In praise of geraniums

Kas geraniums.jpg

I write from the porch, where I'm appreciating the warmth of this summer day and the several blooming geraniums crowded together in a narrow strip of sunlight. (We won't talk about the plants that struggle, despite copious dosings of insect spray and fertilizer.) It has taken me too long to learn what works here and what doesn't, and what works are geraniums. So no more buying exotics, or anything needing pampering. Life's too short.

I suspect my age has made me more appreciative of the always reliable geraniums, or of anything, in fact, that can be relied on not to break, quit, decay, or go out of style. I admit to craving a bit of style on occasion, but it mostly hangs unworn in my closet while I grab jeans and a tee-shirt. I can't decide if I've reverted to childhood, or finally come to my senses.

And maybe it's not my age but the age I live in that has me craving consistency. Life moves in herky-jerky ways that surprise and confound us on a daily basis. I wake each morning afraid to check the news, for surely yet another shock has been administered overnight to our collective psyche. How do reporters and news readers bear it?

No wonder the geraniums are comforting. I knew them as a child in sunny California and here they are on my mostly shady Oregon porch looking just the same. Continuity is good.

I read recently that Americans are all suffering a kind of PTSD. That feels overblown to me, but I don't doubt those who live on the edge—of poverty, illness, or any disaster—are especially susceptible to the constant yammering and hammering at the pillars that used to hold us all up. It must make grabbing a gun feel so reasonable.

Don't worry, I'm not about to grab a gun. But given the fetid atmosphere that issues from the Whitehouse, global economic uncertainty, and the hundreds of daily downers that reach us via social media, we can expect continued disruption and violence—until we don't.

It's not true that individuals can't make a difference. I watched my activist husband do it again and again. Not all of us can be activists but all of us can be kinder. We can listen. We can tamp down the urge to make a snide comment, or cut off another driver, or fail to offer a smile to those who serve us. We can keep our own stress levels down by turning off electronica and taking a walk or hugging a tree—or maybe a geranium. If a butterfly in Mexico can cause a typhoon in China, what do you think a smile can do?


It won't surprise you to know I watched both nights of the "debates," which should more properly be called "confrontation contests" or "pointless-way-to-spend-two-hours competitions." I had enjoyed the first two, hosted by NBC, but I found these boring and irritating. It's not that I don't like the candidates, I do. But there are so many.

And I knew what would happen. Bernie would turn red and wave his arms, Warren would have a plan, Biden would equivocate, Harris would be combative, and Buttigiege would speak in well-formed sentences and perfect paragraphs. And the rest of them would fight for air time.

I didn't foresee CNN moderators continually pitting one candidate against another instead of eliciting information, though I suppose I should have.

So why did I watch? Because I keep hoping for something better. Because this feels like the most important election in my lifetime. Because I need to know that help is on the way.

To clear my mind this morning I listened to a podcast interview with Ross Gay, a writer and professor of English at Indiana University. His book of poetry, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, and his book of essays, The Book of Delights, are expressions of his belief that joy is available to us at all times in all places. "How can we not be joyful," he says, "especially in a moment like this?"

Like Mr, Gay I believe that joy is not limited to major events. It can be found in all kinds of ways, most often in the little things life offers up each day.  The smiling checkout clerk who offers to carry your bags, a butterfly landing on your arm, the laugh of a baby in a stroller.

Many years ago, my college roommate suggested a nightly "rule" that Gay's interview brought to mind. No matter how late it was or how tired we might be, the light could not be turned off until we each identified a "pleasant surprise" the day had brought. There were, of course, days when that was easy, like getting a passing grade on an unexpected test. Other days the task seemed impossible. We were young; college life was confusing, challenges were daily events. "Nothing good happened!" But yet, as we carefully reviewed our day, we always, always found a pleasant surprise.

If help is on the way, this is how it will arrive. It's going to be a long year of political ups and downs; elation and discouragement. But by focusing attention on the thousands of small events and pleasant surprises that make me happy every day—even joyful—I will get through it. So may we all.

Winners all

Today I'm celebrating the winning World Cup soccer team and their co-captain Megan Rapinoe. What happiness it was to see them win—under tremendous pressure—by welcoming that pressure and showing the world what women of grit and determination and talent can do.

The word hero isn't one I use everyday, but the country desperately needs heroes, and Megan Rapinoe is one. I watched her on television last night, and I saw part of the ticker-tape parade this morning, and on each occasion I loved her radiant joy in winning and her proud celebrating of the team and herself. I saw no smugness there, no misplaced self-satisfaction, hardly any ego. She's just telling it like it is. This is what women do. This is how women win. This is the way life should be for all of us.

How can we translate this joyous love of self, others, and country into a meaningful conversation about what's not changing and what desperately needs to change? We have a president who seems bitter about everything, whose failures are always someone else's fault, whose very presence on the world's stage casts a pall that, like an undertow, pulls the rest of us down.

It's like watching split screen TV: his dark irascibility and wrath vs. the light and joy that Rapinoe and her teammates represent. It is our country's dilemma writ large. Shall we welcome the challenges and accept whatever comes with joy, or cower in bitterness, blame, and hate? Given those parameters it would seem an easy choice but Trump is formidable. Today, however, Megan rules. Away with the darkness; I'm joining the ladies.

Where lines cross


The path you see pictured is part of a 1.6 acre state park, the Willamette Stone State Heritage site. If you follow it to its end, not too far, you'll come to a survey marker called the Willamette Stone. A cedar stake was placed there on June 4, 1851 by John B. Preston, the first Surveyor General of the Oregon Territory. In 1885 it was replaced with a stone obelisk.

I know this because the park borders the eastern edge of the condominium property where I live. It's a pretty little park but unfortunately the fence on the property line means one can't get there from here without driving.

I like it though, it's quiet, and feels more remote than it is. Each time I find myself thinking about the surveyors, James Freeman and William Ives, and how they found this point, on this hill. It seems an out of the way place to designate such a critical crossing of meridian line and baseline—a point from which all land in Washington and Oregon is measured.

The grid system used throughout the Northwest Territories was suggested by Thomas Jefferson, and clearly someone saw that a survey marker was needed if the territory was to grow. I admire that foresight. I'm impressed with the intelligence that figured it out and did the work with 1850s equipment.

As humans we're always on the alert for markers and patterns. Our brains seek them everywhere as it tries to make sense of the world and what it tosses at us daily. So maybe what I like about this spot is the clarity and simplicity it signifies. Here is where two lines cross, Meridian and Baseline; here is a marker. Go.

I've been listening and reading about the power of, and unseen connections between, the five technology companies (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft). The interwoven complexities are enormous and the influence they have over our everyday lives—in ways we fall far short of comprehending—is worrisome and discouraging. (For instance, read Life Without the Tech Giants by Kashmir Hill.)

So it's not surprising to find simplicity appealing. Two men used solar compasses to designate a point that is still used almost two hundred years later. Even if we don't succumb to global catastrophe I doubt those technology companies will survive 200 years. But I'll bet the survey stone will still be there.

The view from the porch

I had my coffee on the porch this morning but the warming sunshine called so I did three loops around the lake, where there are still baby ducks to see, and goslings. They are growing fast, but still observant of their parent's wishes. I watched a Canada goose family sail across the water; mom in front and dad in back and between, in a perfectly straight line, five young geese, almost grown. It was a sight to make you smile, and their undeviating line was strangely comforting. Here at least was an orderly world, going about its business just as it should.

Our human world isn't particularly comforting at present. The president's statement Thursday that of course he would accept help from a foreign country has kept the media and twitterers spinning. At least he's being honest for a change. But we still have tariffs and kids in cages and the ongoing impeachment debate, to name just three of a host of ills.

But there is comfort here in the warm breeze and nature's surrounding green. There is hope in the bountiful selection of capable Democratic candidates, in the growing acknowledgement of the climate crisis, and so much more. I try to remember that it is not the world that makes me happy or sad, it is my thoughts about the world. It is how I choose to see it. So for the moment at least, I choose to see the world as a welcoming, comfortable porch where magic dwells, and only good can enter.


I'm on the porch as I write, where it's a beautiful 68 degrees. This spot gets only a narrow band of sunshine in early spring but after the summer solstice that band will rapidly expand northward. By late fall it will fill the porch with sunshine, and on December 21st it will be through the sliding doors and up against my desk.

Despite the limited sunshine the potted plants are doing surprisingly well. Even the geraniums, which admittedly are a bit leggy, are blooming now, on this second day of June. This unusually warm spring is a little worrying, but it's hard not to be appreciative. 

Maybe because it's spring, or maybe because it just needed doing, I've been spending part of each day cleaning and organizing cupboards and drawers. It always feels good to get rid of clutter and sweep away the detritus that floats in when no one's looking. Because Ray needed a lot of my attention when we moved in I put things away hurriedly and belongings still turn up in odd places. Yesterday I found the silver wine cooler in the spare bathroom, tucked away in the cabinet behind a supply of Costco toilet paper and miscellaneous bottles of old shampoo and cleaning supplies. 

One of my chores has been to collect all Ray's cycling gear, from jerseys and rain jackets to inner tubes and tools. I washed and folded the clothes and managed to get everything else in a box or a bag, and Jennifer will be picking it up, along with his bike, this evening. 

I thought this would be a painful exercise but in fact it's only made me a little sad. Mostly, I think, because Ray was insistent that when we no longer wanted or needed a thing it be offered elsewhere, even if well worn, because "somebody can use this." And I know he wouldn't want his beloved bicycle stuck in a storage closet on a sunny day like this one.

It also helps that there will be a lot more room in the storage closet. 

An email from my Norwich, England friend bemoans Trump's upcoming visit, along with his praise for Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. She is as distraught over conditions in Great Britain as we are about Trump's norm busting and law breaking, and our emails tend to mutual consolation when not relaying outrage. Personally, I'm looking forward to Britain's anti-Trump protests and the hovering Trump Baby balloon that has been given permission to fly over London. Humor works. Sometimes its the only option. 

It's the how of it

As I slowly emerge from my grief cocoon I've been asking myself a lot of questions. Move or remodel? Travel or no? Take a class or save my money? Stretch myself or stay in my comfort zone? And what do I want to be when I grow up?

We ask that question of children all the time, but thinking about it now makes me wonder if it isn't the wrong question. Maybe we should be asking How do you want to be? That's a much more difficult question, of course, and maybe a child couldn't answer. But at my age I should know. How do I want to be in the world?

The difference between what and how seems clear to me. The what question requires us to think in concrete, material ways and the answers are necessarily the same: a fireman, a nurse, a soldier, a teacher. They are answers that put us into boxes, that force us to think about jobs or professions, and inevitably, income. They carry us smoothly into the material world. These answers describe what we want to busy ourselves with. But they don't tell us anything about how we want to be.

How moves us from materialism to what matters, whether you call it conscience, soul or simply values. To put it in the starkest of terms, do we want to be good or bad? Brave or fearful? Rule maker or rule breaker? Lover or hater? A help or a hindrance?

These are false dichotomies of course; people aren't just one way, we are many ways, points along many spectrums. Still, it's how we are being that matters, not the what box that materialism encourages

Sometimes we confuse what and how with who, who are we going to be? But who isn't important in the greater scheme. Who is ego, and while it feels good to have one's ego stroked occasionally, it never gets us where we need to be.

One of the ideas I have tried for years to live by is "change is good." Change is a pivot point. It can be excruciatingly painful or mildly inconvenient, but it's always a chance—or a demand—to rethink our path, to imagine how we might be.

For me right now this is personal. But as a country we're facing a collective pivot point. Instead of ignoring it, or grumbling all day, we need to see it as opportunity. We haven't had such a clear choice since the revolution. How do we want America to be in the world?

As with every pivot point a choice is demanded. Are we up to it?