Transforming Regrets

Sunset

My lifelong-learning French course (which a late friend began more than thirty years ago) is now run like an ongoing book group conducted in French. This week was my turn to lead the class—a daunting prospect because of my miscellaneous insecurities and deficiencies. Some in the class are native French speakers; many of the others are retired French teachers or lived in France for an extended time. I merely studied some French in high school and college, lived for a year and a half in a dorm where we were supposed to speak French all of the time, and spent three miraculous weeks in France in January 1972.

But I prepared carefully for Monday’s class, and my classmates were kind and encouraging, so I survived and even enjoyed the experience. We were talking about the last four chapters of Philippe Claudel’s novel Quelques-uns des cent regrets[1] (Some of My One Hundred Regrets), which prompted lively discussion. In the novel, the narrator describes his return to his childhood town for the funeral and burial of his mother, with whom he has been estranged for half of his thirty-two years. The short novel (154 pages) is not available in English. Its vivid scenes and characters—including some elements reminiscent of magic realism—account for both the book’s difficulty for non-native French speakers and its power. Quelques-uns des cent regrets is well worth the effort if you have a fairly solid reading knowledge of French.

The title comes from a parable-like story that the hotel owner in the novel tells the narrator: Human regrets are like the pearls that oysters create, treasures “qui possèdent le souvenir, la mémoire de la blessure”—“that possess the recollection, the memory of the injury.”[2]  Each person, according to the legend, is allotted one-hundred regrets in a lifetime. Each regret is written into a magnificent illuminated book called The Book of Debts. Shortly after a person’s one-hundredth regret has been written in the book, the person dies.[3]

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Catching of Pearls, Bern Physiologus (9th century illuminated manuscript), by unknown, public domain

Making Meaning Out of My Entries in The Book of Debts

I imagine that I have company—billions of companions—in struggling with guilt, with how to move from inundating guilt to regrets transformed into meaningful memories. And so I have asked my higher self and guides for their advice. Here is the response (which I’ve also included in my book A Woman in Time):

Making mistakes to learn from is part of the point of it all. As you know, of course, you can’t change the past, but if you look back, you will see that you made your mistakes out of a lack of understanding, knowledge, and insight, not from a desire to hurt or harm others. As you have grown in wisdom, you have made better choices. You have more to learn, more to grow, but that is why you are on Earth: to learn and to grow. If you allow the past to weigh you down, you will restrict the potential inherent in the present and future. Some of the wisdom you have now grew out of your errors and mistakes. Such is the way of life on Earth. If you were perfect, you would not be here.

See the attitudes that misled—and mislead—you. Because of things that happened to you in school and your lack of understanding at the time, you grew to believe that even small faults or infractions make you unacceptable to others. You thought—and to a degree still believe—that some inherent flaw in you meant you had to be even more careful of slipping up than others needed to be. Others could make mistakes and do or say wrong things and still be acceptable, but you had to be pretty much perfect even to have a chance of being accepted. And to an extent—too great an extent—you still feel that way. Even though you have close friends, you fear you are one gaffe away from having them throw you overboard.

Because they loved you—and love you—your parents disliked your reflex of saying “I’m sorry,” but you even now continue to fear and act as if failing to sprinkle the magic powder of “sorry” over what feel to you like your slipups and transgressions will mean the loss of the possibility of forgiveness and continued inclusion by those you want to please and whose company you value.

Your attitudes have brought you great suffering and pressure and have contributed, to a large measure, to the hurt and harm you have inflicted on others, especially your dearest ones. It is hard to live under such pressure to be perfect as you have endured and not have negative symptoms appear from the strain. And the irony is, of course, that your behavior was anything but perfect as a result. But it and you were and are very human, as are all people on this Earth: getting along as you can, given your level of insight and experience.

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Black pearl on oyster shell, by Brocken Inaglory – own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Creating Pearls Out of Pain

About some things you know better now. As hard as it is to change ingrained conditioning, it can be done, and you can do it. But if you allow yourself to live in regret, you will never become the whole, mature, compassionate, confident, loving, creative person you wish to be. You gave up smoking and other destructive behaviors; you can also give up thinking you have to be perfect to find even the hope of approval by others. And you can learn to release regret, letting the sad thoughts float through your mind and out again without anchoring there.

You want to make up for all the causes for regret in your life, and while doing so per se is impossible, you will make up for your past lack of wisdom by moving forward buoyed by what the years have taught you. Find missing courage and be yourself, doing the best you can but not beating yourself when you stumble. You will stumble less if you refuse to see yourself as less than others, refuse to look down on yourself, mourn what is lost without wallowing in guilt and fear, and celebrate what your errors and unhappiness have taught you. The way to find your way is to be, knowing that life is about becoming, not about figuring it all out at the start.

When you make a mistake, consider the lesson and move on. Keep going. Hold your head high. Have compassion for yourself, as well as for others. Expect yourself to be a good human being, not a perfect being.

Those you love will be cheering you on, are cheering you now. They are not counting your flaws and failures; they are celebrating your courage and your victories.

[1] Philippe Claudel, Quelques-uns des cent regrets (Paris : Éditions Stock, 2007).

[2] Quelques-uns des cent regrets, 152.

[3] Quelques-uns des cent regrets, 152-3.

Questioning and Changing

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Statue of St. Francis, Our Lady of Angels Convent, Aston, Pennsylvania

An Epiphany

On March 18, 2018, I was in an audience of several-dozen Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia and companions in faith.  We were listening to a lecture by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton, retired auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Detroit.  (Even though since childhood I have been a member of the Religious Society of Friends—the Quakers—I am a Franciscan companion, meaning in part that I meet for faith sharing with several other lay companions in faith and with Franciscan sisters.)  Bishop Gumbleton was the founding president of the U.S. branch of Pax Christi International, an international Catholic movement working for peace.

Bishop Gumbleton is profoundly committed to peace, and therefore, I believe, profoundly committed to the fundamental message of Jesus.  Bishop Gumbleton said, for example, “If Jesus did not reject the use of violence for any reason, we know nothing about Jesus.”  Pax Christi International includes an inspiring Vow of Nonviolence on their website.  Bishop Gumbleton is also thoroughly devoted to full equality for all, within the Church and throughout society.  I was so moved by the bishop’s message that at one point I turned to my friend sitting next to me and said, “I am going to join the Church.”  I wish to spend the rest of my life doing what I can to live the Pax Christi International Vow of Nonviolence, which I believe reflects Jesus’s teaching and example.

My decision to join the Catholic Church has followed three years of active participation with the Franciscans, including frequently attending Mass and taking part in numerous retreats led by the Sisters of St. Francis.  Until hearing Bishop Gumbleton, however, I believed that I would always remain a Quaker and never convert.  Since March 18, my sudden decision to join the Church has continued to seem valid, but I have felt the need to examine my decision, and I do so as follows.  As in some other blog posts, I write as though wiser voices are speaking to me in answer to my question—and perhaps they are.  The response to my question is probably much more than you will want to read, but I include it all in case anything is useful to anyone.

My Question: Am I doing the right thing to resign from the Religious Society of Friends and join the Catholic Church as a Franciscan?

You are not doing the wrong thing to come to this decision.  You were dangling, not knowing where to go, how to move forward, and so it is right now to make the best choice you can and go in that direction.  You are finding a spiritual home that speaks to you.  It will not be perfect.  Nothing in this life is perfect.

You wish that you could return to the Quakerism—to the Religious Society of Friends—of your childhood, with the weighty Quakers of your parents’ generation and the generations before, with your parents’ wise and inspired messages, with the Phillips sisters and Robert Maris and Edith Rhoads, with hymn singing before and after Meeting, with the sense of mystery and beauty, of something grand and lovely, meaningful and ready to accompany you throughout your life.

But your parents’ generation and those before are gone.  As much as you like those Quakers you know from your own generation and respect their sincerity and their community involvement, much seems missing from what you once knew.  And as much as Meeting members speak of the wisdom they have inherited from the past, the Meeting you hoped to find again lives only in memory.  Whatever the degree to which the changes you see are in your own perception, they are nonetheless true for you.

In contrast, you find a wealth of what you love in the nearby Franciscan convent and their chapel, where you enthusiastically attend Mass.  The sisters are warm and seem sincerely happy to see you.  When they teach and share, their spirituality is as vibrant as the spirit you used to find within the beautiful old meetinghouse at 4th and West Streets.  In part it is the Franciscans’ music that envelops you: even when the choir is not singing, the congregation sings with gusto and conviction, knowing music resonates throughout the universe in the love of God, creation, and one another.

Wilmington Meetinghouse
Wilmington (Del.) Meetinghouse, Religious Society of Friends – Drawing by Mason Hayek

You are not in complete alignment with all of the Catholic beliefs, even among the Franciscans.  But like Quakers, Franciscans consider themselves seekers, believe in continuing revelation and ongoing conversion, have nonviolence as a central value, and embrace all people as brothers and sisters.  You profoundly admire and wish to advance the Franciscan commitment to peace: to serving and valuing all people; to welcoming strangers; to feeding, encouraging, teaching, healing, and clothing those in need; to honoring and preserving the Earth.  You feel that Franciscans such as the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia are living Christ’s and St. Francis’s messages of love and kindness.

You see every human being as a child of God, and the Quaker belief in that of God within every person is not contrary to the Franciscan view of creation.  But the most daunting area of doubt for you is your uncertainty about Christ’s nature.  You do not know if Christ was more completely the child of God than are all other people throughout time.  You wonder whether the difference is that Christ expressed love and kindness through his life vastly more fully, deeply, and profoundly than the rest of humanity has done and is doing.  In other words, is the difference between Christ and other people a difference in essence, or is it entirely in the way he lived his life?

Clearly the doctrine of transubstantiation is another source of questions for you, but you have decided that the ceremony of Communion is a beautiful way to nurture your commitment to taking Christ’s life into your life, into your heart, soul, and all your being and ways of being.  And you are seeking to become clearer in your beliefs through reading, as well as through attending programs in the Franciscan Spiritual Center, continuing as a companion in faith to the Sisters of St. Francis, and talking, as you love to do, with your dear friend who is a Franciscan.

Spiritual Wanderings

Let’s look at your spiritual journey as an adult.  During the many years that you lived away from the Wilmington-Philadelphia region, you never found a Quaker Meeting that felt like your spiritual home, and you tried quite a few.  A Meeting outside Washington, D.C., came close to drawing you, but only briefly.  In Ellsworth, Maine, you attended the Congregational Church fairly regularly, as you also did in Northampton, Massachusetts, where you joined the choir.  In both cases, eventually you stopped attending.  In Washington, D.C., you liked to attend the Episcopal service in the National Cathedral from time to time.  The magnificent church and pageantry pleased you.  You tried the Washington Ethical Society, but without continuing.

After returning to Delaware, you were unable to attend the Wilmington Meeting for a time because of the smell of gas in the meetinghouse.  You visited a couple of other area Meetings, but always something ruled them out for you.  For example, one Sunday you entered a meetinghouse and sat down to quiet yourself and wait for Meeting to begin.  But a woman already present said in a haughty voice, “We’re going to be having a Meeting for Worship here,” as if you were an intruder rather than a visitor to be welcomed.  You left immediately and did not return.

You began regularly attending the Unitarian Church in North Wilmington.  You enjoyed the services and minister, sang in the choir, and were thrilled by the quality of the music in the church.  You’d had a similar experience in Chevy Chase, Maryland, at a small Christian Church (as the Disciples of Christ denomination is known).  But then you changed apartments and didn’t make the trek back to Chevy Chase on Sundays.  And so on, and so on.

In Delaware, you left the Unitarians after the heating system in the 4th and West Meetinghouse was repaired and you were able to return.  That was a happy time.  On Sundays you sat between your parents on your family’s favorite bench.  You were active on Meeting committees.  You had come home, or so you thought.  Even after your father’s passing, you and your mother were active in the Meeting until after your move to southeastern Pennsylvania—not a long distance to return to the meetinghouse on Sundays, but life changed, and then the Meeting seemed gradually to forget, and you felt sad and that your mother had been betrayed through the Meeting’s neglect.

When you expressed your hurt recently, you found the members of Meeting exceedingly kind, and you realized that loving feelings and appreciation toward your parents still remained among the Wilmington Quakers.  Yet after a few Sundays of thinking that perhaps you had, after all, returned to stay, you did not continue to attend Meeting.  Your affection and appreciation for present friends and Friends (as Quakers are also known) did not recreate the Friends and Meeting of the years now lost.  The Meeting has gone on without you, and in spite of the kindness shown to you, you are no longer at home there, and you are not drawn to try to rekindle your belonging.  The contrast between your approach-avoidance relationship with the Meeting and your enthusiastic attendance at Mass, retreats, companion meetings, and other events with the Franciscans is notable.

Forio at Sunset 2
I like to think of rays of sunlight as God shining on us.

Not So Unexpected after All

You have had a fascination with Catholicism for much of your life, even though it was not until you became involved with the Franciscans that you understood how Quaker-you might find a fertile spiritual garden within the Catholic Church.  Consider some of your connections with Catholicism over the years.  At summer camp, you spent hours discussing ideas with your best friend, who was Catholic.  You played your guitar at folk masses in college.  Within your second college major, your emphasis was on medieval history, which was largely a history of the Church.  One of your favorite activities in Europe was visiting churches—Chartres, Notre-Dame de Paris, and countless churches in Italy.  And remember the joy you felt in waking up to church bells in Rome.

You have been inspired by Gregorian Chant and adore the magnificent religious music that has followed it through the centuries.  And who was your best friend when you were in Pisa for a couple of weeks to learn Italian?  It was a Franciscan brother.  Your fascination with the Vatican has included reading several books on that subject.  Consider your satisfaction in viewing religious art of the Renaissance.  Of course, as a literature major, you have a strong appreciation for spiritual poetry and prose, from the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins to Franciscan Richard Rohr’s many books that speak to your heart and mind.  And then you also feel the strong appeal of being part of a spiritual tradition that joins you with a billion current followers and with worshipers from the entire two millennia since Christ.

You will not find a perfect match anywhere.  You will not agree with every quality and characteristic you find in any of the world’s religions.  But paradoxically, the Catholic faith now seems closest to who you are and want to be.  No real contradiction exists between the spiritual hearts of Quakerism and Franciscan Catholicism.  Some of the externals are different, but not the essence that matters most.

So yes, you can take your Quaker heart into a Catholic church without denying parts of yourself or turning your back on your spiritual history and the beloved heritage given to you by your parents.  You are not changing who you are; you are finding new settings for expressing your spiritual beliefs and values more fully than you are currently managing to do in the meetinghouse that once felt entirely inspiring, comforting, and embracing.  While you continue to be a seeker and are growing somewhat in your understanding, you have not fundamentally changed your spiritual outlook.  Circumstances have changed, however, and to continue to grow as you wish to do, you need to feel free to embrace new means of nurturing your soul.

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Godspeed.

Forty Guidelines for Becoming a Classic

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“With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.”
William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice (1.1.82)
  1. Know that it’s not too late.

  2. Know that you’re not too old.

  3. Cultivate your own individual style.

  4. Be yourself; let others do the same. And avoid trying to find your satisfaction vicariously through someone else’s life.

  5. Be able to articulate your values and beliefs.

  6. Each day, use your creativity, interests, and talents in some way.

  7. Write/Draw/Dance/Play music . . . to satisfy yourself, not for anyone else’s approval.

  8. Embrace this truth: If you try to do something according to someone else’s opinions—in place of your own—you’ll probably either not like the results or give up before finishing.

  9. Acknowledge that if you’re procrastinating, there’s something wrong with the situation. Figure out and address the problem.

  10. Learn something new every day.

  11. Learn for the pleasure of learning.

  12. Have a sense of purpose in life and keep that purpose shining in your heart and mind.

  13. Understand that your sense of purpose doesn’t have to be flashy, obvious to others, or highly specific (such as “become a bestselling author” or “sing Aida at the Met”).

  14. Develop and keep routines and traditions that support order and meaning in your life. Include time for meditation and reflection.

  15. Notice the interesting small details in nature and all of life.

  16. Keep a journal so that ideas, impressions, and memories don’t fade and days don’t get lost in the tide of years.

  17. Practice being fully present in the moment.

  18. Define the present moment as meaningful and interesting.

  19. Discover the positive potential and lessons in difficult situations.

  20. Value your blessings while you have them, and not just in hindsight.

  21. Do the best you can and then let it go. Don’t rehash the past by asking, “Did I really do my best and try my hardest?”

  22. Once a situation is past, forgive everyone for everything (which does not mean letting bad situations recur).

  23. Realize that other peoples’ behavior makes sense from their frame of reference.

  24. Don’t try to change other people, but allow for the possibility of their changing. (Your example is more powerful than your arguments.)

  25. Believe that no matter how hard others try to make you feel inferior, you are an equally important and valuable human being.

  26. Minimize contact with energy vampires and other people who don’t make you feel good about yourself.

  27. Don’t allow yourself to feel like a child who has misbehaved. You acted as you did for a reason, even if you will look at the situation differently next time.

  28. Look for and take opportunities to give honest encouragement.

  29. Recognize that encouraging others doesn’t mean trying to please them to win their favor.

  30. Don’t allow yourself to act out of fear of rejection or criticism.

  31. In relationships, act from the beginning according to the principle of mutual respect; it can be exceedingly difficult to change the relationship dynamics later.

  32. Identify a mentor to help you strengthen your confidence, courage, and dedication to your values and life focus. A mentor can be someone you admire but don’t know personally.

  33. Find and seize opportunities to see life from others’ perspectives and situations.

  34. If you’re lonely, reach out to someone to whom you could give pleasure.

  35. Be aware that reaching out to and helping others can take many forms, including writing and other creative endeavors.

  36. Don’t value helping strangers above helping family members and other loved ones: both kinds of service are infinitely important, so serve where and how you can.

  37. Realize that if you fail to honor your own fundamental needs, you won’t be able to continue helping others over the long haul.

  38. If you are doing an assignment or task for someone else, first accept it consciously as something you are choosing to do, and then put your own stamp on it.

  39. Accept that getting stressed won’t lead to greater punctuality/perfection/approval than will staying calm.

  40. Strive, in your own way, to advance justice and kindness.

No One Is an Island

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
-John Donne (1572-1631), Meditation XVII

I first read Island of the Blue Dolphins at summer camp, several decades ago. I remembered that I loved it, but the storyline had left my memory. Out of curiosity I reread the book this weekend. Island of the Blue Dolphins is a children’s novel published in 1960 by Scott O’Dell (1898-1989). It is a story about getting on with life no matter what happens. And what happens to Karana, a Native American girl who finds herself alone on San Nicolas Island (known as the Island of the Blue Dolphins), off the coast of California, is among the worst fates that I can imagine.

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Original cover, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1960 (By Source, Fair use, via Wikipedia.)

The story—which won the 1961 John Newbery Medal “for the most distinguished American children’s book published the previous year”[1]—is based on a real situation experienced by a woman who lived alone on San Nicolas Island from 1835 to 1853.[2]

Karana’s mother has died before the novel begins. Then in the novel, Chief Chowig, Karana’s father, is killed in a battle with Aleuts who came to the island to hunt sea otters and have reneged on their agreement to share the pelts equitably. Later, because most of the men on the island have been killed in the fight with the Aleuts, the remaining islanders decide to abandon their home and leave on a rescue ship.

When Karana quickly discovers that her little brother, Romo, is not on the ship, she jumps overboard to be with him and await rescue by another ship. Before long, however, Romo is killed by wild dogs. Karana is then completely alone—to me, one of life’s most terrifying possibilities. Most of the novel tells the story of how she survives until her rescue years later by a missionary ship. It turns out that the ship that had taken her people to California had sunk before it could return for her and Romo.

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Map showing San Nicolas Island (By Lencer – own work, used:Google EarthUSA California location map.svg by User:NordNordWest for MinimapIdea: Californian Channelislands.jpg by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Karana has lessons to share.

Here is what I admire most about Karana:

  1. Karana comes to recognize that animals are to be valued and treated with respect as fellow sentient beings, rather than exploited. She befriends the leader among the wild dogs and his son, birds, and an otter and stops hunting or eating animals (other than fish).
  2. Of course Karana finds her life difficult—facing, for example, ferocious wild dogs, a tsunami and earthquake, and the eventual return of the Aleuts—but she finds pleasure, too, and never loses her hope, her courage, or her ability to get on with what needs to be done, no matter how challenging.
  3. In order to survive, Karana accepts the need to break the boundaries her people have set concerning appropriate activities for women. She tackles the tasks she must surmount to overcome each of the daunting obstacles she faces.
  4. Even though she is alone, Karana has self-respect and an appreciation for beauty. She makes herself a pretty skirt of cormorant feathers. During her brief, secret friendship with Tutok—a girl who has accompanied the Aleuts to help with chores during their return visit to the island—Tutok gives her a beautiful necklace that Karana admires. She makes a seashell headband as a gift for Tutok in return.
  5. Karana understands the need for and gift of friendship. Her animal friends are deeply important to her, but she never loses the desire for human companionship. And so when a missionary ship finally comes for her, she is willing to leave the Island of the Blue Dolphins. She has proven herself able to go on alone, but solitude is not her choice. The lesson for me is that she was able to live, even thrive, while waiting for human contact to return.

I am blessed with exceedingly close and dear friends, but sometimes when I close my apartment door, the weight of being alone smothers me like a blanket thrown over me. Can you imagine what life must have been like for the real woman who was alone on San Nicolas Island for almost two decades?  In Island of the Blue Dolphins, Karana, though a child and a fictional character, gives us an example to emulate.

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San Nicolas Island from the air (By United States Navy, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.)

No one is truly alone.

Beyond following Karana’s example, what can we do to overcome our feelings of being alone, whether we are truly without human companionship or are in the throes of temporary loneliness?  Let me share what I imagine wise and loved ones in the light have advised me—and perhaps they truly have: Here is an excerpt from the essay “Alone,” from my memoir A Woman in Time:

You are not alone. You think you are alone, but you are not. Yet each person feels alone on this Earth to a certain extent. That is the human experience, but it is not the eternal experience in God’s world. It is a mirage, but a hard one, and a great gift to others is to help take away their loneliness.

You think that you are an odd duck, that you don’t fit in. You fit in as well as all do. Great popularity is rare, and even where it exists, there is the sense of being alone at the center. But it is just a sense, not reality. “We are born alone and die alone” seems true but is false. Your mother and father are with you, your Father is with you, and we are with you—and many more are with you, too. And on top of all these eternal connections, all human souls are connected, united, and you are with the woman in Africa and the woman and man in the Far East, and they are with you.

You can help others realize that they are loved and that they have love to give, even when they feel completely isolated and alone.

Enjoy the day, enjoy life. Give joy and help others by showing them that they belong, that we all belong to one another in caring and responsibility.

When I am feeling alone, I can also follow Karana’s example: confronting my challenges with courage, maintaining my dignity and sense of purpose, reveling in nature’s companionship and magnificence, and never allowing myself to lose hope.

[1] http://www.ala.org/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia/newberymedal/aboutnewbery/aboutnewbery.

[2] https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2016/06/a-critical-look-at-odells-island-of.html.

Moon Dreams

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Moonrise, by Stanislaw Maslowski, 1884; National Museum, Kraków  (Stanisław Masłowski [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.)

“Moonspinners.  They’re naiads—you know, water nymphs.  Sometimes, when you’re deep in the countryside, you meet three girls, walking along the hill tracks in the dusk, spinning.  They each have a spindle, and on to these they are spinning their wool, milk-white, like the moonlight.  In fact, it is the moonlight, the moon itself. . . . all they have to do is to see that the world gets its hours of darkness, and they do this by spinning the moon down out of the sky.”[1]

The Moon-Spinners, by Mary Stewart (1916-2014), tells the story of a young Englishwoman, Nicola Ferris, who works for the British Embassy in Athens and is on vacation in Crete with her cousin.  While exploring in the mountains on the day before her cousin arrives, Nicola discovers a young Englishman, Mark Langley, and his Greek guide, Lambis, who have witnessed a murder.  The murderers have shot Mark and left him for dead and have taken his teenaged brother, Colin.  Nicola tends to Mark’s wound and then ignores his and Lambis’s instructions to go on with her holiday without getting further involved in their plight.  The characters Nicola meets in the tiny hotel in the village of Agios Georgios turn out, of course, to be in the thick of the mystery, and Nicola remains anything but uninvolved.

Transporting Teenaged Me

The novel, with its captivating and exotic setting, romance, suspense, and—of course—happy ending, helped me to endure high school, during which I dreaded every day.  Most of my teachers relentlessly repeated the mantra, “If you don’t have top grades, you won’t get into college.”  I felt unbearable pressure to sustain my good average and a constant fear of failing to continue measuring up.

In my high-school class of 550, friends were available even for the socially insecure, as I was.  I liked my friends and always had a place with them in the lunchroom, but I didn’t have a high-school through-thick-and-thin best friend the way I’d had a best friend at summer camp, and I craved that kind of friend.  I also wanted a boyfriend.  Senior year I did have Wayne, whom I’d met at camp, but he lived three hours away, and I never did manage to talk myself into caring about him without big reservations.  I played the flute in the school band, but prime social scenes such as the yearly musical and the cheerleading squad were closed to mousy me.

The Moon-Spinners and other Mary Stewart novels were my escape, my salvation.  I read them in between, and sometimes instead of, my towering assignments and daydreamed about finding a handsome young man in distress to rescue.  When I hear the name “Mary Stewart,” I see myself sprawled on the pink spread covering my bed in my room on Rockingham Drive.  Mother and Daddy are in the kitchen and will soon call me to supper.  The notebooks and textbooks surrounding me are taunting me, not always loudly enough to make me turn to them but raucously enough both to taint and to sweeten my time with Mary Stewart’s romantic, adventurous young heroines and heroes.

Still Inspiring Yearning

The Moon-Spinners was not quite as appealing to me when I read it this week as it was when I read it in the 1960s.  The frequent lists of flowers and other plants, for instance, seem contrived, or perhaps it’s that I don’t share Mary Stewart’s fascination with identifying every single plant as it is confronted.  Nicola Ferris’s cousin, Frances Scorby, is a botanist, which explains Frances’s knowledge of plants, but Nicola also names one after the other, even as she is worrying about potential murderers around each turn.  Then, too, the climax of the book seems forced, with Mark, Colin, and Lambis—with help from Nicola—defeating the villain in a somewhat cartoon-like brawl.

But The Moon-Spinners still stirs my yearnings.  Teenaged me told herself stories of finding a young man like Mark who needed my tender care to recover from some dire illness or injury and who would love me absolutely.  To go to sleep at night, I daydreamed my way into his story, over and over.  I still remember how I visualized Mark’s/my young man’s cave-like hideout in the mountains.  I continue to dream sometimes of a similar man—although healthy and no longer young—whom I would tenderly love and who would love me absolutely in return.

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Windmills such as Nicola might have seen on Crete  (Photo by Pavlemadrid, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Beyond the inexhaustible plant life, The Moon-Spinners vividly describes the scenery of Crete, and the sails of the Greek windmills helped spin me into the world of the story.  And so as I read The Moon-Spinners this week, I wanted to be overseas, minus the criminals of course, at least for a few weeks of quiet and wandering.  I still yearn to explore foreign lands, sleep in quaint villages, taste cultures and lives vastly different from my own.  I’ve had the blessing of visiting Europe five times, but I crave returning.

Transforming Yearning

That dream is perhaps more likely to be real than is the arrival of the man whom I sought so earnestly in my younger years and for whom I still keep a candle burning.  Even now the longings sometimes tug at me:

Wishing for a man—
To love and be loved—
Crept back today
As I danced with the women
In our line-dancing club
To a country tune our leader played.

The singer was holding his lady dear,
And I waltzed-two-three,
Turned-two-three,
Wrapped within motion,
And the words pulled longing
Out from under the years,
And it waltzed with me
Again-two-three.[2]

Yet other times I think I am too busy, too happily overbooked, to welcome Prince Charming into my life at this point.  (But he’s welcome to stop by; a woman can change her mind.)

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A rural road in Tuscany

With or without a plane ticket to Europe, I can answer some of my other longings.  I wish to wander the Tuscan countryside.  But whether I ever return to Tuscany or not, I can walk by the pond in our community and explore the grounds of nearby Longwood Gardens and Winterthur.  They’re not Tuscan, but they’re filled with beauty.  I can continue studying Italian, read books in Italian and about Italy, and go on loving and listening to Andrea Bocelli, with a concert to thrill me from time to time.  And I have been to Tuscany and have masses of memories to savor.

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Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris  (Photo by Zuffe – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.)

I remember the last time I saw Paris, or rather the only time I saw Paris.  I was young and Paris was magnificent.  How blessed I am!  I may not return, but as with my Tuscan reveries, I can remember how it was, study the language, and throw myself into vicarious adventures via books, movies, and music.

Becoming a Moonspinner

Whether or not I again see distant lands, and whether or not my aging prince ever gallops up to my door, life goes on spinning beautiful tales under my waning but still-shining moon.  The darkening moon is with me, with us all, as completely as the full moon.  As the Moonspinners “see that the world gets its hours of darkness . . . by spinning the moon down out of the sky,” the waning moon gives us time to see the stars that illuminate our lives with their subtler lights.  And so:

I shall warm myself in the cool evenings by my own fires
And by the fires of losses turned into memories
And regrets into experience.
I will, like the roses of autumn, bloom in beauty and tranquility
With no thought of the frost to come.[3]

I will nurture peace within myself.  Then perhaps I can become a better Moonspinner, sharing comfort and serenity, harmony and repose.

 

[1] Mary Stewart, The Moon-Spinners (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1962), p. 74  in the Kindle edition.
[2] Winifred Burgess Hayek, “The Waltz,” A Woman in Time (CreateSpace 2016), p. 160.
[3] Winifred Burgess Hayek, from “North Country August,” A Woman in Time, p. 255.

 

Trying to Turn What I Say into What I Do

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
In becoming a classic, you don’t have to be perfect.

Sometimes I’m pretty wise about other people.  After all, I’ve been hanging around earth for quite a while, and I’ve been paying attention.  My powers of observation, however, substantially exceed the example I set.  In this post, rather than citing others’ work, I quote some of my own advice from my list of “Forty Guidelines for Becoming a Classic.”  But then I explore the gaps between what I say and what I (am so far able to) do.  This essay is in the second person because I am giving myself a good talking-to.  Perhaps some of my self-talk will also be relevant for you.

The Point of It All

I’ll begin with a piece of advice that is both an obsession and a challenge for me: Have a sense of purpose in life and keep that purpose shining in your heart and mind.

Winnie, since your earliest adulthood, you have sought a sense of purpose, a way to serve, through writing.  But you have wanted the heavens to open and present you with the perfect project, the golden one that will engage you for the rest of your days and give meaning to your existence.  Even if the heavens did give you what you seek, would you be able to move forward, or would your fear of not being equal to the task soon send you back to procrastination and distress?  You have had dozens of adequate ideas for major writing projects, but you have sooner or later rejected nearly all of them as either defective ideas or as ideas for which you are defective in your ability to bring them to life.  Finally, however, your editing your parents’ memoirs, publishing your own, and finishing your novel are evidence that you are not irredeemable in your inability to move forward in your writing.

Birmingham Meeting - pen and ink
Birmingham Meetinghouse, West Chester, Pennsylvania – Drawing by Mason Hayek, from his memoir, Growing to 80

And as you are beginning to recognize, your writing is a flexible way for you to serve and to express yourself.  Just as you have sought and pursued a wide range of experiences in your life, you will do best and find greatest peace of mind if you accept that you will write in the service of many different subjects, people, and areas of expression.  Yours is a life about broad, varied activities and not about devotion to a single area, such as virtuosity on an instrument—or repeated excellence in novel writing.  This is not to say that you can’t write a novel, even a good novel—and, of course, you have already tried your hand at a novel that expresses some of your heartfelt interests and values.  But your life is not designed to parallel, say, Jane Austen’s, Elena Ferrante’s, Isabel Allende’s, or J.K. Rowling’s.  And so: Understand that your sense of purpose doesn’t have to be flashy, obvious to others, or highly specific (such as “become a bestselling author” or “sing Aida at the Met”).

Dance Skirmishes and Other Melees

Another situation preying on your mind right now is the kerfuffle in your dance session on Friday.  Let’s figure out what happened, why you let yourself get upset with a member of your amateur dance troupe; we’ll call her Hilda.  You have, for years, objected to Hilda’s sometimes imperious (in your opinion) ways and railed against what you perceive as the unfairness of her dictatorial (in your estimation) pronouncements.  The obvious question is: why associate, when you don’t have to, with people who upset you—and, at this point in your development, inspire responses ranging from headaches and stress (the usual outcome) to letting your feelings fly, as you did on Friday.  You were reacting rather than attacking; it was a defense that you mounted, but an ineffective one that certainly did not inspire Hilda to engage in self-reflection or decide anything other than that you and your views are (in her estimation) worthy of rejection and resentment.

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You can and need to find the lessons in the situation, lessons you have not yet mastered from earlier such occasions.  From the past several years, we can think of two to-dos with similarities to Friday’s.  That’s not a lot, but you’ll acknowledge that you’ve also had many, many episodes of saying to yourself, “Let me out of here—I’ve got a terrible headache!”  The causes are similar.

One all-out to-do involved your crying in a post office in Rome, Italy, and telling Sylvia, your traveling companion, “I resign.  I quit as translator and tour guide.  I don’t want to have any more responsibilities for you or anyone else for the rest of this trip.  I’m going for a walk.”  And off you flounced in the opposite direction from the convent where the two of you were staying.  When you did finally return, you and Sylvia tenuously reconciled.  But during the night, she called friends and family back home to update them on what a rotten time she was having with you.  Fortunately for you both, you managed to part ways two days later.

Vatican Silhouette
Sometimes it’s pleasant to explore alone.

And then six years after Italy came the time you sat crying and distraught in the office of Mattie, the acting CEO where you worked.  She had, by anyone’s estimation, been truly out of line and unbearable, but she was your boss, and distraught crying is not, as you know, an effective career strategy.  Nor is it an effective reaction to any sort of bullying or other unfair behavior, no matter how egregious.  And now, ten years after your work meltdown, you have had your encounter with Hilda.

To repeat an earlier point: Minimize contact with energy vampires and other people who don’t make you feel good about yourself.  If being with someone is stressful and no necessity exists for being with this person, make the choice to stay apart.  Obviously you would come to Hilda’s aid if it were your place to do so, and certainly you will look on her with good will, but you don’t need to dance with her.  Yes, you love dancing.  Yes, people in your community expect you to dance in the community’s annual talent show.  But also yes, you can stop dancing with Hilda.  You have other ways to practice and perform your dancing.  But even if you didn’t, you need, as your wise mother sometimes phrased it, to take your sails out of Hilda’s wind.

Before boarding the plane to Italy with Sylvia, you should have, as you now know, established clear, mutually understood ground rules—such as, “We will each be free to go different places and pursue different activities.”  In other words: In relationships, act from the beginning according to the principle of mutual respect; it can be exceedingly difficult to change the relationship dynamics later.

Better yet in this case, you would have recognized the ocean of differences between your interests and personality and hers and would have avoided trying to travel together at all.  With Mattie, your job prevented you from avoiding her.  But you could have surmounted the fear, the sense of being threatened, that led to your upset with her, as well as with Sylvia and Hilda.  You believed you were about to drown under the tsunami the other person represented for you.  While each tsunami was different in its size and perceived power and danger, the image holds true for all such cases in your life.  But instead of being tsunamis, most challenging relationships represent a series of smaller waves that—if you act from a base of confidence, resolution, and mutual respect—you will be able to navigate calmly and justly, one at a time.  Of course if you can simply step away from the water, why not do so?

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Know when to get out of the water.

An Age Full of Possibilities

Other areas of your life also need attention.  You watch House and Garden Television and relish the transformation of other people’s homes.  But your own woodwork has black stains; the veneer on the kitchen cabinets is peeling, and the curtains need washing.  Again, however, your all-or-nothingness intrudes.  You are so overwhelmed by the volume of things that need doing in your little apartment that beyond keeping the place neat, you usually only act when necessity becomes profound—such as when guests are coming.  Do you also feel you don’t deserve a pretty home?

Certainly granite countertops are not one of life’s necessities, but your failure to upgrade your home in small ways that could be attainable is evidence of your unvoiced belief that life has passed you by and that you don’t deserve the possibility of having your small and large dreams realized.  Of course your life is blessed exactly as it is—particularly in the parents that were yours, in your friends and community, and in the education and life experiences you have had—but you have not fallen out of possibilities, not aged out of worthiness to hope, whether for pretty cabinets or for a return to Italy: Know that it’s not too late.  Know that you’re not too old.

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Age is a strength.
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All seasons are beautiful.

Let’s directly address the issue of aging.  While you are, for now, considered relatively young by your friends, you are not young, and most of the world does not look at you as youthful.  You subconsciously think you have slipped up somehow by letting yourself age.  While you would prefer an unlined face, your wrinkles are not enormously distressing to you, but you don’t like the “such a sweet old dear” reaction from younger people who hear that you tap dance and study French and Italian.

You sincerely believe that your older friends have enormous possibilities open to them and are inestimably valuable human beings. But perhaps because you’ve always felt that you’ve failed in so many ways to meet life’s expectations, you struggle to avoid feeling tossed out of the circle of life and into the bleachers to look on for the rest of your days.  So instead: Practice being fully present in the moment.

Look at the beautiful day you have, this very day: Notice the interesting small details in nature and all of life.  The sky is bright blue, and red buds are beginning to appear on the trees.  The region had a ferocious nor’easter at the end of last week, and another is expected this week, but now the sun is coming in your window, which is rare because your apartment faces north.  The light is reflected from the building across the way, rather than shining in directly, but you can be grateful, too—and you are—for light however it comes to you.  Remember: Define the present moment as meaningful and interesting.  And it is.

Hoping to Graduate from the Second Grade

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In my list of “Forty Guidelines for Becoming a Classic,” I include this recommendation as number 25: “Believe that no matter how hard others try to make you feel inferior, you are an equally important and valuable human being.”  I didn’t just parrot this conviction after hearing someone else say it; I believe it absolutely.  Logic tells me the statement must also apply to me, not just to other people, but sometimes my heart is not so sure.  This was one of those days.

In French class today—a lifelong-learning course filled with retirees—I returned to second grade.  I experienced again how it felt when I was seven and knew I had become unacceptable—after six years of confidence and joy.  Since second grade, I have retained the fear that I am insufficient, will be rejected after a brief veneer of belonging.  This fear has possessed my life.  I have known where it originated, in spite of my difficulty in overcoming it.  But today I didn’t simply understand why I felt insufficient.  I once again became the essence of unacceptable, rejected, unique among others in not knowing how to fit in.

What I observed is almost certainly not a true reflection of my classmates’ motivations and actions, but I’ll share what I experienced, filtered through my negative state of mind.

In the French classroom, the woman who used to sit next to me now rarely acknowledges me, and did not do so at all today.  I said “bonjour” to a pair crossing my path as they were finding their places.  One perfunctorily returned the greeting.  The second looked at me as if to say, “Who let her in?” and continued to her seat without speaking to me.  Clumps of women found their seats and huddled together, conversing before class.  I sat by myself wondering, “Is my French so poor that I have earned ostracism?  Am I disagreeable in some way that I don’t understand?”  Tears assembled, almost ready to slip past my lower lids.  I wasn’t just remembering second grade; I was there again: unworthy, an outcast, alone.

Yes, today a man in our French class did greet me in a friendly manner.  A woman classmate who is also a neighbor is always pleasant and today asked me if she would be able to ride with me sometimes, and I did exchange a few words with a couple of other women who, while evidently much more acceptable to the class powerbase than I am, are nevertheless not full members of that oligarchy.  The substantial French-class oligarchy is for me the senior version of my elementary-school classmate Hannah and her court, whom I still hear and believe fifty-five years after I last shared a class with them.  I believe them because, perhaps through the effectiveness of self-fulfilling prophecy, I continue to find their scornful assessments true.

If my confidence and self-respect hadn’t been rocky to begin with, I would not have interpreted my French classmates’ behavior as confirmation of my lowly state.  But the message today seemed to be that I have been right all along, for the sixty-one years since I was in second grade: I am unacceptably different and deficient.  I reinforced my belief that in any setting with other people, sooner or later my fatal flaws will become known.  And because I don’t understand what these flaws are—merely know they exist—I do not know how to overcome them and earn ongoing welcome among those whose world I share.

Ironically, in French class we are reading the short novel Aliocha, by Henri Troyat, who based the story on his own childhood experiences.  Alexis, whose Russian nickname is Aliocha, is the novel’s central character.  Alexis and his parents fled Russia for France after the Bolshevik Revolution.  Throughout the book, we follow Alexis’ struggle to feel truly French, truly accepted.  Even in his happiest times, the doubts try to surface: “De nouveau, Alexis se découvrait en porte à faux dans un monde construit par les autres et pour les autres.”[1]—”Once again, Alexis found himself at odds with a world made by others and for others.”  On this occasion, Alexis quickly regains his sense of belonging in his current happy setting, with his best friend and his best friend’s parents.  Except for the three summers when I had a best friend, Louise, at camp, I found myself “at odds with a world made by others and for others” at summer camp.  I also seemed to be trespassing in others’ worlds in junior-high and high school, and often in my own neighborhood.  As happened today, the exceptions—those who included me at least to some extent—whispered, while the signs of my expulsion from society screamed.

My life has been and continues to be vastly blessed.  But when, and how, am I finally going to graduate from second grade?

A question I can answer is this: What is the gift here?  Because of my own experiences—even my mistaken interpretation of others’ attitudes and actions—I have empathy for all who are bullied or otherwise see themselves as outsiders.  I also have a responsibility to help change our we-they, insider-outcast society into one that recognizes and embraces this truth: We are all one.

[1] Henri Troyat, Aliocha (Paris: Éditions Flammarion, 1991), 90.

Helen MacInnes’s Paris and Venice, and My Own

Grand Canal, Venice

The idea of rereading a novel by Helen MacInnes—whose books I first enjoyed several decades ago—came while I was reading John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps.   The Thirty-Nine Steps has been included on some lists of the 100 best books and so had made my list of books I should read.  Written in 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps is an early version of the spy-novel genre into which Helen MacInnes’s The Venetian Affair (1963) falls, and the books contain some of the same elements, including ruthless pursuers driven by their ideology and heroes who must use intelligence and subterfuge to avoid capture and certain death.  The Thirty-Nine Steps, however, is almost entirely male, with barely a mention of a woman, much less one in any sustained role.  Even the servants are men.

Claire Connor Langley, in The Venetian Affair, is an important and intelligent personage in her own right, even if Bill Fenner, the other central character, does rescue her in the end.  Claire is no Emma Peel, from the 1960s television series The Avengers; Emma Peel’s formidable karate skills never let her down.  But while Claire is always feminine in her dress and decorous in her behavior, she is neither helpless nor subordinate.  She and Bill end the novel not only with the bad guys defeated but also with love for one another, a situation I prefer over the simple defeat of the villains by the ever-manly Richard Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps.  But rereading The Venetian Affair pleased me in more personal ways, as well.  Along with presenting a world into which my imagination could escape, the novel led me back into cities, sights, memories, and a time that I myself have known.

The Venetian Affair takes place at the end of the summer of 1961, over fifty-five years ago.  And yet the world of the book—minus the high-stakes intrigue—in some ways feels more comfortable and familiar to me than the world I inhabit now.  In 1961, documents are prepared on typewriters, and copies are made with carbon paper.  Miniature tape recorders are high tech.  Phones are anchored to the wall.  Well-dressed women wear gloves all year around (I can do without the gloves), and dining on the train is an elegant experience.

The first part of the novel takes place in Paris.  It would be ten years later—the last day of 1971 and the first twenty days of 1972—that I would be in France.  The Paris that my roommate, Karin, and I explored on foot and by Métro and that my friend Louis Henri and I whirled through in his Deux Chevaux Citroën was certainly more like the Paris Bill Fenner and Claire Connor Langley know than the Paris of today, with the Centre Pompidou—built just after I was there—now forcing itself into the central-Paris skyline.  The Paris I knew seemed to be a place that would never change because it was already perfect just as it was.

As Karin and I would do, Helen MacInnes’s Bill and Claire visit cafés near Boulevard Saint-Germain.  They wouldn’t have stayed in a place as small and plain as the Grand Hôtel des Deux Continents was in the early 70s, but they would have passed nearby as they walked through the Latin Quarter.  Claire’s apartment is on the Ile Saint-Louis, where Karin and I found the best strawberry ice cream in the Western World.  The Grand Hôtel des Deux Continents still exists (with “Grand” removed from its name), considerably gussied up from the version we knew, with its minuterie lighting the halls for just one minute as we climbed the stairs to our room and with small sandpaper-like sheets of toilet paper stocking the tiny WC located one floor below our room.  We paid $3.60 each per night, including breakfast of café au lait and croissants.  Judging by photos on the Internet, rooms at the Hôtel des Deux Continents are now amenity filled and priced accordingly.  We had no television and no toilet, just the one downstairs, although we did have a sink and a bidet.  We made much use of the former and none of the latter.  We had no need of air conditioning in January, but the room was warm and cozy, if exceedingly plain.

While Karin and I were in Paris, I met Louis Henri at a party hosted by the affluent parents of his cousin, who was spending the year at the University of Delaware.  Louis Henri’s light-yellow hair bushed out like a dandelion gone to seed, and his large red bowtie contested his reserved white sports coat.  He was almost as small as I am and was known as “Petit Louis.”  We danced to “The Sound of Silence” and “Country Roads” as Louis Henri sang along softly (“Almost heaven, West Virginia”), and we ate macaroons, talked, and drank champagne.  After the other guests had left, Louis Henri and I stayed on to chat with his cousin and aunt and uncle (I mostly listened, lost in the setting and the rapid French) before Louis Henri drove me to my hotel.  He sped the wrong way down half a block of one-way Rue Jacob and parked with the Deux Chevaux’s two left wheels on the sidewalk.  Karin didn’t wake up to let me into our room, so the toothless little man from the front desk fiddled with his collection of keys until he found the one to open the door.

In The Venetian Affair, Bill considers playing “the complete tourist” by entering the Café Deux Magots, “where the existentialists had established their original beachhead.”  Karin and I had a drink of some sort there, envisioning Camus and Sartre sitting where we sat, and I returned once on my own, probably to drink coffee.  The waiter tried to convince me I owed an additional service charge, but I had enough savvy to know I’d already paid everything in full.  Karin and I were back in the Café Deux Magots when Louis Henri found me after the gap of a few days while Karin and I had been in Marseilles.  I don’t know how he figured out where I was in all of Paris.  Karin and I had moved for our last couple of nights in France to the Grand Hôtel des Étrangers, which cost us each just two dollars a night.  The overhead light in our room had burned out and was not replaced during our stay.  Our stay was also not enough time for Louis Henri and me to remain a couple after my three weeks in France concluded.

The Venice that Bill and Claire experience in The Venetian Affair probably had not changed much by the time I paid my brief visit in 2002.  Venetian buildings can be rescued, repaired, even renovated, but not much new can be added to the floating city.  As it is for Bill and Claire, in 2002, the vaporetti still served as water-borne buses, and gondoliers with straw hats and striped shirts wooed the tourists.  The arches of the Rialto Bridge across the Grand Canal were just as beautiful, and the houses along the canal equally ethereal, as they certainly had been in 1961.

Like Bill and Claire, I was in Venice in late summer.  On that breezy, sunny day after heavy rain, Venice shimmered like a mirage hovering just on top of the sea, a vision that might not be there again if I turned away.  I had just enough time in Venice to ride a vaporetto around the outside of the city, past tankers and cruise ships and on to a stop by St. Mark’s Square.  I ran through the crowds and the square’s ankle-deep water to stand for a few moments in front of the cathedral, with its lacy and flamboyant angles, arches, swirls, and ornaments.  Then the vaporetto floated up the dreamway that is the Grand Canal, passed under the Rialto Bridge, and docked by the station, where the Eurostar to Rome had already arrived.

In The Venetian Affair, Bill and Claire are helping to foil a plot to assassinate Charles de Gaulle.  When Louis Henri and I were a star in the Arc de Triomphe’s spinning galaxy of car lights, de Gaulle had been gone just over a year.  His term as president had ended less than three years earlier.  A man who helped Karin and me find our way to the correct Métro stop complained that the Étoile Station had been renamed Charles de Gaulle-Étoile.  The man was clearly not a de Gaulle fan.  Probably now the name is from too far back in history for many to care one way or another.

Bill and Claire’s world is the world of the Cold War, with vicious, power-hungry men (and the expendable women who support them) trying to take over the democratic world.  Balance and order in favor of freedom are restored at the end of the novel, but we know that eventually someone will step into the villain Kalganov’s empty place and threaten the world again.  In The Venetian Affair’s universe, the bad guys and good guys are unambiguously delineated.  By the time I was in Venice, I’d learned that the world is much less clearly sorted, and happy endings are even more transient.

It is our memories and the present moments seized that continue to endure.

Always Now

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Forever—is composed of Nows—
‘Tis not a different time—
Except for Infiniteness—
And Latitude of Home—
From this—experienced Here—
Remove the Dates—to These—
Let Months dissolve in further Months—
And Years—exhale in Years—
Without Debate—or Pause—
Or Celebrated Days—
No different Our Years would be
From Anno Domini’s—
-Emily Dickinson[1]

Dear Loved Ones in the Light, what is going on with me?  What do I need to learn and to change to get past this stuck period of small but persistent troubles in my life?

You are tired and you are used up.  At least that is how you are feeling—as if every moment is weighted down by the unmet requirements it holds.  You are struggling with the same weights that have submerged you throughout your life.  You have opportunities for genuine escape, but even those seem daunting because you think you need to approach them with a high level of attention, skill, and subsequent success.  What are you going to do to change?

Change is in your hands, even though you feel that your whole life has been tainted by problems such as you are experiencing now.  You see the vast blessings in your life, but you feel you are not doing your part, and that is true, but not out of laziness.  Rather it is out of fear and a sense of being overloaded and buried by expectations.  When are you going to look for the joy rather than the homework?  When are you going to release your life from its chains and barriers, all of which are self-imposed—the serious ones, anyway.  When are you going to take a few steps per day, rather than all or nothing?  You see the totality of what needs to be done, and you freeze.

True, sometimes you actually dive in and do the job in a great marathon of effort.  But especially in times like this, when you are not feeling well and energetic, you freeze and so cause yourself additional pain, guilt, and regret.  Take your book that you are wanting to proofread.  Why don’t you tackle three chapters a day?  That isn’t a lot, and you don’t actually have to be perfect, catching every possible needed change.  You can repeat reviewing the book after you’ve been through it once, and you can repeat the review a third time if you wish.  Then you will have achieved your goal of having your book ready for publication.  A similar approach—tackling a small amount frequently—will work well for you in going through your collection of keepsakes and your items in storage, as well as in the routine winnowing of your other possessions.

You are very concerned about running out of money.  But you aren’t doing what you could be doing to try to earn some money.  Finish getting The Girl in the Leaning Tower ready, and then put your considerable energy into selling it, not giving up at the first or second obstacle.  And as you review your possessions, you will find a few things that you will be able to sell as need requires.

And what about your blog writing?  You can always do the sort of writing you are doing right now.  The key is to find questions that are narrow enough to lead you down different paths, rather than always down the main road of your struggles.

Your ideas of reading as your will takes you and of taking on bigger writing projects as they present themselves are good ones.  After you finish proofing The Girl in the Leaning Tower, you may want to consider working with your parents’ letters, as well as doing more to promote their books.

And why have you recently had a larger than normal series of nagging problems that, while not tragedies by any means, are nevertheless disconcerting: mice invading your kitchen, the theft of a keepsake Santa figurine, a major chemical-sensitivity reaction, and a nagging respiratory ailment since the reaction.  What is going on?  You feel as if the Universe is trying to get your attention, and such is always the case with our challenges large and small.

The Universe wants you—everyone—to find order and a sense of presence.  Change, unexpected adventures, and spontaneity are often interesting, educational, and pleasurable but can drift over into chaos and a lack of grounding, which is what you have allowed to happen.  Beware that if you try to impose perfect order on your life, thinking, “I will wake up in the morning at 7 a.m., meditate, write, clean the apartment,” and so on, you are setting yourself up for failure.  There are no recipes for an orderly, grounded life; such a life must emerge integrally out of living according to sound principles.  Your values and goals will guide you, will be the background to your being, but the focus needs to be on the moment, on honoring the present and all it contains, including the activity in which you are engaging.  If you constantly feel you should be doing something else, no activities—from the most uplifting to the most mundane—will bring satisfaction.  If you are wasting time because you are afraid to tackle a substantial project, why not at least be doing something genuinely pleasurable, such as reading a book?

Right now you feel a little like the boy who is trying to stop the dike from leaking by putting his fingers in the holes but who discovers the leaks are popping up faster than he can plug them.  The holes in the structure of your life are popping up in one spot and then another.  Instead of stuffing the weak places with the rags of desperation, reinforce the foundation, the grounding for all your days.

Namaste

[1] Emily Dickinson, Poem 624, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960), 307-8.

A North Star

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Living life as it comes
Note:
I imagine the “we” in this essay (used after the first paragraph) to be spiritual guides or similar sources of wisdom.  The piece looks at an ongoing problem for me, one that I’ve addressed in other posts on this blog.  I suspect that many people confront related doubts and troublesome thoughts—and also struggle, as I do, in the effort to overcome them.

The American psychic and philosopher Edgar Cayce spoke of spiritual ideals, or the central values by which we live our lives.  He advised examining the ideals we are following to see if they are leading to problems for ourselves and others.  Hindering values can then be replaced by spiritual ideals that will attract the best of our nature and potential.[1]  Here is my two-part question leading to the guidance below: What are the mistaken ideals by which I am leading my life, and what is the positive spiritual ideal that will guide me in making my life more meaningful, creative, and serene?
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Your reigning ideals are to be accepted, to be acceptable, and to reach perfection in the areas you tackle so you will be “good enough.”  And since perfection is impossible and you so often either don’t know what is expected or don’t know what you could possibly offer, paralysis—rather than productivity and contributions—results.

You are so afraid, so smothered by fear and frustration, that even those rivulets of creativity and giving that sometimes flowed in the past appear to have dried up permanently.  You sit in your moment of time, your now, and feel that you, yourself, have evaporated, sucked out of your body by the years, experiences, and your overwhelming sense of inadequacy.

With friends, as well, you fear—you believe—you have little or nothing to offer beyond occasional opportunities to help.  These opportunities are, at least for a while, deeply welcome because they allow you to have a place, to be acceptable, to have a reason for your presence in the other person’s life.  You feel empty—inept, gauche, boring, devoid of that within that could make you able to serve in a more sustained way, to amuse, to be worth being around.  You live with the constant fear that you are being found out—that friends who initially saw value in you as a companion are discovering the truth: that you are hollow and without merit.  You fear, too, that you are not fundamentally a good person, are not sufficiently caring and giving, are flawed at heart as a human and so as a friend.

Of course you also have nothing to write, no flowing source.  You know—or anyway, you hope—that writing as you are now is one way to remove the fear and simply write, but yet you continue to be afraid that even this approach to expression exceeds your ability to sustain.  The essence of you has fled to the farthest edges of your psyche, has hidden in inaccessible layers of your subconscious, has curled up into such a tight ball of worry that the bud is blighted and about to fall off the stem.

You have lost touch with who you are because you have been away from yourself for long spans of time and because you have allowed fear and desperation to grow and grow and grow like some horrible creature in a science-fiction movie that threatens to destroy life.  This creature has almost sucked the oxygen and hope out of your spirit and sense of self.  You feel connected to others and to God, but you believe you are a weak link in the chain.

Even though you dislike being used beyond the far reaches of need, you truly do like to give, and not simply for a pat on the back.  So you are a decent person, in spite of your confusion.  You are still alive, and so hope continues to exist that your spirit in this life can yet revive and blossom.  What can you do to recover?  What is the ideal by which you can find creative, serenity-filled, giving, and satisfying days—while realizing that life gives ongoing challenges and while meeting these challenges with courage, gratitude, and growth.  Our answer is that you must, you absolutely must now, change your ideal from being acceptable through being perfect to serving others through being yourself.

The only way to overcome your intense psychic and spiritual pain is to release every single should from your life, for shoulds are—or feel as if they are—imposed from the outside.  Instead, substitute choices, decisions that you calmly make, one after the other, as each day unfolds, decisions reached based on your Inner Light and the genuine needs of the moment.  Become an integral person whose life grows and flows naturally among the rest of creation.

Within your spiritual ideal is experiencing the unity of humanity and all the Universe, seeking to understand how life looks to others, expressing what your heart and soul are telling you, helping and encouraging as you can, loving and being kind, remembering all you truly love rather than all you have for so long thought you had to be, and trusting that your spirit and inherent ways are decent and acceptable.

[1] For a discussion of Cayce’s concept of “spiritual ideals,” see Kevin J. Todeschi and Henry Reed, Contemporary Cayce: A Complete Exploration Using Today’s Science and Philosophy (Virginia Beach: A.R.E. Press, 2014), chapter 6, “Working with Ideals: Your Creative Spiritual Partner.”