Woods Walk Diary: Trillium Grace

My daily walks in the woods continue. A few days ago, I spotted a red trillium along the trail, alone, like me, unlike its prolific white cousins that obviously prefer city traffic and not the solitary existence of the red. But the garnet blooms of the trillium filled my head and my first thought was how amazing that people hadn’t picked it yet or dogs peed on it or bikers squashed it. Like grace, it showed up when I least expected it.

Yesterday, for the first time since I started these walks, I brought my binoculars and camera (my “toys”) and spent some time fiddling with them, took photos of the trillium and a selfie next to a stick teepee somebody built a long time ago. A rock pillow was tucked inside. I saw few birds because with the binoculars, I was prepared, unlike the other day when I did not have them around my neck and heard the unmistakable song of a Blackburnian warbler, one of my annual spring favorites but difficult to see as they glean snacks from the tops of conifers. Binocularless, I waited and (forgive me) pished once but it did not seem to care and after one brief look at me went back to its business and I went back to mine watching it.

I must say that without the binoculars, I was more aware of what else was around as I hoped and waited for that teeny warbler to come within naked eye eyesight. The curled shanks of a shagbark hickory and the spent nuts at its feet, the ribbons of birch, the stable oaks holding up a fallen pine, the brown-tailed grey squirrels bouncing through branches. But yesterday, I had my equipment clattering around my neck and because I WANTED to see the Blackburnian, really see it, there were none. Like grace, that rarely shows up in the way I want it.

A Hermit Thrush flushed along the path but was not concerned enough with my presence to fly away but continued its hunting among leaves and logs. I watched it through the binoculars, pulled out the camera—still new to me—and spent a good ten minutes trying to get the bird in the viewfinder and get off some shots. The photos were mostly of twigs and leaves and afterward there was an awareness that I missed the Awareness of my past walks by focusing on one thing—the brown bird among the brown leaves, nothing else existed. This is fine for creative energy to flourish but it is a slip away from my original intent of BEING in the woods. It’s fine to use a camera and it’s fine to use paper and pencil but it’s a focussed energy and I am not ready for that yet. I am walking the trail not to take pictures of certain things or even seeing certain birds, but to open my naked soul to the totality of the moment, a vulnerability only achievable when alone and preferably without “equipment.” Grace, without expectation.

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It’s Time to Fall in Love Again

I have been bespeaking the woods across the street from where I live now and telling them of my old childhood copse of pine trees a quarter mile from where we lived, back in the day when there were plenty of woods to play in and explore. That little patch was my safe place but I did not call it that at the time, we did not have concepts like that then. It was “my place,” where I went when I felt troubled or crowded, like when Uncle Bill came to stay with us for that brief time and all he did was watch TV and smoke cigarettes and our house was engulfed in a blue haze from morning to night, or so it seems in my memory. He wasn’t there long because Dad kicked him out for violating his promise not to drink.

But it was to get away from the pressure of people and Uncle Bill’s cigarette smoke that drove me out the door to walk the dirt road that led to the path in the woods to its heart of pines with its mattress of prickly pine needles. I would sit there for hours watching the chickadees and titmice bounce through the branches as the wind shifted them from side to side, letting in the sun as they swayed. Those trees blessed me and planted a love for the woods that was nurtured for a long time by camping trips, scores of hikes and nature walks, the many birding adventures that took me from the woods and forests of the northeast to the Florida Everglades to the jungles of Belize and Costa Rica and back to the Great North Woods of Maine.

But that was a long time ago. Life with all its changes, you know, your soul gets weary. You forget.

But now, here is Battell Woods across the street from where I live now, partially retired from the real world, staring at me day in and day out, changing color in the fall, growing their leaves out in the spring, standing in their growth of years as the world changes around them. Although I have walked the worn paths several times during my first year here, it felt like more of a “should” than a “want,” as in, Diane has always loved the woods and hiking and walking, she will love this, but despite the momentary pleasure of walking a few paths and the temporary thrill of discovering all manner of forgotten spring wildflowers, I have felt no desire to go a-wandering, no spirit of exploration calls me, when I stand in a copse of hemlocks, it is a copse of hemlocks. None of the profound but simple lessons of faith come to me, what I used to call “The Law,” that there are certain things that will always be true: water will always run downhill, the deciduous trees will change color in the fall. When I stood in the woods way back when, it felt like I was closer to this grand truth and therefore, closer to my own.

Time and life have had their way with me, I suppose, because the innocence it took that encouraged those thoughts, nurtured them into becoming an essential part of who I was, perhaps still am, has gone the way of that old copse of pine trees whose good company I once kept. When I peer inside my heart, that room is empty.

So a few weeks ago, I put it to Battell Woods: Will you mend this tired soul, will you restore the duff of awareness that life and faith and love and me are somehow all the same? Let’s see. I will come to you every day or as often as I can and will bring nothing but my awareness. No camera, no sketch pad, no field manuals, no binoculars. I will walk one of the loops and will keep on walking it with no expectation other than the knowledge of where I am. I want to fall in love again.

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Ode to A Cluster Fly

Cluster-FlyFifty-nine people were slaughtered in Las Vegas on Sunday. Over 500 went to hospitals, overwhelming their services, all medical personnel were called in and they were not enough to care for the shocked and bleeding victims who witnessed the murder of friends, spouses and strangers while holding their own deaths at bay. All this done by one guy. ONE GUY. Who can wrap their heads around this stuff? I am looking from the outside-in at my own grief, I can’t hold it all. 

But hold it all I did, until it came to a single cluster fly, the kind everyone hates. There are a gazillion of them, mounds of them clinging to the outside of the window screens, crawling around while I wash the pots and pans, drawn to the warmth of my kitchen as Vermont turns its face toward winter. Cluster flies are everyone’s YUCK, they are pesty, dirty, disgusting, carry who knows what creepy diseases, they dance in your face, get stuck in your hair, did I say PESTY?  

But while I worked, I heard a repeated buzzing sound that started and then stopped. My ability to hear has changed as I get older, I can still hear a Blackburnian Warbler’s soprano trill from the top of a pine tree but not WHICH pine tree. Fellow birders turn and look to the right when a bird calls, I turn left and peer into the canopy. So when the buzzing started, I looked out the window in case Vermont Gas was up to something in preparation of their digging on our condo property tomorrow morning. I glanced at the TV to see if Jeopardy was using the sound as one of its contestant challenges. The buzzing stopped and I went back to washing the last of the pots. As I turned to wipe the counter down, it sounded again, and then from behind a tiny vase on the window sill, while the sun shot the last of its scarlet rays through the swinging mane of the willow tree, a single cluster fly spun around on its back, wings clamped, the black threads of its legs flailing, then still. A moment passed, and it buzzed again, obviously dying but also obviously not going gently into the good night.  

At any other time, I would have knocked a weakened fly into the sink and flushed it down the drain. Pesty flies do not get the same capture and release treatment here as spiders and moths, despite some half-hearted effort on my part. 

I was about to grab a used napkin to plunk on the struggling insect when the grief of 59 slaughtered people and over 500 injured along with the anguish of the over-worked and anguished medical community overwhelmed me. Those tiny thread legs of the fly flailing on the window sill filled me with sorrow and I reached out with a moistened finger until its feet (do flies have feet?) touched the tip. It  paused as if registering what was going on in its dimming world, and then its legs organized themselves against my skin and were still, as if recording somehow that it had just touched an upside-down land instead of groping in the vapors. One leg moved, and then another and another, exploring its incredible luck at finding itself a chance to survive after its ordeal behind the flower vase. I swear I felt it pat around the tip of my finger, it seemed to perk up, have hope, that its world was not ending just yet, its life and its death were being acknowledged. I swear an energy passed between us but don’t tell anyone that I shared my human soul with a cluster fly, that is the stuff of Crazy. But it stirred something in me, enough to wake the muse, my writing life, inspired by a fly. And the senseless murder of 59 people.

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A Patina of Stories

I am not a home decorator. In fact, I avoid some of the “finer things” in life, like shiny new dining room sets or brand new cars. First, because it seems odd to segregate the space where food is prepared from the room where you eat it; two, a shiny new table is like a shiny new car, a pleasure for the eye to behold but terrorizes with its perfection. Don’t put your glass down there, it will make a ring! Don’t let the cats near the chairs; they will use them as a scratching post! Put a blotter under that piece of paper so it doesn’t ruin the finish! Park the car a mile away from the grocery store so a runaway cart doesn’t ram it!

How can you live with prima donna stuff?

When I was growing up, our kitchen table and our dining room table were one and the same. We didn’t have separate rooms for mealtimes, besides, in a noisy household with my parents, 3 sisters and brother (7 altogether), one bathroom in the house and one table on which to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, light candles for countless birthday cakes, wrap presents, repair Ginny dolls and glue the legs on broken china horses, cut out newspaper articles, paper dolls and dress patterns, labor over homework, use as a foot rest while talking on the phone, lean on to listen to someone on the other side, shuffle a deck of playing cards on, spread out a Monopoly playing board, host a Dungeons & Dragons party, that table was busy. That table had stories to tell.

While Ken and I were living in New Jersey, we had a dining room AND a dining room SET, an Ethan Allan collection I bought at a garage sale of all places. The woman was selling it because her child had accidentally gouged one of the extension inserts (in my mind, who cares). The grandmother thought her daughter was nuts for selling it for a song but before our conversation continued, I noticed someone else was interested in the table, so I plunked down a deposit. Her husband helped me bring it home. That table and I began our first story together.

That story continued for most of the 18 years we lived in that house. It was the one thing we depended upon every day of our lives. That table held up our daily bread, cooperated in gift wrapping marathons, sheltered sewing projects, supported daily writing endeavors as I wrote through hundreds of hours, filling up notebook after notebook figuring out my life, struggling with demons and decisions, praying or rejoicing on paper. That table eavesdropped on private telephone conversations and kept my secrets, never refused to double as a vet stand for unnamable cat caretaking procedures, served as an uncomplaining repository for stacks of junk mail and magazines “to be read later,” stood still as a binocular holder and packing stand, hosted parties and the heft of Thanksgiving dinners. It held Italian, Indian, Asian and American cuisine in equal measure, never once dropping a glass of wine or a dollop of gravy. It held my head when I cried.

It was too big to go with us when we moved, so I offered it to a young couple from work who had started a family. When they said they would take it, I was stunned, oh… a piece of me is leaving. How did a table slip into the role of friend and confidante? Like relationships that have evolved over time, through turmoil and joy, hard times and good times, this table had MY stories in it, it was literally a friend I could lean on. It was hard to say goodbye. But there was a baby involved. It was time for it to raise a family.

Fast forward to our home now, a cozy condo in Middlebury, Vermont. Three weeks ago, on the way home from errands, on a whim, I turned right and drove up a hill to the Vermont Used Furniture Store. We walked into a dimly lit room that smelled of warm oranges and there it was. Alone except for its satellite chairs, it stood in the corner like an old friend waiting for me to recognize it. A different table than the one we had but just the right size, made in the USA, and according to the owner, made of “wild cherry.”

I approached the table and we eyed each other up, the first test of whether we would get along. I am not a connoisseur of fine furniture and thought cherry can be pretty “fahncy.” It was expensive for a used table, just how fussy is this Henkel Harris thing?

Like Goldilocks checking the temperature of the bears’ porridge, I sat on each chair in turn, making sure there were no creaks or cracks, dragged the tips of my fingers over the honeyed surface of the table, felt a scratch here, a dent there, noticed the shiny finish was worn where you would plunk your elbows down while eating good food or leaning forward to listen to a conversation. I was pleased to note a faint ring where a glass of water had been left too long. There were rub marks and pale webs of scratches…a stack of books swept off its surface perhaps, or the rough wool from a loved one’s winter coat?

This table had a patina of stories.

We fell in love.

The end.

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Tree Hugger

I hugged a tree the other day. It was along a path I have walked several times in the woods across the street from where we live now. I had paused to look around and suddenly the idea popped into my head: No one is here to laugh or stare at me with raised eyebrows, I am free to do this, the last time was years ago (when this picture was taken of me hugging a California Redwood). Hugging a tree is one of those private, spontaneous opportunities we can respond to or walk away from, sort of like life, don’t you think? 

So I swung my right arm around the girth of a 20-foot hemlock, like a teenager hanging out with a boyfriend, and balancing myself against its trunk, leaned back so I could see blue sky through the haze of branches. It’s been many years since my old tree-hugging days, I had almost forgotten the immediate sense of peace and stability and acceptance for where I am at this moment. No past, no future, just an awareness of the dazzling reality of BEING.  

I can walk trails here every morning and every afternoon if I want to, there is hardly any dog poop on these trails like there was where we lived in NJ, not to mention bears. The best part of being here is coming full circle to what fed me as a child: walking in the woods, being alone in a forest, there is even a cathedral of hemlocks mounted on a crag where the trail spills onto an open field where Song Sparrows, Cardinals and Juncoes dart among the shrubs. The hemlocks’ interlocking branches and lacy canopy seemed to spin as I looked up and beyond them to see a pair of Ravens soaring. It reminded me of “what used to be” in my former NJ home but there are few hemlocks there now, housing developments and the dreaded wooly adelgid have had their way with them.The half dozen slender hemlocks we so carefully nurtured on our property in NJ were cut down by the new owners.  

The path is part of the Trail Around Middlebury, the “TAM,” a footpath over 16 miles long that encircles the village of Middlebury and links several hundred acres of town land, conserved properties, schools, and other local landmarks. There are many unmarked trails switching back and forth across the TAM, all going this way and that, some created by human feet, others by paws and bicycle tires. I am learning the network of what path goes here and there and where they hook up back to the TAM, look…this one leads away from the road and joins the TAM after you pass the fallen white birches, this other one heads down to the trail head at the end of DWire Street cul-de-sac and then back home.. And all the pines, oaks, hemlocks and maples on the way, mine for the hugging.

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“Life’s Great, If You Don’t Weaken”

IMG_0747There is a poem in me somewhere, only the distilled intensity of poetry can convey the
images and emotions of this past month while I was in Florida to help Mom and Dad move
through a series of crises involving end-of-life decisions: Mom sleeping on the recliner under a red afghan because the pain from her fractured shoulder prevented her from laying in bed; Mom’s cat, Diamond, wide-eyed at the sudden onslaught of Allcrofts in her quiet life but giving us each a turn with her feline comfort; the wide, bright halls of the nursing home where dad was admitted; the residents walking their wheelchairs backward and forward up and down the wide hallways; a woman staring into a corner, a man with a leprechaun grin tethered to the nurse’s station to keep him from rolling up to other residents and punching them. A woman without a tooth in her head but who managed to yell, “Life is great if you don’t weaken!” and later, when she rolled her chair backwards into a metal easel and knocked it clattering to the floor, shouted to her rescuers, “I thought I’d died!” and then laughed and laughed. Thelma, who neither spoke nor looked at anyone, but walked her chair without stopping, as if maneuvering her car in the fast lane of a highway, the alarm strapped to her ankle providing the truth of her desire to go, just go. The old woman with long hair swept up in an elegant twist on her head who winked and whispered, “Hey, Baby,” every time I walked by.

And what happened to Mike, Dad’s roommate for three days, whose wife rarely left his side? Mike, who suffered five strokes in this past year, and who was swept out of the room in the middle of the night? No one can tell us, privacy rules, of course; there are lots of rules but none that say I cannot pray.

At Mom and Dad’s home, where mom lives alone now, the waxy white orchids nod from their perch in a tree notch where I planted it years ago. It has survived the occasional freezing temperatures of Southwest Florida to dangle its many faces in the humid air while checking out the home health therapy professionals arriving to help Mom regain strength and balance. Conversations with the social worker at the nursing home as we labored through the process of getting Dad admitted to what is now his home. He still knows who we are, he knows I am one of his five children but my name has vanished under the crushing heels of dementia.

Only poetry has the power to evoke the intensity of my unexpected introduction into the world of senior homes, Do Not Resuscitate orders, Do Not Transfer, Certificates of Incompetency, Medicare rules, beleaguered nursing assistants cleaning, helping patients arrange themselves in and out of bed, delivering and removing meal trays, cleaning some more. The occasional smells that could knock your head off, the sun’s rays pouring into the room each morning, patients laughing as they throw giant balls to each other in therapy, the rows of wheelchairs lined up before a movie in the dining room. The Mardi Gras party, where we saw Dad smile for the first time since he arrived. I think only a poet, which I am not, could capture the images, the joys and the aches of this past month as my sisters and brother gathered for the first time in many years for the single goal of companioning our parents as they pick their way along a strange road in their 71 year life journey together.

Where do poems come from? How are they born? Because only the elegance of a poem has the power to capture the ache in mom’s eyes as she gazed at the living room recliner where dad used to sit to watch TV while she cared for him until she couldn’t any longer. Dad’s face lights up whenever Mom visits now, he only has eyes for her, and the fuzzy Teddy bear that now shares his nights, cuddled up with him against the bed rails.

It was, is, a tough time but as odd as it sounds, I am grateful to be on this roller coaster, this living, breathing poem, this wild ride we are all on. It’s great, if you don’t weaken.

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The Upside-Down Side

imageTwo years ago, I set a Life Change in motion and boy, oh boy, it seems to be picking up momentum.  I apologize if these blog posts seem to be stuck on this topic and understand if you prefer to skip yet another discussion about change, you are probably dealing with change in your own life. If so, I can relate.  But if I were to write a new blog post, my second for the month and in alignment with my secret New Year’s resolution, I would write about how change changes you. It’s a corny and overworked topic but when you are on the upside-down side of life, the view is a stunner. The stories themselves are not new, from Biblical tales of a tough angel beating the crap out of some guy walking down the road to a bunch of ranchers taking a national wildlife refuge hostage, good things and bad things and no things are happening to us all the time, whether we invite them or not.

I am currently back in Florida, not to live or float around in a pool while the north winds blow,  but to companion mom and dad in… (I hesitate here because my brave mother reads this blog) end-of-life issues. There is much that has been accomplished with more to go but this journey is not just about the paperwork or the positioning of stuff, doctor’s appointments or therapy sessions, it is scrabbling through the crucible of family; it is climbing through the sticky web of fear, sorrow, anger and sometimes, joy without a map or a manual.

It is grappling first hand with our version of the stories you have heard many times: The falls, the hospitals, the rehab facilities, the deliberate ignorance of a loved one trapped in a body that is failing but his spirit is not. Dad may be in an advanced stage of dementia but when I asked him the other day how to change a shower head, he told me, demonstrating with his right hand the twisting motion that removing the shower head would require.

It is getting lost in the endless jungle of papers and names and dates and numbers. It is not giving up.

We fight to stay alive as long as we can. It is our biology to do this but we have defied our biology with the science of medicine dedicated to keeping the body alive as long as possible, or at least as long as we hope it will last. We fight death at the cost of life, knowing all along that we will get there too. Someday. Maybe. Not today. Maybe.

Dad is in a good facility now, we are breathing a brief sigh of relief but it’s not like he’s going to come home. He will stay there being fed good food, going to the gym where he is hooked up to a broad strap and assisted to a walker and guided to move like he always did, then gently returned to bed in his quiet, sun-filled room for a few hours of rest. For a 92 year-old body, a body that fought in multiple major World War II Navy battles, a body that helped create and support 5 children, a body that golfed, danced, taught his children how to ride a bike, drive a car, and was a companion to his wife, my mother, for 70 years, that is not too shabby.

If I were to write a blog post, I would write about the loneliness of change, how you really walk down those dark halls alone. Whether change comes because you initiated it or arrives unwelcome and unannounced at your door, you are in your own story that no one else can understand or tell. Your visions of what may happen to someone you love, or to yourself as you contemplate making your own life change, rarely match the reality.

As change changes you, the people around you change too, from those decide they don’t care for the shape emerging from the cocoon and walk away to those who know how hard it is to learn to fly.

Every person you meet, every dawn you greet, changes you in some way. No two mornings are the same.

 

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