Burning Obligations

It has been a hot and dry early autumn.  Too many of the trees have gone right from green to brown, putting expectations of a brilliant fall in wait-and-see mode. Lawns and sidewalks are littered in a shifting sheet of papery detritus. A shuffled crunching accompanies each step of my evening walk through the neighborhood.  Here and there, though, there is fire peeking through the scuffle of dead leaves, and some of the trees seem to be fighting to achieve glory.

Fire in my fingers!

Last night was one of those that signal the shift in the year; unseasonably hot for October, but with a grace of wind that propelled the day into a cloud-less evening. As night fell and the daytime clamor of the neighborhood dropped away, the wind in the trees became the dominant sound-scape, even drowning out cricket-song.

It was a perfect night to sleep with the windows open – or so I thought. The wind picked up after dark and the sky-scraping sway of the trees filled the night.  At first it sounded like the crash of the sea against a pebbled shore.  But rather than soothing, the waves of sound just agitated the night – more like the rasping schuss of a stiff broom on a stone walk, or the scraping of a crust of ice off a windshield. The volume just intensified as the night wore on – or maybe my sleeplessness just made it seem so.

I’m writing this at 2:30 am, unable to sleep with the noise of the wind in the trees and the dry leaves clawing at the screens to get in, but reluctant to close up the house against the sound.

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In February last year, I wrote another post about wind. http://kathleencerveny.com/unseen-forces/ That post talked about the force of change in my life soon after retirement.  Now, two years later, I am again facing the need to make change.

Two years ago, in a somewhat desperate effort to fill the supposed empty time ahead, to feel useful and engaged with something meaningful, and – truth be told – to avoid facing the discipline it would take to become a serious writer, I said ‘yes’ to too many things.  I am now busier than I was when working full time. It’s not that I have too much to do. I will always choose to be busy.  It’s that I have too many different things to do. It’s like having five jobs.  No, it IS having five jobs, four of which are purely volunteer. 

So, what to do?  My separate obligations are like the recent spate of hurricanes – individual tempests, blowing me left and right, creating a storm of sleeplessness and worry that I will drop the ball somewhere. The details and tasks are piling up like the growing blanket of leaves on my lawn.

 

Well, it is the turn of the season – always a chance to make change. Somewhere I have to find a leaf rake – and a match.

This Long, Dark Morning

This morning has come painfully slow.  It’s the first rainy day in many weeks and the dawning sun cannot yet brighten the sky enough to reveal the difference in tone between the shadowed black of the trees and the lowering gray of the clouds.

I’ve been up since 4 am: a fitful night of half-sleep, wondering and worrying how I am going to get my sweet, feral cat Cosette to the vet.  Two days ago she began to limp and hold her left front paw up and out in a gesture of waif-like supplication. It broke my heart instantly – not just because I knew she was in pain, but because I knew what I would have to do to help her.

Cosette has been with me for 12 years; captured wild, pregnant, and barely a year old, one terrible winter. In all the time since, she would not be tamed. In all this time, I have not ever held her, never had her sit on my lap or even beside me on the couch.

She has come to allow me to scratch her head – but only at my full arm’s length, and while I’m sitting down.  She’s always watching my feet. If they point in her direction and start to move, even from across a room, she slithers to ‘safety’ slinking swift and low, like a stream of mercury, away from where I’m headed. Not one of my house guests has ever seen her. A knock on the door or even a strange voice through the front door screen generates a prodigious salmon-leap up the stairs and a flattened scoot under the bed.

On three occasions in our lives together I have had to capture her.  First, when she was caught – skinny and bedraggled, and taken to the vet to be checked out. Next, when I moved into a small apartment after selling my big house.  Then four years ago when I moved into the cozy cottage in Cleveland Heights where we live now.  Each capture was terrible in fear and trauma for her and rather bloody for me.

The house has suited Cosette.  Plenty of windows and a yard full of wildlife to watch from indoors. Some stairs to run and play on – and she does play.  I don’t want to give the impression that, despite her name, she is a poor, unhappy thing. She talks to me and races around the house like any cat. And her particular game is to drop her tiny nerf ball down the stairs, watch it bounce and tumble, then race to catch it and start the game again, yelling at the top of her lungs the whole while. She even has developed a habit of bringing one of her toy mice upstairs and leaving it by the bed as soon as I settle down for the night. Then she brings it back down in the morning, dropping it by my chair as I have my first cup of coffee.

Her coat is the softest pewter gray.  When she lies in the sun she gleams like old silver. She meows softly to wake me in the morning, a little louder when it’s snack time and ‘suppertime’ – a word she knows well.  And if I stay up past what she considers bed time, I hear about that, too.  She sits in the front window when I leave the house and is waiting at the back door when I come home.

But, still, she will not be caught and held.

I had this fantasy that Cosette would live out her life happily with, if distant from me, and one day I’d come home to find she’d passed quietly away.  That’s probably not the most likely scenario, though, and I don’t know what I’d do if she really got sick.  It’s so hard when you can’t make them understand you are trying to help.

So it’s been a long night and a dark morning of planning the campaign. I’s 7:30 now and my neighbor will come to help in an hour. I’ve got what I hope is a good plan of battle: closed-off rooms, a blanket, a broom. Gloves. But it will be terrifying for her.  

Off With Their Heads! Deadheading: a Generative Life Lesson

My good friend MB moved to another state a few years ago, leaving behind a rich but recently less-than-fulfilling life built here in Cleveland over several decades. She has found new opportunities elsewhere – though not without challenges – and is blossoming professionally in ways that she could not do while here. Always an apartment dweller, M had never before had the chance, or the inclination, to have a garden.  She still lives in an apartment, but it has a small balcony, and she’s taken up gardening in pots – mostly flowers.  Every time she emails me an update on her life, it always includes photos of how her flowers are doing and some tidbits about the joy this small pleasure brings her.

I have a hanging basket of royal purple Petunias on my front porch.  The way the molecules on their velvet petals catch the morning sun and sparkle with miniscule ruby and gold highlights, delights me. The petunias have been growing and glowing for weeks and weeks now, because I have been diligent in deadheading the spent blooms.

Two days after I bought the overflowing basket on sale at Home Depot and hung it on its hook, there was a storm during the night.  The next morning, not a single bloom was left. I was devastated.  Then I remembered how my Grandmother, who lived with us my whole life and who loved petunias, was forever going out to pick or cut off the dead blooms from all the flowers in our yard. This was a morning or evening ritual for her and she carried a pair of scissors and little pail to collect the deceased. My friend M, too, talks about how she deadheads her balcony garden and how she is rewarded with continuing bloom. So I did the same with my basket.

I was surprised how easily the withered flowers came away – not a single complaint or bit of resistance; though the recently withered were a bit slimy from the rain.

Within a few days I had a glorious crop of new petunias. I don’t know where they came from, because I saw no evidence of new growth when I plucked the old ones, but maybe I did not know what to look for.  Anyway, I have been plucking with abandon and the petunias have rewarded me with continuous bloom ever since.  Have you noticed how sweet they smell, especially early in the morning, with the evaporating dew carrying their scent up and through the air?

Interestingly, petunias got their name from the aboriginal ‘petun’ which means “a tobacco that does not make a good smoke”- although they are not a form of tobacco.  They belong to the nightshade family.  This might explain one of the flower’s symbolic meanings: anger and resentment. It is suggested you present petunias to someone with whom you have had a heated argument.  Which in a strange way might suggest the other, quite opposite symbolic reference to petunias, as representing a desire to spend time with someone because you find their company peaceful and soothing.  So – maybe a ‘make-up’ flower?

All this reflection on the continuous proliferation of my little pot of petunias leads me to note how much ‘deadheading’ I’ve done in the garden of my life in recent years. I’ve let go, even aggressively put aside or thrown away, so much. And so much has bloomed anew for me.

After more than 50 years as an activist, working publicly in the arts, I’ve let go of it all. This opened space for new work on more private projects, and made room for dramatic shifts in the direction of my interests.  I am gratefully reaping the bounty of a continuously blooming series of new and different ways to learn and places to grow.

So, a life lesson from M, my Grandmother, and me: deadhead the spent flowers of desires that have passed their prime. Wake up to the surprise of new passions that have blossomed in their place.

In the Pool

Image result for water images freeHere I am. Impossibly early in the morning and already a few of the regulars are treading the warm blue of the pool. Milly, our social director introduces everyone to everyone else – just in case names have been forgotten since yesterday or last week. Ted presses his bulk forward in the chest-high water, strides timed to the rhythm of his conversation with another man of equal volume. Georgia is doing her squats in the shallow water on the steps at the far end of the pool, her ears plugged with waterproof music. She sings quietly to herself as she bends and rises again and again, creating small tsunamis that break across the floating lane barrier dividing the deep side from the shallow.

This early, music of the USO era croons seductively below the constant buzz of social conversation floating across the water. A few folks sing along with Begin the Beguine and The Man I Love. Later, when the water aerobics class begins, the music will shift to Michael Jackson and Journey, energizing the ladies pumping Styrofoam iron with their waggling arms.  The water-weightless bobbing of their jumping jacks will animate the pool to frenzy.

But now, in the relative quiet of the early morning here at the aquatic therapy center, I sit astride a buoyant, yellow noodle on the deep side and pedal furiously up and down the length of the pool; five lengths, six lengths, more, until I’m breathless. I switch to an upright backstroke and breaststroke to work my arms until they feel like cooked spaghetti. Then it’s off the noodle and on to the kickboard to work the abs and glutes and quadriceps.

I’m pretty much alone on the deep side, this early in the day.  I like it that way.  That way I can pretend I’m different from the large, crooked, halting ones – the ‘older’ ones on the other side, gossiping their way to prolonged mobility. I’m still vigorous and strong, and much too busy to socialize.

Truth is, I am just as old. And the decades have worn on me in ways I cannot deny. I may be a little luckier, right now, than some who come here, but as I shower and get dressed, and feel the pull in my back as I bend to tie my shoes, I have to admit – I’m in the same pool.

Image result for water images free

Already

5:00 AM, the last day of August. Already there have been nights too cool to leave the windows open, mornings where sweaters are needed. The post-eclipse sun remains hot, midday, but the trees look tired of it all. The bright green of June and July is dulled with a film of ennui and already, red and orange Pollock the sidewalks of the neighborhood.

Already the crickets have slowed the urgency of their tempo.

So, too, my urgency of care for the garden.  Already the weeds have taken advantage of this final chance to dominate.

Already there have been hints at November skies – lead-purple clouds. Winter-weight clouds. These have passed and the buoyant cumulus and high cirrus have returned, but their rocky heaviness still presses on the heart of summer.

It’s 6 AM now. Between the measured beat of crickets and the relentless tocks of the Seth Thomas, already the night has pulled itself away from yesterday; stepped across the threshold into this last day of summer.  

And just now – a ‘V’ of geese trumpeting south.

Rainy Day at the Wildlife Center

It’s a rainy day in the Perkins Wildlife Center.  Not too many visitors, but there are some, making use of the transparent umbrellas the Museum provides for days like this.  In a kind of alchemy, the rain has transformed the bark of the hundred-year-old beech trees from pewter gray to the worn bronze of a Buddhist temple bell. The surface of the water in the wetlands area and the otter pool is alive with stippling raindrops. Tall flora in the woods garden bend low over the path under the weight of accumulated moisture, applying damp brush strokes to visitors’ hips and arms.

The rain has made the dark channel of fur along Ember’s back even more pronounced as she trots her mud-caked feet through the puddles, chasing after her coyote brothers. Over near the Aviary, Sunny and Cloudy, the barred owls, stand resolute on their perches, ignoring the shelter provided for just such a day. A small fluff and twitter shakes off the rain from time to time, then they settle and preen the moisture from their feathers.

Coyotes Tex, Red and Ember (l-r) on the roof of a den at the Wildlife Center

The animals don’t mind the rain – or the snow.  Scarlet the red fox curls like a furry crustacean on her favorite high platform regardless of the weather; panting in the blazing sun, frosted under an inch of snow or, like today, occasionally stretching, shaking off the drops in a mini-shower of her own, then settling right back into her curl. The otters probably don’t even know it’s raining – they’re almost always wet anyway.

River Otters in the Wildlife Center

The Museum works hard to give the best life it can to these rescued, injured or otherwise survival-impaired creatures. Every day, in the sylvan, generously designed Wildlife Center, the staff invests their care and expertise to make the animals’ lives as rich and natural as possible, at the same time providing all that is needed for their health and long life.

We know these particular creatures could not live out there in the wild.  But one cannot help but wonder if they have a sense of their own fragility. While the animals don’t mind the rain or snow, I wonder if they mind the wire net and sweet-scented wood of their enclosures.

I’ve often thought that compassion for animals is an easier emotion to summon up and even feel more deeply than what we feel for many people. I have thought this is because people have the potential to understand and adjust to what hurts or distresses, and to whatever extent possible, choose to make the effort to rise above it.  We think animals are less able – maybe unable – to do this.  They can adjust, but can they understand? Can they understand that, because their wing is injured or their eye occluded or a foot was lost to a steel trap that they are better off sequestered here? Certainly, in captivity, they have no creative choices or capacity to change their situation. If they did, I wonder, would they choose to stay and be safe? Would they choose our interventions over letting nature take its course – no matter how hard or harsh that course might be?

Scarlet

We will never know what the animals think about our caring for them.  But it seems there is evidence that many of them do what is in their nature to do to remain as wild and independent as possible. Scarlet chooses the open air – the high exposed platform in her enclosure, to the cozy den provided for her.  The coyotes sleep on top of their dens, or under trees – never inside, no matter how cold or wet.  The raptors ruffle and preen through the storm, high in their trees and perches, emblems of endurance and acceptance.

And I wonder, as I wander along the winding paths of the Center, about what they are thinking and hope, if perhaps they are not happy, then at least they are content.

Wading Through Joy in Royal Heights

Across the street and a few houses down from mine, the owners of a typically ‘relaxed’ Cleveland Heights home have made their front yard into a child’s story-time playground of the imagination.   Grass and flowers have been replaced by a jumble of stones across which are assembled an ever-shifting ramble of scenarios, played out in miniature; toy cowboys and Indians, Storm Trooper and Super Hero action figure battles, tiny tea parties and idyllic farm scenes.

Little Green Men

Scout Pig.

These scenes change on a regular basis so on weekly walks around the neighborhood you are invited to stop and see what’s new.  Have the Storm Troopers encountered the cowboys?  Did the tea party get overrun by farm animals?  What new stories have been suggested by the Lego creatures now climbing the rocky cliffs or the green army men lying in wait for the sheep?

While these scenes change, one area of the yard has not – the serene Japanese pebble river that winds around and down from a green hillock in the middle of the yard, in the center of which a shark’s fin rises in mock menace, heading toward the sidewalk – and you. 

This is the most inventive and out-of-the-box front yard I have encountered on my walks around the “Royal Heights”* neighborhood, but not the only one where residents have taken a playful attitude to landscaping.  A row of painted sports balls (bowling, soccer, basketball) on broomsticks instead of flowers blooming below a front porch.  A delicate Victorian teacup and saucer on a small pedestal, nestled among a glorious spray of lavender just at the sidewalk edge of the driveway – a delight for the passerby, more than the home owner.

I could go on and perhaps will in future postings.  The point I want to make, however, is that there is something special about Cleveland Heights that invites creativity.  The City itself has a tag line; “Home to the Arts” which refers in part to the fact that so many of the people who support and deliver the arts to the community live here.  We abut University Circle where the Art Museum, Orchestra, Natural History Museum, Botanical Garden, Case Western University and nearby the Cleveland Clinic, are located.  So we are rich in artists, arts workers and educators as well as doctors and scientists – all people for whom imagination is key.

And it is clear that this attribute of imagination and its partner, a sense of play, have permeated the culture of the community.  Here, no one would bat an eye if you planted your whole front yard in wild flowers, or set out a bucket of sidewalk chalk and invited all passersby to leave a message or a draw a picture. (Actual examples I have encountered.)

I love this eclecticism.  It speaks of tolerance, inclusion, and a kind of shared joy that sustains me as I wade through the shared creativity and generosity of spirit spilling onto the sidewalk on my daily travels through my “Royal Heights.” (Named informally by the residents on Queenston, Kingston, Princeton and Canterbury Roads.)

A motley crew

Babes in the Weeds

 

 

 

 

A Small Howl Against One American Tradition: Violence Toward Nature

“American policymakers have always needed enemies, and with wolves gone, the coyote stepped unsuspectingly into the glare”
― Dan FloresCoyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History

In my retirement I am trying to focus my time and energies on the things I care most about.  One of those things is the natural world. This led me to volunteer for the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.  I’m a member of the Geological Society there, which gives me a chance to learn about rocks and fossils and the stewardship of the environment. Readers of this blog also know I have taken courses in astronomy there, and have waxed amazed by our nearest neighbor in the cosmos, our moon.

Me, with Linus, a river otter.

But the part of the Museum that has captured my deepest and most enduring interest is the Wildlife Center, where I spend two afternoons a week as a Perkins Steward – a kind of animal docent – helping visitors learn about the animals we have there, but also paying close attention to the critters as a part of the Museum’s need to be observant regarding their health and the safety of their environment.

Although I don’t like to use the word, one of the big attractions at the Wildlife Center is the coyote environment.  (The Museum is not a zoo – we do not collect animals for the sake of display or entertainment.)  The Museum is a teaching and preservation institution. All the animals there are either rescued, injured or they have been raised by hand and cannot succeed in the wild.  And all are native to Ohio.

Coyotes Tex, Red and Ember (l-r) on the roof of a den at the Wildlife Center

The three coyotes in the spacious enclosure (Red, Ember, and Tex) that visitors see when they first enter the Wildlife Center were rescued even before they were born, having been delivered from the deceased body of their mother, who was hit by a car, and raised by hand for the first part of their lives. They are beautiful, and despite their sense of familiarity as members of the canine family, they also carry the mystique of the exotic, stemming from our shared history and the lore of the American wild west.

Coyotes remain for us, emblematic of the wild, free spirit we embrace as Americans.  But at a deeper and more elemental level they also call forth the fear and the knee-jerk impetus to eliminate all that threatens to disturb our comfortable, 21st century lives.

I’ve learned a lot about coyotes in recent months and in the process have had to confront some very disturbing facts about myself as an American – someone who has often taken pride in the independence and rugged individualism that is part of my unspoken birthright as a native-born U.S. citizen. This was brought home to me from reading a terrific book, Coyote America by Dan Flores (read a transcript from an NPR interview with Mr. Flores here) and from a recent news article about how America is the most violent country in the world.

What is it, in us, that instantly defaults to rejection, to the point of desiring elimination, of anything not comfortably within our limited understanding and experience? A case can be made here for not just animals and people who are different, but ideas, traditions and values as well.  Why are we so threatened by sharing space and resources with those not of our immediate tribe?

Setting aside our country’s embarrassing first place rank in murder and gun violence – I believe a direct correlation to our romanticized gun-slinging wild west past – look at what we have done as a nation to kill by violent means anything we consider undesirable in our domination of the natural world: wolves, of course, buffalo, otters, the passenger pigeon, among many, many other animals – and coyotes.  The story of our efforts throughout the 19th and 20th centuries to eradicate* these clever, adaptable, wholly native American animals is shameful and sickening. And, like our efforts to do the same with so many species, resulted in some very negative consequences for us that we were too stupid or arrogant to foresee.

Yes, coyotes scavenged some of the weaker members of the cattle and sheep herds that ranchers had brought in to graze the vast plains once the buffalo herds had been slaughtered. But then the rabbit population soared, devouring the grass that the domesticated livestock needed to survive and forcing farmers to fence their crops against the proliferation of voracious rodents.  And when wolves were re-introduced into the national parks after having been hunted to extinction, the booming coyote population was reduced to a level that allowed both species to co-exist successfully.

Everything has a place in the order of things, and that order, if it is to remain balanced, must be allowed to sustain itself, with as little manipulation and savagery from us as possible, for the long term – centuries if not eons. This is as true of coyotes as it is of glaciers, fruit bats, the ozone layer, coral reefs, and bees.


FUN FACT: Coyotes are able to manage their own populations.  Females can conceive up to 15 pups in times of scarce resources to ensure that enough survive to carry on.  They can also limit their reproduction to just a few pups to maintain a sustainable population and not overrun their environment’s food supply.

ANOTHER FUN FACT: According to experts, due to their (yes) wiley and highly adaptable nature, it can be reasonably calculated that a coyote is now no farther than one mile away from every person in America – no matter where you are.


* More than 1 million coyotes killed a year during the last decades of the 19th and early 20th centuries, through shooting, trapping, poisoning and biological warfare: inoculation with canine-deadly disease.

 

 

 

No One is Alone

”People make mistakes, holding to their own, thinking they’re alone.”  No One is Alone, from Into the Woods, by Steven Sondheim

Yesterday, while working the Times crossword and finishing my second cup of coffee, a centipede slithered out of nowhere, weaseled its way across the carpet and disappeared under the coffee table.

Last night I fell asleep reading about the ancient connection between humans and coyotes. This canid, according to the author, is now present within one mile of anyone in America, including me, reading in bed.

Later, I was awakened by the distinct odor of that white-striped denizen of suburbia passing through my backyard.

This morning, a rabbit, a squirrel, a chipmunk and an assortment of birds foraged peacefully together among the leavings from the bird feeder. Each danced unconsciously around the other, minding, yet not minding at all, the act of sharing sustenance and space.

*   *   *   *

When asked, I say I live alone.  But none of us do. While I certainly could do without the centipedes, and maybe the skunks, I’m certain they have a place in the grand order of things, and so I am content to live with them.

The order of things — a frighteningly fragile construct, requiring balance between need and greed.  Between owning and sharing – space or resources. Between caring for ourselves and others. So I could not help feeling a seismic shift in the order of things as I read that, following the America First President’s trip abroad, Angela Merkel declared that now, Europe is on its own.

Objets de ma Vie

First in a series of meditations on things collected from my life.

Let’s begin with this small stone; not two inches long, not an inch thick. It sits on a shelf in the living room, amid photos of past travels.

Rusty brown and gray-green, worn unevenly by time and who knows what other forces that shaped the here and now of its existence.

Plucked, blind, from the bottom of an icy pool; water, clear as air.

The stone, unremarkable except that it echoes, in memory at least, the stepped wall; water, falling loudly, feeding the stream and the forest pool. Water bouncing off the staircased rock of the wall. Water, plummeting; cascade upon cascade into the tiny gorge; the secret gorge, happened upon while wandering alone in the towering rhododendron forests of West Virginia.

First, the sound of water, rushing, somewhere ahead. Then, almost a path through the improbable looking-glass shrubs, last remnants of their extravagant bloom pinking the white sand-red clay forest floor. Almost a path but not quite.  Perhaps a deer’s trail, or beaver’s, scribing a tentative diagram of their wild empire, their invisible existence.

Sound rising as the filter of leaves thins and a splash of sky is seen up and ahead. Sound rising to the white noise pitch of silence. Rising, crowding out all distraction, honing and focusing attention at the nerve-edge of other senses.

Step forward. The air in the clearing; sharp.  Everything microscopically defined through the diamond lenses of fractured molecules flung from the crashing falls. Ozone so thick as if a fish, breathing water.

Another step and the screen of green closes behind. The clearing of the pocket gorge, a private room. And on the smooth blue surface, the polished blue table of the pool – an invitation.  
Now, sitting in this small room, early in the still-dark morning and late in the darkness of a darkening year, this touchstone plucks a bright chord of remembrance, a quiet note of something shining; another invitation.

The dark is not forever. There will be clearings. A pool – un-rippled by the deafening cascade of dissonance, waits.  Come. Dive deep. Seek the silence. Pluck and hold and keep the bright thing, hidden beneath the din.

Here is a poem I wrote some time ago about ‘collected things’ and the memories they evoke.The Things We Cling To

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