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 remaining open 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.
a sense of purpose
a refusal to accept or confirm... despair
.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 is more 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?
I invite you to join me.
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.
Leafing through Joanna Gaines' book, Homebody, as I removed it from a box, I found a familiar image. It was my chalkboard (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 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."
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
my own unmusical self
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)
I am enamored with the town of Concord, Massachusetts. I've been there at least five times, most recently last week when Drew and I met our good friends, Jim and Marian, for a halfway visit. Concord is halfway between their home in Waterbury, Connecticut and our condo in Portland, Maine.
But as much as I enjoy the New England quaintness of present-day Concord, it's the town's PAST that draws me back time and time again. . . specifically its literary past.
I often fantasize about popping back into Concord's history for a day, around the mid-1800s. The chances are good that as I walk down Lexington Road toward the town square, I'll find Nathaniel Hawthorne at his Wayside home, editing a short story; Louisa May Alcott a few houses down the road plotting her novel, Little Women; Ralph Waldo Emerson in his book-lined study, penning another essay. And Henry David Thoreau sauntering through the Concord woods, journal in hand.
Imagine – all these thinkers, writers and shapers of American culture were neighbors at various points in their lives! They dropped by each other's homes, shared meals, town gossip, and discussed issues as grand as the meaning of life and as everyday as the chance of snow. And they remain neighbors for all eternity, buried in family plots along Authors' Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Oh, the conversations they must have after the heavy, black gates are locked each evening.
As tempted as I am to immediately knock on Emerson, Alcott or Hawthorne's doors, I first choose to catch up with Thoreau – the subject of my *nightly reading for the last few weeks.
Perhaps I'll find him nosing around the Walden Pond cabin he lived in for two years, two weeks and two days (1845-47) . . . the site where thousands of Thoreau admirers, like myself, have journeyed to stand in what feels like sacred space.
Or more likely, he'd be perched on a rock, gazing at the pond's rippling water, doing what he professed so strongly – living in the present.
"What business have I in the woods if I am thinking of something out of the woods?" he wrote.
Following the example of this unassuming man – who knows nothing of his immense influence on future generations – I find a spot at water's edge, pull out my own journal and deliberately join him.
*On my nightstand - Henry David Thoreau, A Life
by Laura Dassow Walls
There are To Do lists, and then there's Creativity - two entirely different mindsets.
Lists are linear, one thing after another, cross off #1 and start on #2. Satisfying.
Creativity can be circular, multidimensional, even chaotic. Invigorating!
Since writing my last blog post in July, my life has been top-heavy with To Dos as I've supported my dear mother, ever weakened by Alzheimer's. Writing, my creativity of choice, hasn't surfaced on my daily list for weeks – going on months.
Now that I have a free afternoon, I could easily turn to the familiar list of What Needs to be Done, or dust off my journal and try to write something. But like any activity that has fallen by the wayside, it's not that easy to get back on the bicycle. Where to start? Not with my pen; I feel much too rusty to begin, much less finish, anything meaningful.
So I sit, simply sit, and look out our windows. I clear my mind of only what is in front of me. I notice.
I allow space for unstructured Creativity to enter, unrestricted by the To Dos accustomed to priority seating. A nudge that feels vaguely familiar elbows me, "Pick up your phone and take some pictures," it says. Having learned to trust that voice like a best friend, I don't hesitate. In fact, I rush out the door with excitement I haven't felt in weeks.
I circle around scenes, stretch and crouch to capture perspective, move a chair here, a pumpkin
there . . .
Something inside me begins to revive.
Looks like an ordinary house, right?
Still an ordinary house with a big field in front. Until... you place a critical piece in the foreground.
And there you have it, one of the most iconic American paintings, Andrew Wyeth's "Christina's World," painted in 1948.
The house still stands on a quiet country road in Cushing, Maine, now a part of the Farnsworth Art Museum's offerings. It was closed for tours last Tuesday when daughter Elizabeth, grandchildren and I drove the hour and forty-five minutes from Portland to be in that space.
Personally, I know little about Andrew Wyeth, often confusing him with the other Wyeth family painters, but Elizabeth (art major in college) is educating me. When we visited the MoMA a few years ago, it was the original Christina's World that she particularly wanted to see. She bought a copy, had it framed and it now hangs in their bedroom.
What I do know, though, and have personally experienced many times as a writer, is the magnetic pull that a place of creative energy holds. How many times have I visited sites such as Walden Pond, Ralph Waldo Emerson's study and Emily Dickinson's bedroom? At each place, I stand in silence, imagining what it must have been like. To be that person, to be creating in that very moment.
So when Elizabeth sat in the field - close to where Wyeth positioned Christina in the painting, where he turned an ordinary scene into a masterpiece - I understood. She asked us to remain silent while she videoed the scene and recorded the sound.
I couldn't resist but eavesdrop with my own photo, capturing her... as she lived the moment.
(And, no, the photo was not staged.)