The Enigma We Answer By Living

I wanted to share a poem I love by Alison Hawthorne Deming, an American poet born and raised in Connecticut who now divides her time between Tucson, Arizona and New Brunswick, Canada. Widely published and highly acclaimed, her most recent book is Zoologies: On Animals and The Human Spirit.  

Her view of the world really resonates with me. She says things like this:

“Animals are the core of what we are as creatures, sharing a biological world and inhabiting our inner lives, though in most days they feel peripheral–an ankle embrace from a cat or the thrill of spotting a fox trotting across the urban campus in Denver…”

And, “It is beautiful to think that trees have consciousness, can feel their wood thicken, and, as the sun migrates south, how the limbs redirect their reaching, effortless and slow, their movement visible only in the form.”

Or, “What it takes to dazzle us, all of us masters of dazzle, all of us here together at the top of the world, is a night without neon or mercury lamps.”

Anyway, here’s the poem I wanted to share…because ultimately, aren’t we all just trying to tell stories against the vanishing?

The Enigma We Answer by Living
by Alison Hawthorne Deming

Einstein didn’t speak as a child
waiting till a sentence formed and
emerged full-blown from his head.

I do the thing, he later wrote, which
nature drives me to do. Does a fish
know the water in which he swims?

This came up in conversation
with a man I met by chance,
friend of a friend of a friend,

who passed through town carrying
three specimen boxes of insects
he’d collected in the Grand Canyon—

one for mosquitoes, one for honeybees,
one for butterflies and skippers,
each lined up in a row, pinned and labeled,

tiny morphologic differences
revealing how adaptation
happened over time. The deeper down

he hiked, the older the rock
and the younger
the strategy for living in that place.

And in my dining room the universe
found its way into this man
bent on cataloguing each innovation,

though he knows it will all disappear—
the labels, the skippers, the canyon.
We agreed then, the old friends and the new,

that it’s wrong to think people are a thing apart
from the whole, as if we’d sprung
from an idea out in space, rather than emerging

from the sequenced larval mess of creation
that binds us with the others,
all playing the endgame of a beautiful planet

that’s made us want to name
each thing and try to tell
its story against the vanishing.

Posted in Nature, Poetry | Leave a comment

Looking Outside


We were home. The sky was shimmering with sheets of color. Another rainbow, a fainter one, also appeared beside it. A particular hilltop in the distance was shining like gold, and as the sunset progressed, we were surrounded by the glow and colors, all of it pouring into the sea.

We had come home to a week of rainbows and amazing grace. In a larger context, the Supreme Court had upheld affordable health care and marriage equality, the Confederate flag was belatedly lowered in acknowledgement of its painful and dissonant meaning, and in a moving eulogy for the victims of the Charleston shooting, President Obama spoke of gun control…and goodness…and grace.

You know how it is with hope. You find it where you can, invent it if you can’t, breathe your own life into it, act accordingly. What else are we to do?

Home. Atop a tall plump cactus growing in a pot on our deck, two luminous red flowers have bloomed, and I  can hear the song of the canyon wren and the hosannah rustle of the leaves in the treetops, everything so alive. Meanwhile, Jupiter and Venus are drawing close together, already bright and dazzling. Tomorrow night I’ll be watching for their convergence, Star of Bethlehem style.

I have investigated the inside of my head and find it wanting. For now, I look beyond.

Posted in Commentary, Finding Hope, Memoir, Nature, Ranch Life | Leave a comment

Home Again

11046686_10153960165529018_5762359365803868785_nOne week ago we walked in green and misty Wales, and now I am back in the land of bleached parched hills.



I suppose I should write more.

I probably will.


Posted in Memoir, Ranch Life, Travel | 1 Comment

Moment by Moment

colored glassRight now the sky is white, droplets of moisture are hovering in the air like almost-rain and tiny scattered kisses, and I am the landed gentry in pajamas, newly returned from strolling around outside with a cup of coffee in hand appraising the well-being of the garden I’ve been tending. I found it all quite pleasing to behold, and I can see that puttering with plants is becoming an ever growing pastime in my life, pun sort of intentional. I can imagine playing in the dirt for hours at a time, planting and grooming and revising, coming in tired, feeling no need to convince anyone of the importance of my busy-ness. And eventually, when we are no longer traveling so much, let there be a dog.

Traveling comes to mind because the suitcase is packed, and this time, I literally mean a suitcase, in that it contains the suit Monte will wear at Miranda’s wedding next week, along with my midnight blue lace dress–”It looks very mother-of-the bride,” said a slightly snarky friend, dismissing it with what didn’t feel at all like a compliment, faint or otherwise–and other accoutrements of the sort we don’t usually haul around with us. We’re leaving tomorrow, so I’m braced for that long day of travel, for the tedium and discomfort punctuated by intermittent squalls of anxiety and stress. Oh, I realize it is a sort of miracle that we can do this at all, and I do marvel that 48 hours from now we will have soared sky-high the width of America and then across an ocean, but I was born to kvetch.

Meanwhile it feels that a milestone event is pending and I should have some milestone things to say here, but, as ever, life carries us along, moment by moment, and I don’t have the presence of mind to muster up meaning or poetics. Besides, I run the constant risk of getting snagged on the poignant these days, and it feels best to steer clear of that for now.

So it’s moments and moments. I like the purity of these. The full moon above the hills last night, the heady scent of jasmine, the concrete here-and-now things, like those glass jars I noticed by the window of a neighbor’s house yesterday, their colors scattered by sunlight. The soundtrack was wind chimes, bird song, and a train going by. And I liked bumping along the ranch road in Monte’s new-old pickup truck this week, and seeing a v-shaped formation of pelicans on their way to somewhere, and walking up the canyon with my good friend Kelley, even against the afternoon wind.  Good nouns, real verbs. Let us focus on these.

Or this. I asked Monte’s help in tying up a present the other day. I placed my finger in the center, asked him to knot and pull the raffia ribbon tightly and I’d free my finger at the last minute. Does anyone else remember doing this? For me it evoked memories of an oil cloth covered table in a 1950s kitchen, and I was a helpful little girl, my index finger snug on the string my mother was tying around a post office-bound parcel wrapped in brown paper, and I pressed hard and waited for the tightening and the tingle, to where it almost hurt, before extricating my finger. The result was satisfying. I felt tricky and useful.

It’s odd how replicating that tiny tactile experience brought back a childhood memory in such full throttle and dimension. I could almost see the clothesline and fire escape outside the narrow window, almost hear the coffee perking in the pot on the stove, the brew visible in the glass knob. It was a small and trivial moment with my mother, but I was happy to have accidentally revived it.

And it occurs to me it’s so much more than linear moments passing through. It’s layers of moments, multi-dimensioned. Meandering trails of them, each with beckoning branches, and branchy digressions from these, and all of them unbound by time, happening always and always.

Posted in Memoir | 1 Comment

The Key

DSC03548 copyToday I spent an hour or so standing in a parking lot with my hand on a supermarket cart filled with various items including melting ice cream. It was my shopping cart, my home base in a world of shifting sands. (I hope this wasn’t a foreshadowing of my future.) Somehow in the brief distance and span of time between exiting my car and shopping for groceries, I had lost my car key.

I had in fact lost my key so entirely that retracing my steps through every aisle of the store, poring through the produce, peering into my car windows and even poking around beneath the car all yielded not a trace. I asked the store manager, the woman who rang up my groceries, random customers and employees…absolutely no one had encountered my key. I searched until I could no longer re-imagine myself tucking it into my purse or even recall what it felt like in my hands. I would have doubted its very existence if not for its crucial role in my automobile’s undeniable presence in the lot.

These things happen, I know. But lately they have been happening to me a lot. Objects vanish into thin air. Attention and intentions meander. Commitments slip between cracks. Things go bump in broad daylight. Facts fade away. Words fail me.

I don’t want to bring up the Mother Thing again. (You know, death and all that.) But these disconcerting brain fails I’ve been experiencing lately do fill my heart with new compassion for how my mother used to be. I would wonder, how in God’s name does she lose her teeth? Or how can she not remember that she ate lunch just an hour ago? Or…seriously? Her hearing aid is missing again?! I’m afraid my general posture was often one of exasperation. But how disoriented and vulnerable my mother must have felt, and how brave she was, the way she always tried to smile it away, the way she kept on moving through the fog.

Suddenly I am the one veering off course, forgetting, losing, getting in the way of folks who know what they’re doing. Perhaps this is a temporary condition, or perhaps it’s just the beginning of a steeper decline. Either way, I hope…oh, I earnestly hope…that it will render me more patient and forgiving forevermore.

Because living is hard, even for the privileged.  So much to understand, so little time to do so. So much losing. So much loss.

It’s been a strange week or two in many ways. On Monday I went up to Santa Rosa for a birthday reunion with three good friends.  (As far as I know, I only left behind my bathrobe and a water bottle.) While I was there, in a hotel bar…a most unlikely setting…I saw the news on television about the oil spill at Refugio along the beautiful Gaviota coast. I feel mournful about that, and angry too, and I hope we can turn this into a catalyst for accountability and real action. Again.

The morning after I got home, I went down to the beach to contemplate and reconnect. The tide was low. A sea lion watched me from afar, pelicans in low flight seemed to skim the glassy surface of the sea, and a lone heron stood attentively, then grabbed a small wriggling fish in its beak. Everything is just trying to be, I thought, taking its place in the cycle. I wish our human impacts were not so disproportionately damaging.

I even tried to pray. Maybe I did pray. I stood there asking God to forgive me for doubting and to please, please, really be there, and I prayed for the souls of my beloved dead, prayed for the earth’s healing, prayed for peace, prayed to be an instrument of love and good will…oh, little things like that. It was quite a list. And then I looked up just as a certain belligerent neighbor of ours happened to be driving by, and my first thought was: asshole. The irony did not escape me.

My poet-friend Dan (yeah, him again) wrote to me and said, “I’m sending someone over to see you, someone you need right now. Actually, I’m exaggerating a little when I say I’m sending her. I’m reminding you that she’s already there. Standing right beside you, right now. You may have forgotten that she is listening quietly when you are chewing on your feelings of guilt and your sorrows, and she is forgiving gently when you hate—especially when you hate yourself. She would remind you, as you know, Rilke suggested, Give your heart a sign that the winds are changing. If this is perceived by the gods, hope is unsurpassed.”

Rilke and Dan are right, of course. I don’t have to keep replaying the stories. I should try to hold onto my keys, yes, but maybe I don’t have to hold onto all this pain. Besides, does holding onto the pain change anything that has happened? Most assuredly not. But letting go of it opens up the very present in which the universe exists.

Letting go. I’m working on that. At the same time, I must learn to slow down and pay attention, or at least that’s what Monte advised me today when he came to rescue me with a spare car key. My friend Vickie half-jokingly mentioned the idea of the two of us attending a retreat–someplace where we peacefully meditate by day and actually sleep at night?– and I began half-seriously to entertain the possibility, but we would probably place too many expectations on ourselves, and that would only give us more anxiety.

Meanwhile, let’s face it, things disappear. Names elude us. People leave. The step is lower than we thought, the wall much nearer to the nose, the rise in the pavement stumblingly abrupt. Certainties we counted on turn out to be sketchy.

Yesterday I had coconut cake for breakfast, and I stopped by to say happy birthday to a gentleman I know who just turned 95, and I heard the canyon wren, my favorite song. Life is very lovely sometimes when you’re not rushing through it. Funny, too.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, I had a little girl, and in a week or so I’ll travel across an ocean to be the mother of a bride. I hope I won’t be standing outside of myself watching. I hope I don’t get teary-eyed and tongue-tied. I hope I don’t lose anything too crucial.

And as you can see, I’m trying to write, not because I have very much to say, but because writing sometimes guides me to the self I want to be, and this fuzzy-headed, baffled me is in dire need of an answer key.

Posted in Memoir | 4 Comments

The School Play

on stageThe young parents were us once, and the kids up there were ours, and twenty years later, it felt odd to be sitting there. The play was charming, the children delightful, the audience appreciative. Afterwards, bouquets were bestowed and pictures taken, and grown-ups stood outside and socialized while the kids ran around with that boundless kind of energy they have, and that same old magic was in the air. It’s a beautiful little school nestled in a rural community of ranches and farms, and I was long ago a teacher there as well as a mother of a student, and this is still my neighborhood. But now I am observer, not participant.

It’s impossible not to feel wistful, and oh, I certainly did. What we must not succumb to, however, is the sinking sense of being irrelevant, basically old and over. We had our turn, after all, and it’s time to step aside gracefully. It isn’t entirely negative, either; with invisibility there comes a kind of freedom, and there’s time at last to ponder what it meant. But it takes finesse to navigate.

It was comforting to have an impromptu dinner with old friends afterwards (and at least two glasses of wine) to remember and laugh…and look forward.  Before we step aside, we resolved, let’s try to pass along what we’ve learned.  We’re the elders now. We’ll find ways to mentor and contribute and constructively care.

But here’s a pathetic confession: when our friends went home, we watched a few old videos of a funny little girl that used to live with us.  She danced in our living room, did homework at this table, rode her horse in the hills. She and her friends performed on that very stage more than once before moving on to other venues and interesting lives of their own. (Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example…”For never anything can be amiss when simpleness and duty tender it”… and it was a mild and starry June night, and by chance there was a rocket launch from Vandenburg, and it seemed we were all a bit tipsy with wonder that evening, and we lingered outside in a state of enchantment, not at all eager to leave.)

Forgive me, but I still can’t grasp how everything happened so fast.

Posted in Memoir | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Mysteries of Her Own

ESTHER Georgia O'Keefe-ish
I’m gradually going through the contents of The Trunk of Pain in the garage, a task I’ve been postponing for decades. (And let me tell you, it takes fortitude!) Monte found me sitting there sobbing the other morning, having come upon a trove of letters from my beloved brother Eddie that rendered both his struggles and his sweetness very real indeed. But occasionally it has yielded reminders of happier moments: a ticket stub from Man of La Mancha, 1967; an amazingly detailed drawing of a wizard at work by my “little” brother Eric when he really was little: funny and poignant letters from old friends during our high school and college years.  But one of my favorite treasures so far has been this mysterious photo of my mother. Boots, beads, book. A chair in a desert? She seems so autonomous somehow. I’d never seen this picture before and have no idea where it was taken. So many stories I’ll never know.

Posted in Memoir | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Through A Portal

big surYesterday we went through a secret brushy portal that diverged from the main trail and led to a meadow above the sea beneath a blue sky sketched with wisps of clouds,  and we sat upon the curve of earth, just being there.

We were at the southernmost end of Big Sur in the Santa Lucia Range. The name Big Sur originated with the early Spanish-speaking settlers of Monterey, who referred to the wild rugged coast as el sur grande, “the big south”…but from my perspective, sur is more fitting as an expansive French preposition encompassing over, on, above, and beyond.

Because that’s how I felt for an hour or two: over, on, above, and beyond.

I don’t need to tell you how stuck I’ve been, how frozen in place. The pool in me that quenches and inspires has gotten very shallow.

So I’m doing all the formulaic restorative things that tend to help me: walks, friends, being outdoors.

It works. Yesterday was perfect.

“When we live in the present, joy arises for know reason.”

Best not to miss those moments.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Sometimes You Let the Day Take You Where It Will

gullsI had a bout of insomnia last night but finally dozed off listening to a podcast (content forgotten, but a man with a soothing voice) and slept until 9 am.  I’ll admit it: the moment I wake up, I reach over and grab my iPad in one mindless, seamless motion–similar to the way a boy I briefly dated back in the 1970s used to sit up, grab his bedside pack of Lucky Strikes, and light his first cigarette. It’s pretty pathetic, but I sort of check the news and see if anyone has contacted me in the middle of the night other than offering me last-minute deals to Oslo.  This time there was a text from our young neighbors: “We made pancakes. Come on over!”

So we did. Preceded by coffee, of course.

in the sandI haven’t had pancakes in a long time. They are very good soaked in syrup, and very conducive to indolence. We decided to bail on our chores and have a beach day. I rode my bike there to get some exercise, Monte and Ryan went surfing, and Carey and I played in the sand with little Viriginia. (When was the last time you dug a hole in the sand at the seashore? Been a long time for me. Too long.)

So I enjoyed watching a little girl being a little girl, and I felt sufficiently purposeful smoothing walls around our saltwater pool and patting down cakes of good moist sand to offer to returning surfers. A formation of white gulls soared overhead and my sadness slid away for a while and hid itself in shadow somewhere.

It’s as a wise friend once told me: sometimes you just have to let the day take you where it will.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Impassable In Wet Conditions

impassableI took that picture as I pushed my trusty bicycle up a hill a few days ago. It was a solo bike ride that turned into more of a hike, a certain loop we used to do all the time, challenging in parts even in the old days, but do-able. Nowadays I just don’t have the stamina or desire to keep pedaling when a climb gets steep or sketchy; it’s so much easier to get off the bike and walk.  But that’s still exercise. Sometimes the accomplishment is not so much how well we do, but that we’re out there doing it at all.

Posted in Memoir | Tagged , | Leave a comment