cheering crowds lined up along the town’s streets.  And the spectator’s enthusiasm and the ease of the swim carried her forward through the town of Coeur d’ Alene and up into the mountains, and up and down and up and down the hills for miles and miles and miles — miles with barely a spectator in sight and barely an aid station to behold, just Shelly and her bike.  And although it was grueling, she did okay, pedaling along, for hours, pedaling and pedaling and doing okay — until she wasn’t anymore.  Something had happened.

“it was at about Mile Fifty that my legs just stopped working,” Shel said.  “The quad muscles weren’t firing.  It was as if I didn’t have muscles at all — my bones were the only thing I could feel.”  It was then that she took her friend’s advice to heart, a friend who had experienced many an ironman race: “Don’t stop.  Don’t turn around.  Don’t get dead.”  She said this mantra over and over.  And it makes sense.  If she had stopped, she would never have started again, and, besides, there she was in the middle of what seemed like nowhere.  And why turn around when you’ve already pedaled your quad muscles into jello for fifty miles?  And don’t get dead.  Well, that one is self-explanatory.  So she kept her legs moving somehow, bone-pedaling from telephone pole to telephone pole to telephone pole, alternating her friend’s mantra with her own command to her noncooperative legs, “Up, down; up, down; up, down.”  Her mind let go, and her brain went into primal survival, and sheer will propelled her forward.  “Up, down; up, down; up, down.”  And then, through some miracle, she was there, at the hill, the dreaded monster hill, the one she had obsessed about for months.  And it was crazy steep and long, and she was on it, and she was flying, flying down it, unable, unwilling to slow herself, knowing without a doubt that she wasn’t going to fall.  All the way to the bottom she flew  — and, when it was time to dismount and prepare for the third leg of the race, the run, she just knew her non-firing quad muscles would not hold her up.  She was sure of it.  But they did.  “I got off the bike and I couldn’t not run.  My legs had a mind of their own.  I was sprinting, passing people, feeling the best I’ve ever felt.”  Shelly ran the first miles of the third leg, the half-marathon, with a gusto that seemed to come out of the ethers.  And she finished the ironman with a smile on her face and a remark to her husband that she had been transformed in a way that she couldn’t put into words.

I love Shel’s story, want to glean its gifts, bring them deep into my own bones and share them loudly with the world.  Maybe we will never participate in an ironman race, but we all have dreams and visions, and we all have boxes we place around ourselves, too, self-imposed limits that sometimes seem impossible to bust through, keeping us from these cherished dreams.  Sometimes our limits feel physical.  “I couldn’t possibly make it up that mountain.  Or ride my bike down it at the end of a race”  “I’ll never be strong enough to carry that load.”  “That yoga pose is beyond my capability.  I’m not flexible.”  Sometimes our limits feel mental.  “I’d love to write a book, but I’m no writer.”  “I don’t have an engineering mind.  I couldn’t possibly figure that out.”  “I’m not a happy person.  That’s just the way I’m wired.”  And sometimes our limits feel spiritual.  “I don’t believe in what I can’t see.”  “I have to do it on my own.”  But I believe that it’s all one package, the package of who we are — body.mind.spirit — and Shelly’s story reminds me of this, the remarkable way our wiring is meant to be interconnected, and the remarkable way that our limits are just a line traced across the road that we can pedal ourselves over.  Shelly kept going when her body shut down, and, to her astonishment, her bones kept pedaling.  And her mind stayed out of the way.  And there was the wind of spirit blowing through her, and that amazing flight down the mountain carrying her to renewal and the best-feeling run of her life.  In what ways am I holding myself back from that feeling of freedom and the pursuit of my dreams?  In what ways are you?

Soon after the half ironman, Shelly got pregnant and didn’t find herself on her bike again until a few weeks ago, during my visit to Idaho, when she participated in the Moscow triathlon.  It was after this triathlon, a race in which she placed second in her age group, that she told me her half ironman story.  And there was a postscript to the story, an addition that I found fascinating, one that Shelly couldn’t have discovered until that  particular day due to her bike-riding hiatus.  “Today, I had no fear on the bike.  Because of the Coeur d’ Alene race, I’m a different bike rider.  I’m forever changed.”  Once we bust free, there is no turning back.  We are forever changed.

 

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Shelly starting her run in the Half-Ironman, Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho:  June 2016

Sweet Days

We are placed on Earth . . . to learn to bear the beams of love.  William Blake

Find the sweetness in your own heart; then you may find the sweetness in every heart. Rumi

We took our shoes off.  And isn’t that a perfect way to start a day’s adventure, with no worry about the other shoe dropping, with no nervous system on alert that something could go awry, simply with bare feet pressed into the ground and a soft breeze caressing your face, simply trusting in the well-being that is at your core, and at the core of those around you, and at the core of this very moment?  When you let go that deeply, when you remember that there is no need to hold on tightly for fear that the next moment might bring a shoe-dropping disaster, that the Universe indeed does have your back, only then, in that delicious state of relaxed receptivity can you squeeze out the sweetness that is always tucked into the present for you to savor.

That’s what we were doing, my husband Cam and I, yesterday morning, as the southwest wind blew the clouds away and the sun warmed the early September air; we were drinking it in, the deliciousness of it all, allowing our toes to grasp the silky sand that was still damp from the middle of the night rainfall, allowing our calf muscles to propel us upward as we climbed the first of nine steep sandy hills on a path that would take us up and down and up and down, again and again, to a pristine section of Lake Michigan, allowing our spirits to soar because our spirits really do want to soar.  The happiness in the air was palpable.  Perhaps that is because we were in a national park — Sleeping Bear Dunes Lakeshore, along the sandy coastline of a northern stretch of Lake Michigan near Traverse City — and it does seem like people enter our country’s national parks with an expectation of dazzlement.  The reason doesn’t matter.  It felt wonderful, all this joy sprinkled over the whole of the grassy dunes, in the sand that tickled and soothed our feet as we walked along, in the grasses and thistles that shined in the sun, in the lake that was impossibly blue on the horizon beyond the dunes, in the children dive-bombing their way down the hills and the parents and grandparents walking behind them, in the smiles on people’s faces.  Though the languages spoken among the dunes were many, the smiles were universal and contagious.

With all these smiles, all this sunshine and sand and lake and not a shoe in sight to drop, it was easy to embrace and embody the sweetness of a Labor Day Weekend morning hike in Sleeping Bear Dunes.  But what about the next day, when we’ve returned home to our neighborhoods and there is no national park moment in sight and we’ve put our shoes back on and there are bills to be paid and groceries to buy and dinner to make?  What about then?  Can we remember how it felt to practically sail down those hills on our own two feet, how we knew, in those sandy moments of dune-playing that we were safe and secure, grounded on the earth and soaring in the skies?  Can we bring this sense of relaxation, of receptivity and trust into the every-day moments?  It is a tired old belief, one to send out the door, that we need to be on alert for the shoe that might drop.  And when we let this belief go, then there is a steadiness in the air and a sense of serenity within, and there is the sweetness of one moment after another after another to simply experience.  An abundance of smiles isn’t confined to the boundaries of our national parks.  And neither is dazzlement.  It is available to us all, wherever we find ourselves.

The idea for our mini-vacation to Sleeping Bear Dunes seemed to float in as lightly as a feather from the ethers.  It was on a walk in the woods a few weeks ago that the name settled into my mind.  Sleeping Bear Dunes.  I had never been there — and neither had Cam.  And the idea took hold and excited us both and that’s how we found ourselves at the dunes, on a whim, trusting a vague guidance from within.  The guidance didn’t get specific, didn’t tell me that I would be checking something off my bucket list.  It just called out the name, Sleeping Bear Dunes, and drew us south to the Traverse City area.  It was in the midst of the hike yesterday, on a steep downhill as my legs started to leap in long running strides that I felt something familiar, a body memory from childhood.  I remembered Shelter Beach on Hermit Island in Maine, and its tiny dune behind the shelter and the way my siblings and I would climb to the top and run and roll and leap to the bottom, how it felt free and expansive and like nothing else in the world.  I remembered yesterday how I loved sand dunes.  And the child in me felt like she was getting the Disney World ride of them, hours of play on the biggest of dunes.  So, you see, when we are present to and trusting of our moments, they will lead us where we need to go, and it just might be a national park.

 

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Labor Day Weekend: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan, 2017

These Feet Are Made For Walking

Everywhere is within walking distance if you have the time.  Steven Wright

One step at a time is good walking.  Proverb

It wasn’t my intention when I started out.  I had been planning a short walk behind Snyders on the two-track that winds its way back through the woods and out past North Lake, but the puddles covered the path and there was no getting around some of them.  And my second choice also had been a bust.  Stoneville Road was being paved and there was no place to park my car by the Heritage Trail west of Ishpeming.  So I drove east a few miles to the town of Negaunee and started trekking down the trail that follows the historic mining route from town to town to town.  The air was fresh and crisp on this Tuesday afternoon in late August in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the sun was poking through the stacks of billowy clouds and the Queen Anne’s Lace was swaying in the breeze and I was swooning and swaying too, with all this clarity of air, all this August lushness laid out before me.  Why not go for it? I thought.  Why not keep walking?

I love to walk.  I have loved to walk forever.  When I was a little girl, it was the granite sidewalks with their ancient jagged cracks and the stonewalls that stood tall beside these sidewalks and the shortcut paths that criss-crossed our town in coastal Maine that called me forward into adventure after adventure.  It was like a board game of possibilities, the routes I could take to my elementary school.  I could leave my big rambling house on Washington Street and turn in either direction, one way meeting my friend Sally at the corner of Middle and North and heading up High Street by the house with the very old dog who was missing an eye, or I could make another choice, in the other direction, climbing onto the stonewalls that lined the sea captain’s homes in my neighborhood and  then up the giant hill that would lead me to the shortcut path and our brand-new school with the rickrack roof.  After school, the town was our playground and the world never seemed to be in a hurry.  My friends and I lingered on street corners and paved paths, explored the river’s waterfront, made our way to the downtown sometimes, to the park with its pond and the cannon that once had been real, to the library and the Y where we lifted our walking feet, swam for an hour or so, then walked our way back home again.  I walked my way through childhood and into adolescence, from small town sidewalks to college campus, from the paths and country roads of coastal Maine, to the city streets of Ann Arbor, Michigan to the two-tracks and trails of the Upper Peninsula.  Day after day, year after year, I have walked my way on adventures far and near, have walked my way into this moment, and this day and this particular walk on an afternoon in late August.

Why not go for it?   It was eleven miles on this trail to the center of Marquette and my husband Cam was planning a trip into town for groceries.  He could pick me up in the early evening, and, in the meantime, I could walk, for hours, without an agenda, one foot in front of the other, soaking in the wonders of this day.  And that’s what I did.  I walked past a field of wild flowers and into a hardwood forest and out into the open for a long stretch along a marsh.  I felt as though my feet had wings and I was as free as a bird in the sky.  I found myself humming under my breath, “Tis a gift to be simple,” and it was a simple gift, this walking.  And it wasn’t a problem, my lack of preparation.  I didn’t need water.  At first, it was the blueberries that showed up for me, a little shriveled but sweet and tasty.  And then it was the raspberries, and a few heaping handfuls of warm ripe blackberries.  But it was the deep red thimbleberries poking out of their wide maple-like leaves that appeared in a abundance, sweet and tart and as refreshing as any drink I could have stuffed in a pack.  So I ate berries and I hummed my simple tune and I allowed my cluttered mind to empty itself — because that’s what happens when you walk a long ways; your mind becomes spacious like the sky above you and your thoughts, they blow on by, like the billowy clouds.

I love that about walking, that my mind becomes clear.  And I love that it then fills itself up again with no effort from me, with inspirations and insights and maybe even a poem or an essay or the seed of a story.  And, on this day, it did exactly what it needed to do; my mind became a still clear pool reflecting back to me the gifts of this summer, a summer so fully-packed that I hadn’t known how to digest it all.  And so, with each step, past the quarry and under the railroad bridge and into another hardwood forest, I soaked it in, the trip to Maine in late July.  I needed this afternoon of walking to absorb the bounty from that trip Downeast, the wonderful day and evening spent on a river boat and in a sweet downtown restaurant with Cam’s mother and her beau, the re-wedding of a relative to his first wife after years and years apart from each other, a memorial service for a dear beloved uncle, and all the visits and pauses in between.  And there was the adventure to western Canada with women friends, and the fortieth wedding anniversary a week later with our kids and grandkids at a rental townhouse in the mountain/lake town of McCall, Idaho.

The sun warmed my shoulders as I walked eastward on the woodland path toward the outskirts of Marquette, and I felt warm on the inside too as I thought of these trips.  There is nothing more wonderful than a summer breeze in northern Michigan and the sun on your shoulders and the taste of thimbleberries on your tongue, while, at the same time, thinking of McCall, Idaho and the glacial lake and an impromptu renewal ceremony of vows in bathing suits and beachwear, with your daughter-in-laws as bridesmaids, your granddaughters as flower girls, your grandson holding the rings and playing Batman Lego’s theme song on his mother’s phone, one son as best man, the other officiating.  This particular eleven mile walk was big enough to contain it all, the Black-eyed Susans sprinkled in the field beside the trail and the Black-eyed Susans in the hair of an infant and a toddler granddaughter at a beachside ceremony three weeks earlier.

It was dinnertime when I found myself skipping off the path and onto the streets of Marquette.  I met Cam at Border Grill.  I was hungry, hungry for fish tacos and the company of the man I’ve been married to for forty years, and I was satiated too, filled to the brim with berries, and a summertime of memories now saved in some deep part of my marrow, and with this walk, an unexpected gift on an afternoon in late August.

 

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A walk on the Heritage Trail from Negaunee to Marquette, Michigan: Late August, 2017

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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