My dog, Buddy, is a Maltese. It’s an ancient breed—two thousand years old. And since the Maltese wasn’t bred for anything but to be a cute companion, that’s two thousand years of lapdog-ness. In a dog-like devotion to please, he fails utterly. He doesn’t care one whit whether you approve of him or not. He is also not keen on taking walks or obeying. He’s kind of like a cat, actually. He is very cute, though.
One day, I went for a hike in the woods and I took Buddy. Once we were away from the road and in the woods, I took his leash off and he seemed puzzled.
“Okay, go run along the trail like a dog,” I told him.
He looked at me as if to say, “What part of ‘lap dog’ are you not understanding?”
I began hiking along the trail. Buddy followed, reluctantly. Then he started to get the gist of it. Oh! Sniff at stuff! Eat deer poop! And that’s when Buddy, ancient breed of luxury, began to let his wolf DNA filter through.
“Yes!” I told him, “you are descended from wolves!”
Now that he’s figured it out, Buddy loves to hike. He gallivants along the trail ahead of me. He sticks his little white head into crevices to scare chipmunks. He laps water from streams when he is thirsty. He hops from rock to rock with insouciance. And once, forded icy cold water up to his chest. He comes alive in the trying of new things.
Often I think we get too comfortable staying within the parameters of what we think are our boundaries—those things we think are our reality. But it’s all a big catch 22.
“Reality is what we take to be true. What we take to be true is what we believe… What we believe determines what we take to be true.” David Bohm, physicist.
I saw the first wood duck of the spring this morning, as I was sipping my tea upstairs. My eyes are not what they used to be, so I needed the binoculars to confirm. Yes. A male wood duck in breeding plumage. Which, if you haven’t seen one, here is a picture.
Beautiful, isn’t he?
Wood ducks are small and self-possessed. They swim in a quiet, deliberate, earnest way, keeping to the brushy part of the pond, because they are very shy. Even my figure at the glass windows forty yards away can spook them. It is always a thrill to see one.
Another special moment occurred last week when I spied an unfamiliar duck pair. Out came the binoculars. I stared to see how large they were, if they were diving or just dabbling and their coloring (this one seemed to have a black and white beak.) When I had enough information, I put the binoculars down and got out my Sibley’s Guide to Birds. I flipped through the pages, and it turned out that, without a doubt, I was seeing a pair of ring-necked ducks. Something I had never seen before.
Here’s what I think. I think that a life of limits becomes an unlimited life when you slow down enough to see the richness around you.
What with the world going to hell in a hand basket, I thought maybe you’d like to read about something uplifting this week.
Two years ago, I took all my individual amaryllis bulbs (always save your amaryllis bulbs; they are very easy to grow to re-bloom) and planted them, with lots of space between them, in a big blue ceramic pot.
I let the bulbs grow their foliage in the pot all summer, in full sun and I watered and fed them occasionally. When the frost nipped, I cut all the foliage back to the bulbs. Said bulbs, I noticed, were making new little bulbs and now generally being obstreperous and crowding with each other. I hauled the pot into the cold area of the dining room where it sat in the dark, with no watering, for about six weeks. When I saw the bulbs beginning to grow on their own, I hauled the pot (I keep saying ‘hauled” because it is a heavy, large ceramic pot and I want you to appreciate my strength and effort) to the sunny windows of the living room and began to water. And now look. Each bulb has sent up one to two stalks and each stalk has six flowers. That’s a lot of blossoms, each six inches across, and more coming. It’s been blooming for three weeks now.
So. Save your holiday-impulse-buy amaryllis bulbs after they’ve had their flowering. Plant them all together in a big pot. In the summer, let the foliage grow like crazy. Keep the pot watered and feed it once a week with a balanced fertilizer. (I use, I’m afraid, the blue stuff. It just works better for flowering houseplants.) When the nights get nippy in the middle to end of October, cut all the foliage back (ALL of it) to the bulb. Don’t cut the bulb. Put the pot in dark-ish, cool-ish spot. Don’t water. After six weeks or so of this rest, the bulb will start sending up a green leaf or flower stalk. As soon as you see this, bring it out to the light and begin to water. Don’t feed, since the bulb supplies all the nutrients now for the flowers. And sit back and enjoy your own Amaryllis! Amaryllis! (While the rest of the world largely ignores the beauty that is theirs to create.)
“Oh, I LOVE winter,” younger me used to say. “It’s so much fun, you can cross country ski, and snowshoe and make snowmen and it’s so cozy.”
I suppose it was last winter that did me in. So now, winter has become my time for escape. And my escape in winter is reading about physics and astronomy. As the white stuff piles up and daily living is more of a chore of shoveling snow and hauling wood, to curl up and read about the tiny world of quarks or the vast world of galaxies is delicious.
Right now I am reading Lisa Randall’s new book Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs (selected by Maria Popova of Brain Pickings as one of the top 15 books she has read this year—a list, BTW, guaranteed to make you feel inadequate.)
Randall talks about dark matter, the concept of which I couldn’t quite grasp for a long time, but now I do. We can’t see dark matter because it doesn’t reflect light and we can’t feel it because its force is too weak to have an effect on us at its level in our everyday lives. But we know it exists because in greater densities it exerts a gravitational force. And not only that, but there is much more of it than the matter we can see. So the truth is, we are literally surrounded by dark matter.
As I grow older, more experienced, less sanguine, and more settled into convenience, the awareness of the vast mystery of our Universe is a tonic. And that, perhaps, is the real fountain of youth.
Exciting news for me! My website, debpaulson.com is up and running. Although a website launch is about as noteworthy these days as a new memoir, when it’s your own, it’s special.
My web designer Adam Stemple, took my vision of a clean, spare, but not “which way to radiology” look and turned it into an awfully pretty, uncluttered website. In it, you will find a great many of my watercolors, searchable and organized in a drop-down menu, a little bio, and my “other” writing—articles, thoughts, and literary criticism pieces that appeal to a specific audience, rather than general (but I encourage you to read them anyway, even if you don’t think you want to know why the children’s book, The Borrowers, may be an affirmation of British colonialist mentality, or how photography was invented. You never know.) “Writing” will update monthly, so check back regularly. In the queue: liminal and mythic time in Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding (Admit it. You can’t wait.) And of course, I will add new paintings as I complete them. (I’ll be doing the illustrations for my picture book, The Prunes, over the winter and will show them first on the website.)
My blog also lives in the website, although I will also continue to publish it under my word press site, so my followers don’t have to migrate over.
So take a look. Share. Stop back often. And thank you for reading.
In which we learn how Richie and Deb spend their non-race weekends
Sunday, 7:05 AM
Deb is concerned. She has been concerned for weeks now. The woodstove’s ceramic baffle has a hole in it. The only directions she could find for replacing it were the stern warning to “have it replaced by a qualified Hearthstone dealer.” As if. The conundrum: risk replacing the part themselves or live with the defect and pray that nothing goes horribly wrong in the depths of January? It is on this fateful Sunday morning that she decides. They will replace the part. She informs Richie. He, recognizing her uncompromising tone, sighs, swallows the last of his bagel and puts his computer aside. Deb frowns as she reads the instructions that came with the replacement part. Why do the “tools needed” include a hammer and chisel? She hands the instructions to Richie, sure he will only read the first line and then go at it his own way. Mentally, she says goodbye to the woodstove.
They are still on step one: Remove the cotter pin. Richie has bent it, pinched it with needle-nose pliers, and sawed it with a hacksaw blade. It seems to be a permanent fixture. Deb decides to re-read all the instructions for the tenth time, as if that will make the cotter pin come loose, and to feel that she is doing something productive. She also re-reads the pre-instruction and this time she grits her teeth. Doing the pre-instruction means they are all in. No returning part, no backing out. “Using a utility knife, cut the part in half at a 45 degree angle.” Uncharitably, Deb wonders why they don’t cut the part in half themselves at the factory. As she holds the utility knife poised over the baffle like a surgeon, she hears Richie, in the other room, still struggling with the cotter pin. She takes a deep breath and makes the first cut. The second cut. The third cut. Finally, on the fourth cut, the part separates. She goes to tell Richie, who has his head in the wood stove. There is soot everywhere. Deb decides to go upstairs for a bit.
Richie gives a grunt of satisfaction. Cotter pin is out! Richie tells Deb he needs a restorative look at his computer. Deb goes on to step two: “Slide heating tubes to left.” She does and they fall out, along with a few other pieces of metal. She is not too worried, since they have marked the pieces with a Sharpie. She will regret this insouciance later. She lays the two halves of the baffle in the stove. All well and good! She begins to replace the heating tubes. As she struggles with pins and holes and slots, dark childhood memories of Fisher-Price square blocks and round holes come unbidden. She mutters.
Richie puts computer down and says he will try. Deb can’t watch his defeat, so she leaves the room. But in a very short time, he informs her he has succeeded! She is elated but suspicious. Surreptitiously, she examines it. He has done it! Perhaps, Deb thinks, decades of honing motor skills building renowned bicycle frames has prepared him for just this challenge on the Hero’s Journey of Life! A feeling of pride for him wells up in her. They are over the hump and on their way to victory!
Richie has another restorative look at his computer, while Deb (a.k.a. “The Closer”) struggles to fit the final part in in without breaking the baffle. Eventually, she reluctantly concludes that this final part must be put into place before the tubes go in. She mutters not-nice words to the writer of the instructions who, it is now obvious, has never replaced a baffle before.
Richie is still having his convivial computer moment when Deb informs him that the heating tubes/ Fisher-Price-from-hell-game must be taken out. She thinks he looks resigned, but patient. If he did it once, he can do it again, his expression seems to say. He takes them out. Deb puts in the metal part. Or tries to. She realizes this is the one piece they forgot to mark and she doesn’t know which way is right side up. She asks Richie. He doesn’t remember either.
On the Internet, they find an exploded diagram of the wood stove. The part appears to go that way.
They look at each other, eyes wide with uncertainty. They shrug. It is what it is. Deb puts the part in. Richie replaces the tubes a second time.
Sunday morning 10:06 AM
They have done it! And the staid pace of country living is gratefully resumed.
Alrighty then is the overarching title I’ve given to blog posts wherein I write about what it’s like to run a cyclocross team with my husband, Richard Sachs. Full disclosure. Unlike Richie, (by the way, you can only call him “Richie” if you’ve slept with him. My rule.) I’ve never raced cyclocross. I had a brief, some might say non-existent fling with road racing when I raced, um, I think once or maybe twice, with the Trek women’s team nearly twenty years ago.
At my first race, I lined up with all the other Type A’s and had an inkling of what racing was about when no one wanted to swap recipes or tell anecdotes while we were waiting for the gun. They’re taking this seriously I thought, and I felt at once intimidated and out of place. When lots of people are gathered together, I consider that a social occasion. Not so on the starting line of a race apparently.
And we’re off! Man, they go hard right at the beginning. What about just easing into it? After all, we’ve got a long way to go. Nope, anaerobic oxygen debt right off the bat. As my heart pounded and my muscles burned, I became uncomfortably aware that other people’s bikes were really close to me. Hope they hold their line I thought, but without much confidence. And why didn’t I have confidence that no one would crash me? Because I don’t know these people, and I don’t know if they can handle their bikes. And why don’t I know them? Because no one wanted to chat and share stories with me when we had the chance, lining up. So there I was, gasping in a pack of really mean looking women, who were looking neither to right or left, but straight ahead with a killer set to their faces that showed full readiness to do battle.
I don’t like battles. At least not obvious ones. And now, much to my dismay, I seemed to be in the middle of one. And what were we all risking life and limb and putting up with a great deal of physical suffering to battle for? This question floated into my naturally curious mind as I struggled to hold my place in the peloton.
The answer came as an epiphany. We are doing this so that one of us can cross a line first.
And now, astute reader, you have no doubt figured out my problem. Because a real competitor would call it “winning.” And “winning” puts a whole different spin on the activity, something that “crossing a line first” doesn’t quite do. Winning is about testing oneself overtly against others in a chosen field. It is throwing all the cards out on the table, in broad daylight, to succeed or fail, for all to see. And at that epiphanic moment, I knew I was not a competitor. At least not with other people.
Motivations duly clarified, I dropped to the back of the peloton where I had some breathing room and found a few other like-minded “racers.” We chatted companionably as we rode the “race.” And just for fun sprinted each other up the final hill climb (I “won.”)
So all this is to say that my perspective on cyclocross is not the racer perspective. I am the observer, the strategist, the big-picture person. And that’s what I’ll be writing about in the coming weeks.
Recently, Richie has been posting, on Facebook and his website, pieces of ephemera from his bicycle history with his reflections and backstory. Since his involvement with bicycles, bicycle racing, and frame building dates back to the early 1970’s this project, taken as a whole, has become a testament of sorts to his life—his choices, his experiences, his observations.
Tonight, we go to my parent’s sixtieth wedding anniversary dinner party. To give them something, my four siblings and I have been combing through photographs. There are lots of photos of sailing—comfy coastal sailing and gritty ocean sailing. There is one of my Dad hang gliding, another of my Mom horseback riding in the Grand Canyon (looking none too thrilled), a lovely one of her resting on a Swiss mountaintop à la Sound of Music, and one of them in Russia with a young Russian couple they met when they were stuck there for a bit.
Reading the ephemera and perusing the photographs makes me think, what makes a life? Is it adventure and experiences—new places, travel? Is it people—those you’ve met and interacted with within your passion? Or is it something more fundamental?
The common denominator in Richie’s ephemera and my parents’ travels is connection. Each of them has lived—is living—a life filled with connection. Connections to people, places, adventures, experiences, words, ideas, nature.
So what makes a life?
The courage to connect is what makes a life.
Snails, we are brought up to think, are slow. I am here to tell you that snails are not slow. Not when you’re using them as models as you perch on a low-tide rock, peering into a tide pool with watercolors balanced beside you and you are in the full grip of an artistic fever to capture this light and shaped-filled moment. Then snails hunker along quite annoyingly rapidly. What was, when you first spied it, a sinuous curve of light and dark, two snails in a perfect sine wave and you catch your breath with the awe of it and quickly, quickly! get your pencil and brush and paper out and, secure in the knowledge that snails are slow and you have plenty of time—all the time in the world, in fact, given that snails are so slow—lay down a line of shape and hue and glance to your models and discover that, oh my gosh, that sine curve is no longer. Now the space between them only speaks of space between them and not a beautiful visual harmony and you shake your head a little wondering if in fact you were mistaken at the beginning and then you realize, HEY, they are moving! Little-thick-antennae-sticking-out-suctioning-along-pulling-the-shell-behind-purposeful-moving.
I don’t pretend to know where snails in a tide pool are going. It’s only a tiny tide pool after all. But they have shown me that slow is relative and that time, tide and snails wait for no man.
I was filling up the watering can from the pond when I noticed a small bug-looking thing hanging from another bug on the dock steps. It was odd enough for me to take a closer look. Then I realized I was seeing one bug emerging from a bug, or rather, a casing. Dragonflies. Watering chores would have to wait. I got my glasses and camera and settled onto the warm planks of the dock to watch.
This bizarre looking thing is a dragonfly emerging from its nymph stage, where it has lived in the water for a year. I can’t wrap my head around how what was a bug is now a bug-casing and there’s a new bug coming out of it.
The dragonfly has emerged. At this point, It looks more like a worm than a dragonfly, and see how tiny the wings are? As it hangs there, it gets larger and when I compare the casing it came out of, I wonder how it ever fit.
Then the wings grow–gossamer incredible bits of translucence. Are they unfolding or expanding or both? Really, it is a miracle.
Then more hanging there while the wings get even larger.
Now the dragonfly, looking like a dragonfly and twice as large as its original casing, crawls up and faces the wind. It takes its tiny legs and rubs them over its giant eyes. I am so, so eager to watch it fly. But it waits, wings back, more facing into the wind, more eye rubbing.
And then it happens. The wings that have been up to now, straight back, suddenly open, two on each side, and like a prop plane warming up, they vibrate, feeling the wind.
And then it takes off, up into the air, and away.
From the water to the air, from an aquatic bug to a flying thing, in less than two hours. And we humans think we’re so clever with our gadgets. We’re just lumbering blind things, compared to this miracle.