Archive | Sunday Salon

Sunday Salon: Inspiration

As creative people, we often think about inspiration. What compels us to the page, or the easel, or the keyboard? What sends us running to the kitchen to perform alchemy with spices, what puts us in the garden planting bulbs and seeds for the promise of color and scent to come?

And what do we do when that sense of urgency doesn’t arrive? When days or weeks or even months go by when our creative juices seem to have run dry?

There are those who will say that creative output is more perspiration than inspiration, that when you begin the work, the inspiration follows. “Inspiration usually comes during work, not before it,” wrote author Madeleine L’Engle.

Others swear by a pre-work ritual – moments of meditation, lighting candles, preparing a special blend of tea, wearing a particular shirt or piece of jewelry – to inspire the flow of creative juices.

I’ve been keeping an eye out for inspiration these days. I’m in one of those ubiquitous dry spells, when nothing seems to provide the creative inspiration or satisfaction I need to get going. It’s pervasive throughout all the creative parts of my life – writing, reading, music. Nothing seems to set off that spark, the one that puts me in search of the nearest pen or makes me excited to settle my fingers on the keyboard.

So as I pondered this the other day, wandering through the house aimlessly fingering the notebooks and index cards scattered here and there, I began to think about my life in general at this moment. In the past few months I’ve gone through quite a sea change in my lifestyle. We lost both of our dogs last year, and suddenly I am free of responsibility for any living creature except myself. My husband retired from his job after 44 years of working, and is now home all day, excited about the prospect of all his free time and looking for pleasant ways to fill it. We are enjoying our new lifestyle enormously. Maybe you’ve heard the saying about grandchildren which goes – “If I had known grandchildren were so much fun, I would have had them first.” We are feeling the same way about retirement. If only we’d known it would be so much fun, we would have done it first!

It occurred to me then that building this new life IS in fact a creative effort on my part. I am changing my routines, building in more time to spend with my husband, looking for meaningful and enjoyable things we can do together. We’re actively planning our future – travel, possible moves, bringing another dog into our family. It’s all new and different, but also exciting. It requires creative energy.

Life and Art usually intersect for me in words and music. But perhaps right now, Art is intersecting with Life itself, and my creativity needs to be put in service of building an entirely new life, one that will carry me forward into the next decades.

Come to think of it, I’m finding the whole idea quite inspiring.

How about you? How is your real life requiring your creative energy right now? Is it affecting your artistic inspiration?

About the Author: Becca Rowan

becca_rowan_bio_may2016Becca Rowan lives in Northville, Michigan with her husband. She is the author of Life in General, and Life Goes On, collections of personal and inspirational essays about the ways women navigate the passage into midlife. She is also a musician, and performs as a pianist and as a member of Classical Bells, a professional handbell ensemble. If she’s not writing or playing music you’ll likely find her out walking or curled up on the couch reading with a cup of coffee (or glass of wine) close at hand. She loves to connect with readers at her blog, or on Facebook, or Goodreads.

Sunday Salon: Framing Life

 

The Artist’s House at Argenteuil

In 1871, the great Impressionist painter Claude Monet (1840-1926) left London where he had  been living with his family during the Franco-Prussian war, and moved to Argenteuil, a suburb of Paris. Monet painted almost 200 paintings during the four years he lived in Argenteuil, often standing outdoors (or en plain air) to capture his impressions of life outside the hustle and bustle of the city. They were paintings that depicted family life – his young son Jean playing with a ball in the backyard of their home, his wife Camille peering out the front door expectantly waiting for him to arrive home from the train station after traveling to Paris for a meeting with his patron. They were painting of his friends, Renoir and Manet, who visited him with their own easels and palettes, the group of them painting together, each one recording their own impressions of the world around them. They were paintings of Argentueil itself – an idyllic harbor scene with the intruding pinnacle of industry as the factory smokestack becomes the focal point, drawing one’s eyes away from the blue water and white sails of the ships.

Argenteuil, Late Afternoon

Earlier this month I attended a small and carefully curated exhibit of these paintings at our Detroit Institute of Arts. Aptly titled, Framing Life, the curator expertly chose the paintings from this period that demonstrated Monet’s ability to capture the beauty of family relationships, friendships, our natural surroundings, ordinary moments, and everyday objects and places.

Looking at these paintings, which were really just scenes from the artist’s daily life, I was reminded of the ways creative people try to capture the essence of our personal lives in our work. We want to cherish and keep this moments with us forever – the way the sun shines on the sidewalk where our child bounces a ball, the movement of white clouds across the azure blue of the sky, a friend smiling at us over the backyard fence, the trees laden with snow on a cold winter morning. We attempt to immortalize them in words, in melodies, in photographs, in soft water color “impressions” on canvas.

Monet, and his colleagues in the Impressionist School, were criticized by the art world for this focus on the everyday. Art was supposed to depict life at its largest – the lifestyles of the rich and famous, the lofty visages of royalty, the glory of battle. Instead of using art to illuminate mythological and Biblical themes, the Impressionists left their studios and went into the real world, literally by painting en plain air, and figuratively, with their subject matter.

Woman With A Parasol

But before long people began to appreciate the rebellious Impressionist artists for just these very reasons. “Ironically,” writes art historian Ann Dumas, “the Impressionists former status as renegades enhanced their appeal to the connoisseurship and speculative skills of the bourgeois collector…(it was) a new art for a new class that wanted images of the world they inhabited.”

Sometimes it’s difficult to make the real world beautiful, but the artist is compelled to try. When the wider world becomes too dark, we turn to the beauty of our own small worlds, cherishing and immortalizing that beauty with our words, our images, our impressions.

Framing Life. As I sit at my desk, looking out the window at the bare tree branches etched before me, I place a mental frame around this moment, this space. As I walk through the quiet streets of my little town, looking into shop windows, stopping for a coffee and the bookshop, smelling the scent of fresh bread oozing from the bakery, I place a mental frame around the sights and sounds. As I wake on a cold winter morning, my husband sleeping peacefully beside me, the promise of a new day ahead of us, I place a mental frame around that picture too.

That’s how I frame my life.

How do you frame yours?

About the Author: Becca Rowan

becca_rowan_bio_may2016Becca Rowan lives in Northville, Michigan with her husband and their two dogs. She is the author of Life in General, and Life Goes On, collections of personal and inspirational essays about the ways women navigate the passage into midlife. She is also a musician, and performs as a pianist and as a member of Classical Bells, a professional handbell ensemble. If she’s not writing or playing music you’ll likely find her out walking or curled up on the couch reading with a cup of coffee (or glass of wine) close at hand. She loves to connect with readers at her blog, or on Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads.

Sunday Salon: Comfort Care

Sunday mornings come quietly here at our little house, especially in this frigid Midwestern winter. We start a fire, settle in with our coffee and a book or newspaper, munch on some toast and honey from our local bakery. As the morning progresses, we might brew another pot of coffee, put some music on the CD player. I might finish one book and pick up another; my husband might move into the den and catch the latest replays from Saturdays soccer matches.

Sundays haven’t always been this way. For many years, we were very active in our church music programs, and would hustle out of bed on Sundays just as we did on other weekdays, needing to be there prior to service time to rehearse. After worship, we often went out for brunch with friends, arriving home mid-afternoon. This was all quite lovely, of course, but it often made Sunday mornings feel frantic. So perhaps this was one reason we’ve fallen away from regular church attendance. With age has come a sense of needing to choose those activities that serve us best, that provide comfort and care, rather than the sense of one more obligation to fulfill.

Until the last few years, the idea of self-care was foreign to me. By nature and nurture I am a caring person, born with a deep sense of responsibility and need to be loved, but also trained in the Golden Rule. The top priority for most of my adult live has been caring for others – my husband, my child, my grandparents and parents, my dogs, my friends and jobs and volunteer work. While I never begrudged any of that, it kept me in a perpetual state of agitation and anxiety, trying to juggle everyone’s needs. There were many times when I felt out of sorts, or even physically sick, without really knowing why.

My Self became lost in the mix of caring for everyone and everything else.

As the years have passed, many of those obligations have disappeared quite naturally, with no intervention or intention on my part. My son grew up and moved away, all of our relatives have died, and last year we lost both of our precious dogs within five months of each other. I’ve retired from all my jobs and narrowed down my volunteer work to one or two activities. Life is simpler, and it’s easier to make those choices I mentioned before – the ones that provide comfort and care.

Of course comfort care for me is heavily weighted toward enjoying a creative life. It means books and music. It means enjoying lovely scented body creams and fresh home cooked food. It means a soft blanket to wrap around my shoulders on chilly mornings. It means looking for beautiful moments in the day – watching the sunrise from my favorite window, hearing a friend laugh, cuddling on the couch with my husband.

In actuality, most of my mornings look a lot like that idyllic Sunday morning I described in the first paragraph. Hot coffee in my favorite cup, an hour of two of reading a good book.

I came across this quotation and it spoke volumes to me: “You have permission to rest. You are not responsible for everything that is broken. You do not have to try and make everyone happy.  For now, take time for you. It’s time to replenish.”

It’s a relief to give myself this “permission” – to take care, to replenish the needs of my own body and soul for a change. It’s been a long time coming, but now it’s here.  And it’s really comforting.

How about you? What are some ways you provide your own comfort care?

About the Author: Becca Rowan

becca_rowan_bio_may2016Becca Rowan lives in Northville, Michigan with her (newly-retired!) husband. She is the author of Life in General, and Life Goes On, collections of personal and inspirational essays about the ways women navigate the passage into midlife. She is also a musician, and performs as a pianist and as a member of Classical Bells, a professional handbell ensemble. If she’s not writing or playing music you’ll likely find her out walking or curled up on the couch reading with a cup of coffee (or glass of wine) close at hand. She loves to connect with readers at her blog, or on Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads.

Sunday Salon: The Gift of Art

It’s that time of year, the countdown to the holidays. People hustle and bustle, make lists, check them once, twice, thrice. Amazon’s server is on fire with orders flying in from around the world.  If you haven’t finished your shopping by now, well – you’re in a bit of pickle, aren’t you?

Photo Credit: Ben White for Upsplash

For quite a few years I’ve eschewed the whole holiday shopping enterprise. My husband and I are at the stage where we don’t need or want much of anything, and if we do, we get it for ourselves. We might treat ourselves to a concert or dinner out, maybe a little trip somewhere. But buying more “stuff” for each other has lost its charm. As one of my elderly friends put it: “If I can’t eat it, read it, or go to it, I don’t want it.”

But in these often troubled times, when materialism and greed run rampant throughout our society, there is one still one gift well worth investing time and money to give.

The Gift of Art.

Sadly, this gift is not valued highly in the modern world. Artists struggle for recognition, for funding, for space to do their work. When budgets need cutting, the arts are the first place to point the knife.

For the past three weekends, I’ve been out performing with my group, Classical Bells. We’ve watched our audiences come in tired and cold, stamping snow from their boots, looking weary and downhearted. If we do our job well, the music helps thaw those icy places in their lives and even provides a few moments of transcendence from the mundane problems of daily living so they go back into the world with a quieter, softer heart.

“Every piece of art, every performance, is a state-of-the soul address,” wrote poet Jane Kenyon. “The love of the absolute beauty of art, the longing for the well-being of the planet and all its creature, the awe we feel in the face of life and death, the delights of the inward eye and inward ear, the understanding and nurture of the soul – these are the gifts of art.”

And it’s not only the recipient but also the maker of art benefits from this gift. This has been a horrible week for me. Our little dog Molly died unexpectedly Monday, just five months after we lost her brother, Magic. I grieve mightily for these precious companions of my home and heart. But the hours I spend playing music are a balm for that ache, directing my focus away from sadness and toward the task of creating something beautiful.

“Artists report on the inner life,” Kenyon continues, and the inner life distinguishes us from centipedes.” The inner life – our imagination, our compassion, our spiritual awareness – these are the places art touches in us. Art allows us to glimpse something larger than ourselves, that “awe in the face of life and death” as Kenyon put it. We ignore our inner life at our peril, Kenyon warns, for when we do, we “become capable of extreme cruelty and destruction.”

The evidence of that abounds in the world right now, doesn’t it? So this holiday, commit yourself to making art and sharing it widely with young and old. If you’re a writer, volunteer at a local library to do a reading or host a workshop. If you paint, set up your easel in a public place and invite questions and comments. If you’re a musician, take your instrument or your voice to a hospital, a nursing home, your neighborhood coffee shop. If you knit, make scarves and socks to pass out to the homeless.

The possibilities for gifting are endless.

And the gift of art is PRICELESS.

About the Author: Becca Rowan

becca_rowan_bio_may2016Becca Rowan lives in Northville, Michigan. She is the author of the books Life in General, and Life Goes On, personal and inspirational essays about the ways women navigate the passage into midlife. She is also a musician, and performs as a pianist and as a member of Classical Bells, a professional handbell ensemble. If she’s not writing or playing music you’ll likely find her curled up on the couch reading with a cup of coffee (or glass of wine) close at hand. She loves to connect with readers at her blog, or on Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads.

Sunday Salon: The Quest for Quiet

The month before Christmas is probably not the best time to go on a quest for quiet.

But, here I am, doing just that.

Photo by Natalia Figueredo on Unsplash

This idea of getting quiet first nudged its way into my mind as I watched Office Hours, a series of short videos author Dani Shapiro offered through Facebook during the past nine weeks. Shapiro talks about this concept of making space for your words – not just in time or place, although those are important, but in your mind. Doing that requires a willingness, but also an ability to get quiet.

My mind is always a very noisy place. It’s filled with the din of worry (my little dog doesn’t seem like herself, is she sick?), or responsibility (so much music to practice with concerts coming soon) or wonder (what will life be like when my husband retires next year?) When I startle myself awake at three o’clock in the morning, these are just a few of the thoughts that begin to clamor inside my head, spiraling like ticker tape on an endless loop, each one another bad investment of time and energy.

Because it’s become increasingly clear to me that in order to create anything meaningful, you must find a wellspring of quiet within. Just like my office in the corner of our upstairs bedroom, you must retreat to that “room of your own” psychically as well as physically, must find a way to escape what Shapiro calls the “internal chatter” about life in general that can be so all-consuming.

But here we at almost December. It may be The Most Wonderful Time of the Year, it surely is one of the noisiest times of the year. For me as a musician, the “noise” is all too real. I play handbells in a group that travels with a truckload of bells and their associated equipment, a sum total of more than two complete piano keyboards full of noisemakers in varying sizes and shapes. The decibel level is astounding when you stand in the midst of it, as I will do for hours and hours in the coming weeks. There have been times in rehearsal lately when the overtones become literally deafening, and for a split second I lose the beat, the sense of rhythm that keeps me on track with the music.

The noise of the outside world is just as great right now, isn’t it? The sense of urgency to have the best possible holiday, to have the most elaborate decorations, to attend the most fun gatherings, to get that oh-so-perfect present. Over the years I’ve mostly given myself a pass on all that hoopla. Doing five or six concerts in the month of December, each one consuming anywhere from six to ten hours of time (travel, set up, rehearsal, performance, tear down, travel), is more than enough excitement for me. By the end of a weekend of concertizing, all I long for is Quiet.

Where do I find it?

Yes, it’s here in my comfortable chair in the upstairs bedroom, with stacks of books and journals piled on the ottoman beside me, making space for the words of a favorite author or poet.

It’s sitting at the kitchen counter, drinking a cup of cinnamon tea, reading or staring out the window at birds flitting back and forth from the maple tree to the feeder and watching clouds skate across the blue sky.

Also on the yoga mat in my basement, moving my body through strengthening and stretching exercises, being aware of air moving in and out through my heart and lungs.

Quiet is in slowing down, taking time, noticing, focusing, breathing.

What I must remember in this quest for quiet is this: Quiet will not come to me unless I seek it out, unless I consciously make a place for it, a space for it. Unless I take myself upstairs to that chair, brew myself that cup of tea, unroll that mat on the basement floor. Why is that sometimes so hard? Why do I so often let the clutter and distractions  – the Noise of life – become an overwhelming melange of sound until I’ve lost my sense of direction?

I wish it were as simple as stopping the sound of a ringing handbell, a technique called “damping.” Most often it’s done by placing the rim of the bell against your shoulder. Sometimes, with larger bells, you need to press them into the padded table. With very small bells, you can damp almost furtively by touching the bell with your thumb.

I suppose the varying degrees of noisiness in life require similar variations in technique to quiet them. The clamor of those middle of the night high-anxiety sessions will need to be pressed firmly down, while the lesser noise of daily living – Facebook! Email! Commercials! – can be controlled with a flick of an “off” switch.

“I’ve come to realize,” Shapiro says, “that the thing that stops me isn’t the puppy, the e-mail, the UPS truck, the school conference, the phone, the laundry, the to-do lists. It’s me that stops me.” She recalls an osteopathic physician from whom she once received treatment. “’Things get stuck,’ he said with a shrug. He gestured to the area where the neck meets the head. The place where the body ends and the mind begins. Things get stuck. It sounded so simple when he said it. It’s me, and that things that are stuck. Standing in my own way.”

Standing in my own way, making my own noise.

And so the quest for quiet begins but also ends where everything else does: with my own conscious effort and intention.

With stepping out of my own way and stepping into the quiet spaces around me.

May you find all the quiet you seek in these days ahead.

About the Author: Becca Rowan

becca_rowan_bio_may2016Becca Rowan lives in Northville, Michigan with her husband and their two dogs. She is the author of Life in General, a book of personal and inspirational essays about the ways women navigate the passage into midlife. She is also a musician, and performs as a pianist and as a member of Classical Bells, a professional handbell ensemble. If she’s not writing or playing music you’ll likely find her out walking with the dogs or curled up on the couch reading with a cup of coffee (or glass of wine) close at hand. She loves to connect with readers at her blog, or on Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads.

Sunday Salon: Passion Project

 

“Let the young soul look back upon its life and ask itself what until now have you truly loved, what has raised up your soul, what ruled it and at the same time made it happy? Line up these objects of reverence before you, and perhaps by what they are and their sequence, they will yield you a law, the fundamental law of your true self.” ~Friedrich Nietzsche, Philosopher

My five year old grandson is passionate about playing the piano. When he was three, I bought him a tiny toy piano for his birthday and it was in his playroom when he walked in that morning. He set eyes on it, said matter-of-factly, “Oh, the piano is here,” as if he had been waiting his entire life for it to arrive. He walked directly and purposefully to it, never taking his eyes off it, sat firmly on the bench, and began to play.

The next year I bought him a full size keyboard. He started taking group lessons and quickly graduated to private lessons. His mother reports that he plays the piano before going to school, and goes back to it as soon as he comes home. He has perfect pitch and is “composing” prolifically, excited about learning chord structure and theory.

He has identified a passion. In Nietzsche’s words, he has found a thing that raises his young soul, that rules him but also makes him happy. What a lucky boy.

Passion projects are immensely important in living a fulfilling life. As artists and creative people, most of us have identified at least one such project in our own lives, at least one “object of reverence” that adds meaning and purpose to our days. To find these passions at a young age is truly a gift because they provide a safe haven from a world that is often noisy and less than gentle. It’s a world that doesn’t always encourage passion pursuits in its youth, but instead goads them toward things that are most lucrative and prestigious.

I recently read a novel called The Admissions, by Meg Mitchell Moore. One of the characters is a high school senior whose entire purpose in life is to be admitted to Harvard. When her application is rejected, she tracks down the admissions officer and asks him why. She has not only completed but excelled at every class, every activity, every sport required – she had worked extraordinarily hard her entire young life, why was it not enough?

“Unfortunately, the extraordinary has become commonplace,” the admissions officer tells her. “We get many applications from students who are broadly accomplished, but who are not deep. We are looking for the extraordinary and the deep. Students who have found their one single, driving passion.”

Finding your passion is one of life’s most important tasks, and the earlier you acknowledge it the better. But just identifying it is not enough. You must dedicate yourself to it in a meaningful way, give it time and attention, allow it to “rule you” so you can fully explore it and reap its benefits. You must go “deep” into it at every level. And sometimes that means you must make hard choices about where you place your attention.

Author Madeleine L’Engle writes of her belief that a “gift is bestowed on every infant…a gift to which that child will be responsible: a gift of healing; a gift for growing green things; a gift for painting, for cooking, for cleaning; a gift for loving. One has to listen to a talent, and whether the talent is great or small makes no difference.”

Although I can’t say for sure, I predict my grandson will continue to dedicate himself to his passion for music. But even if his passion project changes over time, he has already become acquainted with the way it feels to care deeply about something, to dedicate time and effort to it, and to reap the pleasure and benefits it brings. That knowledge alone is worth celebrating.

How about you? How did you discover your passion project? How do you “listen” to it?

About the Author: Becca Rowan

becca_rowan_bio_may2016Becca Rowan lives in Northville, Michigan with her husband and their dog, Molly. Her new book, Life Goes On, a collection of personal and inspirational essays about women’s experiences with family life, aging, and loss, is available at Amazon in print and on Kindle, as well as on her website. She is also a musician, and performs as a pianist and as a member of Classical Bells, a professional handbell ensemble. If she’s not writing or playing music you’ll likely find her out walking or curled up on the couch reading with a cup of coffee (or glass of wine) close at hand. She loves to connect with readers at her blog, or on Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads.

Sunday Salon: The Shadow Side

My cousin called me the other day, checking in as she is often so thoughtful to do. “How are you doing?” she asked. Normally I answer those kinds of inquiries with a “fine,” or “good,” no matter what the real truth of the matter might be.

But that day, I decided to tell the truth.

“I’m just sitting here having a little cry about my dog,” I said. (Our beloved Shih Tzu, Magic, died in July.)

My cousin has a multitude of struggles in her life right now, struggles which were increased by the loss of one of her pair of sheepdogs a couple of months ago. “Aw, I know,” she said. “I still cry about my dog.”

We discussed the trauma associated with that loss, how horrible it seemed in so many ways. “And if one more person says something to me about that stupid Rainbow Bridge I’m gonna slap their face!” she said laughing.

“I agree,” I said, chuckling in spite of myself. “Sometimes I just don’t want to hear those happy little stories.”

A few minutes later we ended our conversation feeling immensely better for having admitted that sometimes we’re not filled with sunshine and light, even though we might pretend to be. We’ve become conditioned to hide our darker emotions – grief, fear, loneliness, anger – because society seems to frown upon them. We’re encouraged to “look on the bright side,” or “find the silver lining.” Our spiritual friends will advise us to “give it all to a higher power” because “it’s in their control.”

And what if we can’t? What if we live in the shadow of our grief, our loneliness, our fear for longer than society deems acceptable? The task of trying to “get over” those feelings becomes overwhelming of itself as we begin to feel inadequate in our life and perhaps our faith.

Later in the day I had lunch with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. “Are you okay?” she asked at one point in the conversation. “Sometimes when I read things you write, it seems as if you’re sad.”

My first impulse was to deny it, to reply quickly, “Sad? No, I’m not sad.” Instead, I answered her truthfully like I had answered my cousin earlier in the day.

“Sometimes I AM sad,” I told her. “I think there is always an undercurrent of sadness within me. It’s been deeper lately because I’ve had some pretty significant losses, but there is always a shadow side to me, one that’s extremely sensitive to pain and injustice and loss and loneliness and fear. Maybe we all have that and some people are more in touch with it than others.”

In her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “When I stopped trying to block my sadness and let it move me instead, it led me to a bridge with people on the other side. Every one of them knew sorrow. Some of them even knew how to bear it as an ordinary feature of being human instead of some avoidable curse.”

As artists perhaps we are more often aware of this ambiguity, this tendency to live in more than one emotion, to feel joy and sorrow, irritation and satisfaction, hope and despair, all at the same time. A character in Grace Paley’s short story “A Woman Young and Old,” says: “I’m artistic, and sometimes I hold two views at once.”

There is no profit to denying the shadow side – it exists in our spirit just as it does in the celestial sphere. Sadness and joy dwell simultaneously in us at all times, just as the moon remains in the sky during the 24-hour cycle even as the sun shines brilliantly above it. Honesty about my feelings of sadness yesterday provided a bridge between myself and my cousin – it gave us both an opportunity share feelings with someone else whose own shadow side was predominant, and freed us to move forward into the day feeling connected with another human being who understood. “Sadness does not sink a person,” Brown continues. “It is the energy a person spends trying to avoid sadness that does that.”

Last month the moon totally eclipsed the sun, in one of those rare celestial events that draws a great deal of scientific and popular attention. Nature has much to teach us about the inner workings of our emotional life. There are forces of darkness at work within each of us. We’d likely all be better served if we took time to become aware of them, and learn to live comfortably with them.

About the Author: Becca Rowan

becca_rowan_bio_may2016Becca Rowan lives in Northville, Michigan with her husband and their dog, Molly. Her new book, Life Goes On, a book of personal and inspirational essays about women’s experiences with family life, aging, and loss, is available at Amazon in print and on Kindle, as well as on her website. She is also a musician, and performs as a pianist and as a member of Classical Bells, a professional handbell ensemble. If she’s not writing or playing music you’ll likely find her out walking or curled up on the couch reading with a cup of coffee (or glass of wine) close at hand. She loves to connect with readers at her blog, or on Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads.

Sunday Salon: Sands of Time

Sunday Salon with Becca Rowan

 

“Lately I’ve been hearing a whispered admonition in my ear as I go about my business. Or perhaps admonition isn’t quite right. It seems more of a quiet, urgent instruction issued from a place in the deep anterior that holds within it everything I still need to know… Be careful, the voice says.” ~from Hourglass, by Dani Shapiro

Hourglass, Dani Shapiro’s elegant new memoir about her marriage, arrived in my mailbox early last week. The timing was perfect – my own wedding anniversary is tomorrow, and reading this book provoked much thought about the nature of long term relationships, the role of memory, and how our expectations change.

The book’s structure mirrors thought, so it feels as if we’re inside Shapiro’s head as her thoughts bounce back and forth between the present and various memories of her 17 year marriage to film-maker Michael Maren (whom she refers to only as M. throughout that book). She quotes from her own journals, the ones written on their honeymoon and in the early days of the marriage. She recalls events in their lives that illustrate the complexity and steadfastness of their relationship. She interjects pertinent quotes from writers and philosophers that illustrate her thinking, like this one from philosopher William James that stands alone in the middle of a page: “The constitutional disease from which I suffer is what the Germans call Zerrissenheit, or torn-to-pieces-hood. The days are broken in pure zig-zag and interruption.”

Looking back over the course of a long-term marriage – and mine spans 41 years tomorrow – it does seem marked by thousands of zig-zags and interruptions, any of which could be altered and the course of life changed forever. What if – we had moved from our old neighborhood a long time ago? What if we had had more children? What if one of us had taken a different job?

But it’s useless to dwell in the land of might-have-been. What concerns me at this stage of the game is the what-will-be. At 61, there isn’t nearly as much of it left as there once was. It’s important to handle it carefully and thoughtfully. Shapiro seems to be coming to that conclusion herself. That whispered admonition she writes about, the one that hold within it everything she needs to know. “Be careful,” it says.

“I’ve become convinced that our lives are shaped less by the mistakes we make than when we make them,” she writes. “There is less elasticity now. Less time to bounce back. And so I heed the urgent whisper and move with greater and greater deliberation. I hold my life with M. carefully in my hands like the faience pottery we brought back from our honeymoon long ago. We are delicate. We are beautiful. We are not new. We must be handled with care.”

After 41 years, a marriage is, in many ways, a sturdy old thing, more like a strong wood box than a delicate piece of pottery. But lately I too feel that whispered admonition. Be careful. I want to shield our time together from outside intrusion. I want to protect us from the stumbles and falls that would have quickly healed in our younger selves, but that could be disastrous at this stage of life. I want to hoard every moment of tenderness and passion against the time when one of us might be left alone.

Time. Memory. Like sand shifting through the narrow passage of an hourglass, piling at the bottom of the glass. I look back and see the kaleidoscope of years: the white wedding dress, the chapel filled with people, countless dinners cooked, holding hands on the sofa watching endless television programs, pushing a stroller and walking our dog, being  separated with traveling for work and long days and nights alone. One parent dead, then two, then all four, gone. The loneliness of a child moved far away, the joy of a grandchild’s arms around your neck.

Four decades of marriage. A lot of sand in the depth of that hourglass.

Time to turn it over now, let the new memories begin.

 

About the Author: Becca Rowan

becca_rowan_bio_may2016Becca Rowan lives in Northville, Michigan with her husband and their two dogs. She is the author of Life in General, a book of personal and inspirational essays about the ways women navigate the passage into midlife. She is also a musician, and performs as a pianist and as a member of Classical Bells, a professional handbell ensemble. If she’s not writing or playing music you’ll likely find her out walking with the dogs or curled up on the couch reading with a cup of coffee (or glass of wine) close at hand. She loves to connect with readers at her blog, or on Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads.

Sunday Salon: Seeking the Still, Quiet Voice

Sunday Salon with Becca Rowan

It’s a lovely, sunshiny morning here in southeast Michigan. I have about an hour to spend before the rest of the family rises, so I brew a cup of tea and park myself at my desk upstairs. I even open the window beside me because I want to hear the birds singing, although I need to wrap a soft scarf around my shoulders because the incoming breeze is still cold.

I was hoping to access a still, quiet voice inside me this morning, but, like so many mornings lately, the terrible din of the outside world has intruded and my still, quiet voice has been drowned out. 

Like many people, I’m increasingly disturbed by the situation in the world.  Our leaders often seem inhumane, lacking in decorum, diplomacy, and democracy. Their actions and ugly rhetoric are an endless piercing screech in my ears.

As someone who believes in the power of art and literature, I had hoped to use whatever small talents I have in those areas to inject small moments of beauty and clarity and thoughtfulness into the world around me.

As someone who believes in the power of compassion and empathy and kindness, I vowed to use those traits every day in my dealings with people on every scale, in hopes that such small acts of goodness could multiply and grow and help to heal this fractured world.

As someone who believes in the lessons of history, I had hoped that at least some of our  leaders would recall the examples of the past, that they would find the courage of their convictions and rise up to resist those outlying forces of evil attempting to usurp our very fabric of government.

And yet those screeching voices silence my efforts and my hopes, make them feel ridiculously ineffectual and send them slamming into oblivion,

John Adams had a simple prescription for a civil nation: “To be good and to do good,” he advised. “It’s all we have to do.” Where is the “good” right now? What “good” are they trying to achieve? What examples do they set for future generations? For now we must teach our children to be not as they are, do not what they do.

More than ever it feels to me as if it’s up to The People – meaning You and Me – to do good ourselves, and insist upon it amongst those who purport to lead. Already, it feels like an endless uphill climb. And already, I am tired.

So more and more I seek the still, quiet voice inside me. I toss the newsmagazine in the nearest trash can, only half read. I switch the television channel from CNN to the latest episode of PBS Masterpiece. I swipe the screen of my iPad clear of Facebook, Twitter, The Washington Post. I try to silence the bitter noise from the outside world. I turn on Mozart piano concertos, Beethoven quintets, Scarlatti sonatas. Even Chopin nocturnes sometimes, although they often make me cry. I lose myself in novels, in memoirs, in poetry. In those voices, I’m able to forget for a while, able to quiet the anxious beating of my heart, quell the angry bile that rises in my throat.

Nancy Peacock, a writer I admire, recently wrote this on her Facebook page:

 “I feel that I am pulling too much out of my gut without replenishing the well. So I am off to write and walk and visit the big rocks at the top of the hill. I am off to watch the turtles in the pond as they vie for basking space on the half-submerged log. I am off to cook some good food and feed my soul in the kitchen. I am off to do research and highlight paragraphs in yellow and read novels.”

Sometimes the traumas and troubles of the world threaten to drain the wells of our creativity. I have been struggling to find ways to restore that flow, to heal those wounds that threaten to destroy the enjoyment of my creative living. I hope to find it in the easy domestic routines of spring days like today, enjoying the sunshine and cool breeze blowing in the window, sipping tea and delving into the pages of a good novel, writing in my journal, copying out favorite passages from books and poetry.

From sitting with the still, quiet voice in my own heart.

 

About the Author: Becca Rowan

becca_rowan_bio_may2016Becca Rowan lives in Northville, Michigan with her husband and their two dogs. She is the author of Life in General, a book of personal and inspirational essays about the ways women navigate the passage into midlife. She is also a musician, and performs as a pianist and as a member of Classical Bells, a professional handbell ensemble. If she’s not writing or playing music you’ll likely find her out walking with the dogs or curled up on the couch reading with a cup of coffee (or glass of wine) close at hand. She loves to connect with readers at her blog, or on Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads.

Sunday Salon: In Search of a Perfect Morning

Sunday Salon with Becca Rowan

More mornings than I’d like begin long before the crack of dawn, begin with the whimper of a elderly dog  whose bladder won’t wait another moment; begin with the apnea induced snoring of the man I’ve slept beside for over 40 years; begin with my own anxious thoughts rolling ticker-tape fashion through my only half-lucid brain. I’ve heard that disrupted sleep is the curse of middle age, this tendency to waken at ever increasingly early hours, unable to return to sleep. And so I accept and endure, as I do with much of life.

Though not “perfect” by my standards, these early mornings and I have come to an understanding. Usually I ease myself out of bed and creep down the stairs to the kitchen, brew myself a cup of herbal tea, warm my lavender scented heating pad in the microwave, and settle back into bed with a pile of pillows. With the heating pad at my back, a light shawl around my shoulders, and the dog curled up at my side, I take up my book and read. Thus lulled from my anxious thoughts, warmed through and through with hot beverages and comforting heat wraps, many times I will drift off for another hour or two of sleep.

Sometimes I take these early morning wake up calls as a gift. I go full throttle into morning mode and make a short pot of coffee (four cups instead of the usual six), emptying the dishwasher as it brews. Once it’s done, back upstairs I go into my “office” and take up my journal or fire up the computer and write.

When I grouse about having woken early, my friend Christa reminds me that in days of yore it was customary to go to bed at dark  – what else could one do before electric lights, television, or social media? – and then rise during the middle of the night. Creative people especially made remarkable use of those early hours, to write, paint, sculpt, practice the lute (or whatever medieval instrument they favored). Fresh from sleep, undisturbed by the tasks of the day, it was a time when creative energies surged and they made good use of it.

Though there is truth in that, and though I’ve made my peace with these early mornings, they are not my idea of “perfect.” No, the perfect morning is a leisurely wake up at 7 or 8, the stairway to the kitchen illuminated with sunlight. A perfect morning is two cups of coffee and hot buttered toast, carried upstairs on a tray. A perfect morning is me, sitting in the sunny alcove of our upstairs bedroom reading my book, while my husband sits in bed reading the morning news. A perfect morning is 30 minutes of journal writing, a walk around the neighborhood with the dogs, time at my desk with the windows open and birds singing.

Call them rituals or routines, the way we begin each day has a profound impact on the way we carry on with the hours that are left. My persistent early morning wake ups led to the need for new routines, new ways to respond to circumstances that weren’t ideal but were reality. So whether my day begins “perfectly” or not, it begins in a controlled and orderly fashion and in a way that’s meaningful to me.

That’s about as perfect as I can make things in this crazy mixed up world we live in.

 

About the Author: Becca Rowan

becca_rowan_bio_may2016Becca Rowan lives in Northville, Michigan with her husband and their two dogs. She is the author of Life in General, a book of personal and inspirational essays about the ways women navigate the passage into midlife. She is also a musician, and performs as a pianist and as a member of Classical Bells, a professional handbell ensemble. If she’s not writing or playing music you’ll likely find her out walking with the dogs or curled up on the couch reading with a cup of coffee (or glass of wine) close at hand. She loves to connect with readers at her blog, or on Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads.

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