Taskless Thanks

One of my favorite quotes of all time isn’t poetic or spiritual or deep or elegant. The late, wonderful , Broadway actress, Marian Seldes said it and it is about as plain and unvarnished as you can get …and for me, one of the most very essential truths about myself. It is this homely little nugget. “Well, I love a task. I really do.” True enough about me that it could be my epitaph.

I love everything about tasks: feeling competent, feeling useful, feeling engaged, feeling challenged …and best of all perhaps, satisfying my closet OCD nature by being able to check something off a “to-do” list. I feel absurdly happy just writing this paragraph…. THAT is how much I love tasks.

I also have a tendency to completely lose myself into a large task at the expense of all else including the most basic of things, sleeping 8 hours, eating properly, exercising every day… I get a little, um, intense about my large projects. Oh fine, the truth is, I get really, really intense.

And this is a good thing…for the project. I get some very high quality work out there as a result. And it is, generally, good for me too.

Right now though, I am trying hard not to take on any new thing, no auditions, no classes, no volunteer work. I’ve come out of an intense three-year period working with all I have on two huge tasks, one of which was voluntary, the other essential. One was the grueling hard work of earning Professional Chef Certification, the other helping my daughter with special needs begin a new stage in life. I gave each absolutely everything I had to give, and sometimes it felt like more than I had to give. Two such different things… both pursued with passion. Both completed so satisfactorily I could only collapse at the end into the most profound gratitude.

And collapse is le mot juste. I am played. I am very happy, I am very grateful and I am very tired. It is time for sabbatical. Time to make my well of energy and creativity fertile again. Time to turn over the earth of my imagination, harrow those newly turned fields, lifting out all the weeds and clods…. and let all lie fallow a bit, and perhaps to see what unexpected seeds may be lifted by gentle breezes into the newly nourished lands of my being.

I know it won’t last too very long, something or other will show up seducing me to jump in with both feet…but for now I am going to try to hold onto doing nothing but enjoying my gratitude… and settling in for a time of taskless thanks.

Posted in A well lived life, Creating happiness, Family, Parenting a child with special needs, Self awareness | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

The Path Behind

One of my favorite things to do all by myself is to walk in the woods . With no companions to distract me with agreeable conversation, my eyes take in the clouds, the stones and this time of year, the mostly bare dark tree limbs, scouring the sky. The aromas all around me become prominent : the sweet smell of the gently decomposing leaves, the wet smell of the earth and moss ….and my ears are alert to the subtle sounds of wind, my feet on the path, the occasional dogs and people encountered and lilting birdcalls…. But just as alert to the absence of the ambient sounds that thread through the day: the fan of my computer, the ringing phone, passing cars, the thrum of the steam boiler making this drafty old house, in which I am typing,  warm…all of it gone…the lack of it making the world seem new.

 

But there is another component to these adventures as well …getting lost and finding my way. For me, getting lost isn’t a casual thing; getting lost terrifies me. And terror is not too strong a word, my heart pounds, my breath becomes shallow, my adrenaline surges and all my senses become highly attuned. It is that heightened focus that makes the heart pounding worth it for me I suppose. It is not dissimilar to what one feels on stage in a live performance. In a world where our focus is pulled in so many directions at once, to have such intense focus is a gift.

 

On the other hand that level of fear is not optimal, to say the least. So I try to keep track of my meanderings, left at that huge lichen encrusted limb, right at the remnants of a colonial farmer’s stone fence … But, I’m not really very good at it. My mind wanders, one lichen-covered branch can look much like another…and besides I have no natural sense of direction. So I get lost rather a lot. Pretty much every time.

 

And then there is getting lost going forward. You are on a trail, maybe a not particularly well trodden one and all of a sudden it isn’t at all clear where it leads. You stop in your tracks, you scratch your head and you scan the leaves, stones and grasses ahead. No clue. I’ve found over the years, a surefire navigation guide at these junctures, I look back. Somehow once you look at the path you have already walked it makes it clear how the path ahead lies. Every time.

 

Helping my daughter navigate a new, clear and fulfilling path has so filled my days and nights… and my dreams…that I never concluded this writing started a few months ago. The leaves are now covered in snow, the aromas more subtle, the birds are down to the hardy few species that survive New England winters. But I thought of it today as she is almost there. And to see the next steps with clarity it is time to make myself, so fiercely focused on the path going forward this past many months, even years, go back for a bit. I’ll linger there just long enough to garner what wisdom I can, warm myself with memories and gain energy to shine on my daughter’s continuing path forward. It is a most remarkable one, her path, in both directions . I look forward with a loving heart to witnessing all she discovers about life and herself on her way, she won’t get lost.

 

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My Mothers’s Hands

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It was a highly charged assignment, only three words that were together so powerful ,and in equal part  provocative and evocative. The theater improvisation instructor had asked us to come up with a life -sourced monologue that began with the following, “My Mother’s hands…”

There was a flood of images and sensations that immediately came to me with those three words.

I remember my Mom’s hands like I held them yesterday: long tapered fingers, immaculate nails, knuckles enlarged with arthritis and constant use ,skin smooth from assiduously applied lotions and creams …and above all, even on summer’s hottest days, hands that were, almost impossibly, cool to the touch.

She passed away ten years ago… but if I close my eyes I can imagine those cool, cool hands gently cupped about my face and if I continue keep my eyes closed too long, the sensation is strong and real enough to bring tears to them.

Her hands were always so busy: cooking, cleaning, mothering, knitting and sewing. My Mom referred to herself with great pride as a “needlewoman”. She sewed and knit for us and even for my Barbie doll, beautiful couture creations that I wish I had today (and wish I valued then more than the shoddy “store bought” versions I lusted after instead.)

In later years, she turned to fancy needlework, She did all manner of beautifully wrought work, ultimately falling in love with embroidering on thin cloth with fine denier silk thread. My Dad, an artist , would draw an outline of an image on the smooth silk cloth for her and she would slowly and meticulously bring it to life in a riot of vibrant color.

In her last years she became legally blind but even as her eyesight was failing, with the help of magnifiers and special lights, her hands would carefully move the thread over and under the stretched cloth canvas of her work.

When the time came that it fell to me to pack up, donate and discard my Mom’s possessions upon her death, it was, as these things are , emotional and exhausting but surprisingly to me, healing too, almost Zen.

As I was coming to the end of it, opening her bottom-most dresser drawer, I came across the very last canvas she had been working on, plastic rods still there as stretchers, silk still threaded onto the needle, as if one day she might be able to see, as if one day she might complete it. And in fact, complete it would have been if she hadn’t ripped out to re-do the stitches on the green heron’s legs and feet dozens, maybe hundreds of time because, increasingly, they didn’t look sufficiently perfect to her. So when she died it was unfinished and I discovered it carefully wrapped in tissue, lying in a drawer.

Deciding it was too beautiful to languish hidden away, I had it framed: tools, needle, unfinished canvas and all. It is one of my most treasured possessions and when I show it to people who have come over for the first time I am not only proud of my Mom’s work, I tell guests too about the lessons it teaches me about how things don’t have to be finished to be beautiful and how the quest for perfection can stand in the way of doing what we hope to do.

Mostly though, I just like to look at it. As a friend reminded me today, every daughter’s story begins with her Mother’s story. My Mom embroidered her story into my heart. Sometimes that story feels like the stab of a sharp, fine needle but more often than not , it evokes the incredibly soft feeling of a skein of silk.

Her story, like the green heron, was never finished in my heart … as mine won’t be in my daughter’s. And so it goes. Which I think might be just as it ought to be.

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Stairs

Sitting on the pretty backyard deck, eating the last of the classic barbequed dinner, my daughter’s new friend L. mentioned she’d like to show off her room. Noting my daughter’s walker, L. asked if she could manage going up stairs. “No, I can’t.” M replied and then, “I used to be able to.” This said simply and plainly, with an undertone of deeply mature sadness, sadness perfectly echoed in my own heart.

This year, as her diminished strength became increasingly clear, has been a time of both frantic activity and slowing down to glacial speed. Learning, exploring, and questioning to find the best ways to support her in this journey have been my top priority, and quite rightly, she deserves it.

At the same time my creative and active life has come to a dead stop… well, except for cooking…I find so much peace in that, I will always do that I think. But barring that, I have ventured absolutely nothing that I hadn’t previously committed to… I haven’t auditioned, I haven’t written, I haven’t planned any new adventures… some days it has been a challenge to leave the house. Sometimes the plans I had already committed to seemed too formidable to imagine.

A certain amount of this is inevitable. I want to fully pour myself into supporting my daughter in making her life full and joyful… I mean, of course… who wouldn’t?

I wonder though if something else is at play here. I wonder if I am unconsciously limiting my life in solidarity with her. I think I may be.

What got me thinking about it was the most recent entry in Lyralyn Kaye’s wonderful blog, “Meisner, Movement and Presence” where she refers to a book called “The Big Leap”by Gay Hendricks. ,”In it, “ she says. “he talks about the upper limit we ALL have for tolerating joy, success, intimacy and general happiness.  And he talks about moving that limit so we can have more of these things.”

I’m generally a believer that the truest gift of sorrow is the increased capacity for joy…what I’ve never thought about is raising the ceiling on my tolerance for joy, perhaps because it is usually relatively high …I’ve always thought more about digging deep than reaching high, but maybe I need to do both.

And maybe an important gift I give my daughter is climbing the stairs when she can’t.

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Arriving Alive

In anticipation of New Year’s revelers, the towering public service signs alongside the highway screamed out their message …in an utterly silent, yellow lights on black background way.

“ 2015 ARRIVE ALIVE”.

I am going to try, I thought. I am going to really try.

A dinner conversation a few nights previous touched briefly on a hypnotist entertaining a high school graduation audience the prior June. One of my sisters in law was seated next to me and she said she had done some online research about hypnotism and she concluded from her investigation that consensus holds we are all hypnotized, all of the time.

We are all hypnotized, all of the time.

I have been haunted by this notion from the moment I heard it. Haunted because I know that whether it is true or not for everyone, it is most certainly true for me.

I began to realize how many exit doors I set up for myself from the here and now every single day, they are manifold. Among them, the time I spend with my array of electronics stands out. I begin my day early, in the dark, the only light coming from my ipad or phone. My waking takes place in this blue light. I read my email, the news and , until very recently , social media updates , those of my friends and comments on mine.

And once begun, I am intermittingly in that blue glow all day long and into the night , until I deposit my glowing device bedside…ready to be my morning light.

I am no Luddite, I adore all of this stuff. I am typing this now on my laptop and in a few minutes I will be publishing it electronically. I love the many things available to us online , from knowledge to music to books and to widgets.

But once aware of how I have allowed my life to be inch by inch taken over by that lovely blue screen… I can’t look back. I will still use all these things but more sparingly, knowing the cost. I’ll even eventually return to social media as it is communication nirvana for a highly social introvert such as myself but for now… a little time away.

My morning routine used to involve quiet introspection in the dark…maybe I can try to have a few minutes of that again before I switch on my little screen. This screen that I am coming to think of more and more in the old definition of the word, “A fixed or movable upright partition used to divide a room ,to provide concealment ”

I want to come out from behind it. In this year and the years ahead, I plan to arrive alive.

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Good Enough

Our heads swiveled a fast and simultaneous quarter turn toward each other, eyes meeting under raised eyebrows, identical bemused smiles on our lips. The grade of the class valedictorian in the Culinary School Professional Chef’s program had just been announced, 94.2. My grade had come in the mail a few days before, 94.09. I was salutatorian .My husband whispered, “Perfect! You tied for first and don’t have to give the speech!” The rest of the ceremonies continued in a happy blur of additional awards, of newly bestowed diplomas and toques. I basked in the proud smiles of my husband and daughter, the warmth of our mutual achievements with my classmates .It was a wonderful day, the culmination of one of the most physically grueling and mentally challenging endeavors I have ever undertaken. Culinary school is a young person’s game and I am young only in spirit. I leaned in, I gave it my all, and here I was graduating with high honors. Perfect, right? Wrong.

One of the simultaneously most encouraging and discouraging things I’ve found in my life is that I am still learning about myself. It is discouraging because I really would have hoped I would be further along in some of these areas by this point. I mean, really! But I suppose more encouraging than not because we do seem to be able to learn, in baby steps, new things in all these new adventures. My life lesson came here; I spent the two weeks following my euphoric graduation depressed, even shamed for not having come in first . I could tell my instructors  expected I would, and I knew my food was consistently good. I let them down I thought, I let myself down. If only, I thought, I hadn’t been on a train stalled for an hour on the way in to my final practicum, the “creative”,  and my carefully packed ice cream component of the dessert hadn’t begun to melt in spite of the ice packed around it, destroying the texture….  If only my portfolio grade had been one percentage point higher,i f only I had done this, done that.  I was torturing myself with “what if” scenarios .

Hold on, I thought, clearly there is something here I need to stop and try to understand. How could I let such a richly rewarding year turn into so much dross simply because of not, by the slimmest of margins, for that matter regardless of margins, being the “best”. Why does this matter so much? Why is external validation still important at all at my age? Shouldn’t I be past this?

My husband thinks it is because my mother always demanded excellence in everything I did. I’m not sure that is exactly right but it was certainly true that a gold star accomplishment gave me a temporary safe harbor in my tempestuous upbringing. There was no such thing as “good enough” actually being good enough, it wouldn’t make me feel safe in her love, even though I probably was. Her love just didn’t feel unconditional to me, it felt like a prize to be won . I think it has to do also with my natural temperament, having to prove myself, to myself…over and over. But here is the thing, I am a grownup, no one can keep me feeling safe but me and I am the most qualified person to judge the worth of my work.

And I think, finally, I get it now. I think, finally, I can relax. I think, finally, I can be happy for good enough. Scratch that, I ,finally, can be more than happy, I can be deeply grateful.

I am , in the end, proud of my hard work and accomplishment. And I am absolutely loving putting all that I have learned, all my heart into the meals I am making for my family and friends …and this, and only this was what I wanted to do , it is good enough.

And I sure hope I have this one down now, because the next life lesson is almost certainly waiting just around the corner …

Posted in A well lived life, Creating happiness, Culinary | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

Accidentally on Purpose

I moved behind him and called out enthusiastically “Hot behind!” He turned, eyes crinkling above the gang style teardrop (in his case a  fleur de lis ) the prison style, inch tall, hand lettered, four letter tattoo on his neck clearly visible, “Why thank you!!” he said, grinning.

Perhaps I should explain?

Some of you know I began Culinary School this past year. It has been a remarkable experience. I have learned more about food, cooking and baking in the last few months than I have learned in a lifetime.  I’ve also learned much about my physical endurance and its limits. There have been classical techniques to learn, mountains of arcane facts to memorize and a long list of kitchen protocols to observe. The anecdote above was simply an example of the last. Commercial kitchens are very dangerous places with a multitude of accidents just waiting to happen. Hot pans are being whipped around, ovens are opened suddenly, people rush, carrying a knife over to the sink to wash off before it is needed for its next task.

So…we need to be careful, for our selves and others and one of the protocols includes shouting out cautions. A knife being carried from one place to another requires a shout of “Knife Walking!” a hot pan going from stove to be worked on a stainless steel table (“Hot Walking!”), carried behind others is, you guessed it, “Hot Behind!” and all mixed in with a chorus of “Oven Open!” “Freezer door opening!” . The kitchen can be downright cacophonous in addition to being an absolute mad swirl of highly focused activity.

I have been delighted to find my years of theater training have unexpectedly helped. After this long stretch of stage work I am well aware of where my body is vis a vis others (one needs to be aware of this at all times on stage). It is so clear when fellow students haven’t had that kind of experience. We get hyper focused on work and it is a trick to be simultaneously taking in the environment around you. I am used to being alert to warnings too. “Five minutes to places!” the stage manager will call out, meaning in 5 minutes all actors are to be stationed backstage in the wings, poised for entrance on stage. In theater the proper etiquette is to echo back “Thank you 5 minutes!” to show you have heard the time correctly. (It took me weeks to get out of the habit in the kitchen not to respond “Thank you Oven Opening!” so well trained was I … I can thank the bemused looks from my fellow students for helping me break the habit.)

It is exhausting, it is demanding, it is wonderful and I am here completely by accident.

A trip taken on a whim last year began this particular phase in life. I wrote about it in this blog.  For something that has pretty much taken over my life for now, culinary school, I am struck by the fact that finding out about that trip was an accident, as were so many of the most important things that have happened in my life.

Meeting my dear husband of so many years? Blind date (first ever for either of us) the first day of college. My first “grown-up” job? My father in law worked for the company and got both my husband and I interviews.  My amazing and dear daughter? An utterly unplanned delight. My cherished friends? Randomly met through volunteer work, theater and school. (One I met by chance at a health spa…and she rekindled the love of biking by suggesting a trip that engendered bike trips around the world the last several years). The improv teacher who changed my life by teaching me to trust my instincts? Learned about in a flyer posted on my local library bulletin board.  The list goes on…and on.

Do you see a pattern here?

I had met a newish friend for drinks in NYC several weeks ago. We were bringing each other up to date on where our lives had taken us, as new friends do. She is much younger than I and after telling me her story she sighed and said “It seems like I just don’t have a plan for my life, I just kind of float from one thing into another.” I looked at her and said,”I’ve lived my whole life that way and you know what? It’s been Awesome.”

And so it has. It also, to me, begs the question. Were all these things just accident? Random events? Or was there fate involved? Or God? I have no idea. None. All of these things that have so indelibly shaped this life… out of the blue it might appear.

Mind you, this is not to say I haven’t had heartache and pain and fear in my life… none of us get through life without our share of each. But what I can say is that I have really, really loved my unexpected life so far and gratefully anticipate the life enhancing surprises that still are to come. I look eagerly forward to the years ahead of living accidentally on purpose ~

Posted in A well lived life, Acting, Creating happiness, Culinary, Family, Risk taking, Self awareness | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments