Around and Around

While trying not to succumb to the whole New Year’s Resolution thing, I make some resolutions, or what I like to call “shifts and adjustments.” I resolve to get back on track with healthy eating. I promise myself I will spend less time angsting on social media and rage-tweeting about global events I cannot actually control. I take a solemn vow to reinstate my Gadget-Free Friday.  (Remember that?? hahahahahaaaa….I think it lasted two Fridays…if that)

In the past, some New Year’s Days I have sought out a labyrinth to walk. It is an occasional habit I like to indulge on that brand spanking new day, full of promise and potential, a way of stepping into what feels like a moment of transition, of putting me back in touch with my own power to initiate change.

The history of labyrinth walking is centuries old. The name dates back to Greek mythology and the Isle of Crete, where the legendary Minotaur, a half-man half-bull monster, was trapped inside by the winding maze.

The entrance to the labyrinth is my portal, and as I walk in and glide along slowly, the years spool out behind me. Ahead of me, the future lies in a meandering path, leading me to switchbacks and reversals, where I brush up against the way I just walked and time past, then into the center where I will stop and wait for all the “me’s” – past, future, and present – to catch up to one another.

In the center I am hoping my scattered pieces can coalesce a bit. Each year I find I crave more and more that sense of coming home to myself.

From the center I’m led out on a seemingly (but not actually) different path, again back and forth, back and forth and finally, miraculously, delivered from the labyrinth and into the ordinariness of the day. The winding and unwinding will remain a tactile memory implanted as sensory information in my brain.

And in truth, no day is ordinary. Apparently, in recent news scientists at CERN concluded the universe should not exist. Yet…here we are.

An Episcopal church up the road had opened their doors for pilgrims to walk the in-floor labyrinth on New Year’s Eve, but we were busy having a big old party, so instead I wound my way through the house, chatting with people, meeting new folks, eavesdropping on stories, counting my blessings that I am here, now.

Several years ago on New Year’s Day I walked a small stony unkempt labyrinth in the back yard of a Methodist church in Carolina Beach, squinting my eyes as I tried to track the nearly disappeared pattern.

Another year I downloaded a finger labyrinth onto my iPad and followed the mesmerizing pattern on the screen with the pointer finger of my right hand.

(This year in Wilmington it was cold and raw on New Year’s Day, so I stayed in and pondered the slippage of time while sipping a Mimosa and chatting with my new roommates.)

Each time I experience a labyrinth, I’m reminded anew of how deceptive the path can be. Just when you think you are approaching the center, you find you are flung back out again, so you just have to keep going, trusting the path will bring you to where you need to be.

“Round and round and round she goes, and where she stops, nobody knows.”

That phrase is said to have come into common usage from a talent show called The Original Amateur Hour. The emcee spun the wheel to determine the order in which guest performers would appear. Singers and dancers, jugglers, baton twirlers, and musicians performed for a live audience that then cast ballots for their favorites, the winner taking home a cash prize.

May I confess to you that’s how I feel nearly all the time – like an amateur? As an alleged adult, as a human being trying to become a better one. As a writer. As a person seeking more answers while also seeking more mystery. Total amateur.

Of course, the Word Nerd in me demands I go look up the etymology of amateur, and I find it means “one who loves.” Nice. Grace embedded in even our clumsy attempts. I’ll take it.

This morning we awoke to snow (snow!!) here in Wilmington. The egrets have hunkered down somewhere; the blue heron sits hunched gazing into the water, clearly confused. The songbirds are eating up all the seed they can get their little beaks on. The marsh is edged with ice and the reeds dusted with white.

Some days I have no idea how I got here, my house for sale, my life relocated. Then I remember…I just kept following the path.

Happy New Year, everyone. Wishing you beautiful winding ways, alluring portals, gifts from time past, present, and future, and abundant grace for your own amateur hours. I am glad to count you as traveling companions.

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Winter Solstice II

A year ago today I was staying with friends who had taken me in when temperatures in Boone had dropped to overnight lows of 6°F, too cold for the dogs and I to stay warm – or even tepid – in Roadcinante at the run-down old RV campground where we’d been staying. I was a little over two weeks away from my departure. It was ever so wonderful to be in a home with people I adored.

Everything then was weighted with import for me. Each day that brought me closer to my leave-taking seemed sweeter and more poignant. When the Winter Solstice rolled around on the calendar, we decided to have a Solstice Party, since I had been wanting to somehow mark the day of least light in preparation for my sojourn to go chase it. The day, while just another on the calendar, seemed pivotal, momentous.

Food was procured, people invited, libations stocked. The tree had been decorated, lights aglow. Everything and everyone gleamed. The crowd swelled. So did the soundtrack of laughter and wild chatter and the background of music as the wine was poured, the beer was swigged.

Then we set about making this new champagne cocktail we’d learned of, where you take good dry white champagne and add a teaspoon of syrupy pomegranate balsamic vinegar and drop about 4 plump pomegranate seeds in the bottom. Fantastic, and, hey, presto! In no time, many of us were…um, what is that term I am looking for…oh, yeah! Shit-faced!

At some point my friend whose house I was staying in asked, “Do you want to do a ritual or something?” and I looked around at the gathered crowd, just looked at them, you know the way you do sometimes when it seems you are watching a lovely movie of lovely people, and everyone was having fun, their faces all shiny and happy. I tried to think of what I might do or say, but around champagne cocktail #2 the idea of planning had gotten a little fuzzy and whatnot.

“Nope,” I said, peering through the director’s frame I made with my thumbs and forefingers, taking a mental picture to keep. “I’m good.”

Two days later I got the “Chasing Light” tattoo on the inside of my left wrist, which satisfied my need to mark the journey. (I have this wild idea that when Chasing Light is a book, a temporary tattoo with this design could be included in each copy. What say you? Would you walk around for a couple of days with a spiral-blazing sun stuck to a body part?)

Of course, while I was busy thinking how to mark the journey, it was already marking me. Readying me for my solo flight and the months ahead.

Now, here it is a year later and I am heavy into the throes of telling the story of how I chased light and found myself again in the process, not even knowing when I set out how badly I had misplaced myself, coming out from under some self-imposed exile, my solitude as penance for all my perceived failures, and against this the light rising more and more each day, and it hasn’t stopped yet. I count that as blessing.

For fun, I’ve joined an international Twitter reading group, (brainchild of author Robert MacFarlane and poet Julia Mary Bird) reading Susan Cooper’s classic young person’s book, The Dark Is Rising, the second in her five-book series. The story begins on Midwinter’s Eve, as did the group read yesterday. Today I read chapter two for Midwinter’s Day. On this shortest day of the year, the day of the most dark, a young boy’s world changes in terrifying ways. He finds he no longer recognizes his home. He finds himself in a strange and unfamiliar land. He finds the dark is rising. He finds he is on a journey that will carry him to places unknown that are fraught with danger. I have not read this book before, so I don’t know what is going to happen next, but I trust that in the end Light is going to win.

In fact, I trust that for us, too, for all of us. Tonight is dark, tomorrow a little less so.

 

 

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Change Is In The Wind

After a temperate fall in Boone, a cold wind was headed our way, but I had aimed to be ahead of it, preparing to drive south and east toward the North Carolina coast and my new digs in Wilmington.

In Greek mythology, the name of the god of the North Wind is Boreas. He comes blustering in, an old man with a conch shell and fierce intent, icing everything in his path. Last week, as I coordinated with my realtor and with electricians and propane technicians, I was also keeping an eye on the weather forecast, knowing by Friday, the day I meant to depart, the weather was going to change, with temperatures taking a nosedive into the teens by the weekend.

I was down to the wire, getting the house winterized so pipes wouldn’t freeze and burst in my absence, getting the propane heater repaired, having the electrical panel replaced, packing up the rest of my belongings, trying to be strategic as I selected what to load into Roadcinante.

Thursday afternoon I got the last mail that would be delivered to my house and found one of those letters from the NC-DMV that strikes fear into the hearts of every North Carolina driver – “Your license plate has been revoked and you must turn it in immediately” – due to a lapse in liability insurance. Of which there had been none, not even one second.

“But…I’m leaving tomorrow!” I wailed into the abyss, but the abyss did not care. I emailed my insurance agent. I missed her call letting me know there was an issue with Roadcinante’s VIN number, and by the time I got her voice mail, the office had closed.

Meanwhile, sudden weather warnings were coming that the sky was going to open up and dump snow, beginning…Friday morning.

I did not sleep much Thursday night. I kept checking the weather reports, saw around 3:00 in the morning when the National Weather Service issued a Winter Weather Advisory, noted that snowfall was to begin by 6:30 a.m., with a possible accumulation of up to 6 inches.

Roadcinante, parked out in the driveway that is halfway up the mountain where my daughter and son-in-law and son live, sat patiently, awaiting her fate.

Recall Roadcinante is a BIG girl and now I have loaded her down with a lot of boxes of books and manuscripts and other heavy stuff. Recall she has rear-wheel drive and on slick snow-covered roads is as likely to become a scarily-oversized toboggan as she is to be a safely managed vehicle. Recall my white-knuckle adventure on the hills way back in northern California this past summer (“From Grade to Grace“). See me becoming ever more panicked.

I was up by 5:30 Friday morning, and it was already snowing, big fat flakes that quickly covered the ground, and blanketed Roadcinante’s windshield. At 7:30 I decided to drive Roadcinante down the steeply winding gravel road and have my daughter follow me to the bottom.

Coming down from their place, I keep Roadcinante in first gear, sliding a tad on what my kids cheerily refer to as “The Death Curve,” breathing through it to keep my cool and making it to the bottom unscathed. Then I ride with my daughter back up to her house and to my Honda Element, Merletta.

Merletta has no issues with the NC-DMV, nor they with her, so I have a legal vehicle to drive into town. Beasley and I are waiting at the insurance office when they open, and the nice receptionist gives me a letter correcting the error. I drive to the license agency which is basically empty because of the snow, and a sweet-faced blonde woman takes the document, taps on her keyboard for about five seconds, prints out another document and hands it to me, smiling as she says, “Here ya go! Merry Christmas!”

I had been all set for a long bureaucratic nightmare. I was ready to cry if I had to. But I am delayed in my departure by a mere twenty minutes. In wonder, I drive back to get Roadcinante and leave Merletta for my kids to use until I come back to pick her up in a couple of weeks. I get Miss Kitty Witty from the vet, where she’d spent the night and gotten dosed that morning with a nice dreamy sedative to help her with the long drive ahead (Miss Kitty HATES being transported by anything with wheels).

The snow keeps coming down, and the roads are slick. I press on past the edge of town. I see a couple of accidents where cars have skidded into each other.

Beasley settles down onto his blanket and goes to sleep. Kitty Witty, unaffected by her injection, howls and cries.

Heading south on Highway 421 I pull into the right lane behind a huge tanker truck. Ahead of us in about ten miles will be an 8% downhill grade several miles long that I am sure is snow-covered. There is a virtual white-out in my rear view mirror as Boreas sends heavier snows in from the north.

I want to be behind this guy in the tanker truck. I can watch for any skidding and adjust my vehicle accordingly. Or so I hope.

Cresting the top of the mountain, just past the exit to the Blue Ridge Parkway and right before the downward grade, with cars and trucks inching along carefully, I take a moment to gaze out over the mountains below, and the view takes my breath clean away – the white snow making everything fresh and new, falling softly on our anxious world, whispering as it traces the tops of the surrounding hills, coats branches and leaves, blankets the ground in a quiet embrace.

I feel an invitation to breathe, to marvel, and I accept that invitation.

I drop Roadcinante to second gear, turn on my emergency flashers, and take my time, thrilling a little at the slight dizzying sensation that comes from driving head-on into whirling snow. Everyone makes it to the bottom without incident.

The snow, much lighter now, continues on through High Point. By the time I get to Asheboro, when Kitty Witty finally quiets, the snow has changed to a cold snapping rain that does not stop until about nine miles from my destination, my friend’s house here in Wilmington. It is chilly when I arrive, and a slight mist is falling. We hurry to unload only what I need for the night. Red wine and a roast pork dinner and conversation and laughter ensue.

I sleep. Beasley sleeps. Kitty Witty finds a spot on the bed and sleeps, but not before giving me the kind of side-eye only cats can give when you have deeply disappointed them. We wake to a brilliant sunny morning.

There are other cats in the house and a small chihuahua named Bruiser. Beasley is a little smitten with him but gives him wide berth, since when they first met Bruiser snarled and lunged to make sure Beasley knew what was what. Now they are fine, and Bruiser trots right under Beasley in order to get at that bite of roast chicken that fell onto the floor. (Kitty Witty, on the other hand, took one look at Bruiser and said to me, “You have got to be kidding.”)

It is Christmas here. One of my roommates, Garry, is a brilliant decorator who has made the whole house glitter and shine. My other roommate, Julie, whose house this is, has given me a room with a deck that looks out over marshy canals.

This morning I watched out my window as the sun peeked over the trees. Later I saw a large white egret come soaring in over the grasses to land in the water. Tall pines reach up toward the clear blue sky. Out on the road Spanish moss drapes graceful live oaks. It is cold here, too, but warmer weather blows in later in the week.

Meanwhile, my work is the same as ever – to tell the world as I see it, to name wonder when I meet it, to invite you to ponder and marvel with me.

With gratitude for your company here, I sign off until the next time. Wishing you bright holiday joy amidst the beautiful deep mysteries of this season.

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On the Move Again

I’m so grateful to all of you for sticking around for “the rest of the journey” and want to say, “Welcome!” to those of you who are newly joining us. It’s been quite the ride, I can assure you, and it ain’t over yet!

Next adventure? My house is for sale, and I’m moving down to the coast, to Wilmington, North Carolina the second week in December where I’ll be rooming with a dear friend of many years and working on the Chasing Light book.

Wilmington and I are old friends, too. When I lived in Cary (2000-2003) I’d frequently hop in the car and drive the couple of hours down to the beach, park my backside in the sand, and read, nap, watch the waves, listen to the gulls, and breathe in delicious ocean air. The winter after my mother died I rented a condo and spent five months there, every day traversing the cold windy shoreline with the dogs. One afternoon I looked out over the ocean from my perch on the deck and saw a whale calf so close to the shore that I could hear the exhalation from the blowhole.

I have deep appreciation for Wilmington’s arts community, for the outdoor activities and the beautiful Atlantic Ocean, for the fun downtown area, the opportunities afforded by the university and community colleges. And did I mention fresh seafood?! (Swoon…)

Also…I’m taking lots of time to say proper goodbyes to my little mountain house (and the deer and the owls and the raccoons and possums), and to the mountain community of Boone. So many dear friends here! So many memories – fourteen years’ worth – and so much creativity and life. Breweries and sustainable farms and artists and musicians. Writers and dreamers and social justice warriors. My son and daughter and son-in-law, about four ridge tops over.

And these dear old grandmother mountains, soft and round and comforting in their constant protective nearness.

In the midst of packing up I’m also writing chapter summaries for the book proposal I’m working on, trying to maintain the momentum gained at the recent Carmel Writing Retreat, and, oh, my, what fun revisiting all the places I’ve traveled, the wonders I’ve seen, and the characters I’ve met.

Twelve months. Twelve-thousand miles. Mountains, deserts, meadows, forests. Lakes, rivers, and oceans. Plains, cornfields, and wheat fields. Wide-open highways and badly rutted dirt roads. Moonlit nights and sun-stirred mornings. Frost and snow and wind and rain, dust and sand and stifling heat. And the Superbloom!

Now, the inward journey of putting together the story of my pilgrimage – the long side trips of mental meandering that were too lengthy for blog posts but that a book allows for, even invites. How I traveled back in time while moving forward, attempting to meet long-dead loved ones by visiting long-ago haunts. My exploration and discovery of locales I’d never visited and my attempts to find my new place in a world that, no longer peopled by so many family members, often feels alien. How I drove to the other side of the continent for a surprise pre-arranged meeting with myself.

Finding my way back from the far country of grief and loneliness, traversing rough passage through doubt and fear and my own resistance to releasing the past in order to take hold of the future.

As I work on the proposal, I may have questions for you all from time to time, seeking your input on what is meaningful, what is helpful. What you want to read and know more about. What you connect with.

Where your heart sings and where it breaks.

I know you want to think about and talk about things that matter. About life and love and loss and the meaning we make out of all of it. About mystery and hope and wonder.

You are a wise bunch. I do so look forward to hearing your reflections.

Speaking of things that matter, I’ll leave you with advice from Jacob Thompson. Jacob was the terminally-ill 9-year-old I mentioned in my last post who had asked for Christmas cards for his last Christmas, knowing he would not make to December 25th. The world responded. Check out his Facebook page for more details. 60,000+ cards from all over the planet. Video greetings from celebrities, drive-by parades of hundreds of law enforcement officers from all over the state of Maine, drop-ins by sports teams. Letters. Homemade gifts from kids his age. Stuffed animals. A visit from Mr. and Mrs. Claus. A grand Christmas feast.

Jacob died this past Sunday, a week after his big party. In sharing the sad news, his mother asked us to remember the words he lived by, wisdom born of having spent half of his life battling cancer. Jacob, obsessed with penguins (two of them paid him a visit in the hospital), adopted the motto, #LiveLikeAPenguin, as a reminder to “be friendly, stand by each other, go the extra mile, jump into life, and be cool.”

RIP, sweet boy. You changed the world for the better in your short time here.

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Follow Your BLIS

I am writing to you from the lovely Vagabond’s House Inn in the charming seaside village of Carmel-by-the-Sea. I am so jazzed to be back on the California coast. The air is clean and cold this morning, and the clouds are deliciously gray. Once in a while the sun peeks through. I am cozy in my room, up early (since 5 A.M.) as I’m still on east coast time. I lasted until 7, then had to slip into my Uggs and toss on a sweater and wrap a scarf around my neck to go forage for coffee and found the Carmel Valley Coffee Roasting Company open for business. I brought a large black coffee and a hunk of sour cream coffee cake back to my room and snuggled in to do Merl Reagle’s Sunday Crossword.

I’m here in Carmel for a five-day writing retreat that starts tomorrow (Monday). I’ve come with my usual mixture of trepidation and hope – self-doubt a still-too-constant companion, but I’m learning to just step past it and keep going anyway, even when I can’t see the end product (in this case, a completed memoir that holds together). I keep reminding myself that writing – like living – is a process that I can trust, and if I can’t fully trust, well, then, I can at least practice trusting. (Come to think of it, that’s also a good definition of faith, not unlike one that someone once offered as “living as if it were so.”)

I flew out of Charlotte yesterday morning on a nonstop flight, which meant I had 5 ½ hours on the plane. The man sitting next to me was reading a book, Fifty Things to Do When You Turn Fifty. I was reading my own book, Rob Spillman’s new memoir, All Tomorrow’s Parties, but couldn’t help glancing from time to time at my neighbor’s book. Fifty was nearly fifteen years ago for me (Good Gawd…) but my normal anxiety kicked in to check and see: Did I do it right? (Probably not.) Did I miss anything? (Almost certainly.)

That anxiety of late – ever since I became an orphan and moved forward into my parents’ slot on what I call the “Disassembly Line,” – has had an undercurrent of fear that I’m running out of time, an urgency to hurry and have my full say, to make my mark.

That’s one reason I am so glad to be here for this retreat. I’m going to put myself in the hands of our retreat leader and my fellow writers and trust they will give me good feedback, make good suggestions, offer loving observations. (Again with the faith?!)

I arrived at the San Francisco International Airport yesterday around noon and got my baggage, found the car rental place, and drove off with an upgrade since they were out of the cheapest, smallest compacts I usually get. The Volvo SUV is so far above my pay grade that at first I couldn’t figure out how to turn the danged thing on. See, there is a slot where a key that isn’t a key goes, and then a button that you push that says, “Start/Stop.” Easy enough, right? But I kept pushing it and the radio came on but no engine. Start. Stop. Start. Stop.

Finally, a light came on that patiently related, “You must press the brake pedal to start the engine.”

Geez. You could have told me that the first time! I’m looking around to see if the young woman who brought me to the car is still around. I am ready to say, “Sister, I just come off the mountains of Nawth Car-o-LINA!” But she has already moved on to the next customer.

Next hurdle: the side mirrors. The passenger side was folded in, so I got out of the car and popped it back out, but then, back in the driver’s seat, I could not figure out how to adjust either one so I could actually see. I looked for buttons, knobs, dials. Nothing. A thing that looked like a button but wasn’t, marked BLIS. Bliss?? How about FRSTRATNG?!

In the end, I gave up, driving off without being able to fully see cars approaching on either side, which was disconcerting to me, because Roadcinante spoiled me, what with being equipped with enormous mirrors with inset magnifiers, so I can see everything behind and around me.

But once in traffic, I noticed these little lights blinking at those side mirrors. “Oh, my God!” I said out loud to the car. “You’re telling me when it’s safe to change lanes!”

Well, if that isn’t going on faith, I don’t know what is. “Okay, car. Talk to me.” And it did. (May I just say how quickly I got used to this car that also comes with one of those new-fangled backup cameras that tells you when you are about to incur lots of damage costs by backing into someone else and you will wish you had not declined all that extra coverage the car rental place was selling?)

FRSTRATNG now means “For Real, Starting to Rightly Appreciate This Necessary Gizmo.” (Gizmo was one of my dad’s favorite words.)

Driving down I-280 South toward San Jose, things started to look familiar, since I was just through here this past June. Then south of San Jose I saw the exit for Coyote Canyon Creek Road and slowed down as I cruised past the northbound overpass beneath which I’d parked that first day of triple-digit heat, stuck in stop-and-go traffic with Roadcinante overheating if I turned on the AC, and the 110°F heat blasting the dogs and me if I lowered the windows to circulate air.

That was one scary day. I remember pulling into the shade beneath the overpass and turning off Roadcinante. I remember firing up the generator and turning on the AC unit in back and pouring more water for Connor and Beasley and how they lapped it up. I remember both dogs panting, lying on the hot floor, and watching them carefully and feeling helpless, so helpless.

When I drove past the spot yesterday, I teared up, missing Connor all over again, and missing the magic of the journey, even the scary parts, missing who I was when I was on the road.

Later, nearing Carmel, I passed by a sign that had made me laugh when I’d seen it back in June: “Lightfighter Road.”

“Okay,” I’d said then. “You got me. I’ll try to do better.”

I admit, sometimes I shut down bliss when it is trying to find me. I’m cranky that way, but I hope I’m trainable.

“Follow your bliss” is a phrase made famous by mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell, but it is not the shallow American-consumer-I-should-have-whatever-makes-me-happy-concept, rather it’s what happens below the surface,what remakes your heart and deepens your soul, what makes you a fuller human being. How you are willing to be all-the-way awake to the world, even when it’s hard, even when it’s sad.

This morning while I ate my breakfast I listened to Krista Tippet’s interview with physician Atule Gawande, “What Matters in the End.” Gawande is the author of the bestselling book, Being Mortal. The interview is a wonderful listen that I commend to you, deeply thoughtful and ultimately comforting.

I ponder mortality a lot, to be honest. Death has been an early and constant visitor in my life, plus I think I’m hard-wired to question and whine and argue and pick. As I was listening to the On Being podcast, I recalled a Twitter post of Jake Tapper’s that I read this past week, a short tweet that jolted the whine out of me. I retweeted, then shared it on Facebook, then followed Tapper’s lead.

You see, a nine-year-old boy in Maine, dying of cancer, is celebrating his last Christmas early, because he most likely won’t live to see December 25th. The family is asking for people to send him Christmas cards.

A seemingly small thing, but in reality an epically hugely wonderfully enormous thing. What seems a minuscule mustard seed of an idea burgeons into, as Frederick Buechner so beautifully puts it, a “great banyan…with birds in its branches singing Mozart.” Because the human family, invited into a sacred event, RSVP’s with love bombs of cards, videos, artwork, songs, and so much more. And what an honor – how blissful – to be some small part of this outpouring. To join others in holding my candle against the darkness, in truth the most urgent work there is.

(For a major lift, check out the responses to Tapper’s post. )

Jacob’s Christmas party is this coming weekend. Want to send your own card? Make haste. Here is the address:

Jacob Thompson, c/o Maine Medical Center, 22 Bramhall Street, Portland, Maine  04102

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