Just Waiting For My Turn

“The key to everything is patience. You get the chicken by hatching the egg, not by smashing it.”

Arnold H. Glasow

Back in December, after having lived through a very challenging year, several of my friends began to contemplate the idea of choosing a word that would guide them through the coming year, a word that would become a mantra of sorts and one upon which they might meditate in the days to come. These friends shared the words that had guided them in previous years along with the words they were considering for 2021. I found this entire idea rather intriguing.  What word would I choose, I wondered.

When I settled on patience as the word that would guide me into 2021, I optimistically envisioned myself sitting before a fire with a glass of wine, the warm glow of candles, and snow softly falling just outside my window, as I crocheted, read, or was absorbed in something entertaining and life-affirming on the television.  I’d be uncomplaining, calm, and perhaps even serene as I waited for my turn to get the COVID vaccine or Spring…whichever came first. 

“It is strange that the years teach us patience; the the shorter our time, the greater our capacity for waiting.”

Elizabeth Taylor

Reflecting on the word I chose, now only three weeks into the new year, I’m reminded of a scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  Thinking he has found The Holy Grail, the villain drinks from the golden goblet and soon shrivels away to dust.  The Grail Knight, who has been guarding the true chalice, then remarks in a slow, deliberate tone, ”He chose…poorly”.  I think I too, may have chosen…poorly.

In truth, there was a fair amount of hubris in my decision. Certainly, I’d have the strength of character and the fortitude that comes with age, to be able to postpone the gratification that would arrive with the vaccine…or…Spring.

Spring Flowers Are A Long Way Off

But, wait a minute. Who was I kidding? I realize that I have to wait, but I don’t know what gave me the idea that waiting would be easy. After nearly a year of COVID isolation, I have crocheted the same pattern at least five times, I have trouble reading unless I get large-print text, and I’ve already binged watched all fifteen seasons of my favorite detective series. I am almost out of wine and I’ve been out of Diet Coke for a week.  There is snow outside my window…but it arrived with ice and slush as well.  Not exactly what I had envisioned. 

Public school prepared me to stand in line and wait my turn.  I never push or shove and although I might think about cutting the line, my conscience makes it a near impossibility. I immediately merge when the sign says lane closed and never try to pass cars expecting to squeeze in ahead of others. And more than once I’ve stood outside a closed bathroom door giving the present tenant privacy and time to complete their tasks only to discover that it had been unoccupied the entire time. I understand the morality of waiting, taking turns, and remaining in your place in line. I was taught well.

I really don’t mind standing in line when everyone is waiting equally.  I like take-a-number and I appreciate serpentine lines where you move up one at a time. You reach the head of the line after those before you have been served. Then…as it should be…it’s your turn. 

The British Crown Jewels

Twenty years ago, I joined a long line in The Tower of London to see the British Crown Jewels. It’s not often the approach to an event is as memorable as the event itself, but I have remembered this experience for two decades. The line of courteous visitors wound through two adjoining rooms. Videos of the Royals wearing the pieces we were about to see played on the walls.  When we reached the cases filled with the royal treasures, we stepped onto a moving walkway that carried everyone, at a snail’s pace, past the crowns, scepters, and the rest of the collection.  There was no jockeying for position because tall and short visitors had equal access. At the end of the walkway, people could exit the building. If, however, you wished to take another quick look, a docent would direct you back to the people-mover and you’d take your place once again.  It was such an orderly, efficient, and just system.

The worst standing-in-line experience I can remember was in Moscow in 2002. It took us two hours to go from our plane through passport control. It was a small airport and there weren’t many arriving passengers. It wasn’t that the officials were that thorough or that the process was complicated. The problem was that the line was very fluid.  People pushed, elbowed, and bullied in front of others who were ahead of them. My public school line-training and years of Sunday school lessons wouldn’t allow me to return a shove for a shove or even put up much resistance.  All in all…it was not a pleasant experience.

Four Wonderful Words!
Photo Credit…Pixabay

Standing in line for the loo is a uniquely female adventure and has taken place in every country I’ve ever visited.  There’s a special kind of bonding that takes place in the brief connection of women in bathroom lines. Of course, like any other kind of line, some remain silent and keep to themselves, but generally, women in long lines exchange smiles at the very least and often strike up conversations, share tissues from their purse when the TP has run out, and point out stalls that have just become available.  It is a temporary community of common need.

When we reached St. Petersburg, on that trip to Russia, we were treated to a fantastic lunch and entertainment in the Music Pavilion on the grounds of Pavlovsk Palace. While most elegant in every other aspect, there was no running water and no plumbing. Two porta-potties had been set up in the back. Presently, I found myself outside the familiar blue buildings in the ubiquitous line of women. 

The Music Pavilion Nineteen Years Later…Upgraded to THREE porta-potties.
Photo Credit: Visit-Petersburg.ru

Irene, who had quite a commanding presence on an ordinary day, proclaimed in a voice of added authority, “I’ve had just enough vodka to be assertive.” she said forcefully.  “We are all going to wait equally.  None of this his and hers stuff.  It will be first-come, first-served.” 

“Yes!” the rest of us exclaimed with smiles and muffled cheers. 

You can imagine what happened when my husband found himself in need of the WC.  Seeing two units and a single line of women, he assumed that, as is normally the case, the one without a line was standing at the ready for the next man to arrive…him.  Hilarity ensued as the women quickly put him in his place at the rear of the line.  I was told that one of the women even threatened with her cane, but I can’t swear to that.

This isn’t the first time I’ve waited for a vaccine. In the 1950s, my classmates and I were herded into the school gymnasium where we took our places in a long line that snaked around the room. I was too young to understand the promise the polio vaccine held for us. All I knew was there were a lot of kids crying. I wasn’t in a big hurry to get to the front of that line. How times have changed! Today it is the elders…those same kids from the ’50s and ’60s…who are counting on the promise that comes in a syringe. This time all the tears are tears of relief.

“Patience is not the ability to wait, but the ability to keep a good attitude while waiting.

Unknown…Probably a Woman

Perhaps there was more wisdom in my selection of patience as the word to lead me forward than I thought, for it has already taught me important lessons. I know that kicking and pushing won’t get me to my goal any faster. Even if they would, my belief in the inherent fairness of taking turns is so ingrained that I would never employ them. I know that friendship, connection,  kindness, and sometimes even humor are possible in the communal act of standing resignedly together in a line waiting. I know, too, that no matter how long the queue there is always an end and the eventual reward is worth all the effort. If life is indeed a journey, not a destination, then it may follow that waiting is also a journey. The length and speed of the line…like life… are out of my control, but whether I find a way to enjoy the trip or rail against it is up to me.

I’m considering cookies or maybe chocolate as my word for next year.

Chocolate, cookies, and tea.
Photo credit…Pixabay

Down The Rabbit Hole

“The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down a very deep well.”

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Right This Way to Adventure

One snowy Saturday in mid-March, I found myself quite unexpectedly falling headfirst into the gaping entrance of a rabbit hole, tumbling down toward completely unknown territory. Try as I might, it was impossible to stop or even slow my descent as I continued to gain momentum through the dark twisting tunnel. Like Alice, I had been caught off guard.  It happened so quickly that I had no other choice but to continue my free-fall and hope for a gentle landing when I reached the bottom. Once I entered that rabbit hole there was no way of knowing how deep the tunnel was or whether I’d know if I had reached the bottom or was merely resting on an outcropping before once again resuming my fall.

During these COVID-times, we’re all traveling through one rabbit hole or another.  Life, as we knew it a year ago, is not the life we are living now.  I suppose that’s always the case though.  For thousands of years, we’ve known what the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus pointed out,  “The only constant in life is change.”  We expect change, but we have also been led to believe…mistakenly perhaps…that change comes in some logical or linear progression.  We may not welcome the changes, but at least they can be understood or explained. Cause and effect…that sort of thing.

The surreal world where up isn’t just down but sideways might make for interesting art and theatre, but no one wants to actually live there.  Lots of folks stand in line at Cedar Point to buy a ticket to ride the Corkscrew, but they eventually want the ride to end so they can move on to the snack stand. Falling through the tunnel of the rabbit hole is an adventure to be sure but unless, perhaps, you’re a rabbit you ultimately want to leave it and live amongst humans once again.

Alice didn’t want to fall into the rabbit hole either, but while she was there she explored the wonders of the world in which she found herself and tried to make some meaning of it all.  I’ve been trying to do that too. Recognizing that COVID is not my life on hold, but rather my life as it is, helps a bit as I try to navigate this world of butterflies, hookahs, and cats that wander through Zoom calls.

“Begin doing what you want to do now. We are not living in eternity. We have only this moment, sparkling like a star in our hand-and melting like a snowflake.”

Sir Francis Bacon

The strangest thing about my life in the rabbit hole is the total distortion of my concept of time.  When I was a girl, the JC Penney catalog arrived every year with a special holiday wish-book edition. I was always intrigued by the section of frilly nightgowns and fancy underwear.  I was especially fascinated by the day-of-the-week panties.  Each pair was a different pastel color complete with a different day embroidered within a lacey heart.  I always kinda wanted them instead of the utilitarian white ones worn in my family, but not enough to bump something more desirable off my Christmas list. I could certainly use a set of those panties now.  Wouldn’t it be nice to know what day it was in the morning?  As it is,  I’m marking the days with my pill container.  Each evening when I take my bedtime pills and supplements, I say to myself, “Oh, today was Tuesday…or Wednesday, or Thursday…whatever. Hmmm.  Nice to know. “  

Time Keeps on Slippin’, Slippin’, Slippin’ Into the Future.

I don’t think I’m alone in this confusion.  One of the local television stations has a brief moment each day where they display a graphic asking, “Do you know what day it is?”  There is a pause of a few seconds and then another graphic reveals the day.  Not the date mind you, just the appropriate day of the week.  The entire process concludes with a final graphic declaring congratulations for all those who guessed it correctly.  I don’t tune in every day and I’m really not much of a game player but there is a great deal of satisfaction when I’m among the winners.

This time distortion phenomenon might be unique to senior citizens or those who have been self-isolating for months on end. Without the clear delineation of work or school, the days blend together into a vanilla pudding kind of sameness.  In the summer when we could safely gather outside there were markers that made one day different from another, but once those of us in the colder climes moved indoors those markers became fewer and farther between. We were no longer sitting together at the picnic table with friends and family under the big tree in the backyard or gathering around the fire pit for conversation at the edge of the river. For safety’s sake, our winter-time human connections are nearly all virtual.

`Curiouser and curiouser!’ cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English)

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Seemingly overnight the rabbit hole experience transformed all the meaningful events of our lives into virtual events. In an instant, we accepted that interactions with our grandchildren would be done over FaceTime, that we’d reach out to friends for support on social media, and that gatherings of all kinds would be done over Zoom. I attend Sunday morning church services…often in three different states on the same morning…via YouTube and Zoom. Moving important lifetime affairs to virtual platforms was met with varying degrees of success. Our weekly family gatherings and reunions, for example often evolved into seances.

Can you hear me?

Are you there?

I can’t see you, but I hear your voice.

Oh, we’re lost her again!

Maybe she’ll be back.

I have come to realize that virtual life is real life. We are not together physically, but the time we spend together is real. The sand in the hourglass of my life has not ceased to flow. I am just experiencing life in an unfamiliar and unconventional way. It truly is getting curiouser and curiouser.

“Don’t slide down the rabbit hole. The way down is a breeze, but climbing back’s a battle.”

Kate Morrison, The Clock Maker’s Daughter

Perhaps I have reached the end of the downward slide. I feel that like Alice, I am emerging into Wonderland. Not the world that Alice found full of unique people and places…although that’s surely possible…but a place where I am pondering, questioning, predicting, planning, and…yes…wondering about not just how I’ll extricate myself from this time warp, but what I’ll find on the other side. What happens when I climb out of this tunnel?

It’s very easy to cocoon myself in front of the fire, watch the world from my window, and simply wait for the time I can fling open my door and once more hug my neighbors, but I must find a way to create meaning, purpose, and make this disorienting tumble through the mud worth it. Perhaps that is the challenge of now. What an unusual, unique, and disorienting journey…this ride…this time…has been. Rabbit hole or not, it is the time I have been given…might as well enjoy the slide.

Lately it occurres to me What a long, strange trip it’s been.

The Grateful Dead, Truckin’

Christmas Conversations with That Little Voice in My Head

One semester my high school art class focused on crafts including ceramics. While others busied themselves making giant ashtrays and long-haired cats, I concentrated on smoothing seams, selecting colors, and painting a version of the Holy Family…Mary, Joseph, and Jesus lying in a manger. For over half a century these three have held a place of honor in our family Christmas.

The Art Class Creations of a Teenager

Most nativity scenes…aside from a massive display I saw in Notre Dame Cathedral in Strasbourg that included an elephant…imagine that on the streets of Bethlehem…portray the birth of Jesus as a quiet, solitary affair.  In fact, until the shepherds and the magi show up, it’s pretty much just M, J, and J along with the livestock.

A Section of the Nativity…Complete with Elephant
Notre Dame Cathedral, Strasbourg, France

In the countless retellings I’ve heard over the years, the story is pretty much the same.  Mary and Joseph arrived in town. They couldn’t find a room in the local inn, so they took refuge in a stable and that very night, without the need for pain relief or assistance, Mary gave birth to the infant Jesus, by starlight and the gentle, soothing sounds of the curious animals. 

Perhaps it is because I am alone so much these days but that little voice in my head…I really should give her a name… has been especially chatty and persistent lately. Our conversations are prompting me to reconsider that 2000-year-old narrative and to contemplate the details that might have been omitted, overlooked, or cast aside. I also keep thinking that if a woman had been consulted while the Gospels were being written we would definitely have more specifics. Women know that every birth comes with a story and that young mothers are usually eager to share the details. I’ve never heard another birth story as short as…it was time to give birth so she did. Have you seen “Call the Midwife”?

“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.”

Luke 2:6-7 NIV

Luke’s gospel tells us that Mary and Joseph went from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be counted in the census. Not the most efficient plan in my estimation, but it seems governmental bureaucracy has been around, literally, since biblical times. Bethlehem was Joseph’s ancestral home…basically his hometown. He had deep roots and many family ties to the small city. Surely, he still had friends, cousins, aunts, and uncles, and perhaps even grandparents living there.  

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David;

Luke 2:4 ASV

As it happens, my son was unintentionally born at home.  While my mom stayed with me, my poor father rushed to fetch a near-by friend, a nurse, to help with the early arrival. Dad entered her house without knocking…totally out of character…and said, in a voice cracking with emotion, “I need help. I have a new baby at my house and I don’t know what to do with it.”  Within half an hour of his birth, my son was surrounded by his sister, my sister, my parents, the nurse, her entire bridge club, and the next-door neighbors as well. Knowing the excitement around the birth of my son on a quiet November night in rural Michigan,  I find it difficult to believe that Mary and Joseph in a crowded city full of family would have faced the birth alone. The women would certainly have been there to soothe Mary’s brow and tell her when to push. They would have fetched the swaddling clothes, washed the wee one, and rocked him while Mary rested. Seems to me the authors left out all the best parts.  

And what about Joseph?  He seems to get short shrift in this tale.  It’s true that the Joseph in my nativity set lost his crook years ago and has had to have his head reattached a couple times, but I doubt he was merely a bystander in Bethlehem? If Mary was chosen to be the mother doesn’t it follow that Joseph was also chosen for his role?

One of my fondest Christmas memories happened during the annual church pageant a few years ago. Just as the procession was about to begin, the second-grader playing Joseph, looked up at me and with a voice full of tenderness and hope, asked, “Can I hold the baby, too sometime?”  Of course. Wouldn’t Joseph have wanted to hold the baby sometime too?  Most of the depictions have him relegated to the background, pushed aside by the shepherds all the while looking on beatifically.  He must have been tired and perhaps overcome with the miracle and wonder of the moment, as he gazed upon Mary and the baby, but he was not unimportant. He gathered hay for bedding, made sure that the sheep and cows kept their distance, and kept Mary and Jesus warm and fed. I have no doubt that then he held the baby too.

St Joseph with the Infant Jesus
Guido Reni (1575-1642)
Joseph seems a little on the old side to me, but who knows?

The Gospels tell us about the shepherds, the angels, and the magi, but what about the people who actually got rooms in the inn. There were no streetlights in Bethlehem, so what must they have thought when the light of a brilliant star…a star bright enough to be used for navigational purposes…was suddenly beaming in through the window?  How could they get any sleep with something that bright shining in their eyes?  Did they drape blankets over the window; did they cower in their rooms in fear; or did grab their robes and sandals and rush out to explore? 

And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 

Matthew 2:9

If Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem because it was Joseph’s hometown, so to speak, what about Mary’s family? Where were her parents?

This year, when so many of us, are wishing we could be with our children and grandchildren, I feel a strong bond with Mary’s mother, who is unnamed in the Gospels and completely left out of the story.  She must have worried, not knowing whether the women of Joseph’s family would support and coach Mary through the birth and oh, how her arms must have ached to hold little Jesus…her grandson. Without Zoom, cellphones or even a reliable postal system to comfort her, how was she able to focus on her daily chores during the years the young family was in exile in Egypt?

The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519
While ignored in the Gospels she does get a name in the Apocrypha

I have so many more questions and there are so many stories within stories in this ancient narrative.  Perhaps that’s the lesson the voice in my head is trying to teach me.  Look beyond the soloist in the spotlight to the angels in the chorus and beyond the shepherds in the stable to the one who had to stay behind to watch the sheep. Just like these unnamed characters with uncredited roles we all have a part to play and a story worth knowing.

Throughout my lifetime I have seen myself as the frightened shepherd who nonetheless curiously ventures forward, the seeker who journeys toward a promise and a goal, the young mother rocking her child, and now in the autumn of my life, I am the grandmother, yearning to be near her family. If we look carefully we will each find ourselves somewhere in the narrative.

The Arrival of the Shepherds
Photo credit: Pixabay

This holiday season, in the manner of Mary’s mother, I will patiently wait for the time we can all be together again. I will wear my mask, social distance, and wash my hands, keeping myself safe until then.

In the meantime, like the folks in the inn, I’ll have to decide whether to cover the window and ignore the star or find new ways to safely join the celebration.

 

A Handful of Pieces

“A marriage, willy-nilly, requires you to trust that your spouse will tell your story truthfully and lovingly when you are no longer around to tell it yourself.” 

Kate Braestrup, Here, If You Need Me
Spring Break on Cape Cod
Photo credit: Fiona Rollins

In what now seems like another lifetime ago, my sisters and I met in Chicago for an evening of amazing theatre. For two hours and fifty-five minutes, we were mesmerized by the story, the music, and the fast-paced lyrics of Hamilton. The musical is jampacked with memorable moments; however, it was the final song…the final scene..that reached in and grabbed my heart. Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story. At the time, having been a widow myself, for a scant six months, I immediately connected with Eliza who accepts the responsibility of telling Alexander’s story and honoring his legacy.

Every life is a mosaic of tiny bits and pieces. When it comes time for our story to be told we can only hope that the storytellers scoop up the shiny, brightly colored bits. Then too, it would probably be nice to have some of the dull and broken tesserae thrown in as well…just to add some contrast and perspective.  In the end, the chroniclers can only use the tiles they have collected and the way the light shines on the bits they hold to tell our stories.

Covid-19 Spring
Barbara Abraham

It makes me a little sad, to think that there are many people in my life who never met my husband, Dave.  I’m sorry, too, that I can only tell his story with the pieces I have.  Granted, after forty-three years of sharing a life together I’ve got an awful lot of pieces, but after decades of living side-by-side, our individual bits have all been dumped into the same box. I’m afraid that trying to separate the jumble of my life from his would be a rather dusty, time-consuming, and ultimately futile endeavor.  

So, with a mound of those tiles cupped in my hand, I’ll give you a tiny glimpse into one part of the man I knew.  There’s still an abundance of pieces remaining in the box for another day.

Dave and I both come from families where a sense of humor is held in the highest regard. Storytelling, practical jokes, playful innuendoes, quick retorts, and snappy comebacks were what we were both raised on.  We have a professional comedian in our family for heaven’s sake and several other family members who can probably hold their own with him.  In fact, my mother’s final words were the punchline of a joke she liked to tell. Humor and laughter are in our DNA.

Over the years, the two of us sometimes worked as a comedy duo. We often played off each other with the hope of making our friends laugh.  Our repertoire ran the gamut from Archie and Edith to Lucy and Desi, often switching roles between the comic and the straight man. The biggest challenge and the most fun was getting the other to laugh or catching them in a joke.  I have to say, especially since Dave isn’t here to object, but I know he’d agree, that in this game I was most often the victor. I think Dave was just too naive and trusting.  I’d get him to fall for the easiest stuff…hook, line, and sinker.

“I have always felt that laughter in the face of reality is probably the finest sound there is and will last until the day when the game is called on account of darkness. In this world, a good time to laugh is any time you can”.

Linda Ellerbee
Do You See a Resemblance?
Entrance to the Kröller-Müller Museum

In a recent documentary, I watched a group of archaeologists trying to reconstruct the floor of a Roman villa. Most of the clay tiles were missing, but there were some sections that were bright, beautiful, and close to being complete. There are stories about Dave that are much like that restored section of that ancient mosaic floor.  They have been told so many times that they have been worn smooth but they are so funny and familiar that they are continually repeated.

Ready for Duty, Captain
Jamestown, VA 2011

On Valentine’s Day, 2007, a massive snowstorm hit Vermont dropping between two and three feet of snow in a twenty-four hour period. For several days people were clearing snow from sidewalks, driveways, and rooftops.  On the third day,  after hours spent on the roof, Dave came in to give a report.  He had worked his way to the front of the house and was vigorously moving shovelful after shovelful from the roof to the drifts below.  As he worked, instead of warming up from the exertion, as he expected, he was getting colder and colder.  What he had failed to notice was that with each shovelful he tossed from the roof a fair percentage had blown back and collected in the pockets of the pants he was wearing.  When the pockets reached maximum capacity…weight, gravity, and maybe just because the snow wanted to return to the roof…Dave’s pants slowly slid down his legs and gathered around his ankles. Our house was on a fairly busy street.  One wonders how many people he mooned before he realized that his arse was on display for the entire world to see.

Dave was not a small man and he frequently used his size to great comic advantage. When our church instituted an annual Christmas Pageant, he was one of the Wise Men. After several years in the role, he decided to mix it up and play the part of an angel.  I assume that angels come in all shapes and sizes, but I’m pretty sure that until the moment he appeared on the chancel no one in Montpelier had ever seen anything quite like his rendition.  To complete his angel ensemble he and his cohort, Bob, also dressed as an angel, carried small bells that they’d ring occasionally and then look to see if either of them had gotten their wings.  “Teacher says, every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.”  

He’s The Angel In The Christmas Play

I supposed his greatest achievement at visual humor was The Great Shower Caper. One summer, while I was spending a week at Star Island, off the coast of New Hampshire, he got together with my friends, Bettie and Nancy. The three of them were aided by my daughter-in-law who photographed the entire escapade. Nancy, Dave, and Bettie, posed in such a way as to create the illusion that the three of them were enjoying a playfully nude romp together in our outdoor shower. I can’t imagine that this was Dave’s idea, but the fact that he was willing to go along with it was classic. The rest of the plot involved having prints made for each of the participants to hang surreptitiously in their house to see how long it took their spouse to discover it. I can only imagine how much fun they had creating this bit of visual hilarity. I keep a framed print in my bathroom. I look at it every day and always smile.

Ain’t We Got Fun
Nancy, Dave, and Bettie

When you are a joker you have to be ready to take a ribbing as well as dish it out. Dave was always a good sport when it came to being the butt of the joke, so to speak.  One of his favorite stories involved his friend and surgeon, Larry.  We were living in a small Michigan town where everyone knew everyone else.  Dave had gone to the doctor for a cyst that had formed at the base of his spine.  The doctor, Jack, told Dave that the best course of action was to have it lanced.  “Just go over to the hospital. Larry is still working and he’ll take care of you.”  Dave arrived next door at the hospital and sure enough, Larry was ready to take care of the problem. 

The set-up for this story also involved Larry telling Dave that although some of the numbing-agent had gotten into his eyes he was sure he could see well enough to complete the procedure at hand. As a now nervous Dave was bent over the gurney with his drawers once again around his ankles…I’m beginning to see a pattern here…Robin…remember it’s a small town…came into the room and began to prep Dave for the procedure by shaving his behind. Embarrassed, Dave asked, “Does Robin have to do that?

“No,” replied Larry, “But she asked if she could and I didn’t see any harm in it.”

Dave would roar with laughter telling that story.  He loved it.

Of course, Dave was much more than jokes and funny stories… I still have lots of tiles left in the box…but it was the part of himself that he liked best. In many ways, it was the essence of his being. Who he was.

We never talked much about what happens when we die. I really don’t know if he believed in an afterlife or not, but when I read this quote from Kate Braestrup, I always hear it in Dave’s voice. “Ah! To be able to make someone I love laugh years after I’m gone, that is all the immortality I could ever ask for.

You Left in Autumn

“Grief is the price we pay for love.”

Queen Elizabeth II
A View of the Muskegon River
Penny and Dave’s, Big Rapids, 2020

Autumn is definitely my favorite season, but this year along with the foliage, the multiple flocks of geese winging their way south, and that crisp, juicy bite of the season’s first apples …quite unexpectedly…October arrived with a replay of the grief I thought I had put into a manageable box months ago. Soon, I will mark the second anniversary of my husband’s death. Of course, I knew it was coming, but I wasn’t expecting to have such a visceral response to a mere date on the calendar.

You left in autumn. The leaves were turning. I walked down roads of orange and gold. I saw your sweet smile. I heard your laughter. You’re still here beside me. Everyday. ‘Cause I know you by heart. “Cause I know you by heart.

Terrance Harrison / Margaret Nelson “I Know You by Heart”. sung and recorded by Eva Cassidy
A Singular Beauty at Plum Loco
Shepherd, Michigan, 2020

Several times in the past few weeks I have been awakened in the night by the sound of my own weeping and the chill of tears soaking into my pillow. I feel myself moving uncontrollably toward the empty pit of despair. The colored leaves that litter my path offer no traction to brake my footsteps as I slide toward the edge of the abyss. I grab saplings to slow my descent and I resist with all my might until I am balancing on the edge of the void…halted…and safe…but knowing that I am precariously perched. I breathe in and breathe out.

Leaves on the Path
Sylvan’s Solace, 2020

The return of autumn colors, the sounds, the smells, and yes, the taste of sweet cider and pumpkin doughnuts…involuntarily…put me back where I was at the time of Dave’s death. Without conscious thought, I was…I am…reliving that chapter and all the emotions that accompanied it over and over again.

It seems that my nearly five-year-old grandson who was with me on the morning of Dave’s death is also having a difficult time. As little boys are want to do, yesterday, he built himself a fort complete with a picture of Dave. Later he told his friend that he was feeling very sad because he missed Papa Dave and he wished he hadn’t died. Could it be that Autumn was bringing this wee one’s memories into the light too?

Perhaps, much like the rising action of a good novel or the mounting intensity of a particularly good piece of music, this is a necessary wave of grief that builds until it is suddenly released on the anniversary where it can be acknowledged, named, and then put away until the wave crests again.

I’m not sure how that works in the heart of a little boy, however.

Imagining At An Early Morning Window
2020

Grief is so complicated. Just when you think you’ve tamed it…bam…it whacks you upside the head. At times the pain feels so raw and fresh and at other times it is just a dull ache that moves in, follows you around, and makes itself at home. There are also days when grief remains so quiet you almost dare to believe it’s gone and you spend the entire day smiling.

Grieving is a lonely business until I remember that in addition to the personal griefs we each bear, during this long and painful pandemic we are all experiencing a communal loss. Everyone on the planet has lost someone or something. Each of us…children, too…can easily create our own long list of what was taken and what we long to have returned.

The Missing-Dave part of the mourning process has taught me that when looking back over our time together the petty annoyances that drove me crazy, the minor disagreements we occasionally shared, and the less than stellar times that filled the empty spaces in our lives all begin to fade into the mist. What I remember…what I miss…are all the simple day-to-day experiences that make up life…the fun, the laughter, the mundane, and the knowledge that someone was witness to my existence.

With COVID-19 we are still in the rising action of the plot. At times the intensity is nearly unbearable, but when finally we reach the climax, falling action, and resolution will we look back and watch some of the negatives fade into the mist and remember the positives that have come out of this challenging time? Will we remember how precious the smallest things were and honor them for the richness that they bring to our lives? Will we remember the good? I wonder.

So far, I am resisting the gaping maw of depression that threatens me. I am sad…and that’s OK. Pain and joy are simply opposite sides of the same coin. When I relive the pain of loss I cannot escape the adjacent memories of love, tenderness, laughter, and joy.

Mary Oliver instructs us that “To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go”.

Leaves in the Chippewa River
Sylvan’s Solace, 2020

“These autumn days will shorten and grow cold. The leaves will shake loose from the trees and fall. Christmas will come, then the snows of winter. You will live to enjoy the beauty of the frozen world, for you mean a great deal to Zuckerman and he will not harm you, ever. Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur — this lovely world, these precious days…” 

E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web

Next year, Autumn will come again. The trees will swish their leafy skirts, apple trees will share their bounty, little boys will build forts, and once again I’ll be ready to ‘let it go’.

There Are Bears on the Way to The Promised Land

I have seen the Promised Land, but contrary to the milk and honey advertised in the brochure, I found a land of maple syrup, early fall foliage, and lots of mask-wearing people, but I’m getting way ahead of myself.

Camel’s Hump from Charlotte

For months…after following all the guidelines, wearing a mask, keeping social distance, and having very minimal contact with others…I still debated whether I could or should make the trip from Michigan to Vermont during this pandemic. I missed my family and the anticipated isolation of winter was looming on the horizon but was it sensible, wise, or even safe to do?

“Sometimes you have to go through the wilderness before you get to the Promised Land.”

John Bytheway

One Sunday in late August, during a sermon on courage, my minister, Rev. Andrew Franz, shared the analogy of meeting a bear in the woods. “Fearing the bear in front of you compels you to choose action. Fearing a bear that might or might not be there in the bushes is not a useful emotion, ” he said. ” Fear of the abstract is not useful. It is debilitating”.

In September 2016, Dave and I visited Glacier National Park. Before the trip, my sister, Penny, gave me lots of instructions and admonitions about meeting bears on the trail. Since Dave wasn’t able to hike much farther than the parking lot, any hiking I was going to do I’d have to do alone, so I paid close attention.

One afternoon, I began a short hike to a waterfall. In less than fifty yards, I came to a sign reporting bears in the area. A little farther on, I came to a second posted alert. Perhaps, I thought, the prudent course would be to heed these warnings. I hesitated momentarily and then turned around. As I retraced my steps, I got a glimpse through the trees and down the mountain at the trail I would have taken. Hiking together in pairs and trios were several other people. Certainly, they were making enough noise to intimidate any bear. I could have done the hike and seen the falls if I hadn’t been worried about the bear that might have been in the bushes.

The Water is Really Low on The North Branch

On the other hand…if there had been a bear…I’m pretty sure I’d have been the tasty morsel who couldn’t outrun the other hikers. Realizing how temptingly delicious I’d have been…maybe I made the right decision. Then again? Bottom line…I missed the view.

Was I letting the may-be-bear get in the way of my Vermont decision?

“Often any decision, even the wrong decision, is better than no decision.”

Ben Horowitz

“You do seem to perseverate on things, you know”, my sister said. “No kidding, I thought, but it was clear that it was time for me to get out the map or put the suitcase back in the closet.

OK…I’d make the trip.

Suddenly There Was Crimson

I began the preparations needed to comply with the requirements for travelers to Vermont. If I drove my own vehicle…stopping only for gas, food, to use the restroom, and short rest breaks… I could quarantine for two weeks in my own home as opposed to two weeks in isolation after arrival by plane. I rearranged appointments and reluctantly canceled all opportunities involving possible human contact and began to psych myself up for the drive.

The route through Canada is very familiar having done it innumerable times …easy peasy…but due to the high number of infections in the US, the Canadians aren’t allowing Americans in…not even to simply transit through. I know. I called. I wanted to say that I’m Justin Trudeau’s cousin…10th cousin, twice removed…but I doubted the no-nonsense woman at the other end would have been impressed. I’d just have to go south to go north.

With These Green Hills, the Vermont State Song, playing on a loop in my head, I left my house at 2:30 a.m. to avoid major construction near Toledo and to miss morning traffic around Cleveland and Buffalo, besides I like driving on the highway in the dark, and frankly, once I made the decision to go, I was like a horse heading for the barn. I couldn’t wait.

These Green Mountains…The State Song of Vermont

Crossing the Crown Point Bridge into Vermont I felt a surge of emotions that I cannot adequately describe or define. After just fifteen hours I had arrived once again in my spirit’s home. These green hills and silver waters will always be my home wherever I live, but it was the people of this ‘brave little state’ that were pulling me back. My children, grandchildren, and so many dear friends live within her borders. It made me sad to think that COVID would keep me from most of my friends and my proximity to their unsharable hugs was painful, but I would cherish the memories of the ‘before time’ and look forward to when we would be together again in the ‘after time’.

Vermont is a glorious place, but…along with moose, woodchuck, and beaver…Vermont has bears.

Along the Path

Many years ago, Dave and I were in Alaska where we hiked in Denali National Park. Granted we only did laps in the parking lot of the Visitor Center, but…hey…I’m counting it. During our laps, we became aware of for-real-hikers who were checking-in at the ranger station to document that they were setting off on an adventure or to report that they were safely returning. It was easy to recognize these people by the bear bells around their ankles and cans of bear spray hanging from their belts or backpacks. Whether the bells actually work is disputed, but those hikers were doing all they could to be ready to discourage any bears that they might encounter. The bells, the spray, and the bear-sighting board at the registration counter provided the hikers the information they needed to weigh the risks and prepared them for the hike.

The level of risk regarding COVID in Vermont is very low. Dr. Anthony Fauci has said that Vermont could serve a model for the country, but reminded Vermonters to keep vigilant. Vermonters listened.

Showing Our Love By Wearing Masks

During my brief stay, everyone I saw was wearing a mask or social distancing outside. Small children, old men, high school soccer players…everyone, without exception…was masked-up. On hiking trails, people wore masks or signaled to those approaching that they would move a reasonable distance off the trails to keep each other safe. The few stores I entered had sanitation stations set up just inside their doors. The number of shoppers was limited and enforced. I’m sure there are maskless Vermonters, but I didn’t see any. It appeared to be…as I expected…a matter of course that we’d all wear masks; we’d all take care of each other. I was warmed by the deep sense of connection I had with all those…strangers…who were wearing masks to help keep me safe. Vermont isn’t actually Utopia. It has its faults, but I certainly felt as if I’d seen The Promised Land. A glimpse of life as it once was…the possibility of what it could be.

The compassionate mask-wearing and rule-following nameless Vermonters allowed me to be with my family and others I loved after being isolated for months. I knew, that I’d have to preserve the blessings of the simple pleasures I was enjoying, remembering and holding them in my heart, keeping them ready to sustain me through the coming months ahead so I paid close attention to the way my grandson’s tiny hand fit into mine and the weight of my granddaughter’s head on my shoulder and the smell of her hair. I memorized the way it felt to share a smile and a laugh with my daughter and the warmth of my son’s skin through his shirt as we shared a single quick hug. I delighted in the opportunity to ride in my little car…masks on and windows slightly open…as my teenaged granddaughter learned to drive. I recorded upon my heart the voices of my family and the few friends within my small COVID restricted circle. I bottled the joy, contentment, and renewal of this adventure keeping it ready to add to my cocoa…or…wine…and sip slowly on a cold winter night.

I know that somewhere a bear still lumbers among the trees and bushes…but…maybe he’s simply munching berries or settling in for a long winter nap.

Spot, The-Other-One, and the Feathered Coxswain

Meanwhile, the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –over and over announcing your place in the family of things.

Mary Oliver, taken from “Wild Geese
The Wild Geese Are Heading Home Again….. Photo credit Pixabay

There they were, just above the rooftop of the house next door, a flock of Canada Geese.  Flights of geese heading south in their familiar V formation aren’t totally unexpected this time of year, nevertheless, I was surprised and delighted to hear them calling out to one another from high overhead. Like the coxswain on a rowing crew, the geese in the back honk out encouragement, instructions, and motivation to the birds in the lead urging them to maintain their position and speed. As I stood watching and listening, the honking and squawking broadcast a clear reminder that summer is waning and autumn is on the way.

I have always loved this time of year. As the days grow shorter and the shadows lengthen, the feeling of possibility that hangs in the air is nearly palpable, but this year as I watched the trails of geese fade into the distance, instead of the feeling of anticipation that I usually experience, I was filled with a deep sense of nostalgia, melancholy, and a yearning for the comfort and familiarity of times past.

“That old September feeling, left over from school days, of summer passing, vacation nearly done, obligations gathering, books, and football in the air…Another fall, another turned page; there was something of jubilee in that annual autumnal beginning, as it last year’s mistakes had been wiped clean by summer.”

Wallace Stegner, Angle of Reposte

Growing up in the 50s and 60s in rural mid-Michigan, kids like me, spent our summers in the relative freedom that was the norm in most small towns. During the day we would run, play, and explore together…pretty much at will. We’d flatten grass in the fields to create forts, inventing elaborate narratives for our green and fragrant villages; we’d join games of work-up played without teams, score-keeping, or the interference of adults; we’d put pennies on the railroad tracks so the passing behemoths could reduce them to smears of copper; we’d dare each other to climb to the top of the potato storage or the huge neighborhood pine tree, and we’d ride our bikes from one side of town to the other.  We were always sure to be home for supper and after quickly helping with dishes and clean-up we’d head back outside again for another hour or two of ghost stories, murder-at-midnight, or hide and seek.  The fun continued until the street lights came on to signal the end of our liberty and we’d sprint off in all directions toward bath time, bedtime, and the safety of home.

The end of summer signaled the time for school shopping with a new pair of school shoes at the top of the list. Having gone barefoot for months it was time for feet with soles as tough as leather to be squeezed into the confinement of shoes once again. A new pair of school shoes was a real treat although my father’s teacher’s salary never afforded us the Red Ball Jets that we craved. I mean, who wouldn’t want shoes that guaranteed you’d jump higher and run faster? I’m sure I’d have grown up to be much more athletic if I’d gotten those rubber souled miracles instead of the less expensive knocks-off we got instead? 

A Box of Possibility and Imagination

In addition to shoes, we each received new pencils and a box of crayons. The 48 pack was a joy, but in Fourth Grade, I experienced the pure ecstasy of the 64 set with built-in sharpener and metallic gold, silver, and copper. It was not simply a box of cylindrical sticks of colored wax. That cardboard container held imagination and possibility. Like shoes that could give you wings and crayons that could produce an artistic masterpiece, Autumn has always been a time of hope, wonder, excitement, and potentiality.  

This year, in addition to the annual feeling of anticipation and promise the wind also carries the clarion call of geese warning, prodding, and summoning me to take action. Soon there will be frost on the pumpkins and ice and snow in the clouds.

“Something Told the Wild Geese” by Rachel Field

In these dwindling days of warmth and sun, it is difficult to ignore the feathered coxswain who continues to honk a forecast of ice, and snow. The geese are raising the alarm. It’s time to prepare for the coming days when, in this year of virus and pandemic, we will hunker down once again moving to the comfort, safety, and isolation of our homes. “Get ready”, they honk. “Prepare”, they squawk. “There are things to do,” they remind.

There is a small deck at the back of my condo. I often sit out there to read or to attend Zoom meetings. Throughout the spring and summer, I’ve been joined off and on by two black squirrels…Spot and The-Other-One. They have gotten used to me and will bravely scamper about within feet and inches of me. I often have sunflower seeds, which I’m sure improves our relationship, but having spent so much time on my own during this year of isolation, I am delighted by their presence. My wee friends provide the entertainment and I gladly serve the refreshments.

Lately, I’ve noticed that they don’t linger near me as long as they did in the Spring and early Summer. I watch Spot as he stuffs seeds into his cheeks and then jumps from the deck to the yard. His tiny little feet scratch a hole in the flowerbed or beneath one of the trees where he then deposits the seeds. I don’t know how he or The-Other-One will find the hidden seeds beneath the snow this winter, but the seeds will be there waiting for them nevertheless. They have heard the geese too it seems.

My Friend Spot. Names for the tiny patch of white hairs on his back.

Watching my little furry friends reminds me of the classic picture book, Frederick, by Lio Lionni.  It’s one of my favorites. While the other field mice work to gather grain and nuts for winter, Frederick sits on a sunny rock by himself. “I gather sun rays for the cold dark winter days,” he tells them. Another day he gathers “colors,” and then “words.” And when the food runs out, it is Frederick, the poet, and dreamer, whose endless store of poetry and verse warms the hearts of his fellow mice, and feeds their spirits during the darkest winter days.

Like Frederick, I need to gather stories, colors, and golden memories to warm and sustain me through the winter ahead as well. I must harvest moments that restore my soul and feed my spirit. COVID has made preserving these as essential to life as the sweet corn, strawberries, or blueberries that I put by in my tiny freezer. Our Buddhist friends always implore us to live in the moment, be present, and take not a single day for granted, but now, perhaps more than ever, it is crucial that we live each day with intention.

So…I will bask in the warmth of the sun on my face. I will delight in the brilliant yellows, reds, and oranges of the turning leaves as they dance on the breeze. I will savor the crisp freshness of the season’s first cider allowing it to linger on my lips. I will make mental photographs of the eyes of family and friends as they smile above the masks they wear to keep me safe. I will drink deeply from the intoxicating well of human touch. I will memorize the sound of lively discussions and raucous laughter and use it to drown out the bitter winds of winter. I will find the essence of something wonderful to collect from each new day.

Winter is indeed on its way and our time of comfortable outdoor gatherings will soon be packed away with our summer sandals and sleeveless shirts, but I’m heeding the warning of the geese, the squirrels, and the field mice. I’m adding more shelves, packing tins and jars, and filling my larder to overflowing.

How are you restocking your pantry?

Making Memories at the Corn Maze.
Masks removed only for the photo and when social distancing within the rows of corn stalks.

You Have Left The Planned Route

“Right now there are thirty-one satellites zipping around the world with nothing better to do than help you find your way to the grocery store.” 

 Ed Burnette, Hello, Android: Introducing Google’s Mobile Development Platform
Heather in the Highlands, 2015

The Highlands of Scotland are filled with magic and mystery. The hills fairly echo with legends and tales of clans and kings, so it’s rather fitting that it was in the Highlands that I first heard that disembodied, decidedly British voice that would eventually entice me to listen for and respond to its every command.

In the summer of 2004, Dave and I, together with our son, and soon-to-be daughter-in-law, made our first unescorted trip to Scotland.   We were all so exhausted and jet-lagged when we reached our first night’s lodging that our heads barely hit the pillow that night before we were asleep. The next morning refreshed and fortified with a full Scottish breakfast we followed the map north to Cawdor Castle.  We had a lovely time exploring the castle and the grounds while talking of Shakespeare and Macbeth, but like many first-time tourists to the Highlands, we could hardly wait to reach our next destination…the famed Loch Ness.

From the Gardens at Cawdor Castle, 2004

As we prepared to leave the car park at Cawdor Castle, Jeremy and Jenna…driver and navigator respectively… suggested that we try out the GPS system that came with our car, after all, why not? At that time…sixteen years ago…none of us had any experience at all with a navigational system. How difficult could it be? It might be fun. Confident that like most techy things programming the guidance system would be rather intuitive, Jenna plugged in our desired destination, and within minutes we were off.  Our British friend guided us skillfully through the twisting streets and roundabouts of Inverness and in less than forty-five minutes we arrived on the eastern end of the northern shore of the Loch Ness. Easy Peasy.

On the Shore of Loch Ness Waiting for Nessie, 2004

We found a wayside pull-off where we parked the car, looked for Nessie, posed for pictures, and collected pebbles from the shore. It was blissful to be on this amazing adventure together at a place we had all heard about from childhood. Such a delightful morning.  As we listened to the waters caressing the shore someone shared that they had read that the southern, less-traveled side of the loch was even prettier than the more populated side. “Sounds good.” we agreed. “Let’s go that way.”

“Two Roads Diverged In A Wood And I – I Took The One Less Traveled By, And That Has Made All The Difference”

Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

“Sometimes The Road Less Traveled Is Less Traveled For A Reason.”

Jerry Seinfeld

We planned to go south to the ruins of Urquhart Castle, around the end of the Loch near Fort Augustus, then turn north again along the quieter side returning to our B and B for a much-anticipated nap.  We’d rely on our new found friend…Gladys…to guide us.  Surely, she’d know the best route. 

Urquhart Castle and The South Side of the Loch, 2004

She didn’t. 

Well…actually…maybe she did, but there was a slight problem in communication.

Somewhere near Fort Augustus, we made a wrong turn. What we didn’t know at the time was that Gladys would recalculate the original route and find a new way to get us to our destination.  What a disaster! Bliss became calamity. We tried to self-correct using instinct, our maps, and the conflicting and confusing instructions we were getting from Gladys. We never saw the loch again. The roads were narrow, twisty, and unmarked. We were completely lost.  Filled with frustration, Jeremy pulled the car off the road and asked to see the map for himself.  

“I’m 100% sure this is where we are,” said Jenna pointing confidently to a thin blue line.

“Jenna,” Jeremy laughed, “That’s a river!”  

With perseverance and pure dumb luck, we eventually made it back to our B and B well past nap time. The next morning at breakfast as we were lamenting our experience a fellow traveler overhearing our dilemma clued us into the rerouting feature. We had been fighting against poor Gladys for hours. She must have been so confused.  At this point, Dave mentioned that perhaps we should look at the manual.  

“There’s a manual?”  J and J said in unison.  “There’s a manual?!

”Well, yes,” Dave replied.”But I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.”

The kids just rolled their eyes.

“When all else fails, read the instructions”

Annonymous

Navigational systems have made advancements since those early days, but I think they could be still be perfected by the addition of an elementary school teacher to the design team. A teacher would add features that could make the entire experience smoother and much more pleasant.  For example, when making a turn or exiting a round-about successfully, a friendly voice would add words of confirmation and support to let the driver know they were on the right track and that they had made the maneuver correctly…Excellent, Nice job, or Way-to-go.  If an error was made the voice would remark in calm, reassuring tones…Whoops, Almost, or Sorry, not quite.  To avoid panic she’d quickly add…Relax. We can figure this out together.  Give me a minute to find the best way to help. Then as the route was being recalculated the driver would hear a few bars of Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds. “Don’t worry about a thing ‘Cause every little thing gonna be alright.”

Three Little Birds, 2016

For the most part, I have found my experiences with GPS to be very satisfying. The Voice-in-the Box has directed me safely through city traffic at rush hour and on backcountry roads that have no obvious names, but every so often that sweet little lady has led me on some wild adventures as well. For example: repeatedly directing Dave to turn the wrong way on a one-way street in Amsterdam; leading us to the terror-inducing pass in Colorado widely accepted as the highest standard passenger vehicle road in the United States; twice taking us to ferry crossings where the ferries were no longer running; and once in Vermont on my way to a bridal shower I was routed past two naked bike riders on their way to the Montpelier segment of the World Naked Bike Ride… yes, there really is such a thing…through a trailer park, and ending in a gravel pit with a cheerful…”You have reached your destination”.

Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.

Helen Keller

I have never worried too much about taking a wrong turn or misreading the map. Perhaps that comes from growing up in Michigan which is divided into mile-square sections and bordered by the Great Lakes. Finding your way primarily involves following roads that are laid out in right angles. Go too far in nearly any direction and you’ll eventually come to one of the big lakes. Of course, go too far south and that’s another story. Hello Ohio and Indiana.

Once, when my children were small, I became disoriented in an unfamiliar city and we found ourselves in a parking lot instead of on the highway.

“This is what I call an adventure,” I said cheerfully.

“It’s also what we call lost,” replied my young son.

True, I suppose, but the best adventures and the most interesting stories always seem to involve getting lost..literally or figuratively… and then finding your way again.

During the last several months I have often felt lost, disoriented, and adrift. Frankly, I could use some help. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we had a GPS to help us find our way through these distressing COVID times? Sometimes it feels like I’ve lost contact with the satellite without a clue of how to proceed. Am I heading in the direction of the beautiful side of the loch or just wandering aimlessly on the back roads? I would happily make a legal U-turn as soon as it is safe to do so if I had any idea when or where that might be. Like everyone else, I want to know how much longer I’ll be on this highway before my next maneuver and when I could expect to reach my destination. I’d also be grateful to know what other obstacles, delays, and detours lie ahead and if there is an alternate route.

Waterbury, VT, 2019

I really, really want someone to give me the kind of message I would get from OnStar. “You have left the planned route. Directions will resume automatically when you return to the route. Do you need updated directions?”

Oh, Gladys. Where are you when I need you.

We’ve all left the planned route and yes, we need updated directions.

Life in The Chrysalis

We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.

Maya Angelou

Tucked in amid the profusion of perennials that surround my sister’s house you will find a huge milkweed plant. Often relegated to roadside ditches or borders along the back-forty, milkweed is dwindling in number along with the Monarch butterflies who spend their caterpillar phase living and feasting on the host plant’s bright green leaves.  This particular milkweed did not suddenly appear in my sister Kelly’s garden unbidden and unannounced. It was planted and nurtured there with intention; an invitation to passing Monarchs looking for a place to lay their eggs. “Please, come. Land here. We want you in our neighborhood.” The hardy plant grew tall and strong, full of broad leaves, but not a single Monarch flew by to check out the menu or the accommodations.

Finally…a couple weeks ago, my sister, called to say that she had discovered a Monarch caterpillar feasting on the milkweed. “Come on out. You’ve got to see it,” she implored with great excitement. “It’s amazing.” So, with my mask in place and observing social distancing, I  went to watch this remarkable little fella sprint from the bottom of the stalk up toward the buds of the blossom at the top.  He was a voracious eater and quite the little gymnast.

The First to Arrive (Photo: Kelly Daab Green)

Then, just as suddenly as he appeared he was gone.  Apparently, Monarch caterpillars are considered a delicacy by the Orioles who nest nearby. Kelly was heartbroken as she imagined her little friend being the main course at an Oriole summer picnic. Perhaps, however,  her striped buddy had escaped the birds and traveled to find a more safe and secure place to construct his chrysalis. Monarchs will often hike as far as ten meters in search of the perfect spot, but whatever his fate…lunch or location…he was no longer present on her milkweed.

In the coming days, she searched the remaining leaves, waiting and willing another caterpillar to appear on her special plant, vowing that if she found other she’d bring it in and rear it, keeping it safe from predators. No one came.

Imagine her joy when days later, while exploring the back fields near her rural home, providence placed her right next to another milkweed where a beautiful orange and black queen of the sky rested quietly on a leaf. As she watched, the regal butterfly appeared to shudder slightly, pause and then fly quickly away leaving behind a very tiny, cream-colored egg. Once she knew where to look and what to look for, Kelly found many more of these pearl-like spheres no larger than the head of a pin.

Led by Providence (Photo: Kelly Daab Green)

Originally, Kelly had hoped to watch a single caterpillar progress from larva to pupa and then butterfly, instead, my little sister was rapidly becoming a Militant Monarch Mama caring for her tiny charges as they grew and she learned more about how to nurture, protect, and defend her growing army of caterpillars.

Humans have always been drawn to butterflies. It is mesmerizing to watch one of the delicate, winged creatures flit from flower to flower gathering nectar knowing that our momentary pleasure will end too soon as they hurry off toward the next stop on some ancient instinctual travel plan. The way butterflies float and drift on the currents, alighting momentarily just beyond reach is magical. Our eyes trace their carefree journey across the sky and we marvel that such fragile wings can carry them about the clouds.

On the Migratory Path, Vinalhaven, Maine, October 2019

Of course, there are many dangers and obstacles that threaten our wee friends…lack of habitat, climate change, rain, dust, pesticides, and birds… but these flying Buddhists don’t worry about such things and are not troubled with thoughts of the future. Always living in the present moment their short lives are unencumbered by responsibilities and are filled with beauty and freedom.

One early evening a few nights later, I heard the ding on my phone alerting me that I had a message. I was delighted to receive an update complete with photos. There on the screen was a close-up of a small, silky, green chrysalises and a buddy about to create one of his own. Two of Kelly’s charges were one step closer to becoming butterflies.

Caterpillar to Chrysalis (Photo: Kelly Daab Green)

Watching a lowly caterpillar snake off his jester’s garb and shimmy into a silky green changing booth only to emerge dressed in the bright orange raiment of a sovereign it’s easy to understand why butterflies often symbolize the soul, transformation, or rebirth. Their metamorphosis is the epitome of second chances and new beginnings.

While there are many references to caterpillars and butterflies when discussing change and transition I find little mention of the chrysalis or the time spent within it. What’s going on in there? How does a caterpillar grow wings? Biologists have studied the changes that occur within this hidden realm, but to the casual observer…people like me…it remains mysterious and miraculous.

I wonder if the caterpillar was surprised to find that it was slowly twisting and turning itself into the strange vessel that was to be its new home. Does he have an idea of how long he’ll be hanging there or why or what he’s supposed to be doing? Does he know that he is in the world, yet secluded from it?

No. Probably not.

“The caterpillar does not become a butterfly by telling everybody it has wings. It actually buries itself in darkness and grows those wings.”

C. JoyBell C.

Lately, I have had the feeling that I, too, am living in a kind of chrysalis…isolated, waiting, expecting, and hoping for change.  How long will this last? Will I emerge better and stronger? Will I find wings with which to fly? Will my former life on the milkweed be recognizable when I reemerge into a post-COVID-19 world. Some things, when they change never do return to the way they once were and butterflies reassure us that that can be a good thing.

“When you find yourself cocooned in isolation and you cannot find your way out of darkness…Remember, this is similar to the place where caterpillars go to grow their wings.”

Nicole Stephens

And so…we wait.

We hope.

We remind ourselves that even life inside a chrysalis is a gift.

A few days after the first two chrysalises appeared Kelly sent me another text message with yet another picture of her two charges. I had no idea that with time a small, silky, green chrysalis would become so amazingly beautiful.

Gold and Jewel Tones (Photo: Kelly Daab Green)

And…it would continue to change before the butterfly would break free and unfold its wings.

Almost Time to Break Free (Photo: Kelly Daab Green)

Like butterflies, we have the power to modify our own chrysalises. Yes, it’s true we’re still confined by limitations but it is amazing the many ways we are finding to bring beauty, connection, and joy into our lives? We attend family gatherings over Zoom; we live stream theatre and comedy shows; we create virtual choirs; we visit friends at a distance of at least six feet; we spend time outdoors, and we use our eyes to smile at strangers over our masks.

Not all chrysalis hatch you know. Sometimes they are destroyed or eaten or just don’t make it. Nothing is guaranteed. Let’s not wait for our wings. Our life is now.

Before he took flight, the first glorious Monarch to emerge, landed briefly on a milkweed blossom Kelly held in her hand. He paused for a few sips of nectar and a momentary fluttering of his wings in gratitude and affection…I think. Then knowing that he could…he flew away.

“Sweet freedom whispered in my ear, you’re a butterfly. And butterflies are free to fly. Fly away. High Away. Bye. Bye”

Bernie Taupin and Elton John, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”
And Butterfly are Free to Fly (Photo: Steve Forsgren)

A special thank you to my sister, Kelly Daab Green for sharing her adventure with me and for allowing me to share it with you.

The Stars Shine Even in The Daytime

Recently, I was asked, “Where do you find beauty?” I didn’t answer right away, but thanks to stay-at-home orders I’ve had lots of time to ponder that question. It’s a good one, for I can think of no other time in my life when I needed the transcendent power of beauty more than in the last few months.  

“A world without beauty would be unbearable. Indeed, the subtle touches of beauty are what enable most people to survive”. 

John O’Donohue, Irish Priest and Poet

Everyone experiences shimmering moments of beauty that catch us off guard and take our breath away. We delight in moments that arrive without warning as suddenly as butterflies that spring from the grass on a summer afternoon or as gradually as blossoms that swell into apples.

When the ordinary suddenly becomes the extraordinary we are filled with wonder, awe, and a heightened awareness that the world around us is bursting with hidden beauty.  Beauty doesn’t save itself for special occasions but is already present in everything.

Beauty is so finely woven throughout our ordinary days that we hardly notice it.

John O’Donohue

The colors of the sunset, the sound of wind through the trees, or the trust in a child’s eyes will be there whether we notice or not, and though we’re almost never aware of it the stars shine even in the daytime. It is up to each of us to pay attention, recognize, and appreciate the beauty that surrounds us. 

Reflections of Star Island, Isle of Shoal, NH

It was serendipity that brought me to my first photography workshop on Star Island off the coast of New Hampshire. I sat in the back of Sandpiper at the end of a long, narrow table, with my tiny Canon point and shoot tucked in my pocket trying to blend into a world of SLRs, tripods, and assorted lenses. Any notion that I actually belonged there didn’t last much longer than the first part of my first question.

“You know that button?  You know the one? The one you push to make things bigger…?”  

As if they were marionettes controlled by an invisible puppeteer a matched set of curly-headed New Yorkers sitting in the front of the room where the good students sit, turned in unison and replied in a single voice filled with great incredulity.

 “Do you mean….the zoom.” 

“Yes,” I replied.”That would be the zoom.”

Apparently, zoom is a basic photography term. I knew immediately that I had somehow matriculated into a master class without taking the required prerequisites. The instructor and my fellow students…especially those two New Yorkers…were kind, extremely patient, and always willing to help, so I returned the next day and the next. I remained in the workshop for the entire week.

It was one of the best decisions of my life.  I have taken subsequent photography workshops where most often, I’m still the one with the most to learn. I continue to use a point and shoot camera…up-graded…but still rather basic and now, too, I use the camera on my phone. 

I delete many more shots than I keep and I miss more shots than I take, but I came away from that very first workshop with something much more valuable than learning the difference between aperture and speed, or how to set the ISO.  I learned to see. To really see the beauty that surrounds me every day.

“Everything that is made beautiful and fair and lovely is made for the eye of one who sees.”

Rumi

During that first workshop, I became very aware of light. “Find the source, see where it falls and place yourself and your subject in relation to it,” Caleb said. “ Move if you need to. Change the light. Direct the light.  Reflect the light.  Be the light.”

Neither my camera nor I am fast enough to capture everything I see, but now I notice the way the light reflects off the water and dances among the leaves at the edge of the river; I marvel at the way the sun shines through the delicate petals of the bearded iris that line my sister’s walkway, and I find much joy in the twice-daily golden hour that momentarily highlights the ordinary with opulent splendor.  Beauty is transient. It doesn’t wait or linger. We must be vigilant and observant. The brilliant sunset morphs and fades even as we watch; the final notes of the song once clear and crisp dissolve into the evening air, and the eagle soars overhead and then is gone.

A few years after I took that first photography workshop I joined a photography group at the local senior center. The facilitator was very fond of Wabi-sabi, the philosophy that beauty can be found in the old, the every day, and the imperfect. Wabi-sabi is seeing the beauty in the worn, well-used, weathered, and decaying. It is seeing beauty in common items and scenes often overlooked simply because it is not where you expect to find it. That philosophy opened my eyes even wider.  

Shortly before his death, my husband and I spent four days in a ghost town outside of Arches National park in Utah.  I brought my camera along on hikes in the park where I was amazed by the natural beauty of the awe-inspiring arches carved in the soft red sandstone by wind, weather and time, but I was also able to appreciate the special kind of beauty that remained in the weathered boards, the chipped and faded paint and the sagging roofs of the once prosperous village in which we found ourselves.  Even in this place, I could still hear Caleb’s voice.  “Crop with your feet.” and paraphrasing Robert Capa…”If it’s not interesting, you’re not close enough”.  Through my lens, I saw the roofs now naked and shingle-less, and the abstract perfection of the staunch and upright nails who still remained at attention with no other purpose than to be beautiful. Streaks of rust from broken hinges, garden gates covered with vines, shattered glass, and tattered curtains also revealed their unique beauty.  What a blessing to be able to appreciate the wonder of such a place. 

Even in this strange time of physical distancing and self-isolation, we are discovering the beauty that has been hiding in plain sight…the light that turns the neighborhood windows to gold at twilight, the still life created by groceries on the kitchen counter, the smiling eyes that look back at us across a homemade mask. We dance, we sing, we write words on the page, we add paint to a canvas, we capture light through a lens, we rearrange pieces of broken plates, we read, we walk in the park, we sew masks,  and we bake loaves of bread. I believe our need for the beautiful…and the compulsion to create it…has enabled us to endure this challenging time of the pandemic.

“Life is amazing. And then it’s awful. And then it’s amazing again. And in between the amazing and awful, it’s ordinary and mundane and routine. Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful, and relax and exhale during the ordinary. That’s just living heartbreaking, soul-healing, amazing, awful, ordinary life. And it’s breathtakingly beautiful

L.R.Knost

Learning to see the beauty of the world isn’t the only lesson taught in those photography workshops.  For if you didn’t notice, the rules that Caleb taught me are also lessons for how to live in this world as well. Find the source of light…the source of love…the source of that which you call holy… and place yourself in relation to it.  Move if you need to. Change the light. Direct the light. Reflect the light.  Be the light and kindle the flame for another when their light flickers in the storms of life.   Wabi Sabi entreats us to see the beauty, the wisdom, and the divine in people who are broken, tired, old, and worn, as well as in objects or buildings and if they’re not interesting we’re not close enough.  Crop with your feet. 

“Where do you find beauty?” he asked.

“Everywhere.” I replied, with a smile. Everywhere

Originally shared as part of a chapel service during Virtual Star Arts Retreat. Star Island, Isle of Shoals, NH

June 26, 2020