Monday, December 11, 2017

Dark tales, bright fires

I suspect that some of you brilliant people could write a scholarly essay on murder ballads and how they fit into the folk music tradition.

All I know is that this is an art form that's been around a long, long time. And still today murder ballads are being written and performed.

I love them for the stories they tell, their drama and intensity, and how exquisite music, voice and lyrics combine to heighten the tale-telling, make it breathe.

I love the art form's lack of irony, ennui or elliptical meanings—it's life and death in these songs. They feel like core stories about the good and ill in humans; stories that folk have been telling for millennia. Cautionary tales about the most powerful and destabilizing of emotions: jealousy, fear, love, passion, rage and grief. Inspiring stories of struggle and courage.

I love them thrice because they emanate a sense of timelessness and the mythic...these stories, and these characters, have taken many shapes and iterations. You can glimpse in them fairy tales, legends, folklore, myths, stories from the Bible, maybe even the cave paintings of Lascaux.

As we listen to the tales unfold, it's as if we sit around the village fire, together fearing for the characters in danger, uplifted by flashes of heroism. We empathize with their hardship, their life and death struggle.

They are like people we've known. They are like us.

It is winter here in the northern hemisphere, the long dark; it is time for tales by the fire. Listen....

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Empty rooms

Our former house, waiting for its new owners

You would think moving would be an exciting thing. A wonderful thing! A nothing-but-positive thing.

It feels like it should feel that way.

In my case, however, it was stressful and exhausting, confusing and destabilizing, anxiety-provoking and overwhelming.

Searching for a new place and leaving the old show you all kinds of things about yourself that you did not know, which is interesting, but also unsettling.

It shines a spotlight on how confused you may be about what you thought you wanted...and the possible life/lives you imagine you want to live...and how those imagined lives may or may not align with those of your partner...and what that may say about the compromises you are or are not willing to make.

It prompts questions about how much you can separate who you are from where you are.

Who am I when I am in this place, and not in that place? Will changing the status quo upend the life we have built, or enhance it (or both)?

Nobody talks about how selling your home feels like selling a piece of yourself, but it did. It felt like the breakup of a relationship; the painful separation and unwrapping of all the tendrils you have coiled around each other for mutual support.

Because one's home is an extension of oneself—do you feel that, too?

(At one time I had an unpleasant neighbor who, out of spite, cut off all the branches of my vine where it grew over the top of our border fence. When I later found it on the collapsed on the ground, deprived of its glorious tendrils, I felt as if I'd had all the air knocked out of me. Will you think me strange for saying how violent that felt? An ugly attack on a harmless, flourishing green thing that I tended and loved? Whatever we love is part of us.)

I just wanted to say that it is difficult to dismantle your life, to systematically erase yourself from a place where you've lived and dreamed for many years. Selling your home requires you to do so.

Selling was our choice, but I didn't expect letting go to be as emotional as it was. (One of the things I learned about myself, along with how much stuff I own, even though I never thought of myself as someone who owns many things. News flash: I DO.)

Walking through those small, loved, empty rooms for the last time, I thanked them for sheltering us, nurturing us, for being my sanctuary from a hard world and people who think nothing of destroying what is precious.

I told them that soon, good new people would move in, who want to garden, too. They have two cats too, and a dog; and they too love the way the light falls through those windows, onto our secret treasure of oak floors that lay hidden for all the years we lived there.

Sometimes I feel I'm married to sorrow. Always quicker to feel the keen edge of grief or poignancy or loss than the balm of joy, contentment, a sense of good possibilities.

But a comfort to me is that it feels meet and right that we refurbished and polished our little house like a gem for the people who own it now. Like we gave our home the parting gifts it deserved, leaving it in so much better shape than it was when we bought it all those years ago.

I hope that its new inhabitants love our home as much as I did, and that they do not mind so much living across the street from a parking lot. From the bedroom windows you can see the sun rising in the morning and the moon rising at night; and I left the glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling in the shape of the constellations of the northern sky.

Friday, December 1, 2017

In search of

"My notebooks. So sadly full, this one with impotence, the other with empty, pointless waiting. The most difficult of waits, the most painful: the wait for oneself. If I were to write something in it, it would be the confession that I too have been waiting for myself for a long time, and I haven't turned up."

 —Josefina Vicens

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Wild sisters

Into the dark wood she climbed up streams of amber oak leaves.

When she reached the top of the little hill, she was still thinking her hill-climbing thoughts, drawing in the smells of earth and leaf and a velvety, caressing wind rarely felt in November.

Thus occupied, the woman did not see the oak russet doe standing in the trees until she bounded away, white tail flashing in alarm.

"Oh, beauty," said woman remorsefully, in the softest voice, a wild-calming voice.

As if heeding human words, doe stopped after four bounds and looked at the woman over her shoulder. She wants to stay away from humans, but is pragmatic. It is no use running further if she is not being pursued.

Eyes turned inside see one reality; eyes turned outward see the deer standing before you.

The deer who is is paying attention and not daydreaming.

For a moment, woman and doe regard one another.

Then the woman withdraws slowly, humbly, so as not to cause more disturbance.

When she later returns along the same path, the doe is nowhere to be seen. But her image is now part of the woman's inner dreaming, the woods she walks in her mind.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

There are so many things I haven't told you

It's a long time since I've written, with good reason: we've moved house, and I've been bewildered by the entire experience for months.

I have missed writing here, and the trail of photographs I leave to mark the way: an oak tree stirring the clouds, the whispering of light-dappled paths, an ocean of air dissolving the edges of myself.

How rusty I am. Now that I sit down to it, I feel self-conscious. What is my persona supposed to be? I'm "me," but a certain version of me. I may not remember exactly who that is.

I do know this is not a journal, detailing all my innermost thoughts (ie, complaints).

It's not a diary of what I did every day, or most days, or, recently, any days—and certainly not a list of my goals, which remain a mystery even to me.

It's a life out of context, mostly. And that, I rather regret, though I don't see a way to mend it.

This isn't art, but it's not reality, either. It's more like an unreliable performance from an unreliable narrator communicating partially digested thoughts for no clear purpose, other than to remember that I have a voice and to use it.

The photographs are less fraught, because I don't have to explain or present them. There is no explicit "I" in them. In some ways they are artifacts, markers, signifiers, maps. But really I mostly skip all that and think of them as the actual places they portray, not mine but mine. 

I took the photo on the Dingle Peninsula. My husband and I traveled to Ireland and London last year, which seems long ago in both world and life events.

One more of the countless things I haven't told you, and you haven't told me.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

My garden of regrets

"But though an old man, I am but a young gardener."
—Thomas Jefferson

As I tend to my garden, I think about love, loss, and regret.

All is bittersweet now. We are house hunting and that means leaving behind my gardens of dreams, regrets, trial and error, and planting new ones.

Until I fell in love with native plants and the way they nurture the thousands of exquisite creatures of this particular place on the planet, I was a fickle gardener.

I see now that was because there was no there there. There was no real life to it; no community, no history, no rightness or belonging, no center. Such a shallow-rooted relationship is not sustainable. And the roots of a garden that doesn't belong to its place disrupt the earth and its intricate web of relationships formed over the course of millennia.

So I regret years spent planting ornamental species that did nothing to feed native bees, birds or butterflies, none of which bore any kinship or relationship to the other. Fragments and echoes of another place, not this place. The harm that is done.

But though I surely regret it, the sting is lessened because I have learned to do better. Now coneflowers, hyssop, wild bergamot, milkweed, witch hazel, serviceberry and others that feed wildlife have taken their place in my plot of earth.

I regret not planting a bur oak tree many years ago (or even more recently). I told myself my yard was too small for such a wide-branching and magnificent tree...and so it is. But why didn't I plant one anyway? For I love them with all of my dryad heart. 

(A metaphor for all the ways I make myself and my life too small?)

Now I am no longer young enough to see a young oak tree grow to mightiness in my lifetime, and that cannot be undone. 

But I am searching for a house with a big bur oak tree. At the least there must be a sunny place to plant one or two, and maybe I will be granted the years to tend them and see them flourish.* But trees are a legacy we leave to the wild ones, including human persons. Trees are one (and not the least) of the joys of living on this earth.  

I love vines, the way they artfully conceal yet reveal. But at times I regret planting the too-vigorous Englemann Ivy, a selection of the native Virginia Creeper requiring constant vigilance lest it take over the garden, yard, even the big silver maple...but. Its leaves ensconce the privacy fence in green, and in scarlet, rose and apricot yellow in October.

I've also regretted letting the wild grape vine plant itself next to my sidewalk fence, where in mere days it grows foot-long tendrils that reach out into the walkway, which I must continually trim back, feeling like a meanie while curbing its exuberance. 

But on the other hand, the birds and rabbits take cover under the leaves and eat its fruit, and it is rife with large, golden, buzzing beetles (none of which you can see below).

I'm regretting the two shrubs I planted in front when we moved into this house 20 years ago...too close to one another and non-natives. I would replace them if we were staying. 

I did not instantly eradicate the dreadfully invasive European creeping bellflower that's growing among the grass in the boulevard and has spread in an unplanted area of the back yard. Another cause for regret. To get rid of it now would require many, many hours of digging, essentially replacing the entire boulevard. 

At least now I know the purple peril and in our hypothetical new yard will have my shovel at the ready, no mercy for such plant invaders that crowd out native species. 

But at least garden regrets can usually be mended with sufficient time, energy and money. 

Unlike other sorts of regrets that visit in the dark hours, all entwined with half-formed wishes, dreams, and fears. 

These are the thoughts you keep to yourself. At least, I do. It's not the place I want to live.

Regrets aside, it is a grief to leave my well-loved garden behind. Unless there was some way to know that the next person who lives here will love it, too, which there isn't. They may dig it all out and replace it with sod, which doesn't bear thinking about. 

But there is an up-side in leaving it behind: the opportunity to convert more useless lawn to native plantings, and a fresh start. Anyone who says you can't leave your problems behind wasn't talking about a garden, because you definitely can. 

Maybe I will dig out a beloved plant or two to take with me to inaugurate my new garden, wherever it may be, along with everything my regrets have taught me. 

*Not only are bur oaks magical and magnificent beings in their own right, they also support over 600 species here in the Great Lakes region. If it is native to your homeland, plant one. Don't wait!

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

I know not what

Yellow Trout Lily
Erythronium americanum

Lily-yellow, tiger-gold the color of the sunlight flooding down on summer solstice like blessings, like good fortune, a healing and flourishing.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail basking
Papilio glaucus

Under glowing leaves that undulate in the wind will I find one glorious afternoon to own my life; all mine, to do with as I will. 

Wild Sarsparilla
Aralia nudicaulis

Last evening, solstice eve, I and my wild-loving sisters tended to the native gardens by the lake near my home.

Together we weeded, planted, watered, sharing our bodily energy to care for native habitat of many species of flowers, sedges, and grasses. All out of real love for the monarch butterfly and every other insect, bird and person that it nurtures.

As someone who tends to go my own way, I too rarely seek out the joys of fellowship. I suffer from the self-imposed delusion that I am a misfit in almost any group of three or more people.

But the gardening women are lovely, kind and funny. Practical and full of earth knowledge, as you would expect from persons living close to the soil. They share their wisdom generously with all who ask.

It seems strange to me that I still seek role models for how to live my life when I am at this age. Life is a work in progress. Still I am trying on ways of being like identities for the choosing, wondering, Is this it? Does this feel like a life that makes sense?  

But how else could it be. Life needs to change as I change,  something I am mulling over now more than ever as we think about where we want to make our next home.

Because the answer to those questions depends on the life I and we want to live; and on my clarity and bravery about that life, which are currently in short supply.

Cornus canadensis

When my thoughts circle and circle, I know it is time to stop thinking. Go outside. Be animal, be spirit, be present and unminding and unknowing. Now, the yellow-rumped warbler calls again and again, his voice carried on a south wind through my open windows. I'm coming!

Stemless Lady's-Slipper ready to bloom
Cypripedium acaule

I send to you solstice blessings, my wild-loving friends in both hemispheres. I wish you a hopeful bright spot today, a restorative retreat of sorts, even if only of the mind.

 All of the images in this post were taken about a week ago along the North Shore of Lake Superior, where we stayed in a small wooden cabin hugging the lake, windows open all night to the sound of waves hitting the shore. 

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