THE ENDLESS GRIP

Certainly you have experienced this feeling. If you are human, if you are equipped with a searching and hungry ego (and even if you think you aren’t– but then you’d be lying to yourself). Surely, if you have lived in society and not in a monastery your whole life, you have been discomfited in this way. An irritating seed of ambition niggles at your psyche like a raspberry pip in your teeth which your tongue can’t leave alone. This sprouting ambition, nebulous, nameless at first, doesn’t have a specific target, just the desire to achieve something not just remarkable but unlikely. Spurning more natural, inborn talents, this naive seed of ego casts about for a more remote even impossible option for greatness: an Everest, an Olympic Medal, or perhaps just breaking 100 in the game of golf.

In the summer of 2008, after a battle with cancer, as I labored to regain my physical strength, and vent the fighting spirit that cancer engenders, my husband, Ralph, took me golfing at Palmer Golf Course, Palmer Alaska. Strangely, in spite of the briefest of seasons for lush fairways and velvet putting greens, golf is a highly popular pastime in Alaska. According to the sales person who ushered me through the aisles of tees, gloves, hats, and golf shoes one Saturday, the Sports Authority in Anchorage is one of the chain’s highest sellers of golf equipment. With the long summer hours of daylight, Alaskans have the luxury of tee times well into the evening hours.

In pictures of those first few rounds, I look gaunt, slightly hunched over, a bundle of skin and bones sitting in the golf cart pretty much just along for the ride. As the summer progressed, the game got into my blood along with the strength to walk a full 18 holes. I would describe myself as a singer, a dancer, an artist, not the athletic type. But that all changed that year as I plowed my way through round after round at 14 strokes (or more) per hole.

I didn’t suspect the transformation that golf would ultimately demand. This is not just a sport. It is a mental breakdown in slow motion, round after round. The seed of my golfing ambition planted itself firmly as I looked forward with enthusiasm to punishing myself mercilessly on the course along the banks of the Matanuska River. Thorny emotions got tangled with the mechanics of the swing. Prickly weeds of confusion ran riot over the tender skills of chipping, putting, and keeping track of way too many strokes. My voice, made husky by radiation, succumbed to fertile expletives which had never before passed my lips. But given one terrific drive and a handful of well-struck putts and the strangling vines of frustration dropped away. I would leave the course happy and hopeful.

In the summer of 2011, my husband signed us up to play in a Cancer Society fundraiser best-ball tournament. This was a graduation day of sorts for me. I was healthier and stronger. The florid scars of cancer treatment had faded. The energy of my cancer battle had fully transferred to my improbable crusade to golf well. I am not competitive. I am profoundly self-conscious. I prefer not to have anyone see my pitiful golfing skills. Nevertheless, there I was playing in a tournament with veteran seekers of par. Ralph and I arrived at our shotgun starting hole before any other teams. I stanched my fear of being watched by jumping to the tee first. I planted my feet solidly and hit the ball with a satisfying ping. A well-timed rush of adrenaline sent my drive sailing high, straight, and long right down the middle of the fairway into the face of Pioneer Peak. My husband’s drive duck-hooked into the woods along the river. The other two men on our team sliced their drives into a grove of birch and highbush cranberry. My drive was the best ball. I marched proudly down the fairway to hit my second shot. I was captivated. I was also completely ignorant of the fact that my progress in the game up to that point was an illusion; a combination of tenacious will and pure naive luck.

In 2012, we moved to the Boise, Idaho area which is blessed with a wide array of golf courses from the mediocre to the deluxe. We bought a pass to River Birch Golf Course, a friendly and mildly challenging course with wide fairways and refreshing views. With the encouragement of our real estate agent, I joined the Boise chapter of the Executive Women’s Golf Association. At the opening chapter event of the 2013 season, the veil of my Alaskan golfing experience was stripped from my eyes. These women could really golf. They outdistanced my childish strokes by dozens of yards. I was in way over my head. By the end of that summer season, I was both frustrated to the point of nervous exhaustion, and still, even more serious about the game. Golf is a game of inches, not yards; of delicate body placement, not just crudely wrangled clubhead speed. Both the mechanics and the mindset require a humble assessment of things you thought you knew, and things you never supposed about who you are.

I dragged out every back issue of Golf magazine we owned and studied like a freshman hungry to get on the dean’s list. I developed a taste for viewing golf tournaments on television, which my childhood self would have found stupefyingly boring. I jealously examined the techniques of my fellow players. I drooled as I watched 11-year-old, 100 pound, Lucy Li’s 250-yard drives. It finally dawned on my brain, clear as the sunrise over the ball choked ponds at River Birch Golf Course: the golf swing is not about thousands of infinitesimal golf tips and the minutiae of equipment specs.

The golf swing is raw physics. The right movement of the body, in the right space, with the right rhythm, at the right pace. Grasp that firmly first.  Only then can you manage to keep the physics clean AND increase clubhead speed with the whipping action of the club. Swing with your body, not your arms. My mind was blown. Everything I had been doing to improve my game was all wrong. Just a random set of categorically unrepeatable actions.

My epiphany about the physics of the golf swing focused my attention on the science behind how my body should move. However, my mental state was as out of sync as my motions. I was too tightly wound. My heart raced. My thoughts shot about wildly resembling the wayward hooks, and slices of a crowded driving range. My hands gripped the club like it was the edge of a capsizing canoe sinking in a deep water hazard. I would run from ball position to ball position as if an Alaskan grizzly was chasing me. Quite simply my head was not in the game.

A bit of luck gave me the opportunity to attend a seminar on irons by a well known Boise golf pro. This man is the embodiment of ease and grace. He languidly moves through the golf swing with relaxed focus. His first instruction:  make no exclamations of dismay for bad hits and applaud every good one. His second instruction: never go out on the driving range and feverishly hit ball after ball after ball getting more and wound up and out of breath with every stroke. He encouraged hitting four or five balls, then stepping back to rest, slow down, and establish peace of mind.

The swing is physics, the mindset is calm. The pros don’t jog from position to position as if they are in a race with their opponent. They saunter. When tempers flare, they quickly shake off their nerves and irritations or they lose. The LPGA pros are even more collected.

No more racing, no more ranting, no more unwelcome worries on the course. Play one stroke at a time with full attention. This is the ultimate triumph of my crusade to break 100. I am fascinated by the physics of golf, but more importantly, the game has changed my inner life. I am learning to saunter, to slow my heart, to shake off anxieties, to move away from my ego. My golf ambition propelled me into a new phase of self-discovery: the peace of mindfulness, the endless grip of now.

 

 

Body Surfing, Birth, and Death

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“Never turn your back on a wave. Jump over, dive under, or ride a wave until the water is so shallow that you skin your knees, but never turn your back on a wave.” This was my Dad’s sterling advice after I nearly drowned playing in the surf. 

When I was six, my family moved to Rancho Palos Verdes, California.  Several beaches were within a fifteen to thirty minute drive from our home. Our favorite spot was Avenue I, Redondo Beach. It had easy access from the street, showers that wouldn’t take the skin off with the sand, fine textured, not too gravelly sand, and the shore sloped gently into the water.  The tang of sea spray mixed with the scent of tanning lotion and fragrant ice plant flowers. 

My first visit to the beach became a game of “keep-away”—keep away from Daddy so that I could keep away from the water. He finally caught me and convinced me to get at least my feet wet. He took my hand and we jumped over the frothy edge of each breaker where it sizzled over the hot sand.  We ran after the water as it retreated and then tried to keep the incoming wave from tagging us. Eventually, my father had me waist-deep in the foaming green water, my skin slick and gritty from salt and sand.

With time I learned to swim out farther into the water and body surf.  First, I had to overcome my fear of strange creatures that might lurk beneath the surface. My friends and I exchanged stories of stinging jellyfish and hungry sharks. We dug for tiny sand crabs that swam in the mud under our sandcastles.  We saw hundreds of harmless sand crabs but never a shark and only once a helpless jellyfish washed ashore in a tangle of seaweed.  My comfort level grew and I ventured further and further into the water, throwing my body against the crashing waves. Later, I learned to conserve energy by diving below the breakers.  Sometimes, while floating in the rolling swells, waiting for the right wave, I searched the sandy bottom with my feet to find the telltale bump of a sand dollar and grip it with my toes.  Some would still be alive, a velvety purple, others were empty shells blanched white, a delicate flower design etched in the porcelain surface.

Catching a wave and riding all the way to shore takes patience and precise timing.  I watched each swell for the perfect moment to turn, and swim furiously toward the shore; hoping to catch the curl at just the right point, avoiding either a disappointing floater, or a terrifying pounding.  

“Here it comes, wait…wait…now…swim.”

The wave would lift me and carry me along its crest.  The churning water suspended my skinny, fragile body and propelled me, roaring onto the beach.  The power of the wave was, for a brief moment, mine.  

That power would serve me years later in the landlocked city of Provo, Utah, when I gave birth to my first child.  As the due date approached, I tried to imagine what labor would be like. I watched fearfully and joyfully for the first signs.  Anticipation and dread were replaced with carefully practiced conditioned responses as early labor slipped away, and I struggled to manage the relentless volcanic explosions wracking my body. All the studying and practicing of Lamaze exercises had not prepared me for the intensity of the sensations as my body readied itself for expelling the infant inside me.  The book said not to just lie in bed. I walked, knelt, leaned on the wall, and finally chose to sit cross-legged on the bed. Relax. Relax. Breathe. Relax. Breathe.

Nurses made concentrating nearly impossible as they took my blood pressure, demanded urine, poked for blood—a string of insensitive interruptions.  Finally, I was left undisturbed, relaxing, laboring: cleansing breath, deep chest breathing, up a gradual curve over the top and down the slope, cleansing breath.  A machine tethered to my belly registered the onset and shape of each contraction. But I felt them first: an almost imperceptible flutter of discomfort, then tightness across the top of my inflated uterus pushing down, cramping around the bottleneck of the cervix pulling up, thinning, dilating and gripping with a saw-toothed steel band of pain.  

As labor progressed the intensity of the pain didn’t increase, just the length of time it lingered.  The peak of each contraction grew longer. The book said not to call it pain. Relax and condition your mind so that contractions will not automatically call up feelings of pain.  Labor is work, not pain. The rhythmic surges pressed from the diaphragm, advanced down the belly, marched through the intestines, and strained open and out through the upside-down mouth of the volcano of my uterus.

 I had forgotten to bring an object or picture to use as a focal point as I relaxed, something to keep my mind from wandering into panic, to help me stay in control.  But a focal point did come to me. It was well ingrained in the memory of muscle and bone. Each contraction must be prepared for, watched for, and caught at the right moment and ridden like a wave…

“Bobbing lightly on the water, my body is supported and relaxed by the surface of the ocean.  I am lifted up, then dropped back on my feet by the wind driven swells. A ripe swell rises, sucking water, building an overpowering green glass wall.  Along the top a white ruffle emerges, the wall bends, and its smooth curl spills into the pull of the earth. Swim too soon and you float over the top. Swim too late and the wave swallows and wrings you out.  Be patient, wait…wait… now turn and swim. The wave pulls me into its roots and propels me up and forward, foam churning around my ears. The ride ends as the wave spreads across the sand, shallow, spent…as I am spent, but the baby is finally here.  The power of the wave is mine again.”

When I was six we visited friends in El Segundo where beaches are surrounded by rocking oil pumps and blasted by jet traffic.  We went to a beach called Playa Del Rey. It sounded like “a place to play.” While the adults set out the picnic, I wandered down to the water.  With a bucket and shovel I molded turrets for a sandcastle, dug a moat, and watched it fill with seawater. I coated my legs and arms with grime. Splashing and kicking to wash myself, I slowly waded further and further into the water.

I followed the angle of the tide and it drew me several yards south of the picnic area.  As I turned toward the shore to locate my family, a breaker washed over me, knocking me to my knees.  The ocean-bound water sucked me further out. Undertow. Riptide. Those words summon a picture in my mind of my father running down the beach into the water and my arms futilely extended to him, my skinny legs too weak to escape the siphon pulling me down the slope into the mouth of the sea.

Before my father could reach me, another breaker rolled me over and over like a pebble in a rock polisher.  I couldn’t tell where up was through the turbulent sand and water. Where was air? My lungs were desperate for breath when Daddy finally yanked me out of the surf and carried me to the nearest shower.  

Swimsuit, hair, and skin were drowned in sand.  I received a stinging scrub and an urgent lecture about paying attention to my surroundings, and always keeping my eyes on the waves.  Bundled in a towel, cradled in my father’s lap, I shivered uncontrollably until I fell asleep. This was the first time it ever occurred to me that my life, or anyone’s could easily and suddenly end.  

The ocean nurtures a rich variety of invisible life in its soupy waters, life that occasionally works a peculiar display of death.  Red tide arrives in Southern California with a stench that clears the usually croweded beaches. My dad explained that a shift of the ocean currents hundreds of miles away causes the water temperature to rise drastically.  This warmth disrupts the normal balance. Protozoans overpopulate and taint the water with secretions that poison other marine life. This bloom gives the surf a reddish hue and the smell of death. After dark, Dad and I walked along the strand and watch the fluorescent sea foam ignited by microscopic life.  Microbes stimulated by the churning water, gave off an eeery greenish light. A couple of times on warm summer nights, we went bodysurfing in the tepid rusty breakers. Every stroke of our arms and splash of our legs invoked a glow: ghostly waves haunted by luminous human wraiths. We relished the deserted beach and bathed in the mystery of red tide.

Many miles inland from the tidal pools and beaches that I explored with my Dad, after bodysurfing through the birth of three more children and going home to share grandpa’s beaches with them, I found a new need for the imagery of the wave.  On Memorial Day 1987, at some point along I-15 outside Scipio, Utah, my parent’s van left the highway, slammed into an embankment, and burst into flames. When I was informed of the accident and death of my loved ones, there was no time to conjure up a metaphor for those words, “they were both killed.”  The wave was simply there: unrestrained, unstoppable. I felt it swelling in my intestines, ripping through my diaphragm, smothering the breath in my throat, and receding only to rise again and again with unrelenting power. It towered above and inside me.

I thought I would ride it out.  I thought life should have prepared me for this crisis.  I had been so lucky, blessed; it was only fair that I have my turn to suffer.  Tragedy had finally caught up with me. After all, I had been taught many sweet clichés about what death brought to those who passed on.   But my superficial understanding only led me to turn my back on grief and let it overpower me.

At first the wave rose up in every unoccupied moment and unfilled hour.  So I avoided inactivity. Workouts at the gym, volunteer work at the school, phone calls to friends, church work, shopping: all normal activities.  However, I packed life full obsessively. I fled from quiet thought-filled moments. Contemplation brought no peace, only the surge and impact of the wave.  The endless minutes of silent darkness before sleep were the most painful. It took continual busyness to push the wave out of consciousness, to avoid the repeated physical wrenching of the incessant emotional tsunami.

I assumed that I could ride the wave, or dive under it—sidestep pain, and escape drowning.  The moment I said, “I can handle this,” I was sucked into the undertow and pinned to the ocean floor.  I became a bottom dweller gazing up through the murky light. I thought I could still see, breathe, move, live: that my life would simply go on.  But I was suffocating. Like the fragile sand dollar the shell of myself remained, but the creature that existed before my parent’s death was gone.  Without these loved ones taking up their intricate place in the ecosystem of my being, I had ceased to exist as the same person. Cut off from the familiar coastline of my former life, I moved in the viscous dream-motion under the wave.

Childbirth required that I maintain carefully choreographed control.  I could ride that wave with just the right responses of relaxation, breathing, and pushing.  But there is no handbook of conditioned responses for grieving. The stages wash over you unannounced and undefined.  And there is no concrete reward to anticipate at the end. Grief seems endless.

To survive the wave of grief, I had to let go.  I had to let go of control and get hysterical weep and mourn with abandon.  I had to mourn hundreds of imagined futures that now would no longer include my parents.  I had to face the wave of pain: touch it, taste it, wade and then bathe in it. I had to talk and talk and talk and talk about thousands of griefs that were part of the loss of my parents.  But that wasn’t all. This enormous loss dredged up hundreds of submerged ones that needed healing. The broken flotsam and jetsam of my life rode in on the tide and revealed itself unbidden and would no longer be ignored.

Finally, I had to go back to the labor of birth.  The birth of a new me. Perhaps that is the most frightening thing about grieving.  Deep down inside we know that we have been shaken to the core and can never, ever go back to being the same person we once were.  This requires an enormous amount of work. Sometimes we think we will never have enough energy to do all that work.  

Now, more than a decade and a half later, I feel the tide of grief keenly.  Having once had that enormous breaker let loose, I do not grieve gently anymore.  But having turned my back on it, and then bathed in it, ridden it to great depths and heights, I would not want to be the person I was before.  I keep learning how to harness the power of the wave, to be born again and again, even though I may never reach the shore

WILD AFTER ALL

Reed Lakes Hike

It was five dollar Tuesday. I was sitting in a darkened theater with my family, comfortably imbibing heavily buttered popcorn and bootlegged sour Jolly Rancher gummies while watching the movie “Wild”; a contemplative character study starring Reese Witherspoon. One particular scene evinced a vivid memory of one of our family’s own “wild” experiences. When Cheryl Strayed (the protagonist), settles down after the first exhausting and painful day of her trek, she attempts lighting her new WhisperLite backpacking stove. Run ragged and starving, she assembles the contraption needed for heating her dehydrated meals. But something’s not right with the delicate assemblage of wire stand, micro-burner, and heat reflector. She consults the stove manual and discovers that she bought the wrong fuel. Now miles and miles from any remedy for her predicament, this realization inspires low-blood sugar rage, and the fuel bottle gets ungraciously kicked out of camp…literally. That’s when my son and I turned to each other and whispered, “Reed Lakes.”

We were living in Alaska. My husband, Ralph, along with our youngest two children, Mike 17, and Amara 15, and I went on the fabled hike to Reed Lakes. The trail head was an easy one hour drive from our home in Eagle River, through Palmer, and up to Hatcher’s Pass in the Talkeetna Mountains. On that June day , we got a late start, but the weather was warm and deceptively fine. Sunshine broke through scattered clouds whose ruffled skirts now and then exposed a peek of the blue sky beyond. Which meant that none of us started out the hike with our coats on. After parking the car at the trail head, we rechecked the backpacks and rearranged a few items here and there to better balance the load. We stuffed in last minute items, among them knit caps and several plastic ponchos in case it rained which seemed unlikely. My husband’s jacket was stashed somewhere deep in the bowels of the largest pack, so it wouldn’t topple the load of sleeping bag and tent. Each of us carried some form of backpack with enough food and equipment for a night under the twilight of the Alaskan summer sky.

The first leg of the hike is a faded dirt road headed up the valley toward the abandoned Snowbird Mine. After scrambling around the decaying scrabble of mine ruins we stopped to snack on a handful of M&M gorp and water. By now the dirt road had petered out into a willow fringed pathway with a gradual rise in elevation as it meandered across a broad meadow traversed by a winding stream and wood plank bridges wide enough for one person at a time. Energetic and and light hearted we pressed on.

The sunshine and gurgling water inspired a sense of well-being and excitement over being intrepid adventurers. We had torn ourselves away from our tidy patch of civilization, and I do mean patch, on the banks of the Eagle River. We were partaking of a sacred rite of being Alaskan; trekking out into the wilderness as opposed to just living on the edge of it. We were giddy with the beauty of the landscape and proud of ourselves for escaping the ease of our suburban life. Our path was, clear, and we were Alaskans whose birthright was being at home in the wild.

In short order, our idyllic walk through the lush green vegetation and flowers of the meadow was brought to a sobering halt. A steep hillside loomed above us criss-crossed by steep switchbacks. Our booted feet dug into the moist dirt and pulled us along, calves aching, lungs gulping for air. We rested and sipped water at every turn in the path.

The view above and below us opened up into a spectacular bowl of greenery over which towering gray cliffs and peaks presided. Something that did not catch our attention yet, were the patches of snow that clung to the talus littered mountain flanks. At the top of the hill we paused to rest, raking our hands through unripe patches of blueberries. The dark green, low rising shrubs, held the promise of a bumper crop of the tart juicy fruit. We promised ourselves a return trip solely for berry picking.

This leg of the trip stopped abruptly at the edge of a steep tract of boulders precariously balanced in an irregular up and down cadence of ankle breaking crevices and dark holes where a misplaced foot could get firmly wedged. The scramble over the rocks, at first, was a welcome change from trudging up the steep switchbacks. Then in one terrifying instant the sole of my boot wobbled on a dagger of broken rock. I stumbled, the weight of my pack yanked me off my feet and downhill, throwing my body backward into the steep pile of boulders, arms and legs waving in the air like a turtle helplessly stranded on its back. We froze in shocked silence realizing that only the width of my backpack breaking my fall kept my head inches shy of a serious concussion or worse. It was a sobering reminder of how quickly we could get seriously injured and our joyous encounter with wild Alaska turn into a 6 o’clock news story about rescuing an unconscious hiker from the mountain. We slowed our pace and took greater care finishing our boulder crossing.

At the upper edge of the boulder field we faced a grassy ravine, creek flowing right down the middle between a steep “V” of gray rubble. Here, it became all too clear that mid-June was not yet summertime at this higher elevation. A cold wind flowed down from the frozen heights above and a frosty smattering of rain began to fall. The cold forced us to stop and don jackets and knit caps. All of us except Ralph. In the midst of our tightly organized packs and tidy zippered pockets none of us could locate his jacket nor one of the ponchos. At that point we were in such a hurry to find a camping spot we hoped was only minutes away, we abandoned the search and kept hiking upward.

Our pathway became slippery and gooey as it crossed dozens of weeping snow patches from which water oozed into the creek. On every dry knoll of grass elevated above the mess of water and mud, groups of hikers were setting up tents. We were hungry and tired and ready for dinner but we were also anxious to get away from the crowds of partying teenagers who were oblivious that their high spirited antics and laughter were spoiling the wilderness experience for the less exuberant. So we pressed on in the freezing rain up the steep ravine. We found every dry level spot occupied. With deep blue summer twilight darkening the unstable path, we finally emerged over the ridge into the bowl surrounding the first of the Reed Lakes. Thankfully this area was deserted. We were all by ourselves on a damp patch of threadbare grass surrounded by icy peaks. The creek we had followed the whole way up poured out of the heights above over shelves of broken and water-polished granite. Below us lay the ice crusted blue-green surface of lower Reed Lake.

We had no time to appreciate the view. The wind picked up and freezing rain fell steadily. Having still been unable to find his jacket, Ralph was shivering and on the verge if not fully into a state of hypothermia. We did a flash mob version of setting up the tent and then quite literally threw our backpacks, tools, and bodies into the barely comforting shelter of our dome tent. We were cold, hungry, and all vestiges of our earlier sunny dispositions had vanished. In the riot of gear and tangle of sleeping bags we huddled together for warmth. Out of the dark, above the sound of flowing water and our chattering teeth, we heard Amara’s pained but sweet voice ask, “Um, can we, uh, organize the tent?”

There was a split second of silence, then the hilarious futility of her request sunk in and we all burst out laughing. Amara’s plea for cool heads and orderly process fully expressed our frustrations. Where was Ralph’s jacket, where was the dang WhisperLite stove, matches, and hot food! First we had to get Ralph in better shape so we tucked him down into the warmest sleeping bag we had. Once he had stopped shivering, and maneuvering from the opening of his sleeping bag, he set up the tiny stove and began the process of lighting it. One match after another fizzled out. Finally the minute puddle of fuel was nursed into flame which promptly set the floor of the tent on fire.

We frantically smothered the flames and again broke into hysterical laughter having survived another close call. We gave up on lighting the stove and ate a cold dinner of cream cheese and ham sandwiches washed down with plain water. Enwrapped in hats, hoods, jackets, and sleeping bags we spooned close together and finally got warm enough to doze off.

Ten minutes later we heard the drunken giggles of clueless teenagers who had decided to take a midnight hike up to the lake. The group tromped around nearby laughing and talking for over an hour before disappearing back over the ridge toward their camp in the ravine below. Finally, no longer shivering and blessed with silence we fell into exhausted slumber.

Somewhere, I have pictures of us on that mountainside above the lake laughing and playing in the snow. It still being winter in the bowl of lower Reed Lake there was lots of snow. I don’t even remember the hike back down the mountain the following day. I just remember that every moment of delight and discomfort on that memorable hike is filled with joy. The joy of the wild. Not just the wildness of the wilderness, but the joy of surviving the wildly unexpected surrounded by such danger and beauty. And although we don’t live in Alaska any longer the wildness of that place, the resourcefulness it provokes, the memories created there will stick with us always. Wild after all.

Launched: 2015 A New Year Odyssey

“We’re still pioneers, we’ve barely begun. Our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us,

cause our destiny lies above.”

Cooper to his father in the movie Interstellar

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Imagine hitching a ride on the Rosetta spacecraft as it sped into the darkness of space in March of 2004 for a ten-year flight to rendezvous in 2014 with comet 67P/C-G. (http://rosetta.jpl.nasa.gov/).

First, you’re  launched along  a  trajectory  of visual splendor following the cloud veiled, blue-green face of Earth for  a year-long orbit around the sun.  From there, a gravity assist flings you into a close flyby of ruddy and hopeful Mars, laced with tantalizing signs of alien mysteries and microscopic ancient life. The miracles of astrophysics slingshot you to the asteroid belt, back to earth, and to the belt again. You have traveled to the furthest reaches of the solar system, nearly a billion kilometers from the sun, its warmth and light growing so dim that for a time Rosetta shuts down all but the most essential functions to conserve energy.

Finally, in November of 2014,  you watch the first ever landing on a comet as Rosetta’s robot lander, the Philae, alights on the surface. Comets have both terrified and fascinated humankind for millennia, and now, humans have a presence on one of those comets and can closely monitor its fiery transformation as it approaches the sun. Pictures are taken, analysis of the comet’s composition and other data are transmitted and jubilantly welcomed by knowledge hungry scientists back on earth.

At the end of its mission, Rosetta  will usher the comet to  its closest pass of the sun, termed perihelion. Then, the lonely wanderer will have fulfilled it’s purpose: mission accomplished, mission terminated. And you need a ride back to earth.

Round-trip passage on Rosetta is not possible, but we have launched into a new year and quite literally another odyssey around the sun; through space and time we embark on Mission 2015

Ever since my teacher,  Mrs. Hawkins, read A Wrinkle In Time to my fifth-grade class, I have dreamed of space travel, of vaulting the limits of the known  in order to visit other worlds.  Madeleine L’Engle’s book is wrapped in wonder, and filled with starlight, alien creatures, and mind-bending  tesseract spacetime travel. Ideas  like these still propel my hopes and fuel my imagination, sending me to the theater nearly every time a real science fiction film is released.

“Life, with its rules, its obligations, and its freedoms, is like a sonnet: You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself.” (A Wrinkle in Time)

In the spirit of the movie Interstellar, I fire up the imagination of  childhood  to make plans for 2015. With such imaginings, plans become journeys and shirk the mundane. For this year’s journey I have decided to work at seeing things differently, adopting an active spirit of inquiry.  I’m searching for a more evocative approach to the fresh slate of time and space awaiting me on  this journey across 2015.

We are literally hurtling through space.  Vast amounts of  data bombard  us every single moment, second, nanosecond. This sensory overload pulls at us like the gravity of a neutron star, inescapable,  though we manage not to let it consume us.  Every day there are limitless options, but always a limited amount of time. The closer we get to that neutron star, the singularity of too much information for the mind to handle, the faster our time leaks away like oxygen through a growing pin prick in a  space suit. Thus the need for balance, a delicate orbit where the sensory data can be observed and understood without becoming our destruction.

At NASA everything is planned down to the fractions of each second in order to accomplish highly technical and highly refined projects. Mission control is all about engineering the perfect plan and foreseeing all the variables;  with hope directing every second, every motion, every calculation.

The demands of my own personal “astronaut training” here on spaceship Earth have been daunting: physically, mentally, and spiritually. It’s daunting for all of us.  At times I’ve been tempted to cut loose and simply drift, foregoing any hint of NASA like planning of my life.  But I can no more choose not to act with intention than I can choose not to breathe. Choosing to drift would still be a choice with consequences.

I shouldn’t and indeed cannot tighten  up control of my life  with NASA-style precision ;  but there should be and will be planning.  In 2015, I am taking inspiration from the beauty and brilliance of the cosmos, respecting the organic flow of my  life in a fashion similarly to the astronaut’s and astrophysicist’s, the engineer’s and mission control specialist’s respect and reverence spaceflight and exploration.

My Mission Control for 2015:

Silence: I will give my mind and body more restful, rejuvenating, silence.  Silent time away from noise, data, conversation.  Even time silencing my thoughts. Think of the silence in the vast spaces between the stars.

Slow Down:  I am going to slow down: move slower, think slower,  find calm, use the pause and the breath. Think of motion in the absence of gravity: graceful, flowing, floating.

Move with intention:  Too often instead of controlling my life, life controls me.  Whatever is in my face gets my attention and action.  I will take a lesson from the finely tuned precision of a NASA flight plan,  paying more heed  to  intentions and priorities, doing what is most important  now,  for love of and commitments to myself and others. If I’m always swept up by that immediate impulse to take care of what’s in my face seizing my attention, all that’s being satisfied is that impulse, and not the plans and intentions built from a place of desire and caring.

Mindfulness: Certainly a ten year journey to the asteroid belt would give an astronaut plenty of time to meditate, contemplate the wonders of the universe, and gain greater self-awareness.  My hope is that by tending to a few key practices, I can create a similar, albeit less isolated space for greater mindfulness in hopes to cultivate an atmosphere of contentment in mind, heart and body.

My mission Statement for 2015.  

It may not give me the ability  to tesseract my way to far off solar systems, but hopefully exploring  my own soul creatively using the imagery spaceflight will foster travels in inner space as  awe inspiring as the splendors of the universe.


“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

The Fading Art of Christmas Card Giving

Downtown caldwell lights

 

“Jean!  Don’t take the Christmas cards before I get a chance to read them.”  That’s my mom scolding ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, etc. -year-old me.  I was one of those kids that went Christmas-crazy.  My wise mother found ways to channel my youthful enthusiasm for the season, she planned all sorts of  projects: baking, sewing, making ornaments, crafting wall hangings, making and wrapping gifts.  The constant over all those years was the Christmas card wall. This was our own original tradition.

The Christmas cards became my medium to create.  I kept watch for the mail, waited for my parens to read the newly delivered greetings (if I resisted the temptation of ripping them open first),  at which point I’d put  them up in a decorative zig-zag pattern on the wood pillars dividing our living room from the hallway.  Here was  my artistic and festive display that signaled that Christmas was indeed upon us.  The more cards, the greater my repertoire of colors and designs to draw from. In my mind, the photo cards were duds.  I favored the ornate: the sparkling gold, silver, and bright red beauties, the quaint village snow scenes, or mysterious dark skies over Bethlehem with richly dressed magi gazing at a magnificent star.

With time, I looked forward to having my own Christmas card list and sending cheerful greetings to friends and family. As a poor newlywed, the stamp price was indeed a sacrifice but this was my once-a-year chance to show my far flung loved ones that my husband and I were thinking of them. I realized that there was more than just the addressing, stamping, and mailing.  There was the yearly quandary over culling the list.  I never crossed someone off the list just because they didn’t send me a card.  Mostly, I just lost track of addresses, people moved, or I didn’t want to guilt-trip the remiss into feeling like they had to send me a card.

And then it wasn’t enough to send a card with simply “Best Wishes” or “Much Love” and a signature.  No, there should be a brief handwritten note, a more personal touch.  And I do mean brief, this was before we owned a computer. Eventually, we acquired a clunky Apple desktop with a word processing program, and I joined the trend of composing a yearly family newsletter; sometimes with a family picture  enclosed, and always stuffed in a glittery  decorative card so they wouldn’t be “duds”.  Eventually,  I compressed the family news portion and started writing and sending stories of the season. A few were my own fictional stories of the season, others were based on family events. Some were essays of personal reflection. It was a holiday blog via snail mail before blogs were ever blogged.

Ever being one to increase the interest level,  I began creating  handmade Christmas Cards as well; inspired by  the stamping and scrapbooking trend.  It was fun to get together with friends and share ideas and be motivated by each other to make our own special greeting cards. Does this all sound way too complicated? (Yes, I do have a tendency to over-do things as my imagination and expectations get a bit out of control.) But my Christmas card obsession was leading me toward my inner creator.

Down one path came my writing, down another, the embellishment of the Christmas cards inspired the budding photographer in me. For many years we lived in Alaska with myriad opportunities to take photographs of spectacular scenery and beautiful wintery vistas. With the advent of digital photography and the acquisition of a great camera, I had hundreds of pictures begging to be shared. I began using my photos not just for Christmas cards but for greeting cards of all kinds.  This was a lot easier than stamping and paper crafting and for me a great deal more satisfying.

Gradually, the stack of Christmas cards received by mail diminished. The advent of email greetings, tweets, and facebook shout-outs took a huge bite out of Christmas card traffic. Then we moved out of Alaska. This sea-change swamped my life and I had to let go of sending Christmas cards . I am now lost to most of my former correspondents and there are no cards to tape up on any  wall.

In 1843 Sir Henry Cole invited his artist friend, John Horsley, to create the first Christmas card which they printed and sold for one shilling each.  Cards could be mailed for a penny.  Christmas card giving spread to the United States and became a very popular tradition for sending a bit of Christmas cheer and the sharing of goodwill and peace. Dare I say, the pre-computer age facebook?  No, I think not. Likely, no one used Christmas cards for political rants or for determining which latte flavor defines them as a person.

Recently, an email from my best friend from high school (a faithful Christmas card sender) revealed that she is facing a second battle with cancer. This sobering news and my desire to comfort her reignited my desire to share a bit of personally  crafted holiday cheer in hard copy format. I still have many megabytes and counting of photos to share and more importantly people to reach out to.

Time is more and more scarce and valuable,  a dizzying array of entertainments clamor for our attention.  Perhaps resurrecting a graceful tradition of a slower lifestyle  would calm our over-stimulated brains and put us in touch with our inner resources.  And maybe, just maybe, I’ll stuff this essay in a Christmas card, and mail it.

I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year!

THANKSGIVING: something we can all agree on

Our family Thanksgiving feast has been successfully prepared, served, and cleaned up. After a game of Ticket to Ride we will dig into our masterpiece pecan, apple, blueberry, and strawberry rhubarb pies. Right now, I have a few quiet minutes to share some thoughts on gratitude.

Religion, psychology, and self-help programs constantly remind us how important gratitude is to our happiness and mental health. In a contentious world, it’s a relief to have a holiday most people can  agree on. A day set aside for expressing what we are grateful for, for celebrating unity, for focusing on what is right and well in our lives.  My sense of well-being is daily sharpened when  I review my blessings. Here is my official 2014 Thanksgiving list.

– I am grateful for quiet time each day to contemplate my life and gain perspective. I am grateful for the inner voice of peace that motivates me to be positive, love others, and create beauty.

-I am grateful to be alive. In 2007 I had a battle with cancer, there was good reason to suppose I wouldn’t survive this inexplicable illness. Amazingly, I won that battle which has granted  me greater courage and resilience in the face of all my subsequent challenges. I am grateful for the lessons of cancer and for the emotional, spiritual, and physical healing which continues all these years later.

– I am grateful my husband is alive. This past year has presented Ralph with a persistent health challenge. His right arm and hand underwent many surgeries to relieve pain from nerve damage. In the process, he ended up with a life threatening infection. Perhaps it was my cancer experience that galvanized me for this battle, helped me know what steps to take, and how to demand the care he needed to save his life. He has always been a strong and sturdy support encouraging me to enlarge my talents and enjoy life. More recently, he gave me the gift of golf and all its adjoining physical and psychological benefits. I need him to remain with me in this earthly sojourn to be my companion,  my caddy, for many years to come.

-I am grateful for family. I had wonderful parents who gave me a solid foundation that has kept me steady every day of my life. A foundation of perspective and learning that instilled in me a love of family, a desire to start my own family, and the inspiration  to pass on the lessons of love and light they gave me. My children have in turn magnified that love and light in their subsequent life endeavors.. They are kind and gentle souls who make the world a better place.

– I am grateful for the freedoms I enjoy in the United States of America. Through my various readings and studies, I have developed an ongoing relationship with the founding mothers and fathers. Their combined courage, intelligence, and keen moral insights brought about a miraculous transformation of civilization unequaled in human history. I can’t overstate the value and wisdom I’ve gained from  studying their lives. More than the freedom to move and do as I wish, their knowledge, ideals and inquisitive dispositions have helped me open my mind and spirit for finding what freedom truly means to me.

-In my home we love to cook. I am grateful for the abundance we enjoy which allows us to create delicious meals, from Thai Curry to Yankee pot roast. I am grateful for the years and years of miraculously managing to feed my family thousands of meals, and sharing with friends our humble casseroles and rich stews

This Thanksgiving, no matter what our differences, let’s give thanks together as one, happily counting our blessings, and reaping the joy of gratitude

Do Something That Scares You

Paris, city of light and love. City of romantic Montmartre apartments and fresh baguettes with jambon et raclette. City of exhilarating architecture. City of terrifying traffic!

And there I was, crossing a devilish roundabout along with about a zillion other cars funneled into an inescapable metal trap. My exit lay ahead over the rooftops of about ten equally paralyzed motorists. The substance of my worst European road trip nightmare:  a full-on traffic jam, totally gridlocked, at night, in the rain, in the middle of Paris! I shoved the muscular five -passenger Peugot into first gear, slowly let out the clutch, and inched forward into the razor thin space between a red Fiat and a Gray Mercedes.

It started out as a simple trip to visit our son, Jason; his wife, Melanie; and our effervescent granddaughter, Cece, who had relocated to Paris for the year. How did it get so complicated, so fraught with jeopardy? One minute my husband, Ralph, said, “Since we are flying all the way to Paris what else could we do? How about beaches?” Ignoring the voice in my head that screamed for security and safety,  I looked on the map and noted, “Wow! The Costa Brava is only a half day’s trip to the south of France!” And, “Look, we could visit Carcassone!”

Before good sense (and fear) could intervene, we booked flights to Barcelona – a launching point to the Mediterranean and said beaches. We also decided to take a day trip to Burgundy in search of the ancestral home of my husband’s family. Our independent wandering spirits couldn’t stand the thought of being confined to public transportation. Our family has a long history of road tripping. This time I would be the exclusive chauffeur as my husband’s right arm slowly healed from painful nerve damage.

Never mind our hardened experience driving the Alaska Highway when it was merely a gravel track through deep woods and wilderness. Never mind that I cut my driving-teeth learning how to use a stick-shift Volkswagen bug. Never mind I had maneuvered our large travel van on the bustling streets of New York City and driven a class A motorhome on the narrow streets of Gig Harbor, Washington. Driving in Europe presented unique problems I felt unprepared for: foreign languages, cryptic traffic signs and regulations, sprawling toll plazas, a multiplicity of roundabouts (at nearly every intersection in country villages and large cities), ancient narrow roads, with alien landscapes as my proving ground.

Right out of the gate it became a white-knuckle adventure.  We arrived in Barcelona on the evening of September 24, after a 12 hour flight from Boise.  With a brain, fuzzy as the fleece on my airline neck pillow, I sleepily greeted the Hertz associate. Then I blindly refused the rental of a GPS device thinking we could make the six minute drive from Barcelona- El Prat Airport to the Hotel Hisperia Tower with instructions from a stack of Google Maps print-outs.

Once on the motorway, distracted by speeding traffic, I whizzed past the exit for Ave Autovia Castelldefels heading “nord”, and instead took the wrong exit headed “sud”.  My slow wit translated both from Catalan as “north and south” seconds after heading the wrong way.

Those seconds cost us thirty minutes but we finally managed to get turned around and had the Hotel Hisperia Tower in our sight on the far side of the motorway. After several aborted efforts to find the right exit (as in you can’t get there from here), we pulled into a darkened  motorway gas station. Our hotel was RIGHT there above us! But we couldn’t seem to get to it through the maze of roundabouts and dead-end streets. Finally, by driving through the gas station parking lot and ducking into an alley, we emerged in front of the hotel.  But not before eliciting a lecture from a tour bus driver for blocking his way through the hotel roundabout. (there again, the devilish roundabouts.)

The next morning I gazed “sud” from our 13th floor window. As if hypnotized by the traffic patterns below, I traced the route to the airport determined to preempt any nuances and surprises on the route back to Hertz. Clearly, a Never Lost navigating device was essential.  At 88 euros for the eight days, it was cheaper than data on our phones or psychiatric treatment. The Never Lost saved my sanity and  the beach portion of our trip.  Except, that is, for the time it got us lost.

With guidance from the Never Lost, navigating Spain and France was mostly easy and pleasant. Carcassone was magnificent. The Route des Cretes from Cassis to La Ciotat was an adventure worth the hairpin turns and dizzying heights. We had a glorious visit to the beaches and towns of Sete, Cassis, and La Ciotat, France, before heading back to the Costa Brava north of Barcelona. There, the navigator guided us off the motorway through green farms, vineyards, and charming villages to the medieval town of Pals.

At Pals, however, the Never Lost could not locate the address of La Costa Golf & Beach Resort.  Strangely, the navigator on Ralph’s cell phone did locate the resort and could direct us despite having no access to a European data plan. Something it hadn’t done before during the trip. Even so, we were soon facing the middle of a pasture and a less than promising shallow cement ditch. This was shaping up in my mind as one of those GPS horror stories that later becomes a Dateline exclusive, or worse, the 3rd sequel to an awful horror franchise. I wanted to turn back to Pals, but Ralph insisted we put our trust in the incorporeal GPS goddess and keep going. At the end of the ditch there was no option but to turn right onto a muddy dirt road. After bouncing through potholes and puddles, we suddenly broke through a line of trees and turned left onto a paved road where we encountered yet another roundabout.  There, much to my relief, was a sign pointing towards the open and welcoming gate at the entrance to the luxurious La Costa Golf & Beach Resort on Pals Beach. When we mentioned our strange journey to the desk clerk, she admitted, “Uh,yes, we know that it’s, uh . . . complicated.”

We settled into our accommodations and explored the lush grounds and swimming pool before taking a relaxing walk on the wide golden-sand beach. Upon learning that the hotel restaurant wouldn’t open until 8 p.m., having learned nothing from our earlier travails, I proposed another drive. I was eager to see the village of Begur. On the map it seemed simple (the map always seems flat and simple). We soon learned that lovely Begur is in the twilight zone.

The center of the village is high on the hills above the ocean.  From its perch, spectacular homes spill down the steep forested slopes, along narrow vertical roads, towards cliffs fixed timelessly above the Mediterranean. This precarious layout completely befuddled the Never Lost. Around a tight switchback, just below our goal, we confronted an abrupt landslide blocking our way to Begur.  It seemed there was nothing to do but head back to the resort. However, the ineffectual female voice of the Never Lost had us driving in circles. Vertical circles up and down steep hills. After she instructed us several times to turn the wrong way onto one-way streets, we emphatically switched her off. We figured all we had to do was keep the ocean on our right while heading nord hugging the coast. By this point, after coming through several adventures unscathed, we felt assured that we could be “lost” without getting into too much trouble.

We survived and all was never even close to being lost.  But  that was before the gripping climax, the fuming Smaug of my psyche that I had every intention of evading: the Paris roundabout traffic jam.

On Sunday morning, October 12,  Ralph, Jason, and I took a taxi to Orly airport to get a rental car in order to avoid driving in the city. From there, once again guided by Never Lost, we entered the A6, Autoroute du Soleil, going south toward  Auxerre. Once off the motorway, a beautiful drive through quiet fairytale villages and farms of Burgundy,  led us to Chateau de Mailly, the possible ancestral home of Ralph’s forbearer, Pierre de Mailly. Thanks to the owner we were able to tour the beautiful chateau and grounds (a story for another time).

Rain began to fall as we set off on the return drive. We were tired and eager to get home, and didn’t want to waste time at Orly airport.  We felt confident that we could make our way to Gare du Nord, only a short subway ride to the Lamarck/Caulaincourte metro stop near our Montmartre apartment, to drop off the vehicle. Once again, it seemed so simple. But the road trip deities had other plans. By now I should have learned this.

First: Ralph, got more and more car sick as we approached Paris.  Second: even though it was a Sunday evening, traffic came to a stand-still on the motorway.  With Jason navigating via his cell phone, we gave the surface roads a try hoping they would be less congested. Alas, the entire city was out for a Sunday drive. And third: finding a gas station to fill up before returning the car proved to be maddening now that we were further from the motorway.  Gas stations in Paris seem to be as  scarce as an authentic French baguette in Boise. After several failed attempts to locate petrol, we decided to take Ralph back to our apartment as his discomfort level had become unbearable.

With Jason as my cohort in the quest for a fill-up, we continued the hunt  for a gas station by heading back towards Paris Boulevarde Peripherique. The night conspired to bring us to the nexus of commuters careening towards vehicular paralysis with me at the epicenter. The only way out was through: nudging forward, one inch at a time, the Peugot’s proximity alarm blaring neurotically. Jason pointed ahead as an opening materialized. Steeling my nerve, I put my foot to the pedal, threaded through the eye of the needle, and darted out of the roundabout.  We were still not out of the woods, or rather, fender bender danger yet. At Gare du Nord I had to maneuver a narrow cork-screw passage to the Hertz drop off five stories underground, proximity alarm once again objecting strenuously right up to the last moment when I dropped the keys in the attendant’s hand.

I suffered many sleepless nights making preparations for our trip.  I concocted hair-raising scenarios most of which never happened. A fair share of harrowing circumstances did arise, but in reality, much of the fun and adventure came from these crazy, unforeseen obstacles.

I have a new mantra: don’t fear your fears.  Being scared doesn’t have to result in crippling anxiety.  Challenge those fearful assumptions.  Staunchly face the charging imaginary traffic.  Appreciate small miracles: my high school French suddenly came back to me; slumbering intuition, dormant in the safety of home, came to life. Doing something that scared me granted me courage and self-confidence I couldn’t find any other way.

So, go ahead, do something that scares you.

Autumn and Sleepy Hollow

At my childhood home in Rancho Palos Verdes autumn came and went in California with only the sycamore tree dropping its leaves on the front yard.  I have since moved all over the country:  Utah, Wyoming, New York, Alaska, Washington, and Idaho and thankfully have more fully experienced the treasures of fall.   Because of that experience I can confidently assert that upstate New York is the capital of autumn.

We lived in the small village of Dryden, New York  and enjoyed two spectacular fall seasons.  The sticky heat of summer giving way to crisp mornings is the first hint of the season.  Pops of fiery color appear in the woods gradually envelope the hills, valleys, and farms. It seems every small village has its own river, stream, or waterfall along with a picturesque white steeple punctuating the blazing skyline.  At Cornell University Orchard store we tasted apples – Empire and Cortland varieties which I still crave – and filled our empty gallon jugs with fresh pressed apple cider.  On many Sunday drives we traveled country roads lined with produce stands, pumpkin fields, and corn mazes.

Our autumn color drives led us to Windham Mountain overlooking the Hudson River Valley where my husband’s ancestor, Peter, ran an inn back in the 1700’s. This is Sleepy Hollow country. This is where our American version of Halloween comes to life in the bounties of Squire Van Tassel’s harvest party and the terrors of the Headless Horseman. In our New York travels we saw many “Sleepy Hollow’s”: quaint towns festive with cornstalks and scarecrows. We witnessed the crumbling turrets of old mansions and mossy ancient cemeteries sinking into leafy soil. Tipsy pitted stones carved with R.I.P. and skull motifs show death dates going back to the early years of New York’s settlement. Halloween seems particularly authentic in the mystical countryside of the Hudson River Valley.  In the shadowy evocative hills and hollows of upstate New York I began to appreciate and savor the beauties of things neglected, spooky, and in disrepair and to follow the eerie allure of that which has been forgotten.

The mysteries and terrors of Halloween occupy miles of store shelves and hours of costuming fun but my favorite part of the fall season is the harvest.  I adore, and I do mean adore, the neat rows of bottled fruit in my pantry and the frozen gems of raspberry and strawberry jam in my freezer. The practice is labor intensive and not always a frugal practice still I find growing, harvesting, and preserving food to be deeply satisfy.  Perhaps I crave a hedge against insecurity and some future apocalypse.  Surely, home grown and home preserved food is the most delicious.  From Utah to Wyoming to Alaska to Idaho, I’ve  engaged in some large or small effort to preserve from my own garden or the local harvest.  In Utah, Wyoming, and Alaska that harvest included fishing and hunting:  deer, antelope, moose, salmon.   But as I contemplate writing about that particular harvest I realize it would take an additional essay for each adventure to be adequately detailed. I will save hunting expeditions for some other post.

Here, now,  in my home above Emmett, Idaho the buff colored hills are punctuated by spots of orange, yellow, and red.  The valley below is a patchwork of orchards and farms where we thankfully observe the the cycle of planting and harvesting. Last Sunday, we enjoyed a feast of autumn dishes with family: pork roast, potatoes, gravy, and apple-pear tart. This morning we turned on the gas fireplace to drive off the morning chill. Halloween is just a few days away.  My grandchildren will re-enact the yearly costume ritual redolent of  the road to Sleepy Hollow where their several times great grandfather, Peter,  served freshly harvested foods to weary travelers taking shelter from the terrors of the night on Windham Mountain in in upstate New York.

 

Sunflowers

SUNFLOWERS

First, a serious question. Although dandelions are not native to Alaska they are prolific there.  My question is, why do I see (almost) no dandelions in Idaho? Thankfully, I do see lots of sunflowers.

Until this, our second summer in Idaho, I paid little attention to these gems of the high country desert. I have passed them on the road and noticed briefly their spots of color but little appreciated the cheerful contribution they make to the countryside. They relieve the eye amidst the mile upon mile of dry brown hills surrounding Boise, Idaho. This year the sunflowers invaded my yard and I couldn’t be happier about it.

My house sits in the middle of 3 steep acres of dry grass and sage brush on a windswept hill in rural Idaho. This spot is remarkable because of the spectacular view overlooking a verdant river valley tamed by irrigation and a century of planting and growing. However, the hillside around my home is still wild and reluctant to give up its naturally wild ways. Which is part of the reason it is a pleasant place to live. Flocks of quail patter across our driveway. Coyotes, in the nearby ravine, howl in the night.  In winter deer come down from the mountain and browse on the grass in our yard. The lowing of cattle and braying of a donkey, drift up from the valley floor. Our grandchildren relish scrambling over the rocks hunting for lizards. As much as we enjoy this natural setting, I have learned that the invading human inhabitants need some trees and greenery surrounding them to feel at home. And so, we wrestle with tenacious wild plants to establish a patch of greenery around the house.

When we bought our home it was early spring and the landscaping had just barely been completed. The former owners moved out immediately. Three months later, we moved down from Alaska. With only the automatic sprinklers to supervise, the plants, grass, and weeds grew simultaneously with abandon during that three months. When we finally showed up and tried to bring the mess to heel, it gave us quite a fight. Two years later, we have created enough pleasing domesticated ground to make the space around our home inviting.

Thankfully, the landscape architect created small beds of trees and perennials near the entrance to the house that, once cleared of spring grass seedlings, need very little attention the rest of the summer. My husband mows the lawn with a lawn tractor.  A lawn maintenance service fertilizes and does weed control, and in spite of water rationing, our large lawn is taking hold, crowding out the weeds that nearly overran it last year. I’m talking about the kind of weeds that pose a serious threat to human well being: goat head.  Thorns so daunting they dig into lawn tractor tires and completely cover the soles of shoes. They get tracked into the house where they hide in the carpet and lie in wait to afflict significant bodily harm and pain.

This year I decided to conquer the slopes on either side of the driveway.  With spring rains fueling growth that area of the yard was overrun with long grass and a variety of both lush and unattractive weeds. Landscaping rocks and a few intentional plants hid in the chaos. For the first time in my life I practiced the art of weed whacking. In the span of about a month, I sculpted the grasses and weeds into a semblance of order within the wild authenticity, unveiled the volcanic rock, revealed the clumps of ornamental grasses, while still allowing select natural plants room to flourish. It appears I have achieved a maintainable balance between the cultivated and the accidental.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the sudden invasion of sunflowers that began to appear at the end of July.  Between last summer’s feeble effort and this year’s determined effort at creating a landscape that was pleasing but low maintenance,  I left room for a thriving influx of sunflowers that has flourished in the heat of July and August. The cheerful invaders are bright and heartwarming and welcome.

From spring too fall the slopes are now poised to bloom with wild flowers first small pink, then lavender and yellow, ending with a crescendo of Sunflowers.

Some Things Should Never Be Forgotten

Places inevitably change but the old magic should never be forgotten. Thirty long miles northwest of Salt Lake City is a very important four corner intersection. Here lies the location of what was, for a few short days in summer, my childhood Narnia. This intersection now looks nothing like it did back then. Why does that come as such a shock to me? Suddenly, it seems unbearable that this magical place is being absorbed into suburban sprawl.

I will try to sketch it out for you as best I can remember. It was a tiny four-corner town in the middle of rural farms and pastures. On the northeast corner was a church building that was fairly new back then but has since been torn down. On the southeast corner was a plumbing business, a pool hall, and next door a tiny cement block city office building. On the northwest corner I’m pretty certain there was only a pasture, no buildings. On the southwest corner was an old fashioned country grocery store which had the most tantalizing penny candy display.  On more than one occasion I was sent to that store with a dime to burning in my palm.  I left with a tiny crinkled paper bag full of sweets (my favorite was cherry flavored candy lipstick). South of the store was the enchanted kingdom of my maternal grandparents. We called them Mother and Dad.

My immediate family lived in southern California with traffic an towns unending from neighborhood to neighborhood, city to city, all sandwiched in between the ocean and the desert.  For many summers we traveled across that desert to Utah to visit my mother’s hometown which was sandwiched in between mountains, orchards, farms and the Great Salt Lake. My mother packed fried chicken, carrot sticks, and celery sticks (no dip) along with a cooler full of ice water for the midnight crossing of the desert.  Our car had no air conditioning. We drove off the heat by rolling down the windows and wiping our skin with a wet cloth. It was a mysterious night journey through the warm darkness among Joshua trees, past the lights of Las Vegas, and through steep wind-carved canyons.  By morning the fried chicken was gone and I would start saying,  “are we there yet?”

By the time we had reached Mother and Dad’s place, I felt like I had entered an older fantasy world. The two bedroom clapboard house was nestled in the middle of a large lawn shaded by tall cottonwood trees, lilacs and forsythia, currant and chokecherry bushes.  Mother was quite proud of what she called her “rock garden”  which bordered the sparkling quartz gravel path that approached the front porch.  I enviously eyed the tidy “chicks and hens”, pansies and hollyhocks, and decorative rocks she picked up from her  travels.  All so pretty and cultivated compared to  the wild tangle of ice plant in front of our California home.  A shallow irrigation ditch ran down the middle of the property from the larger ditch along the street to the garden at the very back. When the ditch was full of water my cousins and I would carve squash from the garden into a regatta of sail boats and barges.

Northwest of the house at the end of a long driveway there was a garage where an ancient Ford sedan was housed.  The garage smelled of grain and engine oil. Beyond the back lawn was a sprawling garden brimming with treasures: shiny red tomatoes, yellow squash, crisp cucumbers, silken corn stalks, and sweet onions. Behind the garage was an old outhouse and a chicken coop that for many years supplied the fresh fryers that were eaten at Mother’s kitchen table.  Dad quietly dispatched the critters away from my impressionable eyes. But I watched as Mother cleaned out the innards and plucked the feathers from more than one of those ultimately delicious hens on her kitchen table.

Dad would sit in a corner in the kitchen and smile and nod as the clan bustled in and out of the back screen door which at some point had a hydraulic arm installed to keep it from banging.  The round kitchen table in its place by the sunny back windows would be loaded with plates of sliced cucumbers and onions in vinegar, juicy red tomato slices, fresh baked fluffy white rolls,  and ears of corn. Once, at least, there was wild asparagus that I picked from the fields on a foraging expedition with my mother.  This was daily fare for our relatives that lived in the area year round but to me it was the feast of a fairy kingdom rich from the bounties of the earth.  I don’t know why but we never grew such things at our home in California.

One year I was around to see Mother make homemade soap from the grease drippings she so frugally saved from every meal.  She poured the hot liquid soap into pans and cut it into bars which were then grated into soap flakes for use in the old wringer washer stored in a corner of the bathroom.  I was fascinated by the sight of clothes being cranked through that wicked looking wringer which of course I was warned, gravely, never to get near with a finger or arm.

Mother had a talent for making her home beautiful with patchwork quilts, hand painted and decorated wood chairs and cupboards, braided woolen rugs, and sparkling china knick-knacks.  It took an enormous amount of work to run that tiny two acre farm but to me it seemed as seamless as magic.

On several occasions we arrived late in the night at Mother and Dad’s home in Syracuse, Utah.  My mother and father and my sister’s and I somehow shared the one extra bedroom of the house.  We were hastily fed a snack of buttered rolls with homemade chokecherry jam then ushered into the bedroom  where an extra folding metal bed was opened at the food of my parent’s bed.  A soft homemade feather mattress was laid out and made up with sparkling clean sheets fresh from the clothes line, smelling of sunshine and homemade soap.  We snuggled down in the depths of that feather mattress and were covered with a brightly colored quilt, artfully sewn by hand and with the aid of an old treadle sewing machine, into a log cabin, or flower petal, or crazy quilt pattern.  A bed worthy of a princess,  a home worthy of all the castles, in all magical kingdoms, from all the fantasy books I have ever read.

Bit by bit, as I grew up and grew older that magical world was dismantled.  The wringer washer was replaced, the chicken coops and outhouse were torn down, the house was moved to a different lot miles away and served some other family down through the years. The four corner town is now a tidy suburb with new homes, new parks, new schools, and a new city building.  Today, Mother and Dad’s little farmstead is now the site of an Arby’s fast food restaurant.

But the old kingdom is still in my heart and soul and down in my bones. I am told nothing on the internet is ever completely deleted.  In this case I hope it is true because some things should never be forgotten.

(In Memory of: Elnora Stoker Dalton and Horace Orlando Dalton)