A few words this July about Freedom, our theme for Word/Smith this month.
Eugene and Marie Weschenfelder, their dog, Fritzi, and their homesteaded land, Spuhn Island
This one’s a shout-out, a lovenote, to my immigrant grandfather, long gone. He left Hamburg, Germany on March 17, 1907, with a small trunk of clothes, probably lying about how much money he had in his pocket and most assuredly knowing no English.
I like to believe he carried the idea of freedom in his heart, and that it fueled his bravery in leaving behind his known world and traveling by steerage, packed into the bottom of the ship the SS Graf Waldersee.
He arrived at Ellis Island in early April, 1907, 27 years old and completely alone.
It’s easy to make up stories when I know so little about his early life in Coburg. He was a Lutheran. Which makes sense as Martin Luther hung out there translating the Bible into German in one of Germany’s grandest castles, Veste Coburg, 350 years before Grandpa was born. He came from a line of sausage makers, and put on his Ellis Island form that he intended to practice his trade in his new land.
My father, Ernst
He lived a daring and magnificent life, marrying, having a son, becoming a naturalized citizen, homesteading an island in Alaska, living long enough to see his son marry and have children of his own.
He was proud to be an Alaskan, and almost inarticulately proud of being an American. The first 4th of July in his new country, he purchased an American flag with 46 stars.
When he and my grandmother, Marie, and my dad, hacked out of the howling wilderness a log home in Southeast Alaska, Grandpa kept the flag folded in a small tin box. The winds and rain and snow were so ferocious and the flag so precious that he only took it out and flew it over the cabin twice a year: on the 4th of July, and on the anniversary of the day he became an American, the day he first belonged.
I know this because my father inherited the box and the flag, and told me the story, and every so often, reverently and with great care, unfolded the flag from the box and showed it to an awestruck little girl.
The flag is mine, now. It hangs framed on a wall in our home.
The flag, and our dreams of this land, are all of us, and in us all. We each, as Americans, have the right and gift to reimagine our own ‘best America’. And then do the hard work of creating it.
In this time of explosive transition, let us know forget to remember where we came from, and at what cost, and that we are all—however we got here—part of a grand and beautiful experiment called America.
The Big Take-Away
First, I need to say, I send compassion to those out of work, in pain or hungry, the ones afraid they could lose their homes, or even worse, a loved one, to this terrible and awful thing. Or already have.
Those critical mass emergencies require swift action and total focus, and I understand if you need to stop reading right now and get back to work.
But even without critical loss, there have been critical changes for us all.
So how are you doing? How are you holding up? If your family and life are anything like mine, there have been…gaps. Days where I simply slowed down the pace, took a breath.
And in those long, restorative silences, a funny thing happened. I began to ask myself what I was willing to give up.
It’s interesting, in a pandemic there’s a lot we feel forced to give up.
I marvel at how huge and important the sense of touch is, now that I can’t.
And I feel grateful and blessed that I don’t live alone, that I have a tender-hearted life partner to share this with. A lot of people don’t, and I honestly can’t imagine how hard it is, surviving a time when we’re told that we’re not allowed the simple comfort of another human’s touch.
That’s a big one.
But here’s another, and this one’s in the opportunity department. This terrible time—away—gives us all a chance to rethink how we want things to go when we finally are back.
Is there something deeper our soul is calling us to do? Have we crammed our day so utterly, there’s no time left to dream? What would happen if we just did?
My adult kiddos—(and I include my son-in-law here), gave me perfect complimentary gifts independent of each other. My son gave me a five-year diary. I love that it’s got only five lines. It comforted me in the beginning that it wasn’t so big I couldn’t do it. Now I find that I cram the lines and sometimes steal from other years—my days are so rich. My daughter and son-in-law gave me a planner, extravagant in its encouragement to explore passion and dreams. I color-coded it and casually one day opened a random page, showing off to a friend who is also a life coach. “Wow,” Suzanne said, as I snapped it closed, “there’s not one space that’s not colored in.”
It gave me pause. I, who come from a genetically long line of Type A doers.
She was right.
So I added a color solely for vegging out, appropriately green.
Except it wasn’t.
During this experiment, this ‘life-away’ piece, I’ve played with switching things up.
Some calendar days have no colors in them. At all. And when I think back to what I did that day, it’s hard to reconstruct.
But maybe that’s the point. Maybe this deep Time Out nature has sent our way, is giving us all the chance—if not a gap year like kids delaying college—at least a gap season.
So that’s what this one’s about. May’s Word/Smith is the Big Takeaway.
How we’re navigating these changes. And how we’re changing our navigation…and by doing so, in curious and dazzling ways, changing our world.
Once upon a time, in a place far away when the words ‘social distancing’ had never come into play, my husband and I attended a gathering. The place and time isn’t important, nor is the nature of the group. I can tell you it was small, and most of the people I didn’t know well. I found myself at the snack table next to a woman. I’ll call her Sylvia. Silver-haired, beautifully put together.
I reintroduced myself, (we’d met once before briefly), and I said, “I don ‘t know your story. And I love stories.” I motioned to an unoccupied set of ornate chairs. “Why don’t you tell me yours?”
She arranged her food and drink with the precision of someone laying out surgical instruments, leaned in. Her eyes were glowing. And she began.
It was a long tale.
It always feels that way when someone doesn’t take a breath.
It occurred to me about mile twenty-four of this marathon that she was reciting a set piece, a bit of oral history indelibly stamped in her heart and mind. From across the room, my husband caught my eye.
We’ve been married a long time. He read the distress signal and rescued me.
As we walked across the darkened parking lot he asked me what I thought of her. Apparently, he’d been trapped by her before.
I waited until we were safely inside our aging van, the windows up. “She needs to write herself a new story.”
He nodded and drove us out of there. Back to the warmth and laughter and joy of our lives. Back to the living.
Occasionally, I’m still haunted by her. The choices. Sylvia played for me a favorite reel of her life’s greatest hits and hurts. Not hits as in ‘Yay! Rah! I win!’ But hits to the heart.
She’d carefully excised out the wins.
The reel was at least thirty years old.
There was no postscript of lessons learned, triumphs won from the hard work of rewiring the neural pathways to accommodate the lifting wings of joy. No happiness here.
So, in this month of “Dropping In…Out…and By”, I’d like to suggest this: With all this extra time you have at home, curate your life story. Shape it. Make it glow. And tell us all about the wins. Drop into the tale the ‘up’s’. The moments you survived and thrived. The moments that brought you understanding, compassion, and yes, joy.
I’m not suggesting you drop the lessons learned the hard way. Only that after you detail the pain, share the glory. Sharing that story is one we all need to hear.
And once we can do ‘social undistancing’ again, I’d sit in the chair next to you all day long and listen to that one.
HOW TO LIVE THROUGH SCARY TIMES
Our avowed aim every month is to fling some Light. Just that. A small piece, yes, but in a world with so many anxious, worried hearts, a worthy one.
We were almost ready to ‘go to post’ with March’s newsletter, when we shifted into a new theme. This is issue is all about the Coronavirus.
We bring, as always, a mix of different voices weighing in.
And here’s the thing: we live in a fascinating world. Social media was constructed in part as a means of bringing us closer. I’m thinking of Facebook’s beginnings here, along with other platforms—not the DARPA piece that devised the idea of the Net in the first place.
Closer together. But has it?
In a time where we worry about literally touching other people, it’s good to find ways to know and feel we are still a community.
So this issue is about that: Settling In and Settling Down.
How do we build community when all around us we’re given the very clear and real message that in order to live safely and well, we must isolate ourselves from others?
My hope is that at least one of these voices this month gives you a piece that helps remind you of who you are: A person who has lived through many scares. A survivor. A ‘thriver’. A person with skills. With heart. And with the brains and courage to use them both. In. For. And with. Community.
A month…? Really?
A twelfth of this year has already wheeled past and vanished into snips—the tiniest of memories and moments.
Our lives are small in this immense, mysterious galaxy, and yet infinitely powerful. And big. The bigness comes every time we send love into this hurting world.
Of course it would be about love, right? It’s February. And this month’s newsletter covers that…with a twist:
The February 2020 theme for the newsletter is How Do We Love The People We Hate?
Provocative and yes, a little over the top, yet I’m deadly serious. How do we heal what’s broken? How do we stop this yelling? This noise? This lashing out? How do we dial down the needle and start to listen? How do we reach out to a stranger, or almost harder, to someone we know and with whom we’re estranged?
I believe one of the first steps is simple kindness. But how do we muster what it takes to do even small acts?
I can tell you what the Dalai Lama says: “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”
So here’s to a month of possibles. May the light you throw into the world come back and bless you a thousand times over.
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January 2020 blog
As this year ends and a new decade begins, I want to thank those of you I know personally, and those known by me only online.
Your encouragement, ideas and positive light in this world help inspire people you don’t even know.
Our journey as humans is flecked with joy, doubt, heartbreak, laughter, betrayal, mistakes, redemption and love. I wish for you all—in this quiet, dark-sky time of year (here in the US)—that the light living in you—however you define it—shines bright. So bright that your good intentions, your miraculous deeds, and your pure kindness spangles the dark and transforms it.
We are each of us, right now, creating a world that has never been.
How cool is that?
Let’s give it every good thing we have, all the stuff we’ve been saving in our toolbox of The Extraordinary.
Let’s crack open that tin box of trinkets, glittery junk and miracles that we’ve been hoarding and fling it out into the world. Every last bit of it.
Let’s surprise ourselves with our generosity, our joy, our ability to see farther, try harder, love more. Why not just for today trust that the Universe actually has our backs. That maybe, despite everything that’s wrong here, Things Will Be Okay. That maybe… in quiet ways only seen by Spirit, Things Already Are. We Are. Fundamentally. Beautifully. Okay.
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James Hubbell: Between Heaven and Earth
I’m happy to report that I was able to play a small part as an executive producer in the production of a new documentary: James Hubbell: Between Heaven and Earth.
First, a note about James. No, he’s not connected to the telescope!
He is an internationally acclaimed southern California artist known for producing spectacularly original art in many mediums.
Director Marianne Gerdes writes about him this way: Inspired by nature and filled with humanity, at age 87, his is a quiet, yet compelling voice of an artist who shows us that power has nothing to do with how old you are, or how big you are, or how strong you are, that creativity transcends everything.
The film has been shown so far in two festivals (including New York Architectural and Design Film Festival) and won for Director Marianne Gerdes the Mary Pickford Award at the Coronado Island Film Festival. It has also aired on San Diego’s KPBS, and there is talk of plans to air it across the PBS network. I’ll keep you updated!
Their mountain art/workshop/home compound is now a non-profit and is open to the public every Father’s Day. It’s called Ilan-Lael, which is Hebrew for “A Tree from God”. To find out more about his art, their home and the foundation, here is the link: ilanlaelfoundation.org
On a side note: Fred and I are blessed to know James and his wife, Anne, personally. In some ways, James is the unstoppable Zen master of how to do art at any age, no matter what intervenes. Some of the footage in the film (shot by Michael Gerdes, the film’s cinemaphotographer), is heart-stopping footage taken after the Cedar Fire ripped through the Hubbell’s compound in 2003, destroying many of his hand-crafted buildings and almost half of his produced art. Anne and James on-the-spot reframing the experience into one of gratitude is one of those transcendent moments everyone needs to see.
I’m so happy I have, and I hope you get to, as well.
Learn more about James Hubbell in this wonderful piece:
An Open Letter about God’s Photo Album
An Open Letter about God’s Photo Album and winning the Grand Prize for The Faith in Film International Screenwriting Competition.
I’ve been working on the screenplay for GOD’S PHOTO ALBUM since the year 2000. That’s when I acquired the rights to make Shelly Mecum’s luminous book, God’s Photo Album, into a screenplay.
I’ve written that screenplay from every possible angle. Over and over again. When you work with a real person and her experience, it’s a holy act of getting right the’ truth under the truth’, even if incidents are compressed, changed, or invented.
Shelly has steadfastly believed that God has had this, the entire way. The timing has never concerned her. Her serene ‘knowing’ has helped sustain me through times when I felt the enormous weight of this responsibility.
I’ve been lucky enough for the past four years to be part of an actual “miracles” community, (Your Year Of Miracles), headed by Debra Poneman and Marci Shimoff. Everyone in the group each writes out three ‘Miracle Intentions’ a year…and for all four years, one of my intentions has had to do with God’s Photo Album, that I create what God sees and wants His screenplay to be, and then, that He tenderly guides it into the right hands, hands of people, like me, (when it came to writing it, and Shelly, when it came to writing the original book), who were invited by God and simply HAD to say yes.
So…for all these years…I’ve been working.
My hope is that my telling you this will help you in some way on your own journey. I do know we’re each called to do a piece of–for lack of a better term–I’ll call ‘Light Worker’ work. And then…?
It’s what Debra and Marci address so eloquently: the ‘not knowing’ piece…and showing up…anyway. Not having all the steps lined out…but taking that one small step…anyway. The fierce pain lodged in our hearts when we know, KNOW, we’re meant to do something specific…have NO idea how it’s going to unfold…and choose to begin, believe, do the work…anyway. Do it awkwardly. Do it in silence. Do it in tears. In noisy rooms with sticky counters. On trains. On steps. And IN steps. Do it.
And in time, sometimes…(as in the case of God’s Photo Album, after what seems like a time period that’s long enough to earn it’s own historical era designation), something begins to shift. And then there’s a glimpse of light. A flicker of warmth. A voice.
Hold on, Dear Ones. Those of you I know in person, and those of you’ve I’ve only met here. Hold on. Do the work that you have been called to do.
Do it, as the iconic songwriter Damian Rice writes, “in sorrow and song…come wherever you are. Just come. Come. Come along…come let your self be wrong. Come wherever you are. Just come.” Wow. What a powerful message. Allow yourself to be wrong. To try and fail. Show up for yourself, Dear Ones. Show up not knowing. Show up afraid, bewildered, tired out.
We’re here. We love you. And the world very much needs the gifts you are here on this planet to bring.
Susan Arnout Smith
GOD’S PHOTO ALBUM
Wow. Just received the official word my screenplay, GOD’S PHOTO ALBUM, (based on the book, God’s Photo Album, by Shelly Mecum), has just won the Grand Prize in the Faith in Films International Screenwriting competition. As the winner, my script will be distributed to production companies and other industry professionals, opening the door for potential future production.