A quick trip to California

Cousin Kay hugs an olive.

Cousin Kay hugs an olive.

I just returned from five days in northern California, visiting relatives with my daughter and granddaughter. We enjoyed ourselves despite the rain, and the darkness emanating from Washington. I had been dreading the release of Muller's report so it wasn't terribly surprising when Barr issued his "no obstruction" letter and Trump began crowing. I was lucky, however, to be surrounded by people who love me, so the punch in the gut was a little less painful.

The trip itself was typical of our family gatherings; lots of laugher, lots of stories, good food of course, and never enough time. My daughter Jennifer has a habit of searching out roadside attractions, so one day we visited the Penny Candy store in Live Oak, and on another the giant martini olive outside Corning, "the olive capitol of the world." This was after we went wine tasting at the New Clairvaux winery and before we saw Captain Marvel. I can recommend all but the candy store, which Jennifer and I found grim, with too many rules, but Melina found amazing. It all depends on your point of view.

The trip home was quick and easy and so was Lyft after I remembered to log into wifi and turn off airplane mode (Why isn't this damn phone working?) Eventually I made it home, to a hungry cat and a condo that could use some cleaning.

Trips like this are always welcome interruptions, and it was good to touch again the landscape that formed me. Curiously, I never miss it until I'm there. Back in Oregon I wonder if I could live there again, and decide the answer is no. Oregon is home. It's also about as far as one can get from DC. And that's a very good thing.

A bird in the now

It was snowing this morning when I looked out and saw a gray hummingbird perched atop a piece of garden art on the covered porch. I sat and watched it from the couch. It was perched, but constantly moving, its head bobbing up and down, back and forth. It stretched tall and shrank back. I wanted to get closer, to know what, exactly, it was doing, but I didn't want to disturb it. 

After about five minutes I went into the back room and dug out the binoculars. From there I had a good view so I leaned against the bookcase and stood staring for several more minutes. It must have had mites, or fleas, because it kept scratching, stretching its neck and twisting around to poke with its long beak at feathers on its stretched-out wings and tail. It would lift its tiny feet to scratch on one side, then the other; and like a yoga practitioner, come back to center for a moment of rest before repeating it all again.

I watched for a few minutes before returning to the couch. The bird was still there, doing the same things. Then I looked away for a moment and it was gone, flown into the snow that kept falling and falling but never sticking.

I briefly wondered if the bird was as sick of this weather and I am. No, the bird is content to simply sit and groom itself while watching the snow. Like most nonhumans  it lives only in the now, the very immediate now. Itch, scratch, rest, itch, scratch rest. No cursing the mites, no planning for the future or regretting the past. It is simply being a hummingbird right now. Just being.

And just as nature has done so many times for me, it took me into the same now as the bird; she scratching, me watching. Not thinking, not planning, not worrying about the snowy road I may have to drive this afternoon. Just watching.

It's so easy to get caught up in the drama of the day. But it's just as easy to glance out the window and enter the now. It only takes a minute.

Of crows and cable

The Comcast repairman was here again today. It was the third visit in as many months and though they all go away thinking it is fixed, I alone know the truth. It's not. In the two years I have had a TV I have gone through three cable boxes and at least four visits, plus online troubleshooting. It's good that I only use cable to watch the news, and better that news is also available on my iPad. Still, it's paid for in my condo fees and it should work. But I digress.

While Comcast was working away in the backroom I looked for something to do between conversations and fell back on Twitter—it's easily interruptible. The first tweet I saw took me to a short movie called The Overview Effect, astronauts talking about how their views of Earth and life changed after seeing our planet from space. I concluded that all humanity should do this.

That was immediately followed by The Atlantic magazine offering an article awkwardly titled Scientists are Totally Rethinking Animal Cognition. It's also referenced as "What the Crow Knows" and begins with a discussion of the Jainism belief that animals as well as humans should be protected from injury and violence.

Of course I like that idea and I thought briefly about becoming a Jainist but then I read that, among other things, they avoid cars because of possible damage to life and they avoid puddles because walking through one may hurt the microbes living there. While I heartedly subscribe to protecting all nature's creatures, becoming a Jainist doesn't feel practical—at least not in this life.

Finding these two pieces reminded me again how much I love and enjoy the natural world, and that we are perilously close to losing it. And the fact that my cable TV isn't working is pretty small potatoes.

It has been a year since Ray died (February 2) and I still miss him terribly. If he were alive today he would be on the condo board working to reduce the too bright outdoor lighting. I'm sure he'd also have opinions about Jainism, smart crows, and Comcast, but since he's unavailable I can't report them. But I am sure of one thing: he would say I watch too much news.

Blame January

The spacebar on my computer keeps sticking and I have to consciously remind myself at the end of each word to hit it hard. It's frustrating to write when every word runs into the next. It requires constant reversing and starting over when all I want is to move ahead. But moving is in vain; it's January.

We are at the beginning of a new and probably exciting year but at every turn I feel held back. Last week was a series of technical problems, one after the other, that halted all forward motion. Now it's the damn sticky space bar. And it's not as though I haven't tried to remedy it. I've shaken it, banged it on the desk, and taken an old toothbrush to its edges, all to no avail. I tried using the old laptop but it won't charge. Of course it's January, so there's that.

I wonder how much of this is me. Maybe I'm trying too hard, maybe I need to stop and just appreciate being alive. We so often forget how fortunate we are to wake up in the morning, and get up and go about our business. Even if we're hampered by pain or disability or a sticky spacebar, we're still alive. Even if I spend my day watching the cat sleep, I'm still alive. And I'm grateful for that. But I'm not satisfied; that requires progress. And progress is a reluctant participant in January.

As I write the nation is officially in its longest shutdown ever, with no end in sight. Do other nations shut down their governments? I don't think so. It used to not happen here. My father worked for the U.S. Forest Service all his adult life and he never worried about the government reneging on its bargain. But now isn't then, and it isn't progress either.

But at least we can blame January. January is cold, wet, unpredictable, and always a let-down. February is almost as bad—it's still winter—but at least it's only 28 days. And one can spend February looking forward to March when the early spring flowers bloom and the days are visibly brighter. That's progress.

January. Ugh.




Circles and bowls

Is there a woman who doesn't love a bowl? If there is I haven't met her. A few days ago in the Mexican town of Sayulita my daughter and I found our way into a shop filled with beautiful pottery of all kinds. But it was the bowls that captured us. Unique designs, colorful and subtle, and it wasn't long before we were picking them up and admiring.

"Mom, look at this one."

"Oh, my gosh. And look at this." We finally had to tear ourselves away; our companions were getting restless.

Take any group of women shopping in a store that sells china or pottery and almost always they will end up caressing various bowls. Inevitably, one will say "I love bowls." 

"Me too," says another. "I have so many bowls I have no room for more."

To state the obvious, bowls hold things; they are practical. Little bowls hold little things: olives or nuts; paperclips or bobbie pins. Large bowls hold larger things, a casserole for your family, or a salad for a pot luck dinner.

Bowls, which are among the first items our ancestors created, are loved and appreciated in a way other utensils aren't. And I think women appreciate them, not only because they are useful and beautiful but because on a more subtle level they represent ourselves. For what is a uterus if not a life-containing bowl?

Proper bowls are circular, which is a comforting shape. Not for me that mean looking triangle—such sharp points—or boring rectangle, or worse, a parallelogram. No, I'll take round every time. Round like the belly of a pregnant woman. Round like the earth that sustains us and like the sun that warms us. Round like a bowl.

I write this on the first day of a new year, as we begin another circle around our sun, a year that's bound to be confusing at times. But I have high hopes for 2019, if we can summon our better angels and remember our history; remember that together we succeed.

As a small child I was taught this verse by Edwin Markham, and thinking about the year ahead it came to mind.

He drew a circle that shut me out

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win.

We drew a circle that took him in.


HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Gladness and beauty

In the year 987 Grand Duke Vladimir of Kiev, seeking a religion that could unite his people, sent envoys to study the beliefs of his neighbors. They reported back that "there is no gladness" among the Moslem Bulgarians; "no beauty" in the temples of the Germans. But they found such beauty and awesomeness in the Orthodox Church of Byzantium that "we know not how to tell it." Which is how the Russians became Orthodox.

I first heard this story many years ago and have always thought it an intriguing way to choose a religion—though the need to choose still escapes me. Still, using beauty and gladness as decision points says a good deal about the power of those qualities. The envoys had attended services in Constantinople's Hagia Sofia, a structure designed to impress when consecrated in 537, and still does. I can easily imagine them awestruck as they stood looking up and up into the vast dome.

The most beautiful thing I ever saw—and I am lucky to have seen much—is Michelangelo's Pietà, in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. It wasn't the religious symbology that captivated me. It was the soul of the artist exposed in marble. And while the image of Mary holding Christ's crucified body is one of sorrow, what I felt when I stood in front of it was tremendous awe and joy; a kind of affirmation. If a flawed human could create this otherworldly masterpiece, I thought, there is goodness in us all.

It strikes me as wise of Vladimir's envoys to suggest beauty and gladness as vital aspects of religion, and I find it sad that so often today religion buries joy in strident ritual. But we can’t give up on gladness. During this season of celebration and light and busyness it's even more important to know—despite the evening news and a sinking stock market—that we create our own joy. It's inside us always, waiting to be called on. We just have to pause, and remember.

Wishing You All the Gladness and Beauty of the Season.

The day before

It's raining hard today and the trees outside my windows are almost free of leaves. We are in the heart of autumn, and it's the day before Thanksgiving. Tomorrow I'll spend the day in Longview, Washington with old friends. I was invited to go with Jennifer and family and about 35 others to the coast, but I declined. As Jennifer told her friends who asked why I was not going, "Spending the day with a noisy crowd of 40 people is Mom's idea of hell."

So, it's the day before the holiday and I've no cooking or planning or cleaning to do. How nice. I sit down in front the fire with my knitting and listen to a highly literate podcast. It was comforting, even uplifting to hear two adults discuss a broad range of topics in complete sentences without making fools of themselves.

When that was over I put down the knitting and picked up a book my neighbor had lent me: Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen. Thumbing through I came on a chapter about Thanksgiving and sat down to read. I confess I am not excited about reading this book, I expect it to disabuse me of several favorite convictions and be seriously depressing. The Thanksgiving chapter did not disappoint, nor did it surprise me. You and I know the myth is just that—a myth. Tomorrow we will tacitly ignore all those who came to these shores before 1620—the Spaniards, the Portuguese, the Dutch—even distort the relationships those early settlers had with the local Indians.

But I'm not going to dwell on that. I'd rather enjoy the myth, at least through tomorrow. I put down Lies and picked up The Hidden Reality by Brian Green, who was discussing, when I left him, the cosmological constant. This is one of many elements in our universe that is little understood but has bearing on whether or not we, Earth, our solar system, could even exist. I suffered through several pages of math and put the book down.

Opening the door for the cat I saw that despite the shorter days and colder temperatures the geraniums on the porch are still blooming. I will have to bring them in soon, before they die in a freeze. This thought reminded me of a podcast from yesterday, about a distinguished biologist with dozens of peer-reviewed publications to her credit, who works with plants and has proven through experiment that plants both learn and remember and recognize sounds. How can this be?

I am thankful for all these ideas that are so easily available; thankful for science and the mystery, for the measurable and the imaginary. How lucky we are to be here now, on this beautiful planet in this unfathomable universe. I am grateful to all who return to read my often erratic reflections, and I send you thanksgiving blessings.