Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Catch What You Can

Years ago, I discovered one of the most remote yet inhabited places in the entire world…or the world as I’d seen it up till then. Seward, Alaska - a northern port city, where the sea and the sky blend together so easily that you can only tell where one ends and the other begins by the bold black gash of mountains lining the horizon. I wore a jacket but still felt cold. It was August.

I was mesmerized, entranced, captivated. I have always loved gray northern places. I love the sea…but not the bright, cajoling seas of the SC Coast where everyone heads for vacations. I want a rocky, remote sea. I don’t want to bask in the sun in a string bikini…I want to wrap up in a blanket and feel the chill that rides the crest of waves colder than ice water. I want that other sea, that rocky, rugged sea that Captain Ahab knew. I have never entertained the slightest notion of taking cruises to the Bahamas or other sun-drenched shores…but I’d jump aboard an icebreaker in an instant, just for the offhand chance I’d see a narwhal.

My fascination with the far north has been with me since childhood, but my fascination with the sea came to me as an adult, when something about the vastness of it seemed to pull me in. Standing on a dock in the middle of Seward, I was suddenly possessed with the thought that if I ever wanted to run away from something, this would be the place I’d come…no doubt. No one could ever find me here. No one would ever think to look here, of all places. It would never occur to anyone who knew me well that I’d flee to one of coldest, farthest-reaching corners of the US. And yet I could dissolve so easily, so completely in this cold, windy place. I could find work, rent one of the numerous little apartments that dotted the cityscape, spending my free time knitting items I’d need for a harsh climate and tossing food scraps to gulls and eagles on the rocky shoreline. There was only one glitch in this little fantasy…it’s not in my nature to run away.

Stepping outside just past daybreak, the cool air and overcast sky remind me of my time in Seward. I was in my early 20s then, and I had few valid ideas about, well, anything. I had no experience with what kind of situation might actually make one want to run away. And I had no idea that, when presented with these situations time and time again later in life, I’d prove to be a fighter, not a flight-er. There would never be a time in my life when I would consider running away from, well, anything. And there would never be anything in my life that I was more willing to go to bat for than someone I loved.

“I so enjoy your writings about letting go,” says a friend to me via text this morning. “You make it sound so easy!”

I think for a moment of the power of words, how they can flow so smoothly from our minds to the page. My words convey a sense of ease about the struggles we all face, because I want somehow to encourage people to actually face those struggles, to break free and live the lives the dream about. I try to accomplish this by taking my own experiences and putting a positive spin on them, so that someone else might draw strength from my observations, just as I draw strength not from palm trees, hammocks, and a still sea, but from birch trees, thunderclouds and crashing waves against a rocky shore. In Wilmington, NC last summer, I was struck by the beauty I saw. But these are not the beaches that strike a chord with my soul. Seward, Alaska, was a place more suited to my nature, more beautiful, even in the cool drizzle of late August rains.

I look down at the text, and send only a simple smiley face icon as a response.

I think it’d be nice to return to Seward…I’d like to watch winter descend on a Northern seaside town. I’d like a new experience to take my mind off one I’m trying to forget. But I’ll go to the library instead and check out Ahab’s Wife, or, The Star Gazer, by Sena Jeter Naslund. It seems a little less impulsive than hopping a plane to a place I’ve not seen in over 15 years and hoping to crash in a lighthouse for a week or two. Not to mention a trip to the library is much more financially reasonable than the catastrophe of expenses a spontaneous Alaskan adventure would incur.

Memories…I cast them out, like rocks into a raging sea. I hold on to nothing, not even tokens of affection I once treasured. And I write about letting go, striving to make it seem so damn easy that everyone will want to cast something out of their lives, just to get in on the fun.

I think for a moment of the power of words, how they can flow so smoothly, just like water. Cup your hands, try to catch what you can…but it’s as futile as trying to hold back tears.

There are some fights that you just can’t win.

When I looked at the water, I felt contempt. The color was more green than the dark blue of English poets, and the waves were small and choppy.

“It’s not wild enough,” I said.

“You always loved a storm,” she said. And she told me again how when I was a small girl, only freshly equipped with language, when it rained I had said, “Harder,” and begged her to make the rain bigger and more extreme.

“How do you like the lighthouse,” she asked.

“I wish that it were taller.”

She laughed. “Accept the world, Una. It is what it is.”

~ Ahab’s Wife, or, The Star Gazer - Sena Jeter Naslund

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Blue Moon Jazz and A Story of Stuff

Sitting around a bonfire tonight, waiting on the blue moon to rise, our host passed around a piece of paper and pen to everyone in attendance. One by one, we wrote something on our piece of paper that we wanted to release from our lives. One by one, we were to toss our small papers into the bonfire and bid farewell to what was written on that slip…what we wanted and needed to let go of.

I’ve written before about letting go. As I held my slip of paper in my hand, it wasn’t letting go that was on my mind. It was the idea of holding on, or rather, what we hold on too.

Earlier this month, my 89-year old grandmother decided that the 4 bedroom house she was living alone in was simply too much upkeep and expense, and decided to move into a smaller dwelling. Within a few weeks, she’d signed the lease on a perfect little duplex apartment. Her new neighbor had a porch full of flowers and potted herbs. Wind chimes danced from a shared overhang. The apartment was tidy and quaint, the yard well-maintained, and she seemed very excited about moving in...but within a week of beginning the process, she changed her mind. She wanted to stay in her house.

Why? Because she could not live in the quaint, small apartment without letting go of some of her stuff. “I worked too hard for what I’ve got to just give it away for nothing,” she said. And despite the fact that she’d already paid two month's rent and signed a lease, she has now gone back to a house that is too much upkeep and expense simply to maintain possession all of her stuff. Huge furniture, glasses, china that hasn’t been used for about 25 years, collections of dolls, doo dads, knick knacks…when I was standing in the midst of it, realizing this is what she was bound to, I wanted to say to her, it’s only stuff! You could have had a beautiful place to live, a nice neighbor close by, and a rent that was almost half of what the mortgage you pay on the house is...but sometimes it pays to remember that when it’s nearly impossible for us to understand another person's actions, it’s just as impossible for the other person to comprehend that we don’t understand their actions.

I’m sure she will face legal repercussions for pulling out of a rental agreement, but she says she doesn’t care. I suppose, to her, not having to let go of any of her stuff is worth whatever consequences she might face. Attachment…is it ever a healthy thing? Trying to decide what to write, I look up at the night sky above me. Clouds part just enough to allow the stars to shine down. My son asked me recently if stars were really our ancestors, watching us from above. It’s an age old concept children seem to easily understand, something I've taught him since he was a toddler to believe in. Today, after school, he proudly presented me with a bracelet he’d made for me with beads and a pipe cleaner. It will not last forever, nor will I try and force it to. I treasure it, yes…but I treasure more the gesture itself, the knowledge the he was thinking of me in the moment that he fashioned this bracelet from the simplest of materials. I treasure the love behind the bracelet more than the bracelet itself. I told him, when he asked about the stars , that yes, they are the lights of our ancestors, shining down their love upon us, allowing us to see just enough of them to know there is something beyond this world. Logically, I am aware of what a star actually is…but my son is a child and therefore needs to believe there is something beyond this world, some greater purpose to our existence than the routines of daily life, than working simply to acquire and hold on to...stuff.

The night sky is as magical to him, as it is to me. He greets the stars, tells them hello as they begin to appear in the evening skies. We spent a tremendous portion of summer clearing our home from unnecessary stuff. Clothes we haven’t worn in a year? Gone. Toys he no longer plays with? Gone. Books we no longer enjoy? Movies we no longer watch? Gone. Furniture, knick knacks, and collections of doodads and things given to us that we never really liked or needed? Adios. I’m not overly sentimental; I do not hold deep attachments to material things, nor will I teach my son to. I tell him it’s the thoughts, the memories, what is in our heart that we hold on to…not things. I would never hold onto china that I wasn’t going to actually use, no matter who owned it before me. My mother fusses over my using antique bowls to mix cookie dough in the kitchen, or using an heirloom quilt on the bed…but what other purpose should these items serve? They were meant to be used when they were created. If they become damaged or broken, be it. They will have served thier purpose, which isn't merely decorative.

Stuff weighs upon us, whether it is material or emotional. It locks us down, binds us to places we may not particularly want to be. It holds us to a certain place in time, keeps us paralyzed in a moment when we should be moving forward. I spent the entire summer freeing myself from the baggage of both. I’m in love now with the open spaces in my home and in my heart. I want to be able to embrace new life experiences, to pack up in a moment’s notice and head out on any new adventures that come my way. If I can't take all of our stuff, then we leave it behind. I've done this before. I think to write ‘attachment to things’ on my slip of paper, but no, I believe I’ve already conquered that. And if there were any doubts, the image of my grandmother standing alone in a house that is far too big for one person, surrounded by things that are just things and will cost nearly every amount of income she has coming in to keep, will never leave my consciousness.

The bracelet my son made for me catches my eye in the firelight, and I touch it, smiling. He opted not to come to this gathering with me, but to spend the night with a buddy instead. I allowed it because I believe giving children some degree of say-so in their own lives at an early age can negate the need for them to demand it through rebellion in the teen years. I don't know it all, by far, but I'm proud of my son and my choices in raising him. I'm proud of our hippie-ish lifestyle; that we take no medications but ibuprofen; and that we know the produce seller far more intimately than the pediatrician. In this moment, I am comforted by the vastness of the night sky, because it reminds me of the sea, and I think of my son making me the bracelet in class; how proud he was to bestow it onto my wrist; how well he played his first soccer game this week; how excited he is that his two top teeth are loose; how he bursts into my classroom full of joy at the end of each day; how in tune he is to the energy of others. I need to pay more attention, I think, to that last one. I need to pay more attention to how he reacts to the people I bring into our lives. He's never been wrong about one yet, and the ability to read another person's energy almost instantly and discern a good situation from a bad one is a gift I need to teach my child to honor. It's a gift I wish I had. In Reiki training, I learned that intuition is a voice very, very much worth listening too. I need to work harder to teach him to recognize when it is speaking to him, and I need to teach myself to do a better job of listening when my own is shouting from the rooftops at me.

But for now, I'm in this moment, surrounded by friends on a beautiful property that is home to woods, a pond, and a yoga studio, as well as home to one of the most amazing women I've ever met - a 79-year-old yoga teacher more vibrant and full of life that most people half her age. She is a living testament to another way of being in and with the world, and her presence reinforces my belief that the lifestyle I'm most comfortable with is truly the right one for me. Any advice she gave me, I think I'd take, because she radiates the energy that I wish to send into the world. She represents a place I strive to arrive in, and I am so happy here that I can't even think of one thing to write on the slip of paper. I'm in such a state of peace that I can't imagine there could still be something I still need, in my heart, to let go of. But then it comes to me, one simple word, and I quickly scrawl it on the paper, then watch it turn to ash in the fire. Judgements is the word that I wrote, and it symbolizes not only the feelings I deal with when others judge me and my actions/choices, but also my own willingness to judge the choices and actions of others. I don't understand my grandmother's behavior anymore than I undersand how a close  friend can retire and choose to simply sit on a quarter of a million dollars and live on his meager retirement because he is afraid to 'start dipping into' his savings, or how another friend can keep returning, over and over, to a relationship that unhealthy to the point of being toxic and keep thinking somehow that this time it will be different...but I have to remember these are their choices, and whether or not I understand them is irrelevant to their freedom to make them...and keep making them. What would it say about me, really, if I allow myself to lose respect for another person because a decision they made was not what I felt it should be? I have to let go of judgment, and remember others may not be in the same place as me. Their path is thier own, as mine is my own. We are all bound by something, whether it be stuff; numbers on a bank statement; or the belief that another person can change. We all have something we could stand to let burn.

Beside me, someone starts to tap lightly on a drum. From somewhere else in the circle come the low, melodic notes of a flute being played. “There, behind the tree, you can see the moon” my host says. “Oh look, it’s so beautiful!” I don’t get up from my spot because I’m just feeling too warm and full of joy to move. But on the way home, later, the blue moon in its full glory stays with me, visible through the window, shining down. I think of my son, who is no doubt sleeping soundly now. I think of another person I love, of a conversation we had earlier this week, of the excitement I feel knowing a package from afar is on its way to me...

These are the things I hold on to.