Posts Categorized: Remembering

The Path of Totality: Where Sun Meets Fire

Eclipse Fever collides with Wildfire in my environmental newsfeed this month. In only ten days, my abnormally “normal” town will become a swollen version of itself. As the planetary wheel turns, we’re one of the very first and most reliable viewing places for the total eclipse, given that the Oregon Coast has a foggy and questionable personal history. Frankly, we see it as the most charming place from which to watch, bar none. But just how charming is something we try to keep very quiet. Notice I’m not being very specific or dropping its name.

The jig is up already up, though. Most of us with empty rooms in our homes have long had them booked with long-lost family or friends. The Willamette Valley floor is sprouting campgrounds in abundance, at $200 to $750 per site. We’re stocking up as if a snowfall were imminent, aware that our town will likely double or triple or quadruple in size. We’re also tuning up bikes so we can stay on the bike paths and out of traffic snarls, the ones that we’ve we’ve been warned about since April.

This will be the second total eclipse I’ve witnessed. The first one was in 1979. As I was recently reading the mystical accounts of eclipse stalkers, I reached back to remember…very little. Popular culture seemed far less interested in things celestial back then. The path of that total eclipse was a Nike-shaped swath over Washington and up into Canada so there was almost no Eclipse Hoopla. My husband and I and baby Ben simply drove the night beforehand a couple hundred miles to the rolling hills of southern Washington and parked our VW van on a wide spot in the road. Across the gentle hills a smaller version of Stonehenge was visible. Despite the dramatic location, there were only a few of other cars in the nearby parking lot. The sun was just up, and it was a showery February. The sun did break through the clouds to cast shadows over the hills as it chased a sweeping line of darkness. In my mind now it’s another subtle and rich life moment, thanks to my somewhat intact memory and a beautiful painting by my friend Jan that still hangs over my bed.

Meanwhile, right now, there’s another more pressing emergency situation in my other summer world, one that could (literally) eclipse the actual eclipse. Across the valley and up in the mountains lies our summer cabin, also in the path of eclipse totality. A wildfire has been burning on the shoulder of nearby Mt. Jefferson, and it’s only a couple of watersheds away. At risk are the old growth forests that are such a global treasure. Lately it’s been growing some days and sitting relatively still others, and there’s a staff of over 200 professionals on the case. Ironically, when the smoke is thick enough, the fire slows down, since it feeds on the heat generated by the powerful summer high-altitude sun, among other things. This whole area will thankfully be closed to Eclipse watchers because of the serious increased risk of fires.

The preparedness required here is a little more complicated than stocking our Valley home with beer and barbecue supplies. We’re clearing out brush to make the area less hospitable (my interpretation of the official fire containment plan). Unlike the solar variety, this crisis won’t likely be all over in a week. For that we’ll need to wait until the rains come in late October.

We’re fortunate to be able to soothe sore muscles at the hot springs retreat center down the road, where my husband is a big support of the BFD, or the Breitenbush Fire Department. We hear that the risk of the fire reaching here is miniscule now. We return back to the valley, a hundred miles away. The winds have blown the smoke from the Whitewater fire in the mountain to settle right outside our window. Sunsets here are rubber ball red. There’s little chance that the eclipse will actually be eclipsed by smoke here, but there’s a sizable risk of other fires, what with all the increased human activity.

So much for Oregon laid-back summers. Living so close to the awesome power of the sun brings a sense of aliveness here in the path of totality. We plan ahead to care for our visitors and our residents, in and out of the forest. We work prudently to protect the lives around us. We live in the traveling light shadow of not knowing what the future will bring, even as we savor the summer breezes. It’s an incandescent time. There’s a totality, a presence, to it all.

I want to remember this, I think, when I start believing that life is dull or boring. This sense of being fully engaged and awake, of being “all in.” Perhaps this is the real awe-inspiring nature of the eclipse, or of wildfire. For the moment all the murmurings and distractions of our daily lives cease and we can see the magic inside the enormous power of nature, so far from our actual ability to control it.

Only totally.

Managing the Moving Target of Summer

I’ve been taken captive by the sheer beauty and the energy of the first true days of summer. It’s a season of wonder, this short and brilliant burst of color and light after an unusually dark and wet winter. Farmer’s Markets thronged by pale people baring themselves to sun, to heat. The scent of promise in the air as festivals and fairs bloom. Mountains Rainier, Hood, Jefferson, Shasta on their thrones, reigning over it all.

Summer here is a quickly moving target, reliably launched in mid-July and lasting for a couple of months. With an urgency driven by my mother’s recent death, I delight in the good fortune of having the energy to experience so much of this Life Force. I move through forests, mountains, and beaches here in “God’s country,” trying my best to savor every little drop out of the season. But the more I revel in the beauty and activity around me, the more I move,  the more I long for the the still center of an actual target.

Each year I set my sights on my birthday, smack dab in the middle of the season. For most of my life it’s been a perfect day to gather with friends to celebrate with sour cherry pie or peach ice cream, a time to cram it full of love and gatherings.  I’ve celebrated at fairs and festivals, from the Oregon Country Fair to Bastille Day. It’s been a big pay-back for the times in my childhood when I missed celebrating with my schoolmates because of my summer birthday.

But about twenty years ago I decided to declare a day (or week) right around July 15 as a time for personal retreat. It was counterintuitive, but I was desperate to land somewhere. Since then, this date has become a still point right in the center of all the goings on, a quiet place where I can gather the fragmented parts of myself, where I can see the silver and pearls that I carry inside myself, those parts which often go unheard and unattended. I spread them out on the carpet of time, slow it all down, and listen.

That first year I heard a name change as I immersed myself in a tide pool: Susan Grace. I listened. I changed my name to two names, just to be reminded of what’s truly at the center of the target. Not me. Not Susan, with all her personality and accomplishments. Grace. Which does not belong to me. This has come to mean a deep trust in the greater Mystery, in the stillness in the center of movement.

When I remember this, when I honor this, the target stops moving. There is the still center. This is what is true. And so, once again this year I gather the fragments of self and stand for a few minutes in the stillness. And this life makes a deeper kind of sense.

And you, Dear Reader. How can you find stillness in the center in the midst of all the moving parts that summer offers? You don’t need a birthday to declare a time out, whether it’s for a day or for a few minutes daily. Whether you go big with a silent retreat or small with daily meditation, it’s time to slow the target down and find the center, in the bullseye hidden in stillness.

Stitching a Quilt that Holds

My mother has one-and-a-half feet in another world now.  I’m meeting her on the other half-foot, when she’s here, and joining her in the dreaming world when I can. In between times I’m moving through the layers of her life, thing by thing. I see a photo of my grandmother in a familiar dress, holding me as a baby. Did I remember that far back? Just as I’m about to take credit for an astounding memory, I realize I’ve seen it recently. In a quilt made by that very same grandmother in the 1950’s, now residing in my closet awaiting guests.

This is how it’s been. These last few months I’ve traveled sixty years back and forth in random order, time shifting. Time sifting, as I pick up each piece of her past.  And what has emerged is a pattern far more subtle than the one that I’ve been holding together in my mind all these years.

I can practically name the day, or at least the evening in 1970 when the “click” went off in my head and I began to see the oppression behind the traditional role of women. I giggled almost hysterically when I realized I had become a “Women’s Libber,” a somewhat derogatory label assigned to early feminists by the culture at large. Ever since that epiphany, I’ve held a specific belief about women raised in the rural Midwest in the early half of the last century.

I’ve run their stories through my filter about their oppression, including the ways they wasted their time on unappreciated “womanly” domestic arts.  After all, my credentials as a judge of them are impeccable. My mother was the president of FHA, Future Homemakers of America. “All I ever wanted,” she told me many times, “was to be a wife and mother.” For years it has been abundantly clear to me that the size of this role was way too tight, and way too under-appreciated for my own future liberated self.

The proof of her conditioning by the culture early on was all around me as I stood knee-deep in her apartment. Starting with the bib with her detailed embroidery for the birth of her only sibling, a brother. She had been nine years old.  Then an “autograph book” she assembled when she was twelve, filled with other girls’ cards and jingles about getting a husband. Then there are the yearbook and scrapbooks from high school singing the praises of her beauty and kindness (with tips for keeping that man). All of these keepsakes were especially repugnant when I was a young feminist, tainted as they were by male privilege and patriarchy.

After all, everything led to the pinnacle: her carefully planned wedding at 18, and a not-so-planned baby (me) when she wasn’t yet 19.  But I had much more proof of her oppression, based on my life as a little girl and helpmate. There was her ordinary grueling life, in the rural Missouri 1950’s. The life where she raised us and canned tomatoes all day in 120 (F) degree heat. The life where she washed the laundry (on Mondays, as the tea embroidered tea towel said), in a wringer washer and then hung it in the cold attic to dry while three of us under five years old vied for attention.

Then there were her duties as the wife of the school principal, not even 25 years old yet. A few years later, there’s the announcement in the tiny town newspaper about her return to college, with a quick reassurance that she would only be taking classes when her kids were in school. That degree never got finished because making another baby was just too hard to resist. This has always been the punch-line in my story of her demise.

But, as I’ve looked again these past weeks, there’s something else. I see the ways she (and many of the women of her generation) stitched together the social fabric through a myriad of little gifts of time and attention. My mother, and many others before her, planned and pulled off weekly Sunday fried chicken dinners on the farm for a large extended family. This in itself looked easier from a child’s view than it turned out to be in my reality as a young mother, when even a potluck was over my head.

And then there were the less routine but deeply significant duties. She delivered pies and casseroles when tragedy struck, which it did often.

A friend’s son, a teen who fell from the water tower, trying to mark it for the class of ‘54. 

A father who fell from his tractor right in the way of the combine.

A carload of liquored up kids, six dead, from a head-on crash.

My dad, their coach, left to tell the parents.

What may have come from basic social duty transformed her life into something larger. She, and many women like her, held the network of community together as they actively comforted, appreciated, and showed up for all of life, day to day, in big and little ways. They stitched together lives of meaning, piece by piece, like the patchwork quilts they left behind.

Last week I uncovered bundles and bundles of letters she wrote to lifelong friends in longhand, just because. The thoughtful gift, the thank you notes and cards. Many were left behind, written in her shaky hand, still waiting to be sent, as well as boxes (and boxes) that will never see that signature. I couldn’t even give them away to family members because, apparently, sending cards or letters through snail mail is a dying art.

But something of that history remains in my world. Although most of my correspondence is digital, I still keep a ragtag file of cards for such occasions. Sometimes I even write them, stamp them, address them. And I relish each one I receive nowadays, from friends and neighbors, placing it on my altar and lighting a candle to complete the circle.

There is such subtle tenderness and grace in a life of weaving and re-weaving the connections that bind us together. Now, more than ever, in an anxious and uncertain world, I’m embracing this part of my heritage. It supports me in remembering what’s important.

Life. To the fabric we weave from its beginning to its end. To the cards and letters and gifts of ourselves that spread and hold the love. To the holiness of this calling.

The Long View: Give Your Love Away

“In the long view, the best you can do is give your love away.” 
These song lyrics have been echoing in my being ever since last weekend. That’s when my local community celebrated the work of my dear friend, master musician and songwriter Neal Gladstone. There’s not enough space or time to describe his music or his being and its impact on everyone in the vicinity. He’s no longer able to perform because of advancing Parkinson’s, but his work lives on and on in our Ordinary Lives.
His lyrics span a dizzying array of ages, stages, moods, and topics. But in this particular time of life, the long view looms large. As I looked around the bulging auditorium at the audience, I saw people I have known since we were in our late twenties. I see in layers nowadays, remembering each face as it was ten years ago, twenty, thirty, and more. I see our youthful exuberance and our randomly failing bodies. Life has become three-dimensional, or, zooming out, multi-dimensional.
“Meanwhile, the world keeps turning around,” as the lyrics continue. Lately I’ve been experiencing the same multi-layered vision as I’ve supported the recent movements of sanity and kindness. Zoom in: a face, a particular face, one that I have seen before in other rallies and marches through the decades. Savor these close-ups by my good friend David Bayles. Zoom out, and we’ve always done this, always moved together with a sense of unity and gentle strength. From a deep love that says No to destruction in its many forms and Yes to life.
May each of us remember the long view as our paths intersect in the world. As we make the calls, write the letters, argue for sanity (no matter our political alliances), may we not forget our purpose.
Love. Give it all away.

Holy Micro-Moments for Sanity

Now that the Thanksgiving leftovers are gone and all the toasts and blessings have been offered, I’m left with a familiar feeling of letdown. Although I savored the time with family and friends, the Holiday of Gratitude doesn’t find much of a footing in my heart, especially during the challenging time of division and fear that has followed the election here in my country.

Regardless of the external circumstances, I’ve never been a big fan of generic gratitude lists. My mind just doesn’t seem to settle on vague concepts. The kindness of people seems way different than the very specific memory of watching a hurried person slow down and hold the door at the gym patiently for someone struggling to get his walker out of the rain.

To save my sanity this month, I launched my own personal Holy Micro-Moments project. I’ve been stalking the little magical details hiding in plain site as I take daily walks or run errands. A certain slant of light, the children at the bus stop, the cashier at the grocery store. Early on it was the mushrooms in a neighbor’s yard.

Mushrooms

What I’ve noticed, without a big investment of time, is that nature seems to conspire to get our attention.  As does human kindness, when we see it, when we let it in.

Even in the midst of all the hubbub in the world right now, holiday or otherwise, there’s that moment of perspective, a deepening of breath.

Join me in exploring the art (and the relief) of finding holy moments in ordinary time.

Take two or three minutes each day to stop, breathe, and savor a moment. If you can, take a photo or jot a few lines in your journal to remind yourself. Share it with the world on Facebook or tuck it away for just you. I’ll do the same.

Gratefully,

Susan Grace

From the Sweet Spot

When I was a preteen, I loved visiting all four of my grandparents the rural town of Sweet Springs, MO.  An active farming community, there was room enough to test my wings and my understanding of how a simpler world worked. My favorite place was a teenage hang-out called the Sweet Shop, a genuine fifties-style jitterbug place, still alive in the early sixties. Yesterday I drove through the town, and all the edifices are crumbling around the ghosts of my past, but the memories are still alive. During these “wonder” years I had enough time to create memories and enough brain space to give them permanent residency.

I also celebrated my fiftieth high school reunion last weekend at my real home town of Columbia. A large group of 200 or more showed up. We had a few memories in common, but mostly, we were all the same age, even though a neutral observer who was forced to guess might assume a twenty year range. Words from Ann Patchett’s book Commonwealth cycled through my mind: He was as old as the rest of them, but age arrived at different rates of speed, in different ways.

My friend Vicki shared her Sweet Spot theory, wise and worth sharing here. “There are three basic components of life: time, money, and health. When you’re young, you have lots of time and health but no money. During adulthood, as you create your life, there’s money (assuming you find a good job/career) and you’re healthy, but you have no time. Then, if you’ve planned ahead and have good fortune, there are some years where you have time, money and health. This is the sweet spot. (These are the years of early “retirement.”)

I’m fortunate enough to be able to see the truth in her words. And I want to be aware enough to remember the elusive sweetness of this moment in time, in my life. Most of my disturbing thoughts and memories have been put to rest. I’ve discovered, as Patchett says, “There’s a pleasure in a long life, the way some things work themselves out.”

And what is left can only be described as sweet.

Image by Chinese World Hotel, Beijing, used under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Remedy for Lost Souls (Labor Day, 2016)

What if you couldn’t lose your soul?
What if your soul just sometimes lost you?
What if it just couldn’t compete
With the list of what must be done,
Couldn’t be heard
Over the light speed whizzing of freeways,
The invisible waves of information,
Of entertainment and stimulation
Couldn’t find you, caught as you were
In the death squeeze of entrainment.
What if it’s looking for you right now,
Your soul that is. How would it catch your attention?
Could be a TV commercial or Google Ad would work.
It would have to catch you in the right place, at the right time.

How about making it easier on your poor soul?
Just. Stop.
Spend a day, an afternoon, an hour under  a tree. Any tree.
Take nothing but a blanket.
Gaze at the limbs, the teasing blue in the space between branches.
Move in or out of the shade, as needed.
Sigh once. Sigh twice.
Stare at a leaf.
Watch for chipmunks stuffing their cheeks.
Like a bird watcher, quietly wait for a sign.
Silvering light on an aspen leaf will do,
Purple clover or hairy yellow bumblebee.
A patchwork of green and light on the ground around you.
Hear the soft murmuring in the trembling leaves.

Now listen for the sound of your breath fully released,
Catching in the throat at your own shuddering surrender
Remnant of a sob.
The elusive soul’s welcome home.

Seeking the Jewel of Memory

My mind is unfathomable, and becoming more so as I age. Not just when it comes to the words or names that I used to be able to access instantly. This is happening to all my friends. We have learned to continue with the conversation and wait for the words to pop up. This works. More or less.

Seldom have I applied this principle to objects. Until last month.

When I returned from vacation, my very favorite jewelry (two pair of pearl earrings, a beloved bracelet, a hand crafted necklace) went missing. I didn’t notice for a long time, since I hung out with the flu for a while. With no occasion to dress up, and severe flu-related memory gaps, it was nearly a month before I started missing them.

But once I did, I became a creature obsessed…going over and over the moment I last saw them, searching and re-searching my drawers and my bags, my hidey places. Not just once. Again and again. I imagined the splendor of my pretty pretties. I felt very sad.

I decided this was a problem I could solve if I just tried harder. I started imagining every possible place they could be hiding. On and on. The more fruitless the search, the harder I tried. I have no idea how many times I repeated the superstitious and hopeful pattern. After a few days of ongoing hyper-focus, I surrendered.  I went to local shops and shopped Etsy, for the first time, hopeful again. But nothing compared to the memory of my faves. At this point, the only reasonable choice was to surrender to the loss, if only to make peace in my mind.

Then I went away for a short trip. While I was there, gazing at the enormous mountain outside my window, meditating on the glories of nature, surrendering to the power of the scene, up popped a clear picture of a traveling jewelry bag. I recognized it as my own, one I had seldom used. First thing when I arrived home, I tried one more time searching in my new suitcase. A hidden compartment!  My treasured items!  Waiting for me safely all along.

Along with missing words, now even my treasured things are playing hide and seek. Apparently good focused attention and determination don’t work like they did, with objects as well as words. I’m just now starting to love it. Just as I’m discovering I can’t always count on the verbal skills I’ve taken for granted in my life, I’m now offered the opportunity to surrender even more deeply to simply not knowing. I’m discovering some other mysterious part of the mind that I can count on. To be able to trust the reliability of my own intuition and guidance to find what is mine what is mine to find in life: this is my pearl of the very highest value.

Worry Beads, Worry Dolls, Worry Worry

What comes to you when you see this guy? A denial based on ignorance? A cultural symbol for the naïve? For stupidity?

An excuse for burying your head during an election year?

I’ve been wondering: Why is it that “worry” is such a universal?

I’m not against taking life and the big decisions seriously. Trust me. But sometimes Worry seems to be a force unto itself. Without noticing, in a nanosecond, a fearful thought becomes a clench in the jaw, a knotting of the brow. A tightening of the gut, of the world.

Sometimes it’s called Anxiety (or panic). Even without a real reason, the mind can become totally crazy when it has the playground of an imagined future to worry about, especially when it’s got proof from the past that bad things will happen.

At that point thoughts begin to cluster. The YouTube of the past offers movies, either real or imagined. Catastrophe. Once there, all the thoughts that scare you come out to have their way with you. This is what I call worry.

Some situations just bring it on. Accidents or illness can set off a worry cycle.  Today I’m reflecting on my time with my son at the Burn Center when the entire staff was surprised he survived. And on and on through the litany of family crises.

The last couple of years we’ve had more than our share of auto accidents, and the physical injuries seemed to land me right back into my worry-go-round.

Now I’m remembering those ubiquitous worry beads called kolikoi that I noticed every man fingering while backpacking through rural Greece forty years ago. They originated with monks, much like the mala beads of yoga.  I’ve discovered a half-mala is just about what it takes to manage the inner worry wart when I’m meditating. Why not some kolikoi to jazz things up?

Mala beads also bring to mind my daughter. She’s a yoga teacher and chant leader. After being hit head-on last December, she’s still struggling with post-concussive symptoms. She’s an adult and doesn’t live with me, but she’s needed a check point as she goes about her normal life, as well as her musical career, these last few months. This keeps me busy enough that I’m not so likely to worry.

Sometimes to keep from worrying about worry, I look at it with a magnifying glass to discover its true nature. And my initial theory gets confirmed again and again. Worry seems to be an act of imagination. In a perfectly lovely present, my mind races forward to the future and imagines a frightening outcome. If I don’t believe everything I think, I’Worry dollsm way ahead of the game.

But just in case, I have some little helpers. Did I mention Worry Dolls from Guatemala? These tiny figures listen to our worries, take them off our hands, and go under a pillow to work their magic and dissolve those worries while we sleep. There’s nothing like tucking my worries away like they’re ultimately that little. They usually are in the greater scheme of things.

Two Kinds of Wordlessness

For many years now I’ve thought a button that could switch off thinking would be a most excellent idea. Often I meditate with the hidden goal of slowly letting go of the thoughts that cascade through my mind. With the attendant hope of dropping into the peace below, into wordlessness.

And then along came the month of March, which took me and turned me upside down and shook me until my pockets were empty of words and most thought. During the last two weeks of the month I unwillingly discovered a new route to silence. This body put on quite a show: coughing, shivering, fevering its way back to health. It was my first flu in years. I had forgotten how stupid the mind can get when the body’s resources are needed for another battle. Becoming wordless was the least of my worries, and it was happening without doing anything, or at least anything my body could control.

The first half of the month, before the flu, I had sought and found a more desirable kind of silence when I was on vacation in Maui. I spent vast stretches of time staring at the ocean from my perch on the hill above. Gradually the mind slowed down, stunned into silence by beauty. With mind confronted by the beauty of clouds and rainbows and whale-spume fountains, words seemed less and less important. This was the wordlessness of awe, the stuff of poetry:

 

Tropical Awakening

Wanting a profound reflection to speak from the tropical sea,

I search for a Venus of meaning

emerging from the froth,

the dark deep source of watery mystery

And what is here is

Just this:

White dove calling, Minahs preening.

Goats bleating and chickens strutting.

Beneath the ecstatic shiver of palm fronds.

Eyes shift for the long view,

And there’s the proof that a line once went for a walk

And etched a silhouette: a perfect island just across the bay.

The sun slowly exposes her reclining form

Lanai shelters my head and calls my soul.

Then the rose gold slowly fades

As the day picks itself up from the chaise lounge,

Stretches, yawns,

And moves into itself.

 

Now, here in the world of apparently ordinary reality, as body heals, I’m still steeping in the quiet hangover of peace, finding once again that it is available any time, any time I remember.