MY ORIGINAL IRON MAN: A Memorial Day Tribute

Willard Lowe Snow was a real-life Tony Stark.  He didn’t live in a Malibu mansion, but he did live in Rancho Palos Verdes, California on the south end of Santa Monica Bay.  He didn’t own a garage full of sports cars, but he had a penchant for German engineering and owned many Volkswagen’s over the years from humble beetles and Karmann Ghia’s to a number of vintage Porsche’s.  Much to his nail-biting dismay, he let me drive several of them: V.W. bugs and Porsche’s. He didn’t have a string of glamorous girlfriends but he had a beautiful wife, four daughters, and finally one son. He didn’t own a weapons manufacturing company but he worked for one.  He was a U.S. Army Air Corps airplane technician stationed in North Africa and Italy during WWII. Years later as a tech rep for North American Aviation, he serviced the brakes on Chuck Yeager’s jet. He was a logistics engineer for Rockwell International on the B-1 bomber project and was a consultant for Bell Labs.  He was never able to get an official college degree from a name-brand university, but his extraordinary talent with tools and engines allowed him to do the same jobs as any college graduate.

Daddy didn’t get captured and stuck in a cave to create his mechanical masterpieces, but in North Africa, he labored on airplane engines in a network of caves the Army Air Corps used as workshops. He was also constantly busy for many hours in our home garage repairing our and other people’s car engines in order to make extra money to pay for braces, college, and other niceties of life for our family.  In fact, if you locked my dad in a well-stocked garage with miscellaneous parts and tools, he could and did create a variety of clever objects. 

His skill and creativity transformed an old Volkswagen bug. He cut off the roof, installed front handlebars, and a single front wheel turning the V.W. into the coolest desert chopper this side of Joshua Tree, California.  

My Dad bled engine oil and had a warm heart made of gears and bearings.  He died too young and I miss him. He was inquisitive, funny, well-read, interested and interesting. Decades after his untimely death, he still makes me smile, he makes me grateful, and he gives me good advice.  “Jean,” he said. “A car is just a vehicle to get you from point A to point B.”

Yeah, Dad, and it was sure fun to drive your candy apple red Porsche around the hairpin turns of Palos Verdes Drive.  Tony Stark has nothing over you. Thanks for everything.

Pearl and Willard Snow 6/1/1983

Pearl and Willard Snow 6/1/1983

 

The Pond

 

The pond lay just out of sight beyond the end of our street; down a washed out dirt road, over a crumbling fallen tree trunk. One last push through thorny berry brambles and there it was, a small sandy beach lapped by sloshing green wavelets. Surrounded by a dense forest of sugar maple, oak, and evergreens, and fed by a tangle of streams, the pond was a world away from our neighborhood of tidy cottages.

It was here that I felt my first conscious gleam of curiosity. I was five. I would sit and watch with rapt admiration as the older children splashed and ran without fear. Every ten-year-old floating on a log seemed as brave as Peter Pan and his lost boys. The truly great ones were my two older sisters, Suzanne and Marjorie. Strong and beautiful they dared to float an old rowboat, christened the Robert E. Leak, across the vast ocean of the pond through a boggy marsh of broad grasses and cattails, to the enchanted Rock Island.

The precipitous end of the road served as a jumping platform for the gang of neighborhood children. I watched their display of reckless daring with terror and envy. Someday, I would be that brave. The water’s cool green depths furnished more than relief from summer heat. There were small painted turtles, tadpoles, and fish to catch. Shrieking with delight and horror, Suzanne yanked a drum-sized snapping turtle out of the water. Swinging from her fishing line, it wriggled and squirmed until it fell back into the safety and freedom of the pond.

The banks of the pond yielded sticky, brown clay we sculpted into grotesque primitive figurines that dried to chalk dust on our backyard picnic table.  Meandering streamlets beckoned us deeper into the woods through a carpet of skunk cabbage to a “horizontal heaven” of felled trees whose interlaced branches made perfect nests for playing make-believe.

A cold snap signaled fall and the end of our pond water fun. School started. I was enrolled in kindergarten at the white clapboard school on the village green. Autumn’s color ritual began, lighting here and there small blazes which spread more each day until the pond was engulfed in brilliant shades of fire. The glowing forest lured us to play under its bright canopy. We kicked up the corn-flake crunchy leaves from which the spicy rich scent of damp earth and decay conjured images of New England’s ghosts haunting and hiding in the shadows. On the banks of the pond we piled the leaves higher and higher then lept into the fragrant stacks; giggling and rolling our bodies until our hair was tangled with autumn’s debris. At bathtime, when Mama combed out the snarls eliciting our loud protests and tears, we would wish that we had been wiser. But we always forgot the tug of her brush when the joy of flinging ourselves into the leaves beckoned.

The first snowfall came in the night silently altering the landscape we had so easily explored all summer. Through darkened glass panes, we watched fuzzy snowflakes drifting thicker and faster obliterating familiar terrain. In the morning we plunged into closets full of winter clothes and worked up a sweat donning layer after layer.  At the open front door, we blinked and sneezed in the shattering light reflected off diamond crusted snow. Our snowsuit-bound bodies struggling to stay upright marred the pristine snow as we kicked new trails toward the sledding hill above the pond. The pond had disappeared into an expansive white depression fenced by naked trees, its crystalline surface hidden in pristine snow drifts. My father surprised us with a bright orange saucer sled.  We spun crazily downhill in a heap of arms and legs and squeals, snow sifting into our sleeves and boots,  snowmelt dripping down our necks. Daddy also introduced us to ice skating on a patch of the pond where the ice was swept clear of snow.  A bumpy pattern of ice-locked leaves sabotaged my efforts to glide and spin in a graceful dance as I imagined I would. I spent more time scooting and crawling than I did skating.

The pond offered a different treasure box for each season, everything nature could offer to entice and teach. It was the whole earth on a small scale, safely nestled at the border of our front yard within easy reach of help, always safe and hopeful. The pond also taught hard lessons. A final one: adjust, nothing stays the same. A man started bulldozing trees and pushing dirt into the pond. My sister stood tense and angry, fists clenched, screaming at the clattering machinery, despairing over the loss of each tree. One man’s progress,  a child’s cataclysm.

After only eighteen months, we left our Massachusetts wonderland and moved to a California coastal town. There were no ponds, no berry brambles, or woods nearby. But Daddy led us to new adventures: sea shells and teeming life in the tide pools, body surfing at the beach, hiking in the quarries and canyons of nearby brown hills. The pond gave us an appetite for encountering the small wonders of the world and offered us a key to endless joys anywhere we went. It continues to haunt me. Everywhere I have traveled I have searched for the magic I felt as a little girl sitting on the edge of that pond where my curiosity and love of adventure began. The ghosts of that New England woodland world continue to lead a circuitous route to my inner world where the magic never ends and the treasures of all cherished pond-worlds never die.

 

Acknowledgment: Thank you to Suzanne Snow Huff for her additions to this recollection.

 

 

BODIES IN MOTION

Ultimately, I think it is quality of life we crave  more than quantity.  Unfortunately, we get sidetracked by the stresses of life into neglecting the one thing that is most likely to give us a both a higher quality of life and a longer life: movement.   We have got to keep our bodies moving. Find a physical activity you love to do and do it regularly.  

MOVEMENT FOR JOY:  When I was eleven my parents sat me down and asked me, “Which would you rather do, take piano lessons or take dance lessons.”

This is not such a simple question.  My older sisters are both skilled pianists.  I idolized my sisters. They were the coolest.  They performed in plays and in singing groups with their friends and were often called upon to accompany on the piano.   I wanted to be like them.

However, as fate would have it, a lovely, statuesque blonde woman showed up at our door with a flyer advertising dance lessons at her home.  As a child, I was a bouncing ball of energy which drove my mother crazy as I was constantly asking, “What can I do!”   I think my parents were relieved when I chose dance.  It suited me better than hours spent sitting at the piano practicing.  And thus dance entered my life and gave form and joy to all that undisciplined energy.  I spent my teen and college years dancing in recitals, church programs, school dance concerts, and musicals.  It seemed I was always in motion.  I am grateful for this early foundation in keeping my body moving. It has paid big dividends throughout my life.  But it is never too late to pick-up the habit especially if you find something you love to do.

MOVEMENT FOR SANITY:  When I was thirty-five I encountered a new world of bodies in motion.  We were living in North Pole, Alaska and had just welcomed our fifth child. We were often house-bound by the cold and dark, so we joined the Alaska Club in Fairbanks to break out of our cabin fever.  I went to a dance fitness class and after a few weeks gathered the courage to step into the weight room.   It is pretty common today to find women in weight rooms at fitness clubs all over the country, but back then I saw very few.  It was tremendously intimidating.  After my first session with the trainer, I was hooked.  My muscles craved that burn and there was something meditative and calming about the sets and reps.  After six months of working out, I realized that I was stronger, had more energy, had definition in my arms and abs I’d never had before, and more sanity.   At thirty-five most of us wonder how we can hang on to our youth a little longer: weight-training, even just a little bit, pays off with long-term health benefits.  Always consult a physician and a trainer to avoid injury.  Life has interrupted the routine but I have come back to weight lifting again, and again, starting off slowly with light weights and building up gradually.  I feel stronger, I feel younger, and I look better when I am including weights in my fitness routine.  My younger sister walks holding weights and at 58 she has great looking, sculpted arms.

MOVEMENT FOR FUN:  Golf, it isn’t dancing but it is a lot of fun. Golf exercises mind and body.  It is challenging and refreshing and tantalizing.  It is never too late to start playing golf.    In 1994, I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.  A short time before that my husband began to teach me how to golf.  I was beginning to catch on but arthritis derailed that effort for more than a decade. In those ten years, I was able, with the aid of a series of new treatments, to calm the arthritis.  In 2007,   I underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatment for cancer.  When I finished treatment, my body was back to square one in the fitness department and I needed a happy challenge.  I needed something fun to do.  I started golfing again.  Ralph and I began to golf together on a regular basis during the summer in Alaska.  We were living in Eagle River and would go to the Palmer Golf Course or Moose Run Creek Course.  I never considered myself athletically competent.  But to my surprise, I have discovered that I have the potential to be a good golfer.  That tantalizing goal sparks my interest every time I golf.  I am always learning something new or and increasing my skill. The best part of golfing is being out in the sunshine, getting fresh air, and moving my body for the fun of it.  Find movement for the fun of it.  If you get bored try something new.  But keep moving.

MOVEMENT FOR SURVIVAL:    No matter how fit we try to be, age and gravity and genetic tendencies will afflict us with aches and pains and injuries that will threaten our mobility as we reach retirement age.  Just when we are feeling free to do things we’ve only dreamt of, our bodies will sabotage our efforts if we don’t pay attention.  The solution is a good physical work up by a doctor, the proper treatment, and the proper movement.  Often our instinct is to do less and curtail our physical activity which will only reduce our enjoyment of life and spell disaster for our hopes and dreams in retirement.

Keeping our bodies limber is another fountain of youth.  Taking the time for stretching is a challenge.   Most of us just want to get on with participating in the main event:  the tennis game, the golf game, the running, the hiking.    These are the activities that invite injury if we aren’t prepared.

I have been very lucky to be free of injury most of my life.   But recently, my lower back has been giving me problems that were persistent.  A dose of Advil wasn’t enough to relieve the sore spot.  Twinges of pain would grab and my hip would give out suddenly mid-step.   I saw my doctor who ordered a back x-ray and the conclusion is that I have the normal amount of wear and tear in my lower spine for a person my age; nothing that needs a drastic fix.  She suggested taking a prescription painkiller for a short time to see if that would disrupt the tension and pain cycle and to come back to see her if it didn’t improve.

I did that but at the same time, I finally resolved to do what I meant to make a habit for years:  yoga. I don’t go to class.  I just do it in my home using a series of recordings on my DVR.  It is peaceful, relaxing, meditative, and healing for both mind and body.  Yoga may not be an attractive option for everybody but I can say without a doubt that gentle yoga stretching of some kind daily or as often as possible will benefit anyone.  The advantage of yoga is that it is systematic and incorporates stretching all muscle groups; places on your body you never even noticed before.   No muscle or tendon will be neglected if you do yoga stretches.  In yoga, the student is encouraged to go at their own pace and participate at their own comfort level.    Yoga solved my back problem.  I learned quickly, that I am at the stage of my life that regular stretching is no longer an option if I want to stay fully mobile and active. Remember with any exercise to check with your doctor.

Encourage yourself and encourage others to start moving and keep moving.  Find something you love to do and participate by yourself or with others.  For joy, for sanity, for fun, for survival, any effort small or great to keep your body moving will pay big dividends in health, peace, and enjoyment today and for the rest of your life.

evanescent

Until this moment there had been no sound of a dancing, sparkling stream: not yesterday, or the day before, or even weeks before. Then out of nowhere, I heard the startling sound of rushing water gurgling unfettered. Incongruous, it sang from beyond the shady green sliver of muddy lawn behind our house. Usually, I went about the day’s chores accompanied only by the slosh of the dishwasher and the whir of the air conditioning.

Until now, on this languorous hot spring day heavy with aching nostalgia. We were homesick for where we recently moved from and didn’t know for sure where we would go next. Then came this flash of brilliance: more than swiftly flowing water, more like magic unleashed from some mysterious provenance.

The shallow creek bed strewn with leaves had not shown a drop of moisture since we moved into the tattered rental home at the top of an ordinary suburban street. A house remarkable only because of its perch on a beautiful mountainside.  Steep and meandering, the creek bed had, in fact, become almost invisible in the shadows under the cottonwoods and willows that bordered our backyard. I wandered out onto the back step transfixed by the music of the stream mingled with the shrieks of children . . . joyously distracted children: laughing, splashing, chattering, released from the mundane heat and lethargy of a late spring afternoon. 

My children, stirred from heat induced drowsiness,  instinctively waded into the water and with the plentiful creek stones, began building dams above crystal pools, and grottos amidst crenelated castles. Smooth round, flattened, and egg-shaped stones which had spent eons being shaped under the sylvan hand of snow melt dripping from mountain peaks and ledges and coalescing among the springs and ravines above our mountainside home. Noisy freshets, carrying a  sweet unforced joy, gained momentum tumbled down the mountain unrestrained and were unleashed in our back yard. But unleashed from where exactly? Where had it been imprisoned? Why did it hide until this rapturous moment when it burst forth at our doorstep?    

We barely questioned the source for being absorbed by all the avenues of play and delight that having our own enchanted stream presented. And we were enchanted: by the sound of water on stone, by the slick squish of mud between our toes, and the bracing baptism of muddy feet in the ankle-deep freezing water. Imaginations were suddenly awakened to dreams unfettered on what had seemed a dead end day.

Later, when the magic disappeared,  I suspected that some demand of yearly maintenance stopped the normal diversion of water into the more civilized irrigation canal that bordered the subdivision. And thus, for a brief time, liberated the water from being carried neatly, well-behaved, and on schedule to the farms and gardens below unleashing it into its ancient wild courses. Which unleashed the children and I from a spate of listlessness for a few quixotic days.

It was a brief flash of enigmatic fun. As small as our postage stamp yard but as large, and splendid as the snow-capped peaks above us. When the water abruptly stopped flowing, the tragedy was so poignant we just shrugged it off so as not to feel the loss. We were between permanent homes and couldn’t absorb another drop of sadness. Later, I reflected on the joy of those few days and marked them as important, a shimmering family memory. Reflecting back is useful, but there is a skill less common and deeply quenching to our rushed souls:  slowing down this moment and sensing its iridescence, savoring the rush of joy from common occurrences that are a wild privilege in our neatly channeled lives.

Too often I have been missing from some of the most important moments of my life. Much later, they reappear to remind me that there is extraordinary magic that unexpectedly comes not from grand events or spectacularly rendered achievement, but from gleams that can be lost in the blink of an eye. A more attuned mind might immediately see such moments shine in faceted brilliance. A testament to the of the sorcery of small things.

 

A MOTHER’S UNIVERSITY BLUES

After sending our first child off to  Utah State University for his freshman year of college, I wrote this nostalgic introspective.  Important to note is that we moved from Alaska to North Ogden Utah only a couple of years earlier. In order to continue the classes he was taking at Chugiak High School,  Jason skipped mid-year from being a 9th grader to being a second semester sophomore at Weber High School. It was a shock to realize we would be sending him off to college a year earlier than expected. 

My theme for my essays thus far in 2016 has been Curiosity: the joys, the benefits, the healing nature of this essential human experience.  I didn’t realize it at the time but curiosity helped me cope with this moment of separating from my firstborn and at the same time staying connected. 

A MOTHER’S UNIVERSITY BLUES – Fall 1993

I watch wistfully as you stand on the lawn outside Rich Hall in faded Levi shorts and white t-shirt, your body poised loosely with weight on your right foot, hands in pockets. You call no attention to yourself as is your way.  You wait and watch, sensing how to subtly fit in with a new crowd. You glance towards a group of self-absorbed students playing guitars and handing out keys to the new kingdom you enter today.

“I hope I didn’t embarrass you by telling them your guitar is broken.  It would probably be fun to listen to them jam once you finish unpacking.”  I tell you what you are probably already thinking.

You nod and say, “Hey, did you hear that? That guy’s playing Pink Floyd.”

Yes, Pink Floyd. I’ve made it my business to know the music you listen to and to nurture a discriminating ear for melody, lyrics, and quality. We became Sting fans together–you shared the concert I couldn’t get to. David Arkenstone we discovered together at Graywhale music store. From Paula Abdul when you were twelve, you moved on to Sting, the Cranberries, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Dream Academy (more my taste), Stone Temple Pilots, Live, Rage Against the Machine. You tolerated my enthusiasm for Crosby, Stills, and Nash but you did fall in love with Joni Mitchell. “Hey, Mom, listen to this,” was a signal for me to drop everything. I have jealously cultivated a foothold in everything you love: music, art, science. We have shared a voracious curiosity.

How can I maintain a foothold in your life here, fifty miles from home, on this insular mountain-valley campus where the tang of fall is keen and the air is electric with anticipation?  A small toehold will have to do.

The music drifts by us. Your father hugs you and strolls to the car. It’s time to go but I can’t. I’m thinking about your apartment. We forgot a few things. You’ll only be an hour away, but already I feel torn. There’s a new space growing in my consciousness; a bubble of awareness that will hold a tiny, worn-out, student apartment.

“You could use some slip covers or a blanket to hide that frayed sectional in the sitting area. Maybe a plant for the kitchen. Would you like me to bring something like that?”

“Yeah, and get the guitar fixed right away, the bike too. Try to bring them up next weekend.”

“We’ll try.” I’m thinking about how you could decorate the walls and hoping you’ll remember to clean the bathroom once in awhile. “Don’t hesitate to call us if you need to . . . try to call when the rates are lowest.” It’s a miserable thing to be cheap about keeping in touch with your child.

I’m wondering: Will I lose touch with you? Will you branch out into places I can’t go? No doubt. I’m jealous and at the same time proud and glad that you can move on. I can give the extra time and space to your sisters and brothers. They still need what you must now leave.

I wish I could be a fly on the wall of your apartment. Not to spy, but to experience: your new friends, new tasks, new awareness of life and possibilities. I know you can cook for yourself, plan your time, make your own choices.  You’ve proved that many times. I’ve invested so much of my life–surely I can be forgiven for living through you some of the time.

“Dad’s about to honk the horn at me. I’d better go.” I wrap my arms around you tightly. You respond with a limp squeeze. We pull away from the curb with a glimpse back to see you disappear into the stairwell to your apartment. My little bug’s eye-view continues: I see you enter your room and begin unpacking. First, you will set up your stereo and put on some music, maybe Windham Hills guitar?  More likely Stone Temple pilots. You’ll arrange your books, pictures, and make up the bed, making the room look less sterile. You’ll look out the window at the boys playing their guitars, and your fingers will itch to work out another song.

In the car on the way home we listen to Sting’s “Fragile” as we ride through the mountains watching the autumn leaves change color.

5

Jason 2005, still looking like a college kid, Thunderbird Falls, Alaska

 

8 MYTHS ABOUT CURIOSITY

In December, the world went blank with snow and fog, a good metaphor for my state of mind. I had to dig deep to understand why I hadn’t been writing regularly for months. Writing is my thing. When there is nothing else, there is writing. Yet there I was in the jolly old month of December feeling like everything was futile and I had no reason to be writing anything anywhere. Why should anyone care what I had to say?  I was stuck in my head, my avalanching insecurities burying my joy.

Then I tripped on the first stone in my path. Tripped, as in being suddenly forced to wake-up and take a good look around. I landed face first in the grinding question: Why do I write?  I don’t have to. No one is dishing out assignments except myself. An answer finally came burning through the mist, simple and free of ego.

The plain bare fact is I don’t write because anyone will read or appreciate what I write ( that is a pleasant afterthought but not my purpose). I write because I always feel better when I do. A letter, or a journal entry, or an essay to post on my blog can elicit the sensation of a weight fall from my shoulders and euphoria lifting me from the ground. It is no more complex than that. Writing energizes me, heals me, sends me on my way knowing that if I can write, I can do anything.

Answering that question freed me to trip over the next stone in my path.  What shall I write?  Why am I afraid of that chasm, the one at the border of the blank page?  Why am I afraid of the gaping monster that guards the edge of creativity? Again, a simple thought cleared things up.

I was reminded of a December 29, 2015 post on my son’s facebook page, IMPACT-Self-Made Influencers Changing the World:

“This ties in with things I’ve said recently about following your curiosity. It’s a compass that has served me exceedingly well in 2015.

Then Todd Henry mentioned in my interview with him that curiosity was the thing that had helped him most to build his influential work.

This idea was also backed up by an Elizabeth Gilbert video I discovered last week (you may have seen it making the rounds) where she states that she no longer gives anyone the advice to find their purpose, but rather encourages people now to follow their curiosity.”

Curiosity is the bridge from where we are over the chasm to what we want to be and do. This idea burned through my fog of anxieties and self-doubt in a way nothing else has for a long time. We can be on fire with creativity through curiosity. We need to remember a few important myths about curiosity which tend to scare us off.

  1. Curiosity can kill you – it is dangerous
  2. Curiosity isn’t work – it is for lazy people
  3. Curiosity is frivolous and is for “pie in the sky” thinkers  – the curious are fruitless dreamers
  4. Curiosity gets you in trouble – it leads to bad decisions
  5. Curiosity is only for people with a high degree of  imagination and intelligence – it isn’t for ordinary folks like me.
  6. Curious people are annoying – they lack focus and have their fingers in too many pies
  7. Curiosity doesn’t lead to self-improvement – be safe and just follow conventional wisdom
  8. Curiosity is a waste of time – there are too many distractions

I’m going to leave it to you to figure out why these myths can lead poor health, poor emotional IQ, and stifled creativity.  Curiosity, like any powerful tool, has the potential to lead to problems but that is the way it is with all knowledge. Without curiosity, there is no exploration, and without exploration, there is no creativity or progress.

It is all too easy to be so focused on security and following safe rules and habits that we forget to be curious. By writing, whether just for myself or for public consumption,  I bring my being more in focus with my own healthy curiosity. Curiosity is the energy by which the universe becomes an endless source of delight. Writing gives us greater access to that joy.

 

 

I AM RADIOACTIVE

The second hand jerked around the clock face making a faint ticking noise, the hour hand seemed to stand still at 12:45. Two more hours of school left. An eternity. Fear was thick in the air, on television, in newspapers, in the whispers of adult conversations. Russia, Cuba, Khrushchev, missiles, communists, blockades, nuclear bomb tests. Would the world ignite into nuclear flame?

My mind wandered from the math paper on my desk to my hopes that my mother would say yes when I asked her if I could shave my legs. How could I get my hands on a razor and avoid asking altogether? I was a befuddled little girl on the border of teendom. School was thoroughly painful most of the time. The world was on the verge of nuclear war and I wished for a subscription to Seventeen Magazine. I was also afraid: afraid of Khrushchev, Castro, and my mother. (I have to say she didn’t deserve that, although Khrushchev and Castro probably did.)

Then Mrs. Hawkins pulled out that book. The one she had started reading to the class a few days earlier. Before she spoke a word, I stowed the rumpled math paper inside my overflowing desk. Mrs. Hawkins, wherever you are, thank you for choosing to read aloud to a room full of attention compromised ten-year-olds. School children in desperate need of something mind expanding in the middle of a musty school day and a frightening world.

I don’t remember if you were kind. But you must have been. I don’t remember if you tried to build my self-esteem. But you read our scattered thoughts. You knew we needed that book. I settled my head on my arms. Mrs. Hawkin’s voice carried me into the under-furnished realms of my imagination. Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Meg Murry were my guides through space and to the other side of fear.

“Well, the fifth dimension’s a tesseract. You add that to the other four dimensions and you can travel through space without having to go the long way around. In other words, to put it into Euclid, or old-fashioned plane geometry, a straight line is not the shortest distance between two points.”  (A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle)

What is a fifth dimension? (What is a cold war?) What is a tesseract? (What is a ballistic missile?) Who is Euclid? (Who is Castro?) What is plane geometry? (What is an Iron Curtain?) How can the shortest distance not be a straight line? The details were confusing, but it all added up to the world spinning out of control.

Reading Wrinkle In Time tapped a new resource inside me. My own curiosity. A refreshing splash in the face. A brisk dive into the cold ocean of my own mind. A fountain of self-knowledge and comfort. Ingrown fears mingled in my imagination with that one distinct moment that I first remember feeling alive with curiosity. Some said, the end of the world is at the door. How does a ten-year-old cope with that finality? I look back now and see that curiosity and faith are linked. Having a vision, even a very small one about a tesseract, can kindle hope and energy.

Shortly thereafter, our school district held a yellow (or red, or orange) alert drill for evacuating the school in the event of a nuclear attack. We prepared to leave school early on the day of the drill. To all of us children this was exciting. We formed lines in the parking lot in groups representing various neighborhoods. My home was quite a hike from the school. Normally I took the bus, but on this day, in the company of teachers and other students I walked all the way home, our group shrinking as each student dropped out at his own doorstep. Would we ever have time for such a luxury in the event of a  serious nuclear threat?

Meg Murry felt frightened, awkward, and unattractive. She lived a normal routine life of school troubles, worrying about her brother, playing in the yard, putting meals on the table (and space travel). I easily identified with her experiences. Strange events threatened her world and mine. I imagined myself in her shoes and stretched the bounds of my own universe.

On yellow-alert-drill-day, I stared up at the sky on the steep hike down Shorewood Drive towards my home on Basswood Avenue and wondered what it would be like if this “yellow alert” was not a drill. Would I be like Meg Murray if I came face to face with “It”? Could I save myself, my family? This was curious new territory for me.

Stages of my life have often forced curiosity behind concrete dams of fear. I learned to be wary of curiosity in school, at college, as I sought safety and security for my own family. Recently a serendipitous moment of exploration broke the containment fields I have built around my curiosity. I feel aglow with elemental human nuclear energy. It bounces around my mind and pushes outward radiating faith, knowledge, and enthusiasm.

Curiosity is a source of profound comfort to humans in a world full of pain and contradictions. It is the life force of problem-solving. When we treat curiosity as if it is a radioactive element best kept in protective containment so that it doesn’t burn us, we lose touch with an elemental source of personal power and even healing.

We don’t need a flask of radon, or a laboratory, or a particle accelerator to glow with radioactive energy. We don’t need anything more than this quiet moment, and a little curiosity, to connect powerfully and fundamentally with the whole universe.

 

ALASKA AND OTHER FRONTIERS: 2016 Curiosity Encounters

The piercing cry of a wild animal woke me. In the frigid darkness, I couldn’t remember where I was. I blinked my sleep-sticky eyes until I could focus on the gray vehicle ceiling only six inches from my nose. “Oh, yeah. Now I remember,” I murmured as my brain fog cleared.

We were parked at the edge of a roadside turnout along a roughly slashed track snaking its way through the woods of Northern British Columbia. The early a.m. cold burrowed under the multiple quilts and blankets of our makeshift bed; a foam mattress spread atop what was left of our household goods. All were stuffed into the back of an ancient Volkswagen bus spray painted a respectable two-toned black and white to disguise generous patches of rusty and ragged holes.

I shut my eyes and snuggled against the curve of my husband’s warm back like a heat seeking missile. Another wail punctuated the dark. The noise came from something inside the van. I groaned, as more fog lifted from my sleep-starved mind. I had brought a baby into this frozen wilderness. The tiny body wedged between me and my snoring husband, squirmed and cried out more loudly.

Ralph mumbled in his sleep, “Make him stop.”

“Good luck with that,” I grumbled. How do you“make” an infant do anything? First: change the soggy diaper. Six-month-old Jason kept up his fretful noise as I switched out his diaper and dressed him in fresh pajamas. Second: if I’m lucky, he’s just hungry, try nursing him. Again, he kept up his crying; snorting and thrashing away from the proffered food source. Final option: take him for a walk down the hall and around the living room. “Too bad, there is no living room. I’ll just have to pace the edge of the road.”

I slid head-first into the passenger seat where I pulled on my more-pretty-than-practical windbreaker. I swaddled Jason tightly in a flannel blanket, then stepped out of the bus into the freezing cold of early October along the Alaska Highway. Undeterred by all my attempts to calm him, Jason greeted the dawn with a howl akin to wolves under a harvest moon. This far north, winter was only a few short days away.

In a fit of youthful bravery (or delusion) which overwhelmed stale conformity (or good sense), we quit school and set out to follow our hearts. We were among many dreamers endeavoring to conquer the Alaska Highway or go broke trying. We sold most of our possessions, bought the Volkswagen bus, and headed off to take advantage of tempting opportunities beckoning from Alaska.

Opportunities created by the building of the Alaska pipeline. At the time, the Alaska Highway was a serpentine ribbon of mostly dirt and gravel fraught with myriad dangers for untried vehicles and unseasoned motorists. We suffered multiple flat tires, two broken fan belts, and blew one engine along the way.

We started our trip at Palos Verdes, California, my hometown, bidding a reluctant farewell to my unconvinced parents. From there, we drove north on Highway 101 hitting one fabled beach town after another. At Crescent City, California, we cut inland and took Interstate 5 through Oregon and Washington then crossed the Canadian border at Peace Park near Vancouver, B.C.

A stop in Prince George, British Columbia, to visit friends was lengthened by two weeks when our engine blew up in the autumn stained mountains outside Chetwynd. Our friends kindly rescued us and towed us back to Prince George (many thanks to the Towers family, our thanks back then were not adequate). My mechanic father, unable to come to our aid, loaned us the money to repair the van. Two weeks later, after Ralph spent many backbreaking hours rebuilding the engine, we set off for Dawson Creek, B.C; the starting point of the Alaska Highway. Northward, every town and landmark became more remote, the road narrower, increasingly hemmed in by forest. We rolled into Fort Nelson, B.C. just in time for a tire to go flat right in front of a gas station. The lug nuts were so tight we couldn’t have loosened them without the mechanics power wrench. Miles north of Fort Nelson, long past dark, we pulled into an isolated turnout alongside the road to sleep.

Now, with Jason still howling and the sky beginning to lighten we abandoned our efforts to get more rest and decided to get back on the road. But now, it was the bus that was being cranky.

“Rrrrrrrrr.” The cabin of the bus was like a refrigerator. The starter wound round and round but the engine wouldn’t fire up.

“Rrrrrrrr.” The starter still sounded vigorous, but the battery was getting weary. Time for prayers to fly heavenward.

Ralph milked the battery once more. This time, the engine coughed and sparked to life. Had the baby not awakened us, the cold may have thickened the oil or deadened the battery past reviving. Engine trouble at that stage would have left us in a sore pickle, on a lonely road, miles from any assistance.

Miles more north, exhausted, and utterly sick of the road, we came upon Lliard Hot Springs Provincial Park along the Lliard River. A paradise of steaming jade-green pools veiled in mist surrounded by giant spruce, paper birch, dripping ferns, and wildflowers. This will forever be our family’s favorite spot on the Alaska Highway. Over the years, this magical place has refreshed our road-weary bodies and spirits in its gentle currents of hot and cool springs of water. We have visited it in the full bloom of lush green summer and when the pools were deeply pillowed by thick banks of snow. The advantage of a winter visit is there are no clouds of mosquitoes. Winter accentuates the other-worldliness of the pools in their vapor wrapped loneliness, secluded in a wilderness of white.

Since that first Alaska Highway journey, we have explored its serpentine length seven times. Each trip starts with the excitement of knowing, without question, we will experience adventure. We know that by the time we reach Lliard Hot Springs, however, the shine of that adventure will be substantially dimmed by the fatigue and the grime of the road. A hot soak at Lliard Hot Springs is the watershed divide between road-sick and renewal of our enthusiasm for the wilderness highway.

It occurs to me right here and now, as I do my daily writing routine, that I need such paradise-like renewals in my life’s journeys of creativity, of trying to live rightly, of making it from one milepost to the next. I have tackled many Alaska Highway adventures, both literally and figuratively. Many of my highway pilgrimages have been thrust upon me; illness, death, less desirable events of all kinds. However, the best strategy is to pack up and move forward, making the most of them. Other such journeys have been voluntary, well planned, and happily anticipated. Yet still, there is need for a restorative pause at some refreshing wayside lest I drain my overtaxed battery. In either case, the image of the calm and peace of Lliard Hot springs is a refreshing vision for such a pause. Especially useful in winter when relief from the itch of summer distractions allows stillness.

As usual, January suggests that we look over the landscape ahead and refresh our perspective. This year, I am taking my cue from my son who cried out in the darkness decades ago and, now grown, creates great journeys of his own. He has made it his business to be an expert on helping his clients make the most of their personal aspirations by teaching them to harness and capitalize on their dreams. He points out that, “Curiosity is a compass that ensures you enjoy the journey whether or not you reach the intended destination.”

My theme for renewal in 2016 is curiosity: childlike, free flowing, and encouraging. I have assembled a wide-ranging list of subjects and experiences that I am curious about. Subjects I plan to mine for insight a month at a time. That is my simple strategy. My 2016 impetus to creativity.

Curiosity is, in the final analysis, the only frontier. Other frontiers flow from that original, innate, bright borderline between knowledge/experience and ignorance. Curiosity sweetens existence, burns boredom to fertile ash, transforms work into play, and makes every moment rich with possibilities.

 

STORY POWER 2016: from experience to story and back again

This is an experience, it became a story. It also became a new approach to my New Year goal.

Last Saturday morning I woke up shivering under three layers of blankets. A cold sweat created a breeze under the covers. My icy feet reached out for a warm spot under my husband’s leg. He didn’t move. He didn’t take the hint that there was a problem. Finally, I dragged myself out of bed and checked the thermostat. The outside temperature was 13 degrees, the thermostat was set for 71 degrees, but the actual temperature in the house was 65. It’s a big house. Our bedroom hangs out over open air above a patio. Our room was even colder than what registered on the thermostat. It took a few seconds for me to wake up and face the fact that the furnace was not working.

I shook off nightmares of frozen pipes and expensive emergency calls to a repairman. If we had to, we could turn all faucets to drip and go to my son, Dan’s, house. Ralph continued in deep sleep. He had been fighting a sinus infection and I hated to wake him. “O.K. I’m an intelligent person. It’s not my area of expertise but I can do something about this. I don’t need my husband to rescue me.”

First thing:  do we have fuel getting to the house from the buried propane tank under our lawn? It was possible that the line was frozen. We live in a somewhat remote subdivision which is not connected to a natural gas utility. It was also possible, though unlikely, that Suburban Propane had failed to top off the tank in the fall as contracted. “Ah, yes, I can check for supply line problems and warm up the bedroom and living room by turning on the two fireplaces.” Sure enough, they both worked, and warmed me up in minutes. We wouldn’t have to flee the house anytime soon.

Next: Hooray! Ralph woke up and started trouble shooting. Our HVAC is no ordinary forced air system similar to what we’ve had in the past. It’s a high-end sophisticated heat pump system. For the last three winters, that system has worked and we didn’t worry about understanding it even though we had questions. Now we had to get answers. The complex thermostat was sending messages that were completely foreign to us. After a couple of hours of Ralph scratching his head, I realized that the mystery wasn’t getting solved. The body language, the muttering to himself, telegraphed “Don’t leave me alone with this one.”  Neither of us had the energy to take on the task. But I had a little more than he did. I opened my laptop and started searching the internet.

What is aux. heat? What is E-heat. Why does the heat pump keep turning off. What kind of auxiliary heat do we have? Electric or propane. After a half hour of study, I felt that I had a grip on how it all worked.

Here’s a basic outline. A heat pump is an energy efficient way to cool and heat a house. It moves heat from one place to another rather than producing heat. However when outdoor temperatures become too cold for the system to keep up, then the heat pump calls on an auxiliary source to take over heating. The aux heat kicks in automatically as needed to supplement a lagging heat pump overly taxed by below freezing temperatures. In some homes those heat sources are electric, in some they are fuel burning: natural gas or propane or oil.  E-heat (emergency heat) is a setting you can choose to use if your heat pump breaks down or if you want to feel toastier air flowing out of your vents. A heat pump doesn’t produce a hot blast of air from the vents. It maintains a comfortable balance as it draws air from outside and extracts heat for heating and cooling.

We managed to keep our house warm over the weekend by babying our system and using the fireplaces. On Tuesday, we called in an expert. By this time, we knew a few things that he didn’t. We knew we had a propane furnace and a heat pump. We knew we had a complex electronic control panel. We didn’t know how to get these components back on track. The tech explained that our propane furnace is the auxiliary/emergency heat and that the malfunction was in the propane furnace, not the heat pump. Water was dripping from a vent pipe leading from the furnace burners up to the roof. Once the dripping water was blocked by a piece of sheet metal the system fired up. No new parts necessary. Once the snow on the roof melts we will check the vent chimney for damage. We now understand how that system works and where things can go wrong. It’s no longer scary. I am more fully acquainted with the living breathing house-creature that I live in. Dispelling my ignorance empowers me and removes fears.

And that is my story for this week. A story that gave me a novel idea for my New Year’s goal. I am going to create new experiences for myself by studying and becoming more acquainted with one subject every month. I will take my experience with those subjects and share them as stories. Stories I hope that will empower me and those that I share them with.

A story is never just a story. Experiences become stories when we mine them for knowledge, insight, and wisdom and then share them. Other people’s stories become our experiences giving us greater empathy, compassion, and self-knowledge.  We don’t always have to tell someone “here is the moral of the story.”  Many stories are better simply relayed without spelling out the message. But there will always be a message even if it isn’t the one the author supposed.

This year, I want to save and share stories: small, simple, and hopefully enjoyable.

SMALL MIRACLES: a Christmas story

“Mark, quit playing Jingle Bells on the glasses!  This is probably the last meal you’ll have for awhile so you better make sure you don’t spill it all over.” Sharon grabbed a tottering glass of milk just in time to avert disaster.

Another expectation dying in a moment of painful reality. Five-year-old Mark, usually so self-contained and polite, would pick this moment to be a normal, fidgety boy. He really didn’t deserve her abrupt scolding. She sighed wearily, fighting a wave of  misery.

Mark dropped his spoon. It clanged on the floor adding to the din of dishes clattering and cheerful  conversations competing with jazzed up Christmas music. Sharon scanned the buzzing dining area, her Christmas hopes fading:  the smell of baking cookies, sitting by the fire sipping cocoa, peaceful carols from an old phonograph filling her parent’s living room with magic. Certainty. Security.

Their waitress, Jen, breezed by setting a paper cup full of crayons and three  kiddie placemats on the table. She refilled their water glasses then reached down and stroked the baby’s white-blond hair and cooed, “Oh, she’s such a doll, what’s her name?”

 “Actually, his name is Michael.  We just can’t bring ourselves to cut off his beautiful curls.” Sharon pulled the high chair closer to the table to get it out of the way of the restaurant traffic.  “Wouldn’t you know,” Sharon thought. “They would seat us right by the kitchen.”

Sharon fingered three wrinkled ten dollar bills and some change in her coat pocket.  It was the last of their money.  One more big meal then they’d have to wait until they were paid at the end of the haul. Steve was at this moment picking up a load at a nearby freight center. Between now and then it would be crackers and cheese and the last few cans of  juice and formula they had in the truck.

 They spent the last week living out of the cab of their semi-truck.  Three kids and two adults traveling across the country looking for better trucking jobs. Steve’s cousin said there was plenty of work out of Denver.  They sold everything they could, packed the rest in the truck, and departed Greensboro just in time to leave family, friends, and everything familiar behind at Christmas time. They had engine trouble a few miles east of  St. Louis.  Nothing on a big rig can be fixed without spending gobs of cash. They parted with most of their savings at a Truck Center, Inc in Illinois.  Steve finally landed a contract with a distributor in Aurora. He dropped Sharon and the three children off for breakfast while he met up with the load broker.

 Andy’s Hometown Grill was a combination of fifties diner and 90’s remodeled restaurant kitsch. Shiny green garlands with red bows hung from the dining room partitions. A miniature lighted Christmas village lined the booth walls and giant silver snowflakes glistened in the windows.  Outside a thin dusting of snow began to fall.

 “Well, at least we’ll have a white Christmas,” Sharon grumbled

 “I want Daddy!” wailed three-year-old Rachel.

Then all Sharon’s efforts to rescue it failed as Rachel’s fist crashed down on her glass of milk. Creamy liquid spread across the paper placemats, under the silverware, and dripped down the edge of the table.  Sharon grabbed a handful of napkins and threw them on the growing puddle. She felt as if the whole diner full of people was staring at her unruly brood. She was dead tired and famished.  “Where was their food?”

As if she had heard Sharon’s mental scream, Jen came out of the kitchen carrying a huge tray of platters. She balanced the tray on the edge of the table while Sharon finished mopping up the milk. Then the waitress briskly set the table with plates of crisp bacon, steaming hash browns, scrambled eggs, and piles of fragrant pancakes with syrup.  Sharon quickly arranged the food in front of the children. Pacified by a mouthful of pancake soaked in syrup, Rachel stopped whimpering.  Mark commandeered more than his fair share of bacon. Sharon felt short three or four arms as she tried to serve, feed and keep disaster at bay.  Finally, with everyone satisfied and quietly stuffing their mouths, Sharon turned her attention to her own plate. She had just swallowed a couple of heavenly bites when Steve burst through the restaurant door and crossed the room with hurried strides.

 “Daddy!” cried Rachel, reaching her arms up to greet him.

 “Give me the thirty dollars.”  His tone left no doubt that he was dead serious.

 Sharon reached into her pocket and grasped the moist bills protectively.  “You have got to be kidding!  We’re eating already.  How will I pay for all this?”

 Steve’s tone softened slightly, “Look, they won’t load the truck until I pay for some kind of loading permit. The permit costs thirty dollars. They won’t wait for the money until I get paid at the other end. No permit, no job, no income.  There’s nothing I can do about it. As soon as I get the truck loaded, I’ll come back here and we’ll figure out something. I don’t see that I have any other choice and I’ve got to hurry back or we’ll lose the contract.”

Sharon reluctantly drew the money out of her pocket and handed it to Steve.  Without a word he spun on his boot heels and was gone. She could hear the roar of the semi truck’s engine as he pulled the oversized beast out of the parking lot.  

Originally, she planned to take the children across the street to the mall after they finished eating. They were going to window shop to kill time until Steve met them at Santa’s Village near the main entrance. Now, she would have to keep the children entertained right here at the table for a couple of hours. And how would they pay?  Could you really wash dishes to pay for a meal? They had been through lean times before but never this close to the edge. She felt thoroughly humiliated:  noisy children, spilled milk, and now completely broke.  She tried to eat but her appetite had vanished.  

“Here, Mark, you can have my bacon.” Sharon slid her plate over.

 “Mommy, what’s going to happen?” Mark looked pale and worried.  It hadn’t occurred to Sharon that he might understand what was going on, that her five-year-old son tuned into the conversation. Suddenly her distress about paying for the meal evaporated. It was the anxiety in Mark’s sweet face that concerned her most.

 “Mark, help me get the baby and Rachel fed. I’ll have Jen bring us some new placemats and we’ll keep busy coloring and eating until Daddy gets back.  And Mark, maybe you could say a little silent prayer to help us stay calm.  Everything will be all right, I promise.”

 “Just great, now I’ve made this a test of my son’s faith,” she thought, bitterly.  She was playing a risky game with God.  “Hey, if I’m not good enough for your help, my little son’s faith is on the line here.”

 She suddenly felt too tired to worry anymore. She scooped Mark into her arms and hugged him tight. “Just keep busy. We’ll take this one minute at a time.”

 She looked over at the baby.  Scrambled eggs covered his face.  His eyes drooped and his head nodded.  Sharon spread a quilt on the booth seat.  She gently cleaned Michael’s face then pulled him out of the high chair and wrapped him in the quilt.“One blessing already, he will nap for at least an hour.”

Mark and Rachel continued eating quietly. Sharon decided she may as well enjoy some hash browns and orange juice after all.  It cheered her immensely to have the baby asleep and the other two children settled down. Thankfully, no one seemed to be paying any attention to them now that their noise had subsided.

 “Look, Mommy,” Mark nudged her harm.  “I drew a picture of Grandma and Grandpa’s house.  See here’s Grandpa sitting by the fire and there’s Grandma decorating the Christmas tree.”  Sharon nodded absently.   Her mind was caught up in memories of Christmas back home. The kind of Christmas she wanted to giver her children. Whatever had possessed them to take off  like this?  It had seemed like a great opportunity to get their trucking business going, an adventure even.  But now it seemed more like a disaster. Back and forth her thoughts flew.

“Stop. What’s done is done.  I’ll go crazy rehashing what can’t be changed.”

 She took a deep breath and blew it out.  Their plates were just about empty.  Rachel stuffed the last of her pancake in her mouth, stretched out on the seat, and put her head in Sharon’s lap.  Sharon covered her with a coat. She glanced out the window. The snow had changed to large soft flakes. The breakfast rush was over and the dining room was quiet. Another blessing: they won’t be unhappy with us for taking up valuable space.

Just then, Jen swept out of the kitchen and up to their table with another tray.  She began setting out three large mugs of hot chocolate topped with tall swirls of whipped cream.

“Wait, I didn’t order these.”  Sharon protested.  “I really can’t pay for them . . . “ she said. “Or any of it.”

“No problem, don’t worry about it.”  Jen broke in.  “Look outside, right out front. See the white-haired couple getting into that red pick-up.  When they paid for their breakfast, they paid for yours and threw in the hot chocolate, some sandwiches, and a dozen donuts to go.  They said to tell you it’s an early Christmas present.”

Sharon watched as the red truck pulled out onto the snow-covered highway and disappeared into the storm.  For a moment, she felt a twinge of discomfort; embarrassment that someone had noticed them and their problems. She hadn’t dared wish for or expect anything like this. She felt a surge of gratitude wash over her. A miracle for her little family. In an instant, the anxiety that coursed through her body transformed into joyful relief. A miracle for her little family. “Thank you,” she whispered out loud.

“Mommy,” said Mark.  Can I drink my hot chocolate?  I already said a thank-you prayer.”

“Yes,” said Sharon, still gazing out at the falling snow.  “Yes, Mark, you can drink your hot chocolate now.