On Grace and Gas Money

When I was a teenager who didn’t want to get out of bed for my early-morning newspaper route, my newly single mother took it over and delivered hundreds of newspapers before she headed off to work. She told me the “extra” money came in handy to supplement her meager pay.

It was hardly extra. I think she had it targeted to pay for milk.

I didn’t recognize (or appreciate) it then, but she was an incredible budgeter and a loyal worker and she had financial discipline that kept us from sinking in times that could have delivered us to the doors of a homeless shelter.

She kept — and still keeps — a very careful budget and a ledger of gas purchases and resulting mileage per gallon. When there was nowhere else to cut, she restricted driving. I didn’t understand then just how tight things were, but when she charged me for gas to drive me to the mall, I happily paid her 50 cents.

1981budget

During that time, she did what she had to do to make ends meet.

But she was unresolved inside, I have come to learn, about the circumstances that brought us to the financial tightrope. I suspect that you know that kind of unresolved — ANGRY unresolved — bearing the burden and doing what you have to do, all the while lacking internal grace. It’s a special kind of spiritual and psychological torture.

It was also during that time that she found some solace in returning — with fervor — to the Catholic Church and to her previously abandoned practice of faith. I didn’t understand what that was all about then, but I know now that she was opening to spiritual support that would bring her some peace and usher her through the next stages.

She resigned from her job as a college professor — the one she had worked so very hard for — because she couldn’t simultaneously tend to the emphasis on research over teaching — and to her own emotional needs. She chose to invest herself in healing some very old but newly surfaced emotional wounds while she did the hardest work of her life — and meanwhile took whatever jobs she could find that not-quite-paid-the-bills.

So she was thrilled a few years later when she got a full-time job at the local Catholic Church organizing the education program. It combined her love of teaching and her faith — and a regular paycheck to boot. She threw herself into it with abandon. And then 11 years later, she was let go with no notice and no severance, and she was crushed.

She came to visit me once a week during her jobless days, which stretched well into months and then into more than a year. I happily slipped her $20 for gas when she visited — but it wasn’t as easy for her to ask me for gas money as it had been when she drove me to the mall almost 30 years earlier.

When she finally got a job at a Catholic seminary as Director of the Mass Association, I affectionately dubbed her “Boss of the Mass Cards.” It was a fitting title and a fitting role, for ever since she had gone back to church, there was not one special occasion or time of need that we didn’t get a mass card along with a loving note or gift.

ongraceandgasmoneymasscard

She more than embraced the job that she thought would deliver her to retirement at 70 (which had been VERY carefully planned and budgeted), and for eight years she ran the department like she ran our meager budget. She sees now that perfectionism drove some of that dedication, as if the department would cease to exist without her tireless hours and labored dedication. And I now see where I learned some of my own perfectionist tendencies.

Things were off in the working environment there, though. It was less than desirable, and morale was accordingly low. Definitely no atta girls for all that extra work. No raises. No reviews. Part time assistants taken away. There is more to it than that, but we don’t need to go there. She stuck it out because she was happy to have a job — and because she loved her co-workers.

A couple of years ago, she was called into the head priest’s office and informed that she was going to be laid off because the mass association was in the red financially. She ran the numbers and showed them that, in fact, it was making money. And the powers that be never said another word, so she just kept right on showing up at work.

Then eight months before she turned 70, she was again called into Father’s office, and she was again told that she was laid off, but there was no pink slip and no termination date. She accepted the news, though she was sad and scared for financial reasons; her retirement plan was tight enough if she retired at 70. Father seemed relieved and told her that he had not been looking forward to that discussion. You can’t imagine that laying off a 69-year old hard-working, faith-filled woman would be easy.

When she followed up to get her termination date and pink slip, she was told that she hadn’t been laid off but that she had in fact resigned, which of course she hadn’t.

I imagine my poor mother’s head spinning in the priest’s office, and not because of an exorcism.

Somehow she got that sorted out, and then she was told that she wasn’t eligible for unemployment AND social security. She did some research and went back and told him that she was.

My brother offered to bring in a lawyer. She thought and prayed about it and decided for a brief moment to explore that avenue because it felt so unfair.

She paused, though, and acknowledged to herself and to God that she was scared and emotionally triggered. The woman who used to blare Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive had been internally blaring — in that familiar, angry, unresolved way — the same tune. She did not want to be poor again, to not know where she would find money for gas. Or food for that matter.

We talked one afternoon about trust, and about how hard it can be to step gracefully into the unknown, especially when we touch old wounds and activate raw, primal fears. It is so very hard to sit with those primal fears, to be brought back to past pain and perceived injustice.

Soon she knew that what she wanted was peace and nothing more than a pink slip so she could (hopefully) supplement the retirement shortfall with unemployment insurance. She got her pink slip, and in her characteristic, hard-working style, she stayed through the end of the month to balance the books, organize the stacks of unused mass cards, and write the letter that Father would sign informing supporters of the mass association’s closing. (I will note here that the department did cease to exist without her!)

Co-workers who planned a lunch party for her were surprised when she invited Father, even though she expected he wouldn’t show. But he did — and so did twice as many people who ever showed up for one of their office gatherings.

While talking to her at the luncheon, he commented on how exceptional the restaurant was.

But what she commented on to Father — and to every single one of her co-workers — was the goodness that she saw in them and exactly how each one had touched her life. There was not a dry eye in the restaurant that afternoon.

I think it’s safe to say that she is resolved. And that she is discovering that she has again been being spiritually ushered — with grace and its resulting freedom — into her next stages.

She is loving retirement so far. And still paying for her own gas. 😉

*****

It’s a personal paradox that we must feel and acknowledge the very feelings we don’t want to feel. The fear. The anger. The resentment. The sadness. And whatever else is there.

When we finally surrender and stop trying to do it all and maybe even ask for a little bit of help, we invite grace into our lives. We allow ourselves to acknowledge and feel our painful, primal feelings, and it is then that grace has a way of showing up.

And grace, by its very nature, can’t be contained. It was present in the restaurant that afternoon, and its ripples have surely moved into the souls of her former co-workers at the restaurant that afternoon — and then through them and out into the world of those who were not.

My momma reminds us that the work we do to welcome grace into our lives is not easy, but that it matters more than we may ever know.

Yarrow

Yarrow

“My name is Yarrow,” she says when I finally meet her. It is the most beautiful name I have ever heard.

She is quiet and a bit reserved, but gentle and lovely. She is the owner of a house we rented in the rainforest along the rugged Oregon coast. She is staying with her husband in an apartment next door, but i haven’t seen her coming and going.

I know immediately that it is she who has tended and loved the magical gardens that bless this space. It is a full-time job for sure, one that she has taken a break from due to complications from Lyme disease and a long bout with depression, I later learn.

I recognize her as a kindred spirit, someone who has suffered and struggled. It is her books I’ve perused on the bookshelf downstairs — books on healing, on herbs, on depression and anxiety, on consciousness, on the connection of the soul to the mind and body. She has done a lot of inner work, I think.

She apologizes for the gardens. I tell her that all I see is magic. I tell her also that her house is a gift, and that the energy I feel is the love that went into creating their sacred space. She gets the shivers and tells me so. I feel tears in my eyes.

I don’t see her again during the week (despite wanting to), but I see her husband Eric, who tends the goats and chickens in the backyard before and after work.

He shares that they raised and home-schooled their four children in a one-room house in the deep wilderness of Oregon. And then in 2005, they began creating this home and gardens themselves, starting with just a well. They are modern-day pioneers.

He tells me that they are renting the house to help pay her medical bills, and that it is a blessing to them that we are there.

I pause and collect myself, and then I tell him that she has the most beautiful name I’ve ever heard. Yarrow is wild and lovely and grows where it wishes along the side of the road — and it reminds me of my childhood.

He tells me that she picked the name herself. They were rafting along a river one day when she looked up at some yarrow and said, “I think I’ll change my name.”

The night before our departure, I tell him that I wish I’d gotten to chat with her more, and he says he wishes she was braver with others. I tell him that I think she is indeed brave — finding her way through depression and Lyme Disease. I also tell him that I recognize his incredible support and the burden that he bears — and I tell him that it matters. I know so.

He tells me that it is a lot to bear and that sometimes he throws his arms up in the sky and says, “WHAT MORE DO YOU WANT FROM ME!?”

For a brief moment, I see wetness in his eyes. Then he tells me that he promised her they’d watch a movie together tonight, and he heads off to be with her.

Today, Jay and I are walking along past some roadside yarrow, and he says, “I think that’s something you would do: change your name.”

I tell him that I would be very likely to choose the name Yarrow.

***

With healing love for Yarrow — and deep gratitude and blessings to Eric and to Jay Ward, and to all of the people who love and support those who experience depression and other illness.

Peace Sign Paul

P-Sign Paul
P-Sign Paul

Paul was clearly involved in his process of creating an enormous peace sign in the sand at Lighthouse Beach on a recent Santa Cruz morning.

The magnitude of his work, the symmetry, his Zen-like focus and involvement in his effort, the fact that his creations are so temporary – all of these things drew me to him.

I approached him cautiously with my dogs on a leash. He was friendly and willing to chat as he worked, but he looked down at my leashed dogs and said, “I think they want to run and play.”

“I don’t want them to run through your work,” I replied.

“Well, that’s all part of it,” he said. “Within an hour or two, it will look nasty.”

I let the dogs off the leash and he threw the ball for them, then resumed working. Immediately, Roxy ran right through his creation. I shuddered a little bit. He laughed and said cheerfully, “What’s more priceless than that?”

"That's all part of it."
“That’s all part of it.”

***

His unattached response reminds me that everything we create is only temporary and subject to change. He has invested fully in what he is doing in the moment, but he has let go of the outcome and the need for it to be perfect or stay perfect. Still, I am impressed with the symmetry of the design in front of me, so I say so.

“It’s not perfect, but that’s okay,” he responded brightly.

I am reminded that we are not perfect either, but we are okay.

We are all works in progress. Let’s just stay fully invested in what we’re doing — what matters to us in the moment — and let go of the outcome.

***

What inspired you to begin these creations?

I started in 2004 as a political statement, a response to the Iraq war. I’ve always been anti-war. I had already lived through the Vietnam War when I was in college.

About the same time, I was laid off from my job in the Theater Department at UCSC. I had a lot of time on my hands. So I would go down to the beach and little by little, I refined what I was doing.

What does it do for you?

It is like a little meditation. It’s a centering thing.

I always meet nice people. Somebody’s always got an idea they want to share. 

I love symbols. I’ve always loved art. And if  I make a mistake in the sand, nobody knows.

I also look at it as an educational sentiment. I teach people about the peace sign and what it means.

The peace sign stands for nuclear disarmament. ND. It was created in England in 1958; they were against atomic bombs. The symbol made its way to the U.S. and represented the anti-war movement.

"The peace sign stands for nuclear disarmament."

 

***

Tell me about the people you meet.

One of my favorite stories is when three high school aged girls approached me and commented about my creation. They oohed and aahed and then one of them said, “the cool thing is that the tide will come in and take the message all over the world.”

***

Perhaps the things we invest ourselves in — even those we think are temporary — have the capacity to reach others in ways we don’t usually imagine.

"It's not perfect, but it's okay."
“It’s not perfect, but that’s okay.”

Who Is Calling, Please?

“Your posts delve deep within my spirit to the wellspring of tears. You not only touch my soul, you lift me to a desire of being a more true person.”

True, it was my beloved Aunt Donna who posted this comment on these very pages.

But nonetheless, her words urged me to keep pushing through the itchy, uncomfortable space of not knowing exactly what I’m creating on these pages while at the same time knowing I can’t ignore “it” — the feeling of being called to keep at the process of creating.

Well, I can ignore it – for a little while anyway. I know this because I have ignored it. A lot, actually.

But it’s one of those things that keeps coming around again – the desire to create, to write about my process as I continually work to figure out how to be a more true person myself — and maybe, just maybe, inspire even one person to want to do that too. Even if it is my beloved Aunt Donna. Especially if it is my beloved Aunt Donna.

If there’s anything I’ve learned in life, it’s that things that keep coming around again won’t stop reappearing until we’ve finally surrendered to them and embraced them wholeheartedly – until we’ve allowed them to flow through us and organically unfold as we honestly explore them and invest ourselves in them.

“No matter how slow the film, Spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer it has chosen.” – Minor White

When we finally surrender wholeheartedly, we usually realize it took far more energy to resist the call multiple times than to answer it wholeheartedly on the first or fourth or tenth ring. Then, as we relax into and embrace the process, we might even begin to allow for the idea that those persistent callers that push us to create again and again – the ones with the patience of a saint – actually bring out our true gifts, guiding us toward a feeling of fulfillment.

So why do we resist the call, often repeatedly? Why have we tried to opt out of those persistent callers?

Because to answer them and act on them is to acknowledge that we are capable of offering something to the world. And deep down, we all question our inherent worth.

You see, we’re often on the other line with a curiously more alluring caller, one we seem to know intimately despite the awful things it has to say. That caller says things like:

  • “Who would want to read your writing?”
  • “You will never make any money at this, so why bother?”
  • “Just quit now.”
  •  “You are not enough; this is not enough.”
  • “It’s not perfect, so if you dare go forward, the whole world will know how imperfect you are.”

But THAT caller is the con-man. THAT caller is a liar. That caller has no conscience.

When we realize this, we might be tempted never to answer that call again. And we can try that, but I can tell you from experience that this caller doesn’t like to be ignored either.

So I suggest that we all go ahead and pick up that call — because that caller is also very persistent. Listen to the schpeel as long as you can stomach it. And whenever you feel like you’ve listened to the lies long enough, decline as you would a telemarketer. You can also ask to be put on the Do Not Call List, but please understand that is only a temporary list.

We don’t need to spend a lot of time on the line or buy what they’re selling. That caller simply needs to be acknowledged, to have a chance to give their schpeel — and then sent back to Call Center Hell. Think of it like this…they are paid for how many calls they make, not for how many people buy their propaganda. We don’t need to buy into the shit ideas about ourselves that they’re mercilessly trying to hock.

Once we even pick up the line, the negative callers quiet down for a while. You can trust that they’ll be back, but you’ll get practice and you’ll know how to deal with them. Answer, listen, decline…

And then get back to the work inspired by the other call, the one that reminds you that you have inherent worth, the one that urges you simply to start writing or painting or taking photographs or surfing or playing an instrument or traveling or doing yoga or training for a marathon or volunteering at the homeless shelter or creating a baby or a nonprofit or your next career.

Let’s stay on the line with the caller that guides us to embrace our true gifts and offer them to the world — or even just to my Aunt Donna.

Home for the Holidays

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I do not recall the exact time of my first visit to Arlington National Cemetery, but it has always triggered powerful emotions. It was likely as a child alongside my own grandfather when I visited him in the D.C. area. It was well before I ever imagined that I might someday have a son – one who would choose to serve in the military even.

Throughout my life, I have found my way back to Arlington National Cemetery on several occasions — as a tourist when I was a child and then again with my own children, as my grandfather’s granddaughter on a frozen January day, and then alongside my husband on a steamy July day as we followed his grandfather to his final resting place in a horse-drawn caisson.

To take in the endless rows of uniform white graves that stand in perfect symmetry and extend far beyond your field of vision is to know reverence, awe, honor, respect and a holy presence. It is to sense sacrifice, to feel loss, to collectively remember and internally salute.

An email announced that a wreath had been donated to be laid on a grave at Arlington National Cemetery in honor of my son’s current military service. I paused to catch my breath. All I could think, in my inner stillness after reading the email, was that this gift hit home this year. It is the first year my son is in the Air Force, and it has activated something in me –  an even deeper knowing of what honor, respect, commitment and sacrifice are.

If I am to be completely honest, it has also activated a primal fear. Visiting Arlington with my child is one thing; the thought of visiting my child at Arlington unfathomable. To write these words is to openly acknowledge that as a possibility.

Military service comes hand-in-hand with commitment and sacrifice. All those who lie at Arlington gave of their lives. Whether they died young in service to our country or lived their lives out, the price point to enter Arlington – or any military cemetery — is great personal sacrifice.

I closed my eyes and imagined the rows and rows of uniform white graves adorned with holiday wreaths. Somehow, the image began to reveal a host of very personal stories of sacrifice. It prodded me to remember the heroes who came home far too young, those who served long and storied military careers, the wives who accompanied their husbands on their final military moves, and all those who have been left behind.

Moved to visit the Wreaths Across America website, I read a story of a mother whose son had recently been buried at Arlington. Deep in her grief that holiday season, she showed up to find a wreath on her son’s grave — green, the color of life – a bit of salve for her broken heart. Someone else had remembered.

For this mother, for her son, for my grandparents, for all who currently serve, and for all who have sacrificed of their lives and loved ones – whether they lie at Arlington or elsewhere — it is my holiday hope that you know that we collectively remember.

*****

Volunteers will lay wreaths at Arlington National Cemetery this Saturday, December 13. The goal is to have a wreath for every grave this year. If you wish to give a holiday gift of remembrance and sponsor a wreath, please do so by midnight December 12.  The founder is matching every donation at this point to try to reach the goal.  Wreaths Across America

Update: The goal has been reached. This is the first year that all graves will have a wreath.

Hawk: A Conscious Decision

“I made a conscious decision a number of years ago to treat everybody that I meet the same way, with respect and dignity as a human being.

Before that, I was one of the biggest assholes you ever would have wanted to meet.”

 *****

When was the turning point that you made your conscious decision?

That’s easy. The turning point happened when the judge gave me 20 years. That was instead of life without the possibility of parole.

Did that decision change your life?

It made my life more difficult. I had to gain tolerance. I didn’t have tolerance.

I don’t break the law anymore. I don’t want to break the law. 

I like being able to wake up every morning and make myself a cup of coffee and step outside and watch the sun come up. I watch the sun come up every single day. I didn’t see the sun come up for more years than you want to think about. Now I watch the sun come up every single day. Before, I was drinking instant coffee or garbage coffee. Now I drink some of the best coffee in Santa Cruz.

Is it okay if I take your picture?

No.

I’ve got to get back and fix some leaks in my RV.

*****

Ed: Community, Belonging, Manual Labor

Ed volunteers at the Homeless Garden.
Ed reflects on his work at the Homeless Garden Project.

Ed, a volunteer at the Homeless Garden Project in Santa Cruz, quietly worked weeding and digging in the many rows of plants on a recent Sunday. A pensive and hard-working twenty-something, he’s been volunteering for a couple of months.

What brought you here?

Technically speaking, I was hiking and I got a ticket. So it’s community service. I was hiking on an ecological preserve with my girlfriend.

Are you serious?

It was 500 dollars or 50 hours. There was no question what I would do. I found this place, which is fantastic, but I’m going to keep coming here even afterward. I really like it. I just live down the road.

What has the volunteering done for you? Clearly it’s given you something.

I work at a speech pathology clinic with kids and some adults who have cognitive delays, and it’s a fulfilling job. But there’s something about this setting — coming out here and really working. That’s a really good feeling. I grew up doing this kind of stuff with my grandfather. I like doing it.

Is it that you’re working in the Earth?

I think its’ a combination of things. The people here are very positive. Positive Mental Attitude. Everyone here wants to be here. I have friends who work at Google and Tesla and they’re miserable and all they can talk about is quitting. That’s no way to live.

It sounds like your regular job is fulfilling on a human level.

This is fulfilling on a manual labor level. I like that kind of work.

What did you do when you worked with your grandfather?

He owns a ranch in Mendocino County. He used to have 60-70 bulls and cows and we used to chop wood; we’d take the backhoe. He lives on 500 acres, and we’d cut the whole property.

And you liked doing it?

Oh yeah. It’s nice.

How old were you?

I started going up there consistently when I was 11.

It wasn’t just the work, was it?

No. I guess you’re right. Helping out. Family. Community. A sense of belonging.

I think that’s what this is too. It’s a community. There are so many people that go to work; they’re not close to anyone at work, then they watch TV and they go to bed and there’s no sense of community in their lives. We’ve really lost that. You have to make a point, to go out of your way, to create community.

It used to be long ago that we lived in community and depended on each other. That’s another reason I’ll come back. This is a real community. It’s an instant family when you come to the garden project, no matter who you are.

Think about it — sports teams, gangs, clubs. People are just looking for a connection, a sense of belonging.

Is it significant to you, beyond the manual labor, that this nonprofit is aimed at helping homeless people?

That has definitely played in. But It became that after the fact, almost. I was under the impression that it was just a garden. I got here and learned it was job training transition. I found myself working alongside people everyday who are going through some really intense times and working with them and talking to them and learning from them.

Ed weeding Homeless Garden
“You have to make a point, to go out of your way, to create community.”

 

IMG_0114
Ed loves working in the dirt alongside homeless people who are “going through some really intense times” and learning from them.

 

Don: Joy Gardener, Weekend Guy, Bodhi?

don
“Gardening is my meditation and my medication.” – Don

“What’s the main crop we grow on our farm?” Don asks me at the Homeless Garden Project in Santa Cruz, California on a recent Sunday afternoon.

“Kale?” I guess.

“No, it’s JOY,” he exclaims, umm, joyfully. “It’s our signature crop. You can look it up!”

“YOU GROW JOY!!! Can I see the joy please? Where is the sign for it?” I ask, playing along.

“It’s right HERE!!” (He enthusiastically directs both of his hands at his heart.) “Just bring it in. Just allow it.”

“Is that the secret?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says.

“Don’t try too hard. Just allow it. Open up, just expand your heart, just let it roll in.”

don joyful heart
The JOY is right HERE!! Don’t try too hard. Just allow it. Open up, just expand your heart, just let it roll in!

*****

“What’s your official title here at the Homeless Garden?” I ask.

Don’s lips turn up with just a hint of mischief, but he replies humbly, nonchalantly even, “Weekend Guy.”

IMG_0105
Weekend Guy

I am certain he has an actual title, but I accept his response. After spending more than two hours with this affable and enlightened lifelong gardener, I appreciate the modesty and slight mischievousness of his deferral.

But Ed, a twenty-something volunteer who has discovered the Homeless Garden – and more of himself – while serving community service hours for the formidable offense of hiking on an ecological preserve, pipes in to gently but assuredly correct him.

“He’s a bodhi. Don’s the real deal. A genuine boddhisatva.”

There is palpable respect in Ed’s voice. Other volunteers nod their heads affirmingly, almost reverently. I find myself doing the same thing.

“Bodhisattvas are great beings who walk on this Earth and embody compassion and wisdom…A bodhisattva is someone who has the energy of understanding, of love, and also the energy of action.” –The Energy of Prayer, Thich Nhat Hanh

*****

Whatever his title, Don spouts life wisdom and exudes passion as he shows me around the Homeless Garden, a community gathering place where vegetables and flowers – and a whole lot more — are grown by staff and volunteers, both folks who return to “stick homes” after work and those who do not.

The crops are available for purchase – locals can wander the colorful gardens and snip fresh vegetables and flowers directly from the plants most days. The flowers are also dried and fashioned by the trainees into dried flower wreaths, wall hangings, and teas that are available for purchase at their downtown Santa Cruz storefront.

Locals can snip their own organic vegetables.
Locals can snip their own organic vegetables.

 

The flower shed at the Homeless Garden
The flower shed at the Homeless Garden Project

Don found more than a home when he moved from Connecticut to Santa Cruz five years ago so he could garden year-round. He happened to rent an apartment overlooking the Homeless Garden while he was searching for a house.

don apartment with farm
Don’s apartment building overlooks the Homeless Garden.

I wanted to rent a house with a garden. I couldn’t find a house with a garden that I could afford. Instead I found an apartment with a farm, so it was better than a house and a garden. (He smiles broadly as he gestures from his apartment building to the expanse of the Homeless Garden.) I had worked too much, too long. I’ll be paying social security for fifty years next year!

I note that he gardens seven days a week between the Homeless Garden Project and his own business. But clearly, gardening qualifies as a passion, not work.

What makes you the happiest about being here? Or period.

Gardening. Gardening really is a therapy. I enjoy it. I do it for fun; I do it for free sometimes. I’m a paid staff member here, but the rest of the week, guess what I’m doing? Gardening. I do my gardening business. Just a one-man, one-car, hand tool gardening business. I have customers with rock gardens and roses and hedges.

So you’re a lifelong gardener.

I’m a gardener. Yup. I’m a Joy Gardener!

So I’m down on my knees a lot; I work with the clippers a lot. I cut roses and pull lots of weeds.

This is my meditation and my medication.

I love that.

I’m going to copyright that one. That’s mine. I think.

You are obviously a people person. Do you think that drives you, in addition to the gardening?

Yes, but it’s a balance. I’m very balanced because I work alone as a gardener all week long. But I work with groups of up to 100 people, including students, young people, and our 15 trainees. Everyone has an interest to come and enjoy the garden. I like being in a college town. I like to see young people. I don’t want to be in a retirement community.

Don with UCSC Finance Club volunteers
Don with UCSC Finance Club volunteers

There’s a lot of stuff in this town about fearfulness of the homeless community. I feel completely comfortable. The people who live out here don’t make me nervous or fearful. Listening to their stories is really important. There’s a therapy called listening love. People don’t use it enough. People really do want to tell you their story. As crazy as their story might be, they are just dying to have somebody listen to them. Everybody’s kicked to the curb and ignored; people walk out of their way to go around them. But there are amazingly brilliant people who are sometimes lost in a little vortex in their head – and always something to learn from them.

*****

Don was raised on a dairy farm in Connecticut. He worked for 20 years bottling milk and juice, then spent ten years as manager of shipping and receiving at the milk company in Connecticut.

How did you fill your gardening jones during that time?

Home. All the time, always home gardening. When I was 23, I bought my house and 2 acres in Granby, CT. I had to clear the woods pioneer style to make a ¼ acre garden. I established it from scratch out of the woods. I had that house for thirty years. But that predated working at the dairy by seven years or so.

What do you think drove your love for gardening? Was it growing up on a dairy farm?

No, when I was about 20, I cleaned the barn out of all the back issues of Organic Gardening, so I saved those. So all of their publications always got me interested.

What action did you take?

I put a backpack on and went to Greece. I saw real old style gardening with donkeys and mules. I saw grapes and beans in the field and fig trees all growing in the Mediterranean climate. Seeing that kind of stuff was exciting to me. I had always read about it. Oh, National Geographic was my other staple magazine. Between Organic Gardening and National Geographic, I wanted to travel and garden.

When you came back from Greece, what did you do?

I put in a garden that was MY kitchen garden. I grew the garden that was the diet that I wanted to eat and cook for. I like ratatouille. So I’m going to have my eggplant and my peppers and my tomatoes and basil. I love eggplant. I like the big black purple eggplant — sliced and sautéed in crumbs. I use pecorino cheese and olive oil and stack them up. I like to garden because I like to cook.

What would happen if you stopped gardening?

Laughter. I would lock myself in the apartment with my beautiful fiancée.

I’m a natural born husband, and I just very recently, late in life, found my dream girl. We’re contemporaries. I like having a contemporary by my side because we have the same memory of history. We have a lot to talk about. She’s a master gardener…a singer in the style of Ella Fitzgerald…and she’s a real political activist.

Where did you find her?

A storm blew her rose trellis over. A mutual friend referred me to fix her trellis. I fixed her roses. I went back later to repair a door in her rental. It was all professional in the beginning. Then two years went by and then now…

What does it mean to be a natural born husband?

I love being settled down and having a constant companion. Not The Constant Gardener…a constant companion. (Laughter.) That’s another story. He was burying people in the backyard.

Anyway, it means having a companion, to take care of them, to be with them all the time, to share everything together.

But you’re not together right now.

I know. It’s not 24/7. But I’d be happy if it was. When we go on vacations together, it is. We just got back from a New England/French Canadian tour. I’m ecstatic because I got down on my knees and proposed at Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré in Quebec. In 1647, my first ancestor from Normandy went there and he gave his farm to the church to build a church on it dedicated to the patron saint of Quebec. That’s the Lessard family farm. Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré is a basilica where people go to be healed; about a million people a year go on pilgrimages there.

Congratulations! Your engagement is brand new! 

Yes, but from the first time we spent together alone, it took me about 4 days to make up my mind to ask her.

What do you think about how things have come together in your life?

I don’t know if there are any mystical things that brought it all together. It happened. It did get brought together — mysteriously. 

It was random. No, not random. Like I said, you allow.

If you open up to allow, then you see when the opportunities come when things fall together. If you’re too busy doing other stuff, you don’t notice. The things all happen, but you miss it. I’m ready. I’m ready to adapt. I’m ready to get that whatever happens, happens.

*****

To me, Don seems worthy of any of the titles that have been tossed about. Weekend Guy, Joy Gardener, Bodhi…

*****

“In the soil of our urban farm and garden, people find the tools they need to build a home in the world.” – The mission of the Homeless Garden Project.

 

 

Dirty Laundry

Laundry seems so irrelevant these days. And for me, that is a paradigm shift of the most unimaginable kind.

For years, laundry has equaled love to me. Or provided a focus for an obsession. Whatever. It meant love to me. And total transformation.

It drove my husband — and the electric and water companies — nearly insane. No one could not drop a sock on the floor without it immediately ending up in my Magical Transformation Center.

The clothes were transformed. Dirty to clean. Just like that!

I simply took dirty clothes, holy articles that draped our bodies, and transformed them into clean ones by throwing them in a machine that thrashed them about, removed the dirt of their daily doings, and infused them with lavender and love.

It was a MIRACLE!!!

I was beyond thrilled when I got a top loading washer with a glass top — I could actually witness the dirty clothes in the agitator as they were being transformed into clean garments worthy of draping the bodies of those I loved. I spent more than a few hours watching those clothes getting clean. That was about as meditative as I was in those days.

It was not as if I was all Zen about the laundry, mind you. There were times when I got pretty damn pissy about it. Like when I’d return piles of laundry to my teenage sons, only to find them strewn about their floors, used to mop up overflowing toilets…

And I get it that I should NOT have been doing my teenage sons’ laundry. I get it. Now I do. Sorry, world. I screwed that one up. Sorry, future girlfriends and wives. Sorry, boys. Sorry, honey. Sorry, me.

Something shifted in me. Years of searching, while doing not-necessarily-Zen laundry, were filled with inner turmoil that the transformation of dirty clothes ultimately could not quell. No matter how many loads of laundry I did. No matter that I made my own Earth-friendly, non-toxic laundry soap. No matter how much lavender and love with which I infused those holy articles of clothing. No matter how much I kidded myself about the legitimacy of laundry-doing.

I was focused on what everyone else was doing in the world, on making sure their clothes were clean. And I lost myself in my own and other peoples’ dirty laundry.

It was me that needed to be thrown in those magical machines. WAY MORE THAN THE CLOTHES! But the clothes provided a distraction. A “legitimate” distraction. The laundry needs to be done, after all…and once the laundry is done, THEN I can start on what I’m really supposed to be doing in life. But the thing is that the laundry is never truly done…

When I FINALLY started getting quiet to myself and it was revealed to me that I am supposed to be listening deeply to my own and other people’s stories and writing about them regularly — without censorship or concern for the validity or legitimacy of the output — something CRAZY happened.

The literal laundry piled up. And I couldn’t care any less.

Because I NEED to be out there collecting stories. And writing them. And capturing and writing my own stories. Like this one.

I can look back now, as if peering through the glass top of the washing machine, and see that the cycle of my own cleansing has been a lengthy one. Perhaps I was in the agitator. Perhaps it was a necessity, a prewash cycle to the meditative stillness that is ultimately my own non-toxic cleansing powder.

I am sure there will be more “life laundry” to do. But from now on, I’m jumping in the super quiet, super still machine first.

***

As happens with synchronicity, I’d been tossing about this laundry essay in my head for about a week, when I happened upon my horoscope from Good Times (a local Santa Cruz publication).

Astronauts on the International Space Station never wash their underwear. They don’t have enough water at their disposal to waste on a luxury like that. Instead, they fling the dirty laundry out into space. As it falls to Earth, it burns up in the atmosphere. I wish you had an amenity like that right now. In fact, I wish you had a host of amenities like that. If there was ever a time when you should be liberated from having to wash your underwear, make your bed, sweep the floor, and do the dishes, it would be now. Why? Because there are much better ways to spend your time. You’ve got sacred quests to embark on, heroic adventures to accomplish, historical turning points to initiate.

Damn straight.

I’m hucking my dirty underwear right out into the atmosphere.

Neighbors, beware.

Synchronicity and Unopened Doors

I am a big believer in synchronicity. Or the Rule of No Coincidences. Or Divinity at work. Or the Universe conspiring to assist us once we put our intentions out there. When I truly pay attention to seeming coincidences, they speak volumes to me. It is as if they are there to guide me. And you too.

Yesterday morning, I was pondering what to write about. Then I opened my email and found this gem of a letter, which I share below. It is what inspired me to write yesterday’s post, Searching for Keys on the Sea of Grace.

Dear Lara,

Last night it took me hours to fall asleep. During those hours I came to think about you. I thought about when I lost the keys at the beach  and how you stayed cool and helped me try to find them. I felt a certain urge to write you. (Coincidence? I think not…)

I remember that when we started to realize we weren’t going to find the keys, you told me that the whole incident was kind of symbolic to you. I did not understand fully then but I think I understand now. We were desperately trying to find the keys seeing them as the only way out, the only possible solution. But in the end we had to accept the fact that the keys were gone, maybe even meant to be gone, and we had to find another solution. (Could she seriously be just 21 years old?)

It is almost like a metaphor for changing one’s mentality towards life. We tend to be very certain about what is right for us and what is our way. But maybe one is just happier not finding those keys to that certain door – even if one never will know what is behind it – because without the keys you’re given an opportunity to explore all the alternative paths and solutions life is offering you. (She is talking directly to me. And you too, I bet. If only we will let go of our scripts of how our lives should be…)

doorways

My week in Santa Cruz made a great impression on me. Not sure exactly what it was, but my thoughts often wander back to you. It was inspiring meeting you and even though I don’t believe in God, I almost pray that you are putting your own ambitions in the first place and that you are figuring out all that stuff that you were trying to figure out when we met. (Reminder to continue to act on the things that feed my soul.)

I do Bikram Yoga 3-4 times a week. I love it. I – LOVE – IT. Thank you so much for introducing me to this lovely practice. I have come to know my body and my mind on a whole different level during these 2 months that I have been a member of the studio. I know my weaknesses and my strengths, but I am trying not to judge myself. I have almost no pain in my hamstring anymore (you remember I told you about my injury?). I have so much more energy generally. I am much more mindful. My tummy is all of a sudden all flat. My flexibility has improved radically, as well as my balance. And my backward bending!!! I’m like “hello floor!” (She tried a class with me. I had no idea she’d keep at it. Often we do things and have no idea what impact they may have on others. Sometimes we never find out. I don’t think it matters, but it sure feels good.) 

When I am not doing Bikram, working or walking my dog, I am trying to find out how I am supposed to save the world…because I will. Just give me time. (Oh, she will.)

Love,

Erica

***

Erica’s email reminded me of the simplicity of life’s gifts, like the synchronicity of her email arriving when it did. It offered not only writing material, but soulful acknowledgement. It was a reminder of ever-present grace in our lives, an encouragement to keep at the things that feed our very souls, an affirmation of a genuine exchange and connection — all things that truly matter in life, all things worth acknowledging and writing about.

This is my favorite line: But maybe one is just happier not finding those keys to that certain door – even if one never will know what is behind it – because without the keys you’re given an opportunity to explore all the alternative paths and solutions life is offering you.

It is so beautifully written and opportunistic. We can either bemoan the loss of the keys to a certain door or explore what life is offering us. The choice is ours.

Searching for Keys on the Sea of Grace

The ordinary moments are all of them, of course, but the award-winning ordinary moments are those when you take just a moment to breathe and then, for some unknown reason, everything comes together as if you were watching a genius solve a Rubik’s Cube before your very eyes. All of the squares and colors line up, in fast forward, and you are bewildered and amazed and awe-struck; your jaw hangs at your knees as you suddenly understand the world very differently. This, I am convinced, is grace.

When I quiet myself and I pay attention, I find there are a lot of these moments; there is a vast Sea of Grace.

It is those moments when your son’s new girlfriend has lost the only set of keys to his place while the two of you were at the beach and he was at work, and you have spent all afternoon and evening looking for them — up and down the beach, every grain of sand overturned, every step retraced to the best of your collective ability.

Erica

You have looked everywhere you can imagine and prayed to St. Anthony and the sun is going down quickly and you are still unsure if the tide is coming in or going out. A sense of despair comes over you and you allow it to consume you for a moment, as if the train doors have closed and you are on your way to Auschwitz.

Then there is a moment, if you pay attention, when the squares and colors suddenly come together, knocking you flat out of Perspective Haze. You realize you are not on a train headed to Auschwitz. You are on a beach in California as the sun is setting with a young woman of inner and outer beauty who loves your son. You are simply looking for a set of lost keys. Together. That is all.

Even though the sun is almost down and the tide is quickly rising and he is probably standing at the locked door to his place, you are filled with wonder, no longer lost in the Sea of Hopelessness. There are locksmiths, after all. And sunsets. And the feel of the cooling sand under your feet.

Still, you are filled with compassion for her, for the impending phone call, for the stress she is feeling before she makes the dreaded phone call to confess the loss of the keys.

But then you get the gift of witnessing your son hug her and tell her, “They’re just keys” after he has broken into his place. He is just happy to see her after a day at work. And you see it in plain view, the compassion and love in him, the grace that surrounds all of you.

You remember long ago when you lost your wedding ring in the ocean — how the cold wave snuck up and grabbed it off your finger and ran, as if your purse was snatched in New York City. And you remember the utter panic, the desperation, thrashing about in the waves, how you deteriorated emotionally as you crawled on your hands and knees as the tide was definitely coming in. You remember finally giving up the search — cold, hungry, tearful, depleted, exhausted — and calling your husband to confess.

But then you get the gift of his response, “We’re still married, aren’t we?”

This is compassion. This is grace in action. This is the gift of an ordinary day.

The colorful pieces come together and you realize that you are blessed simply to have received such compassion in your life and then witnessed it in your son. And then you realize that you are lucky to have these two men in your life and lucky to see that connection and even luckier still to sit down and be able to write about it. None of the other shit matters.

It’s how we see it and experience it that matters. Grace transforms us.

***

The gifts to me that day as the colors and squares came together were as many as the grains of sand on the beach we overturned. Suddenly I wasn’t worried about the story (his story, my story, this story) coming out perfectly.

And I became aware that I had been squashing the stories inside me, that the stories waiting to be told in my voice are about ordinary days and grace and compassion and hope and love and perspective. I got it that those stories MUST be told, and that the consequence of not doing so is creative, spiritual and emotional constipation — an unsolved Rubik’s Cube.

When this was revealed to me, I felt as if I’d found a Golden Key on a thousand mile stretch of beach. It was a key to my psyche. An answer I’d been searching for all along.

I’d asked EVERYONE else where the key was, I’ve despaired that the key was missing, I’ve blamed St. Anthony and just about anyone else who might possibly be culpable other than me.

Golden KeyBut the key that really mattered, the Golden Key, was the one in my pocket all along.

This particular key only has so much value because I toiled so long to find it, because I was absolutely and completely LOST without it.

Even though it was in my pocket all along, I am just grateful to hold it in my hands and in my heart.

Every day we get the gift of living these stories, of being witnesses to grace and compassion. All we have to do is breathe into each moment and pay attention so the colors and squares come together before our very eyes and then use that Golden Key for what it was meant for.

For me, that is listening to the sounds of the Sea of Grace and sharing my imperfect stories and the stories of those whose lives are intertwined with mine. And for you?

Thilo: Choosing Books

 

Thilo spends most of his days perched atop a cliff overlooking the ocean. He always has at least three books — and just a few other essentials — with him.

IMG_7373

We have chatted before, but sometimes he does not want company, so I stroll by. He turns and looks at me today as I pass by, and his eyes tell me he wants to talk. I could use some company, too, and I am trying to get up the courage to start asking people if I can tell their stories in pictures and words. I sit down in his living room and ask him what he thinks about my idea. He nods in approval and amiably agrees to be my first interview.

The first thing I notice is his book.

IMG_7369

How do you choose your books?

I open them to any page.

Why did you choose this book – A Letter From My Father?

I don’t know. I’m not sure.

Is it any good?

I just got it, so I don’t know. I think it’s kind of weird.

***

IMG_0003

 

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned recently?

I can tell you something. My dad died just recently. He flipped off his bicycle. And if you want to talk about a lesson, it’s that life ends. He would have all the longevity genes going in his favor. He would have been around for the next 30 years. But nope, it’s like one day to the next. It sucks. And it’s not for me either. It’s for my mom.

They were married for almost 60 years, and I always said, “As long as they have each other, as long as they have each other, good.”

But not anymore, not anymore…

So now she’s like, “I don’t know what to do.’”

Now she’s all alone.

How do you feel about that?

Not good.  I feel shitty.  Because it’s me. You’re a good interviewer, by the way.

I gotta tell you, I always said “as long as they have each other, everything is alright, everything is cool.”

It’s not cool anymore.

Are you grieving?

I’m going to say I’m done grieving, but I know I’m wrong with that. Not wrong but whatever. You’ve grieved and you’ll grieve again.

I started by asking you what was the biggest lesson you learned in life, and I think your answer was, “it ends.”

It ends.

Does that change anything about how you want to live your days?

Every day is important.  Every day is like THIS IS IT.  It’s it.  Right? 

Pause.

“Today is a good day.”

Have you changed anything since your father died about how you live your days?

No.

Do you want to?

Yeah.

What would you like to change?

I’d like to have someone special in my life.

***

I just noticed you have a Boston Marathon hat.

My dad. He ran it every year.

bostonmarathonhat

Did you ever go to cheer him on?

I ran it with him one year. (His face lights up.)

You did!?  When?

In the 80s. I was a runner before him, an athlete.  I jumped in and ran it with him.

Did your dad run Boston this year…before he died?

Yes.

Is that hat special to you?

Oh yeah. Oh yeah.

***

What will you do with the rest of today?

Look at the sun.

What will you do when the sun goes down?

I’ll be alright.

IMG_0016

At the end of our chat, I suggest that he might have chosen his book because the grief of his father’s death has come again, as he knows it does.

He gets quiet. Very quiet. Then he says softly, “Oh yeah. I didn’t even realize that.”

His eyes tear up. “But you’re right. You’re right.”

The Angry Woman and the Concerned Surfer

I sat there with Roxy on the sand, licking my wounds and secretly hoping the people who had watched me from the cliffs above would dissipate before I hauled my kayak back up the stairs.

I had been so confident…but without good reason. There are other words for this. Like dumb. And DUMB went through my head as I sat there on the sand, relentlessly judging myself.

The night before, I’d loaded the kayak on the car. I fell asleep excited, ready for an adventure. Then I’d laid in bed and heard the loud ROAR of the ocean all night long…that roaring sound that equals waves, waves of which accomplished surfers dream.

I’ve been out on the ocean in my kayak a few times. But not in these conditions. And never with 65 pounds of dog love.

People tend to think I’m adventurous, but here’s something you might not know about me — it usually takes some good prodding to get me to “the ocean’s edge.” I love it and feel so alive once I’m out there doing “it,” but coming up with the idea and actually making any adventure happen hasn’t usually been predominantly my doing.

This time, I’d arrived there of my own accord, empowered, proud, confident…and a little bit dissociated.

I ignored more than one or five signs that any other couple-of-time kayaker who was not accompanied by a dog who had never been in a life jacket would have taken serious note of. The tide was about as high as I’ve ever seen it. And still coming in. And there were people on the cliffs with their mouths wide open watching the surf and the swirling water…and me.

But I saw breaks in the sets and I had made it that far. Plus I know it takes courage to get out past the waves of life, and I have spent time not doing a lot of things because I tend to gravitate toward comfortable, toward safe.

A kind (and surely concerned) surfer offered to help me and the dog and the kayak get out past the break. I didn’t question why he was offering to help. I just accepted.

The dog was scared. I wasn’t. It was time to go.

The dog was in. I was in. The dry bag that held my phone (and wasn’t rolled down enough) was in. Concerned Surfer was pulling the kayak out like a father. A wave broke, the dog moved, and the kayak rolled over enough to take on some water while Concerned Surfer was still hanging on. We were maybe five feet out.

I think I snapped to when he said, “Did you take on too much water?”

Uh-huh.

I can’t remember what I said exactly, but I knew the adventure was over and he helped the kayak the few feet back to the disappearing shore without a word of admonishment. Mine was not a graceful exit.

A woman in a wetsuit showed up as I stood there, and she said, “I’m taking your dog!!”

Now, a lot of people love Roxy and purport to want to take her home, so I am never surprised to hear this. But then she followed up with, “You’re not taking her out there!”

Oh, the seething sting of her judgment. I was ten years old again. I did not deserve to exist. I knew I’d been dumb — and she angrily proclaimed it.

But then I considered Concerned Surfer, who showed up as entirely non-judgmental and insisted on hauling the kayak back to the bottom of the stairs, despite my protest. This was grace in action, all of what he had done, and I told him so. He responded that he was glad I didn’t get hurt.

Angry Woman and Concerned Surfer both saw the same situation, and they addressed it from radically different perspectives.

I sat there on the sand accompanied by my humiliation and my prolific self-judging thoughts. I knew that I’d been oblivious to far too many signs. And I had no business being out there in those conditions…with the dog, to boot.

But I also knew I’d stood there on the shore, there of my own accord, wanting the adventure, wanting to push past the break, believing I could. This was big for me, and it was far more empowering than focusing on being dumb.

Now, I know that people have died believing they could and thereby embarking on adventures for which they weren’t prepared. I knew I’d been lucky – or watched over – given all I’d ignored. And it was clear I needed to take away the many lessons that were offered to me that day. Like heeding conditions, increasing my kayaking skill and ocean awareness, and working with the dog to get her acclimated if I was to ever take her out again — on shallow, still water.

And speaking of lessons, it took me a couple of days to realize this one.

Angry Woman and Concerned Surfer both exist inside of me. They approach things from radically different perspectives. One is judgmental and angry; the other is kind (and sometimes concerned), but helps and acts where needed.

Angry Woman might keep me from trying another day.

Concerned Surfer says, “Try another day.”

I get to choose which one talks to me.

I’ll try another day.

***

Movement and adventure are significant components of our lives. As we push ourselves toward new experiences (even when we “fail”), we are offered limitless lessons about ourselves.

Like learning that how we talk to ourselves matters. Kindness and concern in action matter. How we prepare ourselves matters. Safety matters.

Life matters. The only thing that died that day was my phone.

Thanks, Concerned Surfer.

Choosing to Play

It was one of those evenings that I felt that my mood might just consume me. Even cleaning wasn’t helping the numbness that had crept in with the Monterey Bay fog.

I eyed my calendar, knowing I’d have to leave soon if I was going. I had decided to start trying new things that pushed me toward more self-expression, but the Fun Institute’s Improv class was in serious contention with the dust, the dog hair, and the fog in my brain.

At the last minute, I left the bucket and mop in the sink and headed out by myself, reassured by the website testimonial that claimed that I would feel so much support and love and safety that I’d take big risks and not mind looking foolish.

bucket and mop

I got there ten minutes late, but it turns out it was just on time. Before I knew it, nine very welcoming and apparently grown-up regulars and I were throwing imaginary balls to each other with strange sounds that came from somewhere within us, mirroring those sounds, then passing them on to another with new sounds.

We propelled our troubles out the door – things we needn’t worry about for the next two hours — accompanied by more sounds from within. Did those fierce sounds really come from me as my mood whooshed out of me and through that door?

And it was on. We put immediate response actions to sounds that came from the person before us. There was no questioning myself. I just did whatever came at that moment. What?!? No thought? EXACTLY!!!

I realized I was laughing. At myself and the others. I grabbed my flowing tie-dye skirt and kicked off my flip flops as we moved our bodies to music and reflected each other’s funky movements, then came up with our own and led the group until someone else took over.

I had a flashback to kindergarten, but this was way, way better. I am almost forty-six and I am playing with nine people I didn’t know fifteen minutes ago. And this is not a theme party and I haven’t had a thing to drink.

We gave each other character voices and dubbed them with actions. Then we were different characters, I a captain on a ship and my partner the first mate who sheepishly reported to me that the troops were restless. Turns out she thought they needed a party. We ended up all drinking whiskey and….well, the exercise ended before anything went terribly afoul onboard.

We told stories standing next to a partner on stage, one word at a time, having no idea where the story was going, while trying to mirror any actions our partner made from only our peripheral vision. We also wrote letters in that style, one a Dear John letter and the other to an inmate in prison.

We were a bad therapist and a needy client, a nerdy pregnant teenage boy and a popular cool girl, a displeased boss and an incompetent secretary offering up other skills. The brain tweaker was that as I sat there in the assigned role of the secretary, I had to use the voice of the boss. There was at least one retake from the start because I messed it up, and it was all okay.

Where did it all come from? What was I to make of what was coming out of me? The sounds, the movements, the words that surprised even me…

“It’s amazing what comes out of our subconscious,” one of the leaders said.  She pointed to the collective subconscious when exploring why the skit with the secretary and boss may have gone to sexual realms. “My father left my mother for his secretary,” she said.  “It happens. It’s in our collective subconscious.”

When you don’t think about what you do or say next in a creative, supportive environment, you are free to explore. Perhaps you are free to explore who you might be, or perhaps there are issues that surface that deserve further thought.

I’ve been wondering all week why I ended up in subservient roles – a needy girl pleading with her father for an Easter egg hunt, an incompetent secretary, a pushover girl? And maybe the question is not why; maybe it’s just letting those parts of you out that matters. And exploring others.

“You don’t question your character. You ARE that character,” I was instructed early on. Okay, that helps. So it is that I was indeed the captain of the ship. Why we ended up drinking whiskey, I don’t know. But I’m glad my crew was safe despite my error in judgment.

Ahhhhh, there is sweet glory in stripping ourselves of our boundaries, our roles, our definitions of self — and allowing ourselves to PLAY. Like we did when we were in kindergarten, but oh-so-much better!!

There was something that switched on in me about being on a stage – the final bow after each scene got me thinking about the play I dropped out of (okay, got kicked out of) in high school due to a conflict with my waitressing job. I somehow had the lead role in that play, but my job won out to creative expression back then. But now, now that I am almost forty-six, maybe I’ll try out for a play. Or maybe I’ll just go back to the Fun Institute next Tuesday night.

When I got home, the bucket and mop were still in the sink. But I felt like an entirely different person than the one who might have stayed home and cleaned to numb the brain fog. Rather, the fog completely dissipated and was replaced by joy and satisfaction.

That was a good choice — heading out to  play.

Fun Institute

If you live in Santa Cruz, come play at the Fun Institute.

***

How have you played lately? Where did you play? Have you learned new ways to express yourself creatively?

 

Something of Our Own

I’m an expert at dreaming, not necessarily at doing. With that approach, a lot of dreams find their way back to filing cabinets buried in the murky depths of our subconscious.

A common refrain in midlife is that we want something of our own. So much of our efforts have, for a long time, been invested in caring for others that we’ve lost ourselves a little bit – or even a lot. Working toward a goal of something of our own honors our selves and makes space for us to bloom anew.

For some reason, this is not always an easy bridge to cross. It means putting ourselves first. It means being focused and committed. It may even mean dealing with emotions that have kept us from doing things for ourselves for a very long time.

My blog is my own thing. I started it and then let it wither for a good long while. This week I finally took some tangible steps toward my goal of expanding my writing and being consistent. It’s been a very l-o-n-g time coming, even setting this goal.

I started with stating my commitment to my writing. To myself. And then to others. There’s something about telling others that helps with accountability. I want this. For me.

I came up with a list of things that I want to clean up on the blog and then reached out to the woman who helped me design it in the first place. I paused, but didn’t stop, at the first stumbling block, an email that said her fee structure was far different now. I brainstormed what else I could do. Turns out there were plenty of options. That’s still in process.

I put a link up and asked for advice on my writing and the blog itself from my Facebook friends.

I wrote. At times somewhat inspired, at other times not so much. I accepted all of the random thoughts and ideas and tried to capture them, at least in a snippet on a page that might later be worked into something.

I reached out to a writer I admire and asked for some time to chat. I told her that I have struggled with focus and commitment. She told me to write every single day (or at least five of seven) and to put my ass in the chair every single day – even when I don’t have an idea. Now I’ve heard this plenty of times before and haven’t done it. But she said ass, so I’m going to.

Write Something Today

The biggest thing I came away with was this —

“I write because I have to write or want to write,” she said.

“I don’t think I’m a good writer.” (She is. You should check her out. Her name is Bridget Fonger.)

This made me think about the purity of why we do what we do – once we’re finally doing it. I knew what I must really work at.

I’ll open my heart and my mind and I’ll calm the ego so I can tune in to what it is that wants to come out, what’s aching to be developed. I’ll allow my fingers to let the words come through me for a pure purpose, that of self-expression. And then I’ll go back and put the ideas and words together so they hopefully flow. I’ll find the connections in this stage and hopefully make more sense of all of it.

And then….I’ll be bold and put it out there for the world no matter what. For me, that still causes a vulnerability check.

Then, I’ll let it go and open up to the next idea, the next thing that wants to come out. Because it has to. Because it wants to.

This all made me think about why I started the blog in the first place. For something of my own. For self-expression. To develop a latent talent. Ultimately – and less purely I suppose — it was to feel that my words, my creativity, and my self-expression resonate with others, that they somehow make a difference.

Oh, she said that too. The big reason she writes is that she wants to make a difference.

Don’t we all?

Guess what? That takes work.

And so does having something of your own. But it also brings about creativity, ownership, and a sense of self-worth and self-expression.

So worth it.

*****

Do you long for something of your own? What is it? Do you have an unlived dream? What is it? Share about blocks you’ve encountered and how you’ve dealt with them.

Gold Star Day

“You’re awesome,” my yoga teacher says as I walk out of the hot room, drenched in sweat. She is looking right at me. I hold her gaze and find my mouth saying, “Thank you,” and meaning it.

“I loved watching you right there next to me in the front row, so strong,” she goes on. I am sure she saw me sit down at least three times. And it hasn’t been that long since I have returned to yoga; in other words, I’m still a beginner. Even so, what she had seen and acknowledged was my strength.

And all day long, I beam like a little kid with a warm fuzzy. I got a gold star from the teacher. Which is weird because yoga is such an inner journey for me.

Gold Star

It had been a good class and I had in fact felt strong, especially in the arms that day. And focused. That had been reward enough in itself. But there was something more there. Perhaps it was because she was so strong and clear herself as she voiced those words. Perhaps it was because she looked directly in my eyes. Most likely it was because she affirmed what I had tuned into within myself – strength, even in my seated breaks.

It all makes me think about affirmation.

We can be affirmed by others, but if we are not feeling it ourselves deep down, we can feel like hypocrites and brush it all away. Still, hearing the good stuff that others see in us (which is often a reflection of what’s in them) can remind us of the goodness that we know is in there somewhere.

I keep a mailbox in my inbox called AFFIRMATIONS. In it are glowing letters from when I was a teacher, letters from friends I actually solicited when I was depressed, and endless love letters from my husband, who has been my biggest affirmer. I set it up for those times when I need a pick-me-up. Especially when I’m not feeling it.

Sometimes we need others to see what we don’t see in ourselves. But it is most profound when someone sees something in us that we are ready to acknowledge at least in part ourselves, something that we want to own about ourselves.

Like strength.

*****

Offer affirmations freely today — to others and especially to yourself. And (gasp!), consider seeking out affirmations.

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Sitting in the Stillness

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I sit here in the stillness, thinking of my mother.  She grew to love the quiet sometime in her late 30s or 40s. I fondly recall her sitting with a well-worn candle in the living room. Or writing in her journal. Or praying.

Sometimes the silence seemed a bit strange to me, but I look back now and know that there was reverence in that room. And a lot going on amidst the silence.

When I was a teenager, I used to make fun of her for going on silent retreats. (I even had a party at our house while she was gone and had to call her on one of those silent retreats when the police arrived. AAAAAACK!!!) Yet she always came home centered, calm, renewed, refreshed. Even that time.

And now I also crave stillness, candlelight, quiet, and time to commune with myself. Those gifts all bring about a deep awareness of and appreciation for ordinary moments, a strange but welcome, almost reverent, knowledge of myself.

My mother is my mentor and my dearest friend. She was doing what she needed to do for herself when she sat in that strange-to-me stillness, but in so doing, she modeled for me the way to myself many years down the road.

Last year for her birthday, I made a book of all the things she taught me while she was living her life. I wanted her to know that how she lived her life mattered to me, that more than twenty-five years after I’d moved out of her house, I had taken something away from the path that she had followed to herself, the path to her own peace.

My path is turning out to be slightly different, as it should be. It is my path. But I feel profoundly lucky to be able to share it with her. And I know that she is still finding her own way – and modeling for me how to do it. I suspect she will keep at it.

Go Mom.

Praying

Right Now

She showed up at my door with two cold beers and puffy eyes.  I recognize those eyes — and I like cold beer.  We sat out back in the sun while she spilled it all out.

She has four teenagers in her house.  That alone is enough, but she was in crisis mode with one of them, the oldest.  Nasty, hurtled insults had been thrown at her in some stranger’s driveway at 4:30 a.m.  And then again in her own driveway at 7 a.m.  From my own experience, driveways seem to be dangerous places for parents and teenagers to interact. Especially in the dark. If you haven’t been there, I truly hope you won’t. But there she was, just like I had been on more than one occasion.

Driveway

I sat there listening, feeling so connected to her, knowing her pain and her doubts and her questions from my own experience. She’s been an at-home mom all these years. She gave her all to them, and now she was faced with so many feelings. 

Awful guilt — she must have failed at parenting because her daughter’s self-esteem seemed low. Empathy for her daughter — she knows that life throws curve balls and they are very confusing at 19. Anger — at her daughter and the parenting dynamic and herself. Confusion — I love these people but sometimes I just want to be ALONE.  Yet alone feels scary. And not possible. Overwhelmed — I have three more teenagers to go!  How will I ever get through this?  Things are really messed up right now.

She also thought that she could do it better, better than her own mother had. I had thought I could too. Perhaps if we could have pulled that off (wink), we might not have to face our own pain. And from what I know of her relationship with her mother, she has pulled it off. But she didn’t think so, not in the backyard yesterday. It can be crushing when you are in that moment when you believe that all of your energy and work has been for naught.

I had believed that too. And yet, it was my oldest who had answered the door when she arrived with beers in hand. I had been on the phone, and he had come upstairs to tell me she was here, and that she NEEDED to talk to me. I took a few minutes to finish up my call and came downstairs, where he was sitting with her at the counter.

“Mom, you have a lot of experience with what she needs to talk to you about right now.” He was right. And gracious. And compassionate. And humble. And empathetic. We’d had a hell ride for a time, and the young man in front of me now expressing these positive qualities had been the same one whose actions and words brought about the very same feelings she was sharing with me — and at least in part, jettisoned my own search for identity.

“I don’t recognize myself. I have NO IDENTITY OF MY OWN right now,” she said.

Right now. That is the key. And it is also a starting place.

I suggested she ask herself regularly, “What do I need right now?” She held up her beer. “I need a beer.” We laughed. (I did tell her that if the answer is always a beer, she might want to look at that.)

Over the years, we give selflessly to our families and children and we can eventually get lost in other people, ending up with no idea of what we need, no connection to ourselves. Loving our families actually requires us to love our selves enough to find our true strength — and even an inkling of our new identity — there.

My mother told me that we might never let go of our kids if it wasn’t so painful. I’ll add that we might never really find out who we really are without being willing to love ourselves and let go of who we’ve been being — as we let go of our kids.

So what do you need right now?

Can you relate? Please share. Have advice? Please share. Empathy? Please share.

*****

P.S. I wanted four kids long ago. On the worst driveway day ever, I remember loudly, angrily yelling to my husband (not at him), “THANK YOU FOR STOPPING ME AT TWO!!”

My oldest son drew the picture of our old house, the driveway front and center. It was exactly the spot that I yelled that. Incidentally, this is NOT why he drew the picture — that was entirely unrelated inspiration. But I sit here thinking about how his gifts transcend all that was in that messy place. The biggest gift is who he is to himself — and to me — right now.

There is hope, my friend.

On Meeting My Self

Yesterday morning, I met my self for the very first time.  I am almost 46 years old.

A new (to me) teacher was leading the Bikram yoga class.  Somehow, everything felt different about this class from the moment it started.  Even though we go through 26 identical yoga poses in exactly the same order in every class, my experience differs in each one.

Limitations, frustrations, self-judgement – all of these things have come up for me in difficult classes, whereas at other times there is a bit more of a flow and I feel that I am making VERY slow progress.  All of these things have shown up on my mat.

This class, though, was almost other worldly.  For the first time, I began to connect with what it felt like to simultaneously relax and engage my muscles. It was a completely new discovery.  My shoulders dropped; the struggle released.  My body responded by releasing deeper into the stretch almost without my knowing.  Is it possible that I don’t have to struggle!?!

I was intensely aware of the interplay between surrender and strength, both needing to occur to get deeper in the pose, both positive, welcome, even necessary components that existed in harmony at the same time.  Without the struggle, in each pose I engaged with the balance of the two S words, which had before seemed incapable of existing together.  Every movement was an exploration, filled with willingness and curiosity, a wondrous engagement with a new discovery.  This was what it felt like to release myself.  This was what it felt like to be alive.

At the end of class, I turned and looked in the mirror.  I saw deeply into her eyes.  I recognized her, though I have never met her face-to-face before.  I gazed into who I am at my core.

Me.  Minus all of the add-ons.  Just love.  I didn’t want to stop looking.  The next class was coming in.  I kept gazing.  Finally, I released locked eyes and held on to the vision, the picture I took of.of my soul?

I realized afterward that was missing were my roles, my search for identity, my ego, my need to be needed, my neediness, my desire for things or achievements or meaning, my perception of myself, my worry, my stress, my self-judgement, my loss, my discomfort with uncertainty.  This is a person I would most definitely like to hang out with more often.

What I discovered when I engaged fully with surrender and strength is my self.  I discovered that I wasn’t stripped down; I was filled up. With pure love.

In all of my searching for meaning and direction, I wanted to do things to become someone, someone who mattered.  So that I would feel better about those parts of me that ache, the parts that feel less than worthy.

Yesterday morning, it occurred to me that I could do anything at all, not so that I would “be” someone — just to be.

Courtney, your gentle spirit guided me to this place of self-discovery on a Thursday morning in March at Bikram Yoga Aptos.  Namaste.

*****

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I thought that the only photo that could possibly accompany this post is the one that is etched in my mind from Thursday morning’s discovery.  I wished I could post it for you to see.

And then, serendipitously, I came across a page from my journal last year that tells a similar story.

What I really wish for all of you is that you have an experience like this of your own, that you truly see your own core beauty.  If you haven’t, keep at it.  If you have, I’d love to hear about it in the comments section.

 

 

Back When We Had Perfect Vision

Thoughts on Seeing…and Not Seeing

Glasses

Our eyes have changed.  One could say they have begun to deteriorate.  They are a hint that demands to be acknowledged.

You got glasses first, and I remember thinking that you were even more intriguing and handsome when you wore them.

I was shocked when I realized that I needed more than dress-up “Smart Glasses,” those blank lenses in a cheap frame that I thought at the time made me look not only smart, but sexy too.

I had always had excellent vision.  We had always had excellent vision.  We had even seen clear into each other’s souls on the altar.

But it was about the time that I got my first pair of readers that I began to realize there were many things that were clouded, and many I’d never seen.

I’d never seen that beneath your incredibly strong exterior, there was a man who felt incredible pressure to succeed and to provide, a man whose lungs were being compressed almost to the point of suffocation.

Or how we’d both put on the lenses (bifocals, actually) of society’s expectations and cultural programming — and how much those had unknowingly clouded our vision.

I didn’t have sight of the man who would one day walk in and leave his job, then begin the process of reclaiming his soul and his true self — and his family.

I’d never seen things about myself, like why I drank too much and got belligerent or how I buried my feelings (yes, those two things were related) or how I somehow confused my role with my real self.

I hadn’t seen some of the potential you saw in me, things that frustrated you because your vision of me was so clear.

Despite having a mirror, neither one of us could see how much weight we’d put on.  The body fat and the other fat too.

Though it showed up many times in not-so-nice ways, I couldn’t recognize my own  ego.  Truth is I only sort of know what it looks like now.

I hadn’t seen that how I looked at you as the dominant person in our relationship limited how I saw my own self.

Or how I could become a stronger person by acknowledging and managing my own emotions and speaking my own truths, instead of sitting there crying on the stairs waiting for you to notice how much I was hurting and do something about it.  And I certainly never saw how much that must have blurred your own vision.

I hadn’t yet seen the man who would wrangle with himself until he shared things he himself hadn’t ever known.  Like how you’d lied to yourself about what it means to be present with the boys when they were growing up — not because you liked to lie, but because you simply couldn’t see it at the time.   I do know that we both saw as clearly as we could at the time.

I never visualized being able to spend every day with you doing what we wanted to do, whatever that was.  I never saw us living in an Airstream and traveling around like the gypsies I had long ago daydreamed of us being.  That’s a vision that’s yet to materialize, but it is coming slowly into focus.

I certainly hadn’t ever seen that you might one day fulfill my fantasy of having a song written for me and sung to me on an acoustic guitar.  That was never in my line of sight.

And I definitely never before saw your silver and auburn hair pulled back into a baby ponytail as you shared that song with me.  Now I will forever have that image etched into my psyche.  You — vulnerable and creative and expressive and free – and even more handsome than when I first laid eyes on you.

Back when we both had perfect vision, there was a lot we couldn’t see.  Now that my vision is beginning to fade, it is clear that other senses have more than compensated.

It occurs to me that perhaps we surrender our vision for self-awareness, or at the very least for some more pure truths.

It all makes me think that I quite like the idea of our sight continuing to deteriorate. I have but a taste of the clarity and connection we gain as we lose our sight but see more clearly into ourselves and each other…and in the process, begin to grow old together.

This growing old with you is something I can only glimpse right now, but it is an image that I wholeheartedly embrace, especially with all that is still unseen.

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