Conch Shells

About a month ago, Hank died.   Hank had been my friend’s partner and ally through heart-wrenching losses and exquisite joys… distracting her with his antics, depending on her like a child, and adoring her every move.   But as Hank’s illness took more and more out of him and out of the family, my friend had to consider a tough question:  How do you know when “it’s time”?   Perhaps animals are more in tune with nature’s rhythms than we realize:  As he had through so many other tough transitions before, my friend’s dog, Hank, eased her through their final passage together.

A couple of weeks later, I held that friend’s newborn in my arms. I’d forgotten how the world stops when you connect with utter vulnerability and wordless, guileless innocence.  I felt an instant yearning, from deep in my belly, to protect him.  Every twitch of those minute fingers and every tiny, sighing shudder made me want to pledge undying loyalty and allegiance.  Be still my heart! I was holding absolute potential in my very arms;  the wellspring of life from which anything and everything is possible.  Their family was now complete, healed, unbroken again.

Yesterday, from a breathtaking hill-top view of flowing grapevines, I met with others to laugh, cry and celebrate the passing of another friend, Sue.  I hadn’t known Sue very well, but she had been a “pistol” in her day — the kind that exasperated parents and thrilled anyone looking to sneak out of a dorm window, ignore a curfew or two, or find some limits to push.  With a bobbing flaxen pony tail and sparkling smile, she was an instant best friend… and an instant party. If we all have a special gift or talent, then creating friendships and connecting people was hers.  We gathered on that hilltop to lattice a large gap she’d left.

I came home from Sue’s celebration to a sad-looking plant in my kitchen. It needed water, and some attention… and it definitely needed pruning.  I started with the yellow, crinkly leaves that almost fell off the stalk.  They had to go, of course.  And as I kept tugging and snipping… the choices became less clear-cut (so to speak).  Did this little dried bloom need to go?  Could that lime/yellow leaf make its way back?  Or was I just plucking now what nature would surely discard later?  I opted for plucking.  Some of my decisions felt almost cruel; but certainly justified… and, strangely, invigorating. Surely, it wasn’t just self-interested aesthetics… Surely, my “playing God” was good for that little plant.  We all know that cutting out the old helps the new buds form.

As I pruned, my mind meandered to Sue, to Hank, and to that mesmerizing thrall of a newborn: Each so different, each so captivating and crucial to different corners of my world.  Maybe, in a way, we are all part of one big cosmic plant.  And when someone we love is snipped away — or when it’s our time to be plucked, by hands known or unknown – maybe that vast, cavernous hole can slowly, slowly become a source for us.  And if we stay vigilant, letting ourselves fully experience the void, eventually the magical gifts of tiny shoots, inchoate buds emerge.

I once read that we are all like the billions of water drops that form the ocean.  Through the rise and fall of waves, and the churn and swirl of storms, we are never really separate from that endless, watery source.  And so, we keep forming and riding those waves, one after another.   Some are rough and tall and boisterous to the end. Others barely rise…making themselves visible only to keen observers before calming back into the ocean.

I think the trick is to embrace the gifts that lie on the sand after each wave has dissipated:  Hold those sand-dollars to our breast, keep listening to the ocean’s voice through those conch shells — while also remembering to look towards the horizon.  Deep in that briny womb, whole worlds of creatures thrive and waves are ceaselessly creating themselves, reaching their hands towards us, and leaving us gifts before they return to their source.


mother_dev03Friday’s meeting with a disgruntled employee did not go well. As she arrayed pages of documentation, blotched yellow to highlight her long-overdue-but-never-bestowed promotion, her tears beckoned me to dig down into my heart and witness her pain.  Perhaps she thought my duty was to comfort and protect her.  Perhaps I did, too. Maybe, in a way, HR is the corporate embodiment of that archetypal Mother: the keeper of ancestral cultures and norms; the stable, fertile ground that allows us to crawl, walk, run; the nurturing womb we retreat to when it’s just too much…

As tear after tear stained her face, and page after yellow-stained page was thrust in my direction… I wanted to experience compassion welling up inside me, and the instinct to wipe away those tears.  I waited for the urge to stand with her in outrage and embrace the cause for justice.  And yet, there was only a growing frustration that she was asking for a part of me that I wasn’t ready to give.  So, as if it were a smoldering campfire, I kicked dirt over that flickering irritation, shut off my feelings, resorted to technical details and “HR face,” and hunkered down for the storm to pass.  Her rage was enough to fill the room.  Fanning the flames of my own embers would only burn us both…  better no emotion than anger.

As she stormed out of the meeting, I was haunted by my inability to assuage her, mother her.   Why didn’t I feel I had the capacity to metaphorically “kiss her tears away”?  And why didn’t I want to?

In this modern, disconnected world, have we lost our ability to nurture?  Are we so distracted that we let video games teach our children how to play, let Instagram instantly show them the world, and settle for texting instead of talking?  Even the idyllic At Home Mom… filling her days with vacuum cleaners, casseroles and talk shows; or shuttling down highways in Plymouth cockpits to the mall, music lessons, marching band… only to return repeatedly to the same silo and rolling thunder of garage doors choking the last rays of sunlight.   How do we find our way through the maze to our own hearts, to our own inner guidance and comfort?

We all yearn for the essence of Mother in our lives.  Like the children’s book Are You My Mother?…  when we don’t find that love inside our own nest, we must set out in search for it.  And with each rejection and mistaken identity (“I’m not your mother”) we feel a growing emptiness, frustration and even despair.  What we are really searching for, of course, is  true, authentic connection.  We are searching for home.  But some of us just don’t realize that until we’ve trudged  through fears, distractions and disappointments… and eventually made our way back to our own doorstep.  (Dusk has arrived, the street games are over, and the screen door slams to “What’s for dinner?”)  And in that warm light against the darkening sky, in that moment of nourishing calm, we feel the accepting embrace of truly connecting.  Whether we are simply connecting with the flow of our breathing, or feeling the euphoria of great music, or sharing our thoughts and dreams with a loved one… we have reunited with hearth and heart.

On this Mother’s Day, I’d like to honor that Mother in all of us… and acknowledge the importance of mothering ourselves each day.  We are all bigger, kinder, more generous humans when we feed our own souls first.  Like the flight attendants tell us at the start of each journey into the skies: be sure to put on your own oxygen mask first, before assisting others.

Search for the Unknown

I must confess to a deep, dark secret:  I love yard sales, garage sales, rummage sales, estate sales…  I love them all.  These erratic commerce events are one of the few ways I “put it in low-gear”and let myself glide, disconnect and unabashedly waste time.   Serene and detached, I roam through the ocean of clothes, kitchenware, crafts and discarded Christmas decorations, just to see what I see.   There is something delicious about mindlessly yet methodically meandering, stopping periodically to read a book-cover, check a shoe size, or consider the purpose of a newfangled gadget.  And, miraculously, every once in a while,  a golden treasure “sparkles” in front of my eyes.  This morning it was a book I’d heard about but wasn’t sure I wanted to read… but for one dollar, how can you resist?

One might say that  the sporadic nature of garage sales is, by
definition, what make them so addictive.  As B F Skinner contends, the very intermittent reinforcement of that occasional “pellet” is what keeps me on the prowl.  When I behold that  sporadic “steal of a deal,” the gush of dopamine in my brain clangs like the bells and whistles of a slot machine jackpot.  And so, like the senior-citizen- filled party bus gliding towards the flashing neon signs of Reno, my car seems to automatically veer toward those colorful advertisements for the next big bargain bash — “today only!”

Getting to the actual event is half of the fun, of course.  Like a treasure hunt clue, the glossy poster on the side of street lures me into the fray.  Surely, I don’t have to get home immediately… What’s a five-minute detour, when it could result in surprise treasure?   Each new sign hints of hidden gems to be unearthed, as I float right, then sail to the left… until the multi-colored, be-speckled yard surrounded by parked and hovering  cars announces that “x” marks the spot.

Once safely disembarked at this new frontier, I make it a point to start simple conversations with my fellow pilgrims .  After all, these are my kinswomen who, like me, come in search of something unknown to even themselves.  We compliment one another’s hunting skills, ask our neighbor what on earth this gadget could be, or entice each other to snag that bargain: “That would  be perfect for you… you have to get it!”  And the proprietress is always to be engaged with.   Like ancient marketplaces from around the globe, we are pulled into a historic relationship, with its rituals and norms.  Even the novice patron knows to acknowledge the beauty of the wares displayed; haggle, successfully or not, over a valued object; and upon departing, to always thank the owner for hosting us in her garage, on her lawn, or under the pop-up tent erected to keep us cool.

Understanding that the search for the unknown and unknowable elusive treasure somehow answers an unmet need deep in my psyche,  my husband smiles paternally when I return home to parade my new-found (and, yes, recently discarded) riches before him.  He puts up with the crazy gadgets we never really use, the unread books on my crowded bookshelves, and the sandals, scarves and sunglasses that end up in the Goodwill basket.  He knows it’s not about the items as much as it is about thrill of the hunt, the search for the unknown, and the fleeting moments of connection in a stranger’s garage.

Please share your experience with these charming treasure hunts…yard_sales