thoughts on re-entry

Sunset from backyard

Well, metaphorically speaking, the sun is setting on our month-long Flagstaff retreat. Six days from now, we’ll be heading back down to the low country, where we are told the temperatures have finally dropped into numbers low enough that a human being could survive outdoors if need be. Every year, I know better than to expect that the fall equinox will trigger the change. It’s much more reasonable to expect that on Halloween night, trick-or-treaters may actually have to wear a sweater.

As I prepare to re-enter my “normal life,” I am considering: What I have done and felt this month; what have I learned?

But wait. Why do I think that every event is an opportunity to learn, to become a more self-actualized human being? I am a teacher and a learner, but do I always need to be learning lessons? In doing so, I miss out on the enjoyment of simple experiences. I must still lack a sense that, though imperfect, I am perfectly acceptable in my current state. I have to stop this.

I don’t remember not being self-critical, even as a young child. I tried so earnestly to observe how the world worked and to follow the rules, but seemed to constantly embarrass myself by overstepping — correcting teachers (not uniformly appreciated), attempting to fit in with popular kids (unsuccessfully), planning what to wear, convinced that I would be gorgeous (and, of course, failing miserably). I could go on, but won’t.

Enough. This is not a sane way to live, in retreat or at any other time. For the rest of our stay here, all goals are off the table.

Our daughter Katie joined us here on Sunday from LA, and will leave tomorrow to spend the last few days of her week off in our Phoenix house with Thisbe, our 15-year-old cat (formerly mischievous, now mellow). Thiz is just one of Katie’s many chosen pets that we ended up with. Having grown up being taught that cats are at best sneaky and at worst vermin, it’s surprising how fond I have grown of this petite creature.

Sam is supposed to arrive late tonight and stay until Saturday. It’s a treat to spend time with both of them, of course, and they are enormously helpful in teaching me to live in the now. Obviously, our relationships with them have changed over time. As they were growing up, I know I engaged in some self-critical thinking, but the love and joy I felt in their presence was also a constant.

As I think and write about this nagging voice in my head that endlessly repeats, “you must accomplish goals and learn lessons,” I’m wondering to what degree Katie and/or Sam “inherited” that from me, genetically or by following my example. Sam in particular has always appeared to live almost entirely in the now, but I wonder if he is sometimes haunted by dissatisfaction with himself. I guess living well requires a modicum of structure and discipline, and it’s clear that he has learned some of that, but I hope that neither he nor Katie takes it as far as I do. I want to ask each of them about this. In fact, I’d like to talk to lots of people about this, so I can continue to catch myself getting on my own case for being human. So friends, beware: If you’re going to talk to me in the next few weeks, expect to hear about how I’m doing in resisting this lifetime habit, and prepare to be very wise and understanding. 🙂

I talked about my goals for our stay here in my last post:

  1. practice piano
  2. practice viola
  3. do some reading in Spanish
  4. learn a little Portuguese on Duolingo
  5. reorganize my computer files in Dropbox
  6. lose weight
  7. at long last, write a blog post

Even though I’m letting go of goals for the next few days, here’s a progress report:

  1. YES, with both discipline and joy. I have two challenging pieces “under my fingers” and my hands know better where notes are without my eyes having to look at the keyboard.
  2. NO. Once I figured out that my viola needs work and my bow needs to be rehaired [a word that, BTW, is not recognized by any spell-check in any program — no, I don’t mean redhaired, rehired or repaired], I rationalized, telling myself it will be much more pleasant to practice after that work is done.
  3. Yes, a little bit. I made it through another section of Brené Brown’s Los dones de la imperfección, then, realizing how crucial it is that I absorb the lessons (there’s that word again!) in the book, I bought the 10th anniversary edition in English.
  4. No.
  5. No.
  6. NO.
  7. YES — two!

So, if these goals were a syllabus for a class, I would not have passed. But, guess what? [I’m talking to myself now.] This was NOT a class, it was (and is) an experience, and, I believe, a successful one. Let go of goals and lessons for a minute and talk about experiences instead.

Ahem… This October in Flagstaff, I

  1. saw brilliantly colored fall leaves, many of which are still clinging to the trees.
  2. heard the wind in the aspen trees, a sound I’ve known since birth.
  3. breathed cool, clear mountain air.
  4. walked and drove in a city that allows nature to co-exist with civilization (if the overly commercial and crowded Milton Road is avoided).
  5. learned to orient myself in this previously unfamiliar city.
  6. toured the Riordan Mansion, built by a wealthy family in 1904. It’s beautiful, and proves that rich people don’t have to live decadently. They can build homes that are homey, that incorporate nature, that are welcoming to all (see below).*
  7. accepted the fact that, for this time span, gaining a few pounds is preferable to depriving myself of the fun of eating.
  8. spent time with others, talking seriously, laughing, playing games, and, of course, eating.
  9. spent lots of time alone, occasionally feeling great peace of mind.

Here’s hoping that peace of mind becomes an unremarkable state of being for me.

*My snarky comment about rich people living decadently is based on my experience touring the Vanderbilt family’s Biltmore Estate outside Asheville, NC, and Katie’s relating details of her tour of the Hearst Castle in CA. In both, grandiosity was the goal: enormously high ceilings, art treasures stolen (well, maybe bought — but still!) from Europe, lavish draperies and marble everything… and no sign of children, who were probably brought up by poorly-paid staff in an upstairs nursery.

In contrast, the Riordan brothers founded the Arizona Lumber and Timber Company in Flagstaff in the 1890’s. They built the “mansion” in 1904. One brother lived in each end with a passageway between. Flagstaff is in the largest Ponderosa Pine forest in the world, and the homes and everything in them were built of that wood. These were clearly family homes. The leaf-shaped table on the right just below the top photo was shaped that way so that everyone could see everyone else. The beautiful custom-made chairs included one with a built-in booster seat. Note the rattan swing-couch hanging from the ceiling on the bottom right. It could be turned towards the fireplace or the windows, depending on the season. I loved everything about this place, and would be very content to live there.

BTW, the brothers not only built a wonderful home, but also brought electricity to Flagstaff and established its first public library. I thank Cathy K for her recommendation to see it, and pass that recommendation on to you!

Photo credit for top photo: fainagur/123RF.COM


  1. Susan,

    Your photos are gorgeous, as usual. You and Richard are such gracious hosts. Thank you for sharing the beauty of Flagstaff with us. I think laughing, enjoying the scenery, and playing games are highly underrated! I hope you are able to enjoy some of that when you return to Phoenix.



  2. Who could not love your thoughtful post and want to know you better?

    Sorry I hadn’t seen this before we talked. Your energy, Susan, oh how I would like an injection of that. So much to say, too little energy to say it. I’m so lucky to now know the remarkable you. ❤️


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