Friday, February 28, 2014

When the Wheels Fell Off

A sure sign I need a break is when I pull a photo album from the shelf and try to will myself into the pictures contained within, which always depict a more blissful time. Interrupted sleep, overflowing schedules, verbal missteps, and a general sense of disconnection all converged this week, sending me to the shelter of old photographs and unearthed memories. If tumbling out my back door onto the concrete patio and the dog is when the wheels fell off this week,* reminiscing of my journeys out west is the mechanic I so desperately need.

My first trip to the Four Corners region of the United States--where New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona meet--was in 2006, and I have felt an unusual connection to the place ever since. The rocky landscape, nearly devoid of vegetation, is a stark contrast to my green Ozark hills, yet the simple beauty shot straight to my heart. Red, tan, yellow, and gray rocks jut from the earth in natural sculpture onto a canvas of blue sky so clear and bright, it nearly hurts to look at it. And yet, you cannot look away. The crystal clear sky captivates the eye and refuses to release you back to where you came. It has you, locked tightly in its embrace, and breaking free from its grasp is far from your thoughts as you surrender to it. Photographs do not do it justice. You must feel it, be surrounded by it, and let it speak to you with its silence. Indescribable and transforming, New Mexico never fails to heal me. That makes it only natural for me to pull those photographs this week.
Monument Valley offers unbelievable vistas in the Four Corners region (I believe these buttes are technically in the state of Utah).

I likely would have never visited New Mexico had it not been for my dear friend Georgia who lives there. Some years ago, we met at a conference in Dallas, Texas, becoming fast friends, and since then have tried to plan a vacation together each year, whether a week or a weekend. I am usually the one who has trouble clearing my schedule, always thinking I have too much to do, but eventually the wise words of my friend bust through my excuses and hit the mark. She is direct, and I need that. So. Very. Much.

Knowing my tendency to postpone trips after we begin planning them, last year Georgia simply sent an email containing electronic tickets for an excursion train to Silverton, Colorado, dated the Sunday of Labor Day Weekend. Well, there's no rescheduling now--she's bought tickets! God love her, she took all my usual excuses for rescheduling and tossed them in the trash. Why do I resist?

We get lost in our day-to-day, believing if we do not do everything we are expected to do that our world--work, family, friends--will suffer in some way. But what about us? We push ourselves to do for everyone else, leaving ourselves last on the list and wondering why we feel out of balance. Then we hit a week like mine where we feel depleted and worn as we stand next to our little-red-wagon-selves, staring at the busted wheels and asking what went wrong. And we do it again and again (or is it just me?). We should put ourselves higher on the list, and rededicate to self-care, so we have the energy care for others. What do the safety instructions on airplanes tell us--put the oxygen mask on your face first, then give it to the child or incapacitated one next to us. We cannot fully care for others if we ourselves are not fully cared for.

Thankfully, help is on the way for me and quickly--a workshop tomorrow to help stretch my mental muscles, a postcard writing project that warms me to my core, and two (yes, TWO) online classes offered by creative souls in New England. The mere thought of these mental escapes act as a salve on my bruised spirit, and I am uplifted with anticipation just thinking of the rejuvenation each will bring. Meanwhile, I have New Mexico--or at least the photographs--to remind me to slow down, find the beauty in what is opposite to my familiar, patch up the wagon, and roll on.

 *yes, really happened

Friday, February 21, 2014

Becoming Ourselves

"It's a curious thing that happens. It's only when we travel to a place where no one know us that we become most ourselves." 

How I wish I had written those words, but alas, those words were written for the genius advertising campaign of the Michigan Tourism Department. Inviting scenes of the Michigan coastline slow-dance across the screen while the calming voice of Tim Allen speaks the words that point straight to our heart. We let out a long sigh, in complete understanding of the sentiment, and feel a sudden connection to the northern state, yearning to visit this enchanting place. As the commercial ends, we feel that Michigan understands us. Michigan knows how we need an annual vacation to restore our soul from our year-long tussle with the real world. Yes, Michigan gets us.

The grayness in the trailing days of winter always stirs the desire to plan a summer vacation, and this year is no different. Sure, jetting off to a tropical location is intriguing, and not out of the question, but a road trip is what shakes me to life after a long winter. Driving across unfamiliar territory is just as rejuvenating as the chosen destination, if the mind is indeed prepared to experience the serendipitous rewards of the open road. When I hear someone complain about a long drive to _____ [insert desired location here], I honestly do not understand the dislike, thinking they must be doing something wrong. The isolation of the vehicle as it passes along the highway is a prime location for listening to great music, engaging in interesting conversation, enjoying audio books, or (my favorite) easing into reflective thought. The journey becomes quite the journey.

By the time I reach the destination, my mind is already relaxed, allowing receptiveness to the restorative power of said destination, which is the point of a vacation, isn't it? And what about the destination? I have never been one to travel to traditional tourist spots, opting instead for overlooked gems cast off by the masses. Not that I would poo-poo a trip to Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon or Paris or London, no, I simply find respite in the quieter, less trafficked places of this earth.

It is in these quieter places where we can hear our soul speak to us, begging us to remember who we are at the core. Those are the moments when I become most like myself, unaltered by societal constraints or familial expectations. It is here, when the negative voices in my head are silenced, leaving only my true voice to be heard. Yes, only I go where no one knows me do I become most myself.

As I begin planning my trip, I cannot help but remember a few of the unexpected moments of past travels, ones that would have been missed had I chosen a conventional buffet-laden vacation of all inclusive packages and group excursions. No amount of money could tempt me to trade the laughter shared with my friend Georgia as we drove a 20-mile dirt road through the Navajo Reservation in a pouring rain, while I wondered if I would have to learn to herd sheep should we not emerge from the ordeal. All the gold in the world would not be worth more than the experience of standing at a window on Ellis Island, envisioning what my grandfather must have felt as he looked at the same sight 86 years before. And no words can adequately convey the utterly magical feeling of gazing across the blue mystery of Lake Superior and feeling the indescribable sense of being understood.

These unplanned, unexpected moments only occur when we are out of the confines of normality, out of our routine. These are the moments which add sweetness to life and reconnect us to our core. Only when we travel to where nothing is familiar do we really see ourselves--uncluttered by the noise of our daily lives--and we are introduced to our true selves again. I look forward to the planning every year, careful to include new places along with old haunts, time for new activities and time for nothingness, always anticipating the surprises that inevitably occur as my true unencumbered self emerges to experience the complete restoration given by a summer vacation.
After we completed the 20-mile dirt road, we were greeted by this incredible blue-gray sky over Window Rock, Arizona, a sight so dramatic with color that no photograph could do it proper justice.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Magic of M&Ms

Kindergarten was a magical time for me, primarily because of an exceptional teacher, Elizabeth Hancock. School days at the age of four are a wonderful blending of coloring books, recess, nap time, and stories. Mrs. Hancock was especially good at stories. She created these glorious tales that were a continuing series over weeks of the school year. We would sit in a circle while she continued the story from the day before, each day more exciting than the next. Each student was pulled into the drama, as she transformed students into characters. The tales she spun were filled with adventure, suspense, and magic. Oh, and she did make them magical.

Any given day would have her saying lines such as, " . . . and then Paul climbed the tree to look over the wall" or " . . .and then Rita threw a rock at the witch." Before the story was finished, each student had played a part.

Often her stories would lead our group on a journey where we found ourselves faced with crossing a large body of water or with jumping over a tall impediment. In these moments, she would pass around a bowl of M&Ms or candy corn, instructing each of us to take one piece and wait for further instruction. Suddenly, she told us to eat the magic candy so we would be infused with mythical powers of flight or strength, allowing us to leap over whatever was standing in our way. We went on some of the most enchanting journeys while sitting around that throw rug in the corner of her classroom. With Mrs. Hancock, and with each other, we could do anything.

How often have I wished today's troubles could be magically surmountable as in Mrs. Hancock's stories. Then again, what experience has been gained by walking through the fire rather than circumventing it. Perhaps the greatest gift Mrs. Hancock gave me was imagination, and likely, the first sparks of my own style of storytelling. Even today, though, in the split second before I eat an M&M, I think "this will make me fly."

Monday is my birthday. From ages 0 to 21, I could not wait to get a year older. Since 21, I've been trying to turn back the calendar. The last few years have had me wanting to skip the day altogether. This year is proving to take a different turn. I view my 47th birthday as a badge of honor. I've earned my place in this world, earned my place in this life. I've walked through a few fires, got a little flame-kissed around the edges, but still able to laugh. That alone is worth celebrating. I have finally accepted my journey, come to peace with it, and am able to thank it for making me who I am. I am not anything now that I would have expected to be when I looked through adolescent eyes all those years ago, but I am here. And here is okay.

Next month I will begin an online course offered by Squam Art Workshops, called The Magic of Myth, where we will explore the epic journey of Psyche. I am hoping to stir up some of those magical, mythical stories inspired by Mrs. Hancock all those years ago. I still have a few journeys left in me, and I look forward to the ideas the class opens for me.

So, come on 47! I am ready for ya -- give me whatever ya got. I have my bag of magic candy, and I know how to use it.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Day 168 of the Winterama

Let me begin: I live in the south, and more specifically, in the Ozark Hills of Arkansas where idyllic outdoorsy wonderlands began. We are people accustomed to humidity, mosquitoes, tornadoes, and flip flops. Winter is simply the novelty month that stitches together the cool crisp colors of autumn with the rainy green squishy-ness of spring. Our winter has us reveling in making a pot of chili and building our one fire in the fireplace. Snow flurries usually send many of my fellow southerners into a frenzy, scavenging for the last supplies of bread and milk in the region. I've still no idea what we do with all that milk and bread, but we buy it in bulk before every predicted snow like its our job, much like the way we all grow tomatoes in summer when we have no need for three truckloads of tomatoes. Its our DNA. We can't help it.

A southern snow storm is an event that last, at most, 24 hours. A few hours of "oh, the pretty flakes" are followed by nervous drives to work, ending with hours of discussion with co-workers which detail every moment of our snow-bound journey to the office through one inch of snow. Blow. By. Blow. The snow melts somewhere in the middle of the fifth telling of our tale, and the drive home is clear and warmer. Such is the pattern of a southern snow storm. It goes faster than our stories.

But this year -- oh, this year -- has us lost in utter confusion. Winter began on December 5 with several inches of snow and has taken few breaks since then. We haven't seen the grass in over a week. It's been below freezing for nearly a month, and our faucets are set on perpetual trickle to prevent frozen pipes.

We are tired of eating chili and know no other wintertime food because we never needed to know more than chili. Winter has never lasted this long before. Shivering people wander the grocery store aisles, muttering from beneath seven layers of clothing, and habitually grab milk and bread from the shelves. We don't even understand why we do it anymore. We do it because it's all we know to do. This winter has dished out more than we can handle. We are not equipped for this. We are a lost people. Covered in snow with perpetually frosted extremities, we wander through our days reminiscing about what the sun used to look like and fondly remember how it felt to wear shorts.

Our snow shoveling skills are improving, much to our dismay. We never yearned for such skills and used to shake our heads at television news reports showing New Englanders pushing show with metal-ended sticks. Give us a tornado, and we know how to respond quickly, like a well-choreographed ballet. Give us 100+ degree temperatures, and we open the fire hydrants and break out the swimsuits. But we don't do winter well.

So here I sit at the end of yet another week of frozen existence where a walk to the mailbox is a life or death choice. More snow is predicted for next week, and I have run out of cheery banter about the frigidness of our weather. It's not funny anymore. This morning I dreamed of mosquitoes. That is a sure sign of mental anguish over this whole winter thing.

Stella and George's eyes say it all: "Mom, these sweaters are getting old."
It's only February 7, and winter has five official weeks left but we, as a people, are dwindling fast. Nerves are frayed, tempers are short, and our southern charm ran out three weeks ago. Near-stampedes have occurred as we run outside for the five minutes of sunlight that peaks through the gray skies. We are desperate. And cold. We're really cold. Deliriously cold. C'mon -- I dreamed of mosquitoes. We are deliriously cold! It may be too late for us.

You cannot move a tropical creature to the Arctic and expect no consequences. You cannot surround a southerner with unrelenting winter weather and expect the same person at the end as when you began. We are not cut out for this. We have met our match. Old Man Winter has won. He beat us.

Wait . . . what's that? It's snowing again? Oh, crap . . .

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Lonesome Dove Conversation

How strong is your strongest friendship?

This is a conversation we have at work periodically,which always flows out of a discussion of the movie Lonesome Dove. The flick is a classic western (based on a book by Larry McMurtry), starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones in an epic tale of friendship, right vs. wrong, and the American west. Retired Texas Marshalls, Captains McCrae (Duvall) and Call (Jones) are partners in a cattle ranch, and they often have to clear out the wrongdoers in the area and restore justice. Beginning in Texas, the tale moves the audience in glorious western fashion more than 1,000 miles north to the land of the big sky, Montana. McCrae is the ever-likable, slightly devilish protector while Call is the crustier, slightly brooding lawman who seems to have a gooey center -- if you could ever get to it. The two prove their loyalty and trust with one another throughout the movie, but never more so than in McCrae's dying wish he asked of Call.

And what did he ask? McCrae asked, upon his death, that Call take his body back to Texas to be buried under a certain tree which held a special memory for McCrae. In today's world, that would be a rather easy feat but in the time frame of the movie - the 1800s - transporting a body over 1,000 miles without the availability of a train is nothing less than epic. Yet, Call does just that. By horse and wagon, over rough trails, crossing rivers, in dizzying sunlight, and alone -- Call fulfills McCrae's dying wish, all because he made a promise to a friend.

This is where we delve into the deep questions at work: Do you have a friend who you would fulfill this same wish if asked? Of course, being that the department in which we are having this discussion is nicknamed the "Animal House" for its fraternity-like behavior with the mostly male staff, you can bet the question was posed in a more crude fashion. In fact, the phrasing is closer to, "Are you a good enough friend that you would drag my dead --- across country if I asked you?" The discussion that follows is both insightful and humorous.

"I don't know if I have a friend who would do that for me," one man said. This left me and another woman, Sheryl, to instantly take on the face of, "oh, how sad." Women tend to understand the bonds of deep friendship more readily. We felt sorrow for the man at the utterance of his statement, until he followed with, "And I don't think I would do that for anyone else." Well, that explains it. You won't ever receive if you don't first give. Friendship is a two-way street.

Sheryl and I elaborate on the topic, listing friends whose bodies we would transport in such fashion if asked, as well as ones who would likely do the same for us. Our lists are not long, which is not the point, but we each have a few names, which is. Friendships outside the traditional pair-bonding are important to the overall human experience, and add depth with feelings of loyalty, compassion, and support. We know there are some friends we can always call for a laugh when we need, ones to call when we need advice, and ones to call when we need help. Many times those calls are wrapped up into our one great friend, like it was for McCrae and Call, while others of us find these gifts in several strong friendships. Whatever the dynamic, a good friendship can withstand a lot, including outlandish dying wishes.

Once in a while, Sheryl and I pass each other in the stairwell and laughingly say, "I would carrying your dead body across country if you asked me." We laugh at the ridiculousness of the statement, but not at the underlying meaning. A friend who would promise to fulfill such a wish is a friend indeed, and these friendships should be both cherished and nurtured.

On my drive home from work, I pass a small antique shop aptly called "Lonesome Dove Emporium." It is a daily reminder of the importance of friendship -- deep friendship -- and all the lovely layers of life those friendships bring. I always think of the question when I pass the store.

So how strong is your strongest friendship? Would it withstand the Lonesome Dove test?