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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

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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The Real Thing

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

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

Ain’t nothing like the real thing  Marvin Gaye

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Uncle John

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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