The Pond

 

The pond lay just out of sight beyond the end of our street; down a washed out dirt road, over a crumbling fallen tree trunk. One last push through thorny berry brambles and there it was, a small sandy beach lapped by sloshing green wavelets. Surrounded by a dense forest of sugar maple, oak, and evergreens, and fed by a tangle of streams, the pond was a world away from our neighborhood of tidy cottages.

It was here that I felt my first conscious gleam of curiosity. I was five. I would sit and watch with rapt admiration as the older children splashed and ran without fear. Every ten-year-old floating on a log seemed as brave as Peter Pan and his lost boys. The truly great ones were my two older sisters, Suzanne and Marjorie. Strong and beautiful they dared to float an old rowboat, christened the Robert E. Leak, across the vast ocean of the pond through a boggy marsh of broad grasses and cattails, to the enchanted Rock Island.

The precipitous end of the road served as a jumping platform for the gang of neighborhood children. I watched their display of reckless daring with terror and envy. Someday, I would be that brave. The water’s cool green depths furnished more than relief from summer heat. There were small painted turtles, tadpoles, and fish to catch. Shrieking with delight and horror, Suzanne yanked a drum-sized snapping turtle out of the water. Swinging from her fishing line, it wriggled and squirmed until it fell back into the safety and freedom of the pond.

The banks of the pond yielded sticky, brown clay we sculpted into grotesque primitive figurines that dried to chalk dust on our backyard picnic table.  Meandering streamlets beckoned us deeper into the woods through a carpet of skunk cabbage to a “horizontal heaven” of felled trees whose interlaced branches made perfect nests for playing make-believe.

A cold snap signaled fall and the end of our pond water fun. School started. I was enrolled in kindergarten at the white clapboard school on the village green. Autumn’s color ritual began, lighting here and there small blazes which spread more each day until the pond was engulfed in brilliant shades of fire. The glowing forest lured us to play under its bright canopy. We kicked up the corn-flake crunchy leaves from which the spicy rich scent of damp earth and decay conjured images of New England’s ghosts haunting and hiding in the shadows. On the banks of the pond we piled the leaves higher and higher then lept into the fragrant stacks; giggling and rolling our bodies until our hair was tangled with autumn’s debris. At bathtime, when Mama combed out the snarls eliciting our loud protests and tears, we would wish that we had been wiser. But we always forgot the tug of her brush when the joy of flinging ourselves into the leaves beckoned.

The first snowfall came in the night silently altering the landscape we had so easily explored all summer. Through darkened glass panes, we watched fuzzy snowflakes drifting thicker and faster obliterating familiar terrain. In the morning we plunged into closets full of winter clothes and worked up a sweat donning layer after layer.  At the open front door, we blinked and sneezed in the shattering light reflected off diamond crusted snow. Our snowsuit-bound bodies struggling to stay upright marred the pristine snow as we kicked new trails toward the sledding hill above the pond. The pond had disappeared into an expansive white depression fenced by naked trees, its crystalline surface hidden in pristine snow drifts. My father surprised us with a bright orange saucer sled.  We spun crazily downhill in a heap of arms and legs and squeals, snow sifting into our sleeves and boots,  snowmelt dripping down our necks. Daddy also introduced us to ice skating on a patch of the pond where the ice was swept clear of snow.  A bumpy pattern of ice-locked leaves sabotaged my efforts to glide and spin in a graceful dance as I imagined I would. I spent more time scooting and crawling than I did skating.

The pond offered a different treasure box for each season, everything nature could offer to entice and teach. It was the whole earth on a small scale, safely nestled at the border of our front yard within easy reach of help, always safe and hopeful. The pond also taught hard lessons. A final one: adjust, nothing stays the same. A man started bulldozing trees and pushing dirt into the pond. My sister stood tense and angry, fists clenched, screaming at the clattering machinery, despairing over the loss of each tree. One man’s progress,  a child’s cataclysm.

After only eighteen months, we left our Massachusetts wonderland and moved to a California coastal town. There were no ponds, no berry brambles, or woods nearby. But Daddy led us to new adventures: sea shells and teeming life in the tide pools, body surfing at the beach, hiking in the quarries and canyons of nearby brown hills. The pond gave us an appetite for encountering the small wonders of the world and offered us a key to endless joys anywhere we went. It continues to haunt me. Everywhere I have traveled I have searched for the magic I felt as a little girl sitting on the edge of that pond where my curiosity and love of adventure began. The ghosts of that New England woodland world continue to lead a circuitous route to my inner world where the magic never ends and the treasures of all cherished pond-worlds never die.

 

Acknowledgment: Thank you to Suzanne Snow Huff for her additions to this recollection.

 

 

evanescent

Until this moment there had been no sound of a dancing, sparkling stream: not yesterday, or the day before, or even weeks before. Then out of nowhere, I heard the startling sound of rushing water gurgling unfettered. Incongruous, it sang from beyond the shady green sliver of muddy lawn behind our house. Usually, I went about the day’s chores accompanied only by the slosh of the dishwasher and the whir of the air conditioning.

Until now, on this languorous hot spring day heavy with aching nostalgia. We were homesick for where we recently moved from and didn’t know for sure where we would go next. Then came this flash of brilliance: more than swiftly flowing water, more like magic unleashed from some mysterious provenance.

The shallow creek bed strewn with leaves had not shown a drop of moisture since we moved into the tattered rental home at the top of an ordinary suburban street. A house remarkable only because of its perch on a beautiful mountainside.  Steep and meandering, the creek bed had, in fact, become almost invisible in the shadows under the cottonwoods and willows that bordered our backyard. I wandered out onto the back step transfixed by the music of the stream mingled with the shrieks of children . . . joyously distracted children: laughing, splashing, chattering, released from the mundane heat and lethargy of a late spring afternoon. 

My children, stirred from heat induced drowsiness,  instinctively waded into the water and with the plentiful creek stones, began building dams above crystal pools, and grottos amidst crenelated castles. Smooth round, flattened, and egg-shaped stones which had spent eons being shaped under the sylvan hand of snow melt dripping from mountain peaks and ledges and coalescing among the springs and ravines above our mountainside home. Noisy freshets, carrying a  sweet unforced joy, gained momentum tumbled down the mountain unrestrained and were unleashed in our back yard. But unleashed from where exactly? Where had it been imprisoned? Why did it hide until this rapturous moment when it burst forth at our doorstep?    

We barely questioned the source for being absorbed by all the avenues of play and delight that having our own enchanted stream presented. And we were enchanted: by the sound of water on stone, by the slick squish of mud between our toes, and the bracing baptism of muddy feet in the ankle-deep freezing water. Imaginations were suddenly awakened to dreams unfettered on what had seemed a dead end day.

Later, when the magic disappeared,  I suspected that some demand of yearly maintenance stopped the normal diversion of water into the more civilized irrigation canal that bordered the subdivision. And thus, for a brief time, liberated the water from being carried neatly, well-behaved, and on schedule to the farms and gardens below unleashing it into its ancient wild courses. Which unleashed the children and I from a spate of listlessness for a few quixotic days.

It was a brief flash of enigmatic fun. As small as our postage stamp yard but as large, and splendid as the snow-capped peaks above us. When the water abruptly stopped flowing, the tragedy was so poignant we just shrugged it off so as not to feel the loss. We were between permanent homes and couldn’t absorb another drop of sadness. Later, I reflected on the joy of those few days and marked them as important, a shimmering family memory. Reflecting back is useful, but there is a skill less common and deeply quenching to our rushed souls:  slowing down this moment and sensing its iridescence, savoring the rush of joy from common occurrences that are a wild privilege in our neatly channeled lives.

Too often I have been missing from some of the most important moments of my life. Much later, they reappear to remind me that there is extraordinary magic that unexpectedly comes not from grand events or spectacularly rendered achievement, but from gleams that can be lost in the blink of an eye. A more attuned mind might immediately see such moments shine in faceted brilliance. A testament to the of the sorcery of small things.

 

A MOTHER’S UNIVERSITY BLUES

After sending our first child off to  Utah State University for his freshman year of college, I wrote this nostalgic introspective.  Important to note is that we moved from Alaska to North Ogden Utah only a couple of years earlier. In order to continue the classes he was taking at Chugiak High School,  Jason skipped mid-year from being a 9th grader to being a second semester sophomore at Weber High School. It was a shock to realize we would be sending him off to college a year earlier than expected. 

My theme for my essays thus far in 2016 has been Curiosity: the joys, the benefits, the healing nature of this essential human experience.  I didn’t realize it at the time but curiosity helped me cope with this moment of separating from my firstborn and at the same time staying connected. 

A MOTHER’S UNIVERSITY BLUES – Fall 1993

I watch wistfully as you stand on the lawn outside Rich Hall in faded Levi shorts and white t-shirt, your body poised loosely with weight on your right foot, hands in pockets. You call no attention to yourself as is your way.  You wait and watch, sensing how to subtly fit in with a new crowd. You glance towards a group of self-absorbed students playing guitars and handing out keys to the new kingdom you enter today.

“I hope I didn’t embarrass you by telling them your guitar is broken.  It would probably be fun to listen to them jam once you finish unpacking.”  I tell you what you are probably already thinking.

You nod and say, “Hey, did you hear that? That guy’s playing Pink Floyd.”

Yes, Pink Floyd. I’ve made it my business to know the music you listen to and to nurture a discriminating ear for melody, lyrics, and quality. We became Sting fans together–you shared the concert I couldn’t get to. David Arkenstone we discovered together at Graywhale music store. From Paula Abdul when you were twelve, you moved on to Sting, the Cranberries, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Dream Academy (more my taste), Stone Temple Pilots, Live, Rage Against the Machine. You tolerated my enthusiasm for Crosby, Stills, and Nash but you did fall in love with Joni Mitchell. “Hey, Mom, listen to this,” was a signal for me to drop everything. I have jealously cultivated a foothold in everything you love: music, art, science. We have shared a voracious curiosity.

How can I maintain a foothold in your life here, fifty miles from home, on this insular mountain-valley campus where the tang of fall is keen and the air is electric with anticipation?  A small toehold will have to do.

The music drifts by us. Your father hugs you and strolls to the car. It’s time to go but I can’t. I’m thinking about your apartment. We forgot a few things. You’ll only be an hour away, but already I feel torn. There’s a new space growing in my consciousness; a bubble of awareness that will hold a tiny, worn-out, student apartment.

“You could use some slip covers or a blanket to hide that frayed sectional in the sitting area. Maybe a plant for the kitchen. Would you like me to bring something like that?”

“Yeah, and get the guitar fixed right away, the bike too. Try to bring them up next weekend.”

“We’ll try.” I’m thinking about how you could decorate the walls and hoping you’ll remember to clean the bathroom once in awhile. “Don’t hesitate to call us if you need to . . . try to call when the rates are lowest.” It’s a miserable thing to be cheap about keeping in touch with your child.

I’m wondering: Will I lose touch with you? Will you branch out into places I can’t go? No doubt. I’m jealous and at the same time proud and glad that you can move on. I can give the extra time and space to your sisters and brothers. They still need what you must now leave.

I wish I could be a fly on the wall of your apartment. Not to spy, but to experience: your new friends, new tasks, new awareness of life and possibilities. I know you can cook for yourself, plan your time, make your own choices.  You’ve proved that many times. I’ve invested so much of my life–surely I can be forgiven for living through you some of the time.

“Dad’s about to honk the horn at me. I’d better go.” I wrap my arms around you tightly. You respond with a limp squeeze. We pull away from the curb with a glimpse back to see you disappear into the stairwell to your apartment. My little bug’s eye-view continues: I see you enter your room and begin unpacking. First, you will set up your stereo and put on some music, maybe Windham Hills guitar?  More likely Stone Temple pilots. You’ll arrange your books, pictures, and make up the bed, making the room look less sterile. You’ll look out the window at the boys playing their guitars, and your fingers will itch to work out another song.

In the car on the way home we listen to Sting’s “Fragile” as we ride through the mountains watching the autumn leaves change color.

5

Jason 2005, still looking like a college kid, Thunderbird Falls, Alaska

 

8 MYTHS ABOUT CURIOSITY

In December, the world went blank with snow and fog, a good metaphor for my state of mind. I had to dig deep to understand why I hadn’t been writing regularly for months. Writing is my thing. When there is nothing else, there is writing. Yet there I was in the jolly old month of December feeling like everything was futile and I had no reason to be writing anything anywhere. Why should anyone care what I had to say?  I was stuck in my head, my avalanching insecurities burying my joy.

Then I tripped on the first stone in my path. Tripped, as in being suddenly forced to wake-up and take a good look around. I landed face first in the grinding question: Why do I write?  I don’t have to. No one is dishing out assignments except myself. An answer finally came burning through the mist, simple and free of ego.

The plain bare fact is I don’t write because anyone will read or appreciate what I write ( that is a pleasant afterthought but not my purpose). I write because I always feel better when I do. A letter, or a journal entry, or an essay to post on my blog can elicit the sensation of a weight fall from my shoulders and euphoria lifting me from the ground. It is no more complex than that. Writing energizes me, heals me, sends me on my way knowing that if I can write, I can do anything.

Answering that question freed me to trip over the next stone in my path.  What shall I write?  Why am I afraid of that chasm, the one at the border of the blank page?  Why am I afraid of the gaping monster that guards the edge of creativity? Again, a simple thought cleared things up.

I was reminded of a December 29, 2015 post on my son’s facebook page, IMPACT-Self-Made Influencers Changing the World:

“This ties in with things I’ve said recently about following your curiosity. It’s a compass that has served me exceedingly well in 2015.

Then Todd Henry mentioned in my interview with him that curiosity was the thing that had helped him most to build his influential work.

This idea was also backed up by an Elizabeth Gilbert video I discovered last week (you may have seen it making the rounds) where she states that she no longer gives anyone the advice to find their purpose, but rather encourages people now to follow their curiosity.”

Curiosity is the bridge from where we are over the chasm to what we want to be and do. This idea burned through my fog of anxieties and self-doubt in a way nothing else has for a long time. We can be on fire with creativity through curiosity. We need to remember a few important myths about curiosity which tend to scare us off.

  1. Curiosity can kill you – it is dangerous
  2. Curiosity isn’t work – it is for lazy people
  3. Curiosity is frivolous and is for “pie in the sky” thinkers  – the curious are fruitless dreamers
  4. Curiosity gets you in trouble – it leads to bad decisions
  5. Curiosity is only for people with a high degree of  imagination and intelligence – it isn’t for ordinary folks like me.
  6. Curious people are annoying – they lack focus and have their fingers in too many pies
  7. Curiosity doesn’t lead to self-improvement – be safe and just follow conventional wisdom
  8. Curiosity is a waste of time – there are too many distractions

I’m going to leave it to you to figure out why these myths can lead poor health, poor emotional IQ, and stifled creativity.  Curiosity, like any powerful tool, has the potential to lead to problems but that is the way it is with all knowledge. Without curiosity, there is no exploration, and without exploration, there is no creativity or progress.

It is all too easy to be so focused on security and following safe rules and habits that we forget to be curious. By writing, whether just for myself or for public consumption,  I bring my being more in focus with my own healthy curiosity. Curiosity is the energy by which the universe becomes an endless source of delight. Writing gives us greater access to that joy.

 

 

I AM RADIOACTIVE

The second hand jerked around the clock face making a faint ticking noise, the hour hand seemed to stand still at 12:45. Two more hours of school left. An eternity. Fear was thick in the air, on television, in newspapers, in the whispers of adult conversations. Russia, Cuba, Khrushchev, missiles, communists, blockades, nuclear bomb tests. Would the world ignite into nuclear flame?

My mind wandered from the math paper on my desk to my hopes that my mother would say yes when I asked her if I could shave my legs. How could I get my hands on a razor and avoid asking altogether? I was a befuddled little girl on the border of teendom. School was thoroughly painful most of the time. The world was on the verge of nuclear war and I wished for a subscription to Seventeen Magazine. I was also afraid: afraid of Khrushchev, Castro, and my mother. (I have to say she didn’t deserve that, although Khrushchev and Castro probably did.)

Then Mrs. Hawkins pulled out that book. The one she had started reading to the class a few days earlier. Before she spoke a word, I stowed the rumpled math paper inside my overflowing desk. Mrs. Hawkins, wherever you are, thank you for choosing to read aloud to a room full of attention compromised ten-year-olds. School children in desperate need of something mind expanding in the middle of a musty school day and a frightening world.

I don’t remember if you were kind. But you must have been. I don’t remember if you tried to build my self-esteem. But you read our scattered thoughts. You knew we needed that book. I settled my head on my arms. Mrs. Hawkin’s voice carried me into the under-furnished realms of my imagination. Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Meg Murry were my guides through space and to the other side of fear.

“Well, the fifth dimension’s a tesseract. You add that to the other four dimensions and you can travel through space without having to go the long way around. In other words, to put it into Euclid, or old-fashioned plane geometry, a straight line is not the shortest distance between two points.”  (A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle)

What is a fifth dimension? (What is a cold war?) What is a tesseract? (What is a ballistic missile?) Who is Euclid? (Who is Castro?) What is plane geometry? (What is an Iron Curtain?) How can the shortest distance not be a straight line? The details were confusing, but it all added up to the world spinning out of control.

Reading Wrinkle In Time tapped a new resource inside me. My own curiosity. A refreshing splash in the face. A brisk dive into the cold ocean of my own mind. A fountain of self-knowledge and comfort. Ingrown fears mingled in my imagination with that one distinct moment that I first remember feeling alive with curiosity. Some said, the end of the world is at the door. How does a ten-year-old cope with that finality? I look back now and see that curiosity and faith are linked. Having a vision, even a very small one about a tesseract, can kindle hope and energy.

Shortly thereafter, our school district held a yellow (or red, or orange) alert drill for evacuating the school in the event of a nuclear attack. We prepared to leave school early on the day of the drill. To all of us children this was exciting. We formed lines in the parking lot in groups representing various neighborhoods. My home was quite a hike from the school. Normally I took the bus, but on this day, in the company of teachers and other students I walked all the way home, our group shrinking as each student dropped out at his own doorstep. Would we ever have time for such a luxury in the event of a  serious nuclear threat?

Meg Murry felt frightened, awkward, and unattractive. She lived a normal routine life of school troubles, worrying about her brother, playing in the yard, putting meals on the table (and space travel). I easily identified with her experiences. Strange events threatened her world and mine. I imagined myself in her shoes and stretched the bounds of my own universe.

On yellow-alert-drill-day, I stared up at the sky on the steep hike down Shorewood Drive towards my home on Basswood Avenue and wondered what it would be like if this “yellow alert” was not a drill. Would I be like Meg Murray if I came face to face with “It”? Could I save myself, my family? This was curious new territory for me.

Stages of my life have often forced curiosity behind concrete dams of fear. I learned to be wary of curiosity in school, at college, as I sought safety and security for my own family. Recently a serendipitous moment of exploration broke the containment fields I have built around my curiosity. I feel aglow with elemental human nuclear energy. It bounces around my mind and pushes outward radiating faith, knowledge, and enthusiasm.

Curiosity is a source of profound comfort to humans in a world full of pain and contradictions. It is the life force of problem-solving. When we treat curiosity as if it is a radioactive element best kept in protective containment so that it doesn’t burn us, we lose touch with an elemental source of personal power and even healing.

We don’t need a flask of radon, or a laboratory, or a particle accelerator to glow with radioactive energy. We don’t need anything more than this quiet moment, and a little curiosity, to connect powerfully and fundamentally with the whole universe.