Thursday, 29 March 2007

The world I don't know

I'm reading a book called Guests of the Sheik by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea. It's a book written back in the 1960's about a village in Southern Iraq. The author and her husband lived in the village as active participants in the day to day life...the book is a description of her experiences, and the learning process as she moves from being an American outsider to a member of the community.

The book is wonderful, but what has attracted my attention even more is the realization that despite being an avid reader and a fan of PBS and BBC and the Travel Channel and despite having a group of friends that covers most of the globe, I know almost nothing about most of the world.

I know facts, I know statistics, I can identify languages and cultures and practices in an academic way. But I have spent my entire life in North America. I've been to all the states, most of the provinces of Canada and both coasts of Mexico. I've lived in the Northeastern US, in the Rockies and in the South. And yes, there are marked differences between people in Colorado and people in NYC. But the differences pale when I consider the far greater contrast between the person in Boulder, Colorado and the person in a village in China. Or between that New Yorker and a family in a coastal town in Egypt.

So why haven't I traveled more? Or at least, traveled off this continent? The reasons are a child, we did 3 week family vacations to the states and provinces, visiting museums and historic homes and resorts. In college, I had the money and the time to travel further, but I was so focused on fun and the beach and road trips with my sorority sisters and classmates that I never got around to hoping on that plane to Europe or South America or Russia the way I planned to.

Then came marriage and babies, and now I'm a single working mom of three, two living with me, one with his dad, and the days rush by in a blur.

I thought of myself as fairly cosmopolitan until the life experiences of my more globally experienced friends and the contents of this book woke me up to the reality that I know almost nothing about what it feels like to live outside of my western world view.

Like most Americans, I'm afraid that I've believed, somewhere deep inside, that what was here was all I really needed to see. I am ashamed of this revelation. My paltry accomplishments in learning about other places are nothing -- they are mere academic exercises.

This summer, my girls will be away, staying with their dad from June through mid August. Perhaps it is finally time for me to break free from my narrow world and live some of the things I have only read.

A second job for a few weeks when they leave could be enough to buy my first exposure to the world I don't know. I cannot wait!!

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Anam Cara

Anam Cara is a Gaelic word meaning “soul friend”. It symbolises a spiritual friendship that is not affected by time, distance, or separation. In the old Celtic tradition, the Anam Cara was someone you could share your innermost self, mind and heart. This soul friendship was an act of recognition and belonging helping us return to the heart of our spirit.
--- from the website of the Anam Cara Retreat Center in the Scottish Highlands

If we're very lucky, we have one or two of these special people in our lives. If we are blessed beyond measure, we have three or four. You know who they are. Weeks, months or even years can go by between meetings, but the moment you are together again, it's as though no time has passed. There is no feeling of strangeness...and if the truth be told, even the first time you met, the feeling of familiarity is instantaneous. We "know" one another from the start, recognizing some indescribable spark of familiarity.

They may have come from around the corner or around the world. You may meet them on the first day of kindergarten, on the biggest day of your life, or when divorce, financial challenges or one too many birthdays have left you feeling that the best of life has passed you by. And sometimes, we come to know an Anam Cara before we ever meet in person, sharing that spark across telephone lines or within the lines of letters and postcards and e-mails.

It doesn’t really matter where or how or when…there is that feeling of connection. A bond that forms instantly and feels as though it has always been there. You find it hard to remember a time before you knew them – how could you ever NOT have known them? You know you must have met them somewhere before --- in this life or perhaps somewhere (or some-when?) before. The feeling is too strong to be new.

You may agree on everything or almost nothing but somehow it doesn’t matter. You know you can trust them with the things you have in common and the things you see from opposite sides, and still not lose their friendship.

When you have an Anam Cara in your life, you know you are blessed. Your soul has found a friend. And that is far beyond friendships of the head or even the heart.

I have a few Anam Caras in my life…they stretch across the country from the northeast to the Rockies, to the deep south and to sunny Florida. They are each so different I have a hard time imagining them together in one room. An urban jewelry and clothing designer in Chicago, a Mormon mom of four in Southern Utah, an engineer from Syria, a retired firefighter from orginally New York, a woman seeking her path in life with a new start in Colorado. Each brings blessings into my life. Each is someone I know I could see tomorrow, regardless of how long it’s been since our last meeting, and feel as though no time has passed.

I came across the concept of an Anam Cara today while I was working on a Celtic catalog. How sweet to discover that I already had these wonderful people in my life...I just needed the word for them.

Thursday, 22 March 2007

Knowing thy self

Last night, I helped a friend do an online personality profile as part of a job application. I was so intrigued by the process, that first thing this morning, I did the same test. Would the 200 plus questions tell me anything interesting about myself? Would they illuminate my present impasse in my life, and the sensation that I want to do more but cannot quite figure out how? So I took the test...and here are my results:

In Terms of Your Style & Strength of Various Motivations
You would be described as being motivated primarily by a genuine concern for the well-being and needs of others. People would see you as quite calm, steady, unhurried, predictable, stable and cooperative. Given an opportunity to focus your efforts on the achievement of some meaningful and perhaps demanding, long term 'people-oriented' goals, you could become a very loyal, dependable and dedicated member of the team delivering the product or service. Generally your motivational pattern will produce the greatest personal satisfaction and your best performance in positions requiring ongoing commitment to goals which you feel have real merit in alleviating the distress or adding to the quality of life of the people who receive the results of your efforts.

To see the rest of my profile, go to my To Be Continued blog...

I have to say, I am pretty astounded. In my opinion, the test pretty much describes me perfectly. It's kind of scary that a few minutes with an online test can so accurately pin down my motivation, my needs, and my weaknesses.

The question now is what will I do with this information? It does explain some of my discontent with my present also explains why I love it.

Now I wonder how close the profile is to the way others who know me well see me. Is it an accurate description of the persona I project? Or is my external expression something entirely different?

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

After the kids go to sleep -- then what?

Dinner was over, the kitchen was clean, the laundry was done. Both of my girls were sound asleep, and the television was silent. The sound of the dishwasher scrubbing away the remains of the day was the only sound in the apartment. From the open patio door came the whosh of an occasional car passing by.

I turned on the stereo, choosing a station that plays quiet love songs, and sat down to read my new Elizabeth George mystery. At last, after a long day at work, some down time.

But my relaxation was short lived. The songs that played reminded me of lost love and certain-to-come-true dreams that had somehow vanished. I put down the book and let the memories wash over me. People I never see or even talk to anymore filled my thoughts. I pictured some in far-away homes, in far-away cities, some near-by but still out of reach. And suddenly the apartment went from a sancuary of quiet and peace to a prison. I paced from room to room, wandering in and out of the kitchen, living room, dining room, my bedroom and then back again. I picked up my phone and scrolled through the list of contacts, but it was too late to call any of them. I paced some more, wishing there was someone to stay with the girls while I went for a drive. Wishing there was someone to sit with in that quiet, clean apartment with the vanilla candles burning, and the soft music and the tropical evening breeze.

I do okay during the day. Work keeps me busy, and I am surrounded by people and lights and computers and calls from clients. In the evening, I focus on my girls, and making dinner and homework and household chores. On those rare nights when there is something I enjoy on television, I often fall asleep before the timer shuts off the tv.

But on so many nights like last night, when the silence descends, and the music tells stories of love lost and love never found, it's so hard to be alone and inside.

I've been told over and over that I'm supposed to be modern and self-sufficient and not need a man to be happy. But on nights like last night, I can't help but wonder....did the person who made up those rules ever spend her nights alone in a silent, candle-lit apartment?

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

A couple of random musings

Why are so many religious people intent on finding the flaws in other religions? If truth is the ultimate goal, shouldn't they be dilgently searching each other's scriptures and sayings and practices, looking for the wisdom instead?

Alphabet for Life

If we as a society (or even just the liberal sector of society) are committed to eliminating prejudices and so-called racial issues, why do we continue to identify people first by their skin colour or ethnicity as though that is the most important factor about them? Just listen to the news..."the black judge..", "the Hispanic attorney general..."

When will we all just be people?

Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Accepting the lessons

I have three friends who went through terrible divorces. All three involved betrayal, deception and more pain than they ever expected. All three are good men who really value marriage and family. And now, years after the papers were signed and the furniture was sorted out, and they moved out into new places, the wounds and the pain are just as fresh, coloring the way they see each and every day, each and every woman who enters their lives.

We all start out in love believing that happy ever after is just a matter of finding the right person. We meet someone and make our plans with stars in our eyes and an unshakable belief that we have stumbled upon the magic -- true love stands before us. And ahead of us, years and years of building the home and family we've always imagined. We are vaguely aware that there will be hard times and disagreements, but we blissfully believe that our marriage will be different and that the disagreements will be few and brief, handled with logic and patience and followed by the sweet delight of making up.

For some people, the dream comes true. Oh, the disagreements might be a bit bigger than they expected, the hardships a bit harder, and the sleepless nights more frequent, but they are happy together. But for others of us, the dreams not only fail to materialize, they come crashing down on us like bricks, leaving us dazed and bruised and battered. Somehow we manage to crawl out from under the rubble, dust ourselves off and wander away, wondering exactly what happened.

The problem comes when we spend the years after the collapse sitting and looking at the demolished dream that was our marriage. People come by, and try to take our hand to lead us to a brighter, cleaner place far from the rubble, but we are too busy trying to reconstruct which brick went where and how the destruction began. Did we miss the cracks early on? Did we fail to see the leaks in the foundation? And the people go away. If we happen to wander away from the place temporarily, following someone's lead, we take some of the rubble with us, lest we forget for a moment what happened. Before long, we find ourselves back at the scene of the crash, back to reconstructing our memories and sorting though the pain.

We tell ourselves we are just trying to figure out what went wrong to avoid having it happen again, and that's good -- at first. But if we stay there as years go by, still searching for clues and sorting through memories, we're missing something important.

We're missing the chance to take what we've learned and build a new and better home for our dreams. More windows for letting in light, more doors for different opinions and new opportunities. A more solid foundation to withstand the tremors, a better roof to keep out the rain. More rooms to give ourselves and our partner more chances to spread out and explore our potential. Brighter colors. Softer cushions.

It's scary to walk away from that first (or second or third) collapse and risk building dreams again. But when it come down to spending the rest of our lives sitting alone with our broken dreams or using what we've learned to try and build again, do we really have any choice?

Monday, 12 March 2007

Seizing the moment: cost -- zero dollars

Peter Max's Angel with Heart

I just woke up from a wonderful weekend.

Saturday, we met the artist Peter Max, and saw an incredible collection of his work. There were two pieces I was a water scene and one was an angel. Both had such amazing colors and a beautiful simplicity in their lines...had I an extra $6000 in my pocket, I would have left with one. But I am happy to have had the chance to meet him, to see his work, and let my daughters share in the experience.

My little one got an autograph, complete with a little heart drawing...she is thrilled!

Cost of this once in a lifetime experience? Zero dollars.

After the reception, we headed over to hear the Russian National Orchestra with Itzhak Perlman performing on the violin. The Opus from the Prokofiev Symphony No. 5 was enough to send the entire crowd into a trance...not a sound was heard from the hundreds of people gathered there under the stars, listening to this amazing performance. No one even coughed. It was was though everyone held their breath, lest they miss note of Perlman's solos or the orchestra's absolute perfection.

I have heard both the Russian National Orchestra and Itzhak Perlman on recordings, on the radio and on tv, and I have heard other wonderful orchestras and soloists in person, but NOTHING prepared me for the pure, perfect sound I heard Saturday night.

Cost for this unforgettable experience? Zero dollars.

Sunday, it was time to get outside and enjoy the sunshine. We headed for the beach, roller blades and water bottles in hand, and spent 3 hours alternately blading, scootering, and sitting on the beach. I made friends with the FATTEST seagull I've ever seen and had a great time feeding him/her tiny pieces of potato chip from my hand as it stood RIGHT NEXT TO ME on the beach! The girls played in the water, dug in the sand, and made fun of my new feathered friend's obesity.

We came home covered with sand, tired and slightly sore from the blading and scootering, but otherwise very happy.

Except for the $1/hour parking meter, the cost for our afternoon? Zero dollars.

Having my two daughters with me to share it all? Priceless.

Thank you Mastercard's ad team for giving us all a great way to look at life.

Thursday, 8 March 2007

When the pieces finally fit

Is there a plan for all of this?

There are no accidents.

I've said that over and over throughout my life, when seemingly random events have come together in a way that I could never have foreseen. The idea of a grand master plan for our lives is at times very comforting, offering us a reason, albeit so far unknown, for the trials we encounter as we move around on this planet. The concept of life as a vast, complex test with G-d as the proctor is an idea as old as organized religion.

But the pieces I'm wondering about are people. Sometimes people come into our lives and in a very short period of time, it feels as though they have always been a part of our experience. It's as though they were missing pieces of the the puzzle, finally located and added onto the growing picture in front of us.

Sometimes, like real puzzle pieces, they have been right in front of us all along but we couldn't see them at first because they were facing away, or another piece hid them from sight. Other times, they are far from the puzzle itself, somehow hidden on the other side of the room (or the other side of the world.) Just like in a 1000 piece puzzle, we may have all the parts but we can't see how the pieces fit until we have added others to our picture, creating a space for them, matching lines and images and shapes at last.

And once in awhile, we add a piece to our puzzle, believing that it fits because we so desperately want it to. But as the picture grows, we see that the piece doesn't belong and as much as don't want to, we have to remove it to add the correct one instead.

The metaphor of the puzzle seems so apt, not because life is so confusing or mysterious (although at times it is both) but because all the little pieces come together to create a beautiful image we could not see when the bits were separate and jumbled in the box.

Lately, I've been adding some new pieces to my own life's puzzle. And while some have come from far away, the way they fit into the whole, and the beauty they've added to the image takes my breath away. It's too perfect to be random. The image I see forming is far too intricate and subtly hued to be an act of chance.

And so I go back to the beginning.

There are no accidents.

Monday, 5 March 2007

We live in a giant spider web

I'm reading a book called Modern Antiquities for the Table. Leaving behind the obvious oxymoron in the title, it's a very good book for anyone who's interested in looking at beautiful tables settings, serving pieces and furnishings from 1900 through the modern era.

But it's also a great reminder about how intertwined everything is in life. Yeah, I know, leave it to the crazy blogger to find a Zen lesson in a book about dishes.

But trust me, it's there. Let me explain...

Around the turn of the 20th century, the U.S. experienced a period of unprecedented wealth. More millionaires were created then than ever before, and (adjusting for inflation), ever since. The cities of Europe were a cultural magnet for the world's greatest contemporary poets, writers, artists and thinkers. The result was an American population far more able to travel to (and even beyond) Europe ever before, and a culture of art in Europe which both mined the depths of classical design and broke free from the past to create ideas and designs all their own. And this combination determined what dishes someone in Salt Lake City, Utah registers for today when they select their fine china.

You see, the decisions made back then by the Vanderbilts and the Smythes and the rest of western society back then determined what we think of as an acceptable look for fine china today. What they accepted and what they rejected and even what they just plain missed, set the standard. They defined the colors and shapes and textures and images that are still looked at today as fine china. And their decisions were based on what designs from previous eras survived...

The hand-drawn shapes from a 4th century Chinese craftsman. The stonework of an early Egyptian mason. The jewelry created by a 16th century Russian peasant. The weaving designs of a rural Indian woman. Each bit and piece pulled out and repeated and refined and altered and combined by the artists and designers of late 19th and early 20th century.

In this melting pot of inspiration, the artists influenced the architects who influenced the travelers who influenced the artists who influenced the potters who influenced the furniture makers who influenced the architects, and so on in a web of interaction that stretched over several continents and countless years to make the choices for the future Mr. and Mrs. Petersen in a Rocky Mountain city in 2007.

So even in something as simple as the choice of a plate, we are carrying forth the web of influence from places we may never have been and people we certainly have never met, and artists whose names may be lost for all time.

As I read about how inventions and innovations such as luxury steamship travel and agricultural trends and the economy and influxes of immigrants and changes in industrial standards and wars and truces with various countries affected what sits on our tables, I could not help but be amazed at the complexity of it all. Like a carefully choreographed dance, each seemingly unrelated factor shaped the choices made in dining rooms and kitchens nationwide.

This book is just about tables and dishes and flatware and such. But the same complexity pulls the strings on almost every aspect of our daily lives, as we go about our business, completely unaware of the web that surrounds us all

Lonely bones

It's miserable to sleep alone.

It's been years since I've had the comfort of someone to curl up with at night every night, and I thought I was used to it. Maybe even liked it. After all, my big bed is all mine to stretch out in, no one (except my little daughter when she has a bad dream) steals the covers, and I can make a nest of my pillows without anyone complaining that they need a few, too. No one tells me they're too hot or too cold, or laughs about my blanket and quilt in the summertime.

But lately, I've been lonely. Sleep has been hard to find, and my now nightly 3:20 a.m. awakening is accompanied by a bone deep feeling of loneliness. I am tired of being alone. I am tired of waking up alone. I am tired of fighting off middle-of-the-night scary thoughts and anxieties alone.

I want the inconvenience of sharing pillows and blankets and space in the bed. I want to worry about whether the person beside me is cold, and making sure they have enough covers. I want to go to sleep with legs and arms intertwined, and wake up still touching someone.

I am not backing down on the idea that I have been very lucky. But I am reaching a point where I want to share my life -- the very lucky and the not so lucky -- with someone else. Especially at night.