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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)

 

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pleasure

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Grandchildren

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And from this dream, I woke up happy.

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

The Sea

There is pleasure in the pathless wood, there is rapture in the lonely shore, there is society where none intrudes by the deep sea, and music in its roar;  . . .  Lord Byron

The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever. Jacques Yves Cousteau

I want to tell you about the sea.  And though I have shared my sea stories with you before, this feels different to me.  In the past, it always has begun with a cove in Maine, the place of my childhood summers and my many adult visits to my mother who lived there until her death five years ago.  It is easy to write about a cove, a specific one in Casco Bay called Fish House Cove, a cove you can conjure up in your mind in this moment, with its daily turns of the tide and its green shadowy waters that transform to sparkly blue when the breeze blows off the shore, a cove that is a haven for the schools of mackerel and the lobsters who crawl on the sandy bottom by the haul-off rock, and the great blue heron who roosts each night in the tallest of pines.  I have done my best to squeeze this cove into poems and short stories and tidy essays with titles like “Fog” and “First Swim” and “On My Mother’s Deck”, have done my best to wring the salt right out of its essence — some of it, at least — to sprinkle across the page.  I’ve tried my hardest to bring to life the smell of the balsam trees, the rotting seaweed, the faint whiff of fish mingling with the freshness of ocean, to encapsulate this smell in a string of words with borders and boundaries and grammatical rules.  It is not a big cove.  Its beach is a Size Small, its rocks, a Medium, and it has been my reliable partner, providing me with decades of material to feast upon.  And it has been enough.

So, what do I do now?  What do I do with all this sea, all this wide open ocean?  I don’t know how to contain it  — because how do you contain it, the whole of the Atlantic at your left shoulder?  Maybe you could put something down on the page if you were staying put in one place, getting to know a stretch of shoreline, its sandpipers and tide pools and rocky outcrops.  But that’s not what we did, my friend Mary and I, last October.  There was no staying put on this northbound trek along the coast of northern Portugal.  For the first seven days of a three hundred-plus kilometer pilgrimage on foot from Porto, Portugal to Santiago de Compostilo, Spain, we clung to the coast.  After receiving our initial stamp in our pilgrim passports at Porto’s magnificent cathedral, we spent our first hours walking along the banks of the wide Duoro River on cobblestone paths.  The tide was low, the river quiet, the estuary filled with gulls and herons and shorebirds, and the air tinged with the scent of seaweed and mudflats.  This was all familiar to me, a gal raised at the mouth of a tidal river in Maine.  It wasn’t until we rounded the corner to a wide cobblestone promenade that it happened, that Mary and I were blasted with the thunder of the north Atlantic.  We heard its thunderous waves for days.  Sure there were the fishing villages, the protective break walls, the occasional river town, but mostly it was the sea, the raw and wild sea, that was our constant companion.

As Mary and I walked northward — sometimes barefoot in clean squeaky sand, sometimes on piles and piles of smooth tumbled stones, sometimes high above the beach in grassy dunes or on boardwalk paths, in morning fog, in noon-day sparkle, at dusk as sunsets stretched the wide panoramic length of the horizon, there it was — the sea at our left shoulder.  The blue water, the salty air, the gentlest of breezes, the waves rolling into shore.  It didn’t even have to work at seduction.  It had me — and Mary, too — from that first moment, when we rounded the corner and set our eyes upon it, that first thunderous wave, that first glorious sunset, the one that seemed to stretch on for hours.  It was healing balm, a powerful elixir, and there was nothing to do but let go and allow it to work its magic, nothing to do but melt into the wonder of it, to forget about words, about tidy poems, a single sandcastle story, an essay about a lone gull, maybe one called Bop Bop who was your friend for years.  This was something new, this ten hours a day of sheer ocean pleasure.

Sometimes the beach grass glistened and we were sun-soaked.  Sometimes we were sure there was a song in the air, something Irish and ballad-like.  And, if we stood still for a moment and focused on the horizon, we were pretty sure we could almost see it, a Portuguese sailing vessel of old, a mermaid’s tail sparkling in the sun, a whole of the history of humankind rolling in on the waves.  And that’s what I want to tell you, that the sea softened us, to everything, to the people we met, to the villages we walked through, to the multitude of magical-seeming synchronicities waiting for us along our pilgrim path.  We allowed ourselves to be tumbled, soft and smooth like those incredible stones piled high on the beaches.  And it has stayed with me, and with Mary too, this tumbled-open feeling, this allowing of something grand and unspeakable.   And it is easy to conjure it up, to close my eyes and put myself in that place once again, that sea-soaked happy heart space that cannot be contained within the boundaries of a cove, that overflows over the borders of a bay, that knows no borders and no boundaries and is limitless in its welcoming power and is available to us all.

 

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Along the northern Portuguese coast: October 2016

Kauai

Everything that is made beautiful and fair and lovely is made for the eye of one who sees.  Rumi

“Did you try surfing?!?”  It was the logical question for my friend Keith to ask when  my husband Cam and I ran into him at the Detroit Airport last month on our way home from a family trip to Kauai, Hawaii.  After all, for years now, I’ve been saying it out loud, in a really loud voice, with bravado, how, someday, I’m going to get myself up on one of those boards and ride a rolling wave into shore.  Here in Upper Michigan, where Keith and a whole tribe of diehards practice the sport, it is a sight to behold.  We don’t have the warm waters of Hawaii, the pause between ocean waves, the palm tree breezes and fresh pina coladas waiting on shore.  We have Lake Superior.  And the surfing is best on this greatest of Great Lakes when the weather is at its worst.  When the north winds are howling and the snow is flying and the lake isn’t quite frozen yet and the waves are thrashing against the sandstone cliffs and sandy beaches, the cars are lined up at our local peninsula park, and the wet-suited men and women, looking like excited skinny seals with fast-moving legs, can be seen clutching their boards while running toward the wild water.  And often, I’m right there with them, just feet away on shore, whooping and hollering and cheering them on as they paddle out into the frigid bay.  And when they catch one of those crazy choppy Great Lake waves, my heart skips a beat and I can almost feel myself sailing along with them.  Yes, surfing is in my blood, and, it’s true; I really do want to try it.

And the desire to be in the presence of a whale is on my bucket list, too.  I often draw a card from a fifty-two card deck called “Earth Magic” that I keep in my creativity room, and, in the weeks before this family trip to Kauai as I focused my attention on intention for the adventure, the image that kept ending up in my hand was of the whale.  Again and again, it was the magnificent breaching mammal that seemed to have a message for me.  And this message seemed loud and clear — I assumed that I was to see one in Kauai, maybe one arching out of the water with a mighty push of power beyond what I had ever experienced.  So, when we — all eight of us, my husband Cam and I, our two sons and their wives, and our two grandkids — congregated in our vacation rental home in Princeville, Kauai late that first night early in January, we excitedly called out our desires helter-skelter before falling into bed jet-lagged and Hawaii-happy after our long day of plane travel.  We wanted beach time and hiking trips and fresh fruits and fish.  We wanted to lounge and swim and explore our island home.  And I’m sure I hollered out something about a possible surfing lesson and the opportunity to see a whale, a real whale, up close and personal.

So nine days later, at the airport in Detroit, when Keith asked me about surfing, I think he was surprised by my reply.  “No,” I said.  “I didn’t surf.  And I didn’t see a whale either!”  Well, I might have seen a whale.  Most people in my family did, somewhere out there on that very blue horizon.  And when I squinted, I thought I spied a whitecap splash that might have been a spout or a breach, but I couldn’t say for sure, and I’m not counting it.  I think that Keith might have been disappointed.  He knew how much surfing means to me, and he might have thought that I was sacrificing my keen desire for the wants of others.  But, that wasn’t the case at all.  And this conversation with my friend helped me to clarify in my own mind what was important to me about this trip to the south sea state of Hawaii.  And, if it wasn’t the thrill of getting myself up and catching a wave, or the awe of finding myself in the mighty presence of the largest of mammals, then what was it about our family trip that touched me so deeply, that I have taken into my heart and carried forward into my living?

Well, I was there with my family.  And it isn’t easy to get a family of eight — a family consisting of three separate families — together for a week, let alone together thousands of miles away from any of their homes, away from busy schedules, and onto planes, and into the most beautiful and perfect of rental homes during the busiest time of the year on a Hawaiian island.  And it is feat unto itself and a tribute to each and every member of this family that there was laughter and love and a “We had a blast and let’s do it again!” on the last day of this adventure.  When we finally arrived home after our two-day delay in Detroit, my husband fell onto our bed and, with tears in his eyes and awe in his voice, said that he couldn’t believe it, that we really had done it.  And I knew what he meant, that we not only did it, manifested a trip that gathered us all together, but that it was wonderful.

And when I think about what made it wonderful, it wasn’t surfing or whales or anything dramatic.  I know that four-year-old Viren loved the muddy inland hike through the jungle, where there was no avoiding puddles, and Grandpa was the perfect goofball partner.  And I know that the calm lagoons and the wide-open beaches and the waves that splashed and tickled his feet and sent him gleefully running to shore were highlights.  But when we asked him what he liked best about Kauai, it was the shower in his bedroom suite with the giant shower-head that he said was his favorite.  He couldn’t get enough if it; it was the shower that he bee-lined for each time we made our way back to our Princeville rental.  And for Addie, his one-and-a-half-year-old cousin, who also appreciated beaches and jungle walks and squealed with delight each time she was dipped in the water or toddle-ran along the shoreline or floated in the plastic-duck-inflatable tube, it was the ordinary that set her into a frenzy.  And maybe the sight of roosters strutting across yards and into streets and onto beaches is not what we call ordinary in our hometowns in Michigan and Idaho, but, in Kauaii, it is as common as common can be.  Not for Addie, though, who went wild each time she saw one.  All week long, she’d point her stubby little finger and hunch one of her teeny shoulders and run as fast as her little legs would carry her toward her fleeing target.  She never tired of rooster-chasing.

And I can’t speak for my kids or Cam.  I’m not sure what they would say was their highlight.  But I can tell you that one son mentioned that it had been a long time since he had worked so little.  And the other sang as he cooked our fish on the outdoor grill each night.  And it is etched in my mind, the excited look on a daughter-in-law’s face when she ran back to shore after snorkeling — and the peaceful ease on the other daughter-in-law’s as she sprawled on the beach with the Na Pali Coastline at her left shoulder and the impossibly blue ocean before her.  And Cam, the fly-fisherman, might say that it was the three bone fish that he fluttered up to on his first attempt at snorkeling, but I don’t think that was it, the true highlight.  At night, Cam, with salty wayward hair, would sit on a living room couch, with the happiest of expressions on his face, and he would soak it in, the commotion around him, the commotion of a family being a family.  I think that is what he would say was the highlight, the everything of being with family.  And I, the gal who thought she needed surfing and whales, would agree with him.

P.S.  The day I returned from Kauaii, I flipped through the guidebook that accompanies my Earth Magic Cards, and found the reflection related to the whale.  Change your perspective, the reflection advised, see the world through new eyes, make the ordinary extra-ordinary.

Sometimes it takes a trip to an extra-ordinary island to appreciate the ordinary sweetness of family!

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Our family in Kauaii, January 2017.  And Happy Buddha in our Princeville rental’s back yard.  Each morning, the grandkids and I rubbed his belly and placed a hibiscus on his head and said to the world that it was going to be a good day!!!

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