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StarGrief: What it means to lose our rock heroes*

15 Jan

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. 

 

Paper dolls, flow and the art of … whatever!

7 Nov

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_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

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

10 Feb

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.

The inseparable nature of sorrow and joy

20 May

When I first arrived in at my new place in Asheville mid April, I met a new friend – an articulate, sociable, industrious, healthy and accomplished retiree in the community where I live. A few weeks ago, I happened into a conversation with this person and learned that, like me, he too had lost a family member recently.

I shared how my 81-year-old mother and I had worked very hard together to make her impending death the best transition that it could possibly be, both of us knowing full well that the outcome we were moving toward was, indeed, her death – which knowledge only barely, I think, prepared us both for the final separation.

Joel and IQMy new friend then shared how he received a call on May 21, 2011, informing him that his only son, a vibrant, successful and extremely athletic 38-year-old, had been tragically killed in an accident.

My friend also shared a tenderly compiled scrapbook chronicling his son’s life from early childhood through his teens and on into adulthood. The numerous pictures spoke volumes: the curly-headed boy smiling with his family, the dreadlocked teen playing with his sisters, the mature athlete excelling in extreme sports, the affectionate uncle hanging out with both hisjoel and ella nieces (shown here), the professional young man traveling the world, playing golf with his dad in Ireland… This person was obviously a larger-than-life character, someone who embraced living fully with each and every day he was on earth.

Amid the tastefully intimate collection of photos, mementos, magazine articles, obituaries and memorial program was a Father’s Day card given by the son a few years ago. A section of its hand-written personal message struck a chord because I recognized some of the same sentiments I had written to my own parents when they were alive:

“Colorado, California, Oregon, Washington – I got to see them all, but not without your enthusiasm and support. A lot of fathers of my friends don’t talk to their children or don’t have much of a relationship with them. It’s very sad and every time I meet someone on the road who is out of touch with their parents, I feel so fortunate. I have a father who is curious and active in participating in my life. I want you to know how much confidence that gives me and how lucky I feel.”

As I wiped away the tears, I hoped this card with its precious message could somehow comfort the grieving father, who surely knows that the connection he shared with his son – transcending so many of the material world’s distances, distractions, trials and trivialities – made both their lives richer and fuller.

Joel and dad, Anniston AL 2009

This experience came to me at an amazingly relevant time because just the night before, I had come to an important decision to embark on a journey that will undoubtedly reconnect me with my own parents.

As children, we tend not to listen to our parents. It’s one of the universal ways we learn to think for ourselves. But when our parents are gone, we wish we could know all the things they were trying to tell us, and we wish we could hear their voices speaking to us again, if only just one more time.

Over the months since my mother’s death, I have made countless decisions about which things to keep, and which to sell or give to special family friends. Now that I’ve sold the family home and moved to a new state, the suitcases, boxes and tubs have dwindled to one particular group of clear plastic containers that I have carried with me for many years – within them, thousands of pieces of paper. And it has slowly dawned on me that what I’ve dismissed as a packrat obsession with all things written is now actually the key to hearing my parents’ voices once again: I have kept every single card and letter either one of them ever sent to me.

So, on July 24, 2013, the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death, I plan to begin to re-read the letters written to me by my parents throughout my life. And, as you can probably guess, I will write the story of what I learn.

We can never know the full extent of suffering of those around us. Nor can we comprehend the depth of another’s joy.

Joel- photo of self- snowMy new friend Steve’s son, Joel, died in an avalanche two years ago while fully immersed in the outdoors sport that he loved the most, backcountry skiing. In a memorial to Joel, Steve shared part of a familiar quote from Kahlil Gibran, which had been shared with him by a sensitive 18-year-old hotel clerk where the family was staying to attend Joel’s funeral. I think it contains great comfort for those who are grieving – which, when we have lost a parent or a child, I believe we do to some degree for the rest of our lives.

“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven? And is not the lute that soothes your spirit the very wood that was hollowed with knives? When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight. Some of you say, ‘Joy is greater than sorrow,’ and others say, ‘Nay, sorrow is the greater.’ But I say unto you, they are inseparable.”

Joel on top of mountain

In honor and remembrance of Joel, an indomitable spirit.

Editors, the conductors of the publishing world

6 Mar

I was recently asked by a potential employer to describe the editor’s role within the publishing process. I immediately thought of Swiss conductor Mario Venzago, former Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra Music Director.

mariovenzago001_webEach time I have attended a performance by a symphony orchestra, most memorably those directed by Venzago, I have sat through most of it in tears. Whether Bruckner or Wagner, Schubert or Liszt, Dvorák or Ravel, the music always moves me deeply. But the emotion comes more from the fact of identifying so strongly with the conductor, and seeing what he does as the quintessential metaphor for what I do, and what others do, when we are editors in every sense of the word.

We put it all together. We choose the material. We set the pace. We communicate and network with all the community stakeholders involved. We choose the players we feel can contribute the most effectively to our ensemble.

We coach others on minute details of their style and performance and somehow keep them feeling not criticized, but motivated because we are working together for something greater than us.

mariovenzago003_minWe hear and see the big picture of how everything needs to come together in the giant whole of a publication. And yet we orchestrate every single detail of everyone on the team pulling together to make it all happen as perfectly as possible.

We cross t’s and dot i’s a lot of the time. But we also plan, prod, goad, think at 20,000 feet so others can focus on smaller parts, coach, mentor, teach, challenge others to reach their potential, juggle all the balls at once – all the while keeping time for the entire group.

Even now, having gone several years without seeing Venzago in action, without hearing the product of his amazing vision in the musical realm, I’m still stirred and motivated by remembering the times I was in his audience. And although he was released unexpectedly and inexplicably from his duties in Indianapolis, I know I join throngs of others in wishing him well as he continues to inspire those fortunate enough to see and hear him in Newcastle, Bern and beyond.

mariovenzago004Not long after being asked to reflect on the editor’s role, I attended a networking luncheon in Asheville, North Carolina. After everyone took turns delivering one-minute introductions, a woman came up to me and provided the name and e-mail address of someone she knew in publishing. “He might not be much help, though,” she said. “He’s just an editor.”

Just an editor? No, I thought. No one is just an editor. Our role is akin to that of Socrates, whom Plato described in his Apology as having said, “I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state, all day long… arousing and persuading and reproaching… You will not easily find another like me.”

Perhaps like Mario Venzago, I continue to be amazed at our current economy and life’s unexpected crescendos and diminuendos. But in the face of uncertainty, and when I wonder what comes next, I know one thing, and that is that I am proud to be an editor.

We are the conductors, the visionaries, the directors and the gracious gadflies of the publishing world.

Learn more about Mario Venzago.

mariovenzago005

The lesson of the Kudzu Bug

27 Nov

Having always gravitated toward creative and imaginative interests, I recall very few scientific concepts from my school days. One of the ones that stuck is the idea that if we study a living thing, we change it by the very act of examining it.

I’ve recently relocated from Central Kentucky to Western North Carolina, with the express purpose of living in a densely forested mountainous area with habitats supporting a diversity of wildlife. On recent visits here, I’ve seen three bears, one bobcat and many, many birds, my personal favorite.

For the past month I’ve been living in a cozy Asheville condo with mountain views, a temporary house sitting gig I arranged in order to get my bearings and learn more about where I want to live permanently – and most importantly to job search. It’s very quiet here, but I’m surrounded by plant life: dozens of orchids, geraniums, African violets, Buddha’s curls, succulents and bromeliads have been left in my care.

During my first week, I was working quietly on job applications when I began to get that eerie sense that the plants and I were not alone. There were tiny nondescript sounds of life in the condo, but I couldn’t place the source at first. Then, I noticed a small dark bug crawling on the wall near some of the plants.
Another living, breathing creature! How lovely, I thought. He was smaller than a ladybug, but with a similar type of diligent movement across surfaces, vertical or horizontal. Perhaps out of loneliness, or maybe because I’m just crazy, I started talking to the bug, and by the end of the day, I had dubbed him Wilson. (Ever see Castaway?)

As the days passed, I was always pleased to spot a Wilson moving around the apartment in its slow methodical way, occasionally making a brief flight from one part of the room to another. And, I noticed that for every live one, there were a couple of dead. I reflected that, had there been a lot of them, it might have been freaky, but as I only would see one or two each day, they became welcome companions and it was somehow comforting to hear and see them, my new imaginary friends.

Such is the way of the human being that I began to wonder: What is Wilson? So I located a pair of biologists in my part of town, and they encouraged me to bring the bug to them to identify.

It was a beautiful sunny Saturday morning with unseasonably warm weather and gorgeous clouds hovering over the Blue Ridge Mountains when I brought a Wilson out of the condo and down to meet the biologists. Wilson rode along perched somewhat perilously on the top rim of an empty salsa container; he didn’t want to get into it and I saw no reason to force him.

No sooner had I showed the container to the biologists, than Wilson was whisked from his roost, suddenly sealed in a tiny plastic bag and subjected to intense scrutiny under the bright hot light of a high-powered microscope. After several minutes of hushed conversation, rapid keystrokes and flipping insect field guide pages, the humans all unanimously pronounced Wilson a Kudzu Bug!

I looked at him there turned upside down and wriggling, his tiny red eyes bulging, seeking to make sense of this new, unchosen landscape. After he was unceremoniously flipped over, it was fascinating to see Megacopta cribraria in all his detailed glory and true colors, his little back an artistic mix of various browns and beiges not unlike a tortoise shell. It was cool to finally know what he was. But, for me, the more important truth was, the bug looked distressed and I couldn’t stop my mind from dialing in what I suppose was a correlative emotional image: row upon row of lifeless Ivory-billed Woodpeckers encased in glass at universities, their extinction likely contributed to in great part by those who, probably with every noble intention, chose to study them.

It was then that I remembered why I am not a scientist.

I know bugs don’t live too long or feel too much. And if you read about the Kudzu Bug, and what it’s doing to soybean crops in the South, you’ll learn that chances of it being wiped out any time soon are slim. I appreciate that we all know more about the natural world because of the tireless efforts of those who not only ask the questions, but also create and perform the experiments that help to answer them. But I guess I’ll always be an overly sympathetic armchair naturalist, tiny bugs roaming unencumbered through my various woodsy dwellings, binoculars and guidebooks serving as much to fire my imagination as to provide absolute knowledge, whilst I remain content to wonder at this amazing world without knowing firsthand exactly what things are or why they do the things they do.

I left Wilson with the biologists to add to their collections, in deference to the scientific protocol that is their norm. I even promised to bring back the dead specimens I find at the condo. But before I departed, I did request that Wilson be taken out of the plastic bag and allowed to die in his own time, which would no doubt be within a 24-hour period, based on my non-scientific observations. My new acquaintances complied, looking at me with what can only be described as amused pity. But I didn’t care if I seemed to them to be a lunatic. I was glad to be the way I am.

That afternoon, Nate and I drove to nearby Brevard to see the white squirrels that make that small town their home. Legend has it the first two were escapees from an overturned carnival truck back in the 40s – and the dominant gene prevailed among the squirrel population of that region. It was a delight to drive onto the campus of Brevard College and search for the skittish white anomalies among the ordinary cavalier gray rodents, like the joy of an erstwhile Easter egg hunt.

We deduced that there seemed to be roughly one conspicuous white for every three common grays. Watching the little white acrobats, we noticed things about squirrel behavior we’d never seen before. And we speculated that probably all squirrels do these things, but we were only just now noticing them because the white specimens stand out so much from their environment – and loom so large in our imaginations.

What do the Rolling Stones have to do with Gratitude?

25 Mar

I got a call today from an old college friend, a friend who knows me well and appreciates my eccentricities. When he asked what I was doing, I replied that I was watching a Rolling Stones video. I then tried to explain that I was doing research for my blog and that the Stones were helping me practice Gratitude. This ended up sounding lame even to me, and I had to tell my friend to just wait for the blog, and then it would all make sense. And so, here it is…


A year ago at the time of the Spring Equinox, I was living in the tropics, taking part in an exotic international experience full of adventure, romance, fun and excitement. Immersed in the beauty of the ocean environment, I relished gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, thrilled to amazing ecosystems and rare wildlife sightings, all the while embraced by the warmth and openness of the Latin American culture. The full moon rising over the Pacific Ocean on the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica took my breath away. There was never a dull moment.

Over the past year, my mom had some health issues back in the states, my romance became more challenging than nurturing, and I realized that in order to be true to myself, I needed to transition away from the exotic life of travel, and back to what I felt was a much more mundane existence: living with mom in my bland, dull, ordinary, conservative hometown, what some half-affectionately refer to as “Rifle Town,” Winchester, Kentucky.

Then, in one of life’s awesome little ironies, my former husband gave me this book called “How to Want What You Have: Discovering the Magic and Grandeur of the Ordinary” by Timothy Miller. And I opened myself to the possibility that maybe life was not so bad.

This is not a book about anti-materialism or voluntary simplicity, as the title might suggest. It’s about how to stop constantly wanting something other than what we have right in front of us. Miller is a cognitive psychologist who writes in a very simple, straightforward style, exploring ideas based in Eastern philosophy from a modern psychology perspective. He examines how we drive ourselves crazy by focusing so much attention on our human desire for more of everything… more wealth, more stuff, more power, more attention, more sex, even more spirituality or more love! According to Miller, whether what we want is good or bad for us doesn’t really matter; it is the act of focusing on the desire that prevents us from living in the here and now, appreciating what we have, and treating others the way we want to be treated.

One of the passages I like the most talks about how meditation – or taking a meditative approach to life (however you choose to do it) – is conducive to wanting what you have because when you meditate, you realize over and over again that you just need to stop thinking about what you want and just sit there with an empty mind. “If you meditate regularly, the cycle of desire and renunciation is repeated thousands of times,” Miller writes. “You might think of it as reprogramming a computer. The original program essentially states, ‘Try to get what you want. Try to gratify your instincts.’ Meditation gradually alters the original programming.” Meditation also is conducive to helping us practice Attention, Compassion and Gratitude, which are the disciplines Miller advocates to facilitate wanting what we already have.

When I was talking to my friend about this earlier, he reminded me that Sheryl Crow must have read this book when she wrote “Soak up the Sun,” which has that line, “It’s not having what you want, it’s wanting what you’ve got.” But I actually use three other songs to remind me of the three practices that Miller advocates to keep us focused on wanting what we have: Attention, Compassion and Gratitude. You are free to try this at home, and the videos provide a fun way to remember the ideas.

Practice: Attention

Artist: Carly Simon

Song: Anticipation

Theme: “These are the good old days.”

Concept: Being here now and realizing this is the precious present. We can all easily remember the line that ends this classic tune, and remind ourselves that even though we tend to always look to the future and think of what we think and hope is going to happen, even that future, when it does occur, can ultimately only happen “in the now.” If we use the reminder “These are the good old days” as a way to bring our attention back to the present, it becomes easier to see how good we’ve got it, right now, and to realize we have no control over what will happen.

Watch the video.

Practice: Compassion

Artist: Bruce Springsteen

Song: Hungry Heart

Theme: “Everybody’s got a hungry heart.”

Concept: Empathizing with others and seeing that everyone you encounter is just trying to get the same things you are in life. In another of life’s little ironies, I’ve never been as big a Bruce Springsteen fan as is the partner I recently left behind. But I have to admit it resonated with me when Miller mentioned “Everybody’s got a hungry heart” as the mnemonic to help us in realizing that even the people who annoy us most (he uses examples such as neighbors with barking dogs or kids scrawling graffiti on our town’s infrastructure) only want the exact same things we want in life: acceptance, shelter, power, love.

Watch the video.

Practice: Gratitude

Artist: Rolling Stones

Song: You can’t always get what you want

Theme: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you just might find you get what you need.”

Concept: Being happy with what you’ve got and thankful for the things that surround you each and every day. Remember the opening funeral scene of The Big Chill? This song was the perfect choice for expressing the resolute nature of grief when we lose something, or someone, we thought would always be there. This theme is a perfect way to remind me that, even if I may not have everything I think I want, I always have all that I really need… and then some. And that realization makes me immensely grateful.

Watch the video.

This year, the Spring Equinox visited central Kentucky with an appearance of the incredible super moon, the same moon that shines over the Pacific Ocean, and over the tropical beaches I have now left behind. I’m now focused on taking part in what adventures, fun and excitement I can find in and around my old Bluegrass stomping ground, immersed in the beauty of a comfortable and aesthetically pleasing home in a wonderful park-like neighborhood with older trees, squirrels, rabbits and lots of bird species. Here I am embraced by the warmth of very close friends, some of whom have known me for more than 40 years. I relish this special time with my mother, here and now, a relationship that is precious and which I know I cannot have forever. When I practice Attention, Compassion and Gratitude, there is never a dull moment… and occasionally, if I’m lucky, I even get to soak up the sun.

Watch the video.

Read another cool blog post about this book.

Yin and yang in the Old Pueblo

10 Nov

Honoring death and survival in the American Southwest

“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.”   ~Emily Dickinson

Raven

Joy

I am writing this week from Tucson, Arizona. My journey here was undertaken to visit two friends – one a 50-something African American gay man named Raven, the other a 26-year-old female adventure travel guide named Joy – both of whom have taken time from their busy lives to show me around this remarkable region and shared equally vital wisdom about life, love, spirit and survival in the desert. Just as these two friends look vastly different when placed side by side, so this journey has presented itself as a study in contrasts – and in learning to exist with balance among them.

The trip was timed around an annual celebration here, the All Souls Procession, which honors the Mexican tradition of Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead. The signature procession through the streets of downtown Tucson, which anyone can join, attracts roughly 20,000 people, about half of which are costumed in elaborate face paint and colorful skeletal garb reminiscent of Grateful Dead iconography. Joy and I walked in this mile-and-a-half-long procession together, at times somberly, at times with gleeful elation. This was, after all, a celebration – but a celebration of death! We, along with thousands of others, were there to honor and remember those who had passed away – or even passed out of our lives, for one reason of another. We were there saying, along with Kurt Vonnegut’s protagonist Billy Pilgrim from Slaughterhouse Five: “Farewell, Hello, Farewell, Hello.” This was an event so compelling that I would like to make it an annual pilgrimage, returning each year to the desert, where life can be a struggle for all beings.

Bobcat at Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

The day after the procession, I visited the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a wonderful fixture of this arid region, where visitors and natives alike can learn about the flora and fauna that have miraculously learned to thrive throughout the centuries under harsh, inhospitable and unforgiving conditions. At once a peaceful outdoor area with hiking trails, a natural history museum, a botanical garden and a zoo – albeit in the very best sense – this amazing attraction allows guests to see local mammals like the coyote, javelina (collared peccary) and bobcat; birds such as Gila Woodpeckers, Gilded Flickers, road runners, owls, hawks, falcons and hummingbirds; as well as butterflies and a host of reptiles and amphibians. Gracing the beautiful desert landscape here are a myriad of desert plants, shrubs and trees, among them the Saguaro Cactus – state flower of Arizona and symbol of the desert southwest – found only in the Sonoran Desert.

Gilded Flicker in Saguaro Cactus by Warren Lynn

Much has been documented about the efficient way the saguaro stores and utilizes water to keep itself and the ecosystem that depends on it alive. “The saguaro has a thick waxy skin that restricts loss of moisture. The outer surface is covered with pleats, which allow the stem to expand during water uptake, preventing the cactus from bursting. A mature saguaro can soak up 200 gallons of water during a single rain storm. A saguaro is typically more than 90% water. Water is needed for survival, but also plays an important role in heat regulation. The water within the cactus heats slowly throughout the day (preventing the cactus from cooking), then releases its heat at night, keeping the cactus warm.” Source: Todd’s Desert Hiking Guide. Like all life in the desert, the saguaro has to be efficient in every way in order to survive.

And survival can be an issue here for any living creature. Tucson is only 60 miles from the border with Mexico, where new immigration policy is taking its toll. “These walls being erected have their consequences on the environment,” said Joey Burns of the Tucson-based alternative country-rock band Calexico. “Regardless of the human border, the local wildlife has to be able to travel back and forth; it’s important for their survival. But they’re also having a hard time because of all the traffic that goes through there: drug smugglers, immigration, border patrols, vigilantes, humanitarian aid-workers trying to prevent these immigrants from dying of dehydration in the middle of the desert… Putting up a massive wall isn’t the solution to any of these problems. It’s certainly not going to stop desperate people from trying to cross, and it sure doesn’t help the relations between the United States and Mexico.” Source: Anthony Carew at About.com.

November 7 All Souls Procession through downtown Tucson

Border issues notwithstanding, one of the most compelling aspects of Tucson, known to locals as the Old Pueblo, is that, unlike so many homogenized geographical regions in the Unites States, it retains a palpable and dynamic culture, an authentic sense of place! This is brought out in traditions like the Day of the Dead, where Mexicans and Americans come together for a communal celebration of both life and death. And it is also reflected in the Latino influenced musical traditions that have naturally emerged in border regions such as this one. Calexico – whose concerts now traditionally close out the annual Day of the Dead festivities – represents that blend of cultures and musical genres perhaps better than any other border band in the southwest. The concert they gave as the finale to the All Souls Procession at the historic Rialto Theatre, the locus of Tucson cultural history since 1920, benefited the non-profit organization Many Mouths One Stomach, a Tucson-based collective of artists, teachers and community activists who support “festal culture,” the fulfillment of human needs through public celebration, ceremony and ritual. The performance not only fused many world genres, especially those that inspire the southwest, but also brought together in celebration many cultures in one uplifted community spirit. Calexico’s music, which has been called “desert noir,” and described as “a melting pot for country, indie rock, various Spanish rooted sub-genres, jazz, and many other musical styles,” will be the subject of an upcoming interview I’ll post here in the coming weeks.

Calexico’s Dia de los Muertos concert at the Rialto Theatre

I started this entry with a quote about hope, for hope represents one of the greatest mechanisms of balance we can employ in times of challenge. No matter where we may live, like creatures in the desert, at times each of us is faced with the perils that threaten our survival in a harsh climate. And yet, hope is the thing that keeps us moving on, traveling to new places, alive and celebrating life, even in the face of difficulty and loss, each and every day. The yin and yang of coexisting cultures and of death and survival in the desert are nothing if not testimonials to hope.