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

Serendipity

Happiness kanjiAs Friday’s events launched a new and uncertain era in our country and the world, I was struck by the seredipity of the January 20 entry from 365 Tao: Daily Meditations by Deng Ming-Dao, a book that has offered me daily insights for many years. Here is the entry.

HAPPINESS:  Let us not follow vulgar leaders who exploit the fear of death, and promise the bliss of salvation. If we are truly happy, they will have nothing to offer. . . . If we attain freedom from the fear of death, a sound way of health, and a path of understanding through life, there is happiness and no need for false leaders.

 

And this from Carl Sagan, On Moving Beyond Us And Them, written shortly before his death.  From the wonderful Brain Pickings Newsletter.

 

 

 

Finding Joy in the Season

Those of you who read my blog (thank you) know I have not written much lately.  This past year and more recently this season of fear and anxiety, have made it hard to focus on things other than the daily unfolding of disappointment and alarm that permeates the news. It is always my intention, in these postings, to stay above – or at least to one side – of the political, paying attention to in-the-moment moments from my own experiences that I feel may resonate with you.  So with the deep uncertainty of the coming new administrations, as we leave the third year in a row with record global temperatures, and with a thunderstorm in mid-January raging around the house, I am trying, today, to find and savor moments of joy.

There are the little things – my two sweet cats who daily fill the house with their calm grace.

Shy Cosette safe under the tree.

Shy Cosette safe under the tree.

My first Christmas with an artificial tree that was so beautiful and perfect I did not want to take it down.  The cards and Holiday letters from friends far and near that filled my mailbox in the final weeks of the year with news and warm wishes.

I must mention my terrific students – I recently began teaching in the undergraduate Arts Management program of the Conservatory at Baldwin Wallace University.  Just before the Holidyas I graded final exams and am so happy at the large number of talented young people in my class who got ‘A’s. I am also overjoyed to have this new useful skill (teaching) to develop at this stage of my life.

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

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

Just a few weeks ago I had something close to a perfect day.  I volunteer two days a week at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History – I am a “steward’ (like a docent) in the new Perkins Wildlife Center.

River Otters in the Wildlife Center

River Otters in the Wildlife Center

That job means being both a kind of guard and a guide for visitors: guarding the animals from the few ‘unaware’ folk who sometimes come, and guiding most of the visitors to learn and care about the animals. It is a pure joy to be in that amazing and beautiful space in such close proximity to these wild creatures.

One of those wonderful days ended with a Cleveland Orchestra concert at Severance Hall.  There was a guest conductor (Jaap von Zweden) and a pianist (Danil Trifonov) neither of whom I knew. The program was a Britten Requiem (not the War Requiem), Mozart’s Piano Concerto #23 and the war horse – Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.  I was tired – having walked with the animals for 4 hours that day, but I had a date, so I looked forward to sharing time with a friend, even though I was not all that excited about the concert. I didn’t really need a Requiem just then, the Mozart was not my favorite (19 and 21 are) and I thought; what new could I hear in the Beethoven?

REVELATION! After the somber but compelling Britten, the rest of the concert was unmitigated joy. The pianist’s interpretation of the Mozart had the whole audience smiling and jumping from their seats at the end.  We were rewarded with an encore. And the Beethoven!  I must say I’ve heard some wonderful interpretations, but this was as if every note was new and fresh – as if written that morning.  Up in the second row of the balcony, we all just could not stop clapping and grinning at each other.  What a beautiful, joy-filled shared experience with friends and strangers!

There have been other joyous moments in this dark time, of course.  I just want to keep reminding myself to savor and treasure them.  Each one adds a coin to the scale on the side of optimism.

The Whining of Autumn Lawns

DSC00979As I write this, the leaf blowers are out in full force in the neighborhood, filling the air with complaint.  From this observation you might assume this post is about noise pollution.  Well it is, but not in the way you may think. The air – in particular the media airwaves and the atmosphere surrounding our private conversations this past week – has been filled to overflowing with a complaint of a far more serious and toxic nature.

I am not a political writer.  But I cannot let the events of the past week and the alarming unfolding of their consequences go without comment.  The noise of negativity that has blared so deafeningly this autumn (and summer and spring) electoral season feels almost like a physical burden. The weight and volume of its decibels have piled along the curb of reason so deep that it is hard to see any sign of a familiar or a safe path ahead.

It is hard to know what to think.  Impossible to know what to do.

Friends have forwarded links and essays that either raise the level of alarm and despair, or suggest a kind of urge toward ‘wait and see’ that threatens a descent into complacency – the first step toward capitulation.

I was sitting in a meeting the other day and I overheard the person behind me say he was quite satisfied with how the election had come out.  Suddenly, I did not want him breathing on me. I didn’t want to share the same air space. And although I was ashamed of this reaction, I did not know how to overcome it.

I do not do well with confrontation.  I know my default impulse, in the heat of the moment, is to lash out, hit back, insult and belittle.  Or (what I usually do) say nothing in fear of letting loose my impulses. Neither reaction is useful. But even if I could muster a reasoned response, a calm, nuanced argument, would it make a difference?  Can we even hear each other anymore? And if we can’t, do we now face a future where the angry whine of the engine of fear will always drown out the quieter hum of civil and truthful discourse?Withered Leaf, Dry, Autumn, Branch

It is early, I know.  But it feels like an ending.

I attach again the poem I wrote at the start of it all – an ekphrastic poem in response to Gray and Gold, a painting by John Rogers Cox, in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art.  His 1942 painting was  a response to the United States entering World War II. Crossroad

Gray and Gold

 

 

Now what do we do?

The common denominator of America’s humanity has been diminishing.  That commonality now feels like a negative number.

A Noisy Solstice

solstice and hands

“Gimme the vice grips.  Pliers ain’t gonna work for this.”

“I need the three-eighths bit, the hammer and a Phillips.”

“We can frame this thing on the ground, then screw it in place.”

“It’s five and seven sixteenths, like I said.  I measured twice.”

——————————————————————————–

The day of the Solstice dawned windless and clear.  The moon, even through its partly lidded eye, cast a bright square through the skylight before making its sleepy way west in the paling sky. Tiny Mercury winked out a little before 6 am. It was a calm and quiet start to the third season of the year.

The old roof comes down!

The old roof comes down!

That peaceful beginning is hard to recall right now.  As I write, generators (two of them) buzz and growl ferociously on and off. Compressors spit angrily, releasing their pent-up tension. Nail guns slap rhythmic rim shots that echo off the face of the houses across the street; a syncopated beat from the slight delay of their bounced-back sound waves. On the lawn, the portable DeWalt rips through plywood like an angry seamstress tearing out the hem of a poorly sewn dress, while inside a battery-powered jig saw chatters through sheetrock, opening up space for a new furnace duct.  It is Grand Central Station inside and out the day I get a new roof and air conditioning the same day!

Despite the noise and mounting detritus, there’s something comforting about being in the presence of skilled workmen, doing well what they know how to do.  I’m feeling taken care of by these strangers who scramble over and through the house, calling back and forth in their ritualized language, improving and customizing my world with their specialized tools.

Measure twice, cut once.

Measure twice, cut once.

I spent 30 years of my life as a craftsperson myself and appreciate deeply the hand-made thing.  Whether it’s a cup that sits cleanly in the palm, a teapot spout that doesn’t drip, or a roof that shelters securely from the storm, there is great satisfaction in living with things that serve well their intended purpose.DSC00938

When the dust clears, the equipment is packed away in the workmens’ vans and the house is quiet again, I will be left with a new soffit to paint and a small pile of sawdust to add to the compost. There will be the odd roofing nail to fish out of the garden next spring, I’m sure.  But I’ll also be the beneficiary of a little thrill each time I push the button to turn the air conditioning on, pull up to the house with the warm autumn tones of its new sheltering crown.

 

Summer, Sudden: Now and Later:

Just a late afternoon observation.DSC00931

It’s 5:15 pm and the sky just cracked and let itself loose.  Downtown, the day’s just ended for the workforce and I imagine the consternation: “Should we try to make it for the car, or stay and see if it lets up?”  “Where’s my umbrella?”

I’m sitting, snug and dry on my deep front porch, Jameson chilling (just one cube) in a heavy crystal glass, a thick curtain of water sheeting down all around me.  The sky complains mightily at some unknown offense, and the old, old maples and oaks throughout the neighborhood bend and brush the undersides of the lowering clouds.  Suddenly, the wind dies.  The rain drops straight and hard as a tropical deluge.

In the last five minutes the temperature has fallen ten degrees.  The cars passing in the street arc tsunamis of fresh water across the tree lawns along the way.

Five minutes more and the drama has settled into the humdrum routine of a summer storm.  The sky still complains, but at a distance, like a chastised child massaging its wounded ego after a well-deserved reprimand.

Church Bells Ringing, Rainy Winter Night, 1917

Church Bells Ringing, Rainy Winter Night, 1917

The rain has all but stopped, now, and the neighborhood droops like a Charles Burchfield* painting, the trees, eaves, even the parked cars dripping in a syncopated liquid patter.

A gnat has fallen into my whiskey, but I continue to sip it anyway, the alcohol having provided its antiseptic benefit.  One should not waste good Irish.

Bug in the Jameson

Bug in the Jameson

Tonight is supposed to be the height of the Perseid meteor showers. Not a chance for a view with this cloud cover.  I’m a little disappointed, but it’s been a sweet summer shower and there’s always next year.

A few ghosts of mist, rising from the cool rain silvering the hot earth, float across my lawn.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Here’s a poem I wrote some years ago, inspired by a line from a poem by Denise Levertov.  At the Window

  • * This Charles Burchfield painting is in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art

Meandering into Balance

sprinkler rainbowI’ve been assessing the arc and scope of my days, now that I am nearly 11 months into my retirement. I’ve kept busy with this blog, working on renovating my house, and with a few volunteer commitments that require a focus outside of myself. Early on I felt this last was important so as not to fall into navel-gazing self-indulgence or ennui, things I feared could take over my days ahead. But just this morning I was struck by a sense of lovely balance that comes as close as I have ever imagined to what an ideal retirement – a productive retirement – might be like.

Tomorrow I go to meet with my new part-time employer – one who has offered an opportunity for me to continue to contribute to the arts in a new way that will keep me growing in new ways as well. For the past several days I have been preparing for this meeting as well as finishing some volunteer work.

DSC00895

One tomato gone, another tasted.

But this morning, I woke early and, with nothing on the schedule after feeding the cats, I had, before 9:00, read the headlines and finished the N.Y. Times Crossword, chased two deer out of the garden (after losing a perfect, ripe tomato), painted the columns on my front porch, and set up the sprinkler to water the treatment applied to my lawn yesterday.  All the while the cicadas whirred and the birds looped through the yard to the feeder, the fence and the branches of the trees.  The sun sprinkled rainbows on my parched lawn and the deer kept watch on me from behind the neighbor’s fence.

The day felt both full and open.  I had time—and I had useful tasks, at different levels of personal challenge and satisfaction, both accomplished and ahead. I don’t think there’s a better example of what retirement should be.

Nothing for it but to be grateful.DSC00886-001

Here’s a beautiful poem about a deer from an unexpected source. The Visitation by Marge Piercy

Consumption

cartoonI’ve been worried about my consumption. No, not like Camille, Satine, Violetta, Mimi. Although the choking sensation of those tragic female figures is an apt metaphor for the feeling I’ve been having about the vast amount of stuff I consume, the leavings from which I throw away each week.

Tuesday is trash day in my neighborhood, so every Monday night I go about emptying the wastebaskets, consolidating the recyclables, bagging up the garbage and trash to put out on the curb to feed the next morning’s ravenous caravan of city trash trucks. And I am increasingly appalled at the size and weight of those trash bags. Trash

It’s just me.  Not a family of five.

Oddly enough, most distressing are the recyclables. A full grocery bag of paper; newspaper, advertising mailers, throwaway computer printouts, junk mail, deflated cardboard boxes from cereal, chips, pasta, etc. So much. Then there’s the plastic; shameful numbers of clamshell containers from fruits and vegetables, empty milk, juice, lemonade containers, yogurt, hummus, shredded cheese tubs, lethal-edged packaging cut and ripped off purchases at the hardware store, Target, elsewhere. Then glass; wine and salad dressing bottles, empty pasta sauce and jelly jars.  Cans from coffee, soup, stewed tomatoes, cat food.  And dozens of miscellaneous plastic tabs, fasteners and other petroleum-based detritus.  Not to mention Styrofoam! Again, it’s just me.  Every week.

I read somewhere that organic produce actually creates more plastic wrapping trash than non-organic food.  It seems that because organics are more costly to grow, and generate a greater loss when they spoil, the producers try to extend their shelf life with more substantial packaging.  Even trying to live a more sustainable life, it seems, you just can’t win the consumption battle.

DSC00557

Refrigerator note to myself.

I’ve moved twice in recent years, downsizing each time. I’ve gotten to a place where I am happy living with ‘just enough’ in many categories of existence. I don’t need multiple place settings for eight – or twelve, or every fancy kitchen appliance I may use once a year – or less. But after several trips to the Salvation Army, I still have more clothes than I can wear in a season.

So, what’s the answer?  I could buy all my fruit and veggies by the piece, rather than pre-packaged, get my nuts and gains and even coffee in bulk – but not cat food or milk. I suppose I can make my own salad dressings, pasta sauce, soups. I do some of that already.  I bring my own bags to the grocery, use both sides of paper for printing.  I think most of us do these things these days.  But still, there is so much to throw away each week.

We live our busy lives ordered in large measure by convenience as well as the structure of our disposable economy – and not a little bit of greed. We want and, can have, so much more than we will ever need. See my blog about the cereal aisle.

I am increasingly aware – and concerned – that our social order and our capitalist economy are both driven by a sense that unlimited commercial choice is inherently good.  Each trash day comes, and I’m not so sure.consumption diagram

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