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.

 

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.

 

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

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)