Saturday, November 28, 2009

Cardinal in the House!

I read recently that over 1 billion dollars worth of gift cards go unspent each year.  Think of all those gift cards hidden in someone’s sock drawer, jewelry box or old purse/wallet or maybe some just expired and got tossed out. Amazing. As I was reading this I suddenly remembered that I had some gift cards found last Spring while packing to move and I went to look for them. And what do you know, they were in my wallet!?!  I made a mental note to use them, and soon!

One of the cards was for PIER 1, valued at $20 and given as a gift from a colleague two years ago. After my daughter and I left the Mall yesterday, taking advantage of a special going on at one of her favorite clothing retailers, we picked up some Panda Express at their drive-thru (double orange chicken with chow mein please) I drove over to the nearby PIER 1 and left her in the car to enjoy her lunch while I ran in to find something at or around 20 bucks.

I haven’t been inside a PIER 1 store in several years and was immediately annoyed by a number of too eager male employees reminding me that there was a 30% special going on and could they help me? Back off boys, I have my gift card in hand and just need to find a little something. Well it was harder than I thought. Just like the old shopping proverb, if you have the money in your hand you can’t find a single thing you like or want, it’s only when you can’t afford it and/or don’t have the money with you that you find the things you absolutely must have. Or something like that. 

I went weaving through the aisles with my turkey tired brain on sensory overload. It took some time for the creative side to start working and when it did it went something like this, “Maybe this table would be a nice fit in the hallway under that large painting? Maybe this bar stool would work in the kitchen? Maybe this .... OMG, nothing I’m looking at or thinking about is under $200, focus!” I then steered towards the pillows, then the kitchen items, the candles, the picture frames. Still nothing. At this point I thought of my daughter sitting out in my car, alone, patiently waiting for me or maybe not. So I pulled a nice chair cushion from a clearance shelf that I could use and then remembered I saw a nice red holiday oven mitt set and carried them over to the check out counter. And of course there was a line with at least six people standing single-file.  

I accidentally struck up a conversation with the woman in front of me. There was a table of knick-knacks by us and we both picked up an item and said simultaneously, “what is this?” We smiled at each other as she commented,  “well I guess if we don’t know what it is then we sure as heck don’t need it!” I then mumbled my response, “yes, funny, I used to frequently bring home items from here that I didn’t need.” Then the internal chatter began. Where did that come from? What did that mean? What are these things in your arms you are about to buy...right then an item caught my eye. It had been hidden in that furniture section I first went through and as my mind quieted I put down my two items, went over to it and picked it up. It was a rather large snow globe and inside was cardinal!?!

I brought it back over to the cash register and seeing I was next in line I placed it down on the table with new purpose and said to the woman that heard my mumble, “items just like this!” She looked at it with large eyes and commented that it was lovely, that she was sure her sister would love it and boy, how much is it?!  I instinctively pulled it a bit closer to me and got out my gift card and gave it to the clerk. It cost me $22 and change.

Here it is, sitting in front of me at the center of our dining room table as I think about how often cardinals seem to enter my life just when I need them most. Frequently, when I am at the edge of the creative zone and at times unsure of myself and not paying attention, they appear. Either visually or with their unique language. Pulling me out and into that creative space that knows and wants to be still, to listen to the dance going on in my head, and always, always pushing me to keep writing. 


Thursday, November 26, 2009

Memories Wrapped in Green Foil

When my grandmother, Madeline would come to visit us at Thanksgiving she always brought her favorite, Andes Candies.  These small rectangular chocolates would magically appear in a small bowl in our living room and would become the symbol of her presence in our lives, the first hard evidence that Christmas was around the corner.

Many evenings as kids we would sit on the rug by the coffee table unwrapping the green foil wrappers listening to grandma’s stories. I remember the time my grandmother shared with us how she met and came to marry our grandfather, Jack. This was the only story where I saw her younger self shine through her tired eyes and so I would ask her to repeat it often. 

When my grandparents first met Maddy, at thirty two, was still living at home and the main care giver over her very ill and widowed mother. And Jack at the time was engaged to be married and to be married in just a few weeks. So as you can imagine the questions were flying and the innocent how could you’s were starting to take over when grandma would hush us all and tell us that as soon as they both met they knew it would be forever and that was the end of it. 

Since my grandma rarely shared much else of her personal life I thought these crumbs were all that I would have of her after she died but recently I found her scrapbook. The pages of this hard bound book, about the size of a hymnal, are mainly filled with old newspaper clippings dating from the early 1900’s to the 1960’s as well as a vast number of poems, church bulletins and pressed flowers. A few of the clippings tell of national events but most have to do with her family, friends, the church and the social scene at the time. It is like peering through a keyhole into what her life was like growing up on the Hudson River and in and around northern New Jersey. Especially the early days of prohibition and with no television when the newspaper was the only source of information and entertainment. As I started to skim over these pieces of her life’s puzzle it became apparent that I never really understood how hard it must have been for Maddy, losing her mother soon after at the age of 47, and for the two of them to be married. Then to lose her husband too soon and later one of her two daughters. 

But there are articles to also show the joys of her life. There are stories of dancing until the wee hours in the jazz clubs of New York City. The engagements, births and obituaries of those that she held most dear. And the poems, these must have helped to get her through the rough times. 

These faded papers are the pieces I am so thankful to have of her.  I can open this book and try to hear her telling me the stories. The stories that I can now share with my daughter, Madeline, so that she can get to know a bit more about the woman she is named after and why I only buy these candies in the green foil wrappers once a year, at Thanksgiving, in memory of my grandma Madeline.


Sunday, November 22, 2009

Learnings: As Time Goes By

I just stumbled across a great blog today called Time Goes By - What It’s Really Like to Get Older.  Its proprietor is Ronni Bennett and she has spent years researching what it’s like to get old and her blog is filled with great writing and resources. A must-read is her  “A Mother’s Last Best Lesson” - the story of her mother’s final illness as they shared her last three months together. It is her mom’s photo that I use here from 1940 and here’s the link to her story: 

TIME GOES BY | A mother’s final, best lesson: Part 1

Almost as profound was finding her list of the best books on aging. I have been thinking how great it would be to have books on each decade of our lives not unlike the “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” series and after skimming through the titles and seeing other books these authors have written on Shelfari I may have found them. She says she has read a hundred or more books on aging and describes these as the cream of the crop because they are “the collected wisdom and knowledge of their superb writers - thinkers and activists who aim a bright, shining light onto the realities of getting old.”  The ones by May Sarton have my immediate attention, see if any catch your eye and check out her blog. Java!

Ronni Bennett’s 

Ten Best Books on Aging

Journal of a Solitude

by May Sarton. Secondarily, these two by her: At Seventy: A Journal and Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year"When I am alone the flowers are really seen; I can pay attention to them. They are felt as presences. Without them I would die...they change before my eyes. They live and die in a few days; they keep me closely in touch with the process, with growth, and also with dying. I am floated on their moments."

The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty 

by Carolyn G. Heilbrun

"I, who had thought only of the rite of passage at fifty, have now discovered, at seventy, that the past ten years, the years of my sixties, were in their turn notably rewarding...I was savoring a combination of serenity and activity that had hardly been publicly attributed, as least as far as I could discern, to women in their seventh decade. There seemed to be few accounts depicting the pleasures of this time of life."

The Longevity Revolution 

by Dr. Robert N. Butler

"...the tragic case of September 11, 2001, in New York City. Animal activists evacuated dogs ande cats wthin twenty-four hours after the World Trade Center was attacked, while disabled or older persons were abandoned in their apartments for up to seven days before ad hoc medical teams arrived to rescue them."

The Summer of a Dormouse By John Mortimer

"The time will come in your life, it will most certainly come, when the voice of God will thunder at you from a cloud, 'From this day forth thou shalt not be able to put on thine own socks.'"

What Are Old People For? By Dr. William H. Thomas 

"...practically speaking, there is no elderhood into which we can be admitted. This absence cannot be described as a careless oversight. We live in a society that denies the legitimacy of old age and has little tolerance for those who dare to suppose that crones and sages could inspire us as models of healthy human development."

Why Survive? Being Old in America

Another by Dr. Robert N. Butler who coined the term “ageism.” This book, published in 1975, won the Pulitzer Prize. "Next is the sense of life experience. This is marked by a broadening perspective and by personal growth. One comes, in part at least, to know what life is all about."

The Fountain of Age by Betty Friedan (says it’s a hard read but rewards the effort).

From Age-ing to Sage-ing by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (says you don’t have to be Jewish to like Reb Zalman)

Here’s the link:

Time Goes By - What it's really like to get older

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Learning From Your Setbacks

I am walking the dog now, by the ocean, still tired from the drive south. It is early and I am thinking I just need to rip around the block and get back to another cup of coffee. I am about three-quarters there when I (FINALLY) hear the surf. I (FINALLY) hear a bird’s unusual call. It’s the cardinal again. I didn’t remember her call. But there she is, flittering on a nearby bush. Then I (FINALLY) feel the warm breeze and see the upper dunes grass bending taking me up to see (FINALLY) the sunrise breaking through the cloud cover. 

Boy have I had a set back. How long has it been since I’ve noticed these details? Well, now that I’m on the other side of it I can (FINALLY) write about it. I can’t blame anyone else that I didn’t write for six days. That I didn’t make it to my oil painting class on Monday. And well I won’t bore you with the additional details of other things I didn’t stick to but I will share the experience with you and the three things I’ve learned from it.

First, you have to learn to let it ride. Like a rip current sometimes it is counter intuitive to fight it otherwise even the best of swimmers will drown. But it is helpful to attempt to learn what caused it so we can see it coming next time. This also gives you perspective. 

Second you have to remember that it’s all about the journey and if it was easy everyone would be doing it. And the journey is never a straight line. There are hills, dales, curves and storms.

And third, you need to remind yourself that new habits are not learned overnight and that even though you need to practice what you are learning and/or preaching you must acknowledge the willingness to fail, and be willing to fail in public.

So it doesn’t really matter how we get into our slumps. Be it lack of sleep, too many distractions, appointments, phone calls, the flu, other demands on our time and maybe even just a bad mood. But it does matter what we do during and after them. At first I was really beating myself up internally and reaching out for blame and it took a few days for this to be wrestled to the ground. I forced myself to stop ignoring it and sought out a place where I could calm myself and try to figure out what was going on. I discovered that I had tripped because I was looking too far down the road and didn’t see the proverbial curb right in front of me. Boom. Right down on my nose I went and who put that curb there anyway?  Oh yeah, it was me. So don’t forget, it’s one step at a time. There will be days when it feels like three steps back but trust me, you are making progress. Java!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Cold Weather, Warm Food

Now that the cold weather is here to stay we crave the warm, comfort foods that we’ve grown up with. We want to get in the kitchen and make our favorite recipes to enjoy and/or share with others over the winter months and especially over the holidays when there are no calories. Yummy soups, breads, chili’s, dips, cookies, pies and family favorites and traditions that take place in the kitchen are some of our best moments and memories. But it has usually come with a price that afterwards sets up a series of depressed mornings when you get on the scale and scream. But now it’s time to see how this new yellowfish approach can help during the holidays.

Just like any other creative effort why should we approach our health and fitness in any other way? In the very changing of our habits is when we start to notice what habits we have and how attached we are to them. For example, my small dog Lucy likes to sit in my lap and play her favorite “fetch the sock” game while I have my coffee in the morning. But lately I have my computer in my lap and as she comes by with the sock I’ll lean over and toss it and then get writing and forget she’s there. Twenty minutes later I’ll look up and notice her curled up in another chair and a lone sock limply sitting by my foot. The ying and the yang are more visible in this example and yeah, it’s only a dog but it’s an example of the impact of changing one routine. It changes all of your routines. It will probably be easier for me to leave the house to write...maybe at the library. But starting with small change is at least starting. 

I thought about this a bit longer. I waited. I listened. I wondered. Then realized I had arrived at a state of calmness and said to myself, “why should this be any different? Why should a new outlook on your health be any different that your new outlook on your creativity? I just need to start by starting and stop beating yourself up about it!” 

I’m heading to the kitchen section of to see if there’s a place to help get me started. Java! 

Monday, November 9, 2009

Trust Your Instincts, Starting Today

I know it sounds counter productive to admit I was not going to blog today as my ideal / goal is to write daily but I really need to get on the road soon (driving to Florida, a two-day trip for us). However we are dragging our feet since the weather forecast is sun and 70 and there are some small unfinished projects like packing to take care and we’ve decided to head out,,,tomorrow.  So I decided, before I get to those projects, I’d take just a few minutes to go online and check my Facebook email when one of the ads to the far right caught my attention.

I rarely notice these ads let alone click on them but today there was one ad promoting a new book using a review quote from Depak Chopra and I felt compelled to click on it. It took me to the buy-this-book page on  The book is titled, How to Rule the World From Your Couch by Laura Day and after scanning several of the reviews and description I learned the topic was intuition and how trusting in it will change your life. I am a big believer in intuition so I spent some more time looking around and even noticed that all 25 consumer reviews gave the book 5 stars!

Most of the reviews said it was a “life-changing book” and “a quick read” and  that it came with exercises to sharpen your skills. Almost all of the reviewers said, “will go back and re-read and do the exercises when I have more time.” You have to giggle at this off to the side with me for a second. How come we make the attempt, we actually reach out and find something that gets us excited only to decide to dedicate the time to ourselves starting...tomorrow. 

But I appreciated that everyone was praising her writing style and so I placed the book in the shopping cart and logged off and got to work on the kitchen. There I was scrubbing the pots and pans, wiping down the counters, tending to the trash yet all the while my mind was whirring about the connection between the creative process and intuition.  Don’t we rely on our instincts to push the paint a certain way, to come up with just the right word or to add just the right spice to a dish? The same is true no matter what your profession, at least for those that truly excel at what they do. I know that, in this context, trusting in your instincts may come after years of trial and error but I remember the best people I met in business were the ones that had great “street smarts.” The ones that trusted their instincts and pushed forward and became successful. 

But aren’t we creatives in the same frame of mind when we are in the creative process? When we are quiet, when our hearts and mind are open and we are working away in this creative state isn’t it also when we can hear and trust in our own intuition? Be as it relates to our creative projects or any part of our lives. Isn’t it in the listening? And won’t our lives be the better for it if we can train ourselves to be in this state of consciousness more often? That’s what my instincts are telling me anyway. What do yours say? Java!

P.S. I promise I will spend more time on this topic after I get to Florida...and buy the book...just give me a few tomorrows. 

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Raking Makes Good Neighbors

Neighborhoods are alive and well in my part of the world. The houses on my small city street are close together and so we frequently connect with our neighbors if even for a wave when heading out to the store and possibly a conversation when we return.  This is the ritual during the summer months and now, with winter creeping in, we do so with more intention. 

I didn’t realize that last Sunday was our last to enjoy the raking of leaves with our neighbors but loved that it was a neighborhood thing. One neighbor was out there raking alone and soon the men gathered and, learning that the city was to pick up the leaves the next day, determined the chore at hand was to get all the leaves raked and out to the curb. 

Some raked the leaves to the curb. Others raked them into large plastic bags and carried them to the curb, pouring them into piles that soon lined our entire street. My husband helped our neighbor with his backyard. They raked the leaves onto a yellow bed sheet and gave them magic carpet rides to the curb. It reminded me of the fun I had with the leaves as a kid. My best friend came up with the idea of using the leaves to create roadways for our bikes. We spent hours riding our bikes in and around and through these paths over her large back yard and often wound up on the ground laughing in the wet leaves.

But that’s not how the men would handle it today. With the smell of the damp leaves trailing behind them and the hope of a warm fire ahead all were satisfied that our yards were once again well tended and called it a day in just over an hour.

I like this closeness at this point in my life and know we are fortunate to have such good neighbors and to share in the living of it. As we head South I know I will miss them and this closeness and our home here but as the temperatures have dipped into the 20’s at night I look forward to the warmth, the reliable sunshine, spending time with my daughter and attending another painting workshop or two. Java!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

About the Trees

Often as creative types we hesitate to talk about the process. Or how it feels to be in “the zone.” I think it’s because others find it difficult to understand and we end up sounding like lunatics. However it is much easier once you title yourself an artist because it gives others permission to just shrug their shoulders and mutter, “artists...” One of my favorite authors wrote a wonderful book when he was in his 70’s that was rejected several times. One of the publishing firms wrote in their rejection letter, “Dear Mr. McLean, Your book is all about trees and no one wants to read about trees.” Well someone thought otherwise as “A River Runs Through It” by Norman McLean was not only published but also became a hit movie. How I love to write about the trees.

I found an old Ansel Adams day planner yesterday. I had kept it since 1997 because of the many dramatic black and white photographs of trees. But while I was leafing through the book I noticed there was a forward inside the cover that Ansel had written from an undated fragment. I’d like to share it with you:

“...I was climbing the long ridge west of Mount Clark. It was one of those mornings when the sunlight is burnished with a keen wind and long feathers of cloud move in a lofty sky. THe silver light turned every blade of grass and every particle of sand into a luminous metallic splendor; there was nothing, however small, that did not clash in the bright wind, that did not send arrows of light through the glassy air. I was suddenly arrested in the long crunching path up the ridge by an exceedingly pointed awareness of light. The moment I paused, the full impact of the mood was upon me; I saw more clearly than I have ever seen before or since the minute detail of the grasses, the clusters of sand shifting in the wind, the small flotsam of the forest, the motion of the high clouds steaming above the paks. There are no words to convey the moods of these moments.”

I especially appreciate his reference to seeing like never before. It gives me confidence that I’m on the right track. That when your mind and heart are calm and centered your creative energy becomes focused and all the details are there if you have the courage to see them, trust them. And often it happens when you are out walking and doing other things. Of course Mr. Adams was out there, he knew what it gave back to him. And it wasn’t just about the perfect photograph. Java! 

Friday, November 6, 2009

Seeing the Migration Patterns

Monday morning, as I opened the front door and bent to snap the leash on my dog’s collar, I was surprised to see frost on the ground and hear the faint sounds of geese.  I stepped outside just in time to catch the tail end of two small vees of geese heading south. But the fading honks left me with a sense of loss and longing and like always I shrugged it off. But as I started my walk these feelings lingered. Why are there days in Fall that make us look in some self-induced depression mirror and measure ourselves by whatever is not yet done instead of by what we have achieved? I know the physical answer. The days are getting shorter. Our life clock ticks more loudly in our ears. But now I know these moments don’t have to cripple us. This can be a time to rejoice in the rituals Fall drops on and around us. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First I have to take you back to a moment that happened to me a few weeks ago. I was on the phone with my brother. We were planning a family get together for my parents 65th wedding anniversary and discussing lunch vs dinner options and both talking over each other. It was around 8 or 8:30pm when a distant sound from outside soon became so loud and so overbearing I had to interrupt the call. It was geese! Lots of them. Their honking was as loud as trumpets and they seemed to be flying between the houses. Stunned I sat there until they passed then got back to my call and tried to tell my brother about it. Since I haven’t heard geese honking for many, many years I took it as another reward for the listening I have been working on. And then I totally forgot about it until today when I walked right into another loud migration of birds shouting from the tips of the trees near my house.  

There were a surreal number of birds in the trees. All of the trees on one side of the entire block - both front and back yards - were overflowing with chattering birds. I stood there in the wonder of it all and tried to commune with them. Tried to imagine what was going on, where they were headed. What their community was like. Suddenly they all lit from the branches at once and moved fluidly one way then the other and were gone. A strong tug from my dog broke my trance. What an amazing gift to have witnessed this.

Later that night I was locking up and noticed the moon light through the trees. It was full and the details of the day rushed together and I made the connection. The migration is tied to the phases of the moon, just as we are. I had witnessed Fall turn itself over to winter, witnessed its unfolding migration patterns and I started thinking about the patterns of my own life. About how we really do need each other and how we need to participate in this grand migration to keep the balance of things. It shouldn’t cripple us. On the contrary when we are open and listening and watching it has just the opposite impact. If you haven’t felt this immense yet simple joy in awhile take a few minutes, open your own door and stand there awhile. I promise, it will come to you. Java!