Monday, March 26, 2012

Things to Do on the Ski Train

Every year at Spring Equinox, the Alaska Railroad loads up skiers for the annual trip to Curry, an outpost 22 miles north of Talkeetna, for a day of snowshoeing and skiing. What to do on the long train ride from Anchorage that got us out of bed at such an un-godly hour??

Well, first off, people like to party.

Eat, of course. And if you failed to pack enough, you can get hand-outs at every seat.

Drink beers. (The youngsters still haven't figured out the superiority of home-brewed beer).

Dance. To polka music. In the caboose, where there's a dance floor (of sorts). Don't forget to reward the musicians.

Play group Pictionary. The theme for this year's train ride is Games.

Skiing and snowshoeing...lest we forget the real purpose of the trip.

Thought I'd throw in one of my arty-farty photos of the flats at Curry.

Husband at the helm of the Go-Pro

Back on the train for the long ride home. 
To the many strangers who've become friends, see you next year.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Oh, To be Eighty Again

I've found who I want to be when I grow up. Yes, I know, just be yourself they say, but in the context of the larger world, we all look to role models that influence us along the way.

I want to be like Maia. Strong, flexible, open and aware and grateful for the lovely, simple things in her life: plants and flowers, a good cup of coffee, a colorful and orderly home, healthy food, the wind outside her window. What can money buy that trumps true simplicity?

The film above,  called My Friend Maia, "captures the secrets of eternal youth as Maia Helles, a Russian ballet dancer turns 95 but still remains resolutely independent, healthy and as fit as a forty-year old. Julia Warr, artist and film maker, met Maia on a plane 4 years ago and became utterly convinced by the benefits of her daily exercise routine, which Maia perfected, together with her mother, over 60 years ago, long before exercise classes were ever invented." (2011)

Maybe I resonate deeply with this film because it touches a mysterious place inside me; if I could choose another life, I would have been a professional ballet dancer. As a child, I remember asking my parents for lessons, but at the time, strapped with 5 children on a single income, it was not an affordable request. Then in my twenties I took interpretive dance classes in college (it was the early 70's, where everything was open to interpretation), and post college, when my boys were young, I put time in at the ballet bar with a local teacher. My body is not built to professionally dance, mind you. I'm 5'10" and big boned.

But the feeling of dancing is the ultimate freedom; it's like riding a horse with the wind in your hair. Moreover, dancing is an extension of your soul, an expression of one's deepest emotions and proclivities. It is a gift you give to others (I attended a wedding once where the groom's sister shared a special dance for the newlyweds); and it is a vehicle of healing, a release of joy or sorrow that in some way, moves the dancer and audience on a visceral level, as effectively as do the visual arts and music.

With the dream of dance set aside, for the next 15 years, I studied yoga with an exemplary teacher (Lynn Minton), who started the first yoga studio in Anchorage. She named her studio, Yoga, the Inner Dance. Oh my...what a stroke of luck being brought to this art; I'm dancing...albeit in slow motion.

Reference to "the inner dance" in a yogic context includes the play of "citta", or the dance of the mind; how thoughts and emotions expand and fluctuate to weigh you down...or lift you up, and how observance of those thoughts and impressions affect one's quality of life.

Even as we age, we can carry ourselves with beauty and grace, as Maia does, from the inside out. Go to the mat each morning, say a little prayer, and move in whatever way pleases. The main point being to move. Keep moving. It reminds me of an 86 year old Alaskan elder, who, as he reminisced about how his life had slowed way down said, "Oh, to be eighty again..."

Maybe eighty is the new sixty?

Monday, March 12, 2012

First Thought. Best Thought.

     ALL my life, I've been fascinated with how the mind works; how we think, dream, make decisions, intuit.

     I had a doctor's appointment the other day. For some reason, as I was driving to town, I had the "feeling" that she would not be in her office. No, not possible. Doctors show up, I reasoned. I drove on with another thought: I don't have an appointment today, even though it was on my calendar in two places; my computer and the paper calendar that hangs near the phone. When I got to the office, the receptionist informed me that the doctor was in fact, not there; and that my appointment was the following week. I made a mistake, and my intuition was trying to tell me so, but I chose not to listen. This has happened  hundreds of times; I get a "feeling" about a certain situation, usually a first thought, then go through a list of sensible reasons why my feeling has no basis; and then I act on those judgments. But really, how reliable is intuition? Should we listen? How do you know when something is right; when you know it fits and you possess a felt-sense for it, pursuing it without much thought to the contrary.

     The definition of intuition is this: The ability to acquire knowledge without the use of reason. The word comes from the Latin word "intueri", which is often roughly translated as meaning "to look inside" or to "contemplate." Intuition provides us with beliefs we cannot necessarily justify, and is popularly associated with the "right brain" where the origin of aesthetic abilities lie. Some scientists even contend that intuition is associated with innovation in scientific discovery. Einstein believed in it: "intuition is grounded primarily in the feeling of the heart--in its receptivity and its tendency to move outward. It depends on a deep caring and receptivity that pushes one to go beyond what is currently known..." 

     One celebrated behavioral scientist who studies intuition is Daniel Kahneman, who wrote the book, Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman is an Israeli-American psychologist, a nobel laureate and a founding father of modern behavioral economics. His work has shaped how we think about human error, risk, judgement, and decision-making.  Thinking Fast and Slow presents as an “intellectual memoir” which describes the machinery of the mind; how two distinct systems are at play in the decision making process; one that is fast, reactive and intuitive, and the other that is slow, deliberate and rational.  
     There is a balance between the two systems that the mind is constantly pushing to resolve, a sort of undecided, on-the-fence mentality that brings forth both our enduring flaws and our most fanciful capabilities. Which is it? Should I go with my first thought, or make a list of pros and cons to reach a more thorough and rational conclusion before acting on an idea or intuited notion?
Annie Lamott, in her book, Bird by Bird, says this about intuition:

     "You get your intuition back when you make space for it, when you stop the chattering of the rational mind. The rational mind doesn't nourish you. You assume that it gives you the truth, because the rational mind is the golden calf that this culture worships, but this is not true. Rationality squeezes out much that is rich and juicy and fascinating."

     And Steve Jobs: "Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion, that's had a big impact on my work. Western rational thought is not an innate human characteristic; it is learned and it is the great achievement of Western civilization. In the villages of India, they never learned it. They learned something else, which is in some ways, just as valuable but in others ways, is not. That's the power of intuition and experiential wisdom."

     In other words, it is just as important to listen to your heart, those first thoughts (they originate in the heart?) that bubble to the surface, as it is to dive deep into the ocean of rationality. We have a family story that illustrates the tendency towards favoring one mode of thinking over another. My son's friends have chided him over the years on how slow he is in making decisions, and how thoroughly he thinks things through before acting. Even as a child, he would wrestle with which candy bar to choose from a myriad of enticing choices. We'd say...ok Chris, it's time to go; make your choice...and after much deliberation, he'd pick the same bar (a Snickers!) almost every time after, I'm sure, weighing all the choices in his little mind. His place of employment today somewhat mirrors this predominant mode of thinking: at age 27, he works at a start-up internet company called FindtheBest.  They analyze reams of subjective and objective data and through mathematical algorithms come up with recommendations to help people make quick, informed decisions on all manner of products and services in the marketplace. Right up his alley.

     Sometimes things call to me, come looking for me; decisions come easy and I just know how to proceed. Those are usually first thoughts, my best thoughts. Though I don't believe first thoughts are 100% correct: I've experienced the downside of first thoughts, and those I label impulsive. Those are the first thoughts that didn't turn out so well!

     Other times, I deliberate. Those are usually subsequent thoughts that require more time to wrestle with.

     How often do you listen to your fast mind, and make decisions wrought from intuitive, first thoughts? When have you been nudged in a certain direction, independent of, or in tandem with, your slowed-down, rational-thinking mind? 

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Horse of Ten Toes

My boots are crunching on cold dry snow. I'm walking the frozen river, delighted with every curve and bend, starting from a meandering slough where overflow threatens to soak my boots (though snowshoes keep me buoyant) and ending at the wide expanse of river, frozen and deep. A river walk.  Here is where I go to untangle thoughts, oxygenate my lungs, and absorb the natural beauty that meanders through my life-space. The first thing I see when I wake up in the morning are mountains, and a twisting river of snow, the steadying river below.

The Horse of Ten Toes

Tazlina River
Feet planted. Nowhere to go, no final destination        
Overcome resistance, take
the first steps born to sensation, unsteady.

Right brain, left brain
walking on, walk it out, walk
rhythmic like a graceful poem or slowly
as in one breath.
Inhale lift foot,
exhale, step down and pay attention to your

thoughts that sashay like snowflakes
in the dark liqueur of the mind flowing,
without pause.
Answers to big questions rumble beneath the ice,
above, the shank's mare hesitates
and stumbles.

Push mountains, lift the sky
scenes unfold with no where to go
no final destination but the
here and now in walking there, where
one step at a time,
movement heals all, and motor-less motion renders
a clearing of the deadfall.

Shank's mare is derived from the name of the lower part of the leg between the knee and ankle - the shank, today known as the shin-bone or tibia. This expression was once used in an Iowa newspaper, The Dubuque Daily Herald in May 1869:

"A public exhibition of the velocipede (a predecessor of the bicycle) was given on the streets last evening by Mr. Clark, who managed the vehicle with considerable skill.  They are a toy, and will never come into general use in competition with Shank's mare." Well, we all know that bicycles are much more than a toy, and a wonderful way to get around under your own power!

I love walking. When I was only 3 years old, we lived in a rented farmhouse a few miles outside of Frankenmuth, Michigan. I used to walk to town with my mother, and I marvel at how far I walked at such a young age. Those walks were the inspiration for my children's picture book, Carry Me, Mama.

Walking is poetry in motion.

Qali, the Inuit word for snow that sticks to the branches of trees