StarGrief: What it means to lose our rock heroes*

15 Jan Unknown

In the early morning of January 10, along with millions, I began texting the close friends I knew would be affected by the sad news of David Bowie’s demise. One fan was sobbing: “Don’t you feel like he was your friend?” I was struck by that question and have spent my commuting hours this week pondering it and the role that rock icons play in our lives.

Just as the death of a pet affects us in a way that is more difficult to explain than the death of a person, so the powerful effect of the death of someone whose work we intensely admired—and whose persona became larger than life through the media—is intangible and near impossible to articulate. I remember breaking down at the breakfast table on April 8, 1997, when I heard the NPR announcement that Laura Nyro had died of ovarian cancer at the age of 49. I had loved her music from a young age, read her biographies and felt so close to her through my admiration that I was wracked with grief. I know I will be an emotional wreck once more when the time comes for others of my most revered singer/songwriters: Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn, Neil Young, Todd Rundgren, Jeff Tweedy, Pete Townshend… the list goes on.

2014DavidBowie_Getty101818565_210314.article_x4Yet fame, as Bowie wrote, “puts you there where things are hollow.” It is a barrier, on one side of which are the devoted fans who appreciate and identify with the artist’s work so much that they can mistake the emotion for a love of the artist himself, though they only know a version of him from the persona he’s created, amplified by the media. On the other side of the fame barrier is the artist who, while enjoying many pleasures most people only dream about, is also isolated by his status, never sure whom to trust, and could not possibly have enough energy in one lifetime to truly connect with the millions who imagine a connection with him that is powerful and real.

While I most certainly have shed a tear in the past several days—listening to favorite songs, watching YouTube footage, playing Wes Anderson’s iconic Bowie tribute in the form of The Life Aquatic with its other worldly covers rendered by Sue George—the bottom line is that David Bowie was not my friend. How could he have been? What was he then to me and to so many others, and what are all our special musical stars, to elicit such a powerful reaction?

Starting in the 60s, music became an acute expression of the political alignments and social mores of our era. It did that so well that the music itself began to take on epic proportions. Thus the period of music in which we live has created a powerful and unique historical culture of its own. It has come to play a central role in many of our lives, acting for some almost as a spiritual conduit.

In Roman times, there were household deities that looked after people and their homes. One of these household gods, the “genius” was the individual incarnation of the divine in every person, place or thing. Not unlike our concept of the “guardian angel,” the genius would follow each person from birth until death. I see our rock icons as an incarnation of the genius or deity that we have created and chosen to accompany us on our life’s journey. We each have our own personal cultural genius, the rock-n-roll paragons who define us and inspire us, dead or alive.

So, since we didn’t really know Jerry Garcia or Freddie Mercury or Lou Reed or David Bowie, and we still have their canon of music after they are gone (which is all we really ever had), why are we all so profoundly affected when they die? Where does this type of grieving really originate?

I think their passing represents the very special connection we share with our contemporaries, made even more poignant during a crisis like the death of a musician we loved together. I first experienced this collective consciousness of sorrow back in August of 1977 when, at age 12, I mourned the loss of Elvis with my slumber party girlfriends. I felt it again in 1980 when, as a high school sophomore, I watched in horror as the TV news reported John Lennon’s assassination. Sans Facebook, cell phones and texting, we all reached out to each other then, just as we do now.

article-1027216-012A9ED500000578-778_468x480_popupThe end of a rock idol also represents our own passage into a time when we are not as connected to each other as we were in those earlier days when music held a more central place in our daily lives—when we danced ecstatically to Young Americans, sang along to Fame and Heroes in our cars or first shared Ziggy Stardust with a friend. Our strong identification with those who championed our culture was central to our home and hearth. We basked in the glow of the artists who represented the creativity, diversity and brave new inclusiveness of our epoch. Back then, we each shared the music of our icons in an intimate way with our friends, probably some of the very same ones we texted on Sunday morning.

Did I feel like David Bowie was my friend? Well, no, not really. But I can understand the sentiment—and I think he would have appreciated it too. As our genius figures pass, we are reminded how truly fortunate we are that the music and musical heroes of our era express our unique and inimitable culture, perhaps more accurately and passionately than at any other time in history.

 

*This piece was first published under the title “David Bowie was not my friend,” which seemed to be misunderstood to the extent of turning away potential readers. So, here it is again with what is, hopefully, a more palatable headline. 

 

Epiphany of a normal day: Keep being you

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On this Twelfth Night, eve of Epiphany, when my mother would have turned 85, I reflect on the fact that many of the people I am closest to today—both geographically and emotionally—I did not even know in January of 2011.

At that time, I was in Kentucky, and suffering terribly because of a breakup a few months before that had left me feeling completely ungrounded. I had temporarily lost my identity in another, one with whom I finally had to sever ties in order to regain my self. I remember sobbing in my friend Candace’s bedroom, “I’ve had to break up with Bruce, and I’ve realized I have no idea who I am!”

During my time of healing, I sought counseling and found, through a trusted friend’s recommendation, a wonderful therapist who I will call Ryman. I saw him only five or six times, and I shared my story and brought him texts that I wanted to use to help me weather the storm until I found dry land again. They were passages from Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now and Melody Beatty’s The Language of Letting Go. Ryman and I made recordings of his voice and my own that I would play in solitude, reminding myself how to get back to center, where I needed to be.

Ryman was a huge help in keeping me on course, though he constantly told me that I was the one steering the boat—I was doing all the work, and he was just there to watch and listen. Months passed. I reached the shore and regained myself… just in time to be of some comfort to my mom in her final months.

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by Warren Lynn

Now, living in North Carolina, I have a whole new social pathway, but I keep in touch with many friends and acquaintances in Kentucky and the world over. I reach out to Ryman about once a year, and he always sends a message back to tell me a bit about his life. During the Twelve Days of Christmas this year, I wrote a note to him, and his response left me reeling. Unbeknownst to me, during January last year he lost his wife, his soul mate, to a sudden illness.

“It has been a year filled with sadness, joy, thanksgiving, longing, some despair, etc., all fine and part of the process,” he wrote. “Your experience after your Mom passed was part of a continuing reminder for me that she is alive and well in my heart and in every part of my existence and everything around me.”

I responded: “I can tell between the lines that you are allowing yourself the privilege to be fully immersed in ‘the luxury of grief,’ which is a very individual experience, as unique as your relationship was. I can say nothing that will help, but only to allow all this to flow over you and into you like a river, without trying to map its course. I feel that at the 3.5-year point since I lost my mother, I am actually done with grieving because I have always allowed the grief to overtake me fully and take me wherever it wanted me to go.”

I thought about what it really was that helped me get through the first year after my mom’s death. I remembered that I felt the most lost and bewildered on the first Mother’s Day (which was almost a year after she passed) and that I wished to be able to be counseled by Ryman, but I was far away and alone.

“I read a lot of things but really, what’s helped me most was just listening to my own heart and staying tuned in to my mother through common friends and through my writing about my grief,” I wrote him. “Something that helps me that I’ve never really tried to write down is the notion of how we experience time as linear, when truly it isn’t. Because of that, it seems that one person has to ‘go’ before another, but actually, we are all already everywhere together at once. During this horrible time of separation, you are forced to remain in this linear time illusion, while she is actually free of it. So as much as you can join her in that knowing that you are truly still together, the more free you become.”

Ryman responded the next day: “I just read your email and thanks so much. I copied it onto Word and made a copy to keep in front of me as a reminder about getting centered with this experience. Today, I have been sad and had moments of feeling sorry for myself. It’s of course all okay, but I want ‘to allow it to flow over me and into me like a river’ and be open to creating something new and different. I love your ‘linear time illusion,’ which nails the reality, leading me to say, ‘Oh, I forgot about that!’ Thank you for reminding me!! So much of what you said was a reminder of what I sometimes forget. One wise person said, ‘We teach those things we most need to remember ourselves.’ That has always been true for me.”

I’m overjoyed that I could be of some help to this person who helped me remember who I was at a crucial time of self-doubt.

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by Warren Lynn

Even though now I am so much happier and centered than I was five years ago, I still have days of frustration and need reassurance. On one of these, recently, I received a wonderful message from my new colleague, Tina—one of those people I didn’t even know five years ago, but who is now a treasured friend—who texted me:

“Just keep being you: dedicated, visionary, warm, professional, deeply caring, funny, experienced, creative, kind, with a smile and laugh and deep heart that naturally just draws you in… what struck me when I first met you, then played out deeper as we started to work together is that you do all these things with poise and class. Keep being you…”

One of the coolest things about that message was that while I read it, I felt somehow disoriented and seemed to travel back in time. For an instant, I thought I was reading a description written long ago about my mom—but then I realized, this was about me.

When I start to take any aspect of life for granted, I want to always remember Ryman and how he helped me get back in my boat and get back to shore in late 2010 and early 2011. I want to remember how sudden was his loss and how effervescent his ongoing resilience. I also want always to remember being with my mother in her last days and hearing her say, “I would give anything if I could just get out of bed and come to greet you when you get home from the grocery.”

A message came to me today from someone I don’t even know, as part of a chain of uplifting quotes:

“Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are.
Let me learn from you, love you, savor you, bless you, before you depart.
Let me not pass you by in quest of some rare and perfect tomorrow.
Let me hold you while I may, for it will not always be so.
One day I shall dig my fingers into the earth, or bury my face in the pillow, or raise my hands to the sky, and want, more than all the world, your return.”

~Mary Jean Irion

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Intention, practice and writing your own future

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I once heard Kurt Vonnegut deliver an absolutely riveting talk. At its climactic crescendo he exclaimed, “You want to know the future? Just wait around for about five seconds. It’s happening right now. You are creating it through your every thought and intention. You want to change the world? Change your thoughts!”

STL14KURT_336623kI remember including this and several other kernels of Vonnegut-inspired wisdom in a presentation I gave to various writers’ groups in Kentucky. One was: “Not sure you’re a writer? Check and see if you’re writing.” In other words, aptitude alone doesn’t make you a writer; you need to make writing a daily practice.

About five years ago, a fork in my life’s path could have easily swayed me from that practice. But I chose instead to use the circumstance to deepen it… and to add a new element to my writing: intention.

In October of 2010, I had just stepped away from an adventurous career in Costa Rica to spend time with my mom in Kentucky. I knew that I would be staying with her for the rest of her life. As the marketing and communications director for a kayak ecotour operation, I had been immersed in writing every day—handling all company communications and maintaining the web site and social media program I had created.

Rather than set aside the practice of writing each day, I started this blog.

Any body of work starts with a consideration of its audience. Even if we don’t realize it, the person or group for whom an article, essay, poem or book is written is with us on a subconscious level. Sometimes we know the audience, and sometimes we write to attract an audience not yet within our sphere.

I started this blog with two audiences in mind: one general, and one very specific.

First, I wanted to keep my broad network of travel industry contacts abreast of what I was doing and to express myself personally and professionally to that global audience, which included members of The International Ecotourism Society, Sustainable Travel International and the Adventure Travel Trade Association.

Another, as yet invisible, audience was more specific: I was writing to an unseen publisher who would someday discover my work through taking the time to read this collection of reflective essays (as well as the parts of my blog that are a virtual résumé) and deem me worthy of investing in as a writer, editor and leader. This person would not just think that I was good, but would completely “get” me and fully recognize and utilize my potential to take a product or company to the next level.

I was setting an intention with the blog site. While I was putting my career on hold in order to care for my mother, I was at the same time creating a way to continually demonstrate my abilities by writing about my current role as a caregiver.

It’s good to have intentions. What is sometimes hard is waiting for the time to be right.

IMG_0679Many lessons were learned and incredible growth took place in the fertile ground of my commitment—though I felt hopelessly unqualified—to help my mother die and then manage her estate. I didn’t do it perfectly, nor did she. It was hard, we were awkward, but we muddled through. While I could never master patience while she was here, once she was gone, miraculously, I had somehow become a much more patient person. All along the way, I wrote about the experience. Four of my best essays came to be penned throughout four difficult seasons: the spring of my mother’s last days; the summer of her passing; the fall consumed by the luxury of grief; and the winter when I finally understood… she wasn’t really gone at all!

That last essay, Changes are shifting outside the world, tells what it was like for me to be with my mother during her transition. It concludes thus: “The way we experience time in this realm of form brings a horrible finality to this type of separation from someone we love. But, we need not lose interest in the plot as we might do when watching a movie where no transformation seems to be occurring. Change can still be going on—and who are we to say that it couldn’t be? For all I know, Mom is now on some level of the hero’s journey that is beyond my comprehension. My continued closeness to her essence gives me the impression that changes are indeed shifting outside this world and that she is still learning, growing and changing as she has always done.”

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A year later, I had relocated to Asheville, North Carolina, and was trying to find a job in which I could use my writing. On the morning of February 1, 2014, I got the following response to the essay Changes are shifting outside the world.

“Beautifully stated! Your heart was opening to a wonderful knowing, love transcends all that is…. Peace of mind only comes thru the heart and is felt sometimes long before it is known. I am happy for your knowing so thoughtfully expressed.”

As I read that comment on my blog, I knew that my intention was now actualized. I had found my publisher.

P2P filler copyAnd so, largely because of the events that have transpired through the act of visioning and creating my own future, I now have the great privilege to work as a magazine editor once again. It is my J.O.B. (joy of being) to direct the work of some 50 contributing writers, photographers, illustrators and members of an advisory council for a fledgling print publication that celebrates the farm-to-table culture and community in the foothills of South Carolina, western North Carolina and east Tennessee.

Because of the magnitude of energy required in this new role, I have not posted an essay on this blog for an entire year—since my marriage January 1, 2015. It is my new intention to return to this practice of blogging, even as I devote myself wholeheartedly to my role as editor of Plough to Pantry.

12143356_1031905556839960_1656737984944827605_nMy audience for this blog has multiplied since my move to the Asheville area. So I write this to all my new friends, as well as all my long-time friends everywhere. I also write this essay for and dedicate it in utter thankfulness and humble appreciation to my very specific audience: To Jerry, who took the time to read, to see, and to believe.

“You want to know the future? Just wait around for about five seconds. It’s happening right now. You are creating it through your every thought and intention. You want to change the world? Change your thoughts!”

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View the digital Winter edition of Plough to Pantry here:

http://edition.pagesuite-professional.co.uk//launch.aspx?pbid=241bbb12-ba78-484a-9b9c-d9e37ccf4782

 

 

 

Frances and John are wed

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When I chose to move to Asheville, NC, I decided to buy a house in town. I would have preferred a rural setting, as is my custom, but I knew that I needed to live in the city for a while to meet other people. I also knew intuitively that I was going to meet someone who was already set up in the country, and that I would join him there when the time was right.

IMG_2093When I was working at The Compleat Naturalist, I opened the store one Saturday morning in July and proceeded to vacuum the floors for the first ten minutes or so, as there didn’t seem to be anyone around. Absorbed in my task, I glanced up and was startled to see my first customer had slipped into the store unnoticed. He was cute and he was smiling at me in such a way that I thought either he must find me very attractive… or he’s a goof.

After talking to him, I found that he was quite intelligent. He was a four-time Appalachian Trail thru-hiker who was semi-retired from the PGA Golf Tour, where he had been the calligrapher for 17 years. He started telling me about the turkeys that frequented his Tennessee property – along with deer, bear and snakes – and I told him I loved a movie called, “My Life as a Turkey.” He said, “That film is based on the book, Illumination in the Flatwoods by Joe Hutto.” I was irrevocably impressed.

Then he proceeded to take out a pair of sexy reading glasses, sit on our store bench, and become engrossed in a book about orchids while I assisted other customers. It was all I could do not to stare at him. He was wearing some suspiciously camouflaged apparel – hat and shirt to be exact – and so I interviewed him as much as possible inside about 20 minutes to establish that he was not a hunter. Whew! Smart, attractive, sensitive, nature lover, a great conversationalist, sweet… all check marks. When he left, he said emphatically, “I’m going to come back and see you again!”

It took about three months, but John Philip Beaudet did come back. We started dating in November and by January a year ago, we knew we were destined to spend the rest of our lives together.

Our engagement photo taken at the Appalachian Trail Museum Banquet.

Our engagement photo taken at the Appalachian Trail Museum Banquet.

By Spring, John had started building an addition onto his cabin that would be for us to inhabit together. Originally we had planned to marry there after the house was completed, but in the past few months, we decided we would rather marry sooner, and not have the pressure of timing the house completion around a wedding.

We had made friends with a neighbor of mine here in Asheville who is a magistrate, and so it was determined that Perry would officiate. And we decided on the auspicious date of January 1, to start off the new year with a bang!  We wanted to make our commitment public and legal in the little store where we first met a year and half ago, on the spot where our mutual love of nature drew us together. The owners, Laura and Hal, were pleased to host our small ceremony.

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On January 1, 2015, at 3 p.m.
at The Compleat Naturalist
in Asheville, North Carolina,
John Philip Beaudet and Frances Ruthe Figart
were joined in matrimony.

We're thankful to Hal and Laura Mahan, not only for letting us marry at the store, but for being our first supporters in our new relationship.

We’re thankful to Hal and Laura Mahan, not only for letting us marry at the store, but for being our first supporters in our new relationship.

The big surprise of the day was that John's brother Art, and his wife Erica, drove from Greensboro to be with us!

The big surprise of the day was that John’s brother Art, and his wife Erica, drove from Greensboro to be with us!

So John's brother Art was one witnesses, and Nina, my first friend here, who took these photos, was the other.

So John’s brother Art was one witness, and Nina, my first friend here, was the other.

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“For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.”

~from Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Marie Rilke

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“A good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust… Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”

~from Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Marie Rilke

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You and I are old.
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

~from Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Magistrate Perry Dror, who officiated at the ceremony.

Magistrate Perry Dror, who officiated at the ceremony.

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“Beyond the idea of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field.  I will meet you there.”

~Rumi

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The house John is building us is an addition onto his existing cabin, which will more than double its size and space; even so, our house will still be quite small. We will use the original structure as our utility wing and guest quarters. There is also a smaller cabin on the property, built by John as well. We hope to have a party in the spring or summer to celebrate our union with all our friends and family. You can follow our home’s progress on the web site I manage for John, aka Bodacious.

Much encouraged re-creation of the vacuum scene.

Much encouraged re-creation of the vacuum scene.

Wedding photos by Nina Ellis Snoddy.

Engagement photo by Dan Innamorato.

Frances’ outfit by Ruthe Ballard Figart Sphar, the one and only. 

Asheville Red Barn House for Sale

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I am excited to announce that my house is now for sale; interested parties can contact me about the price. It’s close to Biltmore Village, Brother Wolf Animal Rescue, Oakley (Fairview Rd.), Target, Lowe’s, Home Depot, Whole Foods and Tunnel Road Mall shopping, and is not far from downtown, the River Arts District and West Asheville. I-40, I-240 and I-26 are very accessible.

photo 2-3On 0.6 acres and just under 1,000 square feet, there are two bedrooms upstairs, a full bath upstairs and half bath downstairs with a freestanding shower in the laundry room. There is electric heat, central heat and air conditioning, ceiling fans in bedrooms and double pane windows throughout the house. The kitchen comes with refrigerator, dishwasher, and electric oven. There is a fenced-in back yard and two convenient outbuildings: a shed for storage and cabana with bunk bed for extra guests. There is ample private off-street parking.IMG_0909

The house was renovated in fall of 2013 with completely new kitchen, non-toxic paint in every room, new hardwood floor upstairs, and sustainable marmoleum flooring in kitchen, baths and laundry. There is an eco-sound barrier between the first and second floors.

I am happy to show the house at any time. Please feel free to get in touch with me at ffigart@gmail.com.

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Grendel’s story

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This is the tale of a cat who was lost for six years, and then found again. His name is Grendel, and he lives with me and three other animals in a red barn house in Asheville, North Carolina.

IMG_1943I was one of those English Lit students who actually liked Beowulf. I loved the alliteration, but I was also strangely sympathetic to the monster, Grendel, and tried to look at the situation from his perspective. He was a primal predator and he needed to eat. What better to lunch on than a bunch of drunken he-men acting like primordial heroes!

Later, when my mom went to college in her mid 60s and studied the Anglo-Saxon epic, she, too, liked Grendel. In fact, her best buddy in the class was a young football player who came in one day having just finished the reading assignment, and voiced the sad, sincere complaint, “They killed Grendel’s mom!” She and I always laughed about that phrasing, the thought that Grendel had not just a mother, but a mom.

We were equally delighted by John Gardner’s novel, Grendel, in which the monster tells his side of the story, one of isolation and, ultimately, nihilism. From Gardner’s perspective, Grendel wanted to be heroic like the men he preyed upon, but because he had been exiled from society, his values were, of necessity, not human.

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In the year 2000, I adopted two littermate kittens that were found in an abandoned barn. The fluffy calico I dubbed Chickadee, and the beautiful classic black cat was named Grendel. He was shy, but loving, the kind of creature who accepts affection somewhat apologetically and often slinks away from too much human attention.

As a kitten, Grendel had a normal mewing voice. During his “teenage stage,” he once stayed out in the woods on Mountain Springs Road for several days, perhaps undergoing some feline rite of passage. Upon his return, the guttural cry that emanated from his vocal chords seemed to herald some mysterious transformation into a semblance of his literary monster namesake. He now sounded like a combination of a Siamese with a sore throat and what mountain people call a “painther cat.”

DSC03546Grendel lived with Chickadee, Belial and Jimmy, in a timber framed shed on the property of my Kentucky cabin in the wilderness on Furnace Mountain, near the Red River Gorge. Belial and Jimmy were truly feral cats, and barely touchable, while Grendel and Chickadee were somewhat tame, but still held a distance from most people. They could all come and go as they pleased, and returned to the shed when their automatic feeder dispensed their food three times a day. Theirs was an idyllic life. I recall long walks along the forest service road near my house, trailed by two or three of the shed cats, meandering through the woods at their own leisurely pace. I loved them all, but felt the strongest connection to Grendel. He seemed a bit smarter and more refined than the others.

Changes came to Furnace Mountain in the form of unsustainable logging on adjacent properties. I sold the cabin in 2006 to live for a few years in a city – and the shed cats were not city material. So they went to live in the country with a friend, who eventually ended up taking them to Boones Creek Camp, where I had grown up in the tiny community of Trapp, near Winchester. Jimmy, who was the most skittish, vanished shortly after leaving the mountain. The other three settled into a mostly feral life, holing up like refugees in some abandoned buildings across the road from the camp, but visiting the parsonage and office for regular feedings on the porch of the house I had grown up in.

IMG_2447From early 2008 until the fall of 2010, I lived in Costa Rica and Canada working with a kayak tour operator. I thought of the cats many times, but was not in touch with anyone who knew how they were. Then I returned to Winchester, Kentucky to live with my mom, whose health was beginning to fail. With the stress of adjusting to being a caregiver, it honestly did not occur to me until February of 2012 that some of the shed cats might still be at the camp. I drove the 15 minutes out there one Sunday afternoon, and what I found amazed me. Grendel, Belial and Chickadee were all still alive and well, feasting regularly on the porch of the camp residence/office, and living across the road in the dilapidated remains of an old homestead. They looked great, and they knew me!

The next few months were hectic because by now, my mom was very ill and I was with her round-the-clock. But I would manage to bring a bag of food out to the camp once a month for Angel, the woman who now fed them. Angel had evidently been left instructions from the previous camp director, Jim Smith, in no uncertain terms: something to the effect of, “Whatever you do, do not ever abandon the responsibility of feeding these cats!”

A few months later, mid June, I got a call from Angel. She said coyotes had been seen in the area, and she suspected they had gotten two of the cats, as she now only saw one of them. “Who is left?” I inquired. It was Grendel.

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I went to see him soon as I could get away for an hour, and he walked me all around the premises of his dwelling, making his raucous bellow all the while, as if in mourning for his lost mates. He was all alone now, like the beast in Beowulf. He would not let me touch him, but he seemed to enjoy my companionship.

Since Angel was now his feeder, I instructed her to catch him when possible, and bring him to me in Winchester, where I lived with my mom. I would take him to the vet, and if he checked out fine, I’d bring him into our home to be a companion for our kitten, Oki.

Oki was incensed that another cat even existed, much less was in her home. But inside of two weeks, the two were cuddling and grooming one another. We had a monitor in my mom’s room so we could hear her calling out when she needed something, and I recall hearing Grendel, over the roar of the oxygen machine, emitting his guttural roar as my dying mother tried to sleep. She asked me once, politely, “How long will Grendel be staying with us?”

Sadly for Mother, Grendel would be staying much longer than she could; she died in late July, only a month and a half after he arrived.

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Nine months after Mom died, Grendel moved with Oki and me to North Carolina. The move was rough for him, and included an embarrassing stop at the Tennessee border to clean him up along the way. My friends Mary and Joe helped out, and when Grendel was ready to travel again, Joe said, in what has become an infamous metaphor, “Let’s get this rock star to the show.”

Now our family has gained three more beings: John, Dukkha Dog and Puppy Ivy. Grendel takes it all in stride. He loves his cushy indoor life, with Havarti cheese cut into 14 tiny cubes at least once a day, a dollop of vanilla ice cream late in the evenings, and a sunny window seat with comfy cushions for his throne. He still slinks away from affection, but always purrs when being carried or sleeping on my feet at night. He and Oki spend hours every day in their outside cabana, and go for walks in my big fenced-in back yard. Occasionally Grendel will jump the fence and stay out on his own for several hours, but he always comes home.

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Six years he was a shed cat on Mountain Springs Road, and six years he was feral and survived, thanks to Jim Smith and the camp Angels, and his own cat smarts. Now he is almost 15, and is in great shape.

Sometimes in the wee hours before dawn, he lifts up his raucous voice to the heavens and bellows out a sound that I’m sure would make even Beowulf wonder: Is he giving thanks? Does he miss his mates from the old days? Does he want to prey on a mouse? Or does he just want more of his dry catfood, NOW!

Belial (back) and Jimmy (in front) on the porch of the Mountain Springs Road cabin circa 2004.

Belial (back) and Jimmy (in front) on the porch of the Mountain Springs Road cabin circa 2004.

Belial having just moved from the mountain in December of 2006.

Belial having just moved from the mountain in December of 2006.

Chickadee when I first saw the shed cats again at the camp in Feb. 2012.

Chickadee when I first saw the shed cats again at the camp in Feb. 2012.

Mary and me, bringing food to the cats at the camp, Feb. 2012

Mary and me, bringing food to the cats at the camp, Feb. 2012

When I first brought Grendel home, Oki was incensed.

When I first brought Grendel home, Oki was incensed.

Grendel on his first day back in a home, dealing with Oki's growling.

Grendel on his first day back in a home, dealing with Oki’s growling.

Within two weeks, Oki and Grendel were close friends.

Within two weeks, Oki and Grendel were close friends.

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Oki says, so long for meow.

Oki says, so long for meow.



Paper dolls, flow and the art of … whatever!

7 Nov flow

I first penned this essay back in 2008, but never published it myself. This is a slightly edited version to bring it up to the current date. Pottery by Cindi Cusick; digital painting by Kathleen Farago May.

UnknownIn his best-selling 1990 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “chick-sent-me-high-ee”) defined and explored the concept of “flow” as our experience of optimal fulfillment and engagement. Flow, whether in creative arts, athletic competition, engaging work or spiritual practice, is a deep and uniquely human motivation to excel, exceed, and triumph over limitation.

Csikszentmihalyi gives me a form of self-confidence through his concept of “flow” that I confess I never gained from the term “art.” As a society, we tend to think of “art” as primarily the creative arts – music, visual art forms and creative writing being the three that most readily come to mind. But those of us not blessed with talent in one of these areas are often left feeling like the ugly duckling or the Cinderella in a world full of artistically graced swans and stepsisters.

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From childhood, I recall the many lessons (piano, ballet, tap, violin and voice) my mother was enterprising enough to involve me in – all of which gave me my true appreciation for music, but none of which “stuck” in the sense that I ever felt from them “optimal fulfillment and engagement.” Instead, I felt sick on the curvy roads to and from the lessons, mortal fear at recitals, self-consciousness about my too-thin body at dance reviews, and basically overwhelmed by what I call the perfectionist’s script for self-defeat: with so many things to do, how could I ever do any one thing well?

simplicity-8153To escape from the pressure, I’d retreat to my bedroom where hundreds of paper dolls waited to come to life under my direction. Silly as it sounds, for an only child with a vivid imagination, the world of girls and boys cut out from Simplicity magazine – evenly matched in size and each with his or her own intricately developed emotional and psychological makeup, set of academic skills, and personal history – was the key to power. This game cast me as the director, organizer and creator. I set up detailed schedules for each person and then watched with glee as my random schedule-making schemes placed Janice in a science class with Tom, a boy she had a crush on, or Jeff in choir with Candy, a girl he had broken up with and no longer wished to see.

il_340x270.661762228_od2hAside from the social element, students gained skills that helped them determine their future careers; they made friends who would be with them for life, and siblings supported each other through difficult family issues. So empowering was this “flow” that I played with these dolls long past the “appropriate” age, and can vividly recall nervously throwing the covers down to hide all my dolls in their classrooms (individual squares on a quilt, actually) when my father unexpectedly knocked on my door when I stayed home from school with a cold as a high school freshman.

That very year, another form of flow superseded that of the dolls. My English teacher, Debby Douglas, was handing me back my umpteenth paper marked with an A++ and she must have seen something in my face that betrayed a certain disappointment and realized that I needed encouragement that defied expectation; I was used to getting these A’s no matter what I did. “Other students get A’s,” she said, “but you need to understand that what you do is in a whole other category: this is something you do like no one else. You should really pursue it.” From that moment on, I had my flow. I knew where I wanted to go, what I wanted to do – the world revolved around words, writing, communication: that was my music, my “art.”

And yet, still that word “art” did it’s best to make me feel left out. Because, save for bad lyrics written during some romantic squabble, I was never a creative writer. In college, I won contests for critical/analytical essays dissecting the language of Spencer and Shakespeare poems, short stories by Hemingway – even the lyrics of songs by Joni Mitchell. I was a nerdy writer, while those around me were poets, painters and potters, violinists, vocalists and artistic visionaries.

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And then one day, years later, when I had my own business as a freelance writer, I decided to face the challenge. I knew I’d envied my friends who were musicians and artists too long. But why? Was it because I had not yet found that “deep and uniquely human motivation to excel, exceed and triumph over limitation”? “What is my art?” I asked myself. What is it that truly puts me into the world of “flow”? My writing did it, yes. But often, in order to make a buck, I was forced to write about topics for which I held no real passion. So what was my passion? How could I make a difference?

It was then that I remembered the paper dolls. And through a good, hard look at the nature of that experience, I realized that I had not just been playing a game; I’d been grooming myself, teaching myself, preparing myself for my future contributions to the world. My true gift was bringing people together, connecting and directing them to do great things, allowing them to support one another, and providing them a means to learn their true callings.

This realization took a shape that rapidly sprung to life in the form of a non-profit organization, Greater Opportunities for Women, to help low-income women in Kentucky learn about their talents and develop better job skills while supporting one another in a group, attending classes together for ten weeks. While developing and implementing this complex program, I felt like “an artist” in the truest sense, staying up all night in a rush of inspiration to finish creating an aspect of this intricately detailed work. I was like the conductor of a symphony, directing a team of volunteers to work together to pull off complex pieces of the “music” that I could not perform alone. It was near the end of my four-year endeavor that my dear friend Paul Ramey pointed out that unlike that of a writer, musician or visual artist, my social form of art was four-dimensional because it touched the realm of possibility and actualized people to realize their dreams.

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Once when one of the 60 women who attended the program decided to drop out, my mother remarked, “Unlike the paper dolls, GO Women don’t always stay where you put them.” Always perceptive, my mother hit the nail on the head with this statement. And ultimately, control freak that I was, perhaps that’s why I eventually handed the executive director role off to someone else. Perhaps I just couldn’t maintain that level of artistic intensity for longer than four years; after all, artists have their “periods.” But I probably learned more from the adventure than anyone else; I learned that art, for me, is whatever gets me “in the flow,” whatever challenges me to go beyond my limits, and to excel and triumph in new ways.

Today I have the privilege to work in publishing, bringing my writing, editing and organizational skills to bear on a variety of publications, both in print and online. I feel that familiar sense of optimal fulfillment and engagement when I am organizing materials for a story, writing e-mails to sources explaining the kind of quote I need from them, helping another editor create a framework for their publication, or proofreading a magazine to ensure it is as error-free as possible. I love working with words, I always have, and this is what gets me in Csikszentmihalyi’s flow. This is my art.

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Watching my fiancé, John, build our new house, and hearing his thought processes as he develops his plans, reminds me precisely of the mental steps I go through to create an essay or an article. I can tell he is entering into his flow when he is planning to build, and fully immersed in it while carrying out those plans. It’s a joy to experience.

I will never cease to be inspired by friends who deliver truly creative writing, stirring pieces of music and awesome visual arts that communicate a unique personality and artistic sensitivity. I know carvers, dancers, quilt makers, film directors, photographers, potters and pianists, gourd painters and guitarists, sculptors, singers and songwriters – who all make me feel awe and amazement. But I am just as inspired by those who express their art in non-traditional ways. One friend creates art through yoga, another through massage. I know beekeepers, camp directors, financial analysts, hair dressers and hikers, mentors and mothers, pastors and pharmacists, who all make an art of what they create when in their flow. Some even make an art out of helping others to die gracefully and with dignity.

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“Come, my friends. ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.” These words from Tennyson’s Ulysses, some of the few that stick in memory from my studies in English Literature, continue to send chills up my spine each time I hear them. Just as Ulysses rallied around him his old sailing buddies to go upon a new, and perhaps final, quest, we are never too old to set out on a new voyage, and see the world in a different way than we ever could before.

We all have to challenge ourselves to go beyond our limits – limits we have largely, though often unwittingly, set for ourselves. Whatever challenges you, whatever you wish that you could do, but fear you can’t – I encourage you to give it a try. You might just become a new kind of artist – with a whole new sense of flow.

Watch a neat video about flow.

22 Easters gone: Lessons from my dad

19 Apr IMG_0728

IMG_5064Legend has it that, as a child, I slept through a lot of my dad’s sermons. In fact, I can remember doing this. I’d curl up beside my mom on the padded pew and drift off into the deep slumber of an active preacher’s kid growing up at a camp, lulled by the rich and familiar tone of my dad’s stentorian voice.

Even in my sleep I believe the structure of the sermons reached me on some level, as when I consider the way I construct my own essays today, I believe they are derived somewhat from the sermons my dad so eloquently delivered, speeches that were essentially essays themselves.

Dad had a great formula. He’d start on a personal level, relating an everyday down-to-earth anecdote to establish a bond with his listeners. Then he’d read a passage of scripture and do some analysis of it, bringing to bear on the text the words of contemporary scholars, professors and his own insights. To me as a child, this part seemed to go on and on.

But then came the part I liked best: some story or illustration that, at first, would seem completely out of the blue. When he’d start telling this story, some compelling, magical quality came into his voice that usually caused me to wake up to listen to it. I learned that the tale would have pertinence to the topic beyond all expectation. As the voice of Francis Ross Figart, Jr., built up into an insistent crescendo, it suddenly became clear to all that the point of this analogy was exactly what the scripture was saying.

I remember two such illustrations in particular: one about not judging and one about trust.

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The first story was about how my dad went to the airport in Louisville in the late 60s to pick up a “summer missionary” from some other state who would be working with the small churches in Eastern Kentucky to help them run programs like Vacation Bible School. I think her plane was delayed and when he picked her up they basically had to drive directly to a church service up in the mountains.

When Dad met the young woman at the airport, he was startled to see that she was dressed impeccably from head to toe in an expensive white suit that was the fashion of the day. Dad worried on the way to the hollers whether this gal knew what she was getting into, and was concerned she might not be well suited to work with the people in the impoverished area they were driving to.

As they made their way up into the foothills of the Appalachians, it was evident that recent rains had brought flash flooding and creeks were running high. When they got to the small mountain mission, the people from the community were also arriving and a group of little children were playing in the churchyard.

KY - two girlsUnlike the new summer missionary, these kids weren’t wearing their Sunday best. Families in that area often did not have running water, kids were usually covered in coal dust, and in fact, Dad said, they had gotten pretty muddy playing on the soggy grounds of the tiny church.

Dad held his breath and watched as this woman who was dressed so impeccably got out of the station wagon, and immediately went toward the little kids, getting down on her knees to greet them with hugs and smiles. They instantly loved her because she talked differently and was so beautiful and interesting. She paid not one bit of attention to her attire, nor did the kids, and she turned out to be the best person for the job he could have ever imagined.

lrc-87-451x300The other story was set on the campus of Kentucky’s Georgetown College, my dad’s alma mater where he was number one dude on the debate team. One of his good friends was a fellow student who, if my memory serves, was named Ernie. The fact that Ernie was completely blind didn’t prevent him from being totally self-sufficient. He walked all over campus by himself because he had learned where everything was; he didn’t let his disability slow him down.

One fall, Dad had just arrived back on campus to go through registration for the new semester. He was walking out of the admissions building and looked across the quad and saw Ernie, striding rapidly as usual across the courtyard. At the same instant that he saw Ernie, Dad also noticed that during the summer break some construction had begun on the main campus thoroughfare: where normally there had been a sidewalk, now there was a gaping pit, taller than a person. Ernie was confidently pacing right toward that huge hole!

imagesErnie was pretty far across the campus, but my dad had this booming voice that those who knew him distinctly remember. He called out the command: “Ernie, STOP!” And as Dad’s voice echoed across the quad, just one step before disaster, Ernie did. He recognized the deep voice of his friend, trusted it, and obeyed. Dad went running over to Ernie to explain, and the two had a good laugh.

Just before my mom died, she and I talked about these illustrations and she remembered them too. Maybe she recalled the details a little differently than I do – and even knew the scripture that went with them – but that doesn’t matter to me. What matters is, the messages behind these modern day parables got through – to both of us.

My turn to pull it all together.

One of the big reasons I came to Western North Carolina has to do with the adage of not judging a book by its cover. Here in Asheville, it’s common to see stereotypes of dress defied; often the person in a crowd who most resembles a homeless vagrant may be the one who has the most money; I have seen it over and over again in the retail store where I work. Conversely, it’s not unusual for those who appear in the most fashionable attire to be the nitty gritty, hard working volunteers who help needy animals and children with deep commitment. Grubby Appalachian Trail hikers walking into a mountain town may just as well be doctors or lawyers as students or “trustafarians.” I love being in an area that has this equalizing factor.

My dad would probably call it the voice of God, but I think of it as my intuition when something tells me I need to slow down lest I fail to notice a gaping hole in front of me. Whatever it is, when it says, “stop,” I trust and stop. And when it says, “go,” well, as Daddy would say, you better believe… I go!

Trusting that intuition once again as part of an almost two-year long transition to a new place and new life, I’ve become engaged to an amazing person who defies many stereotypes and possesses wisdom and balance that I haven’t encountered for about 22 years.

Dedicated to Ross Figart, Sept. 30, 1926-April 10, 1992.

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50, here I come: 11 lessons from my 40s

24 Feb My last Friday morning

Tomorrow I turn 50. This afternoon I got a birthday message from Laura, a younger friend I met in Switzerland around the time I turned 40. Over the years I’ve known her, Laura has had many ups and downs and now has created a successful culinary business for herself on a Swiss farm. We have only been together twice, but shared a deep connection and enjoyed comparing notes about how to deal with life’s challenges. After an initial greeting, her opening words were these:

390864_352805314794540_1782318286_n“I often think about you and imagine you are happy. 50 now… I remember last time when you were 40. Loads of questions and thoughts about life: How is it today? How did these past 10 years help you find peace and answers?”

Wow! These immense, broad questions came to me at just the right moment, as I’d already been formulating the vague idea for a blog to reflect on the past decade in some comprehensive way.

My 40s were incredible, and I migrated through many changes, the culmination of which was the death of my mom, and the realization that she was the true love of my life – even as I was flitting about on several continents during my stint in the travel industry. Finally going home to Kentucky to help her die was the best decision I ever made and although I didn’t do it perfectly, I was strong and I helped her live her last days the way she wanted to.

IMG_0909In 2013, I sold a house, moved, rented for six months, got a part-time job, and then bought a house and renovated it… all of which have led me to my current situation, a new resident of Asheville, NC, still recovering from loss, but growing stronger as I connect with my new community, and find my niche socially and professionally.

What follows is a collection of salient lessons from the past decade, each supported by a favorite quote.

LESSON 1: LOVE YOURSELF

“The most important relationship you have in life is the relationship you have with yourself.” ~Diane von Furstenberg

IMG_2646Last year’s birthday came at a time when I was still grieving the loss of my mom so heavily that I expected others in my life to somehow compensate for the internal void of having no parent left to celebrate my life in the way that only parents can. I learned then the final lesson of independence: that I really needed to only have expectations of my own self, and to face the fact that I was truly alone – and be OK with that. And that helped me to focus on my relationship with myself more in the past year than I ever had previously.

LESSON 2: LOVE OTHERS

“The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.” ~Thomas Merton

This is only common sense, but with those expectations mentioned in the first lesson always creeping into relationships, keeping the right attitude toward love of any kind can be a challenge. It’s good to be reminded day after day that what we love about others is what makes them different from us and it our not our job to shape them or mold them into something we think is best for them – or for us. I think I finally learned this lesson during my 40s and am ready to practice it well in the next decade.

My last Friday morning

LESSON 3: ACCEPT WHAT IS

“Stop resisting. So much of our anguish is created when we are in resistance. So much relief, release and change are possible when we accept, simply accept.” ~Melody Beatty

During my 40s, I think I adopted a more natural acceptance of reality, learning more about not pushing for things but allowing them to come to me organically. A huge lesson of grief is the acceptance that you cannot change what has happened, what is. Learning to relax into the “luxury of grief” and allow it to consume you for a period of time is actually healthy, and takes you on a tour through all of your emotions so that none is left unvisited – and then you are ready to move on, to move forward.

LESSON 4: BE HERE NOW

IMG_6134“If you no longer want to create pain for yourself and others… then don’t create any more time… realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have. Make the Now the primary focus of your life.” ~Eckhart Tolle

I can’t stress enough how much reading Eckhart Tolle helped to shape my outlook during my 40s. It was like a homecoming finding his writing, because so much of what he says, I feel I’ve always operated on, and just thought that no one else was like me. These were lessons hard-learned and I made plenty of mistakes, but meditation and focusing on the Now helped me prepare to help my mom die, and live through it and on beyond it with a new enthusiasm for life.

LESSON 5: BE STILL

“It is said that all you are seeking is also seeking you, that if you lie still, sit still, it will find you. It has been waiting for you for a long time. Once it is here, don’t move away. Rest. See what happens next.” ~Clarissa Pinkola Estes

As a natural progression of learning not to push so hard for what you want and to accept what is, there comes a realization that you are moving toward things as they are also moving toward you – that its not up to you to facilitate getting there yourself; the movement is one greater than you can orchestrate. This doesn’t mean do nothing; it means be open, listen and conserve energy in preparation for what is coming rather than spending it all. A great convergence is occurring and things are being worked out that you cannot imagine. So be still.

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LESSON 6: BE IN NATURE

“I have passed the Rubicon of staying out. I have said to myself, that way is not homeward; I will wander further from what I have called my home – to the home which is forever inviting me. In such an hour the freedom of the woods is offered me, and the birds sing my dispensation. In dreams the links of life are united; we forget that our friends are dead; we know them as of old.” ~Henry David Thoreau

Time in nature I always find to be my greatest teacher. Moving to Asheville was largely about connecting to natural areas and a sustainable lifestyle that values the environment. From my base in my new home here in the mountains, my intentions are set to contribute personally and professionally to the health of our natural resources, our true home. Through moving in this realm I know I will be comforted and cared for in many ways yet unforeseeable.

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LESSON 7: BE ALONE

“To make the right choices in life, you have to get in touch with your soul. To do this, you need to experience solitude, which most people are afraid of, because in the silence you hear the truth and know the solutions.” ~Deepak Chopra

I remember at a younger age a feeling that for any experience to be truly meaningful, I had to share it with someone. As I’ve aged, I’ve become more and more comfortable with having amazing solo experiences, and enjoying them just for me, not even telling anyone about them. But this took a long time for me. As an only child, it was a hard lesson; I wanted to always be with others. This past year I’ve been alone more than ever before, and now I even have my own house. I confess I’m happier when others are visiting, but my alone time does provide many answers and insights. I feel I have more balance in this respect now than ever before.

LESSON 8: GROW

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” ~Albert Einstein

As we continue to evolve into higher consciousness and greater awareness, we find ourselves able to tackle challenges that previously seemed beyond our grasp. Lessons learned become the foundation for new ways of taking care of our self, interacting with others and moving through our sphere of existence. Suddenly some things that always seemed hard in the past are now parts of everyday life. This is growth.

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LESSON 9: EMBRACE SURPRISES

“So hold your head high
and don’t be afraid
to march in the front
of your own parade
If you’re still my small babe
or you’re all the way grown
my promise to you
is you’re never alone

You are my angel, my darling, my star
And my love will find you, wherever you are.”

~Nancy Tillman from “Wherever You Are, My Love Will Find You”

Whenever I have extra time at my job at The Compleat Naturalist, I take a moment to read some of our wonderful children’s books. Many of them remind me of the love of my parents, and none more so than “Wherever You Are, My Love Will Find You.”

I had thought that once I found romantic love again, I would be so sad that my new partner could not meet my parents or know them that it would make the relationship somehow impossible. But something happened that I could never have imagined.

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I met someone who loves me in so much the same way that my parents did, that it is as if this person was sent to continue that deep connection – and that through him, their love has found me. So what I thought would be a desire for them to have met each other is transformed into a serendipitous feeling that they are the same energy, and know one another through understanding and loving me. This is a form of being surprised by joy that I could never have anticipated. I feel that all the other lessons somehow prepared me to be open for this one!

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LESSON 10: KEEP MOVING FORWARD

“Inner strength comes only to those who move forward in the face of adversity.” ~ Phil Stutz & Barry Michels in “The Tools”

The Andean Torrent Duck spends its entire life swimming upstream against a strong current. You can see some cool video of it in the PBS nature movie “An Original Duckumentary.” This species, now in decline due to pollution, forest destruction and hydroelectric damming, really inspires me! No matter what your passion or intuition, it’s all about picking a path and moving forward on it… whether you’ve got the perfect plan or not. Sometimes going out on a limb will create adverse situations, but learning to persevere through the storms will make us stronger – and help us appreciate the calmer days.

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LESSON 11: DON’T FEAR MISTAKES

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something. So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life. Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it. Make your mistakes, next year and forever.” ~Neil Gaiman

IMG_0804_2My closest girlfriend in my new town I met through my time in Costa Rica with Bruce Smith of Seascape Kayak Tours. Nina is a constant inspiration and has given me a great deal of emotional support in my new life here. She posted this quote before the dawn of 2014, but it is apt for the eve of a new decade for me as well. It sums up much of the feeling behind this blog, in that I intend it to be helpful to others, and in no way to say that I have not made tons of mistakes along the way. I have made them… and I encourage you to make them too. And then forgive yourself, and move forward.

50, here I come.

Photos by Joe Lamirand, John Beaudet, Frances Figart

Healing hearts through genetic comfort

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As an only child, I understood sibling relationships vicariously through the way my parents each related to their brothers and sisters.

262144_1782171397263_2141167_nWhen my dad passed away suddenly at age 65 back in 1992, I was particularly empathetic and curious about how this shocking loss might be experienced by his younger brother, my Uncle Jack (shown here with me and his wife, my Aunt Mary Nelle).

I was reminded of this when, recently, a close friend lost her older sister, age 64 when she died. My concern for my friend has caused me once again to be struck by the contemplation of a sibling loss.

Some of the books I’ve read on grief since losing my mom in 2012 suggest that the loss of one’s brother or sister can be more difficult to deal with than that of a parent. There are many reasons for this, one of which is that society doesn’t expect it to be so tough and therefore peer support is not as strong. Another reason is the light a sibling death can shed on one’s own mortality. A huge reason is all the memories that only a sibling shares. I’m glad that my friend has two brothers to provide her with “genetic” reminders of the sister who is now gone.

fireplace_grill_company565063When I was a kid, my parents did a lot of special things to “make up” for the fact that I didn’t have a sibling playmate. On winter weekends, they let me “camp out” on the living room couch near the fireplace. I loved this arrangement because I knew my dad would get up and put logs on the fire a couple of times a night. While half asleep, it was comforting to hear him tending the fire, and I’d often wake completely up just to watch him shifting the logs with the fire poker. When morning rolled around, Dad was the first one up, and I’d hear him in the adjoining kitchen, quietly and methodically pacing about, opening first the fridge, then the drawers and cabinets, taking out a bowl and utensils, and cutting up fruit as he prepared his cereal.

Some years after my dad died, I visited his little brother Jack and wife Mary Nelle at their home in the beautiful pine forest of Bastrop, Texas, near Austin. I had always loved hanging out with them as a child, so being there was a treat. I spent the night on the living room couch just off the kitchen. When morning rolled around, I slowly became aware of an eerily familiar and somehow immensely comforting sound: the quiet pacing, the opening and closing of drawers, cabinets and fridge, the same methodical dicing… a morning ritual performed as it could only be done by someone who had some of the same genetic makeup as my father.

Because he was like my dad in some small ways, my uncle represented a healing presence.

IMG_0724Just last month I visited my home state of Kentucky over a four-day weekend, stopping in to see many of my closest friends there. I also called on a few friends of my late mother’s, not so much because they wanted to see me, but because they longed to be with her again, and I could bring them some small and comforting piece of her – almost like the genetic code could allow my mother to visit them through me.

308123_282943175064098_202550860_nIn early September of 2011, more than 1,500 homes were lost in Bastrop’s pinewood forests due to wildfires spread by a “perfect storm” of weather conditions. Jack and Mary Nelle lost their home, most of their possessions and all their trees. They moved forward in the face of adversity and, as a testament to their inner strength and good sense of humor, their attitude was invariably, “Well, it was easier than having a yard sale.”

542445_447718408586573_811013158_nAlthough it was a tough decision, Jack and Mary Nelle decided to rebuild on their decimated land. When my uncle came to Kentucky for my mom’s funeral in August of 2012, the construction was already under way. Now they are in the new house and volunteers have just this month reforested the property with seedlings to begin the long process of nurturing it back to health. The healing has begun.

I haven’t seen Jack’s new home yet. And so, on Wednesday, I’m leaving for the Lone Star State with my new friend John, who grew up in East Texas and lived in Austin for many years. I’m hoping to enjoy a bit more of that “healing genetic comfort” that comes from being with my uncle, and I’m hoping I can provide him some small reminders of my parents as well this Valentine’s Day.………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

1794577_733948516630226_1862585834_n“Hooray!!! We now live in a pine forest again! Volunteers with treefolks.org planted over 1000 pine seedlings on our property this week! Check back in about 30 years to see how they’ve grown and matured!” ~ Jack Figart, Feb. 2, 2014

Image 4Presenting my friend Nina with a heart rock that I found for her while she was attending the memorial service for her sister Robin, Feb. 2, 2014.

IMG_0812My Aunt Mary Nelle has designed and made elaborate quilts for many years. I have at least four of them. She lost dozens in the fire. When I moved into my new home in September 2013, she sent me this handmade Mola, my first house-warming gift.

IMG_7397My Uncle Jack with me at my parents’ grave in Kentucky in August 2012. Most of my mother’s ashes were scattered in the Kinniconnick Creek in Lewis County, Kentucky. Some were mixed into the dirt here.