On wings and sunlight, harbingers of spring

I’ll parrot an Instagram post I made today…

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After a blizzardy day, the sun decided to make itself known again. This photo says something aspirational to me. Maybe it’s the light, tap-dancing on the storm’s receding waves. Maybe it’s the idea of flight; the allure of escaping, by wing, to warmer climes. The touch of warm sun on cool earth, like spring’s teasing foreplay, as dormant life finds new purchase and scrabbles for its footing amidst a slippery, snow-covered terra (not-so) firma. Or it’s just seagulls, doing what they do.

These cold days, as winter winds down and attempts its last hurrah, I’m drawn to the sea and to watching the birds: the real harbingers of springtime; nests built in a race against the seasonal clock, their spirits (and their birdsong) warming the skies with the slowly-warming days. Today I named seagull moods (despite a dear friend’s observation that maybe this hibernating mermaid needs more hooman interaction):

A blizzard this week, and who knows what the rest of March will bring (of late, it seems to come in like a lion and go out like a pissed-off yeti rather than lamb), it will be weeks before we feel true warmth here in New England. Until then, I’ll watch and wait, planning the next tropical adventure, a continuation of Year of Africa and a land-locked mermaid’s dream; my own spirits warming with the increasing daylight.

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Year of Africa: On wrapping up the year, elephants, and what comes next.

Towards the end of 2016 I sat, dumbfounded, unable to cobble together thoughts that weren’t alternately angry and helpless, or weren’t internal pleas for relief from who-knows-where. A certain level of resigned what-the-f*ck-ness filled and somehow glued me to my spot, writing blocked, spirit dampened.

In December, hoping to move some energy, release some creative something…hoping to get my body out of a place where my mind sat traumatized, I planned two trips to Africa. If there were any hopes of surviving the next 6-12 months (let alone the next 4 years) in this new version of the land I call home, this year would require open spaces, breathtaking nature, empathy, awe, wonder and adventure…

But first, we marched. We marched, some wearing pink hats and some carrying rainbow flags; some hoisting signs and balloons and banners… I didn’t want to go; because a Women’s March seemed exclusionary to me (little did I know what was to come in the following months), but a small-yet-persuasive band of male friends, gay and straight, helped change my mind. I was marching for freedom of speech and body; for the rights of my friends near and far; for equal pay and equal respect and equal human-ness, regardless of colour, accent, sexual preference… I marched because in some ways I felt guilty to be among the privileged whose marriage or healthcare or way of life wasn’t immediately threatened by the disease now infecting the White House. I marched in solidarity. I marched to say f*ck you to the orange disaster.

And for a few weeks, it felt good to be outspoken about politics. And it felt okay to write some things and get some of the crushing inertia off my chest. And, slowly, like an ice floe might creep up on you to encase your ankles in its bone-chilling grasp, it became horrifying to read the news. Because Russia and misogyny and pee tapes and climate deniers and North Korea and Access Hollywood and lies and propaganda and golf outings in lieu of job responsibilities and resignations and firings and more lies…Look! Squirrel!

I lament that we’re in a time where one must be a carefully-crafted brand to get noticed; when quantity (of likes) wins over quality (of most everything); how the president of my country governs rules in 140-word gibberish, his sycophants eating up the doublespeak and rhetoric.

So, when January came and went, then February, and planning was in full gear for Africa trip #1 and Turkish Airlines changed my return flight to include a 2-day layover in Istanbul, I considered it a bonus. More-so in hindsight, now that my passport is worthless there. For the record, Turkey is gorgeous.

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Blue Mosque

Despite the political climate, I was determined to squeeze the most from this year. 2016’s angst would not become 2017’s tumour, if I had anything to do with it. And so 2017 was dubbed Year of Africa (tho only 2-1/2 weeks were spent there in total) …a series of adventures designed to escape a weirdening world and celebrate a half-century on it.

Milestones: I visited 7 countries, stepped foot on 3 foreign continents, experienced myriad cultures; I saw wild elephants, lions, zebras, ostriches, warthogs and more birds than I can name; I restocked my spice cabinet with Zanzibari cardamom (fantastic) and Turkish tea (not so much), cumin from Qatar, cloves from Pemba Island. I spent my 50th birthday in Paris with a favourite human. I named a spirit animal. There’s always an elephant.

D72_5250A couple of years ago, a friend asked me what I thought my spirit animal was. I didn’t have a good answer. Turtle, I wondered. I feel most free when diving. Turtles are remarkable creatures; humble and curious, diligent and persistent. Eagle? I am mesmerised by birds of prey, bald eagles most profoundly. Eagles represent freedom and power and keenness and precision. But the elephant has been a guiding light throughout my life and a recurring theme these last several years. Ganesha, my Hindu patron saint, represents the light of new beginnings; he’s the remover of obstacles. In other cultures, the elephant stands for power and strength; empathy, loyalty, wisdom… I had not seen one in the wild until this summer, yet only recently have I begun to notice the overriding ele theme in my flat. My last day in Botswana burned into my heart an experience I won’t soon forget. And so it’s now more than ever that I am humbled by the magic of elephants.

The doing part of this year was good. My hard work has paid off, duly rewarded with more work. Tho procrastination has paid off as well, rewarded with inner frustration and a book yet-to-be discovered (anyone know a good literary agent…or someone famous?). I gave my Nikon D80 to my niece and I’m excited that she’s got the camera bug too. I put more of my photography out in the world. Some of it, I’d even venture to consider decent. I feel more like a writer and a photographer than I have in ages, and with that comes responsibility: to have integrity, to resist publishing crap for popularity’s sake, to learn the difference between constructive criticism and trolling (and how to respond to each), to find my niche…

I’m ending this year feeling more vulnerable than I started. Like I’ve opened doors I need to walk through or be forever disgusted with my own inability to follow-through on something that has a 50/50 chance to end in disaster. Mind churns: What if I’m wrong? …But what if I’m right?

I’m ending this year feeling conflicted. I’m afraid that the future of intimacy might be at stake. I wonder whether all the good men are walking on eggshells each day, not knowing what to say (or what to do with their hands), lest they be branded a predator. I wonder if we’re overreacting, and in the same breath or thought, I wonder if we’re not reacting loudly enough. Yes, #metoo. And, yes, many of the most fantastic people in my world are men. Yet there are so many assholes in power who still think the rules don’t apply to them, it’s unfathomable. It’s not really all that hard, is it? No means no. Permission must be granted. Call me daft, but most women still don’t like unsolicited dick pix or catcalls or when you talk to our boobs or grab our ass on the subway or use your power to make us feel like we haven’t got any. The men I’ve got in my world already subscribe to this, yet I fear they’re the ones who will pay for #metoo exposing pervasive asshat behaviour.

And I’m ending this year more dedicated than ever to bring what I learn on the mat, off it. To think and feel and do in equal measure; balancing the head and the heart and the body to stay sane in a time where each day’s news bulletins are more absurd and frightening than the previous. To not let equanimity cancel out passion, and let iccha guide the fork-in-the-road decisions: What feels right, usually is. Right isn’t always easy. Easy isn’t always the most fun. The most fun isn’t always the right path. The right path will make itself known if you allow it. Then the journey becomes brighter…

Who’s with me in calling for peace and love and compassion and empathy and fairness and kindness and humility and integrity to be the prevailing tendencies in 2018?

A Year of Dog Wisdom: Reflections on what this year had in store.

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Last year, I wrote an article called On Messing Up the Bed and Other Things I’ve Learnt From My Dog. Having an aging companion, we begin to reflect upon the things they add to our lives and the things we learn as our days with them become of the numbered variety. And so, on January 1st I tasked myself with a project. Seemingly simple, I was going to take one picture of my dog each day and post on Instagram. Lest I become boring or, gods forbid, that crazy dog lady, I began to add anecdotes and, as the weeks marched on, Dog Wisdom. And so began the #instagus project.

In June, I wrote a story, A Month (or so) of Dog Wisdom, reflecting on the first leg of the journey. Several weeks later, I was asked to write about the project for Pup Journal, and the result was an essay on the whys and hows of embarking (get it?) on this year-long photo essay.

Against a backdrop of fear, name-calling, hate-mongering, loss (So. Many. Untimely. Deaths.), frustration, exhaustion, disbelief, anger, resentment, uncertainty, instability (…) this year, I was determined to focus on the simple truths of what was known, the realities of what lay in front of me and the notion that I am only able to change myself, how I view the world and how I interact with it each day. Dog wisdom channels Yogic wisdom, and one wonders where each begins and ends. Perhaps dogs are, in fact, the ultimate yogis.

During the year, what emanated from the posts were pleas for introspection, for kindness, for an adherence to values. Dogs teach us that there is magic in simplicity, that a methodical butt-sniff tells us if we’re dealing with friend or foe (regardless of breed or gender or silly dog attire), that kindness exists regardless of pedigree or socioeconomic status. And in this surreal year, a year in which humans tried to teach us that we must deceive and humiliate and pimp out our values in order to win; that a book should not be read, and moreover, should be judged by its cover; that some lives are more important than others; that money trumps pretty much everything, I’ve been compelled to live by Dog Wisdom rather than emulate these human actions. If I’m frank, humans have not been good for humanity this year.

I thought it fitting to wrap up this chaotic, merciless, infamous 2016 with a some of my favourite Dog Wisdom posts and reflections on how this galumphing, snoring, sometimes smelly-headed, fart machine helped me get through this year…

While uncertainty reigns, hold fast to the values of truth, integrity, humanity, kindness; appreciate natural beauty. Satya. Ahimsa. Asteya. Bramacharya. Aparigraha.

Dogs don’t see uncertainty around them, the world is just what it is. We humans project our fears, biases and ignorance on the world we encounter each day, while dogs see (and seek) love, food, shelter and kindness. Yoga teaches us 5 Yamas — Satya (truth); Ahimsa (non-harming); Asteya (non-stealing); Bramacharya (restraint); Aparigraha (non-grasping) — I’ve found these to be powerfully simple guides to help get through the overwhelming barrage of negativity that 2016 flung at us.

Dogs help us see that happiness is a good stick, a walk in the woods on a perfectly crisp fall day, and a warm place to sleep. They teach us to cherish the little things and seek adventure (or at least the spirit of it) in the everyday routine. 2016 sucked in countless ways. But there were highlights, too. There were parties and friends coming to visit; faraway holidays and European chocolates; neighbors helping neighbors and free concerts; hiking and kayaking and swimming in the ocean and beautiful sunrises…

Set intention, allow for the unknown, and the Universe responds in interesting ways.

Ever notice that when you stop fighting and yearning for something very specific, if you really identify what it is you’d like to see realised and stop making things so complicated, that opportunities and ideas and resources make themselves available? Dogs seem to go at their days with the intention of a nice romp or a long walk or simply earning a treat. The chased squirrels and found tennis balls and random dogish interactions are part of the journey. Canines show us that it’s our job to conjure up a willingness to explore every day, and embrace a belief that there’s just a little bit of magic left in the Universe to help things work out.

Focus intently on that which is in front of you. Expect bumps because there are no perfectly smooth paths; in doing so, distractions won’t warrant that much attention when they arise.

Yoga sutra 1.30 says that there are several kinds of obstacles that can be expected (doubt, carelessness, laziness, failure to detach from want, ungroundedness, illness, etc.) that distract us and get in the way of our path. By focusing on the immediate, the real, the stuff going on in front of our eyes, we can live less mired by the “what-ifs” that usually don’t come to fruition unless we let them. By paying attention, we can get more out of what we’ve got instead of attaching expectation (or anticipation of failure) to what may never come to pass. In this way, we don’t take for granted the good, we can let go of what isn’t serving us, and most of all, we can appreciate the cosmic humour in daily life.

Dog Wisdom: 99% of car rides result in an adventure. Our minds get mired in the “what-ifs” of misadventure that detract from the possibility of great adventures ahead.

This is the important stuff: Taking time to sniff out the truth. Listening to the heart. Letting go of what keeps us small and fearful. Surrounding yourself with those who care about your imperfect self. Giving to, or doing for, those who need it more than you do. Laughing at, and learning from, your mistakes. Sharing what makes you feel strong. Spending an afternoon in the forest. Listening to the soft snoring of a woods-weary pup…


Happy 2017, my friends… here’s to a new year full of possibility and new adventures.

And to 2016: You’ve been unceremoniously unfriended. Please don’t write.

[this essay cross-posted on Medium]

Hometown exploring: adventures in Dogtown

There is a magical place in Gloucester, which is said to house the spirits of witches, the ghosts of its working class and vagrant denizens from the 17th and 18th Centuries, and the memories of a band of dogs who became feral as their owners died off or abandoned them amongst the rocks and boulders; dumped in a place formed by glaciers’ terminus. Dogtown, Massachusetts. Anita Diamant wrote an exceptional historical novel set here, The Last Days of Dogtown.

This is a place I go to get lost and find myself healed by nature, its rocky, windy, rooted trails wending their way through the woods. And, it’s a place I’ve been lost more times than possibly any other. Take one wrong turn (or, like today, let the dog choose the trail) and you’ve arrived squarely in what I call “land of the giant boulders,” a wooded, natural obstacle course whose gauntlet requires keen attention and preferably Vibram soles to survive. It’s a tame version of the Fire Swamp, devoid of ROUSs, lightning sand (tho during the wetter months, its mud pits quite rival) or fire spurts.

During the Great Depression, Roger Babson commissioned the carving of inspirational sayings on 30+ boulders strewn throughout the woods. One end of the trail starts with Truth. The other end is Work. On the trail, we’re reminded to Be On Time. And of the importance of Integrity. Intelligence. Courage. Loyalty. Initiative. Kindness. Ideas. Study. Ideals. Spiritual Power (this is emblazoned on rock that towers 5 or 6 metres high; coincidence?). Scattered elsewhere in the woods (most of which I’ve found; many after being lost over the years): Prosperity Follows Service. If Work Stops Values Decay. Be True. Help Mother. Get A Job. Keep Out Of Debt. Use Your Head. Never Try Never Win.

2016-10-08-13-21-25-1So today, I started with Truth. Found Courage and Loyalty along the way; Kindness, Ideas… stopped for some bouldering on Spiritual Power. Got lost somewhere after Work; a wrong trail taken and a bridge crossed that I haven’t seen in eons. Got found before I reached Never Try Never Win.

Sometimes I let Gus choose which trail to take, and sometimes he gets us lost. Part of the fun in exploring, even in a place you’ve been countless times before, is finding your way back after taking the wrong trail. So, on a day that began with a yoga class focused on the energies of living as an intentioned, breathing, thinking, doing being, a hike in the woods amongst these reminders (Truth = Satya; Kindness = Ahimsa; Ideas = Iccha; Spiritual Power = Samadhi) was perfect.

2016-10-08-15-03-15Today was most certainly a win!

On Fernweh and Being ‘Fromless’

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Fernweh is a German word that means, among other things, farsickness. Or, much more simply, wanderlust. Where wanderlust assumes just a desire to travel and see new places, farsickness – and I can really relate to this concept – it implies a restless need to be Somewhere Else Soon; a heartfelt ache to be in a place other than the immediate and familiar; a need to see, hear, smell, touch, taste things which are as yet unknown; a feeling that where your stuff is might be just a stopping point in-between adventures, however wide that gap; a feeling that home is more about a connection you feel to a person (or a people), a place or a space, than a physical, tangible abode.

I remarked to a friend recently that I felt ‘fromless’*

What I meant was that where I live now is a place that is not where I’m from. And where I’m from holds not much for me in the way of nostalgia. The home in which I spent most of my childhood has long since been that which other families’ kids called theirs. That neighborhood has sprawled and morphed into something I don’t even recognise (or care to). The girl scout house that sat behind mine when I was of girl scouting ilk has long since become McMansionized. The New York City co-op that was my alternate home after my parents’ split has long since been occupied by nouvelle Lenox Hill up-and-comers.

So northward I came for college and it stuck; or I did, as it were.

Then there were the myriad dorms and sublets and rentals which sufficed for home. And the fabulous flat in the South End with the exposed brick in a bubbling, pulsing, slightly gritty neighborhood and fabulous Sunday scones right down the block. And the house in the suburbs which was, by all accounts, its antithesis. And the also-fabulous flat with its exposed brick and brilliant light, mere blocks to the beach and a painless train ride into Boston; and Saturday egg sandwiches – or scones, which are good but not quite the same as the ones from Claremont Café.

And those were all places to live and play and work and grow and learn. But they’re not where I’m from.

Because where I’m from doesn’t exist anymore. Which is a dismally crushing realisation when you’re feeling drawn to parts unknown. Liberating in its pull, perhaps, in that it’s within a conceivable fantasy to Sell It All (or most; there’s always storage) and heed the call of the far-reaching ends of the world. And devastating as a chaser because when you come back, where do you go? Where is “back?” And why? Why there? Why here?

So the second brick-walled flat with its high ceilings and rustic charm becomes, if not where you’re from, then where you’re at. Where you stay becomes as much like home as any other place that might vie for the designation. And where you feel most at peace maybe, just maybe, becomes where you’re from.

dsc_2302-2Here’s where I think Fernweh makes its mark: It calls you to seek out what’s important. It makes you curious, and perhaps even a little fearless. It draws you to identify that which provides a sense of comfort and ease and well-being and inspiration and fullness. It compels you to distinguish what categorically does not.

While being fromless will never go away, having farsickness is perhaps what the doctor can neither diagnose nor cure. And that, I think, is a good thing.

 


*As far as I can tell, I’ve coined the term fromless. If it becomes a thing, I’d like credit. Merci.