Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Few Minutes Short

When I saw the cascade of water over the rocks in the creek to my right, I stopped the car. This must be it -- the much praised Falling Water Falls I had heard about from my friends. Ninety minutes of driving along winding Ozark byways, and there it was, finally.

Ever since the new camera arrived this week, I have been itching to get out into the wilderness around me and capture a few shots. The weather today was perfect with a few wispy clouds overhead, a slight breeze, and a comfortable 65 degrees. It was a perfect day. When I left the house, I popped an Elton John CD into the stereo and let Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy serenade me along the road. Thirty-five years since I first heard it, and I still know every word. 

This was a perfect day for exploring and relaxing. The Magic of Myth class I am currently taking is one week along, and the course, along with other classmates, are opening many doors in my thinking. The class explores the myth of Amor and Psyche, an epic tale of challenge, perseverance, and growth. The teacher is the enchanting Elizabeth Duvivier of Squam Art Workshops, who guides the class along paths of thinking and then encourages participants to indulge their own interpretations. More than just a story of a woman on a journey in ancient times, Psyche's challenges can be expanded to explain the human condition and what makes us tick. 

The questions our teacher left us to ponder this weekend were that of failure. Toward the end of the tale, Psyche is given a task with specific instructions not to do something, which, of course, is exactly what she did. She failed at following the orders, something we have all been guilty of doing and suffered consequences because of it. But -- could there be a benefit from her failure? These were the questions the participants discussed this weekend, with each of us telling our stories of failure, what lessons we learned, and how we emerged. The brave words of my classmates were beautifully revealed in our compassionate circle where many of us seemed to hold hands through the computer screen and whisper, "I understand." 

The class discussion left me feeling inspired and connected. Layer onto that a gorgeous spring day, a new camera, and nothing on the schedule, and this day became a recipe for a road trip. I had to go see the waterfall I had heard about so much. One and a half times around the CD later, and I parked the car along a dirt road, next to the falls.

I carefully stepped around the rocks at the waters edge, hoping I did not fall in, or worse, drop the camera. It was our first trip together, this camera and me, so its well-being was first in my mind. The water was cool and crisp. The sound it made as it spilled over the rocky shelf was musical, and one that would easily put me to sleep if I closed my eyes a few moments. The clean blue-green water fell about two feet over the rocky landscape and swiftly moved downstream. It was a beautiful scene, but not quite as majestic as I had expected, gauging from my friends' remarks. Nice, pretty, glad I came, but drive all this way again? Likely not.

The drive back home seemed to take longer, but I am still not sure if I was driving slower from relaxation or if it was the disappointment of the falls that was slowing me down. Either way, I arrived home and immediately downloaded the new pictures to my computer. A friend of mine had just visited the falls the day before, posting pictures online, so I pulled his photograph to compare to mine. Hmmm . . . my falls look different than his. My falls are shorter. The water flow over the edge is more on the right side in mine and in the middle on his. And his creek looks wider.
Falling Water Creek, between Ben Hur and Witt Springs, Arkansas
I scurried to my book on Arkansas Waterfalls, which I had left on the kitchen counter, and turned to page 86. Had I missed a turn? No. A quick look at the map, and I saw I had made all the correct turns, followed all the correct roads. I was sure I had traveled Farm Road 1205 which paralleled the creek - I saw the big brown sign marked with "1205" - but why does my waterfall not look like his waterfall? Still unsure of the difference, I enlisted the help of Google Maps with the satellite imagery to help me make my case. I could not be wrong. I followed the map in the book! At least, what I remembered since I left it at home. I squinted my eyes. I zoomed the screen. I examined every detail of the satellite image before I noticed a sharp hairpin turn in the road by the actual Falling Water Falls, which was conveniently labeled on Google maps. I did not see such a turn in my travels. The dirt road I drove was slight curves and flat stretches. No hairpin turns. Where did I go today?

In a huff, I sat back in my chair and stared at the computer screen. Dang Google Maps, you sure are no help today. That is, until you sit back and view it from a little distance. Staring back at me was my answer -- I had stopped at a small cascade in the creek about a half mile before the waterfall I was searching. After I had taken my photographs, I hopped in the car and turned around in the road, heading back up the hill in the direction I came. I just did not travel far enough on the road to see what I had hoped to see. Only after returning from the 90-minute drive home did I finally realize how close I had been.

Nothing could be worse than the fear that one had given up too soon, and left one unexpended effort that might have saved the world. -- Jane Addams.

All I could do was laugh. Today's miscalculation was a failure on an extremely minor scale, and yet it illustrated the lesson of many of my biggest failures in life. I stopped short. I quit too soon. I did not give it quite enough time. I was impatient. I was tired. I was ready for the quest to end. All of these were reasons I had given myself to stop working toward a goal, and therefore, were the reasons I did not reach it. These were the reasons for my failings. Each one, an illustration of giving up five minutes too soon.

How different my life might have been had I given it a few more minutes.

Next weekend, I plan to return to Farm Road 1205 and look for Falling Water Falls again. This time, I will go a few minutes farther down the road to get what I really wanted. At least I know the way.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Weeding the Garden

The garden gloves lay on the shelf, waiting for me, taunting me, reminding me there is work to do before play. As we cross from winter to spring, the yard around the house needs some attention so it can move from one season to the next. Rake the last lingering leaves of autumn from the corners. Pull the voracious weeds that insisted to be first from the ground. Trim the wayward tentacles of long-standing shrubs. Spread a blanket of mulch over it all like donning a new dress for Easter. With any luck, the daffodils will bloom soon and push their happy faces from the ground in their cheery cotillion. Perhaps this year I will finally transplant the lavender to the patio.
A creek carves its path through the bluff and spills into
  a clear pool near Ponca, Arkansas, forming a location
where time stops and problems do not exist.

The annual task of preparing the garden is one that must be done, but is not my favorite. I enjoy the end result, but find the little pleasure in the actual drudgery of the labor. I do it because it has to be done. The view of the yard would be diminished if it were not. Mother Nature insists.

The spring season also writes a perfect recipe for hiking my Ozark hills. Temperatures neither too cool nor too warm make for comfortable walks among the trees and along the creeks. Humidity has not yet arrived to soak the air and choke the lungs with breath so saturated you swear you are underwater. But not at this time of year. Spring ushers in weather that invites winter-worn souls into the welcoming arms of nature. This time of year has its own special voice which calls me to the woods to visit old haunts and new places. Lost Valley, Hawksbill Crag, Rush Mountain, Indian Rockhouse, and Hemmed-In Hollow -- all familiar trails that never fail to leave me in wordless awe of nature's gifts. These will have to wait just a bit longer, though. Work first; play later.

Before exploring the back roads, there is that work to be done. Mother Nature has delivered her marching orders which will send me to the rake, clippers, and wheel barrel. The ceremonial cleaning out of the old to make way for the new can wait no more, despite my weeks of procrastination. Mother Nature is clear in her priorities. So, this weekend I don the work gloves and make one giant swoop through the yard, gathering up the remains of winter's dullness to make way for spring. It must be done, but it will be worth it.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Soul's Memory

In late 2011, singer Glen Campbell announced to the world he had Alzheimer's disease, and his wish was to go on the road for one last tour. His farewell tour had a scheduled stop near me in early 2012, and I had the pleasure of seeing this talented musician in person before the ravages of the disease slowly faded him away. Wichita LinemanGentle on my Mind, and my favorite Still Within the Sound of My Voice wafted from the stage as this man played guitar like no other, fully engaged in his music. He was on fire.

Between songs, during the conversational portions tucked into the gaps at every concert, he told stories of his career and life. A few times in these moments, though, the disease showed its effects as his words grew silent, and he looked to his daughter (on keyboards) for help. It was in these moments, the new reality of this man showed, and the audience seemed to emanate a collective hug. But, as soon as the first notes of one of his classic songs filled the hall, he came alive again. He sang with passion and played guitar better and faster than a man half of his 76 years. The disease might be slowly taking his day-to-day life, but it was not taking his soul, the soul where his music lived. That was fully healthy and fully present. The music and talent deep within his soul knew who he was and would always be there. The soul remembered.

A couple years ago, I felt directionless, like I had gotten lost on my path, losing sight of who I really was. Turning to a road trip to cure my ills, as road trips always seem to do for me,* I returned to the Midwest and to the company of long-lost family. Sometimes when you lose your way, rather than trying this road or that road to get back on track, it is best to return to the beginning, back to where you stood on solid ground.

And so I did. I returned to the roots of my family to find my footing. Sitting on the shore of a lake in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, alone in silence, I let the memories in those waters wash over me. Nearly a thousand miles away from my life, I returned to the beginning, the place that always made sense to me, the place that always felt like home (though, strangely, I never lived there). In this stillness, all the noise of my life fell away, and I was able to listen -- really listen -- to what was deep inside me. That's where it can be heard.

This was not a moment where a light switch flipped, and life was sunshine and roses again. It was, however, a touchstone -- a reminder that the soul never forgets. My soul knew who I was, even though I had forgotten. My soul, silently keeping watch just off-stage, knew I would someday return. I still stumble; I still get turned around and look for direction. Yet, the road will reveal itself to me if I return to the silence and listen. It speaks in the silent moments.

Memphis musician, Rob Jungklas, captured this feeling in his song Horse. The song of release and surrender reminds us "the horse knows the way." Yes, Rob, it does. Sometimes we have to relinquish control and let the soul show us the way. Let go of the chaos and speed of our lives and be still. Be still, close our eyes, and open our hearts to hear that faint voice just off stage that knows the way. Even when we forget, the soul remembers who we are.

*You'll notice a theme with me.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Driving Lessons

When we walked out of the Revenue Office after taking my written driving test, my Dad handed me the keys and pointed to the driver's seat. He had picked me up from school at mid-morning to drive me to take my test, and I was driving back to school. I was nervous, as all new drivers are, slid behind the steering wheel, and started down the road. My mind raced with thoughts of checking mirrors, proper hand placement on the wheel, accelerating, braking, watching road signs, and trying to keep this suddenly very large vehicle between the proper lines on the road. It was exhausting. By the time we reached the high school, a mere two miles from where I began driving, I was ready to stop. Oh sure, driving always looked like fun, but only then did I realize how much work it was.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine said she had always wanted to write, but never felt that she was good enough. She entertained ideas of taking writing courses online, but stopped herself at the last minute because she felt her words would not be good enough. I did my best to encourage her to take the leap, though I quietly understood every one of her fears. She said something like, "Of course you would do it, because you write so well."

Firstly, thank you for the compliment. I cannot say whether I write well or not. All I can say is I enjoy writing and occasionally stumble across a few lines which I think are keepers. Secondly, writers become better by writing. I'm sure Walt Whitman had some bad teenage poetry in his history, as do I, and as do millions of others. But we get better with time. We get better by doing. I am by no means drawing a comparison between me and Whitman -- that would be sacrilegious and categorically wrong -- only illustrating that the first few times we try anything, our skills are not yet honed. It takes time. It takes practice. It takes patience.

I reminded my friend, who is a talented photographer, that her photographs are like visual writing. The backgrounds, colors, lighting, and composition all merge into a beautiful statement that is beyond words and speaks straight to the heart. And she learned that by doing -- continually doing something she loved, just because she loved it. Through repeated dedication, the love of the craft shines. It cannot help but shine.

While driving toward the high school with my Dad that day, I underestimated the need to slow down while turning and made the curve at Bomber Boulevard a bit too fast. We were nearly on two wheels. My father braced against the door and the seat while calmly saying, "You might want to go a little slower next time." This morning I drove to work and could not tell you anything about the drive. It is second nature to me now. I no longer think about mirrors, hand placement, road signs, or how much to slow down to make a turn. It just happens. It happens without it feeling like work. It is nearly as instinctual as breathing.

It's that way with writing, too.

Friday, March 7, 2014

To Love

I remember my fifth grade teacher, Lois Walker, telling the class of an article she had read about an infant's need for love. The article said scientists had concluded that a baby left in a room without human touch would die. Though the child may be given food, water, and basic care, without love it would die, leading to the theory that humans do indeed need love to live. Why this lesson from Mrs. Walker stuck in my ten-year-old mind and is still with me today, I do not know. Perhaps the haunting image of a child raised by scientists and robots is just too disturbing to forget. It does make me wonder how those scientists tested their theory, though I believe I would rather stay in the dark on the details.

For years I held the memory of this article in my mind, and over time added my twist on the theory. While it is true that humans need to receive positive interaction from other humans to survive (i.e. love), I believe we also need to love. While receiving love is not always within our control, the act of showing love is, and the act can be equally as rewarding and life sustaining. This is, of course, my opinion and not based on scientific experiments with isolated people in cold rooms. No, this one is from my mind and based only on my experience, but it is a theory I have held for decades. And it has proven itself to be true time and time again.

Likely we need to define 'survive.' Sure we can live and breathe, eat and drink, walk and sleep all without a companion. That speaks to survival of the body, but survival of the spirit -- the mind -- the heart -- this is survival of another level. Maintaining the functions of the human body in scientific form is necessary to keep breathing, but why do we need to keep breathing? What makes it worthwhile? What makes it worth waking up another day and moving the body through its courses again? Love.

I speak not of romantic love, but love on a much broader scale, to include comfort, care, concern, compassion, empathy, appreciation, gratitude, and admiration. While receiving this broad scope of love from another is indeed wonderful, perhaps more so is in the giving of this kind of love. When we do for others, while expecting nothing in return, we forget about our needs and are able to focus on the other, fully and completely. We give selflessly, and in that giving, we surrender to the beauty that is in this theory of mine: the act of loving another -- without expectation of reciprocity -- actually fills the giver with life.

Now, before you go off willy-nilly doing good deeds for people for the purpose of generating good stuff for yourself, let me stop you now. It doesn't work that way. Only when we give unselfishly does the life-giving water flow back to us. Give only for selfish reasons, and you are going thirsty for a while. Believe me, the universe has you figured out so don't even try fooling it with the "Oh, I will help this elderly man with his grocery cart so I can get something good from the universe tomorrow." Uh-uh.

What the giver experiences is a meaning to life -- a reason to wake every day -- not a winning lottery ticket stuffed in the pocket of a winter coat. The giver is not rewarded with things, we are rewarded with the energy of life, the survival of the spirit. We give because we like seeing how it affects others. We give because we want another to smile. We give because we want another to have it just a bit easier. We give because we want another to experience happiness.

So my amendment to the scientific theory of 1977 is the simple addition of a preposition. 'Humans need love to survive' becomes 'humans need to love to survive.' I cannot imagine the scientists of the initial article would be too thrilled with my addition, but then again, they put a baby in a room alone, so I don't think they have much room to criticize. Whether my theory is proven or not makes no difference to me. Wouldn't it be great just accepting it as true and seeing all the good that would come out of it?

Love (we're talking the broad definition) can be in many forms, all equally as important. Each act of love has the potential to change a moment or a life. The great mystery is that we do not know which it will be, but tossing numerous acts of love to the winds increases the effect on the world. The key is to do something -- something without thought of how it will benefit us, only with the thought of how it would benefit the world. Broaden the traditional definition of love, broaden the definition of that which can be love. The survival of the spirit is in loving, not being loved, and when we are devoid of loving, we are devoid of life. Whether two-legged or four-legged, family or friend, human or pet, the most important thing is to love. Love something. Love someone. And do it completely.