Spring Forward

Spring is in the air. It’s also blanketing every surface of the landscape in a powdery yellow coat of reproductive glory.

 

Pollen is its own season down here.

Allergy symptoms aside, what’s not to love about spring? The sun sticks around a little longer at the end of the day, new life is everywhere, and I get to wear my sandals again. Here in south Georgia, winters are usually mild, but we still experience a brief season of bleak gray skies and bare trees (although this year brought us rogue snowfall). The soft sounds, colors and textures of spring are a balm to the soul.

Wisteria
The invasive and lovely wisteria vine

But spring is a tease. Autumn is sultry and languorous as she strolls in to replace the heavy, humid days of summer, but at least her emergence is steady and reliable. Spring appears out of nowhere, beckoning the birds and the tender green plants to come forth into the welcoming sunshine, only to vanish behind one last blast of winter the minute I pack away my sweaters and boots. It happens every year. So now I hasten the event by pulling out my summer clothes in February.

Hope and sunshine

Now that (I think) winter is over, I feel lighter and more optimistic. The longer days are energizing and the air is sweet. It’s always such a relief, like the splendor of dawn after a long, painful night. It’s a promise that nature never breaks; no matter how cold and dark the night, the sun always comes out tomorrow. The beautiful psalm of David reminds us:

“…weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” Psalm 30:5

Rainbow

Trust in this promise has sustained me so many times over the years, when I thought a problem couldn’t be solved or a struggle would never end. Always remember: this too shall pass. So I celebrate the arrival of spring even though my furniture is covered with the pollen that snuck in from outside, and that new growth in my yard looks more like weeds than grass. Life is good.

Think about it: Spring brings the hope of a bountiful fall harvest, and of future generations carrying on when the old one has passed. Whatever we plant in this season, good or bad, bears fruit in the next. When I was younger, I didn’t fully grasp the implications of this truth, but I do now. My attitudes and actions today can have an effect on my life and the lives of others, perhaps indefinitely. It’s important to recognize that I always have choices. If I want my future to be filled with anxiety, strife and competition, life presents me with ample opportunity to practice that now. But if I want a life of gentleness, compassion and hope, I need to cultivate those qualities today.

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Life happens in our own backyards

My little suburban neighborhood is home to a surprising cast of wildlife, like the rabbits that appear under my neighbor’s azalea bush in the early mornings or at dusk. The sight of them absolutely charms me. My husband Ret and I spend a lot of time watching the antics of the squirrels and birds that visit our backyard. The cardinals and robins come back every year to start their families, and those daredevil squirrels are my favorite comedy act.

 

We’ve concluded Comcast is a waste of our money; the real entertainment is outside. It’s not free; last month I spent almost as much money on birdseed as I spent on dog food. But it’s worth every penny for the respite from the stress of the daily grind and stories dominating the news lately. There’s no partisanship in my backyard – the squirrels and birds manage to coexist and share the seeds just fine. No lobbyists, either, although Mr. Cardinal will hop up on the windowsill and inform us, very vocally, when the feeders are running low.

 

I think when I retire, I’m going to become a bird watcher, just so I can translate birdsong. The chorus in my neighborhood sounds like this:

“Judy, Judy, Judy, Judy!”

 “Cheater, cheater, cheater, cheater, cheat!” I wonder who he’s talking about.

“Pretty, pretty, pretty!” This one must be Louie’s friend.

I love stepping out on the patio in the early morning to listen to them when they think they’re the only ones awake. It’s an everyday enchantment.

Stop and smell something

Whatever you’re doing today, take a moment to pause at the wonder of it all. Just when you can’t do one more day of winter, the earth emerges from her long cold nap, rested and ready to welcome the glory of new life. How wonderful that it happens every year. Don’t miss it!

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Happy Hatch-day, Louie!

Twelve years ago on Valentine’s Day, a little green parrot with a blue head and bright eyes emerged from his shell into the great, wide world. Three months later, an unsuspecting woman (me) wandered into a bird shop and walked out with him. The decibel level in my house has never been the same.

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Posing with his favorite statue, the Bird Girl

Louie is my blue crown conure and the most photogenic member of our family. He’s also the loudest, even compared with the bedlam that ensues when Lacy and Tanner, our dogs, announce the arrival of the UPS man, who probably thinks we’re crazy.

Polly wanna cracker!

Louie actually does like crackers, but they’re not his favorite food. Obviously he loves seeds (especially sunflower seeds and quinoa), and he’ll do anything for a sip of your orange juice. He also enjoys hard candies like peppermint sticks and spicy cinnamon bits, which make his foot sticky. In fact, Louie eats just about everything I eat, with the exception of chocolate and avocado, two things that are highly toxic to birds. (So if you take your parrot to a Mexican restaurant, don’t share your guacamole with him.)

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Hmm…how do I get a cookie?

I learned right away that Louie believes he should be invited to every meal. On his very first day as my bird, we had lunch together – well, that’s how it turned out, anyway. I was eating lentil soup at the breakfast bar when he marched over to my bowl, stepped  on the rim, and dunked his beak into it! He’s been my daily lunch date ever since.

It’s fun to watch him eat, especially long, stick-shaped foods like green beans or fries. He’ll grasp it in his foot like a little sword, alternating between nibbling on one end and waving it around to tantalize the poor dogs, who can be found eagerly hanging around under his perch, waiting for him to drop it. Birds are very messy eaters.

 

Tanner and Lacy
Tanner and Lacy, waiting for tidbits. They have no shame.

Disturbing information

Some of Louie’s tastes are a bit gruesome. Here he is with Lacy and Mia, lining up for a bite of hardboiled egg.

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Who says dogs, cats and birds can’t coexist?

Even more unsettling is his outright cannibalism.

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Sharing a chicken salad sandwich with Kevin

Almost fearless

This bright, inquisitive creature is absolutely fearless at unexpected times – he once charged down the hall to bite Mia the cat on her toe. Mia, it should be reported, was so surprised by the assault that she dashed under the bed. I guess having that can opener for a mouth instills a lot of bravery in Louie! But he also has his phobias. It frightens him terribly if I’m wearing a hat or gloves, and he flips out when he sees the stepladder. He often becomes upset if he finds something unfamiliar in his cage, so I have to introduce new items gradually.

However, there was a recent incident when I had to make a sudden, unauthorized change to his cage decor. I was cleaning it one afternoon and realized I’d run out of newspaper to line the bottom, so I substituted some colorful gift tissue, which was the only thing I had. Here’s what happened:

 

Louie’s toy box

Louie doesn’t like standard bird toys. No birdie swings and mirrors for him! I’ve read that parrots’ intelligence and emotional needs are similar to those of a three-year-old child; I can verify this is a good assessment. And that’s not all he has in common with toddlers. Louie chooses the same kind of toys. His favorites?

  1. Bottle caps: It’s a game for him to throw bottle caps from the top of his cage for us to toss them back. Sometimes Tanner finds them for us.
  2. Ropes: We discovered this purely by accident. Chewing is a natural behavior for birds, and Louie is a one-bird demolition crew! My brother-in-law built him a little wooden perch on a stand, which is his favorite place to hang out, but he literally destroys the ground he’s standing on when he chomps through all the wood! So my husband Ret started wrapping the base support with cotton rope as a barrier. Now Louie plays with the silky, fraying ends of his rope, preening the strands like it’s his girlfriend’s hair.
  3. Boxes: Louie loves boxes. Besides chewing them up, he likes to walk inside them and laugh, just to hear his echo. Sometimes he simply hangs out in his little box “house,” or plays peek-a-boo with me by hiding inside the box and popping out again. He’s a nut.
Louie's house
Louie is proud of his shabby chic decor

And anything can be a perch.

 

Kiss your parrot today

I love this little character. He’s seriously high maintenance, but he’s also full of personality. Parrots tend to bond with one person, and for Louie, it’s me – he’ll perch on my shoulder, whisper in my ear and preen my hair to show his affection. His sweet nothings are mostly parrot gibberish, but to me, he’s saying, “I love you,” something I haven’t been able to teach him to say in my language. (Otherwise, he has a pretty good vocabulary for a small parrot.)

Louie has been patiently waiting for me to wrap this up and play with him, so I’ll sign off for now. Kiss your parrot today, or if you don’t have a parrot, kiss someone else who talks too much, and say, “I love you.” IMG_0930

And if you’d like to read more about Louie, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

Be Like Bears

“Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.” Max Ehrmann, Desiderata

I have a confession to make: my backside and my sofa have been practically inseparable for the past month or so.

SlothI should feel guilty about my sloth-like ways. Everywhere I look, I’m bombarded with well-meaning messages encouraging me to lace up my sneakers and go for a run. Or order a nice, healthy salad instead of that rich, nurturing stew I’m craving. Or do some other energetic thing I just don’t feel like doing right now.

It’s February. I know it’s heart month and all that, and I’m totally in favor of taking care of my ticker because I’m planning to need it for at least 30 more years. But after careful consideration, and even though I live in coastal Georgia, not Minnesota, I’m staying right here under my blanket this dreary afternoon.

Winter is for hibernation. Ask any bear you know.

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These are the bears I know

Hibernation makes a lot of sense to me. In the winter, any warm-blooded creature with a dash of common sense knows it’s time to snuggle in a cozy, sheltered place, serene in the stillness. Animals accept that it’s time to embrace a season of dormancy, not to start training for a half marathon.

Thai red lentil chili with sweet potatoes
Red lentil chili with sweet potatoes and spinach

Unlike critters in the wild, we are obviously not having a problem with food scarcity, at least not at my house, and as a result, I may have put on a little padding. I like to believe it keeps me warm! And so it’s fortunate – and no accident – that my winter wardrobe consists mainly of long sweaters and knit pants. That’s natural at this time of the year, isn’t it? It’s also natural during this long, dark season to draw our energies inward. My inclination right now is to stay home as much as possible, resting and reflecting, and for the first time in my life, I’m following it.

Don’t ignore Mother Nature

I used to be one of those people who ignored nature. Don’t laugh! You might be one, too. We defy the laws of nature just about every waking minute. Our bodies were not designed for the 21st century lifestyle we’re imposing on them. Think about it:

Mother Nature wants us to wake up when the sun rises and go to sleep when it gets dark. Electricity changed all that. No longer dependent on the sun or fire to light our way or keep us warm, we stay up till all hours of the night, staring at flickering images on a big, lighted box.

Sunrise
Dazzling sunrise over Playa del Carmen, Mexico

Our bodies are made to move – to walk to our destinations, to carry things, to squat down and then rise again, many times a day. Our eyes should be gazing into the far distance, not squinting down at a smart phone. Parked at my keyboard in my cubicle, I’m barely mobile for hours at a time in an airtight room under fluorescent lights. It’s how I earn my living, but other than interacting with my coworkers, there’s not much life in it.

Shopping cartOur ancestors understood where their food came from, because they grew it, gathered it or hunted it themselves, endeavors that required strength, energy and patience. I find my weekly trip to the supermarket also requires strength, energy and patience, but it’s probably not the same thing.

Reflecting on all this, I’m trying to become more attuned to the gentle rhythms of nature and the cues my body gives me. One of the best gifts from years of practicing yoga is a heightened awareness of the state of my body and my mind, but I still have to remind myself to stand up every so often and stretch, or walk outside into the glorious sunshine and enjoy a few deep breaths of air that isn’t passing through a pleated polyester filter. I’m buying more whole foods instead of questionable substances in boxes and cans. Real food contains the collective life force of the sun, the soil and the rain that produced it, and it imparts this energy to us. I don’t think that pseudo-food has any life force in it. Scary to think of how much of the stuff I’ve consumed over the years.

Being gentler with myself

And I’m being gentler with myself in lots of little ways, like trying to observe the first signs of sleepiness at night by actually going to bed, instead of forcing myself to stay up longer so I can accomplish one more thing. I tend to feel chilly all the time, even in summer – why on earth do people insist on cooling their buildings to arctic levels? It used to embarrass me to be the only person shivering in August, but I refused to wear a sweater – that’s for little old ladies! Well, no more. I bring a sweater everywhere I go. My body deserves to be comfortable. And so do my feet. They get a sesame oil massage every night, comfortable shoes, and fuzzy slippers when I’m home. (I do strive to buy the coolest comfy shoes I can find, though. Old habits die hard.)

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Fuzzy slippers. Relaxed dog.

Now that spring is on the horizon, I’m thinking about what to plant in this year’s herb garden. The days are getting longer, the birds are flocking to my backyard, and soon the outside world will beckon me to join it again. And when it does, I’ll be ready for it.

Winter day with Lacy
Relaxing with Lacy

Notes to My Younger Self

“If I’d known then what I know now…” Almost everyone

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The month of January was named for the ancient Roman god, Janus. Depicted with two faces – one looking forward and one looking behind – Janus is the god of beginnings and transitions. Perfect choice.

During this month, we all become a little like Janus as we review the year that’s passed and plan the one ahead of us. Maybe because my birthday is in January, it’s a double reminder of how quickly life moves.

Depending on my mood, looking at the past can be sweetly nostalgic or remorseful, filled with the what ifs that hindsight brings. Looking to the future, I foresee either exciting opportunities or dreaded obstacles. Perspective is everything, isn’t it?

Having another birthday (my 56th, in case you’re curious) is a blessing. I wouldn’t trade the wisdom I’ve gained for the young body I‘ve lost for anything, even with the annoyance of hot flashes and the occasional arthritis pain that have become a part of my life. It’s probably a fair exchange. I don’t think we’re allowed to have both at the same time, anyway. Growing older has its well-deserved rewards.

If I could do it all over again, knowing what I know now, would I change anything? In spite of the heartbreak of a failed marriage, I’d never alter the course that gave me my sons. And though I regret living so far away from my parents, and will probably miss my beloved New Orleans for the rest of my days, I wouldn’t have met my husband Ret or have the good life I’ve made in Georgia if I hadn’t moved away. Maybe that’s why we don’t get a crystal ball. We wouldn’t always choose what’s best for us. 

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With Ret, 2017

But if I could go back and counsel my younger self, these are some of the things I’d say to me:

Those mean girls in school are going to vanish from your life forever.

Don’t listen to hateful people who make fun of you. Chin up! (And don’t slouch.) Stick with the friends who are kind to you and forget about everyone else. People who bully or ridicule others do so to inflate their own meager sense of self-worth. It sucks to be them! Graduation day will come, and you’ll never have to see these people again. They’re irrelevant.

1977 - gawky sophomore
Gawky sophomore

Ditch the pointy-toed stilettos. They are going to destroy your feet.

Believe me, one day you’re going to wish you’d spent the 80s in more comfortable shoes. You might cringe over that big hair in old photos, too, but at least it won’t inflict permanent damage.

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Big 80s hair

Be nicer to your mother.

She’s not going to be with you for long, and you are going to miss her for the rest of your life. Hold on to the memory of the sound of her voice, and the tender way she kissed your eyelids. Remember her playful silliness, and how she loved Coke floats with chocolate ice cream, and that she couldn’t ride a bicycle, and how she snorted when she laughed. And learn to let go of the sad memories. Mama loved you, and she would have wanted you to be happy.

Mama and Me w Cat Glasses
Mama and me

Your dad’s new wife is going to become your best friend.

Sometimes life is tragic. Even now, it doesn’t make much sense to me. But God knew that you would still need a mother, so He made a way for that. And this new mom really loves you. In fact, she’s going to become the person you call first when you need advice, or have good news, or just want to talk. So be nice to her, too.

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With Mom at my wedding, 2011

When the baby sleeps, you sleep.

This piece of advice will come from Ricia, and she was right. Steal a nap whenever you can while Kevin and Jared are infants. No one is going to judge a new mother by her unfolded laundry. (And shame on them if they do!) This time with your newborns is precious and fleeting. Take good care of yourself, and snuggle up on your babies every possible minute. The postpartum hormones, sore breasts and sleepless nights only seem like forever while you’re in the foggy midst of them. It’s over in a blink. One minute you’re pacing the floor at 2 a.m. with a colicky baby and spit-up caked in your hair, and then a few weeks later, that baby has a fuzzy little mustache and wants to borrow your car. Cherish this sweetness while it lasts.

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This is sleep deprivation, and big, big love

Stop straightening your hair!

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Women pay obscene amounts of money to have curls like the ones you inherited for free from your Sicilian grandmother. Save the 5,382 hours you will spend over the next 20 years trying to make yourself something you’re not, and embrace who you are – in every way. (It’s futile anyway; you live in the humidity capital of the US.)

Lee 5.13

And another thing: in your 40th summer, you’re going to be tempted to highlight your hair. Resist! Otherwise, what will start out as a summer fling is going to turn into an annoying, expensive, long-term commitment, complete with more bad hair drama than any one person needs in her life. Be a happy brunette. Trust me on this.

Use that 5,382 hours you’ve saved and write that book.

Enjoy your artsy side. Write. Draw. Play your guitar, for heaven’s sake, instead of letting it gather dust in the corner, vowing you’ll get to it one day when you have time. Yes, you have a duty to take care of your family and earn a living, but don’t let months or years go by without indulging your creative soul. It’s what makes you, you.

Oh, and don’t listen to anyone who says you aren’t talented enough, especially yourself. That’s not the point. It’s the process that matters, not the end result.

Find out about this weird thing called yoga.

Namaste

No, not yogurt! Yoga is going to change your life, giving you grace and strength you can’t imagine. If only we’d discovered it back in the 70s, when regular folks thought it was bohemian and outlandish, it might have dramatically altered the way we navigated our teenaged years, pregnancy and new motherhood. Maybe we could have even avoided some of these nagging health issues I’m dealing with now. And we would have learned to relax a long time ago.

Save, save, save money!

Seriously. Having to work for 40-plus years is just as excruciating as it sounds. And credit cards are evil. They suck you in with false promises of the good life until you wind up in bondage. Don’t fall for it.

And finally, this too shall pass.

Whatever you’re struggling with now, I promise it will come to an end. You will survive high school chemistry, fickle friends, getting fired and immense, consuming grief. You’re going to earn a bachelor’s degree at age 40 while working full-time and wonder how on earth you did it. Facing the shattering end of a long marriage will temporarily tear your heart to bits – but it will also forge your unbreakable spirit. Your cranky, never-let-you-sleep babies will become adorable little boys. Then those adorable little boys will transform into exasperating, petulant teenagers whose behavior keeps you up at night all over again. And then one day, they’ll hug you, say, “Thanks for everything, Mom,” and move away to build their own lives.

Nothing lasts forever.

So, the best you can do is take it one day at a time. The only thing you can control is yourself; give the rest to God and let Him be responsible for running the universe. Trust that whatever unfolds in life will ultimately be for good, and your responsibility is to do your part, the best way you know how. Have faith. Love people. Give yourself a break.

You’re going to be okay. Really.

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Pleasing

“I was 50 years old before I learned that ‘No’ is a complete sentence.” Miss Lillie

For the first time in my adult life, I didn’t decorate for Christmas. No tree, no lights, no wreaths or poinsettias or candles. What’s more, I didn’t wrap a single gift, a normally enjoyable task that involves a couple of hours locked in the bedroom with colorful paper and ribbons strewn everywhere.

I didn’t miss it. Not one bit.

Frankly, 2017 wore me out, physically, mentally, and emotionally. By the time December rolled around, my husband Ret and I just said, “Enough.” We’re tired. This year, we decided to sit out the annual consumer-driven spectacle that is the Christmas season and focus on each other. And with all of our grown children living far away, the whole routine felt a little empty, anyway.

Different kinds of gifts

No, we didn’t forego gift-giving altogether. But our gifting was different this year. We stayed out of the mall and instead presented our loved ones with experiences: theater and concert tickets, gift cards to favorite restaurants and a few special, handmade items. Our gift to each other was time. We spent our annual Christmas-to-New Year’s vacation napping, talking, watching movies and just catching up with each other. It was lovely. (We also cleaned out the garage and attic and brought mountains of donated items to the Humane Society for their thrift store, but that’s another story entirely.)

At first we felt a little weird, defying traditional expectations. Then we realized the most astonishing thing: no one would be disappointed if we skipped this one. And if they were, how much did that matter, anyway?

I don’t have to justify myself to anyone

It’s staggering to think of all the precious time and energy I’ve spent worrying about what other people think or doing things to please everyone but myself. One of the liberating things about my life today is the realization that I don’t have to justify myself to anyone. My previous marriage was all about becoming someone I didn’t recognize in order to appease an unhappy person who could never be pleased with anything. Over the years, I’ve joined different groups, churches, etc., looking for a place to fit in with like-minded people, only to find that (a) I guess I don’t “fit in,” and (b) maybe I don’t want to, anyway. I don’t mean to say there are no nice people in churches or civic organizations, or that these groups aren’t worthwhile. Some people shine in this kind of environment and foster the best in themselves and others. Perhaps I am just not one of those people. I need lots of alone time to hear and follow the sound of my own thoughts. For a long time, I couldn’t distinguish them from the noise of other people’s voices.

I’m still pretty new at this, but the results have been surprising. Allowing space for my own original thoughts has revealed layers of myself I didn’t know existed. I have strong opinions about life and the world that I would never have expressed before. There’s a newfound courage to say no to things that make me uncomfortable, like invitations to noisy parties or horror movies. When I was a rather idealistic young girl, I had these same feelings, but in the interest of harmonious conformity, I pushed them aside. What a relief to rediscover myself!

Whose tree is it, anyway?

A few days before Christmas, I was on the phone with my sister Gina, who lives in Alabama with her 8-year-old son Max. She was lamenting that Max wasn’t interested in helping her decorate their Christmas tree. “Were Kevin and Jared [my sons] the same when they were little?” she asked.

“Absolutely!” I admitted. “They didn’t care one bit about the tree, just the presents underneath it!”

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Kevin, many moons ago

For a couple of years, I was resentful of this. Here I am, trying to make Christmas memories for my children – how dare they be so uncooperative! But, as I shared with my sister, I finally realized I had to figure out why I wanted a tree. Was it for the boys? Or was it for me? If it was for the boys, and they didn’t care about it, then why bother doing it? On the other hand, if the Christmas tree was for myself, then the right approach should be joyful, because it was special to me, something I did for my own happiness. The answer was simple: I treasured this gentle, timeless ritual, hanging my collection of sentimental ornaments and twinkling lights on a humble little tree while singing my favorite carols off-key. Once I made peace with that, I enjoyed trimming my tree every single year – until this year.

I’m not planning to make this a permanent thing. Maybe just this once. It was nice to take a break, to be relaxed and unburdened, and not do something just because that’s the way I always did it. If there are grandchildren in our future, I hope Christmases will include lighted trees, shiny gifts, cookie baking and hot cocoa. Of course, our boys could decide not to have children, which is completely within their right. After all, they don’t have to please anyone but themselves, either. But at this point in my life, this subdued season was sweet, and just what I needed.

It met my own expectations perfectly.

Happy New Year!

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Christmas 2016 – I love my little tree

Give Thanks for Traditions

This photo is me with my wonderful Aunt Rose at the 2007 Irish-Italian parade in New Orleans, a day that will forever live in my memory as one of the very most fun times ever. I’ll tell you about it one day.

Aunt Rose was my godmother and my father’s younger sister. She passed away last February after a long illness, leaving behind my devoted Uncle Chris and a very quiet space that was once filled with her larger-than-life, zany energy. You can tell by our photo that she was a fun-loving person, can’t you? Although living in Savannah prevented me from seeing her often, I shared a sweet bond with my aunt. When I visited my family in July to celebrate Dad’s 80th birthday, naturally she wasn’t there. That empty place was punctuated by my uncle’s aching sadness. She is deeply missed by us all.

Traditions give us something to cling to when the world turns upside down

Like most families, we have our traditions. One of them has been gathering for Thanksgiving dinner at Aunt Rose’s house. Mom and Dad were surprised a few weeks ago when Uncle Chris announced that he wanted to host this year’s feast. Aunt Rose would be proud.

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Mirliton, aka chayote

Traditions give us something to cling to when the world turns upside down. No matter what the stock market is doing or who’s dating whom, there are certain things you can count on, like the fact that Christmas dinner will be at Mom’s house, and she always makes the baked macaroni and the stuffed mirlitons. (Outside Louisiana, these odd, pear-shaped squash are called chayote.) And that’s a good thing, because Mom’s baked mac is oozy and delectable, and her stuffed mirlitons – heavenly!

But life is never static. Ready or not, like it or not, it’s always evolving, and we see it in our family gatherings. Children grow up, get married and there are new faces at the table. Some, like me, move away and start their own traditions. The years go by and our elders are no longer with us. Everything changes. Only the love remains.

This Thanksgiving, Ret and I are on our own. Our children are living in different parts of the country – Kevin and Jared are in Seattle, and Cameron is in Memphis – and this is the first holiday when we won’t be seeing any of them. They’ve all shared their plans with us and it’s fun to think of them in their own kitchens, preparing their versions of Thanksgiving dinner. Kevin called my mom for her stuffed mirliton recipe. The tradition will go on!

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Jared, whipping up a pan sauce

It’s exciting to start a new tradition, one that’s rooted in the person I am and the life I have now

Meanwhile in Savannah, I’m doing something I’ve wanted to do for a long time – sparing the turkey. I’ve been mostly vegetarian for years, but I’ve always tried to serve a more traditional meal to please everyone else at the table. (There was one famous meltdown a few years ago when none of the guys seemed to know how to carve the turkey, and I had to do it. Not pretty.) Thankfully Ret, who is an omnivore, is usually happy to eat like me when we’re at home. So today I’m cooking a spicy stew with butternut squash, corn and beans; green chili corn muffins; mustard-glazed green beans; and a pear, apple and cranberry cobbler for dessert. Sounds good, doesn’t it? It’s exciting to start a new tradition, one that’s rooted in the person I am and the life I have now.

This is huge. The holidays of my childhood were always big, noisy affairs involving lots of people. Moving to Savannah in 1988 changed all that for me, and I hated it. I spent a lot of years in my old life feeling miserable during the holidays, wallowing in homesickness for my family in New Orleans, wanting things to be different and wishing I were somewhere else. And I could be feeling that way now, missing the boys and failing to appreciate what’s good about my life today.

As long as the love remains

While I do miss our sons – a lot – I’m thankful that they’re healthy, happy and blooming where they’re planted. And I’m glad my Uncle Chris is surrounded by love on his first Thanksgiving without Aunt Rose. Ret and I enjoyed a quiet, low-key day with our pets, cooking together, watching football, and chatting with the fam on the phone.

The most important tradition is sharing love. It’s okay to change your menu, your locale and your company at the table, as long as the love remains.

Don’t Read the Label

Have you found yourself despairing over the stories you read in the news lately? I’m thinking at the moment about the violence and tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia last month, the controversy over Civil War monuments, and the intensity around the NFL players’ protests, but I could really talk about any number of other incidents that highlight just how divided we seem to be. It breaks my heart.

Sri Swami Satchidananda, the founder of Integral Yoga®, spoke of this many times. In his booklet titled Meditation, he says, “We all have a tendency to divide people into thousands of names: I am this, I am that. Oh, he is different from me, she is different from me. We group people by their color, by their country, by their race and by their religion; and we kill each other.”

Do any of these labels tell you who I am?

Writing in journal (1)Recently I sat down with my journal and actually listed every label I could think of for myself. I’m a woman, wife, mother, daughter, sister, niece, aunt, and now that one of my sisters is a grandmother, I’m a great-aunt. I’m a yogini, a friend, a vegetarian, an employee and a co-worker, an Italian-American, a Caucasian, a somewhat lapsed Catholic. I’m a New Orleans native and a lifelong, die-hard Saints fan, an AARP member (yikes), a brunette, a Beatles fan (forever), a reader, a writer, a teacher, a student, a dog lover and a confirmed shoe addict.

Do any of these labels tell you who I am? Maybe a little. From this list you could make a few assumptions about me based on your own experiences with other people having the same labels. But they would be assumptions, because you have to run this analysis through your personal mental filter. And when it comes to mental filters, we have a problem: our filters get clogged with stuff that doesn’t belong there, which makes it hard for us to see things clearly.

Our souls all come from the same place

Growing up in the south in the 1960s and 1970s, I absorbed many attitudes and ideas about people who were not “like me.” Somehow, we overlooked the part in Jesus’s parable of the good Samaritan where He tells his disciples that everyone is our neighbor.

Over these many years, my world has grown and my mind and heart opened to the
reality that everyone is “like me.” We are the same. Our outer packaging may be different, but that’s just an accident of birth. Each of us is, as C. S. Lewis puts it, a soul that has a body, not the other way around – and our souls all come from the same place. My life is happier when I look at the souls of others, not their outward appearances. People are easier to love that way.

And isn’t that the whole point?

People like me

 

Learning to Take It Easy

This is Lacy Larue, my sweet little bichon frise. Don’t let the creampuff looks fool you. She’s all dog.

Right now, Lacy is recovering from ACL surgery so she hasn’t been quite her animated self. How, you may ask, does a ten-pound cutie like Lacy wind up with a football injury? Our veterinarian thinks her being very bowlegged put undue strain on the ligament, but he’s never seen her fly off the sofa in a frenzy to menace the UPS man. So I don’t know. What I do know is that it’s been darned near impossible to keep her still and quiet while her knee heals.

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Hiding Klondike bar wrappers in her bed

Little dog, big personality

Like most small dogs, Lacy’s personality is larger than life. My mom calls her the little cheerleader because of her infectious buoyancy. She’s a few months away from her tenth birthday; while she naps a lot these days, she still embodies the youthful exuberance of her puppyhood. A fluffy white ball of kisses and willfulness, one minute she’s snuggled up next to you to watch TV (she’s a football fan) and the next she’s prancing on hind legs, insisting you share your ice cream. She has an uncanny ability to communicate without words, using little grunts, squeaks and a sound I can only describe as a snort to let you know exactly what she wants, and she’s quick to give you the side-eye if she doesn’t like something you’ve said.

Did I mention that it’s been a challenge to moderate all this craziness? The first few days after her surgery, she was a curled-up, pitiful little thing, but as the days went by and the effects of the anesthesia faded, Lacy regained her happy vigor. She was born with an anomaly called luxating patella, which causes her kneecap to shift out of position at times. Luxating patella is a fairly common problem with small breed dogs and both of Lacy’s back legs are affected. It doesn’t seem to bother her much. She can be happily dashing across the yard, and then suddenly she’ll raise a back leg and continue on without breaking stride. Thanks to a lifetime of three-legged running experience, this knee surgery is just no big deal. She can tear off behind Tanner the border collie in pursuit of a squirrel without a second thought.

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Sweet baby, just home from the hospital

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Biker dog? No! She’s having laser therapy treatment to help heal her little knee.

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The cone of shame…

Except, of course, I can’t allow her do that right now, because sometimes she forgets herself and puts that leg down as she runs. Lacy disregards her knee to jump up and down like a pogo stick when she wants something, like my dinner. And if we’re sitting on the sofa together and the doorbell rings, it’s all I can do to catch her before she launches herself to the floor to bark at the intruder. So it’s my job to protect my little buddy from herself, to somehow contain all this wildness so she doesn’t wreck. Dr. Bink’s good work.

Don’t push too hard

Do you know any people like that? People who push too hard, who rush headlong into every experience? There’s nothing inherently wrong with striving, obviously. But sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between challenging yourself and abusing yourself.

This tendency to overdo it shows up in so many areas of life, like being consumed with your job to the exclusion of everything else, or depriving your body with a crash diet. Why is moderation so hard for many of us to achieve?

I note this tendency in some of my yoga students, and sometimes myself, right on the mat. Adopting a yoga practice is one of the most nourishing gifts you can give yourself, but as in everything else in life, there’s a balance. The Sanskrit word asana, which is the name for the physical poses in yoga, loosely translated means “steady and comfortable seat.” According to Sri Swami Satchidananda, the goal of Integral Yoga®, the style of yoga I teach, is to develop an easeful body, peaceful mind and useful life. This means practicing the poses with a relaxed body, smooth breath and calm mind. But when you’re panting, straining or otherwise in a state of unease, you may be exercising, but it’s not yoga anymore.

This doesn’t mean we should show up on our sticky mats in sloppy apathy. One of my teachers likes to caution her students to “take it easy, but don’t be lazy.” So muscling your way into an arm balance, a headstand, a deep backbend, etc. when you’re fatigued, injured or new to the practice is not a good idea. However, challenging yourself to hold a pose for a few more breaths, or to attempt something new with caution and full awareness develops greater strength, flexibility and resilience. It’s a balance of effort and ease that fosters growth in our yoga practice — and everywhere else, too. It makes me cringe to see people in a seated forward bend gripping their feet with white-knuckled intensity and clenched teeth instead of allowing their hamstrings to lengthen gradually, safely and naturally. We benefit most when we choose the right action, reach for our limit, and allow the rest to unfold.

Back to Lacy, who is relaxing happily next to me on the sofa as I peck out these closing words. Yes, in her zest for life, she gets carried away sometimes. She doesn’t understand anatomical principles or the healing process, so that’s why she needs me. But she’s always known there’s a time to snuggle and a time to bark. A time to play and a time to rest. And we need to enjoy it all.

lacy-relaxing

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Watch Your Language When You’re Talking to Yourself

Yes, I admit it: I laughed out loud when I first saw this meme. I’m not sure what made me laugh, whether it’s the Boston’s almost human expression of disdain or the feeling that this dog has been spying on my morning weigh-ins. As much as I’d like to blame the indulgence of the holiday season, the real reason I’m feeling a little bit like a dumpling right now is my flagging discipline over the past few months.

Then I thought, mean little dog! And I wonder how many people’s inner dialogue sounds just like this.

There’s a petty, judgmental tyrant living between my ears, too. She points out every flaw. My mistakes never escape her notice. Worst of all, she compares me to everyone else and finds me lacking. Sometimes hers is the loudest voice in the boardroom of my mind.

A wonderfully wise and playful swami taught me this lesson several years ago. Now I am sharing it with you. Try this:

Please close your eyes and imagine that I am placing a fresh, juicy wedge of lemon in your hand. Picture it in your mind’s eye as completely as you can, using all your senses – see the bright yellow color, feel the coolness in your palm, smell the citrusy freshness. Now imagine yourself taking a bite. I’ll wait right here while you try it.

lemon

Did you salivate?

If you did, you’re not alone. Every time I do this exercise with a group of students in my yoga or stress management classes, my body responds too.

Even without a real lemon in sight, your body reacted to the thought. Your mind is that powerful.

Can it be that the body responds to our mental messages all the time, even below our level of awareness? Consider how much damage we could do to ourselves without even knowing it. So often we give our body the message that it’s not important or doesn’t measure up. We deprive it of sleep. We starve it or feed it nutritionally depleted food. Some of us cram our feet into impossible shoes or squash our bellies in Spanx. (Honestly, I thought girdles went out with bra burning in the 70s!) So if our bodies stage a rebellion once in a while, who could blame them?

You would think we could give our bodies the respect they deserve, rather than calling them fat, clumsy or otherwise undesirable. These messages show up in our bodies, in the slump of our shoulders and the collapse in our chests. Really, we should be fascinated by the body’s marvelous, innate wisdom. It always knows what it needs. It’s the mind that causes all the trouble.

For example, as I sit at my laptop pecking out this message, my body is giving me distinct signals that it’s time for bed. It’s after 10 p.m. and I am feeling sleepy. I have a choice. I can listen to my body – it’s pretty smart about these things – or I can follow the directive of my mind and keep working. Knowing that I don’t function well when my sleep is poor, the right choice should be obvious.

My mind is also reminding me about the vanilla ice cream in the freezer and hinting that it would be really fun to have some. Never mind that it’s a little chilly in my house right now, and the last thing I need (see the dumpling reference in the first paragraph), is a fat-laden, sugary bowl of empty calories right before I go to bed. My body is not asking for food right now; it’s not hungry. And when my body does crave something, it’s usually virtuous – cool water, fresh greens, sweet berries.

Here’s the thing: If I indulge my mind by staying up past my bedtime to eat ice cream, not only will my sleep be disturbed while my body tries to digest all that dairy, but my mind will also berate me for it in the morning when I awaken feeling sluggish and heavy.

In a culture obsessed with physical appearance, it’s easy to focus on the numbers on the scale or the date on a birth certificate. We forget that the body is an instrument of the Divine. The Vedas of ancient India and St. Paul’s epistle in the New Testament tell us that the body is the temple of God. Rather than obsession, adulation or abuse, the right relationship with the bodies we are given is one of acceptance, respect and care.

Out of respect for my very own temple, I’m getting ready for bed now.

I let Ret polish off the ice cream.

Not What I Wanted

Sometimes not getting what you want is a great boon.

It’s a cloudy winter afternoon in the waning days of 2016. I’m sitting comfortably on my sofa, reflecting on all the blessings in my life and thinking about how unexpected most of them are.

I could tell you about all the twists and turns my life has taken – I never thought I’d leave New Orleans, didn’t expect to have a career or find myself divorced and then remarried in my forties. Very little went according to plan, but somehow it all turned out… beautiful. It proves I don’t always know what’s good for me.

Meet Tanner

This gorgeous red and white dog is one example. His name is Tanner, aka Tan-Tan. Three years ago, Ret and I rescued him from the pound just days before his time ran out. According to the staff at Animal Control, he was a year-old border collie mix, housebroken and recently neutered. (I know, poor guy!) At the time he weighed 42 pounds and was a bundle of joyful energy. He’d been found as a stray several weeks before and no one had come to claim him. The staff named him Victor, a name too stuffy for this happy-go-lucky fellow.

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Victor, the pound puppy

Victor wasn’t what I wanted. I was looking for a small, older female dog to be a companion for Lacy, my little bichon frise. We’d lost our three elderly pets, and for the first time in her 6 years, Lacy was an only dog. (She and Louie the parrot have never really hit it off.)

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Louie, don’t come any closer…

Anyway, once we learned that poor Victor was in danger, we couldn’t bear it. We adopted him and changed his name to Tanner.

From pound puppy to family dog

Lacy wasn’t crazy about our choice. Tanner was energetic and goofy and had no concept of personal space, especially hers. He chased tennis balls all over the house, skidding across the wood floors and around corners, and his big fan tail knocked things over. Taking his cue from Lacy, who is an outstanding companion animal, Tanner wanted to sit in our laps even though he didn’t fit.

Tanner was (and still is) fascinated by socks: empty socks, socks with feet in them and especially socks while a foot is in the process of slipping into it. He was particularly enthralled with Ret’s black work socks and couldn’t leave Ret’s feet alone while he was wearing them. Most of our dinnertimes were spent laughing at Tanner’s sock-loving antics as he rolled around under the kitchen table at Ret’s feet with an expression of loony determination on his face.

This dog did everything with the gusto befitting someone who narrowly escaped death and appreciates every single moment. When we gave him a chew rope he’d lie on his back, paws in the air, dangling the rope to his mouth. He banged into furniture chasing his own tail, something he did with regular and delightful abandon.

And he grew. And grew. In six months’ time, Tanner morphed from a wiry 42-pound youngster to a 75-pound protector with a thick, wavy coat and a fierce intelligence behind the comic demeanor. No way was he a year old when we adopted him. More likely, he was a 6-month old puppy.

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A little too big for Lacy’s bed

So much for my small, older female companion for Lacy.

Ret and I often find ourselves marveling over Tanner’s place in our lives. How’d we get so lucky? It’s heartbreaking to think of all the special dogs that aren’t fortunate enough to find a forever home, but I am so grateful we found this one before it was too late for him. He’s such a bright, loyal creature, even if he is a little spooked by the new washer and dryer.

Good boy

For all his slapstick ways, Tanner is a remarkably perceptive, compassionate dog. He seems to know when I’m feeling blue or under the weather; he’ll appear by my side like a sympathetic friend, with no advice to give, but lots of warmth and affection.

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Today Tan-Tan is a beloved, full-fledged member of our family. He is always ready for fun, but he knows when it’s time to stretch out and watch TV. We count on him to remind us when it’s bedtime – around 10 p.m. he’ll stroll into the living room and beckon us to pull out his mattress. He’s also really good about announcing every visitor. Sometimes I feel sorry for the UPS man. Oh, and Lacy has come around. She’s right there beside Tanner when he sounds the intruder alert.

Living in the moment

One of the biggest gifts dogs give us is a renewed appreciation for the present moment. Dogs are great that way. The most important walk is the one we’re having now. The best cookie is this one. The best day? Today!

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Yoga dog: Tanner practicing viparita karani, or legs-up-the-wall.

If I’d known Tanner would grow to be such a big dog, I might have passed him by. And I would have never even realized my loss. Like so many other people, events and circumstances in my life, he wasn’t what I planned at all. But he was exactly what I needed.