Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Our Last Day in Paris: True Confessions

I confess, I was ready to be home. Or at least that is what I thought at the time. The previous night a head cold hit me and with it came a desire for my own bed, my closet with different clothes, and a washing machine and dryer with English instructions. Oh, another entitled American tourist! The previous nearly two weeks, however, I rarely thought of home. I enjoyed the fullness of each day, the wonder of what we would see and experience next, and the voyeurism that comes with being a stranger in a foreign country. 
     Until that moment I had not been bothered by sitting in a cafe next to someone smoking or by not being able to eavesdrop on what I knew must be a fascinating conversation because I couldn't speak French. I had actually enjoyed using a few French words and phrases and was even considering taking a conversational French class. Up until that moment I had been in the moment, soaking in the famous French light made famous by Monet, adapting to the slow pace of cafe' time and later evening meals, and appreciating the ongoing parade of beautiful women wearing exquisite clothes. I must dress better at home, I told myself, and incorporate a bit of French style into my everyday routine. It had all been good. C'est bon. What an amazing trip this had been, and we would be leaving knowing we had barely scratched the surface of the city, but at that moment, blowing my nose, I didn't just want to go home. I wanted to BE home. 
     It seems to me that the last day of vacation actually occurs prior to the last day of vacation. Vacation ends when one begins to worry about exceeding the airline baggage weight limit, when one checks the calendar for appointments the first days home or when one just can't go into one more museum.
     On our last day of Paris we went to the Louvre. True, that was probably not the best plan for a final activity, but that's how it worked out. We arrived before 9 a.m. and the line wasn't too bad. The crowds in front of Mona Lisa weren't even that thick, but we were just done. Not even Rick Steves' usual stellar museum tour could entice us to stay. We'll start with the Louvre on the next trip. We were done.
      Instead, we headed back to our nearby apartment, stopping at the boulangerie across from the apartment, the oldest bakery in Paris we had been told, and bought crudités and poulet baguette sandwiches and Diet Cokes (not wine--I was even weary of wine!). We decided to get our books and go to the Palais Royal Courtyards only steps away from our historic apartment building. Rick Steves describes it this way: "This is where in-the-know Parisians come to take a quiet break, walk their poodles and kids, or enjoy a rendezvous--amid flowers and surrounded by a serene arcade and a handful of historic restaurants. Bring a picnic and create your own quiet break, or have a drink at one of the outdoor cafe's at the courtyard's northern end. This is Paris." 
     As I started planning this trip, I read this quote: "Until you've wasted time in a city, you can't pretend to know it well." (Julian Green) This is what I actually needed--not to go home, but to waste some time. To take a time-out to read and write in my journal. To doze in the sunshine. To enjoy a midday pause. To join Parisians and tourists alike and to pretend that I really and truly live here--can't you tell? At that moment I returned to the present and was able to fully delight in the pleasures of Paris on the last day. 

NOTE: My last post on my previous blog, sacredsixties.blogspot.com was written soon after we returned from our trip to Paris. I continue to learn from those sweet days there and am grateful for the chance to revisit them and share with you.   

Walking the Labyrinth at Chartres: A Dream Fulfilled

Last winter when a trip to Paris was proposed to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary, I wondered if a side trip to Chartres would be possible. For years I had heard about the labyrinth on the floor of the cathedral in Chartres.  I knew the story of Lauren Artress, an American Episcopalian priest  who is largely responsible for creating interest here in the US in labyrinths as a spiritual tool. She visited Chartres Cathedral in hopes of walking the labyrinth only to discover that it was covered with chairs. Determined to walk it, she and her companions moved the chairs and now because of her passion the labyrinth is once again available.  
      I dreamed of walking that labyrinth myself, but was it even near Paris? How hard would it be to get there? What would I do if my husband and our dear friends traveling with us didn't want to go? Would I be willing to go by myself? Yes. 
       Information about when it is possible to walk the Chartres labyrinth was not readily available. However, Rick Steves, the contemporary god of travel, came to my rescue in his Paris guidebook. He gave all the pertinent information for what turned out to be an easy day trip by train from Paris, especially the fact that Fridays are the only time the labyrinth is not covered with chairs --and not always then.  On the internet I discovered a woman who led tours from Paris every Friday, but not that Friday. Why was that? Was that Friday one in which the labyrinth would not be available? Well, we had one Friday in Paris and if it was meant to be, I would walk the labyrinth.
      We enjoyed the train ride to Chartres, admiring the kitchen gardens, open fields, window boxes, tile roofs and cream stucco homes, and I took advantage of my captive audience to share what I knew about labyrinths as a spiritual tool, since my companions had not yet experienced a labyrinth. Once there we took pictures of the cathedral's gargoyles and angels. We appreciated the gardens and sent best wishes to the bridal couple being photographed. We walked the entire perimeter of the cathedral not sure where to enter. I could feel the anticipation and some anxiety build within me. What if it isn't accessible today? I was almost reluctant to find out, and I realized how often that is my response: to prepare and build and then at the last minute hang back, fearing disappointment or even unworthiness or a lack of self-confidence. 
     My first view inside the dimly lit cathedral was one of chairs. Row after row of chairs. My heart sank, but I took a deep breath and told myself, "Oh well, at least I am here, and this is sacred ground." Bruce was ahead of me, however, as he usually is, and he discovered the uncovered labyrinth where many were walking. I would fulfill my dream.
     I sat in the dark, opening myself to an intention. What did I hope to learn? Did I want insight about writing aspirations specifically or about the next stage of my life generally? I prayed for openness, and then I entered the labyrinth. The path was crowded. I noticed four young adults moving slowly, like parts of one body. A caterpillar moving slowly, deliberately. Pilgrims, I assumed. I was surprised to see Bruce walking  and at times we were on adjoining circuits, passing each other easily, closely. When eventually, he went around me moving quickly on the path, I felt a jolt of loss, of being left behind. I reminded myself to find my own rhythm, to let go, to breathe, to relax, to open, to be here now. 
     Many moved swiftly, not really following the path, cutting across the circuits, even talking as they did so. I am used to walking with those who do so intentionally, understanding the sacred nature of this practice. I sent blessings, but only after reminding myself to be tolerant and to remember that we each have our own path. 
     As I moved towards the center, I thought of all those who have walked before me and those who will come after me, and I prayed for all those I have accompanied on other labyrinths. Once again I felt a reluctance. Was I ready for the center? Had I prayed enough? Let go enough? Was I empty enough to receive?  
      I always hope once in the center for a neon light or a loud ringing directed just to me. "Nancy, your next step is......." Instead the voice, the knowing I receive, if in fact there is one in that moment, is most often subtle and general. This time a familiar theme was repeated. "Live your life. Do what you need and want to do. Be grateful for all the gifts of your life." But this time there was even more. "Don't be too flexible. Act from your essence." Hmmm.
      The walk out, following the path in reverse, was lighter. I didn't know exactly how I would live the whisperings inside my heart, but I felt a certain assurance that I would indeed find my way.
     Oh, and how's this for "meant to be"? Soon after we finished walking, the labyrinth was re-covered with the chairs. Thank you Spirit, for this dream fulfilled.       

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Time-Out: Intentional Chocolate

This morning during my devotional time I came across the phrase "intentional discovery." What promising words, I thought, as I sat at my Lady's Writing Desk with January sunbeams beginning to find direction through my early morning window. I had gone to Curves for my work-out already, so I knew how cold it was.  3 above zero.  I was so happy to be "in" for the day, a day that would be a playground for intentional discovery. 
       Eventually, I moved to my office desk to play for the day. I felt open to discovery with my only intention being to cruise the surface of my 9 foot harvest table desk and to wander the bookshelves lining the walls and to roam through emails and other laptop enticements. I turned on the electric heater needed on these particularly cold days, wrapped myself in the shawl made by a dear friend, lit a candle, and connected to Pandora for background music. Indigo Girls to begin. And I paused to breathe a whisper of gratitude for the luxurious life I live. 
     I wrote my letter of the day to the artist whose painting hangs above our living room mantel. I responded to a number of emails. A large number. I read the blog of a friend who is living in China. I printed a registration form for a centering prayer course and sat quietly till I heard "yes." I put books back on the shelf that I had referred to in the last couple days: This Year I Will by M. J. Ryan, Passages in Caregiving by Gail Sheehy, The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo and my thesaurus.  I made a couple notes about future blog posts. I filed, sorted, tossed.  The day was moving forward smoothly. This play day.
     And then... I received an email from the director of a program where I hope to be a spiritual care volunteer.  It had been awhile since I had sent her an email about times we could meet. Well, as often is the case there was a good reason. Her mother-in-law had just died days ago. Could I give her some time to regroup? I inhaled sharply as I read her words. I wonder when she last had a play day. When had her day last moved forward smoothly? And what intentional discoveries was she making in the process? I wrote her a note hoping I could offer a fragment of healing.       
      And then... my husband called, worried about the impending snowstorm and our drive to St Paul tomorrow. Perhaps we should leave today. He would assess the situation at work and let me know. I'm sure he felt the long pause on my end of the phone before I concurred with him. Darn, I thought, here goes my quiet day. That was my first thought and the second and third and fourth stumbled quickly over each other. What do I need to do before we leave? What do I need to take? What won't get done? What was I planning to do tomorrow morning and what can wait and what can't? 
      My fifth thought was to breathe and to fix a cup of hot chocolate.  When we were in Paris this fall I enjoyed many cups of chocolat au chaud, hot chocolate. I am not a coffee drinker, but I am quite the connoisseur of hot chocolate, and I savored each Parisian cupful. While stirring the rich chocolate into the steaming milk, I became a resident of Paris. I slowed down. I noticed those sitting around me in deep conversation. I appreciated the beautiful young women passing by, walking easily whether they were wearing ballet flats or the highest of stilettos. I wrapped myself in my shawl and noticed the Paris light. I allowed the next thing to happen and knew I would be ready when it did. 
     I headed to the kitchen and heated the milk on the stove and stirred in the chocolate I brought back from Paris, and I poured into a mug with the Eiffel Tower sketched on the outside. I sat in the sunshine, and I intentionally slowed down and discovered that answers came easily as I sipped and savored. I will be ready if Bruce decides to leave early. I will return to my desk and do what the next thing is.  All will be well. Intentional discovery.   

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Intention: The Year of Writing Letters

Here it is the middle of January. Already. I have been writing about intentions, and yet, I don't seem to have any. Sure, I want to write more and eat less. Exercise more and eat less. I want to disperse more possessions and acquire less, (and eat less!) but these not unfamiliar notions are vague and uninspiring at best. 
     I am impressed by my friend who last year set her intention to walk an hour every day, and I am intrigued by the writer Susan Hill who decided to read for one whole year only books she already owned. (Howard's End is on the Landing, A Year of Reading from Home by Susan Hill). Or how impressive is Nina Sankovitch who read an entire book every single day and discovered a way to cope with and grow through grief and loss (Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, My Year of Magical Reading). And then there is the memorable and entertaining decision to cook every recipe in Julia Child's iconic French cookbook in one year, which resulted in a bestselling memoir and a movie starring Meryl Streep no less. Finally, yesterday I read about a Madison woman who was preparing to turn 60 last year and set 60 goals for herself, including climbing 60,000 feet, practicing the piano for 60 minutes for 60 days, reading 6,000 pages, identifying 60 birds in Costa Rica and doing 60 push-ups at one time. I am almost grateful I am past 60 and not tempted to follow her example, but 65 looms! 
     On the surface some of these intentions seem gimmicky, and yet, underneath there seems to be a desire for transformation.  Were these women of intention  aware of the potential for inner growth that could result by meeting the challenges of one's intentions? And just what did they learn and how did they change by keeping their intentions? And how did they arrive at their specific intentions?
      I can feel an idea forming; an idea that has its origin in several seemingly unrelated circumstances. Bear with me.
#1 In December I walked a labyrinth, and one of the messages I received as I stood in the sacred center space was, "Do what expresses your essence." I also heard "Do and Be who you are." I was so struck by the word "do," for this last decade I think I have been focused on "being" and what that means. But twice I heard the word "DO." No direction about what to do was offered, of course. 
#2 This summer a woman I know, but not well, was struck with a dreadful cancer and was in the hospital for quite some time. I knew I wanted to DO something, but I was unsure of what that should be, could be. I decided after some time for discernment to write to her every day while she was in the hospital.  I continue to write to her occasionally even now. As I wrote to her during those weeks, I felt I was doing one good thing. I was offering a measure of reflection, a daily meditation. I was extending wishes for healing.  I was opening to connection. For at least those moments every day I held her in my heart.  
#3 I have a wonderful antique desk, my Lady's Writing Desk, which has been the setting, the container for hours and hours of writing over the years. Journals and essays and teaching plans and yes, letters. Lots and lots of letters. Its location in this house, however, has never felt quite right to me. When I did sit there, I felt shoved in a corner, boxed in, and my energy felt blocked. And guess what? I have written few letters since living here; something I had always enjoyed in the past. Well, dear reader, I moved my Lady's Writing Desk, and the pleasure of writing letters, the desire to write on paper, instead of a screen, has returned.  
       Therefore, here is my intention for this year: I will write a letter every day. I don't have this all figured out yet, but I know this is something I can DO and need to DO and that DOING it is an expression of my essence. I know deep in my heart that when we live our essence the Sacred, the Divine, is more visible and is felt and known more. 
        I will start today. Day #1 of my intention. Letter #1. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Yet More Thoughts About Intentions

       I am paying attention not only to when I use the word "intention," but also to times when I wish I had used it. I recall years ago when I struggled with "forgiveness." I said "I forgive," but I didn't feel it at that point. How much more honest it would have been if I had said, "I intend to forgive."
      Forgiving is a process, and I had not yet done the inner work to arrive at a clear and clean forgiveness.
      I was fairly sure I would get there. Everything in my heart wanted to be there, but it wasn't fair of me to state my forgiveness when I didn't feel it yet. Eventually, I arrived at that holy place, but how different it would have been if I had first said "My intention is to forgive fully and completely." An intention holds within it an obligation to do your very best to fulfill it. An intention is not an empty promise. An intention is a direction, a movement forward, an expression of one's heart, an opening to one's essence.
     When has the word "intention" created an opening in your life? I am impressed with one example I read in a friend's blog and invite you to be inspired by her story.  http://coachnotes.wordpress.com/2012/01/10/happy-new-year-and-hooray-for-daily-walks/   
      Light Blessings to you as you explore your intentions for the new year.  

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Paying Attention to Intentions

     For the last couple months I have not consistently taken time for morning meditation and devotional time, even though I know how life-enhancing that time is. With the new year, however, I re-instated my intention to set-aside time for morning centering prayer, study and journal writing time.
     All was well till Friday morning when my normal routine was up for grabs--a first thing in the morning electrician appointment, a date to celebrate a friend's birthday, and the usual list of To Do tasks. About 20 minutes before I knew the doorbell would ring, I was dressed and ready for the day and I wondered what I should do now. Empty the dishwasher? Answer some emails? Pay bills? Fold towels? When several possibilities float effortlessly to my awareness OR when no ideas are present, I know it is time to clear the space. Close my eyes and take a deep breath. Find my rhythm and allow the whisper of my inner voice to be heard. "Sit with your journal and your devotional materials." Of course.
     My current study book, a book I am sure will be on my "favorites" list for 2012 is Awakening the Energies of Love, Discovering the Fire for the Second Time by Anne Hillman and what do I read? Referring to legends passed throughout the generations, Hillman says ".... they intended our lives--propelled us and set us on our Way.
     Intended! How I love the way language flowered in the minds of my ancestors! How the ancient Latin, tendere--to stretch, to grow, to strive--exploded into bloom! It brought us intent...intention.....and tendency...And although we may discover that 'stretching' and 'growing' is not without intensity or tension--it is also not without tenderness and our yearning to tend--whether a fire or a child to another person."  (Note: the italics are the writer's.) 
     Wow! How's that for synchronicity? The day before I had written my first blog post about "intention" in my new blog and here it shows up in my morning study material --material I almost didn't read in favor of doing other things. I wonder how often I miss these kinds of gifts because I haven't cleared the space. 
       Intention is a key word for me and Hillman has given me much more to consider. I so often use the word "tend," especially "home tend," and yet had not connected it to "intention" nor had I thought specifically about how intention is related to stretching and growing. I could feel little ah-ha sparks of energy as I read those words. My intention is to stretch, to grow, but I do understand growth and stretching is not without tension and intensity. Shadow and light. Ah, this journey of intentions promises to offer unanticipated adventures and unknown depths.  I will need to remember to be tender with myself and those around me as well. 
     Where are your intentions leading you? 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

New Year's Resolutions

     Earlier this week the question of resolutions came up while exercising and one of the women said, "None I care to share." We chuckled in agreement, but later I thought about my lack of resolutions this year. Heaven knows, I could repeat the same resolutions from over the years. "Lose x number of pounds." "Exercise x times a week." The usual suspects.
     Instead, the word that comes to mind this year is intention. My intention is to live a more compassionate life. My intention is to be mindful in action and in thought. My intention is to deepen my spirituality and to grow closer to the person I was created to be.
     It is with these intentions resting in my heart that I begin this new blog--a continuation really of my earlier blog, The Sacred Sixties. Through writing I clear the space and in that reflective opening, there is room for new insights and understandings. 
     How easy it would be to revert to the usual pattern of resolutions. "This year I will write in my blog x times a week." Instead, my intention is to develop this blog as a spiritual tool, knowing that it is only through frequent and mindful use that a spiritual practice bears fruit. And with this intention comes an invitation to you. I invite you to clear space for your own spiritual growth and to share your thoughts as we move though this year. Perhaps we will each develop a new spiritual practice. Light blessings to you in this new year.