Summer sanctuary

We are all hungry for this other silence…. In its presence we can remember something beyond the moment, a strength on which to build a life. Silence is a place of great power and healing.” — Rachel Naomi Remen

SanctuarySummer’s first week rolled in on a brutal heat wave in more ways than one. For starters, last Tuesday I visited the Rochester Skin Cancer Center to have a basal cell skin cancer removed from my cheek.

Prior to my appointment, I’d read about the Mohs method, which, thankfully, incorporates plastic surgery immediately following the cancer removal. So I knew what to expect from the procedure itself. But I didn’t expect to come home with a black eye, a painfully swollen cheek, and three inches of black stitches that made me look like the Bride of Frankenstein. I’ll be writing more about this sobering experience in an upcoming magazine column — so I won’t elaborate here.

For now, let’s just say that I’ve been spending the week in recovery, following the doctor’s orders to sit quietly with an icepack on my face until the sutures are removed. With the exception of visiting my mother — who’s now back in the hospital for more surgery — I’ve stayed close to home. (I really don’t want to frighten my neighbors or re-explain to curious bystanders why I’m sporting a shiner and a giant bandage.)

Luckily, I’d anticipated this “recovery time” earlier in the spring. With that in mind, I worked twice as hard and fast to get my backyard garden — my sanctuary — whipped into shape, paying special attention to favorite areas where I could retreat with a book, a newspaper, or my journal.

garden2With a nod to Asian ambiance, our “tea house” (as we call it) is my favorite outdoor retreat. It’s perched near the back of our property, facing my beloved Zen garden and overlooking the swimming pool. The metal gazebo-like structure provides overhead protection from the sun without blocking the views of the garden. This tiny outdoor room is furnished with two cushioned patio chairs, a love seat, and a coffee table. Nothing more.

Thanks to my husband’s electrical wizardry, the tea house glows at night with several strands of dragonfly twinkle lights. This is nothing short of magical, especially when you’re sipping a glass of Pinot Grigio after a long day at the hospital. Best of all, you can’t hear the phone ringing inside the house.

DetailSanctuary“Not knowing how to feed the spirit, we often try to muffle its demands in distraction,” wrote Anne Morrow Lindbergh. “What matters is that one be, for a time, inwardly attentive.”

I’m convinced that it’s so much easier to be “inwardly attentive” when you have the perfect spot to retreat — a soul-soothing place where you can nurse your wounds in peace or escape the chatter and clutter of the outside world. Where is yours?

Rust Belt Rising!

Fractures well cured make us more strong.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

RustBeltJust released by The Head & Hand Press, the first Rust Belt Rising Almanac highlights the indomitable spunk and spirit of our region. The new anthology includes literature, photography, and art depicting loss, change, and creativity in urban communities scorched by economic recession. Detroit, Cleveland, and Philadelphia are among several Rust Belt cities represented.

Two of my mixed-media pieces (“Remember” and “Cycles of the Muse”) are featured in full color near the front of the book. This is the first time my artwork has been selected for illustration — and I have to admit it’s pretty exciting. Since my pieces are crafted mostly from recycled objects and scraps, they seem to work with the Rust Belt theme.

To celebrate the Almanac‘s release — it’s the first volume in a series — Press founder Nic Esposito and Philadelphia musician Todd Henkin (of the critically acclaimed band The Great Unknown) are touring the Rust Belt this summer.

The Rust Belt Almanac tour stops in Detroit on June 26, 7:00 to 9:00 pm. In collaboration with Literary Detroit at Trinosophes Coffee Shop (1464 Gratiot), Esposito and Henkin will showcase pieces in the Almanac through storytelling and music. A short story by Marissa Johnson-Valenzuela on adapting to Detroit through a community in collective housing will be featured in the event.

Copies of the book are available at local bookstores and on Amazon.

Somebody to lean on

JunePrimeIt was almost midnight. My husband and I had just returned home after spending eight grueling hours in the emergency room with my elderly mother, who had fractured her back earlier that day.

Staggering like zombies into the kitchen, we were surprised to discover that our dear neighbor, Matilda, left a warm kettle of homemade minestrone on the stove — and even fed the cats in our absence. There aren’t enough words to express gratitude for a favor like that, so I promised to pay it forward when the next opportunity arises.  And it will, sooner than later….

To read the rest of this column in the June issue of Michigan Primeclick here, then look for me on page 6 of the Western Wayne County or Oakland County editions. 

Permission to putter

“There’s never enough time to do all the nothing you want.” — Bill Watterson

yellow curtainLast Friday, I had oral surgery to remove part of an infected bone in my lower jaw, under my tongue. The ordeal wasn’t quite as grisly as I’d anticipated — but I felt out of sorts for a few days while the anesthesia wore off and the surgical wound began to heal.

I’d been advised in the home-care instructions to “avoid over-exertion” through the following week, which, to me, was a pink permission slip to indulge in guilt-free puttering.

Cheaper than air fare or psychotherapy, puttering lets your mind wander while your body hangs out around the house. And unlike housecleaning, which involves physical energy and high-powered appliances, puttering puts you in a Zen-like state of bliss.

Not to be confused with slacking, procrastinating, fidgeting, or fiddling, puttering is good for mental health. But sadly, ours is a goal-directed, work-till-you-drop culture in which “putter” isn’t recognized as an empowering verb. Most of us prefer to boast about how terribly busy we are, so puttering is rarely easy to pull off.

For those who practice on the sly — or following a doctor’s orders — puttering styles are varied and highly personal. Puttering can be the act of sorting through a box of college textbooks in the basement; tinkering under the hood of an old Chevy; or rearranging things on a shelf while you listen to jazz on public radio. In other words, puttering is a way of clarifying life’s myriad details, especially when it’s done with reverence for the objects at hand. It’s an opportunity to reconsider what we most enjoy in our homes, and to make a mental list of what we’d like to edit later.

If puttering still sounds like a chore you’ve postponed, it’s only because you haven’t found a method that cheers or relaxes you. One man’s notion of drudgery, after all, can be another’s idea of soul craft.

“I can’t explain it, but I enjoy doing dishes,” writes Thomas Moore, a former Catholic monk and author of the best-selling Care of the Soul. “I’ve had an automatic dishwasher in my home for over a year, and I have never used it. What appeals to me, I think, is the reverie induced by going through the ritual of washing, rinsing, and drying.”  Thomas Moore can come over to my house and wash dishes any time he visits Detroit (especially if his visit coincides with another power failure). Meanwhile, I’ll keep loading my dishwasher.

Still, there’s merit in savoring the ordinary tasks of daily living.

A lot of us spend our lives reaching for lofty goals, or at least trying to look productive 24/7. This wouldn’t be such a bad thing if so many of us weren’t scratching our heads and feeling as if something’s missing — even after we’ve won all the trophies.

“My life has no purpose, no direction, no aim, no meaning, and yet I’m happy. I can’t figure it out. What am I doing right?” observed Charles M. Schulz, creator of Peanuts.

Charlie Brown, after all, was pretty good at puttering.

–Top illustration: a painting by my husband, Douglas La Ferle.