Friday, December 31, 2010

Resolve

Yes, I'll make resolutions as 2011 appears on the horizon. I too will "resolve" to do things better, to exercise more, to whine less, to be more grateful. I'll follow this tradition dating back thousands of years to be a better person. The ancient Babylonians, credited with starting the resolution tradition, are said to have most frequently resolved to return borrowed farm equipment. That's funny.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces this definition of "resolve" to a late middle English word that means to dissolve, disintegrate, or solve a problem. The ancestor of this word is the Latin "resolvere," which is composed of "re," which expresses intensive force, and "solvere," which is to loosen. So, ultimately my act to resolve is to forcefully loosen something. I like that definition. I'm going to forcefully loosen my attachment to anger, to sloth, and to excess. That sounds do-able.

Wondering why resolutions are typically made at the beginning of the year, I discovered lots of intriguing things. One is that the beginning of the new year has changed a number of times. Before Julius Caesar, the new year was on the vernal equinox, the re-birth of greenery in springtime. Caesar made January 1st the beginning of the year on his Julian calendar. That worked for awhile until a church council in 567 thought new year celebrations were too rowdy and so abolished January 1st as the beginning of the year. The new year was celebrated on a number of dates in the Christian world for the next 1,000 years, with Dec 25th and Easter dates sometimes being dubbed "New Year's Day." The milestone settled on January 1st in the 16th century. I think it's fascinating that bodies can make such decisions. Seems like tracking a new year along with the tilt of the earth would be the most logical.

Folks all over the globe review their lives at year's end and start a new year fresh. Resolutions are accompanied with lots of interesting gestures, from jumping seven waves, throwing flowers in the sea and lighting candles in the sand, to exchanging gifts, burning Christmas trees, kissing loved ones, and scrubbing the house. Noises are important in many new year's celebrations, including fireworks, noisemakers, and bells, originating, it's said, from the need to drive evil spirits away. A Buddhist tradition is to ring gongs 108 times, representing 108 human frailties. The Greeks ring bells 12 times, as they eat 12 grapes, representing the year's months.

One of the most intriguing new year's customs I discovered is wearing underwear of a certain color: Mexican women who would like to get married in the coming year wear red underwear and those who are pregnant wear pink underwear to bring good luck to the baby.

So tonight I think I'll join humans around the globe at this important pivot. I think I'll wear green underwear (to help me act more environmentally sound); I think I'll eat 12 olives; I think I'll jangle my new wind chimes 12 times; I think I'll kiss my sweetie and then my dog; I think I'll make firm my resolve to forcefully loosen three of my attachments. This will head me in the right direction for 2011.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Curmudgeon

As I age, like many, I take mild delight in being a curmudgeon. There are some issues that just make me a bit cranky and I don't feel like apologizing for them. One such issue involves television. I'm not a fan. Don't have a big flat screen. My living room, with its hardwood floor, teal walls and hand-tinted landscape photos, is a salon, a spot for reading, talking or playing the musical instruments stored there: native American flutes made by my sweetie, conga drum, and small hand drums. It is living room, not a watching room.

Not a TV watcher, I spend my time at home reading, grading papers, writing, cleaning, cooking, gardening, knitting, or playing with my dog. I do not spend my time at home watching TV. Television's main function, in my world, is to serve as a vehicle for NetFlix. The house's two TVs are located at the east end of the place, in rooms with doors that can be closed, so the rest of the house can be quiet, which is how it is most of the time.

My daughter is the same way, seeing TV primarily as a movie-viewing tool. She was regarded with pity by a loved one when he discovered that, as recently as 2007, she had a TV with no remote control system...a TV with an on/off switch that was a knob to be pulled! How could the poor dear get by with such an appliance?

I know there are lots of wonderful people who do not share this approach to television, people I love a lot. In deference to them, I am tempering my observations, couching them in terms that may belie the intensity of my feelings. Hope I am successful at this modulation.

I do not need to have TV as background, finding it actually bothersome, rather than relaxing. I do not need to keep up on the latest news, whether it's from MSNBC, Fox, CNN, or PBS. I do not need to listen to rants about the left or the right. I do not need to know where Angelina and Brad are at a given moment. I do not need to be yelled at by advertisers.

My crankiness about TV surfaces in public spots, as well as the privacy of my home. In airports, I try to sit well away from TVs, though that's a challenge. Same thing goes for restaurants and bars, again a challenge. I was disappointed this week, as I went into a very upscale bar/restaurant located along a beautiful river. A key selling point of this place is the river view. I stopped in for happy hour beverage and appetizer, seeking a light early dinner in an elegant setting. Amazingly, this fancy spot, with its sleek modern architure and stunning black and white photographs, had a blaring TV hung above the glass wall with the river view in the bar! An oxymoron of sorts.

A friend who was traveling posted her annoyance at having to endure booming TV in the hotel's continental breakfast room. She wanted to eat breakfast while visiting with her husband, not eat breakfast while enduring the blast of Fox news. I share her disdain for TV's invasion of personal space during mealtime.

A clear indication of just how TV averse I really am occurred this week. Staying in a very nice hotel, I refused to open the huge mahogany credenza housing the TV. After I'd been in the room for two days, I finally opened it up and found an amazingly clever set-up for making coffee. I'd gone two days without in-room coffee and done so needlessly, all because I'm not a TV fan.

My annoyance about TV occurs, in part, because I have really sensitive hearing. In motels, this is not a good thing, as I can hear folks talking or TV playing rooms away. Outdoors, this is a very good thing, as I can hear owls hooting several houses away. Walking along a river this week, I was able to hear one of my favorite birds, the bashful rufous-sided towhee, as it scratched in the maze of blackberry bramble draping the bank. Could only see the towhees occasionally, but knew they were there. I was able to hear the wingbeats of cormorants as they dashed over my head and hear their amazing splashdowns out in the middle of the river.

I like listening to noises that aren't necessarily man-made. I like being fully present in my environment, taking in all the magic that is offered us each day. For me, television can disrupt that process. And today, the curmudgeon in me offers little apology for that view.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Bringing Green In

Sitting in my living room, I am delighted with my view: curls of rope light across the big window, blue LED lights all along the roof line, and white sparks on the tree in the corner. This year I decorated our Christmas tree with peacock feathers, about 80 of them. Sprays of gilded artificial leaves and pheasant feathers dance with the peacock's rainbowed eyes, as do deep turquoise ornaments. It's a gorgeous tree, snugged up against the teal wall.

Such a fun custom, bringing greenery into the house this time of year. I love it and I love the long, long history of this act. Because the winter solstice occurs this time of year, many people have thought that bringing greenery into their homes would help bring the sun back. Some societies thought that the sun god was weakened by illness this time of year and hoped that celebrating the solstice would help the sun god "eat" and return to full health. Bringing the greens inside renewed confidence that the sun would grow healthy and that all plants (not just evergreens) would thrive again.

Numerous cultures celebrated this way, including the Egyptians who brought green palm rushes, symbols of life triumphing over death, into their homes, hoping that these would help the god Ra recover. Ra, with his hawk-shaped head, wore a crown that included the sun. The ancient Romans also decked their halls with greenery, to honor the god of agriculture, Saturn, in hopes that he would help their lands turn green and productive again. Druids and Vikings revered evergreen boughs, with the Druids decorating their temples with them as symbols of everlasting life and the Vikings honoring them as the sun god Balder's favored plants. European, primarily German, customs incorporated evergreen interior decoration as part of Christmas festivities in the seventeenth century and Westerners have loved the custom ever since.

Evergreens are such fascinating plants, decked out as they are for year-round photosynthesis and prepared to take on the harshest weather. Their diversity is amazing. My late husband used to train me to distinguish various conifers and I enjoyed the drills. He tutored me in needle shape and distribution (whorls were fun to ID!), bark, overall shape, top configuration, cone design and size, as well as location (north slopes most likely had some fir). Tamaracks (larch) were easy for me to ID in fall (bright yellow) and winter (needle-free), as were ponderosas (Grandfather trees) with their ruddy bark and long needles. Our house on the river had huge ponderosa pines, three stories high and as wide as the house. When they went through their August needle drop, we had mats of dried needles over the whole yard, the roof, the deck, and the driveway. It was wonderful. Though the pines dropped wheelbarrows full of needles each summer, they remained faithfully green all year long.

Evergreens: symbols of unending life. I like the idea of bringing evergreens into the house for the dark of winter's longest night. The greenery reassures us that the sun will come back, the plants will grow again. And, in this house, with 80 peacock eyes perched among the pine boughs, the reassurance is spectacular!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Art n Love

Just spent three days basking in the glow of a group of artists that loves, I mean, loves its art. Watching this group (Ozomatli) perform, I was convinced that this isn't just a business deal for these guys. They love performing. They love taking their art to a higher level. They love seeing the joy in audiences' faces as they congo through the throbbing crowd at the end of a show. They love watching frenzied fans bounce, jump, wave, dip, and scream in response to their Latin, funk, hip-hop, mid-Eastern, rap art.

Because I've seen them perform so many times, because I read their posts on Facebook, because I sometimes talk to them before shows, I know their affection for the art is genuine. They're not just doing this for the money or the ego-strokes. The pull is heart-deep.

One of the Ozo shows I watched this weekend was devoted to kids: Ozokids. It was held in a rowdy adult venue, the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. It was held with an open bar (you had to be stamped to be able to drink the "Big People" drinks). It was attended by all kinds of adult Ozo fans. Seemed like a regular Ozo show...but it wasn't. The driving spirit of the show was genuine love, for the kids and for the music that moves kids to dance, jump, play instruments, and grin. Seeing these band members in silly costumes, doing gallops and jumps and performing really dorky drama, while powering out their wondrous music, was touching. It was like being in the living room (the loving room?) of a big, warm family.

This group has always touched me with their substance. These aren't fluffy pop artists; they care about issues, causes, humans, kids, and art. A short history of the group was recently captured at a composite presentation made in San Francisco at a TEDxSF show (TED is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to spark deep discussion and connection in a small group). The TED gig revealed the group's commitment to lots more than just CD and ticket sales. Their hearts beat for kids all over the world, as well as for social justice issues facing adults in this country and elsewhere.

Scoping Ozomatli's fifteen year history of commitment to music and social issues, the TED show was a cerebral confirmation that this group really does love its art, its art as a tool for social change and a warm hug extended across contention and discord.

But this weekend's Ozokids show was not cerebral confirmation. Seeing them shine for the next generation of Ozo fans, seeing their genuine affection for these kids, I responded emotionally, not intellectually. I became even more smitten with Ozomatli. They love their art. It shows. It's not pretense. It's the real deal. I love seeing such an authentic bond between artists and art. Their passion speaks to me deeply, reverently.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Art Talk

Artists talking about their art: not sure I like that. Years ago at a literary seminar in Key West my sister and I heard presentations from some of the writers I revere: Annie Dillard, Gretel Erhlich, Terry Tempest Williams, Jim Harrison, Rick Bass, Richard Nelson, Thomas McQuane, Peter Matthiessen. These are writers who stretch their necks out to defend the Earth and all its inhabitants. These are people who have won big with their art, as in Pulitzer, et al. These are world-renowned wordsmiths, weaving wonders about the natural world.

I loved the chance to see and hear them. I loved the opportunity to connect faces with persona I had imagined over the years as I read their works. I loved seeing the energy sizzle among them as they engaged in repartee.

But, as I look back on the experience, I also feel a bit disappointed. I saw that one was pompous and unreachable. Another was an annoying drunk. Another was shy to a fault in this setting. One candidly discussed artist's ethics in a way that was less than satisfying and tainted my view of her work. I saw that one loved the spotlight, enough to damage his artistic integrity. And, blessedly, another embodied all the idealized virtues I posted for her in my imagination. These writers were, in fact, very human artists: flawed, funny, and foolish.

I see now that I wanted, with these renowned nature writers, to let their art speak for them, to let the words they struggle over, build meticulously, revise and revise, be the lasting brand in my memory, not the characters doing their impromptu acting on a Key West stage.

This notion came to mind yesterday as I explored a wonderful exhibit of my state's superior artists. The juried show contained exciting, exquisite work in varied media, including sculpture, painting, printmaking, photography, and even robotics. A close friend of mine, a landscape photographer, had a stunning entry, a black and white panoramic scene. (One of his photographs is on the cover of my book of poetry.)

All these artists were invited to share a written message about their art. My friend's words were on point, showing me a strong moral commitment to his work and our planet, as well as helping me understand why he is now working with panoramic images. My experience of his art was enhanced by the words he wrote.

But in some instances, the words were distracting, at best, and even annoying. And why was I surprised at this? These artists' media are not based in words. That realm is not their forte. One entry, from an artist I met decades ago, was particularly notable. It displayed the artist's discomfort in using words, an uneasiness I remember from my personal contact with him. Although my understanding of his work was enhanced a bit by reading the words, the piece spoke to me powerfully on its own. I didn't need his shy, terse note.

So I thought about artists writing or talking about their art, about the act of using words to embellish, explain, or justify artwork. I prefer to deal directly with the source, to read/view/hear the artpiece and arrive at my own conclusions. Create your piece, dear artist, then let me decide what I think of it.

This is not to say that artists shouldn't write or talk about their work, not at all. It's just conveying my preference for a close encounter with the art.

I've spent some time writing / talking about my work, even though it makes me a bit self-conscious to do so. For example, the preface of my poetry book, The Silence of Bright Star, explains to the reader that poetry is for me like water and that the act of writing a poem is much like that of building furniture. These explorations were intended to share with my readers underlying views about the art but, in the end, my poems speak for themselves.

Art words---talk or prose about creations---are fine supplements. But for me the artwork is the purest connection I have with an artist.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Sacred Perception

The sacred fills my mind a lot these days. I pray outdoors and read religious tracts each morning, spend time thinking about guidance from those tracts throughout the day, and ponder the day's gifts with prayers of gratitude before I sleep. And now I'm reading a book (Fingerprints of God by Barbara Hagerty) that is exploding my notions about the sacred. This book, you see, is about the science of spirituality.

The paths I'm going down as I read each chapter are intriguing. What is it about the human structure that allows some of us to have closer relationships with the sacred than others? What similarities in religious experiences span centuries and continents? What kinds of research has been done to learn more about humans' contact with their gods?

I'm astounded by some of the author's findings. First, there are basic similarities in folks' intense religious experiences, no matter what their faith. One key element is the presence of brilliant white light. Second, ingesting certain things (like peyote) can create experiences much like those described by those having intense religious experiences. Third, some people are more prone to be religious than others, with this finding coming from the study of identical twins who are raised separately.

Fourth, a specific part of the brain, located above the right ear, appears to be the "seat" of human perception of religious experience. This part of the brain has been modified surgically (in epileptics, for example) with results impacting the patients' description of religious experiences. Fifth, study of brains of marathon pray-ers, like Franciscan nuns and Tibetan Buddhist monks, shows remarkable similarities, including reduced activity in the parietal lobes, the part of the brain that helps us be oriented to and feel separate from our surroundings. These subjects describe their deep connection to all, including the sacred, while praying, which makes neurological sense, since their brains have scaled down the tool that helps make distinctions between them and their environment.

As I near the end of this important book, I'm pondering the many ways that humans respond to the sacred. As a child, I was given a solid Christian upbringing, but was not discouraged from exploring other faiths. As an adult, I've found study of religions fascinating and, at some times, troublesome. It bothers me a lot that some sects go to great lengths to assert the validity of their truths and the invalidity of beliefs held by others. It bothers me a lot that persons are persecuted and killed because of their religious beliefs. It bothers me that religious fanaticism has created the monster of terrorism in our world. It bothers me that devisiveness, rather than inclusiveness, appears to reign when it comes to religion.

Humans should, I think, be more grateful for their incredible abilities to recognize and respond to the sacred. We should use these neurological gifts in ways that improve the lot of all. That is my prayer this morning.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Blessed

Blessed, that's what I am. There's no denying that I have been given gifts of incalulable value, including my parents and my daughter. Often wonder how my luck of the draw on many things has been so spectacular.

Approaching this season set aside for specific rituals of gratitude, I'm pleased to see that gratitude is now trendy in pop psychology. We are reminded, in blogs, books, videos, greeting cards, and cute little gift books, that feeling thankful is healthy. We are told that acknowledging our many blessings will bring even more goodness to our lives. We are told that failing to recognize and give thanks for our gifts hurts us.

So I offer my thanks for the myriad of blessings in my life, including the golden fuzzball who follows me around the house. I offer my thanks for the miracles of life on this planet, for the society which allows and protects my freedoms, for the truly astounding gifts of my senses which let me see, hear, smell, feel, and taste joys every day. And I offer some of my favorite examples of prayers folks around the world give as grace:

It is a comely fashion to be glad;
Joy is the grace we say to God.
(Socrates)

Prased be my Lord for our mother the earth,
that which doth sustain us and keep us,
and bringeth forth divers fruit,
and flowers of many colours and grass.
(St Francis of Assisi)

O You who feed the little bird,
bless our food, O Lord.
(Traditional Norwegian)

We thank Thee, Lord, for happy hearts,
For rain and sunny weather;
We thank Thee, Lord, for this our food,
And that we are together.
(Traditional Mennonite blessing)

May we be a channel of blessings for all that we meet.
(Edgar Cayce)

Thank you, kind Father,
for giving us food to make
our bodies grow stronger.
Dear God, teach us to share with others
what we ourselves have. Amen
(Chinese child's prayer)

Innumberable labors have brought us this food.
We should know how it comes to us.
As we receive this offering we should consider
whether our practice and virtue deserve it.
(Soto Buddhist blessing)

The lands around my dwelling are more beautiful
from the day when it is given to me to see
faces I have never seen before.
All is more beautiful,
All is more beautiful,
and life is thankfulness.
These guests of mine
make my house grand.
(Eskimo)

Lord most giving and resourceful,I implore You:
make it Your will that this people enjoy
the goods and riches You naturally give,
that naturally issue from You,
that are pleasing and savory,
that delight and comfort,
though lasting but briefly,
passing away as if in a dream.
(Aztec prayer)

Bless these Thy gifts, most gracious God,
From whom all goodness springs;
Make clean our hearts and feed our souls
With good and joyful things.
(Traditional Christian grace)

And so...I am grateful for all that has fallen into my life, including this blog, Day Full of Miracles, and its readers. For all this, I give thanks.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Prey: The Sequel

So earlier I wrote about hiking in the woods with my dog in an area shared with big predators: wolves, cougars, bears. I chickened out (NOT taking a gun, mind you, just not trekking by myself with my dog there). Now I'm not sure about the wisdom of that choice.

Don't often tear up at the headlines on MSN, but did today as I read "Tigers Nearing Extinction." The ensuing video showed an infared shot of a rare Siberian tiger approaching the camera at night and then, after the same site was razed by a bulldozer, a tiger again approaching the camera. What's going on? Huh?

Maybe the timing was ripe. I'd earlier read a piece about the sad fate of grizzlies in the West, given changes in their wild realm (including those related to climate), human movements closer to them, and states' rights in addressing the "problem." I'd seen earlier a televised interview with the intriguing writer, Doug Peacock, about the importance of predators in the larger scheme of themes, that is, our relationship with the entire planet, the globe that some say we should conquer. My gosh, after all of this, after all of this, I don't know what else to do but cry.

Of course I empathsize with the family of the biologist killed by a grizzly and the sleeping family attacked by the hungry, cub-laden griz sow, and the dog-walker mauled by a black bear in a subdivision. Of course. But the justice of it all seems wrong to me. What were those creatures guilty of besides trying to survive?

I look at my dog. She lives here, comfortably, serenely, arrogantly. She knows all will be provided by the two-legged critters that inhabit the same den. But what about those others, the creatures with DNA not all that different from hers, who are supposed to somehow learn the drifting rules they must follow?

How do they know what they're supposed to do or not do? Not just talkin about the rules of predator/prey; talkin about the rules of land management agencies, depridation payments, hunters' game populations, et al. How do the creatures know that, in years when berry harvests are slight, they should not enter subdivisions, but should high-tail it to the deep woods and find another way to get by? How do they know that humans do not want to be inconvenienced by their ongoing survival needs, even though the means for fulfilling those needs have been changed significantly?

I'm not comfortable being a human being when I read about the line of demarcation of human and predator, not comfortable at all. I live with a golden haired predator and I would hate to think of her being forced to make a survival choice that could result, not in just her demise, but that of her species. I don't know what else to do but cry.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Moves

Been thinking about movement a lot lately, things moving rather than things staying still. One reason is that I bought a video camera, a tiny camera the size of my cell phone. I find myself taking lots of video pictures in situations where I might typically take still shots.

Shooting videos has been fun. My favorites have been the goofy skits my daughter and I have done in the mountains, pretending to be quite breathless on a mild hike in an Idaho range or quite nonchalant about the grandeur of Oregon's Mt Hood behind us.

My video work has surprised me. I found myself filming a spotlight's ripple on black water at ten pm on a northern Idaho lake. I found myself standing in the back of a pick-up truck, filming the bounce and jar of the rig's passage on a ridge-top goat trail. I found myself tracking the slight movement of leaf and sleeping duck in a formal Japanese garden.

And why, I wondered, am I so fascinated with the ability to capture things on the move? Why are these fleeting glimpses so different from the many still photos I typically shoot?

I've thought about the concept of movement, of energy pushing enough to move a solid through a liquid, whether it is air or water. I've thought about archetypes and myths of the movement of air, of wind. I've thought of the Greeks' four wind deities: Boreas (North Wind); Eurus (East Wind); Notus (South Wind...I live about 30miles from a town called Notus); and Zephyros (West Wind). Reading tales of Boreas, Eurus, Notus, and Zephyros, visualizing these charcters, I've pondered how the concept of movement through air has captured our imagination so intently. Wind has fascinated us for a long time.

These thoughts took me way back to the windy valley of my youth, where air was always on the move. I've long joked that I didn't know I could walk upright until I left that valley, the wind was so everpresent, so strong. I hated that wind. Hated it. Just got surly when I stepped outside. Summer wind was like a furnace; winter wind was torturous. Some friends who lived on a foothill bench in that windy valley said they liked the wind because it reminded them that they lived inside a substance, a fluid entity called air. I thought they were crazy.

I was thrilled to move away from constant wind. Yet now, when I watch and listen to the wind work around my home, I'm not distressed. I most often like the wind wrapping my house. Sitting in my sunroom this week, I marveled at wind's magic: the nervous flutter of yellow aspen leaves; the slow graceful bend of five foot high hollyhock; the gay wave of oak leaves morphing from gold to deep rust; the goofy sway of a wrought iron bird feeder stand; the lilting drift of elm's long green locks; the delicate float of my dog's back-lit hair. I liked this week's wind...a lot.

Some winds bother me, of course. The monstrous roar of air that crashes huge maple and elm branches to the ground, threatens the security of my roof, my car, my windows: that wind I don't like. The wind that rolls and rocks airplanes I don't like. My daughter and I flew into Las Vegas this year in 80+ mph winds. Like other passengers, hunched over in the crash position to ready for a rough landing, we did not like these winds. Crossing a bridge high over the Snake River, a bridge buffetted by constant cross-winds, I hold my breath. I do not like these winds.

This week I wandered at night along a lake's boardwalk, beaten by wind and cold rain. My umbrella flared, making me even more vulnerable to the air's force. I trekked along slippery dock and bridge work, holding tightly to rails and ropes, while still trying to capture my video memories. The wind made sure I was aware and respectful of its presence.

Back inside, looking at stormy videos and still photos I shot, I was pleased. I was glad that I took deep breaths, anchored myself with sound footing, and forged ahead on the rim of that swirling bowl of lake. I was glad I respected the moving air of my environs. My prizes were images of a rough and tumble night that I'll long remember.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Eye, Eye, Eye!

I'm writing this week with an incredible sense of gratitude and humility. Last Sunday, you see, I did a really stupid thing. Sitting on the deck in the late afternoon, after an inspiring day of attending church, reading about spirituality, and enjoying my lucious leisure, I decided to do some overhead pruning. I ignored all the yardwork safety gear in my sunroom (footware, gloves, and eye protection) and simply grabbed the long-handled pruner to take care of that one branch that seemed out of place. Some time and many branches later, I went in the house and found that numerous small pieces of dried leaf were tucked into my eyes. I washed them out and thought nothing of it.

The next morning I woke up to one swollen eye and intense pain. A trip to the eye doctor confirmed that I had a jagged scratch on the cornea of my left eye. Four days of eye drops, ice packs, fuzzy vision, poor sleep, pain, and terror crawled by. Then yesterday I got a clean bill of health as the eye doctor put in drops to identify damaged cells and found none on my cornea. Truly a blessing.

A nine point zero on the Richter scale of personal trauma, this week jolted me hard. Ran through all the tasks my eyes do every day for me. Ran through all the joy that comes in my world through my eyes. Ran through the travails of those I've known and loved who've had vision limitations. Ran through all the changes I'd have to make if something happened to the miracles that are my eyes.

Yesterday, ironing in the sunroom on a stunning fall afternoon, I nearly wept at the clear, vibrant sights before me. The scarlet viburnum! The gilded walnut leaves! The chalky aspen bark! The white slash of Oregon junco wings! The cheery azure of October sky! The elegant grey swish of squirrel tail! The nearly imperceptible twitch of my dog's nostrils as she dozes in the sun! The smooth pale blue of freshly ironed Oxford cloth!

My prayer of thanks went on and on. As evening made its visit, I gave thanks for the coral band of sunset, for the moon disk peeping through aspen leaves, for the scarves of cloud flailing in charcoal sky, for the joy of seeing it all.

Eye, eye, eye! I am a chastened viewer. I offer praise and humble thanks for my sight. I pray for the ability to be a worthy steward of this gifted miracle. Eye, eye, eye!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Smile

I have been reading an intriguing book about emotions (Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life by Dacher Keltner). One thing I've learned is that facial expressions, those gauges of our emotions, can be voluntary and involuntary. Some, for example, like raised eyebrows associated with empathy, cannot easily be replicated consciously, as they appear to stem involuntarily from our autonomic nervous system (the one that regulates things like breathing, so we don't have to worry about that all the time). This is really startling to me. I thought we all have nonstop control of our facial expressions.

Whether they're voluntary or involuntary, facial expressions are critical for getting along well with other tribe members. We need to be able to send the right signals all the time, since most of us live around others and need to let them know if we are going to be nice and hug them or be mean and squish them.

This book triggered thoughts about smiling. A pouty little thing as a child, I show up in family portraits with big brown eyes and a pooched out lower lip. I'm told that trips to the photographer's studio were not that fun when I was around. That's interesting to me now, since I love smiling!

I smile a lot. I smile while I'm driving, while I'm at the grocery store, while I'm reading, while I'm cooking. I even smile when I'm all by myself walking through a parking lot. I love having eye contact and smiling at elders (particularly women) when I'm shopping. If I think they're okay with it, I'll add a "Good morning" or "Lovely day, isn't it?" to the smile. I get much gratification from their responses, which are typically edged with a bit of surprise.

I like smiling in traffic, as most people are in pretty foul spirits then. I like letting someone into a line of traffic and smiling at the same time. A double surprise, I'm thinking.

When I read good poetry, especially that of Mary Oliver, I often smile. Her poem about a duck landing on a goose and a seagull scratching his belly in flight makes me grin. She has the right attitude, I think, about observing nature: there's much magic out there and a good portion of it is comedic.

My mom is a smiler. When I sit with her at lunch each week, in the cafeteria of a hospital where she volunteers, I delight at the way she responds to those walking by our booth. She makes eye contact, smiles big, and greets them, if she thinks that's a good idea. The administrator at another facility where she volunteers says she's the most congenial elder he's ever met; he loves the way she smiles so easily. Guess I learned my smiling from her.

I have used smiles to turn potentially contentious situations into warm fuzzy moments. At concerts of the band that my daughter and I follow around (Ozomatli), we plant ourselves strategically at the edge of the stage, so we are just feet from the musicians. This means that we are often shoved and crushed from behind by frenzied fans. One thing I've learned to do is to turn a potential adversary into a pal, using a smile and some questions to do so.

For example, two years ago a tall, beautiful woman was pressing up behind me at a concert in Seattle and the show hadn't even started yet. I didn't like the way she was encroaching in the modest space my daughter and I had staked out. Instead of responding with dirty looks and an assertive stance, I turned around, smiled, and started talking to her. I asked her where she was from (Wisconsin!), how often she'd seen the band, and so on.

That was a smart move. Not only did she refrain from crowding our space during the concert, she also helped deflect those pushy folks behind her so they didn't bother us. A year later I had a chance to smile and befriend her again, as she had come from Wisconsin to Seattle for another Ozomatli concert. We chatted and agreed to meet "same time next year." An easy, no-cost tool, that smile, turning potential nastiness into camadarie.

When I think about my facial expressions, the voluntary ones I have control over, I like to focus on smiles. I like looking for some fine, sometimes unexpected, opportunities to move my face's muscles cheerily and maybe, just maybe, make a new friend. I agree with author Keltner that, because of our ability to voluntarily do things like smile, we really are born to be good.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Smarts

I just read an article on animal intelligence, learning a lot. An amazing bonobo (a primate similar to a chimpanzee) has an extensive vocabulary and can communicate complex ideas by pointing to symbols of ideas he has learned. For example, he named kale by pointing to two visuals he knew: Slow and Lettuce. This conveyed the idea that kale takes longer to chew than does lettuce. Impressive.

The article got me thinking about my golden retriever's intelligence, whether Sadie's "cognitive rheostat" is working well, all the time. My roomie asked me once "Do you ever look at her and see that the lights are on, but wonder if anyone's home?" And indeed that is the case with Sadie. A few weeks ago, she spent quite a few minutes studying a shoe. Why? Who knows.

Yesterday, in a lovely mountain town, she clearly conveyed her annoyance with my mom and me, as we watched her from a restaurant window, while she sat in the car parked in front of the restaurant. At one point, she looked at us and we waved to her. She raised her snout even higher in the air, then turned away from us, in an act that appeared to be regal indignation.

She has at other times conveyed her disgust with human behavior. After I took her to a dog groomer who shaved her so awfully that she morphed from a long-haired golden to a creature that looked like an multi-toned pit bull, she appeared to be mad at me for a very long time. She avoided me, wouldn't play, would reluctantly respond to my instructions. I learned my lesson and never went back to that groomer.

Though Sadie is smart about some things, like expressing her feelings and like looking for me when we play hide-n-seek in the house, with her earning a sugar snap pea treat when she finds me in a closet, she is not so smart about others. For example, all her toys have the same name: Baby. She really doesn't know the difference, name-wise, between her stuffed lobster, pony, elephant, and bunny.

She is not like my wonderful yellow lab Aja (named after the Steely Dan tune). Aja had a lot of toys and took very good care of them. She also knew their names. If I told her to go get her "burger," she would go get it. Sometimes it would take her awhile to find it and sometimes it might be on the second attempt ("No, Aja. That's your birdie. Go find your burger."). But Aja knew the names of her toys and could match the name and the toy. Can't see Sadie doing that at all.

Aja's smarts were astounding to us in their own right but also because her father, Idaho Tycho, was among the least intelligent dogs I'd ever seen. Tycho was a huge and handsome papered yellow lab, but not a very bright one. He tried to mate with a horse, carried the full carcass of a sheep into camp once just to show us, and consistently ran full bore through the six-strand barbed wire fence behind our mountain home. My favorite example of his dimness occurred once while he was sitting next to my late husband, Mike, who was lying on the couch. Tycho's head was about ten inches from Mike's head. Mike said something to Tycho and the dog turned to respond to him. Tycho could have simply turned his head 90 degrees to the right and had full eye contact with Mike. Instead, he lifted his chin in the air as high as he could and tried to see Mike directly behind him. It was an amazing demonstration of AKC breeding gone all wrong.

At the other end of this realm was the fun black cockapoo, Obi-Wan Kenobi, that my daughter and I had years ago. This little guy was so smart and thoughtful that, if we left him in our apartment so long that he had an accident, he would pull throw pillows off the couch and cover each dropping with one. Now that's an act of intelligence that I found less than cute, but I did admire the thought that went into the task. He was very small, the couch was very tall, and the pillows were as big as he was. Smart little guy, that Obi.

I like reading about studies of animal intelligence. I like watching Sadie to see if anyone's home. I like being reminded that, though we think we're the smartest critters on the block, that may not be the case after all.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Sky

Every morning I check out the dome overhead. What's going on? What's moving in? Out? Hovering? Descending? When I typically go outside, it's very dark: this time of year between four and five, it's a good three hours before daylight.

It's really important that I start each day by looking up. (I also start each day by planting my bare feet on the earth, truly getting grounded. That's a challenge when it's twenty degrees and frosty, but I try to do it every morning.) Looking up is prayerful. Thank you, Moon Girl, for the healthy glow you beam into my eyes. Thank you, Dark Sky, for staging the night's light dance, in spite of my city's frenetic spray of parking lot, street, shopping center glare. Thank you, Orion's Belt, for returning to your autumnal station in my southeast dawn sky. That certainty reassures me. Thank you, Whatever-Satellite-You-Are, for reminding me that humans have made their presence, both good and bad, felt in these limitless celestial fields.

My morning sky prayer is repeated at day's end. Thank you, Hot Orb, for bringing life to us yet again. Thank you, Stars, for sharing your faceted brilliance, even though I know the light I'm seeing is so old, so passe, so long-gone. Thank you, Darkness, for giving us shelter from others' stares. Now you, Flying Tubes, be safe, you with your flashing lights and your rows of trusting souls. Be safe. Thank you again, Moon Girl, for pouring more healthy light into my eyes. And so I pray.

The sky is my altar. An uplifted chin is a grateful, thoughtful, seeking, celebrating one. The sky is also my palette. Amazement is a given as I trace the nuance of color and shape in the sky. Just this Sunday I ran with my dog while it was quite dark. Ground color was the deepest charcoal, spurring a wish that my steps would be met by even ground unwilling to trip me. A pewter dome covered us: regal, still, sober. As we ran, that metallic hue gave way to blue and apricot. Sweet combo, with blue above, apricot near the earth. Then iridescence jumped in. Pearly cloud drifts swam across the sky like schools of gilded fish. (I recently saw clouds that danced like a bounty of jelly fish, up-right, perky, and on the move...they stayed for only minutes.)

By the time we returned home from our run, this pearlized palette had been tossed out and a new one plunked down: a sharp azure field set up for muscle-bound, substantive clouds. Impressive bunch, these white forms were. But, within an hour, they were gone and the dome was greyed, subdued, quiet, perfect for a Sunday morning brunch on the deck. My head was spinning with the rambling color schemes and shapes of just a few hours of morning sky.

The altar, the palette, they both enchant. The sky comforts, inspires, stuns me. I am ever grateful that I can, each day, look up.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Flannel

It's time. The earth has revolved enough that it is now time for flannel. I'm talking flannel shirts and flannel sheets and flannel PJs. And this move to the warm and fuzzy fabric is one I savor every year.

It helps that autumn is my favorite season. It helps that, late each summer, I start yearning for the day I can pull out my favorite shirt: a red flannel long-sleeved shirt that has been slashed by branches while hunting, that has been worn and washed so many times the cuffs are fringed, that has buttons replaced at least three times, that has a collar worn to incredible softness. Is it time yet for my red flannel shirt? Is it? Is it?

Well, now it is and I'm loving it. I adore the cool mornings and chilled evenings of September. I adore the warmth my red flannel shirt grants me.

Flannel is an interesting, and old, fabric, one commonly associated with manly men like lumberjacks and farmers. Grunge rockers and skateboarders now wear plaid flannel as fashion statements. I read that there are clubs whose sole requirement for joining is to be "plaid clad" (wearing flannel) on Fridays.

Growing up I liked flannel because, like corduroy, it meant school was starting (which I liked), hunting season was starting, and, most of all, jumping into bed would be a cuddly adventure. My mom was quite precise in our seasonal swap-outs of percale sheets for flannel, of seeksucker pajamas for flannel, of shorts and sun-tops for jeans and flannel shirts. It was a ritual I always savored, providing regularity, predictability in my universe.

My red flannel shirt has been a favorite, not just because of the one I have, but because of those of others. My dad's flannel shirts were a constant in cooler weather, usually meaning that something fun was about to happen, like a trip to the wheat fields near Aberdeen, or a trek to the grouse country of Arbon Valley, or even a drive to the dump, a place filled with mysterious treasures! A mentor in graduate school, a distinguished PhD, rose highest in my esteem, not in his cap and gown for graduation ceremonies, not in his shirt and tie for teaching us about "Paradise Lost," but in his red flannel shirt and tough pants for trekking the hills south of town. Now that's what a real Renaissance man wears.

This isn't the first time I've waxed poetic about a shirt. A poem in my book, The Silence of Bright Star, tracks the adventures of a periwinkle fleece shirt my late husband wore non-stop, so much so that most pictures of him were in that shirt.

After he was gone and
his family wept over boxes
and books and clips of his image,
his mother asked,
"Didn't he have any other shirts?"

He did, but not like this one.

That poem tells how I now wear that shirt, knowing that its fuzzy warmth, stoutness, gentle touch will make the cooler season quite palatable. Fleece really does want to be flannel, don't you think?

Following my mom's model, I'm now doing the seasonal swap-outs in my closets, pulling out the wonderful flannel nightshirts (including the one my daughter made me, white flannel printed with cows wearing leather biker jackets), the snuggly sheets (cheerily stamped with mittens and hats in blues, pinks, and purples), and, of course, that precious friend of mine for years, the red flannel shirt.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Un-Known

This week I thought about things we maybe don't need to know, maybe the un-known. I say this after watching my mother undergo cataract surgery four feet away from me. Glass separated us. I could choose to watch the procedure either in "person" by turning my head to the left or "up close" by looking straight ahead at the TV screen, where the surgery took place and was recorded, with edifying narration.

Okay, so what did I need to know about my mom's cataract surgery? That it worked. That she didn't hurt. That it was a good decision. Did I need to see the emulsification of her cataract and the subsequent vaccuming of its debris? Maybe. Did I need to watch as the surgeon cut her eye? No. Especially no if I were looking to my left and actually watching the surgeon slice my mother's eyeball. No.

That got me thinking about the pop phrase TMI (Too Much Information). It's all around us. We don't ask for all the data shared with us, non-stop, nearly everywhere we go. Even though I was flattered with my gut doctor telling me, as we reviewed my colonoscopy pix, that my colon was one of the most beautiful he'd seen, I'm not sure I needed to discuss the appearance of my colon with him. I would probably have been fine with his saying "Everything looks great" and not jointly trekking through the curving highway of my scoped entrails.

When I'm shopping, I really don't need to see the details of that woman's body, squished as it is in undergarments too small and knit outerwear that's too thin. I really don't need to see the details of that man's body, who is apparently choosing to not wear undergarments under his sweats. Nor do I need to see the forms of my co-workers who just finished their workouts, all wrapped up in Spandex. I do not need to see that woman's expensive implants, as perfectly pert as they are. I do not need to see that young man's underwear as he bends down in front of me at the checkstand.


There is much on television I do not need to see. I do not need to know the details of daily life of Snoop Dog, the Osbornes and even the Kardashians, as beautiful as they are. I do not need to know how Sandra is doing now that Jesse is "out" with his inked floozy. I do not need to know what angst Jen is going through without a man. Spare me, please. And I REALLY don't need to know the details of Kate Gosselin's new body. Really.

At work I learn more about employees than I want to know, including their sad realms of health and domestic relations, as well as the pieces that are missing from their ability to determine what behavior is appropriate for the workplace and what is not.

At home I learn more about my neighbors than I need to know. Please spare me the late night staggering about in the driveway or the ramped up diatribe of an unhappy adult child.

In the political realm, I shudder at the excess info I receive, starting with LBJ's scar, through Bill's philandering cigar work, to Palin's sad saga of unwed child hooked to a narcissistic stud.

Spare me, please.

I think of a mentor I had in graduate school, a very reserved, pretty much up-tight Renaissance scholar. To him, Milton was cool ("bomb"). To him, Herrick was racily erotic. To him, the courtly love tradition was where it's at. I savored his observations, in person and, after leaving campus, in more than a decade of joyous correspondence. I appreciated his shock at the impudence of full and unsolicited disclosure. He yearned for coyness, for the valor that is discretion, for the ability to hold back information that may be unsettling and unnecessary. He liked nuance and hints and serendipidous revelation.

Maybe I'm more like him than I think. Maybe the overload of skin and disfunction is more offensive to me than I typically let on. I'm thinking that there is some profound joy in discovery, in mystery, in hesitation. Though I appreciate all the wonders of immediacy that technology and the web allow us, maybe I long for the day when imagination was given a chance to work, before graphic full-face video exploded any doubt. Maybe I long for the more refined, graceful days of Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, when less really was more.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Shell

While outside knitting I saw a precious thing on the table: the exquisite shell of a spider, a perfect mold of its body, head and legs. Black and white lace it was, a half inch long and not heavy enough to tip most scales. Beautiful, I thought. I knitted a row, looked up again and it was gone, blown somewhere by a slight breeze. I looked on the deck, even got down on my hands and knees, and could not find it. The fairyland carapace of that spider was gone.

That got me thinking about exoskeletons, the chitonous cases that wrap insects, crustaceans and spiders. I found that "chiton," the semitransparent horny substance that makes up the exoskeleton, comes from a word that means "tunic." So this tunic of hard material protects a bug, a crab, a spider from the dangers of existence. Like the knight's armor, the exoskeleton ensures that the soft, vital organs of the creature won't be punctured or slashed or crushed or pulverized.

That's a great system, don't you think? All except for one thing: what happens as the creature grows? Exoskeletons don't come in "One Size Fits All." So the creature has to go through a very, very risky phase: it has to shed the old shell, assume a position of complete vulnerability, and patiently await the completion of the new, larger, more comfy shell. Lots could happen during that wait. Dangers abound.

I'm thinking we go through the same kind of shelling, shedding, shrinking, shuddering, shelling again. We develop thick tunics of indifference and avoidance to persons and situations that could harm us. We allow emotional chiton to shield us from the barbs of the mean-spirited. We hunker down in our comfortable carapaces, ducking from the unfamiliar, staying with the known. This is a good system...until we start growing.

I remember the exoskeletons I've shed. A remarkable one involved a discovery in my third year of college: I was shocked to learn that people were interested in knowing what my thoughts were, without having to preface those thoughts with an introduction of who I was connected to: whose child, wife, sister, mother I was. It was truly a revelation that my ideas were valued, without a connection to other persons. With that unveiling came a huge responsibility: my ideas had to count. They had to mean something. I couldn't just spout the thoughts of others, but had to take time to absorb writers' and speakers' tenets, synthesize them, and build my own set of ideas. It was a daunting prospect, but one that has brought me joy for decades. The chiton of mimicry was off; I had to think, boldly, for myself!

Other shells have come off reluctantly, painfully. Morphing from the fairy-tale wife/mom, living happily ever after, to the single mom raising a child alone, paying 47% of her gross income for rent each month, going without a car for six months...that transformation was not one I asked for. But the growth that came with such a change was incredible. I learned, in my new single mom exoskeleton, how to budget, find free fun, and build a tight bond with my daughter. I learned to share lessons of focus, frugality, and confidence, as the chiton in this shell toughened and protected.

Decades later, when my husband died, I had to leave the comfort of that wonderful carapace of wife. Oh my goodness, did I NOT want to leave that shell. It was a spectacular safe haven, filled with laughter, adventure, kindness, and love. But his death tossed my exoskeleton to the wind. A shuddering shape of vulnerability, I had to grow a new shell. On some days the task was devestatingly difficult, like the day the 100 year rain flooded the lower level of the house and plugged the storm drains in the driveway. The image of me ankle-deep in water, sobbing as intensely as I was scooping water and debris out of the storm drain grate, cursing my husband for deserting me, is an image I'll never forget. The storm toughened me. Within days, I took a knife to the soggy carpet that sulked in half of the house's lower level. I cut it in six-foot strips, rolled it and put each roll into the truck. Did the same with the sopping carpet pad. Took it all to the dump. Got rid of that mess and grew some new armour at the same time.

I did not want to leave that shell, but had no choice. Now I'm stronger for all that, encased in a new exoskeleton that will guard me for awhile. Then I'll struggle again, as the chitonous tunic drops and I face new challenges. Like the insect, the crab, and the spider, I will move on. I'll leave the old shell behind and hunker down in a grander carapace for the days to come.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Peaks

I’m a mountain-top kind of girl. Give me a summit. You can have the moist green divot bejeweled with a tumbling creek. I’ll take the top bunk, thank you very much.

Seems I’ve been that way as an adult for a very long time. The Tetons, Big Horn Crags, Seven Devils….these were the rock stars of my twenties. Jarring blocks of granite, that’s what I wanted watching my back. I used to lead trips into the exhausting trials of Heaven’s Gate, opening up the wilderness of the rugged range just east of Hell’s Canyon.

To entice the na├»ve folks who signed up for my annual “Seven Devils Torture Trip,” I’d stash fifths of Jack Daniels and tins of smoked oysters. On the last climb out, after nearly nineteen miles and a couple of thousand vertical feet, my hiking buddies would be vengeful. I’d have to bribe them: “Just around this bend, just above this crossing, just below that summit."

Then, when they were convinced I was demented or satanic, I’d suggest we take a break. I’d wander in the brush and come back with treats! The last quarter mile was not so tough, with a couple of swigs of Jack and some oysters in the tummy.

Peaks. That’s what I like. My late husband and I had our first “real” date among the Seven Devils’ peaks. An incredible storm swooped down upon us and we huddled in one of our tents, hoping that the lightning zaps would spare us. He told me that this was a good sign: our love had been tested in the crucible of that storm and it held. He was right.

Peaks. That’s what I like. When looking for a spot to camp, I like the summit or, at the very least, a saddle. Surveying what’s out there is important. Nineteenth century landscaping protocol dictated having a fine vista, a spot where one could survey the expanse of her holdings, could monitor the work of her grounds crew, could ruminate on the wild spirituality of Nature Untamed.

We always sought such spots out when rambling in our truck and camper unit. One summit in the Escalante region of southern Utah was particularly impressive: we set up lawn chairs to watch the sunset. Wild turkeys surrounded us at dusk. Elk moistened our windows with their hot breath before dawn. Sunrise was an incredible sacrament, marked with the taste of strong steamy coffee and the deep smiles of gratitude.

Peaks. That’s what I like. My daughter and I just hiked around on Mt Hood. Oh my goodness, what a creature, that mountain! We took the ski lift up, disembarked, and scrambled above the tree line. Clouds sifted through the rocky top of this volcano. Sun tried burning all mist away, but failed. Wind slashed across talus slopes, hardly fazing the tiny tundra blooms of pink, white, yellow. Hiking out to Zig Zag Overlook, we traversed an incredible conifer forest scrambling to hang on, a deep vee canyon littered with the debris of spring run-off, and lush greened meadows, musky and ripe. A trek this high was worth repeating and we agreed to tackle a trail on Mt. Rainier in the coming days.

She and I may not make such a trip, given the soggy forecast in front of us, but we know quite well the joys to be had near the summit. We know of the sacred pleasures offered by peaks.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Air Traffic

Serving as Chief of Air Traffic Control in my yard, I am very busy this time of year. Air traffic is at an all-time high. This is not easy work, but I am dedicated to doing it with skill and without complaint.

First I must observe...and direct...the larger crafts (birds). Work must be done to ensure that their approaches, landings, and take-offs are without incident. Hazards need to be minimized, which may require posting hawk-shaped decals on window panes or moving fueling stations away from easy feline access.

Then I must think of the community concerns. If a hammock is in the area, I must monitor it to ensure that residents are not bombed or subjected to excessive noise. If a gathering occurs, I must be vigilant that guests are not having close encounters of an avian kind.

Once I take care of safety and comfort issues, I can focus on observation and that is the fun part of air traffic control in my yard. A few years back, I followed the advice of an Audubon Society speaker and planted a hummingbird island. Using native plants as much as possible, I put in lots of mallow and pentstemon, in brilliant girlie-hues of hot pink and violet. I also added white monarda to the bed, which already had good stands of blue cornflower and pale yellow columbine. The island sprawls just north of deep pink monarda, dogwood, coral and yellow honeysuckle, and three large butterfly bushes (including the gorgeous deep purple of "Black Knight"). Pale coral oriental poppies, Japanese spurge and pale pink Queen of the Prairie round out that bed. The two spots lure hummingbirds shamelessly.

The hummers come. I hear them often before seeing them. Sometimes one will plummet into the honeysuckle, stay a flash, and then lift off. Sometimes one will wander a bit through the aspen grove, its subtle green shape looking much like an aspen leaf. Sometimes a pair will race through the yard, dipping, chasing, soaring in a crazed duet. Sometimes, rarely, one will perch on a limb or a wire and take a micro-nap.

The air is filled this time of year with bees. My benign neglect of oregano and mint and sunflowers under the bird feeders brings hoardes of bees. What a joy to see golden buzzes of different sizes working the big yellow faces of six-foot tall sunflowers! What pleasure to hear the soft whirr of bee in the tiny orchid oregano blooms next to the sunroom! What satisfaction to see a huge bumble of black and gold among the columbine! Given the globe's bee problems, I'm pleased to be helping a tiny bit.

Most notable in my garden air this time of year are the fluttering ballerina butterflies, their ivory tutus dotted with dabs of charcoal. These sweet creatures kiss many of my plants, not just the open-faced ones like yarrow and buddleia, but the ruffled skirts of yellow hollyhock, the pale umbels of parsley and the cheery white goblins in my petunia bed. Sometimes these performers do solos and other times engage in synchorized gyrations that spin my head. I watched a quartet this week whirl, dive, pop, and glide in a dance of impressive length. What, I wondered, made them move as one?

Monitoring air traffic in my yard is one of my important chores in late summer. You can rest assured that I am going stay vigilant at my post (whether it's a hammock, swing, or futon), keeping watch on all my aerial visitors.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Touched

I share an indulgence with my daughter: we are both massage junkies, skin pigs, she calls us. We like being touched, touched by a pro. I budget for massages, several a month, and have done so for a long time. My family physician approves, noting that he'd like all his patients to do so.

Jennifer, my wonderful therapist, does deep tissue work on me. Voted "Best" in our town, she earns the title. She's strong and tough and hurts me real good. Sometimes she'll say "Don't hate me" when working the knots out of my shoulders. When I leave her serene spot, I'm liquid. Sliding into the car, I try to get home without being picked up by the police, because I'm sure my nonchalance may appear to be signs of DUI.

Touch is incredibly important. I remember touching, ever so lightly, my husband as his cancer crashed over him. His skin was taut and tender, but he liked the soft strokes of lotion I'd put on his arms and legs. Sweet golden retriever Sadie would lick his arms non-stop: "Here. Let my touch make it all better." Sadie and I hoped our touch eased his pain.

Research shows that massage helps victims of cancer, AIDs, high blood pressure, migraines, stress, and many more maladies. Those who choose bodywork are selecting an important, maybe even sacred, calling.

As important as massages are, not all massages are fun. I recall an excrutiating one in a resort north of Puerto Vallarta, during a yoga retreat with my daughter. The therapist was a tiny, mysterious woman who whispered in my ear as she finished her work, "Listen you heart!" During her intense manipulation, I envisioned many persons in my life and sorted them into angel and devil categories. I put myself in the "diablo" set. When my massage was done, I went to the suite my daughter and I shared and cried, cried non-stop for a long, long time. Could not quit crying. Cried mostly about my husband's death, but cried for lots of other reasons too. Could not understand why that massage triggered such emotion. Oddly, the three persons who had massages that day were ill the following day. Ate the same food, drank the same beverages, et al, as everyone else, but were ill. I'm convinced the therapist was more shaman than masseuse and that we three had somehow been spiritually purged.

I used to see Julie, an amma therapist (practicing a form of Koren acupressure, I'm told). Sometimes when she was working on me, I'd launch into incredible visual treks. One session found me experiencing spring repeatedly as an emerging blossom on a fruit tree. Another saw me wandering calmly through acres and acres of red rock in the Four Corners. Julie transported me somehow with her fingers.

On a recent trip I followed my daughter's advice and sprung for a foot massage rather than a cocktail at the airport before boarding my flight. Oh my goodness, was that the right decision. The twenty-minute massage was heavenly. My flight was on-time and pleasant, but I don't think it would have mattered much to me had it not been either. My feet and I were in nirvana.

Whether I'm in an airport, at a Mexican resort, or at my therapist's calming site, I savor each opportunity for a massage, enjoying the blissful and healing connection with another creature. Blessed am I to be touched.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Letting Go

Every day I get a message from the Dalai Lama. He encourages me (and the thousands of others who follow him on Facebook) to let go of anger, to let go of attachment, and to hold on to compassion and kindness. His words have guided me for years. I sometimes wear a white silk scarf I was given at a luncheon where he spoke. A person's wearing such a scarf signals that she comes with good intentions. I like that scarf and wear it on special occasions.

The Dalai Lama helps me nurture compassion and kindness. Recently I've had an opportunity to test these traits in response to behaviors of a very unhappy person. My initial response to these behaviors was to cry, to solicit support from those I love and trust, and then to get angry, really, really angry. The attack was, in my mind, unprovoked and mean-spirited. I clung to my anger for a day or so. Then, after reading a message from the Dalai Lama, I went for a walk.

I walked through a haunting memorial to Anne Frank. I meandered along the water feature, studying quotes from inspirational persons all over the globe, from victims of oppression on this continent, Europe, Asia, and South America. I studied the bronze sculpture of Frank, a likeness captured as a lean teenager peering out a window. I was truly awestruck by her comment that, in spite of everything, she thought people were basically good.

How could she practice such compassion? How could she let go of anger, given the horrors of the Holocaust that she witnessed daily? How could I stay angry, when my wound was so slight?

My steps took on new energy as I left the Anne Frank memorial. It was really possible for me to let go of this anger. It was really possible for me to move on to a realm where scowls and tears were replaced by grins and laughter. And so I did. Even this week, when another snotty message was shot my way, I let it go. Processed it, then let it go.

Each moment I'm unhappy is a moment I could have spent being happy. Each frown I wear is an expression I could have turned around.

My daily messages from the Dalai Lama, my walk through the Anne Frank memorial are special blessings in my life. They help me practice kindness and compassion. They help me with the very important task of letting go.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

August !

Here it is August, the eighth month that was originally the sixth month til the Romans messed with the calendar. August, the month that's mostly about anticipation: when will the heat subside, when will the kids get back in the school, when will football reign, when will the yard quench its unsatiable thirst. August, the month that Chicago residents recently dubbed one of their least favorite, at the bottom of the list of faves, along with November. August, the month that one Slate columnist (David Plotz) proposed eliminating, citing its miserable heat, dismal history and inconsequence, saying it was like the Mississippi River, something we'd be better off without.

Not sure I agree with the August bashers. I like August. It's a trigger month for me. It always triggers in my mind the notion of corduroy, plush, mysterious corduroy. Look at it one way, it's deep-toned and a bit rough. Turn it around, it's sleek and lighter. I remember corduroy jumpers were part of our August world. These wonderfully versatile garments offered a way to expand a girl's wardrobe, with one swift switch. A white blouse under a black corduroy jumper, one with a rick-rack trimmed full-circle skirt, could launch the jumper to exquisite primness, while a tartan plaid top could rouse images of lockers, lunch bells, and eraser dust. These are August images. I gifted my daughter with this same seasonal fashion: her back-to-school wardrobe, stitched up in late summer, typically had at least one piece of lush, ribbed corduroy. Corduroy and August just go together in my mind, like root beer and vanilla ice cream.

Corduroy jumpers are not the only thing I like about August. The month also triggers the image of air shows, not performed by fighter jets, but by tiny, big-mouthed swallows. These diminutive aeronauts are amazing. My late husband and I used to plunk lawn chairs in the middle of our large back yard, then sit quite still as the air show launched. Rusty-breasted barn swallows would swoop, zip, dive, roll, and soar all around us, sweeping the evening sky for hapless insects, fanning their distinctive vees of tail. Our neighborhood, plush green from cheap irrigation water, lured mosquitos and they brought in the swallow squadrons. We were stunned, repeatedly shocked, that these jockeys didn't collide, with each other, with us, with the many trees and shrubs in our yard. We loved the exhilarating swallow air shows: a treat that came our way each August.

Another August treat drops off trees, pops out of freezers. I'm talking about the indescribable wonder of fresh, local peaches dressing up a dish of good vanilla ice cream. A dessert fiend I'm not, but in August, I'm on the prowl. Gimme the succulent fuzzy globe. I'll pit it, slice it, smother it with sweet vanilla chill. I'll make each serving a long, slow, meander along my taste buds. I'll sit, as I did last night, in the green chamber of backyard, bringing each spoonful deliberately to my mouth, letting the peach land first, crowned by the ice cream, then letting the blissful concoction melt, dissolve, find its way to my tummy. I'll wait a bit before taking on the next spoonful. Savor this blessing. Savor each bit of August.

August-bashers can attack the month, but I like it. I like the name, as it sounds dignified. My grandfather's first name was August; my father's middle name was August. It's a name I like. Detractors say that the month is flawed because there is no national holiday. But what about all the wonderful, if lesser known, celebrations in August? Here are some of my favorites, along with their celebration dates: National Ice Cream Sandwich Day (2nd); Wiggle Your Toes Day (6th); National Polka Festival!!!(9th); Middle Child Day (that's me) (12th); Bratwurst Festival (16th); National Spongecake Day (23rd); and World Sauntering Day (28th).

With all these things to celebrate, what's not to like about August?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Take It Outside

I went this week to an outdoor jazz concert with a stunning, sweet friend of mine. We lolled on rolling grass and sipped our way through the evening, encased in a summer eve's blue dome. Near the end of the concert, a plump moon lifted off from the hill behind us. Guess she wanted to see what was going on.

Outdoor concerts are my favorite. People just seem to be more attuned to relaxing and having fun. For most folks, weather conditions aren't a huge factor. Last year, my daughter and I danced to the Gypsy Kings in light rain...didn't matter. A few years earlier, she and I savored B B King playing at the same gorgeous location. It rained, soft brush of moisture, on us for most of the concert. B B King encouraged us to endure the wet, telling us that "pain is part of the blues."

This summer I get to go to at least three more outdoor shows: Pink Martini at the Portland zoo, Doobie Brothers at Edgefield, and Ozomatli near the Seattle Space Needle. This trio of outside shows is going wrap my musical summer up nicely.

I've been thinking about the pleasure of outdoor music and that led me elsewhere: to those activities that we typically do indoors, activities that take on special meaning when we do them outside. I recall the giddiness of sleeping out as a child, stuffing ourselves into our flannel sleeping bags in the back yard, trying to stay awake as long as possible, digging deeper into the cocoon as the temperatures dropped, then waking up cheerily with the sun. I recently posted about sleeping outside in my hammock: pure heaven. My wonderful grandnieces have been sleeping outside, with their folks, on a big trampoline. How fun is that!

Sleeping's not the only activity that's more fun outside than in. Dining, reading, knitting, chatting, playing games...they are all embellished on a stage of tree and sky. When my mom and I join my sis and her husband at a beautiful beach-side house in California, we set up jigsaw puzzles on the deck. Somehow the marine vista improves our puzzle-solving skills. Must say that knitting in my back yard, plunked in a gorgeous Adirondack chair my late husband made, feet perched on a stool, totally surrounded by green that's punctuated with white, magenta, deep violet, and baby pink blossoms, is one of my favorite things to do.

Yes, the outdoors is made for human activities. I'm wanting to expand my realm of fresh air things to include taking a shower. Several designs for an outdoor shower are floating through my imagination. My favorite so far is a wooden frame filled with river rock (for drainage)from which rises a tall pipe and shower head. Don't really want a "curtain," so will have to figure out how to provide needed privacy. Showering outside is a fabulous way to get clean. My late husband and I did that often, whether it was while backpacking, enjoying the incredible pleasure of warm water from our solar showers or while traveling in our truck and camper. He would turn the water heater on and, within an hour, find a perfect place for us to shower, using the external shower on the camper. My goodness, does showering outside at 9,000 feet, in the pines with no one within miles, feel fabulous! As does shampooing in high desert, with thousands of acres of stunningly stark vista as the backdrop!

Outside. I like the idea of taking it outside, no matter what the "it" is. I'll treasure these outdoor times and will reluctantly take my activities inside as the planet tilts toward the cold.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Things Left Behind

My cousins are cleaning house: the house their parents have lived in for decades. The task is daunting.

It makes me think of personal artifacts, of all the "essential" things we pull toward us and store attentively. Should archeologists profile us for feature stories in Intergalactic Geographic, what would they find? What "things" are we leaving for those who follow?

My cousin told me of finding sugar and creamer packets in her dad's travel bag. I found plastic toothpicks, scores of them, in my late husband's road case. I wondered "How many of these gadgets does a guy need?" and then sobbed. His office mates brought me seven boxes of his work possessions. One box was populated with ten years of biweekly pay stubs (that's 260 of them!) arranged, of course, chronologically. I was told that such an accummulation was common in the desks of that unit (left-brain scientist types).

My mom warns me of the impending chores we will have sorting through her belongings. I remind her that I may beat her to it, impudently causing her to go through my things! All the dolls, the pottery, the paper memorabilia, the other antiques, the fabric, and, oh yeah, the yarn! What, indeed, would archeologists make of the miles and miles and miles of spun fiber I have? Wool, alpaca, camel, linen, cotton, tencel, rayon, seaweed and even dog hair fibers are in my yarn stash. What does that all mean? And then there are the folds of fabric! Will future generations understand how darling that brown fake fur vest, lined with perfectly matched brown/black brocade would have been? To them, it may just look like some fuzzy and shiny brown stuff. And the beads! The tiny dogwood blossom necklace being made of freshwater pearls and delicate sable-colored seed beads, following directions in Japanese with (thank goodness) excellent diagrams; will it mean anything to anyone? Sea glass, shells, dried seed pods: these are all destined to be incredible artistic creations! Honestly!

The garage hosts even more artifacts, clutched close in a decade of prowling antique stores and shows, as well as flea markets and yard sales. Tools, dolls, books, pottery: will these priceless items land my estate administrator daughter on the Antiques Roadshow or the terrifying show about hoarders? And what about all the outdoor equipment that no longer gets outside the garage: the snowshoes, backpacks, skis, canoe paddles. What about those? And what about the books? Seinfeld said there's no reason to keep a book once you've read it. Wish I could be that way. I'd have thirteen fewer boxes in my garage. And what about the boxes labeled "Misc?" Scary, what could be in those. May be precious scrapbook spawn or incredibly insignificant brochures. A miasma. So hazy. I don't like thinking about this one bit.

The advice to simplify, to shed ourselves of possessions, is so sensible and so very difficult to follow. And yet, when I listen to my cousins, when I talk to my mom, when I look in my garage and my sewing room, I think that the counsel to rid ourselves of things is very wise. Not just so we can focus on what is truly important to us on this particular day, but so we can spare those who follow the gargantuan task of sorting through all the things left behind.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Sling

I'm a fabric fanatic. Give me yardage and I'll be happy. Love feeling high thread-count cotton, peering at intricate damask, feeling smooth ridges of twill, nuzzling the lambskin cuddle of wool, anticipating the regal primness of ironed linen. I really like turning strips of fabric into clothing, table ware, purses, curtains and toys. One of my favorite fabric constructs is the hammock I made last summer. It was an emergency. I was having an outdoor party and one of the planned lounging sites was a hammock, a wonderful green cotton hammock suspended from two thick wooden rods on a green metal frame. I had inherited it from my dad, who used it, on the rare occasions that he rested, on a deck in mountain pines.

Testing the hammock to make sure I had the tension set right, I ruined it. My frame split the canvas, worn by lots of summer sun, and rendered it useless. What was I to do?

Seeing a heroic moment in the making, I rushed to my favorite fabric store, Caledonia, and sought the assistance of one of its beautiful owners, Dorothy. She helped me find high quality, tightly woven cotton decorating fabric (Waverly, I think) in coordinating plaid and toile prints of forest green and ivory. Perfect! Dorothy gave me wizard's counsel: here's how to do this, and this, and this. And don't forget this. I rushed home, sewed it as she instructed, mounted it on the green metal frame and had a beautiful, handcrafted piece of furniture in my sweet summer yard. It was perfect!

I tested it out. It was ideal. I was set, not just for this party, but for lots of summer time. Since then, I've savored my shifts in the sling. I have grown to really appreciate those ingenious folks who first strung a swath of fabric from one outdoor point to another. Hammocks have been used in lots of settings, from lush jungle to varnished boat deck to palm-studded beach. They're very practical: protecting tropical snoozers from insects, reptiles, and disease; helping nautical dozers sleep in high seas; and enabling "light touch" campers to enjoy high mountain stays with minimal impact.

But the practicality of the hammock isn't why I like it so much. It's the view. When I'm in my hammock, I look up, up into the canopy. When I first got my dad's hammock, I tested it out under various trees in our big, riverside yard. Apple tree shade is different from walnut tree shade and those are both different from that spread by ponderosa pine, apricot tree, and aspen. My husband thought I was a bit crazy, dragging the hammock around from spot to spot, reclining for a bit, then moving it to new shade. I learned a lot about shade, discovering that my favorite shade was that of the apple tree.

Now I'm sheltered by a huge elm tree and that canopy is a universe in itself. A few days ago I watched a squirrel take a nap for nearly an hour, tucked in a crook of branch and trunk. I have traced the amazing stunt flights of house sparrows zipping through branches to land in the chickadee nesting box. I have chuckled at the gilded blitz of goldfinches, dining upside down on the thistle feeder. I have tracked delicate drifts of leaves as breezes meander through the yard.

One of my favorite hammock times is when the sun exits. Dusk is a lyrical hammock time, as birds finish their sonatas and the sky becomes a pale quilt appliqued with dark leaf shapes. Once the ink covers the sky, the hammock spot is even more enchanting. Through the canopy pop stars and planets and cloud drifts and planes. I slept in the hammock for part of the night this week, comforted by the golden retriever asleep right next to me. I was safe that night, protected from insects, reptiles, rough seas, and boredom. The sling in the yard suspended me above the mundane of everyday routine, a precious gift I'm going to enjoy often.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Sweet Part of Summer

If I had to choose a favorite season, I'd pick fall. Something just comes alive in me when it's time to get out my red chamois shirt, the one with lots of holes worn in the sleeves. It's been my autumn companion for decades. Maybe I like this season because I'm a Libra; who can say.

But a close runner up, in the All-Time Perfect Season category, would be early summer. I'm not talking August here. Weeks of three digit heat, frazzled flower beds, air choked with forest fire smoke, sizzling cars, iced offices: not my idea of summer.

The summer I'm liking is the one that's outside the door right now. Mellow. Moist. Rich. Sweet as can be. That's the summer I like.

Just mowed the lawn and then set out a sprinkler. Oh my goodness...look at the shocking purple of those six foot larkspur! I know they're toxic to cattle, but can you imagine a more regal and, at the same time, scruffy flower! Some kind of gypsy flora, I'm thinking. While mowing, I apologized to the bees for chopping off the giddy white spheres of flower on the clover. The lawn looked like it had been hammered with hail before I mowed. Saddened that I took the bees' treasure, I referred them to the hundreds of Barbie-pink pentstemon, the gawky stalks of yarrow, and the inviting pastel cups of mallow. I also reminded them that the clover would be back in a few days.

In early summer, plants are in a good mood. They're not stressed, quite yet, with Sol's stare. Among the happy blooms are columbine. I like the whimsy of yellow columbine clamboring around in my aspen grove. Posted in an idyllic setting of dappled shade, rattly leaves, and moisture, these odd-shaped blooms are thriving. Columbine, whose scientific name refers to their eagle-like shape, are fun flowers. They're hardy and long-lived and prolific. Columbine greet me in late spring, keep blooming for months, and generously spawn new generations.

I'm liking the early summer explosion of the giantic shade tree in my back yard. A "trash" tree, this elm is demeaned by power company staff and horticulturalists alike. But mine is SO huge and shades the house so well, that I rarely need to turn on the air conditioning. It is my summertime friend. Right now, this tree is draping long strands of lovely green leaves above the yard like a Southern debutante. Oh my! Just look at this sweet shade, will you, Ellie Mae?

And the summer morning sounds! I tune out the neighbors' mowers et al and zero in on the gossipy sparrow chirp, the lilting giggle of goldfinch, and the sharp curse of crow. Earlier killdeer and robin had offered their hymns to morning and, on our run, quail broadcast and red-winged blackbird trilled.

The aromas of early summer are hard to match. When I unlock my front door, the fruity sweet of petunia and cranebill geranium greet me. When I perch next to the hummingbird haven, it's the tangy drift of lavendar, phlox, and delphinium. And when I wander to the raised beds, it's the lucious explosion of just-ripe strawberry and the rich pinch of dill and cilantro before they bolt. Mint and oregano rim many flower beds and they're spraying their scent everywhere, all the time!

Yes, I'm thinking early summer is almost my favorite season. I'm savoring every single minute of this lucious time.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Knit One

Knitting has been a special hobby of mine for awhile. I've made lots of scarves, baby clothes, hats, sweaters, and even a coat. I've written poetry about the precious gift of knitting:

Each stitch is infused with hope,
not just to become garment,
not just to warm or grace,
but another kind of hope,
a prayer,
a wish,
a memory,
to be preserved in fiber.

from "Knitting," The Silence of Bright Star
www.eloquentbooks.com/TheSilenceOfBrightStar.html

But last weekend I was blessed to work on the most important piece ever and to work with the most precious yarn ever. I knitted a laprobe for my daughter out of yarn spun from the hair of her stunning dog Marilyn. An Audrey Hepburn of a dog, Marilyn was pure grace, with a ladylike prance and a model's posture. She would delicately cross one paw over the other as she reclined. Incredibly beautiful, she turned heads, with her glossy black fur and electric blue eyes. When my daughter and I helped Marilyn cross over the Rainbow Bridge last June, this planet lost one of its elegant queens. She was royalty, through and through.

So knitting something for my daughter, something that was part of Marilyn was a thrilling prospect. I couldn't wait to see and feel the yarn that Christine O'Hara (spinningstrawintogold.com) created. Christine posted a picture of Marilyn (shown in this blog) while she was spinning Marilyn's hair. Surprisingly the yarn was dark brown, even though Marilyn's coat looked black. The undercoat was lighter than the outer and that must have comprised most of the hair combed from Marilyn. The yarn was very soft, like angora or cashmere. I was anxious to transform it with my needles.

And what an ideal setting for me to do so! My daughter's current dog, Trudy (described in an earlier blog), and I spent almost four days together at a blissful hideaway, a house tucked among twelve acres of pinot noir grapes in the wine country of central Oregon. We had perfect knitting weather in this edenic spot: lots of rain and one day of blissful sunshine. Trudy and I sat in the living room enjoying the view and the quiet or lolled in the grassy yard enjoying the birds and the trees and the vista and the quiet. I knitted and Trudy sniffed and snoozed.

Knitting Marilyn was magic. Each stitch was special. The yarn was supple and fine to the touch. Each row brought new sensory pleasure. I was able to knit a laprobe about 18 by 28 to keep my daughter warm. I found a light blue mohair wool mix for trim, echoing the striking light blue of Marilyn's eyes. I liked the result: a fuzzy dark piece of love, looking much like a bearskin, edged in pale sky. Trudy liked it too; when I spread it out on the carpet she stepped onto it, laid down, and closed her eyes. It was sweet seeing the white dog asleep on the hair of the dark dog.

I was pleased to help transform a memory into a momento. Marilyn's presence was all around me as I knitted, a continuation of her insistence on being with my daughter all the time. "The apron strings on this one are short," my daughter used to say. This dog wanted nothing more than to be with the precious creature who rescued her and, even after she left this realm, she was able to be with her. I am so blessed to have helped.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Prey

I had planned for us to walk for miles along the wooded trail, a former railroad bed, meandering through pine forest, high desert, grassy meadow over this long weekend. My dog Sadie and I were set. Goretex, good sox, sunscreen, cashmere hat, gloves, water, snacks: we were prepared. A pre-trek jaunt was dress rehearsal. Parking spots, “urban” areas (of 20 homes or more), trestles, river access, I pinned them all on my mental map of this unique hiking highway. I was especially excited about the stretch of trail that veered from auto routes into an “uninhabited” stretch of canyon. Sadie and I were set for one long day on the rail to river trail, no matter what the unsettled weather shot our way.

Then I made the mistake of talking to locals. Not just any locals, but seasoned, sensible, well-rounded locals. Folks whose observations I valued. Folks whose declarations were not typically histrionic. Folks who knew this country deeply, after decades and decades of out-in-it residence. One who’d hunted rattlesnakes as a kid and who calmly stayed in his sleeping bag as cougar cubs caroused through camp. These were not lightweights, these men telling me about what it’s like out there now.

Wolves, I learned, have changed lots of things. Their presence is, without a doubt, very disturbing to people around here. I heard of the golden retriever snatched from the farmyard just up the highway. I heard of the huge male wolf carrying a thirty-pound raccoon across the road as if it were a kitten, just up the highway. I heard of the wolf who popped up here and there in a farmyard and who met his end ten feet from the rancher’s wife, just up the highway. I heard of the pair that moved into the neighborhood a few miles from town, just down the highway. I heard of the large male wolf that stared at a seasoned mushroom hunter from twelve feet away, not afraid, not startled, not curious, but just there, just suddenly there, just up the highway. I heard of the hunter on the other side of the state who shot repeatedly at the wolves attacking his hounds, emptying, then filling his gun. I was told that he flung one of his dogs over his shoulder and had to defend this dog from a wolf at his feet, even while he was gunning down its packmates.

I heard level-headed grandfathers say that, because they have dogs and grandkids, they now pack heat when heading into the wilds. I was instructed to do the same. I thought about it. I thought about it. I thought about my ditzy dog who, if confronted with a wolf pack would most likely either try to play or conquer, neither of which is a smart move. I thought about my own fear of bears, knowing that I would most likely lose any semblance of composure should a wolf cross our path.

And I thought of a poem I wrote about being prey:

Wolves? You too. Bring your pals.
Make me a canine banquet.
You scare me much less
than the pack of dizzied symptoms
that is Alzheimer’s.
Take my flesh.
Let my mind remember it.

From “Predation,” The Silence of Bright Star www.eloquentbooks.com/TheSilenceOfBrightStar.html

The brave stance of these lines wilted when it was time for Sadie and me to begin our trek. I did, in fact, change our plans. We still explored the gorgeous trail, especially the section that heads into the remote canyon. We still savored the luscious green and wildflower splash of this high mountain May. We still enjoyed the bright flash of yellow, white, blue songbirds. But we didn’t hike for miles and miles, off on a solitary adventure. We did most of our gazing from spots within view of the road and only hiked a section of the trail near a town, a town so small that a sign posted in its core says “Yes, this is Fruitvale.”

So why did I let the local counsel change my plans? Why did I succumb to the fear of others? I’m not sure. I’m a brave person, one who travels by herself, frequently heading out to remote places all alone. I’ve been a solitary traveler often in my adult life. Why now did I change my plans in response to dangerous possibilities?

I do not know the answer. I do know that the notion of being prey, of my dog being prey, was not one I liked. Rationally, I understand the statistics about wolf attacks on humans and know that the creatures have most likely moved further up slope, where elk calves and deer fauns are abundant. But, for some reason, I chose to be more cautious than usual on this wildland trail.

I don’t think I was convinced that we would encounter wolves. Just didn’t feel like hiking with a victim’s mindset. Didn’t want to keep looking over my shoulder, gasping at each snapped twig, hyperventilating at each shadow. Just didn't want to spend my time feeling like the frail heroine in Rackham's fairy tale illustration shown here. Just didn’t want to spend my time on the trail acting like prey.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

To Feed or Not to Feed

I admit it. I'm a geek birder, someone who gets so excited at seeing a pileated woodpecker (yes, in my state, awhile back) that I do not object to stopping the car in the middle of the road, leaving car doors agape while we all stab our binocs into the woods to scan intimate details of a bird that is rare around here.

I admit it. I'm a gawker, staring out the window for long, long stretches while ostensibly doing dishes, savoring the antics of rollicky gold finches who happen to dine upside down.

I admit it. I get a bit nervous when I've run out of the good birdseed and ponder the notion that I'm "neglecting" the feathered ones who have learned to dine at my feeders.

I always thought that being a birdfeeder was a good thing, that consistently putting out high quality seed was a pro-bird kind of thing.

Then this spring I heard from an advocate/researcher/birder who's been similarly smitten for three decades that maybe birdfeeding isn't such a good thing. Maybe the resulting imports of invasive flora and fauna are too damaging. Maybe the increased predation that birds face in backyards, predation from domestic cats, isn't worth the price of a daily handout. Maybe the birds' dependence on "welfare" meals isn't something that helps species in the long run.

But today, today after hours and hours and hours of non-stop rain, I'm convinced that being a birdfeeder is a good thing, that feeding birds is an act to be continued.

Why this epiphany on a rainforest day in the high desert? It's because of who's been visiting my feeders. It's because my efforts at providing safely situated dining rooms, along with fresh water and lots of trees, shrubs, and flowers, have made this small yard a refuge for songbirds. In the past few days I have been blessed to watch brilliant lazuli buntings peck good seed from my feeders and drink clean water from my bird baths. I am sorry if you have never seen a lazuli bunting up close. They are stunning: tropical turquoise, coral, and white dress these sweet finches. Their flash of blue through the garden is absolutely hypnotic. I've stationed myself at windows, perched myself on a futon in the sunroom, peered from behind living room drapes, just so I could gaze at these gorgeous birds.

And today, throughout this rare deluge, these jeweled buntings have been ravenous at my feeders. It's almost 7:30 pm here and, as I've written, a soaked bunting has been persistently gobbling the seed in a feeder beneath my crab apple tree. Can I offer this little trooper some refuge? Come on in the sunroom, out of the rain...I'll just leave a window open for you. The dogs can just stay in the house for awhile. You rest. Let those azure feathers dry a bit.

Yes, I will continue to feed birds. Maybe it is all about me, about my being able to savor the blessing of the turquoise zips of lazuli bunting. But maybe it is more. Maybe feeding birds helps folks like me connect with the natural world, a union that is increasingly difficult to forge. Maybe feeding birds gives us town folk a way to exchange our arrogant dominance over nature for a humbler, more durable companionship with things not human. Maybe more of these connections will help us maintain life on this planet a bit longer.

I'm thinking that's the lesson I've learned this week from the spectacular lazuli bunting. I'm thinking the answer to the question posed in this post's title is resoundingly clear: I shall continue "To Feed."