Shaman

Years ago, an older gentleman using a wheelchair, and his wonderful wife, came into my very first booth at the League of NH Craftsmen’s Annual Fair.

He was an artist himself. And when he saw my work, he…exploded (figuratively), in a wonderful, emotional, deeply spiritual way.

He asked questions, he listened carefully to my answers, about the sources of my inspiration, what led me to do this work, where I was heading with it.

He got it. He got every single tiny little thing about it.

As he circled the booth, he kept saying, “You’re a shaman! You’re a shaman!”

His words made me very uncomfortable. Now, I (thought I) knew what a shaman was.  If I’ve learned anything in my life, it’s that the minute I think I know everything, life will quickly and surely show me I don’t. (That’s why “eternal student of life” sneaks into almost all my my bios and intros.)

He stopped. He said, “I’m scaring you a little, aren’t I?”

I said yes. I said, “I thought I knew what a shaman was. A wise leader. but I don’t feel that way.”

He shared with me this beautiful, powerful definition of a shaman:

All shamans are artists.  But not all artists are shamans. 

All shamans are teachers. But not all teachers are shamans. 

All shamans are healers. But not all healers are shamans.”

It spoke so deeply to me, to how I felt about my art: My art healed me, and I believe it sometimes helps others heal. I love to share what I’ve learned, but not in a here’s-how-you-make-a-little-horse-way that so many people expect. More in a “what is the story only YOU can tell?” way.

And yet, even years later, I felt uncomfortable using that word in reference to myself.

Until, just a year or so before we left New Hampshire, I shared that story with a professional shaman. And she said, what I call Definiton of a Shaman Part IV:

“‘Shaman’ isn’t something you call yourself. It’s what others call YOU.”

A day or so ago, I had a teensy emotional breakdown. (I’ve been demolished by allergies this month, and it’s scary, and exhausting, and leaves me fragile and exposed.) I wrote about it, listened to Mary Gauthier (pronounced go-shay. Who knew?? Not me!) singing “Mercy Now” I had a little cathartic cry, and felt better.

So many people reached out to me, (you know who you are. THANK YOU!!!), including a few old and dear friends.

I get lazy when I’m “out of earshot.” I love catching up with people in person, but I suck at phone conversations, and when I write, I lose track of what I’ve told, and to whom.

But in the last two days, people have reached out, especially a handful of people I call “my wise women”. And each one had just what I needed to hear to start down a healing path again. (Note to self: One quality of a good friend is, they don’t try to tell you your reality. Thank you, Melinda!)

None of these people would call themselves a shaman. (Of course they wouldn’t! See Definition Part IV above.)

None of them believe they have everything figured out. (Of course they wouldn’t! If you meet someone who claims that, run away.)

Some of them, who are going through extremely shitty stuff, would even consider their blorting to be “wise words.” (But they are. Their words show self-awareness, self-responsibility, anguish with a huge dash of humor thrown in, and incredible strength of character. Not because “they’re doing it right”. Because , even when they think they’re doing it horribly, terribly wrong, because when they are in a hard place and they hate hate hate it, yet they continue to do the incredibly difficult work they have to do. And they are open to the tiny miracles and blessings they find along the way.)*

And so I say to you today, Melinda, Carrie, Amy J., Julie, Deb, Mary-Ellen, anyone I’ve missed because I am a bird-brain this week, and also to those who would have reached out, if they’d known, because that’s what they do….

Thank you.

You are a shaman.

P.S. Just want to say, most of my issues I’m moping about are third-world issues. Others have it harder. A helluva lot harder. Just sayin’, I’m aware of my privilege here.

P.P.S. If you are struggling today, try this: Everything is Awful, and I’m Not Okay

*I’ve just read the book Everything Happens for a Reason (and other lies I’ve loved… So I want to clarify this. I don’t believe we are sent shit to deal with for a reason. Shit happens. I do think that what can help us through, through the fear, the anger, the despair, is to look for those tiny synchronicities that help us get through another day.

Like me saying to Jon, during his quick visit to New Hampshire last week, and on his way back to Keene from the White Mountains, “I wish we could talk with Jim and Kate (whom we haven’t seen in years) because they went through this exact same thing, and maybe they have some wisdom on how we can get through this, too.” And ONE HOUR LATER, Jon stopped for a quick dunk at the Discount Beach Club (“Bring your own damn towel”) on Dublin Lake, and he heard someone say, “Jon? Is that you?!” And there were Jim and Kate on the “beach.”)**

**The Discount Beach Club was a turn-off on Route 12, which runs around part of Dublin Lake.*** It’s literally that–a turn-off where you can scoot down to the lake. Not “restricted membership”, like some other lake accesses, or the boat launch, or whatever. The chances of finding someone there, let alone someone we know, let alone the exact people we needed right then? Well. That’s my definition of a miracle! So add Jim and Kate to the list!

***Dublin Lake has worked magic before, as these two blog posts illustrate. Cool place.

 

Dublin Lake 2005

Dublin Lake works its magic again! Discount Beach Club is just around the corner. Literally!

 

 

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The Story You Tell and the Power of Your Tribe

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. She’s blogged since 2002 about the business side–and the spiritual inside–of art. She says, “I share my experiences so you won’t have to make ALL the same mistakes I did….”  For ten years, Luann also wrote a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explored the funnier side of her life in craft. She’s a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer.

 A month ago, my husband was cycling on a bike path, when he ran over a stick. It jammed in his derailleur and broke it. Fortunately, I was a phone call away and retrieved him (and the bike) quickly.
Yesterday, the exact same thing happened AGAIN. (He swears it was the same damn stick, but I don’t believe that.) Unfortunately, I am thousands of miles away, in Keene, NH. And he had to walk home, in his bike shoes.

Life has a lot of sticks just waiting to jam up our derailleur…er, life. And in the last month, we’ve run over a lot of them.

The already sky-high rent on our home here in Santa Rosa, CA was raised, eating up almost half our income. We now have two large dogs and three cats. The rental market here is as tight as it is expensive, and it will be impossible to find a landlord willing to rent to us. As former home-owners for 27 years, it’s embarrassing to find ourselves here. (We did find a place, a much smaller place. As soon as I get back to California, we have to pack up and move.  My art will be on hold for awhile. Again. But bookmark this, I’ll return to it later.)

My husband’s employer’s company has 3-4 months of funding left, and there will be no more in the pipeline. All sources have been exhausted. The tech industry does not readily employ people in their 60’s.  Jon’s best option is to strike out on his own. But this is an expensive place for our second reboot in three years, and it’s a little scary.

My art sales have slumped. (This is not unique to me, I know, and not entirely of my making, but there you go.)

One of our children is struggling here in Keene. It sounded urgent enough for me to book a flight out here, to see what I can do. It is cold here. Really, really cold. Like 10 degrees when I woke up, and more snow, with winds gusting to shove that snow right up my nose.

My daughter just announced she’s getting married this summer, in the middle of Tennessee (best spot for the solar eclipse).

And that wonderful shared studio space at that incredible artist enclave has disappeared. My friend and I have extremely different visions for how the space should work. To preserve the friendship, I told her I needed to step away. But it all blew up in my face. My friend is deeply hurt by my decision. With all the other setbacks on my plate, I can’t afford the oxygen to fix this, even if that were possible.

That’s one story.

But here is the other side of the story I chose to tell.

My old tribe here in Keene is holding me together in so many ways. They know who I am, they know what to do.

These trusted friends will hold my tender heart, and my huge artistic vision, in their gentle, loving hands, until I can take them up again.

Let’s go way back, to the beginning of my art career. I took a workshop from wise woman Deborah Kruger, on creating an artist support group.

The premise was, “Women can do it all. But not necessarily all at the same time.”

When life throws big effin’ sticks in our path—sickness, death, divorce, job loss, a big move—there is only so much we can handle. Sometimes the first thing that gets put on hold is the very thing that nourishes our heart and lightens our soul: Our art.

Good friends will hold that vision of you: Your goals, your process, your abilities, your path. When you are ready (even if you think you’re not), they will gently remind you who you are. And help restore you to yourself.

Now let’s look at the other story I choose to tell:

Gift #1 Though we have not built that precious network of friends here in CA, it’s in process. And a friendship of 20 years led to our next home. It will only be available to us for a few years. But that will give us the space to figure out where we go from here. They know we have pets, too. Yay!

Gift #2 The painfully broken friendship gave me clarity on a better way to be there for my child. I will not force him to take care of me during this difficult time, no matter how hard it is to listen sometimes. I need only be present, for now. If that hadn’t happened two days before I left, I would have blundered on as I have done in the past. It was a lesson that arrived just in time to be a better mother.

Gift #3 As I make time to meet up with these good friends, each one has an insight for me. I hear the exact words I need to make it through the day. As I bemoaned the fact that I’d fallen into another situation I should have recognized—again—a friend exclaimed, “I just LOVE my life lessons! I love them so much, I learn them all over again. And again. And again!” I laughed for the first time in days.

Gift #4 As I share such wonderful insights with the next friend I meet up with, it’s just what they need to hear, too!

Gift #5 We have already realized the rewards of our life reboot. Jon’s got his game back, reconnecting with old allies, and finding new ones. The work he’s doing is the work of his heart—collaborating with users to create the tools they need to make their own work easier. The projects are timely, extremely relevant, and deeply-rooted in bettering our culture.

As we consider our next steps–as our reboot is rebooting–Jon and I realize it will be easier this time. For example, we are only moving across town, and we can break it down into small loads. And the new neighborhood will have all the features we treasure in this one.

Gift #6 My art will go on hold again, though hopefully not for long. OTOH, if we should have to leave Sonoma County down the road, I’ll only have to walk away from a few years of audience-building here. Not three decades, like our first move!

Gift #7 My Keene tribe is still here!

Gift #8 I’m passing on the gifts! When I was living in Keene, I never thought of connecting my tribe members! (I know, I know—“DOH!!”) Two of my meet-ups organically overlapped yesterday, and two friends met each other for the first time. The synergy was astonishing. One had the exact information the other needed to take a step forward in a new career. The other recognized not only a new, rich resource in the first friend, but an ally. Both were validated anew to themselves as they recognized the same qualities in each other: Passion, integrity, professionalism, creativity, emotional maturity, and a wicked sense of humor.

I’m now working on getting all of these core people together, if not on this trip (though we’re trying!) then the next. In between, there’s Skype and Google Hangout. We’ll figure it out.

#9 And now I’ve shared this gift with you, faithful readers.

I’ve shared how sometimes, the seeds of a new beginning are buried in the deep past, and sometimes, even in the most recent hardship. The way to your next step is not carefully hidden in the great universe; it is often right under your nose. The words you need to hear are already sitting in the heart of someone who may cross your path—today.

And when the world feels like a hard and hopeless place, there may be someone standing next to you who will offer exactly what you need to get through it. Holding your dream, your beautiful vulnerable open heart, tenderly and lovingly, until you are ready to pick them up again.

Your bonus gift for subscribing today! Here are some of the wonderful words I’ve heard, in addition to the ones I’ve already shared. There will be more!

“Breath until you’re surprised.” This came up in a conversation about an ancient breathing/meditative practice that helps people heal from trauma, grief, and abuse faster. I sense there’s something deliciously deeper here that will reveal itself in time. It’s still sitting with me, and I love it.

“It’s only blood.” In a discussion about letting go of old family conflicts that may never be healed. If the family we’re born into is difficult, we can choose to create our own family.

“This ain’t your first rodeo. You don’t have to be the clown.” A discussion about me trying to make myself smaller so I can make insecure people feel better.

“You don’t have to go to every fight you’re invited to.” No explanation needed.

 “I sit with uncertainty everyday, until Clarity makes her presence known.” Every. Single. Day.

(If you’d like to see the published article and comments, go here.

FINDING YOUR TRIBE

Today’s post, Finding Your Tribe, originally appeared on Fine Art Views, a daily art marketing blog for Fine Art Studios Online

 Unfortunately, artists are people, too.

 I remember the first time I did a major fine craft show.  It was amazing!

 Oh, sure there were the expected (and unexpected) obstacles to overcome. These shows are incredibly expensive to do—booth fees, meals, transportation, marketing. The realization that your track lighting issues are going to get even worse. The nerve-wracking experience of packing, set-up, break-down, and everything in between.

But then there is the wonderful side, and that’s all about the people. Gallery owners who really love your work. Show coordinators who eventually become good friends.

And finding your tribe.

At one event, a major national wholesale show, I met people I previously only knew through our conversations on a professional discussion forum. (Remember those? I miss them. Sort of. Keep reading!) I distinctly remember thinking, “I’ve found my tribe!”

 For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people who were creative makers, like me. People who took their work seriously. People who were true professionals (for the most part) about getting their art into the world.  People who focused on doing excellent work, who worked at their craft daily, who sent their kids to college and paid their mortgage doing the work of their heart. People who laughed, shared information readily, supported other artists.

It was a magical year.

After a year or so, though, a few chinks appeared.

There were people who took shortcuts in their process, making it all about the money.

There were people who copied, diligently.

There were people who resented “newbies”, angry about people who “hadn’t paid their dues,” people who were envious of newcomers who won accolades and awards so “easily”.

There were people who were envious. People who were intensely annoying. People with obvious mental health issues. People with egos so big, they took all the air out of any room they enterted.

I tend to accrue a lot of information when I try something new, and I love to share it. (In fairness, tru dat.) So a few people let me know I was an upstart know-it-all with a big head.

And a very few people went out of their way to be obnoxious, to the point of bullying.

Where was my tribe?? I felt broken-hearted.

It took me years to come to terms with this unpleasant knowledge. (I still struggle, I admit that freely.) And now I know this to be true:

Artists are people, too.

In fact, some of the factors that make for a successful (however we define “successful”) artist can make for a difficult human being.

We have to make your art a priority. We have to believe in ourselves, especially when times are hard. We have to trust our process, sometimes to the exclusion of everyone else’s process. We (sometimes) have to fight work hard for our place in the world.

Sometimes this means: We believe we are always Number One. We believe no one else’s opinions matter. We believe our way is the only way. We believe when someone else gets a bigger piece of the pie, we won’t get our own piece.

One summer, after a particularly grueling interaction with someone who was making my professional (and personal) life miserable, another artist finally said, “We can’t all be the Buddha.” “Hah!” I thought resentfully. “I’m just asking her to leave me alone!”

Unfortunately, we really can’t be the Buddha. And in my case, the Buddha would probably be, “Quit trying to fix/change/out-argue those people! You can’t win!”

Because life is filled with difficult people, and creative people are no exception. If anything, we get judged harsher because we are creative people, because we’re supposed to be happier, more fulfilled, livin’ the dream.

And so, instead, I try to see them as, not a problem to be fixed, but an obstacle to get around.

It’s hard. I want to be friends with everyone. (Don’t say it, I know. I know. I KNOW!!!) I have an open heart, and I keep forgetting to put up big effin’ fences when I need to. I consider myself a student of life, and pursuing my art has enriched me on all levels—especially the learning part!

So when it feels like you’ve been voted off the island, consider the source.

Do the people I know and trust support me? Or do they gently suggest I still have some growin’ to do?

Do these people really block my path? Or are they just an inconvenient moment in my life I have to get through?

Can I learn to truly see the good in people who kinda suck are not perfect? (Note: Please do not excuse or make up a story about people with extreme malignant narcissism/sociopathy. Just get away.)

And most important, when the weight of personalities lie heavy on me, I can always go to the sacred creative space of my studio, and get back to making the work of my heart.

Do you have a good story about how you dealt with a difficult person in your art career? Enquiring minds want to know!!

 

 

 

BOXES: More Thoughts

Not the final version, but getting there!

Not the final version, but getting there!

I’m almost finished putting my window display together for Keene’s Art Walk 2013.

I actually added another box soon after taking this picture. I’ll try to get another shot of the completed set-up later this morning.

I finished exactly on time yesterday–I gave myself until 3:30 yesterday, and I finished at 3:35. Whoo hoo!

I was worried, because two dear friends, Jenny and Roma, finally had time to meet for lunch Tuesday. Our joint schedules are crazy lately, and we don’t see each other often anymore. And because I was so behind in pulling this together, I considered skipping lunch with them.

At the last minute, I realized that the pattern in my life for projects is, they take up exactly as much time as I allot them. I decided to risk shaving a couple hours off my prep time in order to spend time with them.

If you’d overheard our conversation that day, you might have thought, “Women gritching again!” We took turns listening about where each of us were stuck. We try not to “fix” things for each other–that never works! But we listen, ask questions, and support each other.

At first, I felt even worse. It’s been a very bad week emotionally and spiritually for me. (By spiritual, I mean when I feel my true self feeling achy and lost, un-centered, unmoored and off-course, that goes deeper than “emotion”.)

And none of our “issues” were easily “fixed”. I felt better when we disbanded, but not for any reason than that I’d spent time with people I care about, and who care about me.

But today, after reading my inbox, I see that everybody feels better. In one case, talking about other possibilities encouraged someone to find out more. Turns out they don’t have to take action on their situation right away, maybe not for a long time. Whew! Something that’s blocked them can now be set aside.

The other person just feels better, and knows no matter what she chooses to do, she will have our support.

And it came to me why I love meeting with these women:

We are always talking about our future, and how we can work our way toward it in an artistic way, with love, with creativity, with integrity.

We are always talking about how to be our best, most evolved self, while still caring and including the people we love.

It occurs to me that there’s bitching, and there’s bitching. There’s the kind of bitching where you throw away everything you thought you cared about into a wastebasket, but a wastebasket that never gets emptied.

And then there’s the bitching where you look at your hopes and dreams, examining them closely with the art of possibility, sharing how to bring them fully into the world.

And putting them back into a precious box for safekeeping, to be taken out and cherished another day.

Perhaps even tomorrow.

HOW TO VISIT A SOMEONE WHO’S IN A NURSING HOME Part 1

Recently I accompanied my mom to visit two of her good friends in a nursing home, one of whom I wrote about yesterday.

I could tell Mom felt a little awkward. One woman was napping in her chair. “Don’t wake her!” mom exclaimed. (Okay, whispered. Exclaiming would have awakened her fried.) She wanted to leave immediately. Unfortunately, Robin sat on her bed and set off an alarm. Erna awakened, and fortunately, was happy to see us.

At first, with both there was a lot of cheerful chatter. Mostly the old stories told and retold. When the stories ran out, Mom wanted to leave.

I have vivid memories of my dad doing the same, years and years ago. There was an older woman, who grew up in Scotland, who worked for my dad in our family restaurant. She retired; soon after, she was confined to a wheelchair and eventually moved into a nursing home. She had no family here in the U.S. except for her son, who rarely visited her. I remember “making the rounds” every Sunday after church–out to the nursing home in the country to visit Bessie, back to town to visit my grandparents, and then maybe back to the “store” for an ice cream cone.

Bessie adored my father, and was always happy to see us. Dad would chat about ordinary things–the restaurant, our doings and comings and goings. I remember him bringing her flowers from our garden.

But sometimes, especially near the end of our visit, she would cry and beg Dad to get her out of there. As time went on, and she became more frail, this happened more and more, until every parting drew tears.

I remember standing there, embarrassed, wordless, having no idea what to do. I would look at my Dad. What would he do? How would he handle this?

Well, my dad would get embarrassed, too. He would weakly try to reassure her that everything was alright, and we’d all make a fast dash for the door.

In my later years, I pretty much kept up the family tradition. I felt awkward visiting folks in such places, even hospitals. I would agonize over what to bring. Flowers? Candy? Can they have candy?? A book? Maybe they’ve already read it…. I would fill the room with cheerful chatting, clumsily reassure them when things go tearful, and beat a hasty retreat.

I’m still not the soul of compassion, but I try to do better now. Because I know better.

The old rules of how to behave are gone. The circumstances have changed, and so must our patterns.

I try to see what is needed, and what is wanted. I listen. I observe. I touch.

People who have been in such places a long time have different needs. No, I take that back–they have the same needs. But we have to fill them differently.

STOP

Relax and be present.

It’s okay to be with them as they sleep. Sleep is important, yes. Especially near the end of life, deep work takes place during sleep. And it’s still rude to awaken someone suddenly, especially with shaking and loud voices. But perhaps you can sit quietly by them, gently taking their hand. Many times they will sense your presence, and awaken gently. If not, be assured they still sense you on some deep level. Even 20 minutes simply sitting quietly, and holding their hand, can be deeply reassuring.

However, don’t stare at them. Waking up to someone watching you sleep can be icky. Sometimes I just take those moments to think, or daydream. But it’s okay to bring a book if it’s hard to sit quietly.

TOUCH

Taking their hand can seem awkward and forward. When have we ever held hands with our friends, or our family, after we’re five? But people need the touch of human hands, now more than ever. It may be years since someone has hugged them, or stroked their hair, or simply held their hand.

No need to envelop them in a bear hug! I start by nonchalantly taking up their hand and cupping it gently. If someone does not want to be touched, then they will withdraw their hand. But if they welcome it, they will not. They may even clasp your hand tighter.

My friend Bonnie Blandford taught me the “hospice hug“. Instead of our quick little social hugs, it’s simply a longer hug where you let the other person choose when to stop. In fact, if they pull back after a few seconds out of habit, try holding gently for another few seconds. You’ll be surprised how many people will relax and hang on for dear life. I did this with a friend recently who had suffered a dreadful loss. When she realized she could have a long hug, she melted into my arms, and began to sob. Yep, some guys in the group got nervous, and began to make jokes about lesbians. I ignored them all. My friend had lost a new grandchild. She needed a deep hug.

LISTEN

Sometimes people want to be entertained with light chatter and news of the outside world. But sometimes they are scared, or anxious, or lonely. They yearn for richer connection. If they are scared, don’t pooh-pooh their fears. What are they afraid of? What’s making them anxious? You don’t need to fix their problems. But we all appreciate someone who listens to them!

By the way, Erna had trouble speaking and forming words. My mom assumed she was “out of it.” By sitting closer and listening carefully, it became obvious that Erna was actually quite aware and responding appropriately to everything we said. She just needed more time to respond.

STAY

I’m not so nervous about people crying now. I just keep the Kleenix coming until they’re done.

OBSERVE

As they talk with you, listen deeply. Watch “the light”. Note where they are making light of something that actually pains them. Observe the topics that make them light up with joy. For one of Mom’s friends, it was a passing comment about our dogs. She asked, “What kind of dog?” We told her. I asked her if she’d ever had a dog. Her face lit up. “Oh, yes!” She told us several stories, and then got to the one that was painful–the family dog hit by a car, and how terrible it was. The pain, the suffering, the family’s anguish. All these years later, and it was still hard. On impulse, I told her a quick version of the delightful movie, Dean Spanley*. A dog who is killed suddenly, describes it as something he didn’t understand. His former master asks if he suffered. No…no…. There was no pain. It was time to go home. How did he get there? He simply turned towards home, and went there. When asked how he knew where home was, he said, “One just knows. So you turn that way, and go there.” Erna smiled sweetly and sighed.

BE A WITNESS

Tell them about the gifts they’ve given you–the gift of their friendship, their kindnesses, their thoughtfulness. If they were feisty friends, tell them how much you admire their courage to be themselves. Though I didn’t know either woman, I knew my mother treasured their friendships, and said so. To Frannie, who changed her dress on her daughter’s wedding day, I said, “That was such a gift you gave your daughter!”

Ask questions, especially if you don’t know them well. Don’t interrogate–it’s not a fact-finding mission. Just show interest in what they have to say, how they lived their lives, what gives them joy. When they tell you hard things, say, “That must have been hard” and let them tell you more. When they tell you beautiful things, ask them what their favorite part was. Let them tell their stories.

READ

When I do hospice visits, I take books. I take one for me to read to myself and one to read aloud–a book of poetry, or short stories, or novels where individual chapters can stand alone. If the person is religious or spiritual, I’ll bring a book of prayers or blessings. I’ve found that we never lose the desire to be read to, provided the person is up for it. It’s a way to take a break from conversation, a way for them to simply listen, even a way to ease them into sleep. My daughter loves the scene in the movie WIT, where the main character (who is dying) accepts her old teacher’s offer to read to her. John Donne gets voted down, but it turns out the children’s book The Runaway Bunny is beautifully appropriate.

FORGIVE YOURSELF

It’s okay to be thankful it’s not you lying there in the nursing home. They know you feel that way. And it’s okay. You’re not a bad person. Just human. And they know that, too.

There’s more, but I forgot.

This is just quick overview of how to make such visits easier, deeper and fun. I would LOVE to hear your suggestions, too.

How did I get so smart? Listening to my daughter speak of her experiences working in such institutions–nursing homes, assisted living units, rehab wards. And my hospice training, which was rich with insights and practical advice.

*Dean Spanley is my new favorite movie. It starts slow and quiet, fueled by odd and cantankerous British humor, with the most incredibly beautiful and poignant ending. WATCH IT TO THE END!! I fell asleep halfway through the first time I watched it. Fortunately, I made myself watch it again. STAY AWAKE, or watch it twice, and I think you’ll find yourself deeply touched by its message. If you love dogs, you’ll find it triply delightful. But you don’t have to be an animal lover to appreciate its message.

WHEN BEING A SAINT IS JUST TOO DAMN HARD

I just got back from a quick trip back to my hometown in Gladwin, Michigan. There were difficult family matters to discuss. It was one of those big ol’ hard discussions no one wants to have, but it went well and there is peace in my heart.

While I was there, I visited one of my mother’s oldest friends in a rehabilitation unit at our local hospital. (“Rehab” means she might be able to return home after her stay.)

It was our first meeting. Mom and Franny (not her real name) became friends when Mom started teaching middle school, after I’d already left home for college, over forty years ago. I’ve heard many wonderful stories about her over the years, and was delighted to finally see her in person.

Many, many interesting things happened during this little get-together, all of them great subjects for elder care and hospice articles.

But today I’m going to write about why being a saint is just too damn hard. And why we should…okay, could…just aim just a little lower. (Me trying not to tell you what to do.)

My mom’s favorite story about Franny involves Franny’s divorce after thirty years of marriage, her husband remarrying a younger woman, and her daughter’s wedding soon after.

Franny bought two new dresses for the wedding: A mother-of-the-bride dress for the wedding and another for the reception. She wore the first dress, and then switched to the second for the reception.

But when she got to the reception, New Wife No. 2 was wearing the same dress.

Franny went back to the dressing room and switched back to her other dress.

Mom has told this story many times, and she retold it several times while we visited Franny. Every telling ends the same way: “I tell her, “Franny, you are too good to be on this earth. You’re a saint! When you die, you’re going straight up to heaven!” (Always accompanied by a sweep of her arm and a dramatic point toward the sky.

But Franny didn’t nod her head or respond in any way. She’s obviously heard this from Mom many times, too.

I was sitting by her side, holding her hand. I said, gently, “You sound like a woman who picks her battles.” She nodded, but didn’t say anything. So that wasn’t all it was.

I said, “You chose to let your daughter have her perfect day on her wedding.”

And Franny brightened and nodded, and smiled.

I don’t know how to describe this lightening of the spirit. But when we speak, or hear, our truth, there is a subtle transformation that is beautiful. And this was Franny’s truth. Not the saintliness. Not the logical.

It’s about a tiny choice made with love.

Franny is not comfortable with being called a saint. She is not a wealthy person–a second dress for the wedding was not a small expense for her. It must have been so hard to be at her daughter’s wedding, watching her say vows that Franny and her own husband had taken so many years before. After a (supposedly) good marriage of thirty years, her husband chose to say those vows with another woman, who was sharing this important day with her. And she had to stand alone.

Of course she was angry! And indignant, confused. Of course she felt sadness, and regret, and who knows what else.

But she had the power of her choice.

She could choose to create a scene. She could choose to make a statement by not changing. After all, Franny was the mother of the bride. No one would blame her if she stuck to her guns and wore that dress with her head held high.

But she knew if she did, it would be her daughter who would suffer the most.

And she chose to change her dress. She made a choice, a tiny choice, a choice bathed in love.

When we call people ‘saints’, we think we’re talking about people who don’t feel those bad emotions. They are just naturally good. It’s easy for them. It’s so very very hard for us. Practically impossible, in fact, for us to rise above our human nature, our lizard brain. We just can’t be saints.

And so we let other people be saints. Because it’s just too hard, and we know we would fail.

What Franny did was different.

She thought it all through.

Her daughter’s happiness was in her hands for one short moment.

She could choose: Whose need would she serve?

And then she made a tiny, gracious choice.

We don’t have to be perfect. We don’t have to be good. We don’t have to even try to be a saint.

We can simply try to make a tiny, gracious choice, with love.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

from Dream Work by Mary Oliver
published by Atlantic Monthly Press
© Mary Oliver

You can hear Mary Oliver reading this, and two other poems here If you’re short of time, start at 1:05. But if you have a few moments, “Tom Dance’s Gift of a White Bark Pinecone” is pretty wonderful, too.

JUST ANOTHER BEAUTIFUL MORNING

Yep, life was weird and scary this fall and winter, and I’ve been in a funk.

So many days I didn’t want to leave the warmth and comfort of my own bed. I couldn’t think of a reason why I should, either. I slept ten hours, eleven hours, sometimes twelve hours at night.

And still felt lethargic and only half-here.

Now some of the grey has lifted. Slowly, I return to the things that have always given me strength–my writing, my craft, my marriage, my family.

And my friends.

Last week, on an impulse, I invited myself to piggy-back along on a friend’s trip down to Webs, a fabulous yarn store in Northampton, MA. I’m in knitting mode, which hits me in winter. Actually, I’m in yarn-and-pattern-and-book buying mode, but whatever.

I couldn’t believe how much I anticipated that road trip. Jenny was taking a class, and would spend most of the day at the store. It’s the kind of place I can hang out in for hours, too–shopping the yarn warehouse, with its bargain-basement prices. With a shopping cart, people! I need more yarn like a hole in the head, but it was so soothing to be with the lovely colors and textures of yarn. Then I spent more hours browsing through every single pattern book and leaflet.

It all appeals to the hunter-gatherer in me.

I was in fiber junkie heaven.

And I got to spend some time with Jenny. Which turned out to be the best, most healing part.

To know Jenny is to love her. She’s simply a good, gentle woman. Always there for her family and friends. She has an open and loving heart, and we gravitate to her as a sunflower follows the sun.

One particular exchange resonates with me today. Jenny has sheep, and she’s the ‘morning feeder’. She gets up at the crack of dawn, rain or shine, to care for them. (Her husband Mike, another treasured presence in our circle, is the ‘night feeder’.)

Jenny said sometimes she hates getting up in the cold winter mornings. It can be a hard time of day here in New England. Freezing rain, deep snow, cold winds can put a damper on your enthusiasm. (I’m personally grateful we don’t have ducks or chickens this year…. The feelings of guilt on those zero degree nights is mind-numbing!)

But then Jenny, as she usually does, said something quiet and clear, and deeply profound.

“I look around, and see the morning,” she said. “And each morning is so different, Lu! Each one is beautiful in its own way….”

Light. Sky. Clouds. Wind. Water–snow, ice, rain, mist, dew. Birds. Color–in the flowers, in the leaves, everywhere you look. Something that catches your eye, or your ear, or your heart, something different, every day….

Sometimes the sunrise is brilliant and gorgeous. Other times, perhaps just a small cluster of rose-gold clouds glowing on the horizon. Sometimes the wind puts all the trees in motion. Other times, she said, it’s so quiet, you can’t even hear the traffic from the country road a few miles away. Sometimes you hear the cackling commotion of crows, other times, simply the sweet, low cry of a morning dove.

Every day. Something different. Something…unique.

Something you only see when you pull yourself out of your warm and safe bed, and venture bravely out into the new day.

I’ve thought about that every day since.

I am so grateful for people like Jenny, who gently, sweetly, help me remember what it is to be alive.

And though I’m more of a sunset person than a morning person, today I, too, try to se–with fresh eyes, an open heart, a calm spirit and grateful nature–the beauty of each new day.