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QUINTESSENCE

Freedom to Be

The purpose of freedom is to create it for others.
- Bernard Malamud

The news media has been bursting at the seams lately with ambitious, sometimes disturbing stories that feature those nicknamed "helicopter parents," i.e. the hovering parent that supervises, directs, plans and all but executes every living, waking moment of their child's life. Talk about your "Tiger Mom" (I know what's best for this kid's success) to the "Sports Dad" (No way anyone will cut my kid!). Some of this is natural protective instinct taken to an extreme (after all it is a BIG, and indifferent world out there). But a great deal of it is ego extension, or child-as-me. The kid cut from the soccer team is not so much the kid, as the parent. The child that applies to elite colleges and is not admitted to any is not just a statistic of limited openings and intense competition, but perceived as a failure by the parent to produce a smart enough child. Worse yet, helicopter parents are writing top-selling books about their programs for success, outlining the keys to "making it in."

When did we become this nation of ambitious parents driven not by the dream to have our kids lead better lives with more opportunities than those afforded to us, but this club of prideful adults demanding our kids reflect well on us? We want our bragging rights fully fueled: ready to head-line our kids' accomplishments at the grocery check-out line, in the annual holiday card update, the after school science fair, the April college acceptance swell. Not that we aren't thrilled for our kids, who are often just relieved that they got in or made the grade so that we're happy, but deep inside, their success makes us feel better about ourselves. Living vicariously through the lives of our children is the new American past-time. It is a do-over for adults less than wowed by their own accomplishments, or who feel their luck or hard work is at last cemented into a genuine legacy through the clear superiority of their children.

Let's stop the insanity. We can end the hovering, the suffocating direction, the "hurried child" syndrome, by paying better attention to the needs of our children to choose their own path. I do feel we are doing our level best as parents when we help our children along, provide information to guide their choices, point them toward opportunity... but the freedom for our kids to quit soccer, choose a professional skill and not a college degree, wander for awhile to "find themselves" - this is nurturing, the antithesis to hovering. It is not the child-as-me, but embracing the unique independent spirit of each child to become a self-defined adult.

We could begin by ending the toddlers and beauty pageants nonsense. Open the dress-up trunk and let their imaginations play.
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Unexpected Gifts

Dressmaker's shop in Berne, Switzerland

One line came like a gift. It flowed out. I drew back and said "thank you" to the room.
- Joni Mitchell

More than once a perfect sentence or scene concept has come to me, ready made as it were, while I was in the midst of other work. I used to believe that it wasn't possible to effectively multitask large creative projects, to dip from a novel to a short story, back into another novel. To spend time, as needed, on concurrent works of art. I believed one needed commitment, immersion, deep focus, in order to work solidly and productively on a creative idea. Too many irons in the fire and nothing gets hot, as the saying goes. But a few years ago, in the plodding midst of a novel in final pre-galley revision, the unexpected ignition of another project occurred. As Joni Mitchell has acknowledged of singular moments in her songwriting career, the line came as a gift. I suddenly possessed a complete and spectacular opening sentence; knew intimately the character whose story I would tell. I stopped that afternoon, wrote down all that was flooding my mind about this new project and then returned the next day to the novel revisions.

Albert Camus once said, "Every authentic work of art is a gift offered to the future." The faith expressed in ourselves and in the creative process when we act on moments of inspiration pushes open that door. Takes us from here, to there. Creative gifts come wrapped in intuitive recognition of spark: and from inviting in what beckons, allowing an idea to grow into form and being. Pay attention to the strange and unfamiliar. Invention flowers when we dig our hands into the earth of creativity.

Eric Maisel, in his little chapbook, Affirmations for Artists, writes that "Creativity is the gift that keeps on giving. As an artist nurtures her creativity, supporting it and fearlessly producing, she receives from herself ideas, images, guidance, and inspirations... pay attention to the knocking when gifts come calling." Powerful verbs: nurture, support, produce. A diversity of sources flow in and through. It makes sense why I am drawn to sketch in my notebooks when I travel. I am in some way teaching myself to reflect, to reproduce in my hand and mind bits of framed imagery. The habit of close-looking will make it easier to write detailed scene. This cross-pollination between all our senses and creative expression might be the unexpected grace note. A gift only a deeply nourished imagination could yield.

I invite you to go outside and play. Listen to new music at your desk. Walk out the solution. Paint a theme and tap out melody. Speak out loud the undefined thing that keeps you procrastinating. And when you have your answer, say "thank you" to the room.
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Almost Perfect

Getting 85% of what you want out of work, real estate, or love is about right. Aim higher and you're likely to find yourself self-employed, living at home, or single.
- Glenn Byron Waugh, my grandfather

It's strange how as I grow older, the words of advice imparted to me along the way have come to mean more. My gandfather, a cheerful self-made man who left school in the 8th grade and rose to become the successful advertising director for a national retail store, was full of good Scotch advice; pithy, unsentimental truisms that he imparted to me along the way. Particularly after I left college and began my career at the State Department in Washington DC: Real Life 101. One of his favorite bits of advice was the saying I included in my memoir, THE GEOGRAPHY OF LOVE, "If you don't like it, get out of it. If you can't get out of it, get into it." A fabulous way of pointing out that we first have choice, and then we have perspective. Use them both, and make any less than ideal situation work as best you can. I have imparted this particular saying to my adult children several times in the last year as they have navigated college, work, graduate school. Life is all about both goals and compromise, dreams come true and imperfect outcomes.

Married to a sweet and artistic German girl, the only girl and youngest of three, my grandfather was fond of quoting one particular phrase from her father, Willhelm Gerhauser. Great-grandfather Gerhauser was immigrated to America: a resourceful and hardworking man, he established a homestead farm in the West. Roughly translated, the folkism my grandfather imparted to me means, "All is good, nothing is not good." A perhaps slightly fatalistic, but optimistic belief that everything is meant to be, even if it takes awhile to understand (or accept) exactly how or why. Very helpful in the uncertainty of drought, war, an unfamiliar culture. Being twenty-something in a fast-paced, changing world.

The "85%" quote of my grandfather's most recently came up at a wedding. The sage, often expressed sentiment that unique differences are both the spice of interest and the frustration of compromise. We are not clones of one another, and that individualistic element is the final 15% in someone we may never quite get, accept, or particularly like. But life is about awesome "mostly," not totally. We are mostly successful, mostly happy, mostly on track, mostly healthy, mostly satisfied in our careers, mostly content with our kitchens, mostly a good fit with our spouses.

That is, if we're lucky. Mostly is pretty damn fine.
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Variations on a Theme

Matisse stained-glass window, Cathedral of Mainz

A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me - a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day's blow
rang out, metallic - or was it I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew:
I can.
-Variation on a Theme by Rilke, Denise Levertov

I think we sometimes forget we are organic beings. Part of the earth, the sky, and all that lies between. My husband, a physician, is used to the bare bones truth of the organic human; part of an every hour, day after day, invisible medical team that carefully and conscientiously strives to put back together what folly, violence, accident, or disease has broken. We are easily fractured. Events toss us. A vortex with an aftermath that will bear scars, abide sorrow forever. The miracles of skill and mystery.

On call on a recent crazy hot summer August night at the hospital, he worked a nearly 18 hour shift of relentless traumas. There are always the knuckle-heads, the drunks and knife fights, the drug deals gone wrong, all we might cynically and collectively disparage as a parade of idiocy. But what causes any good doctor to pause and spend an extra moment or two with someone on a night like this are those caught up in the collateral damage. The innocent bystander, the "other driver" on the way home from a late work shift the drunk hits head on, the old and sick late at night and alone. Victims, families.

Denise Levertov's poem speaks to the living breath of a given day. Life itself is a pulsing entity, both directive and utter chaos. The fate of who we are, where we are, and what we do depends not so much on chance as choice. The capability within all of us to answer the challenge. To make a difference. To bring all that we can to a problem and endeavor to be part of the solution. Right or wrong, folly or misfortune - judgment is suspended. And in its place we allow ourselves to be "a bell awakened." To command the sheer power of being and step up. I can.

What is your "I can"? To make partner? Forgive? Win Olympic Gold, eradicate ignorance, fly higher, ease poverty, photograph the meaningful, paint fury, end a war? We are as great as we need to be. As we choose to be. Say and sing who you are.
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Vision

Street musician, Berne, Switzerland

With a single drop of ink for a mirror, the Egyptian sorcerer undertook to reveal to any chance comer far-reaching visions of the past. This is what I undertake to do for you, reader. With this drop of ink at the end of my pen, I will show you the roomy workshop of Jonathan Burge, carpenter and builder in the village of Hayslope, as it appeared on the 18th of June, in the year of Our Lord, 1799.
- Opening paragraph of Adam Bede by George Eliot

George Eliot speaks through her writing in Adam Bede directly to the reader in the same way I am reminded, following recent and vivid dreams, that our subconscious selves are continuously speaking as well. Nightly, the mysterious ink blot takes shape behind our sleeping eyelids, and story and narration unfold. We may awake confused, but there are times we lie still as the dream settles, a vivid and particular message imparted from an unexpected symbol or word.

Meanings of dreams range in the research on a scale from the merely chaotic and random to the apparently psychic. Dream symbols, dream visitations, dreams in detail that predict future events, even dreams in the guise of one event that clearly tell the intimate tale of another. I myself have dreamt in deja vue: dreaming the receipt of a surprise letter from an old friend, noting postage and handwriting and reading the contents aloud, and the next day, receiving that exact letter by post. It's not mine to explain, but when this kind of experiential slip of time and dimension jars our accepted measure of what is real and what is not, the aftermath is often a more fluid personal definition of fate. History begins to seem less of a chronological march and more dimensional; interlocking rings in which personal and global events tangentially spin through many planes of meaning.

In talking with a friend today about work, specifically about inviting in a major change in career and residence sometime in the near future, I used the phrase, "Open to what the universe brings." Not because I believe in random or directionless fate, but because I sense that there is in life the path we choose, the path we encounter, and all the nuances and variables in between. Sometimes we try so hard to direct the future, we fail to see what comes up naturally around the bend. In my life it has always seemed to work out best when I simply commit to a desired direction and let my inner spiritual GPS "recalculate" as I go.

Lately, my own dreams have involved change as well: a temporary house, painted a remarkable yellow; adventuring on an Odysseyian quest with the voices of those gone speaking as trusted muses; the physical body rhythms of packing and unpacking; an adventure with my adult children moving in and out of the action as members of the supporting cast and no longer my prime directive. All signs of inner shift. My friend? The one contemplating the big change? She gently scooped up the phrase "Open to the universe." Willing to let her next step float for now in her readiness; waiting to embrace what comes of "wait and see."

By the way, I miss novels that open big like Adam Bede by George Eliot. The writing today often too confessional, or its obverse, the chic brittle fancy. Art-less. Dialog-heavy helpings of "distraction action," missing translation. I love those narratives that sweep us up and in, that omniscient stroke of the pen, the sorcerer's dark conjuring... The inky trace of change.
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Secret Things

Huckleberry picking

Let us look for secret things
somewhere in the world,
on the blue shore of silence
or where the storm has passed,
rampaging like a train.
There the faint signs are left,
coins of time and water,
debris, celestial ash
and the irreplaceable rapture
of sharing in the labour
of solitude and the sand.

- from "Forget About Me," Pablo Neruda

I found myself dragging into my study this morning, deeply missing the recent vacation en plein air experience of working on my writing in the morning sun on the deck, or down on the dock by the cold lapping lake waters. Something expands the horizons within the mind when you work outdoors, within nature. Different rhythms of creative energy occur; the thermostat of the soul re-calibrates, relaxes the body. The jazz-like syncopation of nature's backup singers catch our ear - the dragon fly, jumping fish, bird cry - the melodies of the world around us. Obversely, something distinctly cramped and confining occurs returning to the four walls of an office: the fixed boundaries of space and vision, the persistent humming of tech, the edges of a geometry designed for efficiency.

It took great discipline to walk in my study, sit down, and begin to work this week. Just as it took discipline to lace up my running shoes this morning and hit the city streets after the freedom of flying down lakeside trails. Striking pavement, I still feel earth, soft underfoot with hot dust and pine needles. The sudden cool silk against skin slipping through patches of deep dappled shade, charged with joy at the many unexpected natural vistas. The pastoral song and the city beat. Somehow I have to move between the two, without losing either creative focus or the inner furnace of steadily-stoked energy that fuels the life I lead and the work I do.

Perhaps it is enough to give space to the transition. To appreciate the small pine cone on the branch of wrapped horsehair moss and love that it now sits on my desk. To contemplate, as Neruda writes, the "blue shores of silence" for the many small reminders of secret things.
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Friendship

Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends,
Mmm, gonna try with a little help from my friends...
Yes I get by with a little help from my friends,
with a little help from my friends...


- from "I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends," The Beatles


Recently we have been up at the lake in the panhandle of North Idaho, not far from the Canadian border. We have done our usual favorite things - swim, hike, run the trails, pick huckleberries, read and relax under the pine trees. But midweek in our vacation, my daughter, 23, drove the 100 or so miles back into town to support a friend of hers she has stayed close with since high school who was undergoing an unexpected surgery. During the time she was gone, I reflected on the strength of their friendship: that her friend even confided in my daughter about her upcoming surgery, that my daughter immediately made plans to be there for the early morning procedure, to be with the family, and sustain her friend with her simple presence. They are both remarkable young women studying in the life sciences. I paid quiet attention, watching the way my daughter marshaled her resources, worked family professional contacts at the hospital to find the perfect way to support her friend and her family. Her determination to rise early, make the drive through the mountains alone, wait with the family and help with the medical debriefing and explanations, to be with her friend post op. These are the characteristics of a mature and responsive adult. A person who cares.

I think one of the gifts of any youthful friendship that grows and endures, lies in the exposure to adult decision-making that accompanies any life journey. From confronting experiences that require understanding, tolerance, and forgiveness, weathering confusion or disagreement, to believing in the best of one another, accepting the distortions and complications of time, dating and marriage, distance... Young people who develop close attachments experience the challenges and rewards of adulthood in the companionship of that very same friendship. I do not personally know how my daughter's friend feels about her presence with her at the hospital, but I know from talking to my daughter that she experienced a profound awareness of herself and her friend, that even young as they are, they nonetheless live in the shadow of mortality, must endure the angst of waiting through the unknown, seek to optimize the power of information, skill, and in this case medicine, and lean on faith and one another. I think the gift of youthful friendships is that they become the pillars of a much older, weathered wisdom.

We love and learn together...with a "little help from our friends."
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Exits

Girls with Goals: Hartford Half Marathon Finish

Really, Claire thought, some exits you needed to practice ahead of time.
- Erica Bauermeister, THE SCHOOL OF ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS

It is an uncanny paradox, that we know we are ready for change before we actually make the shift and alter our lives. Our inner selves quietly rehearse an exit that our brains are not yet fully aware we plan to follow through on. Form follows function? Perhaps. Maybe we are just a wave or two behind ourselves, one part of ourselves leading the other. Gently, or not: sometimes it's a kick in the butt. Change this now, or else.

I have been following the inner struggles of a good friend, a woman who has circled around the same dilemma for years. Her pattern has always been to take on a new resolve, remake herself, celebrate the new exciting person she has become, yet doubt creeps in, confidence is lost, she falls back into that old previous rut, and the cycle begins anew. Only as most of us have discovered, the falls get steadily harder, the rut deeper, the cynicism and self-doubt grow with every single time we fail to believe in ourselves. I told her recently as she touched on the frustrations of her misery, her struggle evident in her voice, that I will "always come and find her." Dig deep, listen, reflect the truth. Regardless of the number of rise and falls life drags us through, I believe in the practice of exits. That someday, somehow, we WILL step free of what limits us. That we shall genuinely, simply, and purely release and forever redefine. The personal paradox between reality and desire changes when we suddenly see what the truth of our self truly is.

I think my friend is about done with "practice." I sense in her a momentum, grounded in a growing awareness, that for her this is all as simple as letting go of the doubt. That ending the cycle of attempt and stumble lies on the other side of a clean decision. The decision, as our old pal Yoda put it, to "Do. There is no try." I am excited to see where her next run at her future, her own heroic Olympic attempt at a personal best record, takes her.

I think this time she will fly.
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