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COVID-19, Friends, Nature

Hunkering down

“Shakespeare wrote King Lear while he was in quarantine for the plague.” This has been circulating around social media the past couple of days. “Yay for Shakespeare,” I say but my brain is so full of viral thoughts there’s room for little else, especially writing. 

My house is a mess. Cleaning is on the list for tomorrow along with writing up notes about cat care in case of emergency and reviewing my will. Morbid but necessary items that will help me sleep at night. 

Sun shines, rain blows through, more sun. The hellebores are blooming, vinca, lungwort. Crocuses have gone past. Daffodils are up and will bloom soon. Trees, water, dirt, insects, birds, critters. “We have a possum in our garage,” a neighbor says. Life in its rhythms. The cat loves the longer days, the sun, my being home to let him out. I stroll the yard and he runs to me, twines around my legs, meows, trots behind me as I keep moving.

I’m in contact with friends more than usual, even though we meet via phone calls and emails rather than face to face. Without the usual distractions life simplifies—home, friends and loved ones, time in the garden, walks through the woods. 

Will I be able to center into this time? Breathe, ease the fretting, slow down, row gently through the days?

This isn’t all that different than my usual life, I say. I often have strings of days with no engagements in the calendar. I’ve set things up that way deliberately to give me time for reflecting and writing. But… But…There’s always an alternative to solitude–a coffee shop to sit in, lunch with a friend, a library or bookstore to browse, a movie to go to.

I focus on finding my way through the day to day—how to shape the hours, carve a pattern in the day. I poll my friends: What are you doing today? I make yogurt, think about baking bread. I wonder where I put my spare fabric that I could use to patch a favorite pair of jeans.

But mortality is knocking on my door more urgently than ever. Older adults are more likely to die from this virus than younger ones–I hear this over and over. What does this mean for me? For my friends and family? The world feels precious. My daily walks yield small treasures–tree bark like an elephant’s skin, feathery bright green new growth, water rushing over rocks after a morning of rain, late afternoon sun on the river.  

An email arrives from my cousin in San Francisco. They’re staying home, life is quiet, they’re watching the birds at the feeder, planting their gardens, writing letters to get out the vote. Another email from friends in England. I make a note to contact my friends in Chicago. Webs of connection. All of us figuring out how to move through these days.

I try to relish the simplicity, cherish the strong connections, revel in the moments of breathing and moving, feeling the chilly air on my face, the soreness in my hip that says I’m alive and kicking, savoring the soft fur on my cat’s back, his warm body curled close to mine, his head butting my leg as we stand in the middle of the slowly resurrecting gardens. 

Garden, Grief, Meditation, Writing

Remembering

I haven’t posted recently—haven’t spent much time doing any kind of writing. That happens sometimes. I’ve cleaned closets, organized shelves, clipped back dead foliage in the garden, raked up leaves that I left down for winter mulch, read some good books (I enjoyed Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo), spent more time than I should scrolling through social media, walked in the woods—but the only writing has occurred in my Monday writing group (which is where I am right now). 

I’m not worried—I’ve had these lulls before. To give myself a nudge—a gentle invitation—I enrolled in an online group led by Jena Schwartz titled Dive Into Poetry. Three days a week for the month of March we receive a poem in our inbox. We can simply read and appreciate or we can respond with a poem of our own. 

I wrote a poem this morning about a garden cart that a friend gave me as a housewarming present twenty-five years ago. The cart has trundled across my yard thousands of times since that long ago August day, hauling leaves and grass clippings and potted plants, empty pots that need storing at the end of the season, bags of mulch and topsoil, rakes and hoes, and seedlings in green plastic pots ready to put in the ground. 

The poem was a distilled, focused memory of the gift of the cart, my friend helping me put it together, his death months later, my memories of him when I use the cart. My last lines said:

“I think of him now as I push the cart over a winter rutted lawn.
Not a heavy grief, but a remembrance
a nod to his thumbprint on my day to day.”

I was aware as I wrote about my friend and the cart and the gentle nostalgic memory that the cart evokes that I was not writing about the more poignant, stabbing memories that surface sometimes when I look at the print hanging on my living room wall—red tulips spilling out of their vase—or feel the nubbly texture of the yellow blanket folded on my office daybed, these relicts from my sister’s house, evocations of her and her home, many-roomed memories that swim in front of me of a place I can never return to, a person I can never touch again. 

None of this is surprising—griefs exist in diverse dimensions, deaths leave holes of differing sizes—the death of a friend lands differently than the death of a sister. 

Although I haven’t put words to paper much in recent weeks, I’ve been writing a lot in my head. I wrote an entire poem in my mind yesterday morning as I sat in my meditation group listening to Tara Brach and trying with great difficulty to keep my attention focused on my breath. I’ll remember this poem, I told myself, write it down when I get home. But it’s mostly gone. I got home, stroked the cat, ate lunch, and ventured out to the garden to rake and clip and tidy, the poem forgotten until this morning when I tried to recapture it with no success. Something about being the silence that is listening, being the stillness. 

Being the stillness. Things feel chaotic these days, all the hoopla and angst about the virus that creeps ever nearer, dominates the media, seeps into our thoughts, our conversations. I try to resist the anxiety, stay centered, fight the feeling that I’m swimming through germs every time I go out in the world. I spent a long time at the grocery store on Saturday stocking up on canned goods just in case I need to self isolate at some point and then got home and realized I’d been so focused on that hypothetical crisis that I hadn’t bought items that I’d actually need for the coming week. 

Breathe. Be the stillness. Relish moments like this, sitting in a bright room, surrounded by windows, looking out at sun and blue sky, feeling the sun on my neck, the back of my head, hearing the creak of chairs from the other room, an occasional sigh, knowing that we’re all engaged in creating, putting words out into the world, a community of writers. And being here, now, fingers on keyboard I enter a sort of stillness, a place of calm. 

Christmas, Family, Home, Music

Music and memories

Christmas eve morning, 2019. A young boy’s voice, pure and clear, sang the first line of Once in Royal David’s City and I was instantly transported back two years to England and my sister’s house, the last Christmas we spent together.

We’d had a mid-day meal at a nearby inn and by 3, with the sun low in the sky, we were back at her house, mugs of tea in hand, ready to watch the BBC broadcast of the Nine Lessons and Carols service from King’s College, Cambridge. Coats rustled as people took their seats, silence fell, and a young boy’s voice rang out. 

I don’t remember when I first listened to this service—it might have been at my sister’s house or possibly with my mother on one of those quiet Christmases we spent together after dad died. I’d arrive on the 22nd or 23rd and we’d spend the morning of Christmas eve listening to the lessons and carols and decorating the tree. The listening helped us feel connected to my sister at home in her English village.  

On this Christmas eve, I sat for a few minutes then I was up and puttering around the house while the service played in the background. I paused to listen more intently to certain carols—Silent Night, Adeste Fidelis. And as the voices soared I was taken even further back to family Christmases in Ohio and the candlelit lessons and carols services we attended at Mariemont Community church, a small stone church modeled after English parish churches. 

I remember the strong descending notes of the organ and then the choir singing “On this day, earth shall ring…” as they processed in, the stone walls and dark wood pews, the familiar carols and my sister and I searching for the harmony line, the final carol, Adeste Fidelis, with its soprano descant that spiraled up through the candlelit space, and then the choir singing Masters in This Hall as they recessed. 

Music and memories. I spent Christmas with friends and will gather with friends tonight to see out the year. I revel in these warm connections—I am held by them just as I am warmed and held by the music of the season and the memories it brings. 

Once in Royal David’s City, sung by Kings College Choir, 2016

Adeste Fidelis, sung by Harvard University Choir, 2009

On This Day Earth Shall Ring, sung by the Kings College Choir, 2009

Masters in This Hall, sung by HSPVA Madrigal Choir, 2009

Meditation, Writing

Finding focus

I begin my days most winter mornings sitting in my living room next to a south facing window. My back is to the window; I look across the room and out of the north-facing window at rhododendrons and behind them tall evergreens that mark my back boundary. On a clear morning, the sun, sitting now in the southern sky, warms the room and cascades over my shoulder and arm. But today is cloudy and I’m warmed only by the heat blowing through a nearby floor vent. 

Snow sifts down. The shrubs and trees are pocked with clumps of snow from a recent storm. It’s a gray, green, and white world. I took a picture yesterday of the snowy view out my front door. I’m struck by how muted the colors are—the faintest hint of green on shrubs, a brown house down the street. 

Winter. Part of me wants to hibernate, avoiding the cold, the low light, the snow-constricted, icy walkways; another part feels a deep restlessness. I’m like the cat who sleeps for long hours and then wakes to scrabble at the front window—let me out, let me out.

This restlessness interrupts my writing and editing. I told myself that yesterday would be a day to sit at my desk and focus—my own writing in the morning and then some editing in the afternoon. But the online crossword puzzle beckoned, and then scrolling through social media, which led to a couple of interesting articles. Some phone calls. A load of laundry. I finally settled enough to work on an essay about my mother. But after lunch procrastination once again took hold. 

I made a grocery list and headed to Trader Joe’s. When I was checking out, the cashier asked how my day was going. I said something about restlessness, about difficulty sitting down at my desk and getting to work. “I know how that feels,” he said. He scanned a couple of items, then looked at me and asked, “So, what would help you focus?”

“A cup of tea,” I said. “Tea is good,” he responded. 

“And then I need to just do it, don’t I?” 

“Good luck,” he said as he plopped the filled grocery bag into the cart. 

I’ve been watching videos posted by a British woman who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail this year—one video a day as we follow her through water-starved desert terrains, treacherous snowy passes, dripping rain forests, sometimes with companions but often alone for days on end. She’s charming, likable, ordinary and extraordinary.

Yesterday was the last video, marking her completion of the six-month long trek. And this got me thinking about how we applaud people who take on these big challenges—hike the PCT or the Appalachian Trail, write a book, solo travel around the world, run an ultra-marathon, etc.—enduring hardships, reveling in small triumphs and joys, countering fears to reach the big goal.

But doesn’t the real challenge lie in how we live our day-to-day lives? Staying in the here and now even when the weather is cold, the world is icy, the cat refuses his medicine, our work feels bumpy, and our sinuses ache? Isn’t the real challenge waking up to our lives, moment after moment? Finding our center, point of focus, passion, our guiding star, and returning to it again and again, no matter how strongly we’re pulled away?

What will help me focus, keep me grounded and awake? The answer changes moment to moment. This morning I picked up my laptop and started writing about my here and now. I’m now at my desk in late afternoon light, one lamp on, a clock ticking, the cat curled up in a corner of the room. On the desk is a rock with the word Breathe printed on it. And so I breathe and I write. 

Crafts, Family, Friends, Home

Is it done yet?

“Have you finished that afghan?” Jean asked during one of my last visits with her before she died. I didn’t see her often in her final months but each time I visited she asked about the afghan that sat in my knitting bag, two-thirds done. 

I don’t remember what prompted me to start this project, which is actually a lap blanket rather than an afghan. Did I imagine it wrapped around my own knees on winter nights? I already have an abundance of woven or fleecy or hand knitted options for knee warming. At various points in the years since I started it I’ve considered possible recipients, hoping that the deadline of holiday gift giving would spur me on. But it continues to languish. 

Jean was a long-time friend—and my knitting guru. An artist with needles and yarn, she encouraged me to stretch my skills, take on intricate stitch challenges, branch out from scarves to knit a sweater or hat, ruthlessly rip back to fix mistakes. We spent many chilly evenings sitting at her dining table, a fire crackling in the woodstove, knitting and talking while scarves, hats, sweaters, and shawls grew. 

I learned to knit when I was nine or ten. My cousin was visiting and my mom, desperate for ways to keep us occupied, sat us down with balls of yarn and knitting needles and set us to work making garter stitch potholders. Sporadic forays into knitting in my young adult years mostly resulted in half finished projects. I did eventually finish an orange wool scarf made with yarn I bought in Ireland on a two-month England and Ireland exploration the summer after junior year at university. The bright wool knit up nicely in popcorn stitch. I wore the scarf a few times and then left it in a restaurant that immediately went out of business and the scarf became the property of the creditors. 

Mom was an accomplished knitter, regularly producing sweaters and vests and scarves to keep us all warm. She knit American style—and that’s what she taught me. I’ve since been told this is an inefficient method but in her hands it was fluid and fast. I can still see her sitting on the couch, eyes on a TV show, fingers flying as she inserted the needle, wrapped the yarn, slipped off the stitch, row after row. 

I have an afghan that mom made—she made several and gave them to family members scattered around the globe. Mine is shades of green and each square is a different stitch pattern. I also have several scarves, a hat, and a sweater I made for myself. And maybe this winter I’ll finish and bind off the lap blanket—and imagine Jean saying “Well, finally!”

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. 

*****

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.