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“Every individual soul chooses the significant people in that life.”—Brian Weiss, MD

There are very few shopping malls or large-chain book stores in the state of Maine. I prefer it this way—for the forests where I yearn to wander to remain sprawling, and the shops less-plentiful. I tend to do my acquiring locally where the parking is limited and the offerings distilled. The one exception being LL Bean’s super-sized, 24-hr campus where I once purchased a new pump for an inflatable air-mattress at midnight—the starry sky filled with moonlight and autumn’s chill, my pregnant belly loath to sleep on a deflating, rectangular balloon in our new and yet-to-be-furnished home.

Despite my preference for the quaint, I sometimes find myself in South Portland in a more heavily-populated, shopping nucleus with a few minutes to spare. Jonah, Adrian and I venture into the massive bookstore across from Macy’s with its rows of bargain books, colorful display of calendars and the latest works to top the New York Times Best Seller list.

My boys beeline for the children’s section of the discount isle where the books are immense and overflowing with colorful photos and plentiful information. They pounce on the materials about wild animals or superheroes and sprawl out on the tightly-woven, carpeted floor as if they are lounging on the wool rug at home between their two twin beds.

I hang around for a moment assessing their safety—wondering whether their bodies draped across the aisle will bother anyone—and then wander to a nearby magazine display filled with glossy art & design and travel covers. I take in the exquisite images—minimalist living rooms with flourishing, lavender orchids, photo ops of celebrities at art openings and fashion week, rugged, backpacking getaways to faraway places—take only what you’ll need.

I imagine purchasing a few, tearing out the most appealing photos and creating a collage of what I hope is yet to come—acknowledging the paradoxical desire I possess for both a deepening-connection with my fellow humans and a simultaneous extraction from the relentless connectivity of modern life.

Recently Jonah was exploring the webpage Google Earth. We were having a discussion about the Dalai Lama and we opened the program because I wanted to show him where Tibet was located on a map. He took the little, yellow-person icon from the right corner of the screen and dropped it into the mountainous region to the northeast of India. When the frame opened-up to a satellite view we saw the image of two backpacks lying on a mountain peak—the shadows of two hikers hovering over the packs as captured by a lens in space.

It illustrated so succinctly a symbolic form for the places and manner in which I would still like to go. It captured the dream of unplugged connection.

Walking away from the magazine isle empty-handed and toward a display table, I thought about the deceptive-promise of a polished life. I thought about how so-much of what I value and what has made life meaningful to me could be interpreted as too-ordinary—too-messy, or even too-traumatic—to be depicted as something to aspire to as a benchmark on the pathway to greater contentment.

I also contemplated what it means to weigh the desire-for-more against a backward-trust-fall-into-the-moment—brothers lying on the floor-of-a-store turning pages on a September afternoon between appointments tipping the scales heavily.

I like to believe that we have the opportunity in life to grow through joyful expressions and experiences—that we might remember our divinity without having to pass through a doorway of pain. And yet, some of the most challenging experiences of my life have propelled me infinitely farther into my capacity for compassion than any of the chapters graced with ease.

It is unusual for me to buy three books for myself at once, especially when they each explore—from diverse perspectives—the topic of personal-evolution, although I am almost always reading something in this genre.

I was sucked-in by the circular sticker on the front cover promising that if I bought two, I would receive a third book for free—a bibliophile’s extra donut in the baker’s dozen.

Deciding to purchase the one with the sticker was an obvious choice. I had read one of Brené Brown’s other works and was a believer in her stepping-into-the-arena message.

Her research and the book I had read were inspired by Theodore Roosevelt’s thoughts on celebrating the brave few who expose themselves to vulnerability through expressions of their most daring, truest works—regardless of outcome—while unmasking the critics who cast judgement from the sidelines.

Reading Daring Greatly helped me to begin telling the truth of my experiences and showed me how-to-know who could be entrusted with those personal discoveries. This book invited me to live and create at a level that was measured by my own criteria and not by the model of the masses.

I had never connected with the fact that Brené Brown was from Texas—a place for which I have complex feelings—and I-for-certain had no-idea I would be in the Lone Star State anytime soon and specifically in her city, Houston.

The second book I chose was sitting in clearly the wrong spot in front of Eckhart Tolle’s book, A New Earth—one of the most transformative reads of my life. Someone had obviously picked the book up, decided against it and put it back incorrectly on the wrong shelf.

I followed-suit, picking it up and placing it back down again several times—in hesitation— wondering why Eckhart Tolle hadn’t written anything new, anyway.

One of his brilliant books would have been an easier selection.

I was both weary of the subject matter—wanting so much to sink-into this lifetime—and somehow feeling like the book wouldn’t let me leave without its presence in my hand. I had read another title more than fifteen years ago by the same author—a psychiatrist who utilizes past-life-regression to assist people in overcoming obstacles in their lives. He was a Columbia University and Yale Medical School graduate who had risked his credibility in order to explore an esoteric path that lead to his blossoming life and the healing of many people.

Some explain away the idea of experiences from past-lifetimes impacting our current lives as illusions created by the subconscious mind. Even so, I found this author’s first book compelling—especially relating to the feeling of having a deeper knowledge of some people beyond our current, shared life-experiences.

I remember once meeting someone for the first time and the thought immediately coming to my mind—Oh, there you are.

I succumbed and added the book to my pile.

The third choice was a less-complicated selection—recommended by a woman whom I admire and who recently lost her dearest friend to cancer. She has been utilizing the wisdom of the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu in their Book of Joy to wade through her grief.

I stumbled upon a talk given by the Dalai Lama in Central Park in New York City in the summer of 1999. Although I was on the very outside of the many rows encasing him, his simple message of compassion and impermanence—his gentle presence and wisdom—has stayed with me.

I was eager to learn from him again.

At the check-out there was a plentiful display of candy and tchotchkes and the news that my particular book choices did not qualify for the sale mentioned on the sticker.

I felt like I was playing a game of whac-a-mole with Jonah and Adrian—keeping their hands away from the many tempting treats and toys as I chatted with the cashier about the confusion over the sale.

I shrugged off the full-price status of my purchase and gathered my books along with a stack I had bought for the boys.

The expansive parking lot and the inside of my car radiated heat as we climbed back in—Jonah and Adrian finding a good spot for their books in the seat between them while I tucked mine on the floor beside me.

Labor Day Weekend and one-final, end-of-summer getaway were on the horizon.

All was well.

 

** Due to the lengthy nature of this story and the desire to do justice to the nuances, I’ve decided to break it up into a few installments. I hope you will enjoy my journey through these three books and the way they spoke-to and supported me during a difficult time caring for my mother who is struggling with a sudden illness. Thank you for any good thoughts of healing you might send her way.

 

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“Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.”—Brené Brown

I selected the parks option for a search on the GPS and found a match a few miles away.

With too-little time to travel home and back before camp-pickup I followed a hilly, winding road to a new spot in a neighboring town where many of the homes are surrounded by enormous boulders.

These mammoth rocks have been left alone and integrated into landscaping plans—dense and vibrating with the story of another place and time—likely transported via glacier tens-of-thousands of years ago.

Situated around some of the houses they appear like dinosaurs—curled up for an afternoon nap.

It is so breezy here in this unfamiliar spot.

I’ve gone back into my car for a favorite sweatshirt—worn soft over years —and put on a snug baseball cap to keep my hair from blowing all around.

I’m listening to the steady tick of a sprinkler watering the field beside me—every now and then catching a glimpse of its rounded, liquid arch. The water seems to break off from the end of the stream and shoot forward into a powerful collection of drops—pausing—then raining down onto the grass.

Once in a while the breeze will carry a slight mist my way that I can smell more than I can feel.

It reminds me of running through sprinklers as a child just after the lawn had been mowed—the fresh-cut grass sticking to my bare feet, to my shins.

A large robin digs for a worm down the little hill to my left and then flies off abruptly—startled by a yellow Labrador Retriever with a ball in her mouth running toward me.

A miniscule, florescent-pink spider sprints across my computer screen like he’s late for a flight.

I am often surprised to discover vibrant hues like his—that seem like they belong more in the color-palette of man—manifested in nature.

I try to use a piece of chipped, grey paint from the picnic table to lure the spider off of my laptop so I can get a closer look. He’s moving so fast and keeps avoiding the paint chip but does finally crawl up onto my thumb and quickly begins racing toward my wrist.

I move away from the table out into the sun to try to see him up close—he’s so tiny—but then I have to blow him off of me just before he goes scurrying up my long sleeve, afraid I might lose him beneath my clothing.

We live in such an enchanting world.

It can be so easy to forget and brush by the faces of insects and trees, subway riders and bus drivers, the nurse taking our pulse, the child waiting hopefully at the lemonade stand—our own dear face looking back at us in the mirror.

Don’t let it be said that you are anything but dear.

It can be so easy to let it all pass-us-by while we fret about—you name it.

Let our preoccupation be instead about seeing one another—and ourselves—in the light-of-day, for all that we are.

I say a lot to my children about what they eat or don’t eat—probably more than I should.

It has to do with my own powerful reaction to what I consume.

It has to do with how much I love them and reminds me of the definition of the word sweater as given by the writer Ambrose Bierce, “a garment worn by a child when his mother is feeling chilly.”

Recently I was trying to justify my encouragement of more eating-of-dinner to Jonah and Adrian.

They were in a hurry to get back outside.

I tried to describe to them the relationship between food and mood. That was my initial thought, at least.

I fully recognize the experience of well-being is not that simple for a whole lot of people, myself included at times.

Did you know if you are ever really, really sad you can ask yourself a couple of questions to understand why you might be feeling that way?

They perked right up to what I was beginning to say—It’s mind-boggling to me how sometimes my voice can be to them like that of the Charles Shulz Wah Wah language for adults and other times they seem to devour my words like water absorbed by the thirsty roots of a plant.

This was one of those lucky moments when their attention led me to believe that what I was about to say might somehow soak into their subconscious and be retrieved later in life when they needed it.

I shared that if they were ever really sad they could ask themselves, When was the last time I ate? What did I eat? Was it sugary? Have I had any protein?

Before I could go on, Adrian—my seven-year-old—interrupted me.

Actually, first you should be sure you have had something to drink—drinking is more important than eating. 

Touché.

He was right. Hydration is critical, so we agreed questions about both eating and drinking would be helpful.

Jonah was waiting his turn to speak but I could see he wanted to jump into the conversation.

Together we all quickly went to the question of rest.

Eat. Drink. Sleep.

Have I slept? Have I been getting enough sleep for a few days?

 It was clear to us all that sleeping was an important component in feeling good.

This is where I thought it got interesting.

My first impulse when I posed the question was to point out the connection between how we treat our bodies and how we feel in our emotional state.

Jonah took the inner-reflection to another level and led us into a deeper discussion than I had intended.

He proposed that we ask ourselves, have I been kind?

This sort of blew me away.

Wow. Yes. How we treat others affects our well-being. Have I helped anyone recently?

Next, I began thinking about how exercise contributes to the production of endorphins and well-being when Jonah said we should ask ourselves the question, have I been outside?

We all got excited about our collective need for access to fresh-air, sunshine and natural beauty in order to feel grounded.

Jonah said that he thought of being outside and exercise as the same and then he said, what about asking whether you have been learning anything new?

This was something I hadn’t thought of and agreed contributes to a sense of purpose.

They had taken my one question and run with it.

Suddenly I thought about a practice I had shared with Jonah and Adrian a long time ago that has been an integral part of our daily connection.

I wondered if they would remember as I began hinting, there is one more thing that you can check-in on if you are feeling really, really sad.

Jonah was sitting to my left at the head of the table.

He sat back in his chair—slightly away—thinking.

Adrian was across from me on his knees on his chair—elbows propped up on the table, hands at his chin.

His hazel eyes sparkled searching for the answer—wanting so-much to be first.

They were both on the verge of getting it when Adrian shouted out, hugs!

Yes, if you are feeling really, really sad you should make sure you have had a hug from someone you love!

As the boys ran back out to play—dropping their dinner-dishes loudly into the sink, silverware clanking—I thought about how hard it can be to reach out to others—even those we love—when we are struggling.

I thought about how above all of the things we discussed, this can be the most critical for remembering who we are—maybe especially, for boys and men.

I thought about what it means to have access to all of these things for both children and adults—clean food and water, a present and nurturing family, a safe place to sleep and play.

I hoped that our discussion might somehow be planting seeds that would blossom into my two sons never feeling so alone that they think they have to go-it-alone.

There is a soft, white and blue floral rug on the floor in front of our kitchen sink.

At the baseboard level there is a brown heating vent that can be turned on to boost heat so that on frigid, winter mornings in Maine when I am standing at the sink, the heater will blow a powerful rush of warm air keeping my feet toasty.

When my cat Autumn was in her last days I would sit there on that gentle surface in front of the heater with her in my lap warming us both.

I have eaten food there—like I’m having a little picnic, my back against the vent.

I have called the boys there at times—when their play has made our living room feel more like a gymnasium or boxing ring than a home—so we can have a meeting of the minds on a padded surface.

This morning I asked Adrian for a hug before he left for camp and he came over to me where I was standing on the rug loading dishes into the dishwasher. He rarely hugs me in the typical way and instead wraps his entire body around one of my legs and begins sort-of hanging on me like I’m a tree branch.

This morning was no exception.

I came down onto my knees to be at his level and to be more-steady so he wouldn’t pull me over. We hugged—there on the rug—and he remembered our conversation from before.

The sun has burst forth and hid behind the low-draping clouds again and again since I arrived here in this breezy place.

A flurry of spiders has visited me at the covered picnic table including one who was bright-yellow with long legs and several who were thicker, black and compact—one finding its way to the brim of my hat.

It turned out to be a spidery place.

Before packing up my things, I left it all at the table and walked barefoot across the field—a wide open expanse of space, expanding-the-spaces-in-me.

The ground was lush with mushrooms and clover—the cool damp soil, soaking my feet.

I counted six more robins scattered across the field in two’s, their work made easier by the soft ground. Each time I got near to a pair they would take flight—showing off a burst of burnt-orange feathers tucked between grey.

The clouds were spread out across the pale-blue sky. I tipped my head back and upward taking in the space and the air—damp and fragrant with the sweet smell of summer.

 

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“Women hold up half the sky.” —Mao Zedong

Occasionally I cross paths with a woman who is lovely in every way. She is warm and thoughtful and present. She takes the time to offer compliments and affirmations to others. She is gifted in her work. Her heart is clearly good. She is also externally very beautiful. Her skin literally glows and she seems to grow more youthful with the passage of time. Her eyes are bright and alive. I recently learned that she views herself through a very different lens. She questions her own good judgement. She thinks that she is old. She is too hard on herself. I was so very disheartened to hear this—not because she is disappointing me but because I could write this same story of any number of other women that I know. Another woman—a friend—who is also so very lovely in many ways expressed to me that she was a “poor communicator” because she had unknowingly organized an event that overlapped with another event. Her intentions were so good, the gathering was successful and yet she came away berating herself. This is a woman who could have been patting herself on the back for her willingness to be in the arena and instead she experienced herself as flawed. I can only hope that my words in response to her could shine a light instead on her goodness, her willingness to help, her positive intention.

Recently I scheduled meetings with both of my children’s teachers for their seasonal conferences. I thought that I had arranged for them to fall on the same day but upon arrival for the first meeting, I realized it was actually scheduled to take place the following day. The warm and forgiving teacher whisked us into the classroom for a quick overview in the few minutes she had between her actual meetings and kindly offered us an opportunity to reschedule. She in no way expressed judgement, however, it was interesting to travel around my own consciousness and witness the way in which I responded to myself. I was not as harsh as I might have been in the past and yet I could not help but notice how delicate the fabric of my being can be in the face of—even non-existent—reproach.

I have been gifted with a loyal companion when I write. Like the season she was named for, “Autumn” is a Calico with black, white and orange markings. She lies next to me sleeping as I attempt to convey the story of my life, waking to purr occasionally and rolling a little onto her back. She has one little snaggletooth and a black marking on her forehead that looks as if someone might have picked her up there by her scruff leaving a thumb and forefinger print when dipping her into a bucket of color. She has seen it all. She was with me in my tiny West Village apartment in New York City on September 11th—still tiny then. I remember she liked to put her head up near the light in a little lamp I had and my sister always marveled at how she seemed to be, “seeking the light.” I remember being afraid to leave her there in the apartment when I traveled up to be with friends on the Upper West Side—not knowing if there was more to come after the towers came down. She was my witness as I navigated, in those years, relationships and jobs and my unfolding creative self. I adopted  another cat who tormented her and left her in his very big shadow for a number of years. She moved with me into two other apartments and watched on as I got married and later found out I was pregnant. She was there when I experienced a miscarriage two days before an intricately planned trip to Spain. She was there as my belly grew again and later when we brought Jonah home just after Christmas. She endured another move—this time to Maine where she could peer out numerous windows, fixating on the many birds that come into our yard. And then she greeted another wiggly baby, Adrian, with his loud cries and contagious laughter. She has witnessed me in every single possible state of emotion and circumstance under the sun and still she is here, eager to rub her head against mine and blink her eyes lovingly in my direction.

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