Saturday, July 11, 2009

The County of the Pointed Firs

Years ago, I was at the beach with my friend, Kelley and all of our young children. We had a beautiful day for a picnic, and as the little ones scampered about our feet, picking up shells and sea glass (and too many small crabs for our comfort), Kelley and I had five minutes peace to talk about the books that had meant the most to us in our lives. Kelley's suggestion for a book she had loved was "The County of the Pointed Firs" by Sarah Orne Jewett. At the time, I was hooked on mystery novels, simply because solving a unexpected occurrence seemed to engage my brain more than playing play-doh with my toddlers. I picked up a copy of this novel, but it sat on my nightstand for years.

By the time my preschool addled mind was ready to engage in real literature once again, I remembered "The County of the Pointed Firs" and happily inhaled the story. The beautiful, moving, troubling and uplifting series of stories, linking the lives of Maine women in a remote, far northern town, "The County of Pointed Firs" described a Maine with which I'm unfamiliar. Living on the coast in a travel destination resort community, the Maine I experience daily, and the rural Maine of the late 19th century felt as they were two different places. The deprivation, the fear, the commitment to the land and the sacrifices of the women in this novel were as removed from my own life on the Maine coast, as life on another planet might be. I enjoyed this novel not only because of the exceptional narrative, but also because of the exquisite portrait painted of a specific place and time in Maine's history.

As I've reread this book many times, I was always struck by its description of a Maine of long ago. However, I have come to see that the Maine described in "The County of the Pointed Firs" is alive and well...and far to the north. My daughter was recently at a soccer camp in Presque Isle, Maine. This is nearly as far north as it's possible to go and still remain in the continental United States. My husband brought our daughter north, and I was scheduled to retrieve her when camp was over. Having never been north of Bangor, I had thought I'd been "north" as defined by my own landmarks. As comfortable as I am with driving to Boston or New York, the thought of traveling, for hundreds of miles, with nothing but woods around me was a little unsettling. I passed Bangor believing that I was leaving the gateway of civilization, as I knew it, behind me. I wasn't far from wrong.

For 2 hours of my five hour drive, I saw nothing but forest. The highway rolled on, and the cars became fewer. The miles ticked away and the small towns gave way to vast stretches of nothing but woods and streams. The villages themselves stopped having names. As I continued on my trek north, the roadside signs read notices like "Now Entering T-1 9-6". The hamlets were reduced to bearing numeric monikers. Although I've lived in Maine, off and on, for much of my life, I had never been this far away from the restaurants, shops, culture and people with which I was familiar. It felt as if I'd left this century altogether, and was entering a land forgotten by time completely. The magnitude of the sprawling ranges of pine trees and mountains was extraordinary. When I caught my first glimpse of Mt. Katahdin, I was overwhelmed. I felt exceptionally blessed to be at that very place, at that very moment.

As my drive continued, and I emerged on the far side side above the Maine North Woods, small towns began to take shape. They themselves look as they were living piece of history. Modern conveniences and amenities were nowhere to be seen: just hardworking farm families, eking out a living in an area that felt like no-man's land. Aroostook County doesn't feel like the more populated areas of Maine, but nor does it feel like Canada yet. The region contains its own stories, its own history and its own dynamic that is far different from the rest of New England. It struck me as being the very land, right out of Sarah Orne Jewett's "The County of the Pointed Firs", didn't feel as if it had changed bit since Jewett wrote the novel in the late 1800's.

My trip north was an inspiration. It showed me that hardy people can create thriving communities in harsh environments, but these people must depend upon each other in every way possible. It taught me that ways of life are still being preserved in our ever-shrinking global society. It humbled me to realize that there are people who would rather have peace and quiet and live off the land, than cable television and elegant restaurants. While I am honest enough with myself to know that this lifestyle is not within my comfort zone, the trip gave me a feeling of pride to live in such a state that embraces diversity of lifestyle choices. The thought of families keeping their land for generations, despite harsh winters and unpredictable summers, filled me with awe. It also made me understand that, despite living in the same state, the Maine in which I live, and "The County" are more complexly dissimilar than I had ever dreamed possible.

As I drove the long road home, I couldn't help but be reminded of Sarah Orne Jewett's words, "“In the life of each of us, there is a place as remote and islanded as the county, and that we choose to give to endless regret or secret happiness.'” I am filled with hope that I can choose happiness over regret. After seeing the tight knit communities to the north, I realize how much of who we are depends upon our choice of vision, and not of our own circumstances.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Veruca Salt vs. Charlie Bucket

"But, Daddy...I want an Oompa Loompa NOW!" ~ Veruca Salt, "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

One of my all time, hands down, absolute favorite movies is the original movie rendering of Roald Dahl's book, "Charlie & the Chocolate Factory". Although I respect Tim Burton's vision of the more recent take, the original film, starring Gene Wilder, is one I can watch again and again. I know most of the lines by heart, and probably could recite everything, including singing the songs. It's a film of which I never tire. Perhaps it's because I first saw this movie at an impressionable age. But, I believe the fact is that the Willy Wonka story speaks through stereotyped characters. The protagonist of Charlie Bucket is the essence of all that is good, sweet, kind and thoughtful. The other childrens' characters represent a sampling of the Seven Deadly Sins: Augustus Gloop (Gluttony), Violet Beauregard (Pride), Mike Teevee (Sloth & Lust for television) and of course, Veruca Salt, who is the epitome of Avarice, or rather, Greed, as we say in today's culture. All the characters were on an archetypal Hero Quest. But, only worthy Charlie is deemed suitable the true victor and he who is most deserving of praise.

And yet, through most of the film, the most compelling character to me was not Charlie, who bored me, or even mad, brilliant Willy Wonka himself. It was Veruca Salt, the Empress of "I want it now", the poster child for spoil divas everywhere and the embodiment of all things Envy. I honestly believe that, in a battle of wills, Veruca Salt could "take" nearly every other fictional character. Her single minded determination to have exactly what she wanted, when she wanted it, reminds me of the financial crisis our nation is facing today: we all wanted it "now", and unfortunately, our financial situation, in a global sense, cannot support this. Instant, demanding and unrelenting personal gratification was the core of Veruca Salt's character, and it's the root issue of why so many people were living beyond their means: we were told we COULD have it now, we needed it now, and we wanted it now. There was no 'let's think about it' nor did the words "let's plan and save" come from Veruca Salt, or our consumer driven economy.

I am far from perfect in this respect. Like Veruca, and partly why I believe I identify with her on one level, is a desire that all would be well if only I had "the perfect dress" (or shoes, or sofa). This is a struggle that I've been working on for many years, and the vice over which I'm gaining mastery. It is not an easy one. Just as Charlie, with his unfailing compassion and love, represents everything I'd like be spiritually and emotionally, Veruca represents everything I need to struggle against. Gluttony hasn't been my personal 'deadly sin', nor have any of the others. My struggle has been against a greedy, needy wretch. I may think I have my internal Veruca submissive and under control, until I see a fabulous bag in the Bloomingdale's catalog and I can hear her voice in my head saying, "Ellen, I want that Chanel purse NOOOOOOOW". Thankfully, I have learned to develop tools against my inner Veruca. I have learned that, if I like something, I will like it just as much in a few weeks. If it's a passing phase I'll lose interest. I've learned to simply say "no" to that desire for possessions to make me feel exceptional. I'm struggling against still drooling over the things I admire, but I'm making excellent progress. In short, I've learned to distinguish between needs and wants. Just as our country is coming to grips with this same lesson, I'm finding that I've already fought this battle, and am learning along with everyone else.

In my yoga classes, we practice cultivating our highest selves, and being appreciative of where each of us is on our yogic journey. When I first began taking yoga classes 10 years ago, I found myself feeling frustrated that I couldn't "do" all of the asanas that more experienced students could practice with ease. I looked on with absolute avarice at students who want do a back walkover into Wheel Pose. Not only could I not move backwards into the pose, I couldn't even come into the pose the 'simple' way: by moving from the ground up. There was one student in particular on whom I looked on with unabashed envy; she was 20 years older than I was and simply eased her body into the pose as it was the simplest action in the world, while I was still struggling with holding myself in the barest hint of an inverted position. Gazing over at her with greed, I wanted what she had: I wanted to be able to move over into Wheel without effort. I kept imagining hateful things about this woman, who had never been anything but polite to me. During one class, she came over to me, and seeing that I was struggling, offered to show me how she learned to practice Wheel. I kept looking at her face, searching for an ulterior motive. I couldn't find one....I simply saw a kind person, who was showing me compassion upon watching my struggle. She taught me how to walk my hands backwards down the wall, to help stretch my back, as I drew my body down into the pose gradually. I was shame-faced. She had shown me great friendliness, and I had been nothing but Veruca Salt to her.

None of us are perfect. We all have our private (or public) demons to cast off. You may find that you see more Mike Teevee in yourself, or Augustus or Violet. Like me, you may have to battle your inner Veruca Salt. But, if we can set a goal to reach a level of pure kindness and generosity of spirit, like Charlie, we'll find that we are well on our way to being free..."if we truly wish to be".

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The 5th of July

Freedom is the oxygen of the soul. ~Moshe Dayan

Independence Day has always been one of my favorite holidays. Growing up with a father passionate about the 4th of July helped me to see the day with eyes to appreciate what an exceptional holiday it is. James Blaine once wrote, "The United States is the only country with a known birthday." Although other countries would beg to differ on this point, the fact remains that the 4th of July is a time for all Americans, whether descendants of those who signed the Declaration of Independence to those only recently embracing citizenship, to stand together, in celebration for our country's uniqueness. Our ideal of freedom and equality for all people make us a leader in the world...not just in might, but in our vision of all people having a voice to be heard. On the 4th of July, we stand together, passionately American. We have family gatherings, barbeque's, picnics, parades, town fairs, and of course, fireworks. Under the canopy of those extraordinary explosions, we can celebrate the birth of country, and feel a connectedness to our nation and to one another.

But, the question begs to be asked: What happens on the 5th of July? Do we remain united in our compassion towards all Americans? Do we embrace the ideals of freedom and unity? Do we keep that spirit of a truly United states alive? Or, do we fall back onto negative behavior patterns for the other 364 days a year? Do we keep brotherhood and sisterhood alive and well all throughout the year...or do we fall prey to squabbling over political parties, agendas and divisive attitudes of superiority?

As a passionate reader, I have always loved series of books.This isn't simply because of my enjoyment of literature. I adore knowing what happens "next". As a child, I was not content to hear the words "And they lived happily ever after." I wanted to know exactly what action took place next. Did Cinderella and Prince Charming truly live happily ever after, or did they have arguments over what to do with the castle? Did they have children? What ever became of the wretched stepsisters? What about the fairy godmother? Does she remain a part of Cinderella's life? We'll never know, because the story simply ends on Cinderella's personal Independence Day. We don't know if she grew disheartened in her life, or if the stepsisters learned from their experience to treat others with kindness and dignity. We are never told if Prince Charming is a good father or if the kingdom appreciates their new Princess. We don't hear about the day "happily every after" begins. One of the reasons I've enjoyed rereading the Chronicles of Narnia over the years is because the series of books gives the reader enough time to discover everything about the characters, the world they inhabit and to bring the series to a firm conclusion. Every story needs an ending...either one that the reader is meant to discover on her own, or what that is resolute and final.

With this idea in mind, I invite you to explore your feelings about the 5th of July. How can we continue to breathe the very air of freedom in an often quarrelsome nation? What we can do, personally, to protect our freedoms and appreciate the contributions that others may make? Can we find paths around discord into true unity? I believe we can, and that we already have the skills to do so. We simply forget them. We go to sleep on the 4th of July, as one, and we wake up on the 5th as partisans. We need to maintain that 4th of July spirit, not by our nationalist words, but by our meaningful actions. The manner in which we speak to one another, how we treat people we may disagree with and how we embrace all elements of freedom can create a far greater sense of true patriot unity than one day of fireworkds. The best preservation of freedom, in my humble opinion, is by appreciating it, and protecting liberty for all citizens...not just those we happen to agree with.

By not just celebrating the 4th of July, but by celebrating our Independence on the 5th of July, and the 6th of July, and every other day of the year, we have the ability to find out "what happens next" in our nation's ongoing history. America did not begin and end its story that day in Philadelphia. It has begun its story every morning since thathen. Let's not gloss over what comes next by saying "And America lived happlily every after". Let's embrace making those words come true.