Archives for November 2015

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, 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.


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.

There’s Lots More Steps

Cycles, Spirals and Stairs: Mixing Metaphors Toward a New World View


I used to think the events of the world played out like the movement of a pendulum: extreme swings from one fanatical or reactionary or prejudicial pole to another with brief moments of rest, when sanity and progress prevail. I used to think these in-between moments were the opportunities for humanity to take the next steps in advancing to the summit of human achievement, to move higher toward the apex of enlightenment.

But the pendulum never seems to rest. Something always keeps it swinging, and lately its inevitable sweeps, each a reactionary swing away from a centered state, brings to mind the slicing arcs of Edgar Allen Poe’s terrifying machine. It’s quite a cynical philosophy, I’ve decided, so lately I’m trying out a different world view; one with more positive potential.

It’s not pendulum swings, it’s cycles. Cycles and spirals. The events in our lives and in the course of history (wars, disappointments, petty slights – name your favorite ills) come around again and again in a repeating orbit of ‘same old, same old’-ness, digging the orbital groove of habitual, repeated response deeper with each turning.  What if, in the centrifugal power generated by the cycle, the path could shift a bit and initiate a spiral outward, toward a different destination – a different destiny?  Rather than a ring that binds, think of

the chambered nautilus, stock-photo-51978066-nautilus-shell-patternFibonacci’s golden sequence, th (2)the un-furling frond of the (3)

In a karmic sense, “What goes around comes around” may be true and may even serve some sort of just purpose. But these karmic ‘turnings’ may also offer the chance to grow, choose differently, break the cycle. When the cycle repeats, the next orbit launches, when the button gets pushed, can we hear a different bell? Open a different door? Stop for a moment and imagine a different response?  Can we urge the circle/cycle/orbit into a spiral that reaches up and out,  toward a more humane response, a more evolved reaction, a more enlightened way of being?

I attached a Gahan Wilson cartoon from The New Yorker at the top of this post.  It was pinned up in my office at work for many years and now lies under the glass on my desk top near my computer as a constant reminder that there are many more steps ahead and I need to keep climbing.  In my own lengthening string of cycles, I am in the hard process of accepting that my personal orbit around the wheel will eventually decay. In truth, this probably has already begun. The question I ask myself now is, can I see and understand my own repeating cycles? And when the unproductive ones come around again, can I respond differently at the turning?


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