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Enchantment

The world is full of magic patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.  W.B.Yeats

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

I saw partridge tracks this morning pressed into the snowy crust on Joy Center’s driveway, and the paw prints of a single fox, and the tiny trail of a mouse or vole scittered across the walkway.  Even though events at Joy Center have been postponed for a while, it felt as though our beloved cottage-sanctuary was being cared for by the animal friends who feel safe in the woods that surround it.  In the years before I dreamed Joy Center into being, even then, I called that piece of property Fairy Land and felt a pull to its mossy and pine needle carpet, its balsams and pines, and the raspberry bushes along the ridge.  And when I breathe deeply enough and allow myself to be immersed in the moment, maybe on a ski or a hike or an amble in nature, maybe in a group of people sharing from their hearts, maybe alone writing or reading or stretching in yoga, maybe at Joy Center, when I’m really present, the whole of the world can feel enchanted, a fairy land shimmering with light.  In this time of self-distancing, of physical isolation, of fear that is palpable if you choose to taste it, I don’t want to lose this ability to see the world through eyes that are enchanted.

Several times a week, I listen to the podcast series, Beyond the Ordinary, hosted by John Burgos. A few days ago, an intuitive guest was sharing a prayer for our planet, one she had written with the help of her nonphysical guides and angels — and someone else, Walt Disney. That’s right, Walt Disney had come to her with a strong message stating that we need our enchantment now, more than ever.  I have to say, as surprising as it was to consider Walt Disney as a guide for us at this time, I found comfort in the notion.  It brought me back to childhood Sunday evenings, our whole family hunkered together in our rumpus room, bowls of popcorn or cereal in hand, watching as our black and white TV suddenly burst alive with fairy dust and magical-talking animals and a wise mustachioed man introducing us to The Wonderful World of Disney.  I don’t want to forget that I have a choice, that I can follow Walt Disney’s lead, that I can open my eyes to the enchantment that surrounds me, that is within me, even now, especially now, during this challenging time.

I don’t want to push aside magical moments, moments that have the power to transform if I allow them to soak in deeply.  During my eight-day visit with kids and grandkids in Idaho in early March, I had the honor to spend time alone with each of the four grandkids, as well as time embracing the hustle the bustle the glorious chaos of the whole buoyant bunch. Magical moments were bountiful, with all four beloved little ones, and now, three weeks later, I’m remembering a particular twenty minutes of enchantment I spent with my almost-three-year-old  granddaughter, a blond-haired blue-eyed elfin.  She’s the one who never babbled, not exactly, before finding her way to exceptional full English-language sentences.  Instead, as a baby and toddler, she chortled and warbled in a melodic bird-like call.  It was something to behold.  And somehow, this granddaughter, who speaks so clearly, so fluently, began this chortling during my recent visit.  And I began to chortle back to her.  And we proceeded to communicate in this language that had inflection and melody and something that felt like meaning just beyond my adult comprehension.  I wondered whether we might be speaking in the language of fairies. At any rate, it felt profound and fun, and then it was over, and we were back to the everyday, ordering green smoothies at the local juice bar and chatting about my very dirty car back in Michigan.

I know I can focus on what has the potential to scare me — and there is much in the news to weigh a person down — or I can focus on what delights me.  For years, Cam and I have consistently fed the birds from a backyard feeder, and, early this winter, the deer joined the finches, the chickadees, the red and gray squirrels in munching on sunflower seeds.  First it was a mother and her twin fawns, and then a another mother and fawn.  We began scattering the seeds on the ground.  And now, it is a tribe, at least twice a day, that fill up our back yard with their antics.  We know many of them personally.  There is the young injured buck with the black mop of fur on his head, the doe with the fur scraped off her back, several mothers and fawns.  When the evening light shines on them, they become ablaze and the scene is our own version of The Wonderful World of Disney.

So I’m hunkering in during this time of self-isolation, eating well, nourishing body and soul as best I can, but I’m not closing myself off, from the kids and grandkids on FaceTime and phone, from the neighbors six feet away as we walk the streets by our homes, from family and friends who e-mail and text often and thoughtfully, from strangers I hold dear in my heart, from the deer in the backyard and the first sprigs of crocus breaking through snow, from the enchantment that is present in each and every moment if I breathe deeply enough and open to its magic.

 

My friend Gala on the bike path in Marquette, March 2020

Our deer friends helping themselves to bird feed at our backyard March 2020

A snowman I came upon in the woods at Al Quaal, Ishpeming, Michigan, March 2020

Raw Possibility at the Spring Equinox

The return of spring, time of holy equality.  The landscape is still winter rough and wind-blown.  Walk outside and feel the raw possibility.  The world is made of stories, and we need to change the narrative.  Poised in the season’s symmetry, ask: what does another world look like?   Oak Chezar  WeMoon Calendar 2020

 

It has become a tradition for my seven-and-half-year-old grandson and me.  Each time I visit our kids and grandkids in Moscow, Idaho, my grandson and I claim a night together at La Quinta Motel.  It started six years ago, one evening, as I was saying my good-byes to him and his mom and dad before leaving their small townhouse to make my way to the motel, when, all of a sudden, he toddled to the door, clutched my leg and began to point emphatically at his coat, insisting on coming with me.  I’m not sure if it’s the freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies the staff offers us, the excitement of a big screen TV or our special time together that has kept this tradition alive, but he and I have carried it forward and into my most recent visit west two weeks ago when we found ourselves once again sharing our La Quinta overnight. After unpacking our books and pajamas, I set off for the bathroom.  I had a project.  That day at the Co-op, I had splurged on locally-made facial products, firming facial toner, nectar serum, brightening eye cream,  overnight moisturizer for mature skin. “I may look younger when I come out!” I announced to my grandson before shutting the door.  “It’s going to be exciting!” I added.  Though it was exciting to care for my sometimes-neglected skin, I had been joking.  And I thought he knew it.  But when I opened the door, he walked up close, looked at me carefully for what seemed like a long while.  And then he pronounced with the utmost of sincerity, “Grandma, you look the same!”

I tell you this, not only because I love my grandson, his honesty, his heart that always seems to be open, his ability to not give a rip what a face looks like; I also share this snippet from my recent Idaho trip because sometimes change takes time and transformation in process doesn’t look like change at all.  It is now two weeks later and I honestly think my skin might seem a bit healthier, my under-eyes a bit brighter, and, ultimately, it’s not that important to me.  On this first day of spring, a day where it is rain-snowing and gray-skied and not that spring-like at all, what is important to me is to remember that transformation is taking place, deep inner transformation.  As we all hunker in for a while, as we practice what we now call social-distancing, as it seems that our towns and cities have screeched to a complete stop, change is in the air.  Beneath this seeming stand-still, the earth is waking up.  There is a thrumming, drumming, pulsating, health-producing dance taking place under the surface.  The trees feel it  — the sap is beginning to rise.  The animals feel it — the red squirrels are chasing each other up and down the back yard white pine.  And we will feel it too, this waking up, if not now, soon.  What raw possibilities are rising in me? I wonder.  And in you?  What new narratives do I want to tell myself as I awaken to my inner springtime?  What new narratives do you want to tell yourself?  And as a culture, as a world so deeply connected to each other, so deeply a part of this waking earth, what new narratives do we want to spread across the cities and towns, the mountains and seas of this beloved planet that we call our home?

Moscow, Idaho, early March 2020

Our Own Personal Croagh Patrick

May blessings outnumber the shamrocks that grow, and may trouble avoid you wherever you go.  Irish Blessing

On this sunny, windy-brisk October mid-morning, we almost refused to buy the walking sticks sold at mountain’s foot, near a statue of St. Patrick.  It’s not that we didn’t feel the sacredness of this one-day pilgrimage up and down Croagh Patrick; my friend Mary and I, still in the first week of an Ireland immersion, were eager to climb the ancient path in the footsteps of pilgrims who have been doing so for millennia.  It just didn’t appear that high or that difficult, not like trails we both had experienced through the Rockies or Alps or Pyrenees in Spain, and, besides, for two women in our sixties, we were in pretty good shape.  However, our salesperson was persuasive.  There was no merriness in his Irish lilt; just concern.  We could break an ankle or a leg or take a terrible topple, he warned, so we relented, each of us paying the equivalent of five dollars, and, with walking sticks in hand, began our journey up the well-marked path.  And we were right.  Crough Patrick is not as high as those Rockies in our country’s west.  And our walking stick salesman, he was right too.  We needed the extra support.  This well-marked, well-trodden trail was a challenge from the get-go — wobbly boulders, often wet, sat in the midst of the trail.  And, as morning, tipped into afternoon, as we made our way toward the summit, the trail became a bed of loose shale-like rock, nothing but loose rock.  We leaned on our sticks.  We placed one foot gingerly down to see if the ground felt stable, then placed the other, never releasing our hand-carved wooden support system.  At one point, we crawled our way up a particularly steep shale incline, clutching the sticks as if they were our life blood.  And then, there we were, on flat stable ground, no walking sticks required.

I wonder this St. Patrick’s Day about the mountains each of us are facing, wonder what support we are leaning upon, wonder if we can find the adventure in our particular journeys.  In the year 441, St Patrick fasted for forty days on the summit of Croagh Patrick. It is windy on the summit, so gusty that there were moments it felt as though Mary and I were going to fly away.  And the weather is moody, rain clouds blowing in without an ounce of warning, and then sunshine again.  It was a lovely place to linger for a while, to munch on oranges and cheese and crusty bread, a place sacred and special enough to scatter some of Mary’s husband’s ashes, but it was not a place I wished to meditate or fast for forty days.  That was St. Patrick’s calling, not mine.  And I do want to tell you, that despite the loose shale, the moody weather, the call to complete mindfulness, the day was filled with joyous moments and laughter, of sun breaking through, sometimes lighting up the white sheep that navigated the mountain in a brilliant blaze.  And there were the rainbows!  Rainbows in Ireland over the most sacred of Irish mountains!

So here we are, each one called to navigate this time, our won sacred mountain in a way that feels right and good to us.  I’m not too proud to hold tightly to a walking stick when needed.  And I’m not too stubborn to clutch what no longer serves when it is time to let it go.  I am calling this an adventure, a time to be mindful of our steps, yes!, but also to laugh as freely as Mary and I did as we placed one foot in front of another, as we climbed that sacred mountain before us.  So here’s to the rainbows shining down on all of us and the Irish blessings that are lighting our way.

 

Helen and Mary on the summit of Croagh Patrick, County Mayo, Ireland, October 2018

Watering the Seeds of Joy

Unshared joy is an unlighted candle.  Spanish Proverb

My life became unhinged a week ago, as did my husband Cam’s.  I arrived home from the airport at midnight, as Friday was tipping into Saturday, after a fabulous eight days with kids and grandkids in Moscow, Idaho. I wasn’t blindsided. I had found out in Minneapolis at the airport.  It was a phone message from Cam that had alerted me that there had been a tumble.  While snowbiking, he had tried to stop before an icy incline and pressed his foot, not into snow or dirt or stone, but, instead, into the lightness of air, and that’s when he became unhinged.  He lost his grounding, and, instead, flew, bike and all, over the trail’s side, and after a flight that seemed doomed from the get-go, he landed again six feet below, on very large, very hard rock.  His left hip area took the full impact of the fall.  And somehow, with his biking buddy for support, as dusk turned into dark and temperatures plummeted into the teens, he hobbled himself the half mile or more out to his car, using his precious snow bike as walker, and then, while I spoke to him on the phone, he was driving himself the eighteen miles home to Ishpeming.  When I entered our house three hours later, I found him upstairs in our bed wide awake and I think a little scared.  I knew that I was scared. It is scary to have your world, your very way of being, unhinged.  Somehow, we got him down the thirteen stairs, through the hallway, out the garage door, over to the passenger side of his car, and to the local hospital.  It was hours later, at the Regional Hospital, that he had the surgery, and the addition of rod and pins that now give strength to a left femur bone that wasn’t made for such a flight.

So, that’s our personal story of lives unhinged, uprooted, schedules thrown into the abyss, new waters to navigate.  Cam will be fine. The doctors, nurses, staff all told him that he’ll be on that bike again in no time.  And yet, our week has felt wobbly and new, discombobulating, unhinged.  At first, this was all very personal.  And then, it became global, for all of us, as day by day by day, more of what we have found familiar and comfortable and fun has been taken away temporarily.  It is a new place we are navigating.  We are unhinging for the common good.  So what do we do?  How do keep ourselves safe and sane and soulful during this time?  Friday felt especially challenging as the personal and the global mingled, as I helped Cam with his needs and appointments, as I took heed of the changing cultural climate and decided to give Joy Center a pause during this time.  The day slipped away without any of the things that usually feed my spirit.  Or so I thought until I texted friends at bedtime.  “I need to find my joy again,” I said.  “It is my usual set point.”  And then I listed them, five things on this challenging day that watered something inside me.  Surprisingly, it wasn’t that hard to do.  There was the piping hot chaga tea when I was chilled to the bone and the smiles I shared with my friends at Globe Printing and the new haircut from the day before that was zippy even when I was not.  And there was the Ametrine geode that I have been saving for, one large enough to sit on our living room floor and cast its beauty and high vibration  throughout our house.  In the chaos of the day, I almost had forgotten about this amazing crystal.

So that’s our challenge.  In the midst of the rescheduling, in the throes of discombobulation, in the new world we find ourselves, they are still there, the many seeds of joy to water.  Yours will be personal.  Pay attention; water those seeds with your self-love, and they will thrive.  I know they will!  I send my wholehearted love to each one of you, and, as I do so, I feel it, my inner joy garden smiling.

 

Quivering Seeds

If you have put castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.  Now put the foundations under them.  Henry David Thoreau

Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations.  I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead.  Louisa May Alcott

I am large, I contain multitudes.  Walt Whitman

 

I can feel it.  It’s in the air, and the breeze blowing in from the south and the light growing stronger daily, this hint of a new season coming our way.  Even though the parking lots in our northern world are coated still with ice and the cross country ski trails groomed to mid-season perfection, there’s a quivering of seeds starting to take hold in farmer’s hoop houses and a waking up of trees as the sap begins to rise.  It’s exciting, it’s stirring, this world beginning to quiver and wake up.  As I skate-ski on those groomed-to-perfection trails, as I push off in heart-pumping glides in a sport I have loved for over thirty-five years, I can feel it, this quivering, this waking up rising within me too.  The seeds I planted during the frozen weeks of early January, dreams that only held a faint shape in the still time, now are quivering with sap-rising possibility.

There are the dreams I planned on planting, like the participation in the community Hundred Day Project, my focus, “An Infusion of poetry”, and the upcoming trip with husband Cam in late spring to continue our Camino walk on the northern coast of Spain, and a another dream to find someone to lead a dance class at Joy Center for all of us who long to move our bodies to music in joy-filled non-judged-or-tightly-choreographed expression.  These particular dream-seeds I placed consciously in the dark soil of early January, but what about the wayward ones, the wild seeds that are taking hold outside what I thought was my well-groomed clearly-defined garden plot?

For nearly twenty years, I’ve been inviting yoga participants to bring their whole selves to the yoga mats, the parts they know, the parts they don’t know, the parts they like, the parts they don’t like, the whole and holy package of who they are.  And then I have reminded them that the word “yoga” in sanskrit means union, to yoke together what are seemingly disparate parts of themselves.  I share these words with the utmost of sincerity, in my yoga voice which comes from someplace deep inside that is amazing to me, that is strong and wise and relaxed, and calms me down immediately and brings me to a place of well-being every time I settle into finding it.  And I need to tell you that it was nowhere in sight the other day at my friend’s birthday party at a local coffee shop.  In fact, I forgot all together about my “inside” voice — the voice I appreciated others using at this same coffee shop when I often hunkered in to work on my poetry project.  As the birthday party gained momentum, I found myself bellowing and guffawing with celebratory enthusiasm and it wasn’t until a young woman at a neighboring table abruptly rose from her chair and marched over to the counter, that I sucked in my boisterous sharings and panicked with a flashback to those high school days when my friends and I were kicked out of our local library for fits of out-of-control laughter.  Fortunately, the young woman was just ordering herself another coffee, but it was a reminder that these parts of ourselves, the parts we deem unruly, have energy and a desire to be heard.

And that brings me to my wayward dream-seed, the one that started to sprout in early February.  Okay, it is not a new dream.  It’s been lurking inside me for over a decade, probably forever, but it always has seemed like a joke, something fun and funny to think about once in a while, with no real substance, no foundation beneath it.  So three weeks ago, it was the name that brought some grounding to this dream, an outrageous name my friends and I created, a name my good-girl gardener still isn’t ready to bring out into the spotlight of public sharing, though my wild child cracks up each time she says it.  And it is a center stage name of a center stage dream, a punk band old lady name, because that is my dream, to be a part of such a band.  The day my dream began to quiver with new life, I shared this name with my husband of forty-plus years.  And frankly, I was surprised, a little freaked out.  I could see he thought that this could actually happen.  When I tried to be funny, to make it a joke, telling him that there were some minor issues, the fact that I was tone deaf and didn’t play an instrument, he replied with the utmost sincerity, “Don’t let that get in the way of your dream, Helen.  And besides,” he added, “every old lady punk band needs a hopper!”  Bless him.  He was right.  I’m excellent at hopping!  I felt encouraged, like it was feasible  And the energy that this woke up in me was a tsunami whoosh of unbridled joy and laughter.  And don’t we all crave a tsunami of unbridled joy and laughter?

I tell you this with my deeply-rooted relaxing yoga voice.  I tell you this with my boisterous too-loud-for-the-library-and-coffee-shop voice.  I tell you this with all parts of me, the parts I know, the parts I don’t, the parts I like, the parts I don’t like.  I tell you this with the whole holy package.  Walt Whitman was right.  We contain multitudes.  And it is not our job to create fences around ourselves, to only nurture the dreams we consider safe.  Instead, we simply need to listen to what is quivering inside, what is bringing us new life, what is feeling joyful and maybe even funny.  So here’s an invitation I send out to all of us.  Let’s allow our dreams to grow roots, the ones that are quivering, the quiet ones, and the one that are noisy, the reverent dreams and those we deem irreverent.  Let’s embrace the whole holy package of who we are.  It is the season, and the seeds, they are quivering.

A Holiday Story For the New Year

In this moment there is infinite potential.  Victoria Moran

Dear friends,

In the tender beginnings of a new year, a new decade, it is a Christmas story that I want to share with you, that I want to carry forward and allow to blossom inside me as I make the leap into 2020.

In early December, I set an intention to stay present, to savor the moments, to take care of myself, to not get swept up in the hustle and bustle of the holiday season.  And I did savor the moments.  I could list for you thousands of precious details from this past month.  But alas, the moments, they came fast and furious and the holiday-wave gained momentum and I found myself surrendering to the  last minute rush just trying with my best effort to body surf to a shore where everything was ready for the family celebration on Christmas Eve.  The tree, our most perfect balsam ever, was decorated with the ornaments collected over forty-two years of marriage, the presents were wrapped, our fridge filled to the brim with holiday treats, our cupboards laden with foods the grandkids would adore, the toys set out exactly the way the grandkids expect.  We, my husband and I, albeit exhausted, were eager for our son, daughter-in-law and their two kids to arrive.

And that’s when the meltdown occurred.  Not our inner meltdown.  We were holding it together pretty well.  Nature’s meltdown.  The temperature in our northern world began to rise into the upper thirties and our momentous snowbanks began to rise too into a thick layer of misty fog, and our son, daughter-in-law and grandkids, on Christmas Eve, were trying their hardest to fly into this northern world that was melting rapidly.  In the early evening, after a long flight from the west coast, they sat on a plane in Minneapolis for more than an hour before being hustled back into the airport, re-booked for a flight the same time the next day.  And twenty-four hours later, on Christmas night, with the fog perhaps a little less murky, the plane set off on its route to Iron Mountain and I set off, too, on the hour and fifteen minute drive to pick them up, only to learn as I approached the airport that they had been diverted at the very last minute and were enroute to Detroit, an eight hour drive south of our home in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  And the saga continued.  All flights were filled for the next day, and no cars were available for a one-way rental.  Our Christmas celebration was in a fog-induced holding pattern.

Along with the disappointment of a Christmas with our family postponed, there were the gifts for my husband and I.  Any last minute preparations that we had forgotten were now in tip top shape; the walk along the shores of Lake Superior in the fog on Christmas afternoon was sublime; my drive to Iron Mountain on Christmas night was haunting and misty-wonderful as I listened to holiday music and remembered sleigh bells and my aunt and uncle’s ponies and the sleigh ride we once took wrapped in blankets on quiet country paths in foggy coastal Maine.  But, it’s not the two of us that I want to tell you about.  It’s the family stuck in airports and motels for three nights and four days that is the focus of my story.  My son and daughter-in-law were stellar.  They kept it together, day after holiday day, disappointment after disappointment, diversion after diversion. They found motels with swimming pools, fought to get their baggage back from wherever it is hidden in airports, in order to have the things essential for a seven-year-old and a two-and-a-half-year-old at Christmas time.  They scrounged down food when airport restaurants were closed for the night and most stores were on holiday hiatus.

And the kids, our grandkids, they thrived.  On Christmas Eve, once situated in his motel room — and he loves motel rooms — our seven-year-old grandson hauled out his art supplies and got to work. No stockings for Santa to fill?  Not a problem.  No decorative lights strung up to brighten Santa’s way?  Not a problem either when you have markers and paper and a whole floor to spread out upon.  And the Christmas tree?  There it is was, in ten minutes, a tree colored green with a rainbow of decorations and a magnificent star far brighter than the one on our perfect balsam.  His mother borrowed scissors and tape from the motel’s front desk, and he cut them all out, the tree with its radiant star, the stockings, one for each of them with their names clearly written on the white fluffy borders, the string of lights in bold brilliant colors, and he taped them to the wall, decked the room with holiday cheer, and, along with the milk and cookies, left a sweet note for Santa to place the gifts underneath each stocking. And, lo and behold, the next morning, just like our seven-year-old-grandson knew it would happen, Santa arrived. He didn’t need the fancy tree or the hand-knit stockings or the fridge filled with holiday treats or the carefully- wrapped presents or the perfectly-vacummed house.  And later that night, after racing with his two-year-old sister through the Detroit airport’s colored-light-filled tunnel and playing by the fantastic fountain, with great enthusiasm, he told a Delta agent that this was the best Christmas ever.

And the celebration continued.  On the Third Day of Christmas, the sun shined and the drive to Iron Mountain was easy and the perfect balsam still glimmered and shimmered and we joyfully unwrapped perfectly-wrapped presents and ate feast food and played with the Grandma-and-Grandpa-house-toys and we cuddled and snuggled and watched holiday movies and the house was happy.  I could feel it, the happiness in a house messed up and tousled and no longer perfectly-prepared.  I can still feel it, the happiness in the make-shift, the enthusiasm that all is possible in the moment when we carry with us a positive attitude, along with our paper and markers.  Let’s bring this remembering, this ease and lightness, into the new year, into the new decade.  Happy 2020!

 

 

What lights your inner fire?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Camino del Norte: Be Nice To Your Husband

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome!

A smile is the universal welcome.  Max Eastman

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Artist’s Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tulips in Moscow, Idaho: May 1, 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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