Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Incomplete

I have been running so sweaty my whole life, urgent for a finish line.
And I have been missing the rapture this whole time 
of being forever incomplete.

Alanis Morissette

I've lost track of time this holiday break as each morning dawns and I can't quite remember what day it is or what I have planned to do until the sun sets.  Usually it's a tea date with a friend, or a walk in the park, or a trip to the library.  In the evening I read or knit or watch episodes of "The Tudors" until I'm sleepy enough to go to bed.  Yes, it's been a relaxing couple of weeks to recycle, review, relax, and renew.  And I almost forgot it was the end of the year until I was reminded by a friend that it is indeed December the 31st.
I've no big plans for this evening, save a quiet night in my yoga room writing in my journal, reading through the ones from the past twelve months.  I'm happy to say another year will soon dawn and I can let go of what has been to embrace what is to become.  Then again, if I've learned anything this year, I realize that I'm never done learning, that I'm never fully complete.
What a blessing in disguise.

When I was younger I thought that my life would begin anew when I had the perfect job.  The relationship I longed for.  A publishing contract.  When none of those came to pass, I shifted my perspective and thought I could begin again every New Year.  That with a single tick of the clock, all the drama of the past would be washed away and I could emerge clean and whole and finished with lessons that were often overwhelming.
But life doesn't work that way.
Yes, we can make resolutions, or in my case, name the year and set my intention to delve more deeply into whatever I'd like to explore over the next 365 days.  When I wrote "You name it," last December, it was my hope to learn more about kindness in 2014.  What I had anticipated was quite different than the reality, and I've learned that it's very difficult to be kind in a world that's often cruel and out of balance.  It's hard to turn the other cheek, to forgive hurtful words or actions, to step out of my anger or fear and into a place where I can see the other person more fully, as both a human being and a teacher.
My journals reveal experiences that have repeated themselves, but in a slightly different package.  Once again I discovered I was living in close proximity to heroin dealers.  Remember the blog, "My imaginary husband?"  Well, let's just say I'm glad I never approached the owner of the house to let him know about his worker's disrespectful behavior because he was recently arrested on a host of federal charges and will be spending the better part of the next decade in prison.  At least this time around I don't have to live in terror, knowing the FBI did their job well.  And I also didn't have to lift a finger to report him as I had for over a year in 2009 when a group of gang bangers were dealing out of the duplex next door. Still, the lessons of vigilance and courage I forged at that time are still with me, honing themselves each time I open the curtains and look into the back yard where a brand new fence is a daily reminder of what might have been.
2014 was also a year to work hard and see the fruits of my labor shine forth in my garden, with my yoga students, and in the books I've published.  But that's nothing new.  I love to work...the more challenging the project, the more I enjoy it.  And yet this year I learned my limits, not only professionally, but personally as well.  I've finally figured out that an endless struggle is often an omen of what is not meant to be...and I need to let it go.  For now.  Or for always.  The tearing apart of the tapestries I've woven has been difficult, but always yields a greater awareness in time.
For more will always be revealed.

I was going to call this blog "Wise women," as I have been surrounded by them lately...ladies who have known me for decades.  Some who have only met me this year.  All who have given me much food for thought, a different perspective, and the emotional support I yearn for as I make my way into a newer life...a more authentic way of being.  But then again, there have been a few wise men as well.  Men who show me another way to experience life.  Who cut to the chase when I'm busy spinning my wheels.  Who allow me to give to them my encouragement and love as they walk through their own life experiences, often barking their shins on the furniture as we all do from time to time.
Through their eyes I see who I used to be and how very far I've come in the past twenty years.  I've softened to the reality that even though I sometimes long for a tradition life, I'm not really cut out for it, that my spirit longs to be an eternal maverick in whatever form it might take.  I've seen reflections of my healing through their words and touch.  Through their own stories that weave effortlessly into mine.   In reflection, I lovingly embrace the fact that I'm never done...that I'm incomplete, and meant to be that way.

My evolution has been like a spiral, an ever-upward moving circle that revisits what I need to learn, but on a higher level each time.  Every new year pulls the thread of the experiences of the past into the present and shines a light on where I may have missed something.  Where I need to practice compassion or patience.  Where I need to expand into wholeness.  Like a spent sunflower, the seeds of what has been plant a new life, an existence that will look similar to the one before it, but always growing in harmony with how well it is nurtured in its new form.

Now I joyfully embrace that which is incomplete within me, knowing that the spiral of my life will lead me into greater understanding, abundant creativity, and the willingness to keep growing, year after year...life after life.
         

To listen to Alanis singing "Incomplete" on NPR, click here....

Saturday, December 6, 2014

"A Variety of Light"....one more excerpt from OPEN ROAD: A LIFE WORTH WAITING FOR

         By Monday I should be finished with editing and formatting (thank goodness) and can get back to writing original blogs.  Look for "The Empress's New Clothes" sometime next week.  In the meantime, here's one more peek into my memoir...for all my Esalen friends with love.

"A Variety of Light"

It's late afternoon and I'm gingerly walking down the steep passageway toward the craggy beach line, an old backpack slung over my shoulder.  This is my third trip today...after a long morning of bed prepping in the garden.  My arms throb and my feet ache.  But still, I make the cautious journey to search for large rocks that I will carry back to the yurt. 
The flip-flops I've foolishly chosen to wear give me no traction at all, so I take them off and leave them by the stairs.  Sunlight glints on the ocean, the jagged rock face, and the shiny wet stones.  Its reflection is so bright, it stings my eyes even though I'm wearing dark sunglasses.  But I don't mind.
I'm delighted to be back in Big Sur.  To work in the garden.  To live on the farm in a canvas yurt not far from the farmer's small house where Carl lives.  Ken and Gia live in tiny huts on the coastline and together, the four of us share this beautiful, quiet space.  This silent sanctuary away from the often frenzied energy of the south side of campus.  I adore Ken and am looking forward to all the time we'll get to spend together.  Gia arrived a few weeks ago while I was back in Toledo packing up my house and putting it on the market.  The three of us will be garden-scholars for this season, working and living among each other, bookended by the sea and the mountains.
The yurt was less than primitive when I moved in a few weeks ago.  Since then, I've added a box spring to get the mattress off of the damp floor.  Quilts from the Free Box grace the windows and I've started to clear the knee-high brush and weeds that surround my little home.  Later this month, I'm hoping to plant a perennial garden from the volunteers that sprout up all over the farm. 
There's no lighting to guide my way to the yurt after dark; my small flashlight only provides a modicum of safety.  The solar lamps that were once beacons to the yurt's deck were broken long ago and haven't been replaced.  No matter.
I've got other plans.
So here I am, walking barefoot among the rocks, choosing the brightest ones to haul back to the yurt and mark the pathway all the way up to its entrance.  With each trip to the coastline, I solidify my purpose in returning to this place that has completely broken me and taken me to my knees, yet given me the opportunity to rise up once again.  Each rock I gather and carefully place along the path to my home is another moment to forgive.  To release.  To transform into something better.
It's taken a few days, but I'm nearly finished.  Already I've noticed that the whitest rocks reflect the light of the moon and illuminate a safe passage home.  No longer needing to rely solely on my innate drive to protect myself, I'm embracing the light of what lies deep within:  the great strength in allowing my heart to be open and vulnerable in healthy ways. 
I have found a new way to be at Esalen.  In the month since my return, there have been challenges, yes.  But there also have been delights beyond what I could have imagined.  It's been a miracle to be able to put the past winter behind me and move forward.   To be here now...to be in good company and in good spirits.  What a blessing.
As Rumi said, "Let the beauty we love be what we do."
And so it is that I have come back to Big Sur, my spiritual mother, to walk softly on her land.  To nurture the chickens and the greenhouse babies.  To tend the flowers and seedlings in my care.  To teach and learn and live life more abundantly.
To find "hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground." 

By late June of 2008, despite my love of the garden, despite the fact that I had my own room and kept my own counsel, life at Esalen was beginning to chip away at my resolve.  There were endless issues being batted back and forth between the community and the administration.  Endless challenges of living in a community that, while encouraging its members to embrace a “slow food nation,” was equally encouraging them to have “fast food enlightenment.”
As my advisor once told me, “Esalen has a long history, but a short memory because so many people come in, skip a stone across the surface, and then leave.  Some stay, but with many of those who do, the process repeats itself over and over and over.  Can you live with that?”
I wasn’t so sure.
By mid-June, I had had enough and was seriously thinking about leaving Big Sur once the garden internship ended, regardless of whether or not I was offered a job.
Then the Basin Ridge Fires started.  Lightening flashed onto dry land and for miles up and down the coastline, homes were being evacuated.  Initially the workshop participants were asked, for their own safety, to leave early.  Then the work-scholars.  Then anyone else who didn't feel comfortable staying.  In addition to the ever-approaching line of fire, rockslides were a very real possibility and road closures were inevitable.
After the majority of people had left, a sheriff came on campus and ordered those of us who had chosen to stay to fill out forms providing contact information of loved ones and even our dentist in case our charred bodies were unable to be identified.  Whipped into a frenzy of panic, many people waffled about what to do.  I calmly figured that with the firefighters being housed on campus, with the ocean to the west and the baths to the south, if the fire did jump the line across Highway One to Esalen, there would be more than one way to not get burned. 
So I stayed. 
By then the garden had a new manager, Shirley.  I'd been called a “brick house” by many of the men on our crew, but my new boss was amazing.  Hardworking, innovative, and a remarkable teacher, I loved working with her.  When everyone but Ken and I had left the garden during the fires, Shirley met the challenge of a drastically reduced crew and we made it through one of the most intense, but truly incredible parts of my Esalen experience. 
Ken was needed to help clear brush with the grounds crew and was unable to help us on the farm.  Shirley and I would begin each day in the lodge watching a hazy sun rise over the Santa Lucia, sipping hot coffee and nibbling freshly baked cookies.  Then we planned our day and went to work.
After all the beds had been cleared of their extraneous produce, Shirley and I bed-prepped and conserved water in huge grey barrels, covering them with plywood to keep out dust and ash from the fire.  Shirley showed me how to make “a poor man’s watering can” by poking holes into a tin bucket and attaching a handle.  Then I would dip the bucket into the water in the barrels and walk up and down the rows of kale, baby chard, and onions, doing my best to keep them alive. 

 We all kept each other alive during those very long, extremely exhausting weeks, yet it was the best time of my garden internship.  The population at Esalen dropped from over three hundred to just over fifty in a matter of days.  The peacefulness in the midst of morning update meetings was a gift.  The way each of us checked in with everyone, a blessing.
Everyone pitched in.  I spent the mornings in the gardens, feeding the chickens, watering the babies, and helping Shirley with the small harvest that would feed the community.  In the afternoons, I would don a long-sleeved shirt and help cut brush that lined the highway and covered much of “Yurtville,” a housing space located between the farm and south campus.   Sometimes I helped with cabins, cleaning and preparing rooms for the firefighters.  Sometimes I pitched in with the kitchen crew, washing vegetables or cleaning up after meals. 
It was the first time I felt that Esalen was truly a living community.  We all worked together and everyone’s needs were met because we each made sure it was so.  In working with the grounds crew, I was completely exhausted by the end of the day, and more often than not, someone offered to give me a massage in the evening. 
We took care of each other and the land took care of us.  While the fires burned, a dense fog surrounded Big Sur for days, slowing down its descent toward the highway.  The firefighters were planning to back burn so that it wouldn’t leap over the road.  Until then, they watched and waited...just like the rest of us.
One night, after a week of waiting for the fire to come down the mountains, I walked back to my room and stopped to look over the Santa Lucia.  There in the distance, I saw flares of light popping over the peaks in tiny bursts of red and orange…like fireworks.
“Finally...there you are,” I whispered to the fire.  “We’ve been waiting for you.”
In the days that followed the fire steadily burned, melting through our water supply line, but the copper pipes within them still provided us with what we needed, though at a much slower rate.  Ken and a host of other men valiantly carried a hose up the line to put out the fire themselves.  They returned as conquering heroes.  To this day I can still see their faces, beaming and proud to have kept the flames at bay.
In working with Shirley, in protecting and caring for the land in a space of quiet focus, I began to see Big Sur not as my home, but as my homeland, a place I wanted to continue protecting and preserving.  It was then that I changed my mind and applied for the Garden Manager’s position that would be available in the fall.

Much to my delight, the work-scholars who joined the garden in the month after the fires were incredible:  C. Ray and Eva, Margie and Tarek, Birgit and Lars, Ken and James, Carl and Benjamin, Shirley and myself…what a team we were.  With so much work that needed to be abandoned during the fire, our crew was eager to get started.  And what open-hearted, loving, joyous people they were.  Our days were filled with laughter, our process time with authentic work and the caring acknowledgement of each other.
I was excited to share my love of the land, of the chickens and the seedlings, of the greenhouse, the farm and everything in-between.  It was in working with that incredible group of people that I solidified my choice to stay in Big Sur.
To keep choosing growth.
To keep choosing the mysterious ways of grace.
One breezy morning in late August, the crew decided to stay in the garden and refurbish the herb beds.  Shirley and Benjamin were down in the main area, supervising the workers, while I was on the upper level watering the babies.  The sky was clear.  The sun glinted on the gentle waves of the ocean. 
From down below, I heard C. Ray’s soft laughter and its melodious sound reminded me of Granddaddy.  Just that morning he had lovingly called me the "Fairy Godmother of the Esalen Gardens" and it was a surprising joy to see myself that way:  "spreading light and love to all the baby seedlings." 
Stopping for a moment, I watched everyone enjoying their work.  The ease with which they were speaking with one another.  Benjamin’s girlfriend strumming her guitar nearby, singing songs to spirit the garden into being. 
“Remember this, Katie,” I whispered.  “Take a mental picture…you’re going to want to hold this moment close...always.”  
I walked to the edge of the rows of squash and chard.  Saw my handprints in the soil where I had weeded them the day before.  Marveled at how every single bed in the garden held my fingerprints…from the seedlings to the harvest…I had touched them all.
There have been few perfect moments in my life, but this was certainly one of them.  Even now, years later, I can still see Eva’s smile.  Hear Margie’s laughter.  See Tarek as he makes his way down the path, his long legs striding forward as he pushes a wheelbarrow filled with fresh compost.  I can see Shirley’s blond pigtails dancing in the wind.  I can see Ken’s smiling face as he walks toward me.
“Coming down?” he asked.  “We’re missing you.”
I nodded, tears filling my eyes.  “I’ll be right there.” 

To read the rest of "A Variety of Light," download OPEN ROAD
on Amazon.com.  Paperback copies will be
available soon...stay tuned for more information.



Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Weird City...another excerpt from OPEN ROAD: A LIFE WORTH WAITING FOR

         Well, I'm three down, three to go in getting my books ready for print.  It's been a long marathon and I appreciate all the support from readers everywhere this month.  I love hearing from you as I post excerpts from chapters in my memoir that stir the pot in your own lives. 
         This one's for Maggie N. who is wise beyond her years...may she never have to endure the plethora of bad blind dates this gal has encountered over the years.
         Enjoy!

Weird City

I can't believe I’m here again…waiting for another blind date to show up.  At least I’m at the park and it’s a warm September day.  At least I don’t feel as if I have to impress this guy, even though we’ve only talked a couple of times on the phone.  Still, it annoys me that he’s late.  That he won’t tell me which yoga student gave him my phone number.  But I figure, “What the hell?”  I might as well try.  Even if all those other blind dates went nowhere, this one might be different.
I watch every man who walks by, wondering if he’s the one.  “Are you Greg?” I want to ask.  “Are you looking for a woman named Katie?” 
There are tall men. 
Short, stocky men. 
A really nice looking guy in running shorts with long brown hair and a two-day beard. 
None of them is Greg.  I check my watch and sigh.  He’s fifteen minutes late.  I figure I’m being stood up…again.
As I walk back towards my car, I decide to wait a few more minutes.  After all, he’s coming from work.  Maybe he got held up in traffic.  I can give him the benefit of the doubt.  It’s busy at the park and as several cars pass by, I lean against the trunk, my arms crossed, watching to see if any of the drivers are men. 
A small Mazda darts by driven by a creepy looking guy in a black track suit zipped up to his chin.  “It’s eighty-five degrees out,” I say under my breath.  “Why is he dressed like that?”  Then the thought hits me and I murmur, “Dear God, please don’t let it be him.  Please not him.”
Oh, shit...it is him.
Greg walks up to me and extends his hand, nearly covered by his dark nylon jacket.  He’s wearing long pants as well…and loafers.  His shaggy hair is greasy and plastered to his head.  His skin is doughy and ashen.  He looks like he hasn’t bathed in a few days although he’s wearing enough cologne to make me sneeze.
“I’m Greg,” he grins.  “Nice to meet you.”  His voice doesn’t match the one I heard on the telephone.          
He isn't familiar with the trails at Wildwood, but, having hiked here for years, I know them well.  I lead Greg on a connecting path, one that will take us maybe fifteen or twenty minutes to cross.  We make small talk and I tell him of my plans to leave Toledo as soon as possible.  I tell him that I’m getting tired of Midwestern life and long to go west.  Maybe that will give him the hint that I’m not interested in starting anything serious. 
He says he’s been to Portland and Vegas, but that’s about it.  “I like it here,” he says.  “And work is good…so what can I say?”  Greg is an instructor at one of the community colleges in town and says that Toledo suits him well.
"I could live here for the rest of my life," he says.
Strike one.
I’m practicing honesty, so I tell him upfront I don’t like the fact that the person who hoped to fix us up wants to remain anonymous.  “I know it’s not your doing, but I want you to know I’m a very private person.   I don’t like that she gave you my number, but doesn't want me to know it was her.”
Greg shrugs.  He doesn’t say, “I respect your feelings,” or “I can understand how you feel.”
Strike two.
We round a corner and I’m counting the minutes until this walk can end.  Five down.  Fifteen to go.
“Do you know where we are?” Greg asks.
“Yeah…I know this place like the back of my hand.”
“Well, then...,” he says, his voice dripping with what I imagine he thinks is seduction.  "Are you going to tie me up to one of those trees and whip me senseless?”
“Uh…no,” I stammer, willing myself to walk even faster. 
“Well if you were,” he snickers.  “I would have asked you to show up in a leather mini-skirt and chains.”
Strike three…and you're OUT!
Seething, I say nothing.  Greg suddenly realizes I don’t think his comment is funny and nervously chatters on.  I walk faster and soon we’re back in the parking lot. 
“Well, where would you like to go for lunch?” he asks.
“I think I’ll pass,” I tell him.
Greg looks dejected and genuinely surprised.  “Really?  It thought we said we could walk and then eat.”
“No…I don’t think so." 
“Why?”
I lift my eyebrows.  “Do I really have to tell you?”
The look on Greg’s face tells me I don’t.

As I drive away, I’m furious.  Furious with whoever gave Greg my phone number.  Furious that yet another man I’ve been fixed up with is a total jerk.  But most of all, I’m furious with myself.  I had promised myself that after going out with Mr. Bodybuilder Freak, after that terrible afternoon I had with Mr. Interview last winter, I would never go on a blind date again.  Why did I waste another afternoon in the hopes of finding someone here in Toledo? 
My life has once more reminded me that only weirdoes and creeps are left in the small pool of men in this city.  I cannot wait to escape and get out of here once and for all.
There must be normal men out there...somewhere.

For most of my life, it's been a challenge to find the balance in being selective, in having good boundaries and still be open to the humanity of men.  And yet, after all the stranger-than-fiction experiences I've had, I'm thankful I've learned to err on the side of restraint.
In struggling to move beyond my ill-fated relationship with Scott and several other unrequited attractions, I took some time to reflect.  And in so doing, I began to take responsibility for not speaking up when I needed to.  I also stopped lying by omission and began to practice being honest.  It wasn't easy.
Several of my girlfriends thought it would be a great idea to fix me up on blind dates with men they knew from high school, work, or through their husbands.  So in my mid-thirties I agreed to meet Pete, a local gym owner and bodybuilder who my friend Donna thought would be perfect for me.  A professional athlete and a yoga instructor.  What could be a more complementary couple?
In meeting Pete, I could certainly see why he complained about going on plenty of first dates and not many second ones.  A group of us were out to dinner and when he strutted into the restaurant, he immediately made a beeline for Donna’s husband, hoping to impress him with news about his thriving business. 
When Donna introduced me to Pete, she mentioned that I was her yoga teacher.
Pete quickly dismissed the idea of needing to practice yoga.  “Yoga is really for people who don’t want to get with the program,” he boasted contemptuously.  “Six weeks in my flexibility series, and you’ll never need to stretch out again.” 
I wanted to tell him that was tantamount to only showering for six weeks and then never needing to bathe again, but I said nothing.  Instead I patiently endured Pete's talking about himself, his career, his family, and his opinion on everything from what I should be eating to how I needed to lift weights. 
“You really need to eat meat,” he said, nodding at my plate of stir fry.  “I always bulk up before a competition.”
“I get enough protein with nuts and soy products,” I said politely.  “I’ll bet I eat peanut butter three or four times a week.”
Pete smirked.  “Peanuts are the worst kind of food on the planet….in my book, they should be banned."
O-kay, I thought.  How much longer do I have to sit here before this night is over?

A few months went by and another friend suggested that I come to her house for dinner to meet a colleague of her husband’s.  Shane was on his way through town and would be flying back to Colorado the next day, but still wanted to meet me.  So I arrived on a Sunday night, looking forward to meeting a man who had been billed as smart, charming, and outdoorsy.  I wasn't exactly hoping for a long distance relationship, but thought “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” 
Brenda met me at the door and led me into the family room where Shane was talking with her husband.  The minute he looked at me I knew Shane wasn't interested.  “Nope…not you,” his energy seemed to declare.  The blinders went up and I felt it instantly. 
He simply said, “Oh hi,” and turned back to Brenda’s husband.
At first, I was shaken, but I sat down anyway.  In the meantime, another couple came over and stood near the bar talking.  I asked Shane what he liked about living in Colorado and less than a minute into his answer, he looked toward the bar. 
Stopping mid-sentence, he said, “You know, I really want to get into that conversation.”   Then he got up and walked away.
I was stunned...then I got angry.  What I really wanted to do was go home, take a shower, and sack out on the couch to watch “Alias.”  Instead, out of respect for my friend, I slapped a smile on my face and endured a long dinner of trying to be courteous to a man who had all but dismissed me. 
By the time Brenda suggested we play Pictionary, I was ready to call it quits.  But to be polite, I acquiesced once again.  In the first round, the word I needed to draw was “Me,” and Shane was to try and guess what my word was.   It was hopeless.   No matter what I drew, he still didn't get it.  I realize now that all I had to do was sketch a pretentious jackass with wire-rimmed glasses and a blonde ponytail.  Shane surely would have blurted out, "Oh, that's me!"

Since my late twenties I've been stalked, publicly humiliated, and summarily dismissed.  Men have disregarded me as just another Sad Single Woman Who Lives Alone With Her Cats...and Knits!  They've pitied and pooh-poohed and patronized me as well.  It's a wonder that I even entertain the possibility of being in a potential relationship. 
It's not that I hate men...it's just that up until a few years ago, most of the ones passing in and out of my life proved to be untrustworthy, unreliable, and ultimately unfavorable.  I've settled into a space where I have male friends of like mind...and that's enough for me.  At least right now.
But I'm entertaining the idea that since I've changed so much in the past five years, perhaps I'll attract Mr. Right For Me Right Now.  You never know.

When I lived in Big Sur, skunks often appeared when I was on my way from the gardens at Esalen to the farm on the north side of the property.  There was even a mother and her two kits living peacefully beneath my hut.  Everyone wanted to rid their living spaces of these intimidating animals, but I welcomed them.   Sitting on the deck, I would watch their little black and white shapes waddle back to the hut as the sun rose, tired from their nocturnal adventures.  After the sun went down and I went to bed, I could hear mama and her babies scurrying out in search of grubs and other goodies. 
One afternoon I was preparing a sweat lodge with my friend, Matteo.  We chatted about our animal totems that have revealed the many life lessons we needed to learn and embody.
"You have some pretty powerful skunk medicine," he quipped.
"Yeah, I know," I sighed.
Matteo lifted his brows.  "Lots of lessons about self-respect for you this time around."
Placing some lavender into the crevices between the rocks we had arranged, I said, "And boundaries and sensuality and walking alone."
He nodded.
Knowing most people's reactions to seeing them on campus, I said sadly, "But who would want to be with a skunk?"
Matteo brightened.  "Another skunk of course!  If you respect you, as a skunk does, then you'll eventually attract someone who mirrors that self-respect and clarity."
I stood up and dusted my hands on my jeans.  "I've lived by myself for a long time...I'm used to waiting."
All these years later, I still am.

To read the rest of "Weird City," download
OPEN ROAD:  A LIFE WORTH WAITING FOR
on Amazon.com




Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Lipstick Maverick...another excerpt from OPEN ROAD: A LIFE WORTH WAITING FOR

       This week I'm knee deep in the final edits of all of my books, readying them for print this month!  So here's another partial chapter from the second edition of my memoir...an homage to my fabulous Aunt Karen who still inspires to me walk through the world in my own way.

"Lipstick Maverick"

It's five o’clock on Monday morning.  The sun has yet to rise and the house is shrouded in silence.  I stand in front of the bathroom mirror, studying my twelve-year-old reflection with bitter judgment.  My hair is too bushy, my make-up is too dark, and glasses hide most of my face behind a thick layer of plastic. 
“You are ugly,” I say out loud.  “You are fat and ugly and I hate you.”
My reflection does nothing but stare back at me with the same venomous look on her face. 
I step on the scale and find that I have gained four pounds since last week, no thanks to the hours I've spent running or doing aerobics.  My clothes are tight and uncomfortable, but I have to wear them anyway.  I have no choice.
Closing my eyes, I wait until the dark abyss fills my awareness, and then I say to myself, “I’m not me…I’m not me…I’m not me” until the feeling of dread passes.  I say it over and over and over again until I have distanced myself from reality...until I feel as though I am no longer standing there.  My anger folds in on itself and begins to retreat to the back of my mind. 
Once again, I am in control.
“I’m not me…I’m not me…I’m not me,” I continue chanting. 

A year passes.
Now I'm thirteen and my Aunt Karen has come to visit.  It's summertime and she and my cousins will stay for nearly a week.  Mom's youngest sister lives hours away, so we only see her family a couple of times a year.  It's a treat when all the cousins can hang out together.  We sleep in the basement and stay up late watching TV or listening to "Another One Bites the Dust," changing the lyrics to "Another One Bites Your Butt," an allusion to all the mosquitoes swarming our backyard this season. 
This year I've lost all the baby fat from grade school and now wear a size seven, something I'm simultaneously very proud of, but also hide from my mother.  She thinks I'm too thin, but I think I'm just right.  I weigh myself every day on the pink scale in the bathroom and if the needle hovers any higher than 103 pounds, I make sure to cut back on my food and walk an extra lap around the neighborhood.  It took a long time to drop all that weight.  I won't ever put it back on and have to endure Patricia's teasing again.  She even had the gall to tell me that one of the little girls down the street didn't want me to baby-sit her because I was too fat.  Patricia, of course, is skinny and can eat whatever she wants. 
I had to wear a bra in fourth grade which totally embarrassed me, especially when Adam Chandler would run his finger down my back every day.  I wanted to tell the teacher but was too afraid.  I got my first period at camp in sixth grade while riding a horse of all things, and, likewise, was too afraid to tell the teachers as well.  I pinned handkerchiefs inside my underpants, then buried the soiled ones in the garbage can when no one was looking.
Now I don't get my period anymore and I'm glad.  One less thing for Patricia to bother me about.  She's fourteen and still hasn't gotten hers.
Aunt Karen is staying in my room and I love watching her get ready to go out.  We're heading to the mall to visit Olde Towne and get our pictures taken.  They'll look like old fashioned photos from the early 1900's and I can't wait.  Aunt Karen teases her platinum blonde hair, then spritzes it lightly with spray.  My room smells like Shalimar and White Rain.  She's wearing dark blue jeans with wide back pockets.  Her blouse is colorful and gauzy.  I think she looks like a beautiful gypsy…or Marilyn Monroe.  I can’t decide which one.
Standing in front of the dresser mirror, she pulls a long, black cylinder from her make-up bag and uncaps the lipstick.  It doesn't look like my mother's short, thick tubes of Estee Lauder and it certainly doesn't smell like waxy chemicals.  Aunt Karen smoothes it on her lips, then turns to me.  "Here, Katie...want to try it on?"
I take the thin, black lipstick and look at the name written in tiny gold letters on the side:  toasted topaz.  I enjoy the alliteration.  I learned about that in seventh grade and love to say the words aloud.  "Toasted topaz would look terrific on my toes," I smile at Aunt Karen.  I walk the short distance to the mirror and study my face.  My cheekbones are prominent as are my brow bones, but I'm proud of the effort I've put into looking this way.  It's as if I can see my real face for the first time, not the fat-faced Hippo of my childhood.
The lipstick looks really nice against my olive skin now toasted tan in the summer.  I cap the stick and hand it back to Aunt Karen.  She slides the slender black tube into her back pocket as if it were a gun slipping into a tiny holster.  I wonder, How does it keep from melting when she sits down?
I've never seen my mother carry a lipstick in her back pocket and it intrigues me.
My aunt is a maverick, and in that moment, I want to be one, too.

I always loved to watch Aunt Karen do her hair and put on makeup.  She had an attitude that was vastly different than mine.  Sure, I was only thirteen and barely able to apply mascara without poking myself in the eye, but Aunt Karen knew her strengths and played to them by using the endless goodies in her cosmetics drawer.  She had the bluest eyes and lined them meticulously.  Her blonde hair was short, stylishly cut, and accentuated her features.  And when she pulled that lipstick from her back pocket to reapply a gorgeous shade of red or pink, I was mesmerized.  As she blotted the excess, then puckered her lips, it was as if she was saying to the world, “Stand back…I’m comin’ atcha!” 
All my thirteen-year-old self could muster at the time was a silent, “Am I good enough?”
Aunt Karen is still a maverick, although she told me recently that she now keeps her lipstick in her bra.  “That way I don’t have to reach as far since I’m older,” she laughed.  My incredible aunt inspires me to tell the truth, be who I am, and never settle for less than what is right for me even though it often means making many choices on my own.  We aren't rebels, my aunt and I.  We don't need to be defiant to feel unique or genuine.
We simply feel the need to go our own way.

I have a dear friend who is an artist extraordinaire.  Bella and I have made several trips to our incredible Museum of Art here in Toledo.  She taught me how to look at paintings and sculptures in a wide variety of ways.  Seeing color and texture was the first step.  Discovering the hidden stories in the canvas came second.  And as I listened and learned from her, Bella revealed one of the greatest gifts an artist can possess:  the passion to create authentically.  Perhaps that's what Aunt Karen was embodying for me:  authentic appreciation for her own beauty. 
She wasn't a pile of grapes to be admired. 
Aunt Karen was a lovely woman who wanted to engage the world.
It was Aunt Karen who inherently showed me that I didn't have to fade away to feel myself more fully.  I was a silent, yet captivated witness to the self confidence I would eventually embody in my thirties and forties. 
But it's better late than never.
Better to be authentic than fake it for someone else's comfort.
Better to be happily at home within myself than trying to balance precariously on the razor's edge of someone else’s expectations.



To download OPEN ROAD:  A LIFE WORTH WAITING FOR, 



Friday, November 28, 2014

My Mother's Hands....an excerpt from OPEN ROAD: A LIFE WORTH WAITING FOR

     This week while visiting with a friend, I took her two-year-old granddaughter on a walk around the local Barnes and Noble Bookstore.  She held my hand and eagerly traced my long, painted fingernails in much the same way I remember doing so with my mother when I was little.  Last night I finished the final edits on the second edition of my memoir which, along with all of my novels, will be available through print on demand in December.  Ironically enough, My Mother's Hands was the one and only chapter that didn't need any rewrites.
     So here's a little taste of what you'll find inside OPEN ROAD:  A LIFE WORTH WAITING FOR.  And if you'd like to download it, wait a few days...I'll be working hard this weekend and will upload the latest edition on Monday.


My Mother’s Hands

My mother and I sit on the loveseat, watching television on a rainy Saturday afternoon.   “Wild Kingdom” is on and I love this show.  I love animals.  More than that, I love that I have nothing to do but sit with Mom…just her and me.  My sisters are running errands with Dad.  They need new shoes.  I don’t.  So I get to rest with Mom and watch a lioness give her little cubs a bath while they laze by the Tanzania River.
I’m seven now.  Too old to be held on her lap, so I lean against her side and feel her breath move with mine.  We breathe in together.  We breathe out together.
A commercial break comes on and Mom takes a deeper breath, then sighs.  I’m surprised…then astonished.  In a split second, my mother separates her breath from mine as if she’s untying my shoes.  The laces of our breathing patterns are undone.  Suddenly I realize that what I’ve always believed to be true is false.
My mother and I don't breathe at the same time. 
I thought that since I once lived inside of her, we would always inhale together…exhale together.  But we don't.  And we never did.  Not really.
I try to catch the rhythm of Mom’s breath…to match mine with hers, but I can’t.  I am now separate from her – completely.  And that scares me.  I don’t want to be separate.  I don’t want to breathe on my own.  I want to stay connected to my mother for the rest of my life. 
But, of course, I know I can’t.

Years later I’m working in the gardens at Esalen.  My hands sift the chickweed and thistle, freeing the chard from those invaders that will choke the life out of them.  I’ve lived in Big Sur for nearly a year and I’ve come to love the garden as if it were my own.  Instead of jeans and t-shirts, I often wear jumpers and flowing dresses to work.  I paint my fingernails.  I wear a bit of make-up and some pretty earrings.
Ken walks by and tells me it’s almost time for group process.  “I’ll gather the work-scholars,” he says.
I finish the bed I’m working, then carry the weed bin to the compost pile behind the rose garden.  Jhoti frolics at my heels, batting at the hem of my dress.  I bend down and scoop her up, rubbing my face against hers.  An image tumbles through my memory and I see a photograph of my mother holding her tiger cat, Andy, in front of the house where she grew up.  I see her smiling face.  Her impeccable manicure.  Her quaint hairstyle.  Her stylish sweater set. 
I wonder what she’s doing right now.  Is she out watering her own garden?  Is she having a cup of coffee and doing the crossword puzzle?  Is she chatting on the phone with my sister? 
As I head toward the sprout house, I see Ken in the distance talking to Margie and Eva.  Margie laughs out loud and I think of my mother’s laughter.  I think of her witty sense of humor.  Washing my hands at the sink, I marvel at the crevices in my skin that never quite seem to come clean.  The way the soil has imbedded itself into my fingerprints and stays there, no matter how long I soak in the baths.  The memory of my mother’s laughter is the same…embedded forever in my heart.
During check-in I study my hands while the rest of the garden crew talks about their day.  How they’re feeling.  What they want to work on in group process.  I listen to Carl talk about his plans to move north and start a farm of his own.  Then Margie talks about her twin daughters and how excited she is that they will soon visit Esalen. 
Next it’s my turn and I softly say, “I’m noticing that my hands look just like my mother’s.  My fingernails, my knuckles, the way my little fingers are slightly crooked…even the veins on the back of my hands…they’re hers.  I’m noticing that the older I am, the more I see her in me.  And I miss her.”

Now I sit here, watching my hands on the keyboard as they write these words.  Watching as the images form in my imagination, then drift to my fingertips and onto the screen in front of me.  I see my mother’s hands writing these sentences…writing these stories.           
But are they truly hers?  Or are they mine?
My mother and I are very much alike.  She’s taught me lessons I will never forget…lessons about love and mercy, betrayal and forgiveness.  Lessons that have taken me far from where I came.  Lessons that will move me well beyond where I am now.
And yet, we are also different.
As I make my way into the second half of my life, it’s my turn to undo the laces of my past.  Now I often walk barefoot into the joy my life has become these past few years.  My hands are unshackled from my fear and trepidation, ready to touch the world with whatever grace can be channeled though me. 

When I was in first grade, my mother taught me how to type letters on her old grey Olympia.  When I was seven, she taught me how to knit mittens with a simple gusset.  At eight, she taught me how to meticulously weed her garden.  When I was thirteen, Mom taught me how to apply mascara and lipstick.
All my life I have watched her hands cook meals, sign permission slips, do the crossword, and make the beds.  They held books and dolls and packages at Christmastime.  Throughout the seasons, they shoveled snow and planted flowers and raked leaves.  Mom’s hands rolled out cookie dough, then rolled my hair up in curlers.  They ironed our clothes and mended the holes in the knees of my jeans.  They angrily spanked me when I misbehaved, but also gently rubbed my back when I was anxious or sleepy.
My memory is steeped in my mother’s hands.  More than her face.  More than her voice.  More than the things she’s told me.  More than the things she’s left unsaid.  I’m certain it’s one of the reasons I notice a person’s eyes first…and their hands second.  I've learned that hands can be a source of hurting or healing.
For through my mother’s hands, I’ve experienced both.

When I was little, I loved to trace Mom’s brightly lacquered fingernails with the pad of my thumb.  As I constantly chewed my nails and cuticles until they were bloody, I figured my fingers would never look like Mom’s with their delicate curves, their shiny tips.  I marveled at the ease with which she painted them a different color every week.  Her collection of nail polish was amazing.  Fuchsia pinks and rose reds.  Purpley plums and soft tans. 
Clear polish (that I thought looked like spit when applied) was the only choice Mom gave me until I was in junior high.  But there was an episode when I was in third grade when I swiped a soft pink bottle from her stash and took it to school.  It was a rainy day, so I sat at my desk during indoor recess and sloppily polished my half-bitten nails.   The results were messy, but foreshadowed what my hands might look like if I took better care of them.
When I got home, I dashed to the bathroom and quickly removed the polish, leaving a residue of color around my cuticles.  Slipping the bottle back into my mother’s drawer, I thought I was so slick.  Then she saw my nails at the dinner table and chided me for blatantly disobeying her.  I learned the hard way how nail polish remover stings when it comes into contact with chewed-open skin.  Much like my mother’s spankings would sting whenever I defied her.
 Years later, I was able to grow my own set of lovely nails and polished them regularly.  French Tip was my favorite, although it took forever to accomplish.  Still, every Saturday afternoon, I would give myself a manicure and look in wonder at the beauty of my hands.  At that time, it was rare that I would think of any part of my body as beautiful.  But this was before yoga or Esalen.  Before all the real work I was about to embark upon in my quest for healing.
 In the early nineties when I taught first grade, my instinctive sense of workaholism was full blown.  Arriving at school around seven-thirty, I worked most days until nearly 5:00.  I took papers home every evening and spent most of my Sunday nights planning lessons or preparing materials for the week ahead.  Since I was constantly shuffling paper and school supplies, my hands took a real beating.  My skin soon became chapped and bloody, as I was also constantly washing them to avoid getting sick.
On a cold winter day, one of my students' mothers visited the classroom with a small bag.  “This is for you, Miss Ingersoll,” Mrs. Ellis said to me.  “I noticed how sad your hands look…and I thought you might want to use this.”
Inside the bag was a jar of super-emollient hand cream.
Mrs. Ellis nodded to her son.  “Can you remind Miss Ingersoll if she forgets to put it on?”
Jonathon nodded. 
I smiled at both of them.  “Thank you so much,” I said, giving Mrs. Ellis a hug.  “I know I need to take better care of my hands.”
And so it was that every morning and every afternoon when recess was over, Jonathon or one of the other students would remind me, “Miss I…use your hand lotion!”
I did and soon my hands were healed.  It was a memorable seed, a first step in being mindful of my own self-care that would one day bloom into a life-changing path of yoga, Rolfing, and massage. 

To this day, I still take good care of my hands, for they are the vehicles through which I create my novels.  They knit toys for my friends' children.  They tend my magical gardens.  My hands demonstrate yoga poses for my students and gently assist them when needed.  They provide steadiness as I ride my bike all over the city.  They turn pages in books and gently stroke whichever cat is purring on my lap while I read.  My hands cradle the faces of the children I love and applaud for them when I’m present at a recital or a ball game.  
Now my hands are ready to gently harvest the seeds of all that has bloomed in the wake of the trials and misfortunes I have endured.  Ready to glean that which can be planted in the future to yield even more awakening and abundance.
They are a catalyst for all that is yet to be seen...
A channel for the mysteries of my life unfolding. 


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Channeling St. Francis

          It's the day before Thanksgiving and I'm happy to say the preparations are complete.  All of the food's been purchased and put away.  The cranberries I cooked this morning are cooling in the fridge.  The autumn linens are clean and at the ready.  It'll only be me this year...well, me and a bunch of my little friends, but nevertheless, it's nice to know we can all tuck in and enjoy a peaceful holiday tomorrow.
          As you may know, I have a small passel of cats.  (I recently asked my vet what's the highest number you can have without totally messing up the domestic dynamic.  Without hesitation, Dr. Barden replied, "One.")  I don't consider four to be too many and can't imagine life without my naughty kitten who has grown into an affectionate and entertaining little adult.  Each one has a buddy and they often trade playmates, so all in all, it's a peaceable kingdom around my house.
          Still mealtime makes for an interesting event as Jhoti is on a diet and needs to have her food rationed -- and she has to be locked in my bedroom so her brother and sister don't steal her tasty little morsels.  My other three kids eat their own dry kibble, but Sophia needs a few treats on the top to entice her to eat.  Of course Aditi won't be left out, so she always gets one or two in her bowl as well.  And then there's Forest who needs some soft food twice a day to keep him well hydrated.  He's more than willing to share, so I need to make sure he gets first dibs.
          After nearly a year, we've got it down to a science.  I don't know how you parents of multiple kids do it!  All I have to do is scoop a bit of food into a bowl, or pop the top of a can and add warm water. 
          Mind you...I'm not complaining.

          When I was a teenager I thought about becoming either a teacher or a veterinarian.  Although the idea of caring for kittens and puppies was enticing, the image of helping sick or injured pets made my heart ache.  I grew up with dogs and when I was thirteen, my parents brought home a black miniature Schnauzer we named Cinder.  Dr. Barden was our vet back then, too, and our little fella soon earned the nickname "Mr. Perfect," for that's exactly what he was.  Loving and loyal, Cinder was the sweetest dog I've ever known.  He was incredibly smart and patient beyond his dog years. 
          Once when he was flea ridden from a trip to South Carolina, Cinder rested good-naturedly in my arms while I used the attachment to our vacuum cleaner to suck those little devils from his tummy and legs.  Gazing at me with his chocolate brown eyes, he seemed to say, "Thank you, Katie, I feel much better.  Now move that thing a little to the left.  There are a few you missed on my haunches."
          My first pet as an adult arrived when I taught fourth grade in Troy, Ohio.  Chuck the Hermit Crab was a gift from the Girl Scouts.   And even though I couldn't cuddle him or take him for a walk, it was nice to have something to nurture after a long day at school.  Alas, Chuck didn't survive the move back to Toledo, but he was the inspiration for a host of gerbils, hamsters, and a guinea pig I kept in my classroom at Greenwood.
          When I got past my fear of cats, I adopted a fierce kitten I named Scout who Dr. Barden and I still talk about to this day.  She was sweet to me, but to most everyone else, she was a hellion in the first degree.  Mollie came along as a playmate, then ten years later, I serendipitously came across Carly, a red tabby who loved to chatter at the birds and curl up with me while I read a book.  All three of them have gone to kitty heaven, but the lessons they taught me about care giving when I was tired or cranky, sacrifice when Scout developed diabetes and I had to give her shots every twelve hours for three years, and letting go when it came time to make the difficult end of life choices have made me much more compassionate and empathetic.
          Now more than ever, I can't imagine my life without pets.

          St. Francis is the patron saint of animals and the environment.  I'm not Catholic, but I've studied some of his teachings and he and I agree on one thing.  We both believe that nature is the mirror of the sacred.  To touch the earth is to touch the face of all creation.  To nurture an animal is the closest I can come to holding a part of the divine in my arms.
          For many years I've looked for a statue of St. Francis to place in my backyard garden.  I'm fairly picky about the details and didn't want a figure who had creepy eyes (i.e. no irises carved into the stone).  To no avail I looked high and low for a two or three foot fellow who would symbolically bless my home with love.  Last June I was surprised and delighted when my neighbor, Karole, presented me with a St. Francis she found in a home she had been preparing for sale.
          "I know you hate creepy eyes," she grinned.  "And he doesn't have them!"
          Sure enough, St. Francis was a little rough around the edges, but his eyes shone through the peeling paint.  A little wire brushing later and he was ready for a new coat of sandstone finish.  All summer long he sat in Carley's garden that's filled with red, yellow, and orange flowers.  This fall I knew I'd better bring him back inside.  Now every time I drive into the garage, St. Francis greets me with a smile while he watches over all of my garden goodies, tucked away for the winter.

          I've taken care of animals for as long as I can remember.  When Scout was a baby, I volunteered at the Humane Society and prepped cats who were taken to nursing homes as therapy animals.  In 2009 I fostered a couple of litters of kittens and oh, what a labor of love that was!  At one time I had ten felines in the house, but not in the same room.  The porch was dubbed the kitten spa and there I watched over the first litter as they flourished under the watchful eye of their mama, Hazel.  I was blessed when no one wanted the black male kitten and Forest became a very welcome addition to my happy trio.  Dr. Barden and I call him Mr. Perfect, too,...and he certainly is. 
          Once Forest's litter was grown, Hazel took care of another group of mangy little kittens who had been abandoned.  Sure enough, in a few weeks they were healthy and socialized, quickly finding forever homes in the Toledo area.  Then Miss Hazel found her way into one of my friend's hearts and she lived the rest of her days pampered and well-loved.
          In addition to my own fur kids, I often pet sit for friends.  In the wintertime, I feed the myriad of birds that flutter around the neighborhood.  All year long I keep an eye out for hungry squirrels, too.  The other day when I came home from pet food shopping, I found my squirrelly pal, Sam, waiting for me in the tree near my front door.  (He and I developed a friendship this summer when he visited me whenever I ate a meal on my front porch swing.  Fearless and bold, Sam often scampered right up to me and sat on his hind legs, begging for a bit of whatever was on my plate.)
          "Do you want an apple?" I asked him.
          Sam immediately jumped down and ran to the driveway where I'll often toss a core or the tops of strawberries.
          "Hold on, pal," I smiled.  "I'll get it for you."
          As I walked toward the entryway, Sam eagerly scampered after me.  When I had sliced a great big, juicy red delicious and headed outside, Sam was waiting with his paws pressed to the door.  He wouldn't take the apple out of my hand, but was excited to grab the core for now and see that I tossed the other pieces by the tree for later.  Chattering a "thank you," Sam ran up my neighbor's maple and nibbled on his afternoon treat.  Seeing Sam's elation, I know I'll enjoy keeping that kid fat and sassy all winter long. 
          Just this morning when I put a fresh cake of suet in the cage that hangs in a tree just outside the dining room window, the blue jays and sparrows and woodpeckers all dive-bombed it mere seconds after I came inside.  Forest and Aditi were an attentive audience as the birds twittered and darted here and there, catching seeds and sticky suet in their beaks.  It was fascinating for me to witness as well...and to watch my cats watching the birds, their eyes wide, their jaws chattering and clicking in excitement.
          What a joy to know that my Thanksgiving celebration will include feeding the birds and the squirrels and even the deer in the wood when I take a walk tomorrow afternoon.  They're good company and always enjoy whatever treat I offer.  And I always love being with them as they reveal to me the often unseen mysteries of nature.   I suppose channeling St. Francis has allowed me to tap into my inner Snow White once again so that I can experience the quiet wonders of the forest.  This year, I find that's one of the things for which I'm most grateful.
          May you and yours have a wonder-filled Thanksgiving!

With Lily, one of Forest's sisters, on her adoption day.