Category Archives: Motivation

The Zen of Chance

 

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Spring is arriving on Windy Bay and not without drama. The water is high, and docks are floating every which way, untethered and adrift. I have been thinking about the role of chance in our lives and our stories. When do we feel the gentle hand of fate touching our shoulder? What do we do when that happens? Run and hide, or take a few gingerly steps into the unknown?

This train of thought began on St. Patrick’s Day when I glanced at an Instagram post from my nephew, Tommy Smythe. He captured the title page of a Bible belonging to his great-great-grandfather who braved the seas and sailed for the new world. His first attempt was foiled. In his own hand, Albert Ernest Stafford Smythe, my great-grandfather wrote these words:

“This Bible is the only possession saved from the shipwreck of E.J.Harland on the 19th of November 1861.”

Hit by a two-ton steamer named Lake Champlain, Captain Smylie went down with his ship; the rest were transferred to the offending vessel and ended up back in Liverpool. This voyage took place when my great-grandfather was a young man of eighteen years of age. He lost his cherished mother the year before. In spite of ending up with nothing to his name, save a Bible, he was not deterred.

william q. judgeWilliam Q. Judge

 

On his second voyage, he met a man who was to change his life. On his way back to America from India, William Q. Judge, co-founder of the early Theosophist movement along with H.P. Blavatsky and Henry S. Olcott, had plenty of words of wisdom for his fellow ship-mates. Born in Ireland, April 13, 1851, Judge was now in full understanding of humanity’s great need for a new perspective on both itself and the universe.

Here is Albert E.S. Smythe’s shipboard assessment of the man:

“Judge was the master of ordinary conditions and could get honey out of the merest weed. He walked the decks with those in need of a companion, he played cards, except on Sunday when he drew the line, he played quoits, and he chatted.” The Canadian Theosophist, April 1939.

In our modern viewpoint, the word karma is part of our lives. We often joke about it, misuse the term, or think of it either lightly, or having to do with a sense of just desserts. In the later part of the 1800’s, when the concept was still in need of illuminating, Judge told the story of an Eastern King who had spawned but one son.

“And this son committed a deed, the penalty of which was that he should be killed by a great stone thrown upon him. But it was seen that this would not repair the wrong, nor give the offender the chance to become a better man. The counselors of the king advised that the stone should be broken into smaller pieces and thrown at the son and at his children and grandchildren as they were able to bear it. It was so done, and all were in some sense sufferers, yet none were destroyed.”
The Path 1892. From Sunrise Magazine, December 1996/ January 1997, copyright Theosophical University Press.

Chance. A chance encounter aboard a ship carrying my great grandfather to the new world changed the trajectory of our lives. What if the first ship, the fully rigged E.J. Harland, had not foundered? What if Albert E.S. Smythe had landed in New York, with his Bible and other possessions intact. While I do not recall hearing the tale of the Eastern King, I do know that it was made very clear to all of us that we were to understand one simple teaching: “Yea as you sew, surely do you reap.”

Albert E.S. Smythe

My fate changed for good when I chanced to find a ski lodge in Aspen where I met my future husband. Had I not stopped in to see if there was a vacancy, I certainly would not be where I am today, here on Windy Bay, with docks knocking on the edge of the shore. I’ll always be glad that when chance came knocking, I knew what to do.

Diets Don’t Work: Part Two

 

snowy Idaho

Last year at this time, I shared my goals for the new year. Proclaiming that for the first time losing weight did not top my resolutions, I am happy to report that dieting, once again, has no place in my intentions. So how much weight did I pack on in 2016? None. Not dieting resulted in a loss that has me hovering around the ideal. What are the lessons to be learned? As always, I can only speak for myself. I am a rewards based creature, an epicurean who loves delicious food, great music and literature, and I am a happy soul who believes in letting the good times roll. Blake said, “ The road to excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” Deprivation never did anyone any good. That is my sage advice for dieters.

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When weight loss becomes noticeable comments will fly. They are often hilarious, combined with a one-two punch, a compliment wrapped in a teensy bit of hostility. Mostly, people want to know about the method. How easy is it to say, “Atkins, or South Beach, or Weight Watchers.” Those are all noble programs which many have tried and are armed against. The comment I heard most is that “you did this slowly.”

I do everything slowly. My family of origin, endowed with a large dollop of ingrained impatience, pointed this out to me constantly. My “creeping like snail” drove everyone around me nuts. I stubbornly refused to change and to this day, hate being pushed. At the same time, I can be impatient too. So the slow technique will probably not be a winner, nor will it sell the latest diet book. We gain weight gradually, so would it not stand to reason that it may take an equal measure of time to burn it off? After all, if you are going to go down a pant size or two, wouldn’t you want to get some wear out of the smaller sizes before they hit the Goodwill bag?

With weight loss not being on the list of resolutions, I have spent a few days thinking long and hard about 2017. Last year I wrote that I wanted to focus on more bliss. It worked. What do I want to gain this year? Largess. I will seek a greater beneficence of spirit. How will this play out? I don’t know yet. Stay tuned…

 

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Christmas is my Culture

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After spending a few cozy days snowed in here on Windy Bay, I had time to enjoy this winter wonderland. With many hours in which to contemplate the joys of Christmas, I indulged in all the nostalgia and emotion of the season. As is true with just about everyone, my mind returned to childhood memories. I credit my parents and grandparents, and all of their many efforts to make Christmas magical and wonderful. We sat at long tables wearing paper crowns from Christmas crackers in the English tradition and reveled in feasts ending in plum pudding and butter sauce we thought might kill one of us someday, but that did not stop us from consuming it until we groaned for mercy.

Don’t look back, some say. It is not the way you are going. Yes, there is wisdom to this line of thinking, but Christmas is a time of permission. I, for one, eat it up. We seek a deeper connection at this time of year, a strengthening of bonds of love. When I take out my maternal grandmother’s Christmas village and unpack this little hand- made world, I feel as if I am seven and wishing I lived in a pretty village where the houses and churches sit atop a blanket of snow. In all my years in Coeur d’ Alene, I often think of how funny it is that I practically re-created that charming village in choosing such a charming town in which to live. Shopping in the local shops on Sherman Avenue is a tradition I cherish. Our tree now comes from our own woods; the ornaments are old and worn but carry happy memories for us. We have always tried to keep things somewhat simple, but by Christmas Eve, we often shake our heads. It is a time for celebration after all, and yes, we always give books.

In the years I worked at Coldwater Creek, Christmas was a blitz from start to finish. We employees shored each other up, shared goodies, hot tea, and boiler- plate coffee in order to keep going. We tracked packages and agonized over mix-ups. We wrote apology letters and often received replies. I signed company letters with Merry Christmas and thought I would keep doing so until someone asked me not to. They never did. I sent cards with the same message, and yes, to friends of different faiths and traditions. I knew from growing up in a multi-cultural city, chock full of new immigrants from around the globe, that culture is passed from mother to daughter, from father to son, and from grandparents to grandchildren. There is plenty of room at the table. I witnessed so many hold fast to their traditions while embracing a new land.

Christmas is my culture. It is a part of who I am. It is a time of wonder. That is how I aim to keep it.

Devoid of any anger, lacking in perceived threat or guile, I say, Merry Christmas to readers around the world.

“God bless us, everyone.” Charles Dickens.

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American Dreamer

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Decline. Is there anyone alive who does not fear it? Is there a way to ascertain the beginning, the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end? How is to be avoided? More importantly, what is it?
J.D. Vance tackles the topic in a moving and personal memoir entitled,  Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. In the introduction, Vance describes himself as a Scots-Irish hillbilly at heart. He lets us know that his tribe is a pessimistic bunch.
Caught up in the belief that to look through a glass darkly is to be avoided at all costs, I was drawn into the story right away. We know from the beginning that J.D. Vance climbed from his uncertain origins to graduating from Yale law school. The story outlines the journey. It is uplifting because there is not a person alive who does not wonder if they had been born in unfortunate circumstances, or were challenged by terrible poverty, would they be one of the few to make it out? Readers are placed squarely into the houses and schools and yards of Vance’s life with an almost breathless desire to see him succeed. While he does not pretend to have the answers, he neither blames nor preaches; the book reads as a statement of fact. Look about.
Going back to the Scots-Irish, or the Ulster Scots, and the roots of their beginning, I knew from learning about the English Civil War, that the term goes back to the plantations of Northern Ireland. Cromwell gave vast tracts of conquered land in Ireland for the Scots to settle. Many had been soldiers in his army and this new land represented the spoils of war. It was hoped that they would take root and serve to be a permanent anchor in Ireland. That set the stage for centuries of conflict and strife. They had to fight to maintain their foothold, and fight they did. The second migration to America yielded a group who settled in the hills of Appalachia to eke out a living. We know that George Washington used them handily, as did Stonewall Jackson. Wanting nothing more than a fair shot at the American dream, and never asking for help or handouts, became a hallmark of their values. As the jobs became scarce and the resources few and far between, what we learn from Vance’s experience is that we need to understand this despair.
To say this book struck a cord with readers is an understatement. Currently, it is topping the charts of the New York Times Bestseller list. A memoir, written with such clarity and ease, will always do well, but the success of this book speaks to something larger. We are in a time when everyone seems to be scratching their heads. Hope is infectious, and there is much in this book that provides it. We learn that when Vance applied to Law School he automatically eliminated the big Ivy League choices thinking that he would neither qualify nor be able to pay the tuition.
On Page 199 he writes:
“The New York Times recently reported that the most expensive schools are paradoxically cheaper for low-income students. At Harvard, the student would pay only about thirteen hundred while the tuition is forty thousand. Of course, kids like me don’t know this.”
When I became an American Citizen, in my welcome packet was a letter from the President encouraging me to take advantage of the many opportunities before me. I could not think of a nicer welcome. Not knowing what else to do with that information, I kept my eyes and ears open. What Vance is writing about is all too familiar. I know what it is like to grow up in a family whose ethic is based on hard work and never taking handouts of any kind. It is the most uncomfortable feeling in the world to choose to succeed knowing that you may not have the support of those closest to you. Do it anyway. That is the great message of this book.
“Hope is the thing with feathers,” wrote Emily Dickinson. What were her chances of achieving any success as a poet, let alone immortality? The crisis of any culture is solved when the challenge is met, and necessary changes are made. That is what enabled J. D. Vance to travel from the “holler,” to Ohio, to the Marines, to College, to law school and then to where he is today sitting at the top of the charts.

“Float Like a Butterfly”

Ali

Today we look back on the life of a man who came into this world as Cassius Clay. He captured the attention of America, not only by his prowess in the ring but by the stand he took against the Vietnam War. While he is eulogized across all media outlets, I wish to share a personal story about the day Ali came to our town. We were all in an uproar.

MLG 1935

To set the stage, I must part the mists of time and go back to the month of March 1966, when a fight, booked at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, tore our family asunder. The stadium built on a wing and a prayer housed many boxing matches, but this was a fight like no other. My grandfather, Conn Smythe, still at the helm as Chairman of Board, hit the roof over the prospect of a known draft dodger darkening the door of his temple. A veteran and hero of two world wars, he was a consummate military man who felt that that duty to one’s country was sacrosanct. The only reason the fight was booked north of the border is that no American stadium would allow the match between Ali and Ernie Terrell to take place. Small town radio disc jockeys were having a field day saying that in no way shape or form would their town allow the Ali/Terrell fight. My grandfather agreed. The Forum in Montreal declined, and he believed we should do the same. My father, Stafford Smythe, President of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and a war veteran himself chose not to slam the door in Ali’s face and refused to knuckle under. We in the Smythe family had two fights on our hands.

four generations

As the youngest daughter and a preteen at the time, we were all involved in the donnybrook. My mother thought my grandfather would cool off in time. My brother, the go-between, told us otherwise. It was less than a year since we lost our grandmother, the peacemaker, and we were scared. A way out presented itself when Terrell, unable to meet the financial obligation, backed out. My father’s partner, Harold Ballard, in charge of all non-hockey related attractions and the man who had set the whole show on the road, refused to budge. He found a Canadian boxer by the name of George Chuvalo to accept the challenge. With a scant twenty-three days in which to train, we had a new fear that raced around the school yard, was discussed by Moms over coffee, had people calling our house incessantly, and seemed like a real possibility. Ali would kill Chuvalo. Everyone said if he didn’t kill him he would knock him out in the first round. It would be a joke, a waste of time for anyone who bought a ticket, and a disgrace to Toronto and our beloved Maple Leaf Gardens. My father would have blood on his hands.

As the day approached, my grandfather had neither softened nor cooled. He increased his efforts, calling boxing officials and trying to get the match stopped. Ali crossed the border and arrived in Toronto. He later said that he had never been treated as nicely anywhere.

head to head

The fight was one of the greatest of Ali’s life. It went fifteen rounds. George Chuvalo came out from his corner with fierce determination. He remained standing to the bitter end. He was incredible, and so was Ali. It was the greatest fight to ever take place at Maple Leaf Gardens. It changed our lives. It was a turning point.

One day over lunch when describing this incident to a friend she said, “Isn’t that the Rocky story?” George Chuvalo is still with us. He is as strong as ever, and he is still one of my heroes.

Chuvalo

At this point in time, as we say farewell to Ali, may he be remembered as the champion he became. There is more to his story than meets the eye. He was supposed to do what he was told; I heard this just about everywhere I went. He wasn’t obedient. He was uppity. He didn’t know his place. Perhaps this is true. He was a man who decided that his place was within the realm of his own choosing. One could not help but admire the courage with which he lived his life. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” The stinging is over now. Float in peace, Ali. We will always be glad you came to town.