Thursday, December 31, 2009

I Hear the Bells on New Years Too.

After the stillness, there are the bells. Bells give off light, did you know that? I think it is light passing on to our souls through sound.

I've always associated the continuous peeling of bells with New Year's Eve. It was then that my Grandpa August Johnson would climb the rickety stairs to the bell town of the little, white country church where I grew up and pull the bell ropes. They would be rung exactly one thousand, nine hundred and whatever odd year of the twentieth century we had arrived at that stroke of midnight. One for every year since the birth of Christ. He took a great pleasure in it, for New Year's eve was also his birthday.

There is something about bells that is hopeful -- filled with the light of both joy and sadness, don't you think? Bells ring for occasions that are personal celebrations – birth, death, marriage, anniversaries. And they sound for common celebrations and shared grief – the death of a president, the marking of a national tragedy like 911, the end of a war, the landing of men on the moon. Tonight and tomorrow, they mark a brand new year, a new decade, a new turn of the page.

This year, this year...where we pass from the 000 years to the century's teenage decade, I remember the peel of the bells of Paris. Because, for me, Paris counted as one of the five wonderful high marks of our family's year. And there was something about the respect accorded bells there that I wish we paid to bells here.

Bells. The carillon sound came from every quarter...on the half hour, the hour and to mark particular points of the day. They say that the bells of Paris rung on August 25, 1944, the day of the liberation of Paris – like they had not wrung since Bastille Day. What must that have been like to hear the banging, clanging, tin-tinnabulating echo sounding across the rooftops and rolling down the boulevards on a day like that one?

We weren't even there during a special time of year and we could hear them through out the Arrondissements. Here, some of my favorites – the throaty sound of the bells in the 200 ft tall bell towers of Notre Dame. The higher, lighter peel from the bells of the Church of st. Eustache at Les Halles (the church of the market workers). The deep heavenly tone of the bells in the campanile of the Sacré-Coeur where hangs the nineteen ton La Savoyarde. The tingling peel of the bells – in an acoustically perfect echo, of the bells of Sainte Chapelle, completed in1248 and still called the most beautiful church in Paris.

Bells rang from La Madeleine in the Paris financial district and at St. Suplice, the “Chapel of the Angels” in the Latin quarter , where they blend with the sounds of the bells at La Sorbonne, founded in 1253. And bells hold sway over the Eglise du Dôme, over Napoleon Bonaparte's tomb, although they didn't ring that I heard while I was there.

Still, for me, the dearest bells are the poor simple bells in the bell tower of the East Immanuel Lutheran Church. Those bells Grandpa rung told the sweet story of our family's sojourn in America – as he was the first one born in his family in America. I cannot say whether he rang the old year out, or the new year in, but this truth as Madeline l'Engel once pointed out, I do know; “a new year can begin only because the old year ends.”

Happy 2010!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

In the Stillness there is Light.

If you're looking for a treatise on the history and customs of Christmas, this year, you need to go back to my December, 2008 blogs. Go ahead, just scroll back there. You'll find customs and history and the reason why I have always felt that the people of the north, my ancestors, had real reasons to celebrate even before they became Christians.

This is the time for parties and eggnog and decorating. For preparing gifts and making the special holiday foods. For wearing ridiculous holiday ties and sweaters and drinking too much. For office parties and neighborhood gatherings and attending more events in a single week than should be human. It's noisy and stressful and mostly materialistic. I don't know about you, but come December every year, all of this rushing around gets me rather melancholy. Until this year I'm not sure I figured out why that is.

But this year I've been contemplating that which is the opposite of what most of us experience; stillness. Stillness has a relationship to how we see celebration, service, humanity and destiny. I truly think that the spiral path of stillness can help us find and follow our own light.

Don't get me wrong -- I love a party as well as the next person. And being a marketing refuge, I have no business putting down all that spending and wrapping! It's just that in all the secular goings-on I feel a disconnect. As if all of this is just a frantic cover-up, a poor replacement, for the light that makes me an authentic being. Do you?

Jacquelyn Small has noted that “We are not human being trying to be spiritual. We are spiritual beings trying to be human.”

With all the noise and rushing around at this time of year – how can we meld the human and spiritual halves of ourselves? A few weeks ago attending a morning church service, I was reminded that stillness and silence are relatives. That “silence is the cessation of sound: stillness is the cessation of movement.” Interestingly, stillness appears to be something that both the Good Book and most therapists advocate to put all your parts back together; that it is good to let the “still, small voice” of calm take over sometimes.

At this time of year as we anticipate what is to come on Christmas day, it might be good, as Psalm 37:7 says, “to be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.”

Stillness is hard when much of what is around us is rushed and frantic and the news is dark. I know, because I've tried practicing stillness. Like so many folks, I could use a job and an income and a good health care bill and just some hopeful news. In an ADHD world, stillness takes discipline.

But I have made a discovery about stillness. It helps me see more clearly, no matter how dark the world is around me. As Eleanor Roosevelt expressed it ~ “It is better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness.”

©2009 Jan Johnson Wondra

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Gratitudes.

How Much is Enough? I've pondered that question a lot recently. I know people who have surrounded themselves with such excess that they have become used to plenty that would embarrass the rest of us. They don't see the abundance. They truly don't. Conversations with them focus always on what more they need. They don't need a thing, but for them, life will never hold have enough.

I know other people who, until last week, didn't have a place to call home. And these particular people shine with the light of abundance. For them, even when what they have is little, they tithe their thanks. For them, life will always hold enough.

What is enough? Most would describe it as the absence of want. But for many, “want” and “need” are relative terms. We “want” therefore we think we need. Frankly, we don't need most of what we want. During this great recession, there is more true need out there than this country has seen in decades. It's more like the reality that large portions of the world know as life every day.

We were founded as a country because people came here seeking; seeking religious freedom. Seeking opportunity. Seeking adventure. Seeking a new start. And from the first, we found enough. From the start, we were a grateful people. Have we forgotten that?

I've had opportunity recently to research the lifestyle of the first European people to this shore. No, not the pilgrims or Columbus. The Viking settlers of Vinland, who built turf and timber longhouses and scrapped out a living at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland before the year 1,000 AD. Leif Erickson stayed only one winter, but ranged the east coast from Labrador down to(some say) New York Harbor. Gundrid the Far-Traveler, her husband Karlsefni, their infant son and their household spent three years in this strange new world.

It was an indescribably hard life. They came with little and found both want and plenty. It was only after they discovered that the Native Americans were not too pleased to see them that they packed up their dragon ships and returned to Iceland, leaving evidence of their time here in those turf longhouses on that Atlantic shoreline.

What drove them? The same things that the founders of our country articulated hundreds of years later. The same kind of dreams that inspire us now. If we keep our wits about us, we will truly know, down deep in our bones, how blessed we have been. And that deep knowledge can return to us an attitude that is gratitude.

Tomorrow, Americans worldwide share a ceremonious meal of Thanksgiving. Many of us have traveled great distances to be with family – or have telepathy-sent our wishes to loved ones living far away from us. Let's keep our wits about us and remember how far – how very far-- we have come. And remember too that we Americans have – more than enough.

Come Ye, thankful people come, raise the song of harvest-home.
All is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin.

“Wits must one have who wanders afar.”

From the Hávamál (Viking Code)
© Jan Johnson Wondra 2009

Monday, November 9, 2009

And Things Tumbled Into Place

And Things Tumbled Into Place...twenty years ago a little something came down in Berlin that changed the course of my family's life. That day I was busy with other things. New client advertising campaigns. 1990 marketing plans. A just over-two-year-old son with a head cold who had to be picked up from daycare. Icy roads. A pending birthday.

And into the ordinariness of that day dropped one of the five most significantly historical days (according to my reckoning) of my life. In Berlin, the wall came down -- over which were pointed the guns of my husband's secret missile site while we lived in Germany. The wall came down -- built as a retched split of the city and symbol of a defeated country. The wall came down -- that divided two clear sides of the cold war. The wall came down -- behind which lived millions of faceless, freedom-lacking people. That day the gates of freedom were thrown open and the wall came tumbling down.

I watched events unfold that night with awe – seeing something that I never thought I would see in my lifetime, so cold was the war, so frozen had been our attitudes. Although I didn't yet know it, the falling of the wall changed my life in a way I could not imagine. Not two years later my daughter was born in a tiny village on the western edge of Russia's Pskov Region and began her life of waiting in a country orphanage for a family. Only five years later in 1994 we would board a plane to bring her home to America. The realities I saw in that orphanage launched me into fifteen years of advocacy in children's issues, here at home and in the former Soviet bloc countries as a member of Families for Russian & Ukrainian Adoption.

A short fifteen years after the wall came down, that toddler with the cold boarded a plane to fly around the world to live for a year as a Rotary exchange student in Ukraine. He returned, with a different view of his world and a completely changed perspective on what he was going to do with his life. A few more years and mutual study at the University of St. Petersburg acquainted him with the woman who became his wife this past summer. Having now lived in four former Soviet countries, he speaks fluent Russian, some Armenian, Ukrainian and Georgian. As a Fulbright Scholar, he and his new bride now live in the Republic of Georgia. The tiny daughter has become a marvelous college freshman who can also speak Russian. My Russian? Not so good.

None of this would have happened if the gates had not been thrown open; had the walls not come down. An entire generation of children has grown up in a world that is a different place. New fears and uncertainties have replaced that iron curtain. There is truth, I think in this: that every wall built, represents failed policy. Every wall torn down represents new opportunity.

Today as the world celebrates what was in reality the end of the cold war it is important that we remember to listen to each other. Because while we do what we do, another generation of children will grow up.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Buried in a Cosmic Joke

Buried in a Cosmic Joke. It's white, cold and 20 inches deep and it hasn't stopped since Tuesday night here in Colorado. Note the date. It's October 29th not December 29th. In a year where winter hung around until the end of May and we barely had a summer, we seemed to have skipped all but a few weeks of fall and circled back to winter. I was already more than irritated at having to shovel snow in October. Having to shovel four times in ONE day was just too much.

Strange how light it was last night on our normally dark cul-du-sac, as the deep, drifting snow and falling flakes illuminated the night sky. And the peace and stillness was – and is – profound. All we have is the wind and the falling snow and the weight of the accumulating drifts. Amazing how much time and energy it can take to stay ahead of the accommodate the make a path for the milk try to clear the mail box for the postman. To try – and fail-- to keep the driveway open. To futilely search for the morning paper (which I haven't yet found!)

This morning I moved another ten inches that fell over night, carefully uncovering some of the Halloween décor around the front door. While I labored, Tycho, the Golden Retriever, who believes that all of this wonderment has happened expressly for his enjoyment, galloped about the cul-du-sac and down the walking trails next to our yard, gathering great clumps of ice on his belly and snorting delightedly into the drifts.

If much of the quality that is ours in life is because we choose what to do with our time, part of my brain wants to say “I've been robbed!” I calculate that since yesterday morning I have spent nearly six hours shoveling snow and we haven't begun to uncover the Jeep, which must become seaworthy for me to begin another drive to Wisconsin tomorrow. I am not looking forward to sledding across Nebraska.

On the other hand, sometimes it takes being buried not to take yourself so seriously. It has been said that a genuine sense of humor, combined with an active imagination are two of the most valuable qualities you can possess as a human being. While wringing out the bottom half of my pant legs where snow had gleefully lodged itself in my boots and contemplating this blog, I went looking for cosmic inspiration. I found a most delightful site that offers a wonderful explanation of The Great Cosmic Joke by Doc Barnham at

To quote the source, it goes something like this. “The Creator says, “Billions of years ago, I created an infinite universe out of nothing, and somewhere along the way there formed billions of galaxies. There was one galaxy that formed called the Milky Way, and way out on the edge of one of the spiral arms of this galaxy there is a little solar system with a medium-sized star called the Sun and a tiny little blue planet rotating around it called Earth. Now somewhere on this Earth is a soul that I created and filled with the Divine spark who chose to incarnate and wear a bodysuit for a lifetime. Now he’s in the middle of one of those lifetimes - along with seven billion other souls, all coming and going - and he’s rushing around and fretting and thinking he’s very unhappy because he isn’t getting his way right now. Actually, though, he isn’t so unhappy as he is forgetful, because I have surrounded him everywhere and every moment with constant reminders that he is safe, he is not alone, and that the universe is a very funny place if only he will look.”
And then I look. I look down and see my body. I look at my hands and realize, “Oh yeah, that’s right. I chose this.” I remember I am a soul having a human experience, an infinite being that chose this again, a lifetime in the material world; to be shoehorned into another bodysuit that is always trying to keep itself together for a brief period of some eight to ten decades, if I’m lucky. I’m a soul in a special sort of shaved monkey suit that is filled with holes and always huffing and puffing and sweating and farting and pissing and pooping and drinking and eating and fighting gravity just to maintain itself and stand upright, all so I can run around and play and learn the lessons to be able to understand more deeply, love more fully, accept Truth more completely, and share my gifts more freely with others without forgetting where we all really came from, the Creator.
And I laugh.”

Down here, it's still coming down like the gods are having a great cosmic pillow fight up there. I wonder if there's snow in their boots?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

What Does A Tomato Know About Life?

Pondering my next blog a few days ago, I got to thinking about the balcony gardeners in Paris. To understand why I noticed them, you have to know that long-ago, they passed a law in the inner arrondissements of Paris that no building can be more than four or so stories high, thus preserving the authentic character of the city. Every single flat in Paris seems to have a balcony. So, flying by on the elevated portions of the metro, even in April, you see the pots sitting in the sun on the balconies of the flats -- the herbs, a few vines, the tomatoes -- straining toward the feeble spring sunshine.

Which brought me to yesterday's question. Tomatoes know quite a lot, as it turns out. At least the particular tomato plant that inspired that question does. I found myself diligently covering that intelligent tomato plant as our first heavy frost approached.

It had a less than illustrious start.

Last spring I bought exactly two tomato plants; a regular America hybrid, and a second, decidedly sentimental choice. It was called a Black from Tula and the label said it was a Russian heirloom. I had no idea what that was, but I'm a sucker for things Russian because my daughter was born there and I seem to have given my grown son back to Russia. So I planted them side by side in my herb garden.

The hybrid went right to work, growing straight up to a 20 inch by 20 inch dimension, blossoming out in June and producing about ten bright red, standard-looking, not necessarily stellar tomatoes. That was it and it was done.

The Russian heirloom, on the other hand acted like no tomato plant I have ever seen. It began to grow. And grow. And grow! June came and while not a single blossom had appeared, it went on growing, it's branches sprawled across the entire four by eight foot herb garden. It overran the oregano, buried the basil and lavished love on the lavender. The spreading greenery arched against the house, climbed the six-foot cedar fence and leaned over the support structure around the puny hybrid. “Look at this!” I announced one evening, Hands on my hips in disgust, as my son walked in the garden gate. “It's sprawling all over the place and not giving me anything – enough of this Russian stuff!”

“Give it time,”
he laughed. “Russians know their will come through!”

I shook my head. Then in July, blossoms appeared. Hundreds of them. By August tomatoes were taking shape, everywhere, on every sprawling branch. I got a little busy with wedding preparations and travel and forgot to look in on it. September arrived, and when I checked, was amazed to see the first few dark brownish tomatoes, I thought “Darn! I waited too long and let them spoil!” So I ignored them.

The next week I spotted a few more, equally dark, and reached to pull them off to give them to the birds. They weren't mushy, they were firm! I plucked one and smelled it. The most heavenly scent wafted up my nose. I searched beneath the tomato forest and found the plant tag. “Black from Tula. Russian Heirloom. Dark reddish-brown. Sweet rich fruit, prodigious producer ideal for short growing seasons.”

That night I tasted probably the best tomato I've ever had. And there were at least 150 more like it burying the herb plot!

Back to what a tomato knows. First, an heirloom tomato is closer to its past and hasn't had the life bred out of it. It hasn't forgotten that tomatoes are really a fruit, not a vegetable, so it stayed sweet. This particular species put down deep roots, while spreading those enormous branches. How else could it hold up those branches and get ready to provide the nutrients for its bumper crop?

Even better, it didn't let itself be rushed or pushed into becoming something it is not. It kept its identity and its promise, producing a dark tomato whose color is so much better suited to absorb what light comes its way and to hold on to the warmth of the day to meet night's cool darkness. Reaching for that light, this Russian heirloom produced so much more than I expected; firm, sweet life in abundance.

Whether you're a fan of salt or sugar on your tomatoes, this tomato's job is to give flavor to the world and it does it in spades! I underestimated this plant. I got angry when it just seemed to be using and not giving back anything. But it was just preparing to produce an astounding bounty of goodness. Are you like this tomato? I hope I am.

Salt. Light. Life. Amen!

©2009 Jan Johnson Wondra

Monday, September 14, 2009

Sometimes We Float Over the Bridge Instead of Under it.

It has been said that time waits for no man. While I have dithered over how to express the conflicting emotions that have buried me over the past weeks, time quietly carried me away with her. Earlier this year I recognized this passage and had resolved to be more “care-full” of the moments given me. But I blew it. I found myself floating in what I can only describe as unreality. I, who had so firmly resolved to walk, head high, eyes bright, into this transition, had what I can only describe as a few weeks of floating unreality. I think the fluidity helped.

Perhaps it was my way of dealing with way too much at once; feelings so joyous and so mixed with the loss experienced in the midst of great change: my son's wedding. My daughter, my youngest, leaving for college. My son and new daughter-in-law's departure on his Fulbright for the Republic of Georgia. One minute I was on the highest point of the bridge looking at the best parts of life. The next moment I hadn't just crossed this bridge, but began to suspect that demolition crew was working overtime behind me.

Our house went from bursting at the seams....with activity and teens and 20-somethings, backpacking trips, summer jobs and wedding preparations, arriving guests, welcome parties and mountains of frosting and cakes as I fulfilled my commitment to the wedding couple to create their wedding cakes (yes, plural, but too complicated a story to get into when one has been floating) empty. The only sane thing to do was to float.

Time – or the passing of it-- is sometimes compared to rivers, oceans or to water over the dam. We admonish people attempting to “hold back the flood” to “go with the flow.” Those objecting to change are advised “don't rock the boat” and to deal with today's turmoil by “getting past the rapids before regrouping.” The more I think about it, I think I may have floated under the bridge instead of getting out of the flow, crawling up the grassy bank and trudging over the bridge. I honestly wanted to stand there at the highest arch of this summer's bridge, stomp my feet and shot out loud “not so fast....I'm not ready!” at the top of my lungs.

But shouting at a thing rarely stops it from happening, with the exception of what it can do to the child poised to carry the black water colors down the newly carpeted, peach-colored stairway. Bitter experience taught me that the child will stop, but that the paints and water won't and then there is a heck of a mess to clean up. And shouting this time would have masked the very real joy I felt in seeing my children – these wonderful, talented, accomplished young people -- move across their own bridges.

As any person knows who suddenly becomes tired after treading water for too long or attempting to swim across a lake, some times it helps to just roll over and float on our backs. And you know, when I stopped struggling, I passed right under that bridge and looked up. Beyond its dark, cool arch, I glimpsed concerts and recitations, soccer fields, far-away beaches and mountain peaks, lost teeth and swimming pools, first loves and disappointments, but triumphs too. Shared memories of Gothic cathedrals and family reunions, graduation stages and wedding days – all mirrored in the love in the eyes of my children as they turned toward their future.

Floating there, I am in the company of a few golden, drifting leaves. Just a few.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Are You Brave Enough To Be Authentic?

That is a serious question. Do you consider yourself to be creative....or do you leave that to the people who seem to fit the label? You know, those writers, artists, designers, composers, musicians, dancers, film-makers who create the great works. Surely, not you. But what if your great work of art is to create an authentic life, with all that means for you and for the world, and you never do that? What if, by refusing to create that which you were put on this earth to do, that regret is what ultimately kills you?

When I found MontMartre....the hill in the18th arondissement on the Right Bank of Paris, authentic parts of my heart found a home. The hill, whose name means “mount of the martyr,” has great religious significance. It is the place where St. Denis, the patron saint of France, is said to have been beheaded in 250 AD. Before that, legend says it was a Druid holy site. Martyrdom is not why I feel connected to this place, however.

The streets are a jumble, circling 'round buildings and tiny, multi-sided squares, rising rapidly through breath-snatching steps, seeming to cut through alleys that emerge onto respectable cobblestone byways, that disappear again under archways and end at stout iron-wrapped gates. This place has been synonymous with theater, art and music, famed actors, dancers, musicians, artists and writers for over 150 years. At its peak, rising above the jumble of streets and visible throughout Paris, are the distinctive alabaster domes of the Basilica of Sacré Cour, built to honor the heroes of the 1871 Franco Prussian War. Our word courage comes from the French word for heart, or coeur.

No coincidence, I think that this place's visible symbol is sacred heart – sacred courage. For the artists and writers who made Montmarte home knew what the brave always learn. That acts of courage come directly from our center of being. And to create anything, requires an ability to channel that heart to action.

We spent an entire day wandering Montmartre. Not just the tourist-crowded streets, sites of raucous dance halls and seedy rendezvous on the front side, but the quiet, vine draped back streets near the monastic vineyard. Up and down the steep cobblestone paths we tracked the homes of Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Anaïs Nin...the haunts of artists like Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, Monet, Utrillo, Van Gogh. All of them drew courage to create in this place. Not just works that represented entire departures from the way things had been, but works that hang in the Musee d'Orsay. Works that drew deep upon their authentic selves.

In Montmartre, time slowed down. Musicians tuned away at odd corners seemingly just for joy, with not even an open violin case to receive tossed Francs. On that early spring day, when the raw tree branches were barely softened by spring green leaves, artists plied their paint brushes and photographers sat waiting for the light be be right. Writers could be seen propped up against stone walls, laptop computers and pens at the ready. Even in the hectic Place du Tertra where art commerce was in full swing, the mood was bright, full of possibility.

When it came time to begin the descent from Montmartre, I was not ready to leave. Big parts of my heart were home. Rather than be intimidated by what had been created here, I found myself buoyed by the courage at its center.

Summoning the courage to find ones true self is the heart's creative work. How creative are you?
©2009 Jan Johnson Wondra

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Moments Make up Life

Most of us think about life as flowing from one big event to another. And certainly, there is a flow. But now I think that life is really about little moments in time. The root of the word “momentous” is “moment.” Think about that. When we talk about something being a “momentous event” we are actually describing a tiny, emotion-laden instant in time, around which our lives may balance for only a few minutes, but which may change the course of our lives.

It might be, as Gwen Ellis describes it “A moment when our hearts nearly burst within us for the sheer joy of being alive. The first sight of our newborn babies, the warmth of love in another's eyes ....” Yes, and also the moment a few years ago when my son called the first day of a summer job and began his conversation with “Mom, there's this girl.....” In that instant his course toward his life-mate was set in motion. Last Saturday, for a moment, I glimpsed his face – as he watched his beautiful bride walk down the aisle.

Emotions are laced with memory. Memories are emotional moments. It's not just what happens, but how we feel about what happens. I don't think it is a coincidence that Moment and Memory are linguistically so close. It has been said that to remember the past is to sanctify the present. And what we remember are really those moments in time when life sounds the bell of fate and providence reaffirms that life, with all it's imperfections, is still worth it.

Sometimes we get almost more than we can handle. I have had reason, these past weeks to consider the entire spectrum of the human comedy – from birth through life, to death. For two days after my son's glorious wedding came my husband's birthday, on what would have been my Father's birthday, which was also the first anniversary of my Mother's passing. Oh how I miss my Mother, especially as Mother would have loved the wedding. We would surely have talked much about it in the days leading up to it and following it and she would have reveled in the presence of the entire family, come from afar to celebrate with us.

So many of us let our moments slide by, waiting for better parts of life. But those moments ARE life. I think the only guarantee we get is yesterday's memories and the precious here and now. As James Otto sings the Seth Godin words.... “These are the Good Old Days,” only most of us don't see the truth of it soon enough.

This past year I've tried to see the world with new eyes. Sometimes it takes a conscious effort to let the moments renew me instead of beat me down. But in the process there is a heartfelt appreciation of life stirring in me again. I hope the same will be true for you. You have the choice to embrace your moments rather than flow along through them. Life truly is beautiful once we decide to appreciate the moments for what they are. After all, as the writer Colette observed: “What a wonderful life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner!

©2009 Jan Johnson Wondra

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Seize the day! [Carpe diem.]

Long before Horace, the Roman lyric poet and satirist wrote those words, mankind was already trying to find, capture, exploit and extend our time here on earth. Most of us fail miserably. We spend our lives waiting for the good stuff to begin. Then to our chagrin, find that huge chunks of time have simply evaporated. We search for the lost year, the lost youth, the lost opportunity.

The French have a term for it; “Joi de vivre” or “the love of life.” It's a two-fisted, grab-on-and-go approach to the time we get here on earth. I felt it in Paris. Joi de vivre savors each moment; the delicate curl of steam off a perfectly brewed coffee at a tiny street-side cafe, the earthy scent of fresh mushrooms at a vendors stand, the shared camaraderie of my family strolling down streets we never expected to be on, the hold-your-breath sweetness of a patio lunch at La Maison Rose on a spring day. Rather than tromble over the days and weeks (I don't know if tromble is a word, but it should be), Joi de vivre impels one to find the joy in both the mundane and the miracle. In fact, it implores us to find the miracle in the mundane.

It's easy, on a beautiful Colorado summer morning, such as the one this past weekend when I began this blog, to grasp the possibility of the day. It's much harder on a rare gray and foggy morning like today to believe that good things will happen. But that is the courage required to seize the day. In Psalm 57, King David announced, “I myself will waken the dawn.” This was a man prone to pre-dawn jaunts for conversations with his God. I am not a morning person. I have spent years pretending to be one, but in actual truth, I usually force myself to greet the morning. I know I waste what my Wisconsin farmer Father always called, “the best part of the day.”

On the other hand, I love long, lingering sunsets and the thrill of the night air. I guess, as Henry David Thoreau suggested, “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.” That's the whole of our day, awareness of all the hours given us, early and late, both large and small.

The thing is, most of us aren't present in those hours. Bernard Berenson poiently noted, “I would I could stand on a busy corner, hat in hand, and beg people to throw me all their wasted hours.”

'Round about the time I turned 30, I penned a diddy that went like this:

“Time is just about all we have, and there isn't much of that.
We can think about it, or we can live it.
The choice is ours.
But while making the choice – remember-- there isn't much time.”

I know I still waste and wish away too many hours. Do you? My resolve today is to recognize the moments for what they are. “These,” as Seth Godin so musically pointed out, “ARE the good old days.”

Monday, July 20, 2009

Bite into Life at a Farmers' Market.

It's high season now for farmers' markets. I was raised a farm kid and it stayed with me. When you live in the city and get your produce from a grocery store most of the year, it is a big deal to be able to go to an open air market and talk to the folks who rose before dawn, loaded their trucks with fresh spinach, baby carrots, string beans picked just as the dew disappeared, sweet early peas, home made root beer and various other home made treats.

My favorite farmers' market was the one beside the old Munsingwear building in Minneapolis, in the shadow of the freeway overpasses. When we lived there over 20 years ago, it was a riot of Midwestern produce mixed with a wildly diverse flea market; part exotic circus atmosphere where jugglers mixed with Scandinavian farmers in bib overalls.

Currently, the closest one to me is in the parking lots of the Theater District in Lone tree, Colorado. I probably pay more there because it's considered quite a chic zip code. But my bargaining is half-hearted, because I know the effort it takes to raise this good food and I prefer to pay those who actually do the producing instead of an impersonal middleman. I like to people watch – to see who wanders the stalls, who seems to bargain more fiercely, who from the farm stands seems to really know their tomatoes or potatoes or who's an expert on garlic.

Here in Colorado it is possible to type into Google and an entire roster of Colorado Farmers' Markets will pop up. None of this holds a candle to the elegant jumble that is the rue Cler in Paris.

This tiny street, only a few blocks from the Eiffel Tower and a few blocks long, is a Paris legend. The rue Cler is where the Parisians go (and in increasingly irritating numbers, tourists like me trying desperately not to look like tourists!) It's intimate, authentic market atmosphere, especially on a leisurely Sunday morning, puts the process of acquiring one's food on a human scale. The rue Cler is home to a year-round market of assorted culinary delights; picked-that-morning produce, breads, fish, pates, cheeses, crepes, wines, country cream, dark chocolates, hearty jams, kitchen utensils, handmade linens and flowers. It tumbles in joyful profusion onto the narrow, cobblestone street, piled in bins, stacked on tables and umbrella'd carts that partially obscure the shop doors and display windows behind.

The street is crowded at this early hour, tastefully-dressed French families, children in prams or in tow, stroll about, their cloth shopping bags or pull-carts ready to pop in their treasures. A violinist stations himself at the alley entrance mid-way through the street and begins to play. Restaurants and outside cafes beckon, heaters at the ready on the cool April morning of our visit. Sausages of various kinds, eels from the north Atlantic and fat French chickens spit and smoke on fire burners. Chocolate crepes roll out of crepes pans into parchment paper wrappers. Incredibly strong, French coffee is sipped from tiny coffee cups in one cafe, while a few doors down French rose wine is poured into elegant glasses. The acid smoke of French cigarettes roll delicately about the sidewalk as the French have...horrors....recently banned smoking in all indoor restaurants!

Poking about the bins and carts we select rounds and wedges of pungent cheeses, going heavy on the Brie and Camembert, the authentic kind that is so much better than that which reaches us in Denver via export. My son loads up on still-warm croissants, while I salivate in front of a display of sweet, French, torpedo strawberries, their scent hanging delicately over the bin. Why can't America grow strawberries like this, I wondered?

The morning at the rue Cler will remain forever mixed in my mind with the views from the top and grounds of the Eiffel Tower. I have come to suspect that many of us who hunger for farmers' markets are also passionate cooks and frustrated gardeners, lacking the space, time or climate to produce that which we really wish we grew. What we want is something that Rodger Doiron, founder and director of Kitchen Gardeners International, a Maine-based nonprofit, calls “relocalizing” food. We want to know the source. We like it to come from nearby if it can't come from our own plot of land. We like it fresh and deep down, we hunger for the connection to the land and the life of the people who grew it.

This weekend, if you're not out back in your own garden thumping the watermelons – find a farmers market!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Savoring a Midsummer Day.

In this never-to-be-forgotten year, we have reached the midpoint – called, quite literally in Europe – Midsummer Eve. June 23 or 24th is the ancient celebration of the beginning of summer, and the traditional celebration of Midsummer Day. This is the mid-point of the calendar year, on or around the summer solstice – the longest day of year when the sun is at its northern-most point in the sky. These are the days when the light lingers long in the sky and hesitates to give up its warmth or it's clarity.

Considered by many Northern and Eastern European countries as one of the greatest festivals of the year, Midsummer Eve origins date from neolithic times. It has always been focused on new life and the fertility of growing things, although in the Christian era there has been an attempt to add a veneer of modern religion to it as the Feast of st. John the Baptist.

Every country has its own customs, but every one of them has some aspect of light in the celebration. This is the time for great fairs and feasting. Enormous bonfires are built and to them are added savory grasses and herbs. In the north, Midsummer is also called “White Nights” because the sun, which hid away during the dark winter, returns. So far north is the sun toward the Arctic Circle during those weeks, that in cities like St. Petersburg, Stockholm, Helsinki and Oslo, it never really sets at night.

Tradition says that this is the time of year when magic is at its strongest; it's a time for Will-o-wisps and fairies, witches and the legends of the fern blossoms. Shakespeare recognized its influence so much that he named his famous play “A Midsummer Night's Dream” after it.

In Norway Midsumer's Eve is called Sankthansaften. In Finland Ukko-kokko. In Russia and Ukraine, Midsummer is Ivan Kupala day, when girls float garlands in the rivers and from the direction they drift, tell their marital fortunes. People build great bonfires and then dance around them and leap over them as night falls. In Sweden, dancing to traditional music around a maypole (majstång or midsommarstång) is a family activity and many wear traditional folk costumes. As in Russia, the year's first potatoes, pickled herring, sour cream, and if possible the first strawberries of the season are on the menu.

This year I arrived at Midsummer Eve breathlessly, because the schedule for the past several days has been breakneck. Swim meets, Father's Day, a special family wedding shower for my soon-to-be daughter-in-law. College orientation for my daughter. A mad dash across part of the state through thundering storms to coordinate rides to a wedding in the mountains.

We have certainly been celebrating. Last night, we did a bit of dancing and feasting as well. What we haven't done, is to reflect on this very special summer. We haven't paused to savor the flavor and texture of the precious moments that make up our days. Rushing, rushing, always rushing, our days go by and before we know it – those days that seemed as if they could last forever – those days are gone. For me, at Midsummer, I am choosing to pause – and consider the deep magic of the moments given me. I invite you to do the same.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Bridges and Dots and Lines – Oh My!

I've been thinking about bridges. The wise journeyer learns to differentiate between bridges that connect with your future -- intimate passageways to new beginnings -- and those that allow you escape, but no forward progress.

May was my bridge month. In fact, this summer is my bridge summer. I am crossing from one stage of my life into another. The crossing has its smooth, “yellow brick road” moments and it's scary, bumpy parts. Does yours as well?

It was the intimate bridges that cross Paris' Seine River that got me thinking; the Pont Des Invalides, the Pont Arch, the Pont St. Louis. They're human, small-scale, walkable and they come with that world-famous scenery!

I've crossed all sorts of bridges. The formidable Brooklyn Bridge, the covered bridges of Madison County, the Minneapolis bridge that famously collapsed last year, the fog-shrouded Golden Gate connecting San Francisco with Marin County, the world's highest suspension bridge over the Colorado River. Just last week, I crossed Iowa's modest freeway bridges over the North Skunk and the Middle Raccoon (or was it the South Skunk and the North Racoon? I can't recall.) Those last bridges I crossed out of love – traveling to and from my son's college graduation.

Bridges exemplify the fundamental shift that occurs in passing over from one place to another. And this is the thing about bridges. The best don't just allow you passage, they sometimes give you moments to pause, reflect and relate. The best are all about relationships.

My new favorite bridge, the Pont St. Louis, straddles the islands in the Seine called the Ile de la Cite and the Ile Saint Louis, upon which sits Notre Dame. The bridge is tiny. Just a bit of an arched segment less than a hundred meters long. History likes this spot; a bridge has occupied this place for a thousand years.

Every person who comes to Paris walks across this bridge. It is full of multi-nation strollers and Czech jugglers, struggling artists and American jazz musicians performing for thrown Francs. It holds tourists peering at maps held upside down and iPod-toting teens sizing another digital shot of the backside of Notre Dame. Confused Japanese tourists puzzle on it and German travelers argue there. People dine at the sidewalk cafes and Brasseries that border it. Children do somersaults and dance to the music on it. Twilight lovers stroll hand-in-hand. My family waited on it for me to return from a Left Bank forage on the St. Germain and the Rive Gauche. As I crossed the Pont Arch toward them from the Left Bank booksellers, I observed them, people-watching, patient. My people. This bridge is like them – human and alive and connected with MY life.

Another day while on the Pont St. Louis I wrote for a bit. I found myself musing that someone must have written a book called Islands in the Seine. Then I realized that I had mixed this thought with Ernest Hemmingway's Islands in the Sun. But he wrote in Paris, so we know he crossed this way too!

The artist Paul Klee traveled to Paris in 1912 and famously observed that “a line is a dot that takes a walk.” I like to think that that walk also crossed this bridge. Many of us have days when we feel like the smallest, most insignificant dot on the planet. If we consider that our place in time is moving and changing as we change, then what each of us is, really, is a line. Yes, there's a beginning. And an end. But our mark is bigger than that dot. And oh, the bridges we can cross....that magnificent, wandering line of our lives!

©2009 Jan Johnson Wondra

Friday, May 1, 2009

Paris eyes make me see more clearly.

It might sound odd, given the world's art heritage stored at the Louvre, that I spent time there writing. It was after we passed the artist trying to paint in the Grand Gallery that it dawned upon me that the Louvre is a place to create as well as to view that which has been created.

It was after the Venus de Milo. After the Mona Lisa (which by the way is disappointingly small, which is probably why Leonardo choose it to carry around with him anyway) and after a room full of Rembrandts. Does one actually cry the first time one sees a work of art one has waited her whole life to see? Yes, she does. Quite unexpectedly too. When the object is priceless, one doesn't need to waste time coveting them. It is only to be appreciated.

The poor fellow trying to paint had positioned himself to copy a 16th century Italian master. A sign placed above his canvas stating quite clearly that he was NOT to be photographed. He looked the part, beret planted on his intense head, paint-smudged smock covering his bedraggled clothing, brushes in hand. Though not an art critic, I thought his work was progressing well.

This did not stop at least three groups of giggling girls armed with digital cameras from stopping behind and trying. Flashes went off. The girls moved closer to his shoulder, shrill voices rising. He waved off one group. The next one he shouted at. The third group he leaped up and began to gesture wildly. leaving no doubt that he would punch the next girl who clicked. It brought a museum guard and a goodly bit of what I am sure were choice French words, all lost on me. It was small theater among grand masters.

We had spread out because it's exceedingly difficult to keep four people together while spending the day inside this world cathedral of creativity. I tried my best to avoid the gaggles – 100 Japanese tourists armed with cameras and a museum guide are loud! Mid afternoon I found myself at a quiet, second floor window of the 14 - 17th century French paintings with a surprising view of the Eiffel Tower, the Arch de Triumphe and the gates of the Louvre, as well as the famous glass pyramid. The Louvre must plan on people contemplating life here, because the windows come equipped with window seats. I sat.

“Today,” I wrote, “I have nearly forgotten that I am in Paris, so immersed am I in the centuries of history through which I have wandered. I have been in ancient Egypt and Greece. I have been on the streets of Rome, the canals of Venice, the byways of London, in the shadows of light and darkness along the waterways of Holland. I have been deep in the fjords of ice and snow in Norway, on the side streets of St. Petersburg, and in the grand salons of European royalty. I have come to Paris and found the entire existence of mankind.”

Outside, the sky that I will now always call “Paris Blue,” glows. The walkways coming and going from the Louvre are full of people. But inside, I sit, pondering the moment. Since I never expected to be here, I can only explain it this way. Life is a series of moments. Both big and small things that added together make life. Artists know this. Writers who finally discover this become real writers. New eyesight is a gift.

Le seul véritable voyage ... ce ne serait pas d’aller vers de nouveaux paysages, mais d’avoir d’autres yeux, de voir l’univers avec les yeux d’un autre, de cent autres, de voir les cent univers que chacun d’eux voit …

In English:
The only true voyage of discovery … would be not to visit new landscapes, but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees.

— Marcel Proust
'La Prisonnière', À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-27).

I re-entered Paris at 6:00 pm, seeing this great city differently too. And I have brought my Paris eyes home with me.

©2009 Jan Johnson Wondra

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Sometimes you've got to become fierce about guarding your light.

I've always loved the ugliness of Gargoyles. I've had one guarding my cookbooks in my kitchen for years. He's ferocious-looking, crouching atop a stack of Food & Wine magazines. His eyes bulge. His mouth is parted in a snarl, as if he'd gobble up anyone attempting to get at my French onion soup recipe.

Many people have commented on my ferocious-looking protector, wondering why on earth I keep him. I like what he stands, or rather crouches, for. (I’ll also admit that my French Onion Soup recipe is pretty darn good.)

So of course I looked for gargoyles in Paris, their natural home. I found them everywhere! Gargoyles glaring from hotel porticoes and grand arches, staring down from Paris’s unique apartment quadrangles. Peaking over courtyard doorways. But especially, gargoyles guarding churches. It’s possible there are more gargoyles in Paris than anywhere else on earth. The most famous residence for gargoyles is, of course, Notre Dame cathedral! Situated on an island in the Seine, the Ile de la Cite, the cathedral and it’s famous protectors are the literal heart of France – the point from which all distance in France is measured.

My first glimpse of those famous profiles was after dark, when their grotesque visages are wonderfully lit against a night sky. But we visited again – and again – during our Paris week. We were drawn back via the Left Bank while browsing the book stalls along the Seine. Notre Dame was in our gaze from one of the bridges in the shadow of the Cathedral, the Rue de Pont Arch and the Pont St. Louis. We glided beneath the flying buttresses and gargoyles on a river Batobus. And we rested in the square in front of the cathedral in the shade of France’s great unifier, Charlemagne astride his charger and yes – beneath the gargolyes. From every position, a chorus of gargoyles with every manner of fierce visage, glared upon us. It was comforting.

Gargoyles were the rage in Medieval Europe. Contrary to the notion that they represent the devil, Gargoyles were created as tangible symbols to ward off the evil spirits and the dangers of the world. And there were a lot of dangers back then. For centuries, through famine and plaque, through invasions and political turmoil, light and hope came from God and the church and the view was long-term.

The peasants, who build Notre Dame literally by hand, began it in 1163 with the hope that their great, great, great, great, great great grandchildren would live to see it dedicated. It took over two centuries. Know anyone these days with that amount of hope in the future? Thanks to Victor Hugo’s almost single-handed effort during the 1860’s to save the crumbling façade with his “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” we can see those gargoyles in their full fierce glory today.

Perhaps the gargoyles are a fitting symbol for all of us working to find and hold our own light in this day and age. As a writer, I find that there are now so many ways for our thoughts to be diluted; for original expression to be polluted. You could say the influence is good – or terrible. Everyone who can tweet or string a couple of prepositional phrases together now assumes they are a great writer. Anyone with some technological ability announces that they are now a great marketer – regardless of whether or not they understand brand relationships, strategic positioning or have much in the way of the world’s wisdom. It’s gotten rather crowded with amateurs.

I’m thinking I need more gargoyles to protect my light. Gargoyles are not just the province of the old world. You’ll find them on the great cathedrals of America and on many of our public buildings. In fact, those of us who frequently travel through Denver’s new DIA airport are comforted by the presence there of a few of these protective beasts. Know where to find them? Next time you find yourself in baggage claim, look around. What you find may not just guard against lost luggage!

Come to think of it, maybe I’ll start by relocating my gargoyle to my desk.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Light and Great Expectations.

Few places really live up to our expectations. Paris exceeds mine.

I know, I know. In a literary sense, great expectations go more with London than Paris. Too bad. I've never been to London, but now I've been to Paris. It's better than I hoped for and probably slightly more than I deserve.

I can only write about what I know, reaching for the light with both hands.

Our first full day dawned late, gray and rainy; just the weather we expected from a late March day in Paris. It didn't matter. By 11:00 a.m. we set out for the sunlit spaces and dreamy days of impressionism at the Musee d'Orsay; into the world of late-nineteenth century Paris and the invention of French modern art.

Zipping pass the soggy ticket line as we waved our nifty Museum Passes, we entered this historic train station turned museum and pushed upward. First stop, the top rooms of Impressionists and Post Impressionists....Renoirs, Monets, Chagelles, Manets, Gauguins and Van Goghs. I've been in the great art museums of Germany, Netherlands, Scandinavia, Russia. But to go to the place where artists reinvented how light appeared on canvas.....

I made a point of going to the Musee d'Orsay as an artist and not a tourist. It is said that the Musee d'Orsay on a spring morning is a writer's church. They say that to pray as an do what it is you do. So I prayed by soaking up the light, writing a near perfect “prayer.” I chose to focus on the thousands of points of a Pissarro. I found the Renoir of which I dreamed, and tried to replicate quite unsuccessfully, as a girl in high school art class. It is said that “Those whose expectations are God’s, will never be disappointed.” He didn’t intend for me to be a painter.

I dwelt on the fabulous, light-drenched color of the Gauguins, painted in Tahiti. It is a place to which I have actually been. I can now honestly say that he captures the soul that is French in the spirit that is Tahitian. At last, I understood his mocking journals and took his words with, yes, a grain of salt. I discovered, (as Eric Maisel, the writer and writing coach notes) that Gauguin was a gentle soul who did not withstand well the criticism of the established art world.

The artist in me was sobered by the fact that Van Gogh never sold a single one of his paintings during his lifetime. Some of the best writers this world has ever known wrote in Paris, and never found an audience for their words. I remind myself that one does not stop praying just because the object of my faith cannot be definitively proved. So I pray my way.

So, focused on the light was I, that I have already forgotten where we ate that night. I intended to record it, but the romance of a pink-yellow sunset (indicating a better day tomorrow) and glimpses of that signature tower, took the name of the cafe out of my memory. It bothers me. I only remember the delicious bread, the tender lamb shank, the “Frenchness” of the ideal rose wine carafe, the perfect apple tartlet with soft cream.

It will have to be enough; more than enough for a day in Paris. My expectations are exceeded and I decide to be kind to myself.

©2009 Jan Johnson Wondra

Monday, April 6, 2009

Salt. Lots of salt.

That's how the Paris trip began. Who would think that our journey to the city that made light an aspiration would be made possible by the lowliest of minerals?

Sometime in the early hours of March 25, thousands of pounds of that crystalline stuff was liberally spread on roads so that we could make it to the airport and our plane could make it down the runway. Before daylight this spring morning, a classic Colorado upslope began dumping snow, on the very day we planned to begin our Parisian adventure. If you've never experienced an upslope blizzard, you've missed out on adventures in continuous snow-shoveling, tree branch-rescue, snow-shoeing for food and survival for days without heat. Until recently, Colorado hasn't been much for plowing roads because the old-west culture was -- “It'll melt!”

Once at the airport, it was a nail-bitter as to whether our flight out would survive, or join the list of canceled flights. It wasn't. A couple of de-icings and news that ours was the last flight allowed out, and fate took over. We made Chicago, met up with Nic and departed over the Atlantic, landing early Friday morning for our adventure in Paris.

The difference between Paris and the wide-open spaces of Colorado that I call home, is a real mind adjustment. Where I live, you can see one hundred miles from my favorite writing cafe, to the peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park. But Paris....Paris surrounds you, envelopes you, infuses your soul in a way both fragrant and gritty, that I haven't experienced before.

It does this, even though it is, physically, a small city; only twenty Arrondissements laid out like a pinwheel. Arrondissements one through eight of this cookie-cutter-shaped space hold most of the attractions for which Paris is renowned; from the Eiffel Tower to the major museums, the Arch de Triumphe, the river Seine and the great cathedrals. We stayed in Arrondissement 15, bounded on the west and north by the Seine, only a block from the Port de Versailles metro stop.

First impressions: it's an easy city in which to get around. Truly, Paris is meant to be strolled, but if your shoes hurt, your partner's back is protesting, or you want to cram more than three things into a day, you take the metro. It's warp speed, clean, handsome and using it, you're right there with the locals. You can get anywhere and if you get a metro pass as we did, you zip in and out, switch gears from the Latin Quarter to a museum and back again. The U.S has such a loooooooong way to go.

Take it easy your first day or you'll miss the next morning. We were so energized that we set out for the Place de la Concorde to pick up our Museum Passes, retrieved our Metro passes, had lunch on the Rue St. Honore, met our niece who flew in from Edinburgh on her way to Rome and took her to dinner in the shadow of Notre Dame. It was a lovely little Alsatian place on the Saint Louis en I'lle, but we nearly fell asleep in our soup! Nic, for his part took time for lunch with a friend at the American Embassy and he's the one who got up at 4:30 am. to make sure our niece made her metro connections for Rome. I knew we'd raised a gentleman! It was 10:30 am, Saturday morning, before the rest of us roused. From that moment on...we set an exploration pace on Paris.

Even if you never eat bread – eat the bread. The French are so serious about their baking that in culinary school, bakers-in-training have to decide if they want to become a bread-baker or a pastry baker. Seriously! Each morning Nicholas has trekked the couple of blocks from our apartment to the bakery to await it's opening, returning with croissants still warm from the oven. They are so exquisite that they melt in your mouth with the strawberry jelly we liberally spoon on to them. Katie, for her part, buys entire baguettes and carries them around in her back pack to nosh on between museums!

I've gotten both good and bad comments from people about this trip. Most are happy for us, that we have set out to share a precious celebration of discovery before our family moves to its next stage. To those who express concern about this trek in the midst of economic turmoil, about justifying it when my marketing contract work is down, about picking a place that could appear too exotic in today's new these nay-sayers I say, if not now, when? I've economized all my life..when it wasn't fashionable and when many of you were not. I guess I have always “yinged” when others “yanged.” We prayed about this trip...and now was the time, for us. This adventure says the four of us believe in our future, whatever it holds.

Marcel Proust noted that, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

In my case, my new eyes have found an unlimited resource of light....for writing ideas, places to write and small moments to write. But technology, in the form of a malfunctioning transformer, prevented me from posting anything after my first few twitters because my laptop batteries, instead of recharging, were drained dry and would not recharge. (No, my i Phone and Blackberry friends, I don't have an international phone, or a fancy one, so there was no twittering without that transformer.)

So think of this as the one week delay, sort of like old post mail, from a friend who's wanting to share the flavor of a new landscape and the discovery of my new eyes.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Light Tomorrow with Today.

“Light Tomorrow with Today.”

Elizabeth Barret Browning (1806-1861)

This past Friday the world slipped quietly into spring. In Denver the spring equinox occurred in the pre-dawn darkness. Nevertheless, the light arrived exactly when it was supposed to.

One's skin can actually feel the light source shifting northward. As it does, the edge of afternoon sunlight is creeping closer to the north-facing French door by which I work my daily words. I like the light. Come July I'll wish there was a shade on the door!

I don't know about you, but I spend too much of my time focused on tomorrow. My mind messages go something like this: “Tomorrow when I've finished the job application I'll call my friend....” “Next week I'll go to coffee when I've earned the break...” “Next year when I've finished the book and found a publisher, I'll do more volunteer work....”

I've decided that I've got the light thing backwards. It was Elizabeth Barret Browning who reminded us of the right order. Each of us has got to use today, live in today, and use the good that we do today to guide our way to the next day. And if that good is merely to do a good day's work, to be civil to our fellow human beings, or to go out of our way to be kind to just one person who could use some light in their life right now? Well then – we don't have to worry that we're not negotiating world peace!

Next week, if I master the technical setup to be able to do a mobile blog using my lap top, I'll be blogging from Paris. I might even Twitter! I find it the ultimate in irony. That I may be able to write my muse about the light an individual can make in this world, from the city...THE CITY... that personifies light? Well, grace has indeed shown upon me.

I'm prepared. I've already packed my writing journal, my high heels and what chic, black clothes I own. I'm debating how best to carry my laptop. And I ordered A Writer's Paris from Writers Digest Books. It's called “a guided journey for the creative soul.” I don't think you have to be a writer to read it, but it helps.

Precious family time will occur on this trip; a graduation gift to our son and daughter, who graduate this year from college and high school. But I will write as well. For as I know the book will tell me, I need to write in cafes and in perfect little parks, on the grass at the Eiffel Tower, under the flying buttresses of Notre Dame and from a river boat on the Seine. If I can do that, then....I have truly used the experience of today's light to light tomorrow; perhaps for more people than myself. Write and light do rhythm after all.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Fog is the absence of clarity. Or is it?

In fog, what you think you see, may not be real. What you imagine can appear more real, more terrorizing, than it really is. Boundaries can either disappear, or seem artificially close. Limitations, most surely, seem to multiply, grow and surround us.

I've been in the fog for weeks. Today, on this last day of winter, I admit it.

Fog isn't the absence of light. You can have foggy darkness and pea-soup light. No, fog, in all its connotations, is the absence of clarity. My life is in flux right now and the fog that has descended is a fitting metaphor for the cross-roads of choices, complications and competing priorities that confront me right now. Perhaps it is, for you as well.

Reality shifts in the fog. There's a reason that horror movies make liberal use of it. Where would the Hound of the Baskervilles have been without the creepiness of the misty Scottish moors? And what self-respecting vampire movie doesn't have at least one scene with the damsel in distress, high on the foggy castle ramparts fleeing from the clutches of the undead Dracula?

Interestingly enough, the recent weeks I've spent considering fog match, almost exactly, the longest stretch I spent in in the Rheinstrasse of Germany living through a murky, sunless winter. Six weeks without the sun is like death to a sun-loving American! Combine that with the fact that my German wasn't much beyond toddler talk and you have the setting for a down and depressed ex-patriot!

For most, fog represents the unknown, the mist of things unseen and unrealized. Most often it is used to represent fear, uncertainty and confusion. But in the fog, other things can become more apparent. Until spending a summer week in San Franciso a few years ago, I hadn't thought much about those weeks when I could not see the house across the narrow German village street. Flying in, we descended from brilliant sunshine into the bay fog and didn't see the sun for days.

I was reminded that, when you can't see clearly, your other senses are strengthened. In that cold San Francisco summer shroud, the fog horns on the bay howled mournfully. The clang-clang of the street cars could be heard long before the clackety vehicle appeared out of the drifting air. The smell of roasting nuts in the street vendors carts was intensified and if the fish down on the wharf hadn't been right off the boats, I'm sure the odor would have been different!

The fog I've been in lately is personal and no reflection on the gorgeous, sunny days we perpetuate here in Colorado. I haven't been able to see my way clearly. But fog intensifies other senses I need to deal with it.

Step outside on a foggy day. Stand alone and very still, where the fog seems most dense. Hear things to which you would not normally pay attention. Feel the air against your skin. Sense the acrid smell of smoke. Cringe at the noxious odor of gasoline. Shuffle your feet through last fall's rotting leaves. Touch your fingers to the freshness of just-cut wood. Smell the dampness. Especially in this season, pick up the scent of earth and of growing things beginning to stir. Sense your mind shift speeds.

Fog, you see, is not such a bad thing. In an odd way, that which conceals, reveals. What physical fog can do for the body, so emotional fog can do for our minds; allowing our other four senses to take over where our visual culture has dominated. It makes this little space for the things to come forward that we don't normally allow into our neat and structured schedules. It allows for possibility and purpose to sort themselves out. Things that lie hidden in the glare of bright light, fog reveals to you. Clarity from a little mind fog -- the perfect prelude to the coming days of brilliant sunshine.

Monday, February 2, 2009

At the midpoint of winter, time and light are relative.

This morning I lost track of time sitting in an old Queen Anne side chair in the sun, working on my daily meditations. The Grandfather clock behind me began to chime, startling me from my writing. Sure that I had let much time go by; that it was now 9:00 O'clock and I was now off schedule, I listened to the chimes and counted. They stopped. Turning, I saw the hands read 8:00 0'clock.

Astounded, I got up and checked all three digital clocks in the kitchen. Yup! All read a digital 8:00 am. I had only been seated in thought for 20 minutes, but it had felt like more than an hour. How could this be? Now several hours later, I can attest to the fact that everything I did after those minutes in the sun has sped by in the opposite equation. What seems a frantic twenty minutes is an hour and a half. I liked my lovely, sunny time warp much better.

Time and light are connected. We are exactly halfway between the winter and the spring equinox; the midpoint between the shortest day and the speeding up of the return of light to the northern hemisphere.

Most of us have lost the association, but this day is known as Candlemas Day. This was the day that all the household candles were brought to the church to be blessed. It took that long for all that tallow from the slaughtering and rendering to be turned into candles, I guess. Or, perhaps, because this time of year is so dreary most everywhere, they needed a reason to celebrate. In ancient times, people actually said that Christmas lasted forty days...from December 25 to February 2.

From the Romans to the Scots, acknowledging this day has swung from feast (of light) to royal declaration. In Scotland the weather this time of year is typically dreadful. In olden days this led to an odd school ritual. The children had to bring their own candles to school so they had light by which to study! When candles were replaced by gas lights, the children brought money for the light and the one who raised the most money was declared to be King or queen of a six week long season until Spring.

Candlemas day, the saying goes, is said to be a predictor of the weather:
If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
Winter won't come again.
If Candlemas Day be dry and fair,
The half o' the winter's to come and mair;
If Candlemas Day be wet and foul,
The half o the winter's gane at Yule.

I'm not sure when the groundhog took over from Candlemas, but in Germany, the weather prediction was handed off to a badger, not a ground hog. You use what you've got, I guess.

It was partly sunny here in Colorado today. Six more weeks of winter. Spring lies ahead, but now, now, the light is working on the bare, cold ground. Whether you light candles or believe in groundhogs, this is your reflection time.

Me? I'm going to scare up some more candles and light a few!

©2009 Jan Johnson Wondra

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Life has crystalline moments.

Moments when the tiny squares of our existence come together in a structure that reflects and rotates into a symmetry; sometimes sobering, often profound and occasionally divine.

Our country seems to be having such a moment. As am I.

It would have been quite easy to continue my weekly missives through the ordinary new year and through the old (Russian) new year, that we celebrate two weeks later because of our daughter's heritage. More than in past years, most of us truly wished the personal painful and corporately grim events of 2008 to pass on into history. But I have been deep in thought, seeking the structure that will become my guiding light for this year 2009.

I'm no mystic and chemistry was not one of my best subjects, although geometry was. But at this moment the image that comes to me is the form of a crystal, shimmering in the light. Facets of it's shape reflect prisms of light, as well as shadowy depth; images of the real world. I'm not talking mystical crystals here. Think grains of sand. The salt you may sprinkle on your omelet. Just ordinary life. Some might say – irritants.

Few of us have looked at salt under a microscope. Maybe we should. Microscopic crystals are incredible structures of gorgeous geometry – a delicate lattice of atoms that can honeycomb and twist and turn in amazing dimensional forms. Strangely, they can twist 180 degrees and still retain their original symmetry. Talk about pliable perfection! It can take time for a crystal of salt to arrange itself into the kind of salt it will become; sodium chloride (nice cubic crystals of table salt) or magnesium chloride or calcium chloride (road salt). There's even a salt, silicon carbide, that has the same structure as a diamond. Yes, even simple salt crystals hold lessons in how to look at life.

You don't believe it? Think! We say that something crystalizes when it becomes clear in our minds... when the choice stretching before us becomes obvious...when the fuzzy hypothesis gels. And when the sheer simplicity of an idea once so obscure is elegantly revealed, or when the pipe dream suddenly presents itself in all it's glory, fully formed, as if brought on a beam of revelation, in those moments, we say that what can be, becomes “crystal clear.” As clear as a crystal of – salt.

In those moments the micro chasm of ordinary days become extraordinary moments. An ordinary day, January 20th, became a day lit by millions of symmetrical crystals -- of hope. My ordinary life, beset with uncertainty and doubt, becomes a brilliant mirror plane of possibility. I am one grain – salt to some, light to others – but to myself I am a symmetry being shaped by time and circumstances according to a divine plan. So are you.

©2009 Jan Johnson Wondra