Friday, October 29, 2010


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


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


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


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.