Happiness is a Visit From a Harbor Seal

It was a beautiful warm day in Bar Harbor, Maine and I was finally getting to go sea kayaking. Sea kayaking has been on my bucket list for a long time, but the opportunity hadn’t presented itself until a few weeks ago when I visited Acadia National Park with my husband and son.

Image of Kayak

Next to the island with the bald eagle’s nest.

We went with a small group and were told we might see porpoises or harbor seals. In the two-seater kayak, I sat up front and my husband sat in the back, where he handled the steering. We paddled around an island and watched a bald eagle circle its large nest. Not far away, an enormous cruise ship was anchored offshore. We were tiny specs bobbing on the water by comparison. I scanned the undulating surface of the water all around us, back and forth, watching for any movement. But there wasn’t anything. Where were all the porpoises and seals?

“If they don’t want to be found, they won’t be,” our guide told us.

The wind picked up and the bow of the kayak slapped against each tiny wave, spraying drops of sea water onto my sunglasses. I kept trying to wipe them off with my shirt sleeve but they got sprayed again. My view of the beauty around me was now pock-marked. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to see well enough to make out a harbor seal or porpoise if one ever appeared.

After about an hour, The guide blew a horn to tell us to turn around and head back towards the shore. We had to work hard since we were now headed into the wind. I was beginning to feel the creep of disappointment at not seeing any sea life when suddenly our guide stopped paddling and pointed. There, about 20 feet to our right was the shiny speckled head of a harbor seal, eyes blinking, whiskers and eyebrows twitching. I quickly wiped down my glasses before staring in awe at this beautiful, whimsical creature who stared right back at us. We shared that magnificent moment for about 10 seconds and then he disappeared under the water.

On the way back to shore I couldn’t stop smiling. There’s nothing like being that close to such a beautiful creature that makes you feel a keen sense of gratitude for being alive, for being just as alive as the harbor seal, on the same planet, in and on the same ocean.

Image of Harbor Seal

Photo courtesy Mike Baird via Creative Commons.

6 Ways to Find Quiet in Today’s Noisy World

I don’t know about you but when I am exposed to constant man-made noise, I get edgy. Bitchy even.

The world (or at least the city and the house where I live) has grown so obnoxiously noisy. Leaf blowers and rumbling trucks; air conditioning units and the buzz of the computer; TVs and cell phones ringing; the teenager’s music blasted from the floor below.  There are fewer and fewer silent moments to just appreciate the soothing sounds of the natural world. I’m not surprised that The New York Times has created an online Quiet City map that allows users to find a place in any of the five boroughs where they can hear themselves think for a few minutes.

People who need silence to experience the spiritual inner peace of gratitude have to be proactive in order to find it these days. Some fed-up introverts have started a whole project on Finding Silence. And there’s even a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the quietest place in the U.S. If you go to OneSquareInch.org, you will get to experience it yourself, if you can hear quiet over your backup drive’s hum.

I’ve had to get a little creative to find silence in the city where I live. Here are five ways I do it:

1. I wake up before the rest of the world to write in my journal. In the pre-dawn hours, the world is asleep and mostly silent.

The fall colors on my solitary hike in New Hampshire

This solitary New Hampshire walk filled my soul with gratitude. I can still hear the wind gently whisper in the trees.

2. I go on nature hikes alone whenever I can.

3. I visit an art museum during the late afternoon of a weekday after the noisy school groups are gone. There’s a reason those gallery guards are sometimes asleep then.

4. I close the bathroom door and take a bath. If there’s any ambient noise coming from the rest of the house, I submerge my head for a little while.

5. I take the stairs at my office building. Apparently they’re very well insulated because you can’t hear a thing in there.

6. When all else fails, I use high quality ear plugs. When you live with noisy people, they come in handy.

Why You Should Get Rid of Grudges

grudges

Photo courtesy Raul Pachego-Vega via Creative Commons.

Here’s the thing about holding grudges. The person holding the grudge is much more negatively affected than the person whose actions or words caused the grudge-holding. You know it’s true. How many times a day/week/month/year do you spend mental energy on that grudge? A long-term grudge can become so entrenched that it can impact your daily outlook, your decisions, and even your health, both mental and physical. And the sad thing I’ve discovered from my own personal experience holding too many grudges is that many grudges are based upon faulty assumptions about the other person’s motives or feelings, or about the other person’s ability to  be the person you think you deserve them to be.

But even when grudges exist for valid reasons, they can do more harm than good for the grudge holder. Think about a grudge you hold against someone. If it’s for something that happened in the past, even long ago, it’s time to get over it. Life is too short. Your mental and physical health is too important. And chances are the person you’re angry at is not going to change who they are at this point, nor can they change what they did or said. They could apologize, but they haven’t. Or maybe they have, but you haven’t been willing to accept it. Sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is to let go of your grudge. Make the conscious choice to forgive whoever has caused you such pain. Because, with the exception of truly evil people, i.e. sociopaths, most people have their own emotional pain or limitations that we don’t eve know about and that they may not be able to verbalize. That doesn’t mean you have to be close to the person, but forgive them for your own benefit and move on. Take back the emotional control you’d given up. It’s a powerful thing, letting go of a grudge.

And if you’re having trouble forgiving the person, use gratitude as your guide. Just think of those who’ve had it worse. Think of the ultimate “worse.” You could be one of these people. You could be dead. But you’re not. So you have the power to live a positive life free of grudges. If this college student can become enlightened enough to realize how destructive holding grudges is, so can you.

In case you need a blueprint, here’s a good article showing four steps to letting go of a grudge.

Painting With Words: #Poet #ElizabethBishop

Studying poetry in school made me feel dumb, as if the poet was specifically trying to hide the real meaning of whatever it is he or she wanted to communicate in a bunch of undecipherable formats and words. I was irritated that you had to work that hard to figure out what an author was trying to say, and that even if you thought you’d figured it out, you weren’t sure. As a teenager, that uncertainty didn’t seem worth the mental exertion. Yet, I’ve always loved writing poetry. In fact, my family has a tradition of giving gifts along with a poem. Mine are best known for the rhymes involving curse words. There’s just so much that rhymes with shit, shitty and ass!

When you think about it, poetry, just like all writing, is just the creative science of picking from the same words available to all of us and putting them together in clever ways that no one else thinks about. As poet Terrance Hayes said in an NPR interview with Terry Gross yesterday, poems are music with language as the instrument.

A few months ago my new friend Carmen invited me to join her poetry discussion group. Last week we focused on Pulitzer Prize-winning Elizabeth Bishop, a poet whose work you might have been introduced to in the movie In Her Shoes. Cameron Diaz’s character reads Bishop’s poem One Art to the dying English professor. After re-reading One Art, I’m blown away by how eloquently Bishop expresses the way we protect ourselves from loss. Bishop experienced incredible loss early in life with the death of her father when she was an infant and her mother losing her mind and getting taken away to a mental hospital when she was five. For that reason, much of her poetry focuses less on emotion and more on keen powers of observation. Her ability to zoom in on details others might miss is astounding in poems such as The Fish and At The Fishhouses.

Many years ago one of my favorite English professors in college, Camille Roman, sent me a signed book she wrote on Elizabeth Bishop’s work during World War II and the Cold War era. I was so touched by her sharing her work with me and admired the book on my shelf for many years without actually reading it. When my poetry group picked Elizabeth Bishop, I finally read it for the first time, drawn to the comprehensive literary analysis of Bishop’s work and how her writing was affected by world events.

I also watched Reaching For The Moon, a movie about Bishop’s Brazilian years, which gave me further insight into her work as well as showed her painstaking slow process of picking combinations of words and her battle with addiction. You can find it on Netflix.Reaching_for_the_Moon_1

It turns out that I wasn’t dumb about poetry. I just wasn’t ready for it back in high school. I’m grateful to have been exposed to Elizabeth Bishop’s work and highly recommend Elizabeth Bishop: The Complete Poems, 1927-1979.

My Mother’s Dying Wish (With Apologies to the Fine People of Lubbock, Texas*)

I was sitting next to my mother in the doctor’s office when the doctor said that there was nothing else to do about her cancer. No more chemo. No more liver stents. No more anything. The cancer had won. She might have a couple of months left. It was early August 1994 and I had flown up from Texas to be with her in Boston for this ominous appointment.

“If there’s anything you want to do, now’s the time,” the doctor said.

“I want to go to Lubbock, Texas,” she said. “Can I make the trip?”

“Lubbock, Texas? Why?” the doctor asked, frowning.

Yeah. Why would anyone want to make Lubbock their last travel destination?

“Because that’s where my daughter just moved with her husband and I have to see her new house so I’ll be able to picture her in it before I die,” she said.

Oh. Because of me.

As they discussed the necessary details of an end-stage cancer patient flying across the country – number of flights required, names of local doctors in Lubbock to call, medicines to take with her, etc., I felt increasingly guilty. Why hadn’t I moved to Hawaii or Santa Fe or somewhere that had something beautiful to see that made it worth being the very last destination my mom visited before she died? All we could offer in Lubbock were dusty, flat, red plains, a heck of a lot of sky, a few prairie dogs, and a Grandy’s where you could get all you can eat brunch with unlimited biscuits and gravy for $6.99. Plus there was the occasional stench of cow poop wafting in from the nearby feed lots when the wind was right.

It seemed like the very worst place to see before dying. And it was my fault she was going to spend her last precious trip going there.

“I can send you pictures,” I said. “You really don’t need to come to Lubbock. Let’s go somewhere beautiful.”

But my mother was undeterred. A few weeks later she and my dad arrived at the airport. She looked even thinner and yellower than she had been in the doctor’s office. Even the whites of her eyes were yellow.

We took her to our tiny house and gave her the two minute tour. Den, Kitchen, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, postage stamp-sized backyard. Her favorite thing was the dishwasher on wheels. The house had been built without space for a dishwasher so it came with one on wheels. We wheeled it over to the sink and showed her how we hooked up the hose to the kitchen faucet to run the dishwasher.

“Isn’t that the damndest thing,” she said. “See, if didn’t come, I wouldn’t have seen your dishwasher on wheels.”

So, on the eve of Mother’s Day, a day that is always difficult for those of us without our mothers (see last year’s post on that topic), I remember with gratitude that my mother loved me so much that she went to one of the least desirable places in America for her last trip. Just so she could picture me in my new house before she died.

Even though the landscape itself is less than beautiful, and I’ve never experienced wind or dust or cold like I did in Lubbock, the people who live there are some of the friendliest I’ve ever met.  

 

New Friend

Here’s what I like about my new friend, Carmen: she is creative, interesting, funny, generous, and a great conversationalist on a 4-hour 6 a.m. flight to Boston. We exchanged business cards. She invited me to her poetry discussion group, which turned out to include women just like her. Artists. Creative types. Mothers. People with passion. None of them read poetry in the Dreaded Poetry Voice. And the poet we discussed was Lydia Davis, whose spare narrative style I am emulating here. Probably badly. But that’s OK, because I have a new friend. 

 

The Snail, Free Advice and “Music”

The snail greeted us on the sidewalk Imageas we rounded the corner of the cemetery. I thought it was a small rock and nearly walked right by. But Lucy wasn’t fooled. Her nose took her right to the snail’s tiny little antennae. Have you ever seen a snail close up? They are really fascinating and beautiful. The way the shell circles around reminds me of the rug in my grandmother’s bedroom which had lines inside it like lanes in a mini track. As kids, my cousins and I used to run around it and call it the “roundy roundy rug.”

Anyway, the snail was enjoying the moist, sunny morning after a rare rainfall. He cast a tiny shadow and undulated along the rough sidewalk concrete. We watched him for a few minutes, listening to the silence of his slow, methodical journey and then we continued a little more peacefully on our own journey past the cemetery and back home.

Later, after the walk was long over, we left Lucy home sleeping went for a bike ride around White Rock Lake. Very few people were crazy enough to be out since the windchill had dipped into the low 30s. As we rode along the water in parkas and gloves, we passed a man and woman  dressed in ski gear sitting in lawn chairs. A black sign with white letters was propped up against a full laundry basket in front of them.

Free Advice, the sign said.

“You guys deserve a medal!” the man called out to me as we passed. I laughed, knowing that I’d have to stop by and talk to him on the way back. Because how can you not stop and talk to someone who is sitting behind a Free Advice sign when the wind chill is 35 degrees?

“Easy,” my husband said later, after waiting at the car for me for half and hour.

It turns out that Roderick MacElwain has been giving Free Advice to people at the Lake every Sunday afternoon for 17 years. It started as an experiment with a friend who was not good at talking to people. But now it’s a service to humanity. He claims that he has autistic tendencies which allow to him to have certain gifts as well as deficits (and also made teachers and doctors think he was retarded while he was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s), and he experiences everything – people included – in music. Or not actually music, sort of like rhythm and beats. But music is the best way to explain it to people, he told me.

“You give off wonderful music,” he said. “And you make those around you feel it.”

I was struck by his powerful words. Because I felt that same way about the snail I saw that morning. It, too, emitted wonderful music that no one could actually hear with their ears, but until I met the Free Advice guy, I didn’t have the words for it.

After I got home, I Googled the Free Advice guy and found out that many people have been helped by him and his friend over the years. Here’s a story about the two from several years ago. I’m not sure where there other guy was yesterday or who the woman was, but when I have more time and a pressing question or dilemma, I know where to go for advice.

After all, it’s Free!