Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Great Whodunit: Me

How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth? ~ Sir Arther Conan Doyle 

For reasons beyond my control, I've been voraciously drawn to reading mysteries lately. I've rekindled my passion for classics featuring my beloved Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple and have increased my thankfulness for the visions of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. I've finally taken the advice of numerous friends and have been introduced to books by Daniel Silva and Ken Follett. Most recently, I've fallen in love with the wonderful juxtaposition of the Los Angeles Orthodox Jewish Community featured in the mysteries by Rochelle Krich. Each one of these novels of suspense have taken me out of my own life, and dropped me into a world of clues, lies, deception, secrets and riddles. I've had to face each conundrum and try to puzzle out the answer, along with the detectives. I've delighted in feeling completely overwhelmed by too many possibilities, and then been able to narrow them down to make "probable" from the "improbable". From Victorian drawing rooms to the seedy underside of lower Manhattan, I've relished the final moments of victorious revelation. My love of great literary fiction,whose prose elegantly flows off the tongue to create poetry on every page, has taken a backseat to "The Great Whodunit" lately.

The reason for this is simple: my health has taken a turn for the worse. Not only that, it has been an enormous mystery for my doctors. The type of cancer I had 7 years ago was rare enough then. I was the youngest person to have ever been diagnosed with it. Not only my own doctors, but others my mother consulted with, agreed: it was gone forever. To quote another thriller, "Poltergeist", "It's back...!". My doctors are stumped. Though the type of cancer I have is rare, and does have a 50% recurrence rate within 10 years, most specialists felt that this was not going to be the case for me. After 5 years, I pronounced absolutely "cancer free". To compound this, I began having excruciating nerve pain on one side of my head. It was agonizing, debilitating and completely humiliating. My neurologist is still working various scenarios on this piece, but thankfully, after many days of pain, the right medications are keeping me comfortable from a neurological perspective. How could two rare, complex and peculiar syndromes hit a seemingly healthy, 44 year old non-smoking yoga teacher? Why at the same time? What can be done to help me? These are puzzles we don't have all the answers too.

At the moment, I feel a bit like a jigsaw puzzle. My photo is staring back at me (and my doctors) on the lid. The pieces are shaped strangely. Some are easy to fit into place. Others seem to have no place at all, but because they came in the box, they must certainly fit in somewhere. The clues are there. The information is at hand in my scans, blood work, family history and symptoms. But, how to discern the entire cryptogram remains partially veiled right now. It's as if I'm my own mystery novel...and as much as I'd like to skip to the last page and say "Of course! That's it! How could we not have seen that before?", that's not how life, or medicine, works. 

In the meantime, I'm learning to live as a walking cliffhanger. I've learned to clean my house, shop at the market, cook, take my dogs for walks, read, write and even sleep, not knowing what my physical state will be very soon. I am dealing with the ability to pay my bills, to send out holiday cards and to plan special events not even knowing what my future will be when these are all received. I won't lie: it's an awful feeling. I hate every moment of it. The past two months have been the beginning chapters of a mystery novel. I can begin to see the parameters of the quandary, but the more 'clues' I receive, the more confused I (and my caregivers) seem to be.

It's just like that first run I take when I ski in the winter: I know I'll catch myself (at worst, in a baby-like 'snowplow' down the mountain), but there is that moment of panic where my heart beats a thousand times a minute and I find myself thinking "Can I turn back, or can I really do this?". Unfortunately, there is no turning back on this run. I can't take the chair lift down the mountain in the ride of shame. I simply have to point my skis, small as they are, down the hill and trust enough to know that I can conquer this particular slope.

In the meantime, you can spot me in a coffee shop reading novels in which I can discover the end does eventually come, terrible occurrences will happen along the way, but good will triumph in time.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Crossing the Finish Line

Long is the road from conception to completion. -- Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin)

It's done! It's over! I did it! I did the entire October dress project! I may have taken some liberties with the photos, but I did wear the dress each day...I simply took some fun photos here and there (such as wrapping my girlfriend's dog in it) to make for more interesting archival pictures. I have to say that I am feeling a tremendous sense of pride, and yes, relief, at completing this project. 

I'm a terrific beginner. I love starting new endeavors. If a prize could be given out for enthusiasm on Day 1, I'd be a shoe in for the blue ribbon. When there is any kind of a wait to be allowed into an event, I am first in line. However, when it comes to sticking things out, my spunk and good intentions peter out pretty quickly. I am fickle, get bored easily and have no qualms about walking away from a situation that isn't working for me. I have half finished needle point pillows, terribly lumpy half finished knitted scarves, dozens of blog posts and shorts stories that remain in limbo, and more dinners thrown in the rubbish than I care to count. Some might call me a quitter. I call myself a 'creative finisher'. I like to be engaged in whatever activity I'm undertaking. I also like to know it's going to be fabulous. The October Dress Project was truly an exceptional learning experience for me. Why? Because I made it a point of honor not to quit. 

Some of aspects of the dress were easier than I had anticipated. Putting outfits together was really quite fun and entertaining. In this area, I had expected to be bored out of my mind. Yet, by perusing catalogs, magazines and just reorganizing my closet (Shop Your Closet was a terrific resource) helped me to envision different ways to rethink my simple black empire waist dress. Additionally, I didn't have to think so hard about what to wear. I knew what I was going to wear. The only question that remained was how I would wear it. Also easier was my own self-imposed 'not buying anything new'. I love pretty things. I love looking like a girl. I love shopping. Yet, this Lenten-like fast was much less complicated than I'd believed it would be, simply because I wasn't focused on what was 'new and now', but rather what was 'here and helpful'.

Other areas of the October Dress Project were more difficult. I was given some bad news, from a health stand point, during this month. Not only did this throw my creativity for a loop, but it also threw my life for a loop the size of a planetary orbit. I didn't want to wear the silly dress. I wanted to wear my favorite jeans and my favorite sweater and to call it 'good'. I had a deep desire, being the lifelong quitter that I am, to say "Time out! This isn't convenient for me!".  And yet, I discovered something fascinating: as I was headed from one doctor's office to the next, the dress became a comrade. It felt like a hug. It felt as if I had company along the way. Despite painful and often invasive testing, the dress was there to say "I was here for you yesterday. I am here for you today. I will be here for you tomorrow." My defeatist attitude was somehow strengthened towards the positive by the dress. Where I had anticipated my own self-realization and leanings towards abdication of the project, I found my health crisis to be a reason to keep going. The dress was something I was proud of doing during weeks in which my pride was all but vanquished.

So...will I burn the dress or simply toss it, as I'd promised? No. I'm keeping it. It will hang in a place of honor in my closet. We've been through a lot this past month, my dress and I. Will I wear every day? Unlikely. But, I know it'll be there as my touchstone in months to come.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The October Dress Project

Life really is simple. We just insist on making it complicated. ~ Confucius
For those kind Preppy Yogini followers, who may have wondered if I've:
  • Dropped off the face of the Earth, to find myself in Yogic Purgatory, where nothing but Bikram Yoga is taught, and the only food available is from McDonald's....or
  • Have been swallowed by a giant whale, spit out on the shores of Ninevah (or in my personal version, Siberia), and told to teach Yoga to the unruly citizens...or
  • Went on a cross country camping trip, hiking the Appalachian Trail (which sounds like paradise to some, but in actuality, is terrifying to me)...or
  • Took a vow of silence. Those who know me understand this would have lasted a miraculous 12 minutes and 19 seconds. I've tried.
The answer is 'none of the above'. I do plan to resume writing on this blog regularly when I'm finished with my current undertaking. I wrote about The October Dress Project about a year ago in Project Dress. It's a fascinating concept, and one that has weighed heavily on my mind ever since. Therefore, I took it upon myself to try this endeavor on my dress, for one month. I can accessorize to heart's content, and obviously, I can wash the dress as needed. But, it's been a wonderful learning experience for me. I tend to be attracted to whatever is new. This project is teaching me to be content with what I have, to live as simply as possible, and to have great fun in learning to become more creative. I hope you will check out Ellen's October Dress Project and visit how my journey is proceeding thus far. 

By November 1st, I'll be back as your humble, goofy, preppy yogini.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Robin Hood legend lives on within us all

How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world. ~Anne Frank

I have to admit something. I'm a Robin Hood fanatic. Ever since I saw the Errol Flynn version on television, lying in bed, home sick from school, I've been hooked. I went back and discovered the Douglas Fairbanks rendering. Despite poor reviews, I enjoyed the Kevin Costner "Prince of Thieves" (despite the film being dubbed "Robin of North Dakota" by critics, who panned Costner's lack of any kind of an English accent) during the early 1990's. I laughed hysterically, with my children, for Mel Brooks' satire of "Men in Tights". I became an avid watcher of the BBC television series, and loved the newest adaptation of the legend, starring Russell Crowe. Already a fan of Alexandre Dumas' Count of Monte Cristo, and The Three Musketeers, I ravenously read Robin Hood le proscrit. Whether or not Robin Hood is a person based on historical fact, a purely invented character, or a folk hero lying somewhere in between, the ideals, values, romance and inspiration never fail to capture my own imagination. Based on the legend's popularity, I can only fathom that I'm not alone in this fascination.

What is it about the Robin Hood legend that inspires us? Of course, Robin's skill with a bow & arrow, his love for Maid Marian and his loyal band of Merry Men are the stuff of dreams. But, I believe what remains enthralling about the legend is the philosophy of helping those who can't help themselves. The Robin Hood ballads, which became popular in England by the 14th century, had their basis in fact; a time of misery, disease, poverty, starvation and over-taxation to support the Crusades had left England depleted financially, morally and spiritually. That a figure, real or metaphorical, would arise to help isn't surprising. How many people, in modern times, find comfort and excitement with more contemporary superheroes, like Batman or Superman? Just like these comic book champions, Robin Hood bravely protected the weak from the strong, the poor from the greedy, the persecuted from the tormentors. I believe there lies within each us a grand desire to have this kind of loving protection. The thought that there is a person, out there, lurking in the shadows, waiting to spring forward to keep evil at bay, is both comforting and reassuring. We want to know that, even if we don't see our protector, he is out there, simply gazing over our lives and will be called to action if we are being subjected to tyranny.

Of course, there are brave men and women who do just the Armed Forced, as Firefighters, Police Officers and Teachers. And yet, we know, as much as we'd love for there to be a REAL Robin Hood out there in the Sherwood Forests of our daily lives, the chances aren't great that this magical champion will hear our cries and come running if we're in trouble. The fact is, we must all learn to be our own hero or heroine. When life is unfair, when we're filled with doubts and low self-esteem, when we are overwhelmed by fear, we need to tap into our own inner Robin Hoods, draw our bows and shoot the metaphorical arrow into the source of our pain. Does this mean that we'll never be afraid again? Definitely not. We will be frightened, we will be lonely, we will feel burdened, hurt and in anguish. Those feelings will all be valid and understandable. But, true strength lies in knowing that we can experience pain in our lives, and still be able to face our disquieting situations with a 'due sense of right purpose'. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "A hero is no braver than an ordinary man. But, he is braver five minutes longer."

Can we do this? Can we stand up for our beliefs and not allow the maltreatment of others, or ourselves, for five minutes longer? Can we face down the beastly Sheriff of Nottinghams in our lives with a certain strength in our eyes? I believe we can. I believe that, lying inside each one of us, however dormant, rests a Robin Hood. I rest assured that we can each become empowered to protect others. I place my confidence in the goodness in mankind triumphing over the evil. I maintain that we each contain the tools, the skills and the aptitude for making the world a better place...even if it's only own our small corner.

The Robin Hood legend is fascinating. It's powerfully captivating, it's deliciously romantic and it's strikingly relevant today. But, we must always remember not to wait for Robin to come save us. Conversely, we must take up the mantle and be Robin Hood for others.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Whatever happened to customer service?

You’ll never have a product or price advantage again. They can be easily duplicated, but a strong customer service culture can’t be copied. ~ Jerry Fritz

Despite the fact that I'm a yoga instructor, a bibliophile, a blogger, a wife and mother, a frequent traveler, a daughter, a friend and a dog owner, I'm also a customer. I have various needs (and wants) that I shop for...and like most people, I would like to go to those places in which my needs can met for the best prices.We're on a strict budget, as just about every other family is these days. Why overpay if I can purchase a gallon of milk at half the price? Why go somewhere out of my way, if I can save a few pennies closer by? What's the point of frequenting a series of tiny, "Mom and Pop" stores, if I can do all my shopping in one place? The answer is simple: customer service. The smaller Main Street stores, for the most part, tend to honestly care about what the consumer's experience is when she walks into their stores.

This subject, which is not a typical Preppy Yogini inspirational sermonette, is an important one: smaller stores, whose owners truly have a personal interest in each of their customers, are being forced out of business. I have always believed in healthy competition in the business world. Despite my love for excellence, I have always held with a belief in the freedom of choice in the marketplace, a "laissez-faire" attitude in business and the survival of the economic fittest. I never understood why folks would picket and protest when a Home Depot was going to go into town, or why a K-Mart would hurt Main Street shops. Having recently experienced, by far, the worst shopping experience of my life at Wal-Mart yesterday, I now understand the cause for concern. Having been met with empty shelves, a surly and bitter staff and immovable lines to pay, I realized that my choices for finding decent bath towels are now almost gone. The nice home goods store in my small town has vanished, simply sliding out of existence in the presence of the big box stores' shiny beckoning packaging. But once the luster of having everything from athletic socks to window cleaner in one place wears off, we are left with no other choice but to remain hostage to an apathetic, unpredictable and inferior place to shop. And, that's our only option.

Customer service, in everything from large stores to postal shipping, has taken a downturn. It's hard to get anyone to answer the phone when you call a consumer hotline. After meandering through a maze of non-applicable numerical choices, we're still left with our problems regarding a broken dishwasher we've only just purchased. At some point, the bottom line of saving money became more urgent than accountability in service. As such, the market responded, and we, as the public, are left without help, without caring and without the ability to buy bath towels when we need them. And, we really only have ourselves to blame, since we, ourselves, showered the consumer market with our response to "Low, low prices". Sadly, with those rock bottom deals, comes rock bottom attitudes. We can't get the manager behind the service desk to make eye contact, while she's on a personal phone call, we can't figure out why our television cable won't work because the local office no longer accepts incoming calls and we can't understand the reason our gas card has stopped working, even though the payment is up to date.

Is it too late to feel valued as a customer? Have the times progressed beyond helpfulness, cheerfulness and problem solving? Are we willing to live with substandard responses to our queries just to save a dollar? I don't believe so. It is my opinion that people are fed up with a lack of appreciation and choice. People inherently want to feel enthusiastically welcomed and esteemed. Consumers want to know that they are highly respected for choosing to shop in any one store. I'm not a businesswoman. I don't have an MBA from Harvard Business School. Yet, I know that, as I talk to people who come to my own yoga classes, they understand there are many choices in yoga teachers, and I make certain that each student feels cherished when she comes to class. Additionally, I feel the same way when I make my purchasing decisions. Do I want to be insulted and left to fend for myself at an immense concrete city block of a store, or do I want to have a positive experience...even if it's slightly more expensive? The place that I have arrived to, in my own consumerism, is that I'd rather have better quality, a more positive experience, and fewer "things".

Many years ago, my father, Jim Lavenson, wrote a speech called Think Strawberries. In it, he movingly tells the story of his own career in the hotel industry, and how powerfully exceptional customer service can make, or break, a business. Because I grew up with my dad's philosophy, not just at work, but at home, the ideals of friendliness, hospitality, helpfulness and going 'above and beyond' for those with you, became second nature to me. Dad was lauded for this spech, and it went on to be published in several magazines, as well as included in most college Hotel & Restaurant Management courses. I grew up immersed in "quality over quantity", with the belief that caring about other people really does make a difference and customer appreciation makes an enormous difference. My own inability to pass up a 'bargain' here and there led to my own discount shopping. Sadly, this decision by me, and by thousands of other shoppers like me, has led to fewer choices for us.

So, what do we do now? We make a point of shopping at the remaining, or newly opened, stores in which we feel valued. We take the time to go to a variety of stores, rather than 'one stop shopping', in order to support small businesses. We seek out locally grown, locally made and locally sold products. We thank the companies that *do* appreciate us, and let them who, on their staff, was especially helpful. Above all, we tell the larger companies exactly *why* they are losing our business. We even drive a little out of our way to frequent stores that fit our standards.

This will not change the world. It will not end wars, famine or disease. But, it will be bring striving for premium services back into vogue, and give rise to a movement towards higher standards in our shopping. As the notable Bill and Ted have said "Be excellent to each other". I believe this applies to customer service too...even if strange things are not afoot at the Circle K.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Empty Nest Without a Map

"Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end..." From "Closing Time" by Semisonic

The house is incredibly quiet. There aren't two rooms, both with loud music competing for if the ever rising volumes will somehow win a contest of wills. The pantry is fully stocked....and there are no crumpled potato chip bags, soda cans, empty boxes that once contained Hot Pockets or half finished milk glasses sitting on all surfaces. Laundry doesn't meander about the house, leading me like a trail of bread crumbs to the end point where a mountain has developed. There is nobody yelling "She started it!" and then stomping off in a huff. I am sitting, completely at peace in the blissful cacophony of birds chirping outside. And yet, I find that I miss the ever present beckon of "MOOOOOOOOOOOM!". I have discovered I'm not sure how to cook for just two people. Most of all, I simply miss my kids.

And yet, I'm so proud of both of them. They are each living out their dreams and destinies. This was my hope for motherhood for the past 18 years; to show how much I love them, and to equip them to do the best they possibly can in reaching their goals. I have long despaired of mothers who, when their children leave to go away to school, crumple up in a ball of self-pity. I see it not only as weakness, but honestly as a dependence on one's children. I do not believe it sets a good example for either of them. I would like my children to view me not only as a mother who did a decent job (I don't believe they've turned out too badly), but also as one who is strong and courageous. I've begun to see missing my son and daughter, not as a lack of self-awareness, but rather that I truly *like* them and enjoy being with them. No one makes me laugh the way my son does. He has a wicked, dry sense of humor that I find both delightful and hysterical. My daughter is the best companion I've ever had. She is adventurous and is always up for new experiences.

Therefore, I find myself coming back to the age old questions of: "What is next?", "Where do I go from here?", "What do I want for the coming years?" and "Where do I want to be?". It's as if I have had a clear road map for the past 18 years. Each direction, every turn and all the routes were planned out for me. I had highlighted roads, such as schools and driving to the hockey rink, which were easy to follow. I had taken some detours when I was very ill, when I went back to work part time and when the unexpected descended like a thunder cloud. But, the highlighted route always veered back in my direction. Just as in the board game, "Life", I spun the wheel, I added a wonderful blue figure for my husband, squeezed in a couple of kids later, went from the good squares (on which I was rewarded) to the bad ones (that always came with a cost)...and have ended up at the end of the game. There is no map ahead. There are no more spins left on this particular wheel. The little car I'm driving has gone off the board.

Uncharted territory lies ahead. How will I fare? What will I do? Will I discover yet another map to follow, or will I travel recklessly from spot to spot? I don't have any idea to the answers to these questions. And yet, I love the anticipation of it all. I am delighting in the lack of predictability that my days once held. I am discovering a surge of energy when staring out in the abyss of the unknown future. As Oscar Wilde wrote (and 'Willy Wonka' quoted), "The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last..."

So, if you see me out on the highway, give a wave. I may not know where I'm going, but I am determined it will be fabulous.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Inspiration and Travel

"The world is a book, and those who don't travel only read one page." ~ St. Augustine

In the next six weeks, I am going to be traveling to 5 different states. My schedule is daunting and each destination will require a high level of energy from me. I am going to moving my teenagers into two different (and new) spaces 1800 miles apart from one another. I'm going to visit with dear friends and family. I'm going have the chance to visit many new places to which I've never traveled before. I will have a tight schedule, and each piece of the itinerary is going to have to line up perfectly in order for me to accomplish each key mission. At the same time, I don't want to visit each of these unfamiliar destinations with my head buried in a day planner. My hope is to a bang up job for the crucial reasons I'm in each place, but I also have faith that I'll have enough time, each in every location, for wonder, for daydreaming, for unplanned exploration and for discovery.

My first mission will be going to Florida to help find my son an apartment, to furnish it and to get him ready to move in later in August. Because I'm from the west coast, my family tends to go west on our vacations, rather than south from New England. Florida is a completely new expedition for us, and I'm incredibly proud of my son for forging off on his own in this way. In moving to Florida from Maine, Joshua is being quite intrepid....he is moving away from everything that's familiar and comforting. Because of his move, I get the pleasure in learning about a new place along with him. My hope is that we'll get to know the area extremely well. I don't want to just walk into national chain stores. Rather, I want to discover the offbeat places, the ones that locals know about, as we set up his new home. We can remain within our comfort zone, or we can expand upon it, and hopefully, achieve something beyond our limitations. Having the chance to set up a place to live for Josh will be the most important piece of this trip. However, I'm also excited about the chance to meet new people, eat in new restaurants, learn about a part of our nation with which I'm completely unfamiliar and to practice patience when things will, inevitably, not go as planned.

After Florida, my daughter and I are traveling to Del Mar, California, where we'll spend a week on the beach with family and friends. Although I was born in San Francisco, and spent much of my growing up life in Santa Barbara, I've never been to Del Mar. I've seen pictures. I've heard wonderful stories. I've seen scenic locations in movies. But, I've never actually been there myself. It has been too many years since my toes wriggled in the Pacific Ocean. It's been an eternity since I've had nothing to do but lie on a beach and soak up the sun. As much of an art lover as I am, it's felt like centuries since I've been immersed in an artists' community. I have missed eating fresh avocados, tasting perfect Mahi-Mahi and picking lemons right from the tree. I look forward to exploring every one of my senses in this enchanting, radiant Shangri-La.

Finally, after returning to the Northeast, I'll bring my daughter back to her beautiful prep school in western Massachusetts. After visiting family in New Hampshire, we'll move through our routine of setting up Caroline's room in record time. Despite our prodigious efforts and efficiency, there is something bittersweet about moving her into her dorm room each year. We have our systems down to a science now, and we pack our car in reverse order of how we plan on unloading. We know just what to bring in first, and can quickly create order from chaos. At the same time, with every poster I hang on the wall, or with each sweater I fold, I realize that my little girl is that much more independent from me. I am thrilled with her success and determination, and I feel blessed that her school is a perfect match. And yet, as I unpack the car, I'm letting go of her, item by item. Still, I have been fortunate to learn the area around her school very well. I have restaurants that I just love returning to, and people I enjoy seeing when I'm there. I feel a sense of loving community in a place that doesn't even 'belong' to me. It's always a joy to return, to see familiar faces and to feel at home in a place that is wonderfully welcoming.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the great Roman philosopher and dramatist, wrote "Travel and change of place new vigor to the mind." I have resolved to see the next month as a way to accomplish that idea. I hope to re-energize my spirit, to broaden my perspective and to find myself richly renewed in each unfamiliar place. I hope that I can discover something wonderful about every destination, and I hope that I will find myself enlightened by new locales. Ray Bradbury wrote, "Half the fun of the travel is the aesthetic of lostness." While I'd prefer not to get completely lost, I am excited about finding that tingly feeling of not being completely on the map all the time. I hope to accomplish my set tasks, to learn some new skills, and above all, to enjoy this lengthy amount of time out of my routine.

Beyond that, I'm open to new possibilities. I just hope I don't lose my luggage in the process.

Monday, July 19, 2010

If you can't stand the heat....

Ah, summer, what power you have to make us suffer and like it. ~Russel Baker

There is nothing quite like painfully hot summer days to have even the most outdoorsy of folks daydreaming about winter. When the temperatures rise well into the 90's and the humidity is close to 100%, the thought of shoveling snow doesn't seem quite as wretched as it did in reality. Here in Maine, few spaces are air conditioned. We begin to reminisce anything that will bring cooler thoughts to mind. In the old days of life in "Vacationland", entire families would leave their homes in Philadelphia, New York and Boston to move to Maine to escape the heat of even warmer cities. There were entire towns that were summer communities that had their own churches, recreation centers, town halls and post offices. These spots would close down completely from Labor Day until Memorial Day, when they'd be reopened, reawakened and re-energized as city dwellers fled the oppressive, and painful, heat to the fresher air in Maine.

As a summer resident growing up, I vividly remember the long drive up from New York, smack in the middle 'hump' of my mother's car, sandwiched between my cousins. This trip seemed to take forever, as we played endless games of "ABC goes by" and License plate state bingo. The monotony was broken up by midnight stops at the old L.L. Bean building, which was (as it is now) open 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. My cousins and I would run around, trying out every tent, inhaling that particular rubbery smell that would forever associate itself with a hot summer night to each of us. I recall the magic we expected to happen, as we crossed over the Piscataqua River Bridge, just knowing that summer's official start began as we traveled that span of road between New Hampshire and Maine. The rest of the summer would be spent sailing, playing on the beach, exploring islands, going for long walks, stuffing ourselves with seafood and covering our many mosquito bites with pink calamine lotion. I can relive the days of going to drive in movies and trying to find the right balance of staying cool....if we had the windows rolled up, we roasted like a family of lobsters. If we kept them down, we were swarmed by marauding packs of insidious black flies, all of whom had been informed that we were 'from away', and therefore, tastier.

Life takes turns and twists that we could never have predicted in childhood. As a full time Maine resident for almost two decades, I now feel the heat of summer bearing down upon me, heavy and wretched. The humidity saps my strength and makes me forget why I fantasize about July in January. Remembering is a funny thing; we believe that the air was cooler when we were kids, just as we forget how depressing ice storms can be. We seem to remember what we want to recollect when it suits us. We also seem to forget the positives of any situation when our minds are waxing poetic on another train of thought. We find ourselves mired in mental muck, and in doing so, we allow precious moments to slip through our fingers as they are happening.

This summer, I'm trying something a little bit different.I'm attempting to drink in the ever present warmth, as I would a cool drink that will melt if I leave it aside for too long. I'm trying to appreciate even the "dog days", knowing that the heat has the ability to free me from worrying about heating bills, finding warm coats and the size of our wood pile. I'm investigating new recipes for summer meals, and trying them out at dinner time, which I'm serving on the deck. I'm reminding myself how wonderful the humidity is for my skin...which gets so dry in winter. All in all, I've chosen to live by Celia Thaxter's words, "There shall be an eternal summer in a grateful heart". Instead of cursing the heat, I'm embracing it. The fascinating part is that once I've gotten over complaining about how sticky the air is, I discover that I can actually feel a cool breeze.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Garden

In my garden there is a large place for sentiment. My garden of flowers is also my garden of thoughts and dreams. The thoughts grow as freely as the flowers, and the dreams are as beautiful. ~Abram L. Urban

As I have written before, I am, sadly, not an adept gardener. My gardening skills (or lack thereof) are legendary. I can manage to kill even the most hardy of plants in a matter of days. I have even tried to grow herbs in pots on a sunny window sill in my kitchen, and still have found my efforts to go unrewarded. I am somehow able to manage to over-water and dry out my flowers simultaneously. I have never figured out where my deficiencies lie. I'm simply content to admit that I am not, and will never be, one of those extraordinary people like my Grandma Rose, who could take a simple cutting and make an entire plant out of it.

What I lack in ability, however, I try to make up for in appreciation. I delight in other people's gardens. I have friends whose gardens are the most tranquil places on Earth, but at the same, a true reflection of their personalities. One friend, who is incredibly orderly and precise, has the most lustrous roses I've ever seen. She has each type of rose down to an exact science. Her beds are labeled with both the common and Latin names for each species. I have another friend who is a designer. Her garden reflects her intuitive and creative nature. She has wildflowers mixed in with annuals, and native perennials side by side with rare Asian flowers. Yet, it all comes together to create a cohesive, elegant design in a seemingly random fashion. I have loved going to visit Botanical gardens in many of the cities I love. I've enjoyed the variety of natural designs in the Arizona, California, Georgia, Rhode Island and New York. I've daydreamed walking through garden paths in France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy. Each public garden showcased the natural elements native to the region, but did so in such an aesthetically graceful way, it was just like walking through an art museum outdoors. I've never left a garden feeling anything less than serene.

During one of my yoga classes, I began to picture using the image of the garden as a visualization technique. I asked my students to envision themselves in the garden of their dreams. Some pictured the highly manicured gardens of palaces, such as Versailles or Hearst Castle. Others pictured more Zen inspired creations, like Nanzenjii Temple in Kyoto, Japan. Still others thought about the gardens of their childhood, some with vegetables, rather than flowers. Yet more contemplated a strictly imagined place that exists only in their own daydreams. Each one of my students was able to construct the mental image of the garden that best suited their needs, thoughts and ideals. I asked my students to envision these places as ones they could cultivate on their own, returning to them over and over again. I asked every student to conceptualize this peaceful oasis, and to ruminate on the healing properties of their imagined space. During this exercise we began to notice tiny weeds cropping up in our meditative inner yards. These weeds would begin microscopic, and then begin to grow larger, choking off the plants we'd so carefully constructed in our minds. They'd begin to take over the garden if we didn't immediately cut them off, pull them out by the roots and not allow them to grow in that same space.

The weeds, I explained, represented the negative thoughts we have each day. The flowers, shade trees, helpful herbs and lovely plants symbolize the areas of growth, as well as our positive thoughts and personal strengths. The garden itself is our very soul. As we find the way in which we notice how the weeds our growing in our minds, we can discover ways to 'yank them out by the roots'. We can empower ourselves to prune our thoughts regularly, and to allow the flowers we wish to cultivate to flourish. We can do this by identifying the negative thoughts (the weeds themselves) as they occur through practicing yoga, meditation, prayer, exercise, reading, daydreaming and even, yes, actually spending time in a physical garden. We can create the inner garden of our hopes, dreams, wishes and goals. We just need to remember to sort out the weeds that tell us that we're not good enough, we're not smart enough or we simply don't deserve to have beauty in our lives. These weedy thoughts are insidious. They will creep up when we're low and take over our entire oasis if we're not careful...choking out all the goodness and light. So, we need to make time each day, even if it's only for ten minutes to close our eyes, look for the weeds, and get rid of them.

Hanna Roin once wrote "The greatest gift of the garden is the restoration of the five senses". I would take her words one step further. I believe that the greatest gift of the garden includes the five senses, but is actually the restoration of our soul's serenity, creativity and contentment. Ask yourself, what does my garden look like? Where are the weeds choking off my flowers? How can I prune them to allow my garden to become inspirational? I'm sure your own garden will be extraordinary.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Destined to Choose

"The price we pay for having the freedom to choose (good or evil) is having to live with the consequences of other people's choices." ~ Sheyna Galyan, "Destined to Choose"

"Destined to Choose" by Sheyna Galyan is a truly wonderful first novel by a talented author. In it, we come to know Rabbi David Cohen, a Conservative Rabbi for a congregation in Minnesota. We experience with him the trials and tribulations of running a busy house of worship, balancing his work and family life, dealing with the counseling crises that come up and experiencing Cohen's personal angst that surfaces while trying to find answers to the major questions in well as many of the smaller ones. Galyan tackled some gargantuan hurdles as she wrote this novel; it is approachable to non-Jews, educational for all readers and feels familiar to Jewish readers. The author has taken on the weighty issues of life and death against a backdrop of Holocaust (Shoah) survivors, as well interfaith marriage, pastoral confidentiality, Antisemitism, depression, and youthful questioning of one's background. In doing so, the author has created characters for whom I developed a true affinity and understanding.

As with any novel, I find it very hard to review it without comparing it to others. Initially, I began to see "Destined to Choose" in comparison to the works of Naomi Ragen and Dara Horn. Both of these women, who happen to be among my favorite authors, write from a Jewish perspective, and like Galyan, do not shy away from taking on challenging life issues using a Jewish world view. Like Galyan also, they do so with depth and meaning to every word. Although I was born into a secular Jewish family, I have been Episcopalian for most of my adult life. Reading books from a Jewish perspective has helped me to learn a great deal about my heritage and my own history. Additionally, I have learned to find a trail in literature to help me trace the path of my past. This past, of which I've known precious little, has been crucial to my understanding about who I am and where I came from. Jewish authors have written my past for me, leading me to the waters that nourish the piece of my soul that wants to learn more.

Additionally, I have to compare "Destined to Choose" to the "Harmony" series by Phillip Gulley. The Rabbi David Cohen novels will continue (God willing) and it is my hope they will become a series that parallels Gulley's fictional Quaker Pastor, Sam Gardner's ongoing struggles and life stories revolving around his ministry. Rabbi Cohen, like Pastor Gardner, have a cast of congregational characters I can't help but identify with. Having served on numerable church committees, I find parallels between the fictional small Quaker church in Indiana, the fictional medium sized Shul in the Minneapolis area and my own Episcopal parish in Maine. Both fictional places have caring, compassionate, funny, intellectual spiritual leaders, as does my own. All find themselves trying to be in the position of spiritual leader while being told, by their respective boards, to 'sell the church' to newcomers. I've sat through board meetings myself in which I could have taken dialogue, word for word, from either of these books and superimposed them directly into my own parish. What struck me, as I read both Gulley's and Galyan's work is how universal our experiences are in traditional houses of worship. There are going to be extremely difficult congregants who want to complain about everything. There are the inevitable loudmouths who gossip. There are those who are so resistant to change that their argument for not enacting new policies is "But, we've never done it that way before." There is also a sense of deep love, a passionate sense of community, an important view towards the congregational future, and a place of inspired spiritual learning. I smiled to myself, as I read "Destined to Choose", because I could have 'plunked' in my own church members for those who appear in the fictional synagogue. The similarities were striking.

Galyan's novel may have many similarities to 'real life' and to other novels. What makes "Destined to Choose" so unique is the fresh voice of Galyan's writing. She has a remarkable talent for weaving together spirituality, character development, educational asides and entertaining prose. This very 'readable' book challenged me to delve deeply into my own beliefs and ask myself the 'tough questions' regarding good and evil. Why does a loving God permit evil to happen? Is free will truly worth the pain it can inflict? Regardless of one's religious perspective, this is a novel that helps, not with the answers, but in truly Talmudic learning style, in teaching us to ask the questions...while still helping the reader find common ground. "Destined to Choose" is a wonderful book, and I look forward to the next one in the series.

Coincidental Calendar

But what minutes! Count them by sensation, and not by calendars, and each moment is a day. ~Benjamin Disraeli

We all have various dates that have significance for us. On a calendar they may have little else to document the meaning these junctures may have to the rest of the world. Yet, to us, a random point in the day book can bring back years, or even decades, of memories. We tend to find clusters of important events have all occurred around the same time. Perhaps these events are linked by the simple fact that we often experience the same celebrations on a particular date. On the other hand, seemingly random, but important, occurrences might take place, coincidentally, during the same span of time.

In my own life, the 4th of July happens to be my own hub of significance. While I've written about the preciousness of liberty and appreciation for our American ancestors before, I haven't mentioned that July 4th has always had a personally consequential point on my own calendar. Enjoyment of summer days, fireworks and personal freedom aside, I could easily tick off the momentous events that have happened around the 4th, both wonderful and dreadful. I have always said that Independence Day is my favorite holiday; there aren't feasts to cook (other than fruit and lighting the grill), there are no presents to agonize over shopping for, there are events planned by others (such as parades and fireworks) that I only need to attend. It's a day of cookouts, laughing with friends and enjoying the sunshine. July 4 also seems to hover around many of the momentous times I've experienced: I biked on a streamer laden be-ribboned tricycle with my cousins in my first parade, I went on my first 'date', in junior high, to an Independence Day celebration, I met my future husband, we moved into our first purchased house, we awaited the birth of our first child, people with whom we had much in common moved in close by and we brought our children to camp the first time. On the other hand, I was in a terrible horseback riding accident, I had knee surgery, my father had open heart surgery, I found out I was expecting (a pregnancy that I would later lose to miscarriage) and I was told I had cancer...all around July 4th.

I'm left with asking myself: is it because on the date of July 4th that these turns of events have happened, or is that I'm more aware of each one because of the holiday? Is it coincidence or is it perception? C.S. Lewis wrote, "What you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing; it also depends on what sort of person you are." I take this to mean that I do tend to attribute major events to July 4th because I'm looking for them. I happen to enjoy coincidence, happenstance and concurrence. Even if negative things happen to me, and around me, I tend to take comfort in kismet...both good and bad. Why? Why would I appreciate the saddest times in my life just because they land amidst a sea of fireworks? The answer is simple: these events, both the light and dark, give me a touchstone in knowing that I exist, that I'm alive and that I am experiencing all that life has to offer.

Louis Pasteur wrote, "In the field of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind." Serendipity is an awful lot like that. There may be coincidences all around us. We may simply not take notice of them if we aren't looking for them. If we go through life so intently focused on our own set schedule, we may miss these moments of opportunity...we may evade the infinite possibilities that await us; the chance to make a new friend, the ability to try a new skill or the blessing that comes with the unexpected. We might be overlook, disregard or eschew something wonderful in the fear that something negative might just happen in its place. Having experienced my share of both the light and the dark, I can honestly say that without the deepest despair in my life, the joy would not be able to shine as brightly. Conversely, without the memory of happiness and laughter, I never would have been able to transcend my own sorrow and fear.

Hanging above my desk there is a poster of Albert Einstein, under which the quote below reads, "There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle." As for me, I may be ascribing more to the 4th of July in my life's coincidental calendar than truly exists. However, it's this very significance that leads me to look for opportunities. It may be just a date on the planner, it may simply be a time that I'm more relaxed and open to enjoyment. But, the 4th of July also reminds me to allow myself to be more intuitive, to be more compassionate, to look for junctures of good fortune and to think more expansively. If I look for coincidence, I'm far more likely to see it. If I've closed myself off, then I will surely miss it. Will a miracle happen? Will serendipity take place on the 4th of July? Maybe...maybe not. But, if it is far more likely for me to process it, to take note of it and to learn from it if my eyes (and heart and mind) are open.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

The world is governed more by appearance than realities so that it is fully as necessary to seem to know something as to know it. ~Daniel Webster

One of the most enjoyable pleasures I have during the sweet summer days in Maine is walking my dog, Mackenzie, into town. Mackenzie is a 125 pound long haired German Shepherd. In her own mind, she belongs in a purse, preferably carried by me wherever I would go. She loves to sleep on my bed, and in general, prefers to remain as close to me as possible. Mackenzie will bark when there is a knock on the door, but other than that, she's not particularly territorial. As long as her human Mom is with her, she's completely content. Unfortunately during our daily walks we have encountered all kinds of preconceived notions about how Mackenzie 'appears' to be: an enormous, powerful looking "police dog". We have had some very negative experiences over the years. Strangers will try to provoke her into barking, or even attacking them, by taking predatory and threatening steps towards me. (I don't believe this was the brightest action...would you really want to provoke a dog this big?). Others have growled at her, barked at her or tried to grab her tail. Still others have gone in the opposite direction: screaming in fear when they see us coming, and making a run across to the other side of the road, regardless of traffic. Mackenzie has been attacked by very small dogs, and I've been yelled at by these petite Cujo's owners to 'call my dog off' when their own are hanging from her throat. During these moments of dog walking drama, both my dog and I have learned to roll our eyes, to try to ignore the ignorance of the people who don't understand us. I have had my feelings hurt when I've heard one person remark to another; "What a stupid, irresponsible woman for owning such a dangerous beast!".

The fact is, Mackenzie is an incredibly gentle dog. She's a bit of a diva, and likes her food "just so". But, other than that, she is a remarkably loving, exceptionally intelligent and very well meaning dog. She prefers my own company to that of others, but she likes meeting new people, and new dogs, too. No matter how pretty her collar is, how well groomed I've combed her out and how well she listens to me, Mackenzie will always be judged by people by her appearance. She will not be judged by her kind eyes or how well she responds to my commands. Mackenzie will be perceived as vicious, aggressive and combative, simply because of her breed. People have seen "Cops" on television, and think all German Shepherds are ready to strike at a moment's notice. The irony? Most police dogs are also incredibly well behaved. They have a deeply connected relationship with their handler, and usually live with his family. Like "Helping" dogs, they are trained to do a job when they are 'working', and they understand the difference between being at work with their police officer handler, and being at home with his family....chasing a ball with the officer's children after hours.

Because of my experience with my dog, I've learned to move away from judging people, situations or experiences based upon appearances. It's my own humble opinion that all of us, not just those who are afraid of big dogs, take one look at a scene, and make a snap decision as to how we will place this scenario in our level of thought. Most people tend to subconsciously categorize others as soon as they meet them. We all have internal sensors for an evolutionary reason: to stay safe! If those internal 'something's not right' meters sound off in our minds, we usually snap to action in terms of self-preservation. It happens even before we're aware of it. On the other hand, there are times we make rash decisions about people when we don't have all the facts, or we don't give another person a chance. We may walk away from a potentially wonderful friendship because of the way that person looks, or where they live, or what their religious beliefs may be. We may limit our social circle to only people who are 'just like us'. In the long run, we may stay extremely safe. Or, we may find that those people, whose appearances seemed to be similar to our own, couldn't be further from being like-minded, or even kind- hearted. We may base a friendship strictly on appearances, but for the wrong reasons...a person may have "seemed" to have everything in common with us, may even have been attractive and interesting. But, after we get to know them, or worse, been hurt by them, we come to discover that agreeable appearances aren't necessarily the best way to choose a friend.

It's my own personal opinion that we need to look beyond mere appearances, and look into the heart of another person as we are getting to know them. We may discover that they're simply not as lovely on the inside as they are on the out. Or, we may just find that someone who appears to be our polar opposite is, in all actuality, a soul mate of a friend. We need to look past age, height and other defining features, and get to the meat of that individual's beliefs. Additionally, it's fabulous to have friends who have very different backgrounds,and it's delightful to learn about other cultures. My daughter's best friends are Indian (and) Egyptian and Korean. The three of them have more fun together than any girls I've ever met. Their hearts beat in unison. And yet, they couldn't come from three more different parts of the world. Their friendships have been a tremendous joy to all three families, and we've all been enriched by the love they share. Could Caroline have made friends with other New England girls? Of course...and she has. But, her soul sisters happen to be originally from Asia and the Middle East. My most recent friends, in my own life, are all considerably older than I am. I have learned that having friends, closer in age to my late grandmother than myself, is a beautiful experience. They have shared so much wisdom with me, and I continually pinch myself to remind myself that these wonderful ladies would be interested my limited experience.I feel honored to have them call me "friend".

My entreaty to Preppy Yogini readers is this: give everyone, including German Shepherds, a chance. Don't dismiss a friendship because someone is different from you, and don't get too excited about someone who 'appears' to be your personal twin. Take time. Slow down. Get to know people before making a conclusion. Even then, keep an open mind and an open heart. You may find yourself in the midst of a beautiful friendship....and one you never imagined would be possible. As Charles Kettering wrote, " The open minded see the truth in things; the narrow minded see the differences."

Monday, June 21, 2010

Surprises on the Beach

love builds up the broken wall and straightens the crooked keeps the stars in the firmament and imposes rhythm on the ocean tides each of us is created of it and i suspect each of us was created for it”-- Dr. Maya Angelou

I feel incredibly blessed to have lived at the beach in coastal Maine for the past 19 years. Despite the fact that I spent summers here in Maine growing up, I never thought I'd be a year 'round resident as an adult. I can remember playing on Maine's rocky coast with my cousins from the moment the sun would come up each morning, until long after it had set in the evening. The three of us would play never ending games of tag, we'd build forts using drift wood, we would have contests to see who could find the most sea glass and we would play endless games of "pretend". The beach would be a castle, being attacked by a dragon one moment, and a campground for pirates the next. It would transform into a house, a ship and an airplane within our imaginary world. Maine beaches are, for the most part, not like beaches most people imagine....they're craggy inlets bearing thousands of stones, with tidal pools holding their own miniature ecosystems. They aren't the same sand beaches one would see in California, Florida or Hawaii. They're more rugged, more austere and more remote. They're romantic, ever changing and full of surprises. My own children have found sea whelks, crabs, mussels, clams, rocks from every possible classification, and even bits of Maine life...a lobster buoy that floated away from its mooring, a perfectly polished mother of pearl shell, a bit of old shard pottery. They've watched the progress of a small hermit crab moving out of one shell and into another. The Maine beaches are always filled with the unexpected.

Our neighborhood is fairly new one, by New England standards. Once part of a much larger estate, the lots were subdivided and the ring surrounding our private cove was build slowly over a thirty year period. None of the houses are similar to one another, and each one has its own flavor and style. Over time, the houses have often changed hands and become summer homes for people who want to escape the humidity in Boston, Philadelphia and New York. It's not a 'tight' neighborhood in which everyone knows one another well. People tend to come and go with the seasons and have specific agendas for their homes and their own priorities. As a result, many of us simply aren't familiar with our neighbors. As the only house that currently has children on the street, I have often felt the need to 'shush' my kids when they've played outside, trying to respect the privacy of our retired neighbors. It hasn't always been easy to keep street hockey balls, and various toys, from sailing over the fence line into another yard. I have had to apologize for pink trees, due to my son's paint ball gun. It has been a constant challenge to find the balance between neighborhood peace and allowing my kids to 'be kids'.

The one aspect of neighborhood life in our cove that we all share is a mutual passion for our beach. We all enjoy it, and as it's so often deserted, we tend to feel very protective of our little slice of Maine heaven. Because I walk my dogs on the beach almost every day, I have come to know every boulder, every inlet, every landmark stone and every crevice quite well. I even have come to know where the best rocks for stepping on happen to be, so I don't twist my ankle as I walk. About a year ago, one large boulder, near the edge of the beach began to have mysterious designs on it that changed every few days. One day there might be a heart, created using bits of seaweed and drift wood. The next time I checked, I might have seen "Thanks" designed using mussel shells and tiny pebbles. Using materials found on our beach, I have spied the words "Faith", "Joy", "Hope", "Care" and simply a jolly "Hi!". Now, as I traverse my neighborhood on my daily dog walk, I smile more broadly at each of my neighbors. I can't help but wonder who the artistic communicator is with every "Good morning" I say. Is it the woman whose extraordinary garden has been photographed for many magazines? Is it the cranky gentleman who never smiles or says "hello" back...does he hide a secret soft side? Could it possibly be the elegant, but elderly, southern belle, who takes her constitutional strolls in heels and pearls daily? Since the words of blessing and greeting have begun appearing on the boulder at the beach edge, I've looked at my neighbors in an entirely new light. It has made me more patient, more understanding and more tolerant. I can't help but be fascinated by my speculation. It makes me think more gently of the neighbors who might complain about our dog getting out or our kids laughing outside at the bonfire at 10 PM. I can't help but speculate if the gruff exterior of one of these people hides the soul of a poet.

Yesterday, on Father's Day, I was missing my own father deeply. Though he passed away in 1998, I feel his presence with me. The feeling of mourning hasn't gone away. It's only been channeled into a way that I have learned to live with. It was because of my father, and his own love of Maine, that our family began summering here. Later, despite living in my mother's and my home state of California, we would continue to come to Maine as much as we possibly could. In all fairness, Mom and I weren't thrilled initially, but over time, we began to love Maine for all its beauty and solitude. When my father retired and my parents moved to Maine full time, it was natural for my husband and me to want to settle here too. In the years before my father's death, we had wonderful memories together, as he taught my own children about the magic of the Maine coast. As I was missing him yesterday, I took my German Shepherd for a stroll along the cove he loved so much. I sat down, and letting Mackenzie play in the waves, I looked out over the bay towards the islands we used to visit every summer. I felt closer to my dad that I had in a long time. With every breath in of the salty air, I could feel his spirit merge with my own. And yet, this being Maine, the sky grew black in a matter of moments and the rumble of distant thunder came rolling in over the mountains. I knew it was time to head back up to my house.

But, as I walked past the 'Message Boulder', I realized that it was blank for the first time in weeks. Without a thought of the impending storm, I methodically gathered my materials. Using a bit of crab shell, broken mussels and periwinkles, finding pebbles in an array of colors, as well as some pieces of driftwood and sea glass, I wrote I LOVE YOU DAD on the stone. The raindrops were just beginning to fall I finished up. Snapping the leash back on my dog, she and I raced up the path and down the street to the sanctuary of our house, myself laughing the whole way, and Mackenzie giving her excited Shepherd "Yip".

I can't help but wonder if my father could see my message to him...and if my imaginative word writing neighbor will appreciate my contribution. I can only hope so on both counts.