waiting for wonder

Could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy; and you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields. – Khalil Gibran

rhinocerosAt my grandmother’s last week. She is 94. Her iPad drives her crazy – Where do these ads come from? The news disturbs her. I don’t understand this Isis. Her breathing is difficult, raspy tufts of air that she pulls with effort.

I hope you never get this old, she says to me multiple times in our 48-hours together.

I know this is not what she means, but what I hear is:  I hope you don’t live much longer. I hope you never suffer. I hope life comes to an abrupt and painless end.

This scares me – as much as Isis. I turn 49 in June, and my thoughts are about living – staying healthy enough to travel, to have time for my creative being, to explore and grow.

Who are the 94-year olds who still possess curiosity for this world? How do you hold on to wonder all the way to the horizon line?

I plant little mantras in my own psyche. Keep looking at art. Keep exploring the earth, even if it’s by flying over its surface via the Internet. Identify questions — the dinner conversation that leads to, “You know, I’ve never what that is!” — and pursue them doggedly. Open your heart –  keep opening it – knowing that something has caused Isis to sprout, something is draining the water, something wants to kill the rhino. Some hate that needs love. Not simple – at all – but worth a daily effort.

I am oddly exhausted by my two days of sitting in her apartment watching CNN. Over and over with the Sanjay Gupta’s report on legalizing marijuana, the man who flew his little plane into the capitol, the gang rape on spring break. An endless loop of the surreal, the titillating. The same exhaustion that comes from sitting in a car for hours or waiting in a hospital. Waiting. That’s what it is – numb waiting.

“I remember horse and buggies,” my grandma says, taking off what she calls her “TV ears” to share an idea that’s occurred to her. “He would come and bring ice for our ice box.” She talks of men coming to the back door during the Depression, asking for food, and how her mother always had small jobs for them to do and then extra food. She tells of being the best clarinet player in her school but how each year the top award would go to a boy. “I told  myself that if I won senior year, I’d go to college and become a music teacher; but of course a boy won again. I shouldn’t have made that promise with myself.” She recalls how her husband said, “No wife of mine is going to have a job!” — and so she didn’t. I’ve heard all of this stories before, but it is interesting that in her entire life of stories, these are the ones that resurface.

———-

In Kenya there is one male white rhino left. One in the world. He’s been named Sudan and he is under 24/7 armed guard. The rhino species is more than 50 million years old. Imagine what lives in their species’ imaginations? their memory banks?

At the O’Hare yesterday, I watch the one rhino and the men with AK-47s who surround him. As though the Dalai Lama sat behind an electrical fence all day, surrounded by guards. Waiting. A few hours later, I’m at the grocery store and there on the shelf is a wine label with a rhino on it. In the moment, this feels like stepping on shards of glass. We can’t save this creature and his kind but we can sell wine with his image? We are all too good at this — failing the student, the planet, the animals, the water, our elderly, ourselves – and putting a clever label on it.

I come back to the Gibran quote that I read every day during my dad’s cancer. The daily wonder, the yin/yang dance of joy and sorry. Nurture your wonder every bit as much as you watch your diet or exercise or do your monthly finances. Maintain wonder and you’ll spread it to those around you. “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.” – Rachel Carson.

Relics

teethCleaning off my dresser yesterday – an archaeological dig. Movie ticket stubs. Empty vitamin and medicine vials. A bracelet made by my daughter during a short-lived rubber weaving phase.

First, went the riffraff. Then I got serious, combing through the little bowls that hold jewelry. Into the garbage I scattered hardly-worn necklaces, misfit buttons, and orphan earrings.

Going deeper, I opened the small drawers at the top of my dresser where I put things for safe keeping, things that feel dear and yet without common use. There, I encountered harder-to-parse objects. The stocking cap my father wore in his final days and his hospital wristband. A single red leather shoe my daughter wore as a baby. An entire ponytail of my own 30-something year old long blonde hair cascaded from an envelope. I found teeth in a tiny manila packet, and in a tooth-shaped container, and finally in a ring box – a mingling of my children’s teeth and my own. There may have even been baby teeth from our dog Hannah. And then at the very back of the drawer, in a velvet pouch, the crunchy, soft remains of my father. Just a handful – most of his ashes were buried in the cemetery or thrown into the ocean off of Clogher Beach in Ireland.

My husband has been reading a book on de-cluttering in which the author encourages you to hold an object and ask, “Does this give me joy.” These human relics are not joyful – in fact, they are a bit melancholic. But they whisper of joy just as a seashell whispers of the ocean – of memories so sweet they sting.

These are the objects we save not because we’ll ever use them again – the ashes will not reshape into my father, the teeth will never take another bite. Rather, we hold them as reminders of our mortality. This will pass, they whisper to us. You will be dust. Your teeth will rest in a dusty box with lost buttons and single earrings. And that’s okay. Difficult, indeed, but okay.

to sleep – per chance to be adequate

Today I fell asleep with my forehead pressed against a doctor’s exam table. My daughter was seeing an allergist – a first time visit but the umpteenth attempt to try to figure out what’s wrong with her breathing. We arrithe-sleeper-1932ved in a flurry – always late, always in a flurry – me having rushed out of a pickle of a work day and her sliding out just before Spanish. They put us in a very warm exam room and after the first go round with the nurse and a longer one with the doctor – who was as perplexed by my daughter’s case as I’d hoped she would not be – Bella was given a skin test and we were left to await the results blooming on her skin:  Here – dust mites; there – molds; here – trees; there – pollens.

Bella laid on her belly and half dozed, half played on her phone. My chair was pulled up right next to the exam table and I pushed my forehead into it. I love pressure on my brow – supported forward folds with your forehead pressed into a block or even with your thumbs pressing into your brow are just about as gravy-licious as my world sometimes gets. (And hot baths. Yes, hot baths are worth a longer time on this earth.)

The room had that close, clingy too-warm feeling of a retirement home. I was wondering how I could possibly locate some caffeine … or whether it would be too weird to lay down on the floor … when a loud noise from the hallway jolted me awake. I couldn’t have been out long, but it was still unexpected. Had I drooled?

When my kids were very young, I once fell asleep while getting my teeth cleaned. Given how sensitive my gums are, this is akin to dozing during a gynecological exam. My kids are older now – so much so that I sometimes count years and then even months as to how long I still have with them. A large part of me thinks this is neither helpful nor true. Our relationships will simply continue to evolve, we’ll always be together in certain ways. Just last week, while I was out of town for a swim meet, my son and I co-edited a paper he was writing about Pompeii via Google docs. “This is a blast!” I typed – earnestly charged by the experience – and he typed back: “LOL.” That was not something we’d have done when he was younger and it seemed like an activity that could extend into the future.

They’re still exhausting – these people I birthed. It’s different. Not that crawling around on the floor exhaustion. Not that constant watching exhaustion. But the exhaustion that comes from criss-crossing across town in a car and sitting for 50 minutes in various waiting rooms. The exhaustion that comes with managing and remembering three people’s calendars – medical appointments, camp sign ups, teacher conferences. The exhaustion that comes with holding space for life’s ever larger aches. Boredom from life’s repetitions. Sadness at being left out. Frustration with school.

I can’t fix any of this. I can empathize. But it turns out that empathy is way more exhausting than the satisfying hammering of fixing. It means staying with someone even if your hands are empty. It means accepting the unknown. It means “good enough” and definitely not “perfect.”

It’s cold here in Iowa. So cold. And the part of me that counts how much longer until my kids are done with school also calculates if we could move some place warmer when they’re done. I keep towns in Northern California on my weather app and so I know that it’s been in the upper 60s and sunny in both Healdsburg and Inverness for weeks on end. Easy to dream of the next phase or life elsewhere. Harder to stay. To be good enough.

Tonight when Tobey tells us how frustrating it is that the good athletes in his PE class will never see him slay competitors in Dota, Bella and I look at him and agree – each of us sharing our own experiences of inadequacy and our quiet desires to be seen for the sparkling successes we are. Maybe in Healdsburg they’ll see me! Maybe in high school they’ll see me. Later, I’ll get chosen. 

“Good enough” is not a sexy chant. It’s not about being sparkly or fabulously improved. It has a work-a-day plainness to it. But I sense it’s all we’ve really got. One definition is “sufficient for the purpose or to satisfy desire.” I can live with that.

questioning this thing too frequently named as authenticity

imagesThe most authentic thing you can do is keep showing up.

The most authentic thing you can do is remember waking up in your bedroom when you were ten, listening to the a bike whiz by on the street, hearing your father walk down the hallway.

The most authentic thing you can do is to rest a hand on your husband’s arm. Just that.

The most authentic thing you can do is eat peanut butter from the spoon while standing in your underwear in the kitchen, the dog on the sofa watching you out of a half-opened eye.

The most authentic thing you can do is to wave at your neighbor as she pulls her garbage can from the curb.

The most authentic thing you can do is draw your bath steaming hot, sink into the salty water, fill your lungs with breath, and then sight it out.

The most authentic thing you can is wipe the crumbs from the counter and wring the sponge.

The most authentic thing you can do is listen to the sure voiced flute that lives at your core rather than to anyone else.

The most authentic thing you can do is keep showing up.

on not being interested in Pinterest

At the airport on the last leg of what had turned into a three-flight, 15-hour day, we arrived at our final gate. We had to change airlines and it was a hike from the United terminal to the less glittering American terminal. There, in the white chairs that had a distinctly ’70s feel to them, we plopped our backpacks and fanned out the boarding tickets, the five of us choosing once more between aisle and window. It was our first airplane trip together – Chris, me, and our three kids – and though we’d gotten through the week together fairly well, there was also a sense of relief that we were nearly home.

In the seating area at our gate was an elderly woman in a wheelchair who was accompanied by a short man who was younger than her though it was hard to tell by how much. A younger husband? An eldest child? Neither would have surprised me. They were in the same zoned out waiting space as we were, until a tall man – he looked a bit like the basketball player Samuel Perkins – and a short woman with a severe bun appeared and the mood suddenly changed. The foursome exclaimed and hugged and took pictures in every possible configuration–the tall man and the wheelchair-bound woman; the two women; the three eldest; etc. The older woman had to rise repeatedly from her wheelchair for the photos, while the tall man had to stoop to fit into the frame.

I kept wondering what their relationship was to each other and how they came to meet at the airport. They were all flying because we were at a gate, beyond security. But they weren’t all flying on the same plane as the older couple boarded with us and the tall man and the woman with the bun did not. And the younger couple were only carrying enormous bags of Garrett’s Popcorn, that Chicago staple. Was it a chance meeting or had they planned it?

I was standing, watching them, and doing what I like to think of as “subtle yoga”–stretching in relatively circumspect ways–when an older African American stewardess with grey spiky hair and smartly dressed in a navy blazer and wide legged pants came striding toward our area. She had a wool coat draped over one hand and was pulling a carry-on suitcase with the other. She walked directly up to a younger blonde stewardess sitting behind me, dropped her coat, and embraced the woman. The two of them hugged in a kind of way that spoke of a life event — someone had died, someone had gotten engaged, something needed to be marked. For a moment, I thought they would pull apart and laugh at their drama, but instead, they held on longer. The younger woman blinked back tears. They moved back into the shadows and stood forehead to forehead, the older woman’s hands on the other woman’s shoulders – whispering to each other. After ten minutes, the blonde woman walked across the hall and started to do her job – calling people to board, taking tickets. Once we were in the air, she served me a plastic cup of water in my perch at 12D. I wanted so badly to ask her about her friend and that remarkable hug, but I just took the water and smiled.

When we finally got home and did all of the necessary things – greeted the dog, sorted the mail – I laid in bed perusing cooking blogs. I was exhausted and yet awake from the movement of the day — the flying the airports, the luggage, the people — and reading about food to start my year on a nourishing note seemed as calming as anything.  The trouble was that I kept finding blogs that were written by perky, self-promoting women. Women who were intentionally cultivating a voice and a look that they deemed worthy of minor celebrity. Voices that might merit future sponsorship by Kraft. I just wanted a recipe, not a personality. And if there was a persona, give me MFK Fisher, not someone who introduced herself with a quiver of exclamation points:  “Hi! I’m Beth!”

It was with relief that I read a woman explaining why, after relative blogging success, she was cooking whatever the hell she wanted: “… in the past few years, I have felt myself pulled toward pleasing. Querulous crowds demanded soft white sandwich bread so we made it again, again and again, until we were happy with it. And now that I’ve figured out the secret? I never make it here. Instead, I’m working on a dark, whole-grain bread that’s a little lumpy because it’s filled with seeds and chia. It doesn’t look airy and fantastic. It’s European bread, dense and nutritious. I don’t eat bread that often anymore but when I do, I like this little dark nub of a bread. It won’t look good on Pinterest. Can I confess something? I don’t really like Pinterest.”

What utter relief. There – out in the open – the raw truth. We aren’t all looking for the cutest top to match the perfectly pedicured voice. We aren’t all hoping for our moment on the cooking channel – or what ever our medium’s equivalent is.

Fresh from reading a long article in The Atlantic about the demise of the artist in lieu of the creative entrepreneur, I was especially relieved to find this comrade – someone sick of Pinterest (and Twitter and Instagram and whatever else has been thought up in the last five minutes). Being creative has become synonymous not with plumbing the world’s stories, but with endlessly promoting one self. It’s a full-time job simply thinking about how to loudly trumpet the work that you might do, the work that you do with one eye toward how it will appear to different audiences and how it might attract a following. The work has become the dance of promotion. The other stuff, the writing and the singing and the dancing, feels increasingly secondary.

I want to know about those reunions in the airport – about what brought each of those people to O’Hare last night and how they knew the people they were looking at so tenderly. I wish I knew what stories they are each telling themselves today, this new year day, about their too brief connection in the American Airlines terminal, just down the hall from the Auntie Ann’s Pretzel shop. I want to know how we touch each other and how we hold each other – hold in love and devotion, despite time and space, despite differences of age and skin color. I want to know what is still worthwhile to type – or photograph, or play, or dance – that might help any of us to love each other better. Learning how to add a Pinterest button to my blog feels wholly without use.

sitting with the last 357 days

I’m propped in bed surrounded by some yet-to-be addressed holiday cards, a community college catalogue dog-eared to a ballroom dancing class, my dog, and Rebecca Solnit‘s Men Explain Things to Me. My planned afternoon of errands and cooking hit a snag: aches and pains and exhaustion. But the pounding from our downstairs bathroom rehab project is keeping me from sleeping. What’s a girl to do? End of the year reflection, me thinks…

Lovely fleeting family moment:  Singing through ALL of 100 Bottles of Beer on the wall on our way to the rented cabin in Wisconsin with all three kids in back of the rental van and me propped at an odd angle up front while downing lots of ibuprofen to keep the pain from kidney stones at bay.

IMG_0685Humbling “my kid is way more patient than I ever dreamed” experience:  Tobey kept telling me again and again that his foot hurt. You’d knock him ever so slightly and he’d go into paroxysms of pain. I thought it was all a bit dramatic but finally took him to the doctor and X-rays showed that he had two congenitally fused bones in his foot which, yes, would definitely cause quite a bit of pain. In January, just as the Polar Vortex (two words that still send me into a PTSD scarred little ball of dread) was really ramping up, he had the bones broken and spent the next two months in a cast or boot. Given that his classroom is on the top floor of a 100+ year old building without an elevator, it was a long winter. But the guy hardly complained once. I was humbled by his attitude.

IMG_0705Best homecoming + best yoga class:  In February, I was reunited with my dear friend Mary Mayrick and two other friends from our yoga teacher training class at Kripalu. Just walking in to those hallows doors lowered  my blood pressure and calmed all sorts of parts of me that didn’t even know they needed calming. The two-day workshop with Erich Schiffmann was utter joy. A kinder or more groovy yogi would be hard to find. Practicing freestyle yoga in the Kripalu chapel with 70 other yogis … wow. Just wow.

5.14 Bella Bat Mitvah-65Mindfulness in Action:  One of my best teachers remains Bella Epstein. Last March, she placed in several events at the State Championships in swimming, but ongoing breathing issues and what we thought was an ankle injury (turns out she has overextended ankles) have slowed her down. She has stuck with it, showing up at the pool while reexamining what interests her and other passions. It’s never easy to get sidetracked from what seemed like your True Calling, especially not at 13. In May, Bella was bat mitzvahed and was the epitome of grace. On a weekly basis, she helps me to figure out weird containers that I can’t open or find a lost key – grace under pressure, always. (Unless it’s early morning; that’s another story.) One absolutely perfect afternoon was shared when Bella and I went to Los Angeles. I’d given her a list of things we might do and when I asked, “What would you be disappointed if we couldn’t get to it?” she promptly responded:  “Relax.” So one hot afternoon we took our towels to the beach and watched the big waves in awe before getting up our guts to wade in and allow ourselves to be bobbed about like corks. It was exhilarating to be shrieking in the cold water, side by side with my daughter in the Pacific – Mother Ocean, pushed and pulled by the saltwater, laughing at our aliveness.

Utter Peace:  Another watery moment. On that trip to Wisconsin, Chris and I spent a few hours one afternoon face down on air mattresses, holding hands as we slowly perambulated the lake. Two of our kids were jumping off the floating dock, periodically laughing or hollering at each other, but otherwise it was wonderfully still. The height of summer – dragonflies, pussy willows, fat clouds. And just us, our meandering conversation, the smell of lake water, and the sun beating down on our middle aged skin, reminding us of sunburns of our youth.

Movie Moment:  I used to keep a list of all of the movies I watched and all of the books I read. Both categories have shrunk considerably in the years since having kids, though I’m trying to re-stoke my habits. I did get away for one matinee all by myself (solo movie going is really sweet, I’ve always thought; a date with your best friend) and thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of Iowa City’s new independent cinema, FilmScene AND the very dear, spot-on Obvious Child, an unlikely comedy about abortion.

Adventures in the Imagination: As far as books go, I spent much of the last year grieving the characters from Telegraph Avenue. Wanting anything close approaching that awesome literary experience, I read The Amazing Aventures of Kavalier & Clay. It wasn’t sunny Oakland, but there were still some gobsmackingly good moments – including the entire detour to Alaska. Michael Chabon, you undo me.

Teaching in Order to Be Taught: Last spring, I was invited to teach a daylong workshop on creativity and writing to girls at a correctional facility south of Portland, OR. I spent a lot of time preparing my talk and a series of exercises – all of which seemed to go over well. But the experience of hearing the stories of the mainly teenage girls who live locked up was deeply moving.

Collaboration: Some times the best times are the unexpected ones. In this case, it came after getting to see Cirque du Soleil in Vegas (thank you, mom!) and then catching back up with friends and colleagues who had gone out after a long day of a workshop. Dave Gould, Eli Kaufman, and Joe Cilek and I had a wide ranging conversation about the future of education that lasted until the wee hours. No gambling, no booze, just the intoxication of creative ideas flowing wildly.

IMG_1573Blessed:  During two days at Point Reyes National Seashore in November, Chris and I saw a whale, dolphins, elk, and coyotes. We ate the best Rueben sandwich at a roadside deli and one evening’s meal consisted of a cold crab, champagne, and Cow Girl Creamery‘s Red Hawk cheese. Sitting by the ocean for hours, staring at the waves, we were blessed again and again, as though a mantra was being told to us anew. This place has completely captured my heart. I plan to spend my 50th birthday there in 2016 –  friends & companions welcome!

untapped reservoir of beauty

profile_picture_by_mr_shrimp-d70mwe0Driving into Chicago, I listened to the On Being episode that I managed to download without taking my eyes off the road. It was an interview with Bernard Chazelle, Princeton computer science professor and Bach expert. I’ve never heard of Chazelle and must admit that I don’t think about Bach too often. But he’s a spirited conversationalist and his words got me through the snarled traffic jam that clogs the interstate between Oakbrook and Oak Park. The overhead digital sign had told me 39 minutes to city center, but it seemed to be 29 minutes from one western ‘burb to the next.

I was halfway through the interview, mildly annoyed with the black Lexus that kept darting between lanes, when Chazelle said something that hit me beyond the level of “hmmm… kind of cool.” When I got to the hotel, I listened to this part again and tried to type out his words, though I only managed a close proximation:  “What amazes me is how Bach’s music moves you so much, but it’s just sound waves hitting your ears…and this emotion bubbles up, you start tearing up. What’s going on? You can say, ‘It’s Bach; he’s a genius.’ But no, it’s not so easy. I have to have the ability in my brain to create that emotion. …It’s almost dizzying to realize that when you’re moved like that there must be a reservoir of beauty that mainly goes untapped, but if you can find it with the right spotlight then it’s there, this amazing possibility.”

Yes. That beauty that we all too often don’t let in but that’s there all along. Of course when we see the ocean or a great painting we tap it. Just last month, staring at the Pacific on the beaches of Point Reyes, I was moved to tears several times. But what about my daily walk with the dog? I walk the same blocks again and again with the same dog by my side. Only occasionally will this very familiar scene bring me to tears. Like the sweet drunk guy in a movie, I’m suddenly looking at the same bush and the same trees and the same dog but through a new lens: Wow, it’s sooo beautiful! 

But how to access this reservoir all of the time? I believe this is possible. I want to live there.

In identifying parts of myself — there’s the 10-year old imp who wants to explore, the 6-year old waif who is afraid and darts and hides, the Felix Unger type who scolds me for spending money, etc. — there’s a part I call Mr. Shrimp. He is a walking shrimp with a cane (I know – really weird, but bare with me, this is Inner Psyche Land and just like with Alice, it’s all a bit tripped out). Mr. Shrimp’s role is to be a thin, brittle layer that keeps me from feeling anything too much. He is my exoskeleton, a sheath of protective coating. I understand that Mr. Shrimp is trying to keep me from feeling the really hard stuff, but often I wish he’d take a long vacation to Tahiti (or maybe to Israel where they don’t shellfish and, hence, he’d be safe) and let me dive into the reservoir of beauty buck naked, with no protective sheath. What would that be like?

Walking down Michigan Avenue tonight it was – it always is – too much. It’s such a jangle of high and low – Cartier and Forever 21 rubbing shoulders; women in full minks and high black boots wait for the walk light next to a family in faded jeans and Nikes. Rising above the street are luxurious apartments and hotel rooms, while people with cardboard signs sit on the corners:  “Hello, my name is Amy. Please anything helps. Merry Christmas.”

Mr. Shrimp keeps me from sitting down next to Amy and sobbing. He also keeps me from seeing Amy completely because no doubt there is beauty there that my guilt does not allow me to experience. And what does Amy see? I imagine she’s quite aware of Mr. Shrimp – of thousands of exoskeletons that walk past her each day, protected behind suits and down coats, behind cell phone screens and phalanxes of shopping bags.

The reservoir that Bach opens up is that of our vulnerability. The music inspires awe and reminds us of how simultaneously small we are and yet how grand. Residing in both our simpleness and our greatness is where we open to beauty. It necessitates vulnerability combined with belief in the impossible. As the Irish writer John O’Donohue puts it, “When we walk on the earth with reverence, beauty will decide to trust us. The rushed heart and arrogant mind lack the gentleness and patience to enter that embrace.”

Tomorrow and for the final days of this year, I am committed to walking with reverence. I am asking for beauty’s trust. And Mr. Shrimp? He can take the rest of the month off!