A Velveteen Goodbye…

“… all the knowledge gathered from your past has finally enabled you to arrive here with everything you need to begin the great work, no matter how old you are. It will take a long time;
it might take the rest of your life.”
~ Jonathan Carroll

Yesterday, Miss Gracie received another clean bill of health from my mechanic … the last one before our journey. And yesterday, I said my goodbyes to Lady Seneca. As I stood by her shores, the wonderful, wet scents of midsummer swirled ’round me … the waves were big, crashing as if ocean tides on the rocks. The gulls skreed, the herons winged their way home. The mallard couples watched their young as they learn to paddle. There is no doubt I will miss these green hills and temperamental waters, the changing of blues to greens to grays; and in many ways Geneva will always be home to my heart and soul … but there is also no doubt that it is time to strike out as my own ancestors did several hundred, and some even a thousand, years ago to find and explore new lands.

Later that afternoon, a providential moment told me all I needed to know: On the way home, I stopped at my Grandmother’s grave for one last “Goodbye.” As many of you know, she helped raise me for seven years and was the only stability I had in my young life. As I crouched by her gravestone, whispering my gratitude and farewell, tears began to sting my eyes … in that moment, I realized I’d never actually said goodbye before, though she has been gone since 1979 and I’d left – and returned – a few times. I thought I had, but I’d never truly let go in my heart. This time, 39 years later, it was different. And I knew it.

Standing up, I touched my lips to my fingers, blew a kiss and turned to go. Suddenly I saw a beautiful deep red rosebush in full bloom, just a few grave markers away. My Grandmother adored her roses … she had dozens of bushes, but most especially loved those flushed crimson ones. The ones with petals soft as velvet and a scent that lingers in one’s soul forever. She and I spent many hours caring for them when I was a child. We’d follow the horse trails, collecting the dried manure, we’d prune the bushes with love and conversation, and she’d often pick a prized bloom and gently float it in a crystal bowl to adorn our dining room table. It was her luxury. When I moved to NY in 2002, I’d promised that I would plant a rose bush at her grave … of course, I never got around to it. Time passes so quickly, and I was always too busy. But here, within a few dozen feet, stood this exquisite thicket of red. In all the times I’d visited that spot, I’d never seen it before. In deeply humble gratitude, I silently plucked two …

One for she. One for me. Thank you, Grandma.

A Mother’s Day Missive

“We are born of love;
Love is our mother.”
~ Rumi

Something a little different today; something not necessarily pertaining to “The Ride,” but rather, a story of love from me to you, on this Mother’s Day.

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This is my mother. It is my only photo of her; it’s not the best, as it’s from a newspaper article written around 1989. But it’s all I have. She was an artist, a singer, a writer, and wrestled all of her life with many demons: Bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, and alcoholism, among others. We had a rather brief and very challenging relationship – she never wanted children and I was seen as nonessential … and moreover, as the wretched roadblock between my father and her. She left us immediately after I was born, only to reappear in our lives a decade – and several husbands – later when I was 10. The following six years were incredibly difficult, and I could easily fill this blog with many stories of her abuse and hatred toward me. Our last stormy encounter was in 1973, and she passed away in 2003, having never spoken another word between us in those 30 years.

So, why do I write this now, on Mother’s Day? Seems odd, right? But, you see, there is much more to this story … especially for those who understand and believe that lifespirit, and love and forgiveness, are never-ending. Keep reading….

In the summer of 2012, I was sitting in my apartment reading, late one afternoon. I felt an ‘odd’ sensation, and looking up from my book … I saw her standing there. Or rather, her lifespirit. She was young and beautiful and healthy; and had a peaceful, loving expression on her face … an expression that I’d never seen on her before. I was stunned and silent – I’d not given my mother a thought in decades – but at that moment, and without a single word exchanged between us, I knew that beneath all of the disease and broken chromosomes and chemical imbalances she waded through all her life … she, her Spirit – the true essence of her life beyond what we know and understand in this world – did indeed love and care for me. In the passage of a nano-second, forgiveness and joy reigned. I understood completely and fully that none of the abuse was “her” fault, but rather were the manifestations of the delicate balance of our physical nature … a broken or missing gene/chromosome here and there, the learned patterns of generations prior, the on-again off-again nature of the drugs meant to “control” what we deem as mental illness. It was not she who did not love or care for me … not the Spirit or Soul of this woman who was my mother … but rather her humanness, her mortal-ness, and it was beyond her control. When that is fully realized, forgiveness comes oh-so very easily. And it did. I smiled … deeply, completely. Compassionately. She smiled in return, as she slowly faded from view.

Yes, it would have been nice to have had a different, “better,” mother … my life certainly would have been easier, and my standing joke is “Next time around, I’d like to know what a normal life is!” …. but, this lovely, emotionally challenged woman also gave me gifts I never would have had, had I not known her: Strength, resilience, intelligence, an artistic bend, a love of words, theater, art, education; and a desire to live Life fully to its last beautiful breath.

Happy Mother’s Day, one and all.

The Siren’s Song…

“Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake.”
~ Wallace Stevens

So very delighted to have had the article, below, was published in the March/April issue of “Life in the Finger Lakes” magazine … in full color, with additional photos. It speaks to why I decided to return to Upstate NY after the long meander of The Ride. What was it that called me back, in spite of having seen some of the most incredible areas of this country? Read on, to find out…

“As I crossed the invisible border between Pennsylvania and New York, beginning the final leg of an almost-26,000 mile journey begun two years ago, tears stung my eyes and blurred my vision. I eased onto the shoulder of the road, rolled down the window and smiled. Two years since I’d seen this land … these lakes, these waterfalls, these trees. This lush greenest of green! The scent of a thousand flowers filled my nostrils, and the damp air clung to my skin. I’d been meandering this incredibly beautiful country for two years; I’d photographed and stayed in some of the most amazing places from the Atlantic to the Gulf to the Pacific – and yet I chose to return to the Finger Lakes. Why? Why leave the towering red rocks and other-worldly arches of Utah, the white powder of saline deserts, the colorful striations of ancient earth upheavals, or the massive 800-foot-high gorge of the Rio Grande? Why turn around at the great redwoods of the northwest and head for the fat oaks and maples and dancing willows of the northeast? Why say not now to the craggy snow-capped Rockies … and yes again to the gently rolling hills and flat farmlands of this region?

Let me start by telling you that I am not originally from the Finger Lakes, or even New York State. I was born in Philadelphia and lived most of my life on both sides of Pennsylvania. My father’s family, however, was from the Geneva area, and after visiting once when I was ten, I told myself I would live there one day … and it only took another 37 years to reach that goal!

It’s funny, though, how life can take us on some surprising journeys, and just 13 years after I arrived here, a friend’s sudden death along with a looming 60th birthday catapulted me into the adventure of a lifetime. Within just a few weeks of her passing, I’d decided to sell everything I owned, toss a few remaining clothes in the car and set out to meander the country. Little did I know I would wander for two years and 26,000 miles, and even further removed from my mind was returning to New York.

Yet there is a siren-song that beckoned me back … a song Seneca Lake sings silently to many of us who lived here. A magical melody reaches out from her denim depths, singing to those who listen. Her cobalt-blue waters, topped with frothy, bobbing white hats on windy days, her deep musty perfume; her endless shoreline painted with vineyards, crisscrossed with farms, dotted by thick woods. Her friendly, simple and happy people … a mix of races, religions and occupations. To drive the loop from Geneva to Watkins Glen – perhaps stopping for a sip of wine and a breathtaking sunset – is a perfect way to spend a long, lazy Sunday afternoon.

But there is something deeper. Though all long-past now, many generations of my family were from this area, and I truly believe that it’s a part of my DNA. Studies have been done recently on DNA memory – specifically regarding early trauma suffered by our Indigenous people – and they found that there is indeed a change, a memory, imbedded in the subsequent generations’ genetic makeup. If this is true, could it not be so for those of us with familial history tied to an area? Could, in essence, the waters of these lovely lakes have become a part of our chromosomes? I truly believe so.

So many I know who choose to leave – for any number of “logical” reasons – always seem to come back. A year, two, maybe a decade … but they come back, even if just for a little while. Perhaps there is indeed a magic, a bewitching spell, cast on those who take the time to walk along the shores of these captivating sirens. A magic that cannot be denied, and a magic that lasts a lifetime.”

Seneca Lake, NY

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Once again, I have to say that it truly is a pleasure and an honor to be freelancing for such a fabulous magazine. If you enjoyed this one, I hope you’ll take a moment to read my previous articles,”The Simple Things” and “Where We Love Is Home” … and perhaps take a few more to enjoy some of their other offerings. It’s a beautifully done publication filled with information, history, and photos of this incredibly lovely region of the country. 

Soul of the Ancestors…

“We forget that the soul has its own ancestors.”
~ James Hillman

I recently entertained my long-held curiosity and sent away for one of those DNA kits – and admit I was a bit surprised at the results. It seems much of the helixal threads that make up this woman found their way here from the Emerald Isles that lie in the cold seas of the north. And ay, I do believe it may be so.

It is said that our DNA has memory … the memory of our ancestors and of the lands they walked. I think perhaps it is true. When I was little girl living at home, I remember being thoroughly fascinated – and quite in love – with a ring my Father wore. I had no clue as to why … I only knew that I thought it was the most wonderful of rings. Magical in so many ways, it seemed. Small and gold, with a carved brown stone in the middle … nothing fancy to my eyes … but for some reason I was thoroughly enamoured with it. The only time I recall not seeing it snuggly holding on to his little finger was when he was sleeping or doing some dirty work around the house, and it was at those times I’d slip into his bedroom, open the wooden valet that sat atop his dresser … gaze into that stone, and then quietly slip the ring onto my own finger. There was something in that ring that drew me, that called to me.

My Father and I did not have a good relationship – matter-of-fact, it was quite difficult and harsh – and we parted ways in 1971 when I was put into foster care. We didn’t see or speak to each other until thirty-two years later, when in July of 2003, we decided it was time to reunite … and I nervously made the three hour trek to his home in central Pennsylvania. My knock on the door was answered by an elderly white-haired man who stood stoop-shouldered in front of me. So much smaller than I’d remembered, and a man I barely recognized until my eyes traced down the length of his arm … and there, yet still, it was as it had always been: That glimmering bit of brown and gold wrapped around his little finger. It was, quite literally, seconds between the meeting of our eyes and my seeking the ring. Instinctive, immediate, unthought.

My Father died a bit over two years later, but just a few weeks before his sudden passing, he sat on a footstool next to the chair I occupied and said: “Here, I want you to have this…” as he pulled the ring from his hand. He’d had no idea of my love for that little piece of gold … we’d never discussed it, and I know he never saw me trying it on when I was young. He didn’t know the magic that ring held for me, or that it had whispered my name for over 45 years. And then he went on to tell me a story: That ring, he said, wasn’t his. No, it was his oldest brother, Lowell’s. A brother who was a decorated soldier killed in Africa in WWII. But that ring wasn’t really his, either. No, rather it belonged to his fiancé’s family ….… in Scotland.

I did a bit research in the years that followed my Father’s passing, and learned that it’s a signet … an old ring designed for sealing envelopes with wax … and bearing the MacKinnon family crest, or badge. Handmade of gold, there is no jeweler’s mark – making it difficult, if not impossible to trace to where it was crafted – but into the sardonyx stone is carved a boar’s head with deer shankbone in it’s mouth, and beneath it the words, “Audentes Fortuna Juvat” … Fortune Favors the Brave. It most likely came from the Isle of Skye.

********

Long before I had my DNA done, and learned of the extensive and ancient Celtic background in my family, I fell in love with a ring from Scotland. For no logical reason. And looking back now to when I decided to come home to NY State … leaving behind stunningly beautiful western landscapes of red rock and wide open spaces … all I could say to my friends there was that I wanted to go home to the hills and the water, and to the mosses and grasses and ferns and forests … to the green. To the green. It was the green I missed most of all. Do our chromosomes carry memory from ancient lands and ancestors? I think so. Yes, I truly think so. And perhaps one day my journeys will take me over the seas to the most green of all Isles…..

The Gift…

“For it is in giving that we receive.”

Wait,” he said, as he held out his fist, fingers curled around something that must have been terribly small. “Don’t leave yet. I want to give you this.” I extended my palm, and he slowly dropped a tiny piece of metal into it.

****

We were standing outside of the courthouse, after what had been a brutal few hours for me. I was being deposed about the accident that took Angela’s life over two years before … and the five-minute intersecting of two lives that later became the catalyst for The Ride. (see page: What was The Ride if not familiar) Though I’d only returned to New York a few weeks before I was ordered to appear, I was there – reluctantly; I’d gotten a call from the attorney the day after I arrived home, telling me I had no choice in the matter … I had to show up in Ithaca, 70 miles away, the morning of the 31st. Or risk being subpoenaed, or worse. I’d never been involved in a suit before, never been questioned by a cannibalistic lawyer, never been inside a courthouse except for tours. Two hours after I opened the door to the conference room where a single deposition – mine – was to take place, I left feeling exhausted, battered, dirty and angry. I’d simply been a by-stander … a woman on her way to work, riding a bus that will forever remain frozen in time in all of our collective memories. I was there that day and on that bus, at that tragic moment, due to a series of unforeseen coincidences and circumstances. I never should have been … it wasn’t my usual bus. But I was, and because of those fateful events, Angela and I shared a few brief moments of breath … and of spirit … together that forever changed my life. And now, 28 months later, I was sitting in a room being repeatedly questioned about my memory and capability to judge whether Angela suffered those last minutes. As the challenges continued, growing more demeaning with every query, objections flying back and forth, I grew frustrated and short tempered. When it finally ended, all I wanted to do was shut that door and go home. As fast as I could.

But he had other ideas. “He” was Angela’s husband. As he held the door open for me, he was apologetic – he had never wanted me to go through that, he said. “You were there for her, and I know she knew it.” He thanked me again as I began fumbling in my purse, almost forgetting that I’d wanted to give him the photo of Angela I’d carried the last 23 months: A photo that came with me as I explored 26,000 miles of this amazing country, and the photo of the woman whose spirit and heart I felt riding along side of me through every one of those miles. I wanted to give him the photo, and tell him what I did and why … share with him where she had been with me. Though I was shaking, I managed to find it and handed it to him. “I want you to have this. I want you to know what happened after the accident…” He quietly interrupted me and said, “I already know.” Her daughters – who I’d only met briefly at the wake and never saw again – had been following The Ride, he said. I never knew … they never contacted me, but they’d been silently shadowing that most amazing journey of Angela’s and mine.

He and I chatted a few minutes and I turned to go. I was spent from the morning, and wanted to be home. “Wait,” he said urgently, as he held out his fist, fingers curled around something that must have been terribly small. “Don’t leave yet. I want to give you this. I made it … for Angie. I inscribed her name into it. She used to carry it on her keychain …. and I want you to have it.”

I held out my hand, he held his over mine, and as he opened his fist, a tiny piece of metal dropped into my open palm. “And oh, by the way,” he said as I walked away, “Angie loved to travel….”

Whispers of the Wolf…

“If you don’t go out in the woods, nothing will ever happen and your life will never begin. Go out in the woods, go out.”
~ Clarissa Pinkola Estes

One of the most important – and most painful – lessons I learned on my journey was to trust fully, completely, in my intuition and my instincts. Even when the whisper is so very small. We always seem to say, “Oh yes, we must!” But how often do we really do so? How often do we have those subtle “inklings” but choose to ignore them because of some perceived logic, or emotion … or perhaps what we think we “should” do. How often do we drown the song of intuition with our own desires?

I’d always been pretty good at listening to those knowings, but on my journey there were a few times I ignored it. Most were inconsequential and easily righted, but I came to realize there was one in particular that changed everything: A moment when I knew, as I stepped from the car – not listening and heeding the voice in my heart, asking if this really was what I wanted – that I had changed everything originally intended by the heavens. From that day on – though still yielding many wonderful moments and memories – The Ride and I were never the same.The journey that had begun in June 2017 veered from its original path, and never fully returned. There is a price to pay when we don’t listen to those quiet whispers. But, the heavens still offer surprises…..

Exactly a year ago one of the most amazing gifts of the entire journey came 9 months after that detour … an opportunity to sit with the wolves. Had things not happened exactly as they did, I would not have found myself in an enclosure, crouched low, hands buried deep in fur, my face lavished by wet kisses, being loved on and exchanging breaths with a full-blooded wolf … my spirit dancing with his far beyond the boundaries of the time and enclosure. And yesterday, for some silent reason, I picked up a book I’d put away long ago and in turning the pages, stumbled onto a story of a wolf … and of intuition. A story of the connection, and of listening. It seems ironic – or rather, not – that at this time when I am sifting through the lessons learned on my journey, and making decisions about the future, I unwittingly turn to a page that bridges past to the present, speaking to lessons learned. That day, one year ago, I believe I walked away from that enclosure with far, far more than just incredible memories … rather, I think perhaps I walked away with an eyelash……

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The Wolf’s Eyelash

If you don’t go out in the woods, nothing will ever happen and your life will never begin.

“Don’t go out in the woods, don’t go out,” they said.

“Why not? Why should I not go out in the woods tonight?” she asked.

“A big wolf lives there who eats humans such as you. Don’t go out in the woods, don’t go out. We mean it.”

Naturally, she went out. She went out in the woods anyway, and of course she met the wolf, just as they had warned her.

“See, we told you,” they crowed.

“This is my life, not a fairy tale, you dolts,” she said. “I have to go to the woods, and I have to meet the wolf, or else my life will never begin.”

But, the wolf she encountered was in a trap, in a trap this wolf’s leg was in.

“Help me, oh help me! Aieeeee, aieeee, aieeee!” cried the wolf. “Help me, oh help me!” he cried, “and I shall reward you justly.” For this is the way of wolves in tales of this kind.

“How do I know you won’t harm me?” she asked – it was her job to ask questions. “How do I know you will not kill me and leave me lying in my bones?”

“Wrong question,” said this wolf. “You’ll just have to take my word for it.” And the wolf began to cry and wail once again and more. “Oh, aieee! Aieeee! Aieeee! There’s only one question worth asking fair maiden, wooooooooor aieeeee th’ sooooooool?”

“Oh you wolf, I will take a chance. Alright, here!” And she sprang the trap and the wolf drew out its paw and this she bound with herbs and grasses.

“Ah, thank you kind maiden, thank you,” sighed the wolf. And because she had read too many of the wrong kind of tales, she cried, “Go ahead and kill me now, and let us get this over with.”

But no, this did not come to pass. Instead this wolf put his paw upon her arm. “I’m a wolf from another time and place,” said he. And plucking a lash from his eye, gave it to her and said, “Use this, and be wise. From now on you will know who is good and not so good; just look through my eyes and you will see clearly. For letting me live, I bid you live in a manner as never before. Remember, there’s only one question worth asking fair maiden, wooooooooor aieeeee th’ soooooooool?”

And so she went back to her village, happy to still have her life. And this time as they said, “Just stay here and be my bride,” or “Do as I tell you,” or “Say as I want you to say, and remain as unwritten upon as the day you came,” she held up the wolf’s eyelash and peered through and saw their motives as she had not seen them before. And the next time the butcher weighed the meat she looked through her wolf’s eyelash and saw that he weighed his thumb too. And she looked at her suitor who said “I am so good for you,” and saw that her suitor was so good for exactly nothing. And in this way and more, she was saved, from not all, but from many, misfortunes.

But more so, in this new seeing, not only did she see the sly and cruel, she began to grow immense in heart, for she looked at each person and weighed them anew through this gift from the wolf she had rescued. And she saw those who were truly kind and went near to them, she found her mate and stayed all the days of her life, she discerned the brave and came close to them, she apprehended the faithful and joined with them, she saw bewilderment under anger and hastened to soothe it, she saw love in the eyes of the shy and reached out to them, she saw suffering in the stiff-lipped and courted their laughter, she saw need in the man with no words and spoke for him, she saw faith deep in the woman who said she had none, and rekindled hers from her own. She saw all things with her lash of wolf, all things true, and all things false, all things turning against life and all things turning toward life, all things seen only through the eyes of that which weighs the heart with heart, and not with mind alone.

This is how she learned that it is true what they say, that the wolf is the wisest of all. If you listen closely, the wolf in its howling is always asking the most important question – not where is the next food, not where is the next fight, not where is the next dance? – but the most important question in order to see into and behind, to weigh the value of all that lives, woooooooor aieeeee th’ sooooooool? wooooooooor aieeeee th’ soooooooool? Where is the soul? Where is the soul?

Go out in the woods, go out. If you don’t go out in the woods, nothing will ever happen and your life will never begin. Go out in the woods, go out. Go out in the woods, go out. Go out in the woods, go out.

~ Clarissa PinkolaEstes, Ph.D.