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

Pining for the Wild Thing

Sparkle and PoemsI have two cats.  One is friendly, the other, feral. Sparkle should have been named ‘Anybody’s’.  Every human being is her instant best friend. She is totally enthralled with anything and everything I do.  Cosette should have been named “Cautionary Cat”.  She jumps at every strange noise and slinks like a squiggle of liquid mercury defying gravity, up the stairs and under the bed at the sound of the doorbell.  She is preternaturally aware of my feet and scoots away, hugging the floor, as soon as she perceives they are moving her way.  Sparkle is totally domesticated.  Cosette is wild.

Cosette loves Sparkle.  That love is not reciprocated.  They are not enemies, but it is sad to see how Cosette pines for Sparkle, defers to her in all things – even catnip. She bows before Sparkle a dozen time a day to get an occasional and perfunctory head-lick, and makes overtures at play but is always rebuffed. There is a tragic, serial drama of unrequited love playing out in the house each day. DSCF4715

I am in the midst of reading an amazing book; H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.  It is, at only one of its several levels, a story about the author’s challenges in taming a goshawk for hunting. The writing is incredibly beautiful and more than once I’ve had to put the book down to let myself absorb the imagery she offers, the connections she makes and the emotions that well up as a result.  I am only halfway through, but the book presents the opportunity to think deeply about the unfathomable nature of wild animals and the romance of how and why we humans long to make a connection to that wildness.

Perhaps this has made me more sensitive than usual to the interplay between my cats, and my own longing to make a connection with Cosette.  Outside of the terrible battles (with scars – mine) to capture her for vet visits (never again), or to move her from house to apartment to new house, I have never once held her. Even after more than 10 years, she does not trust me.  Oh, we’ve made a little progress.  If I am seated, she may come to the side of the chair for a short pet of the soft, old-silver fur of her head – but turns first to see if Sparkle is coming too.  If so (and Sparkle almost always horns in for a pet), Cosette will always step aside.

And in the (very early!) mornings, Cosette has gotten comfortable enough to jump on the bed, wail for her breakfast, sometimes panicking when the needles of her un-clipped claws trap her paws momentarily in the blankets.  She will also take a piece of chicken or fish from my fingers after a painfully long and tentative consideration.  But these are the limits of our interaction.

She’s not unhappy.  Her tail is always up and she plays – wonderfully, comically, and loudly – with herself, frequently at 1:00 am.  She’ll carry her catnip mouse up the stairs, bat it down, run yelling happily after it and bring it back up again for several encores.  In Helen Macdonald’s book, the author thrills at the moment she recognizes that her hawk actually can play and express delight. I have that same thrill, smiling to myself in the middle of the night when Cosette plays.

Sparkle is older than Cosette and I’ve noticed these past few months that she’s lost a little weight.  She’s still healthy, happy and very lively, but I am expecting her time to come before Cosette’s.  I wonder, then, if Cosette will be unconsolably bereft, or if finally she will turn to me as friend, companion, playmate.

There are many wild animals on the periphery of my life – the deer that haunt my yard, the opossum and skunk that make appearances, and the raccoons.  But Cosette is my personal wild thing.  And I pine for her.cosette

Solstice

solstice 2015

11:48 PM tonight, if I have calculated the local time correctly from the Universal Standard time, the year turns.  Winter Solstice.  What new can be said? Somehow this moment in the year’s unstoppable tipping forward carries far greater weight than its opposite. Perhaps the closeness to Christmas and the calendar new year, with all their layered rituals makes this so.

Still, I believe there remains a shared seed of primitive apprehension active in us at this time. No matter how civilized and world-wise, no matter how well we understand the orbits and the angles of tilt, the scientific reality that creates the moment, the cold and darkness work on us.

So, light the candles, the fire, the tree—and hunker down tonight.  Tomorrow brings a fresh new chance to get it right.

Little Thrills

DSC00494Little Thrills

The tree’s warm light,

        in the pre-dawn dark.

Golden dance

        of a votive’s flame.

Lap-snuggled purr

        of my cat’s contentment.

And just now, the sun –

                                                         rouging the clouds’ chins.


 

Staying Surprised

I’ve never really understood the choreography of the orbits of the earth and moon. Friends in tune with such things send me lunar calendars each Christmas, and for a while I try to follow phases and anticipate the moon’s appearance in the evening or the morning sky.  oreo moonsBut I am always glad to give it up.

A few nights ago, just before its fullness, the moon awakened me at 3 AM, shining in my face through the skylight in my room.  It was a lovely moment, a private and surprising moment between the moon and me. By the time I rose at 6, it had almost set—just hovering amidst the trunks of neighbor’s trees at the back of my yard.  But today, it still rides high above my roof at 7 AM while the sun begins to flush the sky behind the houses across the road.

I could consult the website, www.earthsky.org on my phone before I go to bed, I suppose, to know what to expect. But I love the mystery, the surprise.  It’s another version of the adventure of discovering my neighborhood and how it subtly changes day to day.

Last week, in this unusually warm November, I sighted a wooly bear crawling out from under a bright red leaf.  I tried to remember what weatherman Dick Goddard said about its bands of black and rust that could predict the fierceness of the winter yet to come. Was it the wider the central band the harsher the winter, or the milder?  No matter.  It was fun to watch its furry inching walk, like a child’s wind-up toy.  wolly bear

So much of the world is predictable – can be known.  The changing of the seasons is no mystery. Neither is the movement of the stars.  But I want to be surprised, retain the air of wonder at the little shifts, the things I may have seen a thousand times before, but now are new.  “Pay attention!” the zen master says, as he whaps you with his staff to wake you from your state of mindlessness.

2015-01-24 17.06.59

Today I see the frost has finally come, and a little snow.  My skylight is rimed with the alchemy of cold and condensation.  As I step outside I see that in a shallow puddle on the sidewalk, tiny needles of ice have begun to cast their tatted nets of lace outward from the shore.

DSC00485

How the Light Has Changed

French flag

You are pulled to the window by some force that wants you not to miss how the early morning’s blush climbs up the sky behind the houses across the road. The screen of trees – pines and maples, naked but for three evenly spaced squirrels’ nests – is starkly black against the startling magenta. You look down at your notebook to write this, and when you look up again, it has all faded into a clouded gray. Gone in less time than it took to write one sentence.

You notice that a light snow has fallen, sugaring the lawns and the mountain range of spent leaves piled at the curb, and you feel the year turn toward the growing darkness.

This oddly benevolent November has been a special gift, gentling the transition. Time has spilled gold and fire into the bowl of this perfect autumn, and held it there for you a while.

What can you do but be grateful.  Things change so quickly.  A week ago Paris was still the ‘City of Light’.

Accomplishing Retirement: a Dilemma

The adjustment to retirement is very interesting (51 days in so far). While there is much to recommend it, I am confronted with feelings of guilt for not being productive in service to goals and obligations outside myself.

I spent the last week making and hanging new curtains for my front bay window.DSC00478

I went to lectures on the Milky Way and the La Brea Tar Pits at the Natural History Museum, attended an astounding concert by Benjamin Bagby singing/reciting Beowulf in Old English, put on by Apollo’s Fire, and saw a movie in the middle of the day (Bridge of Spies – worth seeing). I finished a novel by Sarah Braunstein (The Sweet Relief of Missing Children) and started another by Irish writer Dermot Healy (A Goat’s Song).  I mulched and trimmed the garden for winter, made giant pots of soup and stew for the coming cold weeks, bought and assembled a new, cushy office chair and a desk to replace the decrepit one I’ve been carting around for 15 years. DSC00483 I went to the gym twice and tried and failed to write a poem to fulfill an assignment from my writing group. Among other things.

And it feels like I haven’t accomplished anything. I’ve done stuff, but what have I accomplished?  What, beyond things that made me happy, that satisfied my personal needs, have I accomplished

I was having lunch with a friend, also retired, and musing on this matter, and we thought that those of us who have spent their working years in service to a cause they were passionate about, may be similarly plagued with this odd kind of selfish guilt upon retirement. We wondered if folks who had made their living from work that had no deep personal meaning felt differently when they retired—could go play golf all day, travel, etc., and feel they deserved to have all their time for themselves.

That’s probably a simplistic and maybe rather arrogant musing. People volunteer all the time for things they care about.  They get involved in their church, do all kinds of things that go beyond self-indulgence.  Truth be told, I will too, I am sure.  But what?  Maybe that’s what’s bothering me. I don’t have a plan; not working toward a goal.

Our society and our economy are rooted in the Puritan concept of the productivity of the individual.  We work harder and longer than people in any other culture. At the same time, we are a consumer society, one that constantly flirts with hedonism as a defining value.  It’s sort of a vicious cycle: produce stuff so you can be happy consuming stuff.  Service is not a valued part of the economic equation.  Yet service satisfies at a deeper level than consumption, doesn’t it?  But its rewards are not necessarily monetary and so are less valued in our capitalistic culture.  Perhaps that’s why the on-profit sector too often finds it so hard to make its case for what it contributes/produces.

I get Social Security payments now, each month.  On the one hand, I know the payments I made into that system over the 57 years that worked (I had a paper route as a youngster) have earned that money.  But it still feels a little like pay for no work.

Well, as I said, I’m only a month and a half into my retirement.  Perhaps I’ll take it a little easy on myself. I have always been able to find and follow my passions.  The problem is, I have a lot of passions.  The dilemma is choosong what to throw myself into now.

I promised myself—and have told anyone who asked me “what’s next”—that I did not intend to think about that question until after the first of the year.  Perhaps that’s the best goal I might try to accomplish right now.

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