A Year

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Magnolia blossoms from my yard.

It has been a year now since Alexandra and I finished our grand adventure/pilgrimage on the Camino in Spain. And what a year it has been. You know how certain years stand out in your mind, I have a few: 1994 when I moved to my first house, 1999, the year both girls learned the Bach Double Concerto back to back, 2006, the year Caroline was 16—need I say more, 2013, the year I moved to the farm. A lot of other years are just a blur with nothing note worthy.

My 50th year will go down as a year I won’t forget. Just days after my birthday I headed to Spain and walked 12 miles everyday for 5 weeks until I reached Santiago de Compestela. Each day was a joy and a gift to walk where millions of pilgrims walked with devotion along with great saints like Theresa of Avila and Francis of Assisi. We all walked along the Milky Way path for Compestela means way of the stars.

My prayer everyday on the path was to be strengthened, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. I don’t think the people in my life would call me weak but there were life lessons I had not faced and was afraid of.  I wanted to come back a stronger person so I could start the next half of my life ready to take on new challenges and make it as wonderful as the first half. My daughters are grown now and I will forever miss those wonderful years of having them home but I want to keep growing and be productive.

There is a saying on the Camino, “the Camino starts when you get home”. I wasn’t home six weeks when I needed to call on the strength I had so prayed for. In fact I was faced with the very situations that frightened me most—-confrontation and death. First I had to confront a family member who was using the family for their own gain. Somehow I became the front line to protect the family. I’ve never confronted anyone in my life but there I was and the family started calling me Ninja Nancy (my first name). The betrayal went on for months and finally ended badly with the vengeful selling of the family farm in Minnesota. My efforts didn’t change the outcome but I walked away knowing I had fought hard, done my best and there was nothing more I could do. Now there are relationships that are forever lost but many others were strengthened and the bonds even tighter. I still don’t like confrontation but I now know I can do it when needed.

While I was in Spain my father was diagnosed with skin cancer with no available treatment options for his age. We thought he had a couple of years but by January he was getting sicker quickly and so my home turned into a hospice. My father’s mind was so sharp and his will to die consciously so strong that it was my deepest desire to keep him home with his family. With the help of hospice nurses and my brother, who stayed with me a month, I was able to keep him home until he died. Never in my life did I think I had the emotional or physical strength to face such a difficult task. The last few days were incredibly hard but I was able to pull from the strength that I had ask for. I faced what was a truly frightening task for me.

Loss and betrayal, two of the great themes of the human condition. I’ve had both in my life before but never like this past year. I’ve learned to be present with strong emotions in myself and in others. In the past I would run at the least bit of unhappiness. But is ok that happiness isn’t in every experience, sometimes the courage to face the loss without losing oneself is all the spirit and soul wants.

Sir Walter Scott

Authors Card Game

Two years ago today, what started out as an innocent cup of coffee with a friend in my library ended up a new epic quest. Toward the end of our visit she mentioned a dream she had the night before about Sir Walter Scott. Although we had both heard of him, all I knew was he had written Ivanhoe, thanks to my card game “Authors” I played as a child. I did vaguely remembered the shrine to him in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Well when the next step in your life is trying to get your attention you start noticing it everywhere. We did a little research into Sir Walter’s life and put a few more pieces together but then the epic quest began. First a copy of Rob Roy unexpectedly showed up in a waiting room. Then I was researching Thomas Becket and there he was referenced in Ivanhoe. I was doing some final cleaning in the basement and a beautiful old copy of Lady of the Lake was in a small stack of books. The Metropolitan Opera was doing an HD broadcast of Lady of the Lake—not performed in decades. A brochure about his home Abbotsford was uncovered in a box of magazines untouched in 14 years.

I was sitting on a wall at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain and my friends and I were discussing the author Washington Irving of Sleepy Hollow fame, who lived on the grounds of the Alhambra. So we googled him and Sir Walter showed up again. He was the great mentor of Washington Irving. Later I was going through my father’s office and there were beautiful old copies of Scott’s Poems and Irving’s Alhambra right next to each other on the self.

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So what is going on with Sir Walter? Let’s look a little closer at his life and see why he is still so important. Born in 1771, he survived polio as a toddler which left him with a limp and he used a cane the rest of his life. He was the first author to have international fame in his lifetime and is credited with inventing the historical novel. He used the great storytelling tradition of the Highlands to help bring back the Scottish identity that had been cruelly crushed by the British. His Waverly novels were very popular in Europe and America starting Romanticism and influencing American writers such as Thoreau and Twain. He was also a poet and playwright and his works started the great Romantic era of opera with 25 operas based on his works including Lucia di Lammermoor, one of my favorites.

For me the big “aha moment” came when I heard the most important but little know fact about our friend Sir Walter, he translated the Hermetica, the Great Work from Thoth, the Egyptian god of writing and magic.  Like so many great authors and scientists, Sir Walter was connected to the deep, underground stream of ancient knowledge that is unknown to the general public. Sir Walter was tapped into the “great wisdom of the ages”. No wonder he was such a game changer.

I’m definitely not done with Sir Walter and we will be discussing him again in more detail. I just wanted you to start looking around and see the world beneath superficial life, there are enormous treasures and lots of fun adventures there. Now I’d like to hear if you’ve had Sir Walter show up in your life or some other similar encounter with a great author.

–——Today on the 2nd anniversary of the dream, my friend just happens to be at Abbotsford visiting Sir Walter’s library. Hmmmmm, the plot thickens.

 

South Carolina

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I’m always up for a good travel adventure and I’ve had quite a few these last few years. I love jetting off to some place exotic or exploring new territory but sometimes the body and soul just needs a rest. This last week I just needed a rest. I’ve had a hard year so far and I needed to get away and not have to think about logistics. This year is Caroline’s turn to backpack with friends in Europe so Alexandra and I headed down to South Carolina for a few days.

I’m a beachaholic and believe the beach is the best vacation destination with children. I make sure I breathe the ocean air and get my feet in the sand at least once a year—somehow, somewhere. Through the years my beach of choice has been in South Carolina. I love the gray starkness of just water, sand and sky, the flat sand for long walks and the gentle warm waves. The early years with children I would go to Charleston to minimize my time in the car, six hours door to door, interstate the whole way. The last nine years I have gone to Hilton Head Island near Savannah, Georgia, an hour farther but worth the extra time. It is easy to get to, no reservations required, just throw a few things in the car and go. I don’t even need directions for I know the way by heart.

So over the mountains of western North Carolina down the plateau to Columbia where we stop at the mall for a nice break and then on to a friend’s condo in a picture perfect neighborhood. The condo is small and sparsely furnished but just what is needed to relax. I get the furniture situated on the screened porch, start the coffee maker and commence reading. I always take a large stack of books and magazines to make sure any reading whim is covered, plus there is always a trip to the bookstore to fill in any missing gaps. Everyday I move my reading venue to the beach where the salty wind and the stark landscape of the ocean make me feel most myself. I’m like a crystal being cleansed in the salt water, removing all the old energy and being revitalizing to shine again.

This corner of our precious planet is like a fairyland of enchantment. Everywhere you look are Live Oaks dripping with Spanish moss, the sun shines through the moss to make soft filtered light. If I had flown round the world I wouldn’t find any place more exotic and unique. The beautiful architecture  of the Charleston and Savannah low-country houses adds to the old-world charm. The sailboats in the marina make their characteristic clang in the breeze, the perfect windchime of the beach.

Live Oaks

Instead of seeking out new experiences I look forward to the same routine, same restaurants, same stores, the same walks. It doesn’t change and it is exactly how I like it. I need the old familiar, like reading my most beloved book, or wearing my most comfortable clothes. I need the gentleness of knowing what is next so that I can deeply relax and heal.

This year’s trip is bittersweet, Alexandra and I had a last few days together before she begins her new life in California. She has graduated college now and has her dream job in Santa Monica. There won’t be time to vacation in South Carolina with her mother anymore and so we have said good-bye to our happy routine. I will still go to my little borrowed sanctuary in Hilton Head every year but next year I will learn a new beach and a new routine in California and enjoy the healing in that corner of the world.

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Wildflowers

This is a guest post by my friend Valarie Budayr at http://www.jumpintoabook.com and http://www.audreypress.com , author of A Year in the Secret Garden The Fox Diaries and The Ultimate Guide to Charlie and the Chocolate Factor.  Last week we took a hike together and I wanted to share with you our wildflower pilgrimage close to home.

We took a little adventure a couple of days ago and discovered a Secret Garden right in the middle of the forest. We were hiking in the Smoky Mountains, everyone around here knows that the wildflowers bloom over a few weeks and many of us get out to see the forest and mountain sides bloom out in color.

We took a side path and walked ourselves into an ancient moss covered forest. Surrounded completely by mountains we walked deep into the enclosed valley to discover the most enchanted vision I’ve ever seen in nature.

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The forest floor was completely covered in blooming phlox, may apples and another little tiny white flower I don’t know the name of. Moss one inch thick covered fallen trees and branches as well as the trunks of living trees.

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We were all alone here in this ancient wood. The only sounds were that of a water fall off in the distance, the cacophony of birds and the buzzing of bees.

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One of the most important things missing from these photos is the smell. I’ve never smelled anything as this blooming forest. It made us heady with delight. We spent over an hour in this forest soaking it all in. Soon other wildflower enthusiasts joined us and it was nice to meet people who shared in this moment of Secret Garden bliss.

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I learned a big lesson on this hike, that a Secret Garden doesn’t have to be behind a wall locked away with a key but can be found in our daily wanderings.

This week I challenge you to find a secret garden near you. It might be behind a wall, it might be under a big tree, it might be in the forest near your home, or behind a log that’s drifted in from the ocean. Wherever it is, go and find it! Cherish those hidden moments in nature’s Secret Gardens!

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Lagom

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It has been almost a year since I headed down the long path of the Camino with one change of clothes for five weeks. There was something very liberating about just that one extra pair of pants and one shirt, no choices to be made, always appropriate for the occasion. My life was simple, just what I needed to walk to the next town, not too much in my pack. Lagom.

Lagom is a Swedish word that means enough, just the right amount, not too much, not too little, moderation. We don’t have an English word that covers that concept so completely. My father used a Latin phrase that was similar “nihil nimus” or nothing too much.

Since then I have chosen a much more pared down life. Although I still live in the land of “way too much”, within that context I keep things lagom. I have more than one change of clothes but definitely less than I use to. Just what I need, not too much.

This week I was reading a book called Over Dressed The Shockingly High Cost Of Cheap Fashion. I had it on my list for a couple of years and finally found a used copy. In this book Elizabeth Cline tells us the story of where and how and why our clothing got so cheap and what that is doing to our environment, our society and our lives. Clothing is now so inexpensive that people buy new clothes constantly, always looking for the next new trend. There is nothing lagom about most people’s closets or teenager’s bedroom floors. Caroline calls it her “floorobe”, just pick up something semi-clean off the floor and your ready to go.

The path up the spiritual mountain is sometimes smooth, sometime rocky and often steep. If you try to carry everything physical, mental or emotional you won’t make it very far. Walking a spiritual path requires that we lay things down that we don’t need or don’t serve. So this spring see what physical burdens you can leave behind so that you can walk more lightly on the Earth. Remember if you accumulate more physical stuff than you will have to carry that with you. Embrace the new word lagom as part of your vocabulary and life and see if that doesn’t put more spring in your step.

***Hamilton says that lagom doesn’t apply to books and that you can never have enough.

Other books to help lighten your load:

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have in Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy by James A. Roberts

Living in the Land of Enough by Courtney Carver

New Slow City: Living Simply in the World’s Fastest City by William Powers

Laura

Laura

Looking back I can see that my desire to take pilgrimages started very young. Every year my family would take a big vacation, usually heading west or north from Tennessee. Of course it was the 1970’s which meant you drove, no matter what the distance was. My father would plan stops along the way to art museums, parks and historic sights. Two different summers we went to see the homes of my favorite childhood author Laura Ingalls Wilder. We went to DeSmitt, South Dakota to the little museum and house reproduction. We went to Mansfield, Missouri to the home where Laura wrote all her books. Neither of these places were impressive or popular but they meant everything to me, I LOVED the Little House books and read them constantly.

When I was very young my father would read out loud Little House in the Big Woods, then we progress through the whole series. When I could read them on my own I read all eight books every year for eight years. I also loved to read other books like Heidi, and Anne of Green Gables but my heart belonged to Laura. I loved these stories of gentle heroines living simple lives and their love of nature.

The Little House books were almost a way of life for my family. We knew all the stories and continued to read them aloud on Friday nights by a roaring fire. I would pretend I was living back in time like Laura. I wanted a rag doll, a tin cup and my hair in braids. I still desire a very simple life close to nature.

When I was 21 I badly broke an arm and had to have surgery. My parents drove through the night to be with me. Too sick to do anything my father sat by my bed and read me “Laura”, the words spoken by his voice were so comforting to me when I was in so much pain.

This winter my father was dying, he couldn’t go home so he stayed on with me and we enjoyed a constant flow of family and friends, bouquets of flowers and roaring fires. My sister came to visit bringing her well loved copy of Little Town on the Prairie, a gift from my parents in 1968. The copy was threadbare from love. So we sat by the fire doing the most cherished act of our childhood, reading Laura. These stories so beautifully written, brought comfort to all of us. My sister, mother and aunt read many an hour when my father was too sick to do anything else.

These books are my family’s sacred texts, the language and descriptions of a beautiful time in American history. But more than that they are stories of courage, love, gentleness, hard work, fortitude and cooperation, all the things my family holds dear. These are the sacred stories of our land and our people.

As my family walked beside my father to the edge of life, we cherished our moments together and our shared history of his 92 years. Early in the morning on March 15th we waved good by and wished him well on his next journey. He is greatly missed.

Laundry

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Ice Storm Octavia

I can’t say I live for housework but I like the results so I make sure my house stays tidy. Since the girls are on their own now my housework has gone way down – they never helped much anyway. One particular place my work load has lessened is the laundry. Alexandra loved changing clothes and her weekly wash equaled all the rest of ours combined.

The last few years I have found laundry to be my favorite chore. When life gets chaotic and there is a lot of stress, doing laundry becomes a mediation. I can only fold or hang one thing at a time and those warm clean piles of sorted clothes makes me feel that there is some order in my life.

Everyday this winter I have watched my father’s health decline and each day I’m not sure what I’m facing. So sometimes I take refuge in bringing order to one corner of my life that I can control. Those neatly hung shirts and pants are something that makes me feel ready for whatever life throws at me that day.

When I’ve been on a big pilgrimage, the first few days of reentry can be tough. I miss the excitement of the adventure and jet lag has set in. I usual find myself wandering the aisles of the grocery store in a stupor wondering how I could be on a different continent the day before and pushing a cart in such a familiar place the next. After each trip I come back to the laundry, the mundane activity that brings order back from chaos and makes everyday life grounded again.

This last week winter storm Octavia took me back in time a hundred and fifty years to when my home was young. For two days I kept warm by the fire and read by a kerosene lamp. Those few days without modern conveniences reminded me how grateful that I don’t have to wash clothes in a big pot over a fire in the yard or hang out each garment by hand. A few days later my washer and dryer were humming away making quick work of a formally arduous task.

Over the last few years I come back to one of the my favorite books, After the Ecstasy, Then the Laundry by Jack Kornfield. Each time I read this book I get a deeper understanding of what it means to lead a spiritual life. We love those times on the mountain top but we can’t stay there, we have to come down to the valley and take care of the laundry. We have to take our experiences and use them enhance our daily lives. We have to take the highs of the mystical, the sorrows of the world and mix them with ordinary life and make them all equal, all part of being human.

After the Ecstasy, The Laundry  by Jack Kornfield

Hand Wash Cold:  Care instructions for an Ordinary Life   by Karen Maezen Miller