Master of Simplicity (Inspiration Series, week 20)

“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.”

“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”

“This world is but canvas to our imaginations.”

Let’s be honest. One could devote an entire post to quotes by Henry David Thoreau. I’m sure he spoke ordinary old sentences once in a while, but they must have been squeezed in between the words of wisdom he imparted though his incomparable writings. 

Born in 1812, Thoreau grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, the son of a pencil maker. He graduated from Harvard in 1937, then took a job as a schoolteacher, where he lasted two weeks before resigning rather than administer corporal punishment. After a stint in their father’s factory, he and  his brother John opened a grammar school that included unusual experiences for students such as nature walks and visits to town. The school came to an early end when John contracted tetanus after cutting himself shaving. He would die in his brother’s arms.

It was soon after that Thoreau would meet the man who changed the course of his life. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a fellow Concord resident who had taken an interest in Transcendentalism and would become a mentor to the young man already gaining interest in the more ethereal aspects of life. Emerson encouraged Thoreau towards writing, and in 1941 had the younger man move into his house as a handyman. 

After a time he returned to the pencil factory, but it was not where he belonged. He began to plan for a different kind of life, in a place that would allow him the space and freedom to pursue an altogether different kind of living.

And so, in 1845, Thoreau began the process of building a home for himself on Walden Pond. Framed in May of that year, the 10′ x 15′ structure cost $28.12 and was completed on July 4, when he moved in. 

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

It was everything he needed. In his book, Walden, he goes over the materials and the construction – in its final form the cabin featured

 “a bed, a table, a small desk, a lamp, and three chairs – one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”

Thoreau would spend the next two years in his little house, mostly with his own thoughts and observations. His goal, as he noted, was to reduce his needs to a minimum. To make the small amount of money he needed he planted a bean garden, while reversing the tradition of a six-day workweek and 1 day off. This allowed him to study nature, read, and philosophize on the benefits of simple living and virtues of civil disobedience and self-sufficiency. 

Walden‘s chapters include “Economy,” “Where I Lived, What I Lived For,” “Reading,” “Sounds,” “Solitude,” and “Visitors” – as he contemplates nature Thoreau’s eyes and ears sharpen and he is able to distill the human experience in a way few have. It is as though by shedding the wardrobe of regular society he becomes a more pure being, bound only to laws and norms set forth by the natural world. 

He reads the classics (in the original Greek and Latin), ponders the value of vegetarianism – along with chastity and teetotaling – and moves through the seasons with a watchful eye that catches each one’s distinct blessings and beauty. 

It is this engagement with the Earth around him, along with his pursuit of simplicity and meaning, that propels Thoreau to the top of my Inspirers list. Despite being born into a time when each day brings new noise, I find myself longing to pare down, scale back, get to the essence of my own human experience. 

It  seems all but impossible. In most moments, it appears I have at least a dozen things I could be doing. Distractions buzz at my ear like flies, while problems (past, present, and as yet unknown) hover in the air. With each breath, it sometimes feels, I am commanded to do some new thing to achieve some deadline or fulfill some obligation. On and on it goes, until the routine movements smother the original ones looking for an entrance. 

The ghost of Thoreau beckons – if I try,  I can hear him ask, “Do you think you are immortal?” I look down at a desk full of papers, an in-box full of messages, and wonder how much time I will have to build my cabin in the woods. And if indeed I can, how much time will I have left to spend there?

For today, I read Thoreau’s words and am grateful – but this time, as I thank the universe for teachers of wisdom and truth, I also make a silent promise to do as he advised:

Ripple Effects (Inspiration Series, week 19)

A legacy of Love: Dave left behind friends and family who are committed to keeping his spirit alive in the world, and sharing it with the rest of us.

I never saw Dave Adox. I wouldn’t have recognized him on the street, or looked up if I’d heard his name a year ago. 

And yet, I know him. I know that he was a philosophy major, that he read Thich Nhat Hahn, that he was a dad, and even how he met his partner. I know all of these things without having ever spoken a word to Dave. 

Unfortunately, the other big thing I know about Dave is how he died. ALS took him, when he was far too young and had far too much to live for. I have read about his last few years, the journey from health to disability, when he became dependent on those around him, especially his husband, Danni. It is heartbreaking and yet…

I first “met” Dave at a party forced indoors due to rain. I entered his and Danni’s house a total stranger, looking for Rosalie, Dave’s sister, an old friend from high school. Over the course of the next few hours I’d learn about him – he’d died just a few months earlier, on May 18, surrounded by his loved ones. People were still very, very sad and yet there was this thing that hung in the air. Maybe it emanated from Orion, his son, who toddled around as the adults talked and cooked and smiled as they recalled Dave stories. I certainly felt it from Tracey, a lifelong friend of Dave’s who lit up when she talked about him.

The stories, the presence of Dave throughout the house and the people, made its way into my soul without fanfare; as I left later that evening, I didn’t realize that I was taking with me one of those experiences that lasts far beyond the original one.

I went home and read about Dave – there were stories on his battle with ALS, local features and national ones, including on the challenges he faced at the end in his quest to donate his organs (he did – both kidneys and his liver). There were old pictures so I could see Dave as his loved ones had known him. 

I had connected with Tracey on Facebook, and we would comment every so often on each other’s posts.  And once in in awhile, Dave – this guy I didn’t know – would pop up too, in a memory or photo of someone who loved him.

And then, nearly a year later, Tracey told me about this thing they were doing: Artbender, a weekend event to raise money for, dedicated to helping artists with disabilities. They’d be painting rocks to place by Dave’s tree (planted with him present, shortly before his death) in the local park.

The  memory of that first encounter with Dave’s family came back to me and I happily accepted the invitation. I arrived at the house on a Saturday afternoon to find the painting well under way. From monochrome blue to the most fantastic rendering of Dave and Danni’s very house, they formed a collection that, like everything else surrounding Dave Adox, practically screamed love. Once the painting was done I spent the rest of the day soaking in his almost palpable spirit, which came through even more strongly with my greater sense of all he’d meant. 

Because to be around his loved ones, his home, his belongings, is to be around Dave. I’ve no doubt that I would have liked him, would have been lucky to call him a friend. I also am quite sure that his is a legacy destined to go on – in his son, in his tree, and in every person he touched. He is that eternal reminder that within our lives, no matter how long, we have the opportunity to step beyond our struggles and touch hearts – both the ones we know and the ones we have no idea we could ever reach.

It is humbling to think of the mark Dave left on Earth. Even as he ended his time here he planted seeds – both literal and figurative – that will be eternally watered by those of us he left behind. We can learn from his example to be graceful under stress, courageous under fire, and always committed to a life filled with love

I end this with a big thank you to the man I will never meet, and leave you with the quote that he took on as his mantra. 

Against the Tide (Inspiration series, Week 18)

With every stroke, Diana Nyad seemed to dare the water to try to stop her from fulfilling her goal

It’s an image not easy to forget. Sun-blistered, swollen, a woman emerges from the ocean onto the shore of Key West. It is 2 o’clock in the afternoon and a crowd of people cheer her as she stumbles forward. 

If one didn’t know the story of Diana Nyad, that image alone would evoke admiration. A 64 year-old woman is not who we generally think of when considering athletic heroes. And yet, there she was, declaring victory against the forces that had worked against her since that first attempt, back when Jimmy Carter was still president and Laverne & Shirley was the #1 show on TV.

Strong Westerly winds, however, threw her off course in 1978, and Nyad was forced to end the swim after covering 76 of the trip’s miles. Having already won a record for the fastest swim around the island of Manhattan, her legacy was intact despite not reaching her goal.

She became an author – first of a memoir, “Other Shores,” and later of biographies and content for major publications – and, not surprisingly, a motivational speaker. She was a contributor and commentator on public radio. And then, on a milestone birthday, having turned 60 and recently lost her mother, she did what so many of us do;pondered  her list of things not yet accomplished.

“I said, ‘Uh-uh, I am not going into that good night. I am going to fire up and live this thing as large as I can live it until I can’t live it that large anymore.'” 

And so she started training again, first in the Bahamas and then from the planned point of her ultimate finish line, Key West. Training began in July 2010. Bad weather cancelled the scheduled August try, so the swim was moved to July 2011.

It was, as Nyad says herself, most certainly a team effort, including a lighted support boat to keep her on course. It was not enough, however to keep away the strong currents. 

Just two months later she would go again, and make it 41 hours (67 nautical miles) before the current would once again thwart her success. This time, it was aided by creatures of the sea – it is difficult to forget the images of Nyad with jellyfish and Portuguese man-o-ward stings that left her skin unbearably red and puffy, as if she’d been to a sea war and perhaps not won. 

She was not deterred. The following August she renewed her quest, this time covering a greater distance but still falling short. And yet, stopping was still not an option. In a speech at the University of Texas, Nyad explained the attitude that prevailed in 2013, when she and her group took to the water once more::

“Our team said, on the Havana shore before this last attempt, that we would Find A Way. That’s what a champion athlete does. No matter the obstacles, she finds a way to the other side.”

A specially designed suit and mask to protect from stings were her uniform this go-round. Once in the water, they could not shield her from the hallucinations (including visions of the Yellow Brick Road and the Seven Dwarfs), ingested water (and subsequent vomiting), and exhaustion. But with best friend Bonnie Stoll to give her both sustenance and encouragement, she swam on. 

On the second night, getting more delirious, Nyad saw what she thought was the morning sun, way in the distance. But it was not the sun – it was, in fact, the lights of Key West. Still hours away, she knew then that success was inevitable. 

She came ashore on September 3, looking disoriented (she was), and exhausted. And while her appearance was disconcerting, there was another state of being simply waiting to take its proper place. 

She was victorious. She had taken on the seemingly impossible odds, at an age where such dreams can only be pipes ones, and had turned the odds upside down.

The inspiration here is no less profound for its obviousness. For all of the qualities it takes to achieve such greatness – dedication, self-confidence, purpose – the one that strikes me most is persistence.

It is rather easy to set goals, attempt them, and move on if they turn out to be more ambitious than we first suspect. Perhaps we even try a second time to be able to tell the world we are not quitters. 

But to commit ourselves to the thing – to go after it again and again – takes a special kind of focus and heart that brings us to another level of existence. Fighting  the inevitable doubts requires, paradoxically, both patience with our human-ness  and impatience with the belief that it limits us. 

How many times have each of us stopped because the struggle felt too long, or too hard? How often do we allow our fears or the fears of others to keep us from staying on a noble path? 

How many times might we have relinquished a dream without looking up to see that the lights of Key West were calling us forward?

Each of us must set our own targets, find our own North Star. No matter the path, we must all do that one thing that people like Diana Nyad have been teaching us to do since we started taking notice. 


A Voice for the World (Inspiration series, Week 17)

Francis has made caring for the poor and needy a central theme of his papacy.

The Pope – larger than life, mysterious, and to non-Catholics, generally not of much interest. To atheists and agnostics, even less so. And yet, in the midst of a world that often seems to be off its collective rocker, along comes a religious leader who seems determined to help keep our moral compasses somewhat straight. 

Born Jorge Mario Bogoglio in Buenos Aires, he studied to be a chemical technician and taught literature and psychology in Argentina colleges before earning a doctorate in theology. Overcoming his mother’s initial objections, he entered the priesthood in 1969. As he rose from titular bishop of Auca to archbishop of Buenos Aires and then to cardinal in 2091, he was already earning a reputation for his humility and simplicity. He was at the top of candidates following the death of Pope John Paul the II and then named 266th Pope on March 13, 2013. 

One wouldn’t be surprised at any man – even the Pope – being changed by such an elevation. And yet, Francis has brought a new sense of kindness and dare I say, spirituality, to his position that makes him unlike any other. Not only has he challenged church doctrine and points of view, he has openly talked about actions and viewpoints that he does not see as Christian in substance.

Pope Francis’ connection to the poor and suffering, and his insistence of society’s obligations to them, reaches beyond rhetoric of religion, which tells us to care for the least among us. This man teaches us by example. He visits slums, washes the feet of the homeless, takes the faces of small, impoverished children into his hands.

His voice is loud and clear (and sometimes exasperated) as he takes the powerful to task for the systems of inequity and lack of attention to those most in need. Indeed, Francis seems most at home and happy when chatting with villagers and those who have nothing to offer but their thanks and love. 

He seems closer to the descriptions of Jesus that I heard growing up than most of the “spiritual” voices in today’s world. And despite those who tell him to stick to his place, Francis continues to do – well, not that. Whether speaking on protecting the environment, questioning orthodoxy, or challenging our attitudes, he sticks his neck out for what many would call the greater good. It seems to often infuriate those who otherwise speak of piety and devotion to their higher power. 

Which has sometimes delighted those of is us who don’t necessarily subscribe to traditional faith bases and institutions. We are continually surprised to find ourselves deeply affected by this man whose beliefs and leanings in so many areas would seem to be radically different – and sometimes diametrically opposed – to our own. While other figures pack folks into mega-churches and decry those they deem sinners, Francis works on as an advocate and friend to those who need one most.

I don’t misunderstand his role, or his adherence to the laws and norms of Catholicism. I dont expect that he will suddenly shift from the church on every issue or doctrine. As its leader, he is bound to it. I will though, take great comfort in a voice that rises above the ever-present language of divisiveness to remind us that at our core, we are one people. 

In one lifetime, long ago, I was a Sunday School teacher, explaining to the smallest students about Jesus and how he taught people to live. It’s the part of my experience in the church that has had the most lasting effect.

“Love thy neighbor”

“Do unto others”

“Blessed are the meek”

These are the lessons that, all these years later and far beyond the church, still resonate for me. And though I will surely never get to tell him in person, I hope that Pope Francis continues to teach them to all who will listen.

Strength from Adversity (Inspiration series, Week 15)

From beloved TV star to real-life champion, Michael J. Fox choice to stay in the spotlight has helped many.

If you grew up watching television in the 1980s, few names are better remembered than Alex P. Keaton. Michael J. Fox’s lovable teen Republican and mogul-to-be made many a Thursday night a little less lonely for those of us with less-than-active social lives. 

After Family Ties he’d get even bigger with movies, especially Back to the Future (though some crazies I know prefer Teen Wolf). It seemed that no matter how much time passed, Fox held onto the boyish grin and mannerisms that had made him so popular right from the start.

He was just 29 and making the movie Doc Hollywood when he noticed twitching in his left pinky finger. The diagnosis was one no one could have seen coming -Parkinson’s disease. Fox would work for eight more years before revealing his illness to the public through an interview with People Magazine in 1998.

It would mark a high-profile beginning into a whole new role for him. A year later, the actor testified before Congress on the need for more dollars for Parkinson’s research. And after completing his series Second City in 2000, he created a new foundation, which has raised more than $700 million dollars and is the largest nonprofit funder of research worldwide. He spoke about his experience with Oprah Winfrey and David Letterman. Though the effects of Parkinson’s became more obvious, with medication Fox kept enough control over his speaking voice and physical tics to keep going. And into the next decade he would appear in new shows, including one about a newscaster with the disease. 

He has stayed reliably visible, attending charity events and serving as the best kind of example for living with challenges. Comedians must have special souls, for the ability to laugh, and make others laugh, in the face of illness is a gift given to but a few. He even subtitled his 2009 book Adventures of an Optimist – no displays of self-pity from this guy.

He is, perhaps, an obvious hero, but no less powerful because he’s taken on the role in such a natural style. By sharing his story he shares the opportunity to help and becomes an insistent voice for research and treatment. I see Michael J. Fox – or just hear his name – and I am reminded to treasure every moment, live each day with joy, and do everything in my power to instigate positive change. 

There is something profound in turning one’s greatest liability into an undeniable strength. From tragedy to triumph sounds trite and yet, there he is, smiling, joking… living, each day with a vision and purpose that is too clear, too true, to be ignored. 

He fully uses what has been given him – including his illness. This trait unites so many of my Inspirers. They do not cry about their fate, at least not for long. Instead, they somehow turn their afflictions, pain, disappointments, into building blocks and end up higher than they might have been without the handicap. One watches and wonders: Would I be so gracious, so persistent in the face of such a diagnosis? Would I be an Inspirer?

It may be impossible to say for sure. We can be grateful, though, for those who have proven themselves worthy of the title. 

The Happy Warrior (Inspiration Series, Week 14)

Despite a lifetime that has seen many travails, the Dalai Lama is rarely seen without a smile that invites the world to join him

The 14th Dalai Lama has one of those faces. No matter what is going on in the world, he invokes an almost palpable sense of peace wherever he goes. Quiet and humble, his  mere presence is calming, his smile infectious. 

Identified as the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism at the age of 2, when he was still Lhamo Dondhup, the young boy would face an epic journey across Tibet to take the official role as the reincarnated Dalai Lama, along with a new name –  Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso (Holy Lord, Gentle Glory, Compassionate, Defender of the Faith, Ocean of Wisdom) – two years later. He would be formally enthroned at age 15.

Just 23 when the Tibetan Uprising occurred,  the Dalai Lama fled to India, where he established a residence in exile and settlements for the refugees who had followed him. Over the course of his life, he has become an advocate for human rights, peace, and an independent Tibet. 

It is a life hard to imagine – and yet, beyond the robes, the reverence, the history, is that grin, accented by eyes that project a warmth and joy for everything around him. In his book, The Art of Happiness, he declares his belief on Page 1:

“I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. That is clear. Whether one believes in relgion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we all are seeking something better in life. So, I think, the very motion of our life is toward happiness.” 

He discusses training the mind for happiness, learning about the behaviors and emotions that lead to positivity, how we can seek the causes that give rise to it. Training, he says, is key to cultivating practices and reducing negative feelings and actions. What struck me most, reading his words, is how practical they are. The Dalai Lama acknowledges the pain and often unfairness of the world, but offers the idea that one can learn to shift perspective. He notes that a life without obstacles might sound nice, but that:

“It is the very struggle of life that makes us who we are. And it is our enemies that provide us with the resistance necessary for growth.”

The idea of happiness as something within our control. Not an accident, or a  gift bestowed randomly on the fortunate few, but a way of being that can be cultivated over one’s lifetime. Happiness as a response not just to a good thing happening but to the good things that simply are and the possibilities of things to come.The breaths we take, the people who love us, and we them.

What if, as this master smiler and teacher suggests, we also remind ourselves of the joy that comes from compassion and service to others? How might our worlds change if our perspective did? 

I’m not generally a glass half-full kind of girl. Too often I leap down rabbit holes of potential problems before checking to see if thrtr’s an alternative. And there’s a part of me that wants to argue with the Dalai Lama’s approach, label it naive or undoable.  
But that smile…. it’s almost got me convinced.

Smashing the Mold (Inspiration Series, Week 13)

Katharine Hepburn defied the Hollywood norms and set her own standards for style and substance.

When Katharine Hepburn had her pants taken from her RKO dressing room by someone who deemed her wardrobe insufficiently feminine, she did what any self-respecting Inspirer would do. She walked around in her underwear until her clothes were returned to her. 

Becoming a star at a time when the ideal woman was most often catering to the men around her, Hepburn not only refused to give into the tradition, she openly flouted it. She oozed independence, with a command of speech and stature that would not be ignored. 

Born to a suffragette mother who campaigned for feminism and a father equally focused on fighting for social change, Hepburn was encouraged to think for herself from an early age. The negative reactions of the community to her parents’ unorthodox views only strengthened her own, a trait she carried with her throughout life as she bent norms wherever they appeared. 

Her career didn’t start with a bang. She was fired from several plays and panned in others before hitting it big with The Warrior’s Husband on Broadway in 1932. Success led her to Hollywood, where she would win a Best Actress Oscar for Morning Glory – it was her second film. 

As her name grew, so did the certainty that Hepburn was not going to soften into a typical starlet. She argued with the press and generally shunned the celebrity lifestyle and its expectations; on one occasion she went after a paparazzi trying to get her picture; on another, she turned her attention to a woman who took a photo of her during a theater performance. Suffice it to say that lady left in tears.

She famously refused dresses and skirts as a requirement of her sex (in public as well as on set) and was often photographed in trousers, ignoring those who pleaded with her to feminize her angular body. Hepburn also eschewed makeup on occasion – in short, she did what she damned well felt like doing. 

Her love life fell equally outside the norms. It isn’t simple reconciling her romantic choices – including long relationships with difficult, married men – with the woman who seemed to put up with little bullshit from the world. Or perhaps it’s just another example of not being concerned about what anyone else thought. 

Surely Hepburn could have chosen to stand and pose for the picture, to wear the skirt, or to find a “suitable” mate. She still would have been a marvelous actor. It is that middle finger to convention, though, that secured her spot as an inspiration to so many, me included.

Seeing her choices, I can’t help but ask: How many times in my own life have I choosen to “go along to get along” in order to avoid conflict? How often do I allow expectations and concerns about “image” influence my actions? Perhaps most importantly, am I being true to myself?

It will always be easier to follow the playbook. And yet, by shunning conformity we open ourselves to that most elusive quality – authenticity, and to the freedom of living outside the lines. We can be a little more like Kate. 

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