Sunday, January 10, 2016

Moving toward Betelgeuse

Everybody has chore goals: clean the house/mow the grass/scoop the litterbox.

And more complex, multi-step goals. Like "plant more native flowers this spring," "get rid of 30 years' worth of accumulated possessions," or "find a new place to live that meets the requirements of two people who want very different things" (to name a few of mine).

But sometimes progressing toward some ideal is not exactly a goal. Not in the sense of analysis, problem-solving, list-making, or even about taking least, not in a linear sort of way.

 Can we talk about that?

You encounter moments when you overlap your past with your present, and see the differential. Somehow you've managed to expand your view of the world or yourself. Not because you've cleverly delineated a goal and a plan to reach it; but because you grew toward it all unknowing, like it was the sun.

Over many days or years, you chose to embrace an idea: a way of thinking or experiencing the world that moved you, imprinted itself on your impressionable heart. And you don't realize until your Current Self unexpectedly collides with your Past Self that these selves are no longer the same.

How does this happen?

It's like you're traveling along a spiral, where you come around to some version of yourself every so often and give a nod to the person you were the last time you traveled this path. Maybe you're a star on this cosmic spiral I'm envisioning, and you notice that the luminosity you're emitting has leveled up. Maybe you had been as bright as red Antares, the heart of the Scorpion...and now you're even brighter, moving toward Betelgeuse.

But you realize this only when you juxtapose where you began with where you are now.

The idea that made me think about these encounters with oneself in the first place is the way that some indigenous peoples define "persons," and how that is broadening my circle of compassion and relatives.

All humans are persons, but not all persons are human. All living things are considered persons; and the definition of "living" is wide and deep, encompassing mountains, mosses, waterfalls, lakes, winds, clouds, the animate Earth itself. All our relations.

I am still thinking about ancestors, the land and their relationship to one another, you see.

How much wonder does such a personed world hold, how much sacredness and magic? This way of seeing wanted me to claim it. I know this because encountered it many times, was on its trail in books, poems, articles, interviews, art, the leaves along the pathway stirring in its wake.

I've thought of animals as persons for a very long time—but not mountains.

I've thought of birds as persons for a long time—but only more recently bees.

What I'm saying is that if I can't see a fish as a kind of person, then I am the one lacking, not the fish.

So good news for people like me who are not planful. Who don't have words for what they're seeking until it shows up like a gift. Some part of you may be mysteriously working away at finding that thing and making you a better person, through an underground process that neatly bypasses your tendency to get stuck in your head.

Well played, Evolving Self.

Monday, January 4, 2016

The great grandmothers

My great grandmother Zuzanna Kryvoš came to America in 1920 at age 49 from Važec, Liptovský Mikuláš, Slovakia.

My great grandmother Mary Coils emigrated to America in 1906 at age 8 from Houghton le Spring, County Durham, England. 

My great-great grandmother Christina Mathilda Andersdotter came to America around 1885 from 
Vasketorp, Frodinge socken, Smaland, Sweden. I was given her name.

My fourth great-grandmother—my father's grandmother—is unknown to me. She lived in Slovakia when it was still part of the Kingdom of Hungary, before World War I. Her son, my grandfather, came to America and volunteered to fight in that war, maybe for the opportunity to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, which he later did.

I wonder, did she ever hear from him again? Did he tell his children about his mother? If he did, my father did not tell me. Nor did I ask.

Many things were not spoken of.

But now I want to know.

They all came here, but the one. And in due time they died.

The children the grandmothers left behind, and then their children, moved away.

I am the only one of all my family who still lives in this city they came to, this northern city on a great river. 

I come across their ghosts. Their traces linger in the digitized records I find online. I find their names listed in city directories and censuses, marriage and death records. Their gravestones stand in the military cemetery.

From these bare facts, I piece together fragments of their lives. 

The many houses where they lived, so close to where I live today.

The many children they bore, some who died while heartbreakingly young. 

What sorrows, I think. What difficult and full lives they must have led! All shaped by that brave and bold adventure: leaving behind their homelands and families to roll the dice on America. A different country, a new language, and a young flour milling city by the river. 

I met just one of my great grandmothers, and when I was still too young and shy to ask her proper questions, like: Why did your family decide to cross the ocean? How did they choose Minnesota? Did you ever go back? Do you know your great-grandmother's name?

I am rolling this thought around in my mind: Maybe all the places our families have lived are like our ancestors, part of our DNA. Prairies in our eyelashes, rivers in our bloodstreams, oceans in our heartbeats, oaks in our bones.

I have no children. My mother is gone. My family is not here. I am reaching back to these grandmothers, discovering relations I never knew who cannot be called strangers. Here, I walk in the footsteps of generations who never dreamt of me.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

A human-shaped life

This is Fort Zachary Taylor State Park in Key West, our March getaway.
I should just write about that: The butterflies, pelicans and gypsy roosters. The soft clacking of palm fronds outside our open bedroom window at night, which kept fooling us into thinking it was raining. The charismatic otherness of Key West—its roguish uncle, dirt-under-the-fingernails, bootlegger brand of romance. It was lovely.
I can't, though. When I tried to, my brain formed a perfect logjam. 
Not writer's block. Writer's block is not why I've been away. It's more: I feel increasingly uncomfortable with the amount of time I spend in front of screens, and I haven't figured out what to do about it vis-a-vis blogging.
(Yes, there's an immense irony to writing online bewailing how spending hours staring at screens keeps us from getting out and experiencing the world with our senses.)
These words I read yesterday hit me like a truck:
"The present is going by and we are not in it. Maybe when the present is past, we will enjoy sitting in dark rooms and looking at pictures of it, even as the present keeps arriving in our absence." —Wendell Berry

Right there, one of my deepest aging-person fears: That writing, blogging, photography, reading, television, social media have already taken the place of living the majority of my life, and that I have no time left to waste on a single one of them. 
And by living my life, I mean directly experiencing, engaging, smelling, touching and feeling it, instead of living through another's experience. 
Will I feel comforted to know when I have grown too old to walk under the trees that I have 80 Pinterest boards where I've collected pictures of somebody else's present? 
No. (Though they are really nice boards.)
My Rational Side recognizes this is not an all-or-nothing proposition. I have loved engaging with many of these activities. They have enriched my life and experience, and given me a way to contribute my own voice to the Great Conversation of the living. I may be missing the point by contemplating heaving them overboard.
But my Fear Side says: Every minute you stare at a screen (a page, a monitor, a viewfinder) you are frittering away another precious moment of your time on Earth, human. 
"Yet our organic attunement to the local earth is thwarted by our ever-increasing intercourse with our own signs. Transfixed by our technologies, we short-circuit the sensorial reciprocity between our breathing bodies and the bodily terrain. Human awareness folds in upon itself, and the senses—once the crucial site of our engagement with the wild and animate earth—become mere adjuncts of an isolate and abstract mind bent on overcoming an organic reality that now seems disturbingly aloof and arbitrary."—David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous

I am not alone in these questions. A certain restless contingent of web-loggers are squirming like wild salmon swimming for home against a raging river current, trying to find to a place that feels more home, more authentic, more wild and human-shaped. 
So where do I stand? Does writing make my or others' experience richer, clearer, more meaningful? Or does it keep my awareness "folded in upon myself" and distract me from living in closer connection with physical reality?

Maybe the real question is: What will give me peace right now? 
So I needed to post this. And that seems to answer at least one of my many questions. 

And what the hey, here's another photo from Key West, where such fraught questions take sail on turquoise seas, never again to trouble the horizon.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Acts of man

A couple of days ago, a friend posted a photo of a rhinoceros on Facebook. There was a bloody stump where its horn had been and it was sinking to its knees, dying from an unspeakable act of cruelty.

My friend wrote a poem to express his rage toward the poachers who killed the rhino for its horn. Punched in the gut with grief and sickened by a glimpse of this horror, I voiced my sadness on the thread of comments. 

Later that day, a wildlife rehab organization posted a photo of a bald eagle in Alaska caught in a leg hold trap. A woman found and tried to rescue the eagle. She was charged with interfering with legal trapping. 

The magnificent wildling, who had broken both of its wings trying to escape, was beyond healing and was put down.  

Two days earlier, I’d finished a book with several excruciating scenes of animal cruelty that seemed to be a commentary on how much damage that deadened humans wreak on all around them.

Sadness sticks to sadness. It accreted into a mass that day. A heaviness, an injury no one could see. Probably everyone who saw those photos felt injured by them. What did they do with that injury, I wondered? How do we carry such sights, such knowledge? 

Sometimes we are afraid that we can’t. We look away. Not many look away with indifference…we look away in sorrow. 

We look away, with a grief so keen we are afraid to give ourselves over to it, lest we sink into it whole, never to rise again. 

We feel rage, like my friend, or are nearly crippled by the pity of it, how helpless we feel, how appalled and shamed by our species’ atrocities.

The only way out is through, though. 

Maybe our compassion, even an ocean and a continent away, helps heal the wounds suffered by that rhinoceros, that eagle, our planet. It certainly helps our own humanity. If we look away too much, we are only pretending evil doesn’t exist, and help no one at all. It is right to feel pain. But it is still hard. 

I begin to think that the fall of man really did happen, and keeps happening. Not with God and the serpent, but when humanity chose this path that views the earth and everything on it as a “resource,” i.e. a commodity, with no spirit, sentience or intrinsic worth beyond the money for which it can be sold.

That evening, I sat down with my Native Gardener’s Companion

I began to plan the new gardens I am going to plant come spring, and all the caterpillars, bees, butterflies and birds they will feed, and my heavy heart began to ease. Helping, the only cure I know. 

Sunday, January 4, 2015

A tale of tracks or, Do you know who you are, even after all these years?

I arrive too early and wait inside my car, because it is winter.

My eyes wander over the stands of dried stalks in the astrologer's front yard. Golden remnants of flowers and grasses poke through the snow. A shapely bare tree on one side of the yard, flanked by layers of plantings and shrubbery stretching out onto the boulevard lining the street, where I am parked and cars pass too quickly.

In summer, this garden must spill over onto the sidewalk edges and lean over the chain-link of the neighboring yard—a small patch of wildness on an ordinary city block of stucco bungalows. The home of a person who values privacy. A lover of growing and living things, comfortable with nature's kind of order. That is what is visible to the eye.

It feels, however, like a crone's cottage, with healing herbs under the snow, protective spells encircling the boundaries and a tendril of plum-colored smoke curling from the chimney.

(Probably there was no chimney smoke...yet that is how I'm remembering it.)

I walk up the front walk, ring the bell. The woman, the astrologer, seats me at a wooden table in a cozy room and offers me a cup of tea. She is older than I am, but not old. Her white hair is thick with curls—not the regimented curl of a permanent wave, but a luxuriant and wild curling, springing from her head like leaves unfurling in April.

Green plants crowd the windowsill. A gray tabby cat snoozes on a cushion set atop the radiator. A few carefully curated artifacts and objects gather around the edges. There's my birth chart, on the table in front of me.

I can't shake the soothsayer-in-the-cottage feeling. Maybe it's because I really like it. I like coming to consult the wise woman, who reminds me of the wise eccentric inside of myself. I like meeting this person, I like how she speaks in possibilities and the way it launches a parallel, unspoken conversation: "Look, this is a way to be even more yourself. Here is a good way to grow old."

The reading progresses through the Houses, touching on my oldest stories. Stories that shaped my ways of growing and not, stories I've told and reshaped and retold to myself, the stories changing as I've changed and was able to reframe them: Once upon a time, a girl child was born. Here are the clear gifts she was given. Here are other gifts, in the guise of difficulties, challenges and curses.

What was it like to be you as a child, with your joys and griefs? What were the wounds you received, and have you found a way to heal them? Have you known your gifts all along, or were they buried, needing to be nurtured carefully and coaxed to the surface? Have you had to learn to be your own parent, and your own daughter, too?

The reading shifts to talking transits—the invisible but powerful tracks the outer planets in particular make as they move in their orbits in respect to the natal chart.

"Art is your way into the world," she says. "That’s where the invitation is to be in the world."

For me, astrology is about illuminating influences, impulses, identity, energies and cycles. It is just one tool for amplifying the whispers of wisdom inside myself that I forget to listen for. Like the tarot, it is rich with metaphor, story and archetype, with clues for understanding life as it is unfolding...a kind of taking stock, a kind of signpost.

When something in the reading resonates with experience and intuition, I pay attention, then try to follow that red thread, in hopes of stitching a true track through the rising and falling lands of my journey. While also looking down on this often confusing path I'm treading like a circling raptor hunting for mice: What will feed me, where is the sustenance?

And: What is the guiding metaphor?

A tightly closed red bud, waiting to unfurl?

An empty fountain that's been shut off for the season, or a freely flowing stream?

A sliver of blue sky after an eternity of heavy clouds?

Maybe a meadow of ghosts, whispering stalks and old bones, with an invincible heart deep beneath the soil, immensely old and ever young?

My astrologer-fairy godmother says: "You’re going to put beauty into the world, motivated by a deep desire to help. Kind of a social worker for the earth."

This, I love.

How do you put your finger on the elusive being of You, as you are being made and unmade, unendingly shifting and flowing like a wave? Fixed yet fluid, past present and perhaps all at once?

All I know is that you, and every other being who has ever lived, are more. More than any name, description, definition, list of characteristics, image, memory, circumstance, voice, or story—even the ones you like most, even the ones you've claimed for yourself.

You're an ocean, you're a field of stars, you're matter in shifting form, you're a hawk sitting on a high tower, searching for food because you love this life, wherever and whoever you are.

Monday, December 15, 2014

On this day

"Some days I felt an urgent responsibility to each change of light outside the sunporch windows. Who would remember any of it, any of this our time, and the wind thrashing the buckeye limbs outside? Somebody had to do it, somebody had to hang on to the days with teeth and fists, or the whole show had been in vain."
An American Childhood, Annie Dillard

Or you can let the days run through your fingers like sweet water, like golden coins, the currency of your time on this earth. It would seem miserly to hoard them, even if we could, when they are given to us so generously, again and again. 

But remembering, yes. Let us remember. When I think of the thousands upon thousands of days I've been given, I feel grateful and almost a little ashamed. Grateful now for all the days I didn't have the grace to appreciate so much then, when I was so young and took for granted a lifetime of golden days in front of me. 

That is a beautiful thing about gaining these years, I think. I begin to see the many, many gifts I've been given, and at last begin to fully recognize their preciousness. I am grown larger, so my gratitude can be larger, too. 

And in recognizing the generosity extended to me, I am moved to offer gifts in reciprocity. To finally see the way of it...a circle.

The earth is so patient, waiting for us to recognize what's been here all along, if only we'd have the eyes (or the years) to see. 

That's how it feels to me today.  

Monday, December 1, 2014

One thing

One thing: October.

Every day a stone of honeyed amber, warmed by a constant sun.

Was it lovely for you? Was it a topaz jewel in your heart's crown?

Grasses, trees, sky, all hopelessly beautiful.

I say "hopeless" because it is now December, and thinking about October feels like coming across a picture of an exquisite dessert made for a king, by a master pastry chef who died before you were born. It is a dessert decorated with gold leaf and sugared violets, thick with cream—so bewitching that your mouth waters just looking at it.

But the receipt is lost, and winter has come. May our memories and a good fire keep us warm, though still we long for that lost taste.

Since I last wrote here, I've been growing flowers. 

Since I last wrote, I've been traveling.

I've gone walking on a floodplain island, where white-tailed deer run on pathways that weave in and out of the Otherworld and cottonwoods...and where two rivers meet.

I came home to watch goldfinches raiding my garden for hyssop seeds. The leaves of snowberry, juneberry and chokeberry glowed brighter and brighter, reflecting back the long hours of sunlight they'd collected all summer. Gladdening my heart.

In my memory, I spent days watching bees drink from asters.

My list of goals shrank. I let a lot of things slide. I had nothing to say.

Under a waxing moon, I wonder. Will a reading of the astrological transits cast some light on this sense of obstacles, unknown thresholds? Sometimes the mystery is too mysterious. Sometimes peace is sought, and sought. It is worth a try.

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