Monday, March 29, 2010

Living the Questions

It was a really peaceful weekend. Saturday I spent walking on the beach along with others who were doing the same, then took a mini road trip down Highway #1 which runs along the coast. It goes through one small town after another with some beautiful scenery between. Driving, for me, is a way to regenerate myself, to recharge my batteries along cleaner, clearer lines. Plus, it was an opportunity to see more of my new turf and what it has to offer.

My first stop was a natural food store called New Morning which provided part of the lunch I was planning for friends on Sunday, a hummus that was pretty darn good. Yummy, in fact. I also bought some Tupelo honey, which is made from the blossoms of the Tupelo gum tree. Double yummy. Naturally, ahem, I thought of the Van Morrison song, "Tupelo Honey."

As I drove on, I started wishing for an old cemetery which Maine is rife with, to check out dates, epitaphs, the stuff that cool old cemeteries are made of. And, there it was, up on a slight hill, surrounded by pine trees that looked as old as the cemetery itself, with a little road running through it, lined with headstones.

I parked my car beneath the pines and walked the narrow road, acquainting myself with its inhabitants, most of whom passed in the mid 1800's. There was Nellie Downs, 25 year old daughter of Ithamar and Sarah Downs. Next to Nellie was her much younger brother, Freddie, who passed at 1 yr. 1 mo. 17 ds. I am always grateful I haven't had to endure that almost unendurable pain. These parents had to, more than once.

Sometimes you see the patterns of life through the dates. The flu epidemic of 1918 took more than its share of  young lives, as did The Great War, a story told in many cemeteries. Over and over again. I'm often reminded of a line from Lonesome Dove, where Gus says, after the death of a young cowhand, "Life is short. Shorter for some than for others." I wish it wasn't so. I believe in the eternality of life, but cemeteries tell their own stories and the lives of some of my closest friends are a testament to it.

Close to Nellie and Freddie was a man who had been bestowed this epitaph:

Near the home of his childhood.
In the dust we have laid.
His spirit is happy and free.
He has crossed the dark valley.
Of the shadow of death.
To brighten the pathway for me.

"Near the home of his childhood." Simple lives of individuals, each a part of the great All. And each has contributed to life, my life and yours. Sometimes, when traveling, I stop to have lunch among these fine people, read about their lives and get a feel for their resting place. It's not a maudlin pursuit. It's a way to honor those who have passed, who lived their lives among family and friends. I speculate from time to time, as we all do, about what happens in the great beyond, but I still can't say I have the answer. Won't know until I know. What I do know is, the mystery of death, contained within the mystery of life, is no longer something I fear.

Not too far from the cemetery is the Wallingford Farm Store. It was not yet open for the year, but I had to take its picture, as well as the house that was attached. Large old houses attached to barns are everywhere in Maine. They create some very interesting architecture. This one had gone through a reincarnation, with a new life as a nursery. It was the peach color that drew me in and made me pull over for another look.

Then, a graying clapboard house, which had served as someone's business, caught my eye with its wooden carousel horse in the window. When I turned around and pulled over across from it, I realized it also had a totem pole, of sorts, on one side of the door. It was the horse I couldn't resist. Framed by the aging wood, bedecked with bits of colored glass, it created a scene I had to capture. The loon at his feet completed it.

Driving around, keeping my eyes open to little bits of life, is one of my favorite things to do. It always seems to provide questions worth considering. Last night, I came across a few quotes by Rainer Maria Rilke, which affirmed the feeling I have for this place I find myself in, looking at life from a new perspective. I'd like to share one of the quotes with you that seems particularly apropos.

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Jonathan, Chiang, My Mother, and the Lessons They Taught Me

It's a beautiful sunny day here on the coast of Maine. The last two days were mostly overcast, some rain mixed with snow at times. I still walked out to the beach each day to feel the swells as they approached the shore. There's something I feel inside, an actual physical sensation at my center, as they get nearer the shore and gain intensity. It's a feeling I love. It gives me a sense of connection to the ocean. I feel a part of it, a oneness even, with this incredible source of life. That it is filled with beautiful and amazing beings in a seemingly infinite number and variety deepens its mystery, a mystery I want to understand more and more as I stay present to what it offers.

But, this morning I have something else on my mind despite the beauty right outside my door. I've been thinking about anger and all the ways it seems to be rearing its ugly head in our country right now. I'm sensing an even deeper chasm of "us vs. them." One of the things I'm striving to learn is how to undo negative habits, some of them life-long. I used to spend a great deal of time myself in useless anger. For the last few years I've been moving away from leaning on this emotion to sustain my sense of self-righteousness. I've made great strides and manage most of the time to release it and keep moving forward. Once in awhile I still get stuck momentarily, but what I call my 'turn-around time' has shortened considerably. I simply choose peace in the moment. Occasionally I have to keep choosing peace in each moment until I really feel it, can identify it as my true self. My mother used to tell me, "Smile until you mean it." Now I understand better what she was trying to teach me. I don't claim to have answers for everyone, but I do know what is working for me. As often as necessary I choose peace, choose love over fear. I sometimes hear the statement, "Choose love over hate," but hatred is really just one of the disguises of fear. Fear wears many masks.

For me, spirituality is linked inextricably with science. I often read the thoughts of people like Albert Einstein, who was probably the greatest scientist of our time, to free my thought from false thinking. He and his fellow physicists have written extensively on the nature of reality. To put this subject rather simplistically, reality is perception. If this is the case, and I personally believe it is, then the way to change it is to deal first with my own thoughts. What images am I holding in thought?  What emotions am I allowing to run rampant, accepting them as truth?  If  I choose anger then that is what I will experience. If I choose peace that is what I will experience. It is always, without exception, a choice I make. We can say that these times call for righteous indignation, and so it seems. But, I ask myself, who will suffer from my anger, my indignation?  Will the object of my anger, the system that seems to bring out our collective wrath, suffer?  No. The system doesn't care about our anger. We are the only ones who suffer from our anger.

I'm a firm believer in peaceful protest, have always believed that we have an obligation to speak out against the powers that seem to be and let our voices be heard individually and collectively. But, with anger?  No, I don't feel it will accomplish anything. Two of the greatest voices of our time, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., used peaceful protest and strength of conviction to accomplish change. They believed change was possible and they expected to see it. They spoke out with a strength found in that inner Knowing that lead them through some very difficult times. There is a saying, "You will see it when you believe it." It might appear naive, but I will continue to hold to it until I see the change I know is not only possible but present in this moment if I open my eyes and choose to see it.

I just returned from taking time to walk down to the water. The seagulls gathering at the waters edge and flying across my view reminded me of a book I loved in the early 1970's, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach. It was an early voice in a burgeoning movement towards spiritual understanding of ourselves and the world around us. It might appear almost banal now in its simplicity, but it spoke of higher ideas and used the world of seagulls, one in particular, to bring home a valuable lesson.

Jonathan was growing tired of the squabbling in his flock and yearned to fly higher, outside the society of gulls that seemed driven by fighting over food and resources. He wanted to transcend the boredom, fear, and anger that seemed to motivate his fellow seagulls. He practiced diligently, attempting to fly higher and higher, until one day he was met by two seagulls who lead him to a higher plane of existence. There he met Chiang, a wise seagull who became his teacher. Chiang told him, "Begin by knowing you have already arrived." This idea is what captured my attention. This parable is about seeing the present and infinite possibilities inherent in who we really are. These are the possibilities I still choose to keep reaching for, accepting into my thought and thus my life. Simple?  Yes, as a matter of fact. The truth is simple. We make it much more difficult than it has to be.

Chiang ended his lessons reminding Jonathan to, "Keep working on Love." And that's what I aim to do. Keep working on Love. My mother gave me a pendant many years ago, around the time this book came out. It was of seagulls hand painted on porcelain. She knew how much this story spoke to me and quietly encouraged my exploration of these ideas. I feel her encouragement still. Every day I have a beautiful opportunity to listen to what the sea has to say. It's a voice I trust. It is that "still, small voice" that is always present. All I have to do is listen.

Monday, March 22, 2010

To the Lighthouse and Beyond

Last night, before I went to bed, I walked through the darkened kitchen of my temporary home here on the Atlantic and looked again at the lighthouse off in the distance sitting at the end of a promontory. How wonderful to find myself here, at this time in my life, apparently very ready for this experience, knowing it will yield moment after moment of new beauty, day after day a new awareness.

This is my first day here on the beach. I spent a week at a friends home, about an hour off the coast. It was a peaceful time of good conversation, walks in the Maine woods with two of the finest golden retrievers on this planet, day trips to Freeport, Kennebunkport, and Congress Street in Portland, as well as drives down a labyrinth of back roads. It made for a really nice week.

 As I write these words, from my kitchen table overlooking the beach, the sunlight is peeking through and lighting up the water; small waves roll onto the shore. My kitchen window is framed by pine trees. Just beyond is grass covered dunes and seven miles of sand beach. The old picket fence below is lined with lobster buoys of all colors, shapes and sizes. A lone walker passes by on the beach.

Yesterday afternoon was spent settling in here and getting a feel for this new place. As evening fell into night through the sounds of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," and Louis Armstrong's, "What a Wonderful World," I felt the gentle tug of sleep. I had been looking forward to my first night here, to lying down with the sound of the waves outside my window. As I drifted off, I heard the soft whistle of a train going by a couple of blocks away. Falling asleep between that familiar sound of a train and the new sound of waves on the beach can only be described as magical. It was as though my life was making a turn into something new, but bringing with it the best moments of my past to help me make the turn and carry me forward with all that's truly good.

The water is calling me for a walk along its shores. I want to feel that same sense of infinity I feel when looking at the night sky, to feel the mysteries of the Universe. As I look across the water and see the horizon with the promise of infinite goodness unfolding before me, I am filled with joy and gratitude. To paraphrase Anne Morrow Lindbergh and her Gift From the Sea, there's a quiet anticipation as I open this gift, this gift of the sea. Tonight, I will once again walk through my darkened kitchen and see the lighthouse sending out its beam of light, guiding ships and souls to port. I'm learning that home truly is where the heart is, that heart of hearts that we carry inside, that speaks to us through that quiet Knowing that we have arrived exactly where we're supposed to be at this particular moment in time. It's going to be great fun.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Using My Inner Compass Down New Roads

A GPS to help me get from point A to point B has never appealed to me. That little talking box that constantly charts your course for you seems like just more noise to have to break through to get where you're inevitably going. Give me a road map or an atlas, and I'm in heaven. There's nothing finer (well, there is, but this seems so right now) than pouring over a map, looking for the route that speaks to me, even if it does mean missing an exit here and there. It's those missed exits that lead us deeper into adventure, help us find that spark that starts a flame in our soul, that tells us we are, indeed, on the right path, even when it isn't readily apparent. Somehow, I always get where I'm going, even if it isn't where I thought I was going. If I hadn't taken a side road in Pennsylvania I would have missed this old green house that needed to have its picture taken. What stories it could tell...

I recently had a conversation with a friend, Diane, about the GPS and how it dictates the direction, consigns you to a specific route. Apparently, the minute you veer off course, it tells you so and recommends, rather strongly, to make a u-turn as soon as possible. Kind of like life, and how sometimes, despite good directions and a goal in mind, you can find yourself taking what appears to be a wrong turn. Next thing you know, you're on a side trip. These side trips, for me, can last from a few hours to days. Which is a marked improvement. It used to be that my side trips would sometimes take years. I'd get lost in a world that appeared to be ill-chosen. But, choose it I did, or I wouldn't have found myself exploring new territory. Without fail, I'd been warned by the Universe. Time and time again, my own inner GPS told me to make that u-turn. Then, after realizing that I was plowing ahead, not listening, it would eventually reconfigure the new route I was insisting on and help me as I went, resigned to seeing me through whatever adventure and lesson awaited. I sometimes found myself down an emotional back road, drawing me deeper and deeper into a maelstrom of events from which I knew I would, eventually, have to extricate myself. Sometimes these side trips turned out kind of fun. Other times, not so much. Did I change course? No, not always. Did I learn valuable lessons en route?  Yep. Always. As a matter of fact, the side trips have produced some of my greatest lessons in life and no matter what ensued, they all brought me here, to this really fine Moment. I love that I came through pretty much unscathed and not too messy of a back trail.

Once again, I'm off on a new adventure. I've gotten much better at listening and  following my own inner compass, my internal GPS that keeps me on a track that speaks to me and my life. Sometimes, when it might appear to the world that I'm getting lost, I'm really getting found. I find bits and pieces of myself I didn't even know existed, or have been subsumed to the degree that when they do show up it's a sweet surprise, remembering that aspect of myself that had remained hidden for awhile. Sometimes, for a long while. And, that's when the fun really begins.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Following My Own Star Home

The last few days were spent going half way across the country, heading east this time, for a few weeks on the eastern seaboard, the Maine coast, to be more exact. As you know, I love the open road, flying down the highway with Paul Simon, Lucinda Williams, or Alison Krauss riding shotgun in my CD player, my ears, my eyes, wide open; living this nomadic life that's always whispering in my ear.

Last Sunday morning I left Minnesota and drove across Wisconsin, spending the night somewhere near the southern border. I watched the Oscars, felt a bit unsettled by it all and then drifted off into fitful sleep. Early the next day I woke up to a dense fog. There might be a metaphor there, but I drove through it, down into Illinois. As the road stretched out and the sun rose, the fog lifted. Indiana, Ohio, and finally into one of my favorites, Pennsylvania. The western half of that state is especially beautiful. It is endless tree covered rolling hills; old farmstead after old farmstead with big red or white barns inside valley after valley. Occasionally the highway cuts through granite and I'm driving between rock walls for miles. It's wonderful, of course, during fall foliage time and I was fortunate enough to be able to plan my return trip last fall at its height. It was a little bleak this trip, but it's quite a treat to be able to see a place I love in yet another season. Summer still waits.

I made a decision a couple of months ago to hit the road sometime in March or April and head east. I could feel a new adventure forming. I'd been looking at places on the Atlantic Ocean during the off-season where rent is a little less expensive and yet I would still have a chance to walk on the beach, watch the sun on the waters of the Atlantic, and experience new light. I found a place on the web, one I was somewhat familiar with from previous visits to Maine. There was something I sensed about it that felt right. The few emails I exchanged with the owner of the rental I was considering were very warm and she had a good vibe, even through her emails. But, I decided to wait until I could see it in person, get a true feeling for the energy of the place and the community before I made a decision and locked myself into anything.

I wasn't sure when I would arrive at my destination. I wanted to spend time on the road that allowed me to enter this new time in my life gently and in peace. No pressure. Going to the beach should never involve pressure, no matter what time of year. Somewhere in eastern Pennsylvania I knew I was supposed to exit  I-80 and head up to Wilkes-Barre and Scranton, then east again towards Boston. I was drifting along thinking about the fact that I prefer blue highways, when time allows, and I had not yet gone down any roads where photos could easily be taken, where I could stop and take in the surroundings effortlessly. Just as I made this wish, I missed my exit north. I kept going. I stopped at a rest area farther down the road where I could take a gander at the atlas and see what my options were. I saw that not too far up the road, there was a highway heading in the direction I needed to be going that took me along the Delaware River and the wetlands that run alongside it. It looked very enticing and I knew that was the way. I wanted to take photos, perhaps of an old farmstead similar to the ones I had looked at longingly as I zipped down the interstate. I didn't have far to go before my wish was granted.

I exited at Stroudsburg and headed northeast, along the Delaware Water Gap, forty miles of pure magic. The narrow road winds through trees that join hands as they hang over the road, pulling you further into its beauty. The sunlight took on a soft, all encompassing glow. It looked like the whole world was lit up by this effusive Light. And, it felt as good as it looked. A few miles down the road, sitting up on a ridge overlooking the road and the fields on the other side, was a huge white barn with a couple of stone buildings and an old abandoned house. You know me and old abandoned houses, we get along very well. I drove by, then  realized it was my opportunity, and a beautifully packaged gift. I looked for a place to turn around, drove back a mile or so, and up into the driveway.

One house, barely a shell of old gray clapboards, sat down near the bottom of the ridge. Trees knotted themselves around each corner, framing it as though it had gotten ready to have its picture taken. It looked alive; old, but alive. One window had weathered green shutters still  intact, the sole survivors.

The barn sat a bit further up the ridge. Several red vents were set along the L-shaped roof line. They were quite a sight against that stark blue sky. In places, branches seemed to have become part of the structure itself, entwined along the windows and door frames, embedded in the outer walls. The closer I got and the further I walked around it, the more it revealed itself to me. It just got better and better. There wasn't just one, but two silos made out of dark brown ceramic tiles. I had never seen silos made out of this material. They seemed so strong and sure of their place in the world.

The original main house was made out of field stone, with windows shuttered in white. It was a nice contrast against the stonework. A couple of trees were lolly-gagging around one corner of the house. They'd been doing so for a long time. I took picture after picture. I was in heaven.

About an hour later, I finally pulled myself away and drove on. I felt peaceful and grateful. It was exactly what I had asked for.

That afternoon, I passed Lowell, Massachusetts, where Jack Kerouac was born and where he is buried. I sent out a little prayer and promised him I'd stop to visit my next time through. The road unfolded before me in quiet beauty.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Goin' Up Cripple Creek to Have a Little Fun

Remember those glass postcard holders from the 1950's? You slid the postcard in between the rectangles of glass to display it. We never had one in my home, growing up, mainly because we never went anywhere. And I don't mean anywhere good. We never went anywhere. Other than an infrequent, to say the least, trip to the Twin Cities, we rarely went more than thirty miles from home. World weary travelers, we were not. A travel fund, we did not have. Family vacations? Didn't happen. The money simply wasn't there. The closest we came was going over to Wisconsin in the fall of '66 to visit my dad's relatives where we slept in a cabin by a river. My sister Jane and I didn't know it at the time but it was the same cabin my paternal grandfather was living in several years earlier when he took a shotgun, walked into the woods, and ended his life. That night on the Yellow River was one of the coldest of my life. I'll tell you about it some time.

Once in a while I flash on my much younger self, remembering her walking through her grandparent's bedroom and seeing for the first time one of those postcard holders sitting on their dresser. I remember that the card was from the Black Hills. I think that is the exact moment I got bit by the travel bug, when The West started calling my name. Just the name of a certain place, the sound it makes traveling off my tongue, draws me to it in an almost magnetic pull. I once drove a certain route through Montana just so I could go through a town called Round-up. Then, there's Jackson Hole, Santa Fe, Yellowstone, Cheyenne, Coeur d'Alene, and Cripple Creek.

It sits in a valley, high in the Rockies of Colorado. It's not a place you would choose for a winter spot. It's no Aspen. But they know beauty. At dusk locals drive up a steep and winding dirt road where it veers off at the edge of town.  They park their cars, stand on the ridge overlooking the town, and wait for the sun to set behind the Rockies. A friend and I joined them on a trip there in the early '90's. It was a spectacular light show.

Now, it's another town gone horribly awry, another old mining town that succumbed to the lure of gold in the form of a casino ... many casinos. Before I go off on a tangent about The Way Things Are, let me tell you a little bit about The Way Things Were, the Cripple Creek I fell in love with back in 1975.

It was the same summer I first went out west with my son, Trevor, and his dad. I had long felt the romantic draw of this western mountain town. It represented something unnameable to me. It had a colorful history that seemed to have a ghost-like presence in its streets. I had heard the unlikely but irresistible tale of finding turquoise on the dirt side streets ... if you looked hard enough after a rain. So, shortly after arriving in town I wandered up a side street with my nose to the ground, keeping my eyes peeled just in case. I made a right turn and found myself down yet another small side street that sat above the town. It was a dead end that ended up outside what I thought was one of the coolest old houses I'd seen. It had multi-brown shingled siding with some big pine trees right outside the door.  Out back, a chicken coop was definitely leaning to the left. I stood outside this house for a few minutes and imagined who might be occupying it: somebody cool, a leftover hippie holing up in Cripple Creek waiting for the world to change. I had to pull myself away from the fantasy of living my life in Cripple Creek, waiting with them.

Meanwhile, down on Main Street I could hear the sound of a dulcimer. I walked back down and saw a gal sitting on a bench playing it as it lay there across her lap. It was the sweetest sound I'd ever heard. The buildings, the sidewalks, the people ... everything about this place said, 'Life Is Good.'  It was sunny and laid back and had stores with names like The Brass Ass. It had a big brass ass, as in donkey, in the storefront window. I bought a t-shirt which I have to this day with its name and logo on it. I haven't worn it in a while ... quite a while. It was my thing then ... buying t-shirts and belt buckles from every cool stop along the way. I collected a few.

We spent the day wandering the streets, licking ice cream cones, listening to the dulcimer in the distance and finding trinkets to take home to family and friends. We visited the old library which stood at the end of main street like a matriarch keeping watch over the town. That reminds me ... sometime I want to tell you about some cool libraries I've known. This was one of them ... creaky wood floors ... the musty smell of old books ... and a couple of older women who ran the show ... who were probably younger than I am now.

The Brass Ass is now a casino ...  the library, a museum. Time marches on.

In '75 we were just passing through. It was not a destination. It didn't become that until many years later when I went back with a friend who had once lived there. We were looking through his photograph albums one day as he told me about his years in Cripple Creek. There it was. The brown shingled house on the dead end side street I'd stood in front of for the longest time back in '75. He was living in that house then. He said he decided to move back to Minnesota later that summer and create a homestead out of the woods. Life is a funny little thing, isn't it?

Note: one of my earliest posts mentions Cripple Creek: Merriam-Webster Is a Friend of Mine, May, 2009. You might find it interesting...

The vintage postcard of the sunset over Cripple Creek is from 1899.