The Fox at Dawn

Winter’s First Days
December 23, 2022, 8:23 am
Filed under: memory memorabilia re-membering | Tags: , ,

It is Thursday, December 22, at last putting pen to paper after trying to disappear to myself in the break from scheduled duty of school and church. 

The sky lightens, cars speed by on rain slicked roads. I read Ada Limón and watch the steam rise from my tea, a photograph of Anderson watches me closely from our long ago Foster Avenue Apartment. He’s just up from the basement, where he’s been drumming in a dark corner. He sits in the armchair I just left, my purse sprawled beside it along with the book I was reading while Anderson’s heartbeat came up through the floor, keeping me company.

Maybe no one is ever gone.

Maybe it’s impossible to leave each other behind.

This afternoon Olivia and Asher arrive. Peg doesn’t come until Christmas Eve. There are gifts to be wrapped, gifs to be made, blueberry compote to be cooked, disgraceful rooms to be cleaned. They are staying at Nonna’s house. Jess will join her cousins. Nonna is afraid that she can’t handle my stairs anymore, the approach to my house is perilous, so Christmas morning will be at her house, not mine. This makes us sad. It opens the door to a thought I can only look at sideways: It’s entirely possible that she will never step inside our house again.

At the meditation window with Amundsen & Angéle Dubeau.

Evening now. The storm has overtaken us. The temperature plummets below zero, the snows blow, cars creep along the road when one dares to make the passage. It’s a dangerous night, people will die of it. The cousins are all safely at Nonna’s, making Christmas cookies and laughing. I batten the hatches here at my house on the hillside. All the cats are in, save one. One of the two feral cats I have been feeding would not be coaxed in. Albert. I’ve done what I can to make him safe with shelters, even a new heated one that he seems to shun. But I worry I have not done enough. Old Henry sits in my lap, cradled by my left hand while I try to write with the right, sitting by the meditation window that is fogging up and icing over as I watch it. Winter in its first days is closing up the house. 

Listen. Listen for the drumming from the dark. 

Your heart does not beat alone.

April 4, 2022: Leap of Faith

Over and over yesterday afternoon, eagles sailed in commanding circles over our heads, high and low, sometimes to warn off a Coopers Hawk, a Red Tail or a Black Vulture who shat midair at the close encounter. Mostly the eagles just wheeled and pivoted in the glory of the afternoon sun, taking turns on the nest to sit a spell longer.

I don’t live near mountains or out in the country. I live in Louisville, Kentucky a good-sized city on the Ohio River that grows larger every day. It’s the day after Tornado Day, a day you never forget to mark if you lived through it, April 3rd, 1974. 148 confirmed tornadoes ripped across 900 square miles in 24 hours, 30 of them were category F4/F5. My city was torn apart that day, but unless you know where to look, you wouldn’t guess it had ever happened. I’m sitting where I most like to be before dawn, at the picnic table in the Little Wood behind my house. Some of these trees made it through that long ago tornado that destroyed houses not a half block away. These trees are survivors.

I am on spring break, a teacher’s salvation. It feels so good not to be trundling off to school in the dark, instead I’m sitting here quietly until I drive my daughter to work at eight. I had a miserable night’s sleep, wrestling all night with anxieties and wretched dreams, but this morning I am listening to the White-Throated Sparrow sing its sweet song in the rising light of day. All around me wildflowers are blooming. Almost a hundred years ago, a woman who lived two doors down from me made it a habit to dig up flowers whenever she visited her family in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky and then plant them here in this little wood, this small sanctuary tucked away from the rest of the neighborhood. God bless her for it. They are still here, thriving- trillium, lady slipper, bloodroot, dwarf larkspur and cowslips are blooming now. I cannot help but feel hopeful, leaving the night’s fears behind.

After I finished my job at the church yesterday, I went to my friend Melissa’s house to see the eagle nest. She and her husband have been renting this house that sits high on a bluff looking over the Ohio. It’s part of the family compound owned by the little sister of my best friend in middle school, the friend who broke my heart in the 8th grade when she turned her back on me in favor of the cool girls. Lordie, how life folds back on itself when you grow old in your hometown. In the front yard of Melissa’s house there is a commanding pine tree chosen by an eagle pair for their nesting site. They started building in February. The nest is mostly obscured by the branches that hold it, it’s unknown if the eggs have hatched yet though they probably have. But it seems clear that the parents are taking turns sitting on the nest.

Standing below with my binoculars, I thought I could make out a white head deep in the nest, and then whoosh! Out the eagle swooped, making circles over the tree. It sang as it flew, a song I’d never heard before. My heart just thrilled to it. I can’t help remembering my longing to see Bald Eagles as a child, when they were terribly endangered. They had completely disappeared from Kentucky by the time I was born. All the pictures I saw of them came from Alaska or Canada. It seemed impossible that they should ever live in Kentucky again. I lived in Seattle, newly married, when I saw my first eagle in 1987. It was reported in the newspaper that a pair were nesting in Discovery Park, that enormous, wild, wonderful park that looks over Puget Sound on Magnolia Bluff. It was big news. The article didn’t say where in the park the nest was, but I wanted to find it so badly. One night I dreamt of the tree and the path that led to it. So, we went in search of it and I felt myself being led right to it, as if I knew where it was all along. There! The eagle nest! There! The eagle! We returned many times to look for them, to watch them hunt in the sound. I’ve seen Bald Eagles many times since then and it always stops my heart. To see them in my hometown makes me cry sometimes. They’re back! We didn’t kill them all! My daughter doesn’t understand, she rolls her eyes at my enthusiasm. To her, the fact of them is just a fact. Eagles on the Ohio River, big deal. Yes! Yes it is!

As a child of the 1970’s I had a stark awareness of the environmental apocalypse that was upon us. I have vivid memories of the rage I felt at seeing how casually people threw garbage out of the car windows as they drove down the street. Yes, that was a thing. Drink cans, bottles, bags of McDonald’s trash, cigarettes. God, the mounds of cigarette butts you’d find in parking lots and along the curb from people emptying their car ashtrays, the smell of car and bus exhaust- it turns my stomach to remember them. The wave of public service announcements about pollution at the start of the environmental movement worked well on the children of that decade- the “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute” campaign, the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign with its “Crying Indian” (who was, in fact, Italian-American, but never mind). While the PSAs may have done little to change corporate behavior, they did succeed in influencing individual and family behavior.  Children made their families clean up, I know we did. Trash was everywhere- the streets, the parks. The Beargrass Creek watershed was choked with garbage and the waters were poisoned, truly dangerous to wade in. Very little was able to live in those waters. I remember how we had to wear our Keds into lakes and rivers so we wouldn’t get cut by all the broken glass and the million pull tabs that lay like mines on Normandy beaches. I remember the orange haze of the air, a stinging veil that hung before your eyes. I remember the headaches and asthma attacks during field hockey practice in August. I remember the urgent air pollution warnings telling us to stay indoors, which don’t do much good when you have no air conditioning. I remember so much carelessness. The grown-ups just didn’t seem to care.

The Trump years were deeply painful for oh so many reasons. One of the worst for me was the rollback of so many environmental protections and the gutting of the EPA. The return of that utter disregard for the planet that reigned when I was a child. Things are so much better than they were, it anguished me to see the US slipping back towards that time. And things really are better- locally it is demonstrable that the air quality has improved since the Clean Air Act. That haze is very rare now. The waters are cleaner- there are beavers living on the Ohio River and along Beargrass Creek again. Yes, there is still trash, but it is much much better. And people who casually litter are outliers, not the norm.

It is easy to forget the progress that’s been made when so much darkness keeps piling on-  mass shootings, continuing climate collapse, racism, dysfunctional government, the ongoing pandemic, the rollback of reproductive rights, the censorship of books, people and ideas, the attempts to push LGBTQ+ folx back into the dark closets of society, the reprehensible war in Ukraine. There is much to be unhappy about, too much to carry. It’s disheartening. But yesterday I watched Bald Eagles fly above the front yard of a friend. I know the fish they pull from the Mighty Ohio will not be laced with DDT. The eggs they lay will not collapse before hatching. Soon we will be watching eaglets spread their wings and take that leap of faith from the nest. The child in me jumps up and cheers, the old woman I am becoming cheers with her.

12/24/21 Christmas Eve in the Little Wood

            It’s the day most longed for in childhood, better even than Christmas. It’s that delicious sense of being just around the corner from wonder and miracle, just about to see the true beneficence of the Universe. It’s a Holy Day of Expectation, perhaps better than the day itself- the unwrapped gift might be anything, the child coming into the world might shine a great light.

            Once I knew the secret- that the miracle lived under my own roof- I was allowed to sneak back downstairs after my younger brother was tucked into bed (my sister was not yet born) so that I could become part of that miracle too. Back then, when we were small and the world was large, we put up our tree and left it undecorated when we went to bed on Christmas Eve. Coming downstairs on Christmas morning to see the tree ablaze with glory was the first magic I ever knew. And if the daylight revealed a rare and fresh snowfall- my goodness, what wonder there was in the world! What a glorious place to be! So much of the hard parts of life melted away. Of that I will not write, I will not conjure back into being. 

Once I figured out from whence this wonder came, I was invited to be part of it. The thrill of being a co-conspirator, a fellow magician, a Christmas angel! I got to help decorate the tree, I got to set out the cookies and milk and beer for Santa, for by the time Santa got to our house he needed a beer. When it came time to set out the gifts, I was sent upstairs to bed. But how on earth could I sleep when I knew what was happening below? Listening closely, I heard their voices, the tone, not the words. I heard rustling, an occasional clank. I lay there calculating- could it actually be —- that I hinted at last week? Would my brother be getting the — he wants so badly?

In the morning, we sat at the top step above the turning at the landing where we could not see below and waited for the all clear to come from below. We rushed down the steps, only I’d hold back a step or two. My eyes were not on the tree and the generosity that spread out beneath it, my eyes were on my brother’s face. I watched for that moment when the glory sprung full upon him, as it would never fall on me again. But getting to see his joy made my own even sweeter. And so it has been. It became my practice to sit at the top step sometime around midnight every Christmas Eve to simply contemplate the unopened joy that lay waiting below. Whatever house I am in. However old I am. Being one of the Wondermakers of the world is a great privilege and Christmas Eve I breathe in the blessing of it. 

It’s before dawn out here in the little wood. The unseasonably warm weather has called me out here. I feel much better having written a bit. The prosaic demands of the holiday obscure the poetry of it, obscure the soul of it, which I crave. Kept too long in the saucepan of checklists, I bubble up into irritation, my gratitude sailing off like steam. Our family plans have changed fifteen times since Sunday, as fully vaxxed and boostered members of the family test positive for the insidious Omicron variant. Time here in the dark, under the trees helps me recover my footing. 

A photo has fallen out of my journal- an old black and white one that Mom gave me some months ago of Great-Aunt Virginia Cook and her infant daughter Carole. They are in front of their long ago Christmas Tree, hung with silver bells and tinsel. Aunt Gigi (not my real aunt, I only found out as a teenager) is smiling so beautifully, so much happiness radiates. A young widow, her horrible husband gone. She raised her daughter alone, working at a bookstore to do it. In the photo, there’s a stack of identical books on a table, with empty boxes set on top. Perhaps she is about to wrap them for gifts. I never noticed that about the photo before now. Many years after this photo, I would be one of the recipients of well-chosen books from her that would be touchstones for me throughout my life. Pickle Chiffon Pie by Jolly Roger Bradfield, The Tapestry Room by Mrs. Molesworth, Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt. Aunt Gigi scraped by, as I do, but she was one of the Wondermakers of the world. As am I.

The sky is lavender now- the light is coming back into the world and the birds are beginning to call to each other- did you make it through the night? I did! Did you? I did! We all did- Halleluiah! Merry Christmas, all you Wondermakers out there. Have at it.

11.26.21 A Full Plate

It’s a sunny, cold morning, the day after Thanksgiving. I only have an armful of firewood left, so I’m sitting in the living room pretending that the fire is lit. It’s cozy anyway. We, my daughter Jess and I, took my mother and Jess’s boyfriend to my brother’s house for Thanksgiving yesterday. There were twelve of us, much larger than just the four of us last year at the height of the stay-at-home era. The year before that, we had travelled to Zionsville, Indiana to have Thanksgiving with my cousin and aunt. And the year before that, we were at my brother’s- a dreadful time I cannot remember without pain. Jess was in the full grip of her eating disorder and I was just beginning the long journey of seeking help for her, finding out what treatment options there were, trying to understand what exactly we were dealing with. I was plunged deep in darkness and fear and the agony of guilt. How could I have let this happen? Why didn’t I notice sooner? Why did I take that second job that kept me from home so much? Why can’t I make more money? How am I going to pay for all of this? What can I do to help?  You dogpaddle, go under, sink down, fight your way back up for air. Over and over.

It was so very painful at home. Day after day, Jess closed herself up in her room, answered only in monosyllables or not at all, cut herself with blades she’d steal from my pencil sharpeners. She had nothing but contempt in her eyes for me as she fought all attempts to get nutrition into her before the silent, grim drive to school where I knew she’d eat nothing. Intake interviews, meetings with therapists and doctors, directions for what she should be eating, the endless looping fights, the ‘I’m fine, you’re the problem-leave me alone- I hate you-I wish you never adopted me- I wish you were dead’. No life partner to tag team with, no arms to shield me even a little from the attacks that seemed to come from an alien inside her. In the middle of this we had to celebrate Thanksgiving with extended family and with new family from my brother’s recent marriage. What a trial it was. Walking on tightropes, on eggshells, on broken glass, on hot coals. Any of those, all of those. Some of the family knew what was going on, most didn’t. I didn’t have the language to talk about it, didn’t want to cause pain to Jess by talking about it to people she didn’t want to know. She was a long way from being able to talk about it herself, a long way from admitting that starving herself was wrong. She was a long way from even being herself. Mental illness is the devil.

Sitting here in the peace of this beautiful day, the panic and fear I felt then rise right back up as I write. Within a week or so of that dreadful holiday, it was clear that she needed to go into residential treatment. McCallum in St. Louis was recommended. It was a race against her 18th birthday- I had to get her well enough by her birthday in February to recognize the severity of her illness and the value of continuing treatment, or she would walk away from it all and cling fast to her anorexia, choosing it over life. I’d then be in the position of taking her to court to get medical guardianship. That Thanksgiving was the beginning of very dark months.

I’ve always been an intensely private person. Something I have always kept to myself was my pain. A lifelong habit, a reflex. Snapshot: My brother and I have spent the morning down the street in the tot lot, sent out to play because Daddy was ‘sick’ and needed a quiet house. I was six, maybe seven, my brother was four or five. Dad had come to get us, calling us when he was within earshot. We went to him and then walked toward the house. Out of habit, I reached out my hand to hold his as we crossed the street and met the lit end of his cigarette. The cherry ember lodged under my thumbnail. I whipped my hand away and held my fist behind my back. ‘Oh baby, are you alright?’ he asked. ‘I’m fine’ I lied. I remember feeling embarrassed. I remember feeling it was my fault. I remember not wanting to make my dad feel bad, even as my thumb burned.

That Thanksgiving, the dark months that followed, I let go of that silence. I let the people at my jobs know what I was dealing with. I knew I needed to talk about it, be open about her illness. For her sake and for mine. I didn’t want her to be ashamed of it I didn’t want her to blame herself. If she was going to get better, she would have to embrace it, accept help, talk about it. If I was going to keep myself from coming apart, I was going to have to do the same. I had just started sharing art again on this blog as a practice, as a source of fun. Those drawings reflected a little of that early pain. I didn’t start writing about J’s journey with Edie, the demon Eating Disorder, until her return from residential treatment. 

The writing helped, the talking about it helped, not having to pretend that everything was okay helped. My family was there for me. My friends were there. I was still falling through space, but not quite so afraid. There was so much to navigate- working with her high school, would she still graduate? What support could she get at school? Would they accommodate her half-day group therapy treatments? The looming 18th birthday- would Jess sign on to continue treatment? That was a terrifying day, skillfully handled by the doctor she loved. Jess signed the papers, she would continue therapy. My knees were literally weak as I walked out of the doctor’s office to drive to school. I was still working two jobs- full-time drama teacher at Walden School and part-time Director of Religious Exploration at 1st Unitarian Church. I was in the middle of directing Mary Poppins, for chrissakes, the all-school musical involving 85 K-12kids. I was told I should join a parent support group, should get therapy myself- but when? When? I wrote, I shared, I made art, I talked. It helped. 

It’s been three years. She is in college now, studying early childhood education. She has joined a sorority, has a part-time job. She has worked hard, very hard at her recovery. There have been trials, setbacks, additional diagnoses, medication changes, trips to the emergency room, progress, many tiny victories, several larger ones. After three years, we are back at Uncle Will’s, back with family after a long Covid separation. It is Thanksgiving and there she is- Jess, herself. Smiling. Cheerful. Helpful. Funny. Beautiful. Proud. Her plate is full. My plate is full. Thankful, so so thankful.

9.22.20 The Day Dawns
End of Summer 1

Monday evening, September 21st 2020

Ruth Bader Ginsburg died a few days ago and like so many, I’ve been battling the waves of darkness that threaten to pull me under. It’s a truly awful time. I am not alone in feeling that our democracy is in real peril. I have taken it for granted all my life. I believed our system of checks and balances so carefully constructed and time tested that it could withstand anything, anyone. But I am wrong. The constellation of evil, the triumvirate of greed, bigotry and ignorance that is holding sway in positions of power, is sweeping all balance away. Every day we grow sicker, angrier, more divided as a nation.

I cannot write of it anymore this evening. I remind myself to breathe. I make myself look around, see where I am, see the goodness that is all around me. It’s grown dark. I sat outside in the dying light drawing until I couldn’t see my marks anymore. A clear cool night, the insects sing and bats take to the sky. The hummingbirds have not all left yet, but soon. Inside now, I sit in my dad’s leather armchair, the one he bought when we lived in the grand old house on Cherokee Parkway. I remember it was a big purchase, a long considered one because of the expense. It has a matching leather ottoman too. He bought it for the library where he could sit and read his papers, his endless line of Civil War books, Lonesome Dove. He was an infamously slow reader but a steady one. Dedicated. He always said that his reading was ruined when he took Evelyn Wood’s speed reading course in college. It took him two years to finish Lonesome Dove, but he kept at it. It makes me happy sitting in his chair, the worse for wear, the better for memories.

The Palette

Drawing brings comfort, especially the land drawings. It was my friend Reba Rye who first showed me it was possible to gather up things around you with which to draw. You needn’t be dependent on what you can buy in a store. Such a simple idea and yet it was a revelation to me. You can take leaves and petals, press and pull them across the paper. Charcoal from fires, red dirt, certain rocks are good too. Lately I’ve been gathering plants on my evening walks- flowers that grow in the alleys, leaves along the railroad tracks. Sometimes I surreptitiously pull off the heads of flowers that grow on the edges of my neighbors’ yards and slide them into my pockets. I only take them if they won’t be missed, if they are drooping and ready to fall, part of a profusion of cosmos, sunflower or crepe myrtle. I’ve some to know which flowers and leaves make the best color, (weeds are the most generous green). Rose of Sharon and day lilies are too watery , they ruin the paper. Zinnias are too dry. You can only make marks with your thumbnail scraping an imprinted line. Roses are wonderful, and cosmos and sunflowers. Black eyed susans are terrific because you can draw with the hard brown head of the flower as well as the yellow petals. Poke weed berries are amazing- such a dark purple stain. You have to be careful or it will take over the page. I love the leaves of the hearty begonia because one side is green while the underside is red and you can do a beautiful blend with it.

 When I get home from gathering, I lay my palette on a table. It’s hard to put into words why it is so satisfying to draw with this gathered beauty, to see their color transferred from petal to page. I draw imagined landscapes with the landscape itself and I am completely absorbed by it. It is a deep meditation that allows me to rest. I take my ink pens to define the shapes, add shading perhaps, shapes of its own. I don’t think, I let the color lead the pens. It’s another layer to the meditation, another part of the labyrinth. I may leave the drawing for days before coming back to it with the pens or to add more color. It feels effortless. It’s a conversation I’m having with myself, with the land, with being, simply being. There is no argument.

It is fully night and I need to turn my thoughts to bed, the book I am reading before sleep, the rest, the dreams that will come whether I want them to or not. The school where I teach is gearing up to have students back in the building for the first time in over six months, in a wildly different school day as we try to keep everyone safely distanced. There is much craziness to navigate involving the simultaneous teaching of students in the room, on video to different pods of the same grade level and students opting to stay at home on Zoom. I cannot begin to describe it all tonight. If I try, I’ll never fall asleep. If I check the news on Twitter, I’ll never fall asleep either. Better to move the pen across the page. Better to finish the landscape drawing. Better to read the words of a generous soul written long long ago. I am simply being tonight. Tonight I will not argument with myself.

            This is the solace I have been seeking as of late. 

Tuesday September 22nd. Walking the dogs before dawn, I see my old friend Orion in the sky and I know that the season is turning. It’s the turning I hold in my mind as I drive my daughter to her job at sunrise. My city is about to explode. Today is the day that Kentucky’s Attorney General announces whether or not there will be charges filed against the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor. The downtown has been boarded up again, troops have been called in to surround federal buildings. Businesses have announced they are closed today. The courthouse is closed today. Everyone expects that it will be announced that there are no charges being filed. Everyone expects there to be a violent collective protest in response. The city holds its breath this morning. So much pain, anger, anxiety, fear everywhere we turn. On the drive with my daughter we are quiet for different reasons. She is still half asleep, facing her long day only a moment at a time. I am thinking about the sky, the changing light, what I wrote last night, what we are facing today. I know now what I am seeking when I put petal to paper, I know what it is that I love. It’s being part of the great circle for a moment, where creator and creation are one.  The energy of the sun brought the flowers and trees into being. The art I make from them becomes part of the circle, my impulse to create makes me part of the circle too. The earth spins on its axis as it circles the sun in a solar system that travels as one of millions or more in a galaxy that circles with numberless others within the ever expanding mind of God. The act of drawing (drawing out what? Beauty? The essence of a moment?) helps me step out of human time, that loud clockwork affair, and into God’s time. That which remains when all the clocks are broken, when there are no verdicts to return. I am not powerless there. There, I am home.

The End of Summer 2

L’Heure Bleue

On Monday night, close to midnight, I began a new book- The Blue Hour, a biography of Jean Rhys who wrote The Wide Sargasso Sea, a stunning and disturbing book that has haunted me since I first read it last month. In the preface, Lilian Pizzichini describes L’Heure Bleue, a perfume by Guerlain that figures in Rhys’ first novel Quartet and that was her favorite fragrance. “The scent itself is dusky, as though bought from an old-world apothecary on a forgotten street in Paris. Its hints of pastry and almonds make L’Heure Bleue a melancholic fragrance, as though in mourning for a time passed by. The curves of the Art Nouveau bottle, the stopper in the form of a hollowed out heart, allude to the romance of the years leading to the First World War.”

            I put the book down and picked up my tiny research assistant- L’Heure Bleue was created in 1912 (my year!) by master perfumer Jacques Guerlain as a way to capture that magic blue hour in Paris before the sky finds its first star. That’s what I found out. And that you can still buy it. And suddenly I wanted that scent more than anything. I, who never wear perfume, was suddenly certain that this was my fragrance and that it would be mine the rest of my days. I ordered a bottle of eau de parfum from my bed before turning out my light to sleep.

            In the days while I waited for it, I watched a video of someone reviewing the perfume. Nine minutes of a beautiful French man talking about what this perfume means to him, how it smells and how he wears it whether it’s for a man or not. I read up on Guerlain and the inspiration for the perfume. I thought about how much my relationship to my body has changed. How for decades now I have abused it, ignored it, hid it, and felt ashamed of it and how it looked. How with no one to love it, it has gone unloved and uncelebrated. I’ve taken so little care with my appearance- how I dress, what I do with my hair. I’ve stopped wearing jewelry and make up. I slumpf around in overalls, an old farmer. I don’t recognize myself in the mirror and don’t even care.  Sweet, hardworking, talented, strong, resilient old body. I will do better. This perfume I’ve ordered feels like a secret I can keep with myself. I may look like a farmer but if I ever let you come very close, you’ll be reeling with the discovery of the secret garden that is in me.

            Yesterday it came. I took the package along with my library copy of The Blue Hour out to the porch. I took some photos of the two together, the bottle still wrapped in its box. I took my time removing the plastic- when would I be able to smell it? Would it come through the box once the plastic was gone? A little, a very little hint. I opened the box and pulled that beautiful bottle out. Could I smell it now? A little more. I took more photos, delaying the moment I would finally know if I made a mistake or not. Then I did it, I pulled the stopper and breathed it in. Heaven. All I had hoped for. I sprayed my wrists, misted my neck. Oh my. I love the liveliness as it first makes itself known. But then it settles on you, settles in you. Becomes something else. Throughout the day I am called to tenderly smell my own wrists- ah, then the sigh of release. I did not expect to find the smell so comforting. It is achingly lovely, yes melancholic, the vanity table of a long ago lady, evening falling, the tinkling of crystal prisms hanging from my grandmother’s lamp. 

I have been wearing it two days now and no one in my small family has noticed or at least remarked upon it, so that is reassuring. It is not obnoxious. It is my own secret with myself after all. I have fallen for this scent and its remembrance of loving and being loved. It fills my heart with longing and somehow answers that longing too. It tells me my own story of a lifetime of love. It is a reminder to love myself, to cherish this sweet old body, honor its journey and delight in its present. I was right to order this perfume at midnight, I’ll be wearing it the rest of my days.

2/16/20 In Defense of Jesus: Letter to a Reverend
February 16, 2020, 10:38 pm
Filed under: Faith, memory memorabilia re-membering, Teaching | Tags: , , ,
Morning Sadhana

Dear Reverend,

Not for the first time have I come out of a worship planning meeting troubled and puzzled. I’ve been thinking about it for days now and need to put some thoughts down on paper so I can look at them and share them with you, if you don’t mind. What I am troubled by is the dismissive and even belittling tone of the comments made by worship ministry members about the Christian tradition, specifically Easter and Christmas Eve Vespers. I have heard these remarks before, in other meetings and in the halls, often accompanied by a knowing laugh as if to say ‘Yes, well, we know better than to believe in all that’ and I have to say it hurts my heart and makes me sad. I don’t believe those remarks are consciously made to make anyone feel bad, but that’s just it, isn’t it? Isn’t this an inclusive community, isn’t the Unitarian church consciously welcoming everyone? All faiths and beliefs and lack of beliefs are welcome here, except those who follow the teachings of Jesus? I am puzzled. Remarks made by the Worship Ministry on Wednesday seemed to suggest that the inclusion of the Gospel stories at Vespers is done only to placate those who ought to know better and that’s plenty of Jesus for the whole year. It is an attitude of superiority that makes me very uncomfortable.

No room at the Inn or the manger.

At the same time, I am grateful for the discomfort because it leads me to reflect on my own beliefs and I am surprised at my own warmth of feeling for Jesus and his teachings. I have been a spiritual seeker since I was a child, first embracing the teachings of Jesus in an almost progressive Presbyterian church. I went on to absorb lots of teachings from varying faith traditions, making it a point to attend different services whenever I could- from Pentcostal revivals in Eastern Kentucky to Sikh Gurdwaras in New Mexico. I’ve studied Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism and Sikhism academically as well as spiritually. In my mid-fifties now, I suppose I’m more of a Sikh than anything (the word even means ‘seeker’), I embrace Guru Nanak’s teaching that all rivers lead to the ocean. Every morning before dawn, I practice my sadhana with Kundalini yoga and meditations with Sikh prayers. But I also observe Christian liturgical holidays and have found the richness of biblical scripture to be an endless source of reflection and inspiration. 

 I also understand the frustration many people feel with the seeming nonsense of a lot of Christian churches- the holding on to the ancient patriarchal language and dogma, the outrageously ornate and cryptic masses, the ‘my way or the highway’ road to salvation, the unforgivable use of cherry-picked scripture to judge and condemn others. Every time I attend a Catholic mass and the priest, all decked out in gilded glory, ponces over to the golden garage to get out the host to share exclusively with Catholics in good standing, it takes everything I’ve got not to stand and shout with my finger in the air “I protest!” I feel so very angry. And I cannot help imagining the dismay of Jesus if he were to walk into such a spectacle. I imagine him saying ‘This isn’t what I meant at all’. But see, maybe I’m guilty of fashioning Jesus in my own image just as others do. I could be totally wrong about what he meant when he broke bread with his friends the night before his betrayal. Whatever he may have meant, the communion I shared with my church in Chicago, the small but mighty Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ, was so powerful, so dear, so transformative that I crave it still and judge other communions by its standard. 

My fireplace hearth.

I understand having opinions about the way the image and the words of Jesus have been used and abused over the centuries. I certainly have my own. I also have my own relationship to his image and words. To me, he was one of the ultimate teachers, a powerful yogi, so connected to the source of spirit that others were healed simply by being in his presence. He was a rebel. He embraced those who were outcast and considered unclean, not just with his words but with his body. He was a person of action, he made his words manifest. Love one another. Don’t judge each other. Don’t tolerate hypocrites and those who profit off the needs of others. Like a great work of art, his life and death raise far more questions than they answer. That’s why I like observing the liturgical year, taking time to ponder these things over and over, holding them up in the light to look at them from a new stage in my life. Take Easter Sunday. I never could reconcile the Easter bunny with the betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. It’s an awkward fit, this trying to piggyback the ancient church’s idea of what Jesus’s death meant on top of the even more ancient pagan rites of spring. Frankly, I like thinking about them both. It’s easy to embrace the pagan rites- thank you Earth! Not so easy to stomach the insistence of certain Christian churches that ‘Jesus died for your sins, so either you’re scott-free or you owe Him, depending on how we feel about you’. Of course, it’s not so simplistic, it’s a huge question to ponder. What did he die for? One way I have thought about it is that he died because of the sins of those around him. He allowed it to happen, did not run away from it. He used his own suffering, his own life, to expose those sins for what they were. Jesus, the ultimate performance artist. For me the greatest miracle is that at the peak of his suffering, he forgave everyone, he asked God to forgive them. And in doing so, freed his own spirit. It is hard, so hard, to truly forgive injury and wrong. Am I capable of that kind of forgiveness? I don’t know.  It’s why I celebrate Easter, so I can think about it.

A postcard my great-grandmother received shortly after my grandmother was born.

Remarks that dismiss the richness of Christian teachings are thoughtless, I think, and they can alienate congregation members who have their own relationship to them. Such a mindset doesn’t serve anyone. Yes, Unitarian Universalism is a thinking, rational faith, but I don’t believe we have to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Thank you Reverend, for reading all of this, I’ve enjoyed thinking about it. I’ll continue to keep my mouth shut in worship planning meetings as best I can, but the day may come when I stand up with my finger in the air and say “I protest!” Perhaps I am a protestant after all. 

12.13.19 In Remembrance of Dashiel
December 13, 2019, 8:10 am
Filed under: Art of the Day, memory memorabilia re-membering | Tags: , ,
It’s a terrible drawing, but I haven’t the heart to work on it.

It’s been pressing on me a month now. The loss of this sweet soul. Life barrels on, this last month especially, but he is never far from my mind. I came home late afternoon that Monday and opened the patio door to the cats as always, only there were only two. Oh no, I said out loud. I remember saying that out loud, I remember feeling my heart sink. I gave my Dashiel call, watching for him to fly down the hill as he always did, but there was nothing. I fed the others, walked the dogs in the darkness, calling and looking, calling and looking. I felt pulled towards the neighbor’s large yard, kept feeling like I was just on the edge of hearing Dash’s little voice. I strained to hear it. Nothing. The weather was turning awful, the temperature was plummeting, the rain was turning to ice and snow. Around the neighbor I went, calling. Front and back of the house. I went out again in my bathrobe, calling. I set out boxes with blankets in them in case Dashiel came to the door in the middle of the night and needed to keep warm. Several times through the night I got up and checked- was he there? Not in the night, not in the morning, not when I snuck home from school during my planning period so I could look in the daylight, not when I got home from school. Still I felt drawn to the neighbor’s large yard, thought I heard Dash calling from there. I texted my neighbor and sent him a picture, asking if he had seen him. The neighbor called right away. He was sorry, oh so sorry. He didn’t know it was my cat. Early in the morning on that Monday, my neighbor found Dash lying dead in the middle of their yard, being sniffed by their massive dog Tiny, a Great Pyrenees. Not mauled, just dead. My neighbor had one of his workers take the body out to their farm to be buried, he said. He didn’t know it was my cat. Dash had shed the collar I tried to make him wear. My neighbor was so very sorry.

Dash came to us, my daughter and I, in the early summer of 2017. I had just finished another bruising, punishing school year teaching theater in a school that used people up. It was a dreadful year for reasons both personal and national. I prayed and meditated for change within and without and it came in the form of a new place to teach, a place that I cherish. I needed to do some healing that summer. I needed rest and recharging and remembering who I was. I needed to get ready for a new incarnation.  But the summer took a couple of turns. The first turn came when my friend Connie called and asked if I would consider fostering three kittens that she didn’t have room for but who urgently needed a home. I knew of one them already- a black kitten that other friends had seen being tossed out the window of a moving car in front of their house. My friends fished it out of the bushes where it had run to hide, but they couldn’t keep it because they were leaving on an extended road trip the very next day.  So they called our mutual friend Connie, the animal rescue saint who works with the Shamrock Foundation to find homes for dogs and cats.  The other two kittens were brothers, lured out of a derelict empty house in the Portland neighborhood. They were quite young and appeared to be all alone. Connie’s ark was full, over full I have no doubt, so she called me. How can anyone say no to kittens?


            I love naming things. It’s a compulsion, an act of creation or more accurately, of recognition. Clearly the kitten tossed from the window of  the car barreling down Story Avenue needed to be called Story.  He certainly had one. Sleek, black, three to four weeks older than the brothers, Story was loving from the start. The brothers looked nothing alike, but they held their heads exactly the same when listening to interesting sounds. One brother was black with tiny flecks of light hairs, short haired and the smallest of all of them, the most timid too. He was called Speck. The last was our dearest boy. Fluffy, gray and taupe tabby markings, I suspected he would turn out to be a long haired cat. He was the one who pioneered hiding up inside the box springs of my daughter’s bed, to her horror. He was the one who darted to the door first when I came through to feed them. He was called Dash, short for Dashiel. 

            The kittens lived in J’s room until the stink from their litter box proved too powerful for her super smeller nose. They were moved to the TV room, shut away from the dogs and the other cats, who were none too pleased at this unpleasant development. And then the kittens were moved to my room (further alarming the resident cats) when the summer took its second, even stranger turn. Amos, a neighbor whose family I only knew casually from small talks in front of their apartment when I walked my dogs, came to talk to me, begging for immediate help. He and his family were being forced out of their apartment by a landlord who no longer wished to deal with them. People from his church were helping to secure another apartment for them, but it wasn’t ready yet. He showed me a worn manila file folder full of letters, receipts, contracts. He, his wife Patricia and their five year old daughter are from Nigeria and had only been in this country a short time. Amos is enrolled at the Southern Baptist Seminary, an institution I admittedly respect very little. His dream is to return to Nigeria in an evangelical capacity to bring the word and also community planning and stability to rural areas where there is so much turmoil and suffering. They live very modestly, unable to work much on student visas. They are supported by their meager savings and by the generosity of the church they joined in the US, their sponsors. Amos came to me to ask for shelter, a place to live until this new apartment was ready in a few days. My head swirled, the ground tilted, of course I said yes, how could I do otherwise? Still, I installed a lock on my daughter’s bedroom door, more to keep little Precious from being too much in there than from any other danger, but better safe.  Amos and his family moved into the TV room and the kittens moved to my room.

            It was only to have been for three days or so but it stretched into six weeks. This is a whole story unto itself, needing its own time and space in the telling of it. In short, the family slowly took over the house- the downstairs bathroom that had been my daughter’s was now theirs, the kitchen became Patricia’s domain, the house was permeated by the smells of the oily fish and meat stews she made which turned my vegetarian stomach, but hardest was the daily witnessing of the parenting philosophy at work on Precious who was never played with, never read to, never cuddled. There were a lot of tears.  My daughter and I both did what we could to help Precious, and it seemed that her parents were relieved for us to play the role of her caregiver, but again, that is another story.  We ceded ground. My daughter retreated to her room and then her friend’s houses and then went on their family vacations with them. I retreated to my room upstairs, eating there, spending time with the kittens. I shuttled them to their vet appointments, the Snip Clinic, played with them, fed them, slept with them. Dashiel fell in love with Mr. Darcy, the dog rescued by Connie who found a home with us in 2011. And Mr. D loved him back. I found homes for Speck and Story- Story went to the friends who rescued him in the first place and Speck went to a friend I had taught with. But I knew I could not be parted from Dashiel. 

            What was it about him that made it unthinkable to give him up? Perhaps it was his own insistence that he belonged. This was his home and we were his tribe. From the beginning, Dashiell adored Mr. Darcy, another refugee from Portland. While the other cats shied away from the dogs, Dash ran to them, especially Darcy. Dash would climb into the dog bed and knead Darcy’s stomach as Darcy looked up to me helplessly- What do I do about this? He bore it patiently. Over and over, Dashiel curled up and slept with him, tucked into Darcy’s curves. 

            Story went to his new home, Speck too and eventually Amos and his family left for their long awaited apartment, finally ready. Dashiel remained, expanded his domain to the whole house. Is there anything more delightful than a kitten exploring their world? It is a gift the young give the old- the chance to remember what a miracle the world really is, the chance to remember joy and feel it again.

            Looking back I was always worried and fearful for him. Always it seemed he needed extra protection. He had a couple of viruses that required emergency trips to the vet- he sneezed, he ran fevers, he was lethargic. Then he was suddenly limping, his back end giving him trouble- had he fallen down the basement stairs? No one knew. Then he rebounded. I tried hard to keep him an indoor cat and succeeded for over a year. Dashiel always charged towards any life in the house. He tried to play with the older cats, ambushed them, ambushed the dogs, ambushed us, played with Darcy, tried to engage Johnny, our other dog. The other cats, who go freely in and outside, bore him no love. Piper Rose would have none of it and required a private place in which to eat her meals. But Henry gave in and accepted Dash as a playmate. So when Henry went out, and there is no keeping Henry in, Dashiel would try to go too. I did my best to block him, retrieving him when I wasn’t quick enough. Eventually I lost the battle. He went in and out with the others. Such joy was his! He quickly proved his prowess as a hunter and as an explorer. He did what the other two cats never managed- he found a way to get on the roof and reenter the house through second story windows. And when I had to set a live trap in the attic to catch the possums and raccoons coming in through a hole under the eaves, he managed to find that same hole, get in and get himself trapped, baited by his own cat food.  Oh how that made me laugh.

            He grew into a grand cat with the softest fur I ever felt, so lush and long. He spent a good deal of time grooming. He was fastidious, unlike his adopted brother Henry who really can’t be bothered. Henry wears a collar and tag that reads “I really do have a home” lest some well-meaning person takes him in when he’s out on one of his gallivants, thinking him some poor lost soul. Dash, in contrast, was a dandy through and through. His tail! As grand as a snow leopard’s, he carried it high, his proud flag of dandyism. He slept always on the bottom right corner of my bed on the folded Billy Bragg quilt, and it was a special joy to me to come into the bedroom to find him already there, his front legs stretched far out in front of him, one crossed over the other, as he was want to do.  What a prince.  He graciously let me stroke and kiss him, breathe in the smell of his fur.

One night he didn’t come back in from the outside and wasn’t there for breakfast in the morning. I had to go to work, but J found him later in the morning hiding under the chest of drawers outside the art room door. She texted me he was fine. But he was not fine. He could barely walk. He huddled under a piece of furniture in my office. He wouldn’t eat. Nothing seemed to be broken but his back end seemed to cause him pain. He had little pieces of bark in his fur. Had he fallen from a tree? Been clipped by a car? Had he been roughed up by a dog? I fed him broth and soupy wet food through an eye dropper. I watched his temperature. After a couple of days he was eating on his own, starting to move around. When he used the litter box I rejoiced. He got better daily. He showed little interest in going outside, until he recovered himself and remembered what was out there.  And once again I couldn’t keep him in. 

I trained him to come in the house in the evening by feeding him the much coveted wet food that I used to only parse out at breakfast.  I would go out on the patio and call him in his special way, high pitched to carry up the hill ‘Dashy! Dashy!’- within seconds I’d here him crashing through the leaves as he flew, and I mean flew,  down the hill to the door. I have never had an animal come to me so quickly when called. He was a blur, a streak of cat. No matter how dreadful my day had been, that moment was pure joy- him racing down, me swooping him up to hug and kiss, carrying him in to dinner. Such joy. And now he’s gone.

I fed him breakfast that Monday morning along with the other cats, and when Henry went out, he made a dash for it too. He ran right over into the neighbors, climbed their fence and probably ran to the dog who was running toward him, believing that dog to be his friend. Minutes later I walked right by there with Mr. Darcy and Johnny. In the darkness I saw Tiny over in the middle of his yard bending down to sniff something with interest. He must have something very interesting, I thought to myself, if he is not running to the fence to bark at us as he always does.

Oh Dashiel. I’ve been laboring over this post, been turning it this way and that, over writing, over thinking, trying to get a handle on why the pain of losing you is so very sharp and why it shows no sign of letting up. I guess it’s because there has been much darkness these past few years, navigating financial stress, too many jobs, my daughter’s mental illness, intense loneliness and fear. And there you were, flying down the hill to meet me or waiting there on the end of my bed at the end of long days. You were such a light. It’s your joy I miss, your headlong youthful joy at living. I will be on the lookout for that joy. If I can just keep looking, I will find it again. That was your great gift to me, sweet boy. Thank you.

10.27.19 Junk Pick-Up

Piled high by the curb were most of my neighbor’s belongings, it seemed, set out ahead of the scheduled junk pick up. Set out for all to see, set out for strangers to pick over what might be wanted. I never knew her name though we spoke often as I passed her house on my daily dog walks. Her pin headed dog was named Sugar. It was a dreadful little dog. Its middle grew and grew while its tiny head seemed to shrink. It snarled and growled from its doorway like a miniature hellhound every time the dogs and I rounded its corner. I lived in dread of the day it would finally burst through the storm door, but that day never came. I could see the signs that my neighbor was failing. And now, there were her things piled high- clothes, family photos, furniture, framed embroidered pictures asking God to bless this little home, all things no one in her family found worthy to keep, the opposite of a burial mound.

My mother has been carefully, methodically, clearing out drawer and closet and shelf. She gifts treasures to us, a little at a time, or gives away to Goodwill or St. Vincent DePaul. She is in good health, but at eighty, she cannot help but think of closure. There will be no pile on the curb for her, none of us could bear that, least of all her. Recently I’ve been gifted boxes of postcards, written over a hundred years ago to my Great-Grandmother and her daughter, my grandmother. I’ve sorted and put them in an album to pour over at odds times, wondering about the hand that wrote them, the hand that received them. To whom will I gift them? Will I have the forethought to do it before I am gone?

I hope to be like Callie Rudy, who was closer to God than anyone I’ve known, full of twinkle and strength and patience. She lived her life in service to others and when she died at eighty-three, they found she had boxed up and labeled all her things so they would find their way to whom they were meant for. Not a thing left undone. She was found in her backyard one morning, after her final act of taking out the garbage.

10.12.19 First Fire

You do not know this, Mr. van Tine, but I think of you every time I light October’s first fire. The morning’s temperature has at last fallen enough to warrant the season’s first hearth fire. It is a holy event, a rite really. I build it carefully- newspaper saved from last year, kindling I gathered from the yard throughout the summer, logs that have been waiting in the wood pile a long time for their turn at transformation. I build the layers, the easiest to burn at the bottom, and strike the match. It never ceases to be a wonder, how flame springs into being and takes over paper, pinecone, twig, branch and log. How flame has no mass and yet I can see it. How it releases energy from the sun that trees have converted over decades to trunk and limb and leaf. I stare into the flames and think of the first and second laws of thermodynamics, yes I do, Mr. van Tine.

I remember how my mind was blown in the lessons you taught in 10th grade biology, over forty years ago now Mr. VT, and we are still here! How energy is neither created nor destroyed, how there is a tendency to go from order to disorder, to entropy. This second bit distresses while the first is a comfort. We humans want so much to be assured that something lasts forever, that we, somehow, will last forever. But we have most certainly tipped the balance towards an ever increasing rate of entropy, throwing earth’s whole beautiful system of creation, growth, decay, renewal into jeopardy. The third principle states that systems which use energy best, survive. It is both a personal and a global challenge to keep this in mind. I think of all this Mr. VT, every year I build the first fire. I will not even begin to tell you how often I think of Darwin and the theory of natural selection, how it has driven enormous collaborative art projects and given me much to think about as I follow my solitary paths.

How marvelous is this world! I’m sitting in a rocking chair made of hand bent wood by a Polish Appalachian craftsman, my feet are resting on a wooden stool my uncle, now gone from us, made years ago from a tree on his Indiana farm, warmed by the tree stored energy of the sun in the hand hewn stone fireplace I am so very lucky to live with, and I wonder about love. It too is neither created nor destroyed, or so I believe. It is an energy that can be absorbed, stored and released over and over again. I believe it is possible to live in the uninterrupted flow of love, I have the saint’s ambition to do so. Though I fail again and again, I do keep trying. So say I to the flames this morning.

It is a wonder Mr. van Tine, isn’t it? On mornings like this, I cannot hold the world close enough.

I still have this book, Mr. van Tine, lest you ever despair you were teaching into the wind at that tiny Victorian girls school all those years ago.