The Little Girl Who Loved to Climb Trees

Dear Readers,

Thanks for helping my writing dreams come true–I’ve just been accepted to study for an MFA in writing for children and young adults at Hamline University! Your encouragement of these blogposts is part of what gave me the confidence to go back to school. Following is one of the pieces I wrote for my admission application. May it help breathe life into your own dreams, whatever they may be.

The Little Girl Who Loved to Climb Trees

There was once a little girl who loved to climb trees in her spare time. The problem was, she rarely had any. Or at least she didn’t think so. She was always spinning or weaving or cooking, or sweeping, or doing all those tedious houseworky things that girls often do in fairy tales.

The little girl became very sad. She watched other children play tag and jump rope and wished that she could break free of the evil spell that kept her permanently attached to her to her domestic duties, so that she could play outdoors and climb trees all day long. Day after day she would think to herself “I’ll go climb trees as soon as I’m done with my chores. And day after day, her chores never seemed to be done, and the sun would set again before she could let herself get outside. The little girl sighed and groaned, and eventually she just got frustrated and pissed off, sweeping piles of dust in futile circles on the kitchen floor.

One day, much to her surprise, a mouse scrambled across the floor in front of her while she swept. It darted quickly behind the refrigerator. As you might expect, our heroine tended to be a tidy housekeeper, so of course she moved the refrigerator away from the wall, (carefully, so as not to tear the linoleum ), and what do you think she found? Of all things, she spied a flier tucked away behind the refrigerator coils.

Curiosity (and habits of extreme cleanliness, truth be told) got the best of her, and she vacuumed the refrigerator coils before removing the flier. Without even thinking, she released her hand from her vacuum to unfold the piece of paper. “WANTED”, it said “Young Maidens who Love to Climb Trees.”

The young woman (for the little girl had swept and tidied for so many years she had become a young woman) scratched her head in indecision. “I’m damned if I do, and double damned if I don’t” she thought. “Well, damned beats double damned any day, how about let’s do?”

So she read the flier in detail, and signed up for the tree-eating contest. Wait, wrong flier. She signed up for the tree-scrubbing contest. Wait, not that one either, though she would have been a cinch to win. It was the Queendom’s (for she lived in a matriarchy) Tree-Climbing Championship. Oh boy!

There was no fairy godmother, glass slipper or carriage in this fairy tale, so the young woman dressed in comfortable, yet stylish attire, donned a pair of hiking boots, and took the Light Rail to The Edge of Town where the tree-climbing championship was to be held.

She arrived at The Edge of Town in a timely fashion, and none the worse for wear, ready to get her tree climbing game on. As she approached the registration table, she was alarmed to see that an ogre of giant proportions was handling the registrations. She knew about ogres. Or so she thought (having never met one before), and her fear was so great she nearly turned back on the spot. For a moment she hesitated, but her courage was greater than her fear, so she stepped up to the table and spoke her name.

Much to her surprise and relief, the Ogre smiled and greeted her warmly, and welcomed her to the tournament. That was before he handed her a clipboard with two pounds of forms to complete, including, but not limited to the registration paperwork, the liability waivers, and the autobiography template.

Our heroine, well, I will not say she was undaunted. In fact, she was nearly overcome with despair. But she had not come this far in life without accumulating a variety of tools, among which were persistence, grit, and a fabulous pen collection, so she sat down to begin her work, pausing every so often to practice her centering, her yoga breathing, or, failing that, blowing into a paper bag.

Years passed, our heroine still sat there, diligently filling out her paperwork. By now she was no longer a young woman either, but no matter. She had left her broom behind, and was valiantly pursuing her lifelong goal of tending to her own dreams.

Eventually the day came when when reached the bottom of her paper pile. She stood up slowly, wiped her bleary eyes, and tested to see if her joints still worked. Miraculously (and this is the only miracle in this fairy tale) they still did. She walked triumphantly, though with a slight gimp, over to the registration desk bearing her sheath of paperwork. The ogre was no longer there, having left his post several decades before. “Now what” she wondered. “Has all this effort been in vain?

Our heroine began to feel more than a bit dispirited and panicky.  She had no idea what to do. Despair and thoughts of hopelessness began to overtake her. Why was there no one left at the tree climbing tournament? Had she left her sweeping for naught? Had her dreams of tree-climbing super-stardom fallen by the wayside as well? What would become of her? Would she ever be good at anything? And who was she meant to be? For a time she was overwrought, frail and numb, depressed even. Some days she sobbed so hard she could hardly breathe. And when she had finally cried all the tears she owned, she fell into an exhausted sleep.

This woman, a grandmother by now, dreamed a peculiar dream. She dreamed of her hands. First she dreamed of her little girl hands. They were soft and chubby, and held a broom. Next she dreamed of her young woman hands. They were still soft and delicate, and they held a tree branch apiece. Finally she dreamed of her hands as they were now. They bore the marks of time, the gnarly bumps and age spots that were witnesses to the years gone by. At first they looked empty, and our grandmother was quite distressed, but then she suddenly realized that hands that look empty mean hands that are open to possibility, that there is space in them to hold whatever comes next. She relaxed and was content, cupping her hands in gratitude, aware of holding both emptiness and fullness at the same time.

Our heroine awoke from her interesting dream. Again she stretched, rubbed her eyes, and checked her joints. She felt calmer than she had when she fell asleep.  She gathered her sheaf of papers, (which, by now, contained a handwritten autobiography), looked down at her hands, and realized they were full again. One hand held her sheaf of papers, the other, a sturdy pen. Suddenly, she knew just what she must do. And I don’t remember what happened next, or exactly how she made it happen, or what seemingly miraculous serendipities occurred, but ultimately she got her wish, went back to school, and wrote to her heart’s content.

The little girl who was now a grandma still swept from time to time, but only when she wanted to. And she climbed trees again from time to time, though not as high as those she once had. And she never missed a single sunset just because she was too busy sweeping.

 

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Final Exam

Last night I had the mother of all school anxiety dreams. I dreamt I was taking a final exam for a college class. President Obama was the instructor. It would be an essay test with only a few questions, so each question was worth many points; the stakes were high.

As the President started dictating the questions, I noticed that people around me were speaking so loudly that I couldn’t hear. Then I noticed with alarm that I had nothing to write with, or on. I frantically searched everywhere for a writing instrument, asked fellow students, left the room in search of the proper tools. All the while, the other students had written down the questions, and were starting in on their answers.

I searched in storage areas—every pen I found didn’t work; every pencil melted or snapped to pieces when I tried to use it. I found my favorite pen, but someone who was drunk had messed with it, and it just left ink on my hands. I wandered the streets, getting farther away from the classroom, desperate to find what I was looking for, frantically trying not to get lost. I needed to be able to find my way back. Someone showed me an enormous display of high-quality art supplies, extolling their virtues. I grew frustrated and impatient, and bellowed in exasperation: “I don’t need to create a work of art, I just need to find a PENCIL!”

I am aware that most of the students are finished taking the test, and not only have I been unable to find anything to write with—I STILL DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT THE QUESTIONS ARE!   I know there’s no way I’m going to finish this test on time—maybe I can take an incomplete, finish the test later, and just mail it directly to the White House?

I had really hoped to do well on this test. I respect the President, and getting a good grade from him would mean a lot to me. I start to wonder—was I even registered for this class? I don’t remember ever going to any of the lectures. I’m not even sure what the subject was.

Mercifully, I finally wake up, stumble downstairs for coffee, and remember too late that I forgot to buy half and half, so coffee is pointless. Against my better judgment, I let myself get distracted by the morning news—I don’t know what makes me feel worse—Hurricane Sandy’s swath of destruction, or the thought of another awful week of mudslinging prior to the presidential election.

I eventually wander back upstairs, glance haphazardly at my email, google Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric”, realize I haven’t left enough time for breakfast, dress quickly, and head out–late again–for therapy.

I am still out of sorts from my dream, and mad at myself for getting distracted and arriving late. My therapist encourages me to take a few deep breaths and settle in, but I’m having none of if. I recount my dream in great anguish, and find myself crying in the middle of the telling. What is wrong with me? I come to the end, and finally get a glimpse of insight—about running around in circles and never getting anywhere, about how painful it has been to watch the world run by me this year, while all I could do was sit on the couch watching out the window, or take long naps.

I surprise myself by stating firmly and unequivocally: “All I want to do is read, and write, and teach and heal.” Perhaps this is the greatest benefit of psychotherapy, giving ourselves the gift of time, a safe space and a captive listener where we can hear our soul speak up from time to time.

It isn’t until much later in the day that I remember my reading from the night before. In “Hands of Light”, Barbara Brennan discusses her pathway into the field of energy healing. “I had never heard of such a thing, nor was I interested in illness. What I was interested in was the way the world worked, what made it tick. I looked everywhere for answers. This thirst for understanding has been one of the most powerful agents guiding me throughout my life. What is your thirst? What is your longing? Whatever it is, it will carry you to what you need to do next to accomplish your work, even if you don’t know what that work is yet.”

 So there were the questions I couldn’t hear for my final exam—“What is my thirst? What is my longing? The answers—“I want to read, and write, and teach, and heal.” And what do I need to do next to accomplish my work? Apparently it’s as simple as finding a working pencil.

 

A Jarful of Idiosycrasies

I received a very special birthday gift last week–a glass jar, perhaps cornflower or sky blue, nestled in a lovely metal holder with wooden handles. It’s full. To the brim. Of writing prompts, which my son and his girlfriend transcribed and cut up into individual slips of paper. It’s a homemade gift, so thoughtful, and fits me to a “T”.

This morning as I prepared to write, I pulled out several prompts, settling finally on this one: What are some of your idiosyncrasies?

I think I know what this means–those quirky little habits that make sense to you,(or that you’re totally unaware of) which drive the people you love and, especially, those you live with, a little bit nuts.  I look it up in the dictionary, just to be sure. There I find idiosyncrasy described as “a peculiarity of constitution or temperament; an individualizing characteristic or quality.”

So I pause in my journal to reflect on any one of my many personal peculiarities. I wait for that voice within to speak up and give me a lesson I need to learn, something I should be working on, or subduing, or fixing, but instead what finally surfaces surprises and touches me deeply:

“O how I love thee,

let me count the ways

I love thee more than breadth or depth or height can reach.”

Wow–that’s amazing. I reach for quirks, eccentricities, annoying habits, and find a love letter to myself. It makes me catch my breath. It reminds me, once again, that I have spent an inordinate amount of my life looking at what’s wrong, or what needs fixing, prodding or pruning, and have totally missed the blossoming and blooming.

Maybe spiritual growth can be as much about standing reverently in awe of what already is, rather than simply pointing an accusatory finger at what “should not” be.. Taking a moment to sit still to admire, to embrace and celebrate our achievements instead of always striving for what’s next.

Now can be ok too.

My Tribe

If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us all work together.”

An Aboriginal Australian Woman, quoted in “How Coffee Saved My Life” by Ellie Roscher

Who knew? One of the unexpected bonuses of blogging is getting to read other people’s amazing writing. I found this piece today, and it has left me so much the richer.

http://momastery.com/blog/2014/11/15/meltdowns-fine-softer-melt/

It’s like raising children–that thing that nobody told you, you often learn as much, or more, from your children than you can ever possibly hope to teach. It’s humbling, it’s glorious–It’s the unexpected, and perhaps undeserved, gift.

I write because I love to write, because I can’t not write, I started blogging because I hoped to have something to say that might resonate with others. And, wonder of wonders, after searching for years in all the wrong places, I have stumbled into my tribe, my village. I have found my people. I have come home.

 

 

Spiritual Memoir

“THREE QUALITIES MAKE the genre of spiritual memoir unique: the spiritual writer uncovers, probes, and honors what is sacred in his or her life story; the writing process itself is a means to spiritual growth; and the end product makes the experience of the sacred available to the reader…

Every spiritual memoir reaches into mystery, attempting to place human life in a broad sacred context. Your task as a writer is not to shy from the unknown but to interact with it, to stretch your hand forward into the abyss. This is the second distinguishing attribute of spiritual memoir: The writing itself becomes a means for spiritual growth. Often the writer stumbles on this strange occurrence mid draft, discovering that the writing itself is an avenue for prayer, a means of wrestling with angels, or a form of contemplation.”

From: Writing the sacred journey: the art and practice of spiritual memoir, by Elizabeth J. Andrew

Writing helps me understand my spiritual journey–what tools help you make sense of yours?

Rest Stop

I’m halfway across Michigan, a third of the way to my second destination on what will prove to be a 3,600-mile road trip. I spent a good, long weekend with my son, watching the sun set over Lake Michigan, hiking, napping, playing mini-golf, and in between helping him get ready for summer study in Liverpool. I haven’t felt this relaxed in a long time—the sad part is, I’m still uptight!

My stomach is tied in so many knots, the sea scouts would be proud! Square knots, slipknots and half hitches—they’re all in there. I left later than intended this morning, and am headed to my sister’s home just north of Pittsburgh. I am making good time, when a rest stop sign comes into view.

I (i.e. my bladder) do NOT need to stop at the moment; my soul, however, whose voice is getting harder to ignore, tells me in no uncertain terms that it is definitely time to “GET OFF THE ROAD. NOW!” Ok, ok, I get the message. Against my “better” judgment (the part of me that wants to make up for lost time) I grumpily make the exit.

I park the car and ask myself: “Ok, so NOW what?” I notice there’s an empty picnic table sitting in the shade. I get the sense that I need to write, to do some soul searching, or rather, some soul emptying. I take myself to the picnic bench, plop down with my journal, and take a look inside my knotted stomach.

And horror of horrors, it’s like a DUMPSTER in there! All this old, broken-down leftover junk, floating in a pool of toxic soup. Somebody forgot to take it to the dump!

Maybe I don’t have to “work through” all of it? Can I perhaps just get rid of it? Dump it off a cliff somewhere, bury it in a landfill, or maybe plug my nose and call in roto-rooter to suck out the sludge? I know the only way through is through, but is there a difference between taking a shortcut and just wallowing in the bad stuff?

AbruptIy, I get an image of an old man shining a lantern into the dumpster, shedding light on its contents. And I suddenly realize there might be some treasures hidden among all this old clutter and toxicity. If I simply give it the old heave-ho, I might throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, and what’s the use of a clean bathtub if I’ve thrown out its most precious contents?

There just seems to be so much nasty stuff in here as well—it looks like a daunting, if not insurmountable, task. Yet, I know at some level, at the level that’s a little older, wiser, and a few steps further along the journey than the rest of me, that, like eating an elephant (one bite at a time) or taking a journey of 10,000 miles, (starting with just one step) this task, too, must be undertaken slowly, painstakingly, piece by piece by piece.

All my life I’ve been straining toward whatever’s next, whatever is just beyond my reach. Surely I’ll learn life’s lessons, become mature, get my act together and THEN, magically, everything will flow and make sense, and I’ll be able to be truly happy.   But today I’ve learned something important. Life isn’t like school—we don’t graduate and THEN practice our profession. In life, every day’s a school day. There are lessons to be learned right to the very end. This I have learned this year from the passing of our fathers.

It’s taken me fifty-some years, but how liberating to finally understand that my goal in life is not to become a perfect person, but rather to figure out how to be fully human, wholly and unabashedly ME, warts and all, whoever she may be.

And I suspect, that if and when I finally do get to the bottom of my dumpster, separate the junk from the treasure, the wheat from the chaff, liberate the gold from the dross, then, and only then, will I receive my diploma and a roadmap for the next leg of the journey, the transition from life on earth into eternity.

My soul is done emptying for today. I climb in my car, pull back onto the highway, and head for Pittsburgh. I’ll be a little late, but it will be ok.

 

 

 

Heading Home

It’s a chilly, gray, rainy Sunday afternoon, and I am holed up in the Comfort Inn near the Paris airport, winding down finally after my whirlwind tour. (Mexico/Italy/France). I’m in pretty good shape, all things considered. I’m proud of myself. This did not turn out to be such an easy trip, and I figured it out and made it through. Way to go me.

My travel blog is not how I first envisioned it—neither a daily travel diary nor journal at all, in the end. More a collection of themed writings as it turns out. But I am very aware of how fortunate I am to have the time, good health, and resources, to make such a journey, and have wanted to use my writing as a way to share my good fortune, to “spread the wealth” as it were.

Today’s leg of the journey brought me by train from Strasbourg to Paris, and tomorrow I take my airport shuttle, do the airport security dance, and head for home. Although the action part of the adventure will be over, I suspect the reflection part of this journey will continue for quite some time. I’ve taken in a variety of sights, sounds, smells and experiences; the cloistered aspect of a Minnesota winter is the perfect setting to sit and make sense of what I’ve seen, so I anticipate the writing will continue long after this part of my life’s journey comes to a close.

On one level, this trip was about visiting my children during their semester abroad, spending some quality time with them individually, and creating shared experiences. This I did. Although quality time with one of them involved extracting ourselves from an environment that felt more cult-like than sacred, and with the other, a one-hour jaunt around the perimeter of the world’s smallest country! Neither of these experiences would have qualified as “Plan A”. But we survived them together, and these shared experiences, both good and bad, do continue to weave our lives together, strand by strand.

On another level, this trip was about figuring out who I am and what I’m made of, now that I’m no longer in my twenties, thirties, or even forties. Now that I’m no longer primarily a mom. Now that I’ve left the interpreting position I’ve held for the last ten years. Part of this trip was about figuring out what’s left, now that my youth has begun to fade and my primary roles have shifted. About figuring out what’s ahead. I haven’t been thinking about these things consciously on a daily basis, but they’ve been under my feet, behind my back, propelling me forward, In Cancun, in Rome, in Assisi, at Mont Saint Michel, in Strasbourg.

It came to me today, in an inauspicious moment, on the train to Paris, traveling through the French countryside.  A late train reservation meant I had no assigned seat, so I was huddled with a couple of other travelers at the end of the car, in a tiny space filled with luggage.  Yet I had a view as the country scenery swirled by, and I thought about how much I enjoy sitting and watching the world.  I’ve learned to appreciate that sitting and doing nothing allows my brain to percolate and float new ideas to the surface.   One such thought slowly bubbled its way to my attention.  I finally know what I want to be when I grow up—I think I’ll be a writer!  And if I’m not grown up now, as a grandmother of two, I don’t know when I’ll ever be.

And who then, am I, after all is said and done?  After 10,000+ miles, three countries and as many languages, airplanes, buses, trains, metros, trams, cobblestones, cathedrals, Irish pubs and sacred places?  Well it turns out I’m the same old me I always was, with just a little more mileage, a little more strength, a little more wisdom, and many more stories to tell.

Thanks for coming along for the ride.

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