September’s Midpoint

09.16.21

It’s hard to believe we’ve passed the middle of September already.  Today was one of those days in which I was reminded about why I’ve loved Montana all these years.  There had been a splash of rain on the stone steps early this morning, and when the sun finally rose, you could immediately tell by the light that it was going to be a quintessential brisk Fall day.  You could make out all the details on the mountains across the lake and the breeze was light, and there was just enough movement on the water to see swirls and eddies and changes in color all day long.  Snow is in the forecast tonight for some of our mountain tops, and a freeze is predicted for the valleys.  I drove to the Northshore Farm this afternoon, knowing they’d be rushing to pull the remaining cucumbers and leeks, lettuce and peppers from the ground, before the temperature plummets.  I’ve just enough cash left in my CSA to buy a big Cinderella pumpkin when they are ripe in another month.

Not that I didn’t spend some time earlier in the day, looking on Zillow for homes for sale on the sea in the Puget Sound.  It was a regular thing during July when the skies here were filled with wildfire smoke.  Thinking that the very first air to reach this country would be the clean, clear, cold air off the Pacific, I had an official account with Zillow and Redfin.  I know there is that earthquake/tsunami threat but, still–that sea air.  It could be an escape from all my troubles out there.  This morning, I got a phone alert about a shooting outside a local health club, with one man dead and two others taken to the hospital with gunshot wounds.  It was just the other day, while waiting in the parking lot for my take-out pizza, that I watched two different over-sized men climb into their ginormous pick up trucks, with guns on their belts, after leaving the bar.

And, there was a call this morning from my orthopedic surgeon’s office, informing me they have a rescheduled date, the first of October, for my elective hip joint replacement surgery. Maybe the third time is the charm.  But, when I stopped in the pharmacy to pick up the latest prescriptions to get me by, I was, as always, the only person masked, including the pharmacists.  I noticed they don’t even have those six-feet-apart dots on the carpet anymore.  Our next door neighbor, Idaho, activated the “crisis of standard of care” in their hospitals today,  giving them the authority to prioritize care with the limited resources at their disposal.  I thought about our hospital getting those two shooting victims in the ER this morning, attended to by exhausted and overwhelmed staff.  With my surgeon’s office telephoning their patients on the elective surgery list, and providing us with another opportunity, I am trusting that I was way below the people who might die from the delay. 

It was nice to go to the farm and not think about all of this. I parked across the street on the road out to the waterfowl conservation zone, and walked out along the hay bales in all their different shapes. The purple asters were in bloom and I didn’t see any osprey up on their platform nests. They have left, and I didn’t even notice. It’s like losing track of whether the moon is waxing or waning. While I fret in the wee hours of the night, the Fall migration of birds is going by in the dark sky high overhead now. It’s time to pay closer attention to all of this–now, more than ever.

Tickled Pink by Kevin Kling

At times in our pink innocence, we lie fallow, composting, waiting to grow.
And other times we rush headlong like so many of our ancestors.
But rushing or fallow, it doesn’t matter
One day you’ll round a corner, you’ll blink 
And something is missing
Your heart, a memory, a limb, a promise, a person
An innocence is gone
Your path, as though channeled through a spectrum, is refracted, and has left you in a new direction.
Some won’t approve
Some will want the other you
And some will cry that you’ve left it all
But what has happened, has happened, and cannot be undone.
We pay for our laughter. We pay to weep. Knowledge is not cheap.
To survive we must return to our senses…touch, taste, smell, sight, sound.
We must let our spirit guide us, our spirit that lives in breath.
With each breath we inhale, we exhale.
We inspire, we expire. 
Every breath holds the possibility of a laugh, a cry, a story, a song.
Every conversation is an exchange of spirit, the words flowing bitter or sweet over the tongue. 
Every scar is a monument to a battle survived.
When you’re born into loss, you grow from it.
But when you experience loss later in life, you grow toward it.
A slow move to an embrace, 
An embrace that holds tight the beauty wrapped in the grotesque, 
An embrace that becomes a dance, a new dance, a dance of pink.

Here comes September…

09.01.21

August rain: the best of the summer gone, and the new fall not yet born. The odd uneven time. Sylvia Plath

I can’t believe how surprised I am, every single year, when it suddenly feels like September. The quality of the light changes literally overnight, and everything looks different as the sun slants lower across the grass, the trees, the water. With all the rain we’ve recently had, the trees and bushes are at their pinnacle of aliveness–at the top of the ferris wheel–poised for Autumn’s splendor, then their slow descent to the ground. The new neighbors from California, who bought the old abandoned log cabin up at the fork in our road, invited us up to their porch for drinks the other evening. They arrived in the time of heat and smoke and just couldn’t believe how quickly the daylight has shrunk, how cool are the mornings. They will soon head back to California–just wait until they experience this place when they return for Thanksgiving. We ordinarily give Californians three years before Montana no longer meets their expectations, but in these times, who knows. They seem to think this place is a refuge from the craziness in the world and that the cabin sold at a bargain price. I could sense they will flip it at some point, but who knows.

We’ve complained so much about this summer. The heat and smoke of July gave us plenty of fodder, but, I think it served us best as a metaphor for how events in the world writ large have so dampened and dashed our spirits. Talk about expectations! To think we thought this summer might be normal, post Covid–post anything– in a world with wars, fires, hurricanes, refugees, social and racial injustice–an endless list of suffering. No matter how much one might try and limit exposure to the dreadful news, as a means of psychic survival, it is still there, shrouding us like the dense smoke of summer. This summer has been exhausting.

We told our new neighbors that September and October are our favorite months in Montana. In spite of everything, I am looking forward to its melancholy solace. It’s always been as much about fresh new starts, as it has been about inevitable loss and the sweet grief that accompanies endings. I swear I can smell pencils being sharpened when I get the back-to-school fliers in the mailbox. I confess that I wonder if you can smell it through a mask at school, but I’m indulging in nostalgia here! Remembering and romancing the Septembers of childhood may be the only thing that holds a tough day together. That, and the right before your eyes sparkle of a blue fall day when the edges of the leaves are sharp in the sunlight, and a tiny droplet of water at its tip becomes a prism of all the colors in the rainbow.

Absolute Summer, by Mary Jo Salter

How hard it is to take September
straight—not as a harbinger
of something harder.

Merely like suds in the air, cool scent
scrubbed clean of meaning—or innocent
of the cold thing coldly meant
.

How hard the heart tugs at the end
of summer, and longs to haul it in
when it flies out of hand

at the prompting of the first mild breeze.
It leaves us by degrees
only, but for one who sees

summer as an absolute,
Pure State of Light and Heat, the height
to which one cannot raise a doubt,

as soon as one leaf’s off the tree
no day following can fall free
of the drift of melancholy.

Summer Winding Down

08.20.21

It rained, and rain is in the forecast through the week-end. It’s only 62 degrees this afternoon and I can see the mountains across the lake and the wispy fingers of white clouds that hang low in front of the blue hills. We’ve closed windows in the house now to keep out the chill rather that the wildfire smoke. There are warm and sunny days forecasted on the horizon, but they will be squeezed between a parade of low pressure systems out of the north, and we will remark how you can sense Autumn’s chill behind the heat now. I had to drive up to Whitefish first thing this morning for a CT scan at their hospital, and was surprised that the summer traffic was gone. I arrived so early that I filled the time by walking along their trail system through the cattails, admiring the cloud-shrouded Swan Range to the east. The notch with a view into Glacier Park was filled with clouds and all aglow, backlit by the white light of a clear sunrise. There was a fenced-in flower and vegetable garden along the trail–the Planetree Healing Garden–where sunflowers grew up and through the wooden lattice. After all the years of working in hospital administration in the past, and my experience of being a cancer patient, in which I stared out at a healing garden from my transfusion recliner, I must admit I have an unflattering cynicism of such projects. But, I opened the gate and went along the flagstone path and took photos of Fall flowers, squash and baby melons. It was a lovely morning, actually.

Was it just a few weeks ago–as we lived in a snow globe filled with smoke– that I wrote life had gone to hell in a hand basket? Since then, the California wildfires have exploded, as has the Delta variant, now getting the children. In the first days of in-person school, my yet-to-be-vaccinated ten year old grandson has had a positive Covid case reported. While I order a shipment of N95 masks, Montana has made it illegal for any business to require Covid vaccinations as a condition of employment. A “human rights issue” they say. The news of Haiti makes me think they must be truly cursed with yet another earthquake and hurricane. The images from Afghanastan have forced me to turn off the TV, remembering the Saigon images seared in my brain, and reminding me that I once was young and innocent.

These are just hard times. A neighbor of ours from long ago, Courtney Martin, writes a beautiful blog, “The Examined Family”. This is in addition to several stunning books, including her latest, Learning in Public. She entitled a recent blog post, ‘Letting there be room for all of this” and it’s felt like a mantra to me as we all slog through these uncertain days…

‘Letting there be room for all of this’

a meditation on this uncertain moment

“We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.” ― Pema Chödrön

Some dear old friends from Colorado–who actually used to live right next door to Courtney when she was growing up–just left, after a week long visit. We made ‘room for all of this’ together with much laughter and with our tears. It was a healing time. I’m grateful for this relief in our weather, and I picked up the first fresh sweet corn this morning from the farm, on my way home from the hospital. Somehow, I guess, we just have to make room for all of this to happen, however we can.

Spent, by Mark Doty

Late August morning I go out to cut
spent and faded hydrangeas—washed
greens, russets, troubled little auras


of sky as if these were the very silks
of Versailles, mottled by rain and ruin
then half-restored, after all this time…

When I come back with my handful
I realize I’ve accidentally locked the door,
and can’t get back into the house.


The dining room window’s easiest;
crawl through beauty bush and spirea,
push aside some errant maples, take down


the wood-framed screen, hoist myself up.
But how, exactly, to clamber across the sill
and the radiator down to the tile?


I try bending one leg in, but I don’t fold
readily; I push myself up so that my waist
rests against the sill, and lean forward,


place my hands on the floor and begin to slide
down into the room, which makes me think
this was what it was like to be born:


awkward, too big for the passageway…
Negotiate, submit?
                           When I give myself
to gravity there I am, inside, no harm,


the dazzling splotchy flowerheads
scattered around me on the floor.
Will leaving the world be the same


—uncertainty as to how to proceed,
some discomfort, and suddenly you’re
—where? I am so involved with this idea

I forget to unlock the door,
so when I go to fetch the mail, I’m locked out
again. Am I at home in this house,


would I prefer to be out here,
where I could be almost anyone?
This time it’s simpler: the window-frame,


the radiator, my descent. Born twice
in one day!
                In their silvered jug,
these bruise-blessed flowers:


how hard I had to work to bring them
into this room. When I say spent,
I don’t mean they have no further coin.


If there are lives to come, I think
they might be a littler easier than this one.

August Fire and Smoke

08.04.21

Yes by William Stafford

It could happen any time, tornado,
earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.
Or sunshine, love, salvation.


It could you know. That’s why we wake
and look out–no guarantees

in this life.


But some bonuses, like morning,
like right now, like noon,
like evening.

Valerie and the boys drove back to California on Saturday–a week ahead of schedule– because the air quality looked to be getting worse rather than better. After two weeks of constant monitoring of the Air Quality Index with the measurement device she brought with her, and moving the air filter around the house to create clean rooms for asthmatic Cormac, she packed it all up in the van, and drove off to let the boys experience coastal Bay Area air until the California fires really take off in September.

The word that came to mind when I watched them drive up our dusty road Saturday morning was bitter. I felt cheated by this miserable world right now, and so disappointed that what should be idyllic childhood days of summer at the lake had turned into constant air quality surveillance and all of us cloistered inside the library, watching the Olympics, as if i cared about them. As the days have gone by, I’m just sad. But, I am also remembering how Valerie pointed out each day, how there had been little glimmers of things that felt light and fun, and made us happy. As I look back at the photos I took, we never missed a night of going out on the dock and watching the orange sun set behind the smoke, while the boys swam out to the sailboat and dove off into the unusually warm water. And, there was that night towards the end, when I was the first adult to finally put down the glass of wine and go into the water with them. They pointed out that I had a great advantage in that the left side of my body, post-stroke, does not sense temperature, so only half of me needs to get used to the still-chilly water. I swam out to the sailboat with them and they talked me into climbing aboard via ladder, and even talked me into diving off, each one holding a hand so I could steady my balance on the edge of the boat. In spite of everything, how can I not be left with love and gratitude for that moment, so wobbly on the edges these days.

Their departure turned out to be well-timed, as it went to hell in a hand basket on Saturday. A fire had started 16 miles south of us, clearly visible from the lake, in the steep mountains on the east side of the highway. For twenty years, we’ve assured ourselves that with our prevailing winds from the west and southwest, we were, likely, safe from fires in the forest east of us, and ten miles of glacial lake lay between us and the western mountains. An east wind, bringing a down slope fire, was very unlikely. But, in recent years, as the weather pattern has changed at the lake, we now get surprise east winds and they are the ones that blow down our trees, the 100-year old ones, whose root structure has grown to withstand strong gales from the west, but not the ones from the east. I have written on this blog in the past about the evil East Wind in mythology, and how I am so unsettled when it happens here.

When we opened up the kitchen windows facing east on Saturday night–smoke or not, to let in cool air–we were hit by a blast of hot wind, and while we slept, the neighbors on the lake south of us were awakened by evacuation alerts as the east wind drove the fire down slope, across the highway, into the homes around Finley Point. Everyone made it safely out but some two dozen structures were destroyed, at least ten of them homes. There are 250 homes at risk along our highway, and the road is closed is 13 miles south of us. Despite its small size, the Boulder 2700 fire is currently categorized as the number one priority fire burning in the Northern Rockies. And, we are now officially in the air quality alert zone, after being a little island of just bad for sensitive groups, for the entire time Valerie and family were here with us. It was good they left for California, sad as it was to see them go.

Now, I am left to find glimmers of lightness on my own. As if we all haven’t had enough practice, deep into year two of this pandemic which has changed our lives. As the Delta variant rages, and masks become serious again, now we can add this dreadful summer of heat and smoke to test our forbearance. I had so many inspirational quotes and affirmations taped to my vanity mirror back in the beginning of the pandemic, but as they became tattered and wrinkled up, they were thrown out in the trash. Probably, I just got worn out, looking at them.

Still, I stumbled across a poem in my journal, which I’ve been working on for months, entitled Put Down the Weight of Your Thorn, and added a line yesterday about how the goldenrod has suddenly appeared along the parched dirt on our road, signaling autumn is not so far away now. And, I had also written down a comment made a few weeks ago by Todd, owner of Two Bear Farms. He publishes a weekly newsletter in which he writes about things he thinks about whilst picking cauliflower in the early morning hours for four and a half hours. He had been despairing about the state of the world and decided he needed to pay attention to less news, and listen to more music. And, he described a plan for acceptance in the week ahead, to preserve his mental health. I’ve been thinking about his idea all week long, and find it is helpful to imagine that there could be an amazing plot twist to this story, which turns things around in a good way, that we have no idea is coming. It could happen. And, this morning, NOAA is forecasting that northwest Montana is likely to receive wetting rains this week-end. It could happen, it could happen.

So, as part of my acceptance, for this week, I am telling myself that the state of the world is just a big movie, and I should sit back and watch the plot unfold (since the powers that be are not interested in the script I wrote). I’m not saying I’m going to grab a big ole bucket of GMO popcorn with some artificial butter on it, and a 36-ounce soda, but I’m also not willing to invest my mental health so heavily in the outcome. Who knows, maybe there is an amazing plot twist at the end that I have no idea is coming?” Todd of Two Bear Farms

High Summer

07.17.21

One of my doctors said this week, “Well, summer is over for me with the arrival of the smoke.” She has asthma and is especially sensitive and has cancelled her camping reservations and cycling race entries for the remainder of the season. The local weather forecasters report that fire season has started a good couple of weeks early this year, and the national headlines can’t stop reporting on the western heat and long-term drought. My California family arrives in a few days, and have packed their N95 masks and one of their air purifiers. After last year out there, they are not strangers to what it is like to live through forest fire season, but my grandson has asthma and I am very worried.

It’s not that it’s unexpected. Already, people are throwing out past years as particularly bad ones, and, in truth, it’s rare not to have some days of fire and smoke. But, as Don says, “Those of us who live in northwest Montana are terrified each year about forest fires.” For the first time in the twenty years we’ve lived at the lake, he ordered a pump and hose to access lake water to hose down the roof, in the event we were to lose electricity to our well in a wildfire. (He did confess, however, that this new pump would be useful in case the neighbor’s pond stayed frozen long enough for him to resurface the ice for his winter ice skating!).

It used to be that we could emotionally prepare for fire season, when it came in the middle of August, and kids went back-to-school shopping, and we could count on snow in September to end it all. Now, like Covid, National politics, and the widespread violent upheaval around the world, we’re living through a time in which we don’t know how to prepare. As one of the weather broadcasters said on the local NPR station, “I think it’s hard for us to realize that we’re literally living through conditions that we haven’t experienced before.” It all seems so hard, so uncertain, so frightening.

Early the other evening, sitting in my favorite wicker chair in the shade by the water, with a glass of white wine over ice, I was thinking about my doctor declaring that summer is now over for her. I get it. But, quitting on Summer–that shortest of seasons which is steeped in the best of our childhood memories, and so bittersweet in the nostalgia of innocence and youth and dreams of our future–just felt terribly sad. While I thought about these things, a cool breeze wafted off the water, motorboats hummed out on the lake as they pulled skiers behind them, and all manner of birds flew in and out of bushes, and high overhead on the thermals. Chatpeau lay in the cool green grass at my feet. And, despite the haze, the air was clear enough to see the outline of white clouds. This isn’t so bad I thought. Even in forest fire season, summer can give us lovely moments, here and there, to hold on to.

It’s now High Summer, already past the midpoint. As I went to bed last night, I could no longer see across the lake for the smoke haze. Waking up early this morning, the air quality graph indicates we are just on the edge, hanging in the balance, between healthy and unhealthy for sensitive groups. The NOAA weather forecast continues to suggest that the monsoons from the southwest will likely reach here mid-week, bringing possible drenching rains. As in all things during these uncertain and dangerous times, our charge is to keep Hope alive, sometimes found in the smallest of moments, like a lucky summer evening. Or, like the robins chirping out my kitchen window this morning, before I close up the house and hermetically seal it against heat and smoke build-up.

The Best Time of the Day, by Raymond Carver

Cool summer nights.
Windows open.
Lamps burning.
Fruit in the bowl.
And your head on my shoulder.
These the happiest moments in the day.

Next to the early morning hours,
of course. And the time
just before lunch.
And the afternoon, and
early evening hours.
But I do love

these summer nights.
Even more, I think,
than those other times.
The work finished for the day.
And no one who can reach us now.
Or ever.

July 2021

07.01.21

It is so damn hot. I’m letting Chatpeau spend the day sleeping on our bed, instead of looking like she’s dead from heat stroke out on the porch. Just north of us in Canada, they reported 300 extra deaths yesterday, attributed to the record-breaking hot temperatures. We’ve had hot days in the past here at the lake, but it’s always cooled down at night. I can count on one hand the number of times I didn’t need to put on a fleece or a sweater as the sun lowered in the western sky. Now, at 10 pm, when we reverse the hermetically sealed house by opening all the windows before bed, it’s still been 85 degrees. The ceiling fan is on high, in an attempt to draw air in from the woods, which will finally drop to 66 degrees at dawn’s early light. Then, before 10 am, it’s time to close all the windows again. It feels like we’ve been forever in the orange colored Heat Advisory Zone on the NOAA map, and they are predicting that in the next ten days, there will be an 80% chance our temps will be 10-15 degrees above normal, and 50% chance we will not have any soaking rains.

I read a headline the other day about how this heat feels like an “existential threat”, that climate change will cause this historic Pacific Northwest Heat Dome to occur more often. Streets have buckled in Portland, water and electrical grids are being stressed across the west, people are dying. Add the fact that now LA is back to requiring even vaccinated people to mask up in crowds, because of the Delta Covid variant, and it can truly feel like the apocalypse is upon us. While preparing dinner, we often watch BBC’s Outside Source, and a quick tour of news around the world is enough to lose your appetite.

In the light of a new day, this first morning of July, and with the hint of a few clouds across the lake, it’s a point of fact that when it’s been 100 degrees in town, it’s only 90 here at the lake. The water temperature is close to 20 degrees warmer than usual for this time of year, and a dip in the lake is footsteps away from the porch. You can’t really climb into bed until the sun has gone down around 10 pm, and by the time you’ve flossed and brushed your teeth, the temperature outside has begun its drop–slowly, but surely.

By 6:30 this morning, I realized I could sit with my computer and coffee out on the porch in cool air, and quit complaining about the heat dome for awhile. In the quiet of birdsong, I remembered this poem I saved, long ago, long before I had a bad hip or the brain injury from a stroke. I thought about the line that says how life lets you choose the way you have your eggs and your coffee. It’s good to be reminded that “This is what life does”, in the middle of it all, before the day gets hot again, before you read the bad news headlines, before it lets you begin a new month of summer.

Starfish, by Eleanor Lerman

This is what life does. It lets you walk up to 
the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a 
stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have 
your eggs, your coffee. Then it sits a fisherman 
down beside you at the counter who say, Last night, 
the channel was full of starfish. And you wonder, 
is this a message, finally, or just another day?

Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the 
pond, where whole generations of biological 
processes are boiling beneath the mud. Reeds 
speak to you of the natural world: they whisper, 
they sing. And herons pass by. Are you old 
enough to appreciate the moment? Too old? 
There is movement beneath the water, but it 
may be nothing. There may be nothing going on.

And then life suggests that you remember the 
years you ran around, the years you developed 
a shocking lifestyle, advocated careless abandon, 
owned a chilly heart. Upon reflection, you are 
genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have 
become. And then life lets you go home to think 
about all this. Which you do, for quite a long time.

Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one 
who never had any conditions, the one who waited 
you out. This is life’s way of letting you know that 
you are lucky. (It won’t give you smart or brave, 
so you’ll have to settle for lucky.) Because you 
were born at a good time. Because you were able 
to listen when people spoke to you. Because you 
stopped when you should have and started again.

So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your 
late night dessert. (Pie for the dog, as well.) And 
then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland, 
while outside, the starfish drift through the channel, 
with smiles on their starry faces as they head 
out to deep water, to the far and boundless sea.

Summer Solstice 2021

06.21.21

“Summers had a logic all their own and they always brought something out in me. Summer was supposed to be about freedom and youth and no school and possibilities and adventure and exploration. Summer was a book of hope. That’s why I loved and hated summers. Because they made me want to believe.” Benjamin Alire Saenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

While most of the west had been under the big heat dome, we had pleasant 75 degree weather with clear skies and a new crescent moon. Fletcher and his girlfriend stayed with us for nearly a week, soaking up the cool air before their move to Tuscon later this month. They kayaked, paddleboarded, had s’mores at the campfire, and the four of us had a lovely sunset cruise on the lake in our old aluminum fishing boat, motoring along on still water under fluffy white clouds. “Summer has arrived”, Don and i kept saying to each other, as if it is was a complete surprise–that somehow we had made it this far, again.

The first official day of summer began with rain and a chilly 52 degrees, but, by the end of the longest day, it was gloriously green and sunny and 70 degrees. I drove Don and two sailor buddies down to Dayton early in a clearing rain, to get our sailboat into the water, and their three hour sail up to our house had perfect winds and sunshine. We all met later for dinner over on the other side of the lake, and when we drove home after 9 pm, the yellow canola fields glowed under a still bright sun and the three-quarters moon was stark white. It felt like darkness would never come. In spite of everything, it’s summer again, and like everything since the pandemic closed down the world as we know it, it’s hard to get my head around the fact that we are in a new season now.

We’ve met up with friends who’ve also been vaccinated, we’ve eaten dinner outside at restaurants a few times–we even did that flight to California to see our family. But, outside that bubble we’ve lived in for a year and a half, it all feels so fragile, so tentative. Everyone seems to be looking for missing employees. If it isn’t the local restaurants, it’s American Airlines announcing they are cutting hundreds of flights because they are short of workers. A friend showed up at an urgent care clinic yesterday and was told sorry you have to wait, but we are down five employees who are staying on unemployment. Even the spectacular success of the vaccine (so far) is muted when most of the world does not have access to them. The big heat dome last week reminded us of climate change and forest fires and lack of water. Who really believes there is such a thing as getting back to “normal”.

Sigh. What is there to do but let go of “normal”. There was a lot that was wrong with our “normal” anyway. This new season has its lessons for how to live in this world, like all the other seasons in the past, and forevermore. There is so much to love in summer–a season so short up here in the north country. As Mary Oliver tells us, we must “hold it against our bones”. Happy summer!

Every year
everything
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires and the black river of loss whose other side
is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know. To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

–Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems, Volume One

June has arrived

06.04.21

How can it be, just a week ago today, we caught an early flight to Seattle, then on to Oakland where Sarah picked us up at the airport, and we spent the Memorial Day week-end with our California families. After all this time cloistered at home in the pandemic, we got to hug the grandkids, see how they’d grown and changed, walk by the house Sarah and Nick just bought, play ping pong on the outdoor table that Santa delivered to Valerie’s patio, meet the new kitty, sit in the sunshine drinking beer, talking and laughing. There was an outing to watch the Oakland A’s, a tennis match at the nearby park, Don’s driving lesson with Norah, and Sarah and I looked at hundreds of paint chips as potential colors for their new house. How could that have only been four days.

We had left home in cold rain and returned to record high temperatures of 90 degrees in town, and hot enough at the lake to run the ceiling fan at night. Our suitcases have not yet been unpacked, but Don put the screen doors on the French doors across the front of the house, the red umbrella over the outdoor table, the wicker chairs down by the water. Old friends from Colorado were here to greet us when we arrived home, and we spent their two days sitting in the shade on the front porch, telling old stories, catching up. At dinner the last night, Tom–87 years old, nearly deaf and blind, and poised to fall down when he stands up–toasted how lucky we were to be healthy enough to be together on a beautiful evening by the water.

Now, we are alone again, to settle back into home. I hobbled along for a little walk yesterday and found that the irises had bloomed during our short trip. I called the nursery to let them know we’d be picking up the big geranium plants they’ve been growing for us in the greenhouse. And, there was a summer thunderstorm that began about 4:30 this morning. The birds were chirping, and then they’d be quiet after a lightning strike and rumble of thunder, then chirp again until the next one. Rain fell for a short time and poured off the roof out my bedroom window. I think nocturnal thunderstorms are magical. In fact, their origins are so mysterious that in 2015, NOAA gathered a group of scientists to study them in a project called Plains Elevated Convection At Night (PECAN). How do they form at night without the sun’s heat? Seasonal temperatures are just around the corner, but summer has rolled in already. Time is moving along and every morning–if we can pay close attention– we get a chance to “swim along the soft trails”.

Morning Poem, by Mary Oliver

Every morning
the world
is created.
Under the orange

sticks of the sun
the heaped
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again

and fasten themselves to the high branches–
and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted islands

of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy

you will swim away along the soft trails

for hours, your imagination
alighting everywhere.
And if your spirit
carries within it

the thorn
that is heavier than lead–
if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging–

there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted–

each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
lavishly,
every morning,

whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.

Lilac Time

05.21.21

Lilacs–that most nostalgic of blossoms. They bloom in alleys and in deserted farmsteads, and the bushes seem to be the most bountiful when they’ve been abandoned to the past. They’re in bloom only ten days or so, and no matter how much cutting and pounding I do of their woody stems, they last but three days on my dining room table. Each year on this blog, I talk about the birthday cake decorated with lilac blossoms, which my mother made for me in a lonely teen-aged time. And, that Fletcher’s May 18th birth coincided with the explosion of lilac blooms in northern Colorado, and how I picked them to ride with me in the car that month, as I drove between Ft. Collins and my sister’s house in Eaton. I picked the ones in this photo from the alley behind my primary care doctor’s office. A staff member comes out to your car and asks you Covid related questions, takes your temperature and makes sure your mask is in place, and then tells you she’ll be out to get you when it’s your turn. I escaped from the car long enough to break off a few bunches, and put them into my water bottle.

The dry heat wave is over. Finally, finally, clouds and moisture arrived and I can see the snow line on the mountains across the lake. We’re just west of the winter advisory zone, and, happily for late May, our precipitation will be in the form of rain. Already, Don is wailing that we won’t catch up on our deficit, but a few small puddles have accumulated and it smells heavenly out there. Making soup is always good for my psyche, and I appreciate any help I can get during this stroke recovery. Joy forwarded a great-looking recipe yesterday for artichoke-asparagus soup, which seems like a nice spring transition. The pile of books I bought to see me through my ordeal awaits me, covered in a layer of dust, as I’ve been outside looking at the water, the sunsets, and, I guess, just watching the grass grow.

There’s an old lilac bush up our road, behind an abandoned trailer-house, and I can see purple blossoms from the car as I drive down. Memorial Day is right around the corner, with the start of summer and all its energy and frenzy and happy times. I’d best take my clippers up the road and take advantage of this clandestine opportunity to bring fresh lilacs into the house, and allow their heavenly scent to bring in all those memories of such happy days to fill my home.

The Happiest Day

by Linda Pasten

It was early May, I think
a moment of lilac or dogwood
when so many promises are made
it hardly matters if a few are broken.
My mother and father still hovered
in the background, part of the scenery
like the houses I had grown up in,
and if they would be torn down later
that was something I knew
but didn’t believe. Our children were asleep
or playing, the youngest as new
as the new smell of the lilacs,
and how could I have guessed
their roots were shallow
and would be easily transplanted.
I didn’t even guess that I was happy.
The small irritations that are like salt
on melon were what I dwelt on,
though in truth they simply
made the fruit taste sweeter.
So we sat on the porch
in the cool morning, sipping
hot coffee. Behind the news of the day—
strikes and small wars, a fire somewhere—
I could see the top of your dark head
and thought not of public conflagrations
but of how it would feel on my bare shoulder.
If someone could stop the camera then…
if someone could only stop the camera
and ask me: are you happy?
Perhaps I would have noticed
how the morning shone in the reflected
color of lilac. Yes, I might have said
and offered a steaming cup of coffee.

Birthday Month

05.12.21

Rita has long declared that her birthday is the entire month of April. I believe she originally came to this thinking many years ago, to allow her mother more time to get a birthday card sent to her for a timely arrival on her actual birthday. My gift from Rita, for the May 8th birthday this year, was to arrive home from a night in Spokane to find my kitchen window box filled with flowers for the summer days to come. Don said, “I think this is the nicest thing anyone has ever done,” and I reminded him that, “no, she did this for me in 2005 when I arrived home from cancer treatment in Denver, to recover in the remains of summer.” Rita knows how to do birthdays.

It was a grand birthday celebration in Spokane, with an afternoon beer and lunch at a new downtown brewery, sitting by open garage doors on a sunny spring afternoon, people-watching safely distanced customers. Dinner, at our very favorite fine dining bistro, also felt safe in a newly constructed booth with our waiter masked. I never choked on my food–which had been a big concern of mine, even though I was discharged from swallowing therapy–and I had two glasses of champagne, and a fabulous coconut cake. After over a year, it felt like our Covid PTSD stayed in the shadows. This year’s birthday was not guaranteed, after my stroke in March, and the beautiful cards, calls, and texts from family and friends could not have been more loving, and I think I cried with each of them.

May is a huge birthday month in our circle. Don’s and Rich’s are May 11th, then two grandsons celebrate later in the week, and John finishes off the month with his. As the first to come along, and as the elder in the family, I always get the best and brightest celebration. Don spent his special day by driving into town at 6:00 a.m. to attend to his volunteer bookkeeping job, then coming back home to pick me up for a trip back into town for a visit to the orthopedic surgeon. While I spent two hours in the clinic getting a steroid injection into my troublesome right hip, he slept in the car, gathering his energy for a day of various chores near and far from the house. Everybody has to find celebration in their own way, and it is definitely tricky as we age. “At least it’s not the alternative” has ceased to be humorous for a long time now.

I had hoped to bake a cake for Don, but with the pain in my right hip, the best I could do was to make his favorite peanut butter cookies, so I could sit down and ice it during the 14 minutes each cookie sheet was in the oven. I’d missed my David Whyte webinar, with our trip to Spokane, so I tuned into the recording while I iced my hip. His series began back in May 2020 with the title of Vulnerability and Courage, and I’ve participated every month since then, always moved deeply by him reading his poems, which I never truly understand, but it doesn’t matter that I do. As he has said, poetry is not about some thing–it is the thing itself.

This May’s series is entitled Self Compassion. He tells the story of hiking in the Himalayas, alone, as a young man, and being paralyzed by fear to cross a rickety wooden bridge across a deep ravine at 11,000 feet, and how an old woman with a basket of Yak dung on her back, gives him a namaste greeting, then confidently crosses over to the other side. He followed her to safety, and then she seemed to vanish, just disappeared altogether from the trail. Soon, he came to the oldest monastery on the Annapurna Circuit, in the little village of Braga, and upon entering, was terrified by the ancient wooden Buddha statue guarding the door, threatening and beckoning the traveler to enter. He finished the webinar by reading a poem he wrote after this experience at Braga. I thought it was a lovely way to think about birthdays and getting old, and the self-compassion we need at this time in life.

The Faces at Braga, by David Whyte

In monastery darkness
by the light of one flashlight,
the old shrine room waits in silence.

While beside the door
we see the terrible figure,
fierce eyes demanding, “Will you step through?”

And the old monk leads us,
bent back nudging blackness
prayer beads in the hand that beckons.

We light the butter lamps
and bow, eyes blinking in the
pungent smoke, look up without a word,

see faces in meditation,
a hundred faces carved above,
eye lines wrinkled in the handheld light.

Such love in solid wood—
taken from the hillsides and carved in silence,
they have the vibrant stillness of those who made them.

Engulfed by the past
they have been neglected, but through
smoke and darkness they are like the flowers

we have seen growing
through the dust of eroded slopes,
their slowly opening faces turned toward the mountain.

Carved in devotion
their eyes have softened through age
and their mouths curve through delight of the carver’s hand.

If only our own faces
would allow the invisible carver’s hand
to bring the deep grain of love to the surface.

If only we knew
as the carver knew, how the flaws
in the wood led his searching chisel to the very core,

we would smile too
and not need faces immobilized
by fear and the weight of things undone.

When we fight with our failing
we ignore the entrance to the shrine itself
and wrestle with the guardian, fierce figure on the side of good.

And as we fight
our eyes are hooded with grief
and our mouths are dry with pain.

If only we could give ourselves
to the blows of the carver’s hands,
the lines in our faces would be the trace lines of rivers

feeding the sea
where voices meet, praising the features
of the mountain and the cloud and the sky.

Our faces would fall away
until we, growing younger toward death
everyday, would gather all our flaws in celebration

to merge with them perfectly,
impossibly, wedded to our essence,
full of silence from the carver’s hands.

_______________