Gotta Please Yourself

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I cheated on a college exam in 1971. I didn’t trust my response, and my best friend’s paper was right there. I mean, it was right there…so I took a peek.  When I saw her solution, assuming that she was more intelligent than I was and knew more than I did, I changed my answer. Consequently, we both had the wrong answer and my original conclusion had been correct all along. I am sorry for this and all of my sins”

“Well, replied my imaginary vicar in his most understanding and priestly voice, “If it still haunts you after all this time, I doubt you repeated the offense. Hopefully, by now you’ve learned to trust yourself and have faith in what you know.  Now, say, three Hail Marys, one Our Father, and throw in a couple Glory Be’s just to be on the safe side. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.  By the way, aren’t you a Unitarian?”

“Well…Thank you for the blessing. Thanks for listening…and well…yes, I am a proud UU, but wait…what about the anonymity of the confessional? How do you know who I am?”

“Think about it, my dear, I’m your personal imaginary priest, existing only in your mind, so, of course, I know who you are.  By the way…you could have been a little more progressive and made me a woman, a UU minister, or Lay Pastoral caregiver, or better yet…a wise grandmotherly type. You know…a sage or a crone… but then…I imagine you wanted to keep that bit about the confessional.”

“Yes…Father, even as a UU, I appreciate the comfort of the confessional. You know what they say…confession is good for the soul. But if it’s all the same to you, I’ll skip the Hail Marys and throw in a few Mary Olivers instead. I’ll see what I can do about the rest. Those Glory Be’s might be a stretch for a Unitarian.”

‘Maybe the desire to make something beautiful is the piece of God that is inside each of us.’

Mary Oliver

“Wait, before you go and send me off into the ether of your imagination, let me remind you that even if you don’t realize or recognize it, you really are a unique and wonderful being.  There’s no need to make yourself in the image of anyone else.  Learn from others, but don’t try to be them. After all, you can’t make cantaloupe taste like strawberries, and why would you want to, they’re both so great as they are.  On the other hand, you can make grapes taste like cotton candy, so maybe that’s not a great analogy.  My point is, even with all your perceived faults and failings…you are here at this time and in this space, and the world needs you to be you. 

Now, go and sin no more…but…if you must…which let’s face it is pretty inevitable…think of something more imaginative and fun than this not having faith in yourself thing. Keep life interesting. I’m sure you’ll think of something…you always do.”

But it's all right now
I learned my lesson well
You see, you can't please everyone
So you got to please yourself

...Rick Nelson, Garden Party

My lifelong insecurity and lack of self-confidence have shaped how I live, how I think, and the choices I’ve made. Maybe now, as a senior citizen, it’s time that I reframe and change some of my thinking. The only time it’s too late to change course is when you’re going over the falls…and… then…it actually is too late.  On the other hand…aren’t there deathbed confessions and foxhole conversions? And in the movies, at least, you can pop up like a cork in the water at the bottom of the falls and journey on…wet and choking on water…but… still moving nevertheless.

In the past few months, I have joined two different groups…a writing workshop sponsored by our local Senior Center and a group of photographer friends that I know from my summers on Star Island off the coast of New Hampshire. It is my membership in these two cohorts that have prompted my recent self-reflection. Both groups deal with different but related art forms, yet our gatherings are surprisingly similar. Each group provides room for each member to share what we’ve written or what we’ve captured with our lenses since the previous meeting, then we receive gentle, supportive feedback from our peers and instructor.  It’s a process that is both terrifying and exhilarating. By sharing what we’ve created…what we’ve thought or seen… we are taking a risk.  When we pull back the curtain, we are revealing a part of ourselves…often a very personal, tender part of our deepest, truest selves, we are trusting that the gifts we offer will be received by friendly hands who will hold, protect, and cradle them…carefully, lovingly and protectively. The kindness and support that we offer one another are at times almost palpable. We empathize with each presenter because we have stood in their shoes.

Yes, terrifying and exhilarating indeed. For me, however, that’s the easy part.

“Geesh,”…my imaginary priest, has emerged again…”If that’s the case why do you do it?”

“Sometimes, I ask myself that very question.”

Being in the company of such talented writers and photographers helps me to grow and learn. I used to be jealous of the great shot that others captured but I missed, or a paragraph full of figurative language and evocative vocabulary that I wish I had conceived. Fortunately, I have since evolved to find joy and delight in seeing the world through other eyes. I can truly appreciate what they see or what they write without envy or covetousness.

The difficulty for me comes when I compare how I write or what I see, frame, click, and edit to what others imagine and create. In my mind, I never seem to measure up, so I often find myself emulating and experimenting with their style or process.

“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”

– Sylvia Plath

This morning, I reserved tickets at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. During his lifetime, this well-known Dutch painter completed at least 900 canvases. Someone did the math and concluded that during the time he was actively working, he would have produced a new painting every 36 hours. Yet, during his lifetime, his style of painting was not appreciated. He sold just a single painting. Today his works range in price from millions to tens of millions to hundreds of millions of dollars. Vincent’s untimely death is still debated. Whether it was suicide or accidental remains a mystery. He undoubtedly had a troubled life…but continued to paint nevertheless…899 unsold canvases. He observed his contemporaries and experimented with their approaches and techniques, but his beautiful, unique style could not be denied. His vision remains.

Three Hundred meters west of the Van Gogh museum, the imposing Rijksmuseum is hosting the largest exhibit ever assembled of the works of another Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer. Vermeer enjoyed modest success, primarily within the confines of the small city of Delft while he lived in the 1600s. Although never completely forgotten, he was overshadowed by the bigger rock stars of the day. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s…centuries later… that his genius was really recognized and appreciated. Today only thirty-six known oil paintings remain, and yet, for an opportunity to see them, tickets must be purchased months in advance and are already selling out.

Perhaps as I stand before the canvases created by these two different Dutchmen from two different times and with two very distinctive styles and visions, I’ll remember the example they provide me across the centuries. Just be who you are. Find joy in what you do and simply please yourself.

“Creativity is inventing, experimenting, growing, taking risks, breaking rules, making mistakes, and having fun.”

Mary Lou Cook

“Oh! Thank God!,” exclaims my nearly forgotten cleric. “You’re finally getting it, and I can shed this scratchy robe and ditch this incredibly small booth you imagined me into. You couldn’t have conjured a comfortably clad monk on a sunny mountaintop? Oh, right…your fear of heights. Sorry. Well…It’s going to take you a while to completely adapt to this new attitude and you’ll need practice, but you’re on the right track. Does it really matter if people are inspired by what you write or look with awe at your images? Without a doubt, that would be nice, but…come on, just be you. That’s more than enough. Just being who you are is the only thing the universe actually demands.

“As for me,” he concludes. “I say…Amen, Blessed Be, Peace out, and Rock on!”

Steeples, Chimneys, and the State House Golden Dome
Montpelier, Vermont 2022

Stay Where Your Feet Are

“Wherever your feet are let your head and heart be also.”

S D Armstrong
Covid Caution Comfort

Living alone and in covid caution, I find that I am spending an inordinate amount of time conversing with that tiny little voice in my head. We’re like best buddies spending hours together in front of the fire, sipping mango-ginger tea discussing the profound and the mundane. Sometimes we agree on a conclusion, but we often talk in circles. Lately, we’ve been discussing being present, what exactly that means, and perhaps more importantly…how to achieve it. One of us will stress the importance of living in the moment while the other blethers on about making plans and considering options. We wonder… if we only have the present moment…what happens to memories of the past or desires for the future? It’s confusing.

I know I don’t want to live my life constantly looking backward at the past or the way things used to be. But, conversely, I don’t want to live my life in a future of…someday I’m gonna… or… it’ll be better when. Wouldn’t it be a pity if I fail to recognize each unique, unrepeatable moment by remaining stuck in a past that has already taught all its lessons or in anticipation of a future full of what-ifs? Perhaps living in the present means existing in the space between.

“Life can be found only in the present moment. The past is gone, the future is not yet here, and if we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment, we cannot be in touch with life.”

Thich nhat hanh

Since I prefer discussions to nearly any form of physical activity, I find it rather remarkable that I…a rather slug-like person…have more than one friend who has ridden a bicycle from one shore of the United States to the other. Years ago, my friend, Linda, was the first to take up the challenge. Her route was mapped, and her stops were planned. She was trained, fit, and ready to go. She dipped her bike tires in the Pacific Ocean near Portland, Oregon, then set off to meet three young men who were going to make the trip with her. Together they began the adventure.

At some point early on, Linda became separated from her companions. In those pre-cellphone pre-internet days, with no hope of reconnecting with the guys, she wandered into a cafe to grab a cup of coffee and ponder her next move. Before long, she was relating her tale of woe to four of the coffee shop regulars who were seated at a nearby table. She was disheartened and discouraged. Could she go on alone, should she go on alone, or did it make more sense to pack up her bike and take the next flight home? The old men listened carefully, and then the one with the salt and pepper whiskers and a Johnny Cash t-shirt put down his cup and looked at her earnestly. Then, slowly and deliberately, he asked, “Can you do today?”

“Sure, I can do today,” she replied.

“Then do today. You can always quit tomorrow.”

And so it went all across the United States. Each day she would rise and ask herself. “Can you do today? Then she’d add,” You can always quit tomorrow.”

Knowing that she only had to do today and could always quit tomorrow gave Linda permission to cast worries aside and be fully awake and aware during this never to be repeated adventure. Together with the preparations and conditioning she had done, this simple idea allowed her to move forward one day at a time while staying right where her feet were… in the toe clips of her bike…alive, joyful, and open. She lived each day enjoying the wind in her hair, feeling the aching muscles of the climb, marveling at the beauty of the earth that surrounded her, grateful for the blessings of people she met along the way, and truly living in the present moment.


You Can Always Quit Tomorrow
Photo credit: Pexels-Pixabay

“Time is a very misleading thing. All there is ever, is the now. We can gain experience from the past, but we can’t relive it; and we can hope for the future, but we don’t know if there is one.”

George Harrison”

It’s probably true that if I want to hear God laugh, I just have to tell Her my plans. On the other hand, having a plan…preparing for what might lie ahead…takes much of the worry out of an uncertain future and allows us to live with confidence that all will be well. Using lessons from the past, we can see the path forward and can relax, be present, and delight in the ride.

It’s not necessary to forget or ignore the past to live in the moment. Just don’t stay there. Check the weather report, study for the test, make sure there’s gas in the tank, and then let it be what it will. We’ve done what we can. Pay attention, savor, and enjoy. Then even if things don’t work out the way we want or expect we’ll know that everything will be all right.

All of life is lived in short, bite-sized pieces…days, hours, minutes. Ordinary moments. None of us can do more than live the best now we can. We don’t have to do life all at once. We just have to do it one day at a time. And…there are times when we need to remind ourselves…that each day is lived one hour…one minute… at a time. Sometimes it’s enough just to do that one hour…that single minute, knowing that even in moments of pain, despair, fear, and grief, living in the moment can help us find peace, hope, and grace. 

“Living in the moment means letting go of the past and not waiting for the future. It means living your life consciously, aware that each moment you breathe is a gift.”

Oprah Winfrey
The Chapel at Sunrise
Star Island 2021

One summer, as the week was winding down at the Arts Retreat on Star Island, the minister for the week, Rev Bill Clark, gave us this instruction “Don’t leave the island,” he said, “until you leave the island.”

All of our off-island problems would be waiting for us onshore when The Thomas Layton docked in Portsmouth. So why pick up that luggage before it’s absolutely necessary? With seven miles separating us from the mainland, why squander our remaining time concerning ourselves with that we couldn’t control anyway. Instead, drink in the startling beauty of the star-studded sky, the comforting warmth of friendships, the peace of a chapel full of candlelight, and the orchestral sound of sea birds and waves…remembering to stay where our feet are, living in the glory of now.

The White Island Lighthouse
September 2021

We build our future upon bricks we laid in the past and let go of what we can’t control, realizing the only time we really have is the moment we are living. Sometimes that includes creating the grocery list, putting gas in the car, and making the bed. Mountaintop experiences are rare, so we must find joy in the ordinary, the mundane, and the common. Let the chocolate melt on our tongue. Feel the crunch of snow beneath our feet. Watch the birds at the feeder. Smile at strangers and hold our loved ones close. After all, I ask that wee voice…isn’t that living in the moment and being present for life?

“THIS is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

Psalm 118:24

Epilogue….Two months later, Linda dipped her tires in the Atlantic Ocean in Portland, Maine

Doing My Homework

After this long winter of isolation, when my church offered a class on spiritual exploration, I jumped at the chance. Who knew there would be actual…homework? I haven’t done homework in years. The first assignment was to write a spiritual autobiography documenting our personal religious journey. These we would share together in class. Yikes!

Writing an autobiography of any kind would have been easier if I had taken notes along the way.  As it is, my memories are written on post-it notes, scraps of yellowing paper, and captured in photographs without location or dates…all stuffed in boxes, tucked between the pages of books, left unattended in old suitcases, and scattered across the top of my desk.  To truly make sense of all this ephemera would take much longer than the time allotted for the assigned task, but perhaps I can begin by sorting the debris into stacks and piles.

Gathering the bits together, I realized that I have forgotten a great deal of my life. That realization caused me to feel embarrassed and somehow lacking until I recalled the words of the Irish priest and poet John O’Donahue. “I would love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.” I think that is pretty much how I’ve lived my life… simply being carried along by the current, paddling hard through the rapids and around the rocks, enjoying the sun on my face when drifting on the quiet water, and approaching each new bend with curiosity, wonder, and courage…as well as a wee bit of trepidation and hesitancy. I haven’t spent a great deal of time looking back at the water that carried me.

The Chippewa River…Sylvan’s Solace
October 2020

Creating a lifeline and guessing where I am on it reminded me of when a new woman was invited to join Book Babes, my Vermont book club. She said that she’d like to ask three questions to get to know us.   All of them were unusual for getting acquainted questions, and I’ve forgotten two of them, but the third stuck with me.  She asked each of us in turn how long we wanted to live.  I replied that I wanted to live until I died.  My answer was in no way intended to be cheeky or flip. As I age, I realize that It’s not the length of life that concerns me. It is the loss of meaning, purpose, and joy that worries me. On the other hand, my definition of meaning, purpose, and joy are also constantly evolving.  I have had the example of women who lived…and are living…wonderful active lives well into their nineties, but I have also seen my grandmother disappear into Alzheimer’s. Yes, I definitely want quality…but then… quantity would be nice too.

There are a finite number of marbles in my jar…just so many big trips and grand adventures left.  I’m angry that the pandemic has robbed me of some of those cat-eyes and clearies…places I wanted to go and plans I wanted to make…but in some sense, living through a pandemic is a pretty big shooter as marbles go…a once in a century adventure… just not one I would have chosen.

An Unknown Number of Marbles in The Jar
Photo credit: Pixabay

 “I was going to decide whether I had a marble-worthy day based on how I felt, not based on what I did…I want to approach my time moving forward with an infinite mindset. I want to “feel” supported, loved, seen and I want to depend on my circle of truth-tellers who I’ve chosen to be there for me.”

Maria Shriver, Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper

Even with so many pieces of my spiritual journey misplaced, lost, and forgotten, I am finding the task of condensing it to a manageable size without resorting to an “and then” story very challenging.  Deciding what…or how much…I want to share is also part of the process. Then, too, as I continue my sorting, I discover with very few exceptions…people, places, and events don’t fit easily into a single category.  Most of them overlap, very few stand-alone.  The same people and places keep appearing, transforming, and reappearing. So, I continue to sort and re-sort then sort again.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” 

African Proverb

As I modify and alter the collection of souvenirs and guidebooks from my spiritual journey, a pattern emerges.  Throughout my entire life, I have been supported, shaped, and influenced by my relationship with people…my parents, my siblings, my husband, my children, my teachers, my long-time friends, my new friends, and even momentary connections with strangers. Together we have shared deep discussions about life, spirituality, and ethics, as well as the going rate for the tooth fairy, which way the toilet paper should hang, and jokes on the level of a Fifth-grade boy.  We have held each other in times of loss and pain and spent hours just sitting side by side in silence.

These people have joined me in my travels too. Together we have stood in awe in the mountains of Sedona, been lost inside St Basil’s Cathedral, slept in a wee cottage on the shore of Loch Fyne, watched a storm brew in the Atlantic Ocean, emerged from a 5000-year-old burial mound at Newgrange, and enjoyed countless hours in a darkened theatre in Ontario. Each experience has revealed another facet of what I recognize as sacred and divine. Through my relationships, I have understood, found meaning, and been blessed by these revelations.

“A good friend listens to your adventures. Your best friend makes them with you.”

Unknown

As I stuff all the bits and pieces back in the containers from which I gathered them, it occurs to me that perhaps we write an autobiography not so much for others as for ourselves. Through writing, we give voice to what we already know. I may leave out the twists and turns in the telling, but my path has led me to the perfect destination…the realization that human connection and traveling are spiritual practices. Talking with friends, being with my sisters, planning short jaunts and long trips are no longer inessential distractions or rewards. They are necessary, important, and sacred—what a delightful surprise.

“Do you know what the three most exciting sounds in the world are? Anchor chains, airplane motors, and train whistles.”

George Bailey, It’s a Wonderful Life

Of course, during this pandemic, those were the most difficult things for us to do…travel and be with others, yet we are resilient. We have discovered ways to connect and share our lives without being physically close. We read maps, make plans, and create itineraries for future adventures even as we explore new ways to make meaning and find purpose from our living rooms, dens, and kitchens. And so, the journey continues, and isn’t that an adventure in itself?

Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Rumi

I completed my assignment with time to spare. It was then I remembered the second part…the additional task…write your own epitaph. If one day you stumble across a slab of granite with this one carved into it…you’ll know that it’s me.

“I told you I was sick”

Cemetery on Elm Street, Montpelier, VT