Wild and Precious

I walked through the canyon this morning in its after-storm chaos. The creek is now a muddy, roaring river, strewn with big chunks of debris. I contemplated crossing where it tumbles over the road by the neighbors’ house, but I wasn’t sure how deep it was, and the currents looked powerful, and I didn’t get through brain surgery just to drown in Sacate Creek. That would be pathetic. I turned around to see if I could get Monte to come out with me. He was back at the house rinsing off oranges that had fallen to the ground, and he commended me for my good sense.

Yesterday I mentioned to him that February 27 would mark one year since my surgery, and that I had given myself a year to focus on recovery and put everything else on hold, so I only have one more month to be self-indulgent and carefree. He said, in his wise way, “No. The idea is not to go back to the way you were! The idea is to move beyond that. You didn’t go through all this just to climb back into the bed of nails.” He’s right, as usual.

In fact, I had a realization as I walked. I have been grieving for forty years. It started with my father’s death in 1978, then my brother, my sister, and most recently my mother, a kind of formative series of losses that compounded over the years and have affected my perspective on everything. (The heartache of my nephew’s car crash and other ongoing reverberations from the family of origin certainly have not helped.) However, I see so clearly now that although we cannot make our sorrow disappear, to let it dominate is a waste of a life. It obstructs and prevents so much that is affirmative and joyful and can spill over into hope and renewal, perhaps giving even the tragedy some indirect meaning. Am I making sense? I don’t feel like writing right now, but I want to get this down.

Mary Oliver, whose death was announced this morning, expressed it beautifully:

Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

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Wide Open Day

Rain has returned, and in a good way, with intermittent breaks. I’ve been walking up the muddy canyon, listening to the yearned-for liquid sound of running creeks. Everything is green again, and flowing, and growing, and the world is urging us not to give up. I’d almost forgotten the urgency of listening.

I’ve been feeling so much better that I was beginning to resume my old habit of rushing around, being “busy”, no pauses for rest or reflection. I’m interested and exuberant, and these are good qualities, but the rain and its aftermath have reminded me that I also need to slow down sometimes and take stock. Call me crazy, but I’ve been hearing whisperings in the wind and murmurings in the brook that need to be deciphered and heeded.

And today, as my friend Vickie described it, is a Wide Open Day. I am headed out into its wide open spaces and possible places.

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In A Cave, Story-Talking

This is Mr. Brownell, and if you had him as a teacher, you were a lucky kid. He always knew that the best classroom of all was the great outdoors, and that the old hands-on skills and fundamental values were the most important things to teach and demonstrate. Last week I had the privilege of hiking with him and a couple of friends to a special cave. Sometimes we just sat in silence, and sometimes we talked. This poem by Lisel Mueller came to mind:

WHY WE TELL STORIES by Lisel Mueller

Because we used to have leaves
and on damp days
our muscles feel a tug,
painful now, from when roots
pulled us into the ground

and because our children believe
they can fly, an instinct retained
from when the bones in our arms
were shaped like zithers and broke
neatly under their feathers

and because before we had lungs
we knew how far it was to the bottom
as we floated open-eyed
like painted scarves through the scenery
of dreams, and because we awakened
and learned to speak

We sat by the fire in our caves,
and because we were poor, we made up a tale
about a treasure mountain
that would open only for us

and because we were always defeated,
we invented impossible riddles
only we could solve,
monsters only we could kill,
women who could love no one else
and because we had survived
sisters and brothers, daughters and sons,
we discovered bones that rose
from the dark earth and sang
as white birds in the trees

Because the story of our life
becomes our life

Because each of us tells
the same story
but tells it differently

and none of us tells it
the same way twice

Because grandmothers looking like spiders
want to enchant the children
and grandfathers need to convince us
what happened happened because of them

and though we listen only
haphazardly, with one ear,
we will begin our story
with the word and

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Erring on the Side of Yes

It’s been a long time since I posted to this blog. The good news, though, is that it’s because I’m busy, not because I’m down. I’m getting stronger, feeling hopeful, even working on a book. I’m stepping out, trying new things, saying yes a lot. Here’s visual proof.

Back soon.

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“The call of water demands a total offering, an inner offering. Water needs an inhabitant. It summons like a fatherland.” Gaston Bachelard

I have a patient friend with a swimming pool, and she encouraged me to give swimming another try, so a few days ago, I donned my old black bathing suit and went over to her house. The water was cool, and I wriggled my way into my daughter’s wet suit, then lowered myself into the shallow part of the pool. I was a  large and awkward terrestrial mammal in an alien element. The water sparkled with little rainbows and ripples and I was tripped out by its beauty, but I could never even bring myself to lower my face into it, so in truth, I’ve regressed since my last attempt a few years ago. At that time, I was able to push off from the side and propel myself in the water, kicking, to the other side. (The width of the pool, not the length, but still…) It could be that my post-surgical imbalance has rendered me more timid, and maybe this will pass, but at the moment, I am having difficulty believing that I will ever achieve swimming. But I did enjoy the gentle embrace of the liquid, and my friend declared that that making peace with the water in this way is a fine first step. We’ll leave it at that for now.

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My mother-in-law Nancy planted the orchard in 1982, and she has tended to it for all these years, slowing down only recently. (She is, after all, ninety-three years old; that’s her above in the 1990s.) This year, heat and drought have taken a toll on the trees, and some of the macadamias are looking pretty scraggly, not yielding enough nuts to justify the water they use. Today Nancy, Monte, and our friend Michael embarked upon a walk-through to discuss pruning, fencing, fertilizing, which trees would be cut down, and whether new things might be planted.  “Everything changes,” says Nancy, who is open to ideas and not particularly sentimental. “This has all been an adventure…thirty-six years of fun.”

I have lived in a house above the orchard for the last twenty-five years or so, and I know it and love it from that somewhat removed perspective, but today I went out with our trio of experts for a closer look. I sat on the ground, idly picking up fallen nuts, and listened. It was interesting, as it always is when people with knowledge and enthusiasm discuss a subject.

And it occurred to me that this was yet another outcome of the recovery process for me: a new attention to the world, even the world that has been in front of me all along, a newfound capacity to stop hurrying along to the next event, to notice details, to pursue a thought through to the questions it prompts and the questions to which the questions lead.

I’ve been walking a lot more, often solo, but lately with my new friend Kappy. It’s amazing to have a friend who didn’t even know me before the surgery, and who accepts me as I am right now. “How would you have been different?” she once asked.

It’s a hard question to answer, because not all of my changes are visible. Monte says I was more “intense” before, whatever that means, i.e., more energetic, more wound up, edgier…not all of them good qualities. I do know that I am slower now and at times surprisingly wobbly. I pause intermittently in the course of the day for a brief time-out, calling it meditation, but it’s really just a few minutes of retreating and sitting still. It fascinates me that I was never able to do that before. I think I am more patient now. I definitely perceive and appreciate the blessings more readily and will never take anything for granted.  Appearance-wise, I’m very thin, and my hair is silver-gray. (Dying my hair would seem absurd.)  A lot of recovery is not so much about symptoms ceasing as it is about getting used to new ways of feeling.

This week, Kappy and I walked among the broken stones of an old seawall, like a couple of explorers amidst the ruins of an ancient civilization. And we sat beside a creek in the shade of the oaks, talking and pondering, wondering about the consciousness of trees, and I was filled with gratitude to be having such a day after I thought all such days were over for me.  A yellow butterfly fluttered by.

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We took our borrowed tandem out for a ride a few days ago. I tried riding a tandem years ago and didn’t much like it, but many things have changed since then. I climbed on board behind my trusted captain, placed my feet on the pedals, and off we went.

We rode on Nojoqui Road, gently climbing and rolling along, past hills and fields and rustic dwellings, in the dappled sun and shade of oaks adorned with Spanish moss, feeling that sweet rush of air, as one does from a bicycle.

Sometimes I felt too passive and dependent on Monte, but in time I got used to simply following his lead, accepting his pace, trusting that we weren’t going to fall over. I pushed harder with him to ascend a grade, and felt that familiar effort in my legs. With the two of us working together, we were an effective machine. It was satisfying. Pleasant, even.

And it occurred to me that there was something metaphorical about this. Monte has been my captain for nearly six months now, seeing ahead when I couldn’t, pedaling hard when I was too weary to keep going, navigating and making repairs and helping me learn to trust.  We’re a tandem team, I guess.

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Saying Thank You

I am doing so much better lately, and I’m delirious with gratitude. In the mornings I drink  my half-caffeinated coffee, look out at the v of blue sea, feel the summer breeze through open windows, contemplate the lozenges of sunlight on the wood floor, and say thank you.

On Sunday one of my dear bicycle friends, Christine, came all the way from Santa Rosa with a beautiful tandem for me to borrow, a way for me to get back into cycling, with Monte as my captain, and to restore my balance and bike fitness. This means a lot to me, and I was touched by her graciousness. Also, I recently made a new ranch friend who appreciates the wonders of being here and doesn’t mind stepping out spontaneously for a walk now and then. And I have a writing project taking shape in my head. The world seems to be opening up for me in so many different ways.

Yesterday I watched an acrobatic lizard playing in a succulent plant, sometimes hanging upside-down like a tiny circus performer. I saw mute rocks bearing messages for those willing to hear, the sea wall melting into art, and noble trees with ancient souls. At this very moment two cowgirls are riding up the canyon, moving the cattle, and there are hawks and hummingbirds and flustered bursts of quail, and later we may see our little friend Virginia, whose first day of kindergarten was today.

August 27th will mark six months since the surgery, which is the halfway point in what I have come to think of as a year-long recovery. And I admit I’m not helping the world or doing anything significant, but  climbing out of darkness took most of my energy, and now I’m getting reacquainted with life.

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Moving Towards the Light

It was already hot when I went for my morning walk up the canyon, wishing I had a buddy, either canine or human. It’s become a routine, looking forward to the shady stretch beneath the oaks, hearing the canyon wren in the woods along the creek, a frenzied fluster of quail trying to appear formidable, a black cow big as a ship thrashing through the brush. I inevitably encounter Tucker on her daily run, her yellow ponytail under a cap,  her skin flushed and pink, and we exchange a few pleasantries as we pass. I listened briefly to an NPR podcast of the news today, very bad vibe, switched to music, and found myself jauntily swaying along to “Girl From Ipanema”…the soundtrack changes everything.

I’m getting too many congratulations lately on my recovery. It’s premature, and the gods hate hubris. I need to clarify am doing better, but I have a long way to go. It feels as if I have climbed out of a deep, scary hole, but I’m still standing close to the rim, and it’s slippery, and my foothold is not that secure yet. However,  I am a woman who, according to Fit-Bit, had two hours of actual REM sleep last night embedded in 9(!) hours of other levels of sleep. And the vestibular therapist tested me yesterday and said my balance impairment is about 25%, compared to somewhere between 30 and 40 six weeks ago. To be honest, I think I’ve always been unbalanced. I just won’t become a tightrope walker. I’m okay with that.

And I got the most beautiful message from my friend Teresa: Life can be so incredibly beautiful and life can be so, so hard! I think we all take turns walking through the fire. But, blessings that come from that fire and we are pushed to become so much more.
You and I have learned so much from our painful wounds. We must be thankful for them, honor them, embrace them and learn from them. I think when we learn to love the most unloveable parts of ourselves we learn to live life more compassionately, more humanly. The darkness is our biggest teacher and the light is for us to find. Keep feeling the good, keep moving toward the light and keep the positive energy flowing. I’m sending you some of mine. 

I can feel that light. I’m practically shining!

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Life Goes On

This is the road I walk along nearly every morning. Sometimes I walk in a mindful way, trying to notice everything around me, and sometimes I listen to podcasts or let my thoughts wander where they will. Letting thoughts wander where they will can be a dangerous prospect these days, but I am also learning to redirect, avoid traps, and make spaces for stillness.

There’s a lot going on out there and right here. Yesterday white fog blurred hilltops, a tiny garter snake slid with speed and stealth across the path, and a canyon wren sang its beautiful song as I passed. I learned that twelve new moons had been discovered orbiting Jupiter, and that rising sea levels might affect internet infrastructure. I heard more disturbing news about the current regime and the bizarre creature who is supposedly 0ur president, then quickly switched over to On Being and savored an interview with the wonderful Luis Alberto Urrea: “A deep truth of our time is that we miss each other.”

In terms of my own health and recovery, I am feeling so much better, and I am filled with gratitude. Earlier this week, I went back to Los Angeles for follow-up visits with the surgeon and internist, both of whom said everything looks fine. I don’t need to go back there anymore! My mission is to keep healing, adapting, and getting stronger. Yes, it will take a good year, and I’ll never be quite the same, but maybe in some ways I’ll be better. I’m learning a lot.

One thing that helps is that I’ve been sleeping, dreaming even. I write my dreams  down sometimes before I forget them, and they are a source of fascination and amusement. One night I dream-drank two cups of Italian espresso, another time I bravely climbed up to the top of a roof  for a better view of a bay. I camped in the mountains in Japan, rode a bike without falling over, and prepared a casserole topped with plum and pomegranate sauce. I don’t know what any of this means except that my appetite for life is asserting itself in those REM cycles.

And it is asserting itself in real life too. On the morning of my appointments in Los Angeles, we wandered around downtown, and I felt my curiosity and enthusiasm click into gear, watching people, looking at street art, marveling at urban architecture. We stayed in a 1923 hotel, its lobby elaborately vintage, and we saw an extraordinary photography exhibit at the public library about war and its aftermath. This powerful poem by Wislawa Szymborska was mounted on the wall:

Reality demands
we also state the following:
life goes on.
It does so near Cannae and Borodino,
at Kosovo Polje and Guernica.

There is a gas station
in a small plaza in Jericho,
and freshly painted
benches near Bila Hora.
Letters travel
between Pearl Harbor and Hastings,
a furniture truck passes
before the eyes of the lion of Cheronea,
and only an atmospheric front advances
towards the blossoming orchards near Verdun.

There is so much of Everything
that Nothing is quite well concealed.
Music flows
from yachts near Actium
and couples on board dance in the sunlight.

So much keeps happening,
that it must be happening everywhere.
Where stone is heaped on stone,
there is an ice cream truck
besieged by children.
Where Hiroshima had been,
Hiroshima is again
manufacturing products
for everyday use.

Not without its charms is this terrible world,
not without its mornings
worth our waking.

In the fields of Maciejowice
the grass is green
and on the grass is — you know how grass is —
transparent dew.

Maybe there are no fields other than battlefields,
those still remembered,
and those long forgotten,
birch woods and cedar woods,
snows and sands, iridescent swamps,
and ravines of dark defeat
where today, in sudden need,
you squat behind a bush.

What moral flows from this? Maybe none.
But what really flows is quickly-drying blood,
and as always, some rivers and clouds.

On the tragic mountain passes
the wind blows hats off heads
and we cannot help–
but laugh.

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