Ever Widening Circles

green hillYesterday I came upon a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke that brought me immeasurable comfort, a strange sense of connection across time and space, as though the very things in me that seemed incomprehensible and sad had already been experienced, expressed, and completely understood.

I’d been feeling weary and futile, like I’ve just been going around in circles, and when I read the words below, I thought, circles, of course. It’s a searching, a spinning, a constant exploration. The circles widen as our wanderings expand, and even far from the center, we sometimes glimpse the sacred. But there’s also an acknowledgment here that the orbit we are in may not be completed or yield final answers, and yet we must give ourselves to it. Stop fighting. Fall into the mystery. Or something like that.  The poem:

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.
I have been circling around God, that primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and still I don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

For some reason those particular lines deeply resonated, not so much in the words as in feelings, like a song or a prayer I already knew, but only deep inside:

It was Rilke too who said:

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Ah, serious life. It is that.

Later, I did a little more exploration in the universe that is the internet, and I found a podcast and transcript of an interview on one of my favorite programs (On Being with Krista Tippett) with an insightful and learned woman named Joanna Macy. She said a lot of things that made sense to me, interspersed with beautiful passages of Rilke’s poetry.

She also offered the following advice that has become my Christmas wisdom in a year of muted holidays:

“The biggest gift you can give is to be absolutely present, and when you’re worrying about whether you’re hopeful or hopeless or pessimistic or optimistic, who cares? The main thing is that you’re showing up, that you’re here and that you’re finding ever more capacity to love this world because it will not be healed without that.”

Ever more capacity to love…it’s the gift and the quest.

Remember, too: what batters you becomes your strength. That’s another line from Rilke to hold onto.

Such bounty. I even discovered a sound clip of Joanna Macy reading Rilke’s Go to the Limits of Your Longing, and I’ll share it here, so you’re one click away from something beautiful and encouraging:


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Rainbows and A Rocket Launch

Sacate rainbowYesterday I was happy, in the way that happiness comes over you and takes you by surprise if you don’t scare it off by shifting your mind to shadow thoughts and beating up on yourself as usual. There had been hard rain and heavy winds throughout the night: branches falling, deck chairs blowing, a chaos of weather. But in the morning the sky was a broken roof of cinematic clouds with blue beyond, and the washed-clean world was shining.

We promptly went outside for some post-storm exploration. Sacate Creek was not yet flowing, but there were welcome pools and puddles, and we wandered up the newly muddied canyon and noticed how the grassy hills were suddenly tinged with green.  And then there was the rainbow, a perfect arch above the canyon road.  I took a few pictures to share with neighbors, and there’s a view of it above.

That sky looks like it’s been emptied of rain, but as the rainbow faded, a light shower passed through, almost like a mist. Droplets of water were suspended in the air like a gauzy curtain of diamonds, and everything was sparkling, and I danced around, enchanted, ridiculous, and grateful. On the way back to the house I picked a bejeweled orange from one of the trees…a breakfast treat.

view from our window

That would have been sufficient.

But later, because it’s feast or famine around here and this was obviously a feast kind of day, we went into the valley to have dinner (Chinese take-out!) with good friends who live in town.

There’s how the sky and hills looked as we left.

And then, there was the launch from Vandenberg.  I’ve written about these launches before–for example, here–as we personally experience them, but this one was a really big deal, a massive Atlas V rocket delivering a classified spy satellite into orbit. It began with the usual deep-throated rumbling and vibration, and of course we all rushed out and gazed skyward. We weren’t in the best place for viewing, but even so, we could see the trail of light, and a stage dropped off into the universe, and all the while the deep, prolonged sound of it surrounded us. Wow. Another big thing out there in space. I don’t know what to think about it in terms of its real ramifications, but the capabilities of humankind continue to amaze. Who knows what we can do, for good or ill? And before this turns to brooding, let us simply embrace the wonder of it all.

Later, as we walked up the hill to our house, the stars blazed in the blackness, and the driveway was wet with new rain, and I knew I was happy.

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Comforts: Ice Cream and An Old Friend

I wish I could share pictures with you of the way the town looked in the rain yesterday: wet sidewalks and puddled streets, drops rolling down the awnings of the shops, umbrellas in sudden bloom. I was taking a break from all the elderly-mother stuff with my dear friend Donna, who has recently moved to this neighborhood (and more in a moment about the serendipity of that!) and we were on a quest for a certain place that makes “hand-crafted” ice cream right there on the premises.  Some might say it was more of a hot soup kind of day, but Donna and I believe ice cream offers all-weather comfort.

Cyn and Donna_1024

About Donna. I met her in 1982, shortly after I moved to Orange County. I’m no poet, but I attempted to write a sort of poem about her long ago. Trust me, it has no consistent form and fails entirely as a poem, but I’m sharing it here now only because it’s a quick and easy way for me to give you a sense of Donna’s wonderfulness before I proceed with my story:

I might have given up had Donna not come,
with her cup of possibilities and her cap of glossy hair.
But she did, and we disregarded deadlines
and the signs of disillusionment
to traverse the dusty ridges of El Morro.

 Incongruous us, with flushed faces, sweaty bandanas,
wheels spitting gravel and kicking up dreams.
We rode head-on into the day’s sullen torpor, girlish and chatty.
Soon I felt scrappy and sporty again, and we paused
while the straw hills crackled and buzzed

like electrical wires. That’s when Donna confided
that she fears she’s not fun, that she’s functional, practical,
merely. Busy Donna, duty-bound, whose body was borrowed
by babies. She is navigator, nurturer, baker of bread,
responsible, rooted, a root.  She’s a finder of books,

a wearer of hats, lemonade lady in summer.  
She knows the charm of the obsolete
and the lyrics to Oklahoma. She 
bakes pies,
cooks beans, packs a tin box for picnics, 
traveled the world but makes a home wherever she has to be.

Not fun? We were further than we ever thought we’d go,
a little lost, and laughing. We were on good ground.
Homebound. Earthbound. Now long-limbed shadows joined us,
and among dry stalks of mustard the thistle flowers grew
iridescent purple in the dusky light.

Okay, I never promised you a good poem, but as you can see, Donna and I have a long history together, which includes the raising of children and the riding of bicycles, and even though she moved up north to Santa Rosa twenty years ago, we maintained the bond of our friendship. (Her husband Mike and my husband go back even further, having been friends and bike shop colleagues in the 1970s.) Recently, however, circumstances led to Mike and Donna moving back to Orange County, and their house happens to be in a neighborhood only a mile away from where my mother resides, and so, in the thick of a barrage of bleak business, I suddenly have an old friend nearby.

But it turns out that Donna has been dealing with a lot of her own challenges too, and many of them are comparable to mine. It’s a season of life. The kids that took up so much of our time and energy are grown up and gone. We’ve both stepped back from our work in the outside world to focus on more personal but equally demanding and ongoing tasks, but we still want to contribute to the world in meaningful ways, and we’re sort of trying to figure out how to do that. I call it inventing a life, which sounds like a hilariously self-indulgent problem, but it isn’t always easy.  We’re learning.

And I just can’t get over the delightful fact that the universe has tossed us back together, and we can help each other navigate this chapter just as we did the early days. This is an unexpected and unequivocal gift. Maybe we’ll even manage to get some bike rides in.

Yeah, it’s been depressing. I met with the physician overseeing my mother’s care the other day and he said, “Think of it as a light dimming.” That makes sense to me. But that dimming process can be hard on an old body, and it just seems to me that my mother’s life holds very little pleasure or purpose lately. I’ve done my best to get a framework of care in place, but as I’ve said before, there’s a grueling ongoingness to all of this that is very sad and exhausting. I realize that millions of others are going through this same kind of experience and know exactly what I mean.

That’s why I want to take you back to that rainy street, where I am walking with Donna in search of ice cream. We ducked into a thrift store on the circle, one of the best…it’s been in the same location since 1969…and looked at all sorts of curios and clothes that we didn’t need. We stepped into the Army-Navy store, which looked and smelled like one you might have entered in 1956. There were scratchy wool blankets, tin canteens, a sallow mannequin modeling a heavy blue pea coat, guns in a case. We wandered through an antique mall, booths crammed with junk and treasures, now and then remembering various things we’d lost from our own lives, but we declared ourselves happier traveling light.

And then there was the ice cream place, featuring small batches of ice cream quickly made with a blast of liquid nitrogen. I debated between strawberry balsamic or orange honey and chose the latter, Donna went for the hard-core espresso chip, and we sat at a table eating ice cream and watching the rain come down, and the day turned good despite everything.

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Thinking About Thanks and Giving


I have emerged from a tunnel, one of those keep-your-head down bouts of hard duty. I’ve written before here and elsewhere about the ongoing challenges of tending to to a very elderly parent, but every now and then it erupts into crisis, and this has been one of those times. I won’t go into detail–suffice it to say that my mother is wearing down and falling apart, and this week she abruptly slid into a whole different level of misery. A thoughtful caregiver at the assisted living facility called and told me candidly that my mother was not “herself” and maybe I should get down there.  So I did, by train, and I spent a couple of days at her side, trying to help and comfort her and arranging for hospice care.

One of those days happened to be Thanksgiving. The tables in the dining hall downstairs were arranged in a line and draped with a crisp white table cloth, and there were smells of turkey roasting, but upstairs in the memory care unit things seemed stale and sad.  There were a few more visitors than usual, but for many residents the day passed without family or festivity. And I mostly stayed in my mother’s room watching her suffering and doing whatever I could to help. You just have to go into this warrior mode and get through it. It’s grueling but it renders us human, and occasionally, in addition to grief and despair, it bestows upon us grace and compassion. No one has ever found it easy.

But there are the brightnesses. On my first night in town, Donna made toast for me in her kitchen late at night, and what could be more comforting than a friend in the kitchen buttering your toast? And the next day, Paula came by, first to look in on my mother, then later in the evening to pick me up and drive me to a motel, handing me a carefully packed dinner of pasta and meatballs (soul food) to eat while watching mindless television in bed.  I felt fortified and fortunate.

Back at senior living, I saw caregivers doing their jobs with diligence and kindness. Some are indifferent, but the good ones really shine.  I chatted with a resident who was waiting patiently for her ride to Thanksgiving dinner at the house of a nearby relative. She had been sitting for hours in the room downstairs as the afternoon dragged on and the angle of sunlight shifted towards wistful, but she didn’t complain. I inevitably started thinking about how little and how much we are given, and even while having one of the most depressing Thanksgivings of my life I knew I’d landed on the lucky side of the spectrum. I was sad and all churned up inside and gaspingly engulfed by the issues of aging and death and the meaning of it all, but even so, I felt a profound sense of thanksgiving.

I also had the luxury of leaving, another thing to be grateful for, and so on the third day I left, a train ride from one reality to another, and for part of the journey home a startlingly bright orange moon adorned the blackness.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still sad and sick about my mother. I don’t have the knack for pushing someone’s misery aside and pretending it isn’t happening just because I’m far away again. I don’t want her to be suffering and scared, and my head is filled with haunting images. But I guess I’ve done all I can for now. I’ll go back in a few days.

Today I had the delight of being home and feeling loved and pedaling my bicycle and walking through the  garden of a very old house by the sea. The filtered light slanting through the treetops transformed it all into a cathedral of gratitude.

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November, 1967


NOVEMBER, 1967 by Joyce Sutphen

Dr. Zhivago was playing at the Paramount
Theater in St. Cloud. That afternoon,
we went into Russia,

and when we came out, the snow
was falling—the same snow
that fell in Moscow.

The sky had turned black velvet.
We’d been through the Revolution
and the frozen winters.

In the Chevy, we waited for the heater
to melt ice on the windshield,
clapping our hands to keep warm.

On the highway, these two things:
a song from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
and that semi-truck careening by.

Now I travel through the dark without you
and sometimes I turn up the radio, hopeful
the way you were, no matter what.

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The Wrench In The Snow by Assunta Marlene Esterly

Marlene-1972-150x150The following is a true story written many years ago by someone I love and miss dearly, and when I come upon things she wrote, it’s like hearing her voice again. She endured far more than her share of suffering throughout her life but somehow remained one of the most optimistic people I ever knew, and she never lost her faith. I suppose many would have dismissed what happens here as mere coincidence, but my beautiful sister saw it as evidence of God’s love. She believed in miracles. Her whole life was a sort of miracle.

And here’s the story, in her own words, exactly as she typed it on the sheet of paper I hold in my hand; she would have loved for me to share it with you: 

“Who would have thought that the harsh, dark winter of 1983, when everything was going wrong, would turn into a season of hope?

I was in the hospital again, quite ill with complications of congenital kidney disease. At least it was warm in the hospital. Our heating oil had been burning more quickly than we could afford to replace it in the drafty old house we rented on Long Island.

In the wee hours of that bone-chilling morning, Henry began the long trek home. There was fresh snow on the ground and he could feel the biting dampness through his old, worn-out sneakers. He trudged on, hoping that he would be lucky enough to hitch a ride from a passing car before losing all feeling in his feet.

Henry and I were still newlyweds, struggling along with work and school. While he strained to keep his eyes open at his night watchman position, grab a couple of hours of sleep at home, then rush off to school as a full-time engineering student, I attended classes at a different college and became a homemaker on our nearly nonexistent budget.

This particular day had begun on a sour note when our wreck of a car stalled as Henry attempted to drive home from work. With me sick again, we were both under tremendous stress. We had no family near to rally behind us. If not for the wonderful people at our church calling and delivering hot meals, we would have felt completely isolated and defeated.

Henry phoned to inform me of the new obstacle we now had to contend with: we had no car. Never having had the luxury of owning a new car, Henry had grown quite adept in auto repair just keeping our clunkers on the road. As it turned out, he needed a specific tool, a one-half-inch, open-end wrench, so that he could tighten the car’s distributor. He didn’t own this tool, nor know of any friends who had one.

So he was stuck in the middle of nowhere, cold, hungry, physically and emotionally drained. I felt so helpless. What could I do, sitting in a hospital? How could I help my husband? I began to pray…

I asked God to guide us through our difficult times, to give us strength, and especially to let Henry know he was being watched over and loved. That was my small prayer. It seemed so simple, almost insignificant, compared to the serious health problems I was facing, along with our desperate financial situation.

In the wee hours of that bone-chilling morning Henry began the long trek home. There was fresh snow on the ground and he could feel the biting dampness through his old worn-out sneakers. He trudged on, hoping he would be lucky enough to hitch a ride from a passing car before losing all feeling in his feet.

He had walked about one mile when he spotted something glistening in the snow. He hurried to retrieve what he figured was loose change. At least with that he could buy a cup of hot coffee at the deli and warm up a bit. But as he bent over to pick up his find, he no longer felt a need for hot coffee or even shelter from the bitter cold. A great spiritual warmth enveloped Henry’s entire being as he stared in awe at the miracle granted to him.

What had been glistening in the snow like a beacon of light was the exact one-half-inch, open-end wrench that Henry had described to me on the phone, the one tool he needed to repair our car but did not own.

Henry went back and got the car running. It was not the last time that it broke down. It was not the last time I was hospitalized, either. My health problems actually worsened and I suffered through numerous medical procedures and treatments. It took a few years for Henry to earn his scholastic degree and give us financial security. I wish I could say that our life together went perfectly smooth and trouble-free after that night. Whose life is ever perfect? But that doesn’t make finding the wrench any less a miracle.

To us the wrench in the snow was a sign of God’s love. It gave us hope during a hopeless time. It was an affirmation that prayers are answered and miracles do happen. It gave us the strength and courage we needed to keep believing in ourselves, in life, and in a loving God.

We still have that wrench in our garage, and sometimes I go in there just to look at it in wonderment. I imagine an angel holding it and placing it in the snow for Henry to find. And no matter what our future holds, good or bad, no one can ever take the miracle of the wrench in the snow away from us. No one can ever take away our faith. On a dismal winter day in 1983, a miracle was glistening in the snow. And there was hope.”

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Who Loves The Rain

WHO LOVES THE RAIN by Frances Shaw (1872-1937)

riverandrainscotlandWHO loves the rain
And loves his home,
And looks on life with quiet eyes,
Him will I follow through the storm;
And at his hearth-fire keep me warm;
Nor hell nor heaven shall that soul surprise,
Who loves the rain,
And loves his home,
And looks on life with quiet eyes.

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It’s Raining

as rain neared Gaviota
Rain has come.  All day it was pending, promising, pushing towards us slowly, but we were never confident, having been so long without it. In the morning I walked up Gaviota Peak with my friend Kelley, and we had no need of the rain jackets we had hopefully stuffed into our packs, but we did enjoy that soft moist air on our faces, and the sky was thick with cloud, as you can see from the picture above. And now, hours later, that sound.  It isn’t pouring, but it’s raining steadily. And we are grateful.

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Fragments Like Sea Glass

There was a boy who went to sleep on a bed of kelp in the middle of the day, cradled and rocked, lulled by green-blue sea song older than existence.

“There are few things in life more pleasurable than bobbing around in the ocean on a summer day and looking at the land from there,” said a friend of mine long ago.

Oh, I have enjoyed the thrill of an ankle splash now and then, but I rarely dare go further.

One Inauguration Day, Linette and I drank champagne and ran into the surf, she in her bikini, me in my rolled up jeans like J. Alfred Prufrock. The water was icy cold and we squealed. She went swimming in the distance while I squatted down until the water touched my neck, then I leaned back to let it wet my hair. Baptized.

Sometimes at night its familiar salty song reaches my room. I can hear its muffled crashing behind a foghorn or a passing train.

Once the sun broke into pieces that floated on its surface and I tucked a shard of light into my heart.

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Still There

It was an absurdly quick trip but there’s much to be said for a few days of hiking in the mountains.  The wind sighed in tall pines while aspen leaves flickered, yellow against blue, and shadows danced with shafts of light, and a rocky creek led us to a sparkling lake, murmuring all the way. I’m home now, but I feel better just knowing it’s there.

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