Thinking Outside the Bento Box

20150318_160202Many years ago, for three years, I lived in Texas with my husband. Texas seemed to own the sky and it would sometimes open up into a display of light and sound that left us shaking. While driving anywhere, we could somehow see both our destination and forever, the endless road, a straight shot for eternity.

Both of us, having been born and raised in the Northeast, were homesick for our home land, the hills and trees; I longed for New England to contain me again, to give me just the vision in front of me and the sense that I was here but not there. I missed the twists and turns of the road and knowing what was around the next corner only because it was familiar, but not because I could actually see it. It felt more segmented, and much less vast than Texas.

And now sometimes when I feel like the weather has contained me too much, the snow covered sidewalks have shut me out, or more accurately shut me in, I find myself thinking of wide open spaces with no walls and no boundaries of an angry winter. I long for warmth and fluidity, and the bursting forth of spring, plants breaking ground, remnants of winter disappearing under the sun.

One season tiptoes into the next, haltingly, bleeding into the other, like mixing paint, some of this and some of that until the change is clear, the season defined. Still we call them by separate names. They are winter and then spring. One and then the other. Words, like walls, organizing our year, our lives. It is a relief when one turns fully into the other, when it becomes  this and not that.

This brings me to the popularity of the Bento Box with its built in compartments and my theory of why we love these. Originating as the Japanese lunch box, the Bento Box offers us a variety of foods, carefully placed in a single portion, each item separated by the walls of the container. No food touches the other.

How easy it is to compartmentalize with a Bento Box! In fact, you can’t not compartmentalize with it. And it looks so appealing and neat and special.

20150318_160117(1)Similarly, but much less tangibly, I came across a Life Box in a book recently. A diagram intended to help us balance our time and energy, it was divided into nine sections: family, work, contribution, friends, relationship, leisure, hobby, personal growth and alone time.  At first glance the life box made sense but then I thought of how many of my areas permeate other areas and how my life is just not nearly as segmented as that.

Sometimes my leisure includes family and my alone time includes contribution or work and a hobby leads to personal growth and so on.  So much of life runs together and really can’t be separated, and I’m not sure I’d really want it to be, though I suppose for some that would be simpler in a way. It would certainly allow you to deal with just one area at a time and to “shut out” the other areas in order to focus on the one.

With a Bento Box it’s been done for you, all separate and tidy and clear and contained. It has boundaries. Clarity. You know what’s there, you see it. There are no spaces that continue on or corners around which you can’t see or things running into each other. It’s just this thing, this material object of convenience, but metaphorically it’s more.

It’s how we imagine we might arrange our lives, or even just some days, if we could, but mostly we know we wouldn’t want to because we can’t be contained, not really; so we appreciate the little things that give us the feeling of containment, or the illusion if you will. The tree lined streets and the Bento Box and sometimes we may even crave the snow banks. But simultaneously, I think, we also want the openness of the sky and the prairie and all the vastness to hold that which we cannot contain.

Wedding reflections

weddingMy daughter’s wedding- so much joy and family and love and friends in one place at one time has left me stunned. I want to do it again, but in slow motion. I want to see the people I barely saw, and eat the cake I barely ate and dance to the song I missed. But I’m grateful for all the moments I did have, and mostly for all of the moments the new couple had.

And miracles! The sun actually came out of the overcast sky during the Beatles Here comes the sun as the ceremony procession began.

During his vows, my new son-in-law touched upon his and my daughter’s starkly different childhoods, though they grew up just 65 miles apart (a topic that warrants its own post later).  What brings people together?

So much emotion, but my eyes were mostly dry, too happy to cry. Then much later, one of the groomsmen showed me a picture of his new baby and the tears came. The mere site of life, pure and new and precious, combined with the significance of the day, and I was overwhelmed. My tears did not deter him though, but rather he pulled up another photo and another. There is something relentless about the love of our babies.

Now summer is winding down. My other daughters are returning to college, the newlyweds are away on their honeymoon and I will return to my writing routine with a fuller heart, and freshness, something new but as ancient as the first breath of life.




When you think you’ve simplified, simplify some more


We need much less than we think we need. – Maya Angelou

A few months ago I overheard the mother of a bride telling someone that the month before the wedding was insane. It scared me a little because my daughter is getting married very soon, but I determined I would not let it get to the point of insanity. And it really hasn’t, but I see clearly how it could.

We are a consumer society and there is a huge market for weddings. Each vendor wants to schedule multiple meetings and sell their wares, preferably to an eager and demanding bride-to-be who thinks she is the only gal in town that ever married. The wedding cake vendor who requires two meetings to order a cake, and dismisses the groom in hopes of selling to an exuberant and frivolous bride. The makeup artist whose idea of a natural look is $250 worth of makeup. The bridal shop that doesn’t bring out the sought after simpler dresses because they are less expensive than the frilly ones. It’s sales, people. Wedding planning can and should be a joyful time, but without perspective, it has the potential to wreak havoc on one’s peace of mind.

Marketing schemes and Bridezillas aside though, there are things that must be tended to, and every now and then one of life’s details grabs me by the neck and has me in a chokehold. The current detail is wedding centerpieces.

The bride-to-be is, shall we say, the antithesis of Bridezilla. Her preference for her bouquet was literally limited to this: Let’s keep it small. I don’t want to be lugging anything huge thing down the aisle. She is in fact overwhelmed if she has to meet with one more vendor. So with the intention of simplifying, we decided to eliminate the florist by ordering dried flowers and arranging the centerpieces ourselves. I ordered lots of flowers and when they arrived we filled mason jars with dried larkspur in three colors, and then added ribbon. Lovely. In fact it gave me an all is well and I have simplified the decorations and am on top of my mother-of –the-bride duties moment.

And then it hit me. The centerpieces are too big. Guests will not be able to see across the table! How can they talk to someone they cannot even see? I pictured the dried flower arrangement looming too big in the center of the table. It was no longer a simple, pretty centerpiece. It was an obstruction. An intrustion. My nemesis. Worse than a task undone, it was an un-task, something done perfectly wrong that might require starting over.

I looked up images of the venue. I saw a picture of the rustic reception room looking lovely and inviting. In the center of each table was a number set inside a pretty stand. And nothing else. It looked good. Simple! Fabulous! Why hadn’t I noticed this before? There was room for the wine bottles, and open space to see across the table.

Suddenly, our simple centerpieces were too much. I had a box the size of a casket full of larkspur in my basement and what I wanted was to have almost nothing at all. The solution? Either fill the vases more sparsely, or only use the centerpieces to decorate the non-dining tables, such as the place card and gift tables. The lesson I learned? When you think you’ve simplified, simplify some more. When you think you have just enough of something, consider that you may actually have more than enough.

Simplicity of Cause & What About Church?

There is, at the surface, infinite variety of things; at the center there is simplicity of cause”. –Ralph Waldo Emerson


When I started this blog I thought I would not write about religion (or politics). But then I don’t always get to choose what appears in my head and if I can’t write about the big topics- the controversial ones, the volatile and meaningful and frustrating ones- then why bother writing, really. These are the topics that usually come through in raw truth and clumsy human experience.

My earliest memory of church is of standing next to my grandmother, reciting a prayer by rote memory: Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed. Why am I not worthy? I wondered. What have I done? Because I was pretty sure it was the grownups who could really screw up here, and not my five year old self. The prayer was coming through my lips from my head only. My heart was sort of disconnected from the whole experience.  At the time I thought the whole world was Christian, or at least the good people. And not only that, they were all Catholics.

When my three children were of the age to attend church, I did what I thought was the right thing to do. And it may have been. I dressed them up a bit and gathered my husband, who somehow thought I was equipped to make this all-important choice. Despite the I am doing right by my family feeling, I felt like a bit of an imposter, because I just never really liked going to church. But I dutifully signed my oldest up for the First Communion classes, because in the moving sidewalk that is Catholicism, when it’s time, it’s time. This meant that she had to attend a class before the church service each Sunday, and attend mass after the class. By the time mass rolled around, she was hungry and bored and so done with church. Conformity not being her strong trait,this just wasn’t working out for her. At all.

On one such occasion, which is etched in my memory, my husband had to carry her out as she had grown increasingly agitated. By the time they were half way down the aisle, her complaints had turned to a full out wailing of “I HATE CHURCH!” Even as my heart sank- couldn’t they have made it outside before that unfiltered explosion? – I had the thought that matched hers. So do I. So. Do. I.

I’m pretty sure God spoke to me that day through a child, saying get the hell out of here! But the culture of religion is a strong pull and it took a little while longer before reluctantly abandoning ship. The thought of it made me feel happy and free, but also worried. There was that notion that what if I am damaging my children by not bringing them to church? What if I am damaging them if I do? Or what if it is the right choice for some of us but not for others? How do we reconcile that? Never have I been so conflicted. Maybe the better choice is to sloth through for several years and then let our children choose. At least that way they would become familiar with the option of prayer and God and a spiritual life without it having to come from their parents. I mean, I was all set, my beliefs firmly in place, mostly built from my inquisitive and reflective nature and raw experience. I didn’t require a mediator or a designated time of public worship, but what about the rest of the family?

The concept of the entire family’s spiritual life being squarely on my shoulders felt daunting. Surely any choice I made would be inadequate for someone.   So we stayed a while longer, until one of our daughters asked why the priests were always men.  The patriarchy and politics and rituals just felt so stifling. Many of the beliefs did not sit well with me (while others, the ones common to all religions, the really big ones, resonated. These just didn’t seem to require a Sunday meeting). Then when the news revealed all the charges of molestation at the hands of the Catholic priests, I just felt so justified in leaving.   The fact that children could be forsaken and this was to be handled within the church itself, somehow above the law, was the last straw for me.  I had a visual of the institution with all its pomp and circumstance, crumbling when the truth came to light. I was tired of trying to convince myself we needed this.

I think that all institutions have good and bad, dark and light, and this is no exception. So to leave it behind is to relinquish the good too and it would not be a complete expression if I did not acknowledge this. Because I also see the beauty- in fact the same daughter that rejected church as a young child, was admiring the stain glass windows and the sheer awesomeness of a church building one day when circumstance led her inside, and exclaimed how “beautiful it is when it is silent in here”. I personally think a church would be a beautiful place in which to meditate. For many it is the perfect place to gather and connect, to each other and to a divine presence. The routine and service and comfort that can sustain a church community are not lost to me. I know what I have given up. All of us have to choose for ourselves, and sometimes for our children as well.

   My middle daughter elicited the most doubt in my decision. Shortly after leaving the church, she took out a series of books from the library, and read them over and over again. The characters were a Jewish family who adhered to many religious rituals. Shabbat and Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, this family observed them all; from what they ate to when they prayed and how they welcomed the seasons- with feasts and parades and festivals and prayers. Each time she checked out the books I would cringe. Damn, those books again, they kept appearing, making me doubt my choice. Had I denied her this? I don’t mean being Jewish, of course. We were Christians after all. I mean being religious. Maybe we should’ve split up the team. My husband may have been willing to go to church with her while I stayed at home with the other rebels. One day I just asked her. Do you think you’re missing out? Do you regret this? She told me no, absolutely not. But how can she ever know for sure? In any case, her sense of wonder has remained strong, her integrity unflinching.  Sometimes I am amazed at her clarity of what is right and wrong. Doing the right thing goes a long way in connecting us to our divinity.

   My youngest daughter is scientifically minded and plans to contribute to the field of medicine.  Though not opposed to religion, she thinks energy should be focused on getting something done. She is empathetic and intuitive and does a damn good job of running her own life. She doesn’t think she missed out either.

And lest you conclude that because I fled the church, it means I am devoid of reverence for the mysteries of life, that could not be further from the truth. I think that Jesus was the coolest guy to walk the planet, and I have an absolute belief that we too are made from the same stuff and therefore capable of so much. We are worthy. We are all that.  I don’t just believe in the power of prayer, I know of it. My own experiences are so powerful and clear to me that words would not do them justice.

We are all on our own journey and will be brought to our knees at one point or another. I like to go there willingly and often and preferably not in church, but that doesn’t make me better or worse off than someone else. It’s just my preference.  Church, no church, Jesus or Buddha, Muhammad or Moses, one God or many gods or nature or nothing at all that you can name; we all have the gift of intuition and when we get rid of the extraneous, it becomes much clearer.   We don’t have to place a name or even a religious attachment to this gift. My simplistic Spiritual Life for Dummies: If church makes you feel good, then go. If it doesn’t, then don’t. Brilliant, I know.

The late Ernest Holmes, when reflecting on the quest for authentic and direct religious experience, wrote, “It is only the unessential that is vanishing, that the abiding may be made more clearly manifest”. This remains relevant today, perhaps more than ever. And this is where simplifying comes in. We all get to choose what is essential for us. We all have perfection at our core and how we access that is up to us. Or sometimes something happens to move us along to that center. There lies the gold- the peace, the love, joy, and our gifts.   All the rest is just extra stuff.

Less is more for weddings too

ImageAppointments scare me. Maybe it’s a fear of commitment, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because I was the maker of all appointments for my family of five for many years, and inevitably we’d end up with a scheduling conflict which would require another call. I don’t know why I dread the call. Well, dread is a strong word. I want to avoid it. I’d rather bring out the trash or pull hair from the drain. But eventually I make the appointment and then I write it on the calendar hanging on our kitchen wall. And there it is in ink, permanent and piercing and taunting me. You have to go, you know. Here it is, in ink. You have to be there. Or else.

Recently, I went with my daughter to find her wedding dress. She had to make an appointment. That’s how it works in the wedding market. There was going to be no such thing as just showing up and browsing the dresses ourselves, God forbid. So on the day of The Appointment, the saleslady gathered dresses that she thought fit my daughter’s requests. Only they didn’t, really. Not entirely. Not as much as the dress that they didn’t bring out- the one we would go back for another day, and find by ourselves because we asked couldn’t we please, please just be left alone to look this time around? Wedding marketers do not love us.

My daughter is a minimalist bride-to-be, preferring no fuss on her clothing. She was the kid bothered by itchy tags and the stitching on socks. It comes as no surprise that she’d want a comfortable wedding dress and she’s beautiful without all the frills and layers and lace that can weigh a petite person down. She wants to be able to move and dance and wear a bohemian chic flower headpiece that compliments a simple dress. She didn’t want a train that required its own entrance, or any train at all. The dress she found is exactly what she wanted- light and pretty- and she glows in the simplicity of it. Image

ImageSo on to flowers. The first two places we called required The Appointment. “We will have our wedding specialist sit down with you and go over everything”, they told me over the phone. My interpretation: We will take up half of your day as we try to convince you that you need to spend the equivalent of your other daughters’ college tuitions in order to have beautiful centerpieces and bouquets that will  make the wedding good. We will treat this as if you are preparing for brain surgery instead of picking out some pretty flowers for this festive big day. Do people really remember the flowers? Or do they remember the day, the joy, the vows, music, food and wine? Okay, maybe they remember the flowers too, I don’t know. I don’t remember flowers. Image

So I called our local florist and they assured me that yes, we could drop in any time and pick out some flowers and it did not even require The Appointment!  I love this place. Plant Bazaar owner, if you are reading this, I love you. We will go and find some bouquets and corsages and boutonnieres and my daughter thought perhaps we should arrange some beautiful dried flowers in mason jars ourselves because this goes with the spirit of her mountainside wedding.

Ah yes, flower arrangements are blooming nicely(pun intended). Music has been carefully chosen by my daughter and her fiancé. Food will be scrumptious. The view, awesome. And the love….it’s really about the love.

What I’ve learned is this: Wedding planning does not have to take over your life. A dress does not have to take over your body and flowers do not have to take over your budget or your entire day. You really can give the metaphorical middle finger to the too-muchness of wedding planning. Keep it simple. Unless you’d rather not, in which case take out your appointment book, clear your schedule and your life, and jump right in. But I’m not coming in after you.



Writer’s Dilemma

I was in our outdoor shower this morning, my mind wandering to several years ago when I wrote a monthly column for a newspaper. A bumblebee joined me mid thought, all buzzing and hyperactive, drawing my attention outward, which is sometimes a good thing for me. I surrendered to the moment at hand, choosing to stay in the shower with the bee who stopped swarming my head sometime after the shampoo but before the conditioner. My thoughts returned to the newspaper days, and how, during those three or four years of writing for it, I had grown increasingly uncomfortable with knowing that people were actually reading what I wrote.

There lies the writer’s dilemma, common to many. At the time, I didn’t know other writers shared this problem. I thought it was unique to me, probably because of some emotional deficit born from my childhood, the same childhood that turned me into a writer. Now there’s a catch-22. It wasn’t that I didn’t want anyone to read my writing; it was that people I knew were reading my writing. And telling me. I remember when it first started. I wrote something heartfelt, sent it to the editor, and she called me. She was moved by my piece and wanted more. Like I do with many things, I jumped right in. My heart said yes, fearful thoughts to follow, but only after the deal was cinched.

Okay, just a little ole newspaper, a handful of readers, nothing ginormous. But there were my words, my name, right in front of my eyes. Strike one. I am not sure how many other writers share this next particular oddity, but once I publish a piece, I can hardly stand to see it again. I fear I will see things I wish I’d written differently, or not like it at all anymore. What if I start to hate it?

So seeing it was the first hurdle. Then came the realization that people were reading it. This was a local paper after all. People I knew were reading it, every single month. Strike two. And, worst of all, they sometimes commented. They would tell me they liked the column. (I assume readers who didn’t like it kept that to themselves). Someone even told me that she looked forward to reading it each month. Yikes! Strike three. I quit.

My husband couldn’t quite understand this. Neither did I. Why did you stop writing for that paper? he asked. Because people were reading it was my honest response. It’s ridiculous, I know, but writers are sometimes like this, I guess. I published a few things shortly after quitting the newspaper, but they were in magazines- ones that strangers read. I was so much more okay with this than with a local paper exposing my thoughts.

Fast forward twelve years.  I’ve grown thicker skin because middle age does that to you- you actually grasp that we are all going to die someday so what the hell? What is a life if not lived with courage? And some creativity? If we’re not at least trying to be authentic, then why bother? I’ve regretted things I’ve said. And I’ve regretted things I didn’t say even more. We have to try to use our best judgment, but maybe it’s all kind of a crap shoot, in a way. Recently, a few people have commented to me about my blog. A few years ago, when self-sabotage was only a comment away, this would have been treading on quit-worthy territory. Today, I am happy to have the feedback and happier still to know that someone other than myself might get something out of my compulsion to write.

Besides this blog, I am working on a memoir. Talk about having to overcome fear. It’s not just my new found courage that keeps me writing it though. It’s the realization that I would be forever disappointed if I remembered scenes of epic poignancy and then kept them to myself. It’s knowing that my truth is somehow connected to a universal truth and sharing it is a good thing. It’s unique and nothing special at the same time, hopefully in just the right proportions. This gives me courage to say the hard things or face the demons or write the truth. Or to speak it when necessary. And to shut up when that is the bravest or wisest thing to do. Could it be that simple? Oftentimes, writing and life just seems to be a journey of figuring out when to run naked from the shower and when to stay and face the sting.