Saturday, April 20, 2013

Weekend Detox

Hello, boys and girls! What a box full o'rocks this month has been!

Some rocks of course are more obviously beautiful than others. I am a lover of crystals: quartz, amethyst, Iceland spar, calcite, green fluorite . . .

 . . .  and while I "know" that the stone in the toe of my shoe and those granite boulders littering the path are lessons and gifts of one sort of another, I'm a little tired of all that instruction! I need a few days out from under the weight.

So this weekend I'll be detoxing. I'm unplugging and disconnecting. I'm relaxing, I'm reading, I'm resting.  If something doesn't absolutely need to get done, it won't.

Maybe you need some time for yourself, too. Maybe you've been feeling a little stressed and overwhelmed. Here's a basic a la carte detox menu, for future reference or if you'd like to follow along.

Be good to yourself. You're the only you you have.

Detox in place:  Yes, you can do this at home. Announce to those within shouting distance that you'll be forgoing your usual chores, duties, and routines. You'll be resting, relaxing, taking time for yourself, eating lightly, thinking good thoughts -- devoting the weekend to self-care. Therefore, everyone can make their own bologna sandwiches and pull their own underwear out of the dryer.

Give your digestive system a break. Forgo -- as much as possible -- meat, alcohol, sugar, caffeine.  Giving up that first cup of coffee would feel like torture to me, and this weekend is not about deprivation, so I'll have my morning java, but will make conscious choices. For me that means no processed foods or heavy meals, but throughout the day enjoying my favorite grapefruit, small servings of granola and yogurt, vegetable juices, a little decaf tea in the evening.

Give your connectedness a break. The 24/7 news cycle will spin quite adequately without you. Skim the paper if you must, but that's it. No cable news. If you have a favorite show or light movie in mind -- of course, enjoy it. But don't let the television or radio provide constant background noise. Little or no Internet,  Facebook,  Twitter. If you must communicate with loved ones via e-mail or social media, do so briefly and efficiently. Five or ten minutes at most, morning and night if you must. Get in and get out.

Give your emotions a break.  We're all carrying some worrisome burden. Put it down for the weekend. My mother would advise me, when things were very bad, to "close the book and put in on the shelf." You're not forgetting your trouble, not pretending it doesn't exist: Just briefly setting it aside. On Monday, stronger and refreshed, you may pick it up where you left off if you must.

Move and appreciate your body.  Take a brisk walk around the neighborhood. Play some music from the 80s and dance in your kitchen. Enjoy a hot bath and afterward, smooth wonderfully scented lotion on your skin. Rest. Breathe deeply. Your body works hard for you. Give it its due.

Create something.  Write a poem, a story, a song. Paint a picture. Make a collage (below, a birthday collage I made for a friend). Devote a few hours this weekend to reveling in simple, unadulterated creative joy.

Connect with nature.  Play in the dirt. Putter in the garden, if you can, or at least stroll around the property and assess, gathering up the winter debris and dreaming of what's going to get planted where. Flowers, vegetables, a patch of each . . . picture the beauty and bounty in your mind. Or visit the nearby park, the lake, the mountain, the stream. Get out from beneath the artificial light and turn your face to the sun or the stars.  

Connect with your self -- the inner you, the spiritual you.  Meditate. Pray. Write in your journal. Start a journal, if necessary. Nap. Read something uplifting, something that nourishes your imagination and feeds your soul.

Be grateful.  And this is the key. This is the goal of your detox weekend. To set aside the worries, the fears and doubts; to shed for a few days the excess of modern life and the constant stimulation of the media. To reclaim what's innately yours and entirely good.

You are a vessel of wonder, beauty, wisdom, love, and strength. Be still, be glad of heart. Have faith. The Universe will provide.  

"All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."

--Julian of Norwich

Statue of Julian of Norwich, west front, Norwich Cathedral.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Leadership 101

     The subtlety was lost on me at the time. While it’s not a happy memory, many years have passed and now I appreciate the delicate touch.
     My husband had died; the circumstances were tragic. My neighbor and friend, who’d been by my side the week since, advised me to seek legal representation, a path I was reluctant to walk. Though furious and grief-stricken, I was convinced at that point that those in charge would do the right thing.  They’d answer my questions; they’d step up to the plate.
     My friend was kind yet firm. “You need an attorney,” she gently insisted. “You have issues.”
     In the end, she proved correct. There was every need for an attorney. The assumption that those in charge will “do the right thing” can be all too misguided.
     As I write this, I again have issues. Nothing of that awful nature, for sure.  Still, I’m angry and saddened: recently, two hardworking, honest, decent men I care for deeply have been ousted from long-held positions. Devoted to the organizations. Risen through the ranks. Many faithful years on the job. Decades in one case.  Both let go, essentially, for becoming inconvenient to those wielding the clipboard and the whistle.
     Some people should never be allowed to get their hands on the clipboard and the whistle.
     I’ve seen a few hardships in this life. Occasionally I have felt at others’ mercy. Even so, I’m always amazed at the ease with which those with the clout to do so make unilateral decisions that set off seismic shockwaves in the lives of others. Business decisions for the most part, where money and power are key.  “It’s not personal,” says Michael Corleone as he contemplates assassination. “It’s strictly business.”
     A man or woman behind a desk lowers a boom – without consultation, frequently without warning --that forever, completely changes the life of the one sitting on the other side.
     Astonishing. Nonetheless, it happens every day.
     Like The Godfather’s Corleone family, my mother was Sicilian, and I am my mother’s daughter. We’re not an especially stoic people. Suffice it to say that my vocabulary has become more colorful over the last weeks. Mild revenge fantasies play in my head.
     This isn’t about combating a particular injustice in the workplace. We all know it exists; in a sense, it is indeed nothing personal. There’s plenty of indifference, callousness, and greed to go around these days.  Extraordinary people get tossed to the curb regularly by agenda-setters with the authority to lead but not the wisdom or vision to do so well.  Miquel Ruiz, author of The Four Agreements, reminds us that, “What others say and do is a projection of their own reality.”
     In essence, they know not what they do.
      I tend to believe, though, that a man who is miserable to one human being will be miserable to another, and in the end will find that misery heaped back upon himself.
     Karma’s a bitch, as they say.
     But what do we do with the anger and self-doubt that come from mistreatment? What do we teach our children in the wake?
     I am well acquainted with anger. I’ve had my reasons. Certain injustices ought not be left uncontested. In the past, a low-smoldering ire fueled my writing.
     However, immediate satisfaction aside, we are rarely proud of what’s enacted under the influence of rage. Moreover, anger is a debilitating emotion to harbor: “As vinegar corrodes the vessel that contains it,” St. Augustine wrote, “anger corrodes the heart if left to fester too long.”
   For the most part, anger is fear in disguise. We have lost control of a situation at the hands of someone else; a framework or a constant we have relied upon is suddenly gone. We become panicked, immobilized.
     In these recent instances, vital frameworks have been unmoored: Livelihoods. Careers.  Like most of us, these men had sensible plans for their salaries. Nobody was touring Europe or looking into leasing an Audi R8.
     Last week over dinner, I discussed the employment woes with my son and daughter-in-law, who, like all of our children, work long hours. My son, at 25, has already seen layoffs and shutdowns.  It must be moderately terrifying to them, as a young couple starting out together, seeing that hard work and loyalty are not necessarily the reliable building blocks of a secure future, as we ourselves once believed they were.
     How do we carry on, when faced with profound setbacks in our careers, with wrongs that simply can’t be righted? What example do we set for our children? For as Albert Schweitzer simply asserted, “Example is leadership.”
    We catch our breath; we regroup; we learn. We straighten our backs. We resolve to put one foot in front of the other. We chart new and, with a little luck, even more rewarding paths.  Living well is truly the best revenge.
     Then through it all, we continue to treat others as we ourselves would like to be treated.
     That last ideal is especially fine. It’s been bandied about for quite some time. If enough of us seek to uphold it, eventually it might catch on.


Many thanks to publisher Justin Lavely for permission to post this column, which will appear in the May 2013 issue of The North Star Monthly.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Two Minutes of Zen

A little stressed here! So I'm posting a travel-sized dose of nature and soul-nourishing music. Hauntingly beautiful Native American flute accompanied by scenes from Maine and Vermont. Music courtesy of kerriflute,  (Click below to YouTube video.)

Sunday, April 7, 2013

A Recipe for the Writing Life

Karen Blixen Museum, at the foot of the Ngong Hills

A Recipe for the Writing Life

“Why, I’d write a novel,” the smartly dressed attorney said to me, pushing back his chair as the fundraising meeting came to an end, tossing out his words like quarters into a tollbooth. A man on the move. “If I could only find the time!”

I was a young wife, balancing the care and feeding of a growing family with a love of the written word. I’d taken on a freelance job – writing a business plan for a volunteer organization. It was a long way from where I wanted to be. But I was working on a fiction manuscript, too.  I had hopes and too much enthusiasm not to mention them.

If I could only find the time. I seethed. Yes, nothing as mundane as talent matters. Just a little spare time and you’re set.

I recalled this conversation recently when meeting a woman writer I’ve much admired.  The author of an acclaimed memoir and several other books, she’d clearly had a sense early on of where she wanted her writing life to take her, and the dedication to get there.   In comparison, I’ve meandered, sputtered about, occasionally stumbled.

We should start with food, since most everything in life does.

I began writing recipes for a community paper when the kids were just off to school. They’d bounce from the afternoon bus and charge about the tiny kitchen of our rented home in Simsbury, Connecticut, eager for snacks.  Keeping everyone well fed on a budget was a top priority, and writing about it blossomed naturally.  

That was nearly two decades ago.  If you’ve been doing anything for two decades, you might want to reconsider before plunging ahead into the next span of twenty years.

Writing about food and family life has served me well, and though I never hit the big league of Gourmet or Bon Appetit, I carved a happy niche, pairing a love of cooking with that of crafting the written word.  I put into practice my English teacher father’s advice: Write what you know.

But before food writing, there was fiction, and before fiction, poetry.   A whole other world.

In an age in which we compose most of our messages with our thumbs, where everyone e-mails, blogs and tweets, and that teased and trussed princess of lowest common denominator culture, Jersey Shore’s Snooki, can capture a spot on the New York Times bestseller list, I’m struggling with what it means to be a successful writer.  What defines success? Fame? Money?  What does the life of a ‘real’ writer look like?

As a young woman, I longed for what I imagined the writing life to be, and searched for role models beyond the claustrophobia of the classroom. I found Lillian Hellman -- or rather her willowy portrayal by a young Jane Fonda in the movie Julia -- drinking and smoking her way to becoming “the toast of the town,” doing her part to fight Fascism in 1930s Berlin. I wanted the big life I saw on the screen: danger and intrigue and notoriety; I wanted to throw an old Remington out a window when the writing was going poorly, and later talk shop with Dashiell Hammett on a beach by a roaring fire.

In college, I encountered Virginia Woolf’s narrative innovations and her advice that a woman needed a room of her own, and Ann Sexton who -- along with a few other beautiful suicides -- left a mark on modern poetry. And I devoured the rich, transporting diaries of Anais Nin, imagining myself in Paris and Louveciennes between the wars, dancing the tango with handsome Cubans with slicked-backed hair, hosting salons for writers and artists in the color-drenched rooms and lush gardens of a crumbling maison de campagne.

Anais Nin

Some years later, I’d be crushed to discover Nin’s mushy relationship with the truth; it was hard to get my brain around the consensual incest, too. All the subterfuge, the clandestine assignations, Nin’s bicoastal husbands, and the tortured alcoholism of the confessional poets – quite frankly, it sounded exhausting. 

In the mid-80s, Out of Africa offered a majestic panorama of another writer’s life.  I wanted then to be Karen Blixen, to go on heart-stopping safaris, wear exquisite clothes lifted from the J. Peterman catalogue, and have breakfast with Robert Redford.

I hardly ever have breakfast with Robert Redford.  And I didn’t marry a Dashiell Hammett. My late husband did read the occasional book, and supported my writing in all its guises, but he most enjoyed goofing on the pretentiousness of the literary world. One of the few poems he committed to memory made lascivious use of a pun on Timbuktu. He’d recite this at dinner parties.

Exit stage left, the ghost of Anais Nin.

Then there’s the ubiquitous Carrie Bradshaw, the fictional star columnist of a generation – her name in lights! her face on the billboards and the sides of buses! Laptop open, her brow just slightly wrinkled, with manicured fingertips she taps her way to celebrity in between designer wardrobe changes and long, pink cosmopolitan-fueled commiserations with her glamorous pals about their relationships with a parade of mostly disappointing metrosexuals.

Okay, that’s not a life I want. But the clothes and the shoes -- I could make do.

Obviously none of these dreamy depictions has much merit. The writer I met this March lives in rural Vermont in a small, splendid log cabin beside a winding river. She travels and hikes, tends a large garden in weather fair and foul, spends long days in library research rooms, and probably does most of this while dressed in sensible outfits.

Regardless of the lifestyle that surrounds the time at the keyboard, writing is hard work, and writing books requires dedication, time, inventiveness, and the freeing up of no small space on the mental hard drive.  

Unless, perhaps, you’re Snooki.

That novel I wrote as a young woman managed to win an award, though it was never published. The story of two competitive sisters vying for the attention of an elusive man, the hackneyed plot spun out of my control in the final chapters. In metaphoric essence, at the end everybody gets hit by a bus. 

I sent out the manuscript to a handful of agents and waited.  Form letters followed, along with a few kind if terse rejections. One agent, however, was instructive.

His advice:  “More sex. Less philosophy.”  Which seems a decent recipe for real life as well.  There’s only so much sitting around a kitchen table yakking over cooling teacups anyone – warm-blooded or wholly imagined – should do.

I abandoned that book, though not the desire to see a novel of mine in print. Not for fame or money itself, but for the creative freedom the expansive canvas of a book allows. The bottom line of freedom spells true success.

 Though somewhere, I suspect, Snooki Polizzi is checking her portfolio and having a good laugh.


This column originally appeared in The North Star Monthly Magazine.