Perfect Victory

My 77-year-old friend Dona and I were looking through her photo albums awhile back. Amidst photos of her younger self–daughter, teacher, principal, wife–were small, black and white 1950s photos from a trip she took to Glacier National Park with her parents.

I was elated. In these little purchased snapshots from the gift shop, I recognized my own photos, taken when Ian and I camped at Glacier four years ago.

“I have these exact pictures,” I gushed, “Ian and were in these same places and took the same pictures.”

Dona wasn’t impressed.

St. Marys_BWStMary'KB

She was going to pitch the photos, so I asked if I could have them.  At home that afternoon, I dug out my photos and paired several of mine with hers.

There are layers of magic I see in her photos and mine. That the gorges, waterfalls, and mountaintops look exactly the same 60 years later is heartening. We grow older and our memories may dim, but the land holds its own—for now. I wonder what the difference will be when Ian compares our photos with those 60 years from now. SunriftSunriftKB

These pictures are also tangible proof of one more link between Dona and me.

I’m an ardent connector. In fact, I can drive people to distraction pointing out how everything is connected. Or, to use Dona’s vernacular, “It just nuts.” I don’t work hard, though, to see that she and I walk a parallel ridgeline.

Dona and I share a love of food and trying new snacks. We have a curious fondness for Cheetos (I once wrote her an acrostic poem that spelled out Cheetos). We can’t imagine life without dogs in it (she currently owns her 18th and 19th dogs). We must have coffee around the clock; we wish we were better piano players than we are but find joy in what melodies we produce anyway. We’ve both tried our hands at the ukulele, too–she much more successfully than I. We grew up in the same places, went to the same University, and were married to our former husbands for the exact number of years. We’re both suspicious of people who lack good humor. She is one of the happiest people I know, and funniest. Her smile is big and her laugh frequent. She played one of the best April Fool’s jokes on me once, convincing me that I had to remove a snake from her garage. Her deadpan face and concerned urgency about the snake had me from the get go. Then that beautiful, mischievous smile grew wide across her face and she said, “Never mind. April Fools!”

We are joined by our love for my kid who mows Dona’s grass and helps out with her koi pond and various other odd jobs. We also share the frustration of his terrible forgetfulness, compensated ten-fold by his loving devotion to her. She reminded me recently, as we dug up dandelions in her back yard, that I was about the age her daughter would have been had she lived beyond infancy.

We are, all of us, connected by experiences and commonalities. But there is also the need for connection. I suppose this is why I dribble out words on a blog page every once in awhile, why my dog sleeps each night in the bend of my knees, why my kid has his iPhone grafted to his palm. The desire for someone just to know our stories is great, and often we find in our lives just whom we need.

As we go puttering around Dona’s yard, or gobbling sandwiches at the bagel shop, or over morning coffee, we’ve talked about the possibility of Heaven and if we’d really want to go there anyway, the best pizza in town, the best flowers for attracting butterflies, are men really necessary when you have a dog, and a litany of other ideas from reincarnation to good books to the best way to get rid of cobwebs.

And while Dona has heart-wrenching  and hilarious stories to fill the hours, she lives very much in the present. She’s aware of what’s happening in the world, and loves it anyway. She is still learning, playful, curious, alive. She embraces technology like a child with a new toy. She and Ian just drove to the Mac store 40 miles away last week so that they could test out the new Apple watch–and she ordered one! No doubt, she’ll sync it to her iPhone and Macbook and iPad.

Dona has often reminded me of the lines from that Bukowski poem where he understands what Whitman meant when he wrote, “I sing the body electric”:

Donato be completely alive every minute
in spite of the inevitable.

we can’t cheat death but we can make it
work so hard
that when it does take
us

it will have known a victory just as
perfect as
ours

Perhaps this is the best story my beloved old lady friend and I share, that desire to live life as a perfect victory.

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Making It

A week ago on Mother’s Day, I sat with my mom and her vintage sewing machine at her bagdining room table, the Wyoming wind and snow swirling wildly outside. I’d arrived the afternoon before with pieces of a patchwork vest I’d picked up in Africa a couple of decades ago. It was a vest I’d kept because of the colors and the memories, but it’s never fit terribly well, and I’ve rarely worn it. I’d finally cut it up into the design of a small satchel, but I needed mom’s sewing machine to finish it off. Really, I needed mom. I share her affection for the straight line but not her ability to make it—or to walk it. So we got out her old beast of a machine, which is truly older than I am, and she sewed me some lines.

My earliest memories of Mom involve her making something.

Butter might be the first. She churned it with fresh cream from our Jersey cows, then squeezed out the whey with a wide paddle, filling and shaping her ancient wooden butter mold. Happier than the memory of how fresh butter tastes on homemade bread warm from the oven is remembering the hours I spent admiring Mom making perfectly shaped rectangles of golden butter.

And with that butter, she baked cakes, cookies, pies, cinnamon rolls, and bread—oh, the bread! Every day it seemed something was baking away. Always from scratch. Sometimes in a wood stove that she preferred over her electric one. Many of the ingredients she grew herself.

And when she wasn’t baking she was knitting one of us kids a sweater or crocheting a baby blanket or darning socks or sewing our clothes or teaching one of us, or a 4-H kid, how. She sewed dolls and rabbits and frogs as gifts or wove Christmas ornaments from wheat. She taught my sister and me to make dolls from hollyhocks or corn husks. She taught all of her children how to plant a garden and what to do with the harvest.

Mom’s description of growing up on a farm in the Nebraska sand hills during the “Dirty Thirties” makes literal the expression “dirt poor.” Her family had little and what they did have started from the ground. She was conditioned early on to the hard work of starting from scratch. Her family grew its food. Her mother sewed their clothes. As a girl, my mother learned from hers to darn socks, to sew, to embroider, and to work buttonholes. “I used to make beautiful buttonholes,” she remembers, “hand-stitched, of course.”

But years after the hard life of the farm, Mom carried on her making ways. A friend she worked with at a watch factory in Nebraska taught her to crochet. Her neighbor in Colorado taught her to knit. She experimented with making cheese. She macramed. She beaded bracelets. Producing handmade items wasn’t a requirement anymore, but it was fun. Too, she’s got a curious mind that loves to learn new things and keeping her hand busy keeps her mind sharp. I imagine she felt a sense of accomplishment, too, because everything she makes is lovely.

A few years ago a friend of mom’s asked her to knit a delicate lacy shrug for her granddaughter to wear at her wedding. Mom said she’d try. In her late ‘70s then, she taught herself a few new knitting tricks, and navigated a complicated pattern to finish the shrug off in time for the wedding. It was gorgeous. The bride loved it. The friend paid Mom $25, which is all she’d take. I told her she could have gotten four times that amount, but mom said it wasn’t about the money. “I am just so happy to still be useful,” she said.

Being useful. It is a great good thing to be in your seventh or eighth decade and still be able to contribute your skills to the world, to have talents that’s are valued and sought out.

And she hasn’t stopped. During the last several years she’s crocheted dozens of blankets for charity. Nearing 85, she’s still teaching herself new tricks. Recently she has crocheted a spectacular tablecloth. She stitched each piece individually and made her own blocking board with a piece of cast off wood and some nails. And in the long Wyoming winters when it’s best to stay indoors, she’s taught herself to make baskets with pine needles gathered from the tree outside her sun porch.

tableclothbasket

But there is more. I cannot speak to having my house burn to the ground, consuming all my possessions, or to losing my 21-year-old son to suicide, or to a husband dying of a heart attack at 50. Mom can, and to some other pretty hard stories, too. She doesn’t. She rises each morning content, owing to equal parts faith and curiosity. And she makes things.

Long ago when I was certain that I was wiser than my mom, I judged her for not dealing with her sorrows head on. She had much to grieve, many situations to worry over, and I understood busying herself with needlework and baking to be an escape. I didn’t
understand until much later that she was dealing with her life. Making things, working
with her hands were all she’d ever known, were her way of making sense of the world. Aran2Learning, service to others, being useful, and that great big kick in having created something are her stays against the most difficult of stories. There is power and grace in taking life’s spare parts and making something beautiful, often out of your own imagination. Being productive steadies her, it has always been her antidote to depression, fear, loneliness, hurt, whatever might have come her way. Making is triumph over all else. Mom would dismiss craft as therapy or meditation as nothing new. She’s known this for 80 years. She’s amused by how her hard life of simplicity is now so vogue.

Many, many years ago my life splintered in directions beyond my control. I spent a few weeks at Mom’s, trying to find enough light to take the next step. I hit rock bottom when accidentally, I crushed her old Spaniel Jake backing her car out of the garage. She forgave me, saying he was an old old dog “about to expire anyway.” But it was after I’d run over Jake that she put a pair of knitting needles and some soft beige yarn in my lap. With as much compassion as wisdom, she said, “Do something with your hands.” I used the skills she’d first taught me when I was eight years old to knit myself a simple, ribbed scarf. I put it on still when I need comfort and a reminder that, like my mother, the making of my own better days is in my hands.

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Anam Cara

“In the early Celtic church, a person who acted as a teacher, companion, or spiritual guide was called an anam cara,” writes Irish poet-philosopher John O’Donahue in his wondrous book Anam CaraAnam is the Gaelic word for soul, and cara is the word for friend. Soul friend. “This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging.” When you had an anam cara O’Donahue explains, “You were joined in an ancient and eternal way.” I have an Aman Cara. Two of them, in fact. They are a couple who graced my life nearly 20 years ago, introducing me to a better world, teaching me a better version of myself. I met Jim first. He became a volunteer tutor at the community college where I organized tutoring for struggling students. When he first arrived, he humbly completed the application required to prove his abilities, noting, only because the paperwork required it, that he’d earned a Ph.D. in Physics from Notre Dame and was a college professor for decades. Jim is one of the most intelligent men I’ve ever known, but it’s his kind gentleness, patience, and thoughtfulness that I think of first. When he can’t sleep at night, he told me once, he spends the time thinking of all the people in his life, and one by one, sends them love and good wishes. That’s Jim. He has been like a father for me. I didn’t make that association early on, but over the years he became much more than a friend. He is my teacher, my advisor, and steady support. This has been especially wonderful as my dad died when I was only 20. Jim is just a few years younger than my dad would be now; their birthdays are just a few days apart; and they both shine smiles through blue eyes that balance a deeply analytical mind. As I grew to know Jim, he wanted me to meet his beautiful wife Aimee, and she became a treasure in my life, too. She possesses kindness, patience, and generosity equal to Jim’s, and she is wise beyond measure. I explained to Ian years ago that when you are wise, it means that your heart is smart. Aimee has the smartest heart of all. Her intuition and understanding of people and her compassion for them, her ability to forgive and to accept, has knocked me over time and time again. She gives wholly of herself without reserve, without condition, without complaint. She has an almost limitless faithfulness to family and friends. And she’s funny. Really funny. She finds humor in just about any situation and makes everybody feel better because of it. Jim and Aimee are a great complement to each other. They live in a perfect balance of head and heart. Between the two of them, they have taught me this balance and so much more, everything from how circuit breakers and garbage disposals work to poetry, from politics and history to spirituality and Disney World. They have taught me to be patient with myself. They have been my lifeline, constant reminders that I am not alone. They live a ritual of celebration. AimeeJim When Ian was born, I announced that they would be his grandparents, and Ian’s dad and I wanted them always to be a part of his life. It is their devotion to Ian that has given me a greater understanding of the possibilities and power of love. IanJimThey have been splendid grandparents in very helpful ways—staying with Ian when he was sick so I wouldn’t have to miss work, taking him to dentist’s appointments when I had meetings, giving me a much needed evening out with friends, buying him school supplies every year and making it a fun ritual. They have been remarkable in their willingness to simply be present in his life from building elaborate Thomas the Tank Engine train tracks with him and reading hours and hours of stories to showing up for basketball games, soccer matches, swim meets, school programs, and birthday parties. They are two threads woven tightly in the fabric of Ian’s life. He didn’t realize that they weren’t his biological grandparents until he was 8 or 9. It didn’t matter. He calls them Grandma Aimee and Grandpa Jim and they are two of his favorite people. Even in his teenage world that is increasingly too cool for most adults, he loves being with them. IanAimeeIan and Aimee have an especially powerful connection, an understanding and adoration of each other that they formed from the moment of his birth. With glorious photographs, Aimee has documented  the years of Ian’s life, capturing his smiles and adventures and easy moments of great joy. She has taught me much about my own son, gently and patiently conveyed as we look through those photographs, talk about his progress in school, his friends, observe how he moves through the world. She not only adores him, she understands him deeply. I believe this is because, perhaps, he is her anam cara. Tomorrow, Jim, Aimee, Ian, and I will have a picnic together at “our” picnic table in the sculpture garden near my house. We’ve had many picnics there over the years and many photographs of Ian in the nearby tree. This will be a different picnic because we’ll be celebrating their move to a new home a couple of hours away from us, a home that will take them closer to their beginnings. Next week, I will be part of the small entourage that drives with them to their new home in their new city. It is not that far. Ian and I will travel down often to visit them. But it feels a bigger loss than I want to admit, and it seems selfish to feel sad just because they will no longer be 15 minutes away. They will always be with me, these friends of my soul, in that “ancient and eternal way” of the aman cara. The Catholic mystic Thomas Merton wrote, “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” But Jim and Aimee spend their lives doing just that, praising the light in others, all the while, blazing themselves. They have taught me to know this light in myself and in Ian. And no matter where they are, we will be shining. Glendo, Wyoming

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The Crossroads or Alligator Nelson Dreams

Dwell in the magic
of intersection, ripe
with everything
with nothing.

Dismiss judgments of this place
others define only
by its relationship to somewhere else,
only as a turning point in our race
to find the right road.

Refusing definition by direction
and momentum,
we may be gifted
an arrival of tenderness,
hours we award ourselves
that are not waiting,
that are not needing,
that are not lost,
that are desire
to be witness to our own lives.
Nelson

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In My Family’s Kitchen

As a teaching assistant in graduate school, I had a conference once with a frustrated young student, full of despair about the world and his own life. He regarded my own obvious faith in humanity with bewildered suspicion.

“Where do you get that belief in people?” he challenged.

“Quite honestly,” I told him, “from my family’s kitchen.”

In my family’s kitchen next to the table where seven of us ate dinner every night, my mother placed several items in a glassed-in shadowbox that my father had built for her. Some of what she chose to display for years: a Precious Moment’s picture from a 4-H kid she’d taught to knit; a hand-carved, jade pot my grandmother had brought to her from China, a Dutch smoking pipe belonging to one of my father’s ancestors, a hawk’s feather from my brother’s childhood pet, a Limoge teacup. The message of that shadow box was that in our house the playing field was level. Ancestors, little girls, wild animals healing, or world travelers–they all had equal value. And perhaps in some way, they were all connected.

At any given time, at our kitchen table, you would find the Swedish sheepherder, the Danish pig farmer, Hispanic janitors who worked at IBM with my father whose company he enjoyed as much as the engineers he worked with, an African American hitchhiker my brother brought home once because he needed a good meal, a Lesbian my mother became good friends with (whom she called “sir” for the first week they worked together), an array of school teachers, the Avon lady, the insurance agent, 4-H kids, the sheep shearer, the German engineer, the Methodist minister, my brother’s Hispanic friend nicknamed the “Flying Burrito” whom my parents took in to live with us one school year, a Polish couple who had survived the Holocaust, and so many more.

They didn’t all gather at the same time, and in fact, they might not have gotten along with each other. The Republican sheepherder wouldn’t have appreciated sitting with the hippy school teacher; I doubt the Avon lady would have had a lot to say to the Lesbian cook–I mean it was rural Colorado in the 1970s. The uncanny thing is that my parents did appreciate all of them. They welcomed all visitors to our table in their candid way with warm easiness. They sat with their diverse range of friends genuinely happy to see them, made coffee, served pie or cake or cinnamon rolls that always seemed to be coming fresh out of the oven. Sometimes they counseled or comforted or just gave away fresh vegetables from the garden or freshly churned butter. And they laughed. The wacky crews that assembled in our kitchen were a normal part of my childhood. It wasn’t until much later that I realized how remarkable was my parents’ ability to accept people purely for who they were.

I didn’t tell my student any of this. Maybe I should have, maybe the crazy details would have gotten to him. Instead I summarized, lamely, my learned sense of fairness from my parents, of their kind generosity that traveled with me.

And it does. But for all the details of the characters and their stories gathered around that childhood table, I remember this more: each night after work, my dad put his lunch box on the kitchen counter and hugged my mom long and gently, centered in the same spot of the kitchen, every day. Being the smallest child, I often squeezed in between the two, saying, “Me too, me too.” Never turned away, I was a part of their ritual embrace, the morality of love they lived, and so taught.

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An Answer

Throat singers of Outer Mongolia
build a vocal landscape:
breath
hum
whistle
vibrations
from nest of throat
become mountains
clear prairie and running horses
rock
wind
waterfall.
Rich breezes their throats bend
in resonance giving
mountains and rivers
voices
so powerful that singers become landscape
chunks of earth and stream becomes language.
These wizened singers in bright silk
live in joy
of not searching answers.
They sing
from beneath themselves,
make their body
instrument
song
answer.

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Lessons from My Garden

It’s almost planting season, which has made me think about the lessons I’ve learned from my garden over the years. I hope more are on the way!

lavenderbasilMy grandmother told me that to believe in God, all you had to do was put a seed in the ground and watch it grow into a living thing. Precocious child that I was, I wanted to set her straight about how plants really grow, but I’m glad now that I never did. The more time I spend in my own garden, observing the way life begins again each day, the closer I come to understanding my grandmother, and indeed the more I come to find my garden, a holy place.

My garden is not spectacular. There are little patches of dying grass and myriad variety of weeds, my vegetable rows are never straight or evenly spaced, some years the tomatoes get bottom end rot, or a fungus may spread across the delphiniums, or the wide circle of  the most brilliant Iris might produce one single blossom the entire spring.

But there are also early summer mornings, when Ian and I amble to the berry patch when the raspberries have arrived in ripe thick clusters across the vines, and we’ll sit amidst the prickly canes and have an entire breakfast of berries.

LinguaAnd there are days when I first notice that the half-moon pods of the lingua di fuoco–tongue of fire–beans  have acquired their streaks of red running the length of them as if some garden sprite had taken a tiny paint brush to them in the night.

And days in the heat of mid-summer when I kneel next to the tomatoes and breathe in their inimitable musky scent and regard it as a small miracle that a tiny yellow flower grows into something so much beyond itself. Heliopsis

And there are days when the heliopsis have bloomed so profusely that their brilliant yellow shine seems to cast a glow down my summer street.

If you pay attention the garden will teach you things.  Like patience and hope and the grace of return.
A few springs ago, I noticed all my neighbors’ yards flaunted rows of brilliant red tulips and clusters of egg-yolk daffodils, grape hyacinths gathered in knotty little bunches at every corner.  My yard seemed to be in a different seasonal zone altogether. I had one daffodil ease itself open unnoticeably under the mailbox, but my line up of tulips—which had great futures as burgundy and yellow, and red and orange striped beauties—stood poised but stubbornly unopened.
Patience is a really useful tool when it comes to waiting for new life. Sometimes you’ve done everything you can with the watering can and the mulch and compost, and all you can do is wait. But as I waited for my tulip friends to open wide, I thought back to another spring for one more possibility.
It was when Ian was four, and I remember being terribly grateful for spring. It had  been a metaphorically, long, hard winter—the first winter of being divorced which I’d spent convincing myself  that the dark months would dissolve into light. So when my first tiny crocus had foisted its wee yellow tips through a dusting of snow, I stood on my front step privately cheering it on. “Good for you,” I had whispered, for myself perhaps as much as the flower. Then I showed Ian the crocus peaking out from under its white blanket, “Look!” I’d said, “It’s our first flower of spring.” His face sparkled as he spied the blossom in the snow. He hovered over the crocus, then clapped his hands loudly as if giving a standing ovation to life returned—life in a hardy little blossom that refused to coil back despite the cold ground, the snow, maybe even loneliness at being the first to have arrived.tulips
So, after I’d thought back to Ian’s ovation for the crocus, I knew exactly what I needed to do for my current challenge with the stubborn tulips: I slipped outside and gave them a big hand, thanking them for their resilience, their beauty, and the grace of their return, no matter how slow.

If you pay attention, the garden will teach you to let go.

Pruning is my least favorite thing to do in the garden. Preparing the soil and poking the seeds in the ground, the planting of annuals and little sprouts of vegetables, I do with beloved anticipation and hope, curiosity and maybe a tiny bit wonder. Harvesting? Oh the best, eating the fruits of your labor, sharing the big veggies with friends, cutting giant bouquets of flowers to adorn the kitchen table. Harvest is a triumph of my collaboration with the earth.

But pruning, pruning is maintenance, who wants to do that?

Rumi, the 13th century Sufi Mystic urges us to “Give up this life and gain a hundred new lives.”  It’s important to do that from time to time: to let go, something I suppose we all have a hard time with. But if I can do in my life, what I do in the garden, I am blessed with the hope of a hundred new lives. Think of the petunia. They’re a rather pedestrian little annual, but I love it. They’re beautiful and hardy and plentiful, and soon after they bloom, their little flowers shrivel up and fold in on themselves; they droop, clearly knowing it’s time to let go. And what’s most gratifying perhaps is that the gentlest of plucks releases them and creates an opportunity for another blossom, which seems almost immediate. AppleWhat I can learn from that. It’s healthy to let go of what no longer serves us. Think of the raspberry canes we cut back to nibs, the lilac bush, the fruit trees–all for their continued growth, and the same with me. So, I try to regard pruning, not as maintenance, but as a joyous art of cutting away the spent and the dead to make light and space for new life.

If you pay attention, the garden will teach you perspective.

RaspberriesI think about perspective a lot when I’m picking raspberries. I pluck all the ripe ones from the bushes in front of me and I think that I’ve got them all. Until I take a step right or left or kneel down to pick one I dropped and see that I’ve missed a whole bunch. This happens with cherry tomatoes and green beans, too. I have my eye trained on a single view of what I think is it–on what will benefit me, what is good. But when I shift my perspective slightly left or right of where I stand, I am rewarded. When I go below my standard field of vision or above, I often discover some unexpected goodness.  Looking at the raspberry patch or the bean bushes, and most moments in my life, from a 360 perspective awards me a richness worth harvesting.

If you pay attention, the garden will teach you to adapt and to thrive.

CoxcombIn my 77-year-old friend Dona’s kitchen, hangs a big banner that reads, “Bloom Where You Are Planted.” I thought of this when I noticed that some coxcomb that shot up, in that daring and surprising way of renegades, in between the raised vegetable beds and the wooly thyme. How did it get there? I don’t know if divine providence, a capricious breeze, or careless cleanup in years past caused it to take root there. But now that it was there, thriving and lovely, I couldn’t bare to pull it up. It bloomed where it landed, and who can argue with that. I laud the random happenstance that creates surprise in my gardens and my life. A dozen years ago the seeds of my life and the tiny sprout of Ian blew from France and landed in Colorado. A divine providence? A careless cleanup? I don’t know, but I feel that I was planted here, and what else can I do but bloom? As surely as the coxcomb and any errant marigold or snap dragon who shoots up in driveway cracks will attest, you can always find the nourishment you need if you adapt.

If you pay attention, the garden will teach you to have faith.

My mother, who truly can grow anything, wears a sweat shirt that says, “Gardening is a way of believing in tomorrow.” I suppose that must be what sends me to the yard each season: that hope, that longing. I trust the seeds I sow and the sun and the soil and hardiness of the vine. I trust my abilities as well as my acceptance of the surprise ending. Perhaps just my belief in the possibility of new life is enough.

Which brings me back round to my grandmother and her seeds and finding God in their birth and blooming. It’s good to have faith that our seeds will burst from the earth, that our lives will keep growing, that when one season is over, another will take its place. “We move from life into life,” the poet Galway Kinnell tells us.

Perhaps what makes a place holy and what fills us with grace is that which teaches us to have faith. For me, my garden is that place.

Garden2013
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