The Duality of Adoration and Despair

I am in grief, as I believe much of the human world is these days. I ache for the oppressed even as I try to understand the oppressors.

Many people I know seem to be grappling with this:

“How can I find joy in a world that contains so much suffering?” “How can I love life when cruelty thrives?”

“How can I love God when a devil lives on my shoulder?”

Photo by Visualsamit (Morguefile)

It seems too easy to feel outrage at the actions of others, be they physical or verbal, direct or indirect, and so my sadness and shame and confusion turns personal. It’s taken me a long time to understand that the concept of Original Sin is dealing with the fact that we as humans are so very capable of evil. It’s in our gene pool. By Evil, I mean we seem to thrive on beating down someone else, pushing their face in the dirt because we’re feeling brutal and angry, and it’s their fault. In these times in particular, many of us relish this anger, seek it out, wade in with fists clenched for battle! Conservatives and liberals alike. #Ownvoices. We are all human.

The news is scary, almost every second of it. And disheartening. Sometimes I feel like it is ripping my heart out of my body. And the worst for me is when I just don’t understand why people think the way they seem to think. I don’t want to listen to another diatribe filled with name-calling. I don’t want to be reminded how much people fall in love with rhetoric, fall in love with being part of an angry mob; I too feel that energy. I like marching with my causes!

Photo by GaborfromHungary (Morguefile)

Sometimes I think we humans are just in one big sports arena, championing our sides, pouring money into the MY TEAM concept of it all.

I know a lot of people are finding concrete projects, things to do, actions to take that make them feel like they are doing something to change the way the human world operates. We march, we speak out, we run for office, we collect books for homeless children, we feed the hungry, we sing to the sick. We show we care in whatever way we can.

I recently attended a talk by a minister at the Center for Spiritual Living near where I live who reminded us all about the power of Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese.” In this poem, Oliver says, “Tell me about despair, yours, and  I will tell you mine.” But her next line is, “Meanwhile, the world goes on. ” The poem ends with a series of “meanwhiles” describing the rich delights our world gives us to bring peace and a deep sense of belonging:

the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

at Silver Falls Park, OR

“The world goes on–appreciate it!” has become my latest mantra. It reminds me to notice the world in its glory, to let my anguish over politics and killings co-exist with my delight in the color of the leaves, the glories of a gorgeous fall day. To take what I am offered and exult. To adore the fact that I am human and alive at the same time that I know, in my heart, that our human behavior–my personal behavior!–is so terribly abusive to other life forms on this planet, even (especially, it sometimes seems) to our own.

 

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Still Connecting

I just turned 60, a big birthday, and one that has turned me introspective–even more than usual! Turns out, I’m quite proud of myself. Doing fine.

Usually, by this time in the course of a year, I have completely forgotten what word I started out with and have to do a panicked search through journals to remind myself–if I even think of it at all. But not this year.

Connecting: my word for 2018

Connect-the-dots Photo credit: whitney waller on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-SA

I’m still connecting, still trying to say yes to opportunities that encourage me to go deeper. And broader. Truer.

I’ve been working on my relationship to Truth. That’s probably not unusual in this era of misdirection, false facts and “truthiness.” It’s hard to know who to believe, what to believe or, if you do believe, how to respond.

But I’m not talking about that.

I’m working on my own truth, my acceptance and understanding of who I am and what I believe about myself and my place in the universe. My connection to the universe as ME. In January I didn’t have many strategies to develop this skill, but I have more now.

Some Tools

Take a class.  I took an online class on self-healing that gave me some great tools and exercises to shift my thinking away from negativity and into feeling good about myself, or at least a lot kinder about myself–and about others also. Maybe that’s just the way it works. In fact, one of the exercises I practiced is from http://thework.com/en. It helped me enormously to do this with a partner.

Find a hero. A lot of heroes. I watched that wonderful new documentary about Mr.  Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, that immediately made me want to binge watch every episode of his show ever made. He is my hero. It’s important to have heroes to inspire me to grow and deepen, yes, but also to keep me feeling positive about our world. It’s a kick to figure out how a person I interact with in my daily life can be–is!–my hero in one way or another. I had to get my phone’s screen replaced recently, and the man doing the work was the most positive, friendly, “yes I can!” person I’ve met in a long time. My hero.

Meditate. I’m a total newbie at this. I did okay on my own (starting with 5 minutes), but it has helped to have an app on my phone to show me the way. I use Headspace. It’s a little embarrassing to call it “meditation for dummies,” so I’ll just say it’s user-friendly. Meditation practice early in the day opens a channel within me, a connection to a creative flow. Who knew? Well, obviously lots and lots of meditators.

Pray. I asked a writer friend, Connie Connelly, how she dealt with the depression and doubt that besets most writers. My question inspired her to blog about her Spiritual Survival as a Writer. (I am the “Mary” she refers to). I’m not sure I’ve ever before made a practice of asking for help from God with making decisions. This concept was not exactly encouraged (or even mentioned) in my Unitarian upbringing. But exploring spirituality on my own was encouraged, and my relationship to God (Life Force, Creator, Spirit,  Universe) has deepened enormously as I’ve aged. Still, asking for help for myself through prayer is quite new to me. I’m a bit stunned at how much it’s resonating. Recently I stressed about a selection to read at a salon I participated in: Was what I wrote appropriate? Was it stupid? Did I need to edit it even more? Blah blah blah. So…I asked God about it. The response: “It’s just not that important, Mathilda.” I felt such relief at getting that answer! It allowed me to laugh, for one thing. Relaxing into the release from pressure made the entire reading experience so much more joyful for me. I tend to burden myself with the importance of everything I do, the choices I make, even the words I choose. With a God that can remind me to laugh at myself and lighten up, I feel blessed indeed.

How do you connect to the inner truth that is you? What tools should I explore?

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Life As We Know It

Photo on Visualhunt

I’ve been traveling again, this time to Alaska. We were only there for a week, so actually saw very little of this immense state, but heavens! What we did see knocked me sideways. We were given the miracle of fantastic weather for this first visit. I know it sounds ridiculous, but the beauty of the landscape was so intense, so picture-perfect, that I think I had trouble accepting it as real.  What with the very long daylight hours (although the sun “set,” it never got completely dark), I ended up gasping a bit too much for my comfort. Weird to think a person can hyperventilate at beauty.

At the top of the Tram in Girdwood.

From the air, the mountains look like waves tossed in a stormy sea.

Incredible amount of glaciers you can see from above

One of my sisters told me that whenever she visited Alaska, she always felt like someone had taken a doctored travel poster and pasted it onto the horizon. That’s the sense I got exactly: this can’t possibly be real.

Even the locals admit it’s rare to see Denali so clearly.

The lesson from Alaska: how rare our planet is. There’s a planet walk in Anchorage. You start in downtown at the sun. Each step you take represents a light second, so that a 5 minute walk means it takes 5 minutes for light from the sun to travel that far. It’s a very effective way to show relative distance and size between planets and sun in our solar system. The planets are imbedded in signs at the proper distance to the sun (and each other). The first four planets are clustered within about 7 blocks of the sun. And then Jupiter–the next one out, is 45 minutes away! I had no idea of the relative distance between planets. Needless to say, we didn’t have time to visit Jupiter, let alone the 5 1/2 hours would need for us to reach Pluto.

Here’s the sun. If you don’t know what it is, it looks like a very bizarre sculpture in downtown Anchorage.

The Anchorage Lightspeed Planet Walk. Photo credit: Kwong Yee Cheng on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA

I wish I had taken a picture of the sign where the marble-sized Earth was imbedded. I’m a sucker for signs anyway, but this one talked about the amazing miracle that Earth is, with its combination of solid core, gravitational magnetism (something like that), its oxygen and carbon and atmosphere and water. It was magic that this happened on this planet, which happens to be this far from the sun. Making it possible for “life as we know it” to occur here. They used those words on the sign.

It begs the question of “life as we don’t know it,” doesn’t it?

Visions of creatures I’ve seen in sci-fi movies scamper through my head, but most of those resemble life as we do know it, even if it’s just a blob from a putrid lagoon. Is it possible to imagine life as we don’t know it?

The planet walk underlined how very precious and unique our planet is.

We humans have not done well by it. I visited the Marine Life Center in Seward, where they worked hard to rescue otters, seals, fish, and birds from the Valdez oil spill (for one), and where they teach classes about our ocean and our human impact on it.

Created by students from litter collected from the ocean

One school project they have on display illustrates where a lot of our garbage ends up. Videos show how our plastics break down microscopically and show up in krill. Considering the food chain, that means plastics are present more and more in all animals. In us. We are poisoning the planet, yes, and also ourselves.

I have a cousin who looked at me oddly a while back when I said, “We humans are destroying the planet!”

“No, we aren’t,” he said. “The Earth will still be around. It’s not going anywhere for a long time. It won’t look like it does now, but the planet will still be here.”

That gave me pause. Good ol’ Earth. A hunk of rock and water with the magic of life as we know it miraculously developing over the eons. But our presence, our introduction of the non-natural into lifeforms, is changing what the magic of what life is on this planet. We have no idea what we’re creating. As species mutate to adapt to this new world of our making, life may look very different in the future. Even here on Earth.

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Still Writing

Dani Shapiro is my new best friend. She doesn’t know this, alas, but I love her. She’s the author of Still Writing, The Perils and Pleasure of a Creative Life. 

I first saw this book in another friend’s home, a writer who, like me, has struggled with her identity and energy around the need to continually fuel her endurance as creator. I picked it up and began: Beginnings. My friend Dani writes in short snippets of warm advice partnered with blunt realities about the need to suck it up as a writer. “It” meaning my frail little ego who panders to the inner critic’s rolling eyes. “It” meaning every single aspect of life that threatens to–or does–derail me. She shares her heart and her history with me. She is vulnerable on the page.

I hated to put it down. I went home and immediately ordered myself and two other writer friends copies of the book. And then…I didn’t pick it up again. Until the other day when, because one of those friends kept telling me “thank you thank you THANK you for that book,” I re-opened it. And remembered.

We all need mentors. We need friends. We need someone we trust to tell us we’ll be okay, that maybe we’re not as alone as we sometimes feel. To guide us on a path we know exists, but that we sometimes forget to follow. She reminds me that the purpose of writing is not to get published, so please stop judging myself or my writing on that. The question is, always, am I writing? Is the act of writing feeding my soul?

Dani makes me think and feel and love myself more tenderly as a writer and as a human being on this planet.

So, that’s my gift to you today: I’m giving you Dani.

Please tell me how you ground and stay stable (ish) in the world you’ve found for yourself.

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Circling in

We learn circling in preschool. “Hold hands. Form a circle.” Connect.

The practice is age-old

 

International

Children play in the newly established Sosmaqala Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) Camp in northern Afghanistan. The camp is comprised of recently returned Afghans following many years as refugees in neighbouring Iran.
30/Aug/2009. Sar-e-Pul, Afghanistan. UN Photo/Eric Kanalstein. www.un.org/av/photo/

 

and  Iconic

 

It’s not an exclusively human practice, but it’s part of what makes us human.

Pioneers circled up wagons for safety as they crossed the plains. King Arthur’s Round Table supposedly kept everyone on an equal footing in Camelot. We circle around a camp fire to sing and laugh and roast marshmallows.

No wonder I’m obsessed with circles.

Even Fairy Circles!

 

I don’t belong to a quilting or sewing circle, but my threshold choir sings in a circle at rehearsals and then we form small circles around a chair or a bedside when we offer our songs to someone in need.

A staircase spirals up in circles in a dizzying recreation of the ancient form of a nautilus: the ammonite

Planets are circles, though they look like stars to me, if I see them at all. The moon is a circle–and we see it as such, wait for it, ooh at it, at least once a month.

Symbolically and literally, when we circle in, we get closer and closer to the center. To the inevitable moment of contact. Maybe that is contact with other people; maybe it is contact with the truth.

I used to belong to a Full Moon Circle, where we women met on the full moon and passed around a speaking stick to share thoughts about one topic or another. Now I belong to a different circle, similar in many ways: we are all women; we do not respond to what others say beyond the leader’s “thank you for sharing” ; it feels sacred.

The difference is that in this circle we communicate via the phone–there are no visuals, no way to assess how our words are received. It feels daring to express myself into this void of silence, into this universe of just me. Both scary and bizarrely empowering. It’s a challenge to find the faith that my words matter, that they find resonance somewhere with someone. What I’m learning is that, truly, the only one whose resonating acknowledgment matters is me. The ultimate circling in.

It’s the same faith I need to post on this blog. Good practice for me, I agree.

Circles complete us. They are whole, entire, unbroken by definition. As I write these words and struggle to find ways to express my appreciation for them, my fascination deepens. Do you have circles in your life? Do you seek them out? What do they look like?

 

 

Photo credits in order of appearance:

:Beaton Institute Archives on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND

United Nations Photo on VisualHunt.comCC BY-NC-ND

bunkosquad / photo on flickr

Schub@ on Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Dusty J on Visual Hunt / CC BY

 


 

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Economics of Abuse: an issue of morality

If I benefit from abuse, am I complicit with it?

In early April I spent a week with my husband visiting the deep south for the first time. We went to Savannah, GA and Charleston, SC. During our week away, I got a better sense of southern history, southern mindset, southern pride, southern love of land. The early economics of our country came alive for me, so that I finally grasp some of the nuances of the early relationship between the states, between the wealthy and the poor, the free and the enslaved.

A diagram on how to pack a slave ship.

This visual, appalling as it is, does not affect me as much as this one (I can’t seem to access it except as a link), which I saw in one of the museums we went to, probably the (excellent) Slave Market Museum in Charleston.

Although the visuals hit my heart hard, the knowledge that our country’s past treatment of slaves as product to pack up and pack out, to “grow,” to distribute, to trade isn’t news to me. I doubt it’s news to anyone.

I’m kind of embarrassed to admit it, but I learned much of my early American history through the musical 1776. Though silly, romanticized and slanted, there is one song in there that powerfully addresses the North’s holier-than-thou attitude to our country’s history with buying and selling humans as property and economic assets. The “Triangle Trade” brought wealth to the North whose shipping industry built and financed slave ships. Slaves worked the cotton that fed New England mills as well as European markets. Slaves brought knowledge on how to grow rice, which was the first big crop grown in the wetlands of Savannah and Charleston. It was so successful it was called “Carolina Gold.”

The landscape of these coastal regions is littered with the remnants of the rice plantations, many of which have now been transformed into wildlife refuges.

Panorama of the old rice fields at Magnolia Gardens outside of Charleston. Now a Nature Reserve.

But even though none of this is news, even though I wasn’t surprised to learn some more of the details of this region’s relationship to slavery, I have been jarred right out of my white liberal complacency. If I had lived back then, what would I have done?

What do I do now? Because I know darn well I benefit from abuse.

Our markets treat animals as product that is “grown” as opposed to “raised.”  I buy the beef and chicken I can afford. I don’t ask too many questions about how the animals are treated; I don’t want to know because I’m an omnivore and I like my meat.

I drive a car that uses gasoline, benefit from factories that spew gunk into our air, buy plastics and products that are packaged in plastic (I could probably fill a dump with the amount of pens I go through alone) that leach into our environment.

Photo credit: The U.S. National Archives on VisualHunt / No known copyright restrictions
View of the Ewen Breaker of the Pa. Coal Co. The dust was so dense at times as to obscure the view, January 1911

I don’t ask how the workers who make the cheap shoes or t-shirts I order over the internet are treated either.

By marissaorton – Sweatshop project           Uploaded by Gary Dee

That’s not quite true. Sometimes I do ask. And then I vow I will only buy American made shoes or clothing, because (I tell myself) we have laws and watchdogs that protect our workers. Or clothing that is labeled “Fair Trade.” And only natural fibers! I vow I will only buy pasture-raised beef, free-range poultry.

But then, I forget. I’m in a rush, or the sale is too good to pass up, or the shoes are just too cute, or the fleece too cosy and practical, or I don’t have the kind of money to afford the lifestyle of the socially responsible. Sometimes I just get tired of “being good”–it costs more, it takes more time, no one else is doing it. Why should I bother? What difference will I make?

I HATE it when I get like that. But I do. Because…I’m human too. And as I struggled to even know what I want to say here, it’s this: I just want to do my best.

I need to be really careful about the temptations to feel “holier than thou.” I don’t know what my thoughts would have been, nor my actions, had I lived as a middle class white person in the South of Antebellum US. I don’t know what I would have done in Nazi Germany either. Or if I were a police officer and I felt scared and threatened and I had a gun.

So I’m trying not to judge. I’m trying to be more aware of the choices I make automatically–and then to see if there’s something I can do that’s better. Some way to reduce, not just my white guilt, but my human guilt.

I’m really curious how others balance/make peace with this huge issue of benefitting from the evils of our standard of living.

 

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Allowing Inspiration In

“Windows: portals or barriers? Windows and waiting go together. A window is a stage, waiting for what will happen next.” –Henkes

I was at my annual inspiration treat last weekend– the Western Washington University Children’s Literature Conference  –where I heard Kevin Henkes say the above. He added, “Waiting to a kid is a big deal. They do it all the time; they hear the word ‘wait’ as often as they hear ‘yes’ and ‘no.'”

There’s no doubt that inspiration can come to me at my desk in my office, staring out the window for hours, but let’s face it, inspiration will knock me out more often if I put myself in its way. Change the view outside my window.

As usual, the day at this conference was filled with connections with old writer buddies and enriching keynotes by authors and author/illustrators who fill me with awe. It’s not simply the fact that these people have the courage and ability to write and paint and survive in the challenging world of professional creativity. Each of these speakers shared themselves in a way that made me yearn to be their friend. They were (and are): Pam Muñoz Ryan, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Sophie Blackall and Kevin Henkes.

Henkes, Blackall, Ryan and Sáenz at the Q&A (complete with tiaras)

My quotations are really paraphrases hastily scrawled in my notebook at the time, but they remain words that enrich, comfort, intrigue or inspire me.

“The book I start writing may end up a tiny paragraph in the novel that demands to be written.” –Ryan

“The only thing older than original sin is original innocence.” –Sáenz

“We only see the front of anything. Maybe there’s something completely different on the other side.” –Blackall

At lunch time,  I took a short walk around campus and photographed some of the sculptures in one of the squares. This one appealed because Sáenz also spoke of how we need to lay down our burdens. And I do–I want to!–but take a closer look at this statue (at another angle):

I can’t tell if the woman carrying this huge rock is smiling or crying. Maybe she’s doing both. I too have such mixed emotions about the burdens I carry.

Sáenz again:

“The world needs kindness. It’s a difficult trait to nurture in yourself. You will never be happy if you don’t learn to forgive others…

You have to learn to stand in the presence of someone who is hurt and know you are the cause. The courage to do that is called love.” 

Wow, huh? Who is this guy? Turns out he used to be a priest. If you get the chance to hear him speak, take it. But all these speakers resonated with me. Take Ryan:

“We write despair. We need to offer hope as well. Hope is not the answer or the saving. Hope is uncertainties with openings, the unknown largeness that surrounds despair.”

I’ll repeat that:

Hope is uncertainties with openings, the unknown largeness that surrounds despair.

I can’t say I know exactly what that means, but it makes me think, and beyond that, it makes me feel…expansive. And that’s definitely what hope does.

Back to the sculptures: what if our burdens become our resting places? Is this good? Is it bad? Or is it just true? Sáenz also said “Truth is something that says something important about the human condition.”

At any rate, I’m thinking. I’m thinking and thinking and thinking. And hoping. And finding inspiration for a character arc for my dragon. It was a good weekend.

“There is darkness in the world. But we are the light. Young people are the light. We are meant to be light for one another.” –Sáenz

Will you treat yourself to inspiration today? Where will you find it? Where will it take you? When the view outside the window shifts, my sense of reality–my truth–shifts with it.

 

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The Black Wings of Darkness

Photo credit: DonMiller_ToGo on Visual hunt / CC BYPhoto on Visualhunt

I came across these lines, randomly scrawled in one of my notebooks:

“I miss the black wings of darkness. There are things I can’t see in the light.” –Neruda*

I’m always tempted by the paradoxical. This one resonates with truth for me, and I wanted to explore why.

Here on the Northwest coast of the US winters are grim and glum and filled with what seems like constant rain. Wet snow dumps on our mountains. We adore the beauty and the promise of water for our dry summer months, but in the moment I can shudder with fear.  Mudslides can swamp towns, eat them whole. Though brave souls try, no one can really control avalanches. This dark season too many young men have been lost in crevasses, not yet found.

It is a dark time.

And the darkness doesn’t stop here in Bellingham. It reaches across the country in what has become a cliché of political disfunction, and across the planet too. I am writing a novel about the need to kill off all of humanity in order to save Mother Earth. This is not cheering me up, in case anyone wondered. And yet that is what I am working on. Am I a masochist? Sometimes I think I must be. And yet, paradoxically, I think I’m doing this in order to heal.

As I write about our necessary death as a species, I immerse myself in the anguish of love for all the wonder we humans represent. (I was going to say “bring to this planet” but I’m not ready to say that yet). We are truly remarkable at surviving, for creating strengths out of our many weaknesses as organisms. Pathetic excuses, really, for a species. Can’t fly. Hah! We figured it out. Can’t find enough food to populate the planet with our species: we figured that out also. Can’t spin webs, so we learned to spin fibers, weave them together–weave other things too: metals, atoms. Can’t do echolocation. We’ve got radar and sonar and the internet. In addition, there’s our ability to paint and dance and create symphonies of sound. And to tell stories.

So surely there is hope that we’ll figure out how to be a good species for our planet. And it cheers me up, this little ray of sunshine that I seem to only find in my pit of dark despair.

In times of darkness, we must look sideways–or maybe deeply–in order to see beauty. To see the strength of  will burgeoning deep in the soil, gathering power for the uplift of spring.

I’ll leave it there. I want to know what others think of this quotation–if it speaks to anyone besides me.

*I credited Pablo Neruda, but have come up empty on my searches for confirmation.

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Connecting…the year of 2018 begins

This year, I’m going to connect. CONNECT.

How wonderfully symbolic the inside of this thatched roof is: the core of who I am, broken into parts and elements, sensations and drives and people I know: connected, connected, connected.

I think of people of course; relationship is the most important thing in the world to me. But I also think of magnets and snaps and shoelaces. I think of connecting the dots, and God and Adam’s fingers almost connecting on the Cystine Chapel ceiling.

I think of colors swirling into sameness yet keeping their purity somehow intact.

Morguefile Photo by Tammcd

I think of the importance of words to connect our thoughts and feelings with others in sound. In song. In writing. And

Connection: Obviously A Natural Motif

I think of the sphere of all that I am, mindbodyspiritbraintoesheartliverbreathvoice in connection. A natural wonder, but sometimes it doesn’t COME so naturally, at least to me. I have to build bridges. Build my links.

Sometimes the connections aren’t terribly sturdy.

In August of last year I started to explore how to strengthen and oil the links to what I hold most dear.

Adding STRUCTURE to my life has helped me so much lately. Not only do I have my bullet journal, but I’ve added accountability with friends to help keep me focused and (a more important side effect) keep me connected to those friends.

An example of a daily accountability text.

With one friend, I share daily accountability texts of what my goals are. The next day we state if we made those goals and if not, why not. No judgement claimed or implied or looked for, but even this minor publication of what I’ve said I want to do can teach us both a lot about ourselves. And though extremely brief and often quite cryptic, these shared goals provide an intimate connection between the two of us.

With another friend, a writing buddy, we check in weekly on our progress with our more long-term goals. This keeps our friendship active, and it helps me honor my commitment to writing.

The accountability  strategies help me with will power, help me keep the promises I make to myself about what I want to do with my time. I’m my own boss, and for someone who craves earning the approval of others, that’s not an easy situation to negotiate. I latch onto these strategies with gratitude.

Other kinds of connection require links that are not as easy to grease and strengthen. Or if it is easy, I haven’t figured out yet how to do it. For instance,the connection of my soul to the outside world requires an open heart, open and vulnerable and willing to expose itself. But I’m scared. How do I strengthen a courageous heart?

I keep hoping I’ll  get so old I won’t care what others think about me. When will that fairy come around with its magic wand and instill trust in me? That’s the link I need most to work on, now I think of it: the trust that others enjoy, admire, and/or at least love me for who I am. And if they don’t, I don’t need to give a hoot because, hey, they broke my trust.

Trust will be my link to inner peace. I’m going to connect to trust and trust in connection.

2018–bring it on!

Happy New Year, everyone!

 

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Roma and beyond

I’ve been back home, recovering from my adventures for over a month, and busy trying to catch up with the life I left behind for two weeks, but I want to say at least a few words about the Eternal City. Annie and I spent 5 days in chaotic, ancient and modern Rome. We were celebrating our trek, recovering from its demands on our bodies, and yet … increasing my sense of overwhelm.  People fatigue. Culture fatigue. Big city fatigue.

Because Rome is full:

The modern, the natural, the ancient and iconic, and the human: all smooshed together in Rome.

The buildings each scream of history and baroque character. Some have paintings framed on their outsides, or statues, or columns. Civic buildings get shouldered aside by church after church after church. It’s brick; it’s marble; it’s old cement; it’s stone. Everything is tightly packed on roads that are often cobbled, almost always parked up, and yet streams of tourists and crazy cars still compete for the remaining space left for moving.

Like most of the tourists we talked to, we stayed in an AirBnB apartment.  My exhaustion from the trek caught up with me in, and we’d come home in the afternoons after a visit to a museum or something, and I immediately crashed for hours. Despite the extra sleep, I got cranky. The noise in in the city after the quiet of our days trekking seemed designed to annoy me. Our apartment was clearly not meant to be lived in: the kitchen was in a cupboard–not even a large closet– and had no oven and no microwave, and very few pots and plates. No cutting board, no broom or dustpan. And I couldn’t get the funky coffee pot to work. And STILL my phone wasn’t functioning right. Gah!

But of course we managed totally fine. It was Rome! And it was wonderfully convenient.

Our apartment was a block or two from the Pantheon: the oldest structure on the planet continuously in use since it opened under Hadrian’s rule around 126 AD, first as a Roman temple to all the gods, then later as a Christian Church, especially honoring martyrs.

You can see much better shots of the exterior on the internet, but this is the entrance.

The dome, made from unreinforced concrete is open to the sky, with the final pillar thereby coming from the sun directly into the temple and infusing it with natural light. So cool, so powerful. Did you know that cement was an ancient invention? I had no idea! They used to crush marble (you know, those boring greek things?) to make it. I found myself aching to see the Pantheon as it was when it celebrated all the gods. The immense statue to Jupiter by the alter has been replaced with a beautiful Mary.

 

Well, I’m a sucker for statues, and they are everywhere in Rome. You don’t trip over them, because they’re mostly enormous,

a remnant from the Colossus of Rome (I think), originally located in the Forum. To give a sense of the size, the  pillar there is supporting a high ceiling. This is in the Capitoline Museum–go there!

often on pedestals,

frequently spouting water in fountains,

The four-rivers Fountain

The Trevi Fountain–never to be seen except swarmed with crowds (unless they’ve turned it off for cleaning)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Or, like my favorite here, holding up an obelisk.

We walked a lot in Rome, regularly using my GPS phone feature to move down tiny streets called things like “Donkey Alley.”  We bought something called the “Roma Pass” which gave us 3 days of free subway and bus rides and a MUCH shorter line into the Coliseum (we got one free museum and chose that one)–and that alone was worth the cost! The trick about the bus and subway is that it’s very hard to find stops, so you end up doing a lot of walking anyway. Let’s just say I had no problem getting my 10,000 steps.

The seven hills of Rome are more famous than obvious, but Palatine and Capitoline Hills surround the Forum. These are not big hills, but small steep things with many steps or sheer cliffs that you come across while walking around and think, “oooh, I bet this is famous. I bet important things happened here!” But since everything is famous and reeking of history in Rome, I got a bit inured to the shock of that thrill. Still, the Coliseum and Forum are simply amazing, and kind of smack dab in the middle of everything. As is fitting, of course.

They’ve fairly recently rebuilt one side of the Coliseum to show its full height, and it truly is enormous. Built to appease the population. I think the idea was, if you provide free entertainment (and there were free seats), people won’t mind going hungry so much. Interesting.

Inside the sports arena of the Coliseum, you see the huge underpinning of the wooden floor, which they originally covered with several inches of sand for the combats: free men (gladiators) against slaves, slaves against wild beasts. I think it was one way slaves could win their freedom, but the odds were not good.

Everywhere you go in Rome, excavation sites abound–it’s why their subway system is so abysmal. You probably can’t dig a garden in Rome because you hit something ancient. And its not just Roman ruins we’re talking; it’s PRE-roman. Turns out every civilization builds on top of the one before, both literally and symbolically.

Although we’d planned to go to Pompeii for a day, we had trouble finding the bus stop and missed it. Instead, we traded it in for a guided tour to Tivoli, not far outside Rome, where we visited Hadrian’s Villa, in ruins.

A Roman bath at Hadrian’s villa. There were several set-ups, from his own private baths to those designed for the nobles, down to the slave baths. Each set-up had three bathing areas: hot, tepid, and cold –you can tell this is a hot bath, because it’s round, designed as the most efficient way to keep in the heat.

Couldn’t resist including the toilet!

Hadrian’s private quarters, cut off by a moat!

So, Hadrian’s love of his life was a young man who died tragically in Egypt (I think he drowned). Hadrian had this large pond built in tribute to the (I suspect) kid. Hadrian was a big designer, which evidently drove his architects wild.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But Tivoli is also famous for Villa d’Este, built in the 16th century by the cardinal of that name. The Villa is pooh-poohed simply because the gardens he created by diverting the river Aniene (we walked by this river on our trek!) are simply phenomenal. Here I’ll quote from Wiki: “The fame and glory of the Villa d’Este was above all established by its extraordinary system of fountains; fifty-one fountains and nymphaeums, 398 spouts, 364 water jets, 64 waterfalls, and 220 basins, fed by 875 meters of canals, channels and cascades, and all working entirely by the force of gravity, without pumps.”

This is the first fountain you see, a small thing, but beautifully balanced with the surrounding view.

And then you walk down… and around… and each step brings you to something different and maybe kind of odd.

Peek-a-boo

Or truly fanciful…

Or just simply overwhelmingly spectacular.

Wow, huh?

Tivoli was  a wonderful side trip to our days in Rome. And we also got this final blessing from the man himself at the entrance to the Villa d’Este.

And now my adventure is over. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to tag along on my sister’s plans when her friend couldn’t make it. It was glorious to experience Italy through walking (though it was limited to Lazio) and trusting to a pilgrimage trail.

I learned a lot about my body and my relationship to it, to that aspect of myself. I am so, so grateful to my feet and my legs and my hands and my arms–all of me that was put to the test on this voyage. And to my sister! Who forgave my fatigue and occasionally snarky responses to it and to her. Having the time to really experience Rome thoroughly was a great luxury.

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