Until one minute ago, I had no ideas for a blog posting. But within that 60 seconds when I was looking down at my blank computer screen, my neighbor put up a flag. You might think it would be an American flag to celebrate July 4th, but it's not.
Rather than ennumerating almost 4 years of specifics about why the sight of that flag causes me such distress, I'll instead show you the sign on our front window, directly opposite.
While I sit here wishing that the winds from the impending thunderstorm would dislodge the flag and send it sailing into the murky waters of the nearby Nature Preserve, something tells me to stop and breathe. Deep, calming breaths. So I do. (And that something also reminds me that a flag of any kind would not be environmentally friendly to the a–political turtles, snakes, ducks and fish who call the Preserve their home.)
As almost impossible as it is for me to fathom that my sign might be equally distressing to the neighbors, I suppose it is a possibility. Yet we each have the right to display flag and sign, and to allow the other to be displayed.
In one of my favorite movies, The American President, Michael Douglas who plays President Andrew Shepherd, delivers an impassioned speech. The screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) penned the words, which have remained with me since I first watched the movie in 1995 and several times since.
"America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You've gotta want it bad 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say, 'You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.' You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then you can stand up and sing about the land of the free."
He's right, it isn't easy. Freedom never is.
I've been spending even more time walking the labyrinth lately. Those of you who read my blog regularly will recognize this photo as my adopted labyrinth on the campus of Hendrix College, about a 10-minute walk from our house. It's a shared adoption with the community. But I rarely encounter others, until recently when I discovered messages they had left in the center. I'll get to that later.
One day when I was feeling particularly discouraged, a rock greeted me with the word, Strong. Another day, Courage..
I placed the Gratitude rock in the center early one morning, and it had vanished by the afternoon. I like to think it's a word someone needed at just the right moment, and that it's now perched on her window sill.
We can be present to those we know, and don't know, in endless and creative ways. We are limited only when we forget to try. May we move forward with increased compassion, perhaps leaving painted rocks along the way.
Front Street, in downtown Conway (Arkansas), was deserted as I fast-walked along the sidewalk. Not surprising since it was 8:30 on a Sunday morning; but you could pick any time and day of the week – for the past 10 weeks – and the street would look the same. The Mexican restaurant on the corner moved the week before COVID-19 became a household word. The New Orleans style restaurant closed until June 1. The jewelry store and clothing boutique closed until further notice. What remains is the glass storefront display by the Conway League of Artists.
I slowed down to browse the watercolors, oils, glass sculptures and photographs; then stopped in front of a colorful scene, which I couldn't distinguish between painting or photograph. Touching my nose to the glass and squinting as closely as possible, I decided it was a painting. The artist's name was taped to the glass. I was in the process of snapping a photo when the front door of the gallery opened.
"Need some help?" a man asked.
"Well...sure." I said, looking around to see if anyone else noticed a man pop out of nowhere. But the street was as empty as ever.
"I was just looking at this painting." I commented, tapping my finger on the glass.
"Oh, the cardinals? That's not a painting. It's my photograph."
As we stood at a social distance on the sidewalk, Don Byram explained that he was working on the display windows when he saw me stop.
"It's got a story behind it," he laughed. "I call it Decisions because it looks like the female cardinal in the middle is trying to decide which of those males she finds the most attractive. The joke is that there was a bird feeder a couple of feet off camera to the right, and they were intently waiting for me to get out of the way."
On that drizzly, gray morning, I needed those splashes of red in my life.
"How much are you selling it for?" I asked.
He quoted me a price. I accepted, but then realized I had no money with me.
"Just take it with you," he said. "Drop me a check in the mail."
Only in a small town, I smiled to myself.
"Or better yet, I can drop it off on your porch later this morning so you don't have to carry it,"
I smiled, again, and thanked him.
Don arrived two hours later and we exchanged art and check.
The cardinals have found a home above the bed in the guest room. Each time I pass by, I half expect them to start singing. But they remain silent, allowing me to quietly ponder the opportunities presented by doors, which open unexpectedly.
Prior to the pandemic, my TO DO list was top heavy with "shoulds" and "musts." Even in retirement, when much more of my time is my own, it's hard to break the habit I started during thirty years of work while multitasking as wife, mother, and (co)-chief cook and bottle washer. (My grandmother was fond of using that expression.) No doubt I was creative – Halloween costumes and wallpaper swatches come to mind – but I never was intentional about it. I never realized the importance of creativity, until recently, when many shoulds and musts have gradually fallen by the wayside.
What is left is time for reflection, to ask myself, "What are you going to do with this day, followed by the next, with hours to spend as you wish?" Like a gift bag dressed up with glitter, bows and stuffed with bright pink tissue paper – empty – until I decide how to fill it. It is a luxury, I fully realize, that many do not have.
With my mind open to possibilities, I was recently flipping through the spring edition of the Magnolia Journal. I skimmed an article, ready to turn the page, when a series of questions asked me for answers.
What thrills you?
What do you talk passionately about?
And what could that look like if it were distilled into a single word?
Searching for answers beyond the obvious, "grandkids," I put down the magazine and soon found clues all around the house.
All are pictures of things I've created or am in the process of creating. Just the thought of writing, arranging flowers, journaling, working a puzzle, shoveling soil around color-coordinated impatiens, and outlining a hopscotch game for our neighborhood's chalk drawing event...excite me! They (and others) light the proverbial spark inside my spirit which makes me feel alive, healthy and moving forward.
Yet there is nothing magical about any of these particular activities, and none of them, except writing (for me), requires a stretch of time. The bigger picture involves paying attention to whatever our personal creative nudges may be, and choosing to follow where they lead. The upheaval of the past few weeks has amplified those nudges for me. When less is predictable, the more we need creativity to bring new life to what we find in front of us.
To honor my new mantra –Create! – and keep it as intentional as my morning cup of coffee, I've written it on our kitchen chalkboard. It will stay in place as COVID-19 restrictions are gradually lifted, as the temptation increases for creativity to become eclipsed by the ever-present shoulds/musts...and return to the predictable.
I joyfully left my wipes, gloves and hand sanitizer in the front seat of the car. The sign in the parking lot said, "Lock up your valuables." That directive used to refer to my wallet.
For the next hour or so, I wouldn't need them. I could touch anything I wanted and never have to protect or sanitize. It was a new definition of freedom in a world that feels like one big germ.
I stepped onto Huckleberry Trail and breathed deeply of freshness. This 3.5 mile hiking trail begins 30 minutes from our home at one of my favorite Arkansas state parks, Woolly Hollow. The name and place sound backwoodsy, in the best possible sense, where Nature immerses the visitor in her peacefulness.
Yet, as I strode farther into the woods, I found myself dragging along worries and concerns of the day, at a pace that felt more like a workout than a saunter (one of my favorite Thoreau words.) Finally a robin caught my attention with its rebuke, "Slow down; take notice."
I stopped. The silence caught me off guard like suddenly closing the door on a noisy party. I looked for the nearest place to sit down.
A perfect sitting rock lay right in front of me. For the next 10 minutes, 20 minutes, or perhaps just 5, I sat and listened with eyes open and closed, feeling morning sun on my back and hearing the sound of stream, bird and breeze. And when I continued sauntering, I paid attention.
At the end of the trail, I reached out my hand and touched a tree, a parting connection to a place which felt like the normal I miss more every day.
Its texture, smell and calming spirit were still present when I returned to the car.
I did not wipe them off.
I'm on overload. TV news at home, radio news in the car, New York Times Morning Briefing on my phone, social media news via computer. . . the latest number of cases, possible cases, deaths, closings, government actions/inactions, tests/not enough tests, quarantines, handwashing, more handwashing, social distancing, stock market plummets and toilet paper lines.
I tell myself – that's enough! Get up off the couch. Turn off the TV. But I linger, absorbed in the real life drama of how the coronavirus is changing our lives by the minute. My chest tightens, and I can't recall when I last took a deep breath.
It's time to move. No, not sell my house and relocate to a place where COVID-19 sounds like unintelligible gibberish, but simply put on my shoes, jacket, hat and walk into fresh air.
Ten minutes away is one of my favorite places, a labyrinth, on the campus of Hendrix College in our hometown of Conway, Arkansas.
Anyone who knows me, knows that labyrinths are a central part of my life. Walking their ancient, circular design is a meditation for me – a calming experience from entrance, to center, and back. No way to get lost, but rather a single path to follow, one step in front of the next.
The labyrinth can be a metaphor for what we may be experiencing in our lives, particularly in these unsettling times, when life feels more circular than linear... and change is a constant. And in times of change, walking the labyrinth reminds me to take my time, to pay attention to the journey along the way.
....which is just what I did as I walked through my neighborhood, across the pedestrian bridge, through the Hendrix campus to the labyrinth.
Ten minutes turned into thirty as I allowed the emerging signs of spring to determine my pace. By the time I reached the labyrinth, my body and breathing had relaxed and thoughts of the coronavirus felt like yesterday's news.
Labyrinths, nature and communication with family and friends are my principle ways of coping with a landscape that appears less familiar every day. They are constants that ground me, despite the upheaval, as do my morning cup of coffee, fresh flowers on the dining table, and gratitude journal on my nightstand.
May you find nourishment in your own heathy practices..... and peace on your path during these challenging times.
To locate a labyrinth in your area, refer to the World-Wide Labyrinth Locator where almost 6000 labyrinths are listed globally. If none exists, you can print a finger labyrinth and trace the design in a slow, meditative manner. (If no printer is available, trace the finger labyrinth design as it appears on your computer screen.)
To learn more about labyrinths, visit The Labyrinth Society and/or Veriditas website, a nonprofit located in Petaluma, California, which provides information, labyrinth experiences and facilitator training.
For the past thirty or so years, an early morning walk has been part of my routine, except for Wednesdays and Sundays when I take a break. In retirement, I at least wait until the sun comes up to head outside. Not to rub it in too much for family and friends waking up to snow, ice or rain, but the sun has actually been in glorious view for the last two weeks I've been in California.
I finish my coffee after Drew leaves for his job in Menlo Park, and wait for the sun to edge its way onto the wetlands outside our apartment windows.
Not for too long, though. I do have friends expecting me.
A wetlands trail winds its way just a stone's throw from our apartment, past waters and grassland, to an overlook 1.7 miles in the distance.
About five minutes down the gravel path, my walking partners appear.
Canandian geese, vacationing in the Bay area, greet me and pick up the pace. I can't tell whether they're chastising me for keeping them waiting or complaining about the rush hour traffic on nearby Highway 101, but they seem to be in a constant state of annoyance. Of course, since I don't speak "goose," I could have it all wrong.
Tired of too much walking and chatter, they stop for breakfast, allowing me time to catch my breath and take in the view. Seagulls, ducks and sandpipers gather on still waters, yards beyond a protective boundary. Their collective voices triumphantly rise above the continuous din of engines behind me.
Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpse movement and the tip of a pair of ears. For the past few days, I've noticed a jack rabbit skirting the trail, often crossing it just ahead of me, dashing into tall grass. I whisper goodbye to the geese and tiptoe in slow motion toward the ears. They pivot, twitch, then escape with a blur of fur into deeper thickets. I freeze with my camera at the ready, set to highest magnification. A moment later Jack steps cautiously from behind a bush, and I snap a burst of photos hoping one will capture him. And the next second, he's gone.
With the sun warming my back, I arrive at the lookout and gaze out on the natural beauty that surrounds me. Were it not for the vision and hard work of people I'll never know, these wetlands would be overgrown with buildings.
And the inhabitants ? Who knows.
I turn to retrace my steps and see a graceful reminder of why this wildlife refuge is more than a place of beauty. It is a home.
*For additional information: Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge, Bair Island
Redwood City, California