December 23, 2015

Molly Meditating

Molly is always at my side and so its only natural that she's been picking up meditation techniques.  She is completely at one with her breath.
Now I've done it, I've become a person who uploads pet videos.

December 22, 2015

Cloth Again

The retreat recalculated everything. Instead of my usual wrestling match with cloth on my design wall, I mysteriously channeled three cloths as I sang some of the retreat chants aloud. The singing moved Molly out of my studio, through the dog door and into the far reaches of the yard. But it moved that little place between my eyes where creativity lives, too.
My intention was to develop one prayer cloth, where I could see the words to my favorite chant from the retreat.  I also wanted to create a gift (since she may be reading, no more details yet).  I started by diving like a boxer into a trash can into my basket of miscellaneous component parts.  And it all just happened.
The prayer cloth...
The gift...
 And the bonus, as in "make two, get one free."
They all feel like me.

December 21, 2015

So a Jewish Girl Walks into This Monastery...

Meditation, silence, and simplicity cultivate mindfulness. 
Now, mindfulness is a concept that pervades our zeitgeist as deeply as oxygen permeates the atmosphere. Its very ubiquity makes it easy to be cynical.  However, in the uncomplicated space of retreat,you ultimately discover that, like oxygen, the stuff really works.

Our teachers thankfully broke their silence each evening to share teachings about courage. A word that, in Hebrew, actually translates into two words that mean "heart strength." 
I've been trying to capture their words for you. So I've spent most of this day in a cycle of inspired typing, followed by demoralized deleting (interrupted by intermittent attempts to rescue the chili that I started cooking before realizing that I actually have no fresh, canned, or dried chilis anywhere).
So what did I experience at the feet of these masters in Jewish text and tradition, seasoned by deeply refined and precise Buddhist tools, inside the stone walls of this once Catholic monastery?

It only makes sense to let a German poet stirred by Russian Orthodoxy explain.
 From Rilke's Book of Hours, translation by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy:

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your belonging.
 Embody me.

Flare up like flame
and make big shadows that I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don't let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

December 17, 2015

Eat, Pray, Sit

The first day looked like this.

Those italicized words are Jewish prayer services: morning, afternoon, night

You get the picture. And you probably get why my last meditation on the end of the first day involved an elaborate plan for escaping to a nearby bed and breakfast and spending three days in the craft shops and swell restaurants dotting the gentrified villages of the Hudson River Valley.

My higher self prevailed. I stuck it out, only to wake to a second day that had the rip-roaring zip of the first.
But something happened somewhere in the midst of all that sitting. A heart began to crack open, a soul began to reach out...and by the end of the next two days (see above: meditate, eat, pray, repeat), I...I...I am having so much trouble finding the right words.

Well, actually, I know the right words. They just sound stupid.

I see differently.

I will share more as soon as I take the final exam: figuring out how to upload photos from my phone onto my computer without throwing the phone against the wall or eating the entire box of Christmas cookies Himself brought home from the office.

November 29, 2015


If I can ever get in and then out of the shower, I will be off to do something I have never done before: a silent meditation retreat that also features Jewish text study on the Chanukah theme of courage.The retreat is sponsored by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality and will be held at the Garrison Institute, which, as you can see here, is an old Capuchin monastery that overlooks the Hudson River.

It is taking all the courage I have go into five days of long periods of intention is to completely reset my inner GPS and experience recalculating in a Big Way.

November 28, 2015

Better Living Through Garmin

Disclaimer: The missing camping towels and first aid kit have materialized but my camera is really and truly AWOL. I cannot bear to spend my time mastering a new piece of technology, so we are bidding on Ebay for the exact same model, used. (Might even be so exact because it was mine to begin with!). Anyway, bidding ends tomorrow and Himself won't let me touch his camera lest my LOS relapses. But the words are coming fast and furious and so I just have to go on without images. Feel free to print this out and draw pictures between the paragraphs if you need illustrations.

When you drive into the corners that we do, you need a GPS (sat-nav if you are not on my side of the Atlantic). Although Garmin seems bent on trumpeting that we have arrived at our destination "on left" when it is clearly on the right, it does keep us off roads that end in waterfalls and it breaks up our squabbles about who missed what turn.

Garmin does not get thrown by missed turns or closed roads. It does not curl itself up into a ball and whimper, "what now?" or turn its screen off and crawl back into the box. Nope. Garmin just utters the magic word: "Recalculating."

It occurred to me a while back that Garmin has been trying to tell me something. Not about missing right turns, but about a better way to live. Lately, the road through my life has suffered some serious potholes.  It has dumped me on a route that is unfamiliar at best and like something out of a "dark and stormy night" horror movie at worst. I feel lost and find myself desperately looking for the old road, the place where I am supposed to be. That strategy has given me insomnia, a broken heart, and some serious gas.

This month, I started to try it Garmin's way. The "check tires" light appears? A flat tire NOW? REALLY? Recalculating. Take the road to Chuck the Mechanic. The phone rings and now I have to call American Express, the New York Times, Netflix, two doctors and everyone else on Dad's Unending List of Worries?  Recalculating. I am on the path of helping them now,  these two old people who used to help me in every way possible. The dog is terminally ill? Recalculating...oh wait, he doesn't care. Never mind, just feed, walk and wrestle with him until he cannot do those things. The daughter will never prosper? She may never be safe? That little child with the sparkling blue eyes? There must be something--Recalculating. It is time. Turn off the bumpy road to Hope and drive the highway to Reality.

I actually say it out loud when I lose my grip. Recalculating. Like most metaphors, it substitutes image for image that helps me stop fighting, helps me start acclimating. It might even be the key to survival, both in my picayune little world and on a grander scale. Otherwise, why would a Syrian mother clutch a toddler in one hand and an aged father in the other and begin a walk through the Balkans in winter? For some of us, survival depends on recalculating an entire life. 

Not everyone knows that Garmin knows the secret to life. In fact, so many people found the "recalculating" refrain from Garmin annoying that the company removed the word from its products after 2012? So pass it on, ok?

November 19, 2015

Lost Object Syndrome

I keep a neat little (4 x 6) spiralbound notebook for writing my lists, for taping business cards of  handyfolk, for jotting phone numbers of Customer Service and the reference numbers it generates, for keeping track of books I want to read, music I want to listen to...and quotes that come across my life.  It replaced a rather ad hoc system that involved tearing corners off the nearest electric bill or piecing together shreds of business cards from the lint trap of the dryer.

The single rule is that the notebook can never leave the house. And so it is a brilliant way to keep everything in one place.

Except when you lose it. 

Because everything is in one place.

Because I slavishly follow rules, I know its here somewhere. After a month of looking in every possible and impossible hiding place, I finally gave in and bought a replacement. Much to my sorrow, because I love leafing back through the shorthand version of my life.  I would show you a photo of it...

But I can't find my camera either.

I used to think the thing I hated most about aging was the fumble for reading glasses to see anything smaller than my dogs. But since the glasses have become a permanent facial fixture, I am nominating Lost Object Syndrome in its place.

November 2, 2015

My Life as a Fungus

I've written before about the mushrooms I innoculated into logs of white oak in February 2014. I never expected another fruiting (actually, I never really expected the first fruiting), especially after this very dry summer and autumn. 

One morning, in what seems now like lifetimes ago but the calendar says just 10 days, something white caught my eye from the upstairs window...a trash bag caught in the bushes? An albino racoon? A midget Sta-Puff Marshmellow Man?

How 'bout oyster mushrooms?
 How 'bout shitaake mushrooms.

 How 'bout this life, huh? Punches below the belt and outpourings from old logs, all in one breath.

October 31, 2015

My Life as a Country Music Song

Well, my dad, he's sick and doing his best
To grab on to his walker without needing rest.
My mama is stuck in an endless refrain
Of asking "when can he go home again?"
I got a daughter who cycles from bad to worse...

And the vet just told me my dawg Billy has a large tumor 
somewhere inside his abdomen with just a few weeks left to live.

And I'm out of red wine.

October 29, 2015

Field of Feelings

Two years ago, a developer bought up a farm down the road a piece. He cleared the corn stalks, graded it into gentle rolling hills, ran a nice access road into it...and put up fancy signs about 7 custom-built estates with 20 acre lots each.

Here's how he is doing with that.
About a week ago on a sunny Saturday, with just a bit of chill burning off, I was tramping through the upper left corner of this picture. My mom called distraught about my dad. A former reference librarian, she did not remember how to call an ambulance. She did know to run down the hall to Charlie, "because he is always having to take his wife to the hospital."
Like a bad three-act drama, the emergency room set turned into the second floor acute care unit, and then into rehab on the fourth floor of something ironically called the "Health Center." That would be institutional euphemism for nursing home (the fifth floor, for dementia patients, is called "The Garden.")

He progresses slowly, but at nearly 88 years old, "progress" is also a euphemism. This man, who never met a medical intervention he didn't like, refused further invasive diagnostic procedures. And  he's become a bit giddy with self-management, like a two-year-old who just discovered the word "no," refusing things just to see if he can.
 I sit with my father in this place, literally and figuratively. Unless I have to deal with the disorganization of this organization, so that he gets the promised haircut, the necessary nail trimming. I sit with my mom in her place. Which usually includes an endless loop of 1) torturing my father with grapes, tangerines, and the whatever cookies she manages to steal from the lounge; 2) nagging him to stop sleeping so much.and 3) asking me why he is here. When she agrees to leave his side, we go to the movies, we share a meal somewhere.

My other commitments have proven stressful, not nourishing. So I dropped my class at rabbinical school and I pulled out of volunteering at the nursing home. (Actually, I AM volunteering at a nursing home, just for a party of two instead of a whole room.) For the first time in my life, I make a conscious choice not to busy myself with to-do lists that will subversively distract me from my feelings. Because everything is changing and a world I knew is coming to end.  Distractions will not prevent that and so I might as well be fully and truly present.

Little by little, I test out the hypothesis that I won't die from feeling sad.

I take breaks for that which comforts me: hiking, stitching, getting winter camp in place. My socializing is skeletal and primarily canine. (Himself is tickled to learn that he made the short list of people I can tolerate at the moment.

"Wow," he hums as he pushes out his chest in pride. "My wife can TOLERATE me!"

I remind him that the list is in pencil.

And above all, I try to spend sunrise in the field that the developer built me.

October 15, 2015

Gifts of Love

I've been busy striking the set of summer and starting preparations for winter camp, which, blessedly, brings me a project of love, for two young lovers.
ignore hearts and initials
 My cousin's daughter is getting married next July. Out of great love for my cousin, I had offered her son and his intended a quilted chuppah (the canopy covering the bridal party at a Jewish wedding ceremony). They were thankfully not interested and I never even thought about making the same offer to Stefanie.

Last month, at her engagement party, my cousin tells me that Stef wondered if I would make her a chuppah. She naturally felt out of place asking me but lucky for her, her mom and I can--and usually do--say anything to one another. I felt so very honored (and mightly ashamed that I had never made the offer). And yet, because I had just recently been paroled from the massive wedding One Block Wonder quilt, I was wary of taking on a project like this.

I learned from my last experience that for me, the gift of my stitching labors is really only a gift when it 1) comes from my heart and 2 ) allows me to express my creativity in my own way. So now what? What if I say yes and it turns out that her ideal chuppah and my worst nightmare look very much alike?  What if I decline and miss this very meaningful way to kiss my dearest cousin and her daughter?


I ran over to Himself, who was trying to hide from my family behind a large chafing dish. I  asked him whether he thought I should say yes. He offered his always astute and penetrating assessment:

"Do what you want to do."

"Yeah, but what do YOU think I should do?"

"I think you should do what you want to do."

"Is that all you have to say?"

"Do you know where the bathroom is?"

 I tried to receive an answer from within my soul, but since we were in a large barn with 100 people and a live country music band, the reception wasn't too great. And then I saw beautiful, brown-eyed Stefanie two-stepping across the room and I knew.

When she wandered over, I took both her hands, looked her in the eye and said, "I am pleased and honored to make you two a chuppah." I think I then choked up, either from emotion or because she was throwing her arms around my neck.

"Only there are some rules," I added fiercely. "We have to talk about what you want and see if its something I can do."

"All I want is for you to do it, Julie."

I wasn't going to give up. "We have to find a color, a design--"

"I love you. I will be so thrilled to have what ever you want to make me."

The perfect answer. And so that is how two gifts of love were exchanged in a gentleman farmer's ersatz barn on a Saturday night in suburban New Jersey. Somewhere in there, the groom was told, as most grooms are, that he had always wanted me to make a chuppah and he thanked me from the bottom of Stefanie's heart.

So that's how I have come to be working on this project. As you can see from my sketch, its going to be a large tree, with colorful circles spreading across and down to the ground. It has to fit onto an existing stand, which required multiple communications with a frantic florist reminiscent of that wacky wedding planner in Father of the Bride. It also required lots of addition and subtraction, which I count as particularly frightening forms of higher math.
I came up with a size--about 7 feet wide by nearly 5 feet high. It will be tacked on to an existing white chuppah by the florist's seamstress (who knew that florists had seamstresses??). After the wedding, Stefanie and Mr. Stefanie can decide whether I should add to it for a bed quilt or just finish it off to put on the wall (or in a drawer).

I am going to do it all by hand onto a background that is in turn backed with harem cloth. That way, there is a better chance that the entire structure will not collapse and send the florist (and his seamstress) to the hospital.

The first step is to make a tree on craft paper, cut it out and see how it looks on the background before cutting up pretty pricey hand-dyed fabric.  Sounds easy, until you remember my previous dissertations on my drawing skills.
These are scary trees, good if your wedding has a nice Zombie theme. Lucky for me, Himself and his magic pencil were in the general vicinity when I was throwing the sketchpad against the wall.
He did it on graph paper so I could enlarge and transfer it onto a large sheet of craft paper that we used to use in kindergarten. I did that all by myself!
Now, the tree trunk goes up on the wall on a rough of the background so I can see how it works.
I will have to add the branches but I am happy with this start. I've been auditioning all kinds of browns and grey hand-dyes and will build a tree from them the size of this template. And then I get to make circles--4, 5, and 6 inches--out of my tentative palette:
 I'm sure lots will change but for now, I'm pretty energized and excited.And any and all ideas are warmly appreciated.

September 20, 2015

Who Lives There?

That's what Grace asked in astonishment after looking at my pictures of the Icelandic landscape.  So here's some answers:

The population consists of about 300,000 folks of mostly Nordic heritage...
Who settled Iceland in the ninth century, when Eric the Red was kicked out of Norway.
Some are imposters.

I found a wonderful sense of humor....

Harvest at the marshmellow farm.
 And a love of color.

They have few natural resources and settled the country with what they had at hand.
Old turf home.

Church from driftwood and turf.

Even today, they figure out ways to use what is around them.
"Leather" tanned from wolfish skins

Salmon skin.
The only crop of significance is hay and what isn't a hay field is filled with sheep. As are the roads.
Icelanders also raise cattle, which apparently are ocean-going...
...and the famous, fabulous Icelandic pony.
To maintain the integrity of the breed, no other horses are allowed into the country and if one leaves for an international horse show or a week at Club Med, it is not allowed to return.

Speaking of leaving, drastic numbers of young people are abandoning the rural areas of the country (which is just about everything except Reykavik) and heading into the cities. Deserted farmhouses dot the outer fjords.(We can find a ghosttown anywhere in the world, just dare us.)

The wildlife is primarily birds. I could have spent a lifetime watching them as they returned from their day trips fishing to their clifftop nests.
See the white chalk line in the grass? That is the official protection against falling 1500 feet off the cliff.
And finally, there was this. The ultimate indicator of a civilized culture.
And that, she said, is what I did over my summer vacation.
The End.