Songs of Spring

iStock_000020528629XSmallSnows flew and swirled about the month of March, biting frost and cold mornings announcing the days; thaw and mud wrapped about a promise of spring. A sudden surprise, as though we had forgotten, in greens and buds pushing through what seems to be the last of the big cold, appears in strips of grass that line the meridians and creep from the edges of curbs into lawn and meadow.

A box was delivered on Saturday. I had ordered some small French pots for the front porch, anticipating the garden center at Home Depot and an afternoon where I could feel the sun on my back as I bent over them with soil and flowers. I like to arrange things on my porch; a wreath of dried spring flowers, pots and planters filled with colors and blooms; a welcoming to guests—“look life is happening here and inside. There is beauty in our world.”

I remember a Sunday morning, decades ago—an Easter choir at the Unity Church I attended in Santa Monica, California. We practiced for a couple of months “Morning has broken, like the first morning. Black bird has spoken, like the first bird.” I always felt that we were singing in the spring. Yesterday as I drove back from the grocery store, I was singing, watching my car thermometer inch up from 39-degrees to 50 by the time I got home…singing in the spring. This Easter, church is in the meadow where I go with my dog. I feel much more at home giving thanks to a miraculous world where geese provide the sermon; where rising water in the creek tells the story of death and re-birth than I do in a building committing to story that I can find alive and fluid in the natural world.

It’s too soon to plant, but I have unwrapped the pots where I can see them and imagine them filled with pretty flowers. Buds have appeared on the lanky arms of the berry bushes just off of the deck and I know that in a short time, diaphanous green will grace the trees. Sometimes in January I envy my Southern California friends and their 68-degree beach weather—but I don’t think I would trade that for the cycles of the seasons that teach me over and over about life renewing itself.

Sunshine and blue skies today, warm and happy weather that will dip into colder tones tomorrow. I walk the trail and say thank you, holding fast to the imagination a brilliant green that will soon become the color of this temple.

Nasty, Bad, Stupid Flu!

Tamiflu

 

There we were, going along our merry little way, in a day-to-day that was feeling pretty good, pretty optimistic.  And then, there it was, lying on the rug where you couldn’t see it, where you didn’t expect it—the flu.  It didn’t get me.  It reached up and grabbed my husband’s ankles and pulled him to the ground, wrestled with him, beat him about the head and then snuck out the back door to smoke a pack of cigarettes and drink a fifth of whisky. A-hole flu! I could hear her cackling in the back yard.

Life has come to a halt.  There will be no hike with Jeter today, who senses that all is not well in Oz and has curled up in the hallway outside our bedroom door.  I’ve done everything I know to do: vitamin D and A, soup, cold compresses for his fever and a call to the internist for Tamiflu—a box for him and a box for me as a preventative.  Poor guy, last time he had flu was 25 years ago.  We are generally healthy people, and about the time you announce that kind of thing to the world, there’s the friggen flu and it’s got your name written all over it.

My husband is not a “patient” patient.  He wants the flu gone now.  He cannot believe how horrible he feels.  He rails at the universe in a weak voice, panting and out of breath.  Stupid flu.  Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.  Once in 25 years isn’t bad, I remind him.  What else can I do, he asks?  Why oh why are men such terrible patients?  They demand a fix and demand it right away.  But flu wraps her gnarly fingers around his neck and squeezes tight, dances on his eyeballs and kicks his knees in the middle of the night.  I hate her too. She has turned my strong and balanced husband into a hound dog puppy.  I can’t wait for the flu to leave, to give us back the humor that lies dormant between us, but for now, I will just have to make chicken soup and wait.

 

The Story You Are In

iStock_000006392253XSmallThe train whistle slices through the edge of the night, a low rumble of metal on metal, weight on weight making its way across miles that are pulled tight against horizon and sky. I lay unmoving on my bed, slouched into pillows and quilts, playing the scenes of the day through my head, stirred by the sound. Suddenly I am back someplace I know but have never been: my mother told a story of being a child at the convent, swinging on a swing, hearing the sound of the train and trying to pump higher and higher so that she could see over the convent wall, all the while wondering where the train was going and wanting to go there too. Now I am in her story, a piece of history shared from when I was a little girl, a piece of story that I remember when the train goes by, pulling the twilight into dark.

Sometimes it seems so clear; where I am and who I am and what story is unfolding. I had grandparents that slept in separate bedrooms; that spat and grunted communications that were interlaced with whiskey bottles and wooden rosary beads. I vowed to never be like them. My husband and I dance a different dance. We will not, cannot sleep apart. I love this story. It is punctuated by small acts of tenderness that reach out like vines into shared cups of warm ginger tea, someone to fetch the mail; “oh, wait, I’ll get that for you…” check the oil in your car, drive with you to a doctor’s appointment so that you will not have to sit alone. This is my story of the ever after that happened after youth rode into the sunset.

Remember the Catholic schoolgirl who smoked pot behind the high school gym, who wanted to help the poor, but also enjoyed a good make-out session? Can’t you be it all? Can’t you do it all? That was me. I remember feeling forced to choose, and as a result began to see life in a small and shrinking way, squeezing myself into something I thought I was supposed to be, but never really could be. Then one day I woke up with a dry mouth, symptoms and sorrow for what might have been.

I wish I could gather all of my nieces and nephews into one place. I would bring us around a large fire, where we would sit late into the night. I would tell them stories among the crackle and hiss of leaping flames. Stories about Viet Nam and how Brent came back with only part of a hand and couldn’t sit with his back to any door, anywhere, ever again; stories of how I learned to grow impatience and ferns in a shaded flower bed and would sit there for hours reading; stories of walking in snow under a full moon. I would tell them stories, because it feels like that is what I am meant to do now. Instead, we text—we call—we make dinner plans in lives that are over scheduled and tired.

I reflect upon what has been as I lean forward into age, that for this time affords me strong legs and the desire to keep walking and filling my lungs with fresh air and my heart with the beauty of the natural world; learning that the stories themselves are like thick, wonderful murals, layered with paint that portrays the laughter and the wounds, the celebrations and grief. But the files in which I place those stories in my mind… the labels that I write onto each one, those are dangerous. Those make the story less important than how they are categorized. I am too organized for my own good sometimes.–alphabetizing spices and filing memories. You cannot continue to do that. It’s really just one big story and we are all connected by it. I should go mess up that spice drawer just to take in the aroma of each dish they have inspired in my kitchen. What was that wonderful quote I read somewhere, that now seems so appropriate? “Life is like licking honey off of a thorn.”

Snog And Dog– Life Lessons From a Labrador Retriever

English: yellow labrador retriever in the snow...
A grey and windy storm lumbered into the foothills and left 6 inches of wet, spring snow. At 9:00 this morning it was still snowing, but the dog nudged my hand and did his doggie talk version of “it’s not a work day, so get your ass out of bed and let’s play.” A sane person, even a reasonably sane person would have told the dog to go lay down and made themselves a cup of tea. I am not a sane person—not on snow days and even though it’s the weekend I know that I have to get up, put on my snow pants and boots and go do “snog.”

The word snog is a combination made-up word, for which there is not another word, and that’s why it had to be made up. Snog equals snow and dog, thus snog. But snog is not just a description of the dog. It is, in fact, a state of mind and heart of both dog and person. In my estimation, snog is the most visceral experience of snow that you can get. It is prayer wrapped in great celebration. However, I found out that snog is a real word that has nothing to do with snow or dog it is a verb: 1. snog – touch with the lips or press the lips as an expression of love, greeting.  Okay, well my “snog” means to kiss nature then and be kissed back by nature and it has to do with a labrador retriever!

Eighteen degrees out and still snowing, the roads were snow packed and icy. The clouds hung low and tight next to the mountains creating the feeling of being in an ice dome instead of in open country. The snog, named Jeter paced in the back seat while we drove 10 miles under the speed limit to Dry Creek Trail. Past the Baptist church at 70th with all its dire warnings printed on their sign board; past the black cows that didn’t look their usual apathetic, oblivious selves encrusted in ice and snow; and past Mallard Pond Drive where the trust fund baby of a major seed company lives and does the best Christmas decorations in the county. We drove until we slid into our left turn and pulled into the empty parking lot at the trailhead.

Oh boy: snog and a trail all to ourselves. I opened the back door of the car for Jeter, who flew from the back seat to the gate, paws barely touching the ground. There was no one else around. A perfect snog day. Six inches of fresh snow and a trail unblemished by the sane people who lingered late in bed or the coziness of their kitchens. Snog ran onto the trail to the first spot where he could flip over on his back and make a snog angel in the snow. It was pure joy. Fresh snow is like walking in sand—you work it, but for Jeter fresh snow is like sailing among the clouds. He runs in circles. He burrows his head into drifts looking for old tennis balls left on the trail. He sticks his butt up in the air, wags his tail and barks. He fills himself with the moment. The quiet here is such that we can hear the snow fall.

The practice of gratitude comes in a lot of different packages. In this package, I am alone with my dog in nature, infected by the joy and delight with which he celebrates fresh snow on a March spring day. All around me is the beauty of the natural world, infusing my heart with happiness, easing and dissolving  the concerns and obligations that are my weekday baggage. In this moment, my snog has taught me to love life so fully that I too delight in this cold, white, wet stuff that has frozen my face and numbed my finger tips. I walk with a goofy smile on my face, laughing out loud at Jeter, calling out good morning to geese flying overhead. We are being kissed by nature, and we are kissing her back.

I walk at a good clip as far as the bridge, while Jeter runs in circles around me, breaking trail, occasionally stopping to create another snog angel. Enveloped in the joy of this appreciation, I know I made the right choice in getting out of bed to get us here. A group of birds sitting on the fence that follows the creek seem to sing the snow down harder, and the wind swirls the snow around us while we make our way back to the car. Wet dog, wet person filled with gratitude and joy. I learn a lot from my dog. He nudges me into nature on a daily basis. He keeps my heart and legs strong by demanding daily treks to various trails. And he loves life unabashedly with a contagious enthusiasm. We pull out of the empty lot, blasting the defroster, the car permeated with the smell of wet wool and wet dog, the great snog adventure in the rear view mirror and a stretch of  frozen road leading us home.

A Smith Corona and Wild Weeds

iStock_000019937285XSmallA small, blue Smith Corona typewriter in it’s own case and a box of typing paper—that is what was under the tree the Christmas when I was fifteen. It was an invitation, a longing, a magical box that would coax out of me all of the things in my head and my heart that struggled to be felt. I wrote poetry and hid it from my mother. I wrote letters to my father, who wrote back in long, swirling penmanship. I left home with it a few years later and then lost is somewhere along the way. I probably abandon it in one of the love-hate battles that I have had with myself and writing my whole life, but it never left me. Instead it hung around my neck–sometime like a shiny, beautiful pendant and sometimes like a dead bird. I knew that it was mine forever.

Spiral journals came after that, more poetry and lyrics to songs, short stories about my parents divorce. I swooned over Anis Nin and May Sarton; fell in love with T.S. Eliot and Yeats. Discovered Margaret Atwood and imitated all of it in notebook after notebook. I signed up for classes at the Adult Learning Center and got to be the best one. I sat around writer’s tables and dove into short stories, had lengthy conversations with a man old enough to be my father who gave me books and encouragement while I dreamed of sleeping with him. These were my touchstones– The Smith-Corona tumbleweed that blew across the landscape in my head.

In classes at UCLA, I sat in the back. I didn’t want to be seen or heard. The professionals around me who held degrees and were important intimidated me. At my job the writers all had masters degrees from writing programs. My job was to type for them, to read and summarize for them, but I wasn’t one of them. They were well-groomed flowerbeds, the kind that people slow down to look at when they are driving through expensive neighborhoods. I was the bright, yellow mustard seed that grew in vacant lots next to old tires and beer cans. I was the wild weed between concrete sidewalk slabs. You can yank it out by its roots, but it always comes back.

A minister told me, inspired me to go to college for real, not just extension classes here and there. I did. I followed that old blue Smith Corona to community college then to a Buddhist College where I sat and then wrote then sat some more. I was never a good meditator, but I did it anyway. I never found peace or enlightenment, but I did develop a sense of humor and I did come to understand that I was meant to write.

I am in my sixties now. Sometimes I teach creative writing. I teach in jails and halfway houses. I teach in senior centers where the stories are rich and ripe. I teach because it’s a way to give away the gifts that I learned from the Smith Corona that opened me and made my life richer. It may be too late for me to write a book, to gain public favor with what I have shared of this heart and mind in reams of journals and Word documents. I am the president of my own company. I have a good, long marriage… but no matter what I do or where I am, I write. I would say to any young writer, write because you have to, be true to the Smith Corona or whatever it was that threw water in your face and told you to wake up to the world and write. Don’t be afraid to be the wild weeds in sidewalk cracks. Sometimes those weeds are the only things beautiful in dry, ugly lots…sometimes they inspire hope in someone who may be walking by.

Blogging Practice

Women's Voices - Natalie Goldberg (55)
Women’s Voices – Natalie Goldberg

The new Natalie Goldberg book arrived from Amazon yesterday. Before the sun came up, I made a cup of tea and crawled back into bed to begin reading. An excerpt from a letter appears early on in the book: a man was sitting with his Zen teacher and the teacher says “you know what’s wrong with you?” The ultimate question from the teacher, thought the man edging forward to catch the answer. “You need to write.”

That was it, “you need to write.” I learned that recently, the way that I learn so many things—the hard way. I had returned to writing practice a couple of years ago when I began teaching creative writing to women in jail. I returned to writing practice because teaching is a lot like being a minister. If you are going to minister to someone it’s helpful to have a prayer practice. If you are going to teach creative writing, it’s helpful to have a writing practice. So I began to keep journals of free hand, timed writing and that led to my purchase of a lap top where I could write faster, longer and that in turn, led to my first blog.

I do not write everyday. I write most days. Some mornings, I wake up a little too late to organize my day and head to the office. But the days that I get up early and make that cup of sweet, black tea and come back to bed with books and laptop—those are the best days. Recently, one of my businesses got an infusion of investment capital. With that came obligations, demands and responsibilities that pulled and tugged at me in such a way that I thought, I would need to give up everything to make this business work. I stopped teaching at the jail. I stopped doing my newsletter. I stopped doing my blog and I fell into a deep sorrow, tinged with the exhaustion of regret.

You know what’s wrong with you? You need to write! It took a couple of months and several false starts to realize that what I had been teaching my students, what I had been studying was mine to learn. Writing practice for me is dropping into silence to look into a mirror; a place where in my notebooks I can say it all; where the idea is to go deeper into a self that I am always discovering. By giving that up to make a business work, I created a spiritual aridity that was suffocating.

One of my last blog posts before I took down the site and shuttered myself into business mode was a sad piece about a sad moment. It was raw and real and in retrospect, embarrassing. It was an epiphany for me to realize that I was embarrassed by the sorrows of my life, and yet I know that creativity springs from darkness, from suffering, from the acceptance of all those things– and that brings forth expression. How do you know the light if you do not know what the darkness is?  Coming face to face with what is in the shadows is not always an easy process and yet it seems to be the ghosts lurking there that are tied to ones liberation.

A couple false starts and some determination to find balance through the tears, led me back to writing practice and a new blog. I write because it is my way. Like other writers, I dream of writing a book or two.  Each of us in each day are writing the book of our life, whether we put it down on a page or not.  I am blessed with the literacy to do so and I think most writers feel that way–that the love of reading and writing is a powerful blessing to which we pay homage.  And there is something wonderful about blogging, because it is its own strange little cyber community—like having a writing group where you share your stuff all the time and you know that somebody is listening. But mostly I write because it is a doorway into what Plato called “the examined life.”  It is the place where I sort out who I am and how I feel about and experience the world.  Oh and by the way, the business is doing fine.  Not one of my investors has told me to stop writing and focus more on the business.  It’s funny that I thought I would have to give up so much…by keeping a writing practice I actually feel more equipped to meet the demands of my growing company, and the bottom line is, it makes me happy.

So my question to the fellow bloggers is this:  How is it that you came to write? Why do you keep hitting the publish button and putting it out there?

Kitchen Prayers

Tasty Food Abundance in Healthy Europe

A couple of days ago I wrote about “A Place At The Table,” a documentary film now in theaters and also on Amazon.com.  This is something that everyone should see.  As a result of my writing about that film, a friend sent me a You Tube link about a gentleman in South Central Los Angeles named Ron Finley.  Mr. Finley demonstrates for us what one person can do; how one vision, one heart can make our world a better place.  We have a real problem with hunger in our country.  We cannot turn a blind eye any longer.  Good people, hard-working people, people who have hopes and dreams for themselves and their children do not have enough food to eat.  And when they do have food, more often than not, it is the wrong kind of food–food that is filled with empty calories and little nutrition.  It is this kind of food that makes people fat and sick.  Obesity is linked to food with calories but no nutrition.  Ron Finley has an answer to that problem.  It’s simple.  It’s cheap (a lot cheaper than the health costs of subsisting on junk food) and if you are like me, I’ll bet it will fill your heart and your head with your own ideas about how you can create a better world by starting with your community.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=EzZzZ_qpZ4w

Watch the You Tube video and tell me what you think!