Wednesday, August 31, 2011
By Karen Beetle
More than anything else, mindfulness is the practice of paying attention, of noticing what moves in our inner and outer worlds. Being alive is deeply fluid and to be in touch with this fluidity is to know this quality as a powerful human resource. To lose touch with our essential fluidity is often the beginning of physical and emotional problems. Often in therapy, movement of any kind is a sign that change and growth is underway – even if it is not visible on the surface. Judi England writes in her recent post about the power of music to enrich our lives and to support this dance of aliveness within.
Earlier this summer, I was having a conversation with one of my daughter’s high school friends about her upcoming college plans. After a rocky start last fall, she had come to claim her intention to major in music therapy and was switching colleges to begin a new program. And as I walked away from her I was delighted and full of happiness for this new opportunity in her world and the claiming of this new direction. I was also thinking – below the surface – I don’t really have any experience with music therapy and its benefits. At least not in my own life.
Over the next weeks, memories of my high school piano teacher came drifting back to me. I began playing clarinet in fourth grade. Band was fun and music lessons provided a very welcome break in the school day, but I was not in love with the clarinet. In ninth grade, I convinced my mother to get a piano and began taking piano lessons. As the emotional waters in my own life became more and more turbulent over the next months, silence and loneliness moved into my world. Every week, my piano teacher came into my home, sat with me on the bench and created with me a world of movement and life.
Duets were our favorite. Old time spirituals and light melodies rocked the emotion that I needed to move in my world. We switched parts often and I loved the challenge and the power of playing together. I also loved her presence next to me on the bench - sure and steady and kind. She never chided me for not practicing when my high school life got busier - and was more focused on what we created together than what I had or hadn’t done. Her visits in my home during these years brought warmth and care into my world at a very painful time. Her companionship ultimately helped me to find my way back to myself. As I write these words, my gratitude for her care and presence is immeasurable.
It was the joy and power of music that formed our bond – that allowed us to find each other and to build a relationship that celebrated presence, aliveness, and expression. The power of music therapy was closer than I knew. In a subtle yet profound way, it walked with my through the darkness and helped me find my way.
Karen Beetle is a therapist and mindfulness teacher in Albany, N.Y. This piece appeared first on the Albany Times Union's Holistic Health blog.
By Kellie Meisl
I have been dreaming big all summer. I had a particularly wonderful dream in July:
A childhood friend from whom I have been estranged invites me to a theme party at her home. All of my friends from past and present will be in attendance. I accept the invitation.
When I arrive at the home of my former friend, I must navigate her steep driveway to get to her house; it is made of crushed pink glass seemingly melted together, making a very beautiful path, albeit a slightly slippery slope, to climb. I do so with care and focus, placing my feet just so as to make it carefully up the incline without slipping.
This dream encourages me. I am awed by the fact that I accepted the invitation to attend this party that will contain so many personal facets (past and present friends) of my life. The party is themed and the theme seems to be me facing my past and present in its entirety...
Driveways have been a dream theme this summer and a friend pointed out those driveways are entryways as well as places to exit from. Perhaps I am being shown that I can come and go as I please.
I associate the pink crushed glass with the heart. It is a heart that has been crushed, yet nonetheless mended back together into a work of beauty, a path I enter deliberately, placing my soles (soul) with care as I navigate. The climb is steep and seems symbolic of what it takes to heal sometimes. It isn't always easy, but if I focus and move forward on this heart path I will arrive.
I like that all my allies await me too.
This dream inspires me to create my art, more goddess collages that contain shattered pieces of my great grandmother's heirloom china, gifted to me from my mother, prior to the collapse that crushed them.
About a month after my dream I went on a trip out west with my husband and son to visit the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park. We also toured three deserts, the Sonoran Desert, the Painted Desert and the Mojave Desert.
It was an amazing journey and I found myself climbing many a steep pink, pebbled path in heat close to 100 degrees at times and to heights of 8500 miles above sea level. Perhaps the theme of the party in my dream was this journey.
Yet, I did not recall the dream until I returned and began to write about my experience of traveling the thousand mile excursion to these awe inspiring locations.
My encounter with these distinctive landforms brought a bevy of emotions. I wrote a poem about my feelings that surfaced as I met up with the glorious landforms, this was the only way I could put into words what I had encountered. The excursion truly was a dream, quite visceral and almost beyond words.
Painted land…scarlet, crimson, pink and rosy… salmon, peach…golden…emerald, teal…azure, purple, white…
Navajo land, simple life, Spirit life, honor Mother Earth, Father Sky…healing land, wounded people, healing people, Diné …
One thousand miles, hours on the road to reflect, memories surface provoked by faces in the rock…
I am a child, full of wonder…seeing this world for the first time…
I feel this land, I rejoice, I laugh, I sing…
Nestled with those I love…I remember…
My mind wanders to struggles, less severe than those of the humankind whose land I travel, but as many layers…
I feel this land, I am angry, I mourn, I grieve…
Descending with baby steps into the gaping hole, I am swathed by Mother, as Father calls out stern warnings to pay attention…
I feel this land, I cry, I gasp, I am afraid but I move forward…
Spiraling upward I sweat, I huff, I clamber, exerting to ascend, I soar with the condor for just a brief moment… my confidence builds…
I feel this land, , I am unsure, I am unsteady; I take leap of faith…
Encircled within deep red rock, I pause to reflect, wade into the baptismal waters, a new beginning…
I feel this land and I am overcome; I am humbled, I am resuscitated…
I seek, I observe, I move with intention, I excavate artifacts within the stratum, I breathe and embrace the present moment…lost soul parts are returned to me, I am a child of forty-eight…
I feel this land, I say one prayer: Thank you.
A week after returning home I have this dream:
I am at an art venue, it is large and open, filled with recycled materials. There are windows all around me. Others are there and we have come to make art projects. We are free to choose whatever materials we want. A female picks a piece of clay that is lumpy and when worked on, reveals a face. I like this material. The face catches my attention. I choose to work with the clay. I take it and mold it into a heart, pushing on it with my palm and working it hard to keep it in shape; its consistency is like putty in my hand…
Writer Kellie Meisl is a visual artist in Pittsfield, Massachusetts who often works out of waking and night dreams. This piece appeared first on her blog, called WALK. Her website is at KellieMeislDreamArt.
Monday, August 29, 2011
By Judith England
Well, the wind is still howling outside, but it looks as if our “Irene Encounter” is about to end as quickly as an ill-fated romance.
I know there’s been lots of talk about over-preparedness, and hurricane hysteria, and much-ado-about-nothing in general, but allow me to post a brief counterpoint here.
Erring on the side of caution, particularly when it comes to the enormity of disaster that might have happened in New York City, isn’t a mistake. It’s always nice to say after the fact – “So OK, A little wind a little rain, so what!” So now we all have a little extra bottled water, a few extra batteries, and some tins of tuna that will keep into the next millennia. So what.
August 24th, 1992, Hurricane Andrew hit Homestead Florida.
They called it “The Big One” -- it was Category Five -- and so it was. I arrived at the Miami Airport on August 27th intending to stay as long as needed to help my family, and then, to join in Red Cross Relief efforts.
No matter what the reports said, no matter what images came across on the television, nothing could prepare me for what I saw.
Heading south from the airport, familiar terrain became less and less so. Landmarks flattened. No street signs. Foliage stripped as if by napalm. Buildings reduced to rubble.
My brother’s house was heavily damaged.
For the next week and a half we worked in 90-plus degree heats trying to cover the gaps in his roof. We woke early to try to get in a good solid three hours before the heat and humidity became intolerable. Afternoon thunderstorms came like clockwork.
There was no power, no mail, and no safe drinking water for almost 3 weeks. We shared what we had with neighbors. I had brought a propane stove and knew how to use it from camping days. We fed anyone who was around.
The tale of my work with the Red Cross is another story unto itself. The homeless, the terrified children, the injured, those we went in search of and never found in trailer parks that now resembled an angry giant’s playground.
Now I knew that Irene wasn’t going to pack the wallop of Andrew. A Tropical storm vs. a Category 5 Hurricane is no contest.
But still, preparedness is a good idea. And it’s wise not to let this storm make us cynical about predictions.
How did I spend my day today? I made a number of calls to friends, particularly women living by themselves with a single question, “Do you feel safe?” I kept in touch with my family, managed to have a nap, and generally just give myself permission to do nothing other than ride our the storm.
I take Irene too, as an exercise in surrender. She would have her way with us regardless of how prepared we were. But, no matter the outcome mindful is always better than manic.
During the height of the storm I noticed that birds, even the tiniest hummingbird were still taking advantage of our feeders. I took my cue from them. No matter what, life has to go on.
Writer Judith England, a registered nurse, yoga instructor and massage therapist, writes the Holistic Health blog on the Albany Times Union. She is a frequent contributor to MyStoryLives.
Sunday, August 28, 2011
This piece also appears today on the Huffington Post.
By Claudia Ricci
Call me a skeptic, but is it possible that we've all gone over the top with our anxiety over Irene? I'm not saying we don't have a serious storm here. It's a tragedy that has already killed at least eight people. And I'm all for preparedness in the face of disaster, but for heaven's sake, the news and social media hurricane that have escorted Irene's arrival has set my anxiety into a tornado spin.
Do I have enough candles? Should I board the windows? Shall I fill all three bathtubs? Will we have enough food to eat?
One gas station in town here actually ran out of gas yesterday as panic-stricken people stockpiled for their home generators. When I heard that, I got this fluttery feeling in my stomach -- how quickly people react. And perhaps, over-react. What happens if and when there is a true national emergency?
God help us.
More and more lately Americans seem poised for Armageddon. We all seem braced for the worst possible disaster imaginable. I suppose that's not surprising considering the shadows that have descended. Our world seems so full of danger and destruction and despair. There is terrorism and extremism everywhere. Car bombs are so common we hardly pay attention to them anymore. Economic disaster and political gridlock and dysfunction loom so large that they now seem to be seriously endangering our own democracy (i.e., consider the debt crisis debacle of a few weeks back.) Meanwhile, millions of regular Americans have lost their jobs and homes over the last few years, while more and more worry about the long-term erosion of the middle class and American dream.
With all this crazy scary news, is it any wonder that we are jumpy as electrons? We are a nation living in constant PTSD. And this week, we East Coasters have weathered an earthquake AND a hurricane. No wonder we're enduring what my son Noah is calling "Hurricane Hysteria."
It doesn't help of course that we are so finely and furiously wired up. Our social media keep us skittish. Incessant Twitter and Facebook feeds act like steady adrenaline pumps. And the regular media, as always, thrive on our insatiable hunger for drama. We slurp up reality TV. We sit glued to our screens for moment-by-moment updates on anything that constitutes reason for a Wolf Blitzer war room. We are, I'm afraid, addicted to disaster.
A few minutes ago, my son was reading the NY Times on-line, and he called my attention to a photo out of storm-torn Manhattan: a giant tree limb had crashed into an awning at First Ave. near 13th Street. Since my sister Holly lives at First and 14th, I got on the horn and phoned her.
"Are you all right?" I asked.
Holly laughed. "I think the sun is coming out," she yawned. "I hate the sun." (My sister has never been a morning person.) She said she had pots and pans filled with water stored all over her apartment. And plenty of batteries.
Sure, it was raining hard, and the wind was blowing, but she was still waiting for whatever it was that was going to happen.
Meanwhile, she was going back to sleep.
Irene, you Drama Queen. You know we are suckers for pulse-popping reality shows. No wonder you took the stage, and the East Coast, by storm.
All of this has got me thinking: wouldn't it be fascinating if some social scientist types tried to measure how much psychological "damage" to the public psyche was caused by anxiety-provoking pre-publicity devoted to these events?
Of course, hindsight is twenty-twenty -- one can't be sure what's going to be a non-event and what's going to turn out to be a first-class tragedy. But it's interesting to think that these bad/sad/scary news stories give lots of people lots of anxiety and stress, both of which are bad for our health, both individual and collective (public health)!
Meanwhile, here is the view out my backyard. Yeah, it's raining hard, and the pond is filling up fast -- it's higher at this point in the year than it's ever been in 26 years of living in this old farmhouse. And sure, we will probably lose power today. But some people might say that was a good thing, because it would shut me up and get me off my computer and doing something useful.
Maybe we should all reach for the off switch more often. Maybe we would all do well to step back more frequently from the frenzy that is fed up by our computers, phones, televisions and radios and just stare out the window, and breathe.
Saturday, August 27, 2011
Funny how things work out sometimes. Because of the threat of Hurricane Irene, the national dedication of the new Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C. was indefinitely postponed.
Thursday, August 25, 2011
Note to readers: In writing a novel, an author often discards hundreds, maybe even thousands of pages of material. In writing my book Sister Mysteries, I probably have discarded at least five thousand pages. Why I know this is that I've thrown out thousands of pages, and I STILL have a large crate overflowing with all kinds of rejected pages from the novel. What happens to these rejected pages? Well, some of them are gone forever, and some of them sit in the turquoise blue crate, and some of them are stored electronically in a file on my computer, a file I call "Short Fiction." Now and then I go into that file and reread the rejected pages. Tonight when I went into that file I discovered this section from the novel and I decided that even though it doesn't belong in the book anymore, I really like this chapter, a chapter called "The Coffin I Am About to Open." I hope you enjoy it. And maybe I will find a way to turn it into a free-standing story.
By Claudia Ricci
The coffin arrived on Monday, a very cold rainy day. It came by UPS. It came sometime in the afternoon. It came packed within a larger cardboard box.
When I first saw the coffin, when I could finally take in what I was staring at, I felt like I would choke. My hands flew up to my face and I had to sit down.
You see, it looked to me to be child-sized. But actually, I am staring at it right now, right here next to my desk, and now I realize that it is barely big enough for a child. It would be barely big enough for a….newborn baby.
Maybe I should start over.
OK, so what happened Monday afternoon is this: I came home from a long afternoon of teaching. I was exhausted. It was dark. The October afternoon had a jagged edge. As I walked up the back path, carrying a heavy bookbag full of my student’s composition journals, a raw wind cut into my face and infiltrated the crevice around my neck. The same wind whipped the dry maple leaves off the lawn. Scooped them up and scooted them into the house ahead of me when I opened the back door.
There, right inside the door, was that gigantic box. Thankfully, the UPS man had dragged the box in through the back door. He knows me, the UPS man, he knows me quite well, so he knows that I keep my doors unlocked. I always tell him to leave packages just inside the mudroom door. So he brought the box in and I saw it sitting there, and instantly, I smiled. I’ll never forget thinking oh my God; my mother-in-law finally sent me those dishes from Italy. You know the kind: those thick, hand made ceramic dishes painted in wild Italian colors. Full of flowers. I have been wild about those dishes for two decades or more. Ever since my husband and I got married I have wanted them. And haven’t been able to afford them.
Just a few weeks back, I mentioned them to Alice, Rick’s mother. My mother-in-law. It was September, the night before she and Ben, my father-in-law, were leaving on a cruise headed for Positano on the Amalfi Coast, near Naples.
“What can I send you honey?” My mother-in-law asked when she called to say good bye. I wanted to say, just send me and Rick two tickets to join you for a week. But I knew that was out of the question, and that she wouldn’t appreciate that request. So I decided to ask for the next best thing.
“Well, Al, if you see those dishes, you know the kind I want, send a few of those to me. Would you?”
After two decades of marriage, I felt comfortable asking. I figured, why not? And so naturally, when I saw the box, I thought, oh my God, here they are. “Dishes from Italy,” I whispered aloud.
As soon as I got into the house I dropped the bookbag and hurried into the kitchen for a steak knife. I came back to the giant box and slit the clear plastic mailing tape. I split the box top open. I clawed at the wood excelsior, my heart beating. A little smile was forming on my lips. I could see myself cooking up some Alfredo for dinner and serving it to my husband and kids on the new plates. I could see myself scooping the Alfredo --mushrooms and onions coated with cream and Parmesan-- into the bowls.
What I saw instead was a plain wooden surface. Perhaps the dishes were inside a wooden box. I kept digging. Soon I had exposed the cover of a plain wooden box. A box within the bigger box. Oh, but I was still so very certain that my wish had come true. That my dishes from Italy had finally arrived. I tore more wood excelsior away. I exposed more of the surface of the wooden box within.
At first, I couldn’t take in the next thing I saw. What was this crucifix? Why would dishes from Italy come in a box decorated in a crucifix?
I sat for a moment on the bench in the mudroom. The wind was so strong it was whipping under the door.
I decided that maybe Alice had bought the dishes at some religious company. Maybe she and Ben had wandered into the mountains. Maybe they had visited a mountain monastery in the rugged hills on the west coast of Italy. Or maybe they’d taken a side trip to Assisi. That must be it. Or…maybe the dish company was operated by a religious order. Maybe the dishes were painted by monks or by priests or perhaps, even by nuns.
I kept tearing the excelsior away. I kept pulling and clawing handfuls of the shredded wood out of the bigger box.
And then, I saw the shape. The slightly wider top end. The box. The wooden box. The coffin.
There was only one person who could send this box.
My sister. My crazy sister Lucy. Lucy who is insane. Lucy who thinks she is a nun. Not just any nun. But a nun named Renata who lived back in 1883. A nun who is in prison for murdering her cousin.
I covered my mouth with both hands. Then I opened my mouth and no sound came out.
Then I saw the note, taped to the narrow end of the coffin. I took a big breath before I read it.
“Dear Christina, You are hereby entrusted with. All of this. Bless you. Your loving sister, Lucy.”
That’s when I screeched. That’s when I shouted out her name as loud as my voice permitted.
“Luceeeeeeeeeeee.” I sat there and the tears started up and soon I was crying so hard I felt like I might choke.
A few days went by and then one morning when the family wasn’t around, I dragged the box into my study. That night, I took my husband into the study, after the children were asleep.
“Will you help me lift this goddamn thing out of the box please, honey?”
“What goddamn thing Chris?”
“This…thing." I sighed. "Lucy sent me. This…coffin.” He studied me. He knows Lucy. He knows how disturbed she is. He knows how unpredictable she is. What a wild imagination she has.
He started to ask a follow-up question but I held up one hand. I told him that I didn’t want to go into it.
Together we lifted the coffin out of the wood excelsior and laid it next to my desk. Right beside my swiveling office chair. And there it has sat, covered in a blanket for many many weeks.
I tried emailing my sister. Nothing. I tried calling her. Nothing. All I get is a ringing phone and no one answering and no voice mail. All I know is that I have this goddamn coffin. And I haven’t opened it all these weeks.
I am incapable of opening this thing.
But I know I have to.
Two weeks ago, I read my husband the note Lucy enclosed, and he just shook his head.
“She is a worry.” That was all he said. “But then," he continued after a few moments, "you’ve known that for as long as I’ve known you.”
That night, I sat down and wrote Lucy a long letter. I mailed it right away the next morning. It came back to me about a week later. Someone had crossed out the address and written NO FORWARDING ADDRESS.
Now I sit here staring at the coffin. It is Saturday morning. It is Shabbat. I would normally go to services at my temple, but today, all of them – my three kids, my husband, all of them have disappeared to various soccer games and football practices. So I have decided to take this opportunity to look inside. I’m scared, of course. What if there are bones or…something rotting or…worse.
I inhale. I count to ten. And then I get up from my seat, and go look for a hammer.
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Note: this article appeared on the Huffington Post on Wednesday, August 24, 2011.
By Claudia Ricci
I've never stopped to think how many books I've read in my life. But it is has to be several thousand. I had to read hundreds of books just to get through my doctoral program. I've always been a reader, and I've always kept a big stack of books beside my bed. I usually have several books going at once. I'm a book person, and so books are my life.
But this morning I got to thinking. How many books have really mattered in my life? How many books have really changed my life or made a real difference? How many books have really stuck with me?
The books that I've loved, I keep. I have most all of Virginia Woolf's books on one shelf. There are books by Toni Morrison, Willa Cather, Julia Alvarez, James Baldwin, John Irving and dozens of other favorite authors. There is my friend Peg's wonderful novel, Spinning Will. There are the two books that I wrote.
But the book that has had the most dramatic impact on me is a different sort of book altogether. It's called Lovingkindness,and it's by Sharon Salzberg,one of the nation's most influential meditation teachers.
That book profoundly influenced my life. And it helped me through an enormously difficult experience last fall.
Lovingkindness is not a big book. Not at all. It's actually rather small. The pages are very tiny. And her message is not new. And yet, it monumentally important: "We spend our lives searching for something we think we don't have, something that will make us happy. But the key to our deepest happiness lies in changing our vision of where to seek it."
The key to happiness lies in the awareness that we are deeply connected to other living beings through "metta," or lovingkindness. What Salzberg does in her book is present a set of specific exercises to help cultivate feelings of lovingkindness toward yourself and others.
You start by bringing good feelings to your self. You focus on a time when you done or said something to another person that was kind and loving. You reflect on the happiness you felt when you helped someone. When you were generous. Holding these positive loving feelings in your heart, you start repeating four simple phrases over and over again:
"May I be free from danger."
"May I have mental happiness."
"May I have physical happiness."
"May I have ease of well-being."
The exercise moves out from here. After you spend time sending lovingkindness toward yourself, you select another person, a good friend, a family member. You spend time directing feelings of lovingkindness toward this friend or family member. You use the same phrases you used for yourself, only you replace the "I" by filling in that person's name.
The next step: you choose a neutral person, a bus driver. A person in a coffee shop. You don't know this person, but you extend feelings of lovingkindess to that neutral person. You repeat the phrases with the neutral person.
And then comes the hard part: you choose a DIFFICULT person. Someone who makes you furiously angry. Someone who has hurt you very deeply. Using the same techniques you used in the other situations, you extend lovingkindness to this enemy. This person who may not want to think about, let alone love and forgiven.
This is where Salzberg's book made an enormous difference in my life. This is where I found the book to be so profoundly helpful.
Last fall, I had to confront a woman whose actions had hurt me more deeply than I care to remember. And yet, I had no choice but to meet with this woman. I had no choice but to confront her.
I felt trapped. I felt very anxious. And then I discovered the techniques that Salzberg uses.
I began the lovingkindness practices slowly. I didn't force them. I practiced them at my own pace. I practiced "metta" during morning meditation, week after week.
And one day, sometime in November, something quite miraculous happened. I thought about this woman saying those phrases:
"May she be free from danger."
"May she have mental happiness."
"May she have physical happiness."
"May she have ease of well-being."
Suddenly, I smiled. I felt a warm glow fill my chest. I thought about the fact that this woman has a little boy, a child she loves deeply.
A powerful change occurred. I realized I could confront this woman in love, not hatred or resentment. I realized what Salzberg said was true: "All beings are deserving of care, of well-being, of the gift of lovingkindness." I was able, as she said, to "put aside the unpleasant traits of such a being and try instead to get in touch with the part of them that deserves to be loved."
I wish I could you more details, without revealing the situation that was involved. Because you would be amazed that I was able to forgive this woman, considering what she did.
But in the end, the details don't matter. What matters is that I was able to meet with this woman, and look at pictures of her baby, and smile, and feel some human compassion.
I keep Sharon Salzberg's book beside my bed. And I suspect that I am never going to take this one book out of the bedside stack.
Monday, August 22, 2011
Yesterday's rain has left behind an early autumn chill.
The light is clear and has that September glow.
This morning I sit in a lawn chair
waiting for the emerald
hummers to come.
I train my long lens
on what looks to be
an orange-throated bird
One of the great joys of summer
is the way these birds divebomb
the two feeders.
I like feeling needed by these birds.
I like having to refill the feeders every few days.
I love stirring the white sugar into the water
and beating the liquid with a spoon until it's crystal clear.
I like having the birds here.
How it pinches today, to feel the days growing shorter.
And to know how soon these birds will go.
Sunday, August 21, 2011
Eloping a thousand miles from home set the stage. We decided travel and discovery would be our mission in life. Were things different beyond America’s borders? We quickly learned they were. It certainly helps to be in your 20's, when anything goes. You’re on a starvation budget, but ravenous for what’s around the next corner.
Renting a room in people’s homes makes it even better. You meet the kind of people that are so warm and friendly, conversation comes easily and you feel you’re becoming part of a larger family.
In the Netherlands, we did just that. We left the MG in the road, baggage and all, walked straight into the welcoming garden and sat down with a mother and three children playing so happily. The husband worked for an Amsterdam newspaper. Two hours later, the sun was setting, we still hadn’t entered the house, but Sandy had been offered an interview to write for that paper.
In Denmark we were waiting for a car ferry. We had time for dinner before the next ferry to Sweden. Looking where to sit in a self-service café, this couple invited us to join them. They were our age, spoke English; talking with them came easily.
They lived in Sweden, in the southern port of Malmö.
They had a large apartment in the city center. By the end of the ferry ride we had been invited to be weekend guests. The weekend passed, but we stayed. For a month. We learned eight words of Swedish and kept in touch for years
But there was another side to Europe. It was the height of the Cold War. We were anxious to cross the infamous Iron Curtain.
It felt a little like a black and white espionage film. First, the route: we set out from Germany, through fully neutral Austria to the Hungarian border. Second, security: we exposed only our passports to the border guards. I stuffed my underwear with all our traveler’s checks, other ID and the Hungarian currency we illegally bought in the West.
The drive through the Iron Curtain was dramatic, alright. Leaving Austria we entered a kilometer of stateless no-man’s land; then a kilometer of fields kept almost barren to deny cover for potential Hungarian escapees. Then, strung over the horizon both north and south, was a chain of radio jamming towers to block out the West.
Then came huge wooden gates and barbed wire manned by young boys armed with machine guns as large as them. They finally stopped our little white MG, while communications with their superiors began. After two hours, they stamped our passports, but for just 48-hour visas.
As we drove through, the young guards swung the heavy gates shut behind us. We knew then we were alone. Very alone. We drove on to Budapest and parked the convertible in downtown Buda. We walked the city and watched the people, whom in turn watched us. We came back to find a crowd sitting on the curb, staring at the car. We sat across the street watching them.
For us, the cold war suddenly became very real. As Sandy got back behind the wheel, he felt a crumpled paper jammed into the driver’s seat. The scruffy note was in broken English:
“Meet here tomorrow night on this time. Please. I must get out…”
Everywhere in Communist Hungary, fear hung in the air; the border guards were no exception. Everyone was furtive. No one looked you in the face. For the first time we really felt what freedom meant. Because there was none.
Six countries later we’d run through half of Europe and most of our money.
What the hell? We put on our best clothes, cleaned the car and drove up to the palatial Monte Carlo casino. A man in a black tuxedo promptly opened my door. We walked up the marble staircase, just like we belonged. We toured the tables, watched the croupiers and threw down our chips. Lady Luck brought us a bundle that kept us going until we arrived at LeHavre, home port of the SS France, for our return crossing to the USA.
Our little white MG naturally came back with us. She had been our “crystal carriage” that had shown us the world offered a thousand adventures, and then some.
Saturday, August 20, 2011
Most of all, I had no idea how writing this book, Sister Mysteries, would help to change the way I looked at the world.
I started the book as a giant "binary." A "he said/she said" story. A diary by Sister Renata. A set of stories by her crazy cousin, Antonie. A back and forth between them. (Castenata is the actual story of Renata and Antonie, the story that captures the back and forth!)
Was it all his wild imagination?
But what I came to see as I wrote this book is that all of us, all the time, look at the world in "binaries" -- big binaries. Love and hate. Life and death. Black and white. In fact, the very way we think. The on/off blink of consciousness. And in our very language, we create binaries: the minute we say, "this is a chair," that statement implies that everything else is NOT a chair.
What happens in meditation, as I sit here staring at the flame, is that for a few minutes, the incessant binary, the back and forth, collapses. Stops. I sit here in the presence of the flame feeling the infinity of the Universe fill me up every time I breathe in. I feel calm. I feel complete.
This book has been a mystery. This book has been a miracle. It has brought me here, to understanding. And so much peace.
Thursday, August 18, 2011
By Alexander "Sandy" Prisant
This was the way I felt about Susan when I placed this little homage to her in all editions of New York Magazine on our 10th anniversary. I was glowing.
But now we have moved on. Far, far on. To another dimension that weaves intense pain with intense beauty.
This is the tenderest constituent of long-term illness—the relation between patient and the unfortunate partner thrust into the role of carer. What happens to that relationship and how it evolves is impossible to predict beforehand, but it is crucial in the end.
For me, those words above, written with such passion and pleasure decades ago have now been rendered inadequate.
I have never believed that people change. Not really. But incredibly Susan has. Somehow she has grown, late in life, to the most amazing of human beings. It was in late winter that my condition really began to deteriorate. Like most partners, she joined me for every doctor visit. Unlike most she also did everything else. She fought for me when I was too physically weak. She would not allow any doctor to take the easy way out. She would not get down.
At home, Susan, as an author and educator,always did 90% of the work. Now she does 99%. She also must now do virtually all the driving—a couple of hours every time we go to the University of Miami Medical School once or twice a week. In between the tests, the dogs, driving, the doctors, and her other work, she’s preparing dinners to suit evolving medical diets. By last count we estimate she’s made over 17,000. Seventeen Thousand.
At the same time she was—she is-- literally terrified by what the doctors keep telling her. Yesterday a specialist told us:
“I’ve decided not to give you the exploratory test cardiology wanted, because
it would be too great a risk. It would not be prudent to risk losing you on the
table, simply to prepare you for the real surgery which is many times (50? 100?) riskier.”
Susan and I are sitting in this guy’s offices as he casually tells this story. For emphasis he repeats it a second time. I look at Susan. She is swallowing hard. She is dying inside.
But Susan is a stoic. She’s lived with spinal pain for two decades Her surgeon started calling her that in the first year. She will not defer to her illness, but never stops tending to mine.
Her character traits have now expanded to something superhuman. Think of every single positive human trait. Just think about them—I can’t list them because it would just sound trite. This amazing person cannot be written off as a Mary Poppins imitation.
The worse it is for me, the kinder and more thoughtful she becomes. A million little irritants and huge fatigue bounce off her. Day after day. If we were Catholic we’d be looking at beatification here. And the whole time she’s going through hell, she refuses to put any of her greater burden on me.
I can talk to Susan about all this and I can write to you. I can even make her happy for five minutes by washing the garage. But I can’t really change anything unless I can somehow get better.
And our relationship? It is Susan who is keeping me alive. And it is only for Susan that I fight to stay alive. We have moved on from 1973.
Writer Sandy Prisant is fighting for his life, and writing about it in an incredible series called "The Journey We Take Alone." He and his wife Susan, also a writer, live in Florida. You can search for earlier parts of the series by using Sandy's name in the Search function. Sign up as a subscriber to receive regular email notices when new articles are posted on MyStoryLives.
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Fading from life, my first cousin.
In my mind I hold on to you. As you were at twenty-four to my childhood years.
Your lovely frame, six feet, size seven. Blonde, peaches and cream. Could have been international model of the year. And I looked up to you. Your smile, your figure,
your tailored dark suit with the café con leche silk shirt,
and your hands, soft, almost a transparent white, with
long artistic fingers, a couple of doves, folded on your lap,
It's difficult for me to see how you sound, look today.
'Cause it's your spirit I feel fading. And your letter:
Imagine me a high executive woman always served by
cook, maid, chauffer. Me, since the take over, reduced
to housekeeper. To fill up my time, I make two daily trips
to the market instead of one. I make two. I do it on purpose,
you say. And I know you don’t even like those chores.
But today is all you have to keep you occupied.
And I worry knowing your idea of health care is being a
casual vegetarian. And have allowed yourself to become
obese. And the disappointments, nephew Andres not the
executive-married-with-children you always dreamed of.
And you and Hernan, your brother, spend evenings watching
television thankful for each other’s company. I worry.
And that other image keeps coming to the front, you at twenty-
four. And I realize it’s life cycle coming full circle. A reminder
of what is to come. Something to reckon with. But my pain is
deep for I always expected you to be there. Your twenty-four
to my childhood years.
Camincha is a pen name for a California-based writer. The San Francisco Bay Guardian has said of her work: “Camincha frames the ordinary in a way that makes it extraordinary, and that is real talent.”
Monday, August 15, 2011
This piece is cross posted with the Huffington Post.
I sit cross legged on the floor, my hands resting lightly on my knees.
I breathe in.
I breathe out. The candles are lit. I watch the glowing little bud that is the flame. As I breathe in, my eyes rise slowly along one side of the flame, tracing the bright edge. As I breathe out, my eyes drop down the flame's other side.
The cars go by on the wet road outside.
I breathe in. I breathe out.
I say the Thich Nhat Hanh lines I so often say, over and over again: "Breathing in I calm body and mind, breathing out I smile. This is a wonderful moment, this is the only moment."
The story. The fact that I am so afraid to write IT. Afraid to finish it.
I breathe in. I breathe out. I say the Thich Nhat Hanh lines, over and over again.
I set my eyes on the candle. I remember waking up that summer in 2002 when I was so so sick. I remember having to face long and torturous trips down to NYC to Sloan Kettering. I remember having to face tests -- CT scans, Pet Scans -- to see if the cancer was still there. I remember sitting here being scared of the procedures. Of the outcomes of those procedures. I remember, week after week, having to endure the absolute horror that was chemo. My body was a swill of chemicals. My hair was gone. My stomach was impossible. I remember not being sure if I could endure another day. Another hour.
In those dark dark days, sitting here at the meditation table gave me absolute strength. Total resolve and solace. I remember being full of terror when I sat down. But then, by the time my meditation was over, I remember smiling. Feeling full of hope. I remember feeling completely calm and peaceful. I remember knowing that I was in the hands of a Bigger Power. That I was carried by some magnificent Divine Strength and that Strength would help me through no matter what.
It may sound silly or difficult to understand to someone who hasn't gone through a life-threatening illness, but I made my way through my healing, and through my cancer treatment, by treating it as if it were a sacred act. I asked for divine help. I prayed to the Virgin Mary. I read the Torah. I wrote dozens of poems. I found my power in words. In meditation.
I breathe in. I breathe out. I let my eyes follow the candle flame.
And suddenly now. Sitting with my legs crossed again on the floor. I see it. I understand it. I know what it is I have to do.
I never understood, when I first started writing this book, but Sister Mysteries has always been a sacred thing to me. Even as I wrote hundreds and hundreds of pages in the voices of silly characters who scoffed at religious belief, who made fun of religion and nuns and the Virgin Mary, I was writing about being faithful. About believing in sacred things. I was writing about my struggle to bridge a conflict. About my attempt to resolve my skepticism with a belief in the sacred.
Maybe that's why it's taken me so many years to write this book. Maybe that's why I have been fighting with the book all this time.
Maybe that's why I'm having such a difficult time finishing it. As Peg wrote in an email to me this morning, "Could it be because you won't have it any more? You won't have anything to replace it??"
As always, Peg has helped me to figure it out. If I finish Sister Mysteries, I am not sure what I will have to fill that space. That place inside me that has been wrestling with the divine.
I have more to think about. But I know that I have to go forward. Slowly. And I have to take very seriously the fact that writing this book has been a deep engagement with the sacredness, and the power, of writing.
It's not like I didn't know that before. It's just that...I keep forgetting. Now, though, I have been reminded, one more time.
I sit here now at the computer. I am not sure exactly how to go forward. But I will go forward. And I will make it, the finishing, a sacred act.
Sunday, August 14, 2011
By Claudia Ricci
"In a world where banks hold the money and regular people are helpless, one scrappy lawyer is fighting back."
With those words, the movie -- produced by John Oliver at Comedy Central -- begins. In a world growing increasingly sad and insane, this little film will make you laugh, which is about all we can do these days.
Based on a true story, "The Forecloser" dramatizes an extraordinary episode in the on-going misery that is America's housing foreclosure mess. This story is hard to believe, but it's absolutely true: a Florida couple received a foreclosure notice from Bank of America.
That's not unusual of course. But what is totally bizarre and wacky is the fact that the couple -- Warren and Maureen Nyerges, of Naples, Florida -- had paid cash for their home. That's right, THEY NEVER HAD A DAMN MORTGAGE. That simple fact didn't stop the stupid B of A from issuing them a foreclosure notice.
Incredible? Absurd? Hard to fathom?
That's what Comedy Central's John Oliver thought when he did the story for Jon Stewart's Daily Show earlier this week.
See how the Florida couple fought back.
See how they tried to find a lawyer to take their case. See how two dozen lawyers turned them down. See how they finally found a scrappy lawyer, Todd Allen, (pictured here), who had only been in practice all of EIGHT MONTHS.
See how with Allen's help, the couple won their case, and how the court ordered B of A to pay legal fees of some $2,543.
See how the B of A failed to pay said fees (perhaps the poor B of A was too strapped??)
Then see how the Nyerges decided to FORECLOSE ON THE BANK OF AMERICA!!!!!
The couple hired a truck and two bulky repo men. They were accompanied by two sheriff's deputies. They all waltzed into the bank and told the B of A bank manager that they were taking stuff. Allen told a local station WFMY that he had ordered the deputies to take photocopiers, desks, computers and cash. Allen said the bank manager on duty was "visibly shaken." An hour later, the B of A issued a check to the couple, pictured here talking to Comedy Central's John Oliver.
"Having two sheriff's deputies sitting across your desk and a lawyer standing up behind them demanding whatever assets are in the bank can be intimidating, but so is having your home foreclosed on, when it wasn't right," Allen said.
See all of this, and the movie that John Oliver made.
It's too good to be true.
But it is all too true.
It's all so funny, and it's all so terribly terribly sad, because it reminds us of those many millions of American people who have had their homes foreclosed by the f_____ Bank of America. It reminds us that B of A and other foreclosers have made millions of silly -- and not so silly -- mistakes in trying to take peoples' houses away.
And most of all, it reminds us that many more Americans will lose their homes this year.
Allen called it "sweet justice," because this case, he said, is a symptom of a larger problem. If you remember, Bank of America, GMAC and JPMorgan Chase were forced to freeze their foreclosures late last year, to evaluate whether they had made errors.
Saturday, August 13, 2011
By Lenore Flynn
Heat. I have an aversion to heat. I have struggled with this aversion most of my life.
Each year, I go on retreat. I usually go for 10 days of silence and meditation. I really look forward to it and see it as an opportunity to re-align myself. Every year the retreat had been “good” for me. The time of year I most often go is late winter or early spring in northern Massachusetts so the weather is very much to my liking, cold or cool.
One year I could not go until July because of family obligations. It was a retreat for experienced practitioners. The first few days of a retreat for me are usually the hardest physically as I adjust to long periods of sitting meditation and the schedule. Each retreat, each participant offers to do a job at the retreat center which serves not only to keep their costs down but gives each of us an opportunity to engage in “work practice.”
Before this retreat, we could always choose our work assignment but on this retreat the teachers decided to give us another opportunity for practice by assigning us our job. I was assigned to the lunch time dish-washing crew of two people. Lunch is the big meal of the day and there are around 150 participants so this adds up to a lot of dishes. Also the dishwasher is a commercial one that really cranks up the water temperature and it is located in a small room. It is probably the most physically difficult job.
That year shortly after we arrived the temperatures began to soar. It was record heat.
We are in silence throughout the retreat. So I had no one to complain to except myself. The proliferation of complaints and aversion began early and went on and on. In the meditation hall is was over 100 degrees. In our sleeping quarters there was no air conditioning and I had only a very small fan. It was oppressive. Each day when I washed the dishes I would turn bright red from the heat and then I could not get cool.
I became so sick of myself. No matter how hard I tried to stop the mental machine gun fire of misery I could not silence it. I was like a cartoon inside my own head screaming “shut up! shut up!”
If you are waiting for some profound revelation, it did not come. I waited too and added disappointment with myself to the misery. Wasn’t I above all this whining?
I have reflected on this retreat more than any other I have taken. It was in 1995. The opportunity to observe and sit with such strong aversion taught me something on a very deep level. The lesson lingers. Last fall I went on a retreat and we sat outside for meditation; it rained and sleeted, temperatures were in the thirties. Ice pellets hammered us relentlessly. I was there for a reason, to bear witness, and I was able to do it with grace. I bow in gratitude to the searing heat of 1995 that was my teacher.
Lenore Flynn, a registered nurse, has been teaching mindfulness since 1993. She has a Masters Degree in Complementary Therapies and completed an internship at the Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in 1994 under the direction of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. Her mindfulness program in Albany is at www.solidgroundny.org. This post appeared first in the Times Union's Holistic Health blog.
Friday, August 12, 2011
In May I wrote these words, "Ahhh, summer, when every person has a chance to become a child again. I cannot wait to see what else is in store." At the time I was a little tentative and unsure about what summer would bring. It is now almost halfway through August and my garden is a bounty.
For a long time I resisted the wild brown-eyed Susans that moved into my gardens on their own without being invited. They used to take up one corner of my garden faithfully every year and often I would pluck them out. I had something against their color -- school bus yellow I called it. But then last year they started strategically planting themselves between other flowers in the garden and I fell in love with them, not only for their perseverance, but also for their little pop of gold amongst the pinks. Needless to say, the color has grown on me.
In another part of the garden I have a fairy lily. It was born from a hundred-year-old plant that came from my dear friend's grandmother.
I also have what I call "the cosmo forest." Every year cosmos seed themselves here and grow into cosmo trees. The cosmo trees even dwarf my new Japanese red maple and baby flowering crab. Alyssum, snapdragons and even a sunflower from the birds seed themsleves too, so it is a "happy accident" annual garden too!
I planted gladiolas for August blooms and because it is my son's birth flower. They bring cheer for his annual birthday party. This year we will be in the Grand Canyon for his 14th birthday. :)
A few good tomatoes. These are Early Girls. We ate one already. This is only my second year growing tomatoes, I'm doing okay with it.
Another planter consists of alyssum that reseeded, purple pansies that have thrived quite nicely since spring, due to efficient deadheading, and a fuchsia plant that I snuck from my mother's annual pile one day when I was watering her flowers.
To pay a visit to Kellie Meisl's beautiful backyard, and to read the full garden piece, and see a host of gorgeous garden flowers, go to her blog, called Walk. It's worth the trip! Kellie Meisl is a writer and visual artist living in Pittsfield, MA.