Saturday, January 23, 2010

All You Need Is Love

We had three life-changing weeks in southern Utah, eating the best food God has ever grown, prepared in the finest, purest way possible, sharing those meals with others interested in good health and the beauty of the natural world, spending half the day in the sunny outdoors and the other half working out, swimming, boxing, and, in short, improving ourselves physically. Now we were headed home to weave those new habits into our everyday lives.

Our spirits were up as we arrived at the Las Vegas airport. Yes, there were only 23 seats available on USAir's three flights to Chicago, but the odds were decent that one of them could accommodate us as stand-bys. We checked all our bags – clothing, toiletries, games, everything.

Our hopes remained high even when that first flight filled up and we moved to another concourse to try for the second time to get home. They stayed high when that second flight filled. But after waiting twelve hours in the airport, I was crestfallen when the third and final flight was a no-go. We would have to spend the night in Las Vegas, my least favorite city in the country. I was bummed.

My enlightened husband simply said, "I sense a lot of negative energy coming from you, Marie." Then he used all his energy to try to make lemonade from our circumstances. Leaving the airport, he surprised me with a copy of People, a travel indulgence from my road warrior days. He bought me a stuffed monkey and wrapped its arms around my neck in a silly hug. And when he checked us into The Mirage, he snared front row tickets to The Beatles' Love by Cirque de Soleil. This guy was really trying!

But Las Vegas was not where I wanted to be, and it is as different from St. George, Utah, as artificial breasts are from Zen meditation. I was crabby. I missed my family. I wanted to get home and start my new life. I was tired. I felt sorry for myself.

An hour later, I sat in the glamorous Mirage Theater, dressed like a yokel. I wiggled the toes inside my hiking boots and felt the sandstone grit I'd brought from Utah. Instead of the natural hues of the sun, sky, and mountains, now I was bathed in fluorescents, artificial fog, and sequin reflections. Poor, poor me.

But life is full of surprises. The lights went down, and the magic began. And I do mean magic. The show took my breath away. The Beatles' music -- so many of my favorites, one after another – brought back a wave of wonderful memories. Because it was a big production, singing along was allowed – and, of course, I loved that!

The strength, grace, and beauty of the performers! Their bodies and the way they moved. Sometimes they looked like they were flying! Sitting so close, we could see every muscle ripple. Having spent the last three weeks trying to strengthen my body, I had a greater appreciation of the exceptional abilities of the performers.

The costumes – clever, colorful, amusing, charming, unexpected, fantastical. A man in a blackbird costume who really looked like a bird. Trapeze artists as sea anemones. An outstanding gymnast dressed in a street vendor fat suit. Yellow, knee-high rain boots worn by a host of dancers and also moving by themselves in a chorus line!

The staging was daring. No, shocking! Unpredictable. Baffling! Entrances and exits were unexpected and inexplicable. Performers were lifted higher and higher until they disappeared through the top of the theater. Trampolines concealed in the floor for one moment and then miraculously removed. For several minutes, the entire audience was covered with one enormous parachute!

I loved the show! In its own way, it was as awesome, amazing, and memorable as the Utah canyons. I had a great time. It was a really fun night. I never expected our trip to end this way -- at a spectacular Las Vegas production. But I think this is where it was supposed to wrap up.

The show wrapped up with the Beatles' song, All You Need Is Love. I'm thinking that's really true. Especially if that love is a love of life – and a willingness to let yourself go along with all of life's twists, turns, and completely unexpected moments of joy.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Slots Canyon Redux

This past Wednesday I hiked the slots canyon for the second time. If you read my blog post of that first experience (Dec. 30), you know it was a nightmare hike for me. So how did this second trip go?

Much, much easier but still a difficult hike. Several huge differences this time. First, I experienced no panic. There were a very few moments during which I was mildly frightened, nothing more. Second, now I am stronger, better balanced, more sure-footed, and more aware of my both my abilities and my limitations. This time, I knew I could do the hike. This time, the challenges were enjoyable.

One thing that made it easier is that during the past two weeks of hiking, I learned and practiced the 5 S Techniques of Hiking:
  1. scooching -- sliding down a rock on your butt
  2. scrambling – using your hands as well as your feet to get up a mountain
  3. smearing – pressing your heel against a rock and then letting your toe press into it
  4. stemming – pressing your outer arms and legs into a slot to keep yourself from falling
  5. screaming
The first time I hiked in the slots canyon, I had mastered only the fifth S although I was called on to use all of them. This time I was able to properly execute techniques 1 through 4 as well.

What kept me going that first time? I had my supportive husband and two really great guides which certainly helped. But the two biggest reasons I was able to complete the hike were adrenalin and prayer.

I behaved, really and truly, like I was fighting to keep myself alive. I was afraid I would die, fall right off the side of the mountain and into the pit of the canyon. And the adrenalin had my heart pounding hard for most of that hike. Almost every fear-filled step, I prayed for the strength to just keep going and to complete the hike safely.

On this repeat trip that, while I appreciated the beauty of the surroundings and had a couple of conversations with God to thank him for it all, I wasn’t talking to Him nonstop like I had done the first time when I was so scared. “Hello, God? It’s me, Marie, and I’m in trouble. I need your help. . . . again.” I guess that’s pretty normal. As the saying goes, “There are no atheists in foxholes,” and, for me, that first slots hike was life-threatening danger.

Just as my kids often call on me when they are in trouble or frightened and seldom when life is going well, I realized I had done the same thing with God. But I don’t want God to be simply my foul-weather friend. I want to talk with Him when I’m neither scared or asking for something. When I am able to listen. When I am ripe to learn– about Him, about me, about life. It is during those calm, sweet, low-key moments together that our relationship will flourish.

My relationship with God is the one relationship I will have my whole life long, and that relationship I want on very solid ground.

Friday, January 15, 2010

A Bad Case of the Giggles

One night after dinner, I started giggling. Everything struck me
funny, and, looking back, things were, in fact, very amusing. But
laughing for twenty straight minutes is something unusual even for me.

It all started when half a dozen of us here at Green Valley Resort
decided to play The Game of Things. The game is simple. The players
are read a question. Each person writes down an answer, which is
concealed from the others. Then the answers are read, and the group
members try to guess who wrote which answer. The first question was,
"What should you avoid doing when you are naked?"

One of the answers was, "Pass gas." Cheap shot, right? That would be
true except that there was nothing cheap about this group. It was
composed of Lyle and me, a multi-million dollar fundraiser from Las
Vegas, a Muslim surgeon, a DC lobbyist for the American Cancer
Society, a consultant for teaching hospitals across the country, and a
student from Albion College. The coed had not written the pass gas
answer; the fundraiser had.

In the next round ("Name something you should not do when the teacher
is reprimanding you"), the fundraiser again wrote "pass gas." She was
guessed in no short order, but it was so silly we all couldn't help
but laugh. The next round that same answer showed up to the query,
"Name something that can get you fired," but it was Lyle not the
fundraiser who had written it! Then the lobbyist wrote "farting" as an
answer. Farting! Please notice that the college student had nothing to
do with this silliness. Of course, she was busy writing things like,
"Pretend you are deaf" to multiple questions.

People continued using one answer repeatedly but rewording it or
putting a slightly different spin on it. We were acting like ten year
old boys, and, believe me, this was the most unlikely group ever to
engage in such behavior.

I started laughing and then just couldn't stop. I'd regain my
composure for a minute and then the laughter would just explode out of
my mouth. Maybe you've seen me have one of these fits. They are
uncontrollable and infectious. Everyone ended up laughing until we
cried and then laughing some more. It really felt great.

Earlier that day, I had had my second infra-red sauna treatment during
which I sat in a 120 degree sauna for thirty minutes drinking de-tox
tea and watching the clock. Somehow I think that cleansing experience
and the giggling were connected. The laughter seemed to be releasing
any remaining poisons in my system. Regardless, I felt wonderful by
the end of the game – lighter, clearer, happier, and more grateful
than ever.

It's good medicine, that laughter.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Rocker Concert

Green Valley Spa, St. George, Utah
Day 10, Jan. 7, 2010

There were too many seniors at last night's Merle Haggard concert for this to be called a rock concert. Rocker concert is more like it. Big crowd, maybe 3,000, and sold out. A very mellow group. Courteous. A whole audience helping strangers off and on with their jackets because of range of motion shortfalls in the arms. Down home friendliness.

The strange thing to me was that 1/3 of the men attending wore hats – which they never removed. Cowboy hats came in both the big and the small variety and colors ranging from beige to brown to black. Many men wore baseball caps -- caps of all sorts, teams, and colors -- and always wore them bill forward. No caps on backwards. No caps on sideways.

On the heads they stayed, those hats, for the entire concert. I guess out here seeing a man remove his hat is as  likely as seeing him remove his nose. The hat is part of him. A couple of last night's hats looked as old as their wearers.

Nothing particularly unusual about the women, other than it's impossible to tell the ages of any of them here in Utah. I think they all look younger than sisters up North because of the Mormon lifestyle. But they all sure were prettied up last night.

Frances, the chef at Green Valley Spa, drove us to Cox Auditorium and took us home afterwards. Between those rides , Lyle and I enjoyed some kick-ass country music from Merle, his sons, and his brothers. The opening act (from North Carolina) was Chris Malves (I'm not quite sure of that last name). All good stuff. My favorites of the evening were "Okie from Muskogee," "Mama Tried," and "Pretty When It's New" which is a new song and about new love.

The evening brought me back to the country concerts Lyle and I went to Poplar Creek in Schaumburg for three summers. Clear nights, young lovers ourselves, time away from our kids. Nice memories.

And I remembered why I always have loved country: the lyrics. Are these the only musical poems being written anymore -- or just the only ones I can decipher?

My Own Kind of Hat
by Merle Haggard
Cowboys and outlaws, right guys and southpaws,
   Good dogs and all kinds of cats,
Dirt roads and white lines and all kinds of stop signs,
   But I stand right here where I'm at,
'Cause I wear my own kind of hat.


Friday, January 1, 2010


Green Valley Spa, St. George, Utah
Day 4, Jan. 1, 2010

I lingered after breakfast this morning. All other days I headed out for a hike right after my meal. Today something told me to just hang around. On my second cup of coffee, Frances, the chef, joined me.

Lyle noticed Frances the moment we arrived at Green Valley Spa four days ago. She was chopping fruit behind a counter in the resort's kitchen which has stovetop, grill, and prep area in full view.

You knew right away Frances was a tough broad. As she chopped, she was yelling at one of the kitchen crew – a clipped, loud directive with no extra words to soften her message in any way. Her hands and arms are scarred from the dozens of burns and cuts accumulated during years in a commercial kitchen. In other ways, too, she looked like life had been hard on her -- the weathered face, the plain excuse of a hair-do, the warm brown eyes that worked to focus in sync. She made no effort to be beautiful, and yet her beauty was evident immediately. Maybe it was her dimples and her smile. Whatever the cause, there was an overwhelming kindness about her.

During our coffee conversation, I learned that Frances started her cooking career in New Orleans. No surprise there. Over the years, she ran the kitchens of several five-star restaurants and soaked up everything she could at the sides of some of the best chefs in the country. When Frances's dad became ill here in St. George, Utah, she came West to care for him. Ultimately, she decided to stay and ended up as head chef at Green Valley.

Although she never went to culinary school, Frances knows about the chemistry of foods, balance in the diet, food presentation, and the blending of flavors. The food here is delicious – all 1200 calories a day. Frances believes in letting the food speak. She believes in all natural, organic foods. And she knows how to make food deeply satisfying.

I've seen first hand that generosity runs in Frances's blood. She shares all her recipes, she shares her vast knowledge, and she gives her all to the guests. She makes us special lunches and finds out our favorite foods. (I overheard her ask a guest, "Which vegetable would be your heart's desire for dinner tonight?") And she teaches us culinary skills from sautéing to chopping. By its nature, food nurtures, and tough as she is, Frances still manages to have us feeling, well, I guess I'd have to say, loved.

The night we arrived, we got to our suite around midnight. On the table were dinners, salads, and desserts for us, because, we were told, the chef thought we might be hungry. I was surprised. It was so welcoming. And, hey, I was hungry! Halfway through the meal, I realized how delicious the food tasted. I said to Lyle, "Oh, there's been a mistake. This isn't low calorie food. They must think we are on some other sort of plan here." But I was wrong.

After having eaten this fare for four days, I am already noticing the difference. I can see that I've lost fat around my middle even though I'm only down a couple of pounds. Lyle is visibly slimmer and has lost seven pounds already.

But in addition to that, I feel clearer. I am happier. The activity, the change of scene, and the sun are part of that feeling. But I think most of it is the food I'm eating. There is little to no fat added to anything. No sugar or salt either. Sweetness comes from fruits or agave. Spices are used freely. Everything we eat is grown on site or purchased as organic. It's naturally good food. And it's all prepared with an underlying desire to please us and make us healthier.

I learned all this while having coffee with Frances. So I'm glad I followed my intuition to skip today's hike. If I hadn't, I wouldn't have gotten to know her. And Frances is worth knowing.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Nature Calls

Green Valley Spa, St. George, Utah
Day 3, Dec. 31, 2009

Around here, nature is so evident that you simply can't ignore it. Its powerful magic is everywhere you turn.

On yesterday's trail hike, I was overwhelmed by the majesty of the canyons, the mountains, and the sky. The color of the sky -- that's what put me over the top emotionally. Even as I write this today, the memory of that color makes my eyes fill with tears.

Mountains, canyons, and blue, blue skies have always taken my breath away. My first exposure to them was the summer of 1962 when I rode the Super Chief to Los Angeles. Prior to that trip, I had been as far as 180 miles away from sweet home Chicago, so spectacular views of nature were no part of my life experience.

But when the train went through the West, I was amazed at what lay before me. I had never seen anything like it. It was holy. A majestic gift from God. His message of love to me and my kind. And yesterday in the canyons, I felt the same way.

I had two other significant moments in nature yesterday. Because it was the last day of the year, Green Valley invited its guests to a Ceremony of Intention at its labyrinth. A labyrinth, as you may already know, is an ancient geometric pattern through which you walk. You walk slowly, following many turns and changes in direction of the path, to the center of the pattern. You think. You pray. You thank. And then you follow the same pattern in reverse, leading you out.

The night was cold and clear. A fire was blazing in the center of the labyrinth pattern. Moonlight and stars made the path easier to see. The dozen of us each brought along lists written earlier of what we wanted to leave behind in 2009, what we wanted to create in 2010, and what we were grateful for. After walking slowly to the center and considering our lists one last time, we burned them. Then we began our walk out of the labyrinth.

Music played -- tribal music of sorts with a strong but gentle drum beat. A flute joined in. The fire crackled. Although I have walked labyrinths before, this was different. I was peaceful, relaxed, and fully aware of both the solid ground beneath my feet and the lively fire I could see and feel. I felt close to the earth.

Lyle and I talked about the experience as we walked back to our room. We had tea and wished each other Happy Anniversary. Then to bed.

After the light was turned off, we were keenly aware of how bright the room remained. We looked up at the skylight directly over our bed. And there in the very center of the skylight was the moon. A blue moon, the second moon in the month of December. A beautiful goodnight kiss from a loving God.

This is an amazing place, Utah. And earth.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

There Will Be Canyons

Green Valley Spa, St. George, Utah
Day 2, Dec. 30, 2009

After attending one stretch class yesterday, I figured I was ready this morning for a beginner's hike. The guide gathered everyone interested in any of the three daily offerings (beginner, fitness, and strenuous) and explained what would be encountered.

Initially, I thought the beginner's trail had "a mountainous spine you will need to crawl along" and the "crack of doom" which required the hiker to press the sides with both arms and legs to avoid falling into a pit. But the guide explained that those challenges were on more advanced hikes. Ours would be simpler. Not simple enough I soon learned.

After a 20 minute van ride, we arrived at the site, a truly breathtaking view even from the parking area. Our group of two guides and eight hikers including Lyle and me made our way through dusty, red sand and around a fence. There we walked over lots of loose rocks and several really big limestones until we reached our first canyon.

I am not a hiker. I am a walker. The mountain air is pretty thin. I am not. I am old. And a chicken. Plus I was not at all expecting the arduous, endless, fear-inspiring trek that this was. We climbed to the top of one canyon. Really hard to do. Huge steps, dozens of them. Then we climbed down. Sometimes, the drop was so steep we had to sit on our butts and just slide down. We slithered between rocks. Up and down, up and down. Then around a bend and up into another canyon. And down. And another. Now slip through more rocks. Finally we reached Snow Canyon.

The worst/best of all was walking in single file along a one-foot wide uneven rocky bridge of sorts that seemed to me was five or ten miles above the canyon floor. I could feel myself shaking as I fought back the tears. I didn't look down, and I just kept walking.

But lack of experience and fear weren't my only problems. I also had no idea of where I was, where I had been, where I was going, or when I would arrive. At one point, when our trip back to civilization started seeming interminable, I actually said, "Are we there yet?" with all the heart-felt desperation of an exhausted five-year old.

Now that I'm back in our beautiful suite, I feel pretty good about this hike. I guess I’m proud of myself for sticking with it. But seriously, what were my options? Sending for a helicopter to get me back to civilization? What got me through was the belief that even though I was frightened, nothing really bad was going to happen to me. I was going to be okay. I guess that's faith.

When we returned, we learned that this 3-mlle walk is the most strenuous and demanding of all the beginner trails. Here's the brochure description:
Slots is one of our most technical trail hikes. It is named for the narrow slot canyons you explore to discover rock art known as petroglyphs, left by the Ancestral Pueblans. There are three main petroglyph sites on this hike with a fair amount of scrambling between each site. The beautiful red rock canyons and manganese-capped sandstone, coupled with the Native American sites, make this one of our classics.
They do this same hike every Wednesday. Since we'll have two more shots at it, I'll be interested to see how I feel next week and the following week at this time. I’ll let you know.