Monday, July 13, 2015

A'hermiting we'll go…a'hermiting we'll go…hi ho the merry-o...

Abbey from the hermitage path.

I turned 59 last Saturday. I was having a hard time getting excited about my birthday this year, and everyone’s lives right now seem so busy, so scattered in a million directions. So, instead of trying to schedule another dinner, another cake, another night at the Little Town Watering Hole, etc. (although I usually LOVE all of those), I decided to give myself a gift I’ve been wanting for a very long time—a weekend hermitage.
I spent a LOT of time here.

Home sweet hermitage.
Home sweet hermitage.
I spent Friday through Sunday at a hermitage cabin on the grounds of the Abbey of the Hills in Marvin, South Dakota. From its founding in 1950 through 2012, the Abbey was a Benedictine monastery, Blue Cloud Abbey, until it became unsustainable for the dwindling number of aging brothers who lived there. A nonprofit bought it and maintains it as a retreat center now.

I lit one little candle for the whole world.
There are two hermitage cabins a good hike downhill from the abbey. The cabins are simple but quite comfortable—a small bed, a writing table, a rocking chair, hotplate and microwave, dorm fridge, fan, AC if you need it. The Abbey supplies you with a basket when you arrive that includes clean sheets, a chunk of Valley Queen cheese, a chunk of summer sausage, a couple bottles of water, and half a loaf of homebaked Abbey bread. There is a tiny sink in the cabin with cold running water, and an outhouse halfway between the two cabins. The cabins have picture windows that face a small pond/lake. While you’re there, you also have access to the Abbey (which includes a shower room if you want).
Windows as art.

Reflections in marble floor.
I spent my time there writing, reading (re-reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s Miracle of Mindfulness), playing my guitar, practicing meditation, walking, and rocking while I stared into space. On Saturday, I sat in the back of the sanctuary and sang old Sufi & Shaker hymns until the echoing songs made me weepy, but I mostly kept to the cabin.
Cabin from the pond bench.

Saturday rain.
I’m not Catholic, not religious in any traditional way, but I am drawn to places, like the Abbey, that I consider sacred spaces. Also, I felt the need to UNPLUG from the constant chatter—on my phone/email/computer/TV, and in my head. I wasn’t expecting any epiphanies, but, as in all times when we slow down and pay attention, I did learn a few things about myself, which I share with you here…

Sound bounces off marble floors and walls.
- I do not need a hermitage. I need only the willingness, in ANY space or time, to pay attention to the present moment (sans the gadgets). I can “hermit” while doing laundry, washing dishes, writing a blog post, or going to the bathroom, as long as I give my complete attention to that moment.

- I am surrounded by love. (Dangit! I checked my Facebook birthday wishes Saturday night! O Facebook, thy name is Evil.)

- Typically, instead of giving our total attention to the present moment, we run future scenes in the mind, relive past events/regrets, carry on imaginary conversations, go over to-do lists, etc. Thich Nhat Hahn calls this the “dispersion” of the mind, and reining this in is the point of meditation. Not stopping it or silencing it, which is impossible, but learning to control what the mind does with it—we can notice it, let it go, and gently, constantly, come back to the present moment—the breath in meditation, the dishes, cleaning the litterbox, whatever we’re doing.

I sat back there and sang in this echo chamber.
- I have missed writing in my journals.

- Solitude forces us to face, and embrace if we can, our selves. What are we REALLY, without the costumes, the reinforcement, the pretense, the affect? What are YOU, stripped to the bone? Most people can’t take their own company, which is why we fill our time with people, going, doing, and stuff. Der weg nach innen, the “way within” (from the novel Siddhartha), makes us squirm.

- I want a fantail goldfish. I will name her Fontaine. (Clearly, I still have some work to do with that reining in thing.)

- There is no such thing as silence. I got up at 3 a.m. to listen to the world. There’s a LOT of sound at 3 a.m. We have to stop waitingwaitingwaiting for the right time to be still. We have to be still in the midst of the noise.

- Frogs really do play leapfrog.

So would I do another hermitage? Absolutely. But I think I’d go for 5 days next time. I need one day at the beginning just to slow down, to stop spinning. Then, I need a day at the other end for a slow, peaceful re-entry. And I need at least three days, maybe more, in the stop squirming.
View from the hermitage door.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Grand Cosmedy

It all starts to seem like a comedy sometimes…a hilarious, cosmic comedy…a cosmedy, if you will.

Take for instance, my mother’s ongoing tug ‘o war with western medicine. Since the beginning of this year, she’s been diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma, and breast cancer. She’s had a lumpectomy. She’s had a lung PET scan, looking for lung cancer (dodged that one!). She’s undergoing radiation therapy right now for the breast cancer.

Then, after her recent first-ever colonoscopy, her doc had the gall to suggest she have a test (not another freaking test!) for celiac disease. If you know my mother at all, then you know how truly funny this is. She has not had stomach/digestive issues a day in her life, and she will certainly NOT give up one more bless├ęd thing, dammit. And at 79 years of age, navigating 3 cancers, with Type 2 diabetes and neuropathy, selling her home, and moving in with a daughter her doctors call “The General,” if you think she’s worried about eating a piece of wheat toast, you’d better think again.

Or, take this house-showing business (Ray and I are selling the Peacock Palace, too, so he, Mom, and I can find a place together). We have a much more sane sense of the comedy of “home staging” lately.

When the house was first listed, we were all like, “You cut flowers and polish doorknobs…I’ll bake cookies and make a crocheted coverup for the litterbox.” Now, after a couple months, we're tired of cleaning. And I figure if folks are offended by my toothbrush & deodorant, or the bra I forgot to hide, or the basket of spitty dog toys, they have no business living in the country anyway. Teehee.

Then there’s the diet business. I’m short, 5’4”, and I’m a “keeper,” as my mom likes to say. This means that women in our family eat lots of food, and we KEEP it—mostly in our chins and on our hips. Since my 30’s, when I developed—overnight—my amazing “childbearing hips,” I’ve tried every diet on the planet EXCEPT eating very little and exercising a lot, which of course, is the only diet that really works.

For the past year or so, I’ve been seriously, and then half-heartedly, doing Medifast, which is the Mayo Clinic’s medically-sound, buy-your-food-from-them diet. It’s low calorie/salt/fat/carb/glycemic index (GI)/flavor/joy. You eat five of their meal replacements a day, plus one homecooked meal of lean meat and low GI veggies. About 800-1000 calories a day. You drink enough water to drown an elephant. You eat a “meal” (seriously?!? You call that tablespoon of fake chili a “meal”?!?) every 2-3 hours to keep the blood sugar stable.

Now I’m about to begin another new “guaranteed success” diet (true of ANY reasonable diet IF you actually do it): the Profile diet by Sanford. Which is exactly like Medifast. That’s right. Exactly the same. Okay, the check-ins and weigh-ins with a Profile “coach” are more frequent, so MAYBE there’s more accountability. But really, speaking of comedy...what’s that saying about repeating the same behavior over and over and over and expecting a different outcome?

My grandma used to say, “You can either laugh or cry. Your choice.” Yes, I sometimes do the nervous laughter thing. Yes, I sometimes laugh as a cover-up. And since the stroke fried a wee bit of my brainstem, I sometimes laugh inappropriately or can’t stop once I’ve started. But I absolutely believe that a sense of humor can SAVE you, and in this intense, transitional summer in particular, I thank my lucky stars every day for (a) hilarious, positive friends; (b) anything Louis CK says, Jim Breuer's bit about the Slayer concert (, and Sinbad's spiel about middle age (; and (c)most of all, our family’s weird & wonderful humor genes.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Moving: Then & Now

Then, Option 1:

You drop everything and go to New Mexico with itinerate musicians. You’ll be back as soon as they’re famous. Your irate parents borrow a pickup and drive to a neighboring city, to which you had moved chasing a different boy. Your parents pack up and haul your natty-ass stuff back to their house, because while you're gone, your roommate calls your mom, says she's “going with God,” and leaves town. You owe a month’s rent, plus another month’s rent for not giving 30 days notice of moving, which your parents pay.

Then, Option 2:

Your friend brings his pickup over Saturday morning. You toss records, books, and aquarium supplies in boxes you got from the liquor store trash pile. You and your friend load the boxes in the truck then stop for a wine break. You pack a suitcase of your favorite clothes, then you put your wok, your autographed picture of Taj Mahal, cat toys, the bong you made in ceramics class, and your Korean mink blanket in a hamper and load the hamper and suitcase in the truck. You stop for a wine break. A really long wine break. The next afternoon, you load your guitar and your cats in the pickup cab and take off. You send four friends back to the house later that night to move the monster piano you got free from a church that threw it out. You leave everything else behind. Screw your security deposit.

Then, Option 3:

You start packing Friday night. You and your husband pack up the entire house in boxes he brings home from work. Your toddlers unpack boxes almost as fast as you pack them, so you pack until 4 a.m. to make the most of the time they’re asleep. You take frequent coffee breaks, and frequent breaks to find busywork and games for the kids. Friends come over Saturday and help you haul your stuff to the new place. You pay them in spaghetti & meatballs and beer. Repeat on Sunday. Sunday night, your friends help you move the piano (the same monster piano). You pay them in meatloaf and beer. You, your mom, and two friends go over Monday to clean the old place. You need that security deposit bad, and you have to work Tuesday.


Months before the move, you have a pod delivered to your driveway. You buy 25 Rubbermaid tubs. You begin packing non-essentials, one room at a time, labeling each tub with room/contents (with red marker on duct tape, so you can re-use the tubs). You take down and pack away anything that could hint to prospective buyers that you’re a human with a life. You stack and organize tubs in the pod. You pay more “rent” for the pod every month, waiting for your house to sell, than you paid for every house you ever rented. Meanwhile, you repair, replace, or tend to cracked windows, torn wallpaper, spots in the wood floor, loose door/drawer handles, etc. You know your friends are too old to help move the piano again, so you give it away to 20-something kids who think it’s “awesome.” You bury a statue of St. Joseph upside-down in your back yard. You tie fluttery ribbons to the “For Sale” sign. For each showing, you clean like a madwoman, buy fresh flowers, hide everything you haven’t packed and are still using for daily living, and turn on the upstairs and downstairs fresh-baked-bread-scented candle melts. Then, you take your three dogs for a long drive until the looky-loos are gone. Your car is full of dog hair and smells like a kennel. The looky-loos finally confess: They aren’t really in a position to buy—they were just curious.

You contemplate running away with itinerate musicians. You contemplate going with god, but which one? You contemplate life on the lam in a South American country. You contemplate hauling everything to the dump and living in the pod…

All the comforts of…pod.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Get Thee Behind Me, Mercury...

I always worry a bit about bad juju around the time of my July birthday. Weird planetary energy has, in some years, turned me into an irritable, irrational lump of conflicting emotions.

Mercury is in the retrograde shadow phase right now, and whatever else that might mean (I know almost nothing about astrology), it supposedly means for Cancers that we’re so busy nurturing others, we forget to nurture ourselves. This can lead to anxiety, resentment, and conflict. (See to understand how bad this can get for me.)

Times like this require a little extra self-love, which is not the same as selfishness. Selfishness means you mostly consider the importance of your own stuff, and you’re often insensitive to others’ stuff (narcissism is the extreme form of this, where you don’t even care/acknowledge that other people HAVE stuff, or you only care about how their stuff affects YOU). For me, however, self-love means that IN ADDITION to considering others’ stuff, you take tender care of your own.

Hope springs eternal when it comes to human evolution, but I think at this stage we’re mostly selfish – we’ve been acculturated into this since birth. Want proof? Facebook. Blogs. (Yep, me too.)

Want more proof? Start paying close attention to “conversations”: Most people only half-listen to another, then turn the talk back to themselves: I half-listen to you tell me about your memory/injury/accomplishment/concern (I’m really only listening for a pause where I can jump in). Then, instead of considering what you’ve said, or empathizing, or congratulating, or finding out what I can do to help you, I tell you about something of my own, which I’m sure is more relevant/worse/better/more serious than yours.

Mercury in retrograde also means communication breakdowns & failures. Go figure.

So in this Mercurial pre-birthday swirl—when we’re trying to sell two houses (which means keeping them both clean, and shuffling 1 or 3 dogs for every showing – GHA!!!), when we have a slew of birthdays and Father’s Day to prepare for, when Mom is about to start radiation 5 days/week for 6 weeks (in another town, of course – none available in Little Town), when our old dog is on her last leg and needs extra care, when the Big Bohunk Family Reunion is coming up, and when I’m pre-mourning my eventual farewell to the Row and the peacocks—I’m trying to nurture myself now and then.

For example, I’ve given myself the time and space to create. I've fine-tuned a manuscript of poems, Every Gasp a Crooked Prayer, thanks to the encouragement and feedback of the amazing Dakota Women Poets gathering, and I've sent it out into the Universe, to see if it can find a publishing home.  I’ve been writing for 40 years, and this is the first time I've sent out a manuscript; it’s both exhilarating and terrifying.

Also, I just used a gift certificate I got in 2012 and had a glorious facial. And I’m researching shirodhara ayurvedic massage—a warm oil drip on the third eye, followed by a head & shoulder massage, which I will learn to give one day. Recently, I drove to the Big City alone, and I hung out in a needlework store for a suspiciously long time, touching and smelling yarn. And most nurturing of all, I sing whenever I can (you know what James Brown says).

I’m turning 59 this year. So bring it, Mercury. Give me your best conflicted, confounded, babel-talking, backward-slinging, frantic energy. Let chaos rant and beat on the door. I will be soothed and smiling, in a bubble bath with the latest Cleo Coyle paperback…

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Eleutheromania: A Travelogue

We just got back from Mom’s ultimate “bucket list” trip to Eleuthera (local pronunciation is il-OO-thra), an island in the Bahamas east of Nassau. Eleuthera is a 110-mile-long, narrow strip (a mile wide in some places), with 11,000 people. There are many little towns, or “settlements,” up and down the island (half a dozen major settlements) and one main road, the Queen’s Highway, running the length of the island.

Glass Window Bridge on Queen's Highway
We spent a lot of time on this deck.
Bonus: One highlight of the trip happened even before we arrived on the island. We got to connect with my cousin, who hadn’t seen her auntie or cousin for decades, for a visit at the Atlanta airport. She looks FABULOUS and gifted us with flip-flops for everyone that leave the imprint “Summer of Lois” is the sand with each step.

tagging crabs
tagging Ray
Get some SPF 70 on those feet!
Location: I won’t go into my Delta Airlines horror stories, late flight, missed connection, weeping in Bahama’s Southern Air office, unexpected stay at Orange Hill Inn in Nassau, and the unscheduled Pineapple Air flight next morning—argh—or the Delta “satisfaction survey” I couldn’t wait to complete. Eventually, we arrived at our destination. We spent a glorious 8 days at Surf Song, a privately-owned home on Windermere, an even smaller 5-mile long island snugged up along the east coast of Eleuthera and connected to the bigger island via a bridge with a guardhouse (Mariah Carey has a home on Windermere, as do some of the Royals, and folks there like their privacy. And lest you think we’re snooty, fancy-pants descendants of Lord Mountbatten, you should know that my brother found the house on It was like a remake of the Beverly Hillbillies…

Baby Kraken?
Housing: Surf Song is a beautifully designed home, mostly concrete, as are many of the more hurricane-resistant homes on the island.  It has a great room and kitchen in the center, and two bedrooms with baths on each “arm” of the boomerang-shaped house, with an additional laundry room at the end of one arm. On the east side of the house is a wraparound patio that faces the Atlantic—a 30-yard-ish sandy path’s walk to the beach—and on the west side is another patio with a swimming pool. Believe me, the ever-present water, the lapping waves, and the constant salt mist sea breeze often left me, a landlocked prairie- dweller, hip-mo-tized. Winnie Clarke is Bahamian by birth and has been the housekeeper at Surf Song since it was built in 1989. She came in each day to make beds, do laundry, sweep, and do dishes. Since we are not a “housekeeper” kind of family, we mostly cleaned up after ourselves and spent a lot of time chatting with Winnie about the island’s history and its incredibly gracious people.

I was THIS close to the pilot.
Routine: The trip included two of my three brothers and their wives, Mom, Ray, and me. A typical day started with long coffee on the deck, an early dip in the ocean (SPF 70 for Ray and me), a leisurely rinse in the pool, cocktails, naps, cocktails, and dominoes. This was often interspersed with reading, knitting, serenades by my oldest vagabond brother, who used some of his time to prep for an upcoming gig in Mexico, walks on Windermere’s famous pink sand beach, and eating.

Touring: We only rented a car for two of the days we were there, and the rest of the time, we stayed put at Surf Song. On one day, though, we needed to replenish our drinking water and grocery stash, so we rented a car and drove south from Savanah Sound, the settlement closest to Windermere, to the Rock Sound market. The next day, we drove north as far as the Glass Window Bridge, a spectacular landmark with the deep blue Atlantic on the east side of the bridge, and the shallow turquoise waters of the Bahama Banks (incorrectly referred to as the “Caribbean”) on the west side. We stopped in Gregory Town at Daddy Joe’s, where Mom had the “best pina collada in my entire life” made by Tia, then fish tacos, fishcakes, and conch fitters at the famous Rainbow Inn. We stopped in Governor’s Harbor for groceries and a few more spirits, including coconut rum for the trip’s signature drink, the “panty ripper” (our version was coconut rum, orange juice, and pineapple juice).
Best. Pina collada. EVER.

Research: One very important aspect of the trip was the highly scientific study my SIL and I conducted on hermit crabs. Each day, around 2 p.m., inch-long crabs paraded across the patio. On day 2, we decided to “tag” the crabs with a dot of fingernail polish on the shells to see if the same crabs crossed each day. They don’t, and on day 3 we gave up, tired of springing out of our deck chairs for each passing crab. Although, Ray napped on the patio one afternoon, and my SIL had just enough scientific curiosity left to “tag” his toenails with a pretty shade of terra cotta. He was a good sport and highly amused, and he left the polish on for the rest of the trip. I also did a little cat whispering with a feral cat that started spooking around the house. I named her Hissyfit: she meowed for food or attention at the door but hissed ferociously if a hand moved toward her. Eventually, she worked up the nerve to rub against my legs and bare feet, but she never warmed up to hands.

These little friends were everywhere.
Our beach, Surf Song in the background.
I lived in my tie-dyed dress and flip-flops.
Summer of Lois
The LIVING room
Red for the princess, gold for the Queen
Regrets: Even though this was Mom’s lifelong dream-come-true trip, she was a little sad that my youngest brother and his SE (spouse equivalent) weren’t able to come, so she could have all her children together. We missed them, too. Also, we lost out on the house we were hoping to buy, since someone else made a cash offer while we were gone, and our offer was contingent on selling our houses. So we’ve backed off looking until we sell, which is probably what we should have done from the start. We’ve buried St. Joseph statues and have showings at both houses this week, so I’m trusting the Universe to work it all out in its own sweet, purposeful time.

Gratitude:Eleutheromania” is an actual word meaning an intense longing for freedom, and I can tell you, this fits for Mom, Ray, and I after several weeks of end-of-semester brain-fry, cramming to clear out and show two houses, Mom’s health trials and tribulations and appointments, and getting ready for the trip. And although it took us a few days to come unsprung, we’re utterly grateful that we were able to enjoy a few carefree days of sun, surf, relaxation, and family at Surf Song. I’m still checking Eleuthera weather daily. I play ocean and wind sounds to fall asleep at night. I ordered a new set of dominoes. And if these new freckles would just run together, I’d have a gorgeous Bahamian tan…
Beach Beauty