UNLEASH YOUR LIFE !You CAN create the life you really want.
CHANGE your Mind
HEAL your Past
GROW your Spirit.
AUTHOR, INTERFAITH MINISTER, INSPIRATIONAL SPEAKER
It happened during the epic Baldwin Family Migration west. We left Pittsburgh, our trusty station wagon loaded with 7 kids under the age of twelve, 2 parents, 1 surrogate grandma, a new puppy, and a roof rack loaded with enough food and luggage to last 10 days. Our destination: California.
Dad liked to take the scenic routes. Hence, we parted ways with the interstate highway in Sheridan, Wyoming in favor of a winding two-lane “short cut” through the Bighorn National Forest.
About half-way up the east slope of the mountain we encountered a freak blizzard, and Dad, not being one to admit defeat, drove on.
We arrived in Greybull, Wyoming 12 hours later – what should have been a 2 hour drive – cranky, tired, and hungry. Unable to free the frozen ropes from the frozen tarps that encased our frozen food on the icy roof, we had breakfast at the Wagon Wheel Café, aptly named for the dilapidated wagon wheels leaning against the fence … evidence that we were not the first family to break down in Greybull.
Sitting at the rustic wooden dining table, I glanced across the room to the counter. There, propped on the foot rail level with my eyes, was a row of cowboy boots caked with bits of straw in dried mud. Attached to every pair of boots was a man wearing a plaid flannel shirt and a hat. Cowboys! Not the Roy-Rogers-all-spiffed-up-for-TV kind of cowboys. Real cowboys!
I was hooked. Right then and there I fell in love with the wild, wild, west … a love affair that continues today.
I’m not a great city dweller. I love the big open sky, the dirt, the hundred different shades of sage, the brilliant orange sunsets, the sound of a horse thundering across open land, skin that has been weathered by sun and wind, sleeping outdoors, food cooked over an open fire, and a fortitude that defies the elements.
I’m NOT DONE YET with cowboys. Or horses. Or boots. Cowgirls are good, too! There’s just something about a pair of worn jeans, shit-kicking boots, and an attitude that says “I thrive in the great outdoors.”
Recently I’ve been yearning for a pair of fancy ostrich-skin boots for dancing. Know where I’ll go?
The Konoza boys, aka “The Wild Bunch of Sleepy Hollow Road,” played baseball in their backyard, two doors down from my house. They were too old and too wild for me to join the game – and really, girls didn’t play baseball in those days – but I loved to hang on the chain link fence and watch.
I don’t remember Joey’s line drive hitting my forehead. I faintly remember bouncing in someone’s arms as they raced toward my house. I DO remember – like it happened just yesterday – hovering near the ceiling of my living room, watching the scene below.
My skinny body, dressed in a white seersucker blouse and mint green peddle-pushers, lay very still on the sofa with one arm by my side, the other folded across my stomach. Mom sat on the sofa by my legs. Dr. Polowski, the family pediatrician, sat on a chair near my head with his black medical bag opened on the floor by his feet. His stethoscope was slung around his neck. It was a silent scene. Mom and Dr. Polowski spoke back and forth, but I couldn’t hear their words. Mom was sad. I could tell because she wiped tears from her face with her lacy handkerchief.
They sat like that for a long time before I slipped out of the room through the high window above the piano. A cool gentle breeze and the music of soft tinkling bells carried me into a bluish-white light. I floated in this light for a while … but not long enough.
I don’t remember coming back. I didn’t dare tell anyone where I had been. They wouldn’t have believed me anyway.
It took a long time to understand what had happened, and with that understanding came a profound knowing that death is not scary and what comes next is beautiful.
This may account, at least subconsciously, for why I have taken life on so fully: I’m not afraid to die.
This is not to be confused, of course, with wanting more time here on earth. Because, after all, I’m NOT DONE YET.
SUMMER OF 1964
We took a lot of summer road trips when I was young. They are a blur of a station wagon crowded with a gaggle of overheated whiny kids fidgeting in the backseats under constant threat of “don’t make me pull over” topped off with the misery of eight or nine people camping in one tent in the rain. I have no fond memories of these trips … save one: the Yankton Sioux Reservation in Marty, South Dakota.
The reservation was hot and dusty with free-roaming horses and the inevitable piles of shit swarming with flies the size of hummingbirds. Riding bareback for the first time made up for all of that.
But what really made this experience so memorable was the fact that the Sioux were much poorer than I was … and much happier.
They had no fancy clothes, no store-bought toys, and no apparent longing for life to be different. I learned to whittle, bead, and knead bread dough. I watched old men carve drums from tree trunks and old ladies braid each other’s hair.
No one told us to wash our hands or faces. Dirty clothes were the norm and we slept on cots in a dormitory room with broken windows and howling coyotes in the distance. I loved it.
Of course it took me a while to understand what I learned that summer:
Please don’t write and tell me that I don’t understand Native American struggles; or that I have somehow romanticized or minimized their culture, poverty, or traditions. I don’t pretend to know what it’s like to be Native. I’m only saying that living with the Sioux for a week – on their land, in their way – deeply impacted my life.
What began as childish curiosity has grown over my lifetime into profound respect and admiration of the Native American culture. I’ve attended two seminaries and in each case studied with remarkable Lakota medicine men. Twice I’ve been in relationship with Native Americans – from the Cherokee and Blackfoot Nations.
I am white and still this indigenous culture calls to me. I strive to live as the Natives do … aware of the connection of all things and all people.
I’m NOT DONE YET with my education in Native ways. Many of the families I serve in hospice are Native American: Navajo, Hopi, Pueblo, and most recently, Mohave. I am always honored and humbled when they allow me into their lives, share their traditions, and invite me to their rituals. They continue to teach me so much; as with the Sioux of many years ago – not with their words, but by their example.
JULY 24, 1963
For my 8th birthday dad bought me a used piano and hired Mr. Raven, a Belgian-born classical concert pianist, to give me lessons. I had six younger siblings by this time … my baby sister born just the day before. We were poor, often eating through the generosity of the convent sisters, so I felt special for receiving such an enormous gift.
Mr. Raven was a no-messing-around kind of teacher. We marched back and forth across the living room, counting beats with our feet, clapping syncopation with our hands. I studied Hanon, Burgmuller, and Brahams … and learned good posture in the process.
There was so much wrong in my childhood, music was the one consistent right. I quickly realized that no one hit me when I made music, and it became my place of refuge. I spent hours at the keyboard, shrouded in a cocoon of safety, loving the sensation of making those little black dots on the paper sound pretty.
Dad gave me a guitar for my 12th birthday – a portable instrument that expanded music to something to share with friends. It escalated from there! By the time I graduated from high school I not only played piano and guitar, but had added French horn, electric organ, saxophone, clarinet, flute, electric bass, flugelhorn, and percussion. I’d try anything if it meant another opportunity to make music.
Before my son was born I’d performed in music festivals in Reno, Tucson, and Monterey with jazz greats Oscar Peterson, Clark Terry, Buddy Rich and Dave Brubeck. I’d marched with the Blue Devils, a world class drum and bugle corps.
I’d belonged to a “garage band” quartet that played countless wedding gigs and Christmas parties. I’d spent one evening jamming with Tower of Power in a roll-up on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. And when my husband and I were bored, we’d go play in the London subway stations to make some extra money.
I was never fabulous, but I had lots of fun!
Not long ago my now ex-husband and I borrowed our grandson’s new birthday gift of plastic drums, tambourine, and trumpet and entertained ourselves – and hopefully all the birthday guests – with a rousing jam of New Orleans jazz. It was a blast.
Music is still my refuge; an hour at my keyboard always makes a hard day better. And there is no more pleasing way to spend an evening with friends than dinner and music. Albuquerque is famous for summer patio parties where music is always live: jazz, blues, zydeco, African, funk, country, Latin, pop, and everything in between. There is never a lack of music in my life.
And I’m NOT DONE YET. I’d love to play again in a garage band. There are still more instruments to learn. I recently took up violin. I miss frets. Be grateful you don’t hear those practice sessions. Maybe I’ll get better. Maybe not. In any case, I’ll have fun and the Irish jigs I hear in my mind are fantastic!
At the beginning of 2nd grade I transferred from public school to St. Winifred’s Catholic School where I was required to attend Mass every morning before class. I actually adored Mass, a fact that made me quite a misfit among my peers.
But while they were teasing me, a potent transformation was taking place in the pews of St. Winifred’s.
Somewhere between rubbing my hands over the polished wood, my knobby little knees pressing into the padded leather kneelers, a lacy veil pinned to my hair, clutching my prized rosary … I felt the call. I knew my life belonged to God.
I already knew I didn’t belong in my family, and a deep comfort welled up in me knowing that God wanted me. I assumed I would grow up to be a nun, so I cozied up to Sister John Bosco and Sister Barbara Mary – my favorite teachers – and spent my lunch periods washing their blackboards, asking questions about God.
It turned out I already had some strong opinions about God – and Catholicism – and argued my points when they tried to instruct me differently. I spent four years pushing them for answers, trying to get past their response of, “You must take it on faith, dear.”
They were good to me. They allowed me generous space to express myself – a new experience in my life – and in the process I forged my spiritual beliefs. I owe them a huge debt of gratitude.
I have been exploring God ever since. God. Spirit. Quantum Physics. The Universe. Metaphysics. It has changed name, expression, and meaning many times over. There have been times I thought I knew God well … and times I’ve questioned whether God exists at all.
And guess what? I’m NOT DONE YET. God keeps shifting on me, and I keep tagging along for the adventure. I know there’s more to discover and I sure don’t want to miss it.