Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Love This Life

This is the text of the keynote speech I gave at the AUW fall retreat on November 9, 2013 at First Universalist Church in Minneapolis, MN.

Love This Life
Words and music: Ann Reed • ©2012 Turtlecub Publishing

So sad to hear you say you think the joy in days
Is done, over and done
So, yeah, the news is bad, darkens the path, let’s add some
Light when it seems there is none

    Gonna sing in the middle of a great big crowd           
    Gonna do a little dance           
    Gonna live out loud               
    Gonna play with the puppy           
    Gonna ride my bike               
    Make funny faces and love this life               
For ev’ry hateful word I’ll say ten loving verbs
To mend this tattered flag of mine
So, yeah, this ragged piece, within and underneath
Threads, unbroken and bright

    Gonna listen to the giggles of the kids next door
    Gonna give what I got
    Gonna play this chord
    Plant my garden
    Watch it grow and thrive
    Kneel in the dirt and love this life

Bad ol’ Goliath, he’s got two big feet
Ain’t gonna let him step all over me

Oh, if you’re lookin’ down you only see the ground
And miss the colors of the sky
So, yeah, you just might trip
If that’s the worst of it
Lift your head, feast your eyes

    And glide through the water in a blue canoe
    Stand in the glory
    Of a big, full moon
    Laugh till you cry
    Treasure the time
    Weep at beauty and love this life

That song is called “Love This Life,” and it seems a good match for this retreat and the line from Rumi “Dance when you’re broken open …” This is a timely topic, I think. The headline in last week’s New York Times Sunday Styles section was “Mindfulness: Getting Its Share of Attention.” Like yoga, mindfulness is now trendy. Entrepreneurs have discovered it. But like yoga, this is an ancient practice, and it will continue long after the clothing, gadgets and apps are gone. This is timely for me, too, and that is what I want to talk about today.

I’m not what you’d call a joyful, happy person. I tend to go to the dark side. But I have never given up on experiencing joy. I’ve had moments when I have felt crushed by darkness but have never given up on seeing and feeling the light again. When I finished writing that song, I was bothered by the fact that I had used a line that I had previously used in a song, the line “live out loud.” It appears in another song called “Leap of Faith.” But when I tried to change it and use something else, it didn’t work. And it didn’t work — I believe – because that line is important. To live out loud is to be present in life. I wrote the song as a reminder, a message to myself on this journey that yes, life can be — in current lingo — “a challenge.” But there is a way to embrace all of it — the light, the pain, the joy, the mess.

My father had been dead for five years, my mother was 87 and had been diagnosed with lung cancer. I knew I was going to be the witness to my mother’s decline as I was to my dad’s. And as much as I didn’t want that role, I could not escape it. George W. Bush was re-elected; I felt overwhelmed by the reporting of daily events throughout the world; and had to force myself to read the paper because I carried the message that being informed was important. Evidence of climate change was obvious, the weather was getting stranger in my own backyard, my living situation was becoming stressful. Friends were getting sick and dying, people not much older than I. I felt a desire to chuck everything and run. I moved through most days in an anxiety fog, feeling internally heavy. And I was about to turn 50.

One Breath
Words and music: Ann Reed • ©2011 Turtlecub Publishing

I cannot hear the news
It only stains my heart
Heavy fear comes through
Weighs me down
The smallest ray of hope
I take into my soul
A friend I found

Perhaps the world is flat
I’ve walked out to the edge
With torn, outdated maps and
Wond’ring when
Some blessed clarity
Might find its way to me
But till then …

I’m gonna take
One step
One breath
Then I’ll take
One step
One breath

These things that are not mine
I’ve carried way too long
Neither the will nor time
To sort it all
My weary arms they shake
What difference would it make
To let it fall?

I hold tight
To a scrap of faith
That there lives light
In the darkest place

Too much, too much for me
I’ll cling to what I know:
Rivers of love don’t freeze
They’re deep and wide
Oh, kindness, come, I beg
Forgiveness, move my legs
Help me rise

I was sitting, avoiding writing by rearranging my desk, moving my chair back and forth, my brain skipping around. Suddenly, I felt this clear, almost painful, flash of energy inside my body. Two seconds of clarity.

In that moment, I knew — the way that you know something with your whole being — that my life is only moment to moment. It was not going last. I had more years behind me than I would likely have in front of me. Instead of running away or dream walking or sleepwalking my way through the rest of whatever was left, why not make some conscious choice about how I want to live?

In those seconds, there was a question: are you in or are you out? It was an invitation to step into my life fully, to be more deliberate, more mindful, practice presence in living the rest of my life. It was an opportunity. A simple, intense, formidable, frightening opportunity.

My life, it seemed to me, had been for the most part a series of unintentional connecting and disconnecting. When I was younger, it was rather like model train cars that — when they gently bump into one another — hook together.

And as I got older, busier, and life got a bit more complicated, and there were expectations of me and from me, I started to disconnect. In most cases, I was not even aware of it. Most of all, I was unaware that I had been disconnecting from myself.

There at my desk in 2004, I started asking some questions: What do I actually know about myself? Who are my friends, what kind of people do I have in my life? What, exactly, is important to me? How do I want to live the rest of my life? What does it mean to live mindfully?

I stopped. Other than when I had been immersed in writing, it was rare for me to be fully present. The first thing I realized is this: I have a pretty wonderful life. I have meaningful work. I have an amazing spouse. The people in my life are, for the most part, creative, thoughtful folks with a good moral compass. I’ve met interesting people, traveled …

And I was missing it. I was so busy thinking about six things at once, not really paying attention, worrying about what might happen, and writing alternate endings for actions already taken and conversations long past. I was missing my life.

I met Tom DiNanni, a dear man who was familiar to First Universalist, when he and his wife, Sandy, were doing a cable show back when cable was fun. He brought people on and chatted with them. The first time I was on their show, it was the Christmas holiday season and one of the guests was the marketing person from Dayton’s (it was Dayton’s then, so that will give you an idea of how long ago this took place). The marketing person was a woman who took her job very seriously, and she had brought a full array of Santa Bear merchandise. Along with the Santa Bears, there were Santa Bear lunchboxes, ties, sweatshirts and cookies. The cookies had a fudge topping on them and a little white candy Santa Bear in the middle, and under the hot studio lights, the fudge became … soft. So when Tom walked over to the cookies with the very serious marketing person and tilted the box of cookies up so the camera could get a better shot, the little Santa Bear candies started to slide off the cookies’ fudge topping. And Tom said, “Oh no! Santa Bear meltdown!” The marketing person was not amused. But I was.

Tom DiNanni once said to me, “Most people don’t know that there are angels whose only job is to make sure you don’t get too comfortable and fall asleep and miss your life.”

Forgot My Shoes
Words and music: Ann Reed • ©2005 Turtlecub Publishing

I open my eyes to a brand-new day
Put on my clothes and I'm on my way
Go down three steps then I get the blues
Gotta go back up — I forgot my shoes

Up one, two, three and sittin' on the chair
My jacket and keys, how did they get there?
I pick them up, four stairs and I'm screwed
Gotta go back up — I forgot my shoes

I can get things done
I know this for sure
I could have big fun
If I could get out the door
Oh I know my one goal before it's over
I'm gonna do it I swear
I will get down the stairs

Four steps up, first thing I do
Set ev'rything down put the feet in the shoes
Six steps, halfway, I suddenly freeze
Gotta go back up — forgot my keys

I can get things done
I know this for sure
I could have big fun
If I could get out the door
You bet I forget but before it's over
I'm gonna do it I swear
I will get down the stairs

Little notes all over the place
If I know where I put ‘em
Then I can make it …

On the way up I hear the ringin' phone
Caller ID says I can leave it alone
Seven steps down and then my memory
Says, "You big, dumb cluck … you still forgot your keys."

So, are you in or are you out? Because it all goes so fast.

The city of Paris, France, is ringed by a circle of highway called the Boulevard Périphérique. You can circle the city in the safe confines of a car or bus relatively quickly and look toward Paris, but you’re not actually in Paris. You have to get off the Périphérique and go into the city. And once you go in, and you walk the neighborhoods in Paris, then you see and experience everything — the beauty, the art, the graffiti, the neighborhoods, the homelessness, the history.

I had spent most of my life on the periphery. And I decided to step in.

There is a poem from childhood that defines one’s personality according to which day of the week one was born. It has been around in one form or another since the mid-1500s:

Monday’s child is fair of face
Tuesday’s child is full of grace
Wednesday’s child is full of woe
Thursday’s child has far to go
Friday’s child is loving and giving
Saturday’s child works hard for a living
And the child who is born on the Sabbath Day
Is bonny and bright and good and gay

This next song was written as a response to a Facebook posting but turned out to be a perfect place to express something I knew well about myself. The posting was about well-known songs with days of the week in their titles (“Monday, Monday,” “Tuesday Afternoon,” “Sundays Will Never Be There Same,” and so on.) I posted back to my friend that Wednesday didn’t seem to have much of a presence in this regard. He quickly posted back: That sounds like something a songwriter could take care of, Ann …

And when I started to write this song, that childhood poem came back to me.

Words and music: Ann Reed • ©2013 Turtlecub Publishing

Here’s a day I like just a little
Sits there right in the middle of the week
Couple days have gone before
Up there lay, a couple more, oh, I see

Old nurs’ry rhyme makes me wonder
It’s a verse that’s kind to the others, it’s just so
Fair of face, that’s Monday’s lesson
Tuesday’s full of grace, the next one’s full of woe

    And I was born on Wednesday
    I born on Wednesday

Some folks are light like a feather
But I like those with a measure of despair
They hold this life from A to Z
Know surprise and gravity’s waiting there (I hear them sing …)

Oh, its singularity
That’s what appeals to me
Does not spell the way it sounds
Oh, it’s not a day of rest
Just a place to catch your breath
Faithful friend that always comes around

Halfway done, halfway to heaven
’Cept for some, working all seven, still they know
It’s the night when choirs rehearse
Voices rise, swim the universe there they go (it’s like a little hymn)

I was born on Wednesday. Full of woe. So was my brother Mike. Just as an aside: When I finished this song, I sent him a copy with a note, and he responded by saying that we were also both cesarean section and so technically we were evicted on Wednesday.

I know I am fully capable and open to having moments of happiness, joyful experiences, feelings of contentment. I am drawn to people who feel the world deeply, who don’t get bogged down in the muck but also don’t skip over it. People who are aware, fully compassionate, and can still laugh with their entire body. It’s about finding balance, this life.

I am thinking of the quote attributed to Emma Goldman: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution.” This is the way I have always felt about community or political groups that get a little too rigid. I need people who understand that I’m there for the heavy lifting but there better be cookies.

Community just doesn’t happen. Not Community with a big “c” or community with a small “c.” I knew if I wanted to be deliberate and have a community, I needed to make the effort to know them and to let them know me. It’s true we do not choose our family the first time. But we can, as adults, choose our family the second time.

Words and music by Ann Reed • © 2009 Turtlecub Publishing

Frame the past
Feed the soul
Make you laugh
Make you whole
In the darkest hour you’ll find
A light left on inside

Call your bluff
Keep the faith
Hold you up
When your legs give ‘way
Water, earth and air and sun
A world inside each one

Oh, I thank you
My companions
Ev’ry season we have journeyed through
May love bless you
My companions

Grieve for those
Lost too soon
When they go
There’s an empty room
Never quite the same
It’ll always feel that way.

I felt good about the idea of a more intentional community.

Making the effort to connect brought about another question: am I or am I not connected as well to this earth? The answer: of course I am — the food I eat, the water I drink, the air I breathe. But I felt hopeless. Reports of global climate change were sobering and paralyzing. The BP oil spill, the loss of habitat — I felt such pain and could hardly take it in. It felt too … huge.

In an interview, environmentalist and philosopher of ecology Joanna Macy said, “If your child had leukemia, you wouldn’t just say, ‘Well, I’m not going to be with her, it’s too hard when she’s sick like that.’”

The Earth is not well. I understood that maybe there was a way to practice feeling the pain without becoming the pain.

Gas prices were going up. In 2004, the big shock was when the price of filling your tank started edging up to $2 a gallon. Those were the days.

I decided it was time to stop complaining and put my beliefs into action. This was no time for savior mentality. I did not need to save the Earth. I could make a difference by choosing to be less a part of the problem and true to what I believe.

If I believe that global climate change is real — and I do — and that burning fossil fuels is part of the problem, then it’s time to drive less. I began to ride my bike during the day in decent weather, on trips of five miles or less. Pretty soon, the weather didn’t matter as much and I began riding farther. Then I started to ride later into the year. As I rode my bike more often, I noticed that most cars contained one person.

When the snow and ice came, I reluctantly put my bike in the garage and covered it up. Still trying to use the car less, I walked or took the bus. Even though I saw other people riding their bikes in the winter, I had a difficult time imagining myself doing it. But I knew it was coming.

Spring, summer and fall, I ride a recumbent. Before the recumbent, I had a standard bicycle. It stood patiently in the garage, tires flat, waiting. After a few years of riding my bike three out of four seasons, I brought my old standard bike to Calhoun Cycle and the merry band of bicycle mechanics changed it to a single-speed bike with shiny black fenders and nice, knobby tires. Perfect for winter.

There’s something about making my way around the cities on two wheels that lightens my heart, no matter what the season.

I Can Go Anywhere
Words and music: Ann Reed • ©2013 Turtlecub Publishing

My little Huffy
First set of wheels
Wobbly, uncertain
Freedom I’d feel
Trying to ride …

Oh, my dad
Held tight to the seat
To my surprise
He let go of me
So I’d ride my bike

    I can go anywhere
    Any any anywhere
    I can go anywhere
    Any any anywhere
    I can go anywhere

Neighbors would watch
They’d never know
I was cruisin’ through France
’Cross the Rockies I’d go
When I’d ride my bike (refrain)

Isn’t it simple:
Pedals, a chain
Moving some muscles
and I’m on my way

Rusty and beaten
No longer new
Seats that are squeakin’
Knees that are too
But we ride

Here is my plan
Think what you like
When I turn 80, I might get a trike
And I’ll ride, I’ll ride

Not many people think winter biking sounds like a good time. And, no matter the season, the reality is that not everyone is able to get themselves around on a bicycle. Some people have physical limitations. Others are fearful of riding in traffic. Some are stuck with a very long commute. If I have this guitar with me, I’m not riding a bike. If I am taking my mom grocery shopping, I’m in the car. She’s up for almost anything but she’s 95 and I don’t think she wants to be on a bike. For me, safety is key. I don’t ride at night. We can make reasonable choices — we don’t have to be extremists.

What I hope for is that more people will leave their cars at home when they have errands that can easily be done on foot or by bike. What I hope for is that we all start being mindful of how we, individually, use resources. That where it starts.

Leonard Cohen's Zen teacher told him: The older you get, the lonelier you become, and the deeper love you need.

Now that I am closing in on being 60 — I turn 60 in another year — I am beginning to understand what a balancing act aging is. I do whatever I can to lighten my load, ridding myself of both physical crap and internal, old baggage. Occasionally, I get concerned that I might not be relevant anymore and what if what I’m writing doesn’t connect with anyone? I take a deep breath and remind myself that I need to be relevant to myself. I start there.

I try to meditate every morning, 15 to 20 minutes, and I start by taking a deep breath and saying, “I am. And I am here.” That’s about all I know.

Words and music: Ann Reed • ©2013 Turtlecub Publishing

Beginning and the end it seems
Life’s a freestyle dance between
Oh, my soul
Knows where a moment lives
Knows where a moment lives

A smile, a photograph, a song
Through kindness shared we all live on
Oh, my soul
Learns what a gift it is
Learns what a gift it is

    Sailing on uncertain seas
    A glow above with stars to lead
    And in a storm then what I fear
    Is ever slowly they’ll disappear
A thousand suns and moons reveal
The hurt I’ve caused and cannot heal
Oh, my soul
Learns what forgiveness is
Learns what forgiveness is

    Sailing on uncertain seas
    Wounds above and scars beneath
    What I know and what I fear
    Is ever slowly I’ll disappear

Humbled both by joy and grief
There’s deeper, wider love we seek
Oh, my soul
Knows how to welcome in
Knows how to welcome in

Oh, my soul
Learns what a gift it is
Learns what a gift it is

As I said, my mom is 95. She will occasionally say to me that she is not quite sure why she’s still here. I think one of the more difficult things about being 95 is that there is no one left who remembers you when you were a young person.

The quote we have all heard, “getting old is not for sissies,” is about the truest thing I’ve ever heard. Feeling a little sore after our workout? Think football is tough? You have some aches and pains after running that race, do you? Try trading places with someone who is 80 or 90. And then add isolation and loneliness on top of it.

With my mom, I know that I am her witness, and so we do things like have lunch together, go grocery shopping and when Macy’s has a sale on Estée Lauder cosmetics, I take my mom to Macy’s. On our last trip there, the woman who usually helps my mom was busy and so we were assisted by a young woman. I think she was probably 14. She helped my mom get everything together. My mom had brought the empty containers, wanting to be sure to get the correct shade of lipstick and so on. Mom was then told by the young woman that she was going get a free gift. We walked over to another counter and, without hesitation, the young woman said: “You get to choose. You can have the anti-wrinkle cream, or you can choose the age-defying night cream.” My mother smiled at her and said, “I’m 95 …”

Words and music: Ann Reed • ©2011 Turtlecub Publishing

When I ride the trees go by
More slowly
I’m satisfied and, no, I
    don’t mind I’m late
Hey, you might
Wave at me in a friendlier way

Ev’ryone is passin’ me by and I don’t care
I’ll get there eventually

And each day there’s things I may
Or may not learn
I’ll concentrate to find a space
    and clear some room
Inside my brain
Think I need a sizable broom

Ev’ryone is smarter than me and I don’t care
I’ll get there eventually

Never too late, I’m tryin’
To be OK where I am

Am I old? Oh, I don’t know
Compared to what?
Well, I suppose there’s some roads
    I don’t go down
’Cause some are closed
I just take a diff’rent way ’round
Ev’ryone is younger than me and I don’t care
We all get there eventually

I have a confession to make: I really like IKEA. Even though you have to walk through the whole store to get just one item, I still like it.

When we moved into our house, about six years ago, we needed new dressers and we were trying to save some money so we went to IKEA and got two Malm six-drawer chests. And of course IKEA being IKEA, we had to put them together once we got them home.

I don’t like instructions. And these instructions only had pictures, little Swedish cartoon characters, and I just wanted to get the dang thing together. It had been a long couple of days moving and setting up our new home. I was not exactly present. After a bit of cursing and admitting to myself that I needed the directions, I got the first chest of drawers together. Having successfully assembled the first set, I found I had very little problem with the second one.

So, simple, right? Follow the directions, pay attention. The message is: When you are putting together the chest of drawers, put together the chest of drawers. Did this experience help me to be present, to be mindful in all things including reading directions? Of course not.

Recently, I applied for a Minnesota State Arts Board grant. I was invited to apply for the grant. Let me say that again: I was invited to apply. I was encouraged to apply. Those of you who have applied for grants know that the most important part of applying is not the writing, it’s the reading. And I did. I read the application. Or at least I thought I did. I am not going to stand here and tell you I was in a hurry or I had a headache. Once again, I was not mindful, not present to what I was doing. I missed a key sentence — one sentence. I received a notice that my application was ineligible.

One of my favorite series of books is The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. This is a quote from one of those books, The Good Husband of Zebra Drive:

The world, Mma Ramotswe believed, was composed of big things and small things. The big things were written large, and one could not but be aware of them — wars, oppression, the familiar theft by the rich and the strong of those simple things that the poor needed, those scraps which would make their life more bearable; this happened, and could make even the reading of a newspaper an exercise in sorrow. There were all those unkindnesses, palpable, daily, so easily avoidable; but one could not think just of those, thought Mma Ramotswe, or one would spend one's time in tears — and the unkindnesses would continue. So the small things came into their own: small acts of helping others, if one could; small ways of making one's own life better: acts of love, acts of tea, acts of laughter. Clever people might laugh at such simplicity, but, she asked herself: what was their own solution?

It has been almost ten years since the little internal flash. If it is a trend, it’s a good one. For me, it is not a trend. It’s my life.

It is pretty easy to sit on beach or on the porch of a beautiful cabin and be present. To be present in one’s daily life with emotional or physical pain, anger, depression, your own screw-ups — that’s where the real practice kicks in.

I mentioned Joanna Macy before. Along with being an environmentalist and philosopher of ecology, she is also a translator of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems. This one is taken from The Book of Hours: Love Poems to God.

The hour is striking so close above me
so clear and sharp
that all my senses ring with it.
I feel it now: there’s power in me
to grasp and give shape to my world

I know that nothing has ever been real
without my beholding it.
All becoming has needed me.
My looking ripens things
and the come toward me, to meet and be met.

I think I got it. Finally, I think I got it. I do know some things about myself, today, right now. I know it fills me up to sing; I know I do not burn bridges; I know I don’t have to read the paper, there’s nothing wrong with taking a short break from the news, and in fact, it can be a very healthful thing to do. I know I love my community of people, my chosen family.

I know it’s all practice.
Making a mistake without feeling like I am a mistake.
Feeling sad without being the sadness.
Feeling the mess without being the mess.

Just as I was finishing this presentation, the same friend whose post inspired the song “Wednesday,” posted another piece from NPR. The piece was called “Always Go to the Funeral,” written by Deirdre Sullivan. It had in it this: “‘Always go to the funeral’ means that I have to do the right thing when I really, really don’t feel like it … In going to funerals, I’ve come to believe that while I wait to make a grand heroic gesture, I should just stick to the small inconveniences that let me share in life’s inevitable, occasional calamity.”

I’m going to do one more song and then, if you have any questions or comments, we can chat.

I have a 7-year-old neighbor. She lives there with her parents, she doesn’t own the house or anything. But I have not had a lot of experience being around kids. I opted not to have children and I just never have been around them, and so this is a new experience. And what I have discovered about children is that they haven’t hired editors yet. They just say stuff.

Last spring, it was the end of my neighbor’s first year in school and I was doing some yard work and she came home from school. I asked how school was going. She said, “Good.” She said, “I got my report card!” I said, “Wow, how did you do?” She said, “Good. I got a prize.” Then she told me all about the prize and when she was done I said, “You know, I don’t remember getting a prize when I got my report card.” And she said, “That’s because you were born in the olden days before they gave prizes …”

And I looked at this kid and the only thing I could say was, “Pretty much …”

This Is Where My Heart Is
Words and music: Ann Reed • ©2012 Turtlecub Publishing

My little neighbor at the fence
Here I am, her audience
Looks at me and smiles
I know somethin’ …
    Just as she’s gonna let it slip       
    Her tiny hand comes off her hip       
    Points to herself and sighs           
    “This is where my heart is”       

As she swirls and turns she leaves
Me in my garden, it talks to me
Ev’ry root and vine says
I know somethin’ …
    Here I stand and here it is
    There it grows and there it lives
    I throw my arms out wide
    This is where my heart is

My heart, mon coeur, mi corazón …

I pedal through a day so clear
Pushed by autumn’s breath I hear
A tune I recognize
I know somethin’ …
    Of all the things I’ve left undone
    I whisper to that song unsung
     I do believe it’s time
    This is where my heart is

I know where I belong
Love and care
My heart, my home

Of all the millions walkin’ ’round
A miracle it’s us we found
I hold you close and sigh
I know somethin’ …
    When you take my hand in yours
    This is it, I don’t need more
    When I look in your eyes, I know
    This is where my heart is