Saturday, August 27, 2011

Arnold Goes Back to College

Those of you who know me realize that I don’t have a son named Arnold. But I do have a son who has a goldfish named Arnold (named after the composer Arnold Schoenberg, not Arnold Schwarzenegger). Arnold has been home with my son for the summer, but tomorrow he was scheduled to return to college (had it not been for Hurricane Irene, that is). Come Monday, if all goes swimmingly, Arnold will be on his way back to academia.
            Why do I write of Arnold and not my son, you may ask? Well, by now those who know me well (and some who do not), may be tired of reading my sad, sentimental scribblings about my kids growing up and away. So this time I decided to write about the fish. After all, I’ll miss him. And I learned a lot from him this summer.
            One thing I learned from Arnold is that fish communicate quite well. For instance, in the early morning hours when I often rise to do a yoga meditation, Arnold swims in happy circles. He seems to enjoy the mantra music I play (or at least its vibration). Later in the day, when Arnold gets hungry, he often swims to the top of his bowl and makes a little chirping noise at the surface of the water. If anyone happens to be eating nearby, he frantically searches for food; it seems as if he doesn’t want anyone to have to dine alone. Like his namesake, the fish is damned brilliant.
            I’ve learned other things from Arnold. Occasionally, when I’m feeling sad or sorry for myself I look at him and wonder how he can be content with swimming in circles in a little bowl all day. Of course, he doesn’t really know what he’s missing. But I think there’s a lesson in learning to be happy with what one has. When I look at Arnold, even on a down kind of day, I always feel pretty lucky. At least, I think, I’m not in a fish tank (though sometimes it feels like I am!).
            At night, Arnold sleeps peacefully at the bottom of the bowl. You can stay up late talking or walking around, but Arnold is unmoved. He knows when it’s time to pack it in.
            He’s also a patient fish (except when he’s hungry). That is to say, he just swims along, day after day, doing what a fish does. He’s not a drama queen (or king). He just is.
            So, I will miss Arnold (and I can’t help but say it, I’ll miss my son, too!).  But I know college, the dorm, the girlfriend, his studies, parties, all-nighters, and all that fun stuff awaits him. He’s a college fish, and there’s just no changing that. Still, I do hope he’ll be back next summer!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Backup Plan

Michael Thompson/
When I was starting my career as a writer many moons ago, my father suggested that I have a backup plan. I suppose he believed that my chances of supporting myself with writing alone were iffy, so he suggested that I get my teaching degree.  Well, many boring (to me, anyway) education classes later, I got not only my certificate to teach English at the secondary school level, but also my permanent certification which required me to take even more boring (to me, anyway) courses at the graduate level. I was fully prepared to institute my backup plan, should I ever need it. Thankfully, however (for myself as well as for the students I might have had), that certificate is still sitting somewhere in the back of a closet. I have never used it.                       
            So! My question is, are backup plans really so necessary, or are they somewhat of a hindrance, causing us to not give our “all” to our dreams? If you truly believe that you are going to succeed at something, do you really need a backup plan? And if you honestly trust that you are going to fulfill your intention to do something, then why do you need to have some other plan hovering in the back of your mind?
            I suppose, for practical reasons, it’s sometimes good to have a backup plan in place. For instance, if you’re invited to dinner and you are a vegetarian, do you have a plan for what you will do if the hostess comes out carrying a big, greasy lamb stew? Or, what will you do if a huge, fallen maple tree has just blocked the road you’re taking? Or, what might you do if you were planning to wear your white skirt but when you take it out of the closet you realize it’s been eaten to shreds by moths? And what if you really want to go to Harvard, but Harvard rejects you? Does that mean that you should just throw up your hands or should you try getting into the community college around the corner?
            OK, you may have backup plans for all of these scenarios. But do you need a plan for what you’ll do if you really want to be a musician, or a lawyer, or a doctor, or if you want to learn how to ride a horse or play the piano or if your heart’s desire is to climb a particular mountain?
            I set an intention to become a writer when I was five years old, and despite my dad’s well-meaning advice I never wavered from that path. No, I didn’t get rich and famous, but I have been able to pursue my dream on many different levels, and sometimes I wonder if I hadn’t been so dogged in my pursuit, if I had ambled off in another direction, or taken a few years off writing to teach, would I ever have gotten back on track?
            In any case, I’m not advising my kids to plan backup careers, even if it can be difficult to get jobs in the fields of architecture, psychology, and computers (especially in the current economic climate). If they ever become vegetarians, however, I will advise them to keep some nuts or granola bars in their pockets!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Feel Free to Chime in

When I was a child in upstate New York, I often walked around our block, passing an old stone house on a corner where most of the kids in the neighborhood believed an ancient witch lived (it helped that the house resembled a miniature castle). I knew that wasn’t true because my mother had explained to me that an elderly widow and her maid inhabited the house; the reason no one ever saw this woman was because she was in poor health.
But there was something magical about the turreted stone house; each time I passed, especially in the winter or on a windy spring day, I’d hear the tinkling of chimes, and their eerie yet beautiful sound would always make me stop in my hurried tracks. I was a bit frightened that “the witch” might appear, yet the sound of the chimes was comforting—it possessed a sweetness that made me feel still inside.
Even as I’m writing this blog, my own chimes are tinkling in the August night, reminding me that as I sit here writing, the world outside is dark, breezy and filled with sounds of the present. Tonight is also a full moon, so between the chimes, the moon, the crickets, and the pattering raindrops, I almost expect that witch to appear.
Of course, I’m no longer afraid of witches (I rather like them), but chimes still appeal (no pun intended) to me (they must, as I now have several sets of them). Though they can drive one absolutely nuts on a windy March day, most of the time they are gentle reminders. In my youth, I loved them for their beautiful sound, but now my adoration goes much deeper (especially of those glorious, resonant Woodstock chimes). What I like best is the fact that you never know when they’re going to burst into your consciousness and remind you of the present moment. I can be thinking about bills and taxes, or dentist appointments or kids who don’t call, or how much work I have to do…and then, all of a sudden, I hear the chimes, and just say to myself, “Ah, yes. I’m here, now!”
On a very still day, the chimes aren’t of much use. But they’re still pretty to look at, and you never can tell when a breeze will stir them, seemingly just to wake you up!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

"Morning Person"

When our kids were little, we usually walked them to school. We live in a mile-square town and bussing isn’t necessary, so we’d start each day with a half-mile trudge to the other side of town. Neither my husband (who did the bulk of the morning drop-offs) nor I minded—but my youngest son was never happy about this. “He’s just not a morning person!” the crossing-guard lady would comment every day, as my littlest shuffled past her, dragging his feet and looking miserable. He really wished he could be back in his cozy bed.
            I know that feeling, for I’ve never been a “morning person” myself. If I had my druthers I’d stay up until two or three a.m., sleep until 11 a.m., and then begin the whole process over again. But that’s not how the world works for most people—most have to get up and go to work. And for those who toil in their little home office (like myself), I’ve found lately that wasting the morning hours is a huge mistake. In fact, the earlier I get up these days the better everything goes. And early to bed, early to rise really is healthier for the body.
            My mom was always an early riser, and in the past I never could figure out what the heck she did with those morning hours. She’d rise at 5 or 5:30 a.m. and drink exactly one small cup of coffee. Sometimes she’d read the newspaper or wash dishes from the night before. Or she might just sit quietly watching the birds in the feeder (by ten p.m. she was ready for bed). I always found it peculiar that anyone would want to give up a few good hours of sleep in the morning just to sit and stare out the window.
Until now. Lately, I seem to be following in my mother’s footsteps, rising earlier and earlier. I find that this time of day holds a beautiful silence. I like being the only one awake in a quiet house. The phone doesn’t ring (nor do texts buzz), no one is driving up my block, and I can sip my decaf without folks interrupting to ask me where the tire pressure gage is or whether their favorite jeans are dry yet.
The ancient yogis believed that the “ambrosial hours” or the “amrit vela”—the two hours before dawn-- were the best for meditation. That may be true, but I find that even getting up at a reasonable six a.m. makes a big difference in the day. At this hour I can hear the cicadas, the chimes over my doorway, and the finches in the tops of the trees. I can think about how I want my day to go, set an intention for the things I want to accomplish, and witness the first moments of a new day miraculously unfolding.
I don’t really need an ancient guru to tell me that morning is the best time of day; my mother’s example said it all. In any case, I’m no longer a "night owl."  
“Night, all!” fits me better.