Friday, December 29, 2017

Stories for strugglesome times

Sleet falls from a quiet silver sky, frosting the edges of bare branches with a sifting of tiny crystalline stars.

Now the air numbs the skin like the slash of an ice knife, in that frozen moment between the slicing and the bleeding. 

Later I will go outside for a quick chilling of the bones. I have spent many days inside and cabin fever is setting in, which is what I like least about winter.

I wish I could say I was spending this inside time journaling, dreaming and creating; but it's useless as I am distracted by all the ways my house needs to be set in order. Plus, it's not really mine until I clean it. There is a lot to clean, and I'm not a fast cleaner, I'm the inefficient, meticulous sort. It takes a long time.

I'm slow at almost, cooking, baking, grocery shopping, writing, processing things, getting ready for work in the morning, making decisions...I could go on. Hurrying goes against my nature, my preference for order and exactness.

I'm particularly slow at doing things involving lots of details, which trigger my compulsive tendencies.

Like cleaning a house full of paint-spattered woodwork and radiators with frustratingly unreachable dust crevices.

Sometimes I ask myself, does this behavior serve me...or do I instead serve it? Am I actually being unkind to myself? It's a fine line, and sometimes I observe myself crossing into warning territory.

That's when I need to make myself stop. Go outside. Break the pattern of whatever spell I'm binding about myself, which somehow transforms in the midst of its working from a beneficial magic to a malignant one. This much is good...that much is not.

On winter's bare white stage, one's dramas and dysfunctions play out starkly, in high relief. Maybe that's why we need good stories to escape into more than ever in wintertime. We can't always be brave, strong, and stoic—humans seek comfort in strugglesome times. Stories help get us through.

Do you have particular stories you read during difficult times? We have been rewatching the Harry Potter movies—but I suspect rereading the books would be more magical and more powerful. It's not as if they tell particularly comforting stories (in fact they're rather discomforting and discomfitting), it's more that they encourage us to believe that each of us is stronger than we realize, and that we can make a difference in the lives of others, and that we have a choice as to how to live so let's choose to be courageous and loyal and adventurous. Those ideas comfort and encourage me.

Friday, December 22, 2017

The undying fire

And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.

The Shortest Day, Susan Cooper

How it seems that as one grows older, people and times distant take on a glow of solstice fires. 

When you were in that experience, with those people, you had no thought it would come to an end. That your life would not ever expand outward into the world. That loved ones would fall away. That you would somehow—wandering a maze of seemingly disconnected blind turns—dead-end; not at the center but in an edgeland inhabited only by ghosts.

If you had known where your turns would lead you, would you have followed a different path? Useless thoughts, yet the question will be asked.  

Accept that this is your journey, every blind step of it. You are here. There is no "supposed to," only where you are.  Do you trust that is so?

But still, dear friends, I wish we could be together once more around the solstice fire. 

The shape of the celebration was never so important as that you and I were there together, laughing, as the living sparks flew up into the deep night like wishes, and the white owl watched in silence.

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. 

Monday, May 29, 2017

The scent of sacred spring

In times gone, and maybe still in places where they pay attention, they call this one Queen of the May, under the protection of the faeries. 

Hawthorn has more charisma in one wild, twisty branch than does a whole hillside of uniform cultivars. 

Of all the varieties of hawthorn at the Arboretum, she was the only one to be blooming as early as the flowering crabs. 

Hawthorn's fragrance midway between narcotic sweetness and a whiff of fermenting flesh...but nonetheless (or maybe because of it) her branches were humming with small, darting wild bees and honeybees and syrphid flies, all dizzy with nectar amid the flowers and thorns.

Hawthorn marks the entrance to the Otherworld. 

In the Old Lands, they told the tale: 

On your life, do not cut down the sacred tree. 

Take care to not interfere with the lone bush growing in the open, for a temper dwells within this tree. 

Ask permission before gathering her flowers. 

And leave an offering in return.

Hang the may boughs over doors and windows for protection from witches and Unseelie spirits...

Do not bring the blossoms inside! For ill luck or death may follow.†

(I have a witch sister who planted a hawthorn outside her kitchen window. But she was disconcerted by the flowers' heady, sweet-decomposing scent, and later removed the tree. 

I wonder, did she ask permission? Hawthorns seem unusually testy. See their thorns, up to four inches long....)

Hawthorns, genus crataegus, are cousins of apple trees and Juneberries within the large rose family. 

Many thousands of years of lore and legend around hawthorns grew up like wild hedgerows in the Old World. 

So many alien species did European immigrants bring to North America that one could be forgiven thinking that any hawthorn one finds in America must have originated elsewhere.

Whoever thinks that, I have discovered, would be mistaken. Because the royal family of hawthorns has for just as many centuries been native to North America, including seven species native to my northern region:

  • Dotted hawthorn (Crataegus punctata)
  • Downy hawthorn (Crataegus mollis)
  • Fanleaf hawthorn (Crataegus flabellata)
  • Fireberry hawthorn (Crataegus chrysocarpa)
  • Fleshy hawthorn (Crataegus succulenta)
  • Pear hawthorn (Crataegus calpodendron)
  • Red haw (Crataegus chrysocarpa var. chrysocarpa)

New World hawthorns seem to have grown a thorny history of their own, one unfamiliar to me. As remedy, in my stack of reading is Hawthorn: The Tree That Has Nourished, Healed, and Inspired Through the Ages, by Bill Vaughn, guardian to acres of wild hawthorns on his Montana property. 

One day, perhaps at our new house, if we ever find it, I will plant hawthorns in my yard, and their fragrance shall be intertwined always with the unfolding, intensely mortal beauty of May. 

With Faerie queens, storm-colored clouds, changeable skies and the luna moth of spring.

But for now, Juneberry, Witch Hazel, Pagoda Dogwood, Crabapple and Silver Maple are my everyday companions, and I must ramble with intention to see hawthorns, planted as ornamental trees in the parklands around my home. 

No hedgerows, rag trees, or fairy bushes here. 

But still, magic. 

See now the small soft-feathered mother, American Robin, who has made her nest amid a bower of hawthorn's protective thorns; where the flowers will soon flutter to the ground and the tree will set fruit, growing red haws beloved of thrushes and waxwings. Which they shall eat and then plant without even knowing that they do, so that in the way of kinship, more hawthorns can protect more robins. 

†"A widespread belief in Ireland, and elsewhere, was that hawthorn blossom was unlucky. A recent survey carried out by the Folklore Society in Britain found that hawthorn flowers were considered to be the most unlucky of plants, with death resulting if brought into a house. Recently it has been shown that a chemical present in the early stages of tissue decay is found in hawthorn blossoms, so perhaps an association with the smell of death is the cause." —Niall Mc Coitir, Irish Trees: Myths, Legends & Folklore, (c) 2003. 

Sunday, April 30, 2017


Leaping fire on the hill
How I want to bound and burn like you, like every wild thing:
Rabbit, deer, horse, fox
The green spirit.

Leaping fish in the lake
How I want to bathe in that clear cold water
Revive my withered spirit 
Let go the pains I hold onto
Be baptized with joy
Be the joy to which the rushing waters give birth
and give birth to a river of joy

Dive into the depths of creation
without fear
Flash through the shallows, 
Swim hard upstream
Leaping forth every spring for an eon
Transform shape
wear down rock
Sublimate into mists and vapors 
then rain to earth in the Great Circle
as water begets more water and more life.

Leaping bird from branch
Wings dancing with sky
Tattoo over my heart, 
Forever winging into happiness
Bluebirds mean happiness
Every bird is like May
Bright, quick, throbbing with life
Singing gladly, wings outstretched
Carrying our wishes on their backs,
Our hopes in their feathers, 
Our dreams in their songs.

Leaping green from earth
How I long to rise like the plant people
A root, a seed
Ever-renewed, springing from the cracks
Useful, lusty, persistent and full of gifts

The bloom like the May, buzzing with bees
Green (the faerie color)
Hawthorn (the faerie tree)
May: The color of the dream world, the Otherworld as it calls, 
Stretches out flowering tendrils, 
Beckons with ever-young fingers to mortal kind
The greenling spirit of the earth reborn
And oh, little lover of fairytales and spring,
How the sap surges still 
in this young-old heart.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

True song

I woke to the true song of the robin.

All alone he sang, a brave voice in the darkness before dawn, claiming his rightful territory.

He sings of spring, a mate, rain, old berries yet uneaten, insects wakening under dead leaves. Of sunlight flooding through bare tree branches and twiggy nests earthworms wriggling forth from the earth to drink of its cold moisture.

A week ago in Santa Fe, the air smelled of dust, pinon smoke, apricot blossom, and juniper.

I still feel a slight sense of dislocation, a neither-here-nor-there. A ghosting feeling, as if my body arrived but some part of me (my spirit?) is following more slowly, maybe migrating northward and on the wing like the robins, not yet at my destination.

Air travel is especially abrupt when traveling between such dramatically different landscapes, with bare time to transition from Southwestern spring to Northern spring.

There: A high desert clarity. A sea of dry air that steals away all moisture from one's nose, in which skin takes on a map-like texture, an atlas of lizard trails and pebbled riverbeds and beetle-traced tree bark.

We walked through arid gardens of soft sands, yarrow, dusty gold, sage and subtle greens against the backdrop of pine-dark mountains, under vaulting arcs of cloud...

Down streets so quiet one could hear the gentle patter of blossoms hitting the ground...

House finches with rosy throats warbled their songs in the fruit trees, plucking blossoms one by one and drinking their nectar before discarding them to flutter to the stones below, and the adobe walls were painted by soft shadows.

We followed in the footsteps of ancient peoples, through the canyons, cholla, cottonwoods lining the small river (like but unlike their eagle-eyried kin along the Mississippi River), dusty paths, vast walls and fortresses of ember-lit and golden limestone towering overhead, glowing against the blue sky.

We climbed into cool-shadowed cliff dwellings, blew dust from our noses, carried water for the journey, rested in the shade, rested in the quiet, the quiet of an ancient place. All wild places are ancient, and sacred, but some strike one so more than others, like this one.

What would it be like, getting to know even one mountain? To watch such an eternal being through every shift of light, season, weather? Calming, I would imagine, an object of contemplation, meditation, inspiration, like Pedernal Mountain to Georgia O'Keeffe.

Oh how beautiful the paintings, but just as much the life of an artist following her vision, the photographs made of her working in her kitchen and garden, a life all of a piece, making sense.

Maybe that is what lingers most of all, a calling I have heard before and hear again. My true song. Will I listen this time?

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...