Monday, November 27, 2006
When my people return at the end of autumn to reclaim our homes on the hard, on the island, we often build new hearts. It’s hard to keep a heart on a boat, or a raft, or in the underwater caves where some of us live in the warmer months. Hearts survive best on land, so when we become land dwellers again just before winter arrives, we inspect our hearts and do what we can to keep them going another year.
Everyone has a heart. I suppose that’s true even in your culture. But in my travels I’ve yet to wash up on a shore where hearts are built as they are here. From an early age we learn how to build our own hearts, because no one else can do it for you. With wisdom and age and a little luck our hearts survive, some even become stronger and more beautiful with each passing year. But there are those that shrivel up and blow away. I think that is true everywhere.
I remember, as a young girl, my first heart was built of sand – a castle with turrets and towers and spires and a secret keep and a moat. I built it too close to the high water mark, and a rogue wave washed it out to sea before I could show it to anyone. I felt foolish and didn’t build another heart for years.
We build our hearts along the coastline. They’re meant to be seen and shared with the whole village. They’re also meant to withstand the elements. What good is a heart that’s hidden in a cave?
Taking a walk along the hearts on a cold winter morning is a good way to see how your friends and family are faring. Some days you see a heart with a fresh coat of paint, or bright green sea glass adorning the walls, or saffron colored silk banners flying from the highest points, and you know someone has fallen in love, or given birth to a daughter, or written a poem.
And then, you might come upon a heart that has been neglected so long that sand has partially buried what the north wind couldn’t blow away. When you find a heart like that you visit its owner and sing or hum or rattle some shells or beat a drum. It helps – the sounds – better than any words. If you saw this friend on the street, without first visiting his sad heart, and asked him how he was he would say ‘Fine, really fine’ but his eyes would slide away before meeting yours. That’s the trouble with words. You need to visit your friend’s heart to know the truth.
Busy parents with young children quickly repair what they can each winter, hoping it’s enough to keep their hearts beating and intact for another year. They promise each other it will be different when the children are older, when they have time to care for themselves differently. They do the best they can.
Repairs and additions and improvements are good and necessary, but sometimes, you just have to tear down what you’ve got, especially when you no longer recognize it as your own, and start from scratch.
By the way, it’s best not to build a new heart when you are discouraged or depressed or despairing. Why do you have so many words for this? Sleep and chocolate is best in this dark place. Too many people wear themselves out when they should just be sleeping. Building a new heart requires energy.
Sometimes, things get a little out of hand with our hearts – maybe it’s like that where you are too? Like the night young Sam Wilson fell in love, for the first time, and he lit a torch atop his heart, drawing the entire village to the beach with the blaze. It was one of the coldest nights of the winter, so cold that the smaller waves near the inner sandbar froze mid-curl. We all sang with Sam, voices raised to the heavens, until the wind came up and a spark flew to the heart just down the beach – wouldn’t you know that one was made of straw? It caught the flame, and sent it to the heart beside it, and soon half the hearts on the island were in flames.
That might sound like a disaster where you come from, but for us it was a wild night of...well...love and passion. So much fire, burning like that on a beach in the dead of winter can do that to you, especially when you’ve lived most of your life in the water. The heat was so intense, most of us had sunburns the next morning, and nine months later so many babies were born. But that was a long while ago.
It’s best to be done, really done, with your old heart before building a new one. We all know what it feels like, the knowing that it’s time to build an entirely new heart, but there is no word for it. There is a sound - the sound the ocean makes just after slack tide, when the moon pulls the sea towards it again, so far away. It sounds like that. Maybe you can’t hear it where you are.
You need to remove what’s left of your old heart, sorry and dilapidated as it may be, before building the new one. There are almost as many ways to do this as there are ways to say “I love you”. How many ways can you say it in your language?
You could wait for the next northeaster to blow and let the storm tides carry it away, back to the sea, especially if your heart came from the sea to begin with.
There’s a ceremony for burning the old heart down – which is very different from the way Sam Wilson did all those years ago. You do this alone, on the night of the solstice, singing to the smoke that curls up to the stars. It’s our oldest song, the one with no words. Even babies know this song.
Or, you could slowly dismantle it, saving what you can, giving away what you no longer need, returning pieces of it to the ones you once loved, and maybe still love.
We have a word for it – no matter how you do this part – we call it remembering. You have this word, but I’m not sure if it means the same thing in your language.
It’s best to be mindful when choosing materials for your new heart, and in no particular hurry.
I remember the year I build a new heart, after my husband sailed away with that stupid girl from the next island. I tore down the heart I’d been building for years with him, the one I thought he loved. It was a modern heart – all sharp angles and abstract forms. He said he loved it, but really, who could love a heart like that? I didn’t even love it. After he left I borrowed a bulldozer from my neighbor and ran it over. When it was flattened and shattered and scattered all over the beach, I grabbed the nearest thing I could find – an old grandmother sea turtle’s shell, and plopped it down over the place where my old heart had been. It was like that for years. I almost forgot how to love. But one day I replaced that old shell with a new heart and life went on.
So, it’s best to build a new heart when you’re strong and healthy and ready to let go of the old.
That’s where I am today, on the edge of this winter, gathering the raw materials for my new heart.
In your culture, where youth is king and queen, you might find it amusing that a fifty year old woman would even be considering building a new heart. You would probably make a sitcom about it. But here, we write songs about the elders (and I’m a fairly young elder) who build new hearts. They are our heroes. Who has more courage than us, starting afresh yet again when our bodies and minds are slowing down, settling into a new rhthym?
This heart will be like a tent, made of rich tapestries that I’ve been weaving all my life, with threads pulled from every story I’ve told and every dream I’ve dreamed. The ceiling will be the stars, the moon will illuminate the inner chambers, each one filled with a different color (magenta and periwinkle) or sound (laughter and bells and incoming waves).
I am still gathering a few more special objects – an imperfect conch shell, a smooth, warm stone, the soft rosy sand from the cove on the east end of the island. And there, something small and blue caught in the strand line, in the dried seaweed and driftwood. The brilliance of the blue – like lapis with gold flecks – draws me closer. It’s a feather, a blue gull feather. You don’t have blue gulls in your land, and even here they are rare.
I reach for the feather, just as another hand reaches for it as well. He has one end of it. I have the other.
We look up in surprise, then recognition - another old soul, deeply lined face, deeply blue eyes, building a new heart of his own.
He opens his mouth, but no words come out, only the sigh that we all hear when we fall in love.
Is it the same in your land?
Thursday, November 9, 2006
It may not always be so, but today
He stands on my doorstep, flowers in hand, wearing a smile that radiates light.
I forget that he’s an hour late.
It may not always be so, but today
He laughs at my jokes, sighs and holds me tight when I tell a sad tale.
I begin to trust.
It may not always be so, but today
He says I make the most delicious roast chicken and gravy he’s ever tasted.
I offer him seconds.
It may not always be so, but today
He writes poetry…for me.
I begin to surrender.
It may not always be so, but today
He gives me the gift of a book about adventure and love and sailing, and we take turns reading aloud to one another.
It may not always be so, but today
He assures me I’m much more interesting than women half my age.
Hmmm….I’ve become interesting.
It may not always be so, but today
He tells me my writing must be shared with the world.
I feel a little dizzy.
It may not always be so, but today
He whispers his desire for me.
I hear him clearly, even though his lips are pressed against my bad ear.
When will I tell him I have a bad ear?
It may not always be so, but today
He thanks God for our good fortune and asks for blessings as we begin this journey.
I whisper ‘Amen’.
It may not always be so, but today
He tells me I am the one.
It may not always be so, but today
Sunday, June 25, 2006
"Keep the red channel markers close on your port side," shouts the old fisherman at the dock.
"Thanks," I reply.
We wave goodbye. I turn Periwinkle around and head down river, hugging the edge of the narrow channel. It's a quiet, gray afternoon. Fog is rolling in from the ocean. The only sounds are the steady rumble of the diesel engine, the call of the sea gulls flying overhead, and the pounding of my heart.
Yesterday Periwinkle was launched.
Thank you to the many friends who have put up with me these last couple of months as I navigated the tricky waters of purchasing an older boat and getting her ready to launch. Thank you for understanding when I didn't return emails promptly, when I turned down social engagements because I had to work on the boat; and worse yet, when I broke appointments because of last minute launching details. My apologies. You will be among the first aboard.
Thank you to the boat yard guys - the crew who did all the things I couldn't do myself, especially the foreman who fielded my daily phone calls gently nudging/nagging/whining/demanding/cajoling - basically doing whatever I could at the other end of the phone to move things along. I think he was happier than me to see us finally leave the dock yesterday.
Thank you to the other boaters at the yard who offered advice and encouragement along the way. Lobstermen, sailors, pleasure boaters, fishermen, all eager to share stories and warn me about the mud flats to avoid on the way to the harbor.
Thank you to the readers of my blog who wondered what happened to me.
This is what happened to me.
I fell in love with a sailboat.
I never really understood before why boats were referred to as 'she' and not 'it'. I've owned other sailboats, and they were always 'it' to me, not 'she'.
"It handles nicely, " I might say to a friend. Or "Its name is Simplify", or "It's blue".
But Periwinkle is different. Or maybe I'm different.
Now I understand why for eons men have referred to boats using the feminine pronoun - somehow they transform from inanimate objects to objects of desire. They become the focus of an outpouring of emotions: love, commitment, frustration, joy, heartbreak.
For me, I was attracted to her from the moment I first saw her photo on the internet. (Before I go any further, let me just say that I am devoutly heterosexual, except when it comes to my sailboat)
A friend found her on yachtworld.com and sent me the link. Thank you Mark for the introduction.
Then I met her in person at her home "on the hard" at a boatyard in Rhode Island. Her previous owner clearly loved her - it showed in every detail. He had five large loose leaf binders filled with documentation, notes, maintenance schedules, manuals. I love to read about things, so that alone was a major turn on.
She was adorable, but I really wanted a larger version of the same boat. I spent another month looking at other boats, and after each encounter, "she" looked more and more appealing.
I made an offer, then spent a cold day in April on board with a marine surveyor, checking every system and fitting, going over the rig and the hull and the engine. About half way through, when it looked as though there were no major issues to deal with, I said to the surveyor "I'm starting to love this boat". He laughed and said "She's looking very good".
Negotions followed, along with many trips to Rhode Island, and finally she was mine. Just after Memorial Day she was hauled up to the boat yard in Beverly, but still "on the hard" waiting to be rigged and painted and have all the minor repairs and mainenance items tended to before launching. I would drive to the boatyard after work, getting there with at most two hours of daylight left, and I would putter around, fix things, clean stuff. I removed the old name and applied the new one, offering the appropriate prayers to Neptune and Poseidon and gods and goddesses unseen. Sometimes I would just sit in the cockpit and eat a take out dinner and watch the sun set over the Bass River. One of the other boat owners confessed that he enjoyed seeing me, sitting at the wheel on dry land, with a far off look in my eyes. He understood how I felt, how eager I was to be on the water, sailing her, testing her and myself at the same time.
While she was on the hard I got to know her slowly, and loved her more all the time. I loved her when I scrubbed the decks. I loved her when I learned how to crawl into the engine compartment and empty water from the fuel filter. I loved her when I refinished the teak woodwork. I wondered what she would be like when she was on the water, how she would handle, what she would do well, what she would need to be coaxed to do, how she would respond to my touch. That's when it began to feel more like love, that eagerness to know another, to experience how we would be together, to imagine the exhilaration of sharing a day on the open ocean, spending the night in a cozy harbor, gently rocking to sleep with her.
She's on her mooring in Salem now. I think of her often and wonder when I'll see her again, and what we'll do together.
If I leave now, I can get there before the rain comes.
Wednesday, April 19, 2006
In the last nine days I’ve come to realize there are few creatures less sympathetic to the needs of a sick woman than her own teenage children.
My fifteen year old son, Tom, came home from school, saw me sprawled on the sofa under a blanket with a pile of wadded up tissues beside me, my unwashed hair sticking out in all directions from lying on a pillow all day, and he said “Mom, you’re a mess.”
Ok, there was perhaps more than a shred of truth in that statement, but still…not very kind.
Later, when I asked him to take the dog for a walk he said “How do you get your voice to sound like that? You sound like Marge Simpson, no, you sound like one of her chain smoking sisters. It’s kinda cool. Say something else.”
When I moaned something like “I feel awful”, my daughter Ali, the fitness fiend, suggested that perhaps a brisk walk around the block would clear my head. I gave her an evil look. I don’t think she took it too seriously, what with my red nose, bloodshot eyes, and hair sticking up in weird cowlicks.
In a fever induced nap I concoct a fantasy about my perfect man and all the delicious and delightful things he’d do for me. No, unfortunately, not that kind of fantasy. Here’s what unfolds:
“Darling,” he says in his deep bass Barry White voice, kneeling beside the sofa where I’ve taken up residence this week. “I know you don’t feel well, but you look absolutely amazing. The fever brings such a lovely flush to your cheeks.”
He leans in and gives me a sweet kiss on the forehead. “Look what I’ve brought home for you” he says, holding up several bags from CVS. “Here’s the latest issue of People magazine. You’re such a brilliant woman…I know you don’t usually read stuff like this, but when you’re sick it’s ok to give your brain a rest. And I bought the extra soft tissues with lotion in them, so your nose doesn’t get all red and chafed. I stopped at the video store and rented all the old Tracy and Hepburn movies I could find. I’m going to fix you a nice bowl of orange sherbet and a tall glass of diet coke with lots of ice. Won’t that make your throat feel better?"
God, how I love this man.
While I watch my favorite videos he massages my aching muscles. He brushes my hair. He changes the pillowcase so it feels fresh and cool against my skin. He says the most amazing things, like “The dog’s been walked, the kids are fed, the kitchen is clean – what else can I do for you my dear?”
He is incredible.
Later that night, when I’ve moved from the sofa to our bed, he says “I have a surprise for you, something that I know you really like.” And, with a flourish he produces a bottle of Cherry Flavored Nyquil.
“You’re too good to be real,” I say, smiling gratefully before I swallow the magic elixir that will guarantee a good night’s sleep.
At least I still have my imagination.
Wednesday, April 12, 2006
There’s a general rustling about in the cabin as passengers unbuckle their seat belts and find their cell phones. I turn mine on and the message waiting tone sounds immediately. It’s from Tom, my 15 year old son.
“Hi Mom. Dad had to leave on a business trip today, so I’m at your house. I’ll see you when you get home.”
It’s 8:30 pm. I’m tired after a long day of travel. First, a two hour drive to Phoenix, then a two hour wait at the airport, followed by a five hour flight to Boston. I’m tired…very tired. I’m also very happy to be back in my part of the world. All in all it was a challenging week in Sedona, as I attempted to let go of thoughts and emotions that were clinging to me like barnacles on a rusty old barge. Yes, I do feel like a rusty old barge at the moment.
It turns out that combining a spiritual retreat with the ending of a relationship that never really began is not a good way to use up your vacation time.
My phone rings. This time it’s my oldest son Ben.
“Where are you?” he says. Ben is a man of few words. ‘Hello’ doesn’t seem to be one of them.
“We just landed. I’ll be off the plane soon. Where are you?” I ask, praying he’s at least close to the airport, hoping he hasn’t forgotten to pick me up.
“I’m here. I’m at the baggage claim.”
Ten minutes later I find Ben.
“Hi Mommy”, he says in a silly, sheepish voice. Then he hugs me the way a twenty year old man/boy hugs his mother…reluctantly. As if to make up for his lack of enthusiasm he offers to take my heavy backpack.
“Thanks”, I say. “Wait here; I’ll go find my bag.”
Standing at the carousel, watching the endless stream of black suitcases, all the same shape and size as mine, it occurs to me it’s time to buy new luggage…in an outrageous color, or at least personalized in some way. Perhaps bumper stickers would do the trick. Why don’t people put bumper stickers on their suitcases? Maybe there’s a market for that. I’m imagining the stickers people used to put on their steamer trunks – all the far off end points of their journeys, or dreamed of destinations. I think of my travels in life, really all of our travels in life. Would there be a market for a suitcase sticker for middle aged single parents that says “To hell and back”?
My daydream is interrupted by my ringing cell phone. It’s Tom again.
“Where are you?” he wants to know.
“I’m waiting for my bag. We’ll be home within an hour.” I tell him.
“Well, I’m really hungry”, he says.
“You haven’t had dinner yet?” I ask.
“No, I was waiting for you. And I don’t think there’s anything here to eat. Could you pick up a pizza on the way home?”
“Everything will be closed by the time we get home.”
“I’m really hungry, Mom”, he says.
“Ok, I’ll think of something.”
Just then Ben walks up and asks “What’s for dinner? There’s nothing in the house.”
I take a deep breath, and answer in a voice that attempts to be calm and centered, but probably ends up sounding rather shrill. “I haven’t been home for ten days. It’s nine o’clock at night. I’m exhausted. I can’t find my suitcase. And you expect me to be cooking dinner tonight?”
The woman standing beside me takes her eyes off the carousel long enough to catch mine, and smiles. She must have children.
In the end, we all go out to dinner. The boys entertain me with stories and jokes and silliness. I ask them what they would have done for dinner if my flight had been cancelled. “Don’t worry Mom”, they reassure me, “We’ve seen enough episodes of Survivor Man on the Discovery Channel. We could have made it for days on dry Cheerios, and even built a shelter with the cardboard box if the house burned down.” It’s good to know they are so self reliant.
Days later, Tom asks as casually as possible, “So, how’d it go with that guy in Sedona?”
Tom knows "that guy's" name, but referring to him as "that guy" keeps him at a safe distance. So far, he is not a real person in Tom's world, just a voice on the other end of the daily phone calls to his mother. The question he's asking is partly about whether or not "that guy" will become part of his reality.
Just as casually I reply “Oh, that didn’t work out. It’s over.”
He pats me on the back and says “Well, we all knew that would happen. The fact that he lives 2,600 miles away should have been a clue.”
I pause for a moment, thinking about everything Tom is saying with those two statements. He and his siblings have discussed this, obviously. Ick. A variety of emotions get tossed around between my semi-broken heart and my heavily bruised ego. Regret, longing, despair, disappointment, embarrassment, anger, despair again just in case I needed some more of that. There is probably something wise I could say here, some explanation, some defense. Perhaps this would be a good time to talk about relationships. Who am I kidding? I’m not ready for that.
“Actually, when we were 2,600 miles apart, we got along great. When we were in the same room…not so great.” This is the best I can do, and closer to the truth than any other explanation I've tried to come up with since.
Tom gives me a big hug. I’m grateful his hugs are not yet reluctant. Maybe they never will be.
“I love you, Mom”, he whispers in my ear. “You’re the best.”
He breaks the embrace, clears his throat and asks, “So, what’s for dinner?”
Monday, April 10, 2006
What's your cure for the mulleygrubs?
Lying around all day
with some strange new deep blue
weekend funk, I'm not really asleep
when my sister calls
to say she's just hung up
from talking with Aunt Bertha
who is 89 and ill but managing
to take care of Uncle Frank
who is completely bed ridden.
Aunt Bert says
it's snowing there in Arkansas,
on Catfish Lane, and she hasn't been
able to walk out to their mailbox.
She's been suffering
from a bad case of the mulleygrubs.
The cure for the mulleygrubs,
she tells my sister,
is to get up and bake a cake.
If that doesn't do it, put on a red dress.
Monday, March 20, 2006
There are blessings in the snowflakes, benedictions of peace and love and joy, falling from the sky. The earth is blanketed with silence, my house is silent too. I try to be as quiet, on the inside, as the space that surrounds me. Trying though, is struggling, so I stop trying, and just rest as silence…listening for God.
God’s voice is very quiet – like a hum, low but steady, always there beneath the surface noise of this world, and my chattering thoughts. God spoke to me in Sedona, in the land of the Red Rocks, the sacred sites of Native Americans, and the energy vortexes that twist the limbs of trees as they spiral towards heaven. I traveled to Sedona in December, to spend a week at a meditation retreat. It was all very last minute, I almost cancelled the day before, feeling the constraints of my world closing in. But somehow I found myself on the plane, then in Phoenix, then on a shuttle bus to Sedona. The landscape spread out before me – desert and cactus and pinons and mountains. The mountains were red, and the color was like food for my eyes. I wanted to soak it up, from my eyes directly to my brain, then to my heart and body and soul. I was hungry for the color – the deep red mountains against the brilliant blue sky.
In Sedona, my body was humming all the time, a low vibration in every cell of my being, a gentle energy flowing through me, waking me up, inviting me to be present. I welcomed it at first, and effortlessly slid into a different state of being. The meditations were powerful and easy. Too easy, thought my mind that always wants to make trouble for me. So in the middle of the retreat I hit the wall. Didn’t want to meditate, wanted to sleep, be away from the people I was engaging with, wanted to isolate myself, crawl into my familiar cave of ignorance. But, the gentle vibrations of Sedona broke through that wall, letting God’s love flow again.
I’ve been on many retreats over the years, I’ve sat for hours on the meditation cushion, quieting my mind, wrestling with my demons, glimpsing peace and yearning for more. This experience was different, although it’s difficult to find the words that describe just how it was different. This was easy, effortless, as old beliefs slid away, revealing the truth beneath that there is nothing to be done, that all is well as it is. I laughed more than ever that week. And the laughter was also a way to release burdens, to sing praise to the Universe.
Sometimes the retreat leader, Hale Dwoskin, would start laughing, and before we knew it, we were all laughing, the room was filled with laughter, echoing between the distant red mountains outside, and the tender walls of my heart. There was the hearty laughter of another that caught my heart, and caused it to skip a beat – the big Texan, with the deep, smooth drawl and brilliant golden/green eyes. The man who once lived on sailboats, and had just moved to Sedona. Who would have imagined I would meet a sailor in Sedona, another spiritual seeker, with a laugh that makes my bones vibrate. Such a sweet connection was formed – sitting across from one another at dinner that first night –when we realized we were both sailors, then having lunch later in the week, surfing the internet with his laptop – sharing our favorite sailing websites. Then my last day in Sedona, driving through the canyons and up into the mountains together. A perfect day of ease, of being with another without expectation. I hear him laugh now, and it shakes the snow from the highest branches of the trees in my backyard.
On other retreats, coming home has not been easy, as a matter of fact it has been disastrous, as I try to reconcile the peace and quiet of meditating with a supportive spiritual community, with the life of a single parent with 3 teenagers. I used to compare re-entry to my life with that of the space shuttle entering the atmosphere after its peaceful orbit of the planet. Would I be able to withstand the pressures, the friction, would my heat shield fail?
But this time, there seemed little difference between here and there, almost no separation between the world I discovered in Sedona, and the world I returned to. The world is the same, it’s me that’s changed. My fear of heights is gone – as is the disabling anxiety that used to grip me when I drove over bridges. I’ve driven to Portland, Maine, and southern NJ since I returned. At least 10 bridges – all of which I struggled with in the past – but now I traveled with ease. No fear. Just incredible views of the Pemigewasset River, the Hudson, the inland waterways of coastal NJ and the great Atlantic Ocean beyond. My ‘story’ is that bridges represented transition for me, going from the known to the unknown, and that however much I might want to get to the other side, I might avoid the trip altogether because of fear. Could I allow myself to be as fearless in all areas of my life? Could I welcome the unknown, let go of trying to figure everything out, let go of wanting to know how the story will end before I even start writing it?
Life has supplied an abundance of challenges since my return – my mother had a mild stroke, my youngest son had a mild concussion, and yet time spent in hospitals and nursing homes did not carry the same energy as in the past. I wouldn’t say it was stress free, but there was more ease than I would have expected, especially when I remembered to ask for divine guidance, and to listen to the silence. And my inner life is busy as ever, as I wrestle with my demons, although maybe now it’s not wrestling, it’s more like Aikido, redirecting the energy, letting it all arise and be released, lightening the burden of attachment and aversion, leaving room for God.
I close my eyes and I see the powerful red rocks of Sedona, emanating their own energy and healing. I open my eyes and I’m here, in the snowy white world of silence. I hear God whispering. Each snowflake is a blessing, a benediction, a quiet reminder to be still, to listen, to simply be.
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
The doorbell rings. Wyatt leaps into action, bouncing off of me on the way to the front door and barking like a junk yard dog. What a way to ruin a perfectly good nap.
“Wyatt, hush,” I say sternly, as I shuffle towards the door.
Wyatt seems to think I said “Come on, you can do better than that, bark louder, really put some feeling into it,” because that is what he does. I grab his collar with one hand and open the door with the other.
There’s a big bear of a man standing on my doorstep. There’s a bright red pickup at the curb. There are two surfboards in the back of the truck.
The visitor walks right in. Wyatt stops barking and transforms from a ferocious guard dog to an obsequious and submissive puppy. He’s practically groveling.
Just about now I get a good look at the object of Wyatt’s adoration.
Right here in my living room.
This isn’t God in some kind of disguise; like in stories where God shows up in other people’s lives. He’s not a homeless person seeking charity, he’s not an ugly old crone testing my perception of beauty, he’s not some abstract and unasked for life lesson here to teach me a thing or two. It’s God in all his glory. Don’t ask me to describe him, because I can’t do him justice. And the light and the colors and the sounds that swirl around him don’t have names; or at least not names that I know. Let’s just say that when I realized who it was I said “Mother of God!” followed by “Sweet Jesus!” and a “Holy S**t!” thrown in for good measure.
It turns out God has a sense of humor, or maybe he’s just very forgiving. I was not struck down by lighting.
“How have you been?” he asks, wrapping his arms around me in the biggest bear hug ever. God is a very good hugger.
“Uh…fine…great…how about yourself?” I can’t believe I just asked God such a stupid question. I feel like a total moron. God is in my living room.
“Well, I should probably be working out more, and I’ve got to slow down on the ice cream,” he says, patting his ample belly. “But I just tell myself every morning that today’s a new day, you know what I mean?” He laughs and the walls begin to vibrate.
God looks around the living room and smiles. “I love what you’re doing with this place."
I look around and think, this place is a mess. Half a dozen shoes piled by the door, a chewed up rawhide bone, one dirty sock, unopened mail spilling off the coffee table, and a skateboard in the middle of the floor.
You know when a friend shows up unexpectedly, and you haven’t bothered to clean the house in a while, and you start making excuses for the mess; like claiming that you’ve been out of town, or you’ve had the flu all week, or burglars broke in this morning and ransacked the place? Well, maybe you don’t do that; maybe that’s just me. I’m about to start making excuses when God walks into the kitchen, opens the freezer door and says, “Have you got any Ben and Jerry’s?”
“Ah, no, I finished that off last night,” I say, feeling guilty for all sorts of reasons. I’m a pig and now there’s no ice cream for God.
“Oh, yes, I remember. Cherry Garcia. That was so delicious,” God says. “Anyway, we don’t have much time. We have to get to the Big Island while the surf is still up.”
“What?” I ask.
“We’re going surfing. You’ve always wanted to do that, haven’t you? First though, it seems you have a couple of questions for me that have been rattling around in your head. Let’s see now…”
God reaches into his pocket and pulls out an extraordinarily long scroll of papyrus. For the first time I notice that God is wearing a very loud Hawaiian shirt. When I say loud, I mean it’s actually making sounds - crashing waves and ukuleles.
“Mmmm…” he says, scanning the list. “Ok, let’s do an easy one. ‘What would be a good prayer for times of difficulty?’ Let me ask you a question first. What do you mean by ‘times of difficulty’? ”
“Well, it could be a small irritation like my son and his friends having band practice in the basement when I’m in the middle of something important. I wish I could stay calm and peaceful even when my house is noisy.”
“You could ask them to stop.”
“But I don’t want them to stop. I just want to be unperturbed.”
“In that case, just say ‘Thank you’.”
“That’s it? Just ‘thank you’?”
“It really works. Try it sometime. Give me a bigger problem,” God says, grinning now like a clever school boy waiting for the teacher to call on him.
“Ok, let’s say I lose my job.”
“’Thank you’ still works.”
“What about natural disasters?”
“Are you serious?” I ask, frowning.
“That reminds me,” God says, reaching out to gently touch the spot in the center of my forehead, just above my eyes. “When you do that frowning thing, when you’re trying to figure something out, or when you doubt me, or yourself, or others, it makes lines right here, and that keeps me out of your head. It sort of cuts through our divine connection, so to speak. Here, let me erase those for you”.
And with that, he kisses me gently on the forehead. When God gets close I smell the ocean...and cocoanut scented sunscreen. There’s a slight popping sound inside my head, then a quiet hiss, almost like steam escaping. I catch a glimpse of myself in the hall mirror. I look twenty years younger. I feel lighter, happier, and more like myself.
“That’s better than botox!” I say.
“Yes, less expensive too,” says God. “Listen, we have to get going,” and with that he rolls up the scroll and stuffs it back in his pocket. “We’ll go over some of the other questions on the way to the beach.”
He’s halfway out the door. Wyatt is close behind him, sporting a tropical print bandana around his neck.
“I’ll be right there,” I say.
I grab a pen and add a note to the bottom of the grocery list.
Buy more ice cream.
You never know when God is going to drop in.
Sunday, March 12, 2006
Marjie said goodbye to me almost two weeks ago, although I didn’t fully realize it at the time. The cancer that began in her breast years ago returned last winter, and a few months ago it spread to her brain. When the new tumors were discovered in December, she said to me “I don’t think I’m going to get better this time. I think this is the beginning of the end.”
I’ve known Marjie for several years. We were in the same business networking group when I was a massage therapist. She became a client of mine until I closed my practice and went back to high tech. A year ago, a mutual friend told me that Marjie was sick again. The cancer had returned and spread to her bones. There would be no cure, but chemo and radiation could slow the progress of the inevitable. I was told that she was in pain and very weak. I called her later that day and offered a Reiki session to her. I told her that I’d been volunteering with Hospice, and that I’d just become a Reiki master, and that I needed and wanted to be practicing regularly. Would she consider receiving a treatment from me? I told her that Reiki had provided pain relief for one of my hospice clients, and if she felt it was beneficial, I’d be happy to give her ongoing treatments. I knew she wouldn’t ask. I knew she couldn’t afford it. So I offered it as a gift. As it turned out, it was a gift for me, and I’m deeply grateful that she accepted.
Marjie was a hypnotherapist, and had been trained in Reiki as well. She knew that according to Reiki tradition, a practitioner is not supposed to do Reiki for free. There should be an exchange of some sort. So Marjie almost always had some small gift for me – a dozen cookies that a friend had baked, a pendulum she had made years ago from gems and crystals she bought on one of her many trips to Sedona, a flower vase she no longer wanted, a large pink quartz crystal with a light inside. When I was remodeling my kitchen she helped me design it, offering me more wisdom and advice than I could have hoped for, and taking me to the Expo center to pick out tile. I never required any material gift from her, the gift for me was just to be present, to be with her on her journey, to create a sacred space with her.
For over a year I saw Marjie every Monday afternoon. I’d set up my massage table in the sun room of her house, a bright and airy room overlooking the gardens and her beloved koi pond. I gently rested my hands on Marjie and allowed energy to flow to wherever it was required. I watched winter turn to spring, birds rest at the feeders on their migrations, flowers bloom and fade, trees lose their leaves, the koi pond freeze over and then begin to thaw again. When I worked with her I sometimes imagined us together in a far off land; images of climbing trees with her, being children together, swimming in a river. Always, in these visions, she was strong and powerful and wise, leading me and teaching me.
During our session two weeks ago, I imagined that Marjie and I were on top of a mesa in Sedona, a place that held special meaning for her. We were surrounded by the red rocks and a clear blue sky that stretches on forever. We were holding hands and she let go and turned into a giant eagle, spread her wings and took flight, soaring over the valley below. At the end of the session she said “You have been a blessing to me. I hope I can be a blessing to you. I hope I can someday give you what you’ve given me”. I told her, as I have many times, that being with her has been a gift to me. I tell her how I treasure our time together. “I love you” she says and we hug and kiss goodbye.
That was the last time we talked. The next day she was in sudden and severe pain. She was hospitalized while tests were performed. She was in and out of consciousness as medications were adjusted to make her comfortable. Her body was declining rapidly. When I saw her last week, she was home again, in a hospital bed in the living room. Her speech was garbled and mostly unintelligible. Sam, her husband, said “Sometimes we can understand her, sometimes she just repeats words we say to her.” She was restless and would moan from time to time as though trying to get comfortable, trying to find some peace. I sat beside her and held her. “Hi Marjie, it’s Pam. I love you.” I said. She raised her head and opened her eyes briefly and whispered “Pam, I love you.” Was she simply repeating what I’d said? It didn’t really matter. I didn’t need to hear the words to feel the love and friendship we shared. I held her, and hummed soothing sounds, thanked her again and again for her presence, and wished her an easy journey. I noticed that I was beginning to rock a little as I held her, the way I rocked my restless babies when they were resisting sleep.
Marjie died last night. When I got the news this morning, I had one of the longest, deepest cries I’ve had in a long time; just allowing it all to flow like a river of sadness and longing. I am missing her, missing our connection, missing the time we shared each week. I asked Marjie to visit me some time, if she could, if it was possible. I told her I’d listen for her. That’s when I heard Marjie’s voice, clear as a bell inside my head. “It’s hard to be heard when you’re crying so loudly!” In an instant tears turned to laughter, and I felt the love flow into my heart. And with the love came the deep knowing that none of us is ever separate, from one another or from God.
This is Marjie’s gift to me. Thank you dear friend.
Wednesday, March 8, 2006
“I will miss this place” I think to myself as I carefully wash my coffee mug and cereal bowl. I’ve spent the week on Vinalhaven, a small, undeveloped and beautiful island off the coast of Maine, alone, living simply and quietly in a small, rustic house on the edge of the Ocean. I’ll be going home today.
I left my car on the mainland, bringing only what I could carry on my bicycle. The small ferry from Rockland was filled with summer people with kayaks on top of their SUVs, local folk with cars filled with supplies that are hard to find on the island, and a huge cement truck. I found a spot on the top deck where I could stand and have an unobstructed view of the crossing. The trip over was an introduction to Maine coastal weather, sunny and bright one moment, completely fogged in the next, so my view was mostly limited to the bow of the boat and the thirty feet of water directly in front of us. The fog began to thin just as we entered the harbor. The ghostly shape of tall pine trees rose like silent guardians from the granite coastline, then the fog lifted completely and we entered a new world.
Days on the island flowed with ease as I allowed myself to learn how to meditate again. I sat and meditated, walked along the rocks and meditated, swam in the quarry and meditated. And then meditation and stillness led to something more, something new and unexpected. I found myself listening for God, asking questions and receiving answers. The pace of life was slower here. No cell phone. No internet. Few distractions other than the usual ones from within my own mind, and even that chatter slowed down and became quieter. For days, the only words I said out loud were spoken with reverence to the woman behind the counter at the Harbor Gawker restaurant when I ordered lunch: “I’d like a lobster roll and a diet coke please.”
On this last morning, as I wash my breakfast dishes, I find myself wishing I could stay. I realize I am clinging to this experience, therefore making it special, and different from my life at home. I wonder if I will ever be able to feel this kind of peace and clarity and focus in my own home, or if this is only attainable when I’m away.
Thich Nhat Han tells of how he brings mindfulness into everyday life, by performing simple acts with devotion, by washing his tea cup as though he were bathing the Baby Buddha. When I heard that story years ago, it resonated with me. Would it be possible to bring that kind of reverence and care into the mundane world of household chores? Could I attend to everyday tasks as though I was caring for a sacred child?
Twenty years ago I was bathing my first born, my own sacred child, my son Ben. As a new mother, I was more nervous than mindful, learning how to handle a wet, slippery newborn for the first time. Tension eventually gave way to delight as I became more skilled. Bathing Ben in his plastic yellow tub in the big kitchen sink was an act of devotion, pure and simple; filled with care, attention, and love. I recall the bliss of living in that moment, where my only purpose was to love my child. My hands ache now in memory, longing to hold that small, new body again, to feel the warmth of silky, smooth skin. Has it been twenty years already?
I know that when longing comes in, the present moment is lost. And so it seems as I prepare to leave the island and I find myself wishing I could stay, wanting to postpone the return to my ‘real’ life. I long for the mindfulness, simplicity, and clarity that I found here. Would I be able to carry those states of being home with me, back to the world of a single parent of three? Could I bath the baby Buddha while juggling my job, my family, household chores and relationships? I was leaving a world that felt spacious and unlimited, and returning to a world that felt crowded and overwhelming.
The ferry ride back to the mainland was not magical. The day was cold and damp, and the dense fog that surrounded us as we left the island stayed with us the entire way. I felt as though the fog was within me as well, clouding my perceptions and obscuring my view of the world.
Driving home along Route 1 I received my first phone call from home. Ali, my 17 year old daughter, wanted to know when I’d be home.
“I should be home by dinner time.” I said, and already I begin to think about what we’d have for dinner, making a mental note to stop at the grocery store.
“Oh,” she said, sounding disappointed. “I hoped you’d be home sooner. I wanted you to come shopping with me at the mall.”
I notice that my response to this is visceral. I feel my body draw inward at the thought of going to the mall, especially after a week of quiet solitude spent enjoying the expansiveness of the Maine coastline. And, I suspect it’s not really my company she seeks so much as access to my credit card.
“Sorry honey,” I say as pleasantly as I can. “You’ll have to go without me.”
“Fine” she answers, but she isn’t fine at all and I can practically hear her snapping her cell phone closed.
While I’ve been away, my oldest son, Ben, has been staying at the house, and Ali and Tom have been at their dad’s. Now, as I drive home I wonder what I’ll find. I wonder what’s been going on while I was gone. Unpleasant images come to mind and I decide it’s best not to go there. I remind myself to breathe, as tension begins to creep into my body. Did I have to remind myself to breathe last week?
I pull into my driveway and just sit there for a moment, trying to collect myself before entering the house. I remember Thich Nhat Han’s teaching and imagine the baby Buddha, my three baby Buddhas, now teenagers and a twenty year old. It’s not working. I’m feeling disjointed, separate from my peaceful, calm, serene self who seems to have stayed on the island, forcing the stressed out single mother to come home alone. Well, let’s just get this over with, I think to myself.
I enter the house, and notice that nothing looks amiss. The furniture is more or less in the same place. The living room has not been trashed in some wild party, although that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a party while I was away.
Then I walk into the kitchen.
Dishes, bowls, cups, utensils, cookware, even the blender are all piled in the sink and covering the counters. Everything is dirty. It appears that Ben, and whoever else was here this week, forgot there was a dishwasher, let alone a sink and a sponge. Not only are all my dishes dirty, there are even dishes I don’t recognize on the counter. It’s as though Ben ran out of plates and went next door to borrow more. I feel rage beginning to fill my being, from my toes to the top of my head, which might just explode and fly off my body. And on top of that - the TV is on but no one is home.
They do come home, all of my baby Buddhas, happy to see me, greeting me with hugs and kisses. They seem somehow older, more mature than I remembered them. They seem to have missed me; they seem to be glad I’m back. Although I’m seething inside I notice how beautiful they are.
“What’s for dinner?” Tom asks.
“I’ll let you know after you all clean the kitchen” I answer.
The familiar chorus of “Those aren’t mine” is sung by each of them, accusing the other of using every plate and cup in the house.
“It doesn’t matter” I say. “I’m not feeding anyone until the kitchen is clean. The three of you have to work it out”.
I know I have them. There’s no food in the house, and none of them has the money to buy even a slice of pizza. If they want to eat, they’ll have to work. And they’ll have to work it out between themselves, as if I wasn’t even here. I go into the backyard and sit in the shade. The sound of their voices reaches me, blaming one another for the mess, fighting over who will do what. But eventually even that quiets down and they get the work done. By the end they are laughing and joking with each other. I imagine them bathing a multitude of baby Buddhas, and I feel my heart open and relax.
I take us all out to dinner that night to the NinetyNine, our favorite local restaurant. It’s a rare evening of ease. We each tell stories about our week, then reach back further and tell the old family stories that always make us laugh. For some reason the talk turns to drug use and both Ben and Ali proudly inform me that they haven’t smoked weed in months. I take a deep breath and thank God that my children tell me so much, even though I know it’s not everything. It’s still, in many ways, more than I want to know.
I think about the baby Buddha, how I was bathing my own inner baby Buddha all week by taking her away somewhere quiet and peaceful. I was nurturing the divine within me. I can do that on a remote island. I can do that here in a life brimming with teenage energy and parental responsibility. Or at least, I hope I can.
The waitress stops at our table to take our drink order. The kids order sodas. I order a Cosmopolitan. I’m not enlightened just yet.
Monday, March 6, 2006
My dog Wyatt, however, simply woke up - eyes open, tail wagging, tongue licking me into consciousness. He is total presence and joy. He does not have a 'to do' list, he does not limit his life with expectation, responsibilities or shoulds. He just is: happiness, love, joy.
I wish I was more like my dog.
The first hour of my day passed like many Monday mornings:
Wake up 14 year old son Tom
Say bad words under my breath when I enter the kitchen and see that the child who promised (s)he would load the dishwasher after I went to bed last night didn't actually do that.
Poke my head into Tom's room and wake him up again
Yell to Tom from the kitchen that he really, really must get up now
Start the car and defrost the windshield
Really yell at Tom now because he's going to be late yet again for school
Take Wyatt outside for a quick walk
Drive Tom to school.
Driving back home I think about the rest of the day - the things I want to do and the things I have to do. I never noticed before that there are two columns in my to do list. The things I'd like to do and the things I'd really like to avoid doing but should do. This is one of my lists of attachments and aversions. Mmmm...thank you God for that moment of clarity. Can I allow myself to see how I label things as good or bad; the things I want and the things I want to have go away? Can I see how the wanting is what keeps me stuck. I spent a week in December at a Sedona Method Retreat (www.sedona.com) where I learned how to let go of the underlying 'wants' that keep me from my true nature. So, why are they still here? Will I ever let go of all this stuff?
Sure, I tell myself, someday I'll let it all go. Someday, when I'm grown up, or at least when my kids are grown up, I'll become enlightened. After all, how can I become enlightened, be totally free of my limiting thoughts and beliefs when I have all these obstacles in my way. The 'if onlys' are my obstacles, my excuses. If only I had a better, more fulfilling job. If only I was financially independent. If only I wasn't a single parent with 2 teenagers and a twenty year old living at home. If only my house was clean. If only my house was clean and on the ocean. If only my house was clean and on the ocean and my sailboat was docked right outside. If only I was younger...or older. If only I was in the right relationship. If only I was not in a relationship. If only I found the right practice, right teacher, right tools to somehow make it all possible. If only I weighed 20 pounds less. If only I wasn't in the throes of a hot flash right now.
Wow, when I start listing them, and believe me, this is not a complete list, I am amazed at the creativity of my excuses. I laugh at them, but they do not go away. They sit there, ugly gargoyles that they are, arms folded, daring me to argue with them. "Go away" I say to them. "Make us" they retort. One or two of them are snearing. Another is making rude gestures. They are like sentinels standing between me and my mythical 'someday' when I'll become the peaceful, impeturbable and wise me that I know is in here somewhere.
One of the ways I have given these obstacles the power they have over me is by invoking them first thing in the morning as I re-enter the physical world. They are the shoulds and excuses, regrets and longings that I recite like a mantra as I wake. I have been on a spiritual journey for years, studying with learned teachers, reading all the great books and going away on retreats. I don't remember learning anywhere that starting my day with negative thoughts and emotions will bring me to enlightenment. What have I been doing? Have I been paying any attention at all?
So, I find myself here on this Monday a little disgusted with myself. Ok, more than a little. I like to think of myself as an overachiever when it comes to learning new information. There are lots of things that I 'know', but I realize that I'm not putting them into practice, or at least not enough, and not even believing some of them.
What if I believed everything I've learned from my masters and teachers, the ones seen and unseen? And what if every thought, word, and deed of my day reflected those beliefs? What if I believed Lama Surya Das when he said "It's easier than you think", or the Buddha who taught that enlightenment could happen at any moment, or Jesus who said "The Kingdom of Heaven is within."
I feel both excited and challenged by this thought. Why don't I do just that, why don't I simply believe and then act on my beliefs? Why don't I start doing this right now, today, an ordinary Monday in March. Doubt creeps in and I begin to make plans to postpone my possible enlightenment. Maybe I should start this on the Vernal Equinox which would be much more auspicious. Maybe I should wait until I come back from the next retreat. Perhaps I shouldn't even try this. It's foolish and so am I.
My dog is staring at me. He places a paw on my knee. He licks my hand. He invites me to wake up now. And could I please take him for a walk?