Nature, Writing

Wildness brushes close

Over the years I’ve been a member of or led in-person writing groups in which the goal is to generate new writing. In all of these groups, I’ve relished the synergy of sitting with other writers, each of us deep in our creative worlds. On a good day, the generative hum can be almost palpable, a shared electric current.

Writing group time doesn’t always flow smoothly though. There are days when I’m distracted by the click of keys or scratch of pens on paper, days when I’m restless, the prompts don’t speak to me, words don’t come, and I just want the writing time to end. But my commitment to the group and to the process helps me sit through this edginess; I make false starts but eventually words become sentences that become a paragraph or two. And I am often surprised when I read aloud, hear what resonates with listeners, and discover a thread to develop, an idea to pursue. 

I wrote the following on one of those restless days. I’m sharing it here mostly unedited—I corrected typos, cleaned up verb tenses and punctuation, put in paragraph breaks but didn’t “fix” anything else. The prompt was to choose a word, write a sentence, pause, and continue with “What I mean to say is…” I chose two words—owl and brush—and this is where those words gradually led me.

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I haven’t seen the barred owl since sometime in January. What I mean to say is my life hasn’t been brushed by a glimpse of that still presence, that beautiful bird of prey that sits and observes, warming its feathers in winter sun. 

What is it about birds of prey that fascinates me? The owl, the peregrine falcons that swoop on their target at 200 miles per hour?

I first spotted the owl a few years ago on a cold winter morning. I saw it fly across the yard and land on a branch of the yellow pine. Every morning it appeared and then just as suddenly disappeared. The clamoring, cawing crows let me know when it arrived—I’d look where they were gathering and yelling and there, through the branches, still but for its swiveling head was the owl. 

I’ve only heard it a few times, the distinctive “who cooks for me” call echoing at night. But all too often outside sounds are muted by the sound of the furnace or the air conditioner, the house living and breathing around me. 

One year I heard the distinctive call of a great horned owl, the deep call and then an answering call. I was glad the cat was inside. I saw a great horned owl one late summer day. Two friends and I were walking on a path in a wooded park outside of Chicago. We heard the whoosh of wings and looked up to see this large creature eyeing us as we scurried past. 

Wildness brushes close. Wildness which so many people fear and destroy.

A few years ago, in response to the disappearance of nature words from a children’s dictionary, English author Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris collaborated on The Lost Words: A Spell Book, a book of acrostic poems and art that conjures these words and keeps these bits of nature alive in our hearts and minds—dandelion, raven, lark, thistle, owl, conker, hare—the list goes on. 

If we lose these words, they say, we no longer see and value the species they name. The book has become a best-seller in England, curricula have developed around it, crowdfunding campaigns have thrived with an aim of getting it into schools throughout the country, a group of musicians created a song cycle based on it, other composers have used it as inspiration. I listen to the CD of the song cycle and my heart aches for the disappearing species. 

So I revel in the wildness that trots and soars and lumbers through my suburban yard. The family of raccoons that loll in the crook of the pine on hot summer days; the possum that noses at the cat door and on occasion takes up residence in the garage; the skunk with its plumed tail that ambles through early in the morning; the coyotes I’ve seen in late winter when lingering snow cover shrinks their hunting grounds; the bobcat that posed in the back corner of the garden one summer; the hummingbirds and wrens and orioles and cardinals and jays and crows; the butterflies and moths and bees and wasps; the tree frogs and crickets that fill the summer nights with music. 

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Listen to “The Lost Words Blessing”

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Meditation, Nature

Things I let go

I take part in a weekly writing group. We gather in one another’s living rooms, someone offers prompts, and we write. At the end of the writing period, we read our fresh, new words aloud. One week, the prompt was to pick words out of a bowl and then write a piece that used those words. My words were canoe, heel, and bowl. A challenge—and as always I was intrigued by what emerged. 

After the group, I took the raw writing and polished it up slightly—and here it is. 

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When I was 11, I spent a month at Camp Pokagon for Girls in northern Indiana. We rode horses, paddled canoes, swam, shot arrows at targets, hiked, went on snipe hunts, sang, short-sheeted the counselors’ beds, and all in all had a grand time (although I never did come to terms with the horses). 

Before we were sent off in the canoes, we had to learn how to recover from a spill. What glee, what joy, standing on the canoe and rocking, rocking, rocking until it tipped over and we fell, yelling into the lake, to sputter and snort as we surfaced then grabbed onto the side, clambered into the waterlogged canoe, and bailed until we could paddle to shore. 

I haven’t been in a canoe in years. The last time was in Maine when a friend and I rented a canoe to explore the salt marshes near Scarborough. But if I close my eyes I can feel the water moving against the shell as I step in placing feet just so, find the balance point, sit back on my heels, pick up the paddle, then stroke and pull, stroke and pull. I hear the ripples as water moves against hull, feel the coolness as my hand dips into the water.

The things that drop away. The things we let go. 

I used to shape clay into bowls, cups, plates, and vases. I’d throw the hunks of clay on the wheel, center them, open them, draw up the walls, shape and smooth, cut them off, dry and glaze and fire. I’d hold the finished product in my hands, feel the heft, the smoothness, the gloss of glaze. I still use those bowls and cups and plates but I haven’t made new ones in years. 

The things I’ve let go. Singing in a group, dancing with women friends, swimming across a pond with long sure strokes. 

I recently watched a TED talk about joy. The speaker, Ingrid Fetell Lee, defined joy as a strong positive feeling that makes us want to laugh and jump up and down—I think of my 11-year-old self laughing and squealing at the plunge off the canoe into the cold lake or my middle-aged self swimming across that pond under a cloudless sky. 

I could find another group to harmonize with, gather my friends and turn up the volume, tug on the swim suit and edge into the pond, sink my fingers into clay. Letting go isn’t the same as losing. 

These days I dance in my kitchen, sing in the car, walk next to woodland streams and ponds where I pause frequently to listen and watch. I experience joy as a quiet burst of pleasure, an aha, an exhalation. A glimpse of a flower, a trickle of peach juice that I lick off my fingers, friends laughing around the dinner table, the cat’s soft fur, the hum of crickets on an August night.

Meditation, Nature, Poetry

Looking downstream

Early crocuses are blooming, daffodils are pushing through, buds are swelling on shrubs and trees. Even on chilly days the sun feels stronger. 

Spring feels especially poignant and necessary this year. After so many months of loss and change, I need the new growth, the lingering light, the quickening bird song. 

Patches of snow and ice linger in the woods but a favorite path is clear and dry. Each day this week I’ve walked this path that winds along a stream in full spate with snow and ice melt. I stop at a bridge, lean on the railing, and let the sound of water quiet my mind. I should write a poem, I think, and then realize that this—the sound of water over rocks, the glinting sun, the green boughs—is already a poem.

Garden, Home, Poetry

Flowers, glorious flowers

In this New England valley, spring first arrives in the form of bulb shows at two local colleges. For two weeks in early March, when the ground outside is often still buried in piles of old, icy snow and the wind still pierces through winter coats, students at Mt. Holyoke and Smith fill greenhouse spaces with displays of spring bulbs and flowers of every type, hue, and scent.

A friend and I usually gravitate to the Mt. Holyoke show at Talcott Greenhouse—smaller and less crowded than the Smith show and every bit as lush. This year a collaborative sculpture spanned the length of the room, representing the three seasons that students are at school, fall leaves becoming winter snow and then spring blooms.

As always, the first thing I notice as I enter the space is the scent of hyacinth, narcissus, and damp earth. I pause and absorb the color and light and scent before making my way slowly down one aisle and up the next then around again, this time taking pictures—oh so many pictures. For twenty minutes, my body lets go of its wintertime hunch and shrug.

I come home from the bulb show to my snow covered garden and devour the pictures I’ve taken, hungry for the light and color.

But gradually in the following days, as temperatures moderate and the snow recedes, I begin my daily  search of garden beds, cheering when the first green shoots of crocuses appear and then the first small purple blossom, the nubs of Hellebore blooms, and more and more green shoots poke through.

This poem from Jean Connor speaks to the season of yearning and waiting and remembering.

And finally, a link to a song I’ve been listening to, I Arise Facing East, from Cindy Kallet, Ellen Epstein, and Michael Cicone.

Family, Friends, Grief, Uncategorized

Lapis for love, for friendship

Welcome to the new home for my blog. I will continue to post short musings, reflections, glimpses of day-to-day life, and garden updates. I might also branch out. Thoughts about writing? Poems that move me? Links to music? Book reviews? Anything is possible so stay tuned.

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I recently met a new friend for coffee. I was feeling shy, as I sometimes do, so I wore the lapis earrings that once belonged to my friend Fran, who died in 2006.

A couple of years before Fran died, when she was in the middle of living with an aggressive cancer, she and her husband travelled to the southwest. She returned with lapis earrings for her friends—the ones she gave me were shaped like small fish. Lapis for love, for friendship, she said.

I wore them one winter day not long after she gave them to me. I had on a high-collared coat and scarf. When I got in my car at the end of a meal with friends, I realized I was missing an earring. I poked through piles of slush around the car, groped under and around the car seats, went back inside the restaurant to search our booth. No earring. I was bereft.

After Fran died, her husband invited her friends to choose items from her jewelry box. I immediately spotted a pair of lapis earrings she’d bought for herself on that southwestern trip and took them home with me; I wear them often, especially when I feel like I need a friend’s helping hand.

Shortly before Fran died, we talked about death and dying. Was there an afterlife? We were both skeptical. But I remembered the experience I’d had after my mom died, the strong sense all that summer that mom was near me as I navigated buying a house, moving, making a nest for myself, all while grieving for her. I told Fran about this. If there is an afterlife, will you come back and let me know? I joked.

I’ve had no Fran sightings. Just memories and the earrings.

Things have power. My sister died in December; in January I flew to England for her IMG_0371funeral, which took place in the village church just down the lane from the house she’d lived in for over forty years. She was buried next to her husband in the cemetery behind the church.

I both dreaded and welcomed the funeral—dreaded being far away from home when I needed the comfort of friends, welcomed the opportunity to say good-by to my sister in the place she most loved.

On the day of the funeral, I wore a necklace that had belonged to my mother, a scarf my sister gave me, earrings my mom had given me. Wearing these items I could feel my mother and sister standing on either side of me, holding me in that cold church and then at the grave high on a bright chilly hill.