Thursday, September 19, 2013

What Do You See?

Last weekend we celebrated Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. Mike and I spent some time outdoors in the chapel of nature and many more hours watching an inspirational service streamed live online from Central Synagogue in New York City. Last night I participated in an equally inspirational discussion of Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy. The two have several threads in common.

Yom Kippur is a fast day. People sometimes mistakenly think that the act of fasting is, itself, a type of penance, the way we purge our souls of accumulated sin. Not true. A one day fast is a short-hand way to experience suffering, which reminds us people are always suffering, even when we are not. Active Hope asks us to “honor our pain for the world,” rather than turning away from the mess we’re in because it is too painful or we don’t know how or feel powerless to make a difference. 

The Yom Kippur service calls on us to recount and ask forgiveness for the ways we personally caused suffering in the past year—through our decisions, thoughts, words, actions, and omissions—rather than thinking we can hide these sins from ourselves, others, and, most importantly, from G-d. The authors of Active Hope likewise ask us to “acknowledge that our times confront us with realities that are painful to face, difficult to take in, and confusing to live with.” In both cases, we begin our quest for something better, something more life sustaining, by being honest about the error of our ways.

We gain individual strength to make things right by participating as a community in the Yom Kippur service, which emphasizes that the spiritual purpose of life according to Judaism is tikkun olam, meaning “to repair (or heal) the world.” This suggests all people have a shared responsibility to heal, repair, and transform the world—beginning with ourselves, but not all by ourselves. 

Similarly, Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone encourage us to “draw on a sense of fellowship, belonging, and connection…as if we are remembering our root system. This is a power-with (rather than a power over)…that we can draw on, that acts through us.” Both sources tell me now is a time to realize the importance of our connection with the Earth and all life on it and to feel gratitude as well for the unknowable forces that propel life. Now is the time to be willing “to find and play our part,” to ask ourselves, “Does the way I live my life support the changes I want to bring about?” And to build our relationships with like-minded people.

Finally, Yom Kippur is an opportunity for redemption, to begin anew inside the Gates of Heaven. Having humbly purified ourselves, we have drawn closer to the essence of Spirit, we have made at–one-ment with a merciful G-d and set our intention to faithfully practice tikkun olam in the days to come.  Macy and Johnstone put it this way, “In the model of co-intelligence, we’re never alone in (our) endeavors. A larger story is taking place, and we’ve just chosen, or been chosen, to play a particular role in it.”

Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope-not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of self-righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges (our people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through); nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of "Everything is gonna be all right," but a very different, sometimes lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it might be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle. And we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.
Excerpt from an article written by Victoria Safford which appeared in the September 20, 2004 edition of The Nation. Adapted from The Impossible Will Take A Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear (Basic Books)

Sunday, September 1, 2013

So Much To Do, So Little Time

I once read that new experiences trigger denser memories. First time events are deeply encoded with rich, novel detail that cannot be easily attached to previous neuron firings. Thus, I can recall the nuances of a family vacation to Niagara Falls when I was no more than eight years old as an extended sensory panorama that seems to have lasted for months, when, in fact, we were away from home less than a week. I recall the lumpy beds in the cabin we stayed in the first night out, the sight of cows in the dewy meadow across the highway the next morning, the roadside teepee where my parents bought me a beaded "Indian Princess" doll, the heaviness of the oversized yellow rain slicker I had to wear and the chill of the nearby waterfall as we rode the Maid of the Mist.

In contrast, since I'm now an experienced traveler, the recent tour of the Northeast Michael and I took with stops in North Bellmore, NY - East Meadow, NY - South Chatham, MA - Northport, NY - Hungtington, NY - Lebanon, NJ before driving the 11 hour journey home is stored in memory as more or less a whirlwind. In recollection it is shrunk into one delicious, kalaidescopic gulp of goodness. Instead of the details, I appear to have each segment of that trip recorded as fewer details, but more intense emotions - the ever-bittersweet time with Mom and brother Josh, sharing laughs and fine food with old friends, the non-demanding embrace of cousins on Chatham Bay, inspirational exchanges with a wise muse and her hubby, a deeply moving family birthday party provoking thoughts of generations moving on, and, finally, sweetly savored moments of love exchanged with our grand daughter, days before she begins her senior year of high school. A week turned into a blink and tucked among so many other fast flying moments of Summer 2013, traveling and hosting travelers from afar.

It is now Labor Day Weekend. Dogwoods and Fire Bushes are already showing red leaves. Tomato plants have succumbed to blight (too much rain!) Goldfinches are moving ever so slightly into their duller colors. And children have returned to school. I guess I wasn't bored, because I'm wanting to stall these changes out a bit. 

I know all the wonderful ways I've filled my summer days, and I would count each one as happy. I've been playful and creative and crossed off many items that have been on my "to do" list for a long time. Most satisfying was collaborating with Brother Josh to enroll Mom in an adult daycare program she'll attend twice a week, thus tearing down the wall of isolation that has surrounded her and attacked her mind. But I haven't had my fill of looong, sunny days, and too few of them, if any, have been lazy. So much yet to do, so little time...But hold on; just hold on a minute....

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Unbridled Ecstacy

Tuesday early evening. Mike has left for his poker game. Chelsea is alternately lying with her front paws stretched out and crossed daintily in front of her and darting between a game of tag with a moth and scanning the lower gardens from the deck where I sit peacefully observing.

No mowers. No leaf blowers. No airplanes or buses. And especially brilliant, no barking dogs next door. For the past three years the space next door to us, which used to be a wooded lot, has been occupied by a rather unfriendly family and their never, ever silent German shepherds, Grisly and Harley. That's right, not one, but two.

As early as April when we were blessed by the first warm days this year, I began dreading another summer unable to open the windows or dine on the deck. I even began actively searching for get away places to spend July and August, quiet spots where I might be able to read, paint, or write without the constant attack on my nerves.

Not that I wished the family next door any misfortune, just that they'd disappear. You might have heard me yelp with disbelief and pleasure the day in June the for sale sign went up in front of their house. I cautioned myself, "It's a big, big house and their asking price is as big as his ego, so don't expect any action too quickly." And yet, tonight, although the sign is still there, they are gone - moved back to Florida, where they came from and which she loved. I'm so happy for all of us.

The sun is dropping now behind the western trees. The air has lost its almost August edge and a cool breeze is wafting the smell of somebody's grill from somewhere down the ridge. I hear only the rustle of squirrels performing their limb to limb acrobatics. The hummingbirds chiding one another as they hover for position at the sugar water. A mourning dove cooing a soft lullaby. The tap tap of the titmouse determined to open a black oiler. The chirping chorus of four stacked goldfinches swilling nyjer. And finally, the chit, chit of Mr. and Mrs. Cardinal - always the last to feed.

Go ahead, call me anti-social, but these are "my peeps," and in their sweet company, I am once again and always peaceful and delighted.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


I thought I had hit the publish button on this post the end of June, the morning after seeing Terpsicorps' most incredible offering to date. The post is late, but the sentiment and message remain sincere.

The lights dim, the red curtains at the jewel box Diana Wortham Theater part. Heather Maloy emerges, her face, neck and shoulders aglow like pale moonlight. Her figure is svelte, belying her “recent new mom” status. The shimmering white gown she wears is made of the pages of romance novels and packing tape and is a forecurser of the costumes in the signature piece of tonight’s ballet, “Reborn.” Heather welcomes us to Terpsicorps’ Tenth Anniversary Season, and while those of us who are loyal fans are anticipating a fine performance, we have no idea the treat ahead.

Heather, Christopher Bandy, her co-choreographer for the evening, and the amazing ensemble of young but seasoned dancers present two hours of entertainment that is diverse, moving and spectacular. The first dance, “Le Suil Go…” (In the Hope that…) is a toe tapping romp to traditional Celtic airs performed by the very live and lively quartet, Michael Bellar, Evan Bivins, Matthew Bivins and Ian Moore. I want to get up and dance myself. Instead, we just tap our toes and clap, during and after the piece.

“Yin/Yang,” concludes the first act with a study in black and white that is both thought provoking and humorous (yin/yang?). It is a world premiere, choreographed by Christopher Bandy with original music composed and performed by Michael Bellar. Totally fulfilling.

The second act is over the top. In addition to dancers whose bodies make me long to be reborn myself, the costumes (by R. Brooke Priddy, Shipto Shore, Asheville) staging, and lighting remind me that I’m in the presence of creative genius.  Believe it or not, this series of vignettes takes us symbolically through the entire life cycle, from death to the womb, to birth, and through several major adult milestones, including four perspectives on love. The first two pieces, “The Journey’s End” and “Birth,” touch me in the core of my body – my heart aches with feelings that are unutterable. Isn’t that what art is all about?

As difficult as it is to describe my emotional reactions, it’s equally difficult to give the costumes and props for the second act their due. If you go, you are sure to be amazed with the way Heather Maloy uses materials to augment the meaning of the dances effortlessly delivered through the dancers’ grace and athleticism. The troupe certainly deserves a shout out of their own. Their flexibility, strength, balance and synchronicity are incredible. And a final word of praise goes to the musicians, who not only compose and play, but also sing and dance themselves quite admirably in a musical prelude to the “Love” vignettes.

If you go? No "if". Whenever Terpsicorps is performing in Asheville or Winston-Salem. Buy your tickets early and go. Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance.

The Attitude of Gratitude

What, worry about age? Not my friend and the Mayor of our fine city, Terry Bellamy. Be inspired, as I was, by her Facebook post last evening.

Terry Bellamy

Thank you for all of the birthday wishes and birthday blessings. I appreciate your sincere acts of kindness. This birthday is very special to me, as this is my last one as Mayor of the City of Asheville.

Today, someone said to me, "I will not ask you your age because I know how women get." I am actually proud to tell my age. I am 41 years old. I was raised by a woman who gave me all that I needed and more than I could ever ask for. I have a dad, sisters and a brother who love me for being me. I have a husband who loves and supports me. I have children and a nephew who unconditionally love and care for me. Countless family members who call me, text me, FB me just to say, "I love You and I got your back." I have true friends who will laugh with me, cry with me and forgive me.

Lastly, I am Mayor of my hometown. My grandmother used to clean the homes of people at Brooks Howell Home and my grandfather worked diligently as a carpenter to provide for their children in this city --the one that I now govern. I could go on, but I won't.

So, if you think I am afraid to tell my age -- your wrong. I am blessed beyond what I could imagine. Thanks for taking the time to read my sentiments, I'm closing with the words from one of my favorite songs -- I Won't Complain, by Paul Jones:

I've had some good days
I've had some hills to climb
I've had some weary days
And some sleepless nights

But when I look around
And I think things over
All of my good days
Outweigh my bad days
I won't complain

Sometimes the clouds are low
I can hardly see the road
I ask a question, Lord
Lord, why so much pain?
But he knows what's best for me
Although my weary eyes
They can't see
So I'll just say thank you Lord
I won't complain.

Good night and God bless!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Muddy Waters - Clear Sight

I've said it before, "Spring stirs up the swamp waters within me." I get restless. Want to be on the move, redecorate, change my hairstyle, put seedlings and shubbery into the ground. This spring is no different. Perhaps those urges are being influenced by some pretty dramatic weather.

Roiling river, rolling moods. Luckily, I've had distractions that helped to tamper some of my own drastic impulses. A six month series of workshops on "Exploring New Creative Territory through Visual Journaling" at Bookworks in Asheville has helped channel my wanderlust. A one day Watercolor Intensive with Elizabeth Ellison at the NC Arboretum helped me hone the ability to quiet down, focus in and reflect on the bliss I experience when connecting with the natural world.

I've always been afraid of watercolor painting. It's not like working with acrylic paint, where you can add a layer to mask an error. However, something in the combination of classes and my need to "quiet down" have been good for me. Here are some samples of the things I've seen, recorded in watery shorthand as amulets against agitation. I hope you find they lift your spirits as well.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

No Words Can Speak the Heart's Truth

Mom working on her favorite - a Klondike Bar

Monday night, after two days of travel from New York/New Jersey I was exhausted. Physically and emotionally spent. Tuesday and Wednesday I completed the ritual of "re-entry" tasks - fill the refrigerator, tend to the left behind plants, bathe the dog, do the laundry, pay the bills, complete a pile of "follow up for Mom and brother Josh" items.

While I moved, my mind was distracted, my body was heavy, full of tears which I kept at bay. Sadness for the loss of my mother, who rarely smiles or responds anymore. Sadness that my brother considers me a disruptive force when I visit and resents my life when I leave. Anger that no matter how I try, I can't give either of them what they want, what they need. 

I console myself by affirming I did my best. I give in to myself by putting off my regular exercise routine for one more day and taking a two hour afternoon nap.

Today the tears are no longer sitting just below my eyes, they are sitting across my breast bone. I did my morning exercise. I opened my watercolor paints. I went to lunch with spiritual friends who offered hugs and wisdom. The real unpacking has begun. 

Mom always called me "the mouse"

Sunday, March 10, 2013

I Danced With God

The sun peeked through a partly-cloudy Sunday morning, so I put her red harness on Chelsea and drove us up the road to the NC Arboretum. My initiative was rewarded with a perfect pre-birthday treat.
Me and My Shadow
The temperature rose to 61 and I shed layers of clothing, as my enthusiastic partner and I responded to the lure of the sights, smells and sounds enticing our senses at each turn of the road.

Papery dead leaves talking in the gentle breeze. Damp earth encouraging new growth on thorny stalks, hairy vines, towering trees and dense underbrush. Bright purple vinca vine flowers poking up through eons of mulch. Bent Creek tumbling over rocks and glistening in pools. The diversity of texture, shape and shadow. 

Chelsea checked for pee-mail and I found messages of another kind.

Adapt to Your Environment
Bloom No Matter What

Is it a butterfly in March?
It is a butterfly. Expect the Unexpected.
Even What's Rough Has Value
Go With the Flow

I always bring a cell phone when I walk “alone” in the woods. This time I had my new I-Phone 5, with the music I had transferred from I-Tunes for our recent road trip through Florida. I set the mode to shuffle and the volume low enough for it to be only a backdrop to the call of nature and the occasional sounds of other walkers and sturdy souls on all-terrain bikes. A few oldies rose to the top of the play list. And then, as if angels knew what I needed, the medley of spirit soothing music I listened to nightly when I struggled for months against end-stage liver disease.

With no concern at all for who might be looking, there in the Pisgah Forest I danced with God to Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison. I swayed with the supple trees to Rod Stewart’s American Songbook. And somewhere between the National Azalea Repository and BentCreek Trail, breathing in and out in a walking meditation, I was literally brought to tears of gratitude for the gift of this day and a blessed awareness of my connection to all that was/is around me.

The perfect way to usher in a new year of life.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Begin With the End in Mind

Here's a story about a nurse's observations of  The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying. I'd love to hear feedback from you on what you might add or substitute on this list.

I expressed some of my own regrets in 2009 when I penned this poem:

Epitaph for a Spirit

A beautiful, fragile flower has finished her season.
In her own words, 
“She did nothing, she left nothing, she had a good time.”
But we know better.

Driven by passion and guided by intent,
She moved like a graceful, precariously balanced top.
Ever bumping into opportunities to grow in empathy,
And leave behind positive, fruitful energy.

How tragically ironic that one so blessed,
Was unable to feel these contacts more deeply,
Nor recognize the trail of tiny, mighty gifts in her wake. 

Few of us give ourselves the credit we deserve for the value we bring to the world simply by showing up. Our Judeo-Christian traditions emphasize humility over pride (one of the seven deadly sins, after all). I must have bought into this twisted belief early on. For me, accepting and appreciating my own "worthiness" has required persistent effort. Maybe that's why I have devoted myself to encouraging others toward self-acceptance in my daily encounters, and in my career, writing and art. I'm still working on it.

Love Yourself as You Love Others

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Playful Production

It's a new year, a new month, an on-going process of experimentation called "life."

Since I finished the rewrite of my memoir on a time of illness and recovery and delivered the manuscript into the hands of, hopefully, gentle critics for the first read, I've been released back into my right brain, visual persona. Last week I attended the first session of an art journal workshop with Heather Allen Hietala at Bookworks.  It's supposed to  help us break through creative blocks and unleash our creativity. We'll see how that goes.

My problem is not so much that my creativity is blocked, but more that I'm blocked about putting it out in public. The walls of our home are full of my work (along with valued works by others I consider "real" artists). My closets and drawers are rife with wearable art. And I've gifted and donated handcrafted items and artwork to friends, loved ones, and charities. I'm just not good at making my output readily accessible to the marketplace. I think I have a handle on some of the reasons, but not a great grasp of how to break out and get into the game.

I'm a Pisces - I remember at my little girl birthday parties, I was both happy to be recognized by the notes of "Happy Birthday to You....", and embarrassed to be the (unworthy?) center of attention. Oh my - so young to be so serious, but that was me as far back as I can remember. 

It's the same thing now, I guess. I yearn for my unique talents to be noticed, I crave recognition and respect, but in my heart of hearts I harbor the "I'm just not good enough" enemy. So, to make good on an intention to break out and be my own best friend. Here is a brief selection of the playful product of my Winter hibernation period, so far. Just like a Pisces - going in all directions at once.

Bear Family - Water Color Sketch

Catch the Mood Collage

Joyous Dancers Collage

Red '40s Cloche Crochet

"Scrap Bag" - purse made from remnants

Smartphone Mittens


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Big Chill

It’s a greyed out Tuesday. Although my husband (the truly magnanimous dog-walker in the family) tells me that it’s not so cold, just wet and foggy outside, somehow no matter how many layers I layer on, I cannot seem to warm up my extremities. Perhaps it has something to do with the presence of illness and death hanging just as heavy and pervasive around me as the fog.

Last Friday, on the second anniversary of my own Dad’s death, my cousin Carol died. She has been released from the unbelievably upbeat struggle she waged against Cancer over the past two years and the pain she endured during the last months and weeks. Of course we must agree that this transition is a blessing for her. But her death leaves a pain in my heart and lays a fog on my brain. Carol - one of a pair of twins; one of three sisters, an amazing wife, mother, grandmother, friend, educator, community servant…. I know the same trite labels can be attached to so many, and I assure you that the fullness and commitment that Carol brought to her everyday actions and relationships cannot be expressed by any common adjective or simple noun.

I think by now Carol’s funeral has concluded and family and friends are gathered at her home to support her husband and sons as they begin the seven day Jewish mourning period known as “shiva”. (Ironically, the Hindu god “Shiva” is at once a fearsome destroyer and yet also a calm, meditating spiritual seeker, but in this context “shiva” comes from the Hebrew word shiv'ah, which literally means "seven". The Jewish tradition was developed in response to the story in Genesis 50:1-14 in which Joseph mourns the death of his father Jacob (Israel) for seven days.) On Carol and Larry’s street in White Plains, NY, today there will be trouble finding a parking place. But Mike and I are not there.

We made an ill-fated attempt to get up there from Asheville this weekend, beginning Saturday, right after being confronted first thing in the morning by Carol’s younger son’s Facebook tribute to his mom. We made hurried arrangements for the dog, the house and the mail. We packed and bought sandwiches to avoid making any lengthy stops en route, borrowed books on CD from the library and a wheelchair from the nearby assisted living facility so we’d be able to transport my immobile mom to the services. I fell flat on my back trying to load the car in too much of a hurry, and perhaps that in itself should have been all the omen I needed. But Carol is the first one of our generation of cousins (“the Lucky 7”) to be lost, and although my original plans for Saturday were to sleep off what seemed to be an impending head cold, I wanted to – needed to - be in New York.

By the time the car was loaded and all the errands were run, we’d lost half the daylight and then some and learned that the funeral was not scheduled until Tuesday, so we decided to fortify ourselves with another night in our own beds before setting off on the two day drive. Leaving early Sunday morning we were able to reach Maryland, the halfway point, in time to catch a sit-down dinner in the mall nearby the motel.

After Sunday dinner I contacted my brother on Long Island who was preparing to return to work Monday for the first time in two weeks, dragging himself there in spite of residual flu fatigue. I knew Josh would not be able to take time off and assured him we’d be in Bellmore on Monday night in time to transport Mom to her orthopedist appointment on Tuesday morning and to the funeral on Tuesday afternoon, as previously discussed. That’s when he told me he wasn’t sure we should stay at their house or be around Mom, who was sounding more and more like she had caught at the very least a cold, hopefully not the flu, herself. Mom probably wouldn’t be able to attend the funeral. He would work out arrangements to get her to her doctor.

Shift gears. Call my friend Roz, another White Plains resident. Leave voice mail, “Can we stay with you before and after the funeral?” Monday morning I got a call back, “You are welcome to come, but I have come down with some kind of virus myself, and I don’t think it would be wise. You know, the governor has declared a flu epidemic in New York. Are you sure you should come at all?”

Because I am a transplant recipient I take immunosuppressant drugs to prevent rejection of the liver that has settled so symbiotically into relationship with the organs I was born with. In the six years since my transplant I have had my share of “ordinary illnesses” and while recovery is sometimes slower than for the “average” person, thankfully, I haven’t faced any challenges that took a turn for the worse. I lead a normal life, but am vigilant. I wear a medical mask on airplane rides. I sometimes even slip one on once the lights go down at the movies. Mike’s poker buddies kindly beg off if the game’s at our house and they are or recently have been sick. I made careful choices at the recent holiday buffets and pot lucks, selecting only food that likely had been handled by few people (no peanuts, nothing that might have been “double-dipped.”)

I had a flu shot in early November, and now suddenly was wondering if it was still viable. I thought about the crowds that would be in close quarters at the synagogue and at Larry’s home after the burial. I thought about the hugging and hand-shaking that, no matter what my intention, I would not be emotionally able to resist. I even thought about how my body reacts to baptism by sadness. Some say I am “too sensitive” – whatever, it’s me and it’s not gentle. Thank goodness for a supportive, flexible husband. I made the difficult decision to obey my gut rather than my heart – we called to make our apologies to the family, turned around and drove eight hours south rather than north.

The universe would not let me be.  Not five miles down the interstate we passed a truck proclaiming the good work being done by, “The Heart of Hospice.” After dinner at home in Asheville last night, Mike went down to the den to catch up on sports scores. I went into our bedroom to stretch my car-weary back and distract my mind with an HD Net Movie. The feature presentation, “The Big Chill.”

It’s late afternoon on Tuesday. I am wondering how everyone in New York is doing. I am wondering if my self-protective decision was sensible or cowardly. I am wondering what I will do if and when my mother, husband or brother is acutely ill and/or hospitalized. I am struck by the way attitudes and actions interact and the cascading consequences of our decisions.

Dad is gone two years. Carol is gone three days. Other losses past and future echo in the cold cavern of my consciousness and suck the warmth from my toes and fingertips. It’s a greyed out Tuesday in mid-January. I'm praying, "Let this pass too."