I dropped our son, Jason, off at the start of the 200-mile Fat Pursuit bike race with a smile, thumbs up, a fair amount of parental worry, and deep sense of gratitude to be part of his journey. As his on-site support team, I flew with him from Little Rock (AR) to Bozeman (MT) on the 9th, then drove a couple of hours through parts of Yellowstone National Park, arriving just before dark in Island Park, Idaho.
He spent the next few hours assembling his bike (shipped via UPS), fat tires and all. The fat tires, which resemble oversized, bumpy donut holes, provide the essential traction and control necessary for biking on snow. And the Fat Pursuit race (named after the tires) is nothing but snow – mostly ungroomed, unmarked, unpredictable miles of it.
In below freezing conditions, Jason and his bike will become bosom buddies. Everything he needs for survival ( phone, GPS, water, food, sleeping bag, extra coat, batteries, first aid kit, head lamp, repair kit, cook stove, spare tube, pump, and more) is either strapped, velcroed, zipped or fastened somewhere on his bike or carried on his back.
Shortly past noon on the 10th, Jay Petervary, the race organizer, yells "Let's do this!" and leads the 200-milers to the start of the trail. I catch a final glimpse of Jason's red backpack as he disappears into the trees.
Middle ,January 10-12
I return to The Timbers Resort Village, where Jason and I rented a room, and open the link to his spot tracker on my computer. This device is magical. It transmits its invisible signal from Jason, deep in the Idaho woods, to a satellite orbiting thousands of miles above his head, to me. Well, not exclusively to me; but it feels personal and compelling. "Check on your son," it whispers, and I obey.
Jason's dot on the map is moving at the pace he predicted, so I put on a kettle of water, brew a cup of tea and relax.
This time in the middle – for me – is a time of waiting, of practicing patience. I center myself in nature, outside the windows and on walks around the area. I take pictures. I stop and listen to the silence.
I begin to notice that the snowflakes are larger, coming down faster. I check the forecast.... Winter Storm Warning for the Island Park area. Heavy snow, 1 to 3 feet, more at higher elevations.
The spot tracker slows to a walking pace (1.0-2.0 mph) as the hours pass. Jason must be pushing his bike through ever deepening snow. At 11:30 p.m. I receive a prerecorded text, "Camping. All is good!" He's off path, cocooned in his sleeping bag for a short rest and, hopefully, sleep.
Happy Birthday, Jason! I text at 5:30 a.m. on the 11th. His dot has already been moving since 4:00. Two other racers' dots show up close by, and the trio stays together for the next 12+ hours. I discover later that they are taking turns breaking trail for each other, pushing their bikes through the deep snow.
Around 2:00 I receive a call from Kate, Jason's wife. With cell phone coverage as he reaches the highest point on the route, Jason says that he's decided to suspend the race, when possible, and take an alternate route back to the lodge where it began.
Ending January 11
The dot makes its way down the summit at a "hike-a-bike" pace, headed toward a junction I can see on the satellite view of the area. A right turn continues the prescribed course, a left leads in the direction of the lodge. I'm guessing Jason will take the left, if he knows about it. My phone rings at 7:45.
"I'm taking a power line road (the left turn) back to the lodge," he explains. "It's only about 3 miles, but I don't know what the snow depth is like. Just follow my dot and please come get me when you see I'm close."
For the next 2 1/2 hours, Jason closes in on the lodge. Faster, 4.0 mph. He's riding!
I arrive at the lodge with time to spare, unaware that a finish line has been set up across the road where he and other riders will leave the trail. I order a cup of tea, but barely have time to take a sip before a man approaches me and says, "Hey, there's a 200-miler out there who says his mom is supposed to pick him up. Is that you?"
I dash out the door to find Jason taking off his helmet and leaning his bike against the building. I hug him and hear ice crunch.
In a text to family the next day, Jason writes, "All good despite the snow! Got back to the lodge on my own steam (about 85 miles total, 30 of that walking through 8-12 inches!) I went through the finish line and got a reception as if I had completed the whole thing. A great ride."
(As of this writing, all racers – except one – have left the course early. We continue to watch his dot and wish him well.)
********* Journeys – miles from home, in your own backyard, or your vivid imagination – start with the word on the birthday card Drew and I gave Jason.
May we all keep dreaming, and following our dreams.
*sketch by Margie Beedle, Juneau, Alaska in Labyrinth Journeys, 50 States, 51 Stories
I've never been a fan of the term Bucket List because of its kinship to "kick the bucket," like death is imminent so you'd better get going. Maybe that's not such bad advice, but it feels more ominous than upbeat. So I decided to invent my own term for the list of experiences/accomplishments I want to focus on before a certain date, and that date is not death – since it's not on my calendar.
My Before 70 List:
Granted it's not very legible, but rather a work in progress that I update from time to time. I taped it to the inside cover of my Gratitude Journal so it's visible each night when I list the five things I'm grateful for that day.
My title isn't original, but modeled after a younger friend's efforts to pursue her passions – Ten Things I Want to do Before 40. Her age (or mine), of course, is not the issue. It's all about intentionality.
I've wanted to take Ikebana lessons, the art of Japanese flower arranging, since I witnessed a demonstration in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park in 2013. Classes aren't readily available in Arkansas where I live most of the time, but with Drew now working in California, I saw my opportunity.
Mieko Hirano greeted me at the door with a pitcher of cymbidium orchids, aspidistra, gerber, astromeria and ranunculus. Thankfully she wrote the names on a white board since my flower vocabulary is severely lacking. She sent me outside with a second pitcher to retrieve water from a nearby faucet, then instructed me to pour it into my very own, take-home container, complete with pin frog.
With graceful, meditative movements, Mieko folded and secured an aspidistra leaf and told me to do the same with two more, each leaf cut a precise number of inches less than the one before. "In Ikebana it's all about balance and space," she explained, as she pointed to the exact spot for me to place a ranunculus. The metaphor didn't escape my attention.
We continued to build the arrangement, positioning the flowers so each one enjoyed its own space yet fully contributed to the whole. Once finished, Meiko pointed to a trifold screen and asked that I formally display my piece for a photo.
For days afterward, the sight of my first Ikebana endeavor brought me a feeling of peaceful contentment, and pride. "I made that!" I'd hear myself say, to no one but myself. As much as I like crossing things off lists, I decided to revise instead. My Before 70 List now includes "More Ikebana classes."
I met Hilary Cooper-Kenny in 2012 when I visited her on my 50-state labyrinth journey. She created a labyrinth in the backyard of her Kingsbury, New York home and described it as her "serene" place – in contrast to the busyness of her Crazy as a Loom (yes Loom!) Weaving Studio.
I have followed her blog, Crazy as a Loom, ever since. Recently, I was leafing through a completed journal and found a scrap of paper stuck to one of the pages. On it, I had written "tiny life" Hilary blog post 2017. I must have planned to revisit it, but never did. I read back through her posts for that year and found the two words, embedded in a sentence among a page of paragraphs. .
I have to stay grounded in my "tiny life,"she wrote. . Tiny life? Hilary? I wanted to dash off a very belated comment.... "What do you mean a tiny life? I love reading about your life – your looms, weavings, pots of hearty soup in the winter, visits from your grandchildren, the pets that died and the ones you adopted, your multiple cups of tea that keep you fueled and warmed in the 1790's house you restored, the friends who drop by, books you read, the (literal) headaches and heartaches, and the honesty that flows from it all."
Thankfully, I didn't need to read further than Hilary's next line for reassurance that tiny wasn't meant as a judgement.
"I like my life," she continued. "My day to day is productive, creative and mostly happy."
It's a life like most of ours, not lived out on the world stage, or even in the local paper (when there is one). A life not measured by size or reach, but rather byauthenticity.
Perhaps when I copied Hilary's words I was wondering whether my own life was tiny, significant enough, worthwhile enough in the grand scheme of things – all those middle school comparisons that lead us nowhere, but to more tiny-ness. Two years later, I look at the paper and know what Hilary was saying all along, as she surrounded "tiny life" in quotation marks.
There is no such thing.
I invite you to read Hilary's blog and check out her website.
I drove through the gates of the Mercy Center in Burlingame, California in search of its labyrinth. I had heard of the Center's quiet beauty and contemplative spirit from friends who had personally experienced it, but my trips to nearby San Francisco were few and far between. With Drew's new job in Menlo Park, I suddenly found myself a convenient 25 miles away.
The sun had begun to filter through leaves onto the labyrinth's path when I arrived at 8:30. Two women were placing signs throughout the turns for a group walk later that morning. I sat impatiently on a neighboring bench, eager for them to finish so the labyrinth and I could spend some private time together.
When I finally stepped onto the sandy path and began circling, I purposefully ignored the signs. I wasn't interested in a theme-based walk, where I was encouraged to contemplate a suggested topic. My aim was to remain "open" as I walked, allowing whatever thoughts that bubbled up to lead me where I needed to be. But try as I might to look away, my sideways glances increased. Perhaps remainingopen meant paying attention to what was in front of me.
I quickly caught on that a key word was repeated in each message, and that it was no kumbaya kind of word. It packed a punch.
Hope is.... strength power a sense of purpose empowerment a refusal to accept or confirm... despair ACTIVE
.My own sense of hopefulness had been waning of late. Just that morning I had angrily switched off the car radio, tuning out news of yet another senseless mass shooting. Then there's climate change, inhumanity at immigration borders, ongoing poverty and homelessness, prejudice, racial injustice. . . The list can seem neverendingly dismal.
And yet, the messages surrounding me confirmed that hope ismore than an illusive state of mind, a vague wish that things could somehow get better. Its strength is in active practice.
I stepped out of the labyrinth's center with a quickened pace and a spark of hope that felt powerful.
Returning to the bench, I opened my journal and wrote a question on the next blank page: How can I practice hope in my daily life?
For the past month, Drew and I have been living in a constant state of change. We bought a new house, just three houses down the street from our current house in Conway, Arkansas – a more convenient move than across the country, but a move nonetheless. Then, we moved across the country! Drew accepted a job as Head of School at Alto International School in Menlo Park, California; so two weeks after moving in our new house (our permanent residence), we drove 1913.3 miles to our new apartment in Redwood City. A lot of newness. "All's good," as the expression goes, but different.
I can deal with different as long as everything's not different. But a week into our Arkansas move, sitting on the floor among piles labeled "Arkansas," "California," "Goodwill," "consignment," "trash," I concluded that life would never again be the same. There was not even a space in the kitchen of our new house to put my chalkboard, which somehow felt like the last straw. Whereupon I indulged in at least five minutes of tearful self-pity.
Every month I enthusiastically write a quote on the board in my neatest former-2nd-grade teacher printing. I search for just the right words to inspire me, and hopefully others, as we enter that space. The chalkboard with its message felt like an anchor in my frenzied life, a physical reminder to reflect and be present. But it wouldn't fit.
Until my perspective changed.
Image credit - Homebody: A Guide to Creating Spaces You Never Want to Leave, by Joanna Gaines
Leafing through Joanna Gaines' book, Homebody, as I removed it from a box, I found a familiar image. It was mychalkboard (actually Joanna's since I ordered it from her website, Magnolia Market,) but in a different position!
I hurried to find the tape measure, and to my delight discovered that by turning the chalkboard vertically, it would fit perfectly on a wall in our new kitchen.
All I needed was a handyman who could drill holes on the other side and hang it for me.
Luckily, I happen to be married to just such a guy.
And with one slight – yet monumental – turn, differences became unique possibilities. Not that the challenges have disappeared. I still can't remember my new addresses, but the changes are more manageable and some days, even exciting!
*Nesting - quote taken from the Nesting shop in Concord, Massachusetts
When I was a sophomore in college, I aspired to major in history. American history, especially, awakened my imagination beyond names and dates in a textbook, to people's day-to-day stories buried beneath them. Sometimes I even felt that I was living in the wrong time period, that I should have been a pioneer, a suffragette, or stationmaster(mistress) on the Underground Railroad.
I scheduled an appointment with the professor of my Western Civ class to map out coursework for the next two years. I'll never forget his monotone response to my enthusiasm... "There's no point majoring in history unless you're prepared to go straight through and get your PhD."
To my twenty-year-old self, his timeline felt like an unattainable eternity, with all-or-nothing the only options. At the time, it didn't occur to me that Dr. ?, in all his academic pomp and circumstance, could possibly be....wrong.
That pivotal moment swerved me to another major (speech pathology) and different life's journey, with its own joys and rewards. Throughout the years, however, I've often pondered what happens to an unrealized passion –a dream deferred –as Langston Hughes asks in his poem. Does it dry up "like a raisin in the sun," or does it live on – stronger, more determined to survive in its own distinctive way?
What happened to my dream of becoming an historian, of studying and enjoying history as a lifelong passion?
Here's a clue from the book on my nightstand...
And the Audible book I'm listening to on my morning walks....
And the slew of historical places I've visited and PBS documentaries I've watched.
And the delight I felt while helping granddaughter Anna research Harriet Tubman and prepare a life-size poster of her for a 3rd grade project.
The list is endless. That is the point. There's never just one way to honor your dream.
Whatever speaks to us, we must pursue, for it is a part of who we are. I encourage you – or better yet – encourage yourself to realize your dreams. Find your own path. And take a step!
I stood on the front porch of the cabin we were renting during spring break with our daughter and her family. Reflexively, I took a deep breath of coolness and exhaled slowly. The full moon was rising over the outline of an old cotton gin nearby. Frogs and crickets eased into their evening conversation, cranking up the volume as darkness settled in.
A train whistle signaled its approaching presence.
Any other evening at our home in the city, I would no doubt have been indoors. The moon would have knocked, but I wouldn't have answered. There was supper to fix and Wheel of Fortune to watch.
Early the next morning, my gaze followed the stream of sunshine across the wooden floor, up and out the window. An invitation.
With one flick of the quilt, I shunned my methodical morning routine of exercise, meditation, coffee, breakfast, shower, makeup, wardrobe selection and To Do list. . . slid on shoes, grabbed my jacket and camera (phone). Time was a-wastin'!
I had seen similar sights before, of course, barn, fence, open field, grove of pine, flower and robin. I had felt the freshness of dawn. Yet, somehow, I had forgotten Or had forgotten to notice.
On a recent birthday, I unwrapped a book of poetry from my friend, Margie. Attached to the front was a card, even more prized than the gift itself – one of her watercolors. Its delicate beauty held my stare as I breathed in deeply and exhaled slowly. Her sketches have that effect on me, a calming kind of presence similar to meditation.
Her handwriting on the bottom clues me in that she created this piece on Mother's Day (2018) at the Shrine – The Shrine of St. Therese in Juneau, Alaska – one of our shared favorite spaces.
Before moving to Juneau from Arkansas , I had never been a hiker or much of an outdoors person at all. Margie, a born-and-raised Juneaunite, kindly invited me to join her for treks up Mt. Roberts, Thunder Mountain, along Pt. Bridget Trail, East and West Glacier Trails and more. I pretended I knew what I was doing; Margie knew better, but never let on. Our friendship grew as non-stop conversations led us from trailheads to trail ends.
I knew even less (nothing) about labyrinths when Margie invited me to walk the one on the beach at the Shrine. I trusted her that walking around what looked like a never-ending path, would be a worthwhile experience. I had no way of knowing, of course, that a connection to labyrinths would transform my life ten years later.
Margie's watercolor of the labyrinth at the Shrine of St. Therese in Juneau, Alaska
Throughout the years, I have been privileged to glimpse pages of Margie's visual journals as she's filled them with her "many interests and curiosities." She rarely publishes her work, but creates them to fulfill her own creative spirit and to share with close friends and family members. She gave me permission to share a few of my favorites here.....
Margie and I both stepped out of our comfort zones when I wrote and she illustrated my 2017 book Labyrinth Journeys ~ 50 States, 51 Stories. In addition to the examples shown here, her twenty pen and ink sketches include a pine cone, rose, teacup and saucer, footsteps, sprig of lavender and peace pole. All key pieces of the journey. Each one a story in itself.
A friend and an artist – I'm grateful to have both in my life, and delighted to share her joyful art with you.
Had it not been for Mary Oliver, I might never have read another poem after 11th grade English. My teacher drained any appreciation I had mustered for poetry by analyzing the heck out of every poem we encountered. What's the meter, rhyme scheme, tone, imagery? Iambic pentameter is forever etched in my memory. Roughly 25 years passed without a poem gracing my life. Then a friend placed a Mary Oliver poem in a birthday card. I don't recall which poem, or which line, drew me in and made me feel that Mary had written it just for me, that poetry could connect to the depths of who I was or what I believed.
Perhaps it was. . .
"...Sometimes I need only to stand wherever I am to be blessed." (It Was Early)
"...and there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own, that kept you company as you strode deeper and deeper into the world, determined to do the only thing you could do -- determined to save the only life that you could save." (The Journey)
"...Well, the whole afternoon went on that way until I thought I could feel the almost born things in the earth rejoicing. As for myself, I just kept walking, thinking: once more I am grateful to be present." (Just Rain)
OR a myriad of others.
More years passed, and Mary and her poetry became my friends. I bought her books. I underlined her words. Iambic pentameter never once crossed my mind.
Then I heard that Mary was coming to town – to NYC – where we happened to be living at the time, to read her poetry. Mary was in her seventies then, with hair whiter than my own, but the opportunity to see her in person felt like scoring a ticket to a rock star's sold out concert. Following her reading at the 92nd Street Y, my friend Margie and I stood in a long, meandering line to get Mary's signature in her latest book of poetry. We were instructed to have our books open to the title page so Mary could sign quickly. She was tired, we were told, and eager to leave. My profusive speech of awe and gratitude dwindled to two words as Mary and I momentarily touched the book together.
"Thank you," I said, hoping that my sincere gaze and attempts at telepathy would fill in the gaps, that she would somehow intuit her monumental influence on my life.
Mary died last week. I knew she was in poor health, but the news hit me like an impossibility. Somehow, I believed that Mary would never die, like other writers whose words stretch beyond their years to speak just to me. I cried as I read one of her poems after another. Then as the tears stopped, I found myself on the final lines of I Am Standing.
". . . and something somewhere inside
my own unmusical self begins humming: thanks for the beauty of the world. Thanks for my life."
Do you have a favorite shop? Perhaps one you just happened upon, a small-ish, independently owned store you decided to step into, and immediately felt its spirit – its creativity, imagination, warmth, community vibe, or something you couldn't quite put your finger on. Whether you could articulate it or not, you knew it was a place you needed to be, where inspirations awaited you.
That happened to me about three years ago when my friend, Marian, and I were exploring Main Street, Concord, MA. (For those of you who read my previous posting, you know I have a "thing" for Concord. Perhaps I should start looking at real estate ads.) The Nesting sign directed us up a narrow flight of stairs to a second sign, inscribed on a nest of eggs, above the entrance.
No, there were no chickens roosting or cackling behind the door – not on that visit, nor on our most recent one – our fifth. But, there was....Wonder!
A magical panorama greeted us, overflowing with glittering possibilities – a large space whose branches led to more intimate rooms filled with their own treasures. As captivated as I was with the obvious holiday charm, I allowed most of it to come and go, searching for quieter inspirations. Tucked in corners and hanging out in plain sight, I gradually discovered them. Words. They were patiently waiting for me.
And on a shelf, in peaceful company, I found my *book!
Its presence surprised me, even though I knew that Wendi, Nesting's owner, had purchased several copies to carry in the shop. I grabbed Marian and pulled her to the bookshelf where we, not-so-nonchalantly, pointed and posed for photos like a pair of awestruck tourists. After all, Marian was the first person I told about my labyrinth journey idea. It was a shared celebration.
I'm honored that my words mingle with others in Nesting's community, hopefully sharing inspirations with visitors browsing the shelves and quiet spaces. If you're in the neighborhood, drop in. If not...
Where is one of your favorite Nesting-like places?
*Labyrinth Journeys ~ 50 States, 51 Stories (can be ordered through independent bookstores, Amazon. . .and found at Nesting)
After finishing my book, Labyrinth Journeys ~ 50 States, 51 Stories, I knew I wasn't finished writing or journeying. Please join me as I continue both and see where they lead me (and you!) ~Twylla Alexander