Wandering to Fifty: My Secrets of Life

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I’ve included some of my favorite photos that I’ve taken over the years; it’s not that they are terribly relevant to the content of this post…I just think they capture my life over the last fifty years.

So this is what 50 feels like. I have this urge to knock over a food display at Trader Joe’s, or order ice cream before the main course, or take a whimsical trip north for a lobster sandwich in Concord, MA.

Wait– Those are all things that I did in my 20s. Am I giving myself a little nudge to have some fun? To play a little more? To recapture the spontaneity that made those days so carefree and beautiful?

Maybe. It’s not a knock on my life now and where I am — God no. I am incredibly blessed with a beautiful family, a solid set of jobs doing what I love, and a passion to embrace every infinitesimal fraction of every moment existing right here, right now, in my present.

But a little more spontaneity sprinkled in to this incredibly blessed life? Absolutely.

When I was in my 20s and 30s, though, it wasn’t all about road trips and ice cream. In fact, there were plenty of times where I sought some deeper truth, some greater meaning to life and to my role in it. I get that we all have to go through that. It’s a personal journey, after all, and we have to figure a lot of stuff out for ourselves.

Still…

I have the chance to throw a little wisdom down to my youngers who are still making their way toward the big Five-Oh. I know that you have probably heard these tips plenty of times along the way. Nonetheless, I share them with you here, hoping that they might lighten your load a little and help pave your path with a smoother swath of freshly turned leaves and detritus.

So, without further ado, I give to you my “Greatest Hits” of wisdom learned in these first 50 years.

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1. Everything Begins Within.

I think that one of the biggest derailers in my earlier years was allowing so much  of the external world affect my internal being. Bad drive in to work? Derailed. Nasty note from a friend? Derailed. Things didn’t go “my way” as I had hoped/planned/wished? Derailed.

It seemed as if so much of my happiness (or any emotion, really) depended on external forces. I had surrendered control over to one and all in the universe. And, as a result, I was an out-of-control roller coaster of emotions at the whim of the world.

Eventually, I realized that it didn’t have to be this way. I was in control, and by focusing first on my inner core, I could ignite a limitless supply of energy and self-confidence to bolster my immune system against emotional derailments. When I begin with what’s inside of me, I no longer relinquish myself to the external factors surrounding me.

Recognizing that I am in control has changed my entire approach to life. It has removed the distractions and derailments and has allowed me to do the work I am blessed with the gifts to do.

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2. Do the Work You Were Meant to Do.

I was fortunate to know my passions at an early age: teaching and writing. It’s what I have been doing for most of my life, and I have been wise enough to stay immersed in those two fields. Even so, I wasn’t always “doing the work” as best as I could have been doing, simply because I was searching for something bigger, greater, than what was already in me.

Or I just got lazy.

Foolish, foolish, foolish.

I’ve learned that nobody is going to do the work for you, and there is never, ever a “coasting” period where you get to take it easy. It just doesn’t work that way at all.

I remember thinking there would be a time with my writing that I would be able to slow down a bit, enjoy the money that was coming in from my sales, and take life at a slower pace. At that time, I felt like I was always performing CPR in my craft. If I stopped performing compressions, my efforts would be for naught, and my passions would die away.

Well, for one thing, the money has yet to come in. But even if it did, it wouldn’t give me license to relax. Doing the work means focusing your energy — always — on the passions and talents that you possess. This isn’t about compressions or sustaining a minimal existence of life; it is about using your energy in such a way that your work matters. It makes a difference. Nobody can do that for you. You have to do the work, and do it all the time.

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3. Each of Us Is a Part of a Universal Connection.

I tell this story all the time, but what the hell. I’m fifty now, and I’m sure it won’t be the last time I repeat some of my favorite stories.

I think it was 1991 when I was “The Beast” in our week-long Summer Christian Camp at Central Presbyterian Church in Southern Maryland. We had hundreds of kids spending the week with us, and each day, we would do a sketch from Beauty and the Beast and tie it into the theme of the day.

On the final afternoon of camp, with about 500 kids so pumped up in our auditorium, I broke through the walls of the castle and became free of my self-imprisonment. Then, as is the case in any good Christian camp with a musical theme, we broke out in song celebrating life and Christ and everything around us.

There I stood on that stage in front of those kids, and the energy that resonated in that auditorium through our song and movement was absolutely electric. Until that moment, I had never felt so connected to the universe. I realized that we are a part of something bigger, something so very spiritual, that transcends our earthly, day-to-day existence.

We are all interconnected in ways that are both transparent and invisible to us. I was fortunate to learn this at a young age. At times, I have strayed from this connection, but I always come back to my core connection with the greater world. It’s not about Jesus OR Buddha OR any other spiritual source of worship; it’s just about establishing that spiritual and universal connection. In that vast space, we are all contributing to the flow, the groove, the way.

Knowing that has made me care deeply about what I offer to others in all that I do.

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4. When There Are No Desires, All Things Are at Peace.

One of the greatest books that I have ever read is Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. In its 81 chapters of awesomeness, I realized that life isn’t about searching; it’s about providing.

One of my most favorite lines is, “When there are no desires, no expectations, all things are at peace.”

When I first read that line, I thought it was pretty stupid. How can you live a life without expectations? Isn’t that the same thing as living without goals? How ridiculous!

But it isn’t the same thing at all. When we begin to realize our role in the universe, we begin to let go of believing that we are owed anything, anywhere, and by anyone. We let go of the expectations of what others could, or should, do for us. We let go of what we think we earned, of what we think we deserve.

That’s tough to do. We are raised on the reward system, aren’t we? Even now, as adults, we are “compensated” for our work with money. We negotiate contracts for what is fair and right and just for ourselves. We live our lives in a give-and-get mentality. It’s all we know.

The idea of letting go of desires, then, is foreign to many of us. But when we begin to let go and really “do the work” and live our lives genuinely, authentically, to give, to serve, we find that we are rewarded in far greater and immeasurable ways. Some of these rewards are grounded in finances, such as promotions and bonuses. Other rewards are of a more ethereal nature, where we are granted the priceless gifts of love, compassion, and gratitude.

When these arise out of no desires or expectations, we truly appreciate their beauty and their significance. We are filled with gratitude from the blessings that have come to us. We do not judge or weigh their quality, or see how they “sized up” against our expectations. They are simply cherished for what they are.

And when that happens, all things are at peace. What a wonderful thing indeed.

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5. Live in the Present.

Let me take you back a few years to 1989. It was my second year of teaching, and I was living in Southern Maryland and teaching at a small private school. This place was — and still is — amazing in so many ways. I was fortunate enough to be mentored by great educators and administrators who gave me the space to grow professionally.

In April of that year, though, my father died. I was living a somewhat Thoreau-esque life back then, in the woods in a log cabin, and the concepts of carpe diem and sucking the marrow of life itself were fueled by the reality that life is not forever. When I read, “The masses of men lead lives of quiet desperation” by Thoreau, I knew then that I was not going to be one of those men.

And the only way that I knew how to avoid doing that was by living in the present and embracing what exists now. This is what I have, I thought, and I will not take these moments for granted.

Since then, I have kept that mantra at the core of everything I do. I have strayed a bit now and then, sucked into the vacuum of the past or the potentials of the future. But I always end up in the present, grateful for what I have, and excited with the opportunities that await in the moment in which I am living.

We can’t go back to the past, no matter how hard we might try. And we can’t live in a dreamworld of how we want things to someday be. All we can do is work with our present moment, seize the power and the energy it holds, do the work, and be grateful for the opportunity.

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6. We Are Constantly Evolving.

One of the ways I am able to stay “in the present” is by understanding that we are constantly evolving.

I might even add that, in our own evolutions, there is a certain refinement that is constantly happening, too. We evolve through our efforts and energies to learn, experience, and embrace life.

This is a hard concept to grasp if you are living in the past or floating in the future. Evolution doesn’t happen unless you are grounded in the present and staying there as you move forward through action and experience. It’s the only way we can evolve in this ever-fluid universe that we’re all a part of. When we become stagnant, our interactions become stagnant, too. everything dulls, diminishes, atrophies.

We are living, breathing organisms. We are fluid, evolving contributions to a greater swirl of life, of love, of existence that asks of us just one thing: Participate and contribute to the universal evolution of our collective existence.

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7. Embrace the Charge and the Duty to Serve.

I learned at an early age about what it means to serve. My dad was a Baltimore City firefighter, and some mornings when he would come home, I would smell the remnants of his work, the burning buildings he battled to save. On some nights, it was about saving property; on other nights, it was about saving lives.

And on some mornings when he would come home, with soot still rubbed into his forehead along the fine line where his helmet had protected him, I would smell and feel the heavy reality of loss, when his charge to serve was not enough to save the lives of innocent victims trapped in the flames of a three-alarm fire.

Those moments were tough, but my dad persevered. He kept going back. he kept serving.

That stuck with me as a kid. And since then, I have understood the importance of working through those especially tough times with a focus on service. I guess it all goes back to the no-expectations way of living. If we focus, instead, on a life of service, of doing the work for the greater good, then our efforts are all about serving instead of receiving.

Dad died from complications attributed to a medical call he ran in 1986. To this day, his death “in the line of duty” (regardless of how the fire department defined it) has grounded me in a life of service and commitment.

Dad was never the kind of guy that would want any fuss made over the way he lived his life; that’s just the kind of person he was. But his commitment to duty, to service, provided us all with an understanding that our purpose on this Earth transcends any material good or self-serving act.

In this moment, we are here to serve. Period.

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8. Run Loose.

I end with this little story because, with the first seven “Greatest Hits” being a little heavy, I thought that my brother’s simple wisdom captures the essence of everything I’ve learned.

When I was a kid and spending free time with my oldest brother, I would hang on every word he had to say. One afternoon, we were heading to a store to do some shopping, and we passed a jogger on the side of the road. My brother knows running; he was one step away from participating in the Olympic trials, but a heart murmur sidelined him. When the jogger approached us, he shook his head and said, “He’s doing it all wrong.”

I looked at the jogger who was moving at a pretty fast clip. He looked a little stressed, but I just figured that’s the way you look when you are running so quickly.

“Look at his fists, his face, his arms.”

I did. I saw a runner giving it his all.

“Notice anything about them?”

I shook my head.

“All tense. He’s spending all that energy to ball up his fists, keeping his arms stiff, and grimacing with fatigue.”

I had always thought that runners just looked like that.

“He needs to relax. His whole body needs to loosen up so he can put that energy into his heart. His lungs. His muscles that are really doing the work.”

It seemed so odd to me at the time that you had to be loose to run faster, but now it makes total sense to me.

As you are putting your heart and soul into the things you love and believe in the most, you have to go into it loose, relaxed, patient, and flexible.

There’s an old saying that the more you are like bamboo — flexible, able to bend in the heavy winds — the stronger you become. On the other hand, if you are stiff and brittle, you break easily with the slightest of breeze.

That’s how going through life works. Run loose and be the bamboo: deeply rooted in what you believe, but be flexible in the heavy winds that come and go (and they will.)

I leave you with this. James Taylor wrote a song called “The Secret of Life.” The lyrics have played a big role in getting me to where I am today. I hope they play with you in a similar way. They really are simple, and beautiful, and true.

Here’s to you, and all of us. Let’s just open up our hearts and enjoy the lovely ride.

Thanks for being a part of my wandering life. I am ever-grateful.

2015: Living Primal In The 21st Century

This is my last post for 2014. I made some bold decisions in the past year regarding my writing, and I expect to see the benefits in 2015. Not because I can kick back and cherish the fruits of my labor; it’s because I have laid the foundation to really begin doing the hard work (which I love) for many years to come.

And so, with this entry I remind my readers: often, I write to discover an understanding of what I am feeling, of what is — or is not — establishing balance in my life. This post is no different; it is not a judgment on you (or you, or even you). Rather, it is a general conclusion I have made about my own use of social media, of how I, as a highly introverted writer, need to get on in this world to refine my focus and establish a more stable balance of existence. Simply put, I recognize that each of us has a unique path. If my epiphanies work for your journey, then I am grateful. If, on the other hand, we have little or nothing in common, and my words affirm your own place in the world (be it far different than my own), then I am equally grateful.

All good? Wonderful. Let’s move along, then.

Ulysses and the Sirens

Artist: Marie-Francois Firmin-Girard: “Ulysses and the Sirens” (1868)

We have sacrificed a great deal of ourselves in the early years of this 21st century, and as I get older, I am becoming more aware of the pull, the siren-type lull as famed in Homer’s The Odyssey, to resign to passivity and mediocrity.

Bluntly put, that doesn’t lead us to anywhere good.

Nineteenth Century British author Walter Copland Perry called the Sirens in our mythology the muses of the underworld. He wrote, “Their song, though irresistibly sweet, was no less sad than sweet, and lapped both body and soul in a fatal lethargy, the forerunner of death and corruption.”

For much of 2014, I grappled with the tease of social media, the reasoning behind my dangerous attraction to it, and the manipulation of data by the media and money-hungry conglomerates that have thrown the net far and wide to catch as many consumers as possible. All of this has sucked me in, but out of disgust. It’s like that inevitable accident that you can’t stop watching. You flinch, you grimace, you might even bring your arms up to protect your face.

But you still leave a crack of light open for your eyes to capture it all. That’s where I have been with social media and the battle to live life simply.

And– when I step back, I mean really far back, the bigger picture is even more horrifying.

I am reminded of the scene in the movie Contact, directed by Robert Zemeckis in 1997 and starring Jodie Foster, when the masses gather to celebrate the “message of Vega.” They were drawn to experience something that they had never seen before. Immediately, they were lulled in to so much more. This short clip from the movie, to me, captures what Social Media is doing to me and so many of us in the first handful of years of the 21st Century.

This is what I see, at least. We are jumping on a bandwagon that’s been rigged from the start to placate us, to make us doubt ourselves as we pretend to build ourselves up. We buy and sell things, feelings, emotions, lies, deceit, hope, promises, love, and even hate. We persuade, distract, overwhelm, satiate, and lull — yes, lull like the Sirens — each other into false senses of security, comfort, and rescue from chaos. It is the machine of all machines, and we are all cogs in its greater mission. It is the largest force of artificial intelligence, and we are all contributing to the hum of its finely tuned operation.

I want out.

Friends and writers alike tell me it is social suicide to delete social media accounts and make the move to the woods. They tell me that I will never get my writing to “take off” and build on the momentum that I have created over the years. Social media is the number one way to stay in touch, informed, and intrigued. To sever that cord is like walking out of the Superdome in life’s greatest ongoing Super Bowl event that has ever occurred.

I know that, to a large extent, they are right about my career. But more important than any writing dreams I might have, there’s this: I don’t want to lose touch with everyone I care about.

So what to do?

I have to return to one of my old stand-by lines of great wisdom. To quote Emerson (for, perhaps, the 12th time on this blog):

“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

That’s it. Right there. I want out, but I want to stay in, too. I just don’t want all the ugly stuff that comes with staying “in.”

Is it any different, though, than watching television? We are given the opportunity to tune in to nearly 1,000 channels at any given moment. We choose the frequency, my friends. We make the choice.

What I have learned in 2014 is that those choices require a lot of hard work, focus, dedication, and commitment. Getting older doesn’t make any of those things easier; in some ways, we have to try even harder to avoid the sirens’ alluring calls. They tempt us to resign to the complacency that social media offers us.

Tempting, yes. All the time. That’s why 2015 is about returning to the Hunter-Gatherer within me.

It’s not going to be easy to focus my energies into the things that matter the most to me. I have to employ a will to seek out my greatest needs and achieve them; I need to do away with everything “processed and refined” in my life and retain the primal goods and meaningful relationships that exist. I need to let them flourish, become the most powerful things in my life, and live genuinely with and among them.

There it is. My focus for 2015: Living Primal in the 21st Century.

I leave you (and 2014) with a great clip from a movie called Facing The Giants (2006). It captures the essence of how I need to prepare for the long haul in 2015. Maybe you feel the same. Maybe you need to realize that you can do some pretty once-believed impossible things. For me, I need to remember that it’s a long year, and I can’t lose sight of my focus and my goals, no matter how heavy or burdensome the pursuit might seem.

Just keep going, never give up, never quit, and never stop believing in the greatness within you.

 Happy New Year to all of you, near and far. May these be the greatest of days, regardless of the challenges we will most certainly face along the way.

The Christmas Rose

“The Christmas Rose”

By Rus VanWestervelt, December 2014

 

If you would prefer to download ‘The Christmas Story” as a PDF file, you may do so HERE.

 

Dedicated to Patrick and Sandra, whose sons Ryan and Danny, respectively, passed away far too early in their young lives. May their spirits, and their love, live on forever in the hearts of all who loved them – and you.

 

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Dear Alice and Anna:

It is very early Christmas morning. You are both still asleep, and I have just returned from what was (I am fairly certain) my final journey to and from the Big Hill. The two white roses that will go in your stockings are next to me, along with two gifts wrapped in white paper adorned with small, hand-painted roses. They are beautiful, as always.

Tonight, though, they have even greater meaning. Last Christmas, for the first time, you asked me about those white roses and the gifts wrapped in the pretty white paper. Do you remember? I smiled, and I told you to simply enjoy their beauty and that, someday, I would tell you the full story when you are ready. At that time, I thought that I had plenty of time to wait for you to get a little older.

I was wrong.

I don’t think you are old enough yet to understand any of this, and I certainly don’t think I could just sit down and tell you (I am sure that my tears would get in the way far too much, and it would take away from the beautiful story of the Christmas rose and its legacy that is bigger than any of us). So, I think I’m going to do my best here on these blank pages and write it all down for you. It’s time that I do this now anyway. I can’t trust my memory for too much longer. Things seem to be progressing pretty fast now and, well –

No. I think I’ll just stick with the story behind the beautiful Christmas roses. Like I said already, none of this is about me, anyway.

This town has changed very little since I was your age. Old Emily’s Estate on the Big Hill (at least that’s what we used to call it when we were kids) is as beautiful as ever, and although our house is part of a newer development here in Luther’s Village, the rest of the town has remained true to its good, traditional feel. Your great-grandparents (that would be my Grams and Pop Pop) were the original owners of what is now our home, and your bedroom was the very same room I stayed in when we would come to visit them every Easter and Christmas.

The view from your window is the same, too. I could see Old Emily’s Estate lit up at night, just like you can now. Funny how that name has held up, even long after she passed away. Those single white candles in each window mean a lot more to me now than they did then. Believe me. One day, they will seem even more beautiful to you, too, as you will see them from a very different perspective.

I’ll get to that soon enough, though.

Old Emily was legendary to us while she was still alive. She died about a week before we arrived that Christmas when I turned 17. For years, all of the kids had believed the tales that had been spread about her. Emily Starling, lone inhabitant to the mansion that rested on the highest point here in Luther’s Village, was a wealthy, lonely old woman. For 364 days every year, those big iron gates that separated us from the winding driveway to her home stayed shut—locked tight for so long that we believed they would rust themselves shut forever. But on that one day, December 24, she would open those black, rusty gates and allow a select few to enter on foot.

On that night before each Christmas, a handful of town elders would make the mile-long pilgrimage up the winding driveway to her house. As kids, we would watch them from a distance as we made snowmen along the wooded ridge (when we were fortunate enough to have snow on the ground). Each elder brought a single wrapped gift (they were all quite small) and homemade, aged spirits (your great grandparents would always take their own Quarant Quatre). Once, I saw them return just after midnight, and their arms were filled with so much more.

We never knew exactly what they took up, and we definitely never knew what they brought back. All we could ever see were single white flowers peeking out of the bags they brought down. My Pop Pop was an elder, and he would make the trek every year, though we never spoke of it. Nobody did. That’s just how it was.

The rumors among us kids were wild. Some swore that the elders brought offerings, like sacrifices, to Old Emily. (I’m not going to go into too much detail about that here, though. You girls are just too young to hear about that.) Others believed that she was older than the town itself, and that she would never die. Every Christmas Eve, she would receive something from the elders that made her live another year.

I’m sure that, in time, you will be able to imagine what that was. But like I said before, I’m not going to be the one to talk to you about any of that.

In that year when I was 17 and Old Emily had finally passed on, everything was different here at Grams and Pop Pop’s house. They were sad, for sure, and very reflective, as if they had lost one of their own relatives. They both hugged me more than they had ever done before (and since, for that matter, until the year when they died themselves long before you were born).

My parents and I had arrived on the 23rd of December that year, like always. When we pulled into the driveway, many from the town were walking back from the graveyard. They had just laid Emily Starling to rest, and there sure were a lot of quiet people milling about the streets. It looked more like the third week in a hard Winter’s January than just a few days before Christmas. Their sadness was just too heavy, I guess. They wore their grief like a heavy wool blanket, unable to shake the bitter chill of the winter air.

When my Grams and Pop Pop returned to the house, they both did their best to put on a smile for us. Your grandparents hugged them as I stood awkwardly by. Soon enough, we were all ushered into the house, and a sense of routine seemed to return. At least for a few moments.

Just after the sun had set and the fire in the living room had brought some warm comfort to me, your Great Grams called me into the kitchen. She was a round, fastidious woman who was always happy about the food she was cooking, and she was preparing a feast that smelled just delicious.

“Andrew,” she said, “I decided that this year, on the occasion of you turning 17, I would make you two of those pecan pies you love so much.” And she held up two fingers crippled with arthritis, and danced them in the air like crooked sticks.

I gave her the gentlest of hugs (she seemed so fragile then – but compared to who she had become the year she died, I guess she was okay back in the day).

“Thank you, Grams,” I offered, but the smile she offered turned to concern very quickly.

“There has been a lot of change around here this year with Miss Emily passing on,” she said. “But you’ve changed a little too since we saw you in March. You are growing up too quickly, Andrew, and I can tell that you are itching to get out of high school and move on to bigger things.”

Grams could always get right to the point with me. I liked that.

“I am ready. You’re right,” I replied. “I just don’t know what that means. Where we live in Solomon’s is beautiful, but I’ve never felt any real affinity for the place since we moved down there. Something’s missing.”

“Most people feel that way at your age. Don’t fight it,” she smiled. “But don’t let it consume you, either.”

I hugged her again, and I could feel her fragile fingers wrapped around me, fighting for just another second before finally letting go. When she did, she held me at her thin arms’ length and looked directly into my eyes.

The hazel hue in her own eyes captured colors that I never even knew existed.

“There’s something else, Andrew, about this Christmas Eve that we haven’t shared with you yet,” she said. “Pop Pop and your father will explain everything to you – what they can, at least.”

And here is where everything changed for me.

“It looks like you have been invited to join them tomorrow night up to the Big Hill.”

Immediately, I could hear the fears, the resistance, formulating in my mind.

Me? To the Big Hill? Why? And why is anybody going up there at all? She’s dead now, right? –Gosh, that sounds so cold. I didn’t mean it like that. But if she’s not there anymore, why does anybody need to go back up there?

“Your grandfather will explain most of it to you, along with your father. The rest of it, though? Good luck, Andrew. I don’t think they even know what to expect.”

That night, stuffed with pecan pie and Grams’ classic steamers made with pure vanilla, I sat on the edge of my bed and looked out of my window, staring at Emily’s home atop Big Hill. The single white lights were in each window, as they had always been, but every window on every floor had now been draped shut. No additional light. No movement. Nothing.

The house itself looked as if it had been in mourning for Emily’s passing, if not dead itself.

There’s nothing more we can do, Luther. The house – all of it – is no more. I am so sorry. We did our best. . . .

Of course I didn’t believe any of it. I knew that somebody had to be in that house, someone who probably had a lot to do with whatever was going to happen tomorrow night.

How much will I be allowed to know? I wondered.

I tucked myself under the covers, and as I drifted off to sleep, I was sure that a single curtain in one of Emily’s windows had been pushed aside, and a woman dressed in white watched over me as I dreamed of the next night’s journey: a Christmas Eve tradition of secrecy that I was about to join on the hallowed grounds of Emily Starling’s estate. Continue reading

Instant Happy Therapy: You Are In Control

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I am fascinated with the trends on my social media feeds, or at least the ones that Facebook and other social networking sites chooses for us. If somebody with a pretty strong presence in my feed rails about the injustices of customer service, it seems as if it is nearly always followed by a run of status updates proclaiming similar unsatisfactory experiences.

Look, I know this might be a Law of Attraction thing – you want to buy a green VW Beetle, and then that’s all you see on the road the rest of the day. I get that. But FB and other networks have already admitted to using some kind of software that tracks trends in updates and flows them together, all for the sake of “enhancing” our overall online experience. Talk about customer service being a little too self-serving…

Regardless of how they end up in my feed, people are writing them, and sometimes, they are downright depressing.

Well, I’ve got some Instant Happy Therapy for you that works for me every time. I step away from the phone/laptop/tablet and get outside.

I listen. I observe. I inhale. I absorb everything that is around me.

So few of us really do this. Here’s a quick quiz for you. Name the following:

  1. The natural colors and shapes around you.
  2. The types of trees in your neighborhood.
  3. The names of the wildlife outside your front window.
  4. The sounds of birds (and their names) in your neighborhood at dawn, noonday, and dusk.
  5. The insects and animals comprising your community’s little ecosystem and wild life cycle.

Not that any one of these is super important to your happiness. What is super important, though is your awareness of such things. All it takes is a little time outside, unplugged, to become aware of the vibrant life all around you.

This is my Instant Happy Therapy. It is grounded in the present, and it is happening, despite me. I get to become an observer to the wonderful movement of my natural and community surroundings. It grounds me in what matters most in this life.

So log off, and get outside for a little Instant Happy Therapy. It’s free, and it’s always available to you (and everyone else).

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Slow Down: Abandon the Speed of Your Newsfeed

photo: rus vanwestervelt, loch raven reservoir, baltimore, md

photo: rus vanwestervelt, loch raven reservoir, baltimore, md

My newsfeeds on multiple social media sites stream by me at a too-fast rate, pushing news and updates across my screen faster than I can refresh them. Emails await my replies in an overflowing inbox, and text messages are still unanswered from last night.

The world is too much with us…. wrote William Wordsworth in a sonnet he penned 212 years ago. Talk about words standing the test of time.

It is easy to get caught up in the rush of our digital world, isn’t it? With everything screaming by us at speeds that were incomprehensible earlier in our own lifetimes, we find ourselves feeling the need to keep up and match that speed so that we can stay in the flow of this ever-pressing world.

I think otherwise. In fact, I don’t buy it for a nanosecond.

I’m standing here on the banks of Loch Raven Reservoir in Baltimore, watching the colors of the rising sun sift through a patch of lazy steam making its own ascent from the still waters. There is nothing “fast” about this process. It moves independently, a natural beauty both fluid and brilliant in its display. I am mesmerized by how unfazed it is by my presence. I am a witness to its tranquil unfolding. I am open to all it has to teach me.

I come out here to be reminded of what matters most in my world. At times, like now, I have to remember what I am not, as much as who I am.

I feel my pulse align with my natural surroundings; my muscles relax, and my feet feel rooted in the damp, dewy grasses here at the edge of the waters. This is what life is about; this is what I am about.

A Mindful Intimation

I am not part of a scrolling newsfeed, nor do I need to keep up with one. The speed of my life experience is not dependent upon, or a mirror of, the technology around me. I align myself with the rising mist on local pre-dawn waters. I will not allow the world to be too much with me — at least not the one filled with screaming technology that never rests. I set my pace; I am mindful of my independence and personal solitude. This is my world. This is my existence.

 

Maryland’s Roadside Barns: Realizing a Communal Pulse

DeerParkBarn

photo: rus vanwestervelt, 8/2/14

There’s an old barn on Deer Park Road in Finksburg, MD, that I have passed over 2,000 times in the past 7 years. It stands rather defiantly, showing the wear of decades of harsh weather. Each time I pass it, I am drawn to its stand-alone beauty against a backdrop of rolling hills of farmland and forest.

In these 7 years, I have breathed deeply in my approach to it. The calm it has brought me, though, has remained somewhat of a mystery. Our drive to Madelyn’s farm is a peaceful one, filled with plenty of natural settings, where the greens and the browns seem a little more saturated against the stirring skies.

Why am I drawn to this simple, weathered barn abandoned on the side of a winding road, a long drive that leads me to Liberty Reservoir, a place hardly lacking in steal-your-breath moments of beauty?

Earlier this year, I felt the call to this barn becoming stronger; the alluring pull seemed exquisite in its own right to slow down even more and see beyond its “macro” beauty. In matters of such callings, I don’t waste a lot of time pondering them. I simply answer them when I know it is time. It’s like seeing an image of a work of art in some magazine; on the page, it captivates our attention and makes a certain statement. To view that same image up close, to realize the power of each stroke of each color just inches from you, is an entirely different experience.

Yesterday, despite feeling a little worn down myself, the affinity piqued; as I neared the barn on my drive back to the farm, I could not refuse its calling. Every board comprising its structure seemed full of life, where colors of steel gray and black pulsed against a marvelous sky weaving a tapestry of deepening blues and purples. I slowed down and really observed the aged details in the wood, the crawl of the ivy along the vertical grooves in each plank, the fortitude of the doors to protect whatever rested in the darkness within.

Immediately I was taken back to the tobacco barns in Calvert County. A quarter-century ago, I spent several years living among them on the rolling spanse of land in Southern Maryland. The outside of these structures bore the brunt of the harsh elements year after year, protecting the precious commodities within its four walls. A quick glance from a passer-by would conjure thoughts of neglect for an antiquated building that should be deemed unsafe and dismantled, board by board, until all that remained was the dusty foundation it rested on for forty, fifty, or more years.

These barns thrived, despite their outward appearance. On some days, when the tobacco was hanging to dry inside, every fourth or fifth plank would be pulled away from the side of the building, letting oxygen and light into the barn like gills providing the necessary ingredients for a fulfilling life. In the few times I was allowed to enter the tobacco barns, the thin lines of light and the hint of a soft breeze was all I needed to know that this place breathed; the outer structure nurtured the hanging tobacco inside like a womb woos the unborn child with nutrients and love.

From the outside, it might not be the most beautiful sight to behold, but in appreciating the inner depth of its beauty, words become mere markers that fall short of capturing something so undefinable. It is alluring in the most inexplicable manner; to diminish its mystery with definitions of individuation compromise the very essence of its beauty.

It is enough to see and feel it breathe, to witness the miracle of its existence in the oft-blurred backgrounds of a bigger landscape.

In my car on Deer Park Road, I stopped. The barn loomed large with its boards towering over me. Before I raised my phone to snap a few pictures, I breathed the air around me; my lungs expanded with a harmony of life and decay, a decadence of life in balance. The swirling curves of crops to its right reminded me of a flow of life that moved beyond the barn in front of me, keeping everything in its rightful place for that longer journey.

But in those few, brief moments stopped along Deer Park Road, I allowed the energy of the barn to fill me completely. I wondered what it was protecting within, still to this day. What was it sheltering from the elements? What kept its boards pulsing with a charge so strong that I could not resist the urge to slow down, stop, and appreciate its beauty, its life?

Just a barn, or so it seems from the outside — at least to those who never slow down enough to feel the communal pulse of something larger within each of us.

I heard the hum of approaching cars, and so with a surge of new energy, I snapped a few pictures before rolling slowly away from the old barn on Deer Park Road. I glanced back at it in the mirror as I made my way around a final bend, and I could still feel the affinity of its calling. This time, though, I acknowledged its mystery with a new appreciation.