Museums In Progress

There she was, approaching my gate in the Atlanta airport, a stylish vision, decked out in a turquoise top, carrying a pumpkin colored purse, wearing red shoes and lugging a heavy purple carryon. She was on her way to Europe for the first time, and neutral was nowhere in her color scheme. One could say she was an exhibit of a colorful, exuberant traveler. Finally, after much planning and scheming, my sister Ellen was going to accompany me to Amsterdam.

Two intrepid travelers

Two intrepid travelers

Because my husband has business in Amsterdam, I have been fortunate enough to accompany him to that lovely city many times. Amsterdam May 2015-58Typically we travel there on a Friday, arrive Saturday and have the weekend to explore before he goes to work Monday through Wednesday. I have never had any trouble amusing myself while he worked, but I often thought how wonderful it would be to show someone around the city, someone who would love it as much as I did. Someone like my sister.Amsterdam May 2015-3

We had no reservations about whether we would travel well together,  meaning we knew we would not interfere with one another’s reading, nor would either of suggest tacky tourist activities.  Ellen did later voice a secret fear that I might rush her through the museums, as I had been to them before. Although to me museums are there to be visited over and over again, I also secretly feared I might experience a feeling of let down if I did not also find something to do that was new to me. I decided to take my role as a tour guide one day at a time, and adjust our plans as needed so that we both felt satisfied.

And lo, with a sidekick to amuse me while my husband worked, all became new in Amsterdam. To my delight, every single place I took my sister had changed to some degree since last I went. What bliss  it was to spend my days with someone who “museums” the way I do. I would call my museum style slow and careful, yet humane, meaning that I read everything I want to read but I don’t overwhelm myself. I’m happy to immerse myself in exhibits and lose all track of time, but I’m not compulsive about seeing everything the museum may have on offer.

In five days we girls museumed ourselves through the Anne Frank House, The Dutch Resistance Museum, the Amsterdam Museum, The Church of Our Lord In The Attic, The Van Gogh Museum, The Stejdelik, and the Rijksmuseum.

The Rijksmuseum. Don't even try to see it in one day. Even with the audio tour, you'll get lost.

The Rijksmuseum. Don’t even try to see it in one day. Even with the audio tour, you’ll get lost.

The Stedeljik had a lovely Matisse exhibit.

The Stedelijk had a lovely Matisse exhibit.

We were fortunate enough to avoid long lines at the Anne Frank House, as we went late in the day, after being the last people out of the Amsterdam Museum.

She took her time in the museum.

She took her time in the museum.

My fears of feeling bored or let down proved groundless, as did Ellen’s fears of being rushed. I was just as riveted by the exhibits as she was. Here we were, two ladies who try to live meaningful lives, reading about how others had spent theirs. Our daytime hours were spent touring carefully curated rooms, and our evenings were spent  gloriously debriefing. Over dinner we would pose question after question to one another about the city’s history and its development, for each of us is endlessly interested in the daily lives of others. Our questions really had no answers, but we just loved to share  ideas.

Deep, philosophical discussions after a day at the museums.

Deep, philosophical discussions after a day at the museums.

Of all we discussed what we kept coming back to was the value of self expression.  Again and again we had seen and read about examples of how ordinary people dealt with extraordinary conditions using what they could, never knowing how their works would one day inspire others. Some, wrote, some painted, some made needlework,some designed fashions, some composed music, but no matter the medium, they all used art to try to make meaning out of their lives. We marveled at how creativity was used to resist tyranny, to celebrate life, to save lives, or simply to endure.

Protesting Hitler and The Third Reich

Protesting Hitler and The Third Reich

A journal of the Occupation

A journal of the Occupation

A church built in an attic...that's creative!

A church built in an attic…that’s creative!

Sewing in an Indonesian prisoner of war camp.

Sewing in an Indonesian prisoner of war camp.

And of course, Van Gogh had his struggles.

And of course, Van Gogh had his struggles.

And sometimes it's just fun to make things!

And sometimes it’s just fun to make things!

Most of us will never have articles from our lives on display behind a glass case at a museum, but what if we knew they were going to be? What creation of mine would I donate as representative of the way I have lived my life? What would I write on the little placard beside my exhibit about how writing this, or painting that, or capturing an image  with a camera helped me deal with problems unique to my time of life?

I am sure that my sister and I would qualify for some sort of nerd exhibit, in that we spent most of our waking hours poring over artifacts inside museums, while outside the most liberal city in the world was vibrating with life.

Plus, my sister was the only bare legged woman in Amsterdam, a museum worthy contribution.

Plus, my sister was the only bare legged woman in Amsterdam, a museum worthy contribution.

But aren’t we all, as we make our way through life, cataloguing and curating our own little museums, filled with our own memories and hopefully, our creative efforts? In my own collection of life memories, I am so pleased to be able to add my experiences with my  sister, the colorful traveler, in Amsterdam, to see the city through her eyes, to revisit old haunts, and to enjoy being together.  Luckily, my museum is open at all hours, and I have a lifetime membership.

It's always beautiful, and always thought provoking.

It’s always beautiful, and always thought provoking.

Permanently Temporary

If we live long enough, we learn that not only does everything change, but also that everything can change all at once. Thus far 2015 has been one of those everything-is -changing-at-once scenarios. The changes in my life are all of the first world kind, thankfully, so I’m not complaining. But still, when I am living the changes, the totality can seem overwhelming.

In case you haven’t heard me mention my first world changes, here are a few of them. I became an in-town grandmother. I took a month off from work. When I returned to work I not only shortened my hours, I changed the actual days that I work. And I changed the ways I accept payment for my services. All that is enough to make a woman pushing sixty feel as though she has unremitting  jet lag, but there is more.

Now I probably do sound whiny, but…sniff.. my personal trainer moved to another facility. For reasons unrelated to the trainer, I was unable to follow him to the new location. So after eight years of a set  exercise routine I am having to start over. With the threat of diabetes always dangling over my head, I am afraid not to exercise. So I’m trying things, but it’s not the same. By the way, if you’re considering Zumba, forget about it; it’s way too humiliating.

This whole year has simply been disruptive. While I wouldn’t  change any of it (except for losing my personal trainer,) I’ve been anxious to return to some semblance of normality, which for me means healthy doses of solitude and time for creative pursuits. I’ve kept waiting, patiently and impatiently, for the jumble of my days to settle down, but after almost half the year has now gone and I’m still waking up wondering what day this is, I have reached the conclusion that what I thought was a temporary adjustment is actually permanent.

My new normal is taking on a babysitting gig at the last minute. It is not being able to figure out how to get any gardening done.

At least I brought a few fragrant snowbell blossoms into the house.

At least I brought a few fragrant snowbell blossoms into the house.

It is  trying  to figure out what to pack in my bag each morning so that I can try to hit an exercise class after babysitting. It is trying to fit all my clients in in just a day and a half. It is thinking about painting and writing, but not actually doing much of either.

Is a bird emerging here?

Is a bird emerging here?

It is thinking that my life is so unremarkable that I have little to share.

Yes,  almost everything has changed, but honey, NOT BOOKS!!!!  I am never disappointed by the power of the written word. I always seem to read the right thing at the right time. Once again I am not surprised that others have already written my thoughts in a more eloquent way than I ever could.

Unknown source

Unknown source

This time I have found solace in words from  Stefan Zweig’s autobiography The World of Yesterday. In relating the story of his peripatetic life, continually leaving everything behind as he fled totalitarian regimes, he said, “My life was already unconsciously accommodating itself to the temporary rather than to the permanent.” So true, I thought. My struggles do not compare to his, but I too no longer have a permanent schedule, nor can I be too attached to anything except what is in the moment. After all it is from individual moments that we form our most indelible memories, and it is for these moments that I have made these changes in my life. I have become permanently temporary.

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Zweig, having taken refuge in England as World War II approached,  remarked, quoting Shakespeare, “Let us meet the time as it seeks us.” I take that to mean let us do what is necessary for the times we live in, for sometimes we are simply swept along by events which are out of our control.  I believe I can adjust to the reality of my life circumstances, which are actually darned fortunate. Since everything is temporary, I want to be able to show up for it all. Perhaps in the hubbub  some things, the New Yorker, for example, will fall by the wayside. I may or may not be able to pick those things up again,  but what is important is that I am doing the best I  can. None of us will ever pass this way again.

lillian april-38

A Balanced Grandmother

New projects just thrill me. Or, to be perfectly honest, the moment when I open the energy spigot for a new project and feel that divine surge of dopamine… that’s a lovely moment. My most recent energy filled  pursuits have been meeting Grandchild Number One and Grandchild Number Two. True, I was not directly involved in their creation, but I was very involved in preparing my own heart and mind for their arrival. And in giving, um…unsolicited advice.

Go ahead. Ask me all your parenting questions!

Go ahead. Ask me all your parenting questions!

During this beautiful “birth season”, naturally, I drifted away from some of my usual pastimes, because let’s face it: nothing  can top the birth of a precious new baby. For a time I devoted all my creative energy to helping the new parents adjust, and in trying to get myself designated as chief baby soother. A perfect day would begin with my daily face time with Grandchild Number One, during which I could “babysit” while my daughter left the room to fix her coffee. Pay no attention to my neck.

Go brew your coffee; I've got you covered!

Go brew your coffee; I’ve got you covered!

Then I would put on my work clothes, pack my computer and other home making accoutrements I might require, and zoom to my son’s house to help take care of the new parents and Grandchild Number Two. After I had helped with the baby and dinner I drove home tired but gratified, ready to relax with a library book.

You can go home , Emmy. My parents know what they're doing!

You can go home , Emmy. My parents know what they’re doing!

In the last couple of weeks, however, the frenetic new-baby vibe has quieted down. Everyone seems healthy, settled and happy. As my hands-on grandmother time has subsided, I have found myself hopeful that I would find my way back to knitting, painting, writing, and the other glorious hobbies that help keep me balanced.

I hoped, but instead of taking action I observed, watched and waited. Yes, there was just a smidge of anxiety that made me think I should do something to MAKE something happen, but I resisted. And  just last week I found myself up in my newly  cleaned out craft room, checking  to see if my sewing machine even works. It does work. And it has fuchsia thread in it.  I can’t remember what it was I ever intended to sew, but that will come. Another day I made a foray into my long unused painting corner, my copy of Brave Intuitive Painting open beside me, just making marks on paper with paint. lillian aprilOn a walk around the lake by my house I snapped a picture of a crane surrounded by turtles.lillian april-290I’m sprouting. And the babies and parents are doing fine.

And guess what???  While I am integrating the grandchildren in with the creativity, It is RAINING GRANDCHILDREN AROUND HERE!!! We just got word that Grandchild Number Three should arrive this fall.  Then all three of my children will be parents. That’s balance along with a definite dopamine thrill.lillian april-306

I hadn’t thought of this before, but it is creative just to decide what kind of grandmother to be. It’s a dream come true for a free spirit. I can put in some Auntie Mame  and throw in some Maya Angelou right along with some dashes of my own mother and grandmothers. Meaning I’ll be a character, an utterly unique recipe.  Meaning my grandchildren will all share  a grandmother who loves to nurture and spoil them but still manages to plant some flowers, take some pictures,  try on hats in the thrift stores, turn out a pair of socks, or just in general make a mess. I wouldn’t want these children to have to endure a calm, sedate grandparent. That would be completely out of balance!

Excused Absences – Part Two: The Royalty Pay A Visit

In the Fall of 2014 I learned that I was to be honored by a royal visit. No, not Prince Harry and Princess Catherine; they were already here last May for a wedding. This time the  royal personage involved was none other than my grandson, Prince Micah, making his first visit to Memphis, accompanied by  his royal attendants and parents,  Lady Cameron and  Sir Eric.

Since they would not be bringing a full accoutrement of Court members, I feared I would have to scramble around for some ladies in waiting, squires and the like.  But as soon as word of their visit got out, I was  fairly besieged with offers for royal duty. In fact, I feared we would have a surfeit of hangers on at the Memphis Court. In the end however, since in the South we would rather have too much of a thing than not enough, all who offered were given tasks to perform. And now, according to Prince Micah’s decree, the following pictures are to be shared with all  his subjects, as he was unable to grant an audience to all. Micah iun Memphis-5

Immediately upon arrival the Prince suffered a bout of very pink cheeks, brought about by the Arctic air. Someone forgot to order balmy temperatures.Micah iun Memphis-2

Luckily, heads did not roll. Here, Lady Cameron allows him to gnaw on a blanket.Micah iun Memphis-10

The diminutive Prince took quickly to allowing others to wait upon him. Here, the Matron Emmy receives a welcome opportunity.Micah iun Memphis-12 Early the first evening of the visit, two more matronly Ladies in Waiting arrived: Great Aunts Lady Ann and Lady Mare. They were suitably impressed with the Prince’s advanced growling and drooling skills.

State visits occurred on Saturday and Sunday with young Prince Ollie, approximately eight months of age,  who made the trip over from Arkansas with his attendants. Ladies Ann and Mare were able to serve both royal households. No pictures of the state visits are available at the moment, but Prince Micah was deemed the more bellicose of the two young rulers.

By Sunday evening, freezing rain and sleet covered the Memphis area. The frigid temperatures  caused  Prince Micah’s Court to be held largely in front of the fireplace. At this point, and I do lower my voice here, the two major female Court attendants began a  daring task which was distinctly unrelated to the Prince  – that of cleaning out an entire craft room. Lady Cameron felt that going through her high school detritus DURING A ROYAL VISIT was worth the risk. I bowed to her judgment.Micah iun Memphis-24

The entire Court tacitly withheld  knowledge of the craft room project from the minor monarch, fearing his wrath. Lady Cameron knew from experience that her young highness would nix such a project here just as he would at home. There were close calls, yes, but the swift interventions of the Jester Grandaddy and Sir Eric prevented certain disaster.Micah iun Memphis-11 Micah iun Memphis-14 I don’t believe the Prince noticed anything amiss,

I look normal, don't I?

I look normal, don’t I?

but by Tuesday he was plagued with a runny nose which may have diverted his attention. Upstairs the cleaning out moved apace, with hefty bag after hefty age of trash lined up in the hall. Downstairs the menfolk labored unsuccessfully to wipe their charge’s nose. As the Prince protested such treatment , suddenly we heard    – DING DONG!

And the next installment of Courtiers arrived – Sir Eric’s parents, who had driven through the ice and snow all the way from Illinois just to be able to see their grandson, the Prince.Micah iun Memphis-17

Lady Cameron consults with Sir Eric's Dad.

Lady Cameron consults with Sir Eric’s Dad, no doubt while Lady Annette rocked the Prince.

We were all glad for the influx of fresh attendants who knew more songs and silly games and who were willing to spend their days on the floor in front of the fireplace. I was mostly upstairs in knitting needle hell, for the project, once begun, could not be abandoned, and with new Court members on hand , my services would not be missed for the nonce.Micah iun Memphis-25

Through the week either the temperature or frozen precipitation kept the young Master indoors. Efforts were made to keep the Prince’s routine  unchanged from that of his California home. The Prince’s expectation is that his work continue unimpeded, no matter his location.Micah iun Memphis-9 Just when the Illinois contingent had to depart, Great Aunt Lady Ellen appeared upon the scene, and after a brief introduction to our local Princess Lillian, Micah iun Memphis-28was eager to participate in Court life and intrigue. Since the craft room had been the only intrigue, we made do with a sociological experiment about whether a cardboard box can rightfully be considered a throne.Micah iun Memphis-29 Too soon it was Saturday, and the last full day of the royal visit. The weather had improved enough for the Prince to hold an impromptu audience, which greatly cheered the throngs who had been denied a viewing.Micah iun Memphis-32 The Court members struggled to complete the rest of the scheduled events. First, there was the royal photo shoot, which had to be held indoors. Four attendants were required for the grueling session.Micah iun Memphis-34 And there was a last afternoon coffee, served with cookies, at which two more Court ladies, Great Aunt Lady Carla and Lady Alexis, and a fellow royal, Princess Cee Austin were able to pay Court to the Prince.Micah iun Memphis-35Micah iun Memphis-36Micah iun Memphis-26 The last night of the visit was rather glum, for every single member of the Court was sad and plumb worn out. This writer, for example, was unable to move from her own bed after 8:00 P.M. Sometime in the early morning the Prince and his small contingent were conveyed to the airport from which they returned to California.

We have had no negative feedback from the visit, so we must conclude that his Highness was pleased with the level of service that can be provided by a minimum of eleven volunteer attendants. I wonder if Prince Harry and Princess Catherine had such a well functioning temporary Court for their Memphis visit?

Excused Absences, Part One

Last time I wrote I alluded to big changes happening in my life. I mentioned that I was downsizing my practice in order to devote more time to my own creativity, and to being  a more hands on  grandmother. I know what you asked yourself: Why does she have to do this NOW???lillian-8

Because LILLIAN!!!! That’s why!!!

In the midst of preparing to be an out of town grandmother, I received the  unexpected but thrilling news  from my “baby”, Nick, and his girlfriend Heather, that early in 2015 I was also to become an in-town  grandmother.! As soon as my head began to spin more slowly atop my neck, I began to ask myself the questions that have no answers. They were deep questions indeed. For example, “WHAT??? This son of mine, this man/boy who still has his mail sent to our house is going to be a father? What’s to become of us all? ” And “What if he insists on naming the child after an NFL football player, how will I cope?”  You know, the types of questions one asks one’s self thirty thousand times in the middle of the night.

Him? A Dad?

Him? A Dad?

Thirty thousand  unanswered questions later, my mind was able to focus on more practical matters. Maybe I would have no say in what the child would be named, but I could certainly make myself available to be helpful. And if I played my cards right, maybe I would get to do some of the things for THIS new Mama that my Mother, an in town grandmother, got to do for me.( And which I promptly took for granted.) Of course my own Mother felt she had license to just barge right in and do things, but since I would be a paternal grandmother, I knew I would have to earn my spot at the table. I knew I would have to use all my considerable subtleness, lest I be declared a nuisance.

What were my parents having for dinner after my Mother helped me all day long? I must admit it never crossed my mind.

What were my parents having for dinner after my Mother helped me all day long? I must admit it never crossed my mind.

Meanwhile, as I mentally ran in circles, Heather, the new Mama, ran circles around me, taking care of herself, preparing for the baby, working and going to school. I cannot say enough good about Heather. Her strength and integrity remind me of why it is that women run this world. We’re just better at it. I am  grateful that Heather  will be the model for Lillian in so many important ways.

My sweet Heather, on the right, with her sister, five days before the baby was born.

My sweet Heather, on the right, with her sister, five days before the baby was born.

And what fun Heather has let me have! As her pregnancy neared the end, she let me take her to some of her Doctor’s appointments and then out to lunch, just as my Mother used to do for me, and just as I would have loved to be able to do for my own daughter. The day before she went in labor we went to about 5 stores getting whatever baby items they still needed, and then to eat authentic Mexican food. Sure enough, she went in labor the next morning, and guess who they called? ME ME ME ME ME!!!!!! And guess who ran a red light with impunity on the way to hospital? ME ME ME ME!!!!!!

I got to be there for most of the labor!

I got to be there for most of the labor!

And I was out in the peanut gallery when she was born! Heather’s family arrived from out of town later that day to join in the celebration.

Yep. My baby's a Daddy!

Yep. My baby’s a Daddy!

Grandaddy with his new sweetheart.

Grandaddy with his new sweetheart.

Since the baby has been born I have been off of work so that I can go to my son’s house almost every day to help. I envisioned  many after- baby scenarios, mostly involving sleep deprived parents and screaming babies,  but none with an easy baby who sleeps all the time, because I never had one of those. Miss Lillian, however, is thus far an easy and happily breast fed baby, so I haven’t been needed as much as I thought.

Lillian in the blanket I barely finished before she was born.

Lillian in the blanket I barely finished before she was born.

But nursing Mamas need to eat, don’t they? And Heather has allowed me free reign in the kitchen. I love to shoo her off for a nap, and then because the baby is so easy, I can whip the parents up something nourishing for dinner. Part of the fun is the challenge of working in someone else’s kitchen, especially your son’s former bachelor kitchen, where there is nary a pot holder to be found. I scurry around their kitchen, making a big mess and muttering delightedly , a la Sally Field at the Oscars, “They need me! They NEED ME!”

Soon Heather’s family will be back to marvel over how big Lillian has grown. Naturally I plan to (cough) gracefully step aside and let them have their share of Grandparent Crack. I’m a reasonable person.

Bread rising on a cloth diaper.

Bread rising on a cloth diaper.

Using the kitchen sink as a countertop to mash potatoes for shepherd's pie

Using the kitchen sink as a countertop to mash potatoes for shepherd’s pie Also I noticed that day that my camera smelled like an onion. It was worth it.

That’s about it for today. If you’ve wondered where I have been, now you know. And if you need me, you know where I’ll be. Hopefully I can get around to catching up on all of YOUR blog posts that I’ve missed this past month. Meanwhile, tonight’s menu is chicken parmesan with orzo and sautéed zucchini and tomatoes. I’d better get on it!

A Tale Of More Than Two Slippers

Before you read this I just want to whisper that though this post does mention France, that it is in no way a commentary on the recent tragedies there. Je suis Charlie.

Recently my life has reminded me a lot of the French Revolution, and more specifically of A  Tale Of Two Cities. It’s been the best of times. I am healthy, loved, housed, and employed, claims the most fortunate  of French peasants probably couldn’t have made. Yet the wagon wheels of Change have clattered their way to my gate, loudly demanding entrance. I have quaked inside my little fictional French hut, but in the end have had to open the door. I can’t say it has been the worst of times, but it hasn’t been pleasant. If you recall from your history studies, the French Revolution was a time of great upheaval. It took the storming of the Bastille, the Reign of Terror and I don’t know what all else, but in the end the monarchy and feudalism no longer existed.  Like the crusaders for change in France, I too have hoped to achieve lofty goals, except I have tried unsuccessfully to avoid the painful parts.

Here is what has happened. I have had to accept that in order to follow my creative pursuits AND be the grandmother I want to be that I must reduce my clinical social work practice considerably. And like the French Revolution, this has caused great chaos  in my psyche. I think it is all going to turn out fine, but the inner suffering has not been fun. And I’ve had to go about my daily business just as if there were not a shiny guillotine inside my head preparing to lop off  long standing therapeutic relationships and possibly my professional reputation.

In the midst of change we all seek inspiration from people who have traveled similar roads. At first, my situation seemed so unique to me that I just stumbled on alone. But after a time I found solidarity with the characters from  A Tale Of Two Cities.

First, I sent my inner doppelgänger to do my dirty work. Just as Sydney Carton took the rap for Charles Darnay, some part of me managed to tell clients that my schedule will be changing, that I will no longer take their insurance, and that they may choose to continue their therapy with someone else. The changes in my life don’t make me guilty any more than Charles Darnay was, but it felt pretty dangerous anyway. I also sent the doppelgänger out to social events over the holidays because I was so preoccupied. Sadly, the doppelgänger refused to write any blog posts for me, but no one gets everything they want.

Second, I have kept careful notice of the whole process, not to keep score as did Madame  Du Farge, but in order to be as present as possible. When I was building my practice I never thought about what it would be like to dismantle it. Like a faithful servant I supposed all of that would be taken care of by my Master when the time came. And then I realized that I am the Master, so I had better pay attention and remember. I want to honor the hard work done through the years by many courageous clients.

Third, like Dr. Mornay when he was finally released from prison, I have isolated and tried to make shoes. Really and truly. I have tried for months to make one lousy pair of slippers.  When one is under stress even the most simple task can seem monumental. All through the fall I tried to make these VERY SIMPLE felted slippers, and time after time I failed. Want to see  the lineup?

My first effort can’t be shown because  THEY FELL APART while felting. Sigh. Bought more yarn. Tried again.slippers (1 of 1)-13Wondered why they wouldn’t felt. Because I used the WRONG YARN. That’s why. Bought the correct yarn. Tried again.slippers (1 of 1)-15Finished the first slipper. Why did it look so different from the previous ones? Because I forgot to double the yarn, that’s why. Started over with doubled yarn.slippers (1 of 1)-14Finished this slipper. Washed and washed until I realized that my brand new washing machine was just not going to felt. I would have to buy a felting machine. Felt like storming the Bastille. Bought felting machine. Started over.slippers (1 of 1)-16Ripped the back of these trying to cram them on my feet. Why were they so little? Checked needle size. Wrong sized needle. Why, oh why, didn’t my doppelgänger know how to follow a simple pattern? Such are the trials of revolution. Started over.slippers (1 of 1)-9Finally a pair of slippers that seemed  like reasonable candidates for felting. Now to felt, decorate in a low key manner, because one could not tempt fate with conspicuous frippery nor appear to be a member of the aristocracy, and apply fabric paint to the soles for traction.slippers (1 of 1)-17How about these understated beauties?slippers (1 of 1)-18And here are the soles after a few celebratory wearings.

I admired  my feet in my darling little slippers. I had struggled to make these all through the time I was wrestling with the changes I needed to make in my life. I could see the parallels. The past few months have  been the best in some ways, and the worst in others. Revolution has definitely been in the air. But today, my toes are  wriggling appreciatively in their new warm slippers. Everything is going to be fine.

What It’s All About

Sometimes I just don’t pay attention to what is really important. Instead I   allow myself to be carried along by what strikes me at the moment. I suppose that is what happened when several months ago I agreed to attend a retreat called The Chemistry Of Connection at Garrison Institute in upstate New York. My colleague and I were familiar with two of the presenters, authors of books on mindfulness, so that meant it would probably be worthwhile. Also we were entranced by the description of the Institute – a former Capuchin monastery, overlooking the Hudson River. We skipped right over the part where the weekend was open to the general public, as well as the part where the other two speakers did not seem connected to mental health. After all, we could just skip their parts if we wanted to.

Once we realized we would need to fly into New York City we decided to stay there for a day and a half before taking the train to the Institute. Planning those days involved furiously comparing hotels and airline flights and scoping out museums. We were sure  we needed to have a quality experience before we went on to whatever that thing was we had signed up for.

The next thing I knew I was in New York City, surrounded by the sensory overload of the crowds, the traffic and the trappings of the holidays. I quickly adapted to city mode; staring straight ahead, paying attention only to what I was doing. Our advance planning paid off, for we enjoyed the Met and a food tour at the Tenement Museum without mishap.new york (35 of 99)-2  True, out hotel was overbooked for the first night, causing us to have to go “up the block” to another hotel for the night, but we were handsomely upgraded on the second night. We left New York City feeling like royalty.

We disembarked from the train at the hamlet of Garrison, which seemed to consist of four buildings and a fierce wind blowing off the Hudson River. A fast phone call to the Institute informed us that it was lunch hour, so we would have to wait in the cold for twenty minutes…unless we could find some humans to let us into one of those buildings. We crossed over the heated railroad overpass, bent on survival, past a lone man with a backpack, to said buildings, where we were  able to wheedle our way into an art gallery holiday sale. In due time, we crossed back across the tracks, past the backpack man, to wait for the shuttle.new york (92 of 99)-2

To our surprise when the shuttle arrived, that same man climbed on the shuttle with us. The shuttle driver asked us what we were here for and we told her. She mentioned that our retreat would be featuring horses. HORSES?? I heard my colleague say “I didn’t know this was a horsey weekend!” What was this retreat about, anyway?

We drove up a winding driveway to the imposing brick monastery. new york (76 of 99)-2new york (78 of 99)-2Inside we checked in and were  assigned rooms. I heard the backpack man say his name was Aaron Wolf. Wait a minute! Wasn’t that the name of one of the presenters? Quick – what had we said in the shuttle, and did it sound reasonably intelligent? In order to avoid further embarrassment we fled the reception area, barely registering the directive to report to the refectory at 5:00P.M. to be trained for the house jobs we had apparently signed up for.

We climbed the stairs to behold a long empty hallway of former monk cells. The clatter of our heels on the wide plank floor was the only sound. My cell was bathed in the weakening winter sunlight. new york (73 of 99)I turned on the radiator and made the bed with crisp white sheets. new york (41 of 99)-2This was to be my sanctuary for the next two nights. I longed to spend the whole weekend in this simple room, absorbing the peace and quiet and savoring each passing moment of the days.

But that was not to be, for I was at a retreat planned by someone else. Meaning I had not made the plan, and this made me uneasy, for I have not been able to entirely rid myself of the idea that I have control over things.new york (38 of 99)

After some time on our own my colleague and I reported to the refectory for training. There we were treated to  a thorough tour of the industrial kitchen, where it turned out that we would be doing the dishes for eighty people. And not only that, we were to eat quickly so as to report to kitchen in a timely manner. WHAT????!!! Wasn’t it bad enough that food was only available at certain times, but now when I did eat I would have to hurry? My neck muscles were clenched so tightly I’m surprised no one heard them squealing.

What to do? Embrace my control issues or move forward with as open a heart as possible? I decided upon the latter and found that the delicious and plentiful food left no room for a sense of deprivation. Many plates, cups, and glasses later I joined my co-retreatants in the meditation hall to hear Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence    and Tara Goleman, author of Emotional Alchemy   and Mind Whisperer.   Their reviews of neurobiology and the travails of the amygdala were good to hear.  I could have used some help with my own amygdala that very day.new york (75 of 99)-2

As I listened to the discussion it dawned on me that this was not a roomful of burned out therapists sitting silently diagnosing one another. In fact there were very few mental health people. Instead there were lawyers, teachers, pastors and non profit gurus, all interested in how to make better connections with others. It was heart warming to see such enthusiasm.

The next morning we met for some basic meditation and practice. Despite my having spent a lovely night in my austere cell, I was restless. I had had it in my mind that we would be given long periods of time for personal reflection, but instead we were to interact with one another. I have a hard time sitting still and had neglected to bring my knitting. I longed to take to the hiking paths on my own. But I stayed, either because of some inner strength or the desire not to call attention to myself by getting up and leaving. I’ll say it was a well of inner resolve.new york (87 of 99)-2

That  resolve was put to the test that afternoon when we met outside in the wind for a demonstration by a horse whisperer. His goal I believe was to reinforce the point that in order to have a true connection, both parties must feel safe and respected. I found I was mesmerized by R.J. the horse whisperer, whose gentle way of the horses conveyed such love and caring. He reminded us that it is better to lead by suggestion than to rely on intimidation.new york (51 of 99)

Sitting on that cold bench, I had to be honest with myself. How many times did I enter a new situation fully convinced that I know the right thing to do and that others should just do as I say? Had I not come to this very retreat all tied up in my own agenda? This was certainly food for thought.

Our evening session was led by Dr. Aaron Wolf, the man I had been too self important to notice at the train station. Who knew that Dr. Wolf was a well known hydrologist and known internationally for helping mediate disputes over water rights? He was so kind that I cannot believe he held my snub against him; after all I had just come from the big city where we don’t approach strange men. Still… Anyway, in his dynamic way he showed his approach to conflict resolution: know your own process, and stop, breathe, and listen.new york (83 of 99)-2

Suddenly it was Sunday morning, and time for the wrap up session. The chairs were arranged in a circle, to reinforce the equality among the participants. Every person was allowed to comment briefly or ask a question. I chose not to speak,because I tend to be long winded, but if I had I would have said how fortunate I felt to have stumbled upon this diverse group in such peaceful surroundings, and from such an apparently unlikely team of a husband and wife, a horse whisperer and a hydrologist to have learned such valuable lessons about how to respect myself and others. That I need to approach situations without my own agenda if I hope to make a true connection. That washing the dishes wan’t so bad. That though I had no idea what this weekend was supposed to be about, I had learned just what I was supposed to. Guess that’s what it was all about!new york (98 of 99)-2