Summer Moments

walkI walked with our neighbors, their little girl, and a good dog named Badger straight up the hill behind their house. The little girl lost her hat in the wind, but she looked down and saw her very own roof from the sky’s perspective, and the peaks and curves of the dusty world, and the blue of the horizon.

And I sat under an oak tree with my friend Cornelia, and she handed me a plum. It was a particularly juicy and delicious plum too, the kind of plum that sets a very high standard for all the plums to come.

The bedsheets I ordered are really too orange, but I’ve decided I like them anyway, and the Beaumont macadamia trees are beginning to  blossom, and someone gave me fresh eggs in a brown paper bag.  I picked lemons and lavender, and I saw the coyote pups, and I heard about a mountain lion visit not far from here.  There was a moon last night, waxing gibbous phase, and bright.

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Melting Away Into Leaves

11217559_10154043040369018_8053639904078439897_nA few days ago I went to a gathering at El Chorro Ranch to celebrate the life of Esther Isaacson, a special lady who lived to be 102, most of those years spent in that very place. As the memorial booklet said, Esther was a lover of family, wildflowers, birds, books, chocolate, tall tales, mischief, and El Chorro. Born in Solvang to Danish settlers Anton and Karen Ibsen, she was teaching at the Solvang Grammar School when she met a cattle rancher named Baine at a dance in Los Olivos. “I had no intention of becoming a rancher’s wife,” she said. “That would be the living end.” They married in 1939.

I first met Esther about twenty years ago. I was a teacher at Vista de las Cruces then, and my students and I were interviewing people in the community, and my friends Bob and Sally Isaacson very kindly arranged for us to come out to El Chorro and talk to Esther. It was April, a bright hot morning, and the earth was singing, and we were all under a magic spell as Esther led us on a bit of time traveling. She told stories of the early days in Solvang, and delighted in sharing memories about Baine and the boys and life at the ranch. She spoke of blackout curtains during the war, treasure hunts, kite-flying, even a miniature steam railroad. She wondered aloud if my students knew how lucky they were to live in the country. Then she grabbed her cane and rose from her chair, went into the house, and returned with three boxes of popsicles.

In the years that followed, I came back a few times without students to talk to Esther on my own. She was always so proud of her family and their various accomplishments. She talked about Baine’s hard work and vision, and the fact that El Chorro would be permanently protected by an agricultural easement. She loved the Ranch with all her heart. “I wouldn’t be anywhere else,” she said. “It’s a magic place. It always has been.”

Esther herself initiated my last visit. It was a couple of months after her 100th birthday celebration and she wanted some help putting a few thoughts on paper, so she asked her caregiver to call me. I felt honored to have been chosen to serve as her scribe. I set out in the morning with a notebook and pen, and found her sitting at the table in front of the window looking out at the trees beyond. We chatted about being here in this familiar and enduring place, about sons and daughters-in-law, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, old friends from town and valley. But it turns out that what she really wanted was to write thank you letters to people who had been kind to her. Thank you letters! She was having difficulty writing, wasn’t sure about names and addresses and the logistics of getting things mailed, but what she wanted most of all was to tell people…thank you.

So I only knew Esther in the latter part of her very long life, but what a privilege it was to glimpse the person that a century of living had shaped. My own mother, also named Esther, died earlier this year, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we grow and learn and change over time, how life keeps throwing us challenges and questions right up to the end, and how maybe we eventually become whatever we most truly are. Esther Isaacson weathered loss with courage and faced mysteries with grace, and it seems to me that everything finally distilled into the two things that mattered: gratitude and love.

Memories were shared and songs sung at the memorial gathering, and Esther’s granddaughter Katie read Mary Oliver’s beautiful and fitting poem, Long Afternoon at the Edge of Sister Pond:

As for life,
I’m humbled,
I’m without words
sufficient to say

how it has been hard as flint,
and soft as a spring pond,
both of these
and over and over,

and long pale afternoons besides,
and so many mysteries
beautiful as eggs in a nest,
still unhatched

though warm and watched over
by something I have never seen –
a tree angel, perhaps,
or a ghost of holiness.

Every day I walk out into the world
to be dazzled, then to be reflective.
It suffices, it is all comfort –
along with human love,

dog love, water love, little-serpent love,
sunburst love, or love for that smallest of birds
flying among the scarlet flowers.
There is hardly time to think about

stopping, and lying down at last
to the long afterlife, to the tenderness
yet to come, when
time will brim over the singular pond, and become forever,

and we will pretend to melt away into the leaves.
As for death,
I can’t wait to be the hummingbird,
can you?

One of the speakers, Jim Poett, said this: “Esther lived forever. She is eternal, as far as I’m concerned.”

I think so, too…as long as there are oak trees, blue birds, hills and sky.

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Another Random Moment (Washed Onto My Shore By Facebook)

CIfriends
I admit I have some ambivalence about Facebook. Maybe all of its 1.4 billion users do. It came up in conversation (again) just last night. Some of us were being cynical, too-cool and disdainful about it, and Katie, a friend (on Facebook and for real) pointed out how much easier it makes it to stay in contact with people who might otherwise have vanished from her life.

“I don’t keep everybody’s email addresses and phone numbers on hand,” she said. “So, say I’m going to be in the town where so-and-so lives, I can just send a quick message via Facebook, and maybe we can meet for coffee or something. It just wouldn’t otherwise happen.”

So it facilitates that touching base kind of socializing. Katie also pointed out that it can give us insight into the diversity of political opinions that exist even within our network of “friends” and while we may still disagree with those who espouse certain perspectives, we can’t necessarily dismiss them all as idiots.  Suddenly they have names and faces and histories at least partially known to us. We can perceive the nuance and reasoning in their stance, better understand how they arrived at this viewpoint, ponder it more respectfully, perhaps. Well, I guess that’s sometimes true. Katie might also be seeing more intelligent discussion on her Facebook page than many of us do.

For me, Facebook is like a corridor of doors that open onto the lives of former students and people I once knew in the real world. The doors open and shut quickly and what they reveal is quite selective, but it does give me a sense of how their stories are unfolding. It’s reassuring to glimpse the travels and new babies and wonderful accomplishments of the young people who once sat in my classroom, fascinating to notice posts from my own high school classmates about their grandchildren, enjoyable to look at images of daily life as documented by certain talented observers (although I now understand that this is what Instagram does in a more specialized way).

But what I like about Facebook most of all is its almost magical power to occasionally toss random people from our distant past onto the shores of our present with delicious, out of the blue unexpectedness. And that’s what all this Facebook blabbing is leading into…because early this morning, in the coincidental aftermath of last night’s conversation, I found a message on Facebook from a guy named Joe who grew up in the same Long Island town where I spent my adolescence. How did he find me? He typed my name into the search bar of Facebook. And why did he decide to contact me? Because he had just gone back to his mother’s house on Long Island, and she had a couple of old snapshots he thought might interest me.

Boy, did they ever interest me! My favorite is above. I wish it were clearer, but even the ghostliness of it renders it kind of special. I would guess that it was taken around 1966. The girl to the far left with the flip and headband and hand on her chin is Roe, the one in the middle in a checkered dress holding up a magazine is Barb, and then there is dark-haired me, smiling so much more brightly than I ever remember smiling throughout my teen-aged years.

“I used to love when you and Rosemary Dunlap stopped by!” wrote Joe. “Do you remember when I smiled you called me Crinkles?”

Oh my goodness, yes, I called him Crinkles because the corners of his eyes kind of crinkled upwards when he smiled, which I found quite adorable. I haven’t thought about that in years, and I’m sure I never would have thought about it ever, but it’s a funny little detail that tells me something about how I looked at things back then. I’m glad to know I was present.

And I have absolutely no memory of the event pictured, but it looks like a backyard summer barbecue. I love the various bottles and jars on the table, the stack of paper plates, the pile of flatware, the trellis, the Venetian blinds, the mid-century chair. I love seeing beautiful and confident Barbara Carlson, with her fashionable 1960s look (she had the best mohair sweaters), and I’m certain that Roe was making some amusing wisecrack about whatever Barb is pointing out in the magazine. I have a pang knowing that both of those girls-women died years ago.

But it’s as if Joe has opened a tiny portal through which I can view a long-forgotten moment of my own past. It’s another of those unlikely developments that everything has led to, and I am grateful and delighted.

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Correlation is Not Causation

sacate view

Yesterday I rode my bike down to the beach and stood at the water for a while thinking about things. A wonderful sense of gratitude washed over me, and I felt connected to everyone I love and have loved. I’ve been feeling very vulnerable lately but I am beginning to see that even though so much seems beyond our control, what we believe and focus on is still a matter of choice.

On Sunday our writing group met, and it was encouraging and energizing. We were gathered in a different setting, the home of friend named Rebecca who lives in the hills behind Buellton. I had no idea how much country was back there, all dusty roads, motley houses, hazy mountain views. It was very dry, but in a sweet-smelling way, like hazelnuts and hay, or unbuttered toast.

And I was brave and read a short story I’ve been working and reworking and tossing aside as worthless. I prefaced it by explaining that I’ve been reading stories by people like Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore, and they’re so brilliant it makes me feel hopeless. Like why even try?

“That’s what you get from reading a good story?” asked the beautiful and blunt Bojana. “Why do you do that to yourself? That’s just sad.”

She’s right. Just because you can’t be Rembrandt, does that mean you should never pick up a paintbrush?

So I read my story, and people responded to it in mostly positive ways, providing tangible suggestions to improve it. It was actually a delicious feeling to see it live for a few minutes, to have created fictional characters and set them in motion, determining their fates like a god. Afterwards, Rebecca lent me a book of stories by Chekhov for further inspiration. I really need to stretch and challenge myself more!

Earlier in the week I had been listening to an interview with Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn and thinking about the lack of music in my life. Now I noticed a handsome maple banjo leaning against a chair in Rebecca’s house, which Jim picked up and started strumming. Its twang was richer than expected, sweet and sort of bell-like.

“I wonder if I’m too old to learn to play a banjo or something.” I mused out loud. Since everyone was in mutual morale-boost mode, they naturally said no. And I do think I can learn something new, but probably not a musical instrument.

Meanwhile I’ve been thinking a lot about the ramifications of my acoustic neuroma. My acoustic neuroma? Who could have imagined there would be this? I’ve decided I’m just going to monitor it for a while, and maybe I’ll be lucky and it will never get worse. Unfortunately, if it does show growth, I can’t just ignore it, because if it starts to press on the brain, it can cause far more serious problems. So we’ll see.

But you know what? This has also tripped me into a whole different consciousness. How foolish I am to waste more time being sad! I think the universe is giving me a message, and it’s something along the lines of recognizing how fine this very moment is, and learning and doing and being here now.

I even asked Monte his opinion of my picking up a banjo and giving it a try.

“God no,” he said, far more honest than my writing group friends. “If anything, the guitar…but why? I don’t think you’ve ever exhibited any musical inclinations. And you’re losing your hearing now…that won’t help.”

“Beethoven was deaf,” I said cheerfully.

“Correlation is not causation,” said Monte, using one of his favorite expressions. “Beethoven already had the talent and then went deaf. That’s different from going deaf and suddenly finding the talent.”

This is true. So maybe I’ll study Italian instead.

Again. In earnest this time.

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On This Day Fourteen Years Ago

In 2001 I went through the Summer Institute of the South Coast Writing Project, diligently free-writing for a half-hour daily in my laptop journal. The files are still right here. I just clicked them open, turned to this date, and found the following entry:

readingLast night I was kept awake by mouse/mice in the wall/ceiling/floor – exactly where, I cannot say, but they were downright boisterous. Good things came of it, though. First, I read the rest of an interesting article about Edna St. Vincent Millay in Vanity Fair, and then I noticed that the light downstairs in Miranda’s room was still on. It was after midnight. I stepped outside to go downstairs and look in on her, and I saw the sky ablaze with stars…and Mars. Then I went into Miranda’s room. She was in bed reading. I sat for a moment on the edge of her bed and stroked her soft hair and remembered she is still my little girl, and how lucky I am that she is safe at home.

Sigh. This fills me with so much love, my heart hurts. She’s a married woman now, but she’s coming for a visit in a few days with her husband. I wonder if she’ll let me stroke her soft hair and be my little girl again, just for a moment.

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Maybe All of Summer Is Just One Day

DSC_0108The summer light has been a progression of light, never quite dark, silvering the hills at night, whitening the sky in the early morning hours, then shooting a sunbeam directly onto my my face around 7 a.m. When I feel that stroke of sunlight on my eyelids I vacate whatever dreams I was having and brace myself for consciousness, but there is no better way to awaken.

Maybe all of summer is just one day, each hour spinning seamlessly into the next. Maybe it’s okay to be still within the spinning, to simply acquiesce.

So, speaking of stillness, I had to go in for an MRI earlier this week. Now that’s a strange experience: you lie stock-still on a table that moves you slowly through a tube, ear plugs and head set barely muffling a cacophony of loud knocking and banging noises, and you try not to breathe too deeply, not to sneeze, not to think about the very things you’re thinking about.  I was cynically convinced that this was just a rhetorical procedure ordered up to boost billings and justify the medical center’s purchase of another extravagant piece of equipment, but I’ve recently gone mysteriously semi-deaf in one ear, and my doctor wanted to rule out something called an acoustic neuroma, a benign tumor on the nerve that connects the ear to the brain.

When I looked it up, my cynicism was reinforced: it’s really quite rare. But who am I to argue? I asked a lot of skeptical questions and submitted to the absurdity of it all. Afterwards, I detoured to a local nursery and bought some new drought-tolerant plants; looking at plants, smelling them, and putting them in the soil seem to be reliable therapies lately for whatever is ailing me. My mother-in-law, an intrepid gardener, agrees that I’ve stumbled onto a good solution here. She also swims, but I’ll stick to mindlessly playing in the dirt.

Anyway, on the evening of the MRI, my doctor called, sounding a little too apologetic, so I knew she probably didn’t have cheerful tidings. That rare thing they were trying to rule out? Turns out I’m one of the few….there is now photographic evidence. Hmmm. A new development. It’s not good, but it’s not urgent, and I apparently have ample time to learn more and decide on a course of action. One alternative is to do nothing, but the growth will likely get larger over time, and if it starts pushing against certain crucial areas of the brain, it can affect neurological functioning. On the other hand, the fix-it options seem to carry their own risks and discomforts.

But you know what? In a weird way it’s also kind of validating. I figured my sense of being off balance and out of step lately might well be psychological, but there has been something tangibly disconcerting about the hearing loss, and now I know its name and cause. I have research to do. This is a real thing, but I’m not freaking out. At least not yet.

Naturally, my own significant hearing loss has triggered thoughts of my late mother. (Wow. I’ve never before referred to her as ‘my late mother’.) And yeah, here we go again. But my empathy and compassion for her have grown with my ability to more clearly imagine the increasing sense of isolation and confusion her deafness must have wrought, and I realize I have been obsessing about her daily since her death, but as I’ve said before, it packs a big punch. It’s an amalgam of the miseries she endured, her hard life and pitiable end, the unexpected intensity of my missing her (instead of the almost-relief I thought I’d feel), and of course what all of it implies about the human condition.

However, I allowed myself to listen (with my good ear) yesterday to a podcast of an interview Krista Tippett (On Being) did with Jane Gross, a journalist I’ve mentioned here before who wrote a memoir about tending to her elderly mother in her final years and who is also the creator of “The New Old Age” blog for The New York Times.  I know very well that I am fundamentally changed by my mother’s death and the experience of having looked after her and having become reacquainted with her in a different way through the last part of her life, but hearing Jane Gross’s reflections helped me to see that this is actually normal and understandable.

Here’s how she responded when Krista Tippett said to her, “…you didn’t go back to being the same when she was gone?”:

Well, I mean, certainly there are people who would say that still thinking about this and talking about it and all of that this many years later must prove that I’m having some unnatural grief experience. I don’t think that that’s the case. I mean, I think I fell into a subject that interested me journalistically that was gonna affect so many people that it was worth thinking about for such a long time. But it also, it’s — you find out what you’re made of if you weren’t already sure you knew the answer to that. And if there’s any advantage at all to them having this long, slow dying, there’s a lot of time to get things right that you didn’t get right earlier. I mean, it definitely changed the architecture of my family. It definitely changed what the nature of my memories of my mother are and, I imagine, will be forever. I mean, on the one hand, it makes me more scared, and, on the other hand, it makes me less scared.

See? And after all, it’s only been seven months for me, not years.

So it has been confirmed. There is something profoundly altering about this  journey, and the feelings don’t just hit you and go away quickly. If anyone reading this is in the midst of it all, I hope this makes you feel less alone. To quote Gross again:

I keep saying that this experience can become something other than desperate and bleak, if you let it. It really is a choice. We all know grown children who have bolted when the moment arrived. But imagining running away doesn’t make you a bad person. I fantasized, usually in the hypnagogic space between sleeping and waking, facing another day of ignorance and exhaustion, about pointing the car west and driving, driving, driving. I’m glad that I didn’t, because instead I learned what I was made of; I found my better self. I found my mother. I found my brother. But all of that came later.”

As for me, I didn’t find my siblings (other than more acutely remembering the ones who are deceased) but I certainly found my better self. And I found my mother…I found the person she had become, and discovered there was much about that person that was admirable and endearing. Maybe this new awareness and more recent familiarity intensifies the sense of loss, but there is also a gift there. I related to her present self in the present moment, and there was a purity about that, something at times even vaguely redemptive. My siblings will never know this.

DSC_0005-3I have since rediscovered my friends too. And my constant true blue partner. And this place, ah this place of the light and the wind and the leafy treetops filled with dancing life.  A bear came down from the backcountry last week to nonchalantly forage in a neighbor’s garage. Butterflies and dragonflies are darting about the flowers. On 4th of July a veritable village of young families gathered at the beach, little kids running and splashing in the surf, a couple of voluptuously pregnant women in bikinis, a whole new generation rolling in and all we can do is be nice. The benign elders, that’s us.

Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, Doyle Hollister recently sent me an article he wrote about his aunt, Jane Hollister Wheelwright, who was very much shaped by this particular place.  A lot of things in this article interested me, about the portal of nature, for example, and how one sometimes merges with the setting, fitting into it rather than on it. And how being a child growing up here (as my lucky daughter was) may imprint upon the psyche an enduring kind of instinct and wildness. But this, Jane’s musings about the cycles of life and death, particularly resonated:

Life and death, and the overall continuation of life, are what matter. Without death there could be no continuation, for there would be no opportunity for nature to promote new life. “A life for a life” is a part of this message, for humans as well as for wildlife. Were I to live forever, how could my descendants get past me and into their own lives? Even if I proved to be the greatest thing on earth, I would still be a physical and psychic deterrent to future life. 

That sort of sentiment used to seem a lot more abstract to me than it does now. I’m contemplating it, I guess, as my daughter starts her married life faraway, as I chat with a neighbor and notice how sparks of ebbing sunlight are framing his white hair, as I try to find ways of being useful or justify my lack of productivity, and then evade it all by going for a walk up the canyon.

“I realized I have a lot of movement in my life,” said one of my favorite essayists, Pico Iyer, in an interview, “but not maybe enough stillness.”  Sometimes it’s a struggle to be still but sometimes…like now…it feels good to surrender, as one day merges into the next.

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A Song For Miranda

And, here’s a fragment of a song sung by Stornoway(!) for our daughter. I’m so glad I had the presence of mind to record even just a moment or two, ’cause it was pretty special.

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Thoughts At Our Daughter’s Wedding

11411686_10100427227165261_7022453375776173658_oThe following are the main excerpts from the speech Monte and I gave at our daughter’s wedding. Several friends have asked that we share it, and why not? I’m proud of it, because as any parent knows, there’s a poignant aspect even to a happy milestone like this, and I think we handled it with grace.

The Father:
As the “Father of the Bride”, the patriarchal ritual of giving away my daughter seems so odd and anachronistic. It’s like that with my generation–the baby boomers. We made such a fuss of rejecting the status quo, and with it went some weird stuff, but also some of the rituals that mark important events. Anyway, with Miranda and Xander, there was no giving away. I mean, Xander asked, which at the time was sweet and charming. Of course we said yes. But our daughter’s heart had made the decision long before. She was already taken and our consent a foregone conclusion.

But still, the rituals matter. Especially our witness to and embrace of the marriage of these two young people whom we love and cherish. In a matter this important we must do everything in our power, no matter how small or symbolic, to ensure its durability and success.

Which brings us here from a cattle ranch in California where Miranda grew up–off the grid and in the raw, wild, wide open spaces and the ocean and the wind, so far from this university town, steeped in Old World culture and tradition. How unlikely it is that we should be here with all of you celebrating the marriage of this beautiful young woman to this fine young man.

The Mother:
Then again, maybe it’s not so unlikely after all. Miranda was always her own person, somewhat contrary and complicated, climbing into books, imagining other lives for herself. She rode her horse in the hills, slept on the deck sometimes beneath the Milky Way, and loved the ranch with all her heart but eventually saw it as the refuge of her boring old parents and set out in search of something else.

And why not England? This was a 12-year-old girl who devoured books by Agatha Christie, whose favorite novel was Brideshead Revisited, who immersed herself in a school report about World War II air raids over London and at one point had a poster of Winston Churchill on the wall of her room. I don’t know how to explain these things. Why not England? She may actually be more English than you.

But her getaway began so early. Here’s a story: When Miranda was two-and-a-half, on her very first day of preschool, I kissed her goodbye and then lingered pathetically at the playground gate watching her from a distance. She was wearing a little red sweater and a red and white skirt and she was clutching a big loose-leaf binder as though she were expecting to take voluminous notes in class…and she turned around, noticed me loitering, walked back to me, and said, “You can go now, Mommy.”

She’s been saying that to me ever since. What can I do? At some point you have to step gracefully out of the way. She has always had a certain bravery and spirit, our girl. Not in a stupid, reckless way, but she’s game, always willing to step on board that outbound dream, and she was very eager and efficient about getting started in life. She got her driver’s license on the day she turned 16, moved away to college in Boston at 17, went to England for a summer class when she was 20, and on her first evening in Oxford met a handsome British guy in a tweed blazer who could talk about books, and I guess that was the ending of something and the beginning of everything else.

The Father:
And from far away, we could sense the change in our daughter. There was something different this time. Not like the crush on the young boy in the punk band, or the college boyfriend who was comfortable, safe, and convenient. No, this time it was love.

He likes books. He reads. His name is Xander. What kind of name is that? Oh, it’s short for Alexander. We finally see him on a janky skype call. He’s a man, not a boy. We finally meet him. He has opinions and expresses them loudly and vociferously. He has friends…no, they have friends. These are interesting, smart young people. Ben and Jules, George-the-Poet and Rachel, Alex (many Alexes, both male and female), Emily, James, Sophie…they are writing books and playing music and full of energy.We meet Xander’s family and find we have common values. (They are not Tories…that’s a relief.)

And we begin to observe how Xander treats Miranda. He respects and supports and defends her. He calms her down (and knows how to wind her up). He’s patient and empathetic and an incredibly good natural teacher. He is a diligent worker and loyal. They’re good together. And they’re in love.

With us, Xander patiently tries to explain the English. We learn that “sorry” can have deeply nuanced meanings to express any human emotion; that there is a world of dairy products previously unknown to us; that chatting it up on public transport is frowned upon. We try unsuccessfully to understand cricket, and with profound embarrassment observe the Americanization of your politics.

We begin to see that this relationship is the real thing. Miranda and Xander belong together. Our world must expand. It needs to encompass the ranch on the Gaviota coast and the Cowley Road in East Oxford, our California life and the life our daughter has chosen here, more than five thousand miles away.

The Mother:
Somewhere along the line we learn how little of this was ever ours to orchestrate. (Said the mother of the bride wistfully.)

So one day there’s a little girl clinging to your hip, and the next day there’s a young woman on the other side of a computer screen on the other side of an ocean. It’s the way of the world, I guess, though no one can prepare you for it.

What did I think would happen? What did I want? I wanted a daughter with a clear head and high ideals, one who could see that there is trouble in the world and work in her own way to make things better, but who could also see that there is beauty and joy and wonder in the world and would live in these and savor these and let herself be happy and maybe even write about it.

I wanted a daughter who would have the courage to leave, fortified by the knowledge that she is deeply loved and who in turn would love deeply.

So I guess I wanted this. Exactly this.

I finally understand that there is love that weighs you down and love that lightens, and I believe we gave her the lighter kind, the kind that lets you leave.

The Father:
So please raise your glasses in a toast: To Miranda and Xander, may you laugh a lot, may you be kind to one another…

The Mother:
And may you feel the love of your family and friends encircling you always. Lightly. But unwavering.

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Through the Tall Grass

IMG_8312A sturdy little coyote pup is beginning his life this summer, feeling quite at home at the edge of the orchard, sunning himself on the hillside, scampering out of sight with frisky effortless grace if we appear. He…or perhaps it’s a she…has become a source of delight to us. It has something to do with the way life goes on, resilient and indifferent.  (I’ll try to get a better photo, but in the meantime, the one at left will have to suffice.) Ongoingness.

It’s a perspective I’ve been needing, for I am still obsessed with endings.  Last night I had a vivid dream in which I was tending to my mother, who seemed so tiny and frail. I wanted to take her someplace fancy and special, and she was very excited. But her hearing aid was gone, and her favorite chair had been removed from her room, and her wheelchair and walker were missing too, and the staff at the assisted living residence were so indifferent, I started shouting at them in anger and tears. But what I mostly remember is brushing her silky white hair, helping her out of her bed, and her joy at seeing me. I guess I will be dreaming this kind of dream for the rest of my life.

Yes, I realize it’s depressing and dissonant, and no one wants to hear about it anymore. But maybe it’s normal to feel this way, only six months after her dying, and after sixteen years of trying by myself to make things better for her but maybe not doing it well. And I don’t know if what torments me most is the bleakness of her final year, the sadness of her life overall, or the hard realities of the human condition that have been so vividly and indisputably revealed to me by all that has transpired.  My heart is heavy with loss: accumulated, aggravated, and anticipated loss. So we all know where this is headed. The question is what do we do with this knowing? What do we do with the time that remains?

I have found it necessary to cultivate a selective amnesia, learning how to brake when my mind begins to race along the shadowy corridors that lead to the abyss, learning to brake, turn, and look elsewhere. Which brings me back to the wonderful distraction of that baby coyote, as real as rock, as alive as morning, and as full of truth as my own sorry brooding.

My friend Dan Gerber sent this beautiful poem Psalm:

All my dead are with me.
All my dead are at ease,
free of time and what never may be.
All my dead are at peace with each other.
They will never change their minds.
They forgive me whatever I feel
needs forgiveness, and blame
what I think needs blame.
They are sunlight come to comfort me.
They lead me on the trail of my life’s work.
In my hand I see my father’s hand,
holding this pen.
My mother’s eyes, finally free of longing,
gaze at me from the mirror.
When I stand they look up
to see where I’m going.
They can’t see far through the tall grass,
but they see the tall grass,
and they smile to see it moving behind me.

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The Enigma We Answer By Living

panorama
Isn’t that a stunning panorama? It was taken by a friend Saturday afternoon at the west end of the ranch when the sky was especially beautiful. I happen to be in the picture too. I’m a barely visible form on the bluff at the right, suspended in a state of wonder, but I like the small visual evidence of my presence.

It’s an image that seemed worthy of sharing, and I thought I’d use it to accompany this poem I love by Alison Hawthorne Deming. Deming is a widely published and highly acclaimed American poet born and raised in Connecticut who now divides her time between Tucson, Arizona and New Brunswick, Canada. Her most recent book is Zoologies: On Animals and The Human Spirit.  I appreciate so many of her reflections, such as this one:

“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 this, “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.

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