Tag Archives: journey

Vacations and Holidays

IMG_3739“What is the purpose of your visit?” the English customs officer asked as we approached his window 20 plus years ago on our first visit to Europe. “We’re on vacation,” we said.

“Oh, on holiday,” he corrected us. I’m not sure I know the difference between the two even now, but  these last couple of weeks I’ve definitely been away from my regular life. Traveling with my husband to several Scandinavian countries we’ve taken a cruise up the coast of Norway and into the fjords, and flown and driven to visit our grandson who is playing soccer this summer in Sweden. That reality was the inspiration for the whole trip.

It sounds easier than it is, to cease and desist working. My “To Do” lists are quite long and there are always multiple projects in various stages of development. When the clock and calendar indicate that I must let them go and pick them up when I return in two weeks, it’s definitely a challenge. I took some files with me, just in case there would be moments to mix some business with pleasure but it’s lucky I didn’t count on this happening. When I felt the energy to reconnect with my work life, the travel schedule or access to technology didn’t cooperate.

The travel brochures don’t mention it but with a six-hour time difference, jet lag is a real thing. We arrived in Copenhagen at 7 am their time, 2 am for us. We disembarked, and in our middle of the night stupor, found the train station, figured out how to buy tickets, where to get off, and which direction to walk to find our hotel. We had only one small mishap, leaving a borrowed tote bag in the overhead storage of the plane. We realized it just after going through customs but this mistake turned into one of the most memorable parts of the trip. We reported our difficulty to the information desk at the airport and they called the gate. The next thing we knew a young man from behind the information counter was on his bicycle traveling through the terminal on our behalf. He returned in lessthan 10 minutes with our reclaimed bag.

boy on bike

My visit to parts of Denmark, Norway and Sweden was greatly enhanced by intermittently dipping into a book recommended by a Pittsburgh friend who had just returned from the region. British author, Michael Booth’s “The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia” explored the notion that on multiple self report measures, people in these countries turn out to be the happiest in the world. As Booth paraphrased Lady Bracknell, “to win one happiness survey may be regarded as good fortune, to win virtually every one since 1973 is convincing grounds for a definitive anthropological thesis.”

Moving through small villages and medium and large towns I found evidence for much of what Booth was pointing out from his experiences living and interviewing people in each of the countries. In spite of punishing weather, extremely high taxes, and an uninspired diet of fish, sweet rolls, and beer, Scandinavians find happiness supporting one another socially and financially from cradle to grave, taking frequent time away from work, recreating on weekends with family members at summer cottages, respecting, protecting, and staying close to nature, and honoring and practicing ancient and modern art forms.

In visiting the historical amusement park, Tivoli in the center of Copenhagen, we found it outfitted with features for people of all ages. Besides the modern amusement rides for kids and teenagers, there were beautiful gardens, restaurants and an amusing, artfully costumed ballet performance of Cinderella that had me laughing out loud.

We visited the inland city of Orebro, the 115,000 person Swedish town where my grandson is living. Instead of finding a dull backwater town as I had expected, I was delighted by a vibrant city, awash in art instillations in every nook and cranny of the city as they celebrated their 6th annual OpenArt Festival. http://openart.se/2017/en/about-openart/

The primacy and beauty of design in modern architecture had me photographing container buildings, green roofs, and intricate tile surfaces – even the enormous waste composting plant on the waterfront in Copenhagen. Instead of being an eyesore on the riverbank, when completed it will be covered with green vines in the summer and an active ski slope in the winter.IMG_3719

As traveling often does, I found myself making comparisons to my home country. The nearly religious fervor for protecting the environment in the three Nordic countries we visited had me feeling embarrassed to say I live in the U.S. The large middle class, and the lack of extreme poverty in these counties reminded me of a former time in the U.S. when our country felt “great “ to more of our citizens. I’m betting that the state of happiness in these countries is affected by their emphasis on gender equality, consensus building, and looking out for the common good, all values that I personally hold dear. I’m not ready to move to Scandinavia, but I’d love it if we could imitate more of what they do.

 

Las Vegas Happened To Me Twice

Last week Rich and I got up at 4 am to make a direct flight to Las Vegas, one of my least favorite destinations. If you don’t count stops at the Vegas airport on the way to somewhere else, I’d only been to Vegas twice before. In 1992, my in-laws took the family there to help celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. I remember the kids sneaking onto the casino floor with Grandma Pearl hoping to learn how to be as lucky as she was at playing the slot machines. 

My initial time in Las Vegas was half a century ago in the glory days of the Rat Pack, when I wasn’t old enough to drink legally. I lived in Vegas for eight weeks while working as a dancer in the Tony Martin and Peggy Lee Shows, at the now defunct Desert Inn.  The pull of working in Vegas for New York dancers like me was the enormous salaries they paid. I don’t remember the amount, but if you watched expenses and brought a good portion of your salary back to New York you could live on it for six months. This meant you could avoid taking odd jobs that interfered with staying fit as a dancer and being available for frequent auditioning. In order to accomplish this end, refraining from gambling was critical as was economizing on living expenses.

It was winter, the rainy season, which meant sunbathing, swimming, golf and tennis were not frequent activities. For us, the highlight of most weeks was the other shows we were able to catch on our night off, and the dance classes we took from whatever choreographer’s’ assistant happened to be in town.

The glamour of the place, then as now, did not extend much beyond the footlights. Though we wore elaborate beaded costumes and glued on false eyelashes to perform, my roommate and I grocery shopped after we got off work at 2 am, cooked and ate all our meals in our motel-style apartment, and to further economize, we rented a sewing machine and made the evening clothes we were required to wear in order to come on to the property.

Weird Las VegasThe weirdness of the place is still intact. We encountered people clearly under the influence of something, forgetting how to walk or talk properly, but the dress code has changed dramatically. Locals and tourists alike dress in what I would describe as “grungy casual,’ jeans, sweats, and workout clothes. I noticed this especially because all the women, from waitresses to chambermaids, to teenagers on the street, proudly sported elaborate eye makeup and glued on eyelashes.

Students on the campus dress like students everywhere, though a hundred or so wore black tee shirts with the letters TEAM on their backs. I came to appreciate their dedication and effort as the purpose of my return trip to Vegas was to present a talk, “When Death Threatens, Life REALLY Matters.” at the TEDx UNLV event. It was fittingly titled, “Living in the Extreme.” Who says the universe doesn’t have an outlandish sense of humor?IMG_1888

The Consolation Vacation

When a fall in my dance class a month ago caused us to cancel our European vacation, my husband worked to came up with an alternative. The doctor made sense when he said, “postpone the trip till you can really enjoy it,” but we then both had a block of free time in our calendars. And we both felt in need of a vacation. I started physical therapy twice a week with a set of homework exercises to do twice a day so the alternative needed to be not too far away and in a place where I could continue my rehabilitation regime.

IMG_1435Meanwhile, I had promised my sister, who lives in the Detroit area, that I would accompany her to the Geriatric Center in Ann Arbor where she was to receive results of testing that had been going on for over a year. Before my fall, the center had rescheduled her appointment to a date when I was to be in Amsterdam. After we knew I’d been in the country, I suggested she keep that appointment and I’d figure out how to get myself there.

On his walk one early morning, my husband came up with a plan – we could drive to Cleveland, only 2 hours away, and visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which turned out to be a “don’t miss it destination.” http://www.cleveland.com/rockhall/#/0  We’d stay overnight somewhere near my sister’s house and pick her up the next morning to take her with us for a short vacation. On the way back we’d go through Ann Arbor in time for her appointment.

I found a town, Saugatuck, known as the Art Coast of Michigan http://www.saugatuck.com/index.asp only a three-hour drive from my sister’s  house. There would be no sailing, deep-sea fishing, kayaking, or dune buggy rides for me.  I’d need to be satisfied with a view of the water from the broad roof deck of our well-appointed condo. I was able to visit the quaint shops and art galleries of the village, survey the history and art museums, and take a ride on the country’s last chain ferry. An evening cruise on the Star of Saugatuck paddleboat was especially lovely, as were the few hours we spent on Oval Beach, one of the best beaches in America, according to systems that rate such things. But a special highlight, which seemed a meaningful chance encounter, was our visit to nearby Holland Michigan.IMG_1412

Monday’s weather forecast had been for rain so we decided to drive north a bit to a larger city where there might be more to do indoors. Arriving in a rain torrent, we drove to the Windmill Island Gardens and learned they had the only authentic windmill outside of the Netherlands. We stayed dry by finding lunch in a Dutch café and realized that on that very day we had been scheduled to disembark our river cruise in Amsterdam. To celebrate that realization, when the sky cleared we went back to the gardens to climb the windmill – no passport needed. http://www.holland.org/listings/Windmill-Island-Gardens/74/  

As to my sister’s health, things are still not as we would want them to be but she got some good news and hope from a talented doctor who is determined to get to the bottom of her mysterious symptoms. 

Dancing on the Fringe

The streets of Edinburgh Scotland were filled, as they are every August, with performing artists and the tourists and locals who had come to see them. Rich and I, along with 22 other InterPlayers from around the world were among them. RichCatapillerphoto-16Pushing our way through the hordes of mostly young performers on the cobblestone street which is the Royal Mile, we observed the ritual of performers dressed as caterpillars and clowns, giving out flyers, barking as circus midway callers do, to draw attention to the free samples of their art on the makeshift stages of High Street. Though a little less flamboyant, and a good deal older than most of them, we too had came to perform on the Fringe.

Edinburgh Fringe
Edinburgh Fringe

The Fringe Festival, the largest open access arts festival in the world began in 1947 when eight theatre companies showed up uninvited to the Edinburgh International Arts Festival.  The juried arts festival is still in business but the Fringe, officially organized in 1951, has grown way bigger that that one. In fact it’s bigger than anyone could imagine an arts festival becoming. By 1959 there were 494 companies and by this year, 2013, the festival had over 40,000 performers in 359 venues. Unlike those original participants, we did have an invitation from Mairi Campbell, a well-known Scottish folk singer, http://www.mairicampbell.co.uk/

Meeting up with a dozen members of our US InterPlay community, and joining another dozen InterPlayers from Germany, Finland, England, Australia and Scotland, we formed an improv troupe. After practicing together for several days (which was a big part of the fun of it all, along with time spent with fabulous local home stay hosts), we came together at Venue #127, St. John’s Church in the center of the city. Our performance of the Unbelievable Beauty of Being Human was part of the Just Festival, a subset of the Fringe that focused on social justice, spirituality, and peace.mairiUBBH-17

Our well-attended performance was a fitting tribute to the festival’s themes as we danced, sang and told our stories in the moment and on the spot, highlighting what’s wonderful about being human and what’s not so great about it. As one of the elders in the group, this was my 9th performance of Unbelievable Beauty, having participated in the first series of performances in San Francisco CA in 1997, in Sydney, Australia in 2004, and in Seattle and Chicago in the years in between.  Each improvisational performance followed a similar format yet each was a unique and never-to-be-repeated experience for participants and audiences.

In the 50-page program for the Just Festival, which was a subset of the 390 page program for the Fringe, the program description read: “Re-igniting hope for human kind, passionate, funny, honest, affirming of real people and real living. Performers elevate both the miracles and struggles of every day folk in a daring, spontaneous, fresh way.  Directed by InterPlay founders, the program features InterPlayers from around the world. UK debut”.UBBH.Edinburgh1

And so it was, a never-to-be forgotten, Unbelievably Beautiful Experience!

Journey to a Shrinking Frontier

A trip to the Alaskan Glaciers is on many peoples’ bucket list of things to do before they die, and Rich and I were among that group. In 2009 we had a cruise to Alaska all planned and nearly paid for as a way to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. But 2009 was the year of the global economic meltdown and Rich, along with many other people, was downsized out of the job that had taken us across the country five years before. In spite of whatever concerns we had about global warming shrinking the glaciers we were hoping to see, we canceled our trip, and hit the ground running to re-imagine our work lives.

image.glacierI read somewhere during that time, “the loss of a job is similar to the death of a close family member.” The impact on us of this particular meltdown seemed particularly overwhelming as we had only recently arrived at some sense of equilibrium after the illness and death of our 42 year-old daughter, Corinne.

Now four years later, we stand on the balcony of our cabin in front of a tidewater glacier, observing its irregularly sculptured peaks and crevices, listening to the snaps, creaks, and pops of this gigantic frozen river of ice, in its constant movement towards the sea.  Yes, most of the glaciers are receding, and as Alaska warms more severe colder weather events come to the lower 48 states and Europe. As the permafrost melts huge amounts of methane are released, further fueling the rate of climate change.

imageforest.515We learn that after the meltdown, the land left bare beneath begins anew. Moss and lichen populate and create a covering that adds nitrogen, preparing soil for wildflowers and scrubby bushes, and finally, deciduous and evergreen trees join the dance, creating a forest.

Through all these changes, sea and land animals change their habitats, following their food, just as we humans relocate to find work and an environment where we, and our offspring can prosper and grow.   

Excerpt from “Warrior Mother”

People would often say to me, “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, children dying before their parents.” They said it when my thirty-one-year-old son, Kenneth, died of AIDS and again, seven years later, when my forty-two-year-old daughter, Corinne, died of breast cancer. When Corinne died, I got a phone call from my cousin, who had lost her own daughter in a car accident twenty years before. “This shouldn’t be happening to you,” she said, in an effort to comfort me. When I asked whom it should be happening to, she said, “Someone who hasn’t already lost a child.”

But I prefer not to think this way. When I am in that place of questioning the circumstances of my own life, I picture the gravestones in the historical cemeteries my history-buff father took us to visit as children. We kids would run from gravestone to gravestone, doing the math and discovering children our own ages or younger buried there. I remind myself that it’s only in recent generations and in a country as fortunate as our own that parents can expect to raise all their children and to predecease them.

So I set out to write about my experiences as a mother who has lost two of her three adult children to horrific diseases. I voluntarily reentered those years of anxiety, trauma, and hope to better under- stand what transpired there. I realized that those of us who survived have been profoundly changed, and so I have written partly for my own healing and partly to share with others the learning and strength I discovered. Many people did not understand my spending so much time writing about this, especially my husband, Richard, whose style of grieving was entirely different. Rich and I finally came to an under- standing several years into this project.

Rich and I are both behavioral health professionals. We share a conviction that many mental health problems are caused by a lack of connection to people’s spiritual selves. In our work and for our own personal development, we use the community- building tools of dance, song, and story. In the jargon of our professions, this is called using the arts for individual and social transformation. For ten years we founded and co-directed a behavioral health care clinic called Iatreia Institute for the Healing Arts. This was the name of the clinic from 1987-1997 until we were purchased by Corphealth. Then it became Iatreia, Inc. You’d think that the experience of our professional careers and the synchronicity of our shared beliefs would have given us some special insight into each other’s grief. Not so.

Five summers ago, Rich sent me off to participate in a writers’ workshop with the comment, “I hope someday you will find some- thing more pleasant to write about.” When I returned from the writers’ workshop in Iowa City, held a couple of weeks after the town had suffered a significant flood, I brought back two empty sandbags, like the thousands of bags of sand stacked as barricades against the rising waters. My empty sandbags had been decorated and made into handbags by artists in the com- munity and sold to raise money to help the local Habitat for Humanity fund the cleanup efforts. At home I laid out my decorated sandbags alongside a folder of my writing. “My writings are my sandbags,” I told Rich. “We have to make art out of what happens to us, or at least some- thing useful, and we don’t get to pick what that is.”

People have asked me how I’ve survived all the tragedy and loss in my life. Perhaps I’ve written the stories of my journeys with my children, other family members, and my best friend to answer that question for myself. Witnessing how hard both my children fought to stay alive and all that they were willing to endure to gain more life has defined my grieving process. I never wanted to dishonor them by wasting one moment of whatever precious life I am given.

Like a prospector searching for gold, with the help of my journal, I have panned and sifted through these experiences—of birth, death, and the places in between. I have shaken the sieve in such a way as to uncover, among the dirt, pebbles, and debris, the valuable shiny elements in these stories. This sifting and sorting has been, like the experiences themselves, tough at times, but also enlightening. I’ve come to appreciate the many ways that people confront illness, diagnoses, treatment decisions, and, yes, even death, and the many faces and masks of grief. And ultimately, I’ve come to see the demands made on me as a mother as requiring me to become a warrior mother. In our lifelong mother roles, whether our children are sick or well, young or old, like warriors, we engage wholeheartedly in a cause, and like spiritual warriors, we are asked to use our compassion and wisdom to help our children and ourselves grow and thrive through whatever life sends our way.

(from Warrior Mother – Fierce Love, Unbearable Loss, and the Rituals that Heal by Sheila K. Collins PhD.)

A Healing Ritual at Serpent Mound

It was a trek, as all spiritual journeys are, with five of us traveling six hours from Pittsburgh in my SUV. The Serpent Mound is in southern Ohio, not far from Cincinnati and my friend Vikki Hanchin’s recent book, The Seer and the Sayer http://www.amazon.com/The-Seer-Sayer-Revelations-Earth/dp/1452557276 told of her experiences there. So twenty or so of us set out to see for ourselves this jewel of Midwestern archeology. A world-class expert on the 5 to 6 thousand year-old effigy mound, Ross Hamilton, would be meeting us there.Serpent-Mound-panohttp://www.ohiohistory.org/museums-and-historic-sites/museum–historic-sites-by-name/serpent-mound

After the final hour’s roller coaster-like approach over hill and dale, on serpentine curves through fields and farms, Vikki’s stomach was talking to her, but not in a good way. Once we arrived, another passenger, a Reiki practitioner, began working on Vikki but each time she relaxed into the process she began to cry. It became clear she was tuning in to a sorrow beyond her own skin. When she told Mr. Hamilton of this, he shared that a few minutes before, he and his wife had learned of a dear friend’s daughter having been killed the previous night, crossing the highway near the Mound. A few minutes later when we began preparing for our Serpent Mound ceremony Vikki suggested, “We can help this family with our prayers,” and this death of a child shaped the ritual we were to do at the site.

imagestwowomengrief One of the participants, a Mohawk grandmother and friend of the family, taught us the chant her people sing to assist someone in their crossing. We began chanting to the young girl whose life had ended, suddenly and prematurely, the previous night.  As the ritual progressed, I began thinking of the girl’s mother and grandmother, and, having lost two of my own adult children, I felt called to do something for them. I brought to the group my need to call the names of these women, now in the midst of their unbearable loss.

I thought of what had helped me to heal and I taught the group a dance and chant developed by my Texas women’s spirituality group.  The movements begin as a spiraling of the hips, rocking back and forth as women do when comforting a child on their hips. “We are women, we grow out of the earth; beautiful, powerful and wise.”  The movements in the second verse repeat but the words change, as they did when I accompanied my friend Rose at her crossing. “We are women, we go back to the earth; beautiful, powerful and wise.”

After completing the chant and dance I felt a strong reassurance in my body that my book, currently in press, Warrior Mother, Fierce Love, Unbearable Loss and Rituals That Heal would be helpful to other families dealing with grief and loss.    

By the Numbers

Looking in the mirror in front of me at my Zumba class I have a view of most all my fellow classmates behind me. I notice many appear older than average this Monday morning, this first day back from the New Years’ holiday. Not sure if they’ve changed or I have but it occurs to me that most of them are probably younger than I am. This is something I’m not aware of very often as most of the time, I forget how old I actually am.


On our family vacation last week in the Colorado Mountains at nine thousand feet, I felt 104. In the first two days, just lifting a package or climbing a few stairs meant becoming breathless and gasping for air. A sensation of suffocation would wake us in the middle of the night; I suppose in order to remind us to consciously take deeper breaths.  This altitude issue wasn’t on my radar when we made our plans to meet our extended family in a condo halfway to the stars. By the third day, our systems had leveled off enough to feel relatively comfortable in the thinner atmosphere, but I still felt more exhaustion than usual over simple exertions.

But the rewards came, as my son predicted they would, when we returned home to sea level elevation. Our systems having learned to be more efficient were now allowing our bodies to feel, by comparison, vigorous. I found myself energetically running up and down the stairs with the grocery bags, feeling like I was in my 40s again.
This dramatic fluctuation in age range has caused me to question again – is age how we look or how we feel, how others view us, or our own state of mind and attitude? As I continue to learn hip-hop steps in my dance classes, I’ve wondered if staying young might have something to do with continuing to do the movements that healthy young people do. And maybe it helps to not keep track too closely of the years.  I wouldn’t want my mind’s data computations to detract from what the rest of me feels ready and willing to do.