Monday, December 21, 2015

The light inside

Tomorrow is the winter solstice, one of my favorite nights of the year.  I plan to turn off the lamps and light all the candles in the house, so the soft glow of firelight can dance on the walls while I listen to Paul Winter's annual solstice celebration on WGTE radio.  Someday I hope to fly to New York and visit St. John the Divine Cathedral where Paul and his consortium host this extraordinary event every December.  But for now, I'll cozy up on the couch with a mug of something hot and enjoy the concert from the comfort of my living room. 
It will be a wonderful respite from the busyness of the past few months and the sorrow I've been feeling since a close friend recently told me his cancer has made an aggressive return after lengthy treatment.  Surgery is scheduled for Christmas Eve.  Hopefully, he'll be able to go home the next day to be with his family, but nothing is certain.  And until the test results come back, all we can do is wait...and pray.
Last week while driving home after a long, difficult day, I was stopped at a red light.  As I sat there, my thoughts drifted; bittersweet images from the past flashed through my memory, then worries about the future took their place.  Finally I took a deep breath and noticed the license plate on the truck in front of me.  It read:  BPRESNT
I've been practicing present moment awareness for over twenty years, so you think I'd have the hang of it by now.  But these days, it's not been easy, and I was infinitely thankful for the synchronicity.  I smiled, remembering what I had said to my friend earlier that morning: "We'll take this step by step.  Whatever happens...no matter what, you're still you, you're still here today.  Really, that's all any of us ever have."

This year in particular, being present in every moment of my life has been an ongoing challenge.  For over a decade, I've been teaching workshops that incorporate lofty ideas and beliefs.  The past twelve months have brought those lessons into a tangible reality that is occasionally frustrating, often mesmerizing, and continually palpable.  It's easy to practice an ideal when safely harbored within the walls of my home.  But what happens when the darkness outside creeps through the cracks, shadowing what had previously been brought to light?
Like the Velveteen Rabbit, I've longed to be real outside of teaching yoga and writing essays and novels, beyond my quiet world of meditation and contemplation.  Slowly, but surely, the past ten years have aged me (often times in reverse), but they've also transformed me into someone brand new.  Although much of it has been painful, it's what I've wanted...to be connected to people on a deeper level.  Even the hurt can be healing because at least I know now how much I can let myself feel.  
Maybe that's why I love the winter solstice so much.  For when things become as dark as they possibly can, there's always the reassurance of light returning once more.  At the dawning of winter, the sun will rise higher each day, steadily reminding us of the promise of springtime.

I'm reminded of a Christmas Eve more than twenty years ago, when I stood at the altar of Christ Presbyterian Church holding a single white candle.  The overhead lights had been extinguished while the minister lit a long taper from the Advent wreath.  He lit mine, then I walked to the choir loft where I shared the flame with the sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses. Once a soft glow filled the loft, I went back to wait by the pulpit, watching as the ushers lit the candles of the people who stood at the end of each pew, who in turn passed the light on to the person next to them. 
Silent Night played softly in the background, and when the last verse was sung, the whole congregation was illuminated by a warm, white light.  I listened to their voices echoing in the open space, captivated by how each individual flame created the entirety of the brilliance that filled the church.  Then I realized I wasn't alone, a solitary candle shining in the distance, for I knew that our source of light was one and the same.
And it still is.    
I may not know what the future holds.  Shadows may obscure my path, and I may need to wait a while longer for guidance or momentum.  Still, even though it may be pitch dark outside the haven of my heart, the light inside will still burn bright.
Always.

Open Road:  Year Three is now available in paperback and digital download on Amazon.com.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

An introduction to "My Journey of Faith and Hope"

For the past six months, I've had the honor of working closely with Mary Stocki McKinstray in bringing to life her mother's memoir, My Journey of Faith and Hope.  During the process of writing The LaceMakers and Franciszka's narrative, the tumultuous world in which we now live often reminded me of events from the early to mid-1900's.  When Mary asked me to write the introduction, I felt blessed to share what this work has meant to me and how it's changed my perspective of the past and my place in this world.  Please enjoy and share our labor of love.


Introduction to My Journey of Faith and Hope

This year commemorates the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II and the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps.  In preparing to write The Lace Makers, I spent nearly a year researching literature, attending lectures, and watching hours of World War II footage, yet there were very few stories told by Polish survivors of the Russian labor camps in Siberia. 
While Jews all across Europe were murdered during the Holocaust, Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Slavs, Serbs, Czechs, Gypsies, Roman Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, political prisoners, and the mentally ill were also taken from their homes and unlawfully incarcerated.  Many of them were systematically executed; even more succumbed to starvation, exposure, and disease.  By the end of the war, between one-third and one-half of the Polish population had died...nearly six million people.  Half of them were Christians.  Conventional history has proven to only reveal pieces of the puzzle, not the complete narrative. 
The Holocaust was not primarily a Jewish genocide.  First and foremost, it was a human tragedy, one that our world is still embodying in ways both explicit and concealed.   Hitler and Stalin's regimes were not created in a vacuum and neither were their consequences.  Until we can completely acknowledge the full scope of the tragic events of our past and their catastrophic results, we are doomed to repeat them. 

When Mary Stocki McKinstray asked if I would help edit her mother's memoir, which Franciszka had been diligently writing in the years before her death, it was a rare opportunity to expand my awareness of the Holocaust through a first-hand and very personal account.  In weaving together Franciszka's notes which are hand-written in Polish/English, and references from other resources, Mary and I discovered a captivating narrative that goes beyond the war, beyond pain, suffering, and the reconstruction of a new life.  It's an incredible journey, one I've been blessed to nurture into publication.
While it has been an enormously daunting process, bringing this narrative to light has also been an honor.  Historical literature is predominantly written by men, yet women's stories are unique in that they allow readers to deeply experience the often overwhelming emotions and enormous psychological effects of waging war.  In My Journey of Faith and Hope, Franciszka's story reminds us that even though evil may pervade for a while, faith, hope, and love transcend time and space.  The extraordinary courage she found in her later years to record her memories for her children has been an inspiration. 
This book is a legacy of a woman who embodied resilience when confronted with hatred, endurance while accepting the unknown, and peace at the end of a long, difficult path to liberation.


Kate Ingersoll
Toledo, Ohio
November, 2015

Discover this book online here.


Monday, December 7, 2015

Raising the bar

In my thirties I was a fairly serious weight-lifter, eagerly pumping iron at an all-ladies gym.  During my last years of teaching, I'd been dealing with incomparable stress, which left me with TMJ, carpal tunnel syndrome, and a wicked case of fybromyalsia.   My physical therapist suggested weight lifting as a good way to build strength and give my muscles a larger range of motion.   So, in addition to yoga, hiking, and gardening, I hit the gym at least six days a week.
One of my doctors says I'm a walking miracle, as everything's been healed except mild numbness in my hands whenever I garden or knit too much.  Still, I was dedicated to staying off medication, avoiding unnecessary surgery, and creating a healthier lifestyle.  When I moved to California 2008, one of the bonuses of my job was being on my feet at least nine hours a day doing some pretty heavy lifting in the Esalen farm and garden.  Sure, I went to the gym on campus now and again, but since I spent the majority of my time outside and walked at least six miles a day up and down some pretty steep hills, I found that the natural world provided a much better workout.
It's been eight years since I ventured into the world of spin classes, treadmills, and free weights, yet that's been something I've longed for since the beginning of 2015.  I missed the intensity, the variety, and the challenge.  Still, I'm not one to want attention while I'm working out.  In fact, when I was a Lifestyles member, I meditated in my car before I went inside the gym, mentally zipping up my energy so I wouldn't be over-stimulated by the blaring televisions, the shouting instructors, the music blasting from the overhead speakers.  In addition to not being bothered by the mayhem, I found others didn't really bother with me.  Once while I was taking a break on a bench in-between leg lifts, a woman actually sat on me.
"Oops!" she exclaimed.  "Sorry!  I didn't see you there."
"No worries," I told her.  "That was my intention."
Yet, since I joined a new gym here in the Toledo area, I've been setting much different intentions, and the bar's gone way up. 

The gym I belong to now is quiet, save for the upbeat music softly playing in the workout area and the locker rooms.  The classes are taught in an upstairs private space and best of all, there's a steam bath I enjoy after working out or taking a hike at Wildwood.  Exercise has once again become my favorite form of entertainment, recreation, and self care...and I'm loving every moment.
Most days I arrive between one and three or in the evening, so it's usually just me and bunch of guys lifting or running or swimming.  I don't mind at all since I spent a lot of time at Esalen working with men, learning how to do things efficiently and effectively on a bigger scale.  I've seen dudes bench press three hundred pounds when I'm lucky if I can do thirty.  They grimace and grunt and grit their way through set after set after set, sweating like dogs and slapping each other on the shoulders when they can add ten pounds to the bar for another round.
I watch them all, then try to up my game, just to see what I can do.  But I have to admit that my Type A personality crept in during the first couple of weeks so much so that I came home sore, fatigued, and sometimes in pain.  Once I set the bar so high, it would have been more productive if I had limboed beneath it.  I paid dearly for that workout and have now changed my ways, incorporating what I often tell my yoga students, "The practice doesn't have a goal...it has a purpose.  Discover what yours is today, because it might be different than it was the last time." 

Last week, during a yoga class, one of my friends said, "You're still a relaxed Type A, but you've mellowed even more over the years."
"Just wait another ten years or so," I smiled at Brenda. "I'll be even softer then."
"I hope I'm still around," she chuckled.
"Oh, you will be," I replied.  "You're the first person who helped me reframe my energetic personality so I don't feel like such a hard ass."
I recently took a personality quiz and discovered that I'm high in both alpha and beta tendencies, so that makes me fairly balanced and able to lead as well as compromise.  But after living with cats for the better part of my adult life, I've realized that, like them, I've softened my alpha tendencies, but still know how to go for what I want...especially if it involves attaining a long-held desire.  For them that might mean a highly-coveted, comfortable spot on the couch or a romp session in the yoga room.  For me it means a life-long career as a writer and a healthy relationship.
I've been spending more time with men this year and have come to realize they're not all that different than women.  Yes, their brains are more focused on one thing at a time.  Yes, they can get things on the top shelf of the cupboard that are far out of reach for me.  Yes, most of them are hard-wired to fix things, whether it be a broken toaster or a broken heart.  But most fellas want the same things that most women do:  to be loved, to be appreciated, to find meaning in their lives.
Still, I've come to accept that I'm more attracted to men who actively move forward...no matter what they're doing.  Maybe that's why I love to work out with them around.  I'm an alpha cat, and can wait patiently for things to evolve.  But there's something about an alpha dog who knows what he wants and goes for it, whether it be a promotion at work, another lap in the pool, or another ten minutes talking with me on the phone.  I swear, there's nothing quite like a man who assertively, yet not aggressively, finishes what he's started.
Take the man I had dinner with last spring, the guy who fearlessly called me a badass.
Pete's a long-distance runner and was lamenting about how he had torn a meniscus near the end of a marathon.
"Oh, man," I said, lifting my brows.  "I'll bet that hurt.  What did you do?"
"I finished the race," he replied nonchalantly.
"No kidding?"
"Nope...then I had surgery on it."
"I should have had surgery when I tore mine doing gardening work for a friend," I told him.
"How'd you do it?"
"I fell into a deep ravine while my foot was planted on the edge.  I ended up landing on a rock and got pretty banged up."
"What'd you do?"
I shrugged.  "I climbed out of the ravine and finished the job."
Then we both laughed, realizing we had more in common than a distaste for ultra-spicy food and a dedication to fitness.
Near the end of the evening, we were talking about the long, challenging road I've taken to find a publisher.  I was in the middle of writing The Lace Makers, and told Pete that I wasn't sure how I could get the finished manuscript into the hands of an agent who had both clout and integrity.  He listened patiently while I described the ups and downs of self-publishing and how all I really want to do is find my own place in the literary world.
It was enchanting when Pete smiled and said, "One day you'll be totally rich.  Your books will be sold all around the world and you'll be famous.  But you won't be happy because that's not who you really are."
At the time, I replied that even though I don't seek praise, I'd be overjoyed if my work touched peoples' lives in some way.  Now I wish I'd asked him what he thought might make me truly happy.  I still wonder, What would he say...this man who revealed that I'm now leading with who I am and not what I do?
Meeting someone like Pete raised the bar on what I truly want -- someone who's strong and kind.  Someone who knows who he is and also sees me clearly, no matter how much I might try to hide.  Someone who can both call me out into the space between us and invite me inside of myself into places I didn't know existed. 
Someone who will be the man, so I can be the woman.
Since that night, being a vulnerable badass has been an ongoing challenge, but it's been worth it...and after all this time, I know Pete was worth it, too. 

Ever since I graduated from college, I've had to exercise my masculine side to earn a living, pay the bills, run a household and a small business.  Over the years I've lifted the bar higher and higher, striving to improve every area of my life.  While developing this kind of strength is all well and good, it can never take the place of a real man.  And I don't want to lift weights like a man or talk like a man or even work like one for that matter, for I've come to fully understand what Bobbie Barrett said to Peggy in season two of Mad Men:  "No one will tell you this, but you can't be a man.  Don't even try.  Be a woman.  Powerful business when done correctly."
This year has been one of enormous changes, but not all of them can be seen on the outside...at least not yet.  These days, I no longer need to zip up my energy to be in this world, to work outside of my home, to date or go out with friends.  I find I can set the bar high and still work with my ever-changing limits, because every day brings something new.  I may not always be able to run as far as I'd like.  I may need to take a step back after taking two steps forward.  My yoga practice may need to shift and change as the seasons do. 
It doesn't really matter.
        What matters is the awareness I bring to what I'm doing, be it in the gym, writing a novel, or meeting someone for a cup of coffee.  I may succeed or falter, but at least I'm making the effort.  Raising the bar might not always be comfortable, but it always encourages me to grow...and that, too, is powerful business when done with an open heart.  






Monday, November 30, 2015

Earning my stripe

Recently I had the opportunity to join Danta's lower-elementary class during Pioneer Day.  The kids learned how to make butter, sew a pocket, and play games Pilgrim children might have enjoyed centuries ago.  As knitting was a survival skill in the early 1600's (and to be honest, it's often a survival skill for me when I'm  stressed out), I was asked to teach a beginner's circle.   It's been quite a while since I worked with large groups of children and I'd forgotten that during the course of a lesson, the circle usually shrinks considerably as the kids inch nearer to me...until they're practically sitting in my lap.
Not that I mind.
Having a host of little ones huddle close is something I treasure, having spent the better part of my time as a classroom teacher giving hundreds of hugs, comforting kids when they were tired or in need of affection, and wiping tears and boo boos of all kinds. 
Still, what happened in Danta's class was a first. 
One of the boys enjoyed trying on the hats and handwamers I had brought to show them.  "Did you make your sweater?" Jimmy* asked brightly.
"Yes," I nodded.  "It took a long, long time to make it."
"It's really bright...I like the stripes!"
"Thanks...me, too," I smiled, making a slip knot and sliding it over a wooden needle.
Then Jimmy scooted closer and touched my hair.  "You have a white stripe right here," he said, fingering the strands near my left temple. 
"Yep," I said, casting on a few stitches for him.  
Ever so gently, Jimmy tugged on one of the strands, pulling it out.
"Hey...what are you doing?" I asked as I rubbed the spot that still stung.
"I'm going to get rid of this for you," Jimmy replied as if he were doing me a great kindness.
"Please don't," I told him.  "That's my skunk stripe, and I love it."
He frowned.  "You do?"
"Yes," I grinned.  "And it took a long, long time to make that, too."
The look on Jimmy's face let me know that my silly sense of humor hasn't lost its charm. 
"Well it's not in the center of your hair, Kate."
"Well, I've always been a little off," I said, bouncing my eyebrows.  "At least I don't look like Cruella De Ville."
"Not yet," he deadpanned.

Over the weekend while decorating my Christmas tree, I thought about a pipe-cleaner skunk ornament I loved as a child.  In fact, when I went away to college, my mother often saved it for me to put on the tree when I came home during winter break.  I have no idea where it came from or whether it has sentimental value to anyone but me; still, I cannot remember a holiday season without that charming little stinker and how it was always put in a prominent place where everyone could see it.
Then and now I've never been afraid of skunks, but it wasn't until I lived in California that I began to understand more fully what they symbolize, particularly where my personal life is concerned.  Most folks wrinkle their noses when I reveal my adoration for one of the most recognized animals on the planet.  In fact, I ran into a friend on Thanksgiving and he commented about the white streak in my hair as he walked on by.
"Oh, that's my skunk stripe," I told him, laughing.
Later in the day Henry* sent an email in which he wrote: I did not see a skunk stripe...I saw sexy and sultry.  Please be aware of your self-talk unless it is your intention to attract Pepe LePew.
I wrote back, telling him that it's all in ones perception as skunks are one of the most peaceful animals on the planet and walk through life on their own terms.  A long time ago I learned to embrace my inner-skunk...not that it's always been well-received.  But I don't mind.
And I imagine a real skunk wouldn't either.

When I taught yoga to children, I used Beanie Babies as focal points for certain poses.  The kids always held their noses and squealed, "Pee yoo!" whenever I pulled the skunk from my bag.  Satish, who had been a student of mine since he was in kindergarten, was quick to correct them as he had heard my skunk spiel many a time. 
"Skunks get a bad rap," he told the class one afternoon.  "They only spray when they feel really threatened 'cause it takes a whole week to make more of their stinky stuff."     
I nodded.  "Do you remember the ways they warn you before they'll spray?"
"Uh huh," Satish nodded, scrambling onto his hands and knees, gently pounding them into the carpet.  "First they do this."
"Right."
He turned to the side.  "Then they do this!"
"Yep."
Satish lifted one leg to mimic the skunk's tail.  "If you see this...look out!"
I laughed.  "Yep...by then it would be too late."
"Yeah, 'cause one time Kate was living in California and her boss accidentally caught a skunk in a trap for gophers!" Satish said, his voice bubbling over with enthusiasm.  "Kate went to help get it loose and the skunk sprayed, but only on her boss."
"Really?" one of the kids asked me.  "Is that true?"
"Yep," I nodded.  "I guess it recognized a kindred spirit."
"What's that?"
"Kind of like a friend who behaves just like you do."
Sophia* laughed.  "You're not a skunk...you're a person!"
"True, but we can all learn to have respect for ourselves," I explained.  "Which is what a skunk represents.  I'd bet that if one wandered into the classroom, we'd all let it do its thing and not bother it."
"Yes!" Sophia exclaimed.  "I'd want to get away from it!"
"I wouldn't."
"Why not?"
I nodded toward Satish.  "Do you want to tell the story about how some skunks used to live under my hut?"
"Sure," he nodded.  He'd heard the story many times, astonished that I would enjoy the transient company of a skunk and her two kits.
"When Kate was in California, all the people who lived on the farm sprayed stuff under their huts to keep the skunks away," Satish said, his eyes shining.  "But not Kate.  She had a mama and two babies living there and they only came out at night time.  Kate left food for them and whenever she saw them on the farm, they never tried to run away from her."
Then he looked at me.  "Didn't that mama spray your hut only once?"
"That's right," I replied.  "But not because of me."
"She was just protecting her babies from the raccoon that was trying to get them," Satish remembered. 
I looked around the yoga circle.  "If I were that skunk and you were my babies, I'd protect you, too."
"Oh, so that's how you're like a skunk," Sophia brightened.
"That's one way," I winked.  "But there are many others."

A skunk is the ultimate pacifist.  Its first and primary lesson is do no harm.  However if provoked, a skunk will effectively take care of any issue and there will be no doubt of its power to resolve it without further conflict.  Skunks are not to be fooled with, and many people over the past five years have learned the same lesson about me.
While I can be quick to internal anger, it takes a lot for me to confront another person.  Usually I walk away and try to work things out for myself, but if a situation or circumstance happens over and over again, and I'm in the line of fire -- like Satish said, look out.  I'll stamp my feet, and if that gleans nothing, will turn sideways and proactively state my case in way that allows for no wiggle room.  For I've learned to verbally cut to the chase and state the obvious in no uncertain terms.
Usually that means the other person leaves me alone...but not always.
Five years ago an employer requested I have an exiting interview when I decided to leave my position.  I didn't want to participate because I had come to a point in my life where I no longer needed to sugar coat anything and was concerned I'd over-step the boundaries by telling the truth about a lot of the unpleasant issues in the company. 
Still, she insisted.
After I shared everything I enjoyed about working in my position, Nancy* asked if there was anything I'd like to see improved.
I benignly shared my thoughts about a few important issues I'd had to deal with, keeping the conversation clear, professional, and positive.
"Well, we sure wish you'd reconsider and stay," Linda said.  "I hear great things about your performance."
"Thanks, but I can't," I replied. 
"Why not?" Nancy asked.
Inside I was seething because even after twenty years of experience, I was earning the same income I had in 1988 when I first graduated from college.  Yes, it was my choice to work there, but I knew I was worth more than I was receiving.  Still, Nancy asked, so I went on to explain that I didn't want to give up a summer to go through more training, which meant that I wouldn't be able to teach yoga. 
"I'd lose a fourth of my income," I said.  "Then I'd owe you three years to pay for the training and still have to run my private business because I'm not getting paid enough to cover my expenses."
The expression on Nancy's face remained unaffected.
So I took a deep breath and said, "So at the end of my commitment, I'll be nearly fifty years old with no health insurance and not making nearly enough money for what I'm bringing to the table here."
"Well, you'll just have to decide if you can afford to work here," Nancy sniffed.
Over the course of the time I had been with the company, I had heard that line one too many times -- and I could no longer remain silent.  "No, Nancy...what's true is that you can't afford to pay me what I'm worth."
That shut her up...for a moment.  The conversation circled around to the starting point and I realized it was time to cut my losses and move on.
It wasn't the last time I had to deal with Nancy, but it was the first time I earned the right to take pride in walking my talk and speaking up when I felt it was necessary.
After all, Nancy asked for it.
But I doubt she'll ask for it again.

 My friend, Matteo, has always encouraged me to embrace my inner skunk, for he's shown me that learning self respect is life-long process.   When we prepared sweat lodges in California, he reminded me that to be a skunk means that I may walk alone in this world for  a while until I discover those people who will mirror the value I have for myself.  As I've grown older, my circle of friends has grown smaller, yet more intimate because earning my stripe has been an evolutionary experience, one that I don't take lightly. 
What a joy to teach Jimmy that to truly own ones identity means that we embrace it all -- not just what we think others will approve of or accept.  Be it a white streak in my hair or an independent streak in my personality, I love it all.
 And by the way, it is my intention to attract another skunk.  In fact, I may already have. 
But that's a blog for another day.

*Names have been changed.

Click here to learn more about skunks.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

That's the way, Jose

In the early nineties, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a children's literature institute at the University of Toledo where a host of authors shared their work.  When Dr. Herb Sandberg introduced Jose Aruego, the entire auditorium lit up, for Mr. Aruego's laughter and enthusiasm were infectious.  He brightly talked about his early life in the Philippians, then went on to describe in captivating detail his journey into writing books for kids of all ages.  Although I had amassed a huge collection of children's literature, I had never heard of him. So during the break, I purchased a few of his books to share in my first grade classroom, hoping they would entice my little ones to read.   
Noticing a brand new hard-cover near the cash register, I picked up a copy of Alligator Arrived with Apples, a potluck alphabet book.  Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year, and not because of the food.  I've been a vegetarian since my late twenties and a vegan for nearly four years now, so the traditional fare doesn't really do it for me -- unless it's a tasty version of cranberry sauce.  So when I found a book about a host of animals gathering for a feast, each one bringing an unusual dish to share, I was overjoyed.  Waiting in line to pay for the books, I flipped through the hard-cover, discovering a balloon-lofted Goose who gave gravy, grapes, and gingerbread, one of my favorite treats this time of year.  Then there was a Koala who kicked in kale, kohlrabi, and kasha.   I was years away from tasting any of those foods, but can now say I grow my own kale and enjoy it almost daily.  But my favorite was Turkey who turned up, not to be eaten himself, but with tomatoes, trifle, and turnips!
During the second half of the seminar, Jose described how he loved to visit children in their classrooms and show them how to draw.  "Everyone can draw an alligator," he beamed.  "Even the kids who don't think they're artistically inclined."  He went on to describe the challenges of writing and illustrating books, reminding aspiring writers in the audience that every setback brought necessary lessons.  At the time I was sending out a manuscript of a book I had written for young adults, and received nothing but rejections.  It was heartening to listen to such an incredible artist reveal that he, too, had experienced much of the same early in his career.
At the end of the session, the enormous crowd lined up to have our books signed and the queue snaked all the way up the center aisle and into the hallway.  Hundreds of teachers eagerly awaited the joy of having Jose add a personal inscription, even though we knew we might have to wait well over an hour.  It hardly mattered to me.  I couldn't wait to shake his hand and thank him for his incredible inspiration.
After half an hour, Jose picked up the microphone and said cheerfully, "Thank you all for purchasing so many of my books.  I don't want to make  you wait in line for too long, so why don't you write on a slip of paper what you'd like me to inscribe in your book and I'll be happy to take them back to my hotel tonight and sign them."  Nodding toward Dr. Sandberg, he smiled.  "I'm sure Herb will return them you tomorrow morning."
Sure enough, when we arrived for the second day of the institute, all of the students were amazed when we were handed our brilliantly inscribed books.  My copy of Alligator Arrived with Apples was dedicated in exquisite calligraphy "To Miss Ingersoll's First Grade Class", and I was overjoyed to see a grinning reptile with Jose's signature beneath it.  From 1991 until 2013, I read the book to every group of children I had the pleasure of teaching.  They always marveled that I had met the author years before they were born and were even more excited to share what their families ate for the holiday celebration, some concoctions vastly more intriguing than a zebra who arrived with a zucchini!
It's been a Thanksgiving tradition I've treasured...and not only because of the whimsical illustrations, for Jose Areugo is a touchstone and a reminder of the benevolent writer I strive to become. 

Like any artist, writing is an ongoing, evolving, never-ending process.  Sometimes I'm overflowing with ideas.  Sometimes I have to wait days, or weeks, or even months before clear inspiration will arrive.  These days I need to carry a pad and pen with me everywhere as lines of dialogue are effortlessly spilling through the filters of my mind.  After a few months of little time to write, it's a joy to know that as winter arrives, so too do long nights of darkness which translate into endless hours in my office creating something new. 
More than two decades ago, Jose Aruego showed me what it meant to be a gifted writer and speaker.  Yet more than that, he revealed his love for children and an endless desire to create books that would charm and encourage them to see the world in a variety of ways.  All these years later, I continue to follow in his incomparable footprints.   Like Jose, I write to give voice to the stories that rise up from my consciousness, not necessarily to please the public.  But I know that without those of you who read and share my work, I wouldn't be who or where I am today...at least not literarily.  It's an honor to read your emails and listen to your stories of how one of my blogs or books has stirred your emotions, touched your life, or awakened something just below the surface.  For a reader to be inspired to share their own life experience in tangent to something I've written, well, that's about as good as it gets...and it's getting better all of the time.

This year there's so much to be thankful for, and not all of it is tangible.    In fact, while I was running the other day while listening to music, Alanis Morrisette's song, "Thank U" revealed a lot of what's been happening in my life since last November.  She open-heartedly thanks terror and disillusionment and frailty as well as Providence and clarity and consequence.  Yet perhaps the most important word is repeated often...and ends the song with "thank you, thank you silence".  I crave silence because it lends me to the creativity I treasure...and to reflect on the people who have nurtured me and my work during the past three years.  Much of what I've revealed has been terrifying and opened me up to places that are incredibly vulnerable.  There has been much disillusionment in the publishing world, yet still I persevere because I know my destiny is right around the corner, and I'm just beginning to gain a clearer picture of what that means.
Through it all, my friends have provided a host of kindness, a feast of encouragement, and enormous generosity -- no matter what I bring to the table.  And for that...I am most grateful.




Sunday, November 22, 2015

You never know

Last Sunday I had a long-awaited play date with my pal, Satish.  When he was little, that meant an afternoon of basketball, T-ball, and maybe even time to read a book or two.  Now that he's older, it means we hang out and watch a football game.  This week it was the Lions "versing" the Green Bay Packers...or at least that's how Satish and his little brother, Danta, say "versus". 
Satish didn't know what time I was going to come over, so when I arrived a little later than planned, I heard his voice call from the living room, "Finally!"  He wasn't being rude -- it's just his way of letting me know he was looking forward to seeing me. 
As he's ten now, there's an unspoken agreement between us that a hello hug is not really necessary, but a good-bye hug is fine as long as I don't kiss him in front of his soccer buddies.  So instead of snuggling on the couch with a storybook like we did when he was younger, Satish regaled me on what would have to happen in order for the University of Michigan to make it to a bowl game.
"First, they'd have to do super well in the rest of their games," he explained.  "And other teams would have to do poorly so Michigan could rise in the ranks."  Shaking his head sadly, Satish said, "Really, there are too many variables that have to go right in order for it to happen."
I smiled, delighted by his ever-present astute wisdom.  "Well, you never know."
Satish flashed me a knowing smile.  "Yeah, you never know."
When we get together, the boys and I love playing chess or a board game.  When they were little, I always asked if I should let them win at chess or play my best.  Neither Satish nor Danta wanted me to throw the game, so after a stealth move on my part, one of them usually said, "Drat!  Now I'm going to lose!"
Shaking my head, I always replied, "The game's not over yet...you never know."
Time proved that the tide often turned and they end up being victorious.  Actually...nowadays Satish always beats me soundly, although the last time we played I gave him a pretty good run for his money.
Seeing a clear opening early in the match, I snatched his queen with a pawn.  "Holy cow, dude!" I cried.  "That was too easy!"
"I haven't practiced for a long time and I'm not thinking properly," he lamented.  "That's why you're going to win." 
With his next move he captured my queen...and I'm still not sure if he was using reverse psychology or not.
In any event, last Sunday at the beginning of the Lions vs. Packers game, Satish (a die-hard Lions fan to the end) bitterly complained about the poor season they're having this year. 
"See?  They're already down three points and it's not even a few minutes into the first quarter," he sighed.
"Oh, well," I shrugged.  "There are three more quarters.  You never know...they could kick their butts into high gear and get the job done."
And that's how it went.  Play by play, down by down, the Lions tried to rally.  I've never, ever seen a "fourth down and inches", but sure enough, there it was on the big screen TV. 
Alas, all too quickly it was time to leave as I was driving Satish to his indoor soccer game and didn't know how long it would take to get there.
"Don't worry...there's lots of time," he said as we buckled up and hit the road.  "We always have to wait until the other team finishes using the court."
Sure enough, we arrived before anyone else, so Satish and I chatted until the rest of his teammates arrived.
"Are you taping the Lions game?" I asked.
"Nah...I don't usually tape football games."
"Not even Michigan ones?"
"Nope."
"How come?"
Satish shrugged.  "Because it's too hard to not hear the final score before I have time to watch it.  Sometimes Danta tells me who won and that kinda spoils it for me."
"Yeah...it's more fun to have the suspense, huh?  Makes the game more interesting."
"Yep."
Once his buddies arrived, Satish put on his game face and talked with them while I found a spot near the window where I could watch the last few minutes of a pretty good soccer match.  
Moments later, Satish hurried over to me.  "Katie!  Someone just told me that the Lions are up ten to seven!"
"Well, how about that?" I beamed.  "They might win after all."
"Yeah...you never know," he grinned as he trotted off to the soccer field.

Like many people, I like to know when and how things will happen.  I want to keep a pulse on the future, working toward something new, not spinning my wheels waiting around for the inevitable.  Yes, I'm a Type A, but according to my friend, Brenda, I'm a relaxed Type A who's mellowing as the years go by.  Still, on Friday while teaching a knitting group in Danta's lower-elementary classroom, one of the boys (the fella who said I was the craziest woman he'd ever met), grinned at me.  "Aren't you that control freaky friend of Danta's I met at his house last month?"
Remembering my diligence in getting them to the soccer field on time, I had to laugh.  "Yeah, but I'm also a lot of fun...or don't you remember that part?"
Eric nodded playfully.  "Oh, sure...that, too."
Lately I've been earnest in letting go of my control freaky ways and trusting in the wisdom of a divine plan.  The philosopher, Alan Watt once wrote:  Supposing you knew the future and could control it perfectly.  What would you do?  You'd say, "Let's shuffle the deck and have another deal."
Isn't that the truth? 
Sure, I'd love to know a lot of things, but I've recently figured out that to have it all figured out is impossible, for the variables are always changing.  These days I don't get too comfortable with what I think or feel or intuit because I've learned that it's better to go with the flow than get stuck in the muck of a limiting mindset.  For the first time in my life, I'm a woman without a clear plan, and ever since I let go of needing one, I've received more joy, abundance, and creative energy than I've had in nearly ten years.  I'm working in a host of venues, doing a variety of work, meeting a plethora of people and discovering that the future will take care of itself while I take of myself in the present moment.  After all, I can never know all the events that are taking place behind the scenes...the things other people are experiencing, the pieces that need to be put into place in order for my dreams to come true. 

At halftime during Satish's game, I needed to go back to the lobby as the strong odor of the rubber turf was giving me a headache.  I couldn't catch his eye to let him know I wasn't leaving, that I'd be watching from the other side of the glass.  When he got back on the field, I noticed Satish glancing toward the sidelines where his father and other parents were standing. 
I'm still here, I silently said, hoping he'd pick up on my mental telepathy.
I needn't have worried.  My pal and I know each other all too well.  When the game was done and I congratulated him on a match well-played, he beamed. 
"I was watching from the lobby," I smiled as we headed to the parking lot.  "You know I'd never leave in the middle of one of your games."
He gave me a hug, nodding.
I savored the moment, knowing Satish is growing up all too fast...somewhere in-between being a child and becoming a young adult. 
In this game of life, I feel as though I'm still in the middle, too -- somewhere between where I've been and where I'm going.  But isn't that true for everyone?  Aren't we all hanging in the balance of what has been and what will be?  It's what we do in the present moment that matters, for as Alan Watt also reminds us, tomorrow never comes
Life is always changing, and with everything that's left behind in Satish's childhood, something richer comes to life as he grows up.  We've traded stuffed animals for soccer balls and good-night kisses for high fives.  Still, through it all, I've come to understand that embracing change always reveals the joy of what has been as it clears the path for something new.
Satish may never know how much I love him.  But today, tomorrow, and forever, I know for certain there will be endless opportunities to show him.

















Friday, November 6, 2015

At a loss for words

I've been speechless a few times in my life. 
Truly. 
I know it's hard for some people to believe that I could ever be rendered mute, but it has happened.  The first time I was blindsided by my boss in a principal's advisory committee during which she casually revealed some of my personal information.  The second time came three years later when a man revealed some of his own personal information that cut me off at the knees as it was an indirect slap in the face...and he knew it.  And the last time came six years ago when I realized I was living next to gang-banging drug dealers.  My silence didn't last for long, but in those moments I remember how helpless I felt, how undeniably caught in someone else's web of manipulation or drama.
These days I'm at a loss for words, but not for the same reasons.  After months of pitching The Lace Makers to a host of literary agents, all I've received are emails which politely, but firmly say they aren't interested.  You'd think I'd be used to it by now.  For nearly sixteen years I've been swimming upstream in a river of rejection, and now I'm wondering if sending my work out into the world in the way I've always done it is wise.  After all, Einstein said the clearest definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  In any event, I've decided to get out of the water, get quiet, and wait for novel inspiration (pun intended).

In the mid-nineties, exhausted from a long year of teaching first grade with some pretty demanding kids, I went on a three-day silent retreat.  There was no talking during meals, while in our semi-private rooms, and especially when sitting in group meditation.  At first my inner "chatty Kathy" thought this would be nearly impossible, but I soon discovered it was an uncommon respite in my highly-verbal world to not be expected to teach or speak or give any kind of guidance.  I didn't have to respond or react to anything that was happening around me.  Happily quiet, I simply observed it all with greater clarity and awareness. 
By the second evening, I felt as though I never wanted to speak again, but of course, life got in the way and that soon changed.
These days I spend Sundays in silence.  It's a ritual I learned from Ghandi, as he was quiet one day a week and only communicated through notes.  While Jhoti can speak several words in English (hello, Mom, now, and NO!) unless my cats learn how to read, there's no way I can be completely mute on my only day off.  Still, on Sundays I don't talk on the phone.  I don't meet friends for coffee.  I don't plan anything other than resting my voice and preparing for the week ahead.  The silence is soothing and allows me to sift through my inner chatter so I can find some peace and clarity...most of the time.
Since June I had let my path in the publishing world take a back seat to teaching yoga, editing a client's memoir, and spending time catching up with friends.  But since autumn winds started breezing in, I've been more focused on finding my way to a fantastic agent.  From past experience I know that fall is the best time of year to try and sell a book to publishers, and I've been feeling disappointed and dejected when, no matter what I do, nothing seems to gain momentum.  The constant running dialogue in my head cycles back and forth, and in the midst of contradictory feelings, I've often asked myself, After all this time, is a writing vocation what you really want? 
The answer is always a resounding yes.
But I know I can't bend an agent's or anyone's will to mine...at least not without some serious karmic consequences.  I can't make anyone want my work...or want me for any reason, so I've been silently repeating the serenity prayer and shifting around my priorities.  

Last Sunday I took a walk at the park, marveling at the changing leaves.  It's been a slow and steady transition from summer into autumn, so the forest was still ablaze with color.   When the wind blew through the branches, the leaves fell effortlessly, for the trees didn't fight the natural process of nature...they intuitively let go of what had flourished in the previous season in order to allow the silence of winter to bring them into stillness, which as many gardeners know is the most profound part of the life cycle.  Dormancy is crucial to the plant's survival in order to regrow each year, and while energy conservation during cold conditions is important, it's equally important during times of stress.
It's been a stressful year, but not all of it's been bad.  Writing projects and new yoga classes and working for a good friend have been wonderful ways to spend my time...and keep me busier than I've been in a decade.  So it's a blessing to move into silence where I've realized that no matter how hard I work, how much I try to invoke the gods of destiny to fulfill my long-held desires, until the timing is right, I'll have to wait.  And through the waiting, I've begun to see that my definition of rejection needs to be reframed into something I no longer need to swim against, but something I can flow into and out of with grace...on my way to a wider tributary which will eventually lead to an ocean of infinite possibilities.
When all's said and done, and the maples and oaks have long dropped their leaves, I love to marvel at how the innate structure of the trees is revealed, how the bare branches allow the glorious autumnal skies to illuminate their silhouettes in the setting sun.  Speechless as the enchantment of a November twilight fills my senses, I know that words could never describe the incredible beauty of nature effortlessly flowing through time, teaching me how to trust the cycles of life and the wonder of the unknown...mirroring the lessons of my life with a profound, silent beauty.