Wednesday, October 19, 2011

From Paris to a Deck Called "Paris"

We spent the last two weeks of September in Paris--two magical, glorious weeks in a city that, much to our surprise, totally captured us. And then we came home.

I returned with the worst cold I had had in years, one of those stay in bed kind of colds. We returned to a dead car battery and a lost internet connection and changes at work. The morning after we returned, I fell and bruised/cracked/broke a rib. After walking at least 10 miles every day on cobblestones much of the time and always while gawking at the beauty around me, never tripping or stumbling, I returned to familiar territory and I fell.

We also returned to warm, glowing fall days, similar to what we experienced in Paris, and I decided, because the energy and the physical stamina were severely limited, I would listen to my body and rest. If I could no longer sit for long unhassled periods of time at a Paris cafe, savoring croissants and chocolat chaud, I could retreat to the deck off our dining room. The deck we call "Paris."

I've called the deck "Paris," since we first moved in the house. Looking out over the rooftops of our neighborhood, I imagined myself standing on a French balcony, greeting the morning. Never mind that I had never been to Paris and had no idea what I would see from a French window and now that I have been to Paris, I realize the view from my deck bears no resemblance to the view from our Paris apartment.
Never mind, I have a great imagination.

Our summer was full with many fast turn arounds between events, along with big chunks of time devoted to Paris preparations. Plus, prolonged hot weather prohibited sitting on the deck. Now was the perfect time. I read. I dozed. I gazed. I remembered. Yes, I did what had to be done--laundry, bills, phone calls, emails--but each day included Paris time. Each day more leaves fell and I was further away from our time in Paris,  but I allowed Paris to sink into my being. I let Paris roll around in me. I let myself uncover Paris within me.

While in Paris we discussed with our travel companions what we have taken home from our various travels. Not just treasured objects like the large pottery pitcher perfect for sunflowers we bought in Florence, but lifestyle or attitude changes. Not an easy question, but a good one to ponder on the Paris deck.

I loved the pace I encountered in Paris.--the acceptability of and encouragement to sit in a cafe for as long as you want to observe and marvel at the fashion parade, to reflect on the sights, big and small. To recall what You've learned and what questions you have, such as "What is the criteria for being buried at Pere La Chaise?" and "Is there a law against carrying 'to go' coffee while walking?" To sip a glass of wine or two at lunch. To talk or not. To savor a pastry, slowly, really tasting it. To breathe and feel gratitude for all of life.

To experience what Richard Rohr calls, "deep time" --past, present and future all at once.

I want to live that way. I want those parts of Paris to live on in me.

Phil Cousineau in his book The Art of Pilgrimage lists five excellent practices for travellers on sacred journeys.
Practice the arts of attention and listening.
Practice renewing yourself every day.
Practice meandering toward the center of every place.
Practice the ritual of reading sacred texts.
Practice gratitude and praise-singing.

This is what I want to bring to my deck called "Paris." And to all of my life.

Stay tuned for more thoughts about Paris.


Friday, September 9, 2011

Obsession: New Notebooks

Which came first? The love of writing OR the love of notebooks, journals, and paper? Am I a writer because I love words and ideas and the act of sharing with others OR because I want an excuse to acquire notebooks of every size? Have I adopted journal writing as my main spiritual practice because writing clarfies my feelings and my thinking, as well as leads me to a deeper understanding of the person God created me to be OR because I can't resist displays of journals in bookstores, stationery and gift shops or even Target? A favorite memory of our trip to Italy was discovering a small shop with Leaning Tower of Pisa stacks of inexpensive, but beautiful composition books--ferns and leaves and flowers and birds on the covers. That was in Florence and then in Rome I bought a new fountain pen, but my favorite fountain pen remains the one I bought in a closet-sized shop in New Orleans. My heart beats faster just thinking about what I might find during an upcoming trip to Paris. 

And then there are the  accompanying accouterments of folders and memo pads and paper clips in bright colors and sticky notes of varying sizes and shapes. I adore my Dymo label maker like some people treasure a hammer or a paring knife. The right tool is crucial for a job well done. Of course, my laptop and my iphone are key tools for my writing and communicating life, but they function alongside pastel covered notebooks and ones with playful designs of suns or hearts.

The first thing I do upon registering for a writing workshop or a class is discern which notebook to bring, and when I contemplate a new project, I carefully decide which notebook is the right fit. Which notebook will I take to Paris, I ask myself, and I must admit I have not made a decision yet. I have one with an Eiffel Tower on the cover and that's where I have been jotting notes about shops and restaurants and other places to visit. But which notebook will be my journal to record impressions and experiences and feelings? And which one will be my writer's notebook and hold drafts for future blog postings or other projects. OR should I wait to find a little shop down a narrow street not listed in any guidebook, not even Rick Steves, a shop where Parisians go to find the right paper for love letters and and the right notebook for secret daily musings?

I must remember, however appealing my collection of notebooks are to the touch and sight, the real value is the content within. Eric Maisel in A Writer's Paris, A Guided Journey for the Creative Soul, says, "It is never someone else's fault that we aren't writing," and I add, "A notebook does not make you a writer. Only writing does that."

A notebook is merely the container for one's writing practice--and heaven knows, I have a sufficient supply of containers. Time to write!     

Friday, September 2, 2011

Summer Sweeping

I was Harriet Housewife all day yesterday, cleaning every area of the house, except the garage. A satisfying day. As I swept and dusted and scrubbed and vacuumed, I thought about the lines in Gunilla Norris's book, Being Home, A Book of Meditations.
              Time to caress my house
              to stroke all its surfaces
              I want to think of it as a kind of lovemaking
              ...the chance to appreciate by touch
             what I live with and cherish.

True, the house needed a thorough cleaning, but my soul did, too. I needed to restore some order in my head, sweep away the cobwebs from neglected corners in my heart, and polish what had become dull. September 1 seemed like the perfect day to renew the space that shelters me and welcomes friends and family.

The summer has been a social one, rather than a solitary one, with few slots on the calendar available for writing or reading or silent journeys inward. Days chugged along with ins and outs through the screen door, ups and downs with baskets of sheets and towels for the always willing, thank God, washer and dryer, and back and forth to our "urban cabin" in downtown St Paul and here and there for event after pleasant event. All good, but so different from last summer when I spent a month in Door County, writing daily, feeling both productive and luxurious in the easy time. This has been a peopled time--new friends, dear family, history friends--and I regret not one shared minute.

As I turn the page of the calendar into a new season, however, I feel familiar tugs toward my writing. Ideas have not stopped flowing--only the fingers. Little pieces of paper with notes to my writing self stuff folders on my desk. A desk, I might add, once again orderly and ready for my presence. The arrival of September signals a return to, a resumption of what has been set aside during this summer sabbatical. And my house is clean.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Thoughts and Prayers

In a recent opinion column in the New York Times (Sunday, June 12, 2011) Bruce Feiler, author of  Abraham and Walking the Bible, gave advice about what to say and want not to say to someone diagnosed with cancer or other serious illness or loss. Feiler was diagnosed with bone cancer three years ago and has survived. I agree with most of what he said, including an admonition to refrain from recommending various "miracle tonics" or questioning your treatment decisions, and I also agree that a sincere "I love you," and "I'm sorry you have to go through this" is always appreciated. However, I take issue with one "never" he included on his list: "My thoughts and prayers are with you." Here's what Feiler said: In my experience, some people think about you, which is nice. Others pray for you, which is equally comforting. But the majority of people who say they're sending "thoughts and prayers" are just falling back on a mindless cliche'. It's time to retire this hackneyed expression to the final resting place of platitudes, alongside "I'm stepping down to spend more time with my family," or "It's not you, it's me."

Am I defensive because I've made that statement many times? Perhaps, but here's what I think. When I say or write "my thoughts and prayers are with you," I am thinking about that person, praying for that person right then in that present moment. Saying it, writing it, is praying. That counts. That matters. I think it is a bit presumptuous of Feiler to assume that the majority of people don't do what they say they will do. True, many people may never give you another thought and may not have an intentional prayer practice where they lift your name to the Divine, but I believe when someone thinks of me anytime in a loving, empathic, caring way, they are praying on my behalf. When someone I know is in the midst of a crisis, thoughts of them drift across my heart while I'm making the bed, folding laundry or driving to the grocery store, as well as times when I'm writing them a note or preparing a meal to deliver. Those are all moments of prayer, even though I may not stop and fold my hands and say, "Dear God, please..."

Could it be that being the recipient of thoughts and prayers makes us uncomfortable? Do we perhaps not want the attention or do we get a bit itchy when presented with someone's testimony of faith, especially when their belief system does not match our own? It may feel easier to dismiss the statement as a meaningless platitude.

As I write this, I think about a dear friend with cancer, of a new friend with her third cancer, of many others who have been in remission for years and of others I knew only fleetingly when I led cancer support groups. I pray as I think of them. Do they know that? Maybe they will feel a little nudge of sweet energy--I hope so. Whether they recognize it or not, I have sent forth love and hope and an acknowledgement of connection and a belief that what we think and feel matters.

Here's the deal, however. When you make that statement, you are signing a contract and entering into a covenant with the person in need of prayers and thoughts and also with the Divine; however, you envision the Divine. You've said it--now do it. Follow through. Be intentional. Set aside time. Pause. Close your eyes and breathe. See your loved one's face. Say her name. Open your heart and be with her. Also, I invite you to pay attention to the times you say "My thoughts and prayers are with you." What are you actually feeling and do you truly mean what you say? Is there something you can do, along with whispering prayers? Perhaps your prayers are the entry way to a deeper connection with the person in need and with the Divine.

 Oh, and by the way, when someone says "My thoughts and prayers are with you," why not say a heartfelt "Thank you," followed by "I hope you will. Knowing I am in your heart matters to me."

Being in my 60's seems to mean I am sending many more sympathy cards and writing more notes of encouragement and reflection.  The opportunities to respond to people facing serious challenges are increasing as I get older. Feiler's article reminds me to be conscious of what I say and what I do. He reminds me to bring my best self to all who are in need of Divine attention, and so I say, "Bruce Feiler, my thoughts and prayers are with you, too." 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Who's On Our Roof?

Sunday morning, and I breathed into the quiet of the day. Ah, no trucks rumbling past the house, and no roofs being reshingled. Early this spring our neighborhood was bombarded with hail, and now roofing company signs seem to be multplying like weeds on every block. Including ours. For two days last week, we had men on our roof.

I took pictures off the second floor walls, pulled the shades, and left the house for as long as I could. Not only was the sound, the ripping and the pounding, intense, but seeing a circus act on our steep, multi-level roof made me queasy. I like my feet on the ground, thank you very much.

When I was in a Tai Chi meditation group, the leader always positioned me across from her in our circle because she said I was so grounded. In the opening pose we stood with our feet shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent--mountain space. Many things happen to mountains--rock slides and snow slides and volcanos, a special breed of mountain, can blow their tops, but how often does a mountain fall over or drift away?

The trick to being grounded and steadfast, it seems to me, is to know what grounds you, what keeps you from floating away like the fluff from the cottonwood trees. What keeps you from falling off the roof? Being grounded can sustain you in shaky times, uncertain times, times when you have no choice but to relinquish control. No doubt, we will face such shaky times as we get older, and being grounded can serve us well. The year I was diagnosed with uterine cancer and my mother was dying of colon cancer, I didn't always have the physical or emotional stamina to write in my journal, the spiritual practice that has grounded me most consistently over the years, but knowing my journals were just off stage, sustained and grounded me. I wrote details in my head, made notes in my heart about those last days of my mother's life. I observed and I willed myself to remember. I was present.

However, being grounded has its shadow side --being stuck.  I know when I write in my journal about the same thing over and over and over and over again and when, rereading those many entries, I see no change, no surrender, no forgiveness or intention to forgive, no new thoughts, no acceptance, I'm stuck. Big time stuckness! When are you unable to move or imagine another way? When does being grounded translate into stubborness, limiting you to one way or the high way, instead of a range of possibilities? When does being steadfast no longer serve you? When does the ground become quicksand sucking the energy out of you?

A spiritual practice done frequently and intentionally, such as writing in your journal, walking a labyrinth, meditating, whatever you choose, is both a way to stay grounded and to clarify what grounds you and leads  you closer to the person you were created to be. A spiritual practice can also be the tool to help you recognize when you are more stuck than grounded. 

Spiritual refreshments are sometimes just outside our windows. Or on our roofs. Roofing is hard work, dangerous work, and I am grateful this job was completed safely. Watching the crew moving agily, confidently across the roof, reminded me that I can stay grounded, but I don't have to be stuck in one place or in one way of thinking or responding or being. Like the roofers, I can touch the sky.


Thursday, June 16, 2011

The View From the 23rd Floor

Recently, Bruce and I decided to rent an apartment downtown St Paul. Instead of going to a lake home on the weekends, we now have an "urban cabin," and in true Agneberg style, we have settled in quickly--pictures on the walls, shelf liner in the kitchen cabinets, and books in a new bookshelf. We have even entertained for the first time, although I am telling everyone I am not planning to do much cooking there. The grandkids gave me colorful measuring cups and spoons, however, so I do think an occasional batch of cookies will be in order. 

We have decided to take this step for several reasons.

1. I anticipate needing and wanting to go to Minnesota more frequently, as my father, who is almost 88, begins to cope with more issues of aging. Having our own place will make the coming and going easier. We have always stayed with our daughter and her family, and we loved doing that and never felt we were imposing. They have always been hospitable and thoroughly welcoming, but we take over our granddaughter's room and while she appreciates the $$ tip I leave under her pillow, at some point her room will be her castle, her sanctuary from little brother and disagreeable parents and friends she can't quite figure out. They have incredibly busy lives and having Mom and Dad come and come more often and maybe more spontaneously adds more to their schedule and To Do list. 

2. Our plan when Bruce retires is to move back to St Paul where we raised our kids and where the majority of family and friends still live. Having an apartment is a way to begin re-establishing a life there; a transition stage to fulltime life there and life as a retired couple. A way to get to know the metropolitan area again and what it has to offer us now that we are in our 60's. Having an apartment is a step up from "visiting," although it is still not quite living there. It is a way to road test what will be right for us and for our family when we do make this permanent change. At this stage of our life the opportunities for "do-overs" are not as obvious or as easy, and this decision feels like a way to become more sure of later and bigger decisions. When we lived in Ohio and more recently in Madison, our visits were jampacked and we never saw all the people we wanted to see and never had the chance to explore the area--go to the Guthrie Theatre or the arboretum, for example, but perhaps that will change a bit now that we have a home base.  

This is all quite new still, but Bruce keeps saying how right it feels, and I agree. At the same time I feel a bit cautious, for I don't want us to let go of our good life here.  My circle of women friends has increased and deepened in the last few months, and I am beginning to feel at home here in a way that is more profound than knowing my way around and having our home decorated the way we want it. I am not ready to let go of what we have been establishing in these 3 and a half years. When we do move to Minnesota, I want to miss Madison, our life here and our friends here, just as we miss our son and daughter-in-love and friends in Cleveland. I want reasons to return. 

An ongoing theme for me is finding the right balance. What I am balancing changes with time and situation, of course. Family and career. Time with friends and time with family. Exercising or reading a book. Solitude vs time with others. This is one more opportunity to listen and respond to my inner voice. 

3. Oh, and one more reason. It's fun !!! We are good at moving in and creating a homey space. We enjoy doing that and already our "urban cabin" feels like home.   

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Day on the Porch

Yesterday I sat on the front porch for almost the entire day. Now that's luxury. Even though the wind was almost visible in its unrelenting strength, I was protected on the porch. I had no need to go anywhere nor did inside the house tasks beckon me. I could spend the day on the porch--and I did.

After my usual morning routine of going to Curves and then walking throught the neighborhood and finally taking a shower and dressing for the day, I gathered my morning meditation materials and my breakfast smoothie (Blend 1 cup frozen strawberries, 1/2 cup lowfat vanilla yogurt, 1/2 cup orange juice and 1/4 cup water.) and settled in.

Always eager to discover what message my devotions would deliver, I often forget to center myself, to find the even rhythm of my breath, to become present to my body and to my environment. The wind, however, reached underneath the eaves and swept over my body and reminded me to become still. The wind was in charge of movement for the moment. Not me.  I closed my eyes and took three deep breaths and then with soft eyes I drank in the green of the tall grass among the trees across the street.  The whole range of greens, light and baby new greens, lettuce greens and Easter greens and "I just learned how to be green" greens.. Not quite the mature greens of summer yet.  I was ready to receive. I read the day's entry in Mark Nepo's The Book of Awakening, and the next chapter in a book that is not a typical devotion book, but one that is giving me new perspectives on  speaking out and solitude and friendships,  A Life of One's Own, A Guide to Better Living Through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf. The only problem with this book is that now I  yearn to return to Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse and other books by her as well. Just when do I think I will do that? I wrote a brief entry in my journal, but most of the time I sat quietly and listened to the wind.

Soon my spiritual direction client arrived, saying as she came up the stairs that she hoped I would be on the porch enjoying the day. Instead of going to my office for our session, we sat on the porch aware that we were not alone, just as we are never alone, but this time the Creative Presence was the wind, whispering words of encouragement as we explored ways our spirituality is deepening and ways we are called to live a more spiritual life. Our time was blessed by the wind.

Later while I ate lunch and read, a young couple walking by stopped to chat. "Do you know anyone who is planning to sell their house soon? We are looking." Few homes are for sale in our neighborhood right now, but I thought what pleasant neighbors they would be, and I wished them well and remembered my many days of walking these blocks, hoping we could sell our farmhouse in Ohio and land here ourselves. Now here I am on our front porch.  May they find their home, too, I prayed.

The day progressed. I wrote a letter. I moved my laptop from my office to the porch and wrote some emails and did other miscellaneous desk tasks. I watered the plants and swept the porch floor. I watched children coming home from school--how many  days till school is out for the summer? I waved at people walking their dogs, and I overheard passing conversations from my almost secret location. A few days ago Bruce sat where I was now sitting and heard someone say, "I love this house. It looks so loved." High praise.

We ate our supper on the porch and caught up one another's days. Bruce finished planting his purchases from our trip to nurseries on Sunday. I returned to my reading--a book that may land on my "Favorite Books Ever" list, The Paper Garden, An Artist Begins Her Life's Work at 72 by Molly Peacock. I am 63. Perhaps my life's work is still ahead of me. The porch is a good place to have those kinds of thoughts.

Later, when night was falling, I went for a walk, returning to the "welcome home" porch lights. Reluctantly, I went inside and shut the front door.  My day on the porch was over.