30 October 2012

Why You are Here

Dear Madeleine,

Over the weekend, you were working intently on science homework,  related to the formation of stars.  At one point, you looked up from your work and said, “This makes me feel small and wonder why I am here.”  At the time, I think my response to you was just one of agreement, but now that I’ve had some time to consider the question and reflect upon it, I’d like to change my answer.

I have a similar reaction of wonder and a sense of my own insignificance, as I gaze up at the stars, or watch our sun set beyond the immense ocean, or hike through some place as majestic as the Grand Canyon.  I’ve also been acutely aware of man’s irrelevance while walking among the giant sequoias or searching for the last glimmers of alpenglow on snowy peaks.  As I’ve aged, I find that I seek out this atmosphere, and I’ve gained a sensation of great peace and contentment from it.  Somehow, the realization that my own trials and triumphs, while enormous on my scale, are nothing in the face of geologic or astronomical time, provides me with a perspective that gives me space to breathe.    

I hope you never lose your sense of wonder and enchantment at the breadth and depth of time and space.  We humans are a mere blip in the grand scheme of the universe, though we fancy ourselves greatly important.  This is not to say that what you do with your time here is without value.  On the contrary, your life’s work is of significance that I cannot begin to explain.  It is critical that you do your best and strive all your life to do good.

As you read about the birth of stars in their nursery nebulae, I could see you recalling chilly evenings when you peered through your dad’s telescope at the Great Nebula of Orion.  The dust and gasses in that cloud wait, biding their time as you watched from light years’ distance, for enough critical mass to materialize into a new star.  And despite that great distance, those potential stars had influence on you, though today you might not understand their impact.

The shortest answer I can give you to your question Why am I here? is that you are here to love and to be loved.

But that is probably not an adequate answer to express the truth as I know it. 

You are here to help me understand love.  Before your arrival, I believed that love had capacity.  Now I understand that it does not.  Love is limitless; it is bound only by fear, even though love is stronger than fear.  I know now that love is not a pouring in, but a flowing out, ever expanding, like the red giant stars you told me about.

You are here, not only to learn and wonder about the mysteries of the universe, but also to teach us all, because you, too, are one of its marvels.  You are here because the sun and the moon conspired to create a bright, snow-dusted spring day lovely enough for your arrival. 

You are here because I am here, your father is here, and your grandparents are here.  Your ancestors - all of them - collaborated on a centuries-long project, the current iteration of which is you.

You are here to find something, although you don’t yet know what form this treasure will take, what questions of yours it will answer, or what paths it will lead you to explore.

You are here to be kinder than you need to be, to ask questions that are difficult to answer, to create something with the tools that you will find.  You are here to take care of others, to make soft, cozy dens that will shelter us from the harsher elements of life.  You are here to help others be less afraid.

You are here because it was time.  And watching you, I think of what felt like an eternity as I waited for the critical mass required for you to materialize.  The universe needed you and had prepared this space and time for you to bloom.

With much love,


21 October 2012

Kismet and the Bucket List

I keep thinking about a bucket list, specifically my bucket list.  And while I’ve done a few things in the past year (i.e., dancing badly in a flash mob) that could be considered bucket-able, I’ve resisted for a while creating my own bucket list.

I am a firm believer in free will: our autonomy to make our own choices.  It’s a wonder that man ever believed in a preconceived destiny, don’t you think?  I suppose that in today’s era, where we control our world - to an extent - and where we live in a world so ordered, it seems obvious that we have ownership of our individual fates.

But there’s that word:  fate.  The concept of fate is an obsolete one, one that implies our powerlessness in this world.  The world can often appear so random or chaotic, and so much more so in generations past.    If we think back on the lives of the Ancients, those with no concept of, say, the germ theory of disease, perhaps the most comforting way to make sense of the world was to absolve oneself of all responsibility and lay the onus on something other, some higher power, perhaps. 

I suppose, ultimately, we all share the same fate, although none of us knows the details, like how, or when, or where.  As Flogging Molly sing, we all go the same way home.  And so, when I begin to think of this ultimate fate, I always feel simultaneously attracted to and repelled from the concept of the bucket list.  I’ve always been a list maker.  If you know my mother, you’ll understand that this behavior trait of creating lists can only be both nature and nurture.  I love the idea of a bucket list.  The planning, the dreaming, the creativity involved in creating one is very appealing.  I have so many interests that I expect I could easily fill an entire notebook with my hopes and wishes.  But I’ve consciously resisted creating an actual, tangible one for myself (which is somewhat ridiculous because it certainly exists in my head).  And I think my resistance can be traced to my feelings regarding the concepts of kismet and serendipity.

I often find myself confusing these two terms and I can’t really pinpoint why.  Kismet is fate; serendipity is the magical phenomenon of finding valuable things not sought for:  a windfall.  And even if fate is fixed, would we know?  If our lives were all planned, wouldn’t all the positive aspects appear as serendipity and the negative as bad karma?  And while, as I already mentioned, I don’t believe in a pre-determined fate, there have been instances in my life that have played out in ways that have made me question my denial or acceptance of fate or serendipity, or both, or maybe neither.

For example, when I made the decision to return to Tucson and the university to pursue the teacher certification program after bumbling about for a year post-baccalaureate, the very first person I ran into on campus was Dan.  We’d known each other previously because he was good friends with my neighbors a couple years prior.  And a year or so later after that chance re-acquaintance, Dan and I were engaged.  How strange that serendipity caused our paths to cross that day.  Or was it serendipity?  Were we destined to meet up there that day, to begin walking this path that we are still following together, more than twenty years later?  I can’t decide.  If I asked Dan, he’d probably attribute our meeting in front of the campus bookstore to the fact that it was near lunch time, he was hungry, and he was on his way to the Student Union to eat. 

Of course, I prefer the romance of mystery, or is it the mystery of romance?  I can’t decide on that one either.  But regardless of all these questions, my resistance to the bucket list has to do with this delicate balancing in my mind of kismet and serendipity.  While I feel responsible for my own fate and I’m more than willing to accept the ramifications of the choices I make, I also do not want to plan my life out to the degree that I leave little room for serendipity to flourish where it may. 

I suppose my ultimate fear of the bucket list would be facing, on my proverbial death bed, all those items left unachieved.  How would that feel?  Ugh.  I didn’t want that kind of pressure:  a to-do list before you die, coupled with the unknown but looming and literal deadline?  But then I realized that creating my bucket list required a huge shift in this list maker’s paradigm.  First of all, the list is far more than its items:  it’s a source of dreams, an exploration of desire, a guide for living.  It’s most definitely not a checklist.  And so yesterday, I ventured downtown and found the perfect journal for my bucket list.  And today, with my favorite fountain pen in hand, I’ll begin to shape and sculpt my endless numbered days. 

Three items from my bucket list:

1.  Finish my first novel.

2.  Be able to speak Spanish with some degree of proficiency.

3.  Hike the Appalachian Trail.

What about you?  Share three items from your bucket list, if you’re so inclined.

15 October 2012

Wreaking Wreckage

On a recent family trip to Northern California, one of our purchases was a paperback book by Keri Smith called Wreck This Journal that we found at a stationery shop on Chestnut Street in San Francisco.  It was an impulsive choice, one I thought my daughters would enjoy during the rest of the summer.  It seemed like just the thing for a couple of creative girls with a quirky sense of humor.  But to be honest, I am surprised how much fun all four of us, adults included, have had wrecking it.  Each page offers some exercise in creativity to be achieved through destruction or silliness, or some combination thereof.

 Some examples:


At first, we started with a rule:  if it’s your turn, do one page and one page only.  Each of us had discovered several pages that we wanted to have all to ourselves, that we didn’t want anyone else to mess up before we had the chance to do them.  We each had to prioritize when it came to be our respective turn:  which page was mine to wreck?  But now it seems we no longer need any rules; we’ve all come to the understanding that we can each add to the destruction in our own unique ways.  We've come to look at the whole book as an ongoing project rather than a work of art.

It’s been incredibly fun to treat a book in such a manner, probably because of the fact that books are generally sacred in our house.  In fact, I’m often surprised at what a nice release it is to flip to a random page in the journal and carry out the action it suggests.  I don't usually promote products here on Chez Cerise, but I definitely recommend this book to anyone looking for something fun or silly to do, bit by bit.  It's funny, too, how handing the book over to a kid who says, "I'm bored," can completely change her outlook for the next several hours.

If this book survives the current generation, I hope it will become a relic for a future set of children to add to and pore over.

01 October 2012

Backpacking in the Grand Canyon: a Guide to Preparation in 41 Obsessive Steps

1.  Apply for permit four months ahead, cross fingers, request guidance from multiple gods of the canyon for patience and success with the process.

2.  Wait.

3.  If rejected, return to step one.  If accepted, rejoice and begin planning.

4.  Wait, dream, train, anticipate over the next three months.

5.  With one month left before departure, begin to check weather forecast for permit area, generally on a weekly basis at this point.

6.  Check moon cycle and breathe a sigh of relief if the timing isn’t right for a blindingly bright full moon during the trip.

7.  Create a multi-stop shopping list which includes staples like high protein foods, hooch, chocolate, and at least one new luxury backpacking item.

8.  Wonder how much TP is enough for the length of the trip.

9.  Worry Goldilocks-style if your boots are too new, too old, or just right.

10.  Commence shopping, knowing that you will forget something vital and will have to return more than once to at least one of the stores.

11.  Begin to pile necessary items into large stacks according to their general categories, like food, clothes, sleeping gear, etc.

12.  Check weather forecast.

13.  Divvy up stacked items into useful, useable amounts encased in ziploc bags of varying size.

14.  Wonder how Sir Edmund Hillary packed in the pre-ziploc, pre-plastic, pre-technical fabric era.

15.  Feel confident in the amount of food packed.

16.  Question how much coffee, hooch, and chocolate is enough.

17.  Redistribute stacks of items from general categories to personal stashes of who is carrying what.

18.  Restock first aid kit, and offer up a request to the canyon gods that nothing more than bandaids and ibuprofen will be necessary, but pledge your intention to carry the full one-pound-plus of the entire kit as an insurance policy against disaster.

19.  Check weather report from alternative sources and compare.

20.  Confer in person (if possible) and via phone with trip companions regarding necessities like stoves, water filters, fuel, rat sacks, liters of water per person.  How much is the absolute minimum?  How much is smart?

21.  Check weather report and river levels; appraise fishing potential.

22.  Carefully evaluate potential book(s) to bring.  Considerations:  too long?  too short?  too heavy?  appropriate subject matter?  is there another bibliophile on board with whom you can swap books?

23.  Lay out clothing with careful attention to socks. 

24.  Recheck weather forecast prior to completing clothing selection.

25.  Begin putting items in backpack, carefully noting items from the list as they are deposited (tricky to do with a family of four all working from the same list).

26.  Try on pack, adjust straps and reconfigure as necessary.

27.  Weigh pack with one eye closed, the other squinting at the scale.

28.  Sigh heavily and consider replacing heavier items with more hooch and ibuprofen.

29.  Actually weigh potential books using scale with grams; select lightest.

30.  Highlight items on list not yet in pack:  sun hat, trekking poles, food items in fridge, the currently recharging camera batteries, etc.

31.  Check weather report.

32.  The night prior to departure:  Check in with other trip members and confirm or deny questionable items; discuss weather forecast; determine departure time.

33.  Check packing list again; do not forget permit and national park pass.

34.  Check forecast from multiple sources to dispel rumors from trip companions.

35.  Haul packs from inside the house to the car and either A) believe devoutly and completely in your capacity to haul said pack the entire length of the hike without problem, or B) question the rational self and the philosophy of torture.

36.  Go to bed early, but stay awake late doused in a restless mixture of anticipation and apprehension.

37.  Drift off to sleep only to be awakened by a supremely significant something you’ve forgotten whose identity and purpose will vanish by morning, leaving a sense of anxiety.

38.  Wake up and make coffee; check and recheck forecast and packing list; take one last shower.

39.  Realize you forgot to make arrangements for the pet(s); argue with spouse over whose responsibility that was.

39.  Finish packing; leave house, hopefully remembering coffee; if not, it’s important enough to merit a return to house; stop at McDonald’s for a greasy, protein-heavy Egg McMuffin.

40.  Arrive at the canyon and search for a parking space; regroup at the trailhead, by which time, ideally,  all members of the group are happily caffeinated and ready for the adventure of hitting the trail. 

41.  Hike.