The Powerful Impact of a Master of Words

Books!I go through phases when I can’t get enough to read. I am in that circumstance right now. I drift in and out of novels and essays and works about philosophy and religion and travel and more with a kind of endless appetite. It is voracious and seems to come about this time of year and it is, I imagine, prompted by something. Though I don’t know what. I can’t stop. And then a book hits me with such a profound reaction of emotion that I am stopped. Sadness, or something I can’t quite put my finger on arises. Wanting—that’s it. I want to know everything about the author, the master of words. I want to be the author. I want to inhabit her talent. I want to inhabit her book. I want to be her friend. I want to know and love her, even though I know nothing of her other than her amazing talent as a writer.

I am relieved to realize that at least I am drawn to write after reading her book. I could be very inhibited to write. And at a certain level I am after witnessing her awesome skill. Is there some truth to my concern that I might be expecting to somehow magically be able to write like she does if I put pen to paper just having read her book. Not that I really thought that I would want to write after putting her book down. I was not expecting a piece of exquisite writing—though one can always hope for that. It’s not that at all. I just want to pour out my reactions and I must do that through writing. Not because I want to create something, but because to write is for me to process the experience and to understand, perhaps, what I am feeling.

I have swirls of emotion and a sense of a new beginning. Perhaps a new exploration of writing? What am I to do in this moment but to write? I cannot stop crying and I most certainly am feeling overwhelmed, perhaps embarrassed. But why should I feel weird about the tears? Whatever one encounters, to truly experience it is to be fully taken away with emotions. Often life experiences of all sorts can be so profound. Reading, it should not be a surprise, has such power over me. Isn’t it a wonder of literature that it can be so haunting? Just as music is very often compelling. Is that what makes her so gifted a writer? That she recognizes that to observe and to feel emotion is the essence of a life fully lived? Or is it that she has no other option than to write down her experience and it creates a masterful and intelligent story?

I imagine that she has a process of her own and she might in fact have an outline for her books. But as I read her book, it feels more like it is unraveling before my eyes, liker a river of life just being lived and felt. That is her gift. That is the startling nature of beautiful writing, beautiful music, beautiful art. I am humbled. I am grateful.  Oh, the book by the way is Outline by Rachel Cusk.

xoxo Rachel

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Viewing the solar eclipse

Watching The Sky and Astrological Events

Monday, as pretty much everyone knows, was a solar eclipse. In our house, astrological events are fairly important and this one was no exception. Andy rigged a great viewing apparatus based on recommendations from the Nasa website. Basically he projected the sun and moon through binoculars on to an angled cardboard. My mom came over and together we asked the clouds to be kind to us so that we could view the eclipse. Mostly the clouds listened. And so with delight we watched the path of the moon eclipse the sun.Viewing the solar eclipse 2017

I have always enjoyed looking up into the sky. As a girl growing up in Roosevelt, New Jersey, we were far away enough from any major light sources from larger towns or cities that our night sky was very visible. I am not certain how old I was—probably seven or eight—when one of my friend’s parents started an astronomy club. I loved going to the weekly club meetings for a number of reasons.

For one, we met at his house in “The Estates” which was a new-ish 1960s sub-division. The Estate’s houses were so modern and so different from the rest of the Roosevelt houses. At least they were to me and in comparison to the rest of town. Most of Roosevelt was designed by Louis Kahn and built in the 1930s. Secondly, we met on a school night so it felt somehow exciting to be doing something fun and unusual when we’d otherwise be at home. And third, I remember that they served yummy snacks that, whatever they were, were different from what we ate at home. I can’t say that I remember all that much about our stargazing but I know that I absolutely loved learning about the various constellations.

Another important astrological viewing that stands out in my mind took place on August 11th, 1980. “How can I remember that actual date?” you might ask. Well, the Persied meteor shower peaks about August 10th-13th each year and I know that I was one year out of college so it had to be 1980. As for the specific date—believe it or not—I have my diary from that year that adds a unique twist to this tale. Anyway, my friend Nathalie and I went to Cape Hatteras National Park all by ourselves to get away for a few days. It was a big deal that we drove all the way to North Carolina on our own. We pitched a tent and camped out right near the dunes!Nathalie at our campground 1980

Several events mark that trip. We went out for dinner to a local spot and ate these yummy things called hushpuppies that I had never had before. I have never since had such excellent fritters in my life—or at least my memory claims that. The second and fairly disturbing event happened when I was about to write in my diary. In fact, I just pulled out that diary from my bookshelf to confirm all this. Apparently sometime while at home, my ex-boyfriend had read some of my diary and left me a chilling response. Fortunately, Nathalie was there to help me through that emotional upheaval.Rachel at Cape Hatteras 1980

As if that wasn’t enough, as nighttime unfolded, we thought the sky was literally falling! The sky wasn’t actually falling, but being out on a cape in the complete dark gave us a spectacular location from which to view the Perseid meteor shower. I didn’t actually know that was what it was until decades later. I just assumed that we got to see lots of shooting stars. Many years later, Andy and I started to watch the Persieds each summer from our hammock in Cold Spring. And as it turns out, when the Persieds pass closest to Jupiter, there are more meteors and they appear brighter. That occurred in 1921, 1945, 1968, 1980, 2004 and 2016. I just happened to be in the perfect viewing location on one of the perfect dates!

I have a mixed feeling about gazing at the stars. Mostly I love to watch these various happenings in the sky. I find it magical, delightful and spectacular. However,  if I think too deeply about how I fit into the universe and what human existence is when I am watching something unusual in the sky, I can spiral into existential panic. It is hard to explain if you are unfamiliar with the experience but it manifests itself as a physical whirling in my body. When I have an existential attack—and I have had them since I was in my twenties I would guess—it is as if my mind gets so involved in the thoughts that I get dizzy and overwhelmed. Historically I haven’t allowed myself to sit with the sensations for very long and try to change my thoughts so that it goes away in a minute or so. But I think that the next time an existential crisis happens, I might allow myself to practice a mindful approach and see what more I can learn from that experience. What I do know for sure is that looking up has particular significance to me. Whether watching the clouds (see Cloud Hopping) or the night sky, the heavens above have a great impact on my life on the ground.

xoxo Rachel

My Bouncing Mind

My AltarLately I can’t focus very well. I am constantly changing direction in my thoughts. My bouncing mind leaps from one thought to another and from one direction to another, barely taking any time to stop on any one topic. I don’t have ADHD so this isn’t a usual circumstance for me. It is true that I often think really quickly so the pace of my thoughts moves fast and can change direction. But that is usually a progression of thoughts that leads me to new ideas. Instead what I am experiencing now is the inability to stay in one place, thought wise.

A friend who I met with yesterday also noticed that I am perhaps working too hard to try to figure it all out. I have read—and no exaggeration here—20 self-development books in the past two months. Although the books have overlapping topics, because each author has a different perspective I am receiving an overabundance of ideas. Time to put down all the different books and not push so hard. Time to get back to being here where I am and just be.

It’s just that I feel so untethered. And so I sought books as a way to find a path forward. I also began a new healthful way of eating on March 1st. Since the start of the month I have been eating a low fat, low sugar vegan diet. I have not had any trouble sticking to the “new way of eating” (I prefer that to calling it a “diet”). And yet I have noticed that I feel less grounded, even though I am eating plenty of root vegetables ☺. I can’t put my finger on it but I am definitely missing something. Sure I am obviously not eating meat and dairy but it is more than missing those foods. (I don’t seem to miss the dairy at all, but meat, yes.) I suspect that there is both a psychological and biological factor in this feeling of—I think I just put my finger on it—loss!

Well, no surprise there. I am clearly mourning the loss of my father so perhaps I have added to this feeling of loss by not eating pork, beef and chicken. Kind of sounds crazy. But I bet there is something to it. Not that I am going to use that as an excuse to revert to my old eating pattern. I feel really good physically and in general like this new way of eating. I just need to be kind to myself and let my body and soul go through the mourning process however it goes.

My mindfulness meditation practice is geared towards being present in the current moment. Focusing on my breath or sound or something that keeps me anchored, helps me to stay in the here and now. So given my more than usual bouncing mind my meditation practice has been more monkey-mind than usual. And yet, this practice is absolutely what I need most right now.  So I will continue to practice.  And I will continue to find magical moments and just be content in enjoying every moment as it unfolds.

xoxo Rachel

A Feminist Since Birth

WageThis past Sunday I attended a meeting of WAGE International (Women and Girls’ Education International) and I was so very inspired by the experience. I was invited to the meeting after I had been asked by their president Heather Mistretta and agreed to become a board member. I didn’t hesitate an instant to say, “Yes!” even though I didn’t really know that much about their group.

WAGE is committed to empowering women and girls and educating everyone to stop the cycle of violence against women and girls. Stepping into the home of WAGE’s founder Rekha Datta on Sunday afternoon was a leap of faith, given how little I knew about WAGE. But as we gathered and introduced ourselves to each other, I knew that I was in the right place. Sitting around the living room of our host’s house, I was struck by all the amazing people who were drawn together for a mutual cause. Rekha’s husband introduced himself by saying that he was “a feminist since birth.” That is such a wonderful way to put it, I thought. I, too, am indeed a feminist since birth, fortunate to have been raised by my thoughtful and loving parents in such an unusual and peace-loving town of Roosevelt, New Jersey.

Attending the WAGE meeting was coming home. Coming home to feminism, coming home to peace, coming home to activism and finally coming home to New Jersey. WAGE is headquartered in Monmouth County, NJ, about 2 hours away from my current home in New York. My hometown of Roosevelt where I grew up is also in Monmouth County. And Roosevelt was a town filled with activists in the 60s and 70s. I am grateful that I grew up there and was exposed to so many forward thinking and creative individuals.

Throughout my life, I have been committed to empowerment of women and girls though I hadn’t fully strung together all the links of my passion and experience until yesterday morning. While I was in meditation with my Wednesday morning group at The Garrison Institute, immense emotion arose in me as memories of the feminist and activist work I have done over the years came flooding over me.

My peace jewelryAs a child, I attended peace marches in DC along with my family, traveling by chartered buses filled with all ages of Rooseveltians. My brother and I were little-kid activists: children’s equality, and recycling (see Gnilcycer: Recycling In Roosevelt, New Jersey) where our main areas of focus. And of course, feminism was ingrained in me. My mom was a beautiful feminist role model, striving for equal rights. She also subscribed to Ms. Magazine from its inception and I remember fondly how much I loved reading each issue when it arrived in the mail.

Equality and peace are closely connected so I suppose it isn’t surprising that working with WAGE to educate and empower and promote peace is a good match for my passions. I have had opportunities throughout my life to contribute to causes that help women and girls. My entire business career I was always very focused on helping to support and promote women in my company and mentored women as well as men to be empowered to be themselves and strive for greatness in their work. Along the way I also took time away from the corporate world and did some powerful work with girls and boys.

Although I have been living in New York for most of my adult life, I have been drawn to groups that are all over the country. As part of a yearlong leadership program that met in Sebastopol, California, I developed and held a workshop for boys and girls at a summer camp in Yosemite, CA. I remember that day so well. I flew from New York into Oakland, CA and drove for over an hour to the camp to hold the workshop with my co-leader Angela.

Angela and I were deliberately paired because our leadership styles were very different and one goal of the amazing leadership training was learning how to dance with and co-lead when your partner has a different natural style. This is such a gift of learning for life because we encounter so many people who have different backgrounds, talents and experiences from our own. We need to realize that other perspectives and approaches are neither the right nor wrong way. Learning how to lean into a different way of working with someone is a peaceful act. It is accepting colleagues for all that they are and working towards navigating differences with ease. It is about learning to trust each other no matter that we have different ways. What a great learning for me and also what a great experience leading a group of boys and girls from that peaceful stance.

Rach and MomPart of the tenets of my co-leading training was learning how to use improvisational techniques to build off of another person. I loved doing the improvisational games over the year training and became so enamored with improv that I took a summer course at The Upright Citizen’s Brigade in NYC. One of the main reasons I love to write and speak is that I enjoy creating with language. Improv training gave me an invaluable tool to create off the cuff, something I draw upon all the time for writing and giving presentations.

Improv also allows for playfulness and creating from nothing. The flow and spontaneity I feel when using language to convey my thoughts and feelings fills me with such joy. And it makes me feel so empowered. So I had a thought. What if I can connect my love of improv and my sense that it is such an empowering skill with my passion of empowering girls? I decided to seek out organizations that did just that and discovered a wonderful group, called ACTNOW in Northampton, Massachusetts near Smith, Amherst and Mt Holyoke Colleges. I met with their organizer, Nancy Fletcher and volunteered to do some work with them. They use movie making and improvisation to empower girls. The girls take on any one of the many roles needed to create a film including writing, directing, camera work, acting and editing. Although ACTNOW was closer than my groups in California, it was a three-hour drive from my home in New York. I only worked with them for a short time, yet I have fond memories of the amazing girls and that organization.

And so it turns out that it isn’t uncommon for me to travel far in order to participate in activities designed to empower girls. I will travel over the country in search of groups of people who share my passion for women, girls, empowerment and peace. And though I have dabbled here and there, I wonder where my need to help empower women will take me next. I am excited about what lies ahead with WAGE International, and I know that this organization is a catalyst for me to further experience how I can promote feminism, love and peace in the world. I am grateful that they have found me and I them.

XOXO Rachel

Nostalgia For Being A Researcher Of The Mind

Rachel & Andy Near Santa Cruz 1986I have been reading the memoir called On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks for the past few days and it is bringing up lots of tears for me. I usually read just before bed so after I have read a few chapters, I find myself lying there in bed wondering what is going on for me. So today I decided to write free form and see what comes up. This is my stream of consciousness rambling to try to make sense of why my emotions are being rocked by this wonderful book.

I was first introduced to Oliver Sacks work when I was in college and working on my psychology degree at UC Berkeley. I had just discovered the field of cognitive psychology and I loved everything that I studied about mind and cognition and perception. Basically, I couldn’t get enough of anything having to do with how we perceive and understand the world. I was intrigued by case studies of people with different neurological issues and brain disorders because their behavior shed so much light on how the brain processes information and creates the reality we know as consciousness.  I cherished my audiotape of a patient with Korsokoff’s Syndrome that I got from a post-doctorate candidate while I was at Berkeley. I carried that tape with me through seven years of grad school at UC Santa Cruz then on to Oberlin College where I played it to students as part of my course on memory and cognition.

I hadn’t really thought about cognition in great depth much in the past few decades. I’ve been in such applied fields of market and media research for so long that intellectual conversations and thought experiments and simply reading research about the cognitive field hasn’t been my focus. Although I began in cognitive psychology, I became very specialized very quickly and went on for my PhD in the subfield of cognitive psychology called psycholinguistics.  And though I loved studying how we process and understand language and to this day I am still so enamored by language and words and meaning, as I am reading Oliver Sacks book, I am reminded that I am very drawn to deep intellectual and philosophical questions of how we process information and create our conscious experience of the world. Sure, language is part of that process so I am pretty sure that is what led me down the path of psycholinguistics. But now so many years later, I guess I miss the pondering and theorizing and discussion of mind, brain and consciousness more than I had realized.  Apparently I still love that stuff!

One of the interesting aspects of reading Mr. Sacks’ memoir is his description of meeting and or corresponding with others neurologists and psychologists and others related field specialists. So many of the names he mentions were so important to me in my earlier days. Francis Crick was one such name. At a young age, I was fascinated by human biology and Watson and Crick’s work unraveling the DNA strands. I still have my slim paperback The Double Helix by James Watson that my mom gave me in 1976. Dr. Sacks describes visiting Francis Crick while he was at the Salk Institute in San Diego. I cried buckets. I remember when I visited UC San Diego and The Salk Institute quite a few years after I had gone to grad school at UC Santa Cruz. I was in such awe of that location because I had read so many papers by people who had or were currently associated with those wonderful institutes. Had I gotten into UC San Diego, I am sure I would have gone there for grad school. But I didn’t and I did get into UC Santa Cruz and went down a different path. Don’t get me wrong—I have no regrets. I loved my psycholinguistics research and training and I am happy with all that I have done since then.

Nonetheless, there is still a yearning in me to—I am not certain what for—perhaps to have a long conversation with someone about the field, perhaps just read some more, perhaps walk the hallowed halls of the great institutions where this research has and is being conducted. I can’t quite put my finger on it. I am sure that a big part of this is simply nostalgia. Nostalgia for being a young researcher. Nostalgia for being at a university. A craving for thinking about and philosophizing about mind and consciousness. Whatever it is, I am profoundly impacted by it and can’t figure out how to discharge my deep need. My plan at this point is to just keep reading. Read whatever is calling to me and see where it goes. Frankly it needn’t go anywhere other than to fulfill whatever craving I have to ponder and wonder and be amazed by the complicated thing called brain and the strange and perplexing phenomenon called consciousness.

XOXO Rachel

Gnilcycer: Recycling In Roosevelt, New Jersey

Andy's RecyclingA few weeks ago I was talking with my family at my Mom’s 80th birthday party (which was wonderful) and I mentioned that my memory of when I was young is very dim. There are, however, memories that vividly and suddenly come back to me. They are usually prompted by something happening to me in that moment. This morning I had such an experience. My husband Andy was getting the recycling together and the sight of him tying twine around newspapers propelled me to my childhood in the late 60s when, with my brother Erik, we started Gnilcycer in our hometown of Roosevelt, NJ.

Gnilcycer is recycling spelled backwards and was the title we used for our collection of paper, bottles and cans—well before towns and cities had set up recycling programs. My brother was always creative with names so I am pretty sure he made that one up. (He also made up my company name Wondrance).

These days Andy keeps a big ball of twine and a pretty bright red scissors with our recycling basket and periodically wraps up the paper when it has grown into a high heap. He has been doing this for years but for some reason, this morning as I gazed at Andy’s beautifully twined- tied packages of newspaper, flashbacks of organizing stacks of paper, bins of bottles and cans as a girl came rushing into my focus.

My Dad, Erik and Me circa late 60s at Hights Theater
My Dad, Erik and Me circa late 60s at Hights Theater

I can’t recall whether we collected the recycling ourselves or whether people dropped it off—I think it might have been both—but I do have distinct images of our collection building. It was a garage behind the Roosevelt Nursery School on Homestead Lane just down the street from our house. Erik and I spent a lot of time behind the nursery school separating paper and cans and bottles into different piles. Then we put everything into a van to take to a big recycling factory. My dad drove us in the Green Monster, a funky old van painted pastel green. I wish I had a photo of that van. It was clearly painted with glossy regular wall paint—not professional car paint. But it was perfect for tasks like hauling recycling and also apparently a family of four from New Jersey to Florida. I only vaguely remember that Florida trip but images of the Green Monster are clear.

Hauling the recycling materials to the Freehold processing plant in the Green Monster was an exciting trip. We got to see the behind the scenes of recycling and felt so wonderful playing a small role in reducing waste. And to say that recycling is important to me is an understatement. That early experience set me up for a lifetime of devotion to recycling. Recycling has grown into an expected part of life now, but I remember with fondness each stage of the recycling movement and how I personally dealt with recycling wherever I have lived.

In the late 70s, towns and cities started to gather recycling from homes, but before that, there were only drop-off locations like Gnilcycer. It wasn’t until the 80s that curbside recycling started to really grow in the US and it took a few decades before it was widespread. New Jersey, it turns out, was an early recycling focused state. Woodbury, NJ was the first city in the US to mandate recycling in 1980, setting a precedent for the rest of the country. These days there are garbage and recycling bins available everywhere in public spaces and the types of materials that are recycled has expanded. I am grateful to my child-self and my family for my recycling mindset and wonderful memories.

XOXO Rachel

The Thrill Of Doing A Back-Handspring And Other Physical Feats

Generally speaking, I am not what you would call a thrill seeker. However, there have been several times in my life when I have experienced such an adrenalin rush when I did something physically outside of my comfort zone. They stand out as moments when I felt so in my body, so filled with happy energy, and so glad to be fully awake and alive to life.

My old laundry bag from campAs a girl, I wasn’t adventurous though I liked change and was usually game to try new things. I went away for summer to YMCA Camp Ralph S. Mason camp in Northern New Jersey and did two amazing activities that pushed the envelope of what I would normally do. The first was rather modest—yet important. That summer I really found my water-legs and learned how to swim like a fish. In fact, the names of our levels were names of fish. Minnows, flying fish are two levels that I recall. I had always been fairly comfortable in water, but that summer I learned the real strokes—crawl, breast, back and butterfly. When I became one with the water, I felt so thrilled and calm at the same time. The calm came from feeling comfortable and completely safe even though I was in deep water and using new strokes. And because I passed a certain level of swimming skill, I was automatically entered into a drawing for an activity that only a handful of campers would participate in towards the end of the camp session.

Wouldn’t you know it, my name got pulled out of the hat to go for a day-trip rubber rafting on rapid waters. Just thinking about it now makes the hairs on my arms stand up. It was a good thing that I didn’t have to put my name in the hat on my own or I might not have gone on that important trip.

I was really scared. I was with a group of kids I didn’t yet know—none of my friends from my cabin or other camp activities were on the trip. And I couldn’t quite imagine what rubber rafting was. And then when we arrived at the rapids at a section of the Delaware River, I couldn’t imagine getting into those waters. We learned that we were to straddle the side of the raft. “What,” I thought, “we aren’t even safe inside the boat?” The day was long and I got a little less scared as I got more acquainted with the raft and the paddle. Mostly I was feeling the adrenaline rush of fear and less of the calm exuberance of excitement, but even so I had moments of feeling happily thrilled beyond my imagination.

Dreaming of floating in the cloudsSeveral years later when in High School, I took gymnastic classes at Alts in Princeton Junction, NJ. Although I had been taking gymnastics for a number of years on and off starting at the Y with Peri during the Olga Korbut Gymnastics craze (see Streaming Memories—Flea Markets), at this point I had a young adult body and a young adult mind with a little less fear. I remember vividly the moment I finally was able to do a back-handspring without spotters. Any activity that requires you leap backwards requires a huge amount of blind belief. Your mindset must be comfortable believing that when you leap backwards your hands will land on the floor because your legs are already in the air and you really are blind to the ground. There is that moment of letting go and knowing that your body will indeed catch yourself. That is the awesome moment of calming, thrilling, amazing liveliness!

I can count on one hand the number of times since that day at the gym that I have felt that rush that is less fear and more exuberance. I hadn’t been able to express what I felt when I did that back-handspring. I was proud of myself and I showed my parents what I learned to do, but I couldn’t articulate what I was feeling. I am certain that I was glowing after that class when I finally did the back-handspring and I am sure everyone around me saw my glow. A more recent adult experience helped me to clarify where the juice of these experiences comes from and why I loved the thrill.

Up on ropesAs part of a yearlong intensive personal and leadership development training, I went on retreats to Northern California that included a number of high-flying tasks. We did rope courses of all sorts that required we climb up tall redwood trees. Sometimes we walked across tight ropes and sometimes we jumped. We leaped to grasp other ropes, we jumped to get down with the help of belays, we did trust falls where you fall blind backwards and we jumped off while connected to a swing (see Free falling and improv up on high). I was very nervous at first but I learned that the fear was all about my mindset. Once I experienced being able to accomplish something, I could relax and let go into the bodily sensations on the next turn. I couldn’t get enough of the activities when I finally found my air-legs. Just as when I got my water-legs in summer camp, a certain amount of physical and mental mastery was all I needed to enjoy and even crave the adventure. I understood from that moment why skydivers and trapeze artists and other thrill seekers in the sky are junkies for their death defying highs. The instant of aliveness has never been so intense as it has been for me when I am in the air—suspended for a moment in my body and mind, present to life.

I just looked up Camp Mason and it still exists. In the 70s camp was to a certain extent about personal development and conquering fears, but there is so much more available these days. The camp now has a whole category of activities under the umbrella Adventure: Teambuilding, high ropes (zipline, giant swing and more), climbing wall, survival, nature hikes, aerial silks, outdoor cooking, day trips into the surrounding area. Would I have taken up skydiving as an adult if I had the opportunity to do all those high-flying feats as a kid? Perhaps…

XOXO Rachel

At The Races

Saratoga Race CourseAt the races conjures up two very different things for me—being caught up in the rat race of work and watching horses racing at the track. The first is being stuck in it all and the latter is being away from it all. The balance between the two is even apparent in my memories of going to the horse-track. The first time I was “at the races” was when I was a young girl and my mom was working as an attorney at Legal Aid Society in Trenton, New Jersey. Periodically I went to work with her instead of school. I don’t remember the exact circumstances on that day that led to me joining her rather than going to school but I can say that my mom was very trusting that I knew which days I really had to be at school and which days were not such a big deal.

Mom and meI had a great relationship with my mom—I still do—and she understood that when I occasionally woke up and said that I really did not want to go to school that day that I truly needed the day off. I was an “A student” and I was very conscious in my decision to take—what I would now call—a mental health day now and again when I needed a break, careful to not miss an exam or something else important that day. And so my mom and I played hokey a day here or there. She didn’t entirely play hokey because my day of hokey always included some work time for her. In the earlier days it was at Legal Aid but then later when she was on her own, we would go to her private practice office to work for a few hours then head over to the newly opened Quaker Bridge Mall—one of the first malls and certainly the only mall around us in those days. So I had a day off from the rat race of school and she had a partial day off from the rat race of work. As I look back I realize that I continued to quite successfully understand when I needed a mental health day off from work. Throughout my years working in corporate America I managed to take an occasional day off for no reason and I believe I was more successful—less prone to burnout—because I did so.

The day that we went to the races was a particularly unusual day off from school for me. At my mom’s office she was one of the few women attorneys. The guys loved to go to the Garden State Park Racetrack in nearby Cherry Hill, NJ now and then as a lunch break (I think that is where we went, as the racetrack is no longer there). I was fortunate to be at the office on one of their hokey days. We slipped out of the office for a few hours and drove to the park. I remember picking horses based on their names. We found a perfect choice named after a flute or classical piece or flutist—was it Die Fledermaus or Magic Flute or Jean-Pierre Rampal… Well, I don’t remember the horse’s name exactly but I do remember that the choice paid off! What a thrill to watch the horses come around the bend towards the finish line while my mom and I cheered our horse on. We won a few bucks!

Although I have been “at the races” metaphorically in the workforce for many years after that day with my mom, I only recently was literally was “at the races” again—a first time as an adult. Now that Andy and I are working on our own, we have tremendous flexibility when it comes to taking time off from work. A couple of years ago for our 25th wedding anniversary we decided to take a mid-week getaway to nearby Saratoga Springs during the racing season. Saratoga is a lovely town with interesting little shops and gourmet restaurants lining main street and lovely inns. After breakfast, we wandered around the town a bit before going to the races.

Horses relaxing in their stallsAlthough there were some similarities to my early childhood experience, much of this horse racing track trip felt very different. We parked near where all the horses and their caretakers lived during the season. It was fascinating to get a glimpse behind the scenes of the racing horse life. It felt foreign to me and yet very comforting in a way. It was a hot day and people milled about with their horses; jockeys and horse trainers hung out and chatted with their colleagues; others sat outside around the barracks listening to music. The occasional fancy car appeared with what I assumed were the wealthy horse owners.

In the grandstandWe made our way to the gate where we picked up our tickets that we had ordered in advance then people watched while standing in line until the gate opened. The mix of people was wonderful. There were big families, fancy dressed women in hats, men in suits, young groups of friends, older wealthy couples and of course unfortunate looking people who I presumed were gambling away whatever they had. We found our section in the grandstand and then were escorted to our seat by a gentleman who whisked our seat clean before we sat down. Such a lovely tradition.

The winners walkThen the preparation for the races began! We scrutinized the racing bet sheet to see if we could make heads or tails of the horses. The only thing we could make heads or tails of was which was actually the head or tail of the horse. So instead of any fancy system we went for horses that were mentioned as promising or had a nice name—that worked when I was a girl. Even making our few-dollar bets was an experience. We went up to the window and fortunately had a teller who was patient as we tried to state our bet the way you are supposed to: Track Name, Race, Amount, Bet Type, Horse Number (not the horse’s name). So it would be something like Saratoga, race one, two dollars to win on the five (though we didn’t state Saratoga because it was obvious we were there). Unlike as a girl, we did not win a penny—but just like as a girl, watching the horses fly around the track to the home stretch was indeed trilling!

I am glad that I have been “at the races” in both senses of the expression throughout my life. Now that I am able to be “at the races” in the getting away from it all sense more often than in the being part of the rat race way, I am indeed grateful.

XOXO Rachel

A Nature Child Of The 60s In Small-Town USA

Rachel and best friend Peri in New Hampshire woodsAlthough it is easy to wax poetically and over-romanticize one’s childhood while looking back decades, my childhood days really were glorious. I lived in a tiny town of about 1000 people located in one square mile of New Jersey, very much in farmland. Roosevelt is located in central Jersey where relatively large areas of undeveloped land remain and there are still farms left. Sure, there are tract housing developments near my hometown now that did not exist when I was a kid, but it is still a wooded borough surrounded by plenty of nature.

I got to thinking about my experience with nature as a child because of a book that I just read for my book club, Last Child In The Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. I have been in one book club or another for more than 20 years. This time I have rejoined a club that meets at the library in my new small-town—new in the sense that I have only been living here full time for about 5 years and part-time for only 20 years. A club member, Annie, who works in ecological education, suggested the book. She also happens, coincidentally, to be married to the son of Becky who I grew up with in my hometown of Roosevelt. Although it is possible that knowing Annie’s connection to my town primed me to recollect these nature experiences, the book on its own was remarkable in how much it elicited my memories of being a child of nature in the 60s.

One of the themes of the book is that children raised before the early 70s had a different relationship with nature than most children do now or during the intervening years. As I read the book I realized how lucky I was to roam the small streets and woods of my town and commune with nature. My whole perspective on life, in retrospect, was influenced by nature when I was a girl. To me, being in nature is paradise—heaven on earth. I assumed everyone felt that way and I am sure many do. But I actually did live in Paradise. Well, it was once.

Paradise, NJRoosevelt was originally Jersey Homesteads and before that is was an area named Paradise. I have the map to prove it!  In winter I often sled down Paradise Hill, a steep paved road that was the only remaining nod to Roosevelt being Paradise. In the adjacent woods, if you dared, there was a path through the woods called “Steeple Chase” where you had to dodge trees as you speed down the slope. I think the first time I tasted Jack Daniel’s—just a sip—was on a cold evening as a teenager sledding on Paradise Hill. My mom grew up in the same town and during the early 50s, she sled there too (though I have no idea if she sipped whiskey).

So many of poignant childhood memories are outdoors somewhere in town. Near our school there were many great opportunities for outdoor exploration. In “the enclosure”, a tree and grassy square lined by hedges, friends and I played many different games including hide-and-seek. Even though that area was relatively manicured compared to the woods, I loved running around and under and sometimes climbing through the big trees or just lazing on the grass in the enclosure blowing blades of grass to create sounds.

I was devoted to the paths in town (I walked many paths outside of town too—see Walking Around A Lake). There was the formal path between the school and Tamara Drive where I even found wild asparagus growing. I can almost taste the raw thin sweet stalks to this day. I often walked along the path beside the creek that ran through town. The creek meandered and crossed roads at several locations including Tamara Drive, Rochdale Ave and an unpaved road that we simply called “the path”. I loved stopping on any of those overpasses to play with the creek. I’d place a leaf on the upstream side of the road so that I could watch it float under the road and pop out the other side. What quiet joy!

Great Aunt Ellie on lawn of my first childhood home with view of my second childhood homeI wandered all the paths in town alone or with a friend or my brother any number of times just to explore. Or to use as a shortcut. That was a common word I used to describe the routes on paths I found between places in town. I took a shortcut through people’s backyards, front yards, or the woods—all ways imaginable including just about going through someone’s house—to get between my home and somewhere I wanted to go. I took shortcuts to school. I took shortcuts to my best friend Peri’s house that was across the street from my grandmother Coco’s house so therefore a shortcut to her place as well. And I took shortcuts to my great Aunt Ellie’s house. Most of the shortcuts were through the woods on hardly what you’d call a path in some places. They were more just routes through bramble and prickly bushes, some with blueberries or raspberries, or slimy rock lined routes with colorful moss.

Moss stands out prominently in my love of nature. Very close to my house, above the Pine Valley Swim Club, was a path into the woods where I made a secret hiding spot in a moss-covered embankment. I kept a metal box that held—I don’t know what—tucked under rocks and moss. I loved to go there and sit and think and smell the earth around me. I’ve apparently known forever that flora sights and scents are essential to my livelihood. Not that I didn’t like bugs. I really liked bugs a lot! Whether playing with lighting bugs by putting them into jars as lanterns, or pulling off the lighting part just when they flashed on and squishing them on my finger to imitate a diamond (gross), or collecting bugs as specimens for a science classification project, I definitely was one with bugs.

Hanni mama in her gardenSo now when I think of Coco’s and my great grandmother Hani mama’s vegetable garden and the sweetest peas imaginable from the brightest green pods possible or I remember the wonderful feeling of my hands pulling carrots from the earth or I envision dancing around Ellie’s cherry trees and gooseberry bushes and the baked goodies that we created with them, I recognize how much my childhood was chock ‘o block with good times in nature. And I recognize that those good times in nature have influenced what I consider good times now. I’ve been a flower gardener from the time we bought our home 20 years ago to today. Now that Andy built us a vegetable garden, we are also vegetable gardeners. I often dream of that wild asparagus in Roosevelt, so much so that I am considering planting some in our garden even though it needs lots of space and years to establish. And not surprising, one of the first things I did when bought our property was create paths (and a labyrinth—see Revealing the labyrinth on our land). I need only step outside to be surrounded by our 3 acres of woods to regain the calm and quiet joy that I have known since childhood.

Several years ago I rambled on about how nature soothes my soul to my life coach. From the clouds above (see Cloud Hopping) to the earth below and all the flora and fauna in between, I spoke of my sense of awe and love for nature. He paused and thought about what I said and then characterized me as deeply spiritual. I had a momentary confusion having been raised non-religious. Me spiritual? I never learned anything about religion so what does spiritual mean? I was unable to fully reconcile my feelings of transcendence when I commune with nature with what I think of as religion. But now I recognize that through nature I was first exposed to the sense that there is something more than me as an individual. In nature, as a child and now as an adult, I feel connected to all forms of life and I have a need to use my hands to connect with my evolution on earth. This isn’t a theological perspective but rather a personal spirituality perspective. Now I understand that to me nature is a perfect place to get replenished because it embodies love, beauty and peace. I will always be a nature child of the 60s.

XOXO Rachel

The Magic of Mom and Dad Celebrating 60 Years Together!

Diana & BobThis year is already turning out to be a positive and joyful year. Last week my parents celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. It is hard to imagine that so many years have passed, but not hard to imagine that my parents are together and in love after all these years. Here is their story. At least here is their story as they told it to me many, many years ago. I could ask them now to repeat it to me, but what’s the fun of that? I prefer the version that I have cultivated over the years in my head. I am sure that I have at least some of it right.

My dad went to MIT as part of the GI bill, having served as a naval communication officer in WWII. His amateur ham operating experience in his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri came in handy in the Navy. After getting his electrical engineering degree at MIT, he went to New York City and worked on any number of interesting projects like cathode tubes and other technical stuff.  My dad had been painting (and writing?—I don’t really know when he started writing) since the war and he decided to pursue his art by getting an esthetics degree at NYU. One of his roommates in the city went home on weekends to visit his family in Roosevelt, New Jersey. My dad, then 24 years old, joined his roommate to get out of the city every now and again. And that is where my dad first saw my mom. She was a 13-year-old dark haired petite beauty playing table tennis (ping pong just doesn’t sound right for the 50s) when my dad couldn’t take his eyes off of her. Fortunately not much more happened at that point because she was so young.

My mom finished high school very young (those days skipping grades was not uncommon) and she went to Bard College at age 16. She got her bachelors degree in dance and then went to New York City to dance professionally. She joined the Henry Street Playhouse and studied and performed modern dance under Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis.

Mom and DadMy parents continued to see each other and actually lived together for a short time before they were married—if I remember correctly. Then on January 13, 1955, just a month before my mom was of legal age to marry (that would be 21 in those days), they were wedded. With the approval of her legal guardian—her mom—my mom and dad got married at the courthouse in New York City. My parents lived in a couple of places including Greenwich Village and the infamous “cold water flat” in the Lower East Side—way before it was so fashionable to live there. Then they moved to Roosevelt, New Jersey, were it all began, to start our family.

Community of family circa 1960sRoosevelt was a wonderful place to grow up in the 60s and 70s. Because it was my mom’s hometown, I had the luxury of having my grandmother and great grandmother living just a street away. And I also had a kind of second grandmother, my great aunt Ellie, who lived just around the corner. I loved to drop by their houses and get fed yummy food. Roosevelt became the spot for all of our extended family to visit for holidays and other events. I have fond memories of my many cousins and aunts and uncles and great aunts and uncles and more partying in Aunt Ellie and Uncle Jack’s back yard under the cherry trees. That is the definition of community to me. I really haven’t had anything close to that since I was a kid.

Mueller Family Late 1970sMy mom and dad raised us in such a wonderful way and our house was filled with love, books, art, music and the political activism of the 60s. We even went on peace marches in DC. And together, my mom and dad were also puppeteers.  My mom became interested in women’s rights and decided to go back to school to get a bachelors degree in history before she went on to get her law degree, both at Rutgers. She was one of the only woman law students there and she got to study with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, also probably the only female professor.

My dad worked at RCA for a number of years as an engineer and inventor (he holds several patents) and then at Bell Labs as a technical writer. Once my mom began practicing as an attorney, my dad became a househusband—again they were trendy before their time. Although these days we would have said he was a stay-at-home-dad. Throughout, he was always working as an artist and writer and always considered the intersection between science and art.  I loved woodworking with him in his basement workshop (see The Wonder Of Woodworking).

Mom & Dad's 60th Wedding Anniversary!My mom worked at The Legal Aid Society and then went out with a partner before she left and worked on her own legal practice. She was an early female entrepreneur, a feminist and worked on the counsel for the Black Panthers. Her work and perspective had a huge impact on me. I read Ms. Magazine from its inception and I have never wavered in calling myself a feminist and seeking equality in the workplace. Looking back I can see that that both my mom and my dad have had a tremendous influence on my whole life journey from education and political views to need for right-brain and left-brain work. I love structure and spontaneity, I am equally comfortable with business and science and arts and writing. I thank them both for that. And I thank them both for showing how to love and stay married for 60 years.

XOXO Rachel