Sunday, May 30, 2010
As always my gardening endeavors were accompanied by an assortment of bird songs. Newly fledged robins seeking reassurance. The tinny whistle of white-crowned sparrows. Sweet finch melodies dripping from their yellow ribbons of flight.
On this day I became aware of the soft click of a junco in distress, like a geiger counter. It was insistent and close. Kneeling in the dirt and weeds, I looked for the source and found it in the butterfly bush no more than three feet away. I know juncos nest on the ground, and it occurred to me that this one might have thought my flower bed was a perfect wild expanse in which to raise a family.
I slowed down, prayed I wouldn't step on, kneel on, hoe over the nest. The clicks continued at about the same rate, although they were in stereo from time to time. The other parent was perched in the hydrangea on my other side. I was only weeding around plants, leaving the spaces between for Walt to till later. As I moved toward one whose name I don't know, but which offered up a sweet white spike of bloom, the clicks got closer together and louder - the geiger counter finding radioactivity and warning me away.
Frozen and moving only my eyes, I searched for what I knew was going to be right there. And there it was, embedded within the foliage next to that flower, the tall blossom standing guard over a tightly woven nest containing three almost-blue eggs.
Speaking softly to the juncos, apologizing for disturbing them, I moved to the other side of the garden, and then eventually to the other side of the yard when they stayed off the nest, still clicking their warnings at me.
I thought how brave she was. I was close enough that she was in danger of being trapped or worse (if I'd been a predator) and yet she stayed. I took my pictures, backed away carefully, torn between wanting to stay and marvel at this small miracle and knowing I needed to leave it alone.
The chances of those eggs hatching and the babies making it to flight seem so slim. The human threat is erased for this nest, but what about the yearling doe what wanders through our yard regularly. Or my cats who, while mellower with old age, are still hunters. Or the kestrels. Or the sharp-shinned hawk that uses our bird feeder area as a fast food drive-through. So much danger. And yet that nest on the ground is the juncos' place, and they are abundant. There is perfection there, even in the vulnerability and mystery.
The junco's head is the slightly darker spot mid-picture. You can see her eyes and her beak, and the nest surrounding her.
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
My daily trek with Toby regularly yields evidence of God's presence. It might be a doe flushed from the underbrush that crosses the road right in front of me while Toby crashes around where he first picked up the scent. It might be a single first-sighting of a new wildflower. It might be a handful of ripe salmonberries hanging over the trail, offering their wild grapefruit intensity.
Some days it's enough just to be outdoors and breathing the rain-washed air and enjoying the golden life force bounding with unfettered joy wherever his nose leads him. Some days I'll actively seek the thing that might reassure me I'm not alone - that love exists in such abundance it surely includes me as well. And once in a very rare while I'll be so lost in my own story, the glory surrounding me is muted by the fogbank of my sorrows. Like yesterday.
The gifts of these walks have been significant over the years. Frequent sightings of my beloved Bald Eagles, including a clearly courting pair earlier this spring. Spawning salmon in the fall. Once, across the river, an otter.
And lately I've seen owls. During the day.
I've known owls lived around here somewhere from their back-and-forth calling at the break of day. A few weeks ago in the overgrown meadow that is the last stop of our walk, I noticed a large bird of prey that was too dark and too bulky to be a hawk, too small to be an eagle. A flock of jays was in frantic chaos, and it was their noise that made me look up to see them chasing this large avian shadow away. I spotted the bird twice more on different days, each time becoming more certain it had to be an owl, even though owls are nocturnal.
Then last week, in the same meadow, I heard Toby crashing through the brush toward me, barking. I looked up, expecting deer, but instead seeing what was clearly an adult Great Horned Owl flying straight for me and directly overhead. By the time I got myself turned around, he was perched in a moss-furred Douglas fir tree, and watched me approach one very careful step at a time while Toby continued his frenzied search for this new toy. I finally got one step too close, and he launched himself in the direction of the river, showing me the mouse in his talons. The one I'm assuming he had just snared on the ground when Toby discovered him.
Every day since then, I've looked for the owl and have seen no evidence of him at all. Until yesterday.
I wasn't looking for him yesterday. I wasn't looking for or at anything really. My heart was as gray and heavy as the weather and I had almost skipped the meadow. But I didn't, in part because the movement of walking was offering some comfort, as was Toby's joy.
Toby frolicked in front of me toward the most open place in the meadow. The second my brain registered body language that said he'd spotted movement, what for all the world looked like a flying cat lifted out of the grass and cleared my head by no more than five feet before its wings carried it to a broken branch on the side of one of the many firs at the edge of the grass. Where it teetered slightly before swiveling its head to figure out where the danger had come from.
Knowing settled over me like a soft hand stroking hair for comfort. I was seeing a newly fledged owl. Greenish gray fur that so blended in with the mossy branches around him I was afraid to take me eyes off of him at all because I didn't trust I'd be able to spot him again. Just the beginning of tufts on his head. And those eyes.
We stood in one another's company for a very long time. Long enough that I could see his eyes glowing ebony in liquid gold. Eyes that didn't blink or move away and that seemed to see through everything.
I don't know how long we stayed like that. He changed trees twice, and I followed him both times. Toby wandered around enjoying the extra free time, checking in from time to time, bumping my hand, then moving away once I reassured him I was fine. Finally it started to rain and I could hear another owl offer quiet squawks farther into the woods. My baby squawked back, and I decided it was time to let him be.
I made sure he was etched, burned, imprinted in my memory's eye. The soft, awkward, sturdy newness of a baby owl in daytime. His curiosity. His intensity. His presence. A gift like that needs to be honored with regular remembering. Those eyes recalled to remind me that light will always be offered in the darkness, even when my heart is too hurt to search.
photos from Flickr
Sunday, May 23, 2010
I'm an obituary reader. Have been for as long as I can remember. Starting in childhood with the local once-a-week newspaper where I searched for familiar names and indulged fantasies of what my own story would be.
Obits are little biographies, people's lives summed up in a few lines, written out of grief yet mostly devoid of emotion – stories that leave much to the reader's imagination.
I'm never completely clear why I'm so compelled to read these small stories. Sometimes I look for interesting names. Sometimes I study the path of a particularly long life and search for meaning. Sometimes I wonder how a family can go on when the life being noted was so very short.
The writer in me loves the variety and mystery of so many life stories. The mortal in me marvels that an entire life can be reduced to a mere handful of words in newsprint. The core of me wonders about the last moments of each of the lives, transformed beyond our knowing at the moment of death.
I've lived in Southwest Washington for over three decades now, so it's not unusual for me to see a familiar face or to recognize a name when I'm reading our local daily paper. However, even the familiarity holds some distance – the people I read about are never ones who have lived in my heart. Although my life has seen its fair share of loss, surprisingly little of it has been in the form of death. Which allows my reading of obituaries to be a cushioned, slightly distant experience.
Until last week.
The picture of the smiling woman looked familiar. Then I saw her name. I looked at the picture again, and there she was.
When I knew her, she wasn't one much for smiling. We met over quilting, bonded over long heart-felt conversations, shared a belief in the healing power of shining light in every dark corner of our hearts. I believed I'd met a soulmate in the survival of suffering. Our friendship felt to me like a gift meant to carry us both to the ends of our days.
We had little in common beyond our wounds and quilting. It turned out she was not as inspired by our heart-to-hearts as I was, and she had no interest in working through our differences to find common ground. She wrote me a letter saying she didn't want to be friends any more. And that was that.
I was stunned to be broken up with, it felt so junior high. But I also admired her courage and clarity about what she was willing to live with. We saw each other at quilting events for a while after, and it was awkward, but eventually I moved away from that world and sort of forgot about her.
A few months ago my neighbor, who is still a part of that quilting group, mentioned this woman had just been diagnosed with cancer. Occasional updates would reveal that treatments weren't working well, but then I didn't hear anything for a long time. Until I saw the obituary.
It was a pretty short story for a life that spanned just over six decades. She wasn't that much older than me. Reading it, I found no surprises, no revealed secrets, no evidence that her decision to end our friendship touched her life in any way at all. Married to the same man for 40 years. A veteran. Worked at the same desk job for 20 years. A brother in California. The quilt group was mentioned – the only hint of softness at all.
I marveled at all the obituary didn't say, and the fact that there was no one to write a truer story of her life. A practical woman of short hair, no makeup and comfortable clothes, she was vain about her fingernails. Would never miss an appointment to have them done, and if one came off, would change plans to go in and get it glued back on. She drove three hours every week to see a beloved counselor, the only person she trusted completely. Her quilts were works of art, blankets of beauty and color and softness. She loved to shop. Hugs made her uncomfortable, but she hugged back hard.
She didn't believe in God. While she'd listen with interest to my yearning and questions and seeking, she had no interest in a spiritual life of her own. I believed it was part of the reason we were together, that I could help her feel safe enough to trust in faith.
I wonder if, at the end, she was satisfied with her life and met death with acceptance and hope. I wonder what her life meant and hope deeply it was much more than those few facts in the newspaper. I wonder what mine means. I'm determined to live a life worthy of a powerful, compelling and love-filled story at the end. And I hope I'll meet death without fear or regret.
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
I'm sitting on my knees, butt on my heels, focused on my breathing. Following instructions I've heard over a hundred times now, I scoot my heels just outside my hips and try to get my butt on the floor. No go. So I spread my knees apart until finally there's no daylight showing beneath me. I move my hands back, first right, then left, fingers faced forward on top of the bottoms of my feet so I'm supporting my top half with my arms. On a good day I can rest on my elbows like this:
That's as far as I've ever gotten, and it's hard not to be frustrated that everyone else in the room looks like some version of this:
I hear the word "relax" used a number of times during this part of the pose. I've always wondered how that might be possible, but today I get curious about where my exhales might take me. I focus just on my breath. Inhale. Pause. Exhale. Pause. And my hips surprise me at the exhale by letting go, so that for a very long second I'm actually melting into the floor and having fun.
Since it's considered poor form to happy dance in the middle of class (and I'm not exactly in a happy dance position anyway), I settle for a "small inner smile" as we're so often told to practice with.
I'm still on my elbows, but can feel for the first time the possibility of my shoulders finding the floor.
I'm excited to try the second round, always more limber then. Maybe this will be the time I get all the way into the pose. Unfortunately in my excitement, in throwing my mind ahead of my body, I forget to breathe. I have to pull myself back to the beginning of the pose, calm myself back into my breathing, stop the yelling voice coming from inside my head. And of course by then, it's time for Savasana.
Two steps forward, one step back. Except my body knows now the power of exhale, and what "relax" actually feels like. I'm already wondering what else in my life I might be able to exhale myself into.
Thursday, May 13, 2010
Sometimes life gives you a day where little perfections are so abundant, it's impossible to believe in accidents or coincidence or anything at all but glory.
Today was our first true May day - 70 degrees, full sun, a gentle breeze. The perfect backdrop for everything to follow.
Bright yellow and black goldfinches singing hallelujahs through tiny orange beaks – intricate, melodic, joyful.
Lilacs cut from hand-chosen and lovingly grown bushes, filling the house with the one fragrance that has the power to remind me life has always held magic and goodness, even in the midst of great suffering.
Toby, in his gorgeous sturdy golden majesty, chasing bird shadows all over the back yard. His intensity and the look of sheer glee on his face enough to make me sit and do nothing but watch and laugh and marvel.
The first walk of the season in shorts and T-shirt, through air as inviting as a lover's smile under a canopy of new greens so lush and fresh they promise infinite possibility.
A small nettle sting on my left knee, still zinging hours after I pushed through some foliage, more intent on where I was going than where I was. A sort of delicious pain reminding me of the wild freedom of childhood on a farm.
The discovery on our walk of one single sky blue wildflower, a bluebell of some sort, but one I've never seen on my trail before.
Time with bare feet and bare hands buried in warm earth, pulling weeds – weeds which released their hold easily from the still moist ground. Clearing space around peonies pregnant with impending bloom. Kept company by an old cat soaking up as much heat as possible, just far enough away to avoid being hit by flying greenery.
New sheets washed today and hung on the line to dry. The anticipated pleasure of what that fresh crispness will feel like and smell like almost as good as climbing between the sheets themselves.
Open windows inviting the new spring air to clean the last of winter from every corner of the house.
The day hanging on, even now, with robins chirping their evening song into sky the color of their eggs.
Simple little perfections that add up to a day of heart bursting beauty and love and joy.
photos from Flickr
Sunday, May 9, 2010
So much of our instruction in yoga has to do with breathing: Breathe through your nose. Find your breath. Breathe normally. But I'm pretty sure I'd never heard any of the teachers talk about a complete exhale before. So I started paying attention to my exhale, and sure enough I would breathe deeply in and push out a quick, sharp puff of breath before pulling in as much new air as I could.
Which, it turns out, is far less than I can when I'm taking the time to allow for a full exhale.
I've learned that I'm much calmer and can go deeper into the postures if I honor my breathing first. When I hold my breath to push through, or when my breathing is ragged because I've pushed too far - that's when I hate yoga, hate my body, hate my life. Dramatic, yes. But the heat and the humidity and the heart-exposing stretches leave me with little defense.
For the rest of that session, I consciously finished an exhale fully before allowing my inhale to take over. What I found (no surprise to anyone but me) was how much deeper I was able to inhale and how much less dizzy I got during the harder poses.
It's how I live my life. Impatient to fill myself with information, truth, the world around me, I pull in as much as I can. But I have a harder time pushing out what's no longer useful, necessary, helpful. Just like it's hard to allow that small pause between each part of a breath: inhale, pause, exhale, pause.
My pattern has been: INHALE, pause, exhale, INHALE.
I often have a hard time breathing deeply enough to feel like I've drawn in enough air. And then I hold my breathe. Reluctant to release. Afraid to rest in the betweens, to trust the next breath to come on its own and to bring exactly what I need.
It's becoming increasingly clear to me that I'm not going to be able to skip over the foundation and get right to the good stuff in yoga. Even more important, I'm finally beginning to understand that focusing on my breathing, the foundation of it all, will eventually get me to deeper postures and a stronger core in a way that my own stubborn determination will never do.
image from Flickr
image from Flickr
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
In class last night, the teacher asked us to close our eyes and hold out our hands. She placed a single rose petal in each person's hand, and directed us to write whatever that sensation evoked. What follows is the story one white petal called from my past. I'm 9 or 10 here.
The calf is wobbling around on legs that haven't quite found their purpose. Her mom, Stella, the prime producer of our dairy herd and Mommy's favorite cow, stands by, her head low, watching her new baby intently. Just minutes ago Stella was on the ground, straining to push a stuck baby from her body, her eyes wild with pain and confusion.
Daddy's in town on the milk route, and the boys are napping, and so it was just Mommy and me when Stella started delivering. She was in the field closest to the house because we knew her time was near. I was the one who saw her on the ground with two tiny hooves showing from her backside, and I ran for Mommy as fast as I could.
She knew right away that something wasn't right. Those were the wrong hooves showing - it should have been front ones, not back ones. "You're going to have to help me, Debbie. I can't do this alone and if we don't help, both Stella and her calf could die."
I've seen lots of calves born. Kittens and puppies, too. I know how gross and slimy it is. How scary for the moms. How much it hurts. I'm pretty sure I'm never going to have babies. I'll just adopt or something.
It seemed like things started happening awfully fast. Stella was bawling her head off, the little hooves, so soft and eraser-looking attached to legs that felt like they could snap like kindling wood, everything slick and bloody. Mommy tried to reach inside Stella to turn the baby around, but she wasn't strong enough. So that meant we had to pull the calf out fast. Mommy had one leg, I had the other, and we pulled as hard as we could when Mommy said to. But we kept losing our grip and we couldn't get that baby out.
Finally Mommy took her shirt off, so I did, too, and we wrapped them around those fragile black and white legs and I waited one more time for Mommy to say when. Then we both pulled as hard as we could, and the calf came halfway out. Mommy said we had to work faster now because the calf needed air and couldn't breathe. Stella swung her head up, trying to stand. If she made it to her feet and took off we could lose them both - the baby for sure.
"You go hold her head," Mommy said. "Help her be calm. Keep her down."
There were so many things wrong with what she was asking me to do. Stella weighed hundreds of pounds and I knew from experience you don't stop a cow from doing what a cow wants to do. If I couldn't keep her down, it would be my fault when the baby died. And I was so scared by then that calm wasn't something I had to offer.
Saying no wasn't possible, though. Mommy and I were a team and I wasn't going to let her down. If she needed me to keep Stella on the ground, that's what I would do.
So I went to Stella's head, sat on the ground as close to her as I could. I leaned forward so my mouth was close to one of her ears. While I rubbed the ear, the soft soft ear, as soft as the petals of the wild roses growing by the railroad tracks, I whispered into it. Even though I really wanted to be on the other end helping Mommy and getting to be the first one to meet the new calf, I felt so sorry for Stella. "Good mama, Stella. You're such a good brave cow. It's almost over. Shhh now."
And before we knew it, Mommy had the calf out and everything was okay.
As I watch the little heifer wobble toward me now, all black and white velvet curiosity, I feel tears want to come and I don't know why. I reach out tentatively, feel the softness of her new nose bumping my fingers in search of sustenance I can't provide. I'm aware of Stella, watchful but calm, trusting me with her baby.
Then I look up and see Mommy watching me, too. She has a smile on her face I've never seen before. Her look is as soft and tender as the calf's nose, as trusting as Stella's. "Thank you, Debbie. You were a great help, and I couldn't have done this without you. We saved this calf and most likely Stella, too."
photo from Flickr
Sunday, May 2, 2010
The first thing I noticed about the author was the way she studied the people in front of her waiting to hear her speak. The second thing I noticed was the not-so-concerned-about-style gray hair that a bit of research revealed has been her style for years. Mostly, though, I could feel how much she was enjoying herself, how happy she was to be the person we were all gathered to see.
My friend Deb and I had left Vancouver at 6:30 AM on a Saturday to be in McMinnville in plenty of time for the start of the first Terroir Creative Writing Festival. The price was right. We were both really ready for a day of adventure. And the chance to see both Ursula LeGuin and Molly Gloss was too good to pass up.
The surprisingly unglamorous introduction and the mic stand that keep drooping were quickly forgotten as Ms. LeGuin began to speak. She was by turns inspiring, acerbic and laugh-out-loud funny. She's 80 and has more energy and pure vitality than most of us hope for in our twenties. She's written dozens of books in a variety of genres and continues to write and teach and engage with an ever-changing world.
You could tell she was speaking to chronologically young writers (there were several in the room) as well as to their more seasoned counterparts. She managed to be respectful of both groups without boring either. I could hear the teacher voice loud and clear, although I had to keep bringing myself back to her words as I sat there simply falling in love with her beauty and spirit and palpable sense of joy.
It was her last words, however that reached me the deepest, and set the theme that followed me the rest of the day. She used compost as a metaphor for what's necessary to produce good stories. In her words, "Compost needs silence, darkness, time and patience."
Silence. Darkness. Time. Patience.
Exactly what my life is either providing (the first three) or demanding of me (the last) right now. Elements that give whatever ingredients are involved, whether organic material or words, the space they need to ferment, incubate, transform into something entirely new.
In the very next session, Molly Gloss spoke brilliantly on the importance of place in story, and how that has to be part of the foundation of a story, not something added as an afterthought. Her metaphor was the difference between a hydroponic tomato grown with artificial chemicals (setting tacked on), and an heirloom tomato grown in compost (setting woven intricately).
Again, the difference between being willing to take more time (and to allow for some ickiness) for growth, or insisting on rushing a process for faster fruit stood out clearly for me.
And then at lunch, the poet Bill Siverly read his rich and evocative poem, "Turning Compost," about how leaves and chips and nitrogen and water become "dense and juicy" compost over time.
I found myself thinking about the compost pile of my childhood. We called it a mulch pile and it lived out by the propane tank and rhubarb bush on the far side of our front lawn. One of us four kids would trudge out daily, even through snow drifts, to deposit the organic waste from the kitchen. Only we didn't call it organic. It was whatever garbage couldn't be tossed in the fireplace (we burned paper and what little plastic couldn't be reused). Glass of any kind was used to store leftovers or for putting up jam. Tin cans went out to the barrel that would be hauled to the dump once or twice a year.
Holding the triangular drainer overflowing with coffee grounds, potato peels and egg shells as far from my face as possible, in childhood I only saw and smelled the death. Even in the spring when we spread the muck from the bottom of the pile onto the garden, along with generous amounts of chicken manure, I only ever considered the stink, not what it was producing.
I came home yesterday with a couple of new books, some cool handouts, and burned-in-my-brain memories of two women writers whose paths I would be proud to emulate. More importantly, I have the gentle reassurance that all compost eventually yields a fertile wealth that can only exist if its conditions of silence, darkness, time and patience are accepted.
photos from Flickr