One year ago today, I left Tulsa, Oklahoma, for a six-week trip to Italy. Seventeen weeks later, I returned.
I spent six months planning this trip and when I embarked, there were still gaps in my itinerary. That was okay. I had enough bookings for air travel and lodgings reserved to frame the overall itinerary; enough to soothe my natural anxiety about needing to have plans in advance.
Overall, I’m not a spontaneous person. Spontaneity has never worked out for me. The “let’s play it by ear” and “we’ll figure it out when the time comes” has always left me frustrated and sad. I end up alone or the plans become too expensive, or too complicated. Without plans, I have a tendency to do nothing, to simply stay home. Plans force me out of my comfortable little world. Plans propel me forward.
As the Scottish explorer William Hutchinson Murray famously said, “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back.”[i] Plans make me commit.
And so it was with this trip. I HAD to go to Italy. Nothing was going to keep me from this adventure. Not a limited amount of funds, not unemployment, not even a world-wide health crisis.
When I left the United States, Italy had the highest rate of Covid-19 in all of Europe. But the cases were confined to the north. And I had no plans to go north. Despite my love of the humanities, despite all the admonishments that I simply must visit Florence and Venice, I had definitively decided I would stay South. I didn’t want to be a tourist. I didn’t need to see art or visit museums. I didn’t need a pilgrimage to the holy grails of history.
Rather, I wanted to experience Italy. I wanted to travel, to explore places I knew nothing about. I needed a transformational experience. And that couldn’t happen if I restrained myself to the safety of the typical Italian itinerary.
I also knew this trip had to happen exactly at the time I had planned for it. It had to be at the very beginning of March, 2020. I didn’t know why exactly—though I had several reasonable explanations to deter the endless questions from friends—I only knew that I felt this with an unshakeable certainty. This trip was an absolute necessity and it had to begin exactly when I had planned.
As it turned out, I was right. I could never have had the adventure I desired at any other time in history. My trip was transformative precisely because I trusted my instincts. I was present to a profound moment in history. I wasn’t watching it on TV from the comfort of my home, I was living it.
Of course, I didn’t know this until six days into my journey.
The hero’s journey always begins with a departure from the familiar. When we leave that which is comfortable behind. Sometimes this begins with a “call” – a voice inside telling us to go; an inner knowing urging us forward. Other times, we are kicked out. Something propels us out of our all-too familiar existence. We resist, wailing and screaming, as we bounce to the curb.
My journey included both. It began in 2019 when I was absolutely miserable in my job. Of course I have had jobs before where I wasn’t completely happy. Jobs where there was conflict or it didn’t feel like a great fit. But this job, well, this job was pure misery. I hated it. In theory, I should have loved it. I loved where I lived, I admired the institution where I worked, and I really liked my co-workers. But I was miserable. I was depressed. My body started rebelling. I cried constantly. There were days when I didn’t trust myself to drive. Something desperately needed to change. And it was in the midst of all this that I began planning my trip to Italy.
Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, after all, how we spend our lives.”
I remembered this quote at the height of my misery—as I sat sobbing and rocking in my discomfort—and decided this was not how I wanted to spend my life. This could not be my life.
But I didn’t trust the voice that told me what my life could be. What I could be. It scared me. I was a single woman in her fifties. Alone. Surrounded by so much love from friends, yes, that being alone didn’t bother me. In fact, for the most part, I truly relished my independence. But it weighed on me. I knew there were people who would take me in if something tragic happened but still… I was responsible for my life. I had to pay my bills. I had to feed myself. I had to work. There was no one else with which to share this burden. It was all up to me.
So while I couldn’t wrap my arms around the bigger possibility of a life that was waiting for me, I could at least see one thing: I needed a trip to Italy.
This is how my adventure began. With one 21” carry-on and one under-the-seat duffle bag, I left my home on March 3, 2020, and traveled to Italy.
What happened next, I could never have imagined, I could never have planned.
And therein lies the beauty.
My trip was a hero’s journey. What dragons did I slay? What boon did I capture?
Join me on my adventure and find out.
Follow me at https://findinghome.substack.com/. I will be revisiting my trip, one year later, through paid subscriber content ($6 a month, $46 for the year). I will dive into all the trials and fears, insights and surprises, that I didn’t reveal in previous posts during my stay. More than travel writing, I will explore home and the hero journey: calls to adventure, terrifying trials (including one recurring dark night of the soul), helpers along the way, and the inevitable return home. No sports, no fencing, no revenge, but plenty of monsters, torture, escapes, true love, and miracles. In other words, I’ll do my best to keep you awake.[ii] Please, I hope you’ll join me.
This is me at the airport and my original *planned* itinerary.
My mother was born in 1934 and would have been 87 years old next month. A few years before she died, she started writing down her memories of home as a kid. The following seems fitting to share before February is over. The cultural ignorance and accepted White narrative of the past is not acceptable today. I think inherently she knew that even when she was young. And yet, there it was, and she was a part of it. These memories will make you cringe.
Our homes shape us but they do not need to define us. By the late 1960’s, my mother was marching for Civil Rights. In various ways, she challenged the Lutheran Church to acknowledge and denounce racism. In this, she went against the norm. The Church was the home of her faith and a large part of her identity. She recognized her participation in the problem and strove to do better as an adult. As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
Here are my mother’s memories of growing up in Saginaw, Michigan in the 1930’s and 40’s:
We only went into the Fourth Ward for two reasons.
The Fourth Ward was the Black Ward in Saginaw. The “Negro” Ward we called it in the 1940s. All the Negroes in town lived in it.
It was directly north of downtown. On the East Side. A street that turned into the main highway between Saginaw and Bay City went through it. We called it the “River Road” because it followed the Saginaw River up to Bay City.
As I said, we used that road only for two reasons.
One was to have a picnic along the Saginaw River north of town. There were picnic grounds for miles and miles along the river and we used them some Sunday afternoons.
To get to the picnic sites along the Saginaw River, we had to drive to downtown on the East Side, and then north through the Fourth Ward. And as soon as we entered the ward, my father would tell us to lock our doors and roll up the windows. Negroes, or “Darkies,” had knives. They may not use them, but all males had them. In a time when carrying any weapon was limited to criminals, this was a frightening thought. So we never drove through the Fourth Ward with a window open—no matter how hot the day.
The housing in the Fourth Ward was run down—old, unpainted, rickety apartment buildings and houses. Yet the blacks on the street were dressed to the nines. The contrast was exceptional. In my naivete, I could not understand why Black men and women spent money on clothes rather than fixing up their homes. Why did they dress up in finery and parade back and forth down the main street? They didn’t walk, they pranced. From my closed car window, I was in awe. These people looked so happy. They greeted each other with big smiles, outstretched arms, and hugs. Yet how could they be so joyous? They lived in dirty poverty. I didn’t understand it.
One trip through the ward, I asked my father why the people lived in such terrible buildings. Why didn’t they fix them up?. He said, “They aren’t allowed to live in white people’s neighborhoods, Alice.” He didn’t give a reason, but I figured it out.. “Why fix up buildings that you can never buy?” Why, indeed?
No one I knew ever called African-Americans “Niggers,” but “Darkies” was ok. They were dark; they were different. They couldn’t get the same jobs as white people, so they couldn’t earn as much money. It would be a waste of money to “dress up” the houses they rented. The only thing they could dress up was themselves. They could look good! And they did. The ward seemed like another world. People living in abstract poverty, but dressed to impress. Each other. I could only gawk.
The other reason we ventured into this ward was to buy shoes. A few blocks north of downtown was a very, very old shoe store. The building was 19th century, and no doubt the shoe store had been there long before the ward turned black. White people continued to venture into the ward to buy shoes. But I never saw a Black in the store.
Racism—especially against Blacks—was everywhere.
Although we never called Blacks “Niggers,” the word was elsewhere in our vocabulary. Brazil nuts were “Nigger toes.” Black baby-shaped gumdrops were “Nigger Babies.” And we chose up sides for a game or jumped rope to the rhyme: “Eene, meenie, minie moe. Catch a Nigger by the toe. If he hollers, let him go. Eene, meenie, minie moe.” Did I say we couldn’t use the word Nigger at home, school, anywhere? Wrong. We could, and did. We didn’t give it a second thought. This was true among Whites across America at the time.
In the 1930s and early 40s Holy Cross Church put on minstrel shows. My dad directed both the acting and the music. “Mr. Interlocutor” was white; all the other characters were black-faced. Mr. Interlocutor was the leader who stood in the middle of a horizontal line on stage and questioned the “end” men. The whole show was a series of jokes and funny stories passed between the characters. “Mr. Interlocutor?” a blackfaced character would say. “Yes,” replied the white man. And so the conversation began. The humor was very much like the radio show “Amos and Andy” or black and white movies of that time that included Blacks. People laughed at the foolishness and ignorance of the black characters. Only the white man, Mr. Interlocutor, was smart.
Minstrel shows also included special musical acts and choruses. Their words, too, usually poked fun at Negroes. Once, on a visit to Fort Wayne, I remember finding a piece of sheet music in my Grandfather Stolper’s piano bench titled, “If the Man in the Moon Were a Coon.” I was startled. It wasn’t funny. It was blatant racism. It had been written about 1908. But I never suspected that the Minstrel shows I saw as a young child were anything but funny. Al Jolson had made a career out of being blackface. A Jew, a son of a rabbi, was blackface and sang “Mammy” on Broadway.
There were no Blacks in our Lutheran school because none lived outside the Fourth Ward. (The Fourth Ward had its own school, with an all-white faculty.) And there certainly were no Jews at Holy Cross. Why would they attend a Lutheran school? They were in Arthur Hill High School, I’m sure, but I never had any idea who they were. Frankly, I didn’t think much about Jews. My world was limited to my neighborhood, school, and church.
Stereotypes of Jews abounded. We were never taught that they were Christ-haters or that they could be blamed for Jesus’ death (our sins were the cause of that), but people said they might cheat you and so you should always be on guard. A racist expression people used freely then was “Jewing someone down” It meant to trick someone into lowering their price—to trick them into giving more value than what was paid for.
We didn’t know any Asians, not even any Italians or Irish. But at the beginning of World War II, we became extremely racist regarding the Japanese—“Japs,” as they were called. We were afraid of them. They were monsters, barbarous torturers of American GIs. I had a coloring book of Japanese children before WWII began in which I had carefully colored a few pictures of girls in fancy dresses carrying parasols. After the war began, I decided to throw the coloring book away. I couldn’t stand to look at it. But first I scribbled all the pages. I slashed all the beautiful pictures with bold black strokes! I was seven years old.
In the early 1970’s my mother wrote the following poem. It was featured in the monthly magazine of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod.
By This Shall All Men Know… © Alice Stolper Peppler
We decided to list his crimes
. . . the “Negro . . .
We began in black graphite for his color
and continued in red ink for his violence.
And we were most thorough.
Year after year
from babes to aged
We gathered our evidence
and continued our condemnation.
Lifting our heads to heaven, we stood unbent.
“God, we thank you that we are not like him.”
And the Creator looked down
and saw no color
. . . save black . . .
black skins, black hearts,
the black He created, the black we created
and in all . . . sin . . . self-Self-SELF!
Theirs, ours, it was one to Him,
one cancer of maggots!
Some fool shouted, “But God,
Everyone knows we are better!”
But a wise man trembled…
And watching the heavens,
he waited the holocaust,
the just reply . . .
No fire came! No hail!
No bomb! . . . nothing,
just drops of blood . . .
Blood that covered the black . . . the white.
Love! . . . the healing pool . .
The wise man fell, stricken.
He cried copiously.
Prostrate, he begged,
“God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
Discolor! Discolor us all!”
Be we walked indifferently into the pool
. . . our lists in hand . . .
Never noticing THEY were there too.
We took His love graciously
. . . condescendingly . . .
And when it came time to pray,
We stood erect.
“God, we thank You we are not like them.”
Above our list . . . the unrealized letterhead:
Love one another, even as I have loved you . . .
By this shall all men know that you are My disciples . . .
A new friend recently gifted me with the book, Between Silence and Light: Spirit in the Architecture of Louis I. Kahn, by John Lobell.
I vaguely knew about Kahn. He is the subject of the 2003 documentary, My Architect, and he designed the Kimball Art Museum in Ft. Worth, TX that I’ve been meaning to visit. Other than that, my knowledge was slim. Now that I’ve read more about him and re-watched the documentary, I still won’t do him justice with my words, so I won’t even try. He was a complicated man. Just as we all are.
But there are passages from this book that I want to share. Things that have me thinking about who we are. How we each come into this world as unique individuals. How we need to honor our individuality: we need to recognize the holiness in our uniqueness. And how that spirit extends to our homes and everything around us.
Kahn lived during a new “time of uncertainty and loss of spirit, a time of corporate anonymity and bureaucratic banality…. So he turned instead to the eternal, to that which transcends the circumstances of any given moment, where he found Order and from which he brought Spirit back into our world.” (p3)
I think this is true of us today as well. Each of us, in some way and to varying degrees and at different times, feels uncertainty in a world of banality. Conforming to the norms of our culture. Trying to make our lives fit into what is expected, even celebrated, by the masses.
Too often, we don’t listen to Spirit. The spirit inside us and all around us. We make ourselves small. We do not allow the silence, the time, or the space to hear the uniqueness in our beings or in our surroundings.
Consider the nature of the brick… You say to brick, “What do you want, brick?” Brick says to you, “I like an arch.” If you say to brick, “Arches are expensive, and I can use a concrete lintel over an opening. What do you think of that, brick?” Brick says, “I like an arch.”
It is important that you honor the material you use.”
“The beauty of what you create comes if you honor the material for what it really is.”
We are each unique. And every home is special. Honor the material, be that body or brick. Therein lies the beauty.
Between silence and light is Spirit. Listen to what it has to say.
Honor what It is. Honor what It wants to become.
If you are considering building your own home, check out Always by Design (AxD). Ed Barnhart is an architect in the spirit of Kahn. He is present to the spirit of home.
“The place where you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5)
There is a saying that the body is a temple, usually referred to when considering what we consume or the activities in which we engage. But what about where our body temple resides?
Home is a holy place. Some traditions recognize this more than others. The Jewish mezuzah is a small decorative case approximately 3” tall containing consecrated prayers and blessings. It is secured to the frame in each doorway (at the very least, the home’s entrance) and is touched or “kissed” with the fingers when arriving, as a reminder that one is entering sacred space, a place where God resides.
Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit: Bidden or not bidden, God is present. Carl Jung had these words inscribed at his front door.
Have you ever thought of why we ask children to use their “inside voice”? I like to think it is out of reverence for the tenderness of home, so as not to bruise it with shouting.
Mircea Eliade notes in his book, The Sacred and The Profane, that there are many rites specific to entering a home – “a bow, a prostration, a pious touch of the hand, and so on.” These actions acknowledge not only the entrance into sacred space but also the spirit guardians at doorways who forbid entrance to human enemies, demons, curses, and disease.[i]
Removing your shoes before entering a home, or immediately inside the entranceway, is one such custom. Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims all remove footwear before entering a temple or mosque, and also their homes. This is more than maintaining cleanliness. This simple action observes the holiness of the place being entered. The place where the Divine is present. It leaves that which is “unclean” or unholy outside. The doorway of the home is the threshold between the worlds. When we enter our home, we leave the common world behind.
A place where the Divine is present is known as temenos—a Greek word used by the ancients for the lands dedicated to gods: rivers, groves, hilltops, and temples. But certainly any place can be home to the holy, a dwelling of the Divine. As Yahweh told Moses at the burning bush, “The place where you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5).
Every home in Ancient Greece was the residence of the Goddess Hestia. She was the hearth fire, the soul of the home. Her fire transformed a dwelling, feeding both the body and the spirit. She was the burning bush. Home was temenos because She was there.
Homes have always been an axis mundi – an intersection between the heavens and the earth, a place where the everyday meets the sacred. Traditionally, the smoke rising from a fireplace, the home’s hearth, serves as the vertical connection to the heavens. The home fire feeds us, warms us, comforts us. Connecting the spiritual with the physical: the sacred and the profane. At this axis, we have direct contact with something greater than ourselves, that which provides us focus and, even, a center. As Mircea Eliade says,
“Our homes. . . present as completely different from the norm, set apart from everything else, so deeply special because something happens when we are in these places, we feel differently. . . connected to something greater.”[ii]
Our homes can be temenos. Our homes can be holy.
But we must start with that intention. And we must constantly tend to its fire to keep it warm and maintain the sacred within.
How is your home an axis mundi? How do you maintain temenos within the place where you live? Is there one room that feels more special than others? What reminds you that your home is sacred? What rituals or traditions do you observe? Is your home a haven of respite and renewal? If not, do you think it could be? What would it take for you to feel the embrace of the holy in the place which you call home?
When I bought my home in Picabo, Idaho, I did several things to imbue it with temenos. First, I hung mezuzahs at each entrance. Then, I held a formal house blessing with friends, in which every room was visited, a candle lit, and a prayer—specific to that room—was shared. I asked friends and family who were present, as well as those who were not, to create an individual prayer flag panel that I later strung together and hung from my front porch. These personalized blessings for the world were a powerful and constant reminder of God present. It’s a ritual I would love to do again.
Some of the prayer panels that friends and family made.
[i] The Sacred and The Profane by Mircea Eliade, Harcourt, 1987. Page 25
[ii] The Sacred and The Profane, Page 12
“Winter must be cold for those with no warm memories.”– Anne Bradstreet (Puritan Colonialist, poet, mother of eight, (1612-1672)
When I was growing up, kids were allowed to play outside unsupervised. In fact, it was the norm. Even the expectation. No questions asked. Just the offhand instruction of “Don’t get into trouble,” followed by, “Be home for dinner.”
But of course, we got into trouble. Like the time I cut my hand on a fence running from cops after a friend’s younger brothers threw snowballs at cars, causing them to crash. Pretty stupid. And hey, that’s the kind stuff that kids often do. Not smart, but makes for great memories.
My favorite winter memory though is skitching. Grabbing onto the bumper of a slowly passing car and catching a ride, a free and dangerous slide, for as long as the ice and car would take you. Truth is, this is the kind of thing that can kill you. Or at least, seriously maim you. And — it is fun as hell, especially to a kid.
Honestly, I only did this once. I wish I had done it more but I’ve never been a thrill-seeker and always err on the side of caution, even as a kid. But oh, that one glorious night! New Year’s Eve 1978, when a blizzard brought 8.5” of snow to Chicago. I was with my best friends, Lisa and Margie, and after spending much of the night rescuing cars from snowbanks, we started skitching free rides on their bumpers, laughing hysterically over the thrill. Of course, this is back when cars had real rubber bumpers. I wonder if skitching is the reason these no longer exist. Because the bumpers we have now are useless. But I digress.
Other than this one glorious night of falling snow and skitching on Sunnyside Street, I have no memories of playing in the snow. I only remember shoveling.
The Chicago winter of 1978-79 brought almost ninety inches of snow: 89.7” to be exact. The worst of it was two days in mid-January when twenty inches fell. The city went on complete lockdown for over two weeks. For those of us who had cars parked in garages, there was no way to get out. Alleys were never plowed. Buses stopped running. Schools were closed. Parents couldn’t get to work. We were stuck inside. Cabin fever was all over the news and running rampant in our homes.
That was the year I convinced my mom to buy me a powder blue ski jacket and black puffy ski pants. Not that I would ever ski, but theoretically so I could play in the snow with my friends. But I couldn’t get to my friends. I couldn’t even get past my front door. So, I shoveled.
I shoveled the front steps and then I shoveled the walk up to the house. I shoveled the path to the garage. I even shoveled the roof. The threat of roof damage was real from all that heavy snow, so as the lightest and the smallest in the family, I was sent to the roof to remove it. I shoveled and shoveled and shoveled.
And then, I looked down at all that snow in the back yard and… I jumped. It looked so soft and fluffy. So inviting. The snow asked me to play and I accepted. Only, it tricked me. It wasn’t soft. It was hard and packed and dangerous. I was stuck in its icy embrace. My brother, either grumbling or laughing (I can’t remember which), had to shovel a path to get me out. But hey, that’s the stupid stuff that kids do. And it made for a great memory.
I lived in Idaho for fourteen years, at an elevation of 5,850’. It was beautiful. It reminded me of the small town in Michigan where I was born and spent my summers as a kid. Except for the winters. The winters were rough. So much shoveling of copious amounts of snow. Sandbags in my car to keep from sliding. And too many falls on the ice while walking my dog. I tried to create new fun memories in the snow, but my nose leaked endlessly when cross-country skiing and I post-holed too many times while snowshoeing. Admittedly, part of my desire to leave Blaine County was snow fatigue.
For over two years now, I’ve lived in Tulsa and I love it. It feels like small Midwest city-town, only, in the South, where it is typically warmer. Except this morning it was -8 degrees and we have snow, with more on the way. This is not typical. This is extraordinary. Unprecedented. My little dog, Mazie, is confused each time I open the door. The snow gets stuck in her paws. She doesn’t know where to potty. It’s unsettling. We’ve been inside for a week. I’m warm (enough) and grateful, and – admittedly- I’m a bit stir-crazy.
The places that feel like home are the places where we laughed and played as children. The settings for those good memories – houses, landscapes, weather – become imprinted on us. They nestle into our hearts and psyches. As adults, we long for similarities in our surroundings to make us feel at home.
Winter cold and snow do not feel like home to me. I don’t have enough of those playful memories.
Ah, but for everyone who DID play in the snow as a kid, for everyone who has fond memories of seeing their breath in the air, of bundling up and laughing, of throwing snowballs, crafting snowmen, and making snow angels… may you tap into your inner child and enjoy these spectacular winter days! Go outside and play!
And if you see someone shoveling, maybe you can pull them into your play too. ⛄️❄️
Photos of me from January 1979, family collection. Photo of Chicago alley is courtesy of Brian LoCicero.
As the new year begins, it looks a lot like the year that just ended.
Yes, we have a vaccine now for Covid19, but the success of it will take many months to change our current situation. And that is only if everyone gets the vaccine. And, if it works on virus mutations.
At the moment, Covid19 deaths and infections are still soaring. Many of us are still working from home, if we are even still working. Our kids are still learning from home. Broadway is still canceled. Restaurants are still going out of business. At the beginning of January, things still look pretty bleak.
Except that it IS a new year. And this month is named for a Roman god who can guide us, if we’re willing.
Janus is the god with two faces. More than two faces, he appears the same from the front as he does from the back. In this way, he looks the same both coming and going. Which is exactly what 2020 and 2021 look like right now. We stand on the threshold of what has been and what will be, and it looks very much the same.
Ah, but we ARE at a threshold.
Ovid, in his treatise on Roman holidays, tells us most of what we know about Janus. How the ancients called him Chaos because he was present at the beginning, when all the elements were together in one single heap. And when fire, air, earth, and water separated, Janus took form. As testament to his own beginning, his two faces see the confusion from whence he came and the possibility of what is to come.
And that, more than anything, seems prophetically important right now.
2020 was chaos. Utter chaos.
I don’t need to recount for you everything you already know. How death in all its forms ravaged nations. How it attacked our lands, our people, and our traditions. The millions of acres scorched by wildfires. The millions of people who have died. Millions more that have been sick. Millions more who lives are forever altered. Entire communities. Countries. Everything that was familiar and comfortable has been turned upside down: our sense of security and safety and order, our habits, our social enjoyments.
From inside our homes, we observe the world outside. We struggle within as the world struggles without.
Janus is with us. He stands at the doorway, observing both. His dominion is both the public and the private. And, as the god of doorways, he carries the key. The key with which to open and close doors. The key to understanding.
As we welcome a new year, we would do well to remember Janus.
May we look ahead while not losing sight of the path that brought us here.
May look inside ourselves, as well as outside. And may we care for each equally.
May we remember that the truth of our future lies in the truth of our past. May we recognize these truths and see them clearly.
We stand at a threshold.
Looking forward, looking back.
We hold the keys.
As Janus tells Ovid in Fausti, “Beginnings set the tone for things.” How we begin this new year is critical.
Let us begin with clear sight. Let us move out of the chaos. Let us step wisely into what lies ahead.
Ovid’s Fausti, Translated by Betty Rose Nagle, Indiana University Press, 1995
Illustration is from Manual of Mythology, by Alexander S. Murray, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1885
Back in 1996, on a whim, I got braids. I didn’t have any thoughts about what that meant socially or politically. Honestly, it wasn’t part of our national conversation. Or maybe I just wasn’t aware. I was aware of the power of hair, at least for me as a white woman. But I had no idea what it meant for women of color. I was young. And let’s face it, my awareness, like so many of us, was shaped by my own experience.
I was eleven years old when I first discovered the power of hair. Monica was a shy white girl in the class behind me. And she had a long beautiful dark brown mane that fell midway down her back. And then, suddenly, at the beginning of the next school year, Monica appeared with a bob, falling just below her ears. Her hair was short! No longer quiet, she was now outgoing! She became popular! Her transformation was amazing. Very clearly, so it seemed to me, her personality change had everything to do with her hair change. Cutting her hair had made her more confident. I’ve never forgotten my amazement.
Not oddly, when I was in high school, I wanted to look like Jacqueline Smith after she left Charlie’s Angels. But a long wavy mane is a pain to maintain so I got a perm. The result? Classmates called me “Babs” after Streisand. Ok, admittedly, that also had to do with my nose. Sure, it was easy to care for but it was a beauty disaster.
By the time I moved to San Francisco at age 18, I was tired of trying to be pretty. I didn’t want men looking at me. So, I cut my hair short. Like, short short. For over thirteen years my hair was boy-short. I even shaved my head. Twice. The only exception was when I grew it out to travel to Germany with my father (but that’s another story).
Anyway, in 1996, I convinced my sister to travel to Venezuela for Christmas. I like to be low maintenance, especially when I travel (remember, that’s why I got a perm), so I decided to get braids. I figured it would be super easy and I wouldn’t have to deal with my hair. Because you know what? Even short hair can be a pain to maintain.
My normal Chicago bus drove past a neighborhood salon and for months I admired the photos of women in braids plastered on the windows. Yes, they were all black women. And no, I didn’t know anyone who had braids. It wasn’t a fad and other people weren’t doing it. Sure, there had been Bo Derek years earlier but I actually hated that look.
Bottom line: I didn’t get braids to be sexy or defiant or even different. Honestly, they just seemed practical, beautiful, and easy.
So, I saved up my money ($250 in 1996, which was a lot for me) and booked my appointment. The woman who worked on my hair for hours was from Senegal and spoke only French. The other two women in the salon giggled a bit. Best I could tell, they thought it was funny – this white girl getting braids. It was also a challenge because my hair was so short (approximately 4 inches on top), which was barely enough with which to weave the synthetic hair. Even with glue, within six weeks, they were falling out. My hair was simply too short to hold them.
But oh those six weeks! They were uncomfortable to sleep with but while awake, the braids made me feel regal. Like Cleopatra. A queen. They were a crown of sorts. The weight of them. The shape of them. And then, the length. Hair that brushed my shoulders! Hair that I could swing!
Today I absolutely understand this as cultural appropriation. But was it then? Phyllis was my nearest friend of color – we lived in the same building and saw each other regularly and socially. Did she consider it appropriation and was too nice to say anything? What would my black friends say today if they saw these photos? Was I grossly out of line?
Hair is a very powerful thing. Hair itself holds power, according to indigenous beliefs. And remember the story of Samson? Undeniably, hair defines how others see us. Even how we see ourselves.
I knew this power of hair when I cut mine and kept it short. I felt confident and strong. I knew this when I shaved my head. I felt fierce and unencumbered. And I have been keenly aware of this as I age and keep my hair long and dark. I can finally embrace my femininity. Maybe I knew it when I got the braids – at least in terms of some budding awareness of how I was changing myself. But I never thought about it in a broader sense, in anything outside of myself.
This is what I’m struggling with today: whether or not I committed cultural appropriation at the age of thirty. I would never do it again, I swear. But to be honest, I have to admit, I’m so glad I once did.
For six brief weeks, I had braids. And that was the beginning of a transformation for me. It took two more decades for me to fully embrace it but now I feel it, no matter how I wear my hair. I am regal. I am a queen. And that is the best “coming home” I could ever ask for.
I never believed in Santa. Never. Really. He was just a story with ancient origins that my parents would share to illustrate how even one person could make a difference by doing something kind.
But the Christ Child, he was real. Christmas was all about the Christ Child. And it was he who brought us gifts on Christmas Eve.
My memories of Christmas as a child are wonderful. They are everything we want our childhood memories to be: filled with laughter and joy and delight. After weeks of Advent, of preparation and anticipation, Christmas Eve would finally arrive and the Christ Child would come.
Our family always attended church on Christmas Eve and the Sunday School kids would recite the nativity story from the book of Luke. The service was filled with candles, and organ, and hymns. And then we would run home and up to our rooms to change into pajamas. When we came down, we would discover a pile of presents for each child. Unwrapped, of course, because the Christ Child didn’t have elves in a workshop, but he did always have time to deliver our gifts. While we squealed with delight, plunging into our individual trove of treasures, our parents would bring out a tray of cheese and a mug of slush for each of us. Then we would settle in to open all the wrapped presents from family that had been gathering in the living room throughout December. Presents were opened one by one and as we waited patiently for our next turn, we would pound the slush and scoop it into our mouths.
(My mother’s recipe for Slush is made with cranberry juice, lemonade, and a little bourbon – just enough to keep it from freezing entirely and just enough to get us to sleep at a reasonable hour. My mother was no fool. Regrettably, every church woman who deleted the bourbon in the church recipe book was. This treat is still a family tradition, though these days we add a lot more bourbon. The small dose for kids is never enough for adults. 😉
Everything that makes Christmas special for me, is celebrated on Christmas Eve.
But Christmas Day? The truth is, I don’t remember Christmas Day as a kid. I suppose we ate breakfast like any other Saturday and then played with our new gifts. I really don’t know. I have no memories.
As an adult, that changed.
I was twenty-four years old when my father died on Christmas Day, just after 8:00 AM.
Honestly, it was a perfect day for him to leave his body. My stepmother illustrated the bulletin cover for his funeral with the words, “Oh Jesus Christ, thy manger is my paradise.” Like I said, it was fitting. He knew he was dying. And if he couldn’t hold on until Easter, then he would have to die before Lent because, as he said, his funeral included too many hallelujahs. He liked to joke that he would die on Epiphany, so he could travel home with the wisemen. But his body couldn’t hold on that long. When we celebrated his baptismal anniversary on December 23 by anointing his head with oil, he was lucid enough to know he only had two more days to wait until the promise of his faith was fulfilled.
He knew it was Christmas Eve when my stepmother and I left for church. It was only the second time I had left his side in two weeks. And when we returned, he had begun his transition. He was in that in-between space, wiggling free from his body and leaning towards the light. I got into his bed and spooned him until 2am when it was time for my stepmother to sleep. I woke and heard the grandfather clock chime eight times. Then Judy called for me. I held his hand on one side as she held the other and he took his last breath.
The rest of the day, well, I remember it quite clearly. As I do many of the Christmas Days that followed. For years, I would spend it with my sister. We would watch old movies while eating a spinach rice mushroom and cheese concoction we now call Christmas casserole. I still eat that casserole every December 25th.
So you see, my traditions of Christmas haven’t really changed. Christmas Eve is still special to me and Christmas Day, well, if anything, my father’s death made that day holy too.
What I celebrated as a child is still what I celebrate today: the birth of the light, the light of the world. With the return of the light, the darkness wanes. The prophesy is fulfilled. Sunnier days are ahead.
For me, the most anticipated holiday of the year is Winter Solstice.
Christmas is just one of the many holy days during this winter season which share the same theme: the return of the Light and the renewal of life. At Hanukkah, we are reminded that there is always enough fuel in the lamp to keep burning, even when that seems impossible, even when the days seem darkest. And then Solstice arrives and the earth seems to stand still for a moment, for a few days, until the course is corrected, the nights get shorter and the days longer. The Christian celebration of God arriving in human form was deliberately set for December 25 to coincide with the Solstice (which was originally that date). It fits perfectly with our ancient human need for good news when everything seems bleak.
When God answers our prayers, we rarely see the results immediately. Instant miracles, well, that’s the stuff of legends and stories. Our daily truth is much slower. We are sick, the fever breaks, the infection is beaten, but it still takes time to restore our strength. The Sun is *born* again but it takes days until we see the fullness of it. The twelve days of Christmas begin on December 25 because traditionally it took twelve days for the yule fire to burn. Twelve days before we see the sun lengthen. Twelve days to Epiphany. A sudden knowing, a light. While the miracle has already happened, it is twelve days (or really two years) until the wisemen arrive with gifts.
Today I celebrate the Solstice. The beginning of a promise fulfilled.
Tonight, I will light candles in every room of my house and my home will be ablaze in a warm glow. I will read stories from multiple traditions and will sing one of my favorite hymns, Thy Strong Word Did Cleave the Darkness. I will meditate on light on dark, awash in metaphor. And I will keep celebrating through Christmas, all the way to Epiphany.
I hope you will too. May you, too, celebrate the eternal light that is in us and around us. Always. Even when we can’t see it. Even when we forget. Our prayers are answered. The promise is fulfilled.
A few days ago, a man yelled at me in the post office. I came home and made myself a drink.
My response was not cause and effect per se. My response was simply my present. A mixture of Covid19 and a country unhinged. Exposed and unbridled injustice. Climate change and mass extinctions. So much loss. Existential angst. This is Winter 2020. This is now.
Most days are hard. Challenging. Difficult. Up and down, in and out, moment by moment. Yet the moments string together into days and nights, tumbling over themselves so rapidly that I am always amazed another week has already passed. Eat, sleep, do dishes, eat again, do more dishes. Tackle one problem a day. Insurance. Billings. Website. Groceries. Work.
Every day, I walk my dog. Other than that, I rarely leave home.
I write but I don’t publish. I pray but not on my knees. I meditate but not on my mat. I stretch and contract, stretch and contract. I feel like May in the Secret Life of Bees. I feel it all. I need my own wailing wall.
I live in gratitude and wonder and pain. My soul is a kaleidoscope of sand and broken glass, endlessly beautiful, always turning, catching the light. The profundity of seemingly the most banal and certainly the most painful moments makes me cry. My tears are as spontaneous as my laughter, truer than any words I’ve ever spoken and more proficient. Grief-stricken by the loss of life, lights that were extinguished too early. Overwhelmed by love. Hungover from crying.
Quite literally there are days when I don’t trust myself to drive. When tears wash over me like nausea. My ears are ringing. Grief makes me queasy. I need to sit down. Catch my breath. Inhale. Exhale. Get back on the mat. Wipe the stinging water from my face. Do nothing. Be horizontal. Snuggle my dog.
My pain is my meditation, as much as my silence and my conversations. My memories are my prayers. My phone pings and I am roused, and the cycle begins again. I address some pressing need. I play with my dog. Eat. Do dishes. Watch a little something, read a short bit. Respond to a text.
The good news is that I’m not an alcoholic. A glass of wine with dinner that I sometimes don’t finish before switching to tea. Endless pitchers of water. Even my Italian addiction to coffee is waning. Last week I broke down and for the first time since the pandemic, I bought myself liquor: good bourbon, vermouth, and aged cherries. A Manhattan never tasted better. But only one, maybe two, and then I’m back to water and tea. Of course, there’s chocolate. Lots and lots of chocolate and sweets.
I know I’m not alone. I’m not the only one feeling this way. There is a chart circulating on Facebook for identifying if you’re thriving or in crisis, with surviving and struggling in-between. If only it was that simple and exact, that linear, that clean. I can run the full gamut in a day. And please, I don’t want your sympathy and I don’t want you to worry. I suspect that even those who post perpetually good thoughts and positive thinking, those who are holding jobs and “functioning well”, are also experiencing the same range. We are each hurting, struggling, and grieving in our own ways. We cope. We function. We connect. We laugh, we cry, we worry, we rest.
It is good to know that we are not alone. And still, the experience is singular. It is not enough to say we are all going through this. The shared experience is not comforting. Instead, it is necessary – truly – and terribly important – to acknowledge that we are each in our own unique, singular pain. We need to honor the individual experience, as well as the collective.
The man at the post office cut in front of me while I was socially distancing. When I pointed out that I was in line, he raised his voice and verbally insulted me. I was startled. The screws holding me together began to tremble loose. Tears ran down my face. I finally turned to him and said his words were unfair, untrue, and unkind. He responded, “I hope you have a good day.” Again, startled, I turned away. A good day does not negate the unjustness of his behavior. A good day is not without pain.
Every day is a good day. Every day I have my dog snuggled warm beside my body rolling in the leaves walking on her leash perched on the couch like Snoopy reaching up with her paws on my knees and tossing her toys in play is a good day. Every day that I eat can afford to buy groceries cook healthy meals and taste flavors and smell and breathe and poop is a good day. Every day I stretch on my mat and practice yoga and light the candles on my alter and say my prayers and chant is a good day. Every day with a roof over my head and a car than runs and credit with a balance below my limit and a phone and a computer that are working is a good day. Every day I talk with a friend or my siblings or even a stranger and smile and connect, these are good days. These are great days. Every day is a gift.
And most days are hard.
This is a messy and vulnerable and intensely human admission. We are together and we are alone. I haven’t shared this before because if we’re all feeling similar things then… why would you want to read this? My own experience isn’t important. But today I am posting, because, maybe it is.
As a diversion from current events, I’ve been rereading The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff (ã 1982). I think we could all use a dose of Pooh these days. As well as a spoonful of honey. And a Daoist perspective on living in the present – especially these present times. This book is all that. A good, simple, and delightful reminder of so many things.
Today, one allegory in particular strikes me: the story of Piglet, Pooh, and Rabbit being lost in the woods and trying to find the way home. Round and round they go, always returning to the same place: a pit. Rabbit won’t stop talking and finally Pooh says, well, read for yourself:
“Well,” said Pooh, “we keep looking for Home and not finding it, so I thought that if we looked for this Pit, we’d be sure not to find it, which would be a Good Thing, because then we might find something that we weren’t looking for, which might be just what we were looking for, really.”
“I don’t see much sense in that,” said Rabbit. . . “If I walked away from this Pit, and then walked back to it, of course I should find it.”
“Well, I thought perhaps you wouldn’t,” said Pooh. “I just thought.”
“Try,” said Piglet suddenly. “We’ll wait here for you.”
Rabbit gave a laugh to show how silly Piglet was, and walked into the mist. After he had gone a hundred yards, he turned and walked back again . . . and after Pooh and Piglet had waited twenty minutes for him, Pooh got up.
“I just thought,” said Pooh. “Now then, Piglet, let’s go home.”
“But, Pooh,” cried Piglet, all excited, “do you know the way?”
“No,” said Pooh. “But there are twelve pots of honey in my cupboard, and they’ve been calling to me for hours. I couldn’t hear them properly before, because Rabbit would talk, but if nobody says anything except those twelve pots, I think, Piglet, I shall know where they’re calling from. Come on.”
They walked off together; and for a long time Piglet said nothing, so as not to interrupt the pots; and then suddenly he made a squeaky noise . . . and an oo-noise . . . because now he began to know where he was; but he still didn’t dare to say so out loud, in case he wasn’t. And just when he was getting so sure of himself that it didn’t matter whether the posts went on calling or not, there was a shout in front of them, and out of the mist came Christopher Robin. (p. 14 (original story from The House at Pooh Corner)
Home is always calling us. When we are still, when we stop talking, stop filling the air with distractions, we can hear it. The trick is to be quiet and keep moving. Ever so slowly. Feeling our way through the fog. Relying on deeper senses to guide us. Move gently. Embody stillness in action. Breathe. Breathe deeply. Listen. The cupboard is full.
Home emerges out of the mist when we are able to do this. Slowly and simultaneously quite suddenly. We find ourselves exactly where we want to be.
And therein lies the honey.
I love my bed. I love being in bed. I still have a button that a girlfriend gave me in 1987 which says, “I have no idea what I’m doing out of bed.” I can no longer remember if that had amorous undertones or was just a commentary on my preference to be resting under soft cotton sheets, but the sentiment is still funny and true.
Bed is the ultimate sanctuary for me. My safe place. My retreat. Actually, the entire bedroom feels that way, but it starts with, centers on, the bed itself.
The wrong mattress can ruin your life. That’s not a joke. And good linens can be transformative. The right pillows, too, are essential.
I spent most of my sleeping adult life on a metal frame. The kind that comes free with a mattress purchase. Easy set-up and lightweight. Perfect for the person who moves a lot. It wasn’t until I bought my home that I finally committed to a wooden sleigh bed. It’s not the highest quality, but it feels incredibly grounding. It is, undeniably, the center piece of the room.
I think our beds and our toilets are the most intimate places of our homes. Our most vulnerable and purely human places. The places where our masks come off. Where the good and the bad, drool, farts, and radiance are intertwined. There is something incredibly profound, even holy, about that.
I spent a lot of time in bed as a kid. Under the age of 10, I was sick a lot. Of course, we all spend time in bed when we are sick. Bed rest is the only way we heal.
We have this ridiculous notion that resting is doing nothing. That we need to constantly consciously be doing something. We completely forget that the body is always at work. It is incredibly active even when we’re not paying attention. Blood is pumping. Cells are regenerating. Toxins are being purified. Life is happening. Our psyche, too, is integrating information and change. In other words, resting is not a passive act.
A friend recently said beds are great because you can do almost anything in them. You can read, talk on the phone, watch TV, eat, play, and yes, sleep, all from the comfort of your bed. She said being a writer is the one occupation you can do from the comfort of a good mattress and firm pillows. Well, certainly another occupation comes to mind, but as a writer herself, I think she was channeling Edith Wharton.
Except that I don’t want to do those things in my bed. In a hotel room, certainly, but not at home. Watching TV, eating or working while in my bed doesn’t feel right to me. In fact, it feels very wrong. Like wearing flip-flops and a t-shirt to church on Sunday. Yes, people do that these days. But I don’t. I can’t.
My bed is a sacred place. Where I say my prayers. Where I record my dreams. If I’m in a relationship, it’s where I make love. None of these activities distract from the bed’s true purpose: to support me. To reconnect me. To restore me. It’s where the splintering of my daily life is healed. Where my broken, cracked, and bruised parts are mended. Where I am strengthened. Where I am made whole.
One of my favorite parts of The Odyssey by Homer is when we learn that the palace in Ithica was literally built around the king and queen’s bed. In Book XXIII, Odysseus tells us that on their land was an olive tree and around that tree he designed their entire home. From that tree, he carved their bed. The bed can never be moved. To remove their bed would be akin to cutting out their hearts – completely destroying their lives.
Trees, with their roots deep in the ground and their branches reaching to the sky, are an axis mundi – the place where heaven and earth meet. They are a conduit, allowing movement, communication, and nourishment between above and below. They are an intersection between the worlds. Where the ordinary, the mundane, reaches and connects with the divine. The world turns and this axis remains. It is constant.
Consider this meaning from The Odyssey: the heart of the home is their bed, built from an olive tree, the most sacred of trees in their world. Their bed is infused with the power and energy of this tree, the most stable and solid trunk. Everything they do in that bed is rooted to the earth and reaches to the heavens.
I like to think of my bed this way. As an axis mundi. As the place that grounds me and lifts me. A constant in the storms of life. An ordinary place, a basic necessity, that is transformed—and transforms me—when I surrender to it. The bedroom is a holy place. The bed, a container for communion.
While the kitchen is symbolically the hearth of the home, where the fire literally burns and our bellies are fed, the kitchen nourishes our mortal selves. The bedroom nourishes our souls. It is the beating heart. The purification of our blood. The regeneration of our spirits.
I spend a lot of time in bed. Since Covid, more than usual. Long naps are a daily routine. Previously, a short power nap would restore my energy. Not now. These days I need more. Big change is happening. Like a caterpillar that retreats to a chrysalis, I am transforming my life. And that takes energy. And lots and lots of rest. I still struggle with not doing “more” – things that allow me to see immediate results. And then I remind myself, resting is not a passive act.
Maybe this is what most of us need right now. More time in our beds. Less conscious doing. More resting. We are all going to need our energy for the changes to come.