More Than a Place to Occupy

This past Memorial Day weekend, Richie and I visited the Acorn Inn in the Blue Ridge Mountains. While Richie rode his bicycle with friends each day, I loaded Buddy and easel into the car, heading out to paint.

Driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Shenandoah National Forest’s Skyline Drive, I marveled at the clear gradations of blue in the mountains. The Blue Ridge Mountains are old—three hundred million years old—and they once looked like those young upstarts, the Rockies (only one hundred million years old) before time wore them down to their roots. They fold into one another like a mussed up bedspread and for me they are just as cozy. I’m usually a more wide-open sky kind of person, but these mountains seem to hold one protectively, in an embrace.

On my drive, I visited Humpback Rocks mountain farm, a living history site of a typical mountain farm of the 19th (and probably 20th) century. Nestled into the hollow were the one-room chinked log cabin, the log shed and springhouse, the hopper for lye, the pig pen; each building without decoration or extraneous frill, only the spare necessity. I wondered why it all seemed so right. Instead of looking like poverty of the most meagerly sort; it looked instead whole and undivided.

Then I realized that the spare farm fed the body while the natural beauty of the mountain and the crafts its resources inspired, fed the soul.

I own a book titled “Mountain Homespun” by Frances Louisa Goodrich published in 1931. Goodrich had journeyed into the mountains to find its weavers and spinners. She visited with these people at their mountain farms, much like, I am guessing, the one at Humpback rocks, and wrote down their words. Here’s Aunt Liza, ‘upwards in sixty’ talking about the farm in the mountains where she has lived for over forty years: “…it puts feeling on to a body to see the moonshine falling on yon mountain…I don’t know, either, but what I like it here full as well along about daylight, when I’m up soon of a morning and the sky ferninst is all the color of them roses yonder. Here lately there’s been the prettiest kind of a big star, seems like it sorter hates to go out of sight a sun-up.”

Yes, it was a hard living, and a living in poverty by our standards of economic development, but it was also, I think, a rich living by the bigger standard of satisfaction.

I’m a rarin’ to draw it in and see how the spots come out. Shucks, ain’t it grand, the things they is to do and to find out about.” Granny Jude on receiving a new pattern to weave, from “Mountain Homespun.”

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Trust Undefended

I live my life from instinct. I started this as soon as I became an ‘adult’ at age eighteen. I went to college at nineteen, dropped out at twenty. Burned all my bridges at twenty-one.

It was while on a train from Stockholm to Paris, sleep deprived, trust undefended, that I let go of my fears that the universe would not hold me in its arms. I was in one of those European train compartments with three seats on each side. The train travelled overnight, but I didn’t have a sleeper–I was nineteen and on a tiny budget. There was one other person in my cabin, an American also. A man in his late twenties, perhaps. He said he had been the campaign manager for a candidate who had lost, and he needed a break. I wasn’t political, so I didn’t care to ask further.

But he slept on one side of the cabin and I slept on the other, and when we woke, we were somewhere in Germany, fog rising over the Rhine in the very early gray of morning. I rooted through my backpack, suddenly self-conscious around this man I had sort of spent the night with. I found two old pieces of bread and a can of those tiny cocktail weenies. I hesitated. It was all the food I had and it was hours before Paris was due. But I offered him half anyway, thinking he wouldn’t take it. He did. Then he pulled out two beers and offered me one. I took it. We drank warm beer and ate stale bread with cocktail weenies and swapped stories and became two travellers grateful for the kindness of each other. I knew then I had nothing to fear from life.

My careers and experiences, when I look back on them, have been tailor made for me to grow into the person I am today. I trust my life; I have a saying that I say when it looks like things are getting bad: “Everything that happens to me is for my highest good.” I believe that utterly.

My deep depression in my forties gave me the gift of becoming a massage therapist and developing my closed heart. My alcoholic first marriage gave me the gift of the courage of self-reliance, my moving away from family and friends gave me the gift of my voice, to write (with the support of my amazing second husband).

I can look at it as: alcoholic marriage, depression, loneliness, or I can see the real meaning: the courage developed, the compassion opened, and the voice discovered.

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The Rules of Change

During a manuscript critique two years ago, a fellow student informed me that I had broken a cardinal rule of writing. Her comment prodded me to examine this concept of ‘rules.’  Thinking about it, I decided that ‘rules’ develop gradually from what works. Meaning, if something is successful–“show, don’t tell” is a big rule in writing fiction–then gradually it becomes a rule to be followed. Except of course when someone breaks it and has an amazing success. I’ve discovered that most award-winning books have broken the rules. And then the writing style forged by the award-winning books becomes the new ‘rule.’

Speaking societally, we revere what has nurtured and sustained us, building rules to keep things that way—and failure is inevitable. Change is the way of the world and what has been, must always make way for its usurper, even if it seems it has lasted forever. (I’m thinking right now of Ancient Egypt, whose civilization was toppled after three thousand years of existence.)

There is a Buddhist expression: “Life is suffering” but that’s only half the saying. The other half is: “and the cause of suffering is attachment.” Get rid of attachment and we get rid of suffering. Why? Because if we don’t attach, we accept things as they are. We accept the change that inevitably, endlessly occurs.

Another Buddhist saying is: “Everything, everywhere, at every moment is perfect and complete, just as it is.” Now I find that a hard one to believe with my dual mind—that’s the mind that lives in “good/bad, black/white, right/wrong.” But with my big mind—the mind that knows it is a part of everything, it makes perfect sense. If we don’t judge, we don’t dualize. If we don’t dualize, we see that everything is exactly as it is—no more, no less. In this respect it is perfect and there is no attachment to have things different from what they are.

Non-attachment is a nice truth to be aware of, to be reinforced during meditation and to be tucked into an innermost part of our being. When the big changes come, I like to be able to take out the trump card of non-attachment and use it to help me through those rough times.

But as an overall goal, I’ll pass. I like feeling my life. I like the feeling of growing and the tug of resistance as I learn to let go of the old, as well as the joy when I learn to trust the new. Life is always a wobbly tight-walk balance between endlessly changing and resistance to change.

Suffering is part of life; emotions are part of life, and really, I don’t think I’m ready to give up those perks to living just yet.

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Growing Up in Nature

I almost passed this post over to Buddy the Adventure Maltese, because I attended a writers’ and illustrators’ conference all last weekend and today I go to Boston to physically graduate—march up that podium and take that diploma. But then, looking out the window at the mist rising off the pond, sipping my morning tea, listening to the bird song, I realized I did have something to say after all.

The natural world sustains me. Each small universe of flower, bird, and water life nourishes me in a vital way. It recalls to my mind a phrase I read in “The Snow Leopard” by Peter Matthiessen; “. . . the peace and healing of the night sky. . .” and I remember how reading that resonated.

When I got home from the three days of indoors imposed by the conference, I walked around my gardens, looking closely. I greeted each new daffodil and the emerging arugula. I said hi to the tiny growth of peony and the buds of the quince. I greeted them as friends.

I came to this relationship as a child. When I felt wounded by life I would go into the woods and sit down on the ground. As I sat in stillness, my eyes tracing the line of a leaf or twig,  a change came over me. Trying to describe the sensation visually, I would say that the pearl of my soul, cracked and gapped by life, would rise out of my body and flow into the natural world–a world filled with the same pearl essence. This essence flowed around and through my soul, filling it and making it whole. Once whole, my soul would slide back to its place inside of me and I would shake my head a tiny bit, coming to myself. It didn’t seem odd; I thought everyone did this.

The natural world has sustained me; still sustains me, and I’m grateful that as a child, I was not overprotected from it. Reading “Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv, about nature deficit disorder, I wonder the cost of separating today’s children from the very thing that nurtures them. We are part of the natural world, whether we accept it or not. And to separate ourselves from its healing capability is to refuse a gift that is our birthright.

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Respect Your Elders

This past week, I heard a talk by Terry Farish, author of the YA novel, The Good Braider. I had read an early draft of the book in my Editing class, and I was eager to hear Terry speak. Her book is a delicate story about a harsh subject—that of Sudanese refugees. In the talk, someone raised the topic of the relationship between parents and children in different cultures and Terry replied by quoting one of the Sudanese she had interviewed for her book:

“In this country [United States], parents respect the children; but in my country, the children respect the parents.”

This observation goes to the heart of what is worth respecting and also to the heart of the two cultures. In a culture of tradition, like that of Sudan, it is the parents who have the knowledge and the children respect them for that. In the United States, the culture is one of rapidly changing technology and the children have the knowledge to use this technology––more than the adults since the children are growing up with it.

But there’s something missing in a culture that respects its children over its adults for their fluency in technology. Since we, in the United States place such value on the new, we have been misled as a culture into thinking that youth is better than age.

While it’s nice to admire our children’s proficiency at mastering technological change, it’s important to remember that it is simply, as my husband Richard Sachs says “the ability to process information that someone else has put out there”.

Deeper than fluency in technology and by and large missing from our culture is the role of the elders (and by elders, I mean adults). The elders’ value lies in their life knowledge. If we take away the bells and whistles of society, we have what we have always had: people looking for a community and people looking to express themselves in a satisfying way. These are the urges that are part of our human legacy and the elders have lived these urges over and over. They know that life is a cycle; that it will be good, it will be bad, it will be interesting, it will be boring. And most importantly, they know that all that is just fine. 

As a dear elderly friend often said to me as I poured out my teenage heart to her: You are so young. That always comforted me. I didn’t have to figure it all out. I was young. I was finding my way. This is what the elders offer. The wisdom of perspective.

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