Gratitude and Regret: Notes from the Sketchbook

The older I get the more regret I have about opportunities missed to learn about my mother.  She is an enigma: who was she at heart, and how did she come to be the person whose influence must be playing out in me in ways I will never understand.

My Dad would talk about his years in school, his first jobs and his time in the Army during the war, but my mother never spoke about her own upbringing, never used “When I was your age …” examples to scold or instruct. She was a private person, keeping thoughts and feelings to herself.

On the Model A Running Board

On the Model A Running Board

I know now that she was a strong and independent woman – the only mother among all my childhood peers to drive a car (a Model A Ford which she could repair herself) and work full time while we kids were growing up. She knew her way around a toolbox as well as a cookbook and a sewing machine, and she managed all the household finances. But I did not know that any of this was exceptional in the suburban June Cleaver post-war of the 1950’s. Now, after she has long passed and I am at leisure to reflect on my own life, I am often wracked with regret at what I never asked.

What started this latest reverie on my mother? Readers of this blog know that a while ago I was fascinated with the book H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. In this remarkable memoir the author references an earlier book on falconry, The Goshawk, by T.H. White. I was excited at this connection because T.H. White has long been a favorite author of mine.  That is to say The Once and Future King has long been a favorite book of mine.  I re-read it every five years or so.

DSC00597What really surprised me, however, was the incidental mention by Ms. Macdonald that White also wrote a children’s book, Mistress Masham’s Repose – a satirical fantasy about Maria, a clever, independent, fearless girl of ten in the erudite world of British history and manners, elevated,  archaic speech (with Many Capital Letters), persecution by evil Governesses – and camaraderie with Lilliputians; a book my mother gave me when I was the same age as the heroine.  Who gives their 10 year old child a biting satire filled with obscure phrases in Latin and references to Gulliver’s Travels and British pomp and circumstance?

She also had given me a beautiful, illustraed boxed set of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass for my first Christmas.  I was three and a half months old at the time. The flyleaf dedication and date –  so many years before I would ever be able to read these books – has long fascinated me. What was she thinking, or hoping for me? And why did I never ask her about this?DSC00600

My Mom worked all the while my younger sister and brother and I were growing up, and my Grandmother came to live with the family when I was four or five. So, although Mom taught me to read at an early age, it was Grandma who read to me while I was still young. But Mom supplied the library. There was a beautifully illustrated, oversized A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson which may well have whet my appetite for poetry. I can still remember that book and its iconic illustrations with an almost physical pleasure.  There was The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales; a thick volume full of the fanciful, often gory cautionary parables of western European folk lore, but also many tales of female cleverness and power. Grandma read these over and over and I loved them.

I’ve come to recognize now, that my love of reading, my early belief that girls could be as independent and clever and boys, plus my love of elevated language (which has become the bane of my efforts to be a contemporary poet), were shaped in some way by my mother’s reading choices for me; books full of stories about clever, adventuresome girls, sophisticated, dangerous, exciting and brilliantly imaginary worlds, told in complex and creative language.  No Pat the Bunny or Velveteen Rabbit for me. It was Alice, Maria, Gretel …  and “Jabberwocky,” which I can still recite from memory to this day.

In my pre-teen years there were long summer days spent reading – Mom in her chair, me in mine.  Weekly trips to the Library and home with armfuls of books greedily read in tandem through the warm afternoons and evenings. One of my fondest memories is of Mom, cup of coffee and cigarette, permanent fixtures on the end table next to her chair, and a tower of books on the floor that reached up past the arm.

Later, there was the quarterly Reader’s Digest condensed anthology series of current best-selling novels – where I first read To Kill a Mockingbird (1963) and so many other modern authors. In the mind’s eye of my youth, I still see the gold-lettered volumes lined up on the shelves beside the fireplace in the living room.Reader's Digest

Why am I telling you all this? Well, this blog is about “Paying Attention” and this is precisely what I did not do when I had the opportunity. Now late in my adult life, I am suddenly dumbfounded by how ignorant I have been about my mother’s influence on my own reading and writing life. I am struck by how little I know about why she chose to put these books and not others in my path.  As grateful as I am for the gifts I am only now beginning to understand she gave me in her private, unspoken way, I am also saddened and embarrassed for myself that I did not have the awareness or the maturity to ask her about them and maybe learn a bit about what made her who she was, when I had the chance.

I suppose that many of us who have lost our parents have these regrets.  But recently, in discussions with friends related to this, two insights bubbled up.  The first was that rarely are children curious about their parents. It is a part of the natural distancing that children must do as they separate their identities from their parents to not only be un-curious, uninterested in who and what their parents are or think, but often become rebellious in that process as well.

The second bubble emerged in a lively discussion with other artists about the value of keeping a sketchbook. As artists we sometimes make casual sketches, or as poets, notes of things that strike us at a moment, but do not blossom into a fully realized creative effort. It is not until much later, upon reflection and perhaps the acquisition of increased skill or maturity, that the spark that first struck us finds fertile ground and can be grappled with productively.

I think it is the same with reflecting on our parents.  Perhaps we weren’t curious enough as children to be interested in them and what they were sharing of themselves – a fault we can, I think, forgive ourselves for.  But the regret comes when as adults, we realize that we could have leafed through our sketchbook of childhood memories while our parents were still with us to use our mature curiosity to learn about them – and about how they shaped who we are.

Maybe this is just wishful thinking.  Maybe, even if I were the most skilled of interviewers, my mother would never have been able to share, to open up, perhaps even to understand herself the why of what she did for me.  So I am left to wonder and grapple in what ways I can,  and to be grateful if puzzled about who she was.

Here’s a poem from my chapbook, Coming to Terms that’s sort of an illustration of my relationship to my mother.

Unaccustomed

NOTE: I must thank Ellie Strong of Strong Bindery here in Cleveland for restoring the box for my ‘Alice” books.  She is a book lover and restoration expert extraordinaire.  Should you need her services for any of your own over-loved volumes, you can contact her at strongbind@hotmail.com (shared with her permission).

Of Finches, Forsythia and Living With Wildness

DSC00621Like many homeowners, I like to adorn my front door with a wreath of seasonal celebration: pine cones and holly for winter, something autumnal for fall.  In March, while roaming the aisle at Michael’s, I found a wreath of imitation forsythia woven through a circle of bare twigs. It spoke to me of the messy but heartening emergence of spring growth from the seeming dead of winter.

Forsythia is my favorite early, early spring flower. I used to cut sprigs to force the blooms until my cats started to make a twice-given gift of their yellowness in liquid pools on the floor, the rugs and once on the bedspread. So hanging this artificial twiggy wreath of sunny joy outside the house, where I could see it for weeks on end through the glass of my front door, seemed the better choice this year.

Another great joy of spring is bird song. The wrens, robins, titmice, and chickadees, even the raucous blue jays and crows, twittering up the early morning air create a restorative aural tonic my spirit drinks up greedily this time of year. However, the confluence of these two joyous harbingers — the forsythia door ornament and the spring vigor of the local birds — has created a dilemma. finchesA pair of tiny, extremely lively birds has begun to set up house in the bramble of the wreath on my door.

At first I thought they were merely scavenging twigs from the wreath to make a nest elsewhere. Fine with me.  Happy to provide constriction material. Plus, it was lovely to see them pop in and out so close at hand as I drank my morning coffee. They seemed not to mind my watching them and were not even bothered by my cats’ predatory stares from inside the house.

But this morning I noticed, in the now slightly denuded area at the top of the wreath, that the birds were bringing sticks to the wreath. They had hollowed out a space and were building a nest right there, under the protection of my porch, against the window of my front door.DSC00612

Taking a step back, now – from their first appearance I had been struggling to identify the birds.  I am not a birder, although I do have some favorites I can recognize instantly by sight and sound: redwing blackbirds, chickadees, robins, of course, and cardinals.  Hummingbirds and owls are rarer – the latter sometimes heard but rarely seen. But I was unsure of what these were.  My first thought was the common wren.  Both birds were brown, but the (I assumed) male had patches of red – his head, chest and at the back above the tail – visible when he spread his wings.

Definitely not a cardinal.  Too small, no crest. I thought maybe some kind of sparrow, or thrush. But I happened to have a copy of Birds of North America and so started searching. But no, sparrow was too big and no red coloring. Thrushes were also too big and robin-like. It took a while to find them, but on pages 316-17, there they were – the Red Finches.  The picture of both the male and female house finches were perfect representations of my little house guests.  DSC00609

So now that I know who my ‘squatters’ are, what to do?  Two choices, and you can probably guess what they were: move the wreath now, while there’s time for them to start a nest elsewhere, or . . . refrain from using my front door for however long the gestation and fledging timeframe is for these birds.

Okay. Yes. I know.  The first option makes the most sense. But I am seduced by the opportunity to live in such close proximity to these wild creatures. I may be foolish and courting disaster for them (and maybe heartache for me), but my comings and goings, plus the activity of the mailman and the FedEx guy seem not to have phased the pair so far. And, I have a perfectly serviceable back door which I use more often than the front door anyway.

I did have one concern.  The wreath swayed mightily in the recent late-March winds. I worried that the nest or the eggs might not survive in a storm. So while the couple was away gathering more twigs, I quickly rigged an anchoring system – plastic fishline guy-wires looped through the wreath and secured to the clasps holding the screen door in place.  My fussing seemed not to have deterred the pair.  They came right back to continue their domestic engineering project.

As I write this, the pair are zooming back and forth from yard to nest with bits of wrinkled detritus, and the female is shimmying each new twiggy addition into place with her breast and and tummy.  Quite the animated, jiggy lap dance, as the nest grows almost before my very eyes.

I’ll keep you posted on what I hope is not a naïve and arrogant human interference in this small tooth and claw circle of life.  Meanwhile, here’s some facts about house finches.

  1. They are not native to the Midwest. Some New York pet dealers imported them from California illegally as cage birds, then set them free to avoid prosecution. They quickly adapted and now can be found throughout the U.S.
  2. They mate for life – as do many birds (swans, albatross, hummingbirds, owls, to name a few).
  3. They are vegetarians.  I know!  No bugs or worms.  Just seeds.
  4. They usually nest about 10 feet from the ground in twiggy shrubs but often choose hanging planters or door wreaths!
  5. Incubation takes 12-14 days and the chicks fledge in a mere 11-19 days. So I may get my front door back by early May. However –
  6. It is not unusual for a pair to produce two or more clutches a season. So I’m planning now what to do about the wreath after the first clutch – if it’s successful.

DSC00611I know I am being selfish in wanting these creatures to be part of my life.  They are wild things – however beautiful and entertaining they may be. So I must reflect on the work of writer and poet Mary Oliver, whose skill in framing this fascination with wildness but keeping it in persepctive, is a writing touchstone for me.  Here, from my bedraggled copy of her  New and Selected Poems, Volume One, an excerpt:

Lonely, White Fields (first published in New Poems, 1991-92)

       Mary Oliver

Every night

the owl

with his wild monkey-face

calls through the black branches,

and the mice freeze

and the rabbits shiver

in the snowy fields-

and then there is the long, deep trough of silence

when he stops singing, and steps

into the air.

 

Read the full poem Lonely, White Fields Mary Oliver

 

 

 

 

 

 

Skunked! Chapter 1

skunkI saw her first one fall evening a year ago. She waddled through the garden, hugging the fence line, slunk through the gate, across the drive and into my neighbor’s bushes.  Nothing like Disney’s suave Pepe Le Pew, or even the classic, glossy-furred black and double-white striped image familiar to us all.  No, she had a single horizontal stripe across her shoulders and a tiny wisp of white at the tip of her tail. She was bedraggled and dirty and the mass of her black fur seemed a burden to carry. An unlovely, pitiful sight.  I felt kind of sorry for her.  A few days later she made her presence known in the skunk’s inimitable way – in the middle of the night.

I’m a pretty handy and self-sufficient person.  I like to take care of things myself as much as possible. So, on to the internet and “How to Get Rid of a Skunk.”  I knew she was living under my deck, but didn’t know where she got in.  Taking the web’s advice, well after dark I sifted a thin layer of flour across the deck to capture her tracks as she came ‘home.’ It was unlikely to see her again, coming or going. DSC00577It worked!

I saw paw prints and the sweep of her tail captured in the sifted flour. But it was late in the year and the snows were upon us. I didn’t want to trap her in under the deck, and decided to wait until spring to block the opening. Researching the gestation period for baby skunks, I decided that by July she and any offspring would be nocturnally mobile – out at night.  So I waited and  spent a July night blocking that opening and every other one I could find. Pat-on-the-back! No noxious odors the rest of the summer.

Since moving to this lovely, inner-ring suburb of Cleveland and into my charming, 1920’s bungalow on a tree-rich street, I have enjoyed the wildlife that I encounter each day.  A small herd of deer sometimes sleeps among the trees at the back of my yard.  Two injured does have made it through last winter and this. DSCF4726 I see them limping on three legs, but still able to jump fences with the grace of ballerinas.  I have seen and heard owls. Birds of varied song flit from bush to tree, animating the air with chips of color.  The squirrels taunt each other and play manic games of tag, chipmunks scamper and veer like radio-controlled toys and the rabbits munch the dew-washed grass unconcernedly. I’ve seen an opossum and a raccoon and a few mice as well.  Hawks soar above the huge trees each day. The food chain is well supplied.

I am content for all these creatures to share my yard, knowing that I am really the interloper. I accept that the deer will eat my plants and the chipmunks will burrow beneath the stones of my walk and am willing to do what I can to discourage, but not harm them. As I said, I am content to share with all—save one.

There is a saying, “Man plans; God laughs.”  Its early spring now, and she’s back. Last week I got another distinctive wake-up call. Surprisingly, twice that week I saw her returning, about 6:45 AM, when I’m on my second cup of coffee and staring out my kitchen window.

So, with a blessed run of dry, sunny days, I tried the flour trick and it worked again. DSC00576-001She’d found a new way in.  Hoping to discourage her from setting up house again, I piled bricks in front of the new opening she’d dug at the base of the deck. But perhaps you can guess the measure of success.

The “call” came again last night, at midnight.  This morning I saw her trundling up onto the deck and watched her disappear under the steps—where I was certain there was NO WAY she could get in.  When I investigated, I saw she had pulled back the rolled-up chicken wire I had stuck in an open space under the steps.

Social media can be a good thing.  As I checked my email, there was a message from a neighbor on my Next Door  news feed talking about skunks.  The neighbor had called a live trap removal service which caught 16 skunks and a groundhog over two weeks!

Self-sufficiency aside, I’ve decided there are some things better left to the experts.  Stay tuned for chapter two. Meanwhile, here’s a lovely poem on the subject  by the late, Nobel Prize winning Irish Poet Seamus Heaney.  (Apologies for the double-spaced formatting.  I haven’t figured out how to change that for poems in WordPress yet.)

The Skunk  Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)

Up, black, striped and damasked like the chasuble

At a funeral mass, the skunk’s tail

Paraded the skunk. Night after night

I expected her like a visitor.

 

The refrigerator whinnied into silence.

My desk light softened beyond the verandah.

Small oranges loomed in the orange tree.

I began to be tense as a voyeur.

 

After eleven years I was composing

Love-letters again, broaching the word “wife”

Like a stored cask, as if its slender vowel

Had mutated into the night earth and air

 

Of California. The beautiful, useless

Tang of eucalyptus spelt your absence.

The aftermath of a mouthful of wine

Was like inhaling you off a cold pillow.

 

And there she was, the intent and glamorous,

Ordinary, mysterious skunk,

Mythologized, demythologized,

Snuffing the boards five feet beyond me.

 

It all came back to me last night, stirred

By the sootfall of your things at bedtime,

Your head-down, tail-up hunt in a bottom drawer

For the black plunge-line nightdress.

 


3:37 AM …

… and the deeply cratered southern lunar highlands have slipped below the upper edge of the skylight in my room. The rectangle of bright light from the full February moon has been sliding up the covers of my bed and now moves onto my pillow and into my eyes, waking me.

I estimate that the slice of skylight I can see from the angle of my bed equals not quite two of the moon’s diameters. I decide to watch the bright beacon descend on its westward trajectory as long as I can keep my eyes open.  I manage the task, watching the moon crawl slowly down through the spidered tips of the trees in the back yard. I can actually see it move.  Which is thrilling.  By 4:45, nothing is left but a soft glow at the bottom of the frame emanating from the now-hidden moon. I am tempted to go downstairs to watch it continue its journey, but I know from that lower angle it will be lost in the tangle of trees and the houses on the street behind my house.  So I go back to sleep. DSC00585

I’ve always been confounded by the movement of the moon. It’s never in the same place night after night. I recently took a wonderful class at the Natural History Museum, All Things Moon, and learned a lot. The moon moves approximately its own diameter each hour against the background of the stars – or a little more than .5 degrees along its orbit around the earth. It takes about 27 1/3 days for the moon to complete an orbit while the earth keeps spinning/rotating. 360 degrees divided by 27.3 days = 13.2.  So the moon rises and sets 13.2 degrees to the west each day and moves .5 degrees against the stars each hour of the day/night.  There’s a reasonably clear explanation of it all here, but it still makes my head spin.

Does the moon stun you, as it does me?  As long as I can remember I have been fascinated with it. Some years ago I wrote a poem that tried to capture that stunned feeling and it was chosen in a contest that was part of a local effort to put poetry on city buses.  Here’s the bus card that was produced.  DSC00526

The artwork was done by then Kent State Design Studio student Alexandra Charitan. I was a little upset that the image of the moon was reversed from what we see, but also learned from my class at the Museum, that photographs taken through certain kinds of telescopes reversed the image. The good thing, though, was that the big red lips ended up exactly over the Mare Nubium (Sea of Clouds) mentioned in the poem; the dark basalt plain in the southern hemisphere that I always imagined was the singer’s mouth.  Here’s the poem:

Night Song
The moon, sudden as a door slam,
rang the night awake.
The Aztecs saw a rabbit there.
For me, a singer croons.
A lunar anthem sounding
from the cloud-less mouth
of Mare Nubium; its tone
the perfect ‘A’ of Mozart’s clarinet.

Interestingly, since I wrote that poem I don’t see the ‘man in the moon’ singing anymore, as I once did.  It’s rabbits every night. What do you see?

I don’t know why I am so fascinated with the moon.  It just seems an impossible, magical thing, hanging up there in the sky.  You’d think that, with all we now know about it the romance of the moon would diminish.  But for me, it’s only grown.

Through the All Things Moon course, delightfully taught by the Museum’s deeply knowlegeable Shafran Observatory Manager, Clyde Simpson, I learned just how unique and symbiotic our Earth-Moon system is. In the massive collision of another planet (appropriately named Theia, in Greek mythology, a Titan goddess and mother of the moon goddess Selene), into our own 4.5 billion years ago, we acquired our mighty heart of iron.  In return we blasted and spun off fragmented elements of our crust which coalesced over time into the shining rock, locked in its orbit around us each day.  We are, in fact, geologic twins, or at least siblings.

Our world and life as we know it would not be possible without the companionable influence of our moon. The fact that it is moving away from us a tiny, tiny bit every year worries me.

“The Moon continues to spin away from the Earth, at the rate of 3.78cm (1.48in) per year, at about the same speed at which our fingernails grow.”  Dr. Maggie Alderin-Pocock

Read about it here.

 

Squirrels, Science and Space-Time Non Sequiturs

The squirrels are out, clearing the snow from the branches of the trees and I am pondering the relative sizes of protons and black holes, waiting for inspiration from the cosmos.pond ripples 

Time is like a river – Einstein’s theory of relativity

September 14, 2015 was a great day for Albert Einstein, although it took the general public until February 11 this year to learn just how great a day it was, with the announcement of the first ever detection, last September, of gravitational waves, originating 1.3 billion light years away/ago.

Once again the great patent clerk was proven right – but also wrong.   He predicted the existence of gravitational waves – but said we would never see them because they would be too small to measure.  Jason Davis, Planetarium Manager for the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, gave a lecture on the discovery of gravity waves/gravitational waves and noted that Einstein could not imagine the technology that would be able to measure a wave, traveling millions of light years across space-time, whose impact on the earth would measure less than the diameter of a proton.

But we did. And in doing so proved Einstein’s genius once again.  Plus, we opened up a whole new way to ‘see’ and develop new knowledge about the universe.  Actually, we both saw the waves as captured by technology, and heard them in a tiny sonic ‘chirp’ from that long-ago and far away collision of two huge black holes which generated the wave.  Learn more about it here,  and from Evalyn Gates, the Director of the Cleveland Natural History Museum, whose own scientific work relates directly to this discovery.

I leave it to you to explore this mind-boggling event further. I am no scientist and would probably get so much wrong if I tried to share more of what little I learned (or think I understand). I have probably already mis-characterized some things.

But as a poet, I am amazed and stunned by trying to grapple creatively with the concepts. I don’t know if any poems will come from pondering this new and fascinating mystery.  Things have to cook in their own poetic space-time continuum before the waves of inspiration start to ripple. But one of the things I like to do when fascinated with a word or concept and the Muse is out to lunch (as she has been lately), is an exercise my mentor Jeanne Marie Beaumont taught me.  It’s called The 100 Words and it is a form of creative play.  It goes like this.

Start with a word and, without thinking and as rapidly as possible, never lifting your pencil from the page, follow it with the next word that suggests itself from the sound of the first, then one that flows automatically from the sound of the second and on and on for as long as you can. Don’t manipulate. Don’t try to make sense.  The objective is simply to generate a rich list of words, related only by your unique senses of sight and sound – not meaning.  It’s fun – and often surprising in what flows from your unconscious as a result of letting go. I don’t recommend trying this on the computer.  There is something magical about the hand/brain connection to the page that is very different than typing on a keyboard.

Given my current fascination with the concept of gravity, I began there.  Here’s my 117 words.

Gravity, gravis, gravure, grave, brave, deprave, wave, wan, wane, plane, insane, remain, pain, pan, stand, land, brand, bread, said, led, red, redress, guess, bless, bliss, kiss, swish, wish, wash, loss, cost, coast, boast, boost, roost, rest, caressed, caroused, aroused, blouse, house, hose, host, roast, most, moss, toss, toast, toes, close, clues, rues, runes, ruin, bruin, bruise, cruise, peruse, perspective, prospect, speculate, spatulate, splat, spat, spit, sit, situate, citizen, denizen, denigrate, designate, demarcate, market, harken, bargain, bark, arc, art, fart, farthest, farmer, calmer, palmer, psalmist, solemn, column, balm, boom, bloom, broom, brood, hood, hoop, loop, poop, prop, prosper, ouster, outer, otter, bother, brother, cover, covert, overt, over, mover, mother, hover, however, never, weather, weaver, seeker, seer, reaper, river.

Try it. Pick a word. See where your mind takes you.  Try it as a family game some rainy day.

I leave you with these words of wisdom.

You will find truth more quickly through delight than gravity. Let out a little more string on your kite.”   Alan Cohen

Einstein's tongueYou can’t blame gravity for falling in love. Albert Einstein

Unseen Forces

http://www.dreamstime.com/-image19841018

A few weeks ago the sudden rise in temperature brought March-like weather to the neighborhood. One evening the wind kicked up and grabbed the house and yard by the throat and shook it all night like a dog with a rag toy. My backyard neighbor’s security light shone through my bedroom window, throwing images of thrashing trees across the ceiling — an animated shadow puppet show. And somewhere in the house a piece of old metal weather stripping buzzed intermittently like a hive of angry bees. Not much sleep that night.

When I got up in the still dark morning, I saw that the burlap I’d so carefully wrapped and sewed around the flame-shaped fingers of the young Arborvitae planted last fall (so the deer wouldn’t get at them over the winter) had been pulled off and flung across the yard like Gypsy Rose Lee removing her elbow-length satin gloves. A heavy, tarped, wicker armchair had been slapped off the porch as well.  It now lay upside down on my neighbor’s front walk, tarp flapping like a luffed sail. I must have made quite a comic sight in my rubber boots and coat pulled over my ‘jammies’ and robe, wrestling with the chair and tarp — or rather, wrestling with the wind still wrestling with the chair and tarp. I was grateful for the semi-darkness.

Mostly, weather descends on us; rain, snow, even the sun shining down or the pressing weight of a heavy clouded sky.  But there’s something distinctly different about a wind storm. When there’s precipitation, the wind is just one part of the action and the effects we feel are more from those other elements than from the wind alone. Wind though, be it a soft breeze or a lashing gale, moves more horizontally through the world — and us — pushed by forces science has explained and our brain can comprehend, but which our senses still feel as mysterious.

windThere are lots of unseen forces blowing through our lives, pushing us one way and another almost without our noticing. It’s hard to pay attention to them all; even harder to try to master some of those we may be aware of. Like the expectations of others. Or, more challenging, what we think or feel are the expectations we have for ourselves. (The morning I wrote this, LinkedIn sent me a query; “Kathleen: what are your career resolutions?”)

I’ve been thinking a lot about expectations (and resolutions, truth be told) now that I am retired and do not have to respond to the expectations of a job. I have found it quite daunting to imagine the next 10 or 20 years with no one to answer to for how I invest my time and energy but me. What are my expectations?

Perhaps the bigger question though, is; do I have that mysterious, unseen force within — of will or commitment or fortitude — that will push me toward meeting whatever expectations I set for myself over the time remaining? Or will I end up buffeted toward an indeterminate end by indulgence, capricious fancies, or other external forces?

Like the weather, life descends on us regardless of our awareness. Finding the balance, the equilibrium between moving flexibly with what the winds of circumstance present, and still feeding the force of personal convictions and commitments within, is the challenge of mastering the dance ahead. The invisibility of the force that made my yard and house come alive last week is a reminder that there is power in what is unseen and what can blow us off course if left un-considered, un-wrestled-with. pat attentionA reminder to Pay Attention!

 

Having Enough

Hokusai printAfter a day and night of heavy snow I woke to a beautiful, Hokusai-like view outside my window: a rich layer of soft cream frosted all the wet, dark branches of the trees in a graceful web of winter lace. I was struck by how a snowstorm filters out all color and turns the landscape completely black and white.  Staring into my back yard in the early gray daylight, I could see no color – no subtle shades of green or brown, even though I knew they must be there.  I rushed to take some photos and they look like old Kodak Tri-X black-and-white film was in the camera rather than digital pixels. DSC00539

There was such beauty—and simplicity—in this high-contrast world that I thought about how rare it is that other aspects of our life are this simply black or white – especially the choices we are required to make each day.

Take cereal, for example.

CerealYesterday in the grocery I stopped to try and count the different choices available on the five long shelves in the cereal aisle. The top shelf alone held 41 different cereals.  Multiplied by five that meant there were probably 205 separate choices of cold cereal displayed for me, each brightly colored box a jeweled tessera in the mosaic wall of packaged sugar-and-grain breakfast options.  (This was not counting the granola, muesli and hot cereals clustered in their own section of the aisle.)

Isn’t that just crazy?

When I started today’s blog entry, what followed the above paragraphs quickly turned into a long rant on the devolution of quality and standards generated by American culture’s obsession with more and more choice and endless societal rewards for incrementally different versions of products in the name of status and capitalistic gains. Thanks to my passion for editing, I will spare you that rant.

But staying briefly with the concept that infinite choice is good, and having more ‘stuff’ is a symbol of success, I must say I long for a less cluttered life and a shorter menu of choices.  Yes, I do want the freedom to choose between options that affect the big picture, and I want room in my life for personal preferences.  But I also feel that more and more, the ‘stuff’ in my life and the increasing complexity of choosing among a host of marginally different products and services uses up way too much time and brain space.

Over the past half-decade I have been actively working to simplify my life – my lifestyle and my ‘stuff.’  DSC00557I made a sign for my refrigerator as a reminder that, barring something I can’t imagine needing right now, I have more than enough for a very high quality of life.

I’ve had the opportunity to downsize twice in recent years and it has done me much good. There is room, now, to think, to write a little, to visit with friends.  I can start ticking off the books on my reading list. And, quite often now, I can just sit and appreciate how the day breaks through the clouds on the horizon, observe the palimpsest pattern of footprints 20141219_081726left by the wild things that walk through my yard, watch the snow lather the trees like cream.DSC00540

 

Winter Canvas

Jack Frost at my window

The house I live in is more than 90 years old. It has been renovated many times and its windows are a patchwork of brands and types and ages.  There’s hinged casement windows by Anderson at the house’s front and back, a pair of single-hung Pella Energy Stars along one side. A four-pane bay fronts the street, and there’s even an old transom window, with its painted-over brass latch and chain in the mud room off the deck – the only window still original to the house.

But the ones I am most conscious of right now are the older, double hung type, with cheap sliding screens and storms – those with the spring-loaded catches that break your nails and scrape your knuckles each spring and fall, wrestling them into place for the coming season. On the one hand, they remain the least efficient, most drafty of all my windows.  On the other hand, these are the windows that still provide a winter canvas for Jack Frost.

Jack Frost's handiwork

These crystal-covered panes take me back to childhood. The magic of the winter-scapes painted in the night and dissolved by prismed sunlight’s invisible eraser, always fascinated me. As a child I thrilled to see the complex, fractal patterns of these crystal veils and the perfect single snowflakes that edged the ice-lace borders.  Lace, yes, but better and more intricate than even any Point de Gaze or Duchesse lace could ever be.

It was terribly tempting to make my own mark on this crystal canvas – write my name or just leave my fingerprints as an interaction, a participation in the alchemy of frost. I was disappointed in myself whenever I did, though.  It was an intrusion that did not improve the experience – like having your mother ‘fix’ the icing on the cake you had just finished frosting all by yourself.

As I write, it has been snowing steadily since yesterday. All my neighbors are out shoveling, the snowplows gun themselves up and down each drive and I’ve gone out to clear the front walk for the mailman.   And as necessaryDSC00518 as these actions are, I miss the pristine blanket of the snow that lay across the neighborhood as I looked out this morning before dawn.

There is a beauty that the winter brings to everything, and I am just a little sad that the busy-ness of all our lives require that we erase its magical perfection.

At least my drafty windows will  remain a gallery for Jack’s frosted handiwork, unspoiled, until sun or rising temperatures wipe his canvas clean.

Touchstones and Bridges

Some years ago, after what I thought at the time was a major life disaster, I bought a small green juice glass from an estate sale to mark the start of a new beginning. Salvaging something beautiful that had survived another’s lifespan seemed important at the time. DSC00498-001 Last week the glass slipped from my hand and shattered, scattering emerald shards  across the white porcelain of the sink.

I’ve broken many glasses over time; crystal wedding gifts, acid-etched water glasses thin as paper, fancy stemware from my menagerie of antique-store orphans, bottom-heavy Dansk tumblers from an old boyfriend who didn’t like to drink his beer from my fancy Pilsner flutes. But somehow this mishap left me more distraught than all the rest.

I am not a particularly sentimental person. In my earlier life as a working artist/potter I lived quite acceptingly with the regular shattering of cups and platters, casseroles and teapots. Perhaps the fact that I could make them – or similar things – again, removed their preciousness and I had no problem letting go. I have let many, many things go over the years – things that gave me great pleasure or were important at one or another stage in life. Still, there are a few things, the loss of which continues to resonate wistfully and on occasion, painfully.

Things come into our lives and some aquire a value far beyond their intrinsic selves. They become symbols, carrying great weight of meaning. And when they go missing or are destroyed, they seem to take a piece of us with them.

Thirty years ago I lived in a small apartment in the inner city. It was an exciting time of independence and enormous personal growth, when I felt I was doing and being just exactly what and who I should. While away for a week-end, the apartment was burglarized. Expensive stereo equipment and some other quite valuable things were stolen. But the only thing I really miss from that time (still) is a small black leather jacket. That jacket fit so perfectly. It made me feel powerful and protected. In an odd way, the jacket was me—the me of that time and place. It had become a touchstone for an important transition into a new and joyous phase of life. Perhaps I remember this now as I face another transition, from a long, productive cycle of service to others, to retirement and all the questions of “what next?” that are before me.

When I broke my little green juice glass, my lucky charm, my touchstone for bridging the gap of a critical past life transition, I felt the need to replace it as I face the next. Foolish, perhaps. One can’t create a lucky charm. Still, I went right out and found a small, green, hand-made chased-glass tumbler in a local antique store. DSC00500But it’s not the same. It is lovely, and I will enjoy using it. But each time I do, I know the memory of the other, and all it symbolized, will arise and I will feel a pang of loss.

I can’t know what might become the touchstone for this transition into the next “who” I will be and “what” I should be doing. The bridge to the next landing site is still being built. It is a process; uncomfortable and scary at times, exciting at others, still early in its construction.  Perhaps I’ll pick up a new touchstone as I make my way across that bridge.

 

Confrontation with the Moon

Full Moon732X520This morning, as the crescent moon sailed up the sky from the east, it pulled bright Venus and Saturn in its wake.  All three climbed, in straight-line order, through the bare-branch ladder of my neighbor’s front lawn tree, winking on and off as they advanced past each twiggy rung. Earlier, when I first rose, Jupiter shone through my bedroom skylight, with the tiny ruby of Mars in tow.

January 6 AM

Four planets and the moon in formation, marching up the January sky. The website EarthSky says that Mercury is there as well, just above the eastern horizon, but the structures of civilization block my view. I expect the brightening sky will make this planet invisible by the time it rises above the housetops.

I have come to love the dark early mornings of winter, when the sky is cloudless and the air, clean as crystal. With a dusting of snow, as there is today, everything seems more sharply defined—more open and exposed.  There’s no barrier between me and the cosmos.

Tonight I am taking my first of four classes at the Natural History Museum: All Things Moon.  And I am remembering the first time I saw the moon through a telescope, about 30 years ago.  When I put my eye to the eyepiece and the moon floated into view – so clear – it actually scared me. I could see the craters, the mountains and plains so razor sharp, right there-in front of me.  The distance between us disappeared and I was confronted, face-to-face, with the moon. Apollo 17

Confronted.  It felt like a confrontation; so powerful and immediate and undeniable in its detail.  The moon became real to me that night in a way it had never existed before. It became an impossible thing, a magical and deliciously frightening thing, hanging there in the night sky.

My mind could rationalize all I knew about how and why it was there – the gravitational attraction that created its intrinsically linked orbit, and the sun-earth shadows that engineered its shifting phases.  But the primitive in me was touched and the moon’s existence in my world suddenly became both impossible and frighteningly necessary, all at once.

I understand that our earth is alone among planets in its possession of a large moon so closely linked to and influencing the daily environmental activities of the planet. The tenuousness of life on earth – how thin the line is between what makes life possible or impossible in the universe is both wondrous and scary.

earthriseIn confronting the critical necessity of the moon’s existence to our own, here on this fragile planet—how can we continue to deny the impact of our influence on that tenuousness?

 

 

 

Photo credits: NASA Moon Gallery

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