Thinning of the Veil


Last year, I was preoccupied with all the fearmongering and polarization going on in my neck of the woods, and my nation. This year, after some of those fears have been realized (or threatened), I feel the presence of the ancestors, and take solace in their company.

As mankind’s old wounds are reopened and exhumed, they are waiting with us while the sins of past human horrors fly screeching from tombs of our denial to join with present atrocities. Just when you think all are accounted for, yet another evil pops out of the Pandora’s box to be addressed in brazen light of day.

Last year, I talked about being afraid of the dark, but this year I welcome it. Limiting my vision within velvety shadow shields me from the glaring justifications and blinding boasts by a narcissistic chorus of cons and culprits, criminal in their actions while they preen themselves with angelic posturing and shameless self-promotion.

Meanwhile, since last Halloween and the apocalyptic national election that followed my ancestors have been nudging me back to life, whispering those long-forgotten lullabies, breathing deserted dreams and destiny back into my heart, resuscitating the inner child pulled from a deep pool of adult despair.

Instead of the anticipated fear, I’ve been surprised by a spooky joy, one that jumps out from the country hayloft or city parking lot. Hope and possibility reveal themselves in the swallow’s swoop and stranger’s smile, the clasp of a trusting child’s hand and the brush of a cat’s whiskers.

I’ve witnessed in wonder the gathering of all ages to make art, and had my breath taken away by the incredible beauty that is birthed every living moment by reawakened creators surprised with what takes flight from their hands.

There is no doubt that this has been a hard year of endings, of death, of an inconsolable loss for what we used to believe and know with absolute certainty. And we have a right to lament what has been lost while grieving the absence of many who have recently left this path for other worlds.

But still, in starlit moments on inky-black nights, I’ve seen that they haven’t deserted us. They are still there, at the end and along the way.

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Staying Strong


A dear writer friend and I went in search of oaks and acorns this week after a lovely lunch at my favorite local coffee shop. The walk was a welcome reprieve from the swirling chaos of horrific news and bad human behavior that we futilely attempted to recognize and understand over delicious fare, supporting the hardworking small business that bravely hopes to make a living in a fickle and uncertain industry.

The weather was amazing. If ever there was a reference picture for a perfect fall day, this was it. A slight, crisp breeze with the hint of cider, clear autumn-blue sky lacking summer’s haze, spots of ruddy blush as the leaves turn. I had a specific tree in mind for my friend to see, one that I pass every day on my morning walks before my hot cup of reward at that same coffee shop.

I call her The Grandmother, the ancient one who all the others surround. She existed before the military fort was built over a hundred years ago and wisely left standing when the army cleared the land. From her carefully manicured limbs, you can tell she’s been well cared for and honored through the years.

Towering over the rest of the former parade grounds, she doesn’t need the maples’ flashy foliage or the fir trees’ decorative pinecones to assume her throne with quiet dignity. On this particular day, her leaves had yet to turn gold, although the afternoon light that hit the highest branches already suggested a change to come. How many years had she worn her golden crown, I wondered as I pulled my head back as far as it would go.

Her acorns were few, a job left to younger trees as part of their service in exchange for her wise counsel. No doubt her roots connect to all, not just the young oaks, but to maple, gum and walnut trees that dot the landscape. She sends them messages of reassurance and fortitude earned from more than a century’s experience with drought, wind and lightning. She has seen preparations for war, and still remembers the young soldiers who stood in formation beneath her boughs, never to return.

On a late afternoon, I too stand under her protective shade and wish that she could share with me, with all of flailing humanity, the truth of what she has seen, an impartial telling of our human history from the view of one whose heartbeats send out the sap of life-affirming support through underground capillaries of ancient understanding, to those who are right or wrong, deserving or not.

And in her presence,  I humbly ask for guidance, knowing that in these turbulent times we all need to call on the strength of oaks.

Washing Away

Another form of water that reflects my mood on this last day of August.

This month I’ve been obsessed with water. Starting with my art grant for next year, which focuses on how water always seems to show up in my paintings, to the horrific events still unfolding in Texas. I’ve gone from lazy afternoons spent watching barges glide down the Ohio River on painting trips to recoiling from the unforgettable photos and videos of the broiling brown brew currently washing away lives and lands.

Like Katrina before it, I felt the same sinking feeling with Harvey as I tracked the swirling cloud mass on weather maps and phone apps. Growing up on the east coast I remember well the endless deluge of Agnes in 1972, when constant rain soaked through everything in my family’s spanking new saltbox colonial home, the wooden shingles, the old-fashioned plaster walls that only a very few craftsmen still knew how to apply, and the extensive fireplaces built with unglazed brick. My mother set out so many pots and pans to catch the drips, that the sparsely furnished rooms echoed like a tin symphony.

But that was nothing compared to the flooding of my beloved meadow, where the innocent creek that meandered through my youthful playdates became a wrathful river that destroyed the little driveway bridge carrying us to the outside world of groceries and grandma’s house. We waited days before my father was able to reconstruct a passage to freedom. By that time, the angry torrents had reduced to a slimy whimper, and when I managed to slip and slide my way to the meadow’s edge, I couldn’t recognize my former friend amid the scattered rocks and stinking muck from a thousand fields upstream.

The gentle bends and soft shoulders of the grassy banks I knew by heart were never the same, making it easier to say goodbye. The next year we moved away to another land with a completely different kind of water, where my brother and I played in a man-made ditch that ran straight as an arrow through soil the color of coal, reflecting a greenish hue that I would later realize was filled with something more ominous than the little leeches clinging painlessly to my legs in the old meadow.

And while Agnes’ unrelenting rain and stifling air fell heavy on my bony shoulders that June of 1972, this was nothing compared to what the population of Texas is enduring. My family didn’t watch our beautiful new house fill up with sewage, or have to leave our pets behind, we didn’t inhale the choking fumes of chemical plants and refineries relieving themselves of toxic byproducts as they shut down, and we didn’t know anyone who perished beneath a dark current.

This water, no matter how swift, will never wash away the fear and countless tragedies. As I grieve for those living beings who have been affected by this national disaster and donate what I can, I find myself wondering whether the suffering evacuees will return and the bridges be rebuilt, or if it is easier to say goodbye and start over somewhere else? Only time will tell and there is one thing I do know:

It will never be the same.

 

 

Summer Reflections


Kids are heading back to school, moving trucks are out in force, and I have just returned from our first successful attempt at a vacation this summer of 2017. Old friends took pity on us in our stuffy apartment during these final sweltering July days by inviting us up to their family’s cabin on the Menominee Indian Reservation near Keshena, Wisconsin.

This was only my third time in the Badger State, and we couldn’t have chosen a more beautiful weekend to indulge in a few days of swimming, boating, lounging around a campfire and gazing up at the stars. Located on the shores of a string of lakes that have been connected together, I was enchanted by the serenity of this land and its people during boat rides to remote parts of the reservation.

A large portion of undeveloped property has been returned to the Menominee tribe, and they gather on the shoreline for reunions and birthdays, to fish and swim, play games, eat and socialize. As we slowly passed numerous campsites and RV gatherings, I marveled at how peaceful and happy they seemed without the fancy cottages and noisy watercraft on the commercial areas of the lakes, sandy banks and perhaps a simple inner tube all that was needed for hours of swimming fun. We were warmly greeted for our quiet passage, careful not to create a wake strong enough to erode edges where the beautiful beech and pine trees perched.

During our visit, we saw and heard loons, gulls, sandhill cranes and even a majestic bald eagle. At night on the dock, as the Milky Way appeared overhead to remind us of other worlds, I found myself thinking back to those gatherings along the shoreline with longing and an urge to join in community with one of the few tribes that still lives on its original lands. That kind of belonging is as alien to me as those distant lights in a faraway galaxy, and as elusive as the shooting star I saw falling from an endless sky.

Anniversaries


I spent yesterday celebrating our 32nd wedding anniversary with my amazing husband, almost 33 years since we first met. If you’d told me all those years ago that I would be married this long, I wouldn’t have believed you. My track record up to that point had been nothing short of disastrous. Nevertheless, we usually recognize the date simply, a day free of work and the usual chores, a quiet dinner out.

We always manage to note our nuptials in the nick of time, right before the looming national holiday, a boisterous and bombastic event that steamrolls over our quaint little memories of a small country wedding with only 25 guests. (And that count included my husband and me.) For Throwback Thursday on Facebook yesterday, I joked that the above photo could easily have been taken in 1925 instead of 1985 if it weren’t for the Instamatic camera with 110 film that my husband holds in his left hand.

This year another anniversary follows fast on the heels of firecracker festivals and sizzling backyard feasts. It’s a new one that I dread, and one that I will always remember because of its proximity to the Fourth. Funny, how I don’t often recall the death dates of dear, departed pets, but this one seems to be different. He was the last, at least for a while until we become settled again; and in my travels of late, he returns to me in the form of farm cats at the retreat center where I work, who snooze on the porch steps all afternoon, or find a warm lap in the cool dawn dew when one becomes available from a lawn chair.

Once a country cat, my old buddy would have loved this place, where his kind roam freely all day to catch mice and tease the birds, though still called in to safety every night away from coyotes and other creatures of the night who would do them harm.  When I first came, they ran from me and stared back at a respectful distance, but now we are on a first-name basis. They tell me all about their nine lives, and I tell them about my old friend, how he could hunt even without his front claws, how he loved to stay out all night and sack out all day in a corner on the floor, no soft bed needed.

But I keep to myself how he ended his days up in a third-floor apartment, with a cupful of grass instead of a whole backyard lush with the stuff, while birds taunted him through the glass door of a balcony the size of his litter box. We did what we could to make the transition easier for him, since another home in the country or even a new suburban yard were out of the question for us in this stage of our journey. A cowardly trip to the shelter was unimaginable. In the end, he was stuck in his geriatric ways enough to be dependent on the people who took him in all those years ago, for better or for worse.

At least on this Fourth of July, I take solace in knowing that he doesn’t have to endure the battle sounds of our country’s anniversary, unless he wants to.

Passing Through

A double row of hornbeams planted twenty years ago.

Here it is the end of May and I’ve barely been here. My focus is kept packed by the door and my psyche feels like it’s still moving after an interminable car ride. I stop by just long enough to check my email and pay the bills, wash a big pile of neglect that’s accumulated. There are cobwebs all over some best-laid plans left piled on last winter’s table.

My “word” for 2017 has been “awake,” and boy, have I. To the point where I rose early enough to see the dawn in all kinds of wind and weather for seven days in a row. There are no photos because I refused to carry any form of electronic distraction. Instead, I wanted to burn the sun’s first midas touch on the tips of trees into my eyeballs, let a heavy dew sink into my bones, be swallowed whole by the rising rush of bird song. How could I have missed these treasures for all those countless years spent lolling about in bed like an apathetic teenager?

Some mornings we danced intricate steps set to modern astral music inside a labyrinth’s ancient patterns. On others we were high above ancestral land and its tree-lined ribbon of river, at a circle made with stones that whispered power and prayers. And still others were spent in the gardens, tended by human hands but retouched by faery folk in those magic hours when mortal souls still wander through the grainy dreams from other worlds.

There has been art and music, poetry and dance, and some really good gin. Despite an early rise, I’ve stayed up way too late talking about crazy-beautiful ideas and inspiration, because I didn’t want to miss a minute of this precious time or interrupt the messy, foolish freedom that doesn’t fit into a shifty shared cloud calendar or antsy time-management app.

But perhaps the most precious gift I’ve been given by staying awake long enough, is to rediscover a forgotten little keepsake tin with the rusty lid I left hiding in my memory’s bank barn. Inside, once again I heard the quail’s call in tall grass, felt hard rain rumbling across a field, finally found those missing linch pins from an old Farmall tractor hitch, inhaled the sweaty scent off a low morning meadow, and watched with great joy some gritty, grinning kids stagger home covered in the satisfying filth from a mountain of freshly dumped sand.

You see, somewhere during those adult years of dysfunction, darkness and despair, I had lost my childhood’s best mementos. I’d fallen into a slumber of numbing responsibility and restriction. I could only recall the disappointments and failures harped on by my mind’s endless critiques, where the rules are always changing and your advisors never let you leave.

Nearly halfway into the year, I’m happy to report that I’ve been awake long enough to know now, that I’m finally free to go.

From Where the Sidewalk Ends


Somehow, February got away from me. And then March. The days just slipped away through a hole in the floor, the grate, the ground, the sidewalk and ultimately, my soul. So, I search for them along the loop I walk most mornings that harbors mature oaks, maples and evergreens that have been around since this former army fort was established in the early 1900s. And some trees have been here long before that.

The other day, I noticed that a tree company had shown up and marked many long-standing sentries with ominous red x’s spray-painted on their trunks, or orange tape throttling their worn bark. There were too many to ignore, and some choices were downright puzzling. Sure, there were those that were mostly dead, or lopsided. But quite a few looked perfectly fine.

One morning before I left on a long trip, my walking partner and I marched around the loop saying a quiet goodbye and blessing to each of the doomed ones. The rumblings of the chainsaw and shrieks from a chipper could already be heard at the other end of the long parade, seemingly lined up like good soldiers waiting to be struck down by an enemy who claimed friendly fire, as if fire was ever friendly for a tree.

By the time I returned in mid-March, the sadly singled out were all gone, and in their places stood mounds of chips, where their very roots had been sought and ground out of existence. The innocent smell of freshly cut wood wafted in the breeze.

I still feel their ghosts as I walk, searching the sidewalks for a glimpse of the bottomless holes with their shimmering deceptions of days that are no longer there.

The Kindness of Strangers

Homeward bound.
Homeward bound.

I was traveling at the beginning of the new regime. On Inauguration Day, I witnessed the protests at a different statehouse, one that had defended slavery and bore the marks of a broken nation. On Saturday during the Women’s Marches, I walked the red clay trails of a state park, marching with all in spirit. On Sunday, we arrived in New Orleans for a much-needed vacation from the burdens of a country already spinning out of control, and found ourselves in an emergency room.

My husband became very ill with a bad infection on the 8-hour drive, and so we checked into our hotel and headed straight to the nearest emergency room. What followed were three days of uncertainty and fear in a strange city where we’d never been before and knew no one. Three days of an endless stream of nurses and doctors and housekeepers and aides who spoke in odd accents, from all walks of life and every corner of the globe, with compassion in their eyes and caring in their hearts. Three days of hearing and seeing the city’s poorest and sickest soothed and treated along the ER bays and hospital wards. Three days of witnessing what the world is like from outside my comfortable little box. Three days of relying on the kindness of strangers.

After spending our entire stay in The Big Easy living moment to moment, the drug-resistant infection finally turned a corner and we were cleared to go home on a beautiful spring-like morning that the natives thought unseasonably cold. Everyone on the staff shook our hands and told us how sorry they were that we never got a chance to see the real New Orleans, to taste her food, hear her music, savor her spirit. They told us to come back and give their fair city another chance.

And we will. But I feel like we’ve already experienced her soul without ever setting foot on Bourbon Street.

Reflections

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I could say that 2016 was a strange year, but then most of them have been strange lately in this modern mixed-up world we live in. I could declare that it’s been challenging, but so is life in general. I could lament that it’s flown by too quickly, but this is the price of growing older. I want to say that 2016 has been happy, and I did find many bright spots among the dark days.

But what I will say is that 2016 gave me permission to let go, to start over, and to find my joy through intentional living, my reason to exist. May 2017 be a continuation of this journey. And to all of you, dear readers, may the new year bring you fulfillment in whatever way you wish to take.

Happy New Year!

Waking Up

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The post-election Supermoon of 2016.

The morning after the US election, I woke up strangely calm. I didn’t expect that reaction. And then I remembered; I’ve been through this rodeo before. On a personal level. Ironically, or maybe fortuitously, I’d been studying our president-elect’s particular personality disorder during the months leading up to our national November surprise, trying to get a handle on the kind of panic and physical paralysis I experience every time I hear him speak on TV.

His rhetoric throws me back to my old childhood and even recent adult showdowns with family members who exhibit the same traits. In or out of therapy, I’ve used all the tactics that have played out on the national stage in social media and comment threads. Anger, denial, defensiveness, sarcasm, blame, finger-pointing, compliance, withdrawal, pleading, compromise, escape, negotiation, a blind eye, even an occasional proactive offensive — you name it, I’ve tried it. Some of them seemed to work, at first. But in the end, what little gains I’d thought I’d made were just illusions, part of the narcissist’s great charm in promising you the moon but vanishing before you come to collect at sunrise.

I have neither solutions nor cures to offer. As long as the narcissist is getting what he or she wants, there is no motivation to change. It’s a very hard addiction to break. But what I do know is this: that hunger for the spotlight can never be satiated. The more attention (negative or positive) that is fed, the hungrier the appetite. I can only imagine that the gnawing search for more must be a form of hell on earth. And while I must forgive in order to be set free from the vicious dance I participate in as a narcissist’s compliant partner or even adversary, I will not forget.

What’s at stake is the sanctity of life for all of us, narcissists included. The ones in my life have taught me the hard way that no matter what I do or sacrifice for them, it’s never enough. Instead of beaming all our attention on the insatiable ones, I vote that we focus on ourselves, the stars of our own reality shows. We may not determine our outcomes, but we can control our outlooks. Do we sustain healthy boundaries? Do we care too much about what others think of us? Are we doing what’s important or just marking time, filling up space? Are we aware of the lessons being taught to us, supporting us, warning us? Are we awake?

I, for one, have seen the enemy, and behind all the bluster and bravado, they look just like us. In fact, they are us. We all play our parts in this tango, whether we lead or not. And if one partner changes the steps, the other must react, one way or another. Sometimes we follow, sometimes we break apart. And maybe, just maybe, we find a new rhythm, a new dance.

It’s time to get to work.