Carbon and Still Life

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So long as a person is capable of self-renewal they are a living being. – Henri-Frederic Amiel

The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them. – Ernest Hemingway

A year ago I made a crazy decision. A decision made totally on trust.

I proposed to co-lead a 3 1/2 hour master photography class at Patti Digh’s Life is a Verb Camp. I did not really know the person with whom I was going to design and facilitate the class. I had seen and admired her photography work, but that was pretty much all I knew about her. 

We live two hours apart. Nancy owns her own business, as a neuromuscular therapist and teacher, and I have been on the road, traveling for work, an astounding 39 of the last 52 weeks. So time was a very precious commodity for us both. 

The idea for the class was my genesis, so I wrote the initial proposal: Expressive Photography – Seeing from the Heart. Here’s the session description:

Photographers use cameras like painters use brushes, or poets use words – to create images rich with emotion that speak from the heart. 

Together, we will focus on different ways of seeing with your camera. We promise minimal technical jargon, but lots of ideas and exercises to bring your own unique creativity into your photos. 

We will play with six core concepts of expressive photography, and apply them to nature, portraits, still life or street photography.

We met a total of 3 times before we arrived at the the conference; once by phone, once in person and once on Skype. Given that my usual way of tackling something is to organize the hell out of it, I put the first draft of the agenda and time assignments together. 

We agreed on the outline and divvied up sections of the class to facilitate. Part of our plan included setting up stations for Still Life photography.  This required bringing things from home to create lovely little still life vignettes. As I went around my house looking for items, I was in total dismay. I really am not a collector of lovely things – unless you count books. I had been to Nancy’s house. Her husband is a potter, and their home is filled with hand-made bowls, pitchers and other artful things displayed in casual but artistic ways.

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Two nights before our session, we met to review our plan. She showed me her presentation for her parts of the class. Her photos were amazing. But, to my uptight project manager’s heart’s dismay, they were not organized into the sections we had agreed upon. I had a brief private moment of WTF?! Changing the agenda 48 hours before facilitation is not something I would have taken lightly in my past as a corporate training facilitator. 

But it was easy to adjust, and I think I covered my surprise adequately in the moment.

Nancy and I chatted a little bit about how we had landed here together. She made a comment that went something like this: “We are so different! You are so organized, and I am so organic…”

I am very certain she meant this as a compliment. I had done the agenda, and put all the resource materials together – all the paperwork, so to speak. She had added the ‘soulful’ things to the plan – a guided visual investigation of the room and a body-centering meditation prior to our outside walk-about. She had brought the most beautiful things to photograph, and had organized them thoughtfully and creatively. 

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IMG_0426But that comment about ‘organic’ really bothered me. Am I not organic? That sounds like a really bad thing. I have chewed on this for over a week now. 

She was right, of course. She lives on a lake in the mountains, in a passive solar house, swims two or three times a day, paddle boards with her dogs and is refreshingly natural in appearance and nature. She is totally in touch with her body and helps others do so as well. I get on a plane every week to work with financial services clients. I wear heels, blow dry my hair and like my hairspray and perfume. She is fit and I am not.

Even our photography eyes are different. She is drawn to the play of light and shadow, and excels at macro photography – the photography of small subjects and details. I am drawn to vistas, landscapes and scenes that tell the history and story about a place.

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When I came home from Camp, I asked my son this question: “How would you define ‘organic’? 

His first answer was typical of a lawyer, using the definition from chemistry – “containing carbon”. Carbon-based molecules are the basic building blocks of humans, animals, plants, trees and soils. Of course, ‘organic’ also means healthy, natural, clean and free of toxins. In literature, ‘organic’ can also mean harmonious, continuous, spontaneous, integrated.

The class was a harmonious and integrated smash hit. We nailed it. The adjusted agenda worked well, our time management was spot-on, and everybody learned something and had a lot of fun. A professional photographer friend at the conference crashed our class, and she loved it too.

Why and how did this work? Nancy and I both had specific and strong ideas about what we wanted to accomplish. We each were historically more comfortable working as a one-man show. But the combination worked. Why?

We both had a passionate love of photography and wanted to share it.

We appreciated and welcomed each other’s gifts.

We trusted each other’s competence and intent.

But I am still thinking about that ‘organic’ thing. Crazy thoughts. Including growing my hair out, living full-time in tennis shoes and clothes that move, cooking and writing and walking and photographing, all located somewhere in my beloved mountains. (Of course this vision also includes me losing 20-30 pounds.)

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I may or may not do all of this. I’’m not sure I would look good with longer – and grayer – hair. Maybe I just have what we veteran campers call a “Camp Crush” on my friend. Camp is a place where you meet and fall in love with the most amazing people who inspire and motivate.

But there is something calling to me to live in a more authentic way. To drop my masks and shields, which I have worn/carried for 30+ years, to live a simpler and less artificial life. To trust more, to let things take their course, without imposing my will or forcing an outcome.

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I did not expect to learn so much from leading a photography course. 

At the most fundamental level, OF COURSE I am organic. I have carbon in me. I am a living being. 

And I am capable of self-renewal.

So let’s just see what happens. That sounds pretty organic to me.

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I purchased this beautiful bowl at Camp’s silent auction, hand made by Nancy’s husband.

I Go Back

“Life is nothing but high school.” – Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

“Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be.” – William Shakespeare

1978. 

The year the first test tube baby was born. 

The year the first cellular mobile phone was introduced, and the first group of women astronauts were selected by NASA.

Grease and Saturday Night Fever were the big hits in theaters. Bell bottoms were on their way out.

The Federal Reserve interest rate was 11.75% (ouch). The average annual income was $17,000, and the cost of a gallon of gas was 63 cents.

The music playlist sported some of the most classic bands of all time – Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Queen, Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, Jackson Browne, the Doobie Brothers, KISS, Styx, Aerosmith – just to name a few.

1978 was the year I graduated from John Handley High School in Winchester, Virginia. Handley is an endowed public high school, built in 1923, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2017, Architectural Digest named Handley the most beautiful public high school in Virginia.

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It’s certainly a beauty, and looks more like a college than a high school. My great aunt, Gertrude Peery, was the first female assistant principal there. Her portrait still hangs in the great hall. My mother, Patsy Ritter Jack, taught physical education and coached at Handley for many years. The Auxiliary Gym is named for her. 

In 1942, as the USA entered WWII, Handley was identified as the safest place for the US to hide precious art work. Forty-eight paintings, four Gothic tapestries, and a Persian carpet from the Corcoran Gallery were transported to the basement vault of Handley High School. The art stayed there, under guard, until 1944, when it was returned to the Corcoran. My mother was a student there during that time.

So yes, there is some history – personal and otherwise – in this place.

Today I’m going back to Handley for my 40th High School Reunion. Forty years, since I’ve seen some of these people. Forty years since I have really thought about high school and who I was back then. 

But I find that I do remember so much. Faces, experiences, classes, hallways, events. 

High school was a developmental crucible. It forged me into who I am. And surprisingly, not much has changed about me since then.

High school was where I learned to accept and to even appreciate my native introvert. While my brother – one year behind me – was on everyone’s party list, I had a small circle of very close friends and all my books. That is still pretty much the case for us both to this day.

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In high school I developed my love of the classics and Greek and Roman mythology. I read Virgil’s Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and the love poems of Catullus, all in Latin – a feat I’m sure I could not do again at 58. It’s no wonder Italy is my favorite travel destination.

In high school, with the support of a superb Humanities teacher, I found my love of writing.

In high school, I really got to know the power of my competitive gene, which has been both a blessing and a curse throughout the years since. Yep, I was co-valedictorian.

In high school, I learned the art of public speaking as President of the Virginia Junior Classical League. Who knew that my first job out of college would be as a corporate trainer? If you can speak to 500 high school kids from across the country at the age of 16, teaching product and sales skills to 20 adults at a time is not such a big deal.

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I had my first serious love relationship in high school. Deep, meaningful and intense, with a smart, eloquent and respectful young man. The relationship formed the base of my expectations for what a true partnership could be. 

I’m sure there were some painful moments, but time is kind, and I don’t remember most of them now. I can think of a few people who I was not that fond of, ones who snubbed or excluded me and others, but it doesn’t matter now. I wonder if they’ve changed.

In the past few years, I have engaged some executive coaches to help me explore and design what the next phase of my life should hold. Often, the exercises they provide encourage you to go back to your youth for clues as to what your true self and core passions really are. In high school I wanted to be an interpreter for the UN, or a psychiatrist. Never mind I had never lived in a foreign country and did not speak any other language fluently. I loved books, languages, myths, writing, and was curious about what made people tick. 

That is all still true today. So it appears that I am not that much different from who I was in high school. I’m older, a little fatter, on the other side of parenting, a good bit more tired and cynical, and hopefully somewhat wiser. But at heart, really not that different. 

But WAIT, that sounds crazy!  How can that be?  Forty years have passed – of course I’m different?!

I went to college!

I’ve sustained and nurtured a 36-year marriage!

I survived natural childbirth!

I’ve traveled internationally.

I lived through the raising of two teenaged boys, and shepherded them both through advanced degrees.

I watched my mother and father die slow and painful deaths from debilitating illnesses.

I became a photographer.

I may not be that girl of 1978 anymore, but she is my soul sister. And she will cast a strong shadow on my steps as I walk those halls today. 

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I’m going back to honor her, and that time when everything was new and possible. 

I’m gong back to honor the friends and teachers who knew that girl when, who loved and supported and challenged her to come fully into herself.

I’m going back to remember – and to be grateful – for both who I was then, and who I am now. 

On Not Knowing

The quality of your life is in direct proportion to the amount of uncertainty you can comfortably deal with.  – Tony Robbins

For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream. – Vincent Van Gogh

My current consulting contract may end in a month. 

Or it might be extended. 

I have absolutely no idea what will happen. We are waiting for budget and forecast discussions, which always happen at this time of year. 

If this had been my space a year ago, I would have been stressed – no, wait, FRANTIC would probably be a better word.

To live in such uncertainty would have almost killed the old me. 

But not now.  Thank God, not now. 

Right now, I am CURIOUS as to what will happen. I am in a semi-pleasant state of curiosity as to what the universe may hold next for me. 

How the hell did I get here, and who is this person writing these words?

I think this seed change began about a year ago, when my sister-in-law Barbara Leach Cummings died of brain cancer, only sixteen months after her diagnosis. 

She died on July 20, 2017, and her passing affected me deeply, but I have not yet had the courage to write about it here on my blog.

Before her diagnosis, she was in excellent health. In fact, she was my personal model for the definition of aging gracefully. 

Barbara was beautiful, but also kind. She had a multitude of interests that she pursued avidly, including yoga, gardening, interior design, horses, travel, and cooking. She had traveled extensively in her younger years, sailing multiple times across the Atlantic with her first husband in a small sailboat. After her first marriage fell apart, she lived for many years as a single working mother, striving to make ends meet for her and her young son. Later in life, she found her soulmate, and built a marriage that lasted 25 years. She had a wide and diverse circle of friends. She was a mother and a grandmother.

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But most importantly, she was a lover of life, in all its marvelous messiness. She did not rush, she did not hurry, and she ALWAYS stopped to smell the roses. She was perennially late to any engagement, often distracted by a word, a thought, a flower, a piece of art, or a taste. 

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She had a very strong, unshakable faith in God, and at the end, surrendered gracefully and peacefully to her fate.

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She was my complete opposite. 

For many years, all I did was hurry. Hurry – doubt – question – worry – and plan, plan, plan. 

All that worry and planning served me very well for a long time. They helped me navigate a successful career and raise two boys to manhood. The youngest graduated from law school four weeks ago. They don’t need me or my worrying and planning anymore.

Barbara’s death, and her celebration of life service tore me apart and put me back together again, with all the pieces rearranged. 

I can still remember the evening we said goodbye to her.

The service was held outside, at the stables of Dream Catchers, a therapeutic riding center that provides equine-assisted activities for individuals with physical, emotional and developmental needs. Barbara was a member of the Board, and had spent hundreds of hours there volunteering and riding her favorite horse, Bob. 

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It was a beautiful summer evening in the country, with just a breath of a breeze. You could hear the horses softly neighing in their stalls, or chomping grass in the pasture. 

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There was music, there were tributes, there was wine. 

There was sadness. But also love – lots of love – and joy.

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When Barbara’s best friend led Bob out to pasture, one last time, at the end of the service, I could hardly see through my tears to hold my camera up. The song, Restoration, was playing. 

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There are days in one’s life that stand out. Days that mark the paths that we choose to walk going forward.

A few days before her death, we went to see Barbara at the Williamsburg Hospice House. We talked softly of our children, and I fed her strawberry shortcake. She was a shell of her former self, but still radiant. And still enjoying the sweet tastes of life.

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There is no certainty in life.

It’s such a cliche, but it’s true. 

But if we could have certainty, would we want it?

I don’t think so. 

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Sometimes I think I’d like to be certain about my next contract, my path all laid out clean and simple. And then other times I really don’t think I want it. It would take all the questions away; remove all the unknown possibilities and the un-lived dreams. 

Barbara was certain about one thing – her faith in God and in whose arms she would be when she sailed away. 

My faith in the hereafter is not as strong. I am still very much attached to life. Still full of fears, still very uncomfortable with not knowing, and asking a lot of questions. 

But as a result of her death, I do know this:

Uncertainty can be your friend. 

If you let it, it can make you be more present, more appreciative of what is here right now. 

It can enhance curiosity, perk up your taste buds, and welcome you into a relationship of trust with the universe.

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Two years ago when I went back to work, I had two options – a full time job or a contract-to-contract position. I chose the contract one, my primary ‘conscious’ reason being that I would have the freedom to take time off between contracts, to travel, to rest, or to do whatever. To-date I have had one week off between contracts. Well, so much for that plan.

Today, I wonder if perhaps there was another, more unconscious reason for my choice. 

After 33 years with one company, and a rather abrupt exit, perhaps I made this choice to remind me daily that there really is nothing certain about this life.

To FORCE myself to learn to live in trust. Over and over again.

To not get TOO comfortable.

To be conscious and thoughtful about each step on my personal path going forward. 

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To stop and smell those flowers, because, yes, I could be dead tomorrow.

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And to take time now and then to look up at the stars and dream.  

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I think I might just see Barbara up there, smiling down at me. 

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True North

Where do the years go? 

One day you are holding a plump, beautiful baby boy with auburn curls. 

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In the next you are sending him off on his first field trip, making sure his blanket is secretly packed where no one can see, and promising it will be ok.

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In the next moment, you are raving mad, screaming at this rebellious young tween who dares to take a stand against you. And then he does it again, and again – and again.

Next, you are holding him and commiserating when the first girl he ever loved broke his heart.

In the next, you are cheering as he demonstrates guts and fortitude on the pitching mound to win the game, the day after his grandmother – your mother – died.

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You turn around, and you are sending him away to college.

And then one day in March, you jump for joy with him on his acceptance to law school. 

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And the next moment, he is receiving his Doctor of Law degree.

Friday, my son Ben graduates from Law School, and Sunday is Mother’s Day. Yes, of course I could say that this is the best Mother’s Day present ever, to see him receive his JD degree. 

But that would not be the half of it. 

I knew he might make a good lawyer at the age of 3, when he spoke in complete sentences and argued his case for a later bedtime. I knew it when, at the age of 10, he argued his case for why his illicit hours on World of Warcraft were educational opportunities in business strategy. I knew it when, at 17, he argued his case for not pursuing baseball in college. 

This boy always had a command of the English language; he knew how to move people with his words. Some might adjust that sentence to “manipulate”. He was always more confident than his record warranted. He had passions for both science fiction and ancient history – two really good disciplines, one might argue, for the study of law. 

He had guts. 

He had confidence. 

He always knew who he was. 

And who he was not.

So, yes, I am proud of his accomplishment.  And I take some – just a little bit – of credit for getting him to this point. 

But even more than pride, it is a moment to honor and celebrate a beautiful being who has manifested himself. Someone who has done a VERY HARD THING, and pursued his own true path. 

Someone who has come into their own. 

And isn’t that what motherhood, at its essence, is all about?

Throughout all the challenges, nurturing and encouraging a spirit to find its heart’s true North. 

Motherhood wasn’t easy with him. In fact, it was damn hard. There were many times when I doubted my decisions and regretted my heated actions in the moment. I am blessed with an equal command of the English language and as strong a passion for argument as my son. So yes, there were fights. Very ugly fights. 

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But we persevered, throughout all that ugliness. 

I read a blog post by Ann Voskamp today that talked about motherhood. She says that instead of flowers or gifts, what all mothers really want for Mother’s Day is to HAVE BEEN MORE… to have had “more flashes of wisdom in the heat of the moment when you had no bloody idea what was the best thing to do… more time to get it more right and less wrong.”

“What you really want, desperately, wildly, in spite of everything — is for them to remember the good…. to remember enough of the times you whispered, “I Love You”to know how many times you broke your heart and how hard you really tried.

All you want? Is for them to feel a deep sense of safety, that they are safe to trust people, safe to dream large, safe to believe, safe to try, safe to love large and go fly — and you need to know that you haven’t wrecked that. That they feel the certain, tender embrace of your love —- in spite of all the storming times you acted unlovely.”

Oh, there were plenty of storming times when I acted “unlovely”. And times when he did as well.  I cringe when I think of them, even today, many years later. We can’t take them back. 

But, despite all those ‘unlovely’ moments, I know, with certainty, that he felt the safety to dream large, to love large, and to fly. 

Graduations are transition points. And transitions always involve a little grief and regret, along with the joy. They are a time to honor the journey that has been, and the one that is to come.

At this point in my motherhood journey, 24 years later, I don’t wish to have been more. It is too late for that. I was what I was. I have put down the baton and called the race complete. 

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Despite all the challenges and the mistakes, I believed in him. 

That is what I can say. 

I believed in him and I acted with that conviction, no matter what.

Write that on my tombstone. 

It is enough.

Put This Design In Your Carpet

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The heart of creativity is an experience of the mystical union; the heart of the mystical union is an experience of creativity.  – Julia Cameron

Inspiration may be a form of superconsciousness, or perhaps of subconsciousness – I wouldn’t know. But I am sure it is the antithesis of self-consciousness.  – Aaron Copland

A few weekends ago, we took a quick weekend trip to Virginia to celebrate my son’s birthday and see family. I’m traveling so much these days for work, it was a personal battle to get in the car, knowing we would drive for 10 hours round trip, and then I would have to get on a plane again on Monday for work.

But I will pretty much do anything for my sons.

I haven’t picked up the camera for some serious shooting in some time. When you travel every week, there’s not much energy left on the weekends for creative pursuits.

We had some free time on that Saturday, before the evening birthday festivities commenced. I told my husband we had to go somewhere where there is open air and sun and land that holds meaning.

We went to Jamestown Island, the birthplace of America. It was a sunny, crisp and breezy day.

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We could not get the car parked fast enough for me. I was a raging bitch when Andrew took a wrong turn and we had to backtrack to the visitor’s center.

The desire to be OUT of that car and walking with my camera was an urgent physical need. I practically ran across the bridge to the island, leaving Andrew trailing in my wake.

It was a siren call to me. One that was irresistible.

For the next three hours I was in my own version of heaven. No worries, no cares, no aches or pains, just pure joy.

Pure joy in the NOW.

Seeing in technicolor again.

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Feeling connection to land, water and air.

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Entering into a mystery, where the mind and its chattering are shushed.

A place where only seeing and feeling are in charge.

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This happens to me almost every time I spent concentrated time with my camera. I remember once walking into the Saturday market in Revel, France, for two hours on my own to photograph. I stopped in the middle of the square, looked upwards, and whispered THANK YOU to the universe. I inhaled deeply – took in LOVE – and exhaled all SELF.

It was as simple a connection as putting a plug into a wall socket.

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But this feeling fades in the face of the daily grind.

If you stay away from the source too long, you forget that you can feel so good. You forget that there is another world out there calling to you in technicolor. Another world just waiting for you to enter and sink deep into that mystery.

I spoke with my coach yesterday about this challenge. How do I stay resilient and joyful when I’m on the road every week, working all day, sleeping poorly in hotels, disconnected from my books, my dogs and my camera? …when I feel so disconnected from the creative source?

We are working on ways to find it on a daily basis, even when I am without my camera and a place of inspiration.

She tells me I have a very strong mind, which surprisingly enough, is not helping me in this problem. She says that I can not “figure out” my way into it. I can not THINK my way there. I must find it with the BODY, not the mind. I must ASK to tap into the creative well, and through breath and feeling, connect again to that power.

Meditation, breath and body.

Let go.

Ask.

Invoke.

Easy to say, very difficult to do.

The Sufi mystic and poet Rumi knows this space.

Any movement or sound is a profession of faith,
as the millstone grinding is explaining
how it believes in the river.
No metaphor can explain this,
but I cannot stop pointing to the beauty.

Every moment and place says,
Put this design in your carpet.

I want to be in such a passionate adoration
that my tent gets pitched against the sky.

Let the beloved come
and sit like a guard dog
in front of the tent.

When the ocean surges,
don’t let me just hear it.
Let it splash inside my chest.

“Put this design in your carpet.” Embed it into the fabric of your life.

“Let it splash inside my chest.” Bring it in to your body.

Any time. Anywhere.

On a carpet of your own design.

What is your entry point into the creative source? How do you sustain it when the world is weighing you down?

I’m open to all suggestions.

Perhaps it would just be easier to pick up the camera more.

And there it is. The answer.

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Thanksgiving Eve

Time moves in one direction, memory in another. – William Gibson

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My oldest son came home last night. I waited for him all day, the thought of his impending arrival a warm and tingly little feeling in my chest.

He drove seven hours in bumper to bumper traffic to get home. The sight of his car pulling into the driveway filled my heart with joy. Home, and safe!

We had a quick, short dinner together, and then he left to meet his friends – to be with his tribe, whom I know he misses terribly since he moved to Virginia six months ago to start his new job.

I took the dogs out in the backyard, and promptly broke into tears. Big, huge, gulping sobs. Crying like it was the end of the world. The kind of crying where you can’t get any breath and your nose is completely blocked with snot. The dogs paced around me, confused and concerned, marking a small little circle of safety for my grief.

What the hell? Why was I crying? He was home safe, appeared healthy, and was happy to be with his friends again. All good and normal and right.

But for me, last night, his leaving felt like the end of the world; the loss of our past, our most precious times together as mother and son; the dissolution of our family. Absolutely ridiculous, but intensely real to me. I felt alone, bereft, left behind, and oh my god it hurt. I cried for his childhood – and for my motherhood, both so precious and exquisite, and both now gone. I cried for the times when we were the most important humans to him and his brother. For the times when were were a foursome, always together at the holidays.

I walked back inside, and my husband asked me what was wrong. I told him, haltingly, that I felt like our beautiful past together as a family was gone, that we were being left behind, and we would never have it back. He laughed (while watching the basketball game) and said that was just plain stupid. Our boys were strong and successful and doing exactly what they should be doing.

He was right, of course. But nevertheless, I can still feel the intensity of watching that beautiful past roll by, and not being able to grab it and make it stay.

The holidays can be so full of joy for many, but they can also present a veritable minefield of unspoken and unseen emotions. I stepped on a big one last night.

The poet David Whyte says that joy is the “raw engagement with the passing seasonality of existence, the fleeting presence of those we love understood as gift, going in and out of our lives, faces, voices, memory, aromas of the the first spring day or a wood fire in winter, the last breath of a dying parent as they create a rare, raw, beautiful frontier between loving presence and a new and blossoming absence.”

This morning, on Thanksgiving Day, I can still taste those tears and feel that terrible sense of loss for all that is gone. But I know too, that it has all been a most marvelous gift. A gift, however fleeting, that I was privileged to receive and to give. And there will be more.

Step careful, my friends, and be very gentle with yourself during the holidays.

Be grateful for those joys that have been, and those that will come.

This morning, his car is in the driveway again. Home safe to us, one more time. And I am thankful.

Amalfi – A Love Affair

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And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end. – Pico Iyer

One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller

What if you lived in a villa overlooking the sea?

And what if this sea was not just any old sea, but the Tyrrhenian Sea. The sea that the mythic Greek hero Odysseus sailed through on his way home from the Trojan War. The sea that housed the ancient island home of the Sirens. The sea bounded by tall and craggy cliffs where the divine Aeolus, Keeper of the Four Winds, lived.

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And what if this little villa was in a small sleepy town, perched high on those famous cliffs, and only reachable by 66 steep stone steps? A villa in a home owned by three generations of fishermen. A villa overlooking the local parish church, built in the 15th century.

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And what if this villa had an expansive terrace, quiet and private, but open to the sun and the breezes? And this terrace led to your own lemon grove, where giant Italian lemons hung swaying in the sweet breeze? And next to that lemon grove was a little pen with chickens, who produced fresh piccola eggs each morning?

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And what if every night you could sit on this terrace, watch the sun set behind the cliffs, and hear the local children playing in the piazza below?

What if you didn’t need a watch in this town, because the church bells outside your terrace rang out the time every 15 minutes? No alarm would be needed, because the sun streams in from the open floor to ceiling windows each morning, accompanied by the church bells and the sounds of Italian children entering the parish church school below.

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And what if you had to walk down many, many steps to the local market, with the smell of honeysuckle surrounding you, and always, ALWAYS a view of the sea – and then tote back your precious purchases, all uphill this time? But it’s perfectly fine to stop and catch your breath, and take in the local art and mini shrines to Mother Mary, while resting your legs. There’s really no hurrying here.

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What if you finished every night with a glass of homemade limoncello, crafted by the 87-year old patriarch of the villa? And drank it nice and SLOW, savoring all the flavors, while you watched the lights of houses on the cliffs twinkle in the darkness?

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What if every morning you got up early to sit on the terrace and listen to the little town slowly come to life around you, the rooster crowing and the sound of the fishing boats leaving from the harbor? And each of those mornings, you were greeted (in Italian) by the patriarch of the villa, who came to tend to his chickens and his vegetable garden?

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And what if just a few miles down the road, you could walk among Greek and Roman ruins, with the shadow of the mighty Mt. Vesuvius always looking over your shoulder?

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I could go on and on. The Amalfi coast of Italy was a dream. A shining, glittering, utterly fantastic dream. And I didn’t even mention Capri, probably one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, just a short boat ride away.

I know we visited at the perfect time – late May. So yes, we hit it just right. I hear it gets cold and wet there in the winter, and really hot in the summer months of July and August. And those ubiquitous steps could get to be a real bitch, if you had to trek them every day for twelve months of the year. But that is the life here. No wonder these people are all healthy and mobile, even the 87-year old patriarchs. You adapt to the terrain and to the pace. There is no other choice.

We actually did get used to the steps, but that was only because we had that terrace to come home to each night. That terrace was to die for. These people live OUTSIDE, whenever possible. But who wouldn’t want to, with that view?

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Our host Annamaria, the daughter of the patriarch, Antonio, has lived here all her life. She was born in Sorrento, because there is no hospital in Praiano. The villa is called Casa Bianca, after her mother. Her daughter is named Bianca as well. She and her family, as well as her father Antonio, live in the apartment below ‘our’ villa. Every piece of furniture and every beautiful thing in that villa (and there were many) had to be carted up those 66 steps – there is NO road that goes to this house. You walk or you don’t get there. Just think about that for a moment.

We recycled our own trash – every evening sorting through it to separate paper, aluminum and plastic and glass to put in a separate bin. Each day there is a different pick up, down near the piazza, by a tiny little garbage truck that just fits on those very narrow roads. We didn’t even mind. It was just what you did.

We only bought enough groceries for a day or two – fresh and sold by the local market proprietor. Who wants to carry more bags than are necessary up those daunting steps? Some of our most memorable interactions were in those local markets. Markets where even two people could not stand side by side, but overflowing with fresh fruit and produce, fresh buffalo mozzarella brought in each day, and meat cut to order, if you were willing to wait. We usually made a significant dent in their wine selection – they smiled when they saw us coming.

We washed our clothes and hung them out to dry on racks on the terrace because there was no dryer. In their opinion, that is what the sun is for.

The villa had air conditioning but we never used it. The high ceilings and floor to ceiling windows did the job just fine. And who would want to shut the windows when there was that view and those sounds from the piazza?

In the week that we were there, we saw the Piazza San Luca host the nightly old mens’ checker game, a children’s birthday party, and a funeral. Everyone in the town came out for the funeral procession, slowly walking behind the priest and the coffin bearers, the little altar boy bearing the swinging incense container.

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It was a slice of a VERY different life. A life that is intimately connected to the land and to the sea, to family, church and community. A life that is modern (no lack of internet and texting), but a life that is still slow and physical. A life filled with movement, breath, and frequent pauses for history, beauty or reverence. All in a day’s work.

I don’t know if the Italians in this small town take all this for granted or not. Maybe their awareness is dimmed by familiarity. But, somehow I don’t think so. Each day fresh flowers just appeared in the little niche shrines to Mother Mary. And each morning Antonio slowly and lovingly swept our terrace.

The author Anna Quidlen said, “The life you have led doesn’t need to be the only life you have.”

THIS is why I travel – to be transformed, to return to a state of rare mindfulness and receptivity. To be undimmed by familiarity. To live a new and strange life for just a bit, and to fall in love all over again with the world. To be reminded that life can – and should be – a love affair that never, ever ends.

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A Walk With U.S. History

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National Mall, looking toward the U.S. Capitol

To live under the American Constitution is the greatest political privilege that was ever accorded to the human race. – Calvin Coolidge

America is a nation with many flaws, but hopes so vast that only the cowardly would refuse to acknowledge them. ~James Michener

I promise this will not be a political post.

I try to keep politics off of my blog, as those topics are generally not in line with the the spirit of Running River.

But just a tiny little bit might seep in, as I want to write about my visit this past week to our nation’s capital. Washington, and particularly Georgetown, were my preferred stomping grounds when I was in high school. Only an hour and 20 minutes from Winchester, it was where we went to shop for prom dresses, or to toast the town once we turned eighteen. It was where my father used to take us to see his beloved broadway musicals. I have wonderful memories of going to the Kennedy Center and the National Theatre with him.

My husband and I left the DC metropolitan area twenty years ago, when the boys were young, to move to the slower, friendlier South, and with only one or two exceptions, have never been back.

I went this weekend to see my youngest son Ben participate in the ABA’s National Appellate Advocacy Competition, a moot court competition where law students participate in a hypothetical appeal to the United States Supreme Court.

I entered DC from the south, rolling by the Pentagon and across the 14th St. bridge. The Jefferson Memorial is visible on the left, soon overtaken by the Washington monument, which can be seen for miles. Driving up 14th street, you pass the new Museum of African American History and Culture, the Department of Commerce, US Customs and Border Protection, and then the Department of Treasury, which closely hugs the White House.

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The Washington Monument, as seen from the Mall

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The Museum of African American History and Culture

Washington is a rather young city, by European standards, but these buildings are massive and substantial – they take up whole city blocks. The business of the American government, in six-story granite, slowly roll by my window. The entrances to each are guarded by police and secret service, but tourists roam freely along the sidewalks.

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The Department of Treasury

I spent a good amount of time in the Federal Courthouse at 333 Constitution Ave, where the moot court completion was held. On Thursday, my brother and I walked the 40 minutes from our hotel to the courthouse, down Pennsylvania Ave., which in itself is a national historic site. We passed by the National Archives, the museums of Natural and American History, the Justice Department, the FBI Headquarters, the National Gallery of Art, the Newseum, and yes, the new Trump International Hotel, housed in the old post office. The US Capitol loomed ahead of us at every step.

At each turn, I was struck by the contrasts and paradoxes, given the current political environment. The Newseum, which documents the history and celebrates the values of the free press, stands only a few blocks from the Trump International Hotel. The Newseum exists to “promote, explain and defend free expression and the five freedoms of the First Amendment: religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.”

Two statues outside the US Customs and Border Protection building, just a few blocks from the White House, caught my eye. The two statues are a memorial to Oscar Straus, a prominent US statesman, and represent what Straus cherished most about this country; our high esteem for enterprise, on the one hand, and our commitment to freedom of religion on the other. At the base of the monument to religious freedom, the inscription reads: “Our Liberty of Worship is not a Concession nor a Privilege but an Inherent Right.”

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The inscription over entrance #1 to the US Department of Commerce building holds a quote from George Washington; “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair.”

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On Friday, I took a walk down to the Mall. It was a brutally cold day, with winds gusting 30-40 miles an hour and snow spitting from the clouds. Just across the street from the Washington monument, two homeless men lay in sleeping bags by a blowing grate. One had a cast on his foot, and two walkers stood nearby.

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I passed by the massive statue honoring General William Tecumseh Sherman, which stands right behind the Treasury Building. Sherman was the Civil War Union General who was known for the harshness of his “scorched earth” tactics against the confederate states.

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Equestrian Statue of General William Tecumseh Sherman

Souvenir trucks lined the road by the Ellipse, manned by friendly Vietnamese proprietors; they sold both Obama and Trump paraphernalia. Red or blue, they didn’t care. I was so cold I considered buying a stars and stripes head band for my ears.

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Street Vendor Near the Ellipse

I passed the Environmental Protection Agency building, its flag still flying high, but taking a strong beating in the stiff winter breeze. In the halls of the US Capitol there is a quote from Theodore Roosevelt, who established the US Forest Service and created the first five national parks. “The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value.”

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The Environmental Protection Agency

In the moot courtroom, the case before the mock Supreme Court was a Title IX sex discrimination complaint. We stood while Ben played the bailiff, saying the words, “The Honorable, the Chief Justice and the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! All persons having business before the Honorable, the Supreme Court of the United States, are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting. God save the United States and this Honorable Court.”

The case was complicated, but the critical questions before the court were:

  • Under Title IX, what obligations do colleges have to oversee and investigate student-on-student sexual assault which occurs in off-campus locations?
  • How much lee-way do federal agencies, in this case, the Department of Education and Office for Civil Rights, have to interpret their own policies in official communications that are issued without public commentary processes?

Considering that Ben was Vice President of his fraternity at Appalachian State, and had primary responsibility for overseeing off-campus, unsanctioned parties, I had to chuckle at the irony of him defending the plaintiff in her argument that the college had responsibility to investigate the claim, regardless of the location. But he did it brilliantly.

The process of the court is tedious, and insists on deep knowledge of the law, on previous case record, and oral advocacy. Appellate advocacy is not a trial, it is intense investigation and questioning of the intent and implications of the laws as they have been applied to-date. Judges can interrupt at any time, to ask questions and challenge the presenter. At all times, extreme deference and respect are given to the role and position of the judges. It is VERY formal, is it civil, it is serious, it is in-depth. And it is a very far cry from a 140-character tweet.

Since the November election, I have been disturbed, rather mightily, about the future of this country. When I took my camera out on Friday, I really didn’t even want to photograph the White House. I still have trouble accepting that Donald Trump is the current occupant.

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The White House

But nevertheless, I left Washington DC with a renewed sense of confidence and comfort. It is hard to explain, given the contradictions and painful paradoxes I noted above. But a walk down Pennsylvania Avenue and the National Mall, as well as time immersed in the rules and structure of the law, left me feeling somewhat uplifted.

Ben took a tour of the Capitol on Friday. In the Cox Corridors, there is a quote from William Jennings Bryan. “Our government conceived in freedom and purchased with blood can be preserved only by constant vigilance.”

Yes, vigilance is called for, now more than ever.

But I think, I hope, we will be okay.

Our roots are strong. Very strong. If you doubt it, go visit Washington DC. I hear it’s beautiful in the spring.

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Lafayette Park, Near The White House

All The Time You Need

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What is time? The shadow on the dial, the striking of the clock,
 the running of the sand, day and night, summer and winter, months,
 years, centuries – these are but arbitrary and outward signs,
 the measure of Time, not Time itself.
Time is the Life of the Soul.  – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In2015, I was a pretty stressed-out person. I was in a job I did not like, one that had me working long hours, in rather challenging circumstances. But one that I felt I could not leave, given how much time I had already put in to the effort. Pretty much par for the course for a fifty-something white collar mid-level executive in the financial services industry.

Some people thrived on it, and I envied them. I truly did. But I was beginning to flag. My body and my soul were losing the daily battle. I could feel it, but I stubbornly ignored it.

Add to that, a parent who was in the last throes of the ravaging disease that is Parkinson’s, and you have a recipe for a very nice late mid-life crisis.

I was swimming in a sea of self-made misery and needed a life preserver, a rescue buoy, from whatever corner it might come.

Personal change happens slowly, in fits and starts. But if you are seeking, something amazing just might land in your path.

In March 2015 I went to Shift Charlotte, and heard Kristen Oliver speak. I knew instantly that I wanted to work with her.

Kristen introduced me to Dr. Joe Dispenza’s work on how people can use the latest findings from the fields of neuroscience and quantum physics to re-wire their brains and re-condition their bodies to make lasting changes.

Kristen starts with helping you understand your own personal “story” loop, and the “triggers” that generate emotions, which then lead to actions. Through discussion and analysis of your triggers, as well as amazing meditation sessions, she helps you change old patterns and beliefs into new ones.

Kristen taught me so much, but the one thing that sticks with me, to this day, is a very simple mantra.

“I have all the time I need….”

At first this little mantra was completely ridiculous to me. The rational mind took over and called total BULLSHIT on this concept.

Of course there is not enough time! There is never enough time! There are deadlines looming, meetings to prepare for, emails to respond to, presentations to develop, bills to pay, errands to run. You can NEVER get it all done, unless you are Super Woman – which of course was what I strived for back then, each and every day.

But I began, somewhat tentatively, to try out this very radical thought, rather surreptitiously looking over my shoulder to see if anyone might be watching to call me out.

When I thought I might be late for a meeting or appointment, I said the mantra under my breath. When I had too much on my To-Do list and started to freak out, I said it again. When I ran through a speaking presentation in my head, preparing my words, it was there, hanging over my thoughts. When I drove to work, cussing at the traffic, I said it again. And again.

I couldn’t get this little mantra out of my mind. And strangely, it comforted me tremendously.

This was a life-changing way of thinking, for someone who had always been in a hurry, juggling multiple balls of self-created urgency.

What is a mantra and why should we have one?

According to the Chopra Center, a mantra, at its core, ..”is the basis of all religious traditions, scriptures, and prayers. When carefully chosen and used silently, mantras are said to have the ability to help alter your subconscious impulses, habits, and afflictions. Mantras, when spoken or chanted, direct the healing power of Prana (life force energy) and, in traditional Vedic practices, can be used to energize and access spiritual states of consciousness. Mantra as a spiritual practice should be done on a regular basis for several months for its desired effects to take place.”

I have thought a lot about this mantra – this unique view of time – over the last few days, as I learned that someone very close to me had a major relapse in her recovery from brain cancer. After enduring surgery, radiation, and then doing tremendously well on experimental immunotherapy treatment for the last six months, the tumor has returned with a vengeance.

I don’t know how much time she has; new treatment protocols have been put in place, but her life has changed again, in a rather dramatic way.

Who among us really knows how much time they have left? How can my mantra be reasonable or comforting to me now, when time is so precious to me and to the ones I love?

It is a paradox, but I think my mantra may be even more critical now, when my fear is high, and when my faith and beliefs are tested.

I have all the time I need….

If you think you have all the time you need, you do not hurry.

If you think you have all the time you need, you make much better decisions.

If you think you have all the time you need, you are kinder to yourself, and to those who are in distress.

If you think you have all the time you need, you are more present and joyous with those you love.

The ancient Greeks had two words for time – chronos and kairos. Chronos referred to the typical chronological or sequential time, but kairos signified “a period or season, a moment of indeterminate time in which an event of significance happens.” Chronos is quantitative, but kairos is qualitative and much more permanent.

The root of the word kairos comes from the Greek traditions of archery and weaving; kairos defines the moment in which an arrow may be fired with just the right force to penetrate a target, or that moment when the shuttle could be cleanly passed through threads on the loom.

In Christian theology, kairos refers to God’s time, sacred time. The time when God moves in mysterious ways. The time when we peek around the corner at eternity.

Kairos time measures moments, not seconds on a clock. It denotes the right moment, the opportune moment, the perfect moment. The window of opportunity. Kairos can’t be planned, and it can not be forced. It is that moment of perfection, that one perfect moment when you stop noticing the passage of time.

Louis Armstrong’s wonderful song, We Have All the Time in the World, offers these thoughts about time.

We have all the time in the world
Time enough for life to unfold
All the precious things love has in store
We have all the love in the world
If that’s all we have
You will find we need nothing more
Every step of the way will find us
With the cares of the world far behind us
We have all the time in the world
Just for love, nothing more, nothing less, only love

I don’t view my little mantra as a free pass to waste or squander time; on the contrary, it’s a centering practice that draws me back to what is truly important. It draws me back to a way of being, in kairos time, that is peaceful, loving, and most thoroughly present.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, “time is the life of the soul.” I think that the root of the soul is possibly love. Nothing more, nothing less, only love. And love surely lives in kairos time.

So, the next time you find yourself hurrying, or getting caught up in fear and anxiety, or feeling short and angry with someone who has mucked up your precious plan, take a deep breath and say the words.

I have all the time I need….

Who knows, you might just step into kairos time, which is the best time there is.

You’ve Come A Long Way Baby – Anatomy of a Corporate De-Tox, Part IV

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Nothing is, unless our thinking makes it so. – Shakespeare

Enthusiasm is everything. It must be taut and vibrating like a guitar string. – Pele

Last weekend I ran into a friend of mine, one I had not seen for a year. We usually meet at least annually, at the artist Catherine Anderson’s Open Studio. If you’ve not been to Catherine’s Charlotte studio, I highly recommend it. It’s a wonderful, magical and safe place where dreams, desires and creativity meet up to do wonderful things. When I saw my friend last year, I was very unhappy – unhappy in my job, miserable in my unfulfilling, unhealthy workaholic lifestyle, and feeling frustrated and trapped with nowhere to go until retirement.

I was hanging on by a thin thread, but damn well determined to hang on, as long as it took.

Three days after that conversation, on Dec 9th, I was told my position had been eliminated.

It was literally the first day of the rest of my life.

Friday was the one-year anniversary of my release.

A lot has happened in that one year, things both tangible and intangible. Things that are easy to describe and put a date and time to, and others that were more gradual and internal, but of seismic proportions, nevertheless.

When I saw my friend this weekend, she asked how I was doing. I told her I was doing “OK”. In a rather matter-of-fact way, I shared the positive changes that had occurred – taking four months off, finding a new job that I loved, working only 40-45 hours a week with a great client, the ability to work from home when not traveling, the sale of my parents’ house, etc.

She nodded her head, looking a little curious. Then she said, “Wow, it sounds fantastic! But why are you describing it as only ‘OK’? Your words sound awesome, but your energy is making me wait for the bad news.”

I said, “You know, you’re right, it really is FREAKING FANTASTIC right now! So fantastic I’m almost embarrassed! I have no idea why I have a hard time saying that to you.”

Her words made me think about why I am so hesitant to recognize and share – both in words and with my energy – how truly great life is right now.

From the depths of misery, to balance, joy and healing in one year. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?

So why am I not shouting it from the rooftops? Why – and what – am I holding back?

I think the root of the problem is in my blood. I was raised to not be a show-off. Showing off is just bad manners, Pride cometh before the fall and all that. My parents did not come from money and had to work hard for their security. The unspoken message was that bad things could happen if you let down your guard and took things for granted. They both worked with the same employer for over 25 years. You always had to do the smart thing, the safe thing, the rational thing. Risk-taking was not encouraged, except in sports.

My mother was also superstitious. To this day, when I spill salt, I still pick it up and throw it over my left shoulder. You do NOT want to anger the Gods by being too full of pride, too joyous, too smug. That’s a recipe for disaster.

My Dad was a strong introvert and a man of few words. His passions ran deep under the skin, and you almost never saw them. Out-of-control excitement, for him, signaled that something was out of whack in your personality. He distrusted extreme emotion in almost all its forms.

The etymology of the word “enthusiastic” comes from the Greek “en” and “theos”. ‘God within’, or put another way, “to be inspired or possessed by a God”. In today’s language, it is good to be “enthused” and “inspired”, but bad to be “possessed.” But they come from the same root.

How much enthusiasm is enough, and how much is too much? And does it matter?

In our conversation, my friend encouraged me to think about the energy I am projecting out into the world, and pointed me toward the body of work on the Law of Attraction.

The Law of Attraction is an old theory, dating back to the 1900’s, but was made famous by the movie The Secret. Its basic premise is that “thoughts create things, and positive emotional attitudes are helpful and necessary to manifest desires.” We, and our thoughts, are energy. And like energy attracts like energy – essentially you draw to your life what you put out.

There are some who think the Law of Attraction is a lot of new-age crap, but there is actually some scientific evidence that supports it. Underlying the science of the Law of Attraction is the notion of connection, at an atomic level- we are connected within and without. What we think and feel affects how we will act and how others will act as well. The depth of our feelings and actions is a critical variable in “attracting” what we want to our lives.

After the first few months, which were pretty rocky (I won’t deny it) – this year was good. No, make that GREAT. I am a different person than I was on Dec 9th a year ago, and all for the better.

But here’s the thought I’m noodling on….how much greater could it have been if I had not been afraid to send that energy more strongly out into the world? What else could have happened or been brought forth?

When I started my corporate de-tox journey one year ago, I knew it would take a while, and that it would have many stages.

First there was SHOCK, then there was FEAR.

After FEAR came a little bit of DEPRESSION, with some more FEAR thrown in just for good measure.

Oh and let’s not forget the ANGER, there was definitely a lot of that.

Then came SURPRISE, and its first cousin, HOPE.

And, after a good long while (about eight months, to be exact) came FORGIVENESS.

And now, twelve months in, comes JOY.

Another friend told me a few months ago that a year is probably NOT long enough to shed all the remnants of a thirty-three year corporate life and identity. It is only just the beginning.

Metamorphosis is a process, and it can not be rushed. The caterpillar turns into a butterfly at its own pace. If you try to rush it, you will kill it.

What a difference a year can make. I had to pass through all those stages to get to where I am now. I’m not going to spend one more minute thinking about what could have been, had I been faster to progress through the stages, or more enthusiastic and less fearful during the process.

A new year cometh. A new year, with new opportunities to put forth positive energy into the world and see what it draws.

The butterfly has emerged from its cocoon. And it’s a great feeling. Let the next stage begin!

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Original photo by Sarah Mattingly, November 2016