Saturday, December 29, 2018

My Beautiful Gift to Me

This Christmas, I gave myself a gift. It didn’t come in a box. It didn’t come in a gift bag. It wasn’t even wrapped. It came in my thoughts, or rather, in the absence of thoughts. My gift to myself was the promise that I would not be thwarted: I would enjoy the happiness of the present moment. 

This meant that I did not allow myself to turn on the news, to be lured by headlines on my computer, or to give voice to my political opinions. This had nothing to do with “keeping the peace” at the dinner table, as all of my guests were on the same page politically this year, anyway. Rather, it had to do with not succumbing to the tantalizing magnetism of toxic thoughts in my own mind.

The lack of drama was refreshing! I focused on cranberry sauce and stocking stuffers instead of the Mueller report or who will run for President in 2019. An eerie peacefulness settled around me as I relinquished my newly acquired cable news stations and ignored The Huffington Post. I had calm conversations with my now grown children that involved eye contact and had nothing to do with he who shall not be named. 

In the course of enjoying my gift over several days I felt less stress than I have in months (perhaps, actually, in two years), even though December is a high-stress month. Instead of listening to the radio while I drove to various stores to shop, I turned up my favorite mantra CD and felt as though I was floating through traffic on a fluffy cloud. No loud voices ranted about walls. No snarky rebuttals. No threats or proclamations of blame. It was damned lovely.

Of course, as the holidays wane I know I’ll return to my natural state of news junkie. But maybe not with quite the same level of devotion. Giving up the news felt a bit like quitting smoking (which I did many years ago). It brought a sense of breathing freely, a lightness, a realization that create my day—my life is not owned by anyone else. 

Ah, peace of mind. Such a lovely present. And it didn’t cost a dime. Come to think of it, my birthday is coming up and now I know precisely what I will give myself. 

Monday, October 29, 2018

Give Me...Shelter

As a child, one of my favorite activities was stealing out to the dogwood trees in my backyard. I spent hours there sweeping the dirt floors of my imaginary “house” and straightening my various “possessions:” rocks, twigs, feathers, etc. The trees flowered above my head in the spring; they quietly dropped their leaves in the fall, and in the icy winters, the trees gracefully bent over a crusty surface upon which to slide and slip. The best time of all was summer, when both mornings and afternoons seemed endless and the trees provided a cool, shady hideout, blue jays cawing and swooping across the blue sky above. 

Why do I think of those trees now? In the world we are in, I sometimes feel that I need a place to hide. In fact, just today I looked outside and noticed how much one tree (in my current backyard) had grown, with a perfect space underneath for creating a pine-tent. Now, at my seasoned age it might be weird to take up residence under a tree, sweeping away the pinecones, spending hours absent from my laptop, iPhone, books, and Smart TV. And yet, it looks so enticing. The idea of living under a tree, pretending its boughs are my roof and walls, seems like an excellent concept. Never mind that I’m a bit too tall now for this sort of space, and that I have an aversion to mosquitoes (which didn’t seem to bother me much when I was a kid—back then spiders, ants, beetles and other such creatures, with the exception perhaps of wasps, were endlessly fascinating).

But if I did take up residence under that tree, and started sweeping the dirt floor for hours, my neighbors would no doubt call the police, and my husband might become rather worried (especially since I don’t sweep much in my own kitchen). No doubt they would think there was something “wrong” with me, and wouldn’t immediately “get” that I was under the tree not because I had lost my sanity, but because I had found it. 

I’m aware that there are more socially acceptable ways to escape from reality (and from the world’s cruelties). One can drink alcohol, smoke weed, do yoga, ski, dance, chant, read Middlemarch again, go to a movie, hike, embroider, or call a friend, for instance. Some of these, in fact, I have tried with some success (no, I won’t tell you which ones!). But when I think back on my life, the dogwood trees always come to mind. Under their branches I lost all track of time, I lost all worries, all fears, all thoughts of the future. I felt protected, secure, and happy. I felt nothing could, or would, ever, ever go wrong.

There are very few places anymore, in these times, where we can recreate the carefree security of the past, or even the illusion of it. Today, our children can’t even feel safe at school. We aren’t safe in our churches, mosques, gurdwaras, or synagogues, in a mall, at an airport, in a movie theatre, in a grocery store, at a concert, in our offices, or anywhere, really. We aren’t safe if we are gay, if we are black, if we are a politician, if we are a news reporter, if we are Jewish, Muslim, too poor, too rich, too old, or too young. We aren’t safe in our cars (especially if they are fancy), or in our strollers. We are not safe in numbers, and we are certainly not safe if we are female and alone. We might think we’re safe if we own a gun, but we can’t shoot away cancer, a tsunami, or the stench of hate.

And…I’m probably not safe if I sit for hours under that pine tree, either. But it’s a place where I can pretend that I am. And so, I am going to grab my broom and head out there. Yes, it might seem odd. But—unless there’s a lightning storm—under a tree seems as good a place as any to imagine that the world is the peaceful, loving, compassionate, safe place that I deeply want it to be. Under that tree I can think back to a time when—even in a city-- we rarely locked our doors. Just imagine. It was possible once. Why can’t it be now?

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Bad News, Good News

We’ve all heard the common saying, “No news is good news.” These days, there is no such thing as “no news.” Whether the news is good, bad, fake, or boring, it’s everywhere. There is no place to hide.

Each morning when I begin my workday, I first check my laptop. I’m immediately accosted by all kinds of news, much of it horrifying. The terrifying items jump out as I scroll swiftly down my newsfeed, searching for something that won’t cause my stomach to clench and my heart to drop, but often finding only death, violence, and of course, politics.

I was actually raised on bad news, so I’m familiar with scary journalism (and it didn’t keep me from wanting to be newspaper reporter, either, which was my very first “real” job). When I was a child, I clearly remember my parents reading snippets from the newspaper aloud. We subscribed to a morning and an evening paper, so there were plenty of articles to discuss. My parents, who tended to lean toward negativity, would often remark, “Little John Smith, this says here, drowned in the pond yesterday.” Or, “Betty Myers passed away last Sunday. She was poisoned when she ate some bad turkey.”

Yes, they loved to recount such tales; in fact, I believe they were intended to scare me so that I wouldn’t be tempted to skate on thin ice or eat food that wasn’t properly cooked. But in spite of the generous dose of bad news I received each day as a kid, it was nothing… nothing compared to what I consume now as an adult. And though I miss my parents dearly, in some ways I am thankful that –news junkies that they were—they’re not alive to suffer the astonishing glut of bad news stories we experience now.

Of course, there are ways around this, and I employ some of them. One is to take a media break, and simply refuse to listen to or read the stories. Another is to pick and choose carefully. Or simply to harden one’s heart (which actually is not simple at all).

But I prefer to know what’s going on in the world, and much like my parents, I’m curious and concerned about current events. Due to technology, however, we no longer are exposed just to little John Smith from down the road, but to all the horrors and mishaps that occur everywhere, all over the world, constantly, at every second.

Sometimes, I wish my morning newsfeed would announce, “40 billion flowers bloomed today!” or “Six million children were just born without birth defects!” Or “A zillion people just fell in love!” I guess that’s silly, and some might even argue that life would be dull without some bad news now and then. I'd be willing to try it, though. Wouldn't you? 

Monday, April 9, 2018

For Love of Reading

A little bird told me it’s National Library Week. This got me thinking about how much I adore books and reading. Recently, I came across the name of an author I’d never read (yes, there are many, but I was surprised that I had no memory of ever hearing this author’s name). The name is Mazo De La Roche, a Canadian author who lived from 1869 to 1961. I was mystified, so I found her first book at the library, The Building of Jalna, from a series of 16.

Although the books were written long ago (and for some, the style might seem a bit dated), I was hooked. In fact, I was so hooked that once I started the series, I was obsessed with finding the next book. Some were not available at the library, so I turned to online booksellers, where I found I could order all the books in digital format for Kindle. Unfortunately, I don’t own a I proceeded to order the books hard copy, one by one as I read them, some used, some reprints. When there was a lapse between their arrival, I awaited the next book anxiously…thrilled when the next installment appeared in my mailbox!

My favorite author of all time is Jane Austen, but my beloved Jane published only six novels (all of which I’ve read numerous times). Mazo De La Roche reminds me a bit of Austen (though no one will ever replace Mr. Darcy), with a dashing male lead named Renny, and plenty of love, romance, and family lore. The books take readers from Adeline Court ("of Ireland") and her husband Captain Philip Whiteoak ("of the British army")  arriving in Canada from India through the generations. I’m now on the 13thbook (alas only three more to go), with the plot focused on Adeline’s grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Not every reader would love these books as I do (but plenty have, as Mazo was quite popular in her day and the books have sold millions of copies). If you’re a fan of mysteries, action plots, or explicit sex you probably won’t see what I’m so excited about. But the books speak directly to my heart: they’re about family connection, about falling in love, and about a sense of place. Her characters are unforgettable. Here’s just one line from book number 13, Return To Jalna, about a grown man named Finch (who was introduced as a baby), walking the road from the train station to the family home after a long absence abroad: “Yet he was scarcely alone, for with him walked, ran, trudged, or loitered, the many selves of his childhood and boyhood who had traversed this road.” I was touched by this feeling I know so well of my childhood self always being with me. 

Discovering these books has been like finding the pot of literary gold at the end of the rainbow. They’ve reminded me of how much heart and soul can be found within the pages of a book. They’ve reminded me of why I read.

My only regret is that my mother is no longer here to share these books with, as I know she would have loved them (prior to her death, she was hooked on the Mitford series). My mother and I had precisely the same taste in books, and though I’ve tried to “sell” Mazo to a few friends, no one has taken the bait. Reading is so personal! Nevertheless, I had to share my newfound love on my blog. And if there are books in Heaven (and if there is a Heaven!) I just know my mother is reading the Jalna series. In fact for me, reading is a perfect example of Heaven on earth.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Lost & Found

Sometime last year, I lost my desire to write this blog anymore. But this morning, I woke up and found it again. It occurred to me that life is just one big lost and found; we lose something, we find something, we carry on either way.

Last year I lost some things that I really wanted to keep. A friend I met on our very first day of Kindergarten, who has been like a sister to me ever since, moved away. For decades our paths have traveled side by side; we lived around the corner from one another in upstate New York as children, then we lived up the block from one another in Manhattan, and eventually we both moved to New Jersey and lived in parallel towns. Her move was a good one for her—to a place up north that she has always loved. But it left me with an emptiness.

A few months later, the husband of another dear friend died, a man I have known for many years. Although this man, with his far-right-wing politics, often drove me nuts, his absence on the planet feels wrong. It feels like, and is, a loss.

Last week, my youngest son moved out to an apartment. This was the icing on the proverbial cake of loss, because I have so enjoyed having him home after his years at college. But it’s time for him to move on, and I understand that. Empty nest syndrome, however, is a real and difficult passage. I went through it once when he left for school, and now I must go through it again. At least, this time, he has left me his pet fish (at least, temporarily!). 

I’m aware that everyone has loss in their lives and that some losses are huge and can never, ever be filled. I “lost” both my parents decades ago, and there is no way of ever retrieving them, except in memory. And I do try to look on the bright side; for instance, the loss of my son in my daily life also means I have more space, more solitude, and more freedom. And though I have lost some things this year, I’ve found others. I’ve found a new place to teach yoga, I’ve found a new courage to travel, and I’ve found a way to get on Route 4 (a road in NJ I’ve avoided for years) and drive without freaking out.

Long ago, another friend taught me the prayer of St. Anthony: “Good Saint Anthony, come around, something’s lost and must be found.” This works quite well for car keys and earrings, but not so much for friends and family who have moved on or moved out. But I realize that when we lose some things, we often find other things of great value, and if we wallow in the losses we close ourselves off to new experiences. Regardless of what we lose and what we find, however, there is something that must never go missing: Acceptance. Without it, we can neither let go of what must leave, nor embrace the unknown gifts that will come next.

Saturday, March 11, 2017


I always wanted to write. Since the age of five, writing was my passion, and though I was very interested in creative writing, I was later drawn to journalism and reporting. To me, journalism was a form of service--offering to the public, to the community, facts that would help people live their lives safely and knowledgeably.

When I was nine, I started a newspaper on my upstate New York street (if memory serves, it was called the Gillespie Street Times, but I can’t swear to that). For a very brief period (because play eventually won out) I interviewed neighbors, collected data, and kept track of all the comings and goings (lost cats, pot holes, kickball games, etc.) My self-appointed job was to be accurate, because no reporter wants to be called into an editor’s office due to misleading statements or inaccuracies (though I was my own editor back then, and I sure didn't have an office!).

In high school I signed up for journalism. We learned to report on who, why, what, where, when, and sometimes, how. We threw spitballs and made squirrel noises at a teacher we didn’t adore when she turned her back to scribble on the blackboard. Another teacher we revered—he introduced us to coffee and motorcycles and insisted that our stories were factual, lucid, and significant. We went out into the field, gathering experiences, information and facts based on observation and interviews with credible sources. We were only in high school, yet we had begun to realize that some “real” reporters risked their lives for facts, traveled to war-torn countries, and put their lives on the line for the truth.

Onto college, where I volunteered for the college newspaper (for no credit, out of passion for truth). I spent long nights in the newspaper office, walking or biking home alone at 5 a.m. after the newspaper was “put to bed.” I was in love not only with the cute boy who wrote headlines, but also with words, truth, and accuracy.

I graduated and got a job as a reporter at a community newspaper. I worked and wrote nonstop: Meetings, deadlines, stories due the next morning after a town board or school board session that ended at 2 a.m. I always got quotes from both sides, reported the pros and cons, and checked my facts. No reporter wants to have to print a retraction or correction. (And btw, I was paid a pittance.)

Later, writing for magazines, I continued to deal with facts. I interviewed experts (including Mr. Rogers—on the phone!). I answered to fact-checkers, editors, and copy editors. Every detail was checked and rechecked. Even a simple piece about diapers or toys brought out fact checkers galore. Readers may not always know how long and nit-picky is the process to ensure that information is correct.

Some go to grad school--or to combat zones--to study to become better writers, reporters, to become investigative reporters, to learn how to interview well and write clearly. When these paths are demeaned, when those who seek to write and speak truth are maligned, a dangerous door is opened. Disparaging the media is a calculated step to create a confused and untrusting populace that can easily be manipulated.

Words have power. Words have meaning. Words can maim or heal. By far, most journalists write or report not to harm, betray, or confuse, but to inform, help, and clarify.

I’ve devoted my working life to words. Whether written or spoken, words matter. And like the sun, the truth always rises—quite often, due to the devotion and hard work of journalists. Yes, there are a few bad eggs (and a few mediocre news stations). But the vast majority of journalists respect and strive for truth and accuracy.

Don’t just “believe me.” You can fact-check me on that.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

A Matter of Perspective

When I was a kid, I loved seeing the world upside down. One of my favorite pastimes was to recline on my living room floor and stare up at the ceiling. From this perspective, the ceiling became the floor, and one had to step up over the door archways to get from room to room. My cluttered Victorian childhood home seemed incredibly neat and spacious from this upside down vantage point. I could spend hours just contentedly gazing while my mom dusted nearby or watched her afternoon soaps.

I also loved to gaze into puddles at the reflected sky. It was endlessly entertaining to stomp my feet in a puddle and watch the ripples spread across the reflected clouds. This pastime sometimes led to unexpected adventure. Once, my best friend and I, on our way home from school on a windy April day, decided not only to gaze at a giant puddle but to splash our way into the deep middle and purposely fall on our knees. Cold, wet, and giggling, we then ran home to tell my mother we had “accidentally fallen,” change into warm clothes, and treat ourselves to hot chocolate and marshmallows.

I also loved gazing through the stained glass window on the stairwell. The yard below took on otherworldly qualities, depending upon the green, blue, or red pane. Another favorite resting spot (in the summer) was to relax on a small incline on the front yard (back then it seemed like a hill). From here I could gaze directly up into the leaves of three towering maple trees, where I could imagine all sorts of fairies and animal shapes in the leaves.

The other day, out on a walk, I came across a few puddles and stopped with my camera. The experience brought back a rush of memory and emotion, thinking not just of how easily entertained I was in my childhood, but also of how willing and ready I was to look at the world from different vantage points. Today, I have my set opinions, political views, and habits; I’m less likely to ponder something from another’s perspective, or from the perspective of a rabbit or bird, for that matter. I see things straight ahead from my 5’3 vantage point, with my glasses or contacts on, and with plenty of thoughts and judgments spinning about in my mind. I’ve become less willing to splash and muddy my clothes in a cold, wet puddle, that’s for sure.

However…when I go to yoga class, sometimes I relish the headstand (or as we say in Iyengar yoga, head balance pose), or the handstand. Though I can’t stay up for long, I always feel energized, revitalized and strong when I come down. I guess these inversions are my grown up way of still playing with perspective. If I can stand on my head, all is not lost. I’m still able to see the world upside down--in a good way, that is, with fascination rather than fear, and with trust that I have the power to return to upright whenever I choose.