I love traveling to a new place, even if just for a short visit.
Because the plants are different…
And the colors are different…
And the air smells different…
And the mind and senses WAKE UP!
I had a birthday recently, so it seems a good time to say something about aging:
It normally doesn’t bother me much.
It occurs to me that this sanguine attitude comes in part from living on Cape Cod. Thanks to the Cape’s older demographic, I am usually surrounded by people who are my age or older. Heck, I’m often the young whippersnapper in the room.
And of course, I’m a baby boomer. Most Boomers tend to feel that, whatever their current stage of life is, it’s the latest thing in the Zeitgeist.
All this is very comfortable. When friends get together, the conversation eventually turns to our memory lapses, our bum knees, and the far worse condition of our aging parents. There’s a sense that – even if we’re not crazy about what’s happening – we’re all in it together (even if “it” is a sinking lifeboat).
So I tend to live with the soothing, subliminal sense that my age is The Right Age, i.e. the appropriate age for whatever I’m trying to do and be.
I’m not even aware of this feeling till it’s disrupted, as happened last week. I dropped in for the first time on a monthly gathering of environmentally-minded local entrepreneurs. The moment I entered the room, I could see that a gulf of twenty or thirty years divided me from most of the people there.
Surrounded by vibrant, slim, accomplished young movers and shakers, I was ambushed by a painful sense that I was The Wrong Age. Not the wrong age to be at the gathering exactly – it’s not like I’d crashed a sorority party, and nobody was looking at me funny – just The Wrong Age. Even though the crowd was perfectly friendly, I felt dumpy and irrelevant.
So what did my mind do? I watched with rueful amusement as it began squirming this way and that to find an imaginary role that would restore my sense of well-being, an identity more palatable than Irrelevant Old Person.
Could I imagine myself a mentor to these people? Hardly. Most of the young people there were undoubtedly more savvy about the things that matter in business than I was. (After all, I can barely manage my smart phone). Could I recast myself as a Kindly Maternal Figure or Wise Woman Sage? Hmmm…
Ah, we baby boomers can be such clichés! Perhaps I’ll go for Denial, and buy some Spanx and a sporty red convertible! Or is it easier to just avoid all situations that make me feel old?
I think not. I try to cherish theses moments when my sense of Who I Am gets upended. They can be temporarily incomfortable, but offer such good teaching. Am I going to struggle mightily to be somebody special? Or can I let go of the whole identity thing, remembering the words of the Zen Master, “No I, then no problem?”
“You see this goblet?” asks Achaan Chaa, the Thai meditation master. “For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”
~Mark Epstein, Thoughts Without a Thinker
I really get it.
This is what I found on the kitchen floor when I came home yesterday. Some kind of vibration from the street had caused a shelf to collapse, and over a dozen of my favorite bowls and pitchers lay smashed to smithereens.
Nothing was particularly expensive, but I liked them all. Their weight, texture, and color pleased me. They were the dishes I reached for every day, and they represented hundreds of salads, pies, and bowls of salsa served over the years. They were majolica, yellow-ware, hand-thrown pottery, glass, stoneware. I knew the provenance of every piece – several were wedding gifts, and some we had picked up in Italy and France. It was pretty startling to lose them all in one fell swoop.
John swept the shards into a pile. Mixed with hundreds of toothpicks that had also resided on the shelf, they looked rather arty. Maybe I’ll take the pieces and make some kind of objet d’art out of them, as a memento. I’ll coat them with resin or make a mosaic or something. (Maybe I’ll save them for that purpose and never get around to it.)
We had a good run together, but now they’re gone, or at least transformed. Of course.
The other day I gave my old chicken paraphernalia to Betsy, who has a bunch of hens in a backyard coop. Goodbye to the feeder and the waterer and the chain link fencing. Goodbye to the idea that I will raise chickens again in this lifetime.
Let me be clear – this is not a sacrifice. I have no desire to care for chickens right now. I don’t have the time, and if I did, I can think of other things I would rather do. I’ve beem calling this the Post-Nurturance phase of life, but that’s not really accurate. I just have other things to nurture, like my business, my relationships, and yes, myself.
I kept chickens for years when the boys were young. It was a pleasure perusing the fancy breeds in the Murray McMurray catalogue and rushing to the post office when the cheeping box of chicks arrived. I found the chickens’ gentle clucking and feathery maternal warmth quite soothing, and their distinct personalities and sorority squabbles were a constant source of entertainment.
It was a project the kids and I undertook together. I remember walking with Patrick to the coop to shut the chickens in on many a winter night, our feet crunching through the crusty snow and the sky above us spangled with stars. It taught the boys about caring for life, and also about death. None of us will forget the massacre, when a pack of dogs left eviscerated bodies strewn all over the yard, or the time our neighbor Pierre lead us calmly and skillfully through the execution and plucking of four renegade roosters.
By the time we moved to the Cape, though, I was ready for a break. When the last four chickens disappeared into the underbrush and didn’t come back, I was only briefly sorry.
Still, in letting go of the gear, I felt the momentary tightening that often occurs at such times. It happens when our impulse to let go of something meets the anxious thought, I might not need this thing NOW, but what if I need it in the future??? And there’s another part, which is letting go of the past, of who we used to be.
One of the benefits of getting older is that the future no longer seems infinite, so it’s easier to see through all that. We know there isn’t a whole lot of time left, so we stop trying to hang onto every possible future option and direct our energy towards the things that mean most to us now.
And if, in the future, that turns out to be chickens, I can always get some more stuff.
In the blizzard two weeks ago, we lost power immediately. On Friday and Saturday it was nice to curl up by the fireplace while the winds howled outside. I made two kinds of soup, read by the Amish oil lamp, and felt a cozy kinship with the generations who lived in our house before the advent of central heat and electricity. It’s only a hardship if you think it is, after all. It’s good to go back to basics once in a while.
By Sunday though, the charm was wearing off the pioneer life. The temperature in most of the house hovered just above 32. If I spent five minutes in my office, my fingers would get numb – not that there was much to do there since the phones and computers were down. Damn inconvenient. Finally we decamped to Ginny and John’s house for hot showers and Downton Abbey.
It’s all relative, of course. I just finished reading A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter, a wonderful memoir written in 1934 about the year she spent with her scientist husband in a tiny isolated cabin on Spitsbergen, near the Arctic Circle. In the northern winter they have some serious blizzards – like where the snow reaches above the roof of the cabin. It’s dark for several months running. Food consists of dry stores and fresh-killed seal meat.
Ms. Ritter’s experience was at times pure misery, but at times pure rapture over the beauty and quiet of the icy landscape. It’s not an experience I’m likely to have, but I’m glad she shared it with me. Read it if you’re feeling cranky about the weeks of winter to come.
On Tuesday morning, Sarah and I are taking off for the Atlanta Gift Show, where we hope to sell our Summer House Soaps to store owners from all over the East Coast. It’s a mind-bogglingly huge event - one we’ve never done before – so there’s been quite a steep learning curve.
We’ve never had to ship our products and displays to a show before, so we had to figure out how to pack it all on a pallet. This baby (over five feet tall) got picked up from my garage in early December. With luck it will be intact and waiting for us in our booth when we arrive.
With any new show there are lots of strict rules to digest. Experience tells me that many such rules are completely ignored on location, but we can’t assume that.
In Atlanta, for example, all booth materials must be flame-proofed by Georgia-certified professionals. To avoid a problem, we’re skipping our usual drapes in favor of foam core walls which will be in place when we get there. The color we selected is an experiment - lime green. It could be fabulous or it could be a horror. I’ll let you know.
Our lodging is also an experiment. We’ve booked a one-bedroom apartment in the Virginia Highlands neighborhood through Air bnb, an eBay-like site where people with an extra room or two connect with people looking for a place to stay. Should be interesting.
I’m in the process today of figuring out some show outfits that will fit in with the more dressed-up southern style. As Sarah pointed out, it won’t do for us to look like a couple of middle-aged hippies.
It’s been great having a couple of weeks of down time, but the adventure of life resumes. Wish us luck!
The sweet week between Christmas and New Years is drawing to an end. I didn’t expect to recuperate from nine months of stress in seven days, but it was a start.
When we finally get some down time after a very busy stretch, there’s always a pull between the need to do nothing and the need to catch up. Yes, we know we need badly to rest, but there are other things besides our bodies that have been neglected during our busy spell. It’s good to have time to clean off our desks, remove the rotting vegetables from the fridge, and touch base with a few friends. It helps us resume our lives after the break with a clearer spirit.
This goes to an issue I’ve been pondering and writing about for a long time – the seeming conflict between doing and stillness. No question my predisposition is towards doing, and sometimes I wreck myself in the process, getting tangled up in anxiety, exhaustion, and insomnia. One of the reasons I engage in Zen practice is to find a better balance.
I’ve been reading a book this week called Awake at Work by Michael Carroll, which offers ways of creating “clarity and balance in the midst of work’s chaos” through the study of classical Tibetan Buddhist teaching phrases. One of these phrases is Balance the two efforts:
Our effort to get somewhere, whether in our career or our life, depends on first being somewhere, letting go of our fears, desires, habits, and routines and trusting ourselves fully in the present moment. …In turn, we discover balance in simply being present, and an alertness that is resourceful, flexible, and relaxed.
We know that of course – that doing and being, action and stillness are not really opposites but attributes that can and do exist in each moment simultaneously. And we can cultivate the ability to act from that place so there is less effort, tension, and anxiety in everything we do.
But of course, as my friend Deborah so succinctly put it, this isn’t about insight, it’s about practice. So we practice. Moment by moment.
I lay in bed Sunday morning basking in a warm feeling of gratitude. Our Summer House Soaps Grand Opening yesterday was truly grand, in the British sense of “A cup of tea? That would be grand.”
I’m grateful for all the people who emailed or turned out to wish us well. I’m grateful to my husband, John, for all his support, including racing around with me at the last minute finding rugs for the showroom. (Rain was expected, and we visualized people toppling like bowling pins on the wet, slippery floor.)
I’m grateful to Debbie and Priscilla and Jill for helping out at the checkout area, and for the forbearance of customers who waited because our system was a little rough around the edges (it was our first day, after all). I’m grateful to Bill, our landlord, for his help and creative carpentry, to Joslyn for her beautiful cookies, and to so many others, including many who offered help but I was too overwhelmed to articulate what might be helpful.
Most of all I’m grateful to Julie and Betsy for moving the whole operation and getting it set up in less than a week, all the while keeping the orders flowing with barely a hiccup. Amazing.
The morning of the opening I was really, really tired and achy, and wondered how I would get through the day. It was helpful to reflect on the grand wave of collaborative energy that has gotten the project to this point, and to realize that I might trust in it.
This is a shift in perspective for me, who tends to think that everything depends on me all the time. It’s not true of course, and what’s more, it’s a burden to carry around the idea that you have to make things happen. I have to do my part, of course. But from a Buddhist perspective, things arise out of conditions, not from my efforts.
This morning on the online Tricycle email, there was this fitting quote from Stephen Batchelor:
Every moment of experience is contingent on a vast complex of myriad conditions…To recognize this emptiness is not to negate things but to glimpse what enables anything to happen at all.
The pieces are coming together in our new soap space and it’s looking great. Excitement alternates with alarm as we push to be ready for the December 8th opening of our shop.
During such a busy time, a lot of healthy things have gotten dumped from my life, but I’ve kept up with my morning meditation practice. It keeps me sane.
One thing I see when I’m sitting is how many ”What if….” thoughts I have – fill in the blank with some major or minor disaster – followed by strategies to prevent this bad thing from happening. To a certain extent, this kind of forward-thinking is important in running a business. In the last few months, I’ve had to deal with negotiating a lease, buying insurance, and a host of other things that are all about imagining what can go wrong and trying to mitigate the risk. And as the business grows, the process cannot stop.
What practice does is help interrupt the anxious clenching that accompanies these thoughts.
A couple of weeks ago, I asked a Zen Master who was visiting the Cape Cod Zen Center how he dealt with this kind of anxiety in business. Until recently, Mark and his brother ran a big industrial company. What he said went something like this:
“Over the years, our business has grown to where we have millions in revenues and seventy employees. By outward standards, we are a success. But at any moment, an ill wind could blow, and we’d be out of business in six months. You are never really in control of what’s going to happen.”
Strangely, his words were comforting. They reminded me for the zillionth time about one of the core teachings of Buddhism. We constantly grasp for security, for control over life so we can be safe. But it’s not possible, so me might as well relax a little.
Of course we can try to make wise decisions, but there are no guarantees. All we can do is enjoy the ride.