Thursday, April 30, 2009

Sea Glass

Maine’s beaches are quite unlike those in other parts of the country. We don’t have vast quantities of white sand, or expanses that attract high rise hotels, for the most part. Most of our beaches are moderately, to extremely, rocky. Many are hard to access. They are often deserted, except for the very hottest days of summer. With the exception of the tourist laden areas, most Maine beaches are extremely natural in their environment…meaning they’re not groomed, landscaped, seaweed removed or tidy. They do possess a wild beauty, but one has to be willing to look past the fallen down trees, the low tide sludge and the slippery green rocks to see that loveliness. These are beaches in the most rustic sense of the word. There is sand, there are rocks, there is saltwater and gentle waves. Occasionally, one will see something unexpected, like a seal bobbing just offshore, or a brightly painted lobster buoy that pulled free of its mooring. One might see dozens of mussels, already cracked open with their rainbow mother-of-pearl lining, or even a hermit crab, trying to find a more luxurious home. But, one shouldn’t expect striped cabanas, complete with beach side service, nor should one expect an easy hike down to the shore. Rustic elegance is the easiest term to describe the majority of Maine beach.

However, one of the great joys of walking along the beach in Maine is discovering beautiful pieces of Sea Glass. Like finely polished gems, these pieces can found nearly everywhere on the shore. Cast off from bottles from merchant vessels, from pleasure daysailors, from tourist trips or from fishing boats, from picnickers or just carelessness, these bits of glass bottles break up in the powerful surf and become mere bits of their former size and shape. When one finds a piece of sea glass, it's akin to finding a piece of gold....with the exception that no two pieces are alike. Some pieces are are very small, others still retain a curve of the bottle they once were. Polished over and over by the combination of salt water waves, sand, gravel and time in the right conditions, bits of rubbish turn into magnificent, light catching gems.

When my children were younger, finding sea glass was the primary mission for any adventure to the beach. Given that we live only a few hundred yards from the ocean, we amassed quite a collection on our adventures. We made stepping stones, containing these glittering jewels, we made jewelry, but most of all, we simply collected it...allowing it to fill a clear glass bowl with every muted color of the sea glass rainbow. We made up fantastical stories about particularly interesting pieces; how the deep blue glass was thrown off a luxury yacht in Bermuda, by people who were running from the law and needed to lighten up their boat to make a hasty escape. We imagined the green glass to be off a fishing boat, that hailed from Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the fishermen were brave and dropped the bottle during a mighty and powerful storm. The clear glass became, to us, an image of a brother and a sister, just like my own, whose lunch bags fell overboard on their way home from a picnic on the islands just off shore...and how badly those children felt losing their bottles, but had hoped that when the bottles turned up, on the other side of Penobscot Bay, they'd be found by nice people.

The fact is, most of these bits of glass probably don't carry the romance we imbued them to have. Yet, the transformation from something as ordinary as a beer bottle into something so exquisite is far too dramatic to attribute to blind least for us. And yet, the metaphor regarding the creation of sea glass is too close to my own heart to dismiss. Sea glass is something that was once ordinary, common place and even garbage to be dumped. But, through the slow, painstaking refining process of salt, sand, waves, gravely ocean bottoms, tides and other natural forces, tranforms from waste to wonder. Isn't it fascinating that nature itself can take something so unsightly as a Budweiser bottle, and allow it rematerialize, miles away, as something beautiful? How often in our lives, do we, ourselves, feel that that Budweiser bottle, before its journey under the sea? We can feel useless, or empty or of little value. We can feel old, or tired, or past our prime. We may feel unwanted, unloved or rejected. We can feel the deep pit of anxiety, worry and frustration in our lives.

Yet, it's these very situations, these very feelings, that polish us. The sadness, the grief, the loneliness and the feelings of uncertainty that can provide the salt water, the gravely sea bottom, the waves, the tidal forces and the sand to work on our sandpaper away all the waste, the top layer of superficial concerns and the unnecessary priorties in our lives. The jewels of our spirits that are left behind, throughout the whole painstaking polishing process may be very different than what we started out as. We may find that our selfishness gives way to giving, that our anxiety gives way to patience and that our grief turns into empathy. The refining, the polishing, the rubbing off of dirt is not an easy process. It can be heart breaking and life upending. But, it can also be heart building and life affirming, as well. What we will be left with will, undoubtedly, be far more beautiful than the empty vessels we began our journey with.

So, during your next walk on the beach, take time to look down and see if you can spot some sea glass. More importantly, see if you can look within your own heart to find where you have already been polished.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Letting go of labels....

When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.-- Lao Tzu

Coming of age during the 1980's was an interesting period of history in which to discover who were as young adults. The classic John Hughes movie, "The Breakfast Club", gave us modern archetypal images presented in pop culture form. Portrayed brilliantly were the Prom Queen, the Jock, the Nerd, the Bad Boy and the Outsider. Each character wore his, or her, role like a costume, or even a second skin. Each actor effectively drew us into see that how each teenager viewed himself, was how he portrayed himself to others. And yet, through the process of self-discovery and the discovery of those around them, the characters were able to shed those labels and to realize that each one of them was far more than the labels they gave themselves...and enacted in daily life. As each character was able to release, layer by layer, the walls she had built up around her, protecting her image, she was able to discover far more about her own potential than she had imagined.

Far too often, we're guilty of this as adults today. We label ourselves with ease: Mother, Teacher, Father, Coach, Sister, Banker, Introvert, Asthmatic, Grief stricken, Salesman. We apply labels that can refer to our station in life, our relationships, our careers, our emotional state of being and our immediate circumstances. Not all labels are negative! In order to define our place in our own world, we need to know where we are at this very moment. We find comfort in being able to describe ourselves at parties as "what we do", by "whose parent we are", "whom we love" or "what our goal is". This type of labeling of ourselves can be extremely reassuring. We are positive of who we are at this very moment, in this very circumstance. With that certainty can come a sense of belonging. Even if we describe ourselves in somewhat negative terms, we still derive comfort from being certain of our place of being.

A few years ago, I had several friends all experiencing painful, heart breaking and spirit crushing divorces at the same time. As much as I tried to assist my friends in seeing them for the beautiful, talented and extraordinary women I knew them to be, they assigned themselves the labels of angry, bitter divorcee, unloved & unlovable woman, and single mother. These labels they clung to were understandable given how much pain they were in. These women were forced to come to terms with a side of life they had never planned on seeing. As someone who loved my friends unconditionally, it broke my heart to see these women limit themselves, and their potential for a fuller life, held back by the labels they were living out. And, yet, those labels were a necessary part of their growth process. In order to move forward from their broken hearts and upended lives, they had to live out being the labels they chose, in order to break free from that mold. Labels do not have to stay with us forever. For most of us, they are a time of learning...a place to 'rest' and establish where are, before we can let go of them to move forward.

One of the most rewarding aspects of my friendships with these three women has been watching them shed those skins of bitter divorcee, let go of their anger, and create magical new lives for themselves. Each one, in various ways, realized the limitations of the labels they had given themselves. Each friend began to see her own life being limited by her anger, her hurt, her rage, her fear and her crushing of her own spirit. Each one came to realize that her life was worth far more than allowing her divorce to determine the course of the rest of her life. Each one began to dig deeper, excavating the journey she wished to take. Ultimately, each woman saw her label of her post-divorce image as being self-limiting, and did not attribute that limiting force to her ex-husband, but to her own beliefs about herself.

At some point in our lives, we are all going to experience a time in which our conceived notions of ourselves are challenged. A job will end. Children will grow up and move out of the house. We lose someone we love. We will move. Simply put, a chapter in our lives will come to an end, challenging us to take a hard look at who we are, and force us to investigate the labels by which we have defined ourselves. This is not an easy process. Even if we aren't happy with the label by which we have built our self-image, who are we, if we aren't that person? One method to help in our growth process is journaling. Keeping a simple notebook by the sides of our beds, in our desk drawer at work, in our purse or anyplace within arm's reach can help us to write down our thoughts as they come up. By writing out our thought processes, positive or negative, we can begin to review them, analyze them, learn from them, and if possible, release them. Just as we need to release anger before we can forgive, we need to release our self-prejudices before we can begin to grow. Getting our thoughts on paper, just for our own benefit and review, can teach us a tremendous amount about where we've been, and where we hope to go in our lives.

As we explore the labels we have given ourselves, we may find that there are far more layers to each one of us than we ever anticipated. We may discover that, lying within each of us is the beauty of the Prom Queen, the confidence of the Jock, the acknowledgement of intelligence of the Nerd, the free spirit of the Bad Boy and fears of the Outsider. By acknowledging each part of our very being, we can move onto something far grander and far more meaningful than any one label.