Looking Through Others’ Eyes; a Question and a Wish

Early morning moon

The moon was still trying to fuzz its way into the morning through the pervasive cloud cover. Its faint light hung over the neighbor’s house like a stray fluff of lint on a gray wool blanket. It’s the morning after we gained an hour, but it still seems like 5 am rather than 6.

My house guest is still asleep and I’m trying not to let the cats’ curiosity get the better of them so she could rest peacefully as long as possible. She has a long journey ahead today – back to England.

Yesterday was filled with art and rich conversation – and food. My friend was here for a conference, traveling from her home in Bath.  She’d been to Cleveland many times and I always loved to hear her praise the riches of the arts here in her plummy British accent. She was one to know, being a prominent consultant in the arts internationally.

We’d spent the afternoon in the Art Museum, wandering the permanent collection. It was fun to see what caught her eye and how she saw things from her professional objectivity and broad experience. I was reminded how easy it is to take the exceptional quality of our cultural community for granted.

It’s a good reminder, and a lesson, in these times, to remember that many others see many things differently than I do. The election looms and I am dismayed at the raw and uncompromising divisions among us. I am also afraid that, with the potential shift in the political environment – however large or small it might be, that these divisions might be deepened and widened, rather than bridged.

How do we, as a nation, make the effort to look through others’ eyes, walk for a moment in others’ shoes? Can we – can I – thin the cloud cover of my own preconceptions and biases to let the light of another’s point of view illuminate the day? Can I hope that others might wish to do the same?

Regarding Deer


They reclined, unmoving, in the lush ivy at the back of the yard, like life-size lawn ornaments.  Six of them, with the lowering sun’s rays glowing warm through the oval cups of their ears; dark noses, turned toward the house.

I’ve just come home, parked the car in the drive and am halfway to the back door before I notice them.  All female. It’s early in the year still, but young males will have already sprouted at least the nubs of their mossy crowns-to-come. And the racks of more mature bucks would be evident – even against the backdrop of the still-bare scrim of trees along the fence.

No matter how often I see them, these wild but somehow companionable creatures, my breath catches, and I must linger and look. And they look too. Those large, extravagantly fringed eyes – dark and deep, seem to do more than look – they regard me.  It is compelling to be regarded so silently and intensely as this small herd does now, turning its attention toward me; calm, still, and seemingly unafraid. A tribe of benevolent exotics, come to rest in my yard. I’m a little spellbound and feel somehow honored by their condescending regard.

It’s hard not to assign some human attributes to them; intelligence, curiosity, imperiousness. All these come to mind. But I can’t know their reality. Are their hearts beating faster at my sudden intrusion? Is the sheen in their wide, wide eyes a sign of fear or just heightened alertness, maybe interest? Have their muscles tensed under the furred satin dun of their coats? Or are they indifferent to me, knowing the distance between us, plus an innate confidence in their swiftness, means there’s really no danger, yet?

I go into the house to start dinner.  My kitchen windows look into my long back yard.  As I chop things and stir things, the deer get up and move toward the house and I can now see it is two full-grown does and four other deer; smaller, but no longer fawns.  I don’t know if there is a name for deer not fully grown.  I watch them, and it seems they watch me as they forage ever closer to the house.  Soon, only the fence around my small herb garden below the kitchen windows separates us; about 15 feet.

I’m enjoying the company until one of the does moves into the flower bed and threatens the hydrangea.  So I go out into the yard and the does and three younger deer scamper back.  One does not.  We face each other, our heads at the same height, though she clearly has the advantage in weight and speed. She is beautiful. She takes a step closer, and I am charmed. There is a spell of wonder and delight, tinged just at the edges with fear, which roots me to the spot.  I am caught—unable to move—transfixed by this unexpected overture from a wild thing.

But now the larger deer are watching, and I am mindful of their size, their powerful leaps over fences (even the one with a damaged hind leg who walks on three and who has brought her fawns to visit three years in a row, now), the sharp hooves that pock my soft lawn all year. I break the spell with a clap.

They all turn and lope slowly, deeper into the yard. I go back into the kitchen, but still watch them in the fading light as they continue their graze.

But now dinner needs more of my attention and some minutes pass. When I look out again, they are gone.

I actually felt a little hurt. Dismissed. Their company, their regard, had, for a little while, made me feel special.

It is tempting to think we can have a communing – a relationship, if you will – with the wild things of the world, and so we are charmed, foolishly assigning them our human attributes and longing for a connection. No matter that deer are as common as rabbits, they remain unknowable; members of that powerful, mysterious, and beautiful otherness just beyond our understanding.

I feel bereft all evening long.

Injured doe who has brought groups of offspring to my yard for three years in a row.

Here’s a wonderful poem by Marge Piercy. March comes in on cleft hooves

Raptor Rapture

Last weekend I had the incredible privilege of holding in my hand, an American Kestrel; one of the “Ambassador Animals” at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.  Stryker, as this beautiful bird has been named, lives at the Museum, having been saved from a near-fatal injury which left it with a partially amputated right wing.

I have begun training to work with the Museum’s injured and rescued animals as a volunteer in its public education programming. I shared one experience a few weeks ago – my first encounter with Webster, the gorgeous corn snake.   And I am looking forward to learning more about all the “Ambassadors” at the Museum and sharing what I learn.

There is so much I could tell you already about this tiny falcon, this amazing avian predator; how its vision sees beyond our chromatic spectrum to pick up the ultraviolet urine trails of field mice,  or how it can hover – hang suspended in the air like the military’s Harrier jet – waiting for its prey to reveal itself.   But for now, I’ll just share this:


Let me tell you how
the heart leaps breath holds,
as this small creature dances,
talons pricking delicately now,
but (imagine) at another time
with fatal fierceness.

Settling, it grips a finger
and surveys the room.
The bright hard onyx of its eye,
seeing more and differently,
it becomes the ancient alien,
the wondrous other
of our weightless dreams,
our relentless, harrying fears.

© Kathleen Cerveny, 2018   


Resolutions at 1° on 1/1

From my kitchen window I watched the last day of the year close down. Streaks of coral fire, warmed the purpled underside of cloudbanks stretched across the luminous cerulean of an otherwise unclouded western sky. A spidered tangle of tree limbs was stenciled against this riotous backdrop.  It took but a moment for this glory to fade into the final dark of the year’s last night.

It’s early, now, on the first day.  The thermometer reads one degree. The first degree of what the temperature of this year will ultimately be. A near-full moon is muscling its way through that same spidered web of limbs, shining its torch across the deer-trailed, rabbit-tracked, squirrel-scrambled snow of my back yard.   If more snow had fallen in the night, the yard would be wiped clean again; a fresh, smooth blanket.  A clean slate. An empty canvas. A metaphor for the blank page on which the chronicle of this new year could begin.

But it didn’t. All the garbled calligraphy of what was, remains written, unchanged in the journal of what continues today.

It is our tradition, on this day, to resolve anew. To make change.  To start clean on a new and different path. But we can’t change what was, and we can’t help but carry it all forward.  I don’t mean to sound defeatist.  I am a pretty consistent optimist. I only mean to remember and reflect as the year, the day, the hour, moves us forward. It may be folly to think we can be or become other that who we have been. But it is not folly to believe that we can choose differently than we did in the past. And thereby maybe alter course a bit.

* * * * *

Many years ago a dear friend taught me a lesson I am only now beginning to absorb.  She wasn’t doing this consciously, just sharing a decision she had made for herself.  We were in a serious conversation and I asked a question.  She did not immediately respond.  In fact the silence between us began to be just a little uncomfortable.  I was about to ask if she had heard me – or if something was wrong, when she explained that she was trying to make the space to listen to her inner self more actively before speaking so her responses could be more thoughtful and maybe more true. “I’m counting to ten before speaking, these days,” she said.

What a small but profound choice, that could alter the way of being in the world, I am thinking today.  What if we all took the time to actually think, to consult our inner selves, before we spoke!  How would our conversations, our relationships be different? Might we be more honest, more nuanced in our responses?  More kind, perhaps?

This lesson was reinforced very recently by a wise woman who contacted me after a meeting we had both attended. She wondered if there was some way to manage future meetings so everyone was not talking over each other so we could really listen to what others were saying.  I was among the smothering talkers, I realized, and have been thinking about that ever since.

* * * * *

One of my favorite affirmations comes from my little, dog-eared “365 Days of Tao” paperback which I try to use as a daily meditation guide.  This one is from the middle of the year; July 1.

“If the boulders are moved, even a river will change its flow.”

Rather than wait for July to roll around again to act on all this, my resolution today is to try to move one boulder out of the garbled river.  Take one step; move one degree out of noise, into thoughtfulness. Make one small space of silence so that more of what is true and necessary can flow, un-garbled by the jumbled rush of ego.

Here’s a haiku I wrote some years ago that comes to mind now.

Who can understand
the bounder-garbled verses
of the river’s song?

© 2013 Kathleen Cerveny

* * * * *

Finally, here is Deng Ming-Dao’s meditation prompt for today:

“This is the moment of embarking.
All auspicious signs are in place.”

Christmas Mysteries

There’s a fire and a tree and candles, this Christmas morning – and I’m caught up in the mystery of some childhood memories.

What were your favorite gifts, as a child? And what do you think about them now?  Do you ever wonder why your parents chose that gift, at that moment, for you? And did you ever ask them? For me, two come to mind as I sit here in the quiet dark of this snowfall morning; both surprises at the time and, because I did not have the foresight to ask my parents while they were still with me, these particular gifts remain quite poignant mysteries.

I don’t remember asking for a puppy. I do remember, after church and breakfast and when all the savaged wrapping paper was tossed and ribbons and bows saved, my Dad saying, “One more present.  Get your coat.” as he handed me a bath towel. I don’t remember walking down the long street to Mr. Gilchrist’s house, or even remember my Dad, with his one war-shattered and other wooden leg, walking  with me. I do remember, and can still feel the warm wriggle of the blond, cocker spaniel runt of the litter in my arms as we walked back home.  I was eight, and ‘Drifty’, as I called him – because he was the same color as a satiny driftwood branch Mom had placed on the hearth as a decoration – became my confidant and best friend that year I began to feel the difference between me and all the other kids in school.

The other present called to mind this morning, as Apollo’s Fire’s Celtic Christmas spills into the room through my fancy Sonos wireless speaker, is the small RCA stereo console that appeared on my 14th Christmas. And the Joan Sutherland LP sent by my Godmother, who had taken me to see the colouratura diva in Lucia di Lammermoor when the Metropolitan Opera was in town earlier that year. For years afterward that console played Copland and Mahler, Puccini and Orff. It went with me to art school where I tortured the downstairs apartment dwellers with Nielsen and Bernstein.

We were not a classical music family. Growing up there was a small radio in the kitchen – just for news and weather and school closings. The closest we came was a set of 45 rpm records with all Richard Rogers’ Victory at Sea music. My Dad must have bought those in the ‘50s when that series was on TV.  He’d always wanted to join the Navy during the war, but was color blind so was rejected and went into the Army instead.

But when I was younger, the basement had an old Victrola and dozens of 78 rpm records; the original cast recordings of Oklahoma! and The Student Prince. And one mysterious, very large vinyl record; Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which I played until it was worn out.  I don’t remember what orchestra, but the record jacket was the exact shade of vibrant green of the winter coat I insisted my Mother buy me one year.

No one played these records but me. As a child, I would spend hours marching around the big, octopus-armed Rheem  furnace, conducting and twirling to these recordings. I still know the words to every song in Oklahoma! and I still would give anything to play Ado Annie and sing “I Cain’t Say No.” 

I didn’t know why or how we came to have these wonderful things, or why I got a puppy I didn’t even know I wanted – or needed.  I desperately wish, now, that I had asked.

* * * *

Here’s a poem about Twirling.


In the basement’s blue-heart furnace world
beneath the Atlas-arms of heat
the banner of myself unfurls.

Victrola’s ancient voices turn
the gyroscope within. I meet
myself in basement’s furnace world.

The hem of my skirt, my arms and curls
fly up and out. Centrifugal beat
releases me and I unfurl.

Thready tenors croon and stir
the places where my sex first feels
its blue heat in this twirling world.

Perpetual motion stirs the pearl
of knowing; unselfconscious I’m revealed,
and blue heat rises as I twirl.

I vibrate. I’m a whirling girl;
a dervish, centered and complete.
The basement’s blue-heart furnace world
releases me. And I unfurl.

Kathleen Cerveny © 2013




Corn snake

As a teenager, my first awareness of the power of contemporary poetry came from an encounter with D. H. Lawrence’s poem “Snake.”  So beautiful, evocative and seductive the language, but so dark the subject.  The darkness did not lie in the image or actions of the poem’s snake, but rather was revealed through the dark heart of a human, acting on irrational or culture-generated fear of what is not understood.  The poem, through the speaker, offered exposition and expiation. The poem, for this reader, opened a wonder-world of depth and meaning through words that has remained my fascination with poetry to this day.

Yesterday I held a snake; a beautiful sienna and gold corn snake – or red rat snake.  His name is Webster, and he is one of the many ‘animal ambassadors’ – creatures in the educational programming division of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where I am a volunteer.  This was my initiation into the opportunity to someday work with the Museum’s animals that I’ve spent more than a year observing and learning about as a Steward (docent) in the Museum’s Perkins Wildlife Center.

Webster was a revelation. As a child growing up in the then-wilds of the ex-urbs, I used to catch snakes; the yellow-striped gartersnake, the blue racer. So I was neither squeamish nor afraid when Wildlife Volunteer Peter brought out Webster and allowed me to hold him. But I had forgotten, or perhaps never paid close enough attention as a child, to how specifically alive these creatures are.  The cool, smooth silk of their skin covers a body that is not just sinuous in its movement, but pulsing in the most subtle but powerful way. It is a long, continuously flexing muscle of a being that eases itself peacefully through the world and transforms itself into a whiplash when threatened.

I’ve thought a lot about why so many humans fear snakes.  Setting aside the devil in the garden myth, I think in part it may be because their mode of transportation and engaging with the environment is so unlike anything else on land that we know – including ourselves.  Most of us – even insects – have legs and arms; appendages used to navigate, investigate and manipulate our shared world.  But a snake seems propelled by magic; an invisible force. And its means of defense, as well as how it uniquely knows the world, is through its mouth and tongue.  (Only venomous snakes have fangs.  Most snakes have teeth – like us.)

Holding Webster yesterday – or, rather, being held by him, since he pretty much took over the job of engaging with me – was a pure delight.  Gentle but insistent contractions and expansions moved his smooth, cool, jeweled body around mine; I found myself festooned with necklaces, bracelets and belts of red and ochre patterned satin.  Feeling and observing his movements I could think of nothing better than it was as if he were swimming; flowing gracefully and with ease through the air, across the surface of my body.  Quite delicious.

As sensuous as the experience may have been, I was also conscious of Webster’s vulnerability. At its thickest point, the snake’s body was thinner than my wrist. His head and neck, the width of a pencil.  I could have done him harm had I not been careful in unwrapping him from the looped tangle he’d arranged of himself through the straps of my backpack and the cord of my Museum credential.  Yesterday’s experience was my first in observing the experienced wildlife education volunteers, and the first step in doing what it will take to become one myself.

For the live animal show in the Museum’s Sears Hall yesterday, Peter also worked with Sweetie, the red-tailed hawk and Lancelot, the porcupine, in addition to Webster the corn snake.  The audience of children and their parents, young couples and older folk had the chance to learn a lot about these important, wild and fascinating creatures that share our world.  As Peter’s lecture and demonstration were coming to a close, everyone in the audience got to touch Webster’s cool, smooth, clean body – but not the hawk or the porcupine.

Perhaps the reality of who were the scarier, more dangerous animals in the room resonated with some in the assembled crowd.

* * * * *

Here’s two favorite poems on the subject, from D. H. Lawrence Snake, and Emily Dickinson A Narrow Fellow in the Grass

In the Pool II: Learning Gratitude for Casual Friendships – a Process

C. and I bond over birds. He recounts his joy at the late-season appearance of Bluebirds in his yard. I am tickled to share this morning’s story from the Times about wild turkeys taking over towns across the U.S., this day before Thanksgiving.

The conversing balloons of our heads float above the rippling blue at the deep end of the pool as our legs jog-pedal below.  We are there to get healthier than we were, and have struck up a casual friendship over a shared interest in fowl.

I know nothing about C. except that he seems a kind and friendly person.  I suspect we share a political point of view from a few remarks he’s made to other floating heads, but I don’t know his last name, where or if he works, if there’s a wife and family…  I just know he will be eager to share his latest sightings with me when we meet in the pool again next time.

J. is another pool-pal. She volunteers at a local nonprofit and is a champion for its activities among the water therapy crowd. She was the first to welcome and introduce me to other ‘regulars’ when I started at the pool. She notices if I miss a day and encourages me to keep coming.  She’s a champion ‘squatter’ and is proud that her legs are strong enough to get her up off the ground if she should fall.

Mondays are water aerobics with Joy.  Friday is a pick-up volleyball game – women only. Wednesdays are quieter, especially very early, and my favorite time in the pool.

* * * * *

I have never been an overtly social person.  I don’t make an effort to meet new people or strike up conversations with strangers.  I enjoy my solitude and eschew casual conversation.  I would rather have three friends over for dinner and deep conversation, than go to a party with dozens of casual acquaintances.  Even though I’m a member of the Art Museum, I never attend “member preview” events, preferring to wait a few weeks to quietly spend time with the work alone – un-bothered by crowds and superficial comments from strangers.

So the collegiality of the pool was uncomfortable for me at first.  I kept my distance, intent on doing my own thing, avoiding eye contact and focusing determinedly on my workout routine.

But you can’t be a loner in the pool.  It doesn’t matter that you may seem to have nothing in common with those disembodied bodies bobbing around you – but you do.  It can be unspoken, and often is.  No one has asked me why I am there. But we all know — and accept — that we belong to the same club; an informal society of aging, injured or recovering humans, intent on soldiering on as long as we can.

So this morning, I was more comfortable than I would have been a few months ago when C. asked about the tattoo on my shoulder.  “Is that a ground-burrowing owl?” he asked?  “No,” I said, spinning around so he could get a better look; “it’s a Great Horned.”

I didn’t offer any details, however.


* * * * *

This post was written during my stint as a “Writer in the Window” at Apple Tree Books; part of the celebration of National Novel-Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). 

Losing Daylight

It warmed a little today, after a half-week of rain flirting with sleet. Even now, approaching midnight, the air is mild.

Into the quiet, a cricket drops its late autumn chirps, one-by-one, measuring the night at the meditative pace of breath.  Like a melancholy memory of summer, gone.

I spent the day planting daffodils.  Not my favorite flower, but one the deer won’t eat, and I want some color in my semi-forested, unrelievedly green back yard come spring.  The rain had softened the earth and it was a good time to get the bulbs into the soil.  It still felt like a season of production, rather than decline.

I cleaned out the garage and stored the deck and porch furniture, vacuumed out the car and installed the rubber floor mats for the coming mud and snow. I’ll wait a bit before putting the little red shovel in the trunk.

Tomorrow, (today, now, as I am editing this post) we set the clocks back. Somehow this day, more than the September Equinox, is the true divider between summer and winter. Throughout the fall we can ignore thinking too much of the cold and dark to come.  The light is still with is in the early evening and the color, rioting overhead and beneath our feet is a joyous distraction. It is a cozening time; a short season of artful deception. Even the musk of spent vegetation can seem more spice than rot – or so we can fool ourselves into thinking, for a while.

The weather app on my phone predicts the freezing point later in the week, but today will still be a mild one, with rain.  As I write, some cotton-softened thunder is laying down a low bass ground to the insistent chirp of my cricket’s song, its steady metronome, slowly marking time as the sky lightens into day. 

Looking ahead, here’s a poem I wrote some years ago.

Saving Daylight

Willows open veins in dead arms;
fountain down their beaded
necklaces of jade.

Red buds rouge the silver maple’s
wintered limbs outside the window.

Last year’s reeds, standing bleached
and hollow, bloom
red and raucous birdsong.

Tonight, a lost hour gains the time

for the winking secrets of fireflies
in a perfumed lawn,

for hiding from muffled calls home
in the safe dark of the yard,

for the thrill of batwings skimming
silent below the stars,

for the sueded purple taste of grapes.

© Kathleen Cerveny 2009


On Bringing Things Down to Scale

October 28 is International Observe the Moon Day. Yep. Our lovely celestial neighbor gets a special day on the calendar. Or, rather, a special night.  Here in our corner of the globe, the moon will be waxing gibbous; a little more than 50% illuminated.  56% to be more precise. It will wax fuller as we move toward Hallowe’en. On that night the little roving spooks will have 83% of the moon’s potential light to guide their mischievous meanderings through the neighborhood.  Unless it’s cloudy.

I always liked the word ‘gibbous’.  It seemed to suggest something awkward, stumbling, a little bit funny. Almost a kind of ‘baby talk’ nonsense babble, with that double ‘b’.  Research says it comes from the Latin, ‘gibbosus’ which means ‘humpbacked.’  Anyway …

Readers of this blog know I am fascinated with the moon and may remember I took a course, “All Things Moon,” at the Natural History Museum a while ago. So interesting, and fun.  As I’m writing this, I’m looking at the model of the earth/moon relationship each of us in the class built and took home; a simple illustration of the relative size of the moon vs the earth and its distance from us, using everyday objects; a tennis ball and a penny, and string.

If you lay out the model, say, on your dining room floor, the distance representing the 240,000+ miles between earth and the moon measures about 7 feet. Somehow that seems to make the relationship much more intimate and graspable.

Modeling incomprehensible science through human-scale or everyday examples is one way for us to develop some appreciation, if not understanding of impossibly complex or otherwise inscrutable things.

The image of a bowling ball in the middle of a trampoline, for example, as a model for the warping geometry of spacetime and gravity.

Or a frog in a pot on the stove, which doesn’t notice the temperature rising until it is too late, as a metaphor for climate change.

Harder, I think is the effort to find compelling alternate examples or metaphors or analogies to spark understanding of what’s happening to our democracy.  We have to take a hard look at the real thing and recognize the escalating reality of tyranny for what it really is.

I was recently introduced to an amazing, insightful and quite alarming little book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Timothy Snyder, the Levin Professor of History at Yale University.  Barely larger than a pack of cards, within the book’s 120 pages Professor Snyder details 20 historical examples from the very recent past that are clear and precise red flags for the present. Each chapter is titled with one of 20 concise directives to counter the rise of tyranny in a society.  They are both a global societal call to action at the same time they are a personal, individual primer for resistance.  Here they are:

  1. Do not obey in advance.
  2. Defend institutions.
  3. Beware the one-party state.
  4. Take responsibility for the face of the world.
  5. Remember professional ethics.
  6. Beware of paramilitaries.
  7. Be reflective if you must be armed.
  8. Stand out.
  9. Be kind to our language.
  10. Believe in truth.
  11. Investigate.
  12. Make eye contact with small talk.
  13. Practice corporeal politics.
  14. Establish a private life.
  15. Contribute to good causes.
  16. Learn from peers in other countries.
  17. Listen for dangerous words.
  18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
  19. Be a patriot.
  20. Be as courageous as you can.

I hope these exhortations make you want to read the book. You can finish it in an hour and you can get it used for less than $5.00 from abebooks.com.  I keep mine on the end table in my living room along with my pocket constitution. 

200 years is a short time in the history of civilization.  Who says our democracy will last forever?  Unless continuously defended and enlivened, it certainly will not.

We cannot stop our moon from moving imperceptibly away from us – as it is doing at the rate of 1.4 inches a year – generating the shifts in tides and rotation and axis the earth will experience millennia from now. That scale of time and gravitational force cannot be reckoned with.  But the current threats to our enlightened democracy are at a scale and within a timeframe that can. We will all need to ‘be as courageous as we can,’ however, as the ‘unthinkable’ moves toward arrival.

Something to think about while observing our lovely, essential but “inconstant moon.”

Here’s an image with a poem I wrote as part of “Moving Minds” – a public art project putting poetry inside city buses. 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.

© 2007: Kathleen Cerveny





Aiming for No Regrets: Looking ‘Upstream’

When I was a little girl, my father and I used to sketch together.  He never declared himself as an artist, but he was. In later life he would carve animals from wood or soapstone, and I have several of these among my most prized possessions.  He was color-blind, so pen and ink or pencil were his mediums of choice. So they were mine, too.  My favorite things to sketch were landscape scenes – in particular, meandering, tree-lined streams, imitations, I’m sure, of the creek running through the Metroparks at the bottom of my street where I played as a child.

It is surprising to me now, how important that creek was to my sense of self.  I considered it my duty to manage it; keeping the tiny waterfalls free of sticks and leaves, moving branches that had fallen in so the polywogs and salamanders could move about more freely.  Although I was probably robbing them of hiding and nesting places in so doing.

I never wandered too far upstream, needing always to be close enough to get home for supper or lunch, but I always wondered where the stream came from.


I had a conversation yesterday with a friend who, like myself, had spent her working life in service to others.  It happens we both worked in the nonprofit arts realm and are both now some years retired, but as busy – or busier than when we worked full time.  The difference now is that most of our busy-work is delivered still in service to others – but for free, as volunteers for nonprofit groups we care about.

We also talked about how frustrated we are that, while our volunteer efforts are rewarding to some extent, there is little time for doing the things we thought we would be doing in retirement; things that would fulfill the unmet needs, the creative growth and satisfaction of our personal, rather than our professional selves.

What is it about people who have spent their working lives in the nonprofit or service sectors – women in particular, I’d venture – that makes us feel we need to keep giving once we stop being paid for that service? Well, there’s the old ‘women’s’ thing of seeking or needing validation through selfless and usually thankless service, I suppose.  But my friend and I are women who have attained a high level of professional accomplishment and recognition in our respective fields of endeavor. We don’t need to prove anything to anyone. Yet we, or speaking just speak for myself now, I seem to believe I still owe it to the universe to keep on giving.

My friend remarked on the message being delivered everywhere now to Boomers, about volunteerism.  About ‘staying happy in retirement’ by using your life’s experience to serve others; all these urgings to volunteer. Even my former employer has a program for retirees, matching them up with needy nonprofits for volunteer service.

Fewer are the messages celebrating the virtue of personal, creative growth. Fewer are the messages that retirement may signal an appropriate shift in the life cycle toward higher individual human development.

Although I can’t believe I am using this as an example – look at former President George Bush.  Once the leader of the free world, he now spends his time painting – investing in his personal development as an artist.  I wonder, having spent eight years nurturing his creative sensibilities and sensitivities, if this investment was not a factor in the brilliant, nuanced and positively eloquent speech he gave recently about the diminishing civility of human society.  I was deeply impressed and moved. Even if someone wrote the speech for him, his impulse to make this statement and his clear passionate delivery of it had to have come from a place of deep reflection and compassionate, measured thought.  It’s not a place you can get to easily without the time and space unencumbered by the demands of others’ needs.

I have been reading (native Ohio) poet Mary Oliver’s essay collection Upstream.  One essay, entitled “Of Power and Time” captures some of what I have been thinking about – and what my friend and I spent our lunchtime yesterday discussing.  Here’s the final  sentence of that essay.

“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

There’s a terrific reflection on the essay from the blog BrainPickings, here.

I was curious about the title of the book, Upstream, at first, since it is a collection  published late in her life and career, and the essay that struck  me as meaningful seems to be speaking to me, now, downstream  in my life as the creative call has become restive in me.  But the essays reveal the incredible debt she owes to the source material of both her childhood and her connection to nature.  Who she is and what she accomplished comes from who she was and what the early inspirations were for her.

So I am called to look back – upstream, past the rocks and tumbling cataracts of a busy, complex life of service to others,  to where I began.  To reflect on that stream I so carefully tended as a child. To follow the impulse to seek out the source no matter how far I have to wander from home.

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