Thursday, November 27, 2008

Shift happens

At this time of the year, particularly on this day, we take a moment to give thanks for what enriches our life. And in recent times, thanks to folks like Oprah, we are more in tune with our blessings. But for me, it was many years in the making before I accepted the transformational powers of gratitude. Born a Virgo, always a cynic, it came more naturally to complain than be thankful.

Growing up I suppose I was taught to say "please" and "thank you", and we said Grace before special meals or when our Baptist cousins were visiting, but I don't remember ever being taught the spirit behind those gestures.

Right out of college I lived in Atlanta, early in it's boom years, and still harboring a lot of southern charm. I remember having lunch with a co-worker and as we returned to the office she stopped and said, "Thank you. I enjoyed that." I can still take myself back in time and feel the way my brain cranked to low gear as I tried to process her comment. I was new to someone graciously displaying gratitude for such a trivial event.

Many years later I was out with a new friend after recently returning to St. Louis. Over coffee we were talking about our lives and he asked me quite pointedly something like, "Are you happy?" I'm not sure how I responded, but it must have been half-hearted, because he came back with, "Well, you know it's a choice."

There go those brain gears down shifting again. Was it really that simple? Happiness was a choice we made?

With that powerful morsel tucked away in my psyche, a few years later I was more directly introduced to gratitude. I was doing some "work" with a friend who is a dream counselor. While going through a rough patch in my life, she wisely directed me away from the stumbling blocks and taught me to focus on all the good that surrounded me. Suddenly and remarkably the concept of count your blessings established firm footing.

In making the shift, another old adage came into play...practice makes perfect. Every night before I went to bed I wrote in a journal ten reasons to be thankful. No cheating, I couldn't repeat the same things every night. And at one point, my friend gave me an exercise that substantially magnified the ten. I don't remember the details of the process, but I had pages and pages from yellow legal pads scribbled with good stuff.

That down shifting brain finally shifted up a gear. Holy cow. How did all this bounty find its way into my life? Had it always been there?

I don't want this recollection of my gratitude process to become a platitude. Nor was it a miracle to be sanctioned by the Vatican. I suppose I like to think of it as an unfolding - a simmering consciousness that finally found a joyful voice. And it was the repeated application of "counting" that gave it such girth.

I am not, nor will I ever be, a Pollyanna. But it is so much more heartening to see the rose rather than the thorn. To hear joy in the song rather than the sour note. To enjoy the playful abandon of your dog rather than worry about soil on your carpet.

It may take a while, but thankfully shift happens.

Gratitude in action.

These two young men have given physical expression to the joy of gratitude. Click on this link.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Stolen quote of the week

If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies within yourself.
- Tecumseh

Of thee I sing

Brrrrr. Thursday night was cold. I wanted to do nothing more than climb into some flannel PJs, get under the quilt, and read a good book. But. I had tickets to a play and I needed to keep that commitment.

Driving up Grand Avenue from I-64, it was thrilling to see the old Woolworth building transformed into the spectacular Kranzberg Arts Center. Washed in colored lights, it makes a bright beacon on the southern edge of the arts district.

Moving on, I passed the bloody neon at the Fox heralding Sweeny Todd and parked on a side street. Trudging thru the cold, I made my way to the Grandel Theatre. The play was good. The play was over. I headed home.

Coming out of an art event, I always have this heightened sense of awareness. So I decided to take the scenic Olive/Lindell drive home instead of going back to the highway. As I turned the corner, I slowed down to look at the shell of the stone chapel. Just a few weeks ago it was strung with glowing lamps creating one of the most interesting installations I've seen in a long time. (Pictured here.)

Then I passed Saint Louis University and couldn't help but be impressed by how much the campus has grown and beautified the neighborhood. Thanks, Monsignor. Just a bit further and on the right was a string of refurbished architectural gems: the art museum at SLU, the Coronado, and the Moolah.

Now I'm slowing down again to remind myself of the location for The Grind - which I believe is one of the first true coffee houses in St. Louis, pre-Starbuck's invasion. And looming largely ahead is the mosaic marvel, The New Cathedral. About right here is where I always feel compelled to genuflect. Or cross myself. At the very least, give an awe struck sigh.

There are a couple blocks where I can hum to the music without gawking for landmarks, and then the Chase comes in to view. When I was growing up, I thought of it as the home for wrestling. Now it's the jewel of the gentrified CWE.

Crossing over Kingshighway, I'm entering the northern alley of Forest Park. If my facts are correct, it's the largest urban green space in the US - even bigger than Central Park in NYC - and though I may be biased, it's the setting for the most spectacular collection of cultural institutions, beautiful trails, and peaceful water scapes.

The turn of the century homes along Lindell face proudly into the park and make an impressive drive for townies and visitors. Please note though: Do not enter into the confines of Portland Place and Westminster after dark. Dennis, the security guard, takes very seriously his responsibility for keeping the streets private and free of trespassing lookeeloos.

As the park ends, sitting square in front of me is Washington University. Again, I'm surely prejudiced, but arguably it's one of the loveliest campuses in the country. As I drive south on Skinker, I'm approaching one of our most venerable though commercial landmarks - the mighty Amoco sign. Now an anomaly because it sits above a BP station. But -- oh the horror -- if it were to be removed!

Continuing south I pass the Tivoli - one of the few remaining stand-alone movie theaters in this time of rowdy megaplexes. It would only be more nostalgic if it were a drive-in.

Down the hill, Skinker becomes McCausland and I'm almost home. As I drive those last few blocks the realization of how many remarkable places I passed amazes me. What was that - maybe a four or five mile corridor down the middle of the city?

Were you keeping a tally? My fingers flicked off about fourteen, fifteen attractions - and that's NOT counting all the individual landmarks of the Grand Arts district or the cultural institutions and play stations within Forest Park.

Here's where the preaching begins. Have you ever complained that there is "nothing to do in this town"? Do you confine yourself to the same ole, same ole? Maybe you make trips to Chicago or KC for culture and restaurants? Bah. I'm throwing down the dance many cities offer so much in such a small piece of geography?

When you throw in the vibrancy of the loft district. The history of Soulard. The pulse of The Loop. The charm of our neighborhoods. The plethora of shopping. The diversity of S. Grand. The variety of parks. The proximity to wine country. The mix of cultures. The expanse of the Katy Trail. Yeah, okay....I think you're getting the picture.

But are you taking advantage of it? Enjoying it? Sharing with out of town friends?

Here's my challenge: Make a list of five things you have never done in St. Louis and see if you can make it through at least three of them before the end of the year. I'm offering some thought starters.

Saratoga Lanes in Maplewood - bowling or billiards
Hiking at Castlewood
The Rock 'n' Roll art show at Third Degree Glass Factory (11/28-30)
A rock climbing class
Darts at Blueberry Hill
Concert at The Sheldon or Focal Point
Ice skating in Forest Park

Oh, St. Louis, I sing your praises.

Let me know, fellow citizens, what rocks your world and enriches your life. And please send along some of your ideas - I'd like to have a couple adventures myself before starting a new year.

Monday, November 10, 2008

My first night

Last Thursday night was filled with several "firsts" for me. After the excitement of the election (a first for the nation), I needed an energy outlet. I wanted to get out among humanity, so I set out alone to hear some music

The first "first" was attending a concert at the Duck Room - an intimate venue located in the basement of world famous Blueberry Hill. This renowned room has hosted many celebrities and even more up'n'comers. Tonight Hayes Carll was playing and my boot scootin' boogie mode kicked into high gear.

Carll is a talented young musician whose music is what I would call Country Blues with a big splash of Honky Tonk. As his star rises, opportunities to see him in a cozy setting could be dwindling.

It was a fun show. Good toe tappin' tunes, a great view of the action and close proximity to the iconic Beatle Bob. Being in the same room as Bob was my third "first" of the evening. (Carll was the second, in case you lost count.) Beatle Bob is legendary in St. Louis. To say he is an avid music fan is a vast understatement. He takes in hundreds of shows a year and has become quite a barometer for where you should be hangin' if you want to hear great bands.

The Beatle moniker stuck with him because his hair got stuck in the '60s.....still styled very similar to George Harrison from the Rubber Soul album. His dance moves haven't improved much either. But he's in the groove and that's all that matters.

I headed home after the show re-energized and turned on TV before turning in. Conan O'Brien came on and he was interviewing Elvis Costello. Yay, definitely my night for good music. I headed to the lavatory to wash up and when I returned to the TV, Elvis had been replaced by Madeleine Albright. Tres yay. With her amazing political experience, an insider take on the election would be interesting.

As the chat wound down, the camera pulled back and revealed that Elvis was still sitting on the couch next to Madam Secretary. Clever Conan said, "You know, there's something about the two of you that just screams duet". Ha, that Conan.

Well, Elvis reached behind the couch, pulled out his guitar, and before you could say "Ah 1, ah 2", they were crooning a tune. What's wrong with this picture!?! Elvis Costello and Madeleine Albright in a duet. That was my fourth "first" of the evening.

I think Ms. Albright is quite inspirational. She has multiple degrees, speaks six languages, but put her career on hold after graduation and marriage to raise three daughters. It wasn't until the late 70's that she jumped into public service, almost twenty years out of school.

Basically, she reinvented herself. She took all the knowledge that had been simmering and went from mother/wife to Secretary of State in a relatively short period of time. As I struggle to find my "passion," she impresses with her accomplishments. As a late bloomer, I see her life as an affirmation that I can still carve my niche in the world.

But then I had my fifth "first" of the night.....and it was a revelation. I realized I don't want to emulate the success of Ms. Albright, I want to be Beatle Bob.

Earlier in the evening as I watched him sway and jerk to the music, jab his finger at the musicians and groove blissfully in the moment, I found myself envious of how completely comfortable he was with himself. He has found a passion and he lives it righteously.

Visit Bob's MySpace page and you'll see that he has a wide variety of interests outside of music. You will learn that kindness and consideration are also very important to him. And you will find that he has over 2,100 registered friends! (I've got two and they are both spam.)

Where does this take me from here? Who knows. Even with a night of "firsts" and a major revelation, I may be no closer to finding my groove, but the living righteously part is a good place to start.

Household Hint #1

The lesson I learned today: do not put a marshmallow in the microwave for longer than ten seconds.


Friday, November 7, 2008

Grace and goodwill

As exciting events go, election night 2008 pretty much blew the needle off the Wow-O-Meter. While everyone's perceptions of the day emanate from a deeply personal perspective, it seemed apparent that the promise of change resonated fiercely with millions of Americans.

I could not stop looking - and marveling -- at the faces in the crowds. From the west coast to Manhattan to Grant Park in Chicago, masses of people with eyes shining brightly watched with rapt attention as the voting results were announced state by state. The silhouettes, the skin, the age, the gender changed from face to face, but the same glow of hopeful anticipation brought kinship to strangers.

Now as we bask in the radiance of that night, an opportunity has been given to us. The enormous challenges at hand for the new administration cannot be resolved solely by President-elect Obama and his staff. The ground swell of support must rise up and participate in creating a brighter America.

Not everyone can become a public servant or join the Peace Corps. Few of us will sign up with Teach for America or take a government job. But you can help your disabled neighbor rake his leaves. Or volunteer your time at a nursing home. You can mentor an inner city kid. Or cook dinner for a homeless shelter. Small acts of kindness are those first steps that create a strong community; and strong communities will mend a broken nation.

I think I speak mostly for myself when I say the first step is letting go of the anger and frustration that's been felt so deeply during the past eight years. As I lay in bed election night, I realized that the promise of a better future would not shine so brightly had the recent times not been so bleak.

Is it possible that we owe "W" a thank you? Was the darkness that arose around him the catalyst that thrust a historically reluctant country to embrace an African American leader? Was it overwhelming despair that opened our hearts allowing us to act on the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. and judge a man based on "the content of his character and not the color of his skin"?

Let's begin our practice of giving by sending grace and goodwill to the President-elect. Light a candle, say a prayer, hold a good thought, surround him in light - whatever your style or manner, put your positive energy into manifesting a future of peace and prosperity.

"Yes we can" should be our on-going mantra, a reminder of all that is possible.

"This is our moment. This is our time - to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth - that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes We Can."

- President-elect Barack Obama
November 4, 2008.