At Last, a Break from the Clouds and Monotony

It’s April 26, 2020, and today marks the 38th day of self-isolation and the shut-down of nonessential businesses in New York State. I was shocked when I did the math and realized that millions of Americans have been at home for just over 10% of the current year, no wonder we’re going a bit stir crazy.

I was forewarned before moving to Upstate, NY, about the overcast nature of the weather. Although I thought I was mentally prepared for it, the reality is that the cloudy, rainy, dreary days far outnumber the sunny ones. This year has been compounded by the need to stay at home, below-average temperatures, and snowfall as recently as a few days ago.

Yesterday there was finally a break in the weather pattern, and it was a gloriously sunny and mild day. I met up with my friend Rodney, and we went for what I thought was going to be a leisurely stroll around one of the state parks. It turned out to be so much better than that.

Green Lakes is a magnificent park. Even the entrance is strikingly scenic, with its evergreen lined paths to the hiking trails.

Evergreen lined entrance_Green Lakes

The paved path leading into the park met my initial expectation about the nature of the walk, it was a bit hillier than I imagined but still reasonably easy.

As we reached the top of the hill and the first glimpse of the interior of the park and the area my friend wanted to give me a walking tour of, my impressions began to change a little. Instead of a paved path, the first walking path he showed me was covered in a blanket of emerald green grass.

Grassy Path at Green Lakes

The path was flanked by Reed grass (I think that’s what it is) and trees that are still waiting for weather warm enough to coax them into spring.

We didn’t take this path, but seeing it did alter my expectations a bit – the trails wouldn’t be paved, but I anticipated the walk would be a little more challenging, but very manageable.

Fast forward through the rest of our six-mile ‘walk.’ There were steep hills and gentle inclines, smooth grassy paths, and dirt paths spotted with tree roots emerging through the earth as well as a few rocks scattered here and there.

Our final descent involved a steep hill with a very narrow dirt path that contained more than one spot peppered with small loose rocks. Steep Trail at Green Lakes

We stood at the top of the hill, and Rodney said, “Beth, I’m so sorry! I forgot about this hill.”

I responded, “It’s ok, I’m up for the challenge – let’s do it!”

Rodney and Mo (short for Geronimo), his trusted Chocolate Lab, were sure-footed as they began the downward climb. As for me, not so much – I was hesitant at best, but determined to make it.

I could tell I was making Rodney nervous, and he was concerned for my safety because he kept stopping, turning around, and coaching me. “Place your feet a little wider apart on this next part of the trail, oh, and walk to the left. It’s wider, and there are fewer loose rocks.” Through his coaching and a virtual helping hand, I made it safely to the bottom of the hill.

All I can say is I felt accomplished after doing so!

It was a far different walk from my usual stroll around the flat and uninteresting streets of my neighborhood. Instead of listening to my book, I listened to nature and engaged in conversations filled with good-natured banter.

It was also nice to see people outside of the grocery store, albeit in masks and from at least six feet away. It somehow still felt a bit more normal than the past few weeks have seemed.

The walk, or the hike, was life-affirming and a reminder that as we go through our days on this earth, we will experience both easy and challenging times. But when it’s all said and done, if we face those challenging times head-on and accept help along the way, life is truly joyous and rewarding.

The little lake at Green Lakes

The Miracle Comes Quietly and When We Least Expect It

We’ve all heard the expression, “it’s darkest just before dawn,” or some variation of it. I didn’t realize until today that it’s actually a proverb, first committed to print by the English theologian and historian Thomas Fuller in his religious travelogue A Pisgah-Sight Of Palestine And The Confines Thereof, 1650, citing this view:”It is always darkest just before the Day dawneth.”

It can be viewed as an annoying cliche’ or bromide that people use to offer comfort and hope to someone who is going through a tough time, or as a truism that really should offer us hope. For me, it’s a little of both and it’s right up there “it is what it is,” “everything happens for a reason,” and “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

I’ve come to believe that there’s something else that happens just before the metaphorical “dawn.” We become quiet and still and our needs are met in unexpected and often-times wonderful ways. We tend to think about how being still and asking for help apply only when it comes to major things happening in our life, but miracles small and large are happening all around us every day.

A few months ago I was traveling for business.  Normally I make my own travel arrangements, but in this case the company I was visiting took care of the planning and booking of airline tickets, limo transportation and the hotel. My area airport of choice is in Philadelphia, but because I was traveling the weekend the Pope was leaving NYC and headed to Philly, I flew out of Newark to avoid the crowds and potential travel delays. I made it to the airport without getting lost, boarded on time,
General Boarding

had a smooth flight, a ride in a limo and stayed in a beautiful hotel. The following day was filled with productive back to back meetings and conversations. Around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, my  much needed break was interrupted by news that my return flight to Newark had been cancelled but new arrangements had been made.

The updated travel plans meant cutting my day shorter than planned but it also meant I’d be home before midnight (or so I thought).

I said my farewells and was whisked away in the limo,

limo

rode in style to the airport and zipped through security with my TSA pre-check boarding passes in hand. Half-way through the first flight to Chicago I decided to check the boarding pass for my connecting flight into Newark.

Much to my dismay and borderline horror, my next flight was headed to JFK in New York City, not to Newark, New Jersey. How could this happen you ask? So did I! It never dawned on me to look at the flight details other than the times – after all why would someone book a return flight into a different city than the originating flight?

My best guess is that one of two things happened – one theory is that whoever made the original reservations said Newark really fast and the person who made the revised arrangements either heard New York or they’ve never heard of Newark. The other theory is that they looked and found that Newark is “only” thirty miles from JFK and it would be easy to get from one airport to the other.

My heart pounded against my chest and I wouldn’t want to know what my blood pressure was in that moment.

One thing I knew was clear, I had no choice but to board the plane in Chicago and figure things out from there.

In addition to highlights of the Pope’s visit to NYC, the news was also filled with updates about modified train schedules and street closings throughout the city so I knew my options could be limited. The first thought I wrote in my journal was, “If I can get a cab for less than $100, I’m going for it.”

The nice young man sitting next to me tried to help by pulling out his app with the NYC subway schedules, “You could take the X line to the Y line and then hop on the Z line and maybe make it to Penn Station before the last train leaves. Of course I don’t know for sure if they’re running on schedule because of the Pope’s visit.”

Thoughtful as he was trying to be, his assistance only conjured up images of myself spending the night at Penn Station with a colorful cast of characters from NYC nightlife.

I asked the flight attendants about cab fare. “You’re looking at a minimum of a $200 cab fare; your better option is to take the airport bus from JFK to Newark, it’ll cost you about $30.”

Hallelujah!

A $30 bus ride was totally reasonable and sounded like an easy solution to my dilemma. For the rest of the flight, my heart was still and the worries were put aside.

As explained, the booth to buy tickets for the bus between airports was at the bottom of the escalator. The sign said it closed at 10:30 pm, I looked at my watch – it was 10:32 pm. Not one to give up, I approached the man at the booth and asked if I could still buy a ticket to Newark.

“We can hold the bus for 5 more minutes, so you’ll have to decide fast.”

I pulled out my wallet to pay and asked, “Does the bus go directly from here to Newark?”

“No, normally you get on this bus and it goes to the Port Authority parking lot where you would get on another bus, but since the Pope is in town, that area is blocked off and so you’ll need to walk 12 blocks to meet up with the connecting bus that will take you to Newark.”

Schlepping my suitcase for 12 city blocks alone, at night, in NYC did not seem like a very appealing idea.

“Excuse me, I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation,” said the man who had arrived at the booth a few minutes before me. “I’m in the same situation, if I can find us a cab would you want to split the fare with my daughter and me?”

He didn’t need to ask me twice.

This kind stranger negotiated a fare that cost me $80 plus tip.

When we are facing a problem, sometimes a peace and quiet comes over us because we think the problem has been solved and we know what the solution is. Other times we become quiet and still because we “give up” and make a conscious choice to quit trying to chase after the solution and control the outcome.

In those moments of  quiet and letting go, miracles happen.

The Miracle Comes Quietly

You Can Tune a Piano, but You Can’t Tuna Fish

One of my favorite bands in high school was REO Speedwagon. They are no longer in my music collection, but to this day I crank the radio and  sing “It’s time for me to fly” at the top of my lungs whenever I hear the unexpected hit from the album You Can Tune a Piano, but You Can’t Tuna Fish.  I always feel a bit nostalgic as the lyrics take me back a few hundred years (Ok, only a few more than thirty, give or take).

I remember as a teenager being amazed at how the lyrics of many of my favorite songs from a variety of bands seemed to be written just for me, and I marveled at how the poems set to music expressed what was in my heart but I couldn’t find the words to say.  I would lay awake in bed listening to Dan Folgelberg sing of “Hymns filled with early delight” and “Acceptance of life,” [Netherlands] and I hoped and I prayed that one day I would find myself and my way.

As an adult I still find myself latching on to a particular song and playing it over and over because it speaks to me.  I find that music has a special way of helping me to understand that I’m not alone; it entertains and motivates me, it cheers me up and at times it calms me down, it inspires me.  More often than not I think it provides a medicinal backdrop that we aren’t even aware of as we go about the routine of our day.  No matter what the genre is, there are songs of love and heartbreak, anger and victory, being lost and then found, songs of hope and faith.

I began the twelfth and final chapter of Walking in This World [Julia Cameron] with mixed feelings.  The past few months have been packed with an intensity of personal change and growth that surpasses any other time in my life and I felt ready for a break, ready to get back to being “normal,” although normal now has a whole new meaning. On the other hand the book had become a guide, leading me through each week and I wasn’t sure that I was ready to do it on my own and I wondered what was next.

The final chapter is entitled Discovering a Sense of Dignity, and Julia introduces it with a philosophy:  “The key to a successful creative life is the commitment to make things and in so doing make something better of ourselves and our world.  Creativity is an act of faith…Our graceful ability to encompass difficulty rests in our ability to be faithful.”

I’ve always thought about the creative process as the logistics of coming up with an idea and using the tools of the trade whether it be a notebook, a canvas, a flowerbed, or an orchestra to bring a piece of art to life.  I also thought that if you had a day job you couldn’t be an artist first, that you weren’t a “true artist” until you reached a certain level of notoriety or fame and that the fame must be accompanied by money or it wasn’t real.  Julia has set me straight on this notion more than once, “Art is a vocation, a calling, and if no one hears the call as loudly as we do, that doesn’t mean it isn’t there, that doesn’t mean we don’t hear it, and that doesn’t mean we don’t need to answer when it calls.”

I think she’s right when she says we sometimes shy away from letting our true colors show and we tuck away our creative desires into corners and steal a few minutes here and there because we want people to think we are “normal.”  In reality we need to express ourselves to our families and friends and help them understand that our creative calling is real and it’s not “just a hobby,” it’s who we are.  That’s not to say we can or should cast aside the responsibilities of being a parent, a partner, or provider, it is saying that if we don’t communicate our needs, if we don’t set aside time to write, paint, sing, dance, cook- to create, we may find ourselves ultimately frustrated and resenting the very necessary and important roles we play outside of our artists world.

I think the author is saying that first we need to become aware of ourselves and learn what it is we need.  Do we need an hour each morning or one after work?  Is it an occasional Saturday escape from the “real” world that we need to be an artist?  We must learn to understand and recognize that emotions like anxiety and doubt, fear and anger, love and happiness fuel our art and we have the power to choose resiliency over defeat and depression.  We owe it to ourselves and our most trusted friends and family to share what we’ve discovered. 

I have a notepad on my refrigerator which says “Masquerading as a Normal Person Day After Day is Exhausting,” and I smile at its truth every time I read it.  But it occurs to me that maybe if we let those closest to us in on our “secret” maybe it doesn’t have to be quite so exhausting.

When I took my first writing class two years ago it was a distraction from some upheaval and turmoil in my everyday life.  As my interest grew it became a passion and a dream.  I dreamt of being a writer, of being published, which I equated with money and it being a full time endeavor with no need for a “day job.”  Time and time again, Julia has turned my thoughts upside down and inside out, and the final section called Service was no different.

We tend to equate art and culture, using Merriam Webster to define it first as “acquaintance with and taste in fine arts, humanities, and broad aspects of science” and forget that maybe more importantly it is also defined by Merriam as “the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.” 

Julia struck a chord when she said, “We have very strange notions about art in our culture.  We have made it the cult of the individual rather than what it always has been, a human aspiration aimed at communicating and community.  We “commune” through art…”  I felt like it was one of the chance happenings she often refers to when I experienced a Moment of Magic and community through music on the day I finished the book.

 My reasons for writing have changed; I’ve come to realize that it’s not about me.  Art, whatever form it takes, is not intended to serve the artist, it’s meant to serve the community. Its purpose is to entertain and motivate, provide optimism and solace, its purpose is to inspire.  I struggle with the notion that I have a “gift,” it seems conceited to say so.  Do I still hope to make money as a result of my writing? Absolutely.   Will I quit writing if I don’t?  Absolutely not.   

Gifts are for giving and I think that translates to our personal talents as well.  By reaching out to others, sharing what we’ve learned through our experiences, putting  our egos aside, and making our contributions not about us but about our community I believe we can and will experience greater personal  joy and the world will be a better place.

I’m sad that the book is over and I’m more than a little scared to be without my “guide,” but I know it’s time…

“It’s time for me to fly.”