Saturday, December 18, 2010

Favorite Books of 2010

Even as I reflect on my favorite books of 2010, the stack of books for 2011 grows in front of my eyes. I just started reading a biography of Florence Nightingale, Nightingales by Gillian Gill who wrote one of my favorite books of 2009, We Two about Victoria and Albert. Two other biographies await: Franklin and Eleanor, An Extraordinary Marriage by Hazel Rowley and Reading Jackie, Her Autobiography in Books by William Kuhn. My shelves overflow with novels to read as well, but the one I am most eager for and I think will be the perfect winter read is the new translation of Dr Zhivago. But I jump ahead. Many of the books I read in 2010 were for the book group/class I take through UW continuing education. For 9 Tuesday mornings a semester a group of 40 or so people meet for discussion led by a masterful facilitator, Emily Auerbach. I often end the session liking the book much more than I did when I finished reading it. I am also stunned sometimes by what I have missed in my reading of a book, so this group is teaching me to be a more careful, deeper reader. At the same time I sometimes feel a conflict about devoting so much of my reading time to a book I have not selected. So many books, so little time! At any rate, here is my list of favorites for 2010.

1. The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt. I don't usually declare a top favorite, but I will this year and this is it. I know I will reread this book, as I have read Byatt's Possession. Enchanting and disturbing, often in the same sentence. Now out in paperback--get it!
2. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
3. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson
4. The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. This was for the book class, and probably my third read of the book and just as moving as the first time--maybe more so. First published in 1990, this books stands firm in every way.
5. Life of Pi by Martel. I had resisted this book for whatever reason, but read it for the group and it has stayed with me.
6. Atonement by Ian McEwan
7. Vanity Fair by Thackery
8. Weight of Heaven by Thrity Umrigar. A favorite author.
9. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. While this was not her best, it was worth reading. She always is.
10. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I reread this because I gave it to my Dad to read. Loved it all over again. Also, read a bio of Lee, which while it didn't make my favorites list, did help give a context to the author and her writing.
11. The Quiet American by Graham Greene. This inspires me to read more books by Greene. I had previously only read The Power and the Glory.
12. Family Album by Penelope Lively. Another favorite author.
13. The Sixty-Eight Rooms by Marianne Malone. I gave this book to granddaughter Maren this summer. It is the story of two young people who visit the Thorne miniature rooms at the Chicago Institute of Art and while there they some how become small enough to enter the rooms. The adventures begin. This fall we took Maren to see the rooms and while nothing magical happened, we loved being there and the book is a delight.
14. The Shadows in the Street by Susan Hill. The latest in her mystery series.
15. An Expert in Murder, A Josephine Tey Mystery by Nicola Upson. Can't wait to read the next one.

1. Compassion, Listening to the Cries of the World by Christina Feldman
2. Howard's End is on the Landing, A Year of Reading from Home by Susan Hill. This is the mystery writer. She decides that for a year she will only read what she already owns. I could do that--should do that. The only problem with the book is that is added many titles to my already long list!
3. Another Country, Navigating the Emotional Terrain of our Elders by Mary Pipher. Another wise book from a wise woman.
4. The Journal Keeper, A Memoir by Phyllis Theroux. Answered many questions for me about my own writing and journal keeping.
5. A Life of Being, Having and Doing Enough by Wayne Muller. Yes!!!!!
6. Women Food and God, An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything by Geneen Roth. Read it twice. Need to read again. Touches some deep places within. Plan to read the new book by Marianne Williamson on the same topic.
7. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. A very important book--not sure why is didn't make Best Book lists.
8. Let's Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell. Friendship and loss-tender and true.
9. Seeking Perspective, Weaving Spirituality and Psychology in Search of Clarity by Robert J. Wicks. This has been on my shelf for a long time and I am so glad I finally got to it.
10. Intimacy and Solitude by Stephanie Dowrick.

What are your favorites for this year? Any books you are giving or hoping to receive? All book talk is welcome. Happy reading!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Reframing My Response: Reluctant to Relaxed

For some reason I have been dragging my feet through the whole Christmas process this year. Now what is that about? I love Christmas and all the preparations and always have. I understand that is not true for everyone and that Christmas can be a very difficult time for many, but for the most part that has not been my story. True, like everyone else I can feel overwhelmed and wonder how IT will all get done. I wonder how many times in our married life my husband has said, "Don't worry, it all gets done, " and I have responded, not kindly, "True, that's because I do IT." Not that he is an innocent bystander. Over the years he has been an active participant in the Christmas Express, but I am clearly the engineer and the conductor. And I love those roles.

What's the difference this year? Why, for example, have I completed a task, such as going to the post office with packages that need to be mailed, and then come home and stretched out on my chaise with a good book, instead of wrapping additional packages? Why have I agreed so easily to go out for a movie on Friday night, instead of staying home to write our annual Christmas letter? I have told friends I feel as if I am stuck in low gear this year. I speed up only with great reluctance. I have even been doing some chores typically reserved for January, such as cleaning my closet and taking loads to Goodwill. How is that possible with all that needs to be done?

The answer seems to be "because I can." I finally realized that I am not so much "reluctant," as "relaxed," and I can be relaxed because I no longer have as much to do as I did in the years when I was working fulltime and the kids were still living at home. The calendar used to burst with church and school activities and dates for entertaining and concerts and parties and responsibilities for volunteering and somehow laundry and grocery shopping and bathroom cleaning still needed to be done. How did I manage it and how do my children manage it now?

Sitting for 20 minutes of centering prayer one recent morning allowed me to reframe my response to this full time of year. Yes, I am in low gear, but not because I don't have enough energy or because I have managed one too many Christmases or because I have the all too common "Christmas Blues." I am not reluctant to enter the joys of the season. Far from it. Instead, I am in a new stage of my life--one not driven by busyness and other peoples' schedules and needs. I have incredible freedom to enjoy and treasure the gifts of these days. No, I am not reluctant. I am relaxed.

I think I'll fix a cup of cocoa and read a couple chapters in the mystery I started this weekend before I return to addressing Christmas cards.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Creating Christmas Context

I wasn't going to decorate the house for Christmas this year. I'm not exactly sure why I made that decision. A variety of reasons: Not decorating would leave more time for writing. Instead of hosting Bruce's work party in December, we had it in November this year. The second floor will be painted early in January, requiring more than enough energy to dismantle those rooms without also putting away Christmas decorations. Valid reasons, I guess. I couldn't put my finger on it. Perhaps all the years of doing major decorating simply caught up with me. We will be in Minnesota again this year for Christmas, so why not make things easier for ourselves and not go through the major week long effort to transform the house for the season?

But then...I relented--just a bit--and one thing led to another.

First, the day after Thanksgiving I got out the box of vintage Christmas candles. Our 8 year old granddaughter, Maren, likes to create the seasonal display of old dime-store candles. Since she wasn't here when it was time to arrange the pilgrims and turkeys, it only seemed fair to let her position the angels, Santas, carollers and other sweet reminders of simpler times. What a good job she did!
With a chance encounter with a neighbor, who asked me if I my Christmas bins were out of the storage rooms ready to unload, I could feel myself weakening. Then Bruce created a wonderful sense of welcome on the front porch.
How could I not continue what had been started? The welcome needed to extend inside the house,
and the Santa Als, created by a good and talented friend, a collection that grows every year, needed to take their usual place in the dining room cupboard.

Soon the house was looking like Christmas, but I limited myself. No trees. No unloading the bins of Christmas dishes. I know where they are, and I will unpack them if and when I need them. I limited my time, as well. One day. Not two or three or four or more, as in the days when I replaced curtains with vintage Christmas tablecloths and had a tree in every room. Still, there are Christmas touches throughout the first floor, and I am pleased with this year's context for Christmas.

Decorating the house has always been the first task on my Christmas to do list. I need the setting to move into the season, to begin the other preparations. In an odd way, hanging garland and tying bows and unwrapping delicate mercury glass balls is a way for me to clear the space and bring clarity to what else needs to be done as the days march along. In the presence of the lights and the sparkle and the memories of years past, I regain my composure from feeling overwhelmed by addressing cards and writing letters and shopping and wrapping ETC. ETC. Every morning now when I come down the stairs and see that Bruce has turned on the lights on the banister and the mantel, a welcome to the day, I am reminded of the gifts of this time, the chance I have to deepen my connection to God in every moment.

There is still lots to do, and I suspect I won't be writing much this month, but I love this month. I love these days of whispering snow and a shawl around my shoulder and smells of cinnamon and fresh greens. I love Advent with its active waiting, and I love Christmas graced with connections and hopes and dreams and love remembered and love shared. May this be a time of many blessings for you and yours.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

I've Been Writing!

Yes, I know my last blog post was August 4 and here it is November 11. At least it is still the same year. My last post ended with the words, "The answer appears when there is balance, mindful balance," and I believe that and attempt to achieve it, but these last months the balance has not included attention to the blog. I hasten to add, however, that I have been writing, and I have loved the time I have devoted to writing. Writing is what I most want to be doing right now. And not just in the morning, which was my previous pattern, but any time. All the time. Over time.

During the last months I wrote and submitted a book proposal for my book of essays, The Spiritual Invitations of Grief, Loss, and Change. The targeted publisher has had the proposal now for almost 11 weeks and since according to their website their response time is three months, I can feel my anxiety level increasing as I await word from them. Therefore, I need to remind myself how I felt the day I finished preparing the proposal.

Instead of tucking it into an envelope and sending it on its way, I decided to slow down the process. Let myself breathe. Let the manuscript breathe. I arranged the books in my own library published by my "hoped for" publisher in a circle around my book proposal. I not only wanted it to absorb the good feelings in my office--that happy, productive space where my writing seems to be coming to light, but also to imagine what it would be like to be in the company of those other books. A good feeling.

My mother so often said, "Now that's done," and the message seemed to be one of relief for having completed something distasteful. I have used that phrase often myself and in doing so have lost some of the pleasure in the moment of completion. When I finished the proposal, I didn't feel relief, for once I got going and really committed myself to the task, I thoroughly enjoyed the process. Rather than relief, I felt elation, knowing I had fulfilled a commitment I made to myself. I felt eager for what could happen, for possible connection and acceptance. I didn't feel fear. I didn't feel anxiety. I felt pride. I felt love. I felt a sense of certainty that I am doing what I am supposed to do. I felt awe because I actually did it. I used my gifts and God was present, leading me along this path.

I am realistic that my proposal could be rejected. If that happens, I'll send it someplace else, for I do want it published and read. No, it won't be the same if it's not read, but I am different because I committed to this project. I am different and I hope better because the writing has been a spiritual practice. I believe I am in the world in a different, even more profound way, because of the loving and open energy I give this work, and in the deepest place in my heart, I know that makes a difference.

Once the book proposal was released into unknown, but I hope respectful hands, I started writing a new essay for the book and even though I often felt I was slogging my way through an uncharted swamp, I have finally finished it. "Spirituality 101, The Invitation to Open to Spirit," and now I am ready and eager to begin the next essay.

Oh, and by the way, I have been published this year. In September my essay "Closing My Eyes Lightly, Not Tightly," which was adapted from one in my proposed book, appeared in Presence, An International Journal of Spiritual Direction, (See for more information.) and any day now another essay adapted from the book, "No One Understands: A Guide to Receiving the Understanding You Deserve," will appear in Coping, America's Consumer Magazine for People Whose Lives Have Been Touched by Cancer (

Will I write more in the blog? I hope so. I will try, for I am so grateful to those of you who read it and for your comments as well, and I want to maintain that connection.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Morning Walk, Morning Rhythm

After my usual morning trip to Curves this morning, I went for my usual morning walk. Most often I walk in the neighborhood, but this morning I walked in the conservancy and encountered Black-eyed Susans towering over my head and crowds of chicory and Queen Anne's Lace lining the trail. Happy companions. As I walked, I thought about the rest of my day--errands I need to do, the chapter summaries I need to write for the book proposal I am working on, the emails I need to answer, the laundry I need to continue, and the packing I need to begin for a visit to a friend's tomorrow.

My preference is to do everything in the morning, for that is when my energy is at its highest, and my motivation is intact. I am a morning person. That's why I decided, when I returned from my month in Door County, to work on my book --you guessed it--in the morning, and that is what I have been doing.

Yesterday, however, I needed to have some lab work done, which meant fasting. Now I certainly wasn't going to fast till afternoon, so off I went to the lab in the morning during my writing time. Then as long as I was in the neighborhood and out and about, I decided to do the day's errands and then when I got home late morning, a worker man came to do a routine maintenance check on our airconditioner and all of a sudden it was afternoon. Past my writing time.

I thought about spending the afternoon reading or doing some more errands or even taking a nap, giving into the mugginess, the bugginess of the hot summer afternoon. Instead, however, I imagined my Writing Guides, my Spirit Guides, who sit at my side and whisper inspiration into my ears and my heart, nudging me to my office. "Who says you can only write in the morning? It's morning somewhere. Wake up and go to your office." I did and I worked for three hours. In the afternoon.

A friend told me about a book she is reading about being retired in which the author says it is important when one is retired to have a schedule, a routine. I certainly agree with that, but today as I walked in the company of yellow, blue, purple, white and yellow wildflowers, soon to fade, and as I spied on prancing goldfinches, dipping and dancing on the path in front of me, I remembered how I had adjusted my routine yesterday and how that had worked, too.

I allowed myself to think beyond the routine itself to the fruits of routine. When does it work for me (the light), and when does it lock me into same-old, same old (shadow)? What are the stories I tell about myself that prevent me from stretching and growing and looking beyond routine and into possibility? How have I defined myself and are those definitions still working for me? For example, I say, I am a morning person. I am a winter person. I am a water person. An introvert. An enneagram 4. I am 62.

All of those descriptions are true, but none of them or even the package of descriptions is the full truth. What seems to happen is that I say to myself, "Because I am a morning person, I am only productive in the morning"or "Because I am a water person I must be near water to be energized or to clear the space in my head" or ..... When I believe the stories I tell about myself or when I fall routinely into routine, instead of being intentional and open, I limit myself. The potential for limitation seems to hover over me like the hummingbird I saw this morning, poised above a welcoming Black-eyed Susan.

I guess, like most everything, the answer appears when there is balance, mindful balance.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Home Again

My intention was to pack up and drive home on Friday, but instead, I headed home Thursday afternoon. A friend who came for an overnight left Thursday noon, and my hope was to have one more afternoon on the dock reading and writing, but what appeared to be an all-day soaker drowned that plan. All of a sudden I knew I was done. It was time to be home and to let the fruits of the month in Door County be harvested. Within an hour and a half I had packed up everything and dropped off the keys and was on the road. How good to sleep in our own bed--no damp sheets! How good to get the laundry chugging along. How good to have all Friday to unpack and re-enter.

When I lead retreats, I always include time at the end for participants to think about their re-entry. What awaits you at home? What do you most want to bring with you from the retreat? How will you integrate the lessons and ideas from the retreat time? How receptive will your loved ones be to your experience? True, my month in Door County wasn't really a retreat, but I did have open time to reflect on the questions I brought with me and time to listen to promptings from Spirit. Since my drive home through intense thunder storms required more concentration than reflection time, I didn't respond to my own end-of-retreat questions. The lingering question of "what now?" didn't take long to reappear, however. How would my retreat time manifest itself in home time?

Here's my answer: Here I am. In my office, writing this blog. It is Monday morning and instead of doing errands (I had a month of the only errand being occasional trips to the grocery store. How is that possible?), I am in my office writing. I have been to Curves. I have walked. I have had my devotion time. And now I am here. True, I have done one load of laundry and emptied the dishwasher, but I am not paying attention to the vacuuming that should be done on the first floor. Nor am I making the phone calls on my list. Errands, hometending, and life-organizing phone calls can wait till the afternoon.

Mornings are for writing. I repeat, mornings are for writing!

Another decision. I have moved my laptop from my kitchen desk on the main floor to my office desk on the lower level. This is now my default location. I suspect I will be running down here a lot to check my emails, but not only will that get me in my office more, I suspect, eventually, emailing will have a more balanced rhythm in my life. A good thing. I'll let you know.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Week Four: Fantasy Time

Yesterday afternoon Bruce and I sat in Adirondack chairs on the dock by the Ephraim Visitor Center. He read and I wrote reflection questions for four of my essays. A sailing class was within view, occasionally distracting me when one of the boats rolled over. Necessary lessons for young sailors. Kayaks glided by, oars in unison, looking effortless. At one point page one of the one of the essays got away from me and landed in the water. No need to try and retrieve it, for it is safely stored in my laptop, but as it floated "out to sea," I chuckled at the fantasy that like a message in a bottle a mythical agent might find the title page of my essay about regrets and be so impressed that she would find me to announce, "I must represent you." (Ah yes, the symbolism of the essay being about "regrets.")

That's not the only fantasy explored while here. One day Bruce and I followed back roads as close to the Lake Michigan side of the peninsula as we could. What would it be like to live there?, we wondered whenever we saw a For Sale sign. No, too woodsy. No, too small. No, too close to the road. No, too ugly. No, too expensive, even for our fantasy life. As we came around a bend, however, we both gasped. A take your breath away moment. A small cottage in a field, standing alone looking out on Lake Michigan. Property lines with a split rail fence. An overgrown yard. Driveway blocked. No one there. Abandoned? We both remembered finding the one room schoolhouse we eventually bought and renovated as our vacation home in the same around the bend way. That had been a magical moment, too. A fantasy we breathed reality into.

Bruce, of course, reacts much faster than I do. He clambered over the fence to investigate this lake view cottage. I waited in the car, but wrote down the address, 1114 South Lake Michigan Drive, Clay Banks. "Looks abandoned. There's a story here," he says upon his return as he takes a picture with my IPhone. At the next house he chats with a neighbor. "We've summered here six years and never seen anyone."

I love the fantasy of such a find, but am more often content to let it live in the imagination. I think that's where this one will stay. There's a time to turn fantasy into reality, like doing the work to finish writing my book and finding an agent. Sometimes, however, the fantasy and imagination is its own pleasure.

The mystery is we don't always know.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Week Three: Writing Time

Along with my pile of books and cooler of food and beach towels and chairs and on and on, I brought a key question with me to Door County. Should I continue working on my book of essays on grief and loss or should I set it aside and start something else? In the shadows was another question: "Should I confine my public writing to this blog and my journals? These questions are part of an even broader question about this stage of my life. What is this decade of my 60's to be about? What is my purpose now?

And you thought a month in Door County was about the beach!

Here's what I am learning.

Yes, I want to continue writing my book.

Yes, it has merit and deserves to be finished.

No, it is not done and in fact, needs not only editing, but needs to be bigger. I need to write additional essays, including one on spiritual practices. Other essay topics are bubbling up as well. I need to do some restructuring and write introductions to each part.

Yes, I need to start an additional book as well. Maybe that will be about transitions. Maybe it will be a spiritual handbook for people touched by cancer, based on the material I developed for the spirituality groups I led for many years.

Being here cleared the space for me to arrive at these understandings. I have walked and prayed and meditated and eaten well and read and slept well. And I have been writing. One of the things I realized is that when I am not writing, I feel passive and even negative about my writing, but when I am engaged in the writing process, I love what I am doing and believe in it. In this case absence does not make the heart grow fonder. I think what this means is that writing needs to be a CORE activity for me.

Here's where everyone around me may glaze over. For how many times have I announced that writing is going to be priority in my life and then I let everything interfere with it. That is true for losing weight and how many other declarations, as well. I know once I am home it won't be easy to implement. In fact, I know what happens when you make an announcement to the universe. All sorts of other opportunities or interferences starting ringing your door bell. Spirit wants you to be sure, wants you to stand firm, wants you to act on your intention. This doesn't mean that I am not open to new opportunities nor that I will discontinue doing other activities that give me joy and allow me to grow, but I will be examining them in light of writing time and writing energy.

This weekend Bruce and I stopped in an artist's studio and she asked me what I do. Now you know if you have been reading this blog, that this is a question I have been struggling with since our move to Wisconsin. Well, this is what I said. "I'm a spiritual director, but I am no longer in private practice. Instead, I plan to be a spiritual director through my writing." I have posed this idea tentatively, softly, in the past--more as a question than as a statement. This time, however, it felt so clear, so clean. I think Spirit heard me. I think Spirit spoke.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Week Two at Cedar Cottage: Playtime

First, there was quiet and then there were grandchildren. First, there was one car in the driveway and then there were four plus the boat that belongs to the Cedar Cottage's owners. First, there was no conversation and then there was Peter's two year old nonstop talking. First, there was open space and then there was a bike in the living room. First there was my own company and then there were good morning greetings and good night hugs and kisses. First, there was me and a book and then there was Maren sprawled on the couch reading yet another BoxCar Children book and me reading Peter his naptime and bedtime books in the comfortable chair we called the Reading Chair. First, there was me walking to the water with beach chair, a book and a Diet Coke and then there was everyone filling the van with umbrella and towels and sand toys and snacks and beach chairs and sunscreen and books and wondering what we were forgetting. First, there was not doing much of anything and then there was a trip to Washington Island on the ferry and playing miniature golf and checking out some stores and going to a drive-in movie and eating out and hiking to Cana Island, and putting together puzzles and being at the beach as much as possible. And it was all good. It is all good.

When I decided last winter to spend a month at Door County, I envisioned the time as writing time. Contemplative time. I didn't think about it being family time, kid time, too, and I must admit I was a bit reluctant to give up one week of solitude for a week of intense interaction, but oh, how wonderful it was to have the kids here. Now, returning back to solitude, the space and the time feels that much richer for all the activity and conversation and play encompassed here. Yes, there were some tears and some frustrations and some impatience, but now there are so many more memories and joys to count and images to recall.

First, our son in law left to return to work and then a few days later our daughter and the kids left and then a couple days later my husband left and then there was one, me.

"Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened." Dr Seuss

First Days: Settling in at Cedar Cottage

NOTE: I am spending a month in Door County, Wisconsin, and don't have wireless connection in the cottage. Periodically, however, I will go to an Internet cafe and add to this blog and respond to email. In case you aren't familiar with Door County, it is the "thumb" of Wisconsin, a peninsula between Green Bay and Lake Michigan and is often referred to as the "New England of the Midwest."

Thanks to my husband Bruce, who helped me pack my car Sunday afternoon, I was on the road to Door County by 6;30 Monday morning and four hours later I had the key in hand for my July home. I planned to offer a blessing as I crossed the threshold. I intended to sanctify the moving in, the unpacking. Really I did, but I confess my eagerness to feel settled surpassed sacred ceremony. Truth be told, I moved many times as a child and my parents were masters of the unpack the boxes, hang the pictures and "we're home" technique, and I know how to get settled.

Hang up clothes. Fill drawers. Make the bed. Zip. Zip. No more frilly, lacy bedspread, but instead an antique white quilt with a lightweight, vintage summer pink blanket folded at the end of the bed. Unpack the cooler. Fill the Lazy Susan cabinet with cooking basics. Check. Clear the coffee and end tables of romance novels and Door County magazines dating to 1998, replacing them with a small pile of current magazines and creating a book shelf and filing cabinet from a wooden bench for my writing materials. Done. Poor Teddy Bear is now stashed in the closet for the month. Finally, unfurl vintage cherry print tablecloths on dining room and patio tables. A flag here, a flag there, and I am home.

Many times while preparing for this month I thought about my mother who orchestrated our annual summer vacation at one of those old-fashioned family resorts in Northern Minnesota. The kind with individual cottages with lumpy mattresses and see through bath towels, but oh, how we loved being there. Instead of bins, Mom had the "lake box," which held beach towels and blow-up water toys, life preservers, swimming suits and a big car blanket, vinyl on one side and brown and beige wool plaid on the other. I am sure she nodded her approval from above, seeing me add a bedside lamp to my Door County pile. She always brought a pin-up lamp for the screened porch, so we could read after dark.

Thanks, Mom. You made it seem effortless, even thought I know it wasn't, could not have been. Many times these last weeks I've pointed out to family and friends that the privilege of going away takes a lot of work. However, that's not exactly what I felt. Instead of work, the preparations took considerable time and thought. And focus. Sometimes in the "making a list, checking it twice" stage, I wondered about this hurry, scurry to rest and relax, but in reality I loved the preparations that allowed me to daydream about opening Cedar Cottage's screen door every morning for a month.

No more daydreams. I'm here and I'm so grateful. May this be happy and holy time.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Can Nancy Come Out and Play?

I've been puttering. A new media cabinet is being delivered today, and you know how one thing leads to another. Bruce moved the former TV table, a vintage yellow table with a shelf, to my office, suggesting I use it for my printer. Great idea, but predictably that meant more than moving the printer from one table to another. Because this table is bigger than the one I used before, I now have room for printer paper and maybe even the shredder. Well, the upshot is that for the past hour I have been rearranging, puttering, playing. For me, puttering is a form of sacred play or "deep play" as writer Diane Ackerman calls it in the book of the same name. Ackerman says when we allow ourselves to engage in deep play, the result is gratitude. I agree, for when I sat down at my newly arranged desk, I felt a rush of gratitude for my luxurious life. I have time to putter, to create space for new ideas, thoughts, connections, and inner conversations as I play. I am so fortunate.
What form does your play take? How often do you play? Does play feel self-indulgent to you and if so, why is that? We encourage our children to play, knowing play is a way children learn valuable information about themselves and the world, but for many of us play is an after-thought. After we get our work done. After our children are grown. After we've made our mark in the world. After we retire. After....

Ackerman says play is required--not an add-on--in order to feel whole, and play is "a form of prayer based on a reverence for life." Now on the surface, the exclusive organization with only 4 members (a dear friend, my sister, my daughter and myself), Girls on Safari, dedicated to the pursuit of antiques, may seem more irreverent than reverent, but I think it fulfills all of Ackerman's requirements for deep play. My sister's van may not seem like sacred space, but on our antiquing adventures it becomes the space not only for antiques, but for sharing our lives and loves, a place to tell stories and share hopes and dreams and a way to step out of our ordinary lives and celebrate friendship and fun. Antique shops become our playground, but even play has some structure, rules, and regulations. Ours include No Bickering (Finders Keepers) and No Whining. Ever. Play often includes competition, and Girls on Safari is no exception, for prizes are awarded in a variety of categories, such as First Purchase, Best Bargain, and Best Costume, which my sister usually wins by wearing vintage pearls and/or brooches. On our last outing, someone, I won't say who, won the Whoops! Award for breaking something in a store. The owner deserved a prize for her graciousness, saying it was her fault for placing it so precariously! Well, I could go on with story after story about our adventures, but suffice it to say, that our periodic trips enrich our lives because of the pleasures of being together and the time we devote to playing with each other.

Ackerman says a manifestation of deep play is love, and last night as I created the newsletter (Yes, that's right, a newsletter!) for our most recent GOS day, I was overwhelmed with love for these women. Not only does our playtime rejuvenate and restore us, but playing together connects us to the loving and joyful spirit that dwells within.

Have you played today?

Note: The photo was taken recently at our last stop, Hunt and Gather, a whimsical and jam-packed antique shop in Minneapolis.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Kinda Sorta Lost

Home again. I wasn't intending to be gone for so long, but I got lost. Kinda Sorta Lost.

The morning's list was quite clear: go to Curves, walk, clean master bath and bedroom, start laundry, go to grocery store and then the arboretum to pick up my phone right where I left it at the end of my volunteer shift in the bookstore yesterday. All that progressed smoothly, but then I made a wrong turn, quite literally.

Last evening I asked Bruce to load the guest room chair into my car, for my plan was to take it to a charming store in a little town that has become a favorite of ours. The store's owner creates slipcovers from vintage fabrics, and I decided that would be a great way to use some of the 40's and 50's tablecloths from my large collection. (See my Feb. 15, 2010 post.) Off I went, not consulting a map, for I was sure I knew the way, even though I wasn't taking the usual route. Various farmhouses looked familiar, and I remembered being on the route more than once, but when I approached the town of Oregon, instead of Verona, I knew I had made a wrong turn somewhere. I should have turned right onto M, instead of left. Oh well, I can get there from here, I told myself.

I got out a map and was grateful I know how to read maps, thanks to my Dad. The summer before my 6th grade year my family drove from our home in Mankato, MN, to Rapid City, South Dakota, to visit friends and to see the sights along the way -- the Badlands and Wall Drug and Mt Rushmore. Before Dad turned on the ignition, he passed the map to me, sitting behind him in the back seat and said, "Get us there." At least that is the way I remember it. I know he knew how to get us there without any help from me, but I became the Chief Navigator for that trip. Not only did I acquire a valuable skill, but my self-confidence grew. By learning how to get there from here, he nudged me towards independence and the ability to take care of myself.

Ok, all I needed to do was continue on MM to CC and take a right and that would take me right into Paoli, but somehow I missed Paoli --yes, it is that small--and found myself no longer on CC, but now on D and I was going more south than west and I wanted to be going west, and I had been driving more than the 3 miles indicated on the map. I could have pulled into the nearest farm driveway to consult the map again or I could have used my map app on my iPhone or I could have turned around and retraced my steps, but I continued onward. I knew eventually I would get somewhere and then I would know where I was. I felt myself relax into the beauties of the day. After all, I had a full tank of gas, a cold Diet Coke, a fresh bag of red licorice, my phone, and most of all I had time--and a willingness to be kinda sorta lost.

I rolled down my windows and opened the sunroof and exchanged the music of Hayden and Bach for the symphony of windsong, conducted by gracefully bending tree branches. I passed stately farmhouses with wide porches and wondered what it would be like to live there. I prayed the people there were happy and content. I waved to a woman wearing a straw hat, working in her garden, and I prayed for a good growing season. I spotted hawks--one, two, three--and my heart soared with them, reminding myself to remember the bigger view when I become attached to one route. I slowed down as I approached a biker who had stopped and raised his binoculars. What was he seeing that I was missing? I glanced at the empty passenger seat and thought about the many in my life who would be excellent companions on this ramble. I recalled other relaxed days of wandering, grateful that is something Bruce and I do best. What a luxurious life I have.

Eventually, I found the desired destination, and the trip home after dropping off the chair was without detours, planned or unplanned. Now what? Well, I could do this or I could do that or that or that, but instead I felt like wandering a bit more. Wandering with words. I decided to write a new post for this blog, but I had no idea what my topic would be. That has been happening lately--the desire to write drives the topic rather than the topic leading the way. Sometimes I get kinda sorta lost as I attempt to find my way, but I go along for the ride, anticipating new sights and new ways to get to my destination. Kinda Sorta.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A New List

I am a list-making diva. I love making lists. My iPhone "Notes" section is full of lists. Of course, there are the usual "DO" and "GET" lists, which I am constantly updating. In fact, on today's DO list, is a trip to Target. Fortunately, my "GET" list is ready for action. When we first moved into this house I had a lengthy House List in which I detailed room by room everything that needed to be done or purchased, and I am happy to report that list has shrunk significantly. I can't wait for the contracted exterior painting to be done, in order to scratch that big item off the list. I have lists of what I have read going back decades and lists of what I would like to read. That's a list that will never be completed. Lists of restaurants to try and places to visit, blogs to read, stores to check-out, antiques to find, and wines to try. I have lists of goals and writing ideas and even places where I would like to go and write for a few hours. Well, you get the idea.

When our children were growing up, we always made summer lists of places to go and things we wanted to do as a family. Some years, due to money or schedules, we couldn't go on a family vacation, but thanks to the list posted in the kitchen we were never at a loss for fun times. For example, we all remember fondly, "B Day," a day dedicated to bakeries, bookstores, and the newly-released Batman movie. A favorite memory.

This summer will be one of treasured memories as well, for Bruce and I are renting a cottage for a month in Door County--one of the top places on our Favorite Places in the World" list, and it will come as no surprise that I have started a new list,"Things to Take to Door County:" sheets for twin beds, 4th of July flags, extra towels, summer recipe folder, beach chairs and umbrella, cooler, insect repellent and suntan lotion, bike. Along with this list, which seems to grow in my sleep, there is the complementary list, "Things to Do Before Door County," which includes cancelling papers and mail delivery, asking Jack to mow the lawn and water plants, and cleaning the refrigerator. Both lists undoubtedly will grow as the departure date approaches.
I find, however, my mind is wandering to anther list--a list of what I want to do during that month in Door County. I allow my mind and my heart to imagine a month of summer days stretching in front of me. What am I yearning for? What is my heart's desire for that time? That list is very simple.

Eat well.
I look forward to the week that part of the family will be with us. Our granddaughter and I have been talking about going to our favorite ice cream shop, and I know there will be at least one miniature golf game in store for us. How fun it will be to take our two year old grandson to the beach, and I am sure we will go to special shops and restaurants and maybe take the ferry to Washington Island. Bruce will be there that week, too, and then for long weekends, and we will enjoy seeing friends who live there or who will come for a day or two, but much of the time I will be there by myself. I won't have the tugs of hometending and entertaining and scheduling and answering emails. Will I listen to my heart and let the day unfold? Will I let the water's waves soothe and quiet me? Will I allow the silence of the sun and the gaze of the moon to guide and teach me? Will I honor the wisdom that awaits within? Will my simple list--walk, bike, meditate, pray, eat well, read, write, sleep--become my mantra? I can hardly wait to find out.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Sitting in the Mama Chair

I was restless. A good friend had gone home after spending a day and a half here. We had our usual good time of exploring shops and lingering over meals to continue open-ended conversations. With the house in order and no MUST DO NOW items on my list, I decided to give myself an afternoon off. I gathered a pile of books and my journal and stationed myself on the sunny deck, but it was too warm out there. I moved to the front porch, but it was too cold there. I felt like Goldilocks. Eventually, I got comfortable in the Mama Chair in the living room. Just right, except for that restlessness.

Should I take a nap? Write in my journal? Do some centering prayer? Read? If so, which one of these books tempts me most? I paged through each book, attempting to land on a new shoreline. I read a chapter here and a chapter or two there. I wrote some quotes in my journal. I grazed my way through the afternoon, continuing to feel restless. In fact, I was certain I would later think "I should have done x, y, z." Aside: Something I didn't do --straighten the lampshade before taking the picture. Sigh

I have a friend who reminds me occasionally of all the time I have. Time? What time? I always feel busy, always have one more thing I need to do, want to do. I take her comment as a criticism and as a value judgment. Busy is good. Busy is more. Busy is the norm, the accepted. Busy is the work ethic. Busy is making a contribution. Busy is being productive. Busy is visible. Busy is doing. I buy into that easily, but apparently I am now retired, so what does busy mean in this context?

Several months after my mother died, I went to an intuitive for a reading and she not only gave me amazing and comforting information about my mother, but she also had some words from my Grandmother Hansen, a farm wife extraordinaire, who died many years ago. Her advice was to "stop swatting flies." I wasn't sure what she meant. Was I to overlook small irritations? Not a bad idea. I mentioned the phrase to my father, and he told me she had often said, "If you don't think there is anything more to do, you can always swat flies." In other words, stay busy. There is always something TO DO. But here she was, instructing me to stop doing and start being. What does that mean exactly?

My afternoon of grazing netted two helpful quotations:

Today I am happy to find myself sitting on the ground wanting nothing to do--no, not even wanting it, simply accepting that I am enveloped in nothing to do. I begin to understand how nothing to do is its own state of grace, difficult to find deliberately, nearly impossible to recognize. Nothing to do means I can sit and look and let my mind wander, then empty, then fill again, with wonder or with grief, with anything or with nothing at all. "Nothing to do" is not the same as "nothing can be done." One is hopeless; the other, the place from which hope becomes possible. From Slow Love How I Lost My Job, Put on My Pajamas and Found Happiness by Dominique Browning

We may find it useful to inquire into our own thermostat. What if we take a moment and reflect on our life: How do we know, for example, when we have done enough work for this day? Is it when we collapse from complete exhaustion, however late at night? Or when the clock strikes a particular hour? Is it when we finish replying to all the emails in our inbox? How do we know when we have taken on too many projects? Is it when we get sick--or when so many mistakes start happening, each piling one upon the other, so that our life and work seem to just freeze up, paralyzed, unable to go on any further? What teaches us when to speed up, when to slow down, when to stop? From A Life of Being, Having, and Doing Enough by Wayne Muller

While I know what it means to "DO," I am not sure what it means to BE," even though I am always talking about being present and that I am a human being and not a human doing, but what that means remains unclear to me. My only plan at this point is to sit in the Mama Chair more often and let my heart graze and gaze. Perhaps that is enough.

FYI: The Books in the Pile
The Sum of Our Days by Isabel Allende (memoir)
Claiming Ground, A Memoir by Laura Bell (cattle rancher, forest ranger, outfitter, masseuse, wife and mother in Wyoming.
Slow Love by Dominique Browning (Memoir mentioned above. Browning is former editor of House and Garden)

Intimacy and Solitude, Balancing Closeness and Independence by Stephanie Dowrick (On my shelf for a long time. Perhaps this is the time.)

The Circumference of Home, One Man's Yearlong Quest For a Radically Local Life by Kurt Hoelting ("part quest and part guidebook for change")

Open Mind, Open Heart, The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel by Thomas Keating (Have read before, but want to read again because it is the definitive book on centering prayer)

A Life of Being, Having and Doing Enough by Wayne Muller (The title says it all!)

Women, Food and God, An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything by Geneen Roth (This title says it all, too.)

The Journal Keeper, A Memoir by Phyllis Theroux (Why didn't I write this book?)

Friday, April 30, 2010

Sit With Me

Instead of going to Curves to work-out this morning as I usually do, I decided to walk in the conservancy. The prediction is for thunderstorms later today, making a walk later a possible problem. Besides, I felt pulled by birdsong. I was there early and only passed one huffing and puffing jogger as I strolled easily, stopping occasionally to pinpoint the locations of the tweets, chirps, trills and honks. I've noted this spring how I hear sandhills frequently, almost every time I walk out the front door, but only rarely see them. Maybe this morning.

The skies didn't reward me with sandhills, but instead with a red-tail hawk soaring, swooping, almost swooning in his love of the early morning softness. I pay attention to hawks. They are one of my totems. Hawks are messengers, visionaries, reminders of the bigger picture and the ability each of us has to look deeply within for the inner light that guides us. I pay attention to hawks, and this one chose a sky-path over the springs in the conservancy. I followed, realizing what I most needed to do this morning was to sit in my own silence and open to the spiritual practice of centering prayer.

Centering prayer is a contemplative practice of opening to God, consenting to God's presence within, finding repose and resting in God, and moving beyond thoughts, images, and emotions. Centering prayer requires intention and patience and practice. There is a reason spiritual practices are called just that!

I've walked to the springs before and stood at the railing, watching with fascination the bubbling from the bottom of the shallow water and the forming of spirals, temporary labyrinths. I told myself to bring my journal here and sit and wait and allow whatever needs to be expressed to come bubbling forth. The hawk told me to be here today. I sat on the bench, set the timer on my i-phone for 20 minutes, took a deep breath, closed my eyes and offered my intention to rest in God. Of course, many thoughts appeared. I am overloaded with thoughts, but I kept returning to the sacred word I have found as my touchstone for centering prayer. Again and again--and again--I return to the sacred word, resetting my intention to rest in God. Sooner than I expect, the harp music of my i-phone timer plays. The 20 minutes are up, and I head back towards home and my plan for the day.

Was it a "successful" time? Yes, because I practiced and accepted God's invitation to open, but was there a moment of experiencing union with God? No, not really. There have been moments during centering prayer or doing T'ai Chi or walking a labyrinth when I have felt God's presence almost tangibly, but the moment I recognize it, it is gone. That knowing is seductive and hard not to grasp greedily. Today, however, was much more about intention, following the hawk, and trusting that the space I create within myself through this practice allows healing to occur. I have no idea what the fruits will be, but Father Thomas Keating, the founder of the Centering Prayer Movement and author of Open Mind, Open Heart, The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel says, "God is patient and waits for the right moment in which you are ready for the insight that will free you."

Oh, and by the way, as I turned toward home I spotted two sandhills retracing the hawks highway.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Spring Sorting

Yes, I am still sorting. Once is not enough apparently. Just as cleaning my closet of clothes that no longer fit my body, my lifestyle, or my imagination needs to be done periodically; sorting in the rest of my life is an ongoing process as well. Here is what I have learned during my most recent sorting process: Surprise! I am retired.

I didn't know that's what happened when we moved here from Ohio. I just assumed I would continue to do in some fashion what I was doing there--some spiritual direction, some teaching, some facilitating of groups. I didn't know I was retiring without the gold watch, the pension, the farewell tea for this year's class of retirees. I didn't set a retirement date and count the days till it arrived. But here I am, RETIRED, a by-product of moving here so my husband could accept a challenging and exciting position and so we could live closer to our Minnesota family. No regrets, but I am amazed at my cluelessness about what this would mean for me.
In fact, a friend expressed surprise that I didn't recognize this change in my life, since I am a person who seems to be in constant reflection. It wasn't that I resisted the word. I simply did not recognize the obvious. Instead, I have been trying all this time to find a pat phrase for the question, "What do you do?"

For the first year or so I tried answering by stating what I did in my former life. "When we lived in Ohio I had a small private practice in spiritual direction, and I worked part time for a support organization for those touched by cancer." It was awkward, but it worked for awhile. However, now I have been here for over two years and speaking with tongues of the past no longer works. Frankly, it's not even that I am asked that often (Shouldn't that in itself be another clue, along with the fact that the AARP magazine shows up in our mailbox?) and if I am asked, I can slip easily into a conversation about things I am doing and like to do without too much stumbling. I refer to participating in a writing group and a book group/class or volunteering in the bookstore at the arboretum or attending a centering prayer class at Holy Wisdom Monastery. "Did you know they have the greenest building in the US?," I say, and successfully change the focus of the conversation. Oh, and, of course, there are the grandkids to bring into the conversation.

Obviously, I need to come to terms with the word "retired." I think there is intense pressure on my generation, even in our retirement, to do great things. "So what are you doing now that you are retired?" Golfing, sleeping late, and reading romance novels is not a good enough answer. We are expected, it seems, to respond with a passion, a dedication to a cause, a discovery of a new talent, or even commitment to a new career. Have you noticed how many books there are on the topic?. I have a few of them myself.

Leap! What Will We Do with the Rest of Our Lives? by Sara Davidson

Claiming Your Place at the Fire, Living the Second Half of Your Life on Purpose by Richard J. Leider and David A. Shapiro

The Third Chapter, Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50 by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot (EEEK! I only have 13 more years before that book has no more relevance for me!)

Inventing the Rest of Our Lives, Women in Second Adulthood, What Matters, What Works, What's Next by Suzanne Braun Levine

Creating a Spiritual Retirement, A Guide to the Unseen Possibilities in Our Lives by Molly Strode.

I am tempted to answer the retirement question by saying, "My goal is to read all the books on retirement." I know there is good advice in these books, reflections that resonate with me, and spiritual practices that will enrich and enhance my life in the 60's and beyond and perhaps it is a good sign that I have these books on my shelf already. I'll go back and reread what I have underlined already.

What I am beginning to realize is that the filling up, the testing and trying, the believing that the next big thing is just around the corner has not been all that successful. I find myself stuck in what was, what is not, and too permeated with it all to just BE. I am not sure what that will look like, but I hope to ease from Spring Sorting to Summer Savoring.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Snow Day Sorting

Last week I gave myself a Snow Day. Granted, it was actually snowing--steadily, quietly all day--but going to both morning and afternoon activities would not have been a problem. However, the pull of an unscheduled day in my office was much stronger than attending the discussion about a book I only moderately enjoyed. And as much as I love the weekly writing group, I felt a more urgent tug to sit at my own desk. So I stayed home. Specifically, I stayed in my lower level office where I had recently "dressed" my harvest table desk with some of my vintage tablecloths and spread out writing tools and bits and pieces to inspire and invite me into reflection. Although this desk doesn't have the view I had from my office in our 1802 farmhouse, I love the feeling of being tucked under the house. On a snowy winter day I imagine myself in an igloo, a cave, an underground chamber. My own secret place.

I spent the day writing a book review for a volunteer newsletter, researching potential publishers for my collection of essays about grief and loss, jotting thoughts for the book's introduction, and brainstorming ideas for a new book about transitions and spiritual ways of living those changes. A productive and creative day. I mused on how much I could accomplish if I had more Snow Days. If I allowed myself more days like this one. If I protected more days to use in this way.

We have now lived here in Madison for a little over two years. During this time my priority has been to settle in, to find my loop of life, to create a life, a home, here. To do that I have explored and been open to a variety of opportunities. I've stretched my naturally introverted personality in order to meet people and find meaningful and stimulating activities. I am happy there are places where people know my name and greet me warmly. No small feat, when you move at this stage of your life.

During my Snow Day, however, I felt new ideas bubbling up in me. I churned with bouncing thoughts. I felt an eagerness swirling within me. As the snow twirled and whirled outside my windows, I heard inner murmurs, breathy urgings, "Stay here. Be here. Write here." A book I am reading about creating a spiritual retirement keeps repeating the refrain, "Now is the time...." Perhaps it is.

At this point the Snow Day became the Sorting Day, for my dance card is quite full, thank you very much. Louise deSalvo in Writing as a Way of Healing says, "To make time to write, we often have to choose to stop doing something else." What will it be? I'm not quite sure about that yet, but I am in the process of sorting through all the calendar items. I am assessing the pieces, scrutinizing my days and searching my heart, listening to what feels essential.

The sorting is not done, but I will be at my desk more often.

Monday, January 25, 2010

January Morning

Saturday morning I set out early into the barely there mist. Quiet. Still. Had my neighborhood become a ghost town? Were we the only home still inhabited? I imagined the abductors saying, "Hey, did you get that green house? No, but Joe did." Only Joe didn't, and here we still are. Even the dog with the menacing growl, whose solid presence has forced me more than once to the other side of the block, does not appear. I am alone, walking past industrial waste piles of snow where discarded Christmas trees and browning garlands have been tossed, awaiting rescue by city trucks. Every year I tease I am going to sneak onto porches and pluck Christmas wreaths tired and well beyond their "Use by ..." deadlines. Do people not notice as they pick up the morning paper or answer the door to their children's friends how unwelcoming these wreaths look now that January is soon to be February? Perhaps I should start a business. For only $5 I will remove your wreath in a timely fashion. Pay in advance, of course.

In spite of this eccentric irritation, I happen to love winter, and in fact, winter is my favorite season. I catch myself even praying this year will be the longest, the worst winter ever. True, I sigh with others, "Yes, isn't it awful? Sick of it? Yes, me too," but I adjust the glasses on my nose, turn another page and reach for my mug of hot chocolate. I wrap myself in a shawl. I poke the fire. I turn on only enough light to see the book. I move slowly, but steadily through winter tasks. No drawer left unorganized. No letter or email unanswered. No goal unchallenged. No hope unaddressed. The refrain on my lips is "This year I will...,but on my own terms and without zeal or threat of punishment.

Winter's uncluttered, unlittered nature moves me patiently from day to day without surprise of color or blossom or smell of dirt or invitation to jump, to charge forward. Instead I stop. I rest. I delight in Sabbath time. I stretch slowly, deliberately, quietly, so as not to awaken any other bears in my cave.

I value the harvest of fall, the energy of spring, the secure lingering of summer, but even more I covet the lairs of winter, the hidden passages, the unlit corridors, the streamlined views, the bareness of the horizon. The action coldly stopped, frozen without conscious time. I've done what I can all those other days and months and now it is time to leave what is undone and to unwind the sweater till once more it is yarn. It is sheep. It is essence.

Ah, this is it. Winter is essence and offers the time to recall, to re-call my own essence.