Ruminations on Autumn Clean-up (or not) and Time

I share my little plot with 8 trees large enough that I hope none fall on my house. They make a lot of leaves. If the spirit moves me I will rake them into mounds alongside the hedge or into my raised garden bed where they do their beautiful business of rotting.

My neighbors across the street have no trees and I wonder if they hate me when the wind blows in their direction? We are friends so I doubt it – but I’m sure they feel a tad exasperated by the mess my arbor-love makes on their tree-less property. And I wonder a little if their intention is to torture me every Saturday when the landscaper comes with a blower to blow mostly my tree’s leaves off their perfect lawn. There are not many sounds I hate more than the sound of a gas blower as it goes on and on and on.

My gardening… philosophy? technique? I search for the word that best describes my intentional laissez-faire attitude around autumn clean-up. I believe and there is much proof, that left to itself, nature takes better care of itself than when we meddle. The decomposed leaves enrich my property so it doesn’t make sense to stuff them into bags to be picked up by the noisy trucks emitting additional carbon gases into our atmosphere while they do it.

There is some clean-up I eventually get around to. I twist the thorny vines and weeds into cans to be picked up by those same trucks or smash them into the back of my car to drive them to the brush dump myself. Every year invasive weeds like Japanese knotweed and bittersweet win the battle in at least one corner of my yard. Every spring I have high hopes that this will be the year I’ll keep said corner clear of growth. But as we move into summer and the heat and bugs amp up, I give up, conceding until autumn when I can more easily pull and snip at the recently frost-killed invasive plants.

I think about time and how it makes some things easier. Of course body aches and wrinkles alert me to the challenges time can bring = aging. But mostly I see time as my ally. With time (and effort) things that once were entrenched in my actual and metaphorical ‘patch’ become easier to deal with. A few short months ago, I was daunted by an overwhelming green mass full of thorns and worse — ticks. After a few frosty nights, the thicket shrank to skeletal twists I could tackle.

In the garden on an unseasonably warm day, I brace myself with bent knees, heels dug into the earth, inhaling a deep breath of mint (my advice: grow only in pots!) while yanking on a resistant tangle, I think of old resentments, anger, grief – pulling harder, feeling the strain into my legs until with a snap, release down to my core, my soul. Looking closely at the branches of the fruit trees saved now from being swallowed up by this wild growth, I see the teeniest, tightest little buds. Hope.

 

Books Can Save Us

I have an abundance of riches in reading material. Stacks of both purchased and advanced reader copies of favorite or new authors stacked in towers around my house. So how to pick what to read next? What do you do? I’m a sucker for a good cover. And of course I have favorite authors who I eagerly snag from the Advanced Reader pile at work. I am always hoping to understand my beloved ghosts so am drawn to titles relating to addiction, book-love, memoirs and weird places. That’s how I picked up The Lost Chapters: Finding Renewal and Recovery One Book at a Time by Leslie Schwartz. It checks all of the above.

Leslie Schwartz is a novelist and an addict who spent 90 days in a Los Angeles County Jail for a DUI. Before starting her sentence she chose the books she wanted to read and her family sent them to her weekly. They arrived just in time – as books seem to do. Her list included a book of Mary Oliver poetry, The Woman Warrior, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Unbroken, Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart (a book that saved me more than once) and one of my all time favorites, A Tale For the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.

“…Ozeki showed me, that time in its clock-on-a-wall form, and story as linear, like a yardstick, is often the least truthful way to talk about or understand its passage. All stories can only be re-created by collapsing the past, the present, and the future. We are not what we do, like a resume. Jail, for all its insidious horror, its odious dehumanization, its dependence on the momentum of days, of counting along the agonizing progress of calendars facing ever forward, is really a place that embraces no time, for which there is no clear understanding of its movement. In jail, time moves backward and forward, It is without symmetry, a starfish with five arms and no central brain. We are not, it turns out, simply our crimes or our release dates. We are where we came from. We are how we change. We are what we remember, and what we don’t remember. We are the moments that pass, and also the moments that stand still. Time is not our enemy but our puppet. Memory is prophecy and what we think is real is just an illusion.”

This passage from the Lost Chapters is followed by one about addiction and finding recovery. It’s gutting and beautiful and everything I know from being on the other side – loving the addict. Neither of mine ever made it through the window.

“Forcing compliance doesn’t work. It inspires retaliation and usually still more relapse. This is why rehabs and jails don’t work. And yet, addiction itself keeps the addict enslaved, unable to want to stop. I am still in awe that I was granted that tiny window somewhere along the line and even more baffling that I slipped through it.”

I love this book. The author does not whine. She owns her shit and her privilege and shares her outrage and the injustice and failures of our system – particularly for women of color.

I’ve always adored books. Walking into a bookstore even after 21 years, I still feel the thrill of all those books! New titles! And I believe that books can really save us. I am not alone. My friend Nina was devastated after the early death of a beloved sister and found comfort, healing and JOY by reading a book a day for a year. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair.

And have you heard about this extraordinary man, wrongfully convicted as a teen? He spent 17 years in prison — and how reading saved him. Here’s his story and here’s the organization the remarkable John Bunn created A Voice 4 the Unheard – with the goal of bringing books and literacy to prisoners. Note the story of the corrupt and wrongful conviction doesn’t figure on his website. Is it books, is it reading that allowed this man to not be bitter after 17 years wrongfully imprisoned!?  He humbles me.

Forget the deserted island – these are tricky times. What books would you want in prison?

Remembering

On May 1st 14 years ago, the weather was just like today’s although Spring was further along back then. We’d already had many days of sitting out on the porch and working in the garden. That sounds lovely, doesn’t it? And it probably looked so too, if you didn’t know the dissolution in progress. Molly on the verge of turning 9 years old – did her best to stay neutral between us. The evening before I thought we’d made a breakthrough – that we’d be able to move forward in creating a new life – as separate, loving parents to our girl. Yes, she could spend Christmas with him in England and summer holidays. We’d make it work. But no, I didn’t want a cup of tea, I was going to sleep.

The next morning, the light was extraordinary when I woke in the room that Molly now sleeps in. Shadows and light of morning glows like a treehouse when the trees are in bloom.

There are no leaves out yet – so far there is only the red weight of flowers on the tips of branches promising, promising to deliver soon. This morning I woke at an odd hour and did not return to sleep – remembering, feeling him here, one of my benevolent ghosts. For years, I took the day off, but I no longer feel paralyzed by grief. Time does this. The sadness comes in flashes, unpredictably – thoughts of the terrible morning, imagining the pain he was in was so great that he couldn’t have imagined ours. Could he?

Every day I remember him. And often, those memories inspire laughter. Out for a walk on Sunday, Molly and I greeted a group of men as we passed them, all hovering over an old car. We continued on and in my mind, Neil was with us but had stopped to join the banter. We walked ahead as he made new friends. Laughing, I told Molly this – that if her dad was with us how we’d be still standing at the end of the street waiting until he caught up, his long strides covering the distance in half the time. He’d fill us in on who they were and what they were up to – a marvel that he’d be able to garner so much information since he was usually the one doing the talking. He’d have told him about the Maserati we once owned for a month in Italy before it was stolen. Or some old beauty antique he’d driven in England before my time. He was there with us.

Out walking Rufus after work today, one of my neighbors stepped out of her house to chat with me. Our first post-winter catch-up. Had I heard about the mailman busted for stealing money and gift cards out of our boxes? We caught up on the kids and then she asked with a pause,  ‘isn’t this…’ yes, I answered, with my voice suddenly thick with the rumble of possible tears. Thank you for remembering. She said, I’ll never forget.

 

Ushering in Love and Light

I start my New Year here, with a mountain of pillows plumped behind me, dog Rufus snuggled against my thigh, sunlight pouring through the window and not a single commitment to the outside world. It’s rare that I catch the movement of light across my room in a day. I will make another cup of tea and return to read, write and dream as the sun shifts in glorious show through my different windows. I am in heaven. This is enough.


I prefer to usher out the old and welcome the New Year in quietly. As my like-minded friend Jennifer put it yesterday – there are the revelers and the reflectors. In the past, I would feel compelled to join my jolly and beloved reveler friends in the neighborhood. It seems expected, and especially now that I am single, these dear ones worry about me. No one likes to think of us single people by ourselves, alone at New Year. We should be celebrating! It can even be hard for me not to buy into that notion – so sometimes, I force myself to join in.

But honestly – I’d rather be reflecting.

Or at least quiet. I’m not a fan of the American way of celebrating the end of the year – being noisy and whooping it up in a frenzy towards midnight. I don’t judge anybody else for wanting to do that, but please don’t feel sorry for me either. Just beam me up to Kyoto every year at this time, and I’ll be happy.

New Year celebration in Japan is a saner business. It’s a time for ritual cleaning and getting rid of negativity. So I celebrated Japanese style here – cleaning my space – especially this space where I wake every morning and now revel in the light and quiet. I lit some sage and ‘smudged’ the house – briefly opening the window to fan smoking old energy out into the frigid air.

Although 2017 brought me profound sadness, there has also been incredible pleasure. This is the year my dear daughter graduated from college. We adopted Rufus – a pretty perfect dog. My daughter and I are healthy. And these last two weeks, the cloud of sadness blocking my joy, lifted. Somehow, I feel in my bones that in our vast universe – Rob is at peace. And his love – still with me.

Of course I’d rather be moving ahead in life with either one of the two beautiful  yet troubled men I committed to and once believed I’d grow old with. I miss them. But — I am not unhappy alone. I am grateful for the love and that I still sense – and them both, now at peace, freed from demons they tangled with in this life. I have that — and this beautiful girl and our pup delivering regular doses of love and light – even at night. I am lucky.

I wish love and light for you, dear readers, and a Happy New Year!

Some Kind of Prayer

Ever since the priest behind the confession screen at St Margaret’s church scolded 10 year old me because I’d miss Sunday mass a few times, I’ve had a mental block against prayers. When I got to the altar to say my penance that day, I’d completely forgotten the words to the Hail Mary and Our Father so I left – imagining my young soul still sullied by sins. From then on I only went to churches as required for other people’s events.

My relationship with prayer and for that matter, faith, remains complicated. While most lapsed Catholics can say any assortment of prayers without pause, I still stumble and mix them up. Except for one. It’s not a traditional prayer but rather one adapted by Al Anon where I used to clock many hours: the Serenity prayer. That evens sounds nice, doesn’t it? Some may long for excitement and thrills. Me, I’ll take serenity.

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Over the years, these words have saved me. I’d repeat them mantra-like to silence chatter that threatened to swallow me in a flood of anxiety and worry especially about the addicts in my life. Repeating it thoughtfully brought me back to myself, to my breath to my… wisdom. I DO know the difference but I don’t always want to accept what I cannot change. Instead, I’ve long gotten an A-plus in denial.

Denial doesn’t work anymore but anything else feels like uncharted territory. These last few months have been tough. I’m learning that trauma and sadness cannot be hurried out of the way, not forever. Cumulative grief caught up with me after Rob’s death and now I feel it in my bones, my skin – itchy with hives, my heart heavy. And I’m figuring out that I must pay attention.

Today this bit of Buddha wisdom from a write up for this event next May at Tibet house, really resonated with me:

“…Always a realist, (Buddha) made acknowledgement of suffering the centerpiece of his First Noble Truth. The great promise of the Buddha’s teachings is that suffering is only his First Truth. Truths Three and Four (the End of Suffering and the Eightfold Path to its relief) offers something that therapy has long aspired to but found difficult to achieve. Acknowledging the traumas in our lives is important; learning how to relate to them is crucial.”

That’s what I’ve been doing – slowly, slowly acknowledging, accepting, conceding – the things I can’t change. And sometimes, it helps just to say that prayer.

Lurking Beneath

‘So what’s going on in your life?’

The Doctor’s question gave me pause. Or maybe I was still stunned by the diagnosis she’d just delivered: shingles.

Well, I suppose work is stressful. That’s what I told her – the easy answer. I have been very busy. But it’s a job I’ve done for 20 years and still enjoy. I mean it’s books I sell. And I’ve actually been taking a fair amount of time off. No, I don’t think it’s really just work-stress that triggered this weird virus to emerge from dormancy more than 50 years after chickenpox ravaged my little body with excruciating sores and scabs I couldn’t resist ripping to bloody shreds.

I love that my Doctor asked me this question. Always up for a metaphor, I’ve pondered during this past uncomfortable week, what IS going on in my life – while wincing from stabbing pains, flinching from any touch to the affected skin, strangely on fire. What in my life awakened this virus in me now? What do I need to be attending to? Is it my subconscious screaming at me – too long ignored as I busily go about my life.

Two friends and I recently coordinated our first community building story-telling project a la The Moth, with the idea of strengthening ties in our very neighborhood-centric city. The first one, held last week, was a great hit with so many inspired to share personal stories with more than 50 strangers, that we ran out of time to accommodate them all.The power and joy of sharing stories was apparent in that beautiful space on a summer evening. Every one there was attentive and moved. Jennifer, Judith and I were elated and are planning the next for October. I did not tell a story.

I have long reaped the psychological benefit of telling stories, yet since I began purposefully writing, I have never felt so far off-track as now. I have lost my personal creative practice.

‘What’s going on in your life?’ That question. Are these stories, my own stories, that I’m not listening to – making my skin crawl and ooze? I need to dig deep, dive beneath to uncover what’s there — including toxins that have laid me low.

If I’m not carving out enough time to be contemplative and creative, I begin to feel uncomfortable in my own skin. That’s a message I’ve felt before but never has it manifested itself in such an excruciating way. Community storytelling is brilliant and I’m excited about it. I feel passionate about the importance of gathering people to listen to each other – a small local gesture against the nasty forces of this time. But I also need to heed my own hollering nerves with roots deep beneath childhood scabs. Write, sculpt, paint – get up and tell a story – it doesn’t matter. What matters is to pay attention to my heart and soul – below the surface where endless untold stories and viruses linger for life.

PS: I’d get the vaccine!

Hedge

before hedge 1There are a million things to do around my house and corner lot. This summer Molly and I focused on cathartically clearing out decades of  debris from our basement and garage and ignored the ragged hedge. It went wild.

Last weekend the weather cooled and I propped the hedge trimmer beside me while I put on my gloves. A man walking by nodded at me in greeting and asked, “You’re going to do all that?” Five hours, lots of scratches and many sore muscles later, I’d finished the whole damn thing. Okay, it’s not perfect – but it’s better.

after hedge

After 20 years living on this corner, memories are woven through every inch of privet. As I wield the vibrating, noisy weight of the clipper along the length of it, I remember.

There – Tetley dashing under the woody branches to check out a passing dog, me running around to the street to catch him, scooping him up in my arms with apologies.

Here – heaving the scraggly growth aside, clutching my barefoot, half-asleep 8 year old’s hand, pulling her through behind me – taking this weird detour rather than go near the garage where I’d just discovered her father.

That’s awful, isn’t it? I pause, doubting whether I should include this here out of concern for you. I am sorry for the possible shock of it or for the moments you’ll maybe now spend feeling sorrow. But this memory crosses my psyche like a passing cloud, moments of recognition in a tangle of shrubbery. Time does magnificent healing.

I continue trimming.

A bit further down, I find the nest that caused me to abort my attempt at maintenance earlier this summer. A frantic robin flew squawking out at me and I dropped the clippers and retreated in horror, sure I’d just beheaded one of her babies. Stupid thing! Why didn’t it  chirp or flap at me before I nicked it? I did find a feather in the trimmer but I don’t think any birds died — although I didn’t peek into the nest to check for skeletons.

Almost to the end is the gap Molly regularly slipped through when she was little – a short-cut to her friends’ house or down to the track across the street. While now overgrown from lack of use, I managed to crawl through dragging the electric cord behind me rather than walk all the way around to get to the outside.

Even with the little step stool and throwing myself across the springy-bulk, I couldn’t quite reach the final stretch of it. But I did what I could. And I thought about the different meanings of  ‘hedge’. What I did was enough.

Out of Shape: A Ramble

My writing muscles have atrophied from lack of use. Here’s what happened today when I decided to sit down to blog:

I’ll wash the dishes first. Is that a cloud? I better take the laundry off the line. Phew, it’s hot! I need a cold drink. I better refill the ice tray. Now I have to pee. I’ll text Molly and see when she’s heading back from her weekend jaunt out of town. I’ll just read the first section of the newspaper…

You get the idea. In the end it took me nearly an hour to finally hunker down. This is typical these days as is using the delete key like crazy, backspacing out as many words as I write, sometimes clearing away full paragraphs so I’m facing the same blank page I began with. Left to ferment, my perpetual inner-critic has grown bigger than ever.

From lack of use, I struggle to find my voice again. And then there’s the existential part. Why do it? This is what I’ve been wrangling with.

Last autumn I experienced a big change – I felt like a rock at low tide – upended to reveal things I never imagined beneath me. I’ve yet to process it all and will not do it here except to say I ended things with the man I’d lived with for 10 years. Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a brief statement about the break-up of her marriage that resonated with me. “…I trust that you understand how this is a story that I am living—not a story that I am telling.” I can write about my late husband because he’s dead and because my daughter’s okay with it. Thanks to the gift of time, I do so from a loving place. But this new chapter in my life, put my writing life on pause.

Did you see Everything is Copy the excellent documentary about Nora Ephron by her son? I flinched more than once at how meanly, even if brilliantly, she wrote about people in her life that she’d once cared for. I don’t have the stomach for inflicting pain with my writing. My blog once went ‘viral’ read by thousands a day for a few days. Part of the blog was critical about someone I didn’t know, who I never imagined would read it since I usually had only a few dozen followers. My thrill at having so many hits was eclipsed by a sick feeling when the person (not identifiable except to her) read it and let me know. I was mortified, deleted the reference and still feel badly. I could never be a critic! And where does that leave me as a writer, period? Am I brave enough to write without restraint? I grapple with that.

tet

Then there are safer subjects – my meanders through the world, observing nature through the seasons. Without the sweet ritual of morning walks with Tetley who died in early Spring, I have floundered. My quiet time out on the street at the beginning, the end of the day, to look at the sky, smell the change of seasons, search for the songbird in the wood, feel the grit or slip under my feet. This discipline put me in a good place to write from – all senses alert. I miss that, but no I’m not ready for another dog. For one, it’s not fair to leave a dog alone all day and I haven’t won the lottery yet and must keep my day job.

Why write? Why blog? Even an inkling of those questions will halt my presses and the less I wrote these last months, the more I questioned.

I started this blog years ago on the advice of someone in publishing who said I should ‘establish an internet presence’. Initially I was reluctant thinking it self-indulgent. I hesitated to reveal myself to complete strangers – or even friends. Ironic since I’m also flogging my very personal memoir.

But in blogging I discovered the joy of being read. And of reading other blogs. And the tremendous benefit in regularly excavating, spewing and honing and finally letting go of something, surrendering it to the world.

Ultimately I know getting in shape is like any exercise: it’s about discipline. I also know it’s worth it. When I am in the flow of writing a piece, even if only for 30 minutes before going to work, I get to carry it with me as I go about my day, incubating my piece. It almost feels physical – a sense of well being, excitement.

That’s it, I guess – why I write at all. I feel better for living a creative life. In examining the unexpected world beneath that rock at low tide, I learn things about myself. Writing helps me figure out where I am, where I to go. Sometimes I think you, my dear readers, find it interesting too. I cherish that and frankly – wouldn’t do it without you.

Building Fences

garden fence

Some lessons have come to me late in life including the importance of a good fence. My daughter and I recently replaced our vegetable garden fence – formerly a patchwork of flopping metal. It had no gate which meant leaping over the prickly wire, sometimes catching clothes or skin. Fixing that fence had long been on my endless home improvement wish-list.

I hesitated to spend money on materials when there is so much else that needs to get done – but Molly said, “You love gardening, it makes you happy – let’s do this.” And so we did. We bought posts and a few rolls of small-mesh wire fencing and borrowed our neighbor’s electric staple gun. We took turns hammering in the posts. I love swinging a hammer. Remembering my days as a sculptor, letting the weight of the head do most of the work, watching and feeling the nail settle into the wood, and finally, the satisfaction of making something strong. Molly was better than me at handling the staple gun, shooting them in with a pop as I held the fencing taut. I’m particularly proud of the gate. We don’t have a drill so I twisted the screws into the hinges by hand then hung it by myself after leveling the base just-so.

Now, my tomatoes, lettuce, herbs and flowers will be protected from ravenous rabbits and the resident bully of a groundhog.

I look at our handiwork and realize another reason I wanted to fix that fence. The process and completion of this simple, imperfect structure affirms what feels like a new stage of my life – clear, strong boundaries built with love – and a gate that easily opens when needed.

beach fence

 

Carrying Air to the Lungs

I’d been thinking a lot about breath lately, trying to breath better – if you will. Which is why getting hit with bronchitis feels like some weird message from the cosmos. What do I need to pay attention to? Am I going about this all wrong?

My mornings begin with at least a few minutes of meditating. I focus on my breath in between thinking about going back to sleep, what was my dream, or what do I need to do today? If my mind is particularly squirrel-y, I count and perhaps pause at each inhale, exhale. During the day, I do my best to breath from my diaphragm not my chest.

Being so conscious about my breath, I feel WTF? about getting this diagnosis. No cold, no sniffles, no flu – just all of a sudden a weird sensation of wheezing and a cough as if I smoked – and I never have. What am I missing, universe?

I know I need to do it harder – to more vigorously exercise beyond my preferred yoga – to make myself breathless. Aerobic exercise increases the body’s need for oxygen and the benefits to the body AND brain have been impressively proven, etc. etc. I try to walk sort-of fast around the track with my friend although we’ve been slacking. Still, I rarely sweat. I never run and I a haven’t ridden a bicycle regularly since before Molly was born.

Now that dear Tetley is gone, I must intentionally go out to walk. Without my dog companion I feel naked and am missing so much in my little hood: the up-close view of bluebells in bloom on my neighbors’ lawn, the glorious full moon glimpsed only while driving, fresh morning air of spring, the early, the late light of day as I trail after his wagging tail. Oh, don’t get me started on how I miss my little guy!

I told you last time how I listened to him dying, counting his last breaths but leaving him be because somehow, I felt he wanted to be left. And what could I do anyway? We die alone and I think, dog or human, it is rarely easy. I sat, respectful and moved by being witness to his death. And oh, the beauty of my uncomplicated grief! He loved, was loved and now, he is missed. Terribly. But even the sadness, feels rich and dear.

I am not used to uncomplicated grief. And breath feels profound for me – my mother died of lung cancer at 64. Diagnosed in Spring, she died the following Autumn. My husband chose to end his life by halting his breath. I cannot think long about breathing, the finite-ness of our inhalations and exhalations without launching into such musings, loaded like my bronchial tubes today, sticky with grief.

So what is there for me to learn here? Perhaps to not approach breath with just reverence, but to expand my lungs, thus brightening my brain, pumping my heart. This sounds so simple – exercise? Then why do I feel almost moved to tears by the notion of pushing myself beyond where I am comfortable, beyond my calming breaths, that there’s something more, something I have been missing and now it’s time to make a run for it. Or something.

How’s your breath? Any suggestions?