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. 

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. 

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.

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.