Monday, January 28, 2008

The year I didn't go to Paris


The angels can be quite clever in the ways they support us--and if we don't get their messages right away, they'll keep sending them.

This morning, for instance, I received a string of messages--in a radio interview, three songs and an email.

We'll start with the radio interview: I tuned in to WFUV, a local NY station, just as singer/songwriter Tift Merrit was promoting her new album, "Another Country." She was telling the story of how, last year, she'd entered the words, "Paris Apartment Piano" into Google's search engine and had come up with a rental apartment where she'd written the new songs.

That's funny, I thought. It was about this time last year that I used the same word string (sans ""piano") while dreaming up my own trip to the city of lights.

I'd been to Paris before--thirty years and a lifetime ago--as a college junior. Now, perched on the edge of my soon-to-be-empty nest, my 50th birthday and menopause, I was feeling increasingly restless, and increasingly eager to return to explore the streets, cafes--and maybe, the self--I'd left behind.

At 21, I'd had very little travel experience--and none outside of the eastern US. So I was feeling quite lost. Yet somehow, I'd walked into the right place (Mother Earth's Cafe) at the right time--just as one of the editors of the Paris Herald Tribune was looking for an au pair. After a brief conversation, during which he bought me lunch, I ended up living in a huge, five bedroom apartment in the 5th arrondisement--rent free. In exchange, I was responsible for preparing breakfast and supper for his two teenaged children, washing and pressing his button-down shirts and picking up the bread each morning.

In addition, he, remarkable man that he was, drove me--and my two friends--all over town in his Citroen, introducing us to the lively jazz "caves": Night clubs literally dug under the streets of the city; where musicians and artists congregated to develop new ideas and drink lots and lots of wine.

There I met Memphis Slim, several American celebrities, and three seven-foot tall basketball players from a French farm team called (pardon my phonetic spelling) Ban-yo-lay.

Under his tutelage I discovered--and devoured--cous cous ladled with exotic spiced stew served from sterling silver steam carts and feasted daily on fresh croissants and creamy french cheeses. And, while waiting for that laundry to spin dry, I pored over the books in his vast English library.

I rode the Metro to the outskirts of the city where, at les Marches Aux Puces (endless flea markets that were like cities themselves), I purchased gorgeous linen nightshirts (hand woven as nun's garments) and oil-soaked newspaper-wrapped Frites doused with vinegar and salt.

In the Ville Juif (Jewish City), I learned about the resistance fighters who'd protected Jews during the Nazi occupation. In the Latin quarter, I huddled with other students crowded cafes, swirling with smoke and ideas. One night on Boul. St. Michel I was rescued from a street brawl--and romanced--by guitar-playing Argentinians.

With friends, I traipsed all over Europe, getting stranded for two nights in London, dancing 'til dawn under the clotheslines of Barcelona, swam in my clothes on the Costa Brava and got my first--and last--taste of octopus. I even helped sneak a family of political exiles into Barcelona!

By the time I returned to the US after nine months, my heart and soul had been cracked opened so wide it was impossible to shrink back to the girl I'd been. I moved to Manhattan and kept dancing, studying and becoming.

And thirty years later, on the verge of another personal renaissance, I wondered, as I googled Paris apartments, Could I ever recapture that spirit of adventure, that feeling of discovery... that "me" that I lost somewhere in the white noise of mothering, working and paying the bills?

My google search turned up a charming rental apartment in Le Marais with two bedrooms and a pullout sofa where my kids could camp out between excursions to other European countries (another part of my fantasy), windowboxes overflowing with red geraniums, and a private, cobble-stoned courtyard.

It was, according to the advertisement, “a short walk to the Bastille, the Picasso Museum” and several lovely cafes. And with fantasies of finally finishing the book I never seemed to have time to complete, I pressed the send button on my email, asking: Is the apartment still available?

It was. And, scribbling plans in my notebook, I could almost taste the café crème.
But then, just before I sent the deposit, a choice was placed before me: The trip or taking care of my parents.

At first, I read the decision this way: Give away my longed-for dream to take care of two people who should have been taking care of themselves. I felt trapped and angry and bewildered.

Then, my husband asked me: When it's all over, what do you have to do to feel good about what you've done? adding, Make the choice that is closest to who you really are.

And I knew there was no choice.

I stayed home to help my father transition into a nursing home and to help my mother pack up the house I grew up in, have a tag sale, and move. I did what I had to do, and most of the time, I did it gladly--with great love.

Of course, it wasn't perfect (I am no saint!) and there were times when I was so exhausted with balancing my parents' lives with my own that I sobbed with frustrated rage. (And blogged with a vengeance!)

But in those moments I was gifted with new supports to lean on--my sisters, who called and helped and listened and loved me through it. I also found, a new closeness with my parents, and access to a priceless new wisdom they'd developed in the years since I left home.

In myself, I found new skills and a new patience and clarity as I stepped into the role of family matriarch--and I liked it. As I negotiated the red tape, paperwork and nonsense that is Medicaid today and learned what it's like to be old in America, grateful my parents weren't alone.

Paris was tucked away, a precious sweet to savor "someday" and a full year passed as Dad bounced from hospital to nursing home and landed, finally, in the private room where he's really finally happy. Recently, Mom hosted the family for Christmas brunch, and began unpacking her art supplies.

No trip to Paris could ever have been as soul-satisfying, as heart-nourishing, as life-altering as the bittersweet experience that helping my parents has been. Oh, I would have enjoyed the trip, and perhaps I'd have sent that book off to my agent by now. But it would have been a very different book.

Not going to Paris grew me up. Where living in Paris had brought out my wildness and joy, not going tempered that wildness, rooting it to the earth and to family. And to my delight, not going brought to my life a grace so deep and so rich that I am just beginning to take it in.

I see now that when I prayed, "Help me to honor my 50th year, to fill my empty nest," my angels knew just what I needed and guided me toward it. And today, through Merritt's song, they were guiding me again

Today, Merritt's lyrics, "I want to go, I want to go too. I want to go with you," echoed my own longing. And the next song, from Ladysmith Black Mozambo, invited, "Pray to the Prince of Peace," entreating me to "Love God, but not in an emotional way."

Taken together, I heard: Go. Pray for help.
And from the third song, a bluesy, sexy jazz number that wove a spell over my heart, I heard: You can have what you want--and need--to be happy. Go.

A few minutes later, buzzing with angel guidance, I tucked into a café to sip hot tea and check my emails and that's when the final piece of this incredible message fell into place when I opened the message from my new friend (the one the angels had introduced me to just a month earlier) to find a link to her blog called: Getting Lost, with page after page about her travels through Europe.

I laughed, my way of giving in, giving up to the incredible love the angels had sent. I laughed, my way of opening to feel how willing they are to play, to send me delightful puzzles of music and memory, embroidered with meaning and light. I cried, tears of pure gratitude for the blessing of being loved so much and so well.

It's okay for me to go to Paris now.

Even though I am buying a new house and it may not be "practical" to go, even though I am only working part-time and I'm not sure where I'll find the money. Even though I missed my 50th birthday... the angels said: Go, celebrate your turning point. Ask us to help you. We will.

And I will pray, and I will go; this summer, as I turn 51, or the year after that. And whenever I arrive, I know there will be a cafe to sit in, to order a croissant and a cafe creme and finish a book. But, thanks to my angels, I know now that the girl I discovered all those years ago is deep within me. And though she's grown up now, she still knows how to make magic--wherever in the world I find myself.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Inspired

I am loving this book, given to me by my sister, Jen, at the Christmas party my family threw together on January 29th this year. I loved, first, the title: "We are the ones we have been waiting for", and I've loved its author, Alice Walker ever since I read her first novel, "The Color Purple".

This new book is astonishing me in the exact way that I like and want to be astonished. First, it's reminding me who I really am--earth citizen, wise woman, human being, a lover of gardens and sunlight and oceans. It's reminding me that I live on a planet, stand on soil, inhabit a body, have an impact--that I am not just a mind in a head, thinking, that there is so much more to life, to the world, to me, than I, usually, give myself time to experience.

This little book, a series of meditations, lectures, ponderings and poems, is masterful in its way of seeping through the cracks of conscience, awareness with a stream of beauty, rage, wisdom, power and intelligence that feeeeeeeds me in that deep down to the toes way that I am needing.

So today is about the things I am thinking while reading this "little" book. Today, I am sorting through my pile of seeds, ideas and musings, images and notions that have been coming back to me as I read. Seeds that are important to me, which I why I tucked them away last summer, when my garden was blooming but the soil of my life wasn't ready to receive them.

This is the list of themes and plans I feel moving into my life this year, as I move from 50-51. As you read it, and the poem that follows, notice if you feel inspired to prepare some seeds of your own. As you read, also, know that this list is very different from my usual cataloguing of "ways I will change myself so my life will change".

This list is not about losing weight, finishing school, getting some part of my physiology fixed so that I can feel better about myself when I look in a mirror. Nor is it about being a better, more helpful person. Nor is it about my job, my housekeeping, money or bills. This list, which came and came and came to me as I read Walker's words is more foundational, more loamy and rich, as if I have taken my socks off and I'm standing barefoot in warm mud. This list is about the things that ground the other things that I also must do--the work and the relating and the building up. This list is about what goes on under the dirt--before, months before, the seeds are tucked into place and expectantly watered.

LET GO/BIRTH
Witness/help with a live birth; Watch the video of my daughter's birth (taped 17 years ago, when Katie was born at home with a midwife and my husband Matthew-- during a blizzard in December of 1990, and which, until now, I haven't wanted to watch); Write my two giving-birth stories (and read them to myself as if they were dreams--which, when I really think about it, they were)

Plant a vegetable garden with chard, purple potatoes, beets and so forth at my new home; Write poems and read them publicly; Release my books into the world, let them go, imperfect though they may be, let them go

FIND
A windswept cottage by the sea where I can write (a place I can return to again and again); An apartment in Paris where I can live for part of each year; A philanthropic organization to contribute generously to; My fiftieth birthday

LEARN
The politics and economics behind all the struggles between the lesser class--people of color, women and the poor--and the terrorism that is corporate greed and industrialization; More french and another language: Italian, Greek, Hebrew

BECOME
A world citizen, A philanthropist, A poet, author and novelist

TASTE MY LIFE

----------
What I found, when reading Walker's book, was a deeper voice--a way of expressing ideas that is both a part of me and connected to all that is at the same time. Here is a poem that inspired her, and which she included in the pages of her book

A blessing
by Stephen Philbrick

Don't try so hard.
It comes in a shiver sometimes,
Sometimes in a winter windowpane,
WIld with the unseeable
Frozen there in ice:
The shapes above clouds,
The score and the libretto of wind,
the plot of waves.
Don't try so hard.
Sometimes it falls,
A flake at a time,
Into your life while you're asleep.
Sometimes it comes as a winter
Blankness,
Waiting for storm, or ice, or thaw,
Or even wind,
And then the still air groans,
And the trees crack,
The swamp shudders,
And the woods thril.
Sometimes it comes when you least
Expect it.
And sometimes it doesn't.
Quiet, still, no voice (even small),
No whirlwind, no reply, no burning.
Just a bare winter bush.
This is God, too.

The space between stars,
Where noise goes to die,
And the space between atoms,
Where the charges thin out:
These are places, too.
The moment in the movement of the soul
When it all seems to stop,
Seized up.
This is true, too.
Ice is, also.
And dormancy.
And, I don't mean the stirring
Of seeds beneath the snow,
But the place between
And the moment before.
And I don't mean a lightning bolt,
But what it passes through.
I don't mean a dream,
But dumb sleep.
"Not a thing" is something.

After the end,
And before the beginning,
Is time, too.
Let it alone, don't try so hard.
This is God, too.
All of you is.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Is the universe a friendly place?


"Is the universe a friendly place?" Einstein famously asked.

This is what the clients who come to talk to me really want to know. They call from across the country or drive up from New York City to ask me why, all of their lives, they have felt empty, alone and sad; they talk about how they sense, at a soul level, that there is something more trying to work itself to the surface of their lives, and about how frustrated they feel that they have never learned the tools to uncover it.

They tell me how they look outside of themselves to find it--maybe a new job, new relationship, new outfit, or eco-vacation might be the thing to stem the longing. I tell them that the thing they are looking for is inside of them. As I say these words, I know that they have heard them before and that they don’t really understand them. I am not sure that I understand them either, and I tell my clients this--and we think about what it might mean to fill our emptiness from within--together.

Sometimes, I sense that what a client really needs is someone to listen to them, to be there when they call, to respond to their doubts and fears with love and warmth. Sometimes I think my whole practice is about healing the mother wound in the world.

Sometimes I know that it is.

It can be hard to believe that the universe is a friendly place when you have grown up in a sea of shame, abuse and terror. Or, when you have grown up in a muffled world of suppressed feeling, hidden agenda and narcissism--where there are no mirrors to reflect you back to yourself.

Sometimes, my job is to be a mirror--letting people look themselves in the eye. As they do this, I am looking--through them--into my eyes, too.

This is the work. Two people meeting in a room--or hanging on opposite ends of a telephone (or sitting together at a bar), creating a space for each other to become something more than they were before the click of their connection fell into place.

Often, my job is to help people dismantle the illusion of the world they have built out of a difficult childhood and to help them rebuild and inhabit a world of their own making. This new world is an illusion, too, of course, but it's a healthier illusion--one that supports joy and encourages self-expression.

My job is to hold the space for them, to build a little lean-to of hope and faith, a pup tent of possibility they can crawl into to feel what it is like to live that way--and when we are finished with our work, they will be able to build one for themselves, whenever and wherever they need it.

These are the tools--to help people understand that, no matter what has happened to them, they were meant to have joy, to have love, to find their purpose and to live it—and to understand that always, always, always, that purpose will be enhanced and enlivened by all they have learned and experienced, no matter how terrible it may have been.

As I teach them these things, I am learning them, too. As I speak the words, they resonate through me--and my own log cabin of happiness grows a few feet. Each of my clients' stories is a priceless gift that I cherish. Not only because of what it brings to me--but just because it's beautiful.

Our childhood prepares us for our adulthood. Our adulthood prepares us for our wisdom years. Our wisdom years prepare us for excarnation. One thing builds upon the next. All of it prepares us for joy--even if we don't yet know how that statement could ever be true, even if we don't believe it.

Everything that has happened to us has value. Nothing is wasted.

Is the universe a friendly place? I believe that it is. I base this belief on the experience I have of these people who come into my office or sit beside me at Starbuck's or call me on the telephone from upstate New York or California or New Mexico... just to talk. They show me, one person at a time, that the universe is friendly indeed, that it seems custom-designed for encounters like these--meetings when one stranger in a strange land sits down across a table from another and, together, they reinvent the world. I know it each time someone extends a hand to hoist me over the wall, into the garden below. I know it when I meet someone who needs my hand to make that jump, and when deep in my heart, I want, more than I want anything else in that moment, to help them.

Friday, January 4, 2008

The Perfect Job

Many people start looking for a new job at this time of year. When a subscriber wrote to ask me how I would go about job seeking, I posed myself the question and realized that I'm not so much a job seeker as a job attractor.

When I need a job, I start visualizing what I want (including working with people I resonate with) and I wait for opportunities to present themselves that "feel" right. I follow up only with those and I find that, because the feel is right for me, I interview better--and people like me, cuz I like them. I know that most companies mostly hire people they like, people they feel will fit into the climate as it is.

That's why, for me, it's always best to look, first, at what I want. Then, I look for people I like and third, I look for a working environment that suits me. This is how I put together my current working life which is a balance of part-time paid writing work, several hours a week of counseling others, leaving the rest open as free-form writing time to devote to my books and blogs. This "job" i have didn't happen overnight. It's taken several years of observing myself, taking note of what I love and don't love about the world of work, of making the decision three years ago to refuse to compromise anymore and taking a carefully considered leap of faith in favor of myself. That leap of faith paid off (as most do) with increased self-knowledge and confidence. But notice I said the leap was "carefully considered". I thought about it for a long time, weighing the options, and feeling my way toward the choices that resonated most closely with who I really am.

Along the way, prayer has always helped me and also, trying, to the best of my ability, to remove from my consciousness the idea that "there's just no work out there", an idea that limits the chances of miraculous convergence of all the things that I want.

Now, keeping in mind that winter is not the time for leaping--but is, rather, the time for tending seeds, scan back over the past year or two and ask yourself: What seeds of intention have I planted that are sleeping under the snow? Ask yourself, if anything really were possible, if money wasn't a pressing need and I had all the time in the world, what would I choose to do with my life? Open the boundaries of your idea of what a job is--and let yourself imagine, instead, ideal work. What gift would you give to the world? What skill or craft or discipline might you take up, if you had time, money, and physical freedom? What kinds of work would support your values, your "ideal" vision of a balanced world, your physical and psychological health? Think... dream.

Let the seeds that you've planted, perhaps without even realizing it, speak to you now. Listen, in this quiet, winter time. What are your seeds telling you about you, about what would make you happy?

Try not to limit your idea of yourself either. If you could be anything at all, who and what would you be?
As a picture forms, ask yourself, if I was living that life, being that version of me, how would I act? Where would I live? What would I do?

Allow yourself to dream and observe yourself as you reach the edges of what you think is possible? DO you shrink away from certain thoughts or ideas because you're afraid you're not talented, credentialed or attractive enough? Do you think you're too old, too young, too shy, too big, too small? Notice the self-concepts that limit you from crossing thresholds EVEN IN YOUR MIND and, right then, take the risk of stepping into a new IDEA.

Practice this as often as you are drawn to it. Practice all winter. And as spring arrives, melting the snow, germinating the seeds, look for the things to which you are most strongly drawn and leap toward them.

And please, please, as always, let me know how things like this work for you. I want to hear about your life, your dreams, your seeds and, when you make them, your leaps toward joy.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Starting Over

Everything is possible. A new year stretches out in front of us like the crisp white paper that restaurants roll out over tablecloths... and we, sitting here at the table, with our personal cup of colored pencils or markers or, if you prefer, roller ball pens, are ready for anything--filled with possibility and hope.

How to start over: Take out your favorite color and let your hand simply move across the paper, sketch or doodle or write your name over and over and over again. This is only the beginning... this day, in the middle of winter, is not meant for huge choices, resolutions, life-altering decisions. This day is for dreaming the way nature is dreaming. It's for thick cozy socks tucked under your bottom as you lean against the sofa cushions reading the wonderful novel you got for Christmas or recording a dream you had last night or stirring blueberries into muffin batter and sliding them into the oven to bake... THis day is for cocooning and thinking deep thoughts, it's for pulling the covers over your head and slipping back to sleep.

This first day of a new year is the 10th day of a long sleepy winter in which it is perfectly okay to rest, to imagine, to collect all the bits and pieces of your life into piles and ponder: What will I do with all of this now?

Spring is the time for new ideas, rebirth, for leaping into action. For now, the seeds of all of these things sleep deep in the earth, covered by a protective blanket of frost, which is just where they need to be, just what they need to be doing.

Doing what nature does, sleeping when her creatures and flowers sleep, unfurling when they send out green, searching tendrils.... that is the way to begin something new.

For now, give yourself permission to dream--to imagine, to lay protective blankets over your seed beds and sleep. Blessed rest. Happy New Year. Peace.