Archive for August, 2010

“Every time we walk along a beach some ancient urge disturbs us so that we find ourselves shedding shoes and garments or scavenging among seaweed and whitened timbers like the homesick refugees of a long war.”

— Loren Eiseley

What is it about the ocean that calls us home?  As I’ve said before (A Gift From the Sea), there is something magical for me that takes place as I walk along the shoreline.  Perhaps it is the whooshing sound of the surf that takes us back to our days in the womb and all at once connects us with our past and with the possibility of new beginnings.  Maybe it is simply the experience of being in a place so vast that our own place in it — along with our troubles — shrinks by comparison.  All I know is that my times spent at the beach have offered me perspective on many different occasions.  Come away with me today to another Gift from the Sea.

It was September 1980, and it had been seven months since my son Brett had died in a car/pedestrian accident.  More than 200 days had passed — some difficult and some even worse — as I grieved the loss of my child.  September brought me a whole new experience of pain as I watched all of his friends, now nearly a year older, prepare to start a new year at school.  Second grade.  Brett would never go to second grade.  He would never  read a chapter book or write a story.  There were no new sneakers to be bought, no fresh haircut to be had for the first day.  He had already had his last first day of school.  I would like to say that I was aware enough of my own needs that I went to the beach to seek perspective; but the truth is that I made the trip because I needed to run away from my own emotions.  I went without any anticipation of good or healing things.  I simply wanted to be alone.

The September beach in New Jersey was drizzly and cold.  The day was cloudy, and any hope of sunny warmth was lost in the dampness that blew over the surf and made me feel clammy and half alive.  I was angry — angry that my son would never grow up, angry that I resented other people’s children for still being around, angry that even the beach would not offer me a bit of light and a few degrees of warmth at a time when I needed it so badly.  I felt very abandoned and completely alone.  I couldn’t even raise my eyes to see the sky above me, so I just walked along in the edge of the surf in my canvas sneakers, kicking at the piles of seaweed and trash that defined the distance the last wave had traveled before receding and being drawn back into the ocean.  I don’t think I can remember another time when I felt so weighed down and could only focus on debris in the midst of the beauty of the ocean.

I walked and I kicked and I kicked some more and walked some more.  I’m really not sure how far I had gone when I drew back my foot and sent a clump of seaweed flying.  Just as I was ready to walk on, I saw something lying amid the strands of plant life — a tiny starfish, no more than half an inch in diameter.  It stopped me dead in my tracks; and I stooped down, sitting on my haunches, and began to sift through the remaining seaweed.  I pulled up my shirttail, and began to collect them — nearly 100 perfect, tiny little stars that lay underneath the rubble on a cloudy day.  I never had seen starfish on the New Jersey beach before.  Maybe they always are there and I pass them by because I’m taken by the sky to a height too high for them to be visible.  Maybe they never are there, and they appeared that day because I really needed a miracle to see me through to the days that lay ahead.

I don’t need to know the truth about starfish life on the Jersey shore.  What matters to me is that they were there at the time when I needed them most.  For the first time in weeks, I found myself honestly smiling.  I realized as I sat there with a shirttail full of stars that sometimes when we are looking for huge miracles that elude our grasp, we can miss the tiny ones that lie at our feet.  This sounds so simple when I say it today; but on that day, thirty years ago, it was a revelation.  I packed up my treasure and headed to the car with plenty to think about on my ride home.  I washed the little stars, dried them, and stored them in two little plastic boxes that once had held straight pins for sewing.  I placed them in my desk drawer where they would be handy if I needed to take them out and be reminded of their magic.

Thirty years later, the stars are gone.  Over time, I have shared them — one at a time — with people who entered my life at times when they needed a miracle.  I hope that taking one with them may have helped them to see the small miracles that lit their path instead of feeling abandoned and alone while looking for a large one.  I had thought that I would keep just one little star as a reminder of that day; but the day came when I needed one to give to someone who was feeling the way I had felt when I kicked the seaweed and re-discovered my sense of wonder.  And so the last little starfish made its way out of the box and into the pocket of the latest person who needed its magic.  Now I have an empty plastic box with one hinge slightly broken from all the times it has opened and closed over years and years.  When I look at it, I can imagine it full of stars; and it reminds me of all the times when the miracle was passed on to other people.  The real gift is the empty box, because it reminds me that I did go on after that dark day on the beach.  It also reminds me that miracles are never ours to possess and keep.  They are to be shared and to be held only in our memories and in our hearts — like little boys and tiny starfish.

“Observe the wonders as they occur around you.  Don’t claim them.  Feel the artistry moving through and be silent.”

— Rumi

For the past three days, our small town has hosted thousands of guests for the annual Street Rod Jamboree.  With more than 2,000 cars on display, their owners alone nearly double our population, and thousands of spectators also arrive to enjoy the colorful cars.  For three days my usually silent walks through the park are replaced by the roar of engines, the smell of oil, and the sound of Fifties music floating in the breeze.  We picnic and entertain our kids and their friends and sip iced tea as the cars flow by in an endless stream of color and noise.

I just love the Monday morning that follows the jamboree.  Once again, as I grab my camera and walk toward the sunrise, I am able to hear the first crow announce, “here she comes” to his friend in their treetop posts around the park.  It’s amazing how silent the park feels on the first Monday after the excitement has ended.  The vendors have packed up and moved on.  The last car has rumbled home, the swarms of spectators no longer wander, eating french fries and funnel cake.  All the dearly-loved possessions that have made up this marvelous display are gone; and what remains are the things that no person can own — the things that belong to us all.

As I watched the morning mist rise above the grass today, I realized how thankful I am for the hubbub and noise that life produces.  It provides such a wonderful contrast when it gives way to silence; and it opens my ears and eyes to the small things that were overshadowed when the noise prevailed.  My eyes were drawn all weekend to the man-made bright colors of thousands of cars.

Today, they take in the subtle artistry that surrounds me every morning — the hazy, white cloud of the mist on the grass, the subtle change from darkness to light that soon sets the sky on fire with the hope of a a new day.

We can paint a beautiful car or create a work of art and call it finished; but we never can capture a moment of the natural world and call it our own.  We must move through the ever-changing canvas that is the backdrop of our lives and look with wonder at the way each new second treats us to another miraculous sight or sound.  We must enjoy the hubbub of man-made excitement and appreciate the creativity that is part of who we are.  And when it has passed through and left us in silence, we must open our ears to the ongoing symphony that shows us something new in each passing moment.

“People deal too much with the negative, with what is wrong…Why not try and see positive things, to just touch those things and make them bloom?”

— Thich Nhat Hanh

A friend stopped by for a visit on Friday and brought her parents with her.  The friend is one I met through mutual activities of her daughter and my granddaughter; and I am not old enough to be her mother, but older than most of her peers.  Likewise, her parents are not as old as mine, but their age and stage of life leave us with few activities in common.  It is always fun to get together with them, because our paths only cross from time to time.  Each new meeting is like a first hello, but with a dose of deja vú added that makes our visits seem like meeting an old friend for the first time.

It has been several years since my last visit with the parents; and during that time I have made a practice of bringing gratitude into each moment of my life.  I realized during our visit how this affects my interactions with other people.  Gratitude is what waters the seeds in the garden of joy; and when those seeds are nourished, being joyful becomes a habit that apparently makes us good company.  We had visited for a time when suddenly my friend’s mother turned to me and said, “you are my kind of person.”  She went on to say that she met too many negative people in her daily life and that she noticed my positive demeanor.

Wow.  In that moment I realized how the simple practice of being grateful has changed my whole outlook on life — and the way I am seen and received by others.  I thought about the people I most enjoy — the ones whose company lifts me up and bolsters my energy — and I realize that they also make a point of appreciating the small bits of sweetness that line their path through life.

Thich Nhat Hanh tells us to see positive things in our world and, “to just touch those things and make them bloom.”  I laugh as I picture myself with a magic wand, touching ordinary things and revealing how wonderful they really are.  My eyes truly see the miracle each time a flower bursts from bud to bloom.  I feel awestruck each time the cardinal does sentry duty to protect his nest from intruders; and I marvel at the way he is programmed to do his part in keeping the order of the natural world.  I stand in the summer rain with my arms outstretched and let it fall into my open hands, and I feel the miracle of life and the way we are sustained by something so much bigger and so very complex; and I marvel at the simplicity of merely needing to be grateful in order to see its beauty.

What I learned during my visit with my now-and-then friends is that the magic wand that transforms the world I see becomes a light when I say something to another person that gets their attention and makes them look at the world in a fresh, new way.  We all can do this for one another.  Extend your hand, and shine your light so that someone who has been drowning in negativity can see the simple things all around as cause for great joy.  Be grateful and let your eyes be opened to the wonder that is our life; and once you have found the miracle, let your light shine.

“Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

— Berthold Auerbach

Yesterday was a day of many musical opportunities.  A visit from my brother brought a classical buff into my house, and we sat for an hour at the computer finding favorite videos to share back and forth.  I introduced him to the concept of the flash mob — where people go into the midst of a crowd and begin to perform, first one or two and then greater numbers as more and more performers join in.  They are great fun to watch, and I always try to imagine what it would be like if I were an innocent bystander who suddenly found myself surrounded by musical joy.  For some reason I always find myself choking up when I watch these performances.  I think it must be the way that the music spreads like a virus through the crowd and seems to infect everyone it touches with its passion. We watched everything from Sound of Music and West Side Story to dance performances and unexpected opera, and the music swept clean the dusty corners of our day and lifted our spirits above the noise and clutter that inhabits our minds.

At the same time, a large street rod show is taking place in our community park.  Even if 50’s music is not your passion, it would be hard to exist in town this weekend and not find yourself walking with a sort of dancing gait as the P.A. system sends out an amplified version of whatever performer has taken the stage at the moment.  I was going to say that music just makes people happy — and sometimes that is true.  What I’d rather say is that music puts us in touch with the emotion, the passion, that lives beneath our exteriors and touches our hearts.  It can make us dance and laugh and sing along.  It can stir the understanding of the composer’s grief and sadness that finds its way to us in the melancholy notes of a sighing violin.  It has stirred men’s courage as they march into battle.  It has soothed and comforted a sleepy infant as a lullaby sends her off to the land of dreams.

Whatever your musical passion might be, it dusts away the cobwebs that obscure your deepest feelings and brings them to the surface where you can hold them and touch them and sing their song.  May your day be filled with the music of your soul, and may your soul hear the music that is all around you.  Don’t forget to dance!

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

— Anais Nin

On Wednesday, my granddaughter and I attended her Parent/Student Orientation for her first year in high school.  I will spare you all the wailing about the impossibility that any grandchild of mine could be that old and simply say that I wondered, as we headed toward the building, just who her peers might be at this stage of their life.  Ivy and her friends do spend significant time in and out of my house, but it is these milestone meetings that pull together all the members of her class; and that is always a treat.  The auditorium was swarming with fourteen-year-olds — boys with perfectly gelled hair, girls in denim shorts and sandals, most experimenting for the first time with eye liner — some looking like young raccoons leaving the nest for the first time.  Each of them, in their perfect conformity, is seeking to be an individual and to be seen by their peers as standing out in the crowd.

I think now of my zinnias.  At the beginning of the growing season, I grabbed two packets of seeds for multi-colored results and tossed them in my flower patch at the end of the veggie garden.  I watched and waited, visiting my seedlings as they grew tall and green; and, at last I discovered that the plants all were topped by buds.

They were beautiful in their own right, neat and green and tightly closed, all lined up and ready to burst with potential.  Ninth grade flowers.  It seemed like a very long time before one of these beauties could wait no longer and had to burst open and reveal its color.  The petals opened slowly; and even when the process had begun, it took several days for the full beauty of the bloom to show itself.

I look at the auditorium and see that it is packed with hundred of identical buds just waiting for the right combination of learning and encouragement to convince them to burst open and let their colors be seen.  I reflect on my own ninth-grade adventure and how awkward I felt as I tried to stay wrapped up tightly in the conformity that allowed me to be a part of the group.  I think of my own fearful process of letting myself begin to bloom and showing my own contributions to the world.  It is a process; and sometimes I think we are surprised when we see our first petals unfold.  I suppose you could say that it takes a lifetime for us to experience each petal and take in the joy and magic of becoming who we were created to be.

What will this same group of kids look like when their four years of high school are done?  Who will they be when they are forty or fifty or when they are the grandparents who look back in wonder at this part of the journey to being ourselves?  No matter how tightly we all are encased in the bud, the time does come when the risk of blooming is less painful than the effort to stay hidden under our conformity.

Show your petals!  Bloom!  The world is longing to see your colors!

“If you can’t feed a hundred people, then just feed one.”

— Mother Teresa

When my oldest sons were little boys and their father was in graduate school, we lived from paycheck to paycheck.  There were few opportunities for frivolous spending; and it took several years away from starving student life before life became a bit more comfortable.  Max and Brett were not indulged the way some of my later children were; and on the rare occasion when the budget allowed for some sort of treat, they truly appreciated it.  I began doing something in those days, partly out of necessity and partly by design.  If I found myself with an extra quarter at the end of my grocery trip, I would buy one chocolate bar.  As I unpacked the grocery bags, I would think about which of my boys needed a lift the most.  I would hand one of them the chocolate bar and say, “Here.  I had a little extra money this week, and I thought you might like this.  I would turn to my other son and say, “I’m sorry I only had enough for one.  It will be your turn another time.”

What happened, without fail, was that the boy who owned the candy would open it, break it in half, and hand half of his chocolate to his brother.  They did it every single time.  It was not the sharing of excess out of obligation; it was a pure act of love and generosity from one brother to another — just because it seemed like the right thing to do.  Think back to your own childhood.  Who doesn’t have a memory of breaking an ice cream sandwich in half and sharing it with a friend who had no money when the ice cream truck came through the streets?  Children have a depth of love that motivates selfless giving.  Maybe they simply trust that their own needs will be met, and they don’t weigh the cost of giving against the worry that there might not be another chocolate bar tomorrow.

When do we lose that ability to trust?  When do we limit our love and stop our hearts from leaping ahead of us and meeting the need of another human being?  When do we decide that we should store up excess just in case tomorrow finds us wanting something and unable to obtain it?  Children seem to possess a sort of wisdom about these things.  Mother Teresa tells us that we should not worry if we feel unable to feed a hundred people — just feed one.  Which one of us could not cut our sandwich in half and share it with a friend and still feel satisfied and fed?  Which one of us should not be embarrassed when we think of how much we possess and how little it might take to make a difference in another life?

We are not asked to do the impossible; we are called to do what is right.  No matter how little we might have today, we always have something to spare — something to share.  Whatever your chocolate bar might be, break it in half — share it with your brother — just because it is the right thing to do.

“We cannot do great things on this Earth, only small things with great love.”

— Mother Teresa

“We are confronted with insurmountable opportunities.”

— Walt Kelly

I remember, during my in-the-trenches years of child-rearing, seeing a little wall plaque that read, “Lord, grant me the strength to endure my blessings.”  At that point in time, those blessings had names.  They also had opinions, an ability to argue a point worthy of any Philadelphia lawyer, and a way of bringing many sticky, dirty handprints and footprints into my days.  Indeed, they have become the blessings they were born to be; and now my nest is nearly empty.  The words on that plaque still apply, but in a different way.

Life is, as Walt Kelly puts it, filled with insurmountable opportunities.  Just as the days of frenzied motherhood have faded into distant memory as my children have become adults, the seemingly insurmountable challenges that have sometimes entered my life now live in my memory as opportunities that have encouraged me to grow beyond the boundaries that I thought defined me.  It would be nice, at least in the moment of challenge, if we could reach a stage of living where the challenges were done and we could rest comfortably in a state of completeness.  Instead, it seems that the point of being human is to continue to rise to the challenge until life is over.  Otherwise, are we truly alive?

What is fun about growing older is that we have faced enough insurmountable challenges to learn that they really are not so insurmountable after all.  There is something about being challenged and prevailing that strengthens us and gives us the courage to see the next obstacle in our path as an opportunity.  It would be a wonderful and exciting thing if we could hold in our minds and believe in our hearts that each apparent roadblock that comes our way actually is an insurmountable opportunity for growth and learning.  It is through our difficulties that we learn to prevail.  It is through prevailing again and again that we become courageous.  Once we embrace our courage and leave behind any fear of failure, we become free to discover what it is that life offers to teach us rather than needing to guess the outcome ahead of time.  Today I will give thanks for the strength to endure my blessings.

May your day be filled with insurmountable opportunities!

We’re having a picnic this weekend, and in spite of the fact that our lawn has been challenged by the long dry spell this summer, it seemed like a good idea to finally cut the grass.  There will be some small children in attendance, and I just hate it when we lose them in the overgrowth.  With rain predicted for the afternoon, I decided to race the weather and mow yesterday morning.  That way, maybe the moisture would find its way to the ground and encourage some new growth.  It appears that this was a good plan, and today my yard looks 30% greener than it did just 24 hours ago.

It usually takes me about an hour to cut the grass, but yesterday it took most of my morning.  There were fallen pears and apples that needed to be raked before the mower could do its job.  There were some weeds that needed to be pulled by the garden fence.  At last I was ready to start the mower and make quick work of the cutting.  As I approached the shed where we store the mower, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a praying mantis who clung to the side of the building.  As you probably know by now, I don’t go out to do yardwork without my camera; so I grabbed it from the front seat of my car and hoped for a snapshot of this gorgeous insect.

I’ve learned that taking one photo is risky business — at least for this amateur — so I decided to take several, just to be sure I had a good one.  The second shot was amazing!  Just as I pressed the shutter, Mrs. Mantis turned her head, as if to say, “is there something I can do for you?”

It was as though she was looking right at me and wondering whether I might have something better to do than annoy her majesty.  She turned and walked down the wall toward the clump of peppermint that grows beside the shed.  I was watching her make her way to cover, when suddenly she stopped. She struck a pose — silent and still, like a martial artist practicing his forms — and, before I knew what was happening, “SNAP!”  She brought her forelegs together and caught a bee.

I sat, mesmerized by the sight of her efficient mandibles working at devouring her prey.  I’ve never seen such a sight before; and the thought of lawn mowing moved deeper and deeper into the recesses of my mind.  It took only three minutes for the plump bee to disappear, and I thought of the harshness of the natural order — that a bee, gathering pollen for his hive should suddenly become a meal for a mantis.  Soon it will be time for her to deposit her eggs in an ootheca that will carry her species into a new generation next Spring.  Will they carry part of the bee’s memory into the new year?  Will they have a cellular memory of the tasty bee that sustained their mother and brought them into being?

Clouds began to gather overhead, and I thought again about finishing my outdoor work before the rain arrived.  I put the lens cap on my camera and started to turn away, when “SNAP!”  Another bee met its fate.

Again, the voracious praying mantis made short work of devouring her latest feast.  I found myself wondering just how many bees she could fit into that slender body before she would need a membership at the local gym.  My question was answered as she ate the last morsel of bee-wing and sauntered slowly toward the mint and merged her own green with the leaves that surrounded her.  Nothing like a siesta after a hearty meal.

She settled in for a snooze, I returned to reality and my outdoor work, and the bees in the mint buzzed a soothing lullaby — and maybe dreams of abundant mantis food.

“I see my path, but I don’t know where it leads.  Not knowing where I’m going is what inspires me to travel it.”

— Rosalia de Castro

I love Yahoo! maps.  When I’m taking a trip, I like to know where the turns lie before I place my car into the stream of vehicles on a busy highway.  I get sweaty just thinking of having to merge in an instant when I don’t know that my exit is the next one and traffic is heavy.  I guess you could say that when I’m going somewhere, I like to know exactly how to get there.  My home address is all saved on Yahoo! and all I need to do is plug in the address at my destination, and the program magically gives me the directions I need.  It even tells me how long I should expect to be on the road.

Sometimes we travel with a GPS.  This is something like Yahoo! maps, but with an electronic view of the road and a very bossy woman who reminds us every half-mile to pay attention.  As the navigator on road trips, I sort of like the idea that someone invisible will take the heat of, “I know where it is” from my sweetie who sits behind the wheel.  If he gets irritated that the GPS thinks he’s lost, it’s not on me.

Maps are great, but they don’t always prepare you for road construction that comes complete with orange signs that direct you on a detour over side roads.  At times like this, we’re left at the mercy of those arrows that proclaim “DETOUR,” and I heave a huge sigh of relief when we return to a road that appears on our map.  Even the GPS, with its know-it-all attitude, has limitations.  My daughter discovered that hers covered only the U.S. and not all of North America when she attempted to get directions to Toronto.  As soon as she crossed the border into Canada, the GPS began to whine, “Go Southeast!” again and again.  It was desperate for her to return to familiar territory and restore its ability to direct her.

Life is like that, isn’t it?  We may think we know exactly where we’re going.  We may even plot the path to get to our destination, but sometimes we find that the road is under construction and we end up someplace completely unexpected.  Sometimes we even leave our comfort zone and long only to “go southeast” until we find a familiar road where we can relax and coast along.

I like the reassurance of a map when I travel to known destinations; but when it comes to living my life, I prefer to let the path unfold and not always know what lies around the next bend.  There is no ETA on life — we just live it until the end surprises us.  If we plan too carefully or walk only familiar roads, I think we miss the fullness of the adventure.  What matters is not where we are going, but what we live as we get there.  May our lives be filled with surprises, although the path lies in view.  May we walk with an adventuresome spirit that has no need for maps and timelines.  This is the way to live fully until we live no more.

“Music is the silence between the notes.”

— Claude Debussy

Yesterday was a wonderful day!  Twice, I had the opportunity to drum with friends — first in a small circle of women and later in a larger, mixed group.  I came away from each experience energized and delighted by the way we can take instruments that would have made my Mom yell, “don’t bang on that thing in the house!” and somehow weave music.

The smaller women’s group is not such a surprise.  When you have a small number of people who share many things in common, including a mutual desire to nurture growth in one another, finding a common rhythm is simple.  We all know how to listen.  We all know how to feel each other’s energy that drives the drumming and bring ourselves to a place where we express as a group what each of us brings as individuals.  It is a beautiful thing, and our beats weave a common tapestry of love and acceptance and healing.  It spills over into our time of sharing thoughts and dreams, and the sense of community we create in that time is something that follows us back to our daily lives.

What really amazes me is the way a larger group who don’t all know one another can achieve a similar result.  Imagine twenty people, each with a hand drum — or sometimes a deep-voiced one played with beaters that makes your heart vibrate when it is struck.  Any mother of small children can tell you that this could create a sort of noise that would make you cover your ears and run as fast as you could to a peaceful place.  Instead, someone begins to play; the rhythm calls out to another person and another, and each adds some notes of our own to the framework of the initial beat.  Before long, there are twenty people engaged in the spontaneous creation of music.  We played past the sunset and into the night; and from time to time, it seemed as though even the breeze joined into our rhythm as it would blow through and cool us on a warm summer night.  I found myself wondering — is our playing causing the breeze to blow, or does it set the tone for the next notes we play?

I was thinking about all of this when I awoke this morning, and then I found Debussy’s words — that “music is the silence between the notes.”

‘That’s it!’ I thought.  It isn’t that we all know just the notes to play and when to play them, it’s that we share the same silence that exists between the notes.  Our spirits — our energies — become synchronized as we play, and before long we play as though we had rehearsed our music.  It is a beautiful experience to play the music of the universe with a group of others who also honor our oneness.  The noise of the drum may capture our attention, but it is the music that holds it.