I wonder if there’s anything more satisfying than an April shower?
This morning I woke up to the little pitter patter of rain drops on the thawed pond, each drop making its circle of ripples until the whole surface shimmered. Then a waft of fresh air came through the open bedroom windows, air that had moisture and something green in it–the smell of damp earth and things growing.
Winter, my dears, is over.
I’ve been watching my amaryllis grow flower stalks for, jeez, it seems like a month now. They emerged from the awakening bulbs after a month of dormancy and slowly, slowly inched upwards. They are about two feet tall now and the blossom ends are teasing me with the promise of spectacular blooms—someday. Perhaps the sixty degree nights in my house are making them prevaricate. Perhaps I’ve got languid bulbs. Perhaps I am just desperate for the juicy life of spring. But whatever it is and no matter how much I want them to bloom faster, instant gratification in this particular matter is not going to happen. They’ll bloom when they’re ready.
Yesterday I got a letter in the mail. It was a missive from my neighbor responding to a note I had sent her. In my note, I had given her my phone number so she could answer my invitation in a timelier manner. But she chose to write another note back instead. It was wonderful! I felt like I was in Downton Abbey. This languid pace of correspondence rejuvenates me. It gives a body time to reflect, to re-read, to exhale.
So I watch my pokey amaryllis, I re-read the note, brushing my fingers over the paper and I marvel at the civility and space each has created for me in this hurry-up world. The waiting, I find, has a nourishment all its own.
What if the world of life on Earth is just a lucky accident brought about by a confluence of lucky coincidences: just the right distance from the Sun, just the right amount of gravitational force, just the right combination of elements to create water, just the right amount of star dust to initiate the complex molecules necessary to create life. What if all this came about because there are billions of universes, so the chance of a planet existing with all the criteria to create life is tiny, but possible.
What if, indeed.
This is what I have been reading in Accidental Universe, by Alan Lightman—who is not a science fiction author, but a physicist (and creative writer) at MIT, outlining the latest theories in quantum physics.
For all of my life, I have wondered about the meaning of our brief existence. I’ve meditated, converted to Zen Buddhism, paid attention and thought, thought, thought. But now if, as Lightman postulates, life may be not a divine occurrence fraught with baffling meaning, but is instead a random coming together of chance—well then heck, I’m off the hook. Life and its meaning, the universe and its meaning, our Earth and its meaning—the meaning part becomes optional.
I went for a walk down my dirt road after I finished the book to digest this revolutionary idea. As I looked at the familiar trees and stone wall, rather giddy thoughts were racing through my brain: Just an accident! led to Don’t have to figure it out! which became the inevitable, I can just experience it! A weight I didn’t know existed lifted and in the new freedom of just experiencing I saw the trees with clarity, as if for the first time.
And it was then that all my Buddhist beliefs and training slipped alongside this new physics: When you take away the meaning, life becomes profound.
Not much daylight these days. Not only that, but the unsettled weather of December keeps things pretty cloudy. The natural world is hibernating—going inward, conserving strength, assimilating experiences.
So much less stimulation outdoors allows me to notice the over-looked parts. On my walk, I saw the shocking green of the moss, and the equally bright red of the fire berries. I become absorbed in the world of the bird feeder. Just yesterday, I identified the American Tree Sparrow, a bird so common I wouldn’t have given it a second glance at another time. But perched on the feeder amongst the chickadees, tufted titmice and goldfinches, it became a rare and precious sighting. Splitting wood is a pleasure; the frozen wood lets go with a satisfying kunk. The slightly insane call of the Pileated woodpecker makes me shake my head, then smile.
Indoors, by the cheery woodstove, I plan out my winter projects. All those things that demand close indoors attention—weaving, writing, revising, computer work, (I will learn some Photoshop this winter) are anticipated with pleasure. My mind will be stimulated and I will garner a sense of accomplishment.
Winter, by its sensory deprivation, is the perfect time to let the imagination expand, creating worlds and dreams.
To everything there is a season.
The Muse tells me it’s time to break for summer, and like the Wife (heads up, husbands) the Muse is always right. To that end, I will be on vacation from my blog until the beginning of September, when, I hope, you will join me again.
To tie up a loose end before I vacate: The Sweater has been completed. The Twenty Year Sweater Here is a photo.
I know. I never said I was a good knitter, did I? Check out the oddly puffy sleeves. When I put The Sweater on, I’ve got a weird Shakespeare-in-winter thing going on.
This morning I am going to go outside and paint a watercolor. Even though I have a boatload of books to review and three writing projects awaiting various revisions, I am still going to shove them aside and do a watercolor. It won’t advance my career or make me money, but. . .
I am the product of two very different people. My mother has, as my dad likes to say, two speeds: slow and stop. But I think he might be envious, since he’s fast and faster. I tend to be more like my dad, until I remember that I’m also part my mom. Once I asked her how she avoided over-doing. She told me that she does three “things”—“things” being chores—per day, and once they are done, she’s off the hook and free to do what she wants. (I believe one of the “things” is making the bed, so you see she’s not unduly stressing herself.)
When I find myself in a muddle of work, I remember her words. Painting a watercolor this morning is going to be more satisfying than disciplining myself through a revision and what’s more, I suspect it will free up other creative areas in my brain, making me more effective when I get back to writing.
If you’re more on the driven side like me, maybe today you can try to do one thing you truly enjoy, for no other reason than that you truly enjoy it–see how it goes.
Until September, then. Have a lovely summer.
I got a friendly, helpful note back from an agent this week. While she declined to take me on, she did tell me she found my story line intriguing, however it started off too slow.
Zing! I knew she was right. I moved the manuscript into Scrivener and started re-arranging scenes in Corkboard. Moving the scenes around allowed interesting gaps to develop—gaps that sparkled. As I was rearranging, part of my brain delighted in this freedom and part of it was aghast. “You can’t do that!” it said, “no one will look at it if you do that.” Well, let’s be honest, no one is really looking at it yet anyway, as far as I know. And besides, at 56 years old, at least two thirds of my life is over, so what is there to be afraid of? I’ve already experienced rejection and lived through it. I’ve already taken chances and succeeded or failed—and lived through it.
Fiction writing is a fairly new skill for me and I’m learning the craft daily. Even when I think I’ve written something lovely and amazing that really ought to win the National Book Award, or even better, a MacArthur grant, I remember how it was when I first started making baskets. I loved them too—those first ones—every crooked, sad, little lump of them. Then I got more polished and more polished still. And when I looked back at the first ones, I liked their gallantry, but let’s face it, they weren’t salable.
I think the same thing will happen with my writing. I am persistent. My stories will get more and more polished and one day my turn will come and I’ll get what I think I most want right now—a published book.
Even as I think this, though, I remind myself of something that I intuit is true: that the thrill of publication will never equal the satisfaction of the days I have now—of trying, failing, discovering and polishing—in a word, living.
I just finished a book about the magic and mystery of the natural world and it thrilled my soul like all good books do, especially when the story has to do with forces we humans don’t understand.
Today is Friday the 13th. And not only that, it’s a full moon—two weighted events in many people’s psyches.
The full moon’s effect has entered our lexicon: lunacy, lunatic. And Friday the 13th is considered unlucky—13 being the number outside of the whole number of 12. I’m not sure why Friday, although I do know that sailors will not start a trip on a Friday—I know we didn’t in my family.
But I don’t consider the full moon an adversary and I certainly don’t think Friday the 13th is unlucky. I’ve written about the full moon before Full Moon Dreams and you know that I pay attention to what is shown to me during this time, because instead of being half or fully buried it has now been brought up to a place where I can work with it.
As for Friday the 13th:
I was born on the 13th and I turned thirteen on Friday the 13th. And the day I turned thirteen on Friday the 13th was the full moon.
I think “unlucky” is a way to describe events that happen to us that we don’t know how to process because they are not what we think we want to have happen to us. My personal belief is that everything that happens to me is for my highest good—that the natural world, of which I am a part, has my compassionate evolution in mind, not my destruction. So with that belief firmly seated in my soul, I gratefully take what the world gives me, trying to learn what I am supposed to learn.
One last thing: my Buddhist name, given to me by my teacher, the late Peter Matthiessen, is Tsu Ki. It means, The Moon.
This morning I woke up to an insistent bird song, over and over, clear and repeated. In my subconscious brain I said “oriole” but when my conscious brain took over, something wasn’t quite right for an oriole. Eventually the call came in the tree right outside. That was enough to make me get out of bed and crouch by the window. The bird was right there, but leaves obscured him and I only got a glimpse of his head, beak open in song. But because the light was behind him, his head was in silhouette and I couldn’t identify him.
I was awake now, so I got dressed and went to the pond grate to clean it out—it was heavily blocked from the night’s beaver activity—pulling the pond muck into the wheelbarrow to use as mulch for my garden. As I was mucking, the darn birdcall came again. And once again, I could only see a silhouette against a far tree. I finished the mucking and went inside to get the binoculars. I stood outside in the middle of the yard. But of course, there was no birdcall. I swatted at mosquitoes. Nothing. I went inside to have coffee.
Then, sitting at my computer, sipping coffee, a clear, LOUD birdcall came through my open window. I jumped up. There, not ten feet from me, was a brilliant orange and black bird. Baltimore Oriole. Showing himself off. Tired of the game, maybe. Or maybe taking pity on me.
I’ve been sending out query letters all this week and as much as I want an instant response, it hasn’t happened. But Mr. Baltimore Oriole reminded me that sometimes if you can just wait, what you want will come to you.
I originally wrote this post one year ago, after the Boston Marathon bombings. This Monday, the Marathon runs again. In the intervening year, there have been, worldwide, more bombings, more acts of terrorism and aggression, more unrest. Sometimes it seems like the shadows are taking over. But the beauty of being human is that we can decide what we want to believe. And then we can believe it. I still choose to believe that a million lights of kindness will cover the darkest acts of atrocity. And I always will.
Grief is linked, in Traditional Chinese Medicine, to the lung and large intestine organs and, like anger, fear, joy/sadness and worry, it plays a fundamental role in our health. Our lungs hold and distribute the oxygen that sustains life, so our inhalation is quite literally the act of taking in life. When we exhale, we are letting go, in the trust that our next inhalation will come. Without this exhalation––this letting go with trust––we can’t take in another breath; we can’t take in more life.
It is the role of grief to facilitate the letting-go process. When we grieve, we are letting go of that which no longer serves us. Grieving is the process of sifting through the loss to discover the essence that we wish to carry with us. And then allowing the rest go, so we are able to take in another breath, to continue living.
This week I am grieving the lives lost and maimed at the Boston Marathon bombings and underneath that, I am grieving the awareness that there are people so separated from the basic heart of humanity, that to maim and kill innocent lives is, to them, an acceptable act. But my grieving has unearthed an essence in the tragedy, to wit: the darkest acts of atrocity are covered by a million lights of kindness. In Boston, people ran toward the bombing scene, seconds after it happened, to help, heedless of their own safety. Social media spontaneously sprang into action to coordinate emergency information.
Everything is revealed by highlights and shadows. We are moving forward as a species defined by our immense kindnesses in the wake of our isolated evils.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing—
that the light is everything—that it is more than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.
excerpted from The Ponds by Mary Oliver
A dear friend of mine died this week and while it was not unexpected, still…
It came as a shock to realize that he no longer exists in this world, creating currents. He now only exists in my mind as memories and I am left with only the currents of my own memories. Sometimes a person changes your life and he did mine. I am now a birdwatcher because of his introduction; I discovered the balance of Zen because of him. Like many friendships, ours lurched with some misunderstanding, but it stood the test because underneath all the whitecaps, we had a vast ocean in common.
There was nothing left unsaid or undone at the end. He visited me in my new house, approving of it all, and when we last spoke, we said goodbye without actually saying the words, just extending to each other the understanding.
The loss created at first, an aching emptiness. But as I sifted through what was left to me, I came to realize that the emptiness was a gift. The emptiness, created by the wrenching free of what used to be filled with all the intertwining threads of a relationship, was also space. And without space, there can be no growth. And without growth, there is no life.
Grief is necessary. It is necessary to sift through the memories, holding each close and deciding whether to keep it as something precious, placing it in the space we now have, or to let it go, as something outgrown,
making more room for life.