Tree Truths at Lake Hope

For the countless hours I spent climbing and falling in love with trees as a child, I realized recently that beyond the maple, the oak, and the pine I don’t really know who they are.   So, I bought a book and learned a couple things.  Trees have been around for over 350 million years, which to put in some perspective, exceeds human existence by 349,800,000 years.   There are over 80,000 different species covering almost a third of the earth’s land surface, ranging in size from tiny Arctic Willows who stand just a few inches tall, to the grand Redwoods who can stretch to over 300 feet. They’re kind of a big deal.

There’s a lake named Hope just an hour and 15 minutes away from me, and on an unusually warm Sunday last weekend, I went to meet her.  I packed my backpack with the usual: journal, book, pen, mace, water, granola bars, flashlight, camera and now my tree identification book, and headed in her direction.  As I got closer, the roads became hillier and windier, reminding me of my old motorcycle hikes.  In and of itself, this drive was an adventure.  Rollercoasting over the hills of Zaleski State Forest, I even lost my belly like I loved to do when I was a little girl.

After acquainting myself with the names of the leaves swimming together in the soup of the forest floor, I arrived at a clearing with a picnic table and just a few minutes left of sunlight, Hope reflecting all around me.  With nature as my greatest muse, tucked away in the safety of its wardrobe, I was inspired to finalize some thoughts.

In considering resolutions for the New Year, I felt that mine weren’t resolutions as much as they were principles and truths I’d like to live by.  Here is how and who I want to be (these are in no way suggestions on how to live life, unless you’re me):

Do everything you want to do, so long as it doesn’t hurt others or yourself.

Stop reminding yourself your dogs are going to die someday every time you hug them. It’s seriously not healthy for any of you.

Pay very close attention.  Become intimate with your senses.  Look again and closer and know why what pleases you, does.  Really taste your wine, the body, the tannins, the viscosity, the structure as it all harmonizes around your tongue.  Listen to the lyrics, melodies, instruments, and beats of the songs that you love and try to understand why you love them.  Discern the aesthetic and memorandum in that piece of art that moves you.  Smell the books, the pipe tobacco, the forest – feel the furry moss, spiny leaves, rutted bark and sweaty soil.

Live in balance.

  • Conviction and an open mind
  • Passion and composure
  • Preparation and spontaneity
  • Softness and grit
  • Empathy and assertiveness
  • Structure and fluidity
  • Healthy diet and grilled cheese sandwiches
  • Work and play
  • Whiskey and wine
  • Relation with yourself and relation with your others
  • Left brain and right brain
  • Purpose and pointlessness
  • Humility and pride
  • Giving and accepting
  • The boardroom and the forest
  • Heels and cowgirl boots
  • Dogs and horses and cats  

Get your head back in the clouds. When you can afford to, step away from the system to dream a little. Look up, down and all around and wonder.

Figure out your beliefs.  Know why you believe in what you believe in and revisit and revise as needed.  Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know if I actually believe that anymore,” and then figure it out.

Know why you want what you want.  Don’t be afraid to realize, “I don’t know if I actually still want that.”  Lose sight of your illusions.

Sacrifice your need for certainty. Unfold, instead, like John O’Donohue’s river.

Sleep with a dog or 2.  The furrier, the better.

Figure out your roots.  You come from a wealth of interesting human beings and cultures.  Learn the family narrative that wrote you.

When you can, be strong. When you can’t, be gentle.

Get comfortable just being.  Pursue Einsten’s sacred awe.

Steer clear of the cow path.  Be as unconventional as you’re designed to be.  Get weird.

One thing at a time.  So you want to be a top sales exec, write a book, produce a film and start a foundation for the suffering?  Let’s start with matching socks.

Don’t forget your child.  Not your literal child, but your inner child.  Although if I had a literal child, I would try not to forget them, too. “Every child is an artist.  The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”  – my man Picasso – be a big, awkward looking child sometimes.  Paint a piece of crap.

Avoid feelings of entitlement.  This life is unfair.  The entitlement lives in the expectation of it being otherwise.

Be extraordinarily kind, considerate, and merciful, so long as it’s not at your own expense.  If it is at your expense, consider it’s worth.

Forget the sentiment of fearlessness.  Accept your fear, try to understand it, and meet it with courage. When your courage is insufficient, ask to borrow a loved one’s.  Lean.

Discipline the move.  During the moments you think you’re least capable of it, just stretch.  Stretch yourself as stretchy as you can stretch.  And then, brush your teeth. And then, make coffee.  And then, …

Give what you can as often as you can.  Selflessly, because you’re a bleeding heart.  Selfishly, because it’s proven to reduce stress levels.

Don’t mistake that bleeding heart for weakness.  Blood also evinces conquest and survival.

Accept your sadness and pain.  Fortify it with the things you love.  Massage the broken tissue surrounding the dagger in your heart with the tender mitts of the beauty in your life.

Apply appropriate pressure, to your heart and to your dreams.

Cry when you need to and stop being embarrassed about it.  Not like on the subway, or in a subway, but at home or in your car or the window seat on the airplane.  Avoid eye contact with the other birdies though. 😉

Avoid absolutes.  They threaten the life of learning and unfolding and self-actualization that you desire to live.  Grey Goose is more forgiving.

Don’t aim for resolute happiness.  Treat this life as a collection of moments.  Don’t surrender to a bad day. When you have a bad moment, try to follow it up with two good ones, even if it’s just a 1. flashback to a memory with your niece, and 2. imagining what she’s doing right now.  Aim to have more joyful moments than not.  Know what brings you that joy and pilgrimage for it.  Many things are out of your control but this isn’t completely.  You really can steer this ship through and out of dark and murky waters. You really can do this.

Trust yourself.  You’re a survivor, by nature, by nurture, by defeat, by default.   You’re intentionally designed and well equipped to know your way.  Make your decision and trust it.

Accept compliments and credit.  Don’t give all the glory away when you did something pretty cool worth recognition.

Write more. Read more. Volunteer more. Do more yoga. Get more massages.  Eat more cheese.

Treat forgiveness as an ongoing practice, not a graduation.  Forgive yourself and others as often as you need to.  And when you’ve forgotten you’ve forgiven, do it again.  Cheryl says: “Forgiveness doesn’t sit there like a pretty boy in a bar. Forgiveness is the old fat guy you have to haul up a hill.” She also says…“The story of human intimacy is one of constantly allowing ourselves to see those we love most deeply in a new, more fractured light. Look hard. Risk that.”

Practice acceptance.  Control the controllable. Let the rest go.  Salute it from the shores of a bourbon on the rocks.

Choose your battles. Consider what really matters, what you really want, what your end game is.  If you must go to war, approach it with David’s courage and Mother Teresa’s mercy.

Seek to learn something new every day, even if it’s just an aggressive, crisp 1 syllable word or a juicy, voluptuous 4 syllable word.  Sink your teeth in the delight of discovery.

Always put yourself in the other person’s shoes, even if they’re a little tight-laced.  Try to understand.

Make time for the things you love. You have 168 hours in a week, 45 of which you’re working, 42 of which you’re sleeping (hopefully), netting you with 81 hours to do what you want.  Stop making the time excuse.  Stop cancelling your piano lessons.

Keep yourself and others honest.  Ask the hard questions.  Be prepared for the hard answers.  Have a safe place ready to hug you, whether it’s the solitude of a cabin in the woods or the arms of your best friend.

Ask the dumb question.  Know that regardless of what they say, dumb questions do exist and yours is probably one of them and they’re all going to giggle about it behind your back.  But, be willing to sacrifice your credibility in order to truly build it.

Be shamelessly delighted.  So what if you’re 31 and still giggle when you lose your belly on windy, hilly roads, pretending you’re on a roller coaster.  So what if you look like a Dora the Explorer alien admiring every element of the woods as if you’ve never seen a weed before.  Cling to this.

Listen to understand and really lean in.  Ignore your to-do list as it tries to interrupt.

Don’t rush your learning process.  Appreciate the stairway to knowledge and wisdom.

Shed.  Abandon.  Give up…

… your aspiration for perfection.

… the influence of societal constructs on your path.

… your false or faded delusions.

… the things that no longer serve you.

… the idea you have of who you are, if you aren’t anymore.

… the lives you didn’t choose.

… the lives that didn’t choose you.

… your need for certainty.

… the sentiment of “fearlessness.”

… the sentiment of “happiness.”

… hesitation.

Turn the “I should’s” and “we should’s” into plane tickets and memories.

Admire the shadow you cast.  She’s kind of cute!

Revisit Lake Hope many more times.  Take shelter beneath the outstretched arms of these friendly giants much more often, especially now that you know their names.

Feed yourself all of this yummy stuff.  The stuff that gives you feathers and perches in your soul and never stops at all.

Hope is the thing with feathers 
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity, It asked a crumb of me

– Emily Dickinson

All You Need is…

…sleep.  You were swell, John Lennon, but love can wait.  Beginning this past Sunday night, I embarked on one of my less thrilling, more sacrificial adventures.  “Sleep Restriction Therapy” is what the medical community calls it, which is a nice term for sleep anorexia/brain cell starvation/memory kamikaze bomber/quality of life slayer/90 year old doppelganger creator/tired elf.

As an idiopathic insomniac (there’s got to be a better term for it), I haven’t slept well since I was a child and there’s not an explanation as to why.  After participating in two sleep studies (the first one was inconclusive), my docs, perplexed, showed me my charts.  No signs of apnea, no signs of resting leg syndrome, just a brain that dives down through levels 1, 2 and 3 of the sleep stages, and then at REM, seemingly out of breath, I resurface and awaken.   Perhaps an underactive sleep system, or an overactive awakening system, or an allergy to REM.  Either way, I’m not swimming in the Zzzzz’s.

So, they prescribed me Ambien, which knocked me out for the most part, but for the other part, made me feel really good and warm and awakened, which as much as I try to follow the Buddha’s lead on, I’m pretty sure his idea didn’t involve narcotics.  And… it made me think I had cats.  Like I had this new cat, no joke, that I would catch myself petting.  It sat next to me on the couch, silent as nonexistence, while I pet it.  Every now and then I knew it wasn’t there, but still my hand eventually found its way back to it’s hairless, boneless, nameless back.

During the days following the nights, whether they were sleepless or renditions of the Cats musical, I started losing my memory, acuity, fresh ideas, inspirations, ability to learn and retain, to interpret and concisely communicate, to reason, to measure, to calculate (not numbers, not happening), to wonder (lots of wandering, no wondering).  I felt like a blunted, dulled shell of myself, but thankfully still with enough lacquer to realize it.  So, when I went to Peru with only enough pills left to get me through half of the trip and no hope for a legal prescription refill there, against the doc’s recommendation to slowly ween off it, I quit.

Which brings me here today. Sleep Restriction Therapy is exactly what it sounds like.  You restrict yourself to a certain amount of sleep (4-5 hours for me) for a certain number of nights (3-4 for me), then slowly give yourself a half an hour a night back until you attain a healthy number.  It’s a behavioral therapy that works to improve the efficiency of your sleep by limiting the amount of time you allow yourself in bed.  Triggers some kind of reset. I’m on my 4th night, and battling the resentful feelings growing toward the two furry critters who’ve literally slept three quarters of the past six years and are snoring on each other on my lap.  It’s kind of brutal, but, I’ve always been a proponent of temporary pain for long term gain.  Not in the peck and ab-plastering muscle shirt kind of way; closer in brotherhood with the monks.

Part of the issue is that I just really enjoy being awake.  I enjoy the quietness of both the morning and the night, and I like to do a lot of things, which require a conscious state.  Since I am awake right now, and spend most of my time here, I thought it’d be appropriate to share two of my favorite poems from two of my favorite awakened people:

May You Awaken

By John O’Donohue, Irish poet, philosopher, and Catholic scholar

May you awaken to the mystery of being here
and enter the quiet immensity of your own presence.
May you have joy and peace in the temple of your senses.
May you receive great encouragement when new frontiers beckon.
May you respond to the call of your gift and find the courage to follow its path.
May the flame of anger free you from falsity.
May warmth of heart keep your presence aflame and may anxiety never linger about you.
May your outer dignity mirror an inner dignity of soul.
May you take time to celebrate the quiet miracles that seek no attention.
May you be consoled in the secret symmetry of your soul.
May you experience each day as a sacred gift woven around the heart of wonder.

The Journey

By Mary Oliver, American Poet/Author

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

The Buddha says, “You’re body is precious.  It is our vehicle for awakening.  Treat it with care.”  Thanks, Buddha.  Let’s  revisit this sentiment post-therapy.  Until then, my friends, I’ve included a pixie of a song from one of my favorite artists Lisa Hannigan featuring Ray LaMontagne, to hopefully lull you, and eventually me, to sleep.


New York Minutes

This past week I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about time. First, I sell the keeping of it for a company named after the Greek God of it, Kronos (he was also known for eating his babies but that’s for a different day).  Second, I was staying in it’s very bright square in New York City for an industry convention.  Third, I decided to preamble the work trip with a short holiday by flying in early to stay with my sister and a friend in Brooklyn, during which time we visited some remarkable timeless marks.

Of our many stops was The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Established in 1870 and an architectural masterpiece itself, The MET is the largest art museum in the U.S., holding more than 5,000 years of art from all over the world, across various cultures.  5,000 years.  If my math is correct, which it’s likely not, that’s around two hundred generations worth of creation.  If my math is incorrect, which it likely is, that’s still a lot.  The MET has also been sued for displaying looted and stolen antiquities, so more than thrice, I had to refrain from breaking into the pink panther theme song and creep.

While perusing the artwork, I thought how curious it is that, while human beings and most other things can’t, art can defy time. The sky, landscapes and even the earth’s coordinates, all succumb to it, but these artists, although long passed, here they live together; their inspirations, ideas, visions, decisions from the mediums to the textures to the colors, their originalities, insecurities, prides, joys, pains, dedications, breakthroughs… their time; the things they didn’t do so they could do this, the lives they didn’t live so they could live this, the total opportunity cost; all of it preserved.  From Lithuanian born Ben Shahn and his heart gripping street art, to French Dubuffet and his humanistic authenticity, to Balthus and the resentment represented by his monsters, they each had stories, told stories, and those stories live on here.  Their brains did this, their hands did this, their hearts did this – a trinity of creation in a victorious battle against time.  During moments in time far away, but no less real than this one, they did this.  They touched then what people see and feel now.

Another day I spent an afternoon in the New York Public Library, another remarkable illustration of art both defying and in concert with time, working from a room full of people much quieter than me, beneath two mermaid angels carved into the ceiling. If I could have a super hero power, it would be to acquire all of the knowledge and wisdom of the world.  If I could have two super hero powers, I would be a time traveler, which might lend to my appreciation for art and books because for me, they offer that.  A good book, a little bit of time, and an Ann of Green Gables imagination can transport you anywhere, anytime.  If I could have three super hero powers, it would be to get rid of this hyena laugh so I stop risking getting kicked out of places and losing friends.

Touched by the stateliness, strength and quality of the structure, the softness of the marble, the ornateness of the detail, the smell of the old books, the exhibits of Henri-Charles Guerard, the original written manuscripts from Thoreau’s Walden, and the time spent on it all, I found myself again in awe of the durability and sustainability of art against time. Life was hustling and bustling just outside the library’s Goliath doors, and here I was safely tucked away in a time capsule full of boundless words, beautifully bound.   How much I love so much of this world and many of its inhabitants.  How much I feel like a little mouse.  How long I could stay here, if only they would let me.

Another inspiring visit was to architect James Renwick, Jr.’s beautiful Neo-Gothic-style Roman Catholic church, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a sobering commandment of reverence like a mountain, regardless of one’s faith or lack thereof. Erected in 1878, lined by statues of renowned saints glowing above candles lit in remembrance and offering, pews dotted by tourists and worshippers and those in between, echoes of the entrance into and exit out of prayer, I was humbled to tears.  Here we all were.  Strangers with timeless desires, to experience God, history, art, beauty and/or relation and/or all of the above, like those who’ve come and gone before us.

Just outside the venerable peace of all three institutions, urgency lived on in the electricity of New York City life. Time was moving forward uncontrollably.  People were rushing to work, dinner reservations, landmarks, shows, to capture a final picture before heading to the airport, to escape the rain.  Horns everywhere screaming “GO!”  Duality reigned.  The necessity to balance the deadline with the “you” time was overwhelming.  We seem to have so little time to spare, until we step into the right place and realize that in some moments, it’s temporarily endless, and absolutely necessary, and we should and really can sit still.

The MET – timeless art. The NYPL – timeless story.  St. Patrick’s Church – timeless reverence.  The human – timeless desires for it all.  Depictions of mortal visions converted into immortal conceptions.  So much thought and attention, both fleeting, and forever.  How much time gives us, and how much it takes away.  How generously it serves us, and how quietly and unassumingly it brings us to our knees; the greatest healer and ultimate assassin, the host of life and death.  A prodigious escape artist,  how precious and rare it is.  How imperative it is to spend it wisely.  No matter what, while breathing, we at least have time.  You might have nothing else to spend, but still have that.



The Quickening Art

I like my friends how I like my music, diverse and in abundance, and I was thankful to ring in 2017 with lots of both. Two sales execs, a yoga instructor and a chef road trip it to Nashville to visit a singer/songwriter for New Year’s Eve.  With one deep in contemplation writing haikus in the backseat, one balancing her checkbook, and another twerking out the passenger window, I had no concerns.  Except:

I hope Amy and JoAnne are okay that I testosteroned our girls’ trip by the last minute addition of my friend Max, whom they’ve never met. Total girl foul.

I hope Max doesn’t pick up that they might not be. Because we’ve got 4 days and 760 miles of road together.

I hope they don’t mind sleeping in the same apartment. Because my sister Katy can only sleep the two of us comfortably, while the neighbor lending us her apartment can sleep three.

What will we talk about? Besides Japanese poetry and popping, locking and dropping it.

What will we listen to? As it turns out, each other.

We arrived in Nashville late Friday night in a cloud of hazy, lazy travel stupor which evaporated into excitement as soon as we saw Katy run-walking (her usual method of transportation) from her apartment complex to help us unload. After quickly settling in and spritzing on some “had-a-bath,” we honkey-tonked out to the neon lights of Broadway, where we shared a fried bologna sandwich, a few dances (arguably defined), a lot of bourbon, and a relieving synergy.

Throughout the weekend, we shared much more, including family style brunches, mud baths (this calls for a later post), toasts, laughs, culinary masterpieces, secrets, fears, dreams, and an unexpected union. Our last night in Music City, exhausted from the preceding festivities, we rallied for one more Broadway adventure.  As we watched a country band belt out some old jams that took me back to high school days, I scanned the room and noticed I wasn’t the only person acquiescing to nostalgia.  How powerful music is, to summon memories and the emotions that they carry, to summon the spirit of comradery. If it wasn’t for music, Katy wouldn’t live here.  Without its music history, Nashville likely wouldn’t have ranked as a top New Year’s Eve destination.  Without Katy and that ranking, Amy, JoAnne and I might’ve settled elsewhere, and Max might’ve been less enticed to join.

On the drive home, I had that sad feeling that I recognized from when I was a little girl and got to have a friend spend the night and then after so much fun, they left the next day. It turned out I wasn’t the only one suffering the holiday hangover blues, so we decided to spend just one more night together in Columbus.   With the power of music heavy on my mind, I proposed we watch one of my favorite documentaries called “Alive Inside” about the effect music has on people suffering from dementia.

It opens up with a 90 year old beauty who, when asked questions, apologizes for not remembering the answers.  But after listening to Louis Armstrong’s “When the Saints Go Marching In,” she’s suddenly joyfully spitting off memory after memory after memory, her eyes twinkling, testifying, “I didn’t know I could talk so much!”  The viewer witnesses many more patients seemingly come alive through what the philosopher Kant calls “the quickening art.”  A little Cab Calloway and a dormant patient named Henry fills with so much excitement he can barely keep his eyes in his sockets.  After listening to “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” a husband who didn’t recognize his tearful wife looks across the table at her and tells her that he loves her.  A 10 year patient named Denise, while listening to Schubert, pushes away the walker she’s been using every day for the past two years, to dance.  Vistas open up.

We learned that this phenomena exists because the parts of the brain involved in remembering and responding to music are not affected too much in Alzheimer’s or other dementias,  and this is due to the way music enters  our brains in the first place.  Music activates more parts of the brain than any other stimulus.  It’s a cultural intervention, a narrative of our lives, living in the cerebellum not just auditorally, but also visually, and emotionally. It records itself in our motions and emotions when we’re young, which are the last parts of our brains effected by dementia.   And it starts in the womb.  Our brain, the engine of our organs, seeks union at six months, which is when the cerebral cortex can support thought.  Studies show that the patterns of the cries of newborns reflected their mother’s speech, which means that even before we’re born, we’re learning how to sing with another human being.

Music moves people, to memory, to action, to my favorite kind of tears.  I have yet to leave a symphony without a wet eye and a belly full of intense awe. For the patients in “Alive Inside,” the music, through memory, reawakens their souls, restoring a sense of freedom, choice, control and independence that the illness robbed them of. The narrator states, “We need music.  It awakens in us our most profound safety; the safety of living in concert with each other, and with our own selves.”

We didn’t go to Nashville for the music. Without knowing it, we went to Nashville for what the music meant.

I’ve included the “Alive Inside” trailer in this post, in case you’d like a further glimpse. It’s one of those perfectly sad, perfectly beautiful, detoxifying feel goods that, combined with a hot cup of tea or a full bodied glass of wine, can melt away your wintery, Sunday blues, remind you of your blessings, inspire you to do something,  and make you feel like the good person you are.