Hope for Tomorrow

This time of year, here in the U.S., there’s a lot of Religion on display. Not just twinkling lights creating glittering outlines of  reindeer striking poses in people’s front yards – but also gossamer angels floating in trees and homemade Nativity scenes gently lit to suggest the candlelit birth of the Christ. I live in a ‘county island’: an area of super-wide streets devoid of sidewalks and street lights, and lots of trees. People near my home tend to go ‘all out’ with decorations and, in the darkness of night (coming so early now, in the Northern Hemisphere), their efforts are pretty dazzling.

Despite Christmas being a Christian celebration, I notice that, all around my city, the excitement and anticipation of Something New Ahead is palpable. The Universalist church and the Buddhist temple happen to be on the same street, less than two miles from each other; I pass them on my way to visit our nearby mountains. I’ve noticed that both gathering places are looking particularly festive, in their own ways, at the moment. More color; more lights; flowers and wreaths; paper lanterns, ornaments and mini-lights strung outside along fences and in trees.

Who doesn’t love a reason to celebrate? It feels like we’re all looking for one, and maybe even desperately in need of one.

I wasn’t raised in a religious household. My mother (who died when I was only 9 years old) was an Agnostic (despite her mother’s Mormon beliefs). My father couldn’t decide – it seemed to me – which was more appealing:  an Existential nonchalance (he’d been schooled in France, and definitely ‘schooled’ by authors Sartre and Goethe) or flat-out, unapologetic Atheism. Still, during the holidays there was always a pine bough with a red bow hung on the door. I never asked my father why he did it; but it made me smile. Even the hardest, most cynical hearts can find seasonal joys almost irresistible. To my mind, that pine bough and a single satin ribbon bow was a symbol of my father’s desire for, and belief in, Hope. For a new day; a better tomorrow; happier times.

When I moved to where I live now, over sixteen years ago, I did so to be near my father – as his care provider in his last days on earth. To cope with the strain of his care, and the emotional drain of watching him slip away from us, I began taking daily walks in and around my neighborhood. Nature is a great healer, and I was in dire need of help.

On my walks, I began noticing the many red-tailed hawks that apparently nest in the large pine trees of my neighbors. I loved looking up, as exhausted as I usually was after working, and then caring for my father, and watching them lazily circling the pines in the twilight.

Hawks are beautiful, fierce and mysterious creatures. They’re also excellent hunters, as well as very shy birds – they keep their distance from humans and mind their own business. I suppose that’s why – when I came across my first beautiful hawk feather as I was walking, it seemed magical to me. I picked it up and took it home with me. Then, a very strange thing began happening. About once a week, I’d come across a new hawk feather. Each time, the feather I found was both longer, and different colored:  rust-red stripes; golden brown chevrons; creamy beige with black flecks.

I’d read somewhere that, in Native American culture, feathers are symbolic of the connection between the owner or ‘finder’ of the feather, the Creator, and the bird that gave the feather. Hawk feathers, in particular, are supposedly portents of Something New:  often, the birth of something, or someone. In any event, I collected about 9 feathers in all, and then they stopped appearing during my walks. I bought a very light and delicate mobile (online, from Germany), with little clamps on the end of each filament. I clamped each hawk feather into the mobile, which now hangs in my bedroom, as a reminder.  

As I’ve lived life more fully – in joy, and through many sorrows, I’ve come to believe that there’s a kind of  universal connection between all people, of all faiths – and even people of ‘no faith’ at all. It’s so delicate, yet so fundamental, instinctual, and strong in our human family. Its symbols are everywhere. Whatever form they take, in whatever time of year, they offer comfort, peace and the assurance of hope for tomorrow.

Mistakes Will Be Made

While waiting for a friend today, I scrolled to an interview with a high-profile and internationally known celebrity. She described a recent ‘health scare’ she’d had, amplified by the failure of her doctors to correctly diagnose her issues. Which caused her to believe she was seriously ill, when she actually wasn’t. It’s comforting to believe that medical professionals have super-powers; I fell into that habit for decades. It took the pressure off of having to be accountable for reading, learning, and studying up on my own body. But, as this very famous, extremely wealthy woman (who could obviously consult only the best physicians) discovered, even the most intelligent and well-educated professionals can get it wrong. In reality, smart, sensitive, aware and responsible people get it wrong all the time. It just doesn’t feel good for anyone, giving or receiving, to admit that.

It’s for sure that, as we enter the adult realm, others begin holding us to higher standards of knowledge and behavior. How many times over the years have I heard “You should have known!” Buying a particular car; moving to a new city; taking a certain job; entering into a doomed relationship. The less-than-stellar choices I’d made meant, in the opinion of others, I’d ignored The Signs.

And how many times have I rolled my own eyes, when a friend tells her story about putting a loving heart (as well as years of commitment, not to mention tangible assets) into the hands of a liar and a cheat? Someone who had raised Red Flags all over the place, multiple times. How did she did not see them?

There are two key Truths that I stumbled onto, just through the act of living, with the only ‘toolkit’ I was born with, and with the best intentions for myself and those around me. The first is that Life itself is a Progress Toward Perfection in our minds only. Mistakes are not only bound to happen, they’re completely acceptable and even necessary. ‘Failure’ is not supposed to feel, or become, fatal:  we only experience it in that way, in our darker moments. Repeated mistakes (“I always choose the wrong people to fall in love with”) are important lessons that are – sad to say – going to continue until and unless personal work (inquiry) happens, and the ‘message’ comes through in a way that just can’t be side-stepped.

Despite our best efforts to ignore it – or to put the responsibility onto to someone (a messed-up parent) or something (bad luck, or fate) — each one of us has to ‘deal’ with our own stuff. The second Truth I stumbled onto (after getting knocked on the head with repeated ‘learning opportunities’) is that telling  someone “You should have known” is not helpful. Not even a little bit. People are much smarter than we give them credit for. Most of the time, S/he did, actually ‘know’,  but chose to look the other way, as disaster of some kind was oncoming.

If, to me, another’s miscalculation feels like a “Well, duh!”, there are a few things I can say, but How Could You Not See This Coming ?! shouldn’t be one of them. As part of my own process here on Planet Earth, I have to assume that most everyone (I concede that there are exceptions) is doing the best that they can, with the ‘toolkits’ they have. No one needs to hear my criticism, in order to live bravely; but I’ll definitely share my mistakes as I continue to make them, which is going to be a lifelong gig.

Can Love Be Re-Purposed?

Can ex-lovers be friends?

What Can I Do?

It seems like I’ve always had at least one dog in my life. Dog People believe (I’m an omnianimal lover, but I agree) that dogs are superior in their ability to connect with their humans. Despite our shortcomings, dogs accept and, without complaint, endure whatever is right, or wrong with us. Yesterday morning I took my two ‘senior’ dogs out for their daily walk – a slow process, with several rest stops.

Walking older pets becomes a Zen experience (patience, primarily), with unexpected rewards. Had they not slowed my pace, I would’ve missed seeing a neighbor I always enjoy talking to, walking to his mailbox. He’s from Paris originally, and still travels there once or twice a year. A cheerful guy; always ready with an update on one of my favorite cities. He also tolerates my own version of the French language, for which I’m grateful.

Paris Skyline

As my pups enjoyed another rest, we discussed Paris, both agreeing that our experiences there have changed. Not just a flood of more people seeking-out the city’s charms, but the locals seeming more ‘frayed’. Anxious. Irritable. Not only by the overwhelming tide of tourists, but by circumstances in their own lives. Economic struggles; political struggles. Life. Too often, I’ve realized lately, when I travel to a new country I’m way-focused on my own experience and agenda. Especially with a shorter trip or stay in a city: I feel anxious, trying to pack too much in. And so I miss an important gift of travel.

A recent experience in Marrakech drove the point home. I was in the main medina (a city square of commerce, food and diversions like monkeys and cobra-charmers), Dar Jemaa el-Finaa. It was a little before noon, and I was in one of many crowded souks. Getting lost in a souk is easy to do, and can be a hazard.

Picture so many visuals, each more captivating than the next. Aromas of spices, fruits, and oils; piles of dates, nuts and raw sugar (swarming with bees). The locals of Maroc shop here too, so clothing, shoes, backpacks, dishes, light fixtures, knives and apothecary products (argan and saffron-infused) are out, and being haggled-over. The scene is hypnotic.

Marrakech is a glittering jewel to be admired, but also respected. Tourism is a huge part of the economy, and, just as with any large city (as my Parisian friend and I agreed), its people have mixed feelings about their dependence on foreigners.

A souk moves constantly, like a river; if you step out of the flow and your friends keep moving, you hope that at some point they step out too, and wait for you. Having found myself alone, my senses were heightened. Alerted to shouting (“Move!”, in Arabic, was typical souk noise) behind me, I turned just as a motorized scooter shot past, followed by a donkey at a brisk trot.

The driver/rider of the animal was perched high on cloth bags of something. His foot grazed my arm as he propelled his donkey around me. But the shouting continued. After the donkeys and the scooters came a very tall, very weather-beaten man, moving briskly toward me, his mouth working.

He was in traditional garb for a Moroccan male (btw, caftans and headwear can be very different, depending on the region). The man was looking straight at me, soon looming over me (I’m tall, at 5’10” – he was at least 6’4”) speaking rapid-fire French. He must’ve assumed that I was either Canadian or American: he clearly wanted me to know how he was feeling that day, about either or both nationalities.

I remained motionless, listening to the man vent, taking in as much French as my ears could decipher. Like most frustrated people, he eventually ran out of anger and insults. For a beat, he just looked at me; waiting for a rebuttal? I didn’t offer one. It wouldn’t have been helpful.

I’ve remembered, and continue to reflect on the content and emotion in that confrontation: an angst I’d heard before, in France; in Egypt; in my own country. It was an important reminder of what I want Travel to include: not just scenery, but moments that open my eyes and prompt me to ask, What Can I Do?

Things We Do For Love

This recent trip overseas, I decided to guinea-pig myself in an experiment. Always seeking remedies to reduce the dreaded Jet Lag, I’d read about how face masks – the kind that filter germs – can actually shorten your ‘lag time’. Something about breathing moist air, reducing overall dehydration caused by flying, which apparently contributes to feeling so rotten. So, on the roughly 13 hour flight over, I wore the mask pretty much the whole time. Whether it was the excitement of landing in a new country, or the mask actually working, I perked-up  after only a day and a half of feeling rough. The second half of the experiment:  I didn’t wear the mask at all on the flight home. What a difference. Four full days of a spacey head and not wanting to do much beyond sleep. I’ll definitely be packing a mask from now on.

Back home, while I was still feeling like a zombie, I decided to go to my local grocery store for a pick me up ‘shot’ of immune booster. (What I eventually settled-on was an eye-watering, nose-running, cough-spluttering combo of really hot fresh ginger, turmeric, black pepper and some exotic berries I’d never heard of.) While I was trying to read the teeny tiny print on itty bitty Alice in Wonderland bottles, all in psychedelic colors (is that part of their appeal, I wonder), I felt a person behind me. As I scooted out of the way, the woman began talking to me.

I’ve never heard a person talk so fast. Of course, she didn’t know my brain was ‘toast’ from flying. I smiled, and nodded, and she talked. And talked. Some of what the woman said filtered through my mental fog – she seemed to know a lot about those little super-shots and had tried most of them. Helpful. But then the topic meandered a little…to her battle with all kinds of Life stressors and her body’s ‘breakdown’ as she put it.

This happens to me a lot. I’m in a store. Any store. Someone wants to know, “Does this melon smell ripe to you?” “Does this dress look good on me?” “Do you know anything about the benefits of celery juice?” This last question came from the woman in the store yesterday. Far from being annoyed, or anxious to be on my way, I was transfixed by her story:  it just kept rolling out as I continued to read labels, hoping that one in particular would whisper, Choose me!

In a span of the past five years, said the woman, she’d endured the following:  flying 2,000 miles to support a niece through rehab; caring for her mother-in-law until her death from breast cancer; taking-in her brother and his wife when he lost his job; losing another brother to alcoholism; and coping with the death of a dear aunt who meant more to her (she said) than her own mother. After sharing an impressive (and scary, to me) list of meds she’d been prescribed by various doctors (“I had a full-on breakdown and was hospitalized”), the woman told me she was intent on getting well naturally. Clean foods. Juicing. Ah – that explained her super-shot knowledge.

It was time for me to try to edge – gently and tactfully – away from this encounter. I wished the woman luck – she seemed better for having talked non-stop for a bit — and almost immediately flashed-back to when I was a care provider for my own father. How it wore me down. How my love and care for him caused me to almost get into a similar state of total physical, mental, emotional and spiritual collapse. I can’t imagine a succession of caregiving demands. Love is strong. Love is the greatest power on earth;  but we are fragile systems, often unaware and unable to realize when our breaking point is near. Love allows us to endure unimaginable hardship without a thought for our own welfare; love blinds us to any and all things that are not a part of our impulse to care, to sacrifice, to find strength when strength is gone.

I was glad, suddenly, that I was there yesterday in that store isle. The woman who unburdened herself to me didn’t know I had a minimally-functioning brain. It didn’t matter. She talked. I listened. We both connected, intimate strangers. I walked away marveling at her strength, and at the amazing things we do for Love.

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