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A Duck Story

Dear friends,

(I want to share a story with you, one that touched my heart this past week.)

The secret of change is to focus all of your attention not on fighting the old, but on building the new.  Socrates

Change is the constant, the signal for rebirth, the egg of the phoenix.  Christina Baldwin.

It was on Saturday, a warm breezy August Saturday evening as we walked along Marquette’s lakeshore bike path, that my husband Cam blurted out, “You know what is going to be hard for me?  Letting the decoys go.”  It is on these walks that we catch up with each other, tackle the topics that are drawing us in at the moment, and, on this particular Saturday, we were envisioning a less rooted life, less grip on home and possessions, a good cleaning of the house where we have lived for thirty years.  And, of course, when we lighten our load, it will be the decoys that he will miss.

You see, it is ingrained in Cam, this love of birds, especially waterfowl — and, in his younger years, duck hunting used to be a part of this passion.  In fact, it colored our beginnings.  I met him in the autumn of my freshman year at the University of Maine.  I lived in Kennebec Hall, he in Aroostook and our meals were served across the street in York, and that’s where I first set eyes on him, in the dinner line on a balmy October evening.  He was with the Aroostook guys, I with the Kennebec gals, standing in a line that wound its way out of the cafeteria and into the hallway.  There was plenty of time to start a conversation as we crept forward.  And it wasn’t the red L.L.Bean chamois shirt he was wearing, the yellow CAT trucker hat, the faded jeans that caught my attention. It was the thing dangling around his neck that called me in.  “What’s that?” I asked pointing to the wooden whistle-type instrument he was wearing over the red chamois.  And that’s when he did it, drew it up to his lips, pursed, then blew into the mouth piece.  Granted, it wasn’t flute beautiful, the sound that quack quack quacked its way through the dinner line, but I felt the call, fluttered my wings and flew in a little closer.  So there you have it, a mallard duck-call brought us together, and the kiss that sealed the deal, a month later, was on a gray November afternoon on the coast of the north Atlantic, with the waves splashing the rocky shore and a black and white old squaw bobbing in the chop.  Ducks have always had a tender place in Cam’s heart and he brought me into the flock early on.

And six years later, after a wedding and a baby, while living one thousand miles inland in Ann Arbor, Michigan, it was the ducks that I believe saved my young husband from metaphorically drowning.  It was in his third year of dental school at University of Michigan that we moved into student housing, into a townhouse, complete with downstairs, upstairs, and a basement, a basement big enough for washer and dryer, a sewing space for me, and a workshop for Cam.  And it was there in the basement, in those precious moments where he wasn’t immersed in the rigorous beyond-stress-filled schedule of school, that Cam felt the pull to create something wild.  It started with a black duck decoy he ordered from L.L. Bean, one with a wooden head and a cork body, a template that he could use as he moved forward with his plan.  And then he set up shop with sheets of cork, and stacks of wood, and glass eyes and the broom handles he picked from the student housing dumpster.  And he worked like a fiend.  Mallards and golden eyes, bluebills and Canada geese, tiny black and white buffleheads, ducks on alert, ducks with bills tucked under their heads, ducks with butts perched high in the air.  Our basement became a raft, a raft of ducks that kept my guy afloat.  He lifted himself up, grew wings and flew himself through those last two tough years of school, then flew himself north, joined a dental practice in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  And the ducks, they flew north too.  And duck hunt Cam did, duck-call dangling around his neck.  He built himself a layout boat, and, with duck-loving buddies, hunted the lakes and bays and shorelines of the far north of Michigan.  Until, he didn’t anymore.  Lives got busy, his and his friends, and the ducks, Cam’s ducks, were tucked away in huge mesh bags, stuffed up into the rafters of our garage, where they have sat for nearly thirty years, landlocked, silent and undemanding, without as much as a quack.  But then this past weekend, Cam, who must have been thinking about the garage filled with clutter, awakened the flock.  As we walked the bike path, as we mused about new possibilities, Cam was contemplating about the old, the old carved decoys.  “Who would ever appreciate them?” he wondered.  “Who could possible care?”

So, that was Saturday.  And then it was the next day, Sunday, Dinner and a Movie Night at Joy Center.  And I’m not sure why I brought it up.  It had nothing to do with the The Post, the movie we were about to watch, nothing to do with journalism or Pentagon Papers.  Perhaps it was Cam’s comment about decoys the day before still stuck in my mind that initiated my babble as I began quacking out the story of the college dinner line and the duck-call around Cam’s neck.  Perhaps it was because BG had just arrived, BG, who had never been to a Dinner and a Movie Night before, BG, who I’ve known for over thirty years, BG, who writes poetry and essays, novels and plays about the the Upper Peninsula, his family camp on a wild lake, his love for duck hunting.  Perhaps I was being a good hostess bringing ducks into the conversation.  But I swear to you; I was not being matchmaker and no synapse in my brain connected any dots.  I was as shocked as everyone else when Cam looked directly at BG and asked, “Do you want a raft of ducks?”, as shocked as everyone else when Cam then scooted home and returned with two decoys, a bluebill and a bufflehead, a token offering of a much larger gift, shocked as everyone else when BG said, “You all don’t understand; this is the best day of my life!”, shocked as everyone else when he added, “This is like being ten years old and going to an uncle’s house and not being told ahead of time that it is Christmas.”, as shocked as everyone else when the two ducks sat beside BG like his new best friends throughout the entire movie, shocked as everyone else that Cam’s raft of ducks had so easily and quickly found their way down from the rafters and into the arms of someone who was about to set them free.

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Our toddler son playing with the ducks: Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1981.

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Cam with his decoys: Ishpeming, Michigan, August 2018

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BG and Cam, the letting go and receiving: Ishpeming, Michigan, August 2018

 

Mr. Rogers

Just being you is enough.  Fred Rogers

One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self.  Fred Rogers

There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.  Fred Rogers

It was a daily ritual in our house on Pansy Street in the early to mid-eighties, the kids — our two pre-school boys and their toddler girl pal who lived next door — the three of them, planted on our bed, upright and attentive, facing the television that sat on the bureau nearby, transfixed by what they were watching.  And I admit, this late afternoon ritual was a reprieve for me, a thirty minute deep breath in the day of a young mother of two rambunctious little boys, a time to wash a few dishes and maybe my own face, straighten the living room, perhaps brush my hair or stretch my body.  I wasn’t as attentive as they were to the program that aired five afternoons a week on our public television channel.  But, as I scurried about my grown-up tasks, I caught glimpses, both of the sincerity on the kids’ faces as they absorbed what was coming through the airwaves in their direction, and the sincerity of the man inside that little box of a TV who seemed to be speaking directly to them.  I also admit, that from my detached space of mother-on-afternoon-retreat, I was a bit of a snob, grateful for sure, for this man who was taking over my parenting duties in such a loving respectful manner, but perplexed and amused that a show that was so low-budget, so simple, so dorky to my adult eyes, could hold the kids interest day after day after day.  But my reaction didn’t matter.  Whether I understood it or not, it was a fact; our kids loved him.  Mr. Rogers was their friend, and, each afternoon, they willingly eagerly took up his invite and brought their full selves into his neighborhood — and his neighborhood, it became their neighborhood.

And this neighborhood that Mr. Rogers encouraged the little ones to enter, this space that bridged the television set with our own diverse rural and suburban and inner city neighborhoods, was a safe and welcome space for these pre-schoolers to dwell in.  And when I stopped now and then to check up on the kids, I too found my snobby-self tiptoeing into this world of Mr. Rogers, surprised by the way he and his puppets spoke freely of feelings, the way all feelings, both light and dark, seemed to be invited into the conversation, the way all guests and regulars, a diverse group of guys and gals and puppet friends, also were welcomed, surprised by the way that I, a reluctant adult who was judging Mr. Rogers as dorky, felt welcomed as well.

I remember one afternoon, peeking in just in time to catch Mr. Rogers in serious discourse with the three toddler kids on our bed.  Without a flicker of patronization, with his eyes locked into theirs, he was discussing fears, one fear in particular.  I can’t remember whether it was the toilet or the bathtub that was the focus of discussion.  Whichever it was, it struck a chord with the kids on the bed.  They were listening intently as he explained that it just couldn’t happen, that there was no way, that they were far too big to be sucked down the drain.  I’m not sure the toddler fear of being pulled into the pipes beneath our toilets and bathtubs even had been on my radar before — and there he was, the kids’ television friend, assuring them that they could relax, that they just needed some logical information presented in a loving respectful manner, that they were safe.  Each day, our kids were getting a huge dose of kindness and generosity, tolerance and respect, along with these substantive conversations.  Each day he was there for them.  He “got” them.  He had their backs.

And I, back then in the eighties took him for granted, took “it” for granted, the level of generosity and respect and tolerance that Mr. Rogers exuded to this television audience.  I see that now.  I hadn’t even thought about him in years, not until a trip to the movie theater a few weeks ago when I was reminded of his amazing ability to connect with the hearts and minds of the little people who revered him.  My husband Cam and I were settling into the theater’s tilt-back easy chairs, getting ourselves comfortable in anticipation of the romantic comedy we were about to see, when the previews began appearing on the screen.  And tucked between the action adventures and a comedy about dogs was a trailer for a documentary by an Oscar-winning filmmaker.  It took me aback, took me way back, this trailer espousing in the voiceover that, in these divisive times, we need Mr. Rogers.  We need his kindness, his authenticity, his ability to truly listen to people, little and big alike.  And then the trailer honed in on him, the man I hadn’t thought about in years, the man looking out at us with his kind eyes in the same way he had once-upon-a-time looked out at our kids, and, as he zipped up his familiar sweater, he began to sing his theme song.  That’s when I surprised myself.   I choked up. I was crying, real snot-and-tears crying.

During our Pansy Street years, Cam was a young dentist who worked a block-and-a-half away from our little ranch house.  Each morning, he would ride his bike, an old gold-colored Schwinn three-speed with chrome racks and a basket in front, to the dental center, his tie flapping in the bike’s breeze.  And, each late afternoon, he would ride it back home again, parking it beside the garage.  And then, with a burst of energy, he would barge into the house — we could count on it — marching himself right into the bedroom as those kids sat there watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.  And as he loosened, then whipped off his tie, he would start to sing it.  “It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor . . .”   With gusto, he would continue as he dropped the white button-down onto the floor and pulled on his comfortable t-shirt, and just like Mr. Rogers, he’d belt it out, “Would you be mine?  Could you be mine?  Won’t you please, won’t you please, please won’t you be my neighbor?”  And the kids, they would giggle, delighted with this ritual, delighted that their neighborhood was mingling with Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, delighted that it was all one big inclusive neighborhood.  And I was delighted as well.

Mr. Rogers is getting his own documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” and I am eager to see it.  I am delighted he is back in our lives, back in our consciousness.  It feels good to to be in the presence of kindness and generosity and inclusivity.  I don’t care if he’s dorky.  I don’t even know what dorky means anymore.  Perhaps dorky is what we need right now in this world.  I just know I want to be a part of his welcoming-all neighborhood.  I just want to be his neighbor.  Thank you, Mr. Rogers!

 

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It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood:  Autumn, 1984

And suddenly you know:  It’s time to start something new and trust the magic of beginnings.  Meister Eckhart

You are pulsing with divine life longing to spring forth  (from my calendar)

We begin again to dream, weave the work of our hands and hearts, to revision the world, and refresh ourselves, for we are the green shoots of renewal.  Sherri Rose-Walker

It was a Saturday night in March, a perfect time to try out our new subscription to Netflix.  We, my husband and I,  settled in with snacks and pillows and the trusty controllers, ready to dive into this wide world of exciting new possibilities.  But before we even pressed the Netflix button on that small black Roku stick, we got sidetracked.  Perhaps it was the song that drew us in, transfixed us into dropping the Roku all together and caving in to traditional TV and a PBS fundraising special.  Petulia Clark was our host and it was the British pop invasion of the sixties and seventies that was the focus — and the song; it was the Moody Blues, Nights in White Satin.  Of course, we’d be drawn in.  It was a slow-dance special, our slow-dance special at the University of Maine Friday night keg parties, and, on Saturdays, a highlight dance at the Bounty Bar in Bangor.  We hugged long and close and hot as we sort of swayed our way across the dance floor, seventies-style, to this song, and, here it was, forty-something years later wooing us in again on a Saturday night.

Except something was different.  The concert audience that was taking in the music wasn’t a crowd of college freshmen from back in the seventies, girls in halter tops and granny glasses and guys in plaid bell-bottom pants, all guzzling beer out of plastic cups because we could in those days, legally, when the drinking age was eighteen.  There were no halter tops, no plaid bell-bottoms, no adolescent fever-pitch swaying.  Instead an amiable group of gray-haired sixty and seventy year olds was smiling appreciatively, some of them singing along, all sitting comfortably in their audience seats.  No.  This was present day and the crowd — well, the crowd was old.  And so were the Moody Blues.  And that felt okay to me.  The magic of the song seemed to transcend time, still moved both Cam and I.  It was a little later, however, that I started to feel uncomfortable.  I think it was when Herman’s Hermits took the stage.  Okay, there might have been a time when I was in love with Herman, before college and Cam, before high school and Cat Stevens, before Junior High and James Taylor.  I’m talking way back, way back to Newell Elementary and fifth grade and the year I tore all the photos of guys I deemed cute from the pages of Tigerbeat Magazine and taped them on my bedroom wall, way back when I was sure I was going to marry Davy Jones from the Monkees.

I didn’t want to say it out loud, didn’t want to feel it, wanted instead to enjoy myself along with the concert audience when Peter Noone, who I used to know as Herman, turned on that exaggerated British accent and began belting out, “Mrs. Brown you have a lovely daughter . . .”   And I admit that he looked good, still had a youthful vigor and he seemed to be enjoying himself wholeheartedly as he bounced around the stage.  And maybe it was rude of me to interrupt his buoyant bouncing effort, to blurt out in the middle of Mrs. Brown and her lovely daughter, “Cam, this is ridiculous!”  But I just couldn’t help myself.  It did feel ridiculous to me on this particular Saturday night.  It was one thing to take the memory train back to a slow dance at the Bounty Bar with Cam and the Moody Blues.  It was another thing to find myself ten again in my house on Washington Street in Bath, Maine taping photos of teeny-bopper heartthrobs on my wall.  After all, it was March, and, on this particular day, the sun had been shining and the snow had melted into puddles on the road, and I was feeling squirmy inside, ready for something new and forward-focused, something spring-like and bubbling to present itself to me.  That’s when I thought about Bruce Springsteen.

Cam’s sister was the first to introduce us to Bruce Springsteen, the year after the Bounty Bar Moody Blues’ slow dances.  She discovered Bruce before he was a face to tape on the wall and Cam and I were hooked from the get-go, and have been fans ever since.  His lyrics are poetry and he pours body and soul into his performances and he is forever exploring his edge of the moment.  We turned the TV off, googled him and spent the rest of the evening reading about his one-man show on Broadway.  That’s what he’s up to these days, doing something new with the material of his life — sitting in a chair on a stage storytelling his New Jersey tales and mingling this with fifteen or so songs.  Oprah said the show was transformational.  Obama loved it.  Reese Witherspoon exclaimed that she melted into a puddle of humanity within the first fifteen minutes.  And on that March night, it was the freshness of Bruce’s new edge that energized me, that lit something inside, that got me wondering.  What’s my new edge?  What’s taking root beneath the surface that’s ready to sprout?

The puddles on the road froze back up, the snow that had been turning watery and corn-crystal-like in March became covered again with fresh layer after fresh layer of powdery wintery white.  And a month after that March evening of spring-like squirminess, I was still skate-skiing with my winter coat zipped up high on trails groomed as if we had pushed the reverse button and were back in January.  Whatever had been quivering beneath the surface sunk back into hibernation.  Until now, that is, when the sun is blazing brilliant even on the cool jacket-zip-up days and the below-freezing nights, and the snow is gently melting and the grass, green blades of grass are poking through.  I’m asking the question again, “What’s my new edge?”  I’m not sure.  I know the new is brewing.  I feel it.  A friend of mine read a poem to me the other day, written from the perspective of age looking back on youth, a poem about remembering the feeling of being twenty, the feeling of knowing everything and feeling it keenly with slow-dancing Moody Blues passion.  My friend and I both agreed that we want to feel that thrill again. And I believe we can, not by trying to resurrect the past, not by taping the old faces back on the wall, but by being present to what wants to be taped up on our metaphoric wall now, today, in this moment.  And if we relax and allow it, if we don’t resist and hold it under, the new, sure as spring follows winter, will poke its head out of the thawing ground and we will be face to face with something wonderful, something amazing, a new thrill to carry us forward.  Happy spring everyone.

Tell Me A Story!

One of the things I love about story is that it always sends us back home.  Terry Tempest Williams

I hope you will go out and let stories, that is life, happen to you, and that you will work with these stories from your life — not someone else’s life — water them with your blood and tears and your laughter till they bloom, till you yourself burst into bloom.  That is the work.  The only work.  Clarissa Pinkola Estes

I bribe my grandkids with stories.  It’s not candy or cupcakes that gets them into their carseats; it’s the stories I tell.  It’s an understandable battle a toddler wages, the postponing of the restraint of a free-ranging body into a tightly-bound buckled-up space.  I get it!  And so I, the visiting grandma, try to breathe as deeply as possible and call upon all the patience I can muster when toddler grandkid stands up backward in the seat and refuses to budge.  That’s when I say it, “I’ll tell you a story!”  And then I add, “when you sit down.”  Toddler grandkid hesitates, still wanting the control of being in charge.  But then I add, “Well . . .” stretching out each letter with emphasis and a great puff of breath.  That’s how I begin my stories.  “Well. . .”  And that does it; toddler grandkid, with a pirouette and a plop, is down and ready to be snapped in place.  And that’s when it gets fun.  I don’t know what story will rise up to the surface, what one will be a perfect match for that moment.  But I do know enough to trust the process, that we contain an infinite number of stories in our inner well, and, if we’re in tune, we draw up the one that suits the situation just fine.  My grandkid stories run the gamut, from childhood memories growing up on the shores and in the waters of coastal Maine, to Grandpa and Grandma adventure stories, to stories of tarantulas and rattlesnakes and scorpions.  Toddler grandkid and I are both entertained by these stories, and, I don’t mind the inevitable, “Again!  Again!  Again!”

So, there are stories that bring us entertainment and there are stories that bring us healing, stories that inspire, stories that delight, stories that provide us with courage and insight and a blueprint forward.  And if we are paying attention, if our will is aligned with the source of the well within, we can trust the story that is ready to be told.  And, as I was contemplating the power of story-telling, lo and behold, a story rose to the surface, one I hadn’t thought about in years, one eager to be told in this moment.  So here goes.  “Well. . . ”

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My husband Cam and I left home in a raging snowstorm, a decade ago, two days before the new year, suitcases carefully packed, mine with scarves and flip flops and walking shoes, a favorite skirt, yoga leggings, a sweater, all the things I would need for a week in Morocco.  Our flight from the north of Michigan was delayed, making it almost certain that we would miss the connecting flight to Paris, so the local agent re-booked us on a later plane to Amsterdam, and then on to Morocco from there.   We arrived in Casa Blanca the next morning, to an airport bustling with people from all over Africa, some leaving, some arriving, to a helter skelter of humanity and piles of suitcases and trunks and giant canvas bags.  But alas, our suitcases were nowhere to be found in this helter skelter of confusion.  So, we made a detailed report of the missing luggage and were assured that our bags would arrive on a later flight.  And off we went, by taxi, south over miles of two-lane roads to the fishing village of Essaoira where we would be staying for the next six days.

Our home was an eco-boutique-hotel in the heart of the old walled medina of the city, and, there, we befriended an American, who had lived in Morocco for years.  She told us that Morocco takes you in both directions, frustrates you, maybe even makes you angry, then something in the culture brings you back, humbles you, opens your heart, touches your soul.  It was like that for us.  We loved our time in Essaoira.  It was a treasure chest of exotic, the market-souks lined with stalls of orange and curry-colored, red and yellow spices and stacks of baskets and shoes with pointy toes and scarves and hand-knit caps and piles and piles of glorious rugs, ancient streets winding this way and that and filled with everything imaginable.  And there was the harbor outside of the walls, with fishing boats moored to the docks unloading the day’s catch and the grills set up along the shore cooking every sort of seafood imaginable, and the sleepy-eyed camels with loose bottom lips, and the ramparts holding the force of the whole wild Atlantic at bay, and there was the sea gulls’ cry mingling with the call to prayer.  Yes, it was a treasure box of the exotic, a treasure box within a treasure box within a treasure box.  And sometimes we found this frustrating, the way it was easy to lose yourself in the maze of medieval alleyways, the discomfort with bartering, the language and cultural differences that made connection challenging, and a feeling that we couldn’t quite unwrap it all, the mystery of Morocco.

And then there was the luggage, which was indeed a mystery.  It didn’t arrive as assured on a later flight, nor did it arrive the next day, on New Year’s Eve.  Or, the day after, which was a holiday.  You have to understand — this was ten years ago, and our nest had recently emptied, and, in my early fifties, I had rediscovered an adolescent love for clothes, cute clothes, hip clothes.  It’s not like I had an extensive wardrobe, but I loved every single thing I owned, everything single thing I had packed.  Since then, I have traveled lightly, hiked trails for days in Europe with the few things I can squeeze into a hefty daypack.  But then, that week in Morocco, I was attached.  Every day, I pulled on the same brown yoga pants, the same turquoise top, draped the one scarf around my neck and tried to let go — and tried to believe the front desk people in our eco-lodge that our suitcases would surely arrive on the second day of January.  And they were partially correct.  With a smile and a look of wanting to please these American visitors, one of the men who had been helping us, rushed to our table at breakfast.  He was holding a suitcase, one suitcase, Cam’s.  Cam, who didn’t give a rip about his wardrobe, Cam who wasn’t attached to every single item in his closet, Cam, who told me later, he had been praying that if only one suitcase was to be found, please god, have it be Helen’s, he was the one who was handed a bag full of his things.  And I was furious and the front desk people were upset and so wanted me to be happy and kept assuring me that my suitcase would indeed arrive.  So that’s what it was like the week we were in Essaoira, a balancing act between diving full out into the wonder of it all, while trying to let go of the suitcase debacle and my obsession with clothes, while also trying to get to the bottom of the mystery of the missing bag.

On Day Five, I bought two scarves, a Moroccon tunic, a pair of earrings.  The wind had picked up the night before and a squall was blowing in off the Atlantic and I wore my new tunic, the earrings, a scarf to the ramparts where Cam and I stood with the local townspeople and the fisherman watching the mighty waves pound against the wall and fly high into the air.  We could taste the salt and the sea and I nearly forgot about my lack of luggage — until later in the day, that is, when we were given a tip.  There was a local office of the Casa Blanca Airport, one of the men who had been helping us at our boutique hotel said.  It’s a mystery why it took five days to give us this information, but we grabbed on to it and found our way through the maze of alleys and streets to a small airport office where a man who spoke perfect English gave us advice.  “Leave early for the airport,” he told us.  “Get back to Casa Blanca and look for the bag yourself.”

And that’s what we did.  The next afternoon, we said our good-byes at the boutique hotel, and to the medina and the fishing boats and the sleepy-eyed camels and we rode by taxi back over the two-lane roads, arriving at Casa Blanca as the January sun was setting over the horizon.  And this is the part of the story that I had wanted to tell you, the part that had popped into my head a few days ago — the airport part of the story.  We had single focus when we entered the terminal.  I stopped to talk to the agent at the desk, and Cam bee-lined to a corner of the room where suitcases were piled a mile-high.  I wasn’t even finished explaining the situation to the woman behind the counter when Cam came running toward us, exclaiming in his loudest of voices, “I found it!  I found it”  It had been lying there in that pile just waiting for us to claim it.  And this was wonderful enough, my suitcase and clothes back in my possession, but this wasn’t the highlight; this isn’t what I want to tell you.

We were so focused on our mission that we hadn’t paid attention to what was happening — the two giant planes landing on the runway, the people beginning to flock.  It wasn’t until we were walking back through the terminal that we noticed the white-frocked men and women, many with gray hair, some clutching canes, streaming in by the hundreds from those two planes.  Eyes were gleaming, flowers were handed out, pictures were taken.  We guessed it, as I asked one of the bearded white-frocked men, “Mecca?”  And he nodded happily and we smiled happily and the joy in the airport was palpable.  It is a quest, a spiritual mandate, a lifetime dream to get to Mecca and these people had touched it, experienced it, and we all were feeling its power.  And then Cam and I were at the doorway when we looked out and gasped.  Hundreds and thousands of people, holding signs and flowers and neatly wrapped presents, were standing there in the airport parking lot, crammed next to each other, as though waiting for the a rock band to arrive.  We stepped out into the nighttime air and hesitated.  What were we to do, two infidels dragging a suitcase needing to get to the far end of the lot?  At that moment, two men near the front, began to shout in loud voices sounding as though it might be a fight breaking out.

But it wasn’t.  Instead, the crowd began to part, the hundreds and thousands of them.  And there were smiles on their faces as a multitude motioned us forward, motioned us through the sea of relatives and friends waiting to reunite with their pilgrims.  And the sea carried us; that’s what I want to tell you.  I have never felt anything like it, this sea of pulsating love, and a kindness to allow two outsiders to not just witness, but to enter this sea.  We smiled, our smiles joining the sea of smiles.  And I knew, just knew then, as I swam my way through that sea, that this, this was the reason, that I had gone seven days without make-up or a change of clothes, seven days teaching myself to call my mind back from an obsession again and again.  I said it out loud, my voice joining the voices in the crowd.  I said it to Cam, said it to myself, said it to a sea of people.  “This is why I came to Morocco!”

 

*  *  *

And that’s my story!

That’s what I say to toddler grandkid as I finish up.  Sometimes I acquiesce when toddler grandkid then jumps in with the inevitable, “again.”  And sometimes it is a new story that bubbles up.  Today, I’m going to sit with this one, going to remember how powerful it was to enter into the treasure of love at the heart of the mystery of Morocco, to touch and be touched by such a sea of excitement and love and kindness, to remember how good it felt to know with certainty that my luggage being lost for a week was a good thing, that I wouldn’t have missed those airport and parking lot moments for all the clothes in the world.

 

 

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Handmade Book by Amber Edmundson

 

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Essaoira, Morocco, January 2008:  Photographs from our journal by Cam Remien & Helen Haskell Remien

 

The Lucky Ones

In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give and it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer

It is early morning in Idaho, not quite light out.  And there’s a fresh layer of snow on the ground after last evening’s squall.  It is unbelievable — having four little grandkids, all in one place.  It is high tide and low tide, with the joy of a full cove of ocean to swim in and a low tide beach to scrounge for treasure.  Helen Haskell Remien, e-mail written to friends in early March

As I sat on the bench, slipping my feet into my beloved ski boots, the door to the Forestville cross-country lodge flung open, and in popped a guy, flush-faced and smiling, an acquaintance I know from town and trail.  It was apparent that he was at the end of what I was about to begin, an afternoon adventure in late February, skate-skiing up and down and across the freshly-groomed and ridged miles and miles of tree-lined trails.  It was sunny, crisp and clear, and his words were crisp and clear and sunny as well.  “We are the lucky ones!” he cried out.  “We are the lucky ones!”  And as he sprawled on the floor, stretching his middle-aged body after his long ski, we chatted for a while, about the multitude of outdoor winter-play opportunities available for those who live in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the beauty of this part of the world and this sunny day that we both were claiming as our own.  He finished the conversation as he had started. “We are the lucky ones!” he once again exclaimed.

His words were a song, flowed from his lips with a confidence, a joy, an appreciation that was palpable.  I couldn’t shake them off.  They stayed with me, clung to me as if with velcro as I thrust myself up that first grand hill.  We are the lucky ones.  We are the lucky ones.  My heart beat out the rhythm — lucky, lucky, lucky — as I pushed and I glided myself into the hardwood and hemlock and pine forest.  They settled deep inside as I skied my way through that sunny afternoon, these words which had been sung from the lips of a friend, words that seemed to fly in the face of a belief I hold dear, that it is not luck that brought me to this trail on this particular day; that it was an inner calling, a desire to breathe the wintery air and the unspeakable beauty of a forest still blanketed in snow.  It is a vibration we set forth that draws to us what we label as luck.  This is what I believe.  And yet, and yet, these words, we are the lucky ones, I am the lucky one, have sunk into my heart and have remained there, sweet and good and true.  They have been my companion, and I have said them often during these past few weeks as February has spilled into March.

Under my breath, with breath, I said them, these words, as I flew out west over the northern plains a few days after that sunny afternoon ski, as I looked down at the snow-capped Rockies in Montana, as I landed smoothly, safely, joyfully in the land of kids and grandkids.  I am the lucky one.  I am the lucky one.  What are the chances?!?  Two sons, two daughter-in-laws, four grandkids — a kindergartener, a toddler, two babies (two babies at once!) — all of them there in one sweet town in northern Idaho, a town of wide-open and rolling prairie on the edge of the ridges and foothill forests.  And for nine days, in early morning sunlight, I walked among the trees and on the winding country roads and I was the lucky one.  I pet horses on their noses and learned about horses, and, later in the day, played school with a toddler, a baby, a black cat, and a kindergartener who was our teacher and I learned about planets from a five-and-a-half-year old and asteroid belts and stars and my world was expanded and I said it, out loud and to myself, I am the lucky one.  I cuddled with grandkids and my skin sopped it in, the luck, the love, the immense pleasure of living a mindful in-the-moment existence here on earth with a whole universe of possibilities surrounding me and spread out like stars above me.

Can’t it be both?!?  Can’t my vibration hum at a joyous rocket-fueled speed?  Can’t it draw to me amazement and beauty and pleasure?  While at the same time, can’t I say it, that I appreciate it, that I am indeed lucky, that the luck can emerge from this inner humming as it mingles with the outer world?  Can’t it be so, that I appreciate all that I have and all that I am, that my luck does not diminish your luck, that we all can say it, whether the day is sunny and the trail ridge-groomed to perfection or whether a squall is blowing in, stirring up something new, something exciting, something expansive?  We are the lucky ones!!!  We are the lucky ones!!!

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Noquemonon Cross-country Ski Trail: Forestville, Marquette, Michigan, February/March 2018

 

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Early morning on Idler’s Rest: Moscow, Idaho: March 3, 2018

Stiffwing

When you love what you have, you have everything you need.  Unknown

Love is an endless mystery, for it has nothing else to explain it.  Rabindranath Tagore

What you are seeking is seeking you.  Rumi

It began with a flock of pine grosbeaks in the bitter cold days of late December, this love story that I’m about to share with you.  As the arctic air blasted its way into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, our backyard became a haven for three bunnies, a vole, a doe and her teenage fawns, a family of fat gray squirrels, the chittery-chattery red squirrel cousins, and our winged friends, the woodpeckers, chickadees and nuthatches, along with the passer-throughs, like the grosbeaks.  It was my five-and-a-half year old grandson, Viren and I who first noticed her, a female grosbeak, perched there in the snow beside the feeder, all puffed up and still, on a gray blustery below-zero morning.  “I think she might be hurt,” I said to Viren, who was visiting over the holidays from Idaho.  “Let’s go see what we can do!”  So, Viren and I bundled up and trudged through the snow to the feeder where our grosbeak was still crouched, quivering a bit, perhaps from fear, perhaps from the cold.  “I’ll go get some sunflowers seeds and scatter them for her,” I said and made my way back to the garage.  And before I, with my container of seeds, had even rounded the corner to the backyard, Viren cried out, “Grandma, she’s flown away, up to the tree by the deck!”  We scattered the feed and returned to the warmth of home and hearth, relieved that our grosbeak could fly, assuming she had just been stunned by the cold.   And our thoughts turned elsewhere, as we made our own flight, Grandpa and I, and Viren, along with his baby sister and parents, out to the mountains of Idaho to join Viren’s cousins over the weekend before the new year.

It was a note that called us back to the grosbeak in early January when Grandpa and I returned to our home in Upper Michigan.  Our friends, Amber and Raja, who had been housesitting, left it on the table: “I think you have an injured bird,” the note said.  “She’s living under the deck with the bunnies.”  Oh my, they were right,  We watched her over the next few days as she made her way from her new home with the bunnies under the deck to the feeder by the pine.  With right wing held stiff, she hop-flew-hopped through the snow, leaving her unique-patternered prints, always somehow managing to take flight to the feeder.  And, as time passed, she began to fly farther, to the birch, and the maple, and then back again to eat and finally to her under-the-deck home.

Grandpa Cam and I became more vigilant during the frigid days of January, making sure the feeder was stuffed full each morning, with extra seeds scattered underneath for good measure.  And Grandpa gave our backyard grosbeak a name, Stiffwing.  We talked about her to each other in notes left on the table and in phone calls and face to face each evening: “Did you see Stiffwing at the feeder this morning?” “I think she’s pulling her wing a little closer to her body as she eats!”   “She flew so far I didn’t see where she landed!”  She became a favorite topic of conversation for the two of us.  And we began to notice other things as well.   The little black vole seemed to be first at the feeder at dawn each morning, the bunnies usually fed one at a time while the fat gray squirrels with the white-tipped ears pushed everyone else away and gorged as a family, and the chickadees always seemed patient, perching on the deck’s cedar poles, waiting their turn.  One gray day, a red squirrel and a bunny faced each other in a colorful under-the-feeder stand-off, the red squirrel chitter-chattering wildly and the bunny backing up a bit and hopping high into the air.  Because of our concern for a stiff-winged grosbeak, Grandpa Cam and I had slowed down enough to notice and appreciate our backyard menagerie.  And we thank Stiffwing for this.

And we thank Stiffwing for other things too.  From the get-go, she has been our wintertime warrior, her resilience astounding us, how she knew the under-deck-home would be a place of safety to recuperate, how she also knew she had to eat voraciously, several times a day, in order to heal, and how she patiently allowed this healing to take place.  We felt honored to witness this process, honored that it was our backyard that she had chosen.  By the end of the month, our grosbeak friend was pulling her wing tighter  to her body as she fed.  Although still a bit askew, the wing seemed to serve her well, as her flights took her farther away, perhaps to other feeders in the neighborhood or to the marsh behind the house.  And, on that last day of January, our flight took us farther away as well, Grandpa Cam and I, as we once again said good-bye to our backyard menagerie, along with our house and cat and two businesses, leaving it all in the tender and loving hands of our friends Amber and Raja.  During the wee hours of a super moon morning, we let the wings of a Delta airplane carry us southwest for a five-day hiking trip to Sedona, Arizona — and it is easy on such an adventure to let go of the cold and the snow and the ordinary everyday comings and goings of a life in the north woods, easy to become intoxicated with the new, with the red rock mountains and the clear blue sky, to become sun-smitten and loopy and head-over-heels in love with this southwestern place of high vibration vortexes.  And so we surrendered to this beauty and immersed ourselves in the experience, hiking from morning until sundown on trail after trail after trail.

And it was on one of these trails, on a day when the air was as clear as clear could be and the landscape was crisp and vivid and Grandpa Cam and I were trekking the circumference of a mesa, that we spied the caves in the red rock and imagined the people who once had lived in such dwellings and wondered what it would be like to be so in sync with nature.  We breathed in deeply, the smell of juniper and cedar and sunlight, and we felt a happiness in our own bodies’ bones.  And I reached for my modern-day phone, to capture the moment in a photo, to remember it always, when I noticed the text message.  It was from Amber and Raja: “It is sunny today, and Stiffwing is sitting on the balsam in the light, and she is singing.”  Stiffwing was singing!  I felt it in that moment, how it is possible to be in two places at once, or maybe in all places, basking in the red rock glory of Sedona and back in Upper Michigan too where the morning light of winter was shining on a tiny balsam and a bird with a stiff wing, a bird who was singing her heart out, who was reminding us all that it is possible to open our hearts to the wild, to be in sync with nature, to feel the wonder of it all — in the every day comings and goings of our very own back yards.

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Stiffwing: photo by Raja Howe, Winter 2018

Wisdom has no beginning nor no end.  Wisdom is a circle that encompasses all that is, all that was, all that is to come. (Words on a poster.)

The circle has healing power.  In the circle, we are all equal.  That Sacred Circle is designed to create unity.  Dave Chief, Oglala Lakota

World forces always act in a circle.  The sky is round and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and stars as the wind when it blows forcefully swirls . . . Black Elk

It is to the center of the candlelit circle that we speak, one at a time, the seven of us who gather on Fridays.  We voice our truths of the moment, and we listen to each other, setting aside judgement and defensiveness, as these gems of insight and story, sometimes personal, sometimes theoretical, are hung on a metaphoric clothesline draped in the bowl of the circle for all to examine.  And, as we blow out the candle at hour’s end, I always am left feeling more expansive in my thinking and in my being than I felt before we began.  And when I say “always”, I mean it.  That’s why I remain committed to the process — it always works.  These wisdom circles are a deep breath in my week, a time to explore perspectives different than my own, a time to allow something new to arise within me.  And it’s not because we are exceptional listeners or problem-solvers, though, during the more than two decades that we have been meeting like this, we have honed our skills.  We are friends who also gather socially, who can be boisterous, and chatty, and can blurt while another is speaking.  But, on Fridays, during our Wisdom Circle, we are present in a deeper way, for each other and for ourselves.  We put aside the chatting and we speak, not to each other, but to the circle itself.  And it is the talking stick that keeps us focused, sometimes an actual stick, sometimes a stone or a shell or a feather or another convenient object.  It doesn’t matter.  What matters is that the person holding the object is the only one who is speaking.  It is her turn.

This isn’t the only group in which I’ve felt the power of the circle and the talking stick and the speaking of one person at a time.  Over thirty years ago, I read Natalie Goldberg’s groundbreaking bestseller, Writing Down the Bones, in which she describes a process of writing fast, without crossing out, allowing the mind its say, and then proceeds to describe to the reader that the sharing of this writing is as crucial as the writing itself, again speaking into the circle, with fellow writers simply listening without judgement, no cross-talk, no critique.  I have facilitated and written in groups using this technique ever since, again feeling the power of simply allowing us all our words, our stories, our perspectives, our unbridled minds.  I have participated in workshops, talking circles, and, for nearly ten years, have set up a monthly open mic night called Out Loud at Joy Center, an open mic night where all perspectives are welcome and one person at a time shares.  In all these forms, this is a powerful empowering process, this deep sharing and deep listening, a process dear to my heart.

So, it caught my attention when I read the headline on my phone a month ago  It almost didn’t seem like it could be possible, not in our country, not now, not in politics where people seem to be more polarized, more tightly bound in the little box of their “right” and another’s “wrong”, where no one seems to be listening to one another.  But there it was, in article after article after article.  They used a talking stick — during the weekend of the first government shut-down.  It was Senator Susan Collins of Maine’s idea, using the talking stick that had reportedly been a gift of Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.  Collins invited her fellow senators, the twenty-five Democrat and Republican members of the Common Sense Coalition to her office for a weekend of bipartisan meetings in hopes of reaching a compromise that would break the stalemate and open the government.  And her rule was that one member at a time would speak, the person with the stick.  Albeit, sometime during the heated sharing, someone threw the stick across the room when a fellow senator interrupted, but laughter erupted — and how often does laughter erupt at such a government meeting?!?   And it worked, the group switched to a softer rubber ball “talking stick” and they proceeded with their sharing and the government did open — and, maybe most importantly, the senators on either side of the aisle listened to one another and something new emerged from the process.  One GOP lawmaker told CNN that it was the most entertaining sessions he had ever attended.

I don’t know what it is like to participate in such a weekend of meetings, government meetings where the stakes are high and the topics polarizing and the participants holding beliefs on opposite ends of the talking stick.  But, I do know what it is like to be married for over forty years.  Fortunately, Cam and I are not usually on opposites ends of the stick when it comes to our beliefs and our perspectives, but their have been times when we have felt as polarized as the Democrats and the Republicans.  And like Susan Collins, we have a process that works.  Usually our talking stick is metaphoric.  We speak, one at a time, while the other simply listens, passing our invisible stick back and forth.  We do this most Friday evenings, often as we walk on the bike path by Lake Superior, and generally it is simply a catch-up, a way to connect.  But sometimes the topic is heated, and I admit, it can be harder to keep my mouth shut when I’m taking it personally.  But that’s the miracle.  We do keep our mouths shut.  We do listen.  And like the members of the Common Sense Coalition, we break the stalemate and arrive in a new more expansive place.

Isn’t that what we really want, to speak our truth, and to be listened to, and also to listen deeply to another’s, to feel it inside, the heart connection, the common humanity, that another’s story and perspective also matters, that when we hang it all in the middle of the circle on that metaphoric clothesline something new, something expansive, something we hadn’t considered before has room to grow and to rise up and to take root into our consciousness?!?  Isn’t that what we are hungry for underneath it all?

 

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Women’s March, Washington DC:  January 21, 2017

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Women’s March, Marquette, Michigan: January 21, 2018

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