Thursday, July 31, 2008

What if I Had Just 37 Days?

(Please visit Patti Digh at 37 Days to read what others have written in answer to this question, and to learn of its origins, and of course to read Patti's own wonderful work.)

Here is what I think: that I would have to wade in the ocean one more time. Here is what I cannot know: that I won’t be stung by a jellyfish or step on something sharp. Or eat a bad bit of fish and spend Days 6 through 9 in serious gastric distress.

I would call my favorite people in from near and far, to gather them around me one more time. Here is what I cannot know: that they may all be away for the summer, or not answering email, or on sabbatical, or enjoying radio silence.

Or they may be too broke to travel. I can’t know.

And more:

I can’t know that the basement won’t flood on Day 22, or the dying elm in the back yard won’t pick Day 9 to collapse across the garage.

I can’t know that Mom may die on Day 14, her own 37 days begun two weeks before mine.

The best poem I will ever write may emerge on Day 4. Or it might have been written last year, and sits now in a notebook, awaiting rediscovery. It may wait forever.

I can’t know.

On Day 31 I may drive to the store for cat litter, and wait through two traffic light cycles in order to make my left turn. I may try to not be annoyed at the delay, the ever-so-slight delay that results in my crossing paths with an old friend – someone I had forgotten about, someone I had not called to gather around me. She is coming out of the store as I am going in, and she is delighted to see me, and we stop to talk.

Thirty minutes later, we are still talking.

The encounter fills my heart with great joy. Had I not sat so long at the traffic light, I might have missed her. Had I sent someone else for cat litter – how mundane a chore, with only one week to live! – I would have missed her for sure.

I can’t know.

The ants may ruin my picnic. A hummingbird may grace it. Day 26. The car may get a flat. The car may get me to a Patti Griffin concert. Day 13.

There is a fat check in the mail for me. It will arrive on Day 38.

There is a shape in the clouds: it looks like a bunny. Do you see it? Look now, before it’s gone.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Work of Local Affection

One of the best pieces of advice I ever read came from Kentucky farmer and author Wendell Berry, who wrote in numerous essays of the importance of living in a place we love. Unfortunately for me – and for all those places I’ve lived -- I interpreted that advice to mean I needed to search for my ideal home, my one best place in the world. I needed to find it and go there. Then and only then would I be able to live fully, deeply, and intimately connected – which is what I craved.

Until I found that place, everywhere I lived was a waystation: large cities, small cities, rural enclaves, suburban bedroom communities. None of them was my ideal place. When there were things to like, I enjoyed them, but not too much, because I knew I would be leaving. When there were things I didn’t like, I ignored them, because there was little point in working for change in a place I didn’t intend to stay, a place that just didn’t feel right.

Do you see the problem? After many years and many moves, I saw it, too. I was a lazy seeker. I didn’t want to do the work of developing a relationship to a place, learning its nature and giving myself to it with real affection. I valued reciprocity – or thought I did -- but I wanted the place to give to me first. I wanted an off-the-rack experience of home, but love – true affection – doesn't come ready-made. It's a tailored response. It's always specific. It comes with a definitive article: not a home, but this home, beside this road, along this river, on this patch of Earth. I’ve come to understand – belatedly, but finally -- that loving where you are has less to do with finding a place than with staying put long enough to allow a place to know you’re there, to let it grow comfortable with your presence and begin – slowly, and with great patience -- to love you back.

I think it was the character of Phineas, in John Knowles' novel A Separate Peace, who said, “When you love something, it loves you back, in whatever way it has to love.” You care for it, and it cares for you, usually in ways you never anticipated.

That’s true reciprocity.

Loving where you are means relinquishing all those comforting contingency plans that spare you the work of local affection – those plans that allow you to leave half your life packed in boxes in the garage or the attic, half your heart tucked away, and half your imagination wandering the map in search of a better place. Loving where you are means calling your imagination home and putting it to work right where you are: learning the names of the people and trees and plants and birds and creeks and flowers, and letting them speak to your heart – your whole heart -- and show you what needs to be done, right here, right now.

photo: backyard berries, ripening daily by the handful.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Bedside Reading

Once again evidence surfaces that the Bush administration has censored yet another report on global warming -- this one by the EPA -- deleting references to the health and environmental consequences of climate change. As if erasing the words would erase the problem.

Meanwhile, those of us in my little patch of the Reality-Based Community are getting on with the process of adapting to a changing world, sharing our homegrown vegetables, watching the skies for rain and considering life beyond the automobile.

Dragonstar is traveling with her father this week, leaving me lots of time to read -- which I'm coming to believe is a very mixed blessing. Reading leads to thinking, after all, and thinking too much is not good for one's happiness, or so reports Eric Weiner, author of The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World. I like that Weiner used the plural, places, and most of the ones he visits are unexpected. We've heard of the happy residents of Denmark, and Sweden, and Holland. Who would have suspected Bhutan?

Apropos of the EPA story cited above and the recent testimony of Dr. James Hansen, NASA's preeminent climatologist, to Congress on the 20th anniversary of his 1988 address to that same governing body, I picked up Mark Bowen's Censoring Science and read it in a day. My take-away: the citizens of the U.S. are living under an administration of thugs and apparachiks. Not exactly breaking news, that.

To put an even finer point on it, I read Robert Scheer's The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America. Which put me in mind of the recent movie Ironman, only without the superhero. Or the cute assistant. Or the happy ending.

Mind, Life and Universe is a collection of short conversations with scientists in a variety of fields, edited by MIT professor Lynn Margulis and Eduardo Punset, who hosts a weekly science TV show broadcast throughout the Spanish-speaking world. Never mind the complexity of subjects covered -- from the lifestyles of termites to the obliteration of time. This book is a perfect place to rest one's weary mind after the disheartening assault from Scheer and Bowen.

As is the encyclopedic Back to Basics from Skyhorse Publishing, a compendium of self- sufficiency edited by Abigail Gehring. In it you'll find instructions on raising chickens, building a log cabin, brewing beer, tanning leather, spinning wool and milking cows, along with a whole lot of other stuff you didn't even know you wanted to know how to do. Even if you never actually do it. I like books like this in the same way I like Machu Picchu and the United Nations: I may never visit either one, but I feel better just knowing that they exist.

Happy reading.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Creating Space

Back in January I wrote about my 12-18 Months of Artful Intentions, describing how I created three pages of dreams and desires neatly categorized and committed to paper to see me though the coming year and a half. This past week I went back through that list and crossed off nearly half of the items. I’d either done them (a small number) or was no longer interested in doing them (the greater number).

As I went through with my pen and lined out one thing after another, it occurred to me that maybe I was cheating by summarily dumping all these items I was so sure belonged on my list back in January. Was it okay to just give up wanting this or that? Suddenly I wasn’t so sure.

So I set up a test.

For each item I asked myself how I would feel if I knew my life was ending and I hadn’t done this one thing. And for about half the items, the gut-check answer was, “I’d feel just fine not having done that.” Those things got crossed out.

For the other half, I got that tingle in my gut that told me this is important. Those things could stay. And for one thing in particular I actually felt heartsick imagining that this one thing had gone undone. That thing had to be addressed NOW.

I suppose it was a good lesson for me to realize that even when I think I’m being very clear with myself, I can still get tripped up. I can still work up a desire for things – experiences and accomplishments -- that I don’t really, really want. And I can spend a lot of time pursuing those things while the real stuff sits off in the corner, waiting for me to get a clue.

Anyway, after I reviewed my list, I went out to my garage/studio (another work in progress) and cleared off a small pine desk I’d stored out there since closing my gallery last year. I carried it into the house and hauled it up the narrow stairs to my (very small, kind of crowded) bedroom. I was determined to find a spot for that desk. For years my place to write has been in a comfy old chair in the corner of the room. It's a fine chair for reading, but as a writing space it's never been adequate. So I shoved my bed over and moved the dresser and cleared a space behind the bedroom door, and I gave myself what I really, really wanted: a place to write.

Once I got things set up, I remembered a stack of notes I’d kept from a Big Writing Project I’d begun awhile back but set aside when it became overwhelming and I didn’t have the space to spread it out without having to pick it all up again when it was time to make dinner and we needed the table. I dug out those notes and brought them upstairs and picked up where I left off, all the while knocking myself for not doing it all much sooner.

Well, I know why I didn’t do it sooner, and I know why all that other junk was cluttering up my list: following a heart’s desire is very scary stuff. It’s so much easier and so much less risky to spend your hours doing things that don’t really matter, to pursue lesser goals, to do the work that others think is important.

When I clear space in my thinking -- and in my physical environment -- and then hold that space open for my own real and true desires, my heart recognizes the opportunity, and slips right in. And the next thing I know, I’m elbow deep in paper and notes and yes, I'm scared, but I'm also full of gratitude. My heart says thank you, thank you.

Somehow I keep learning this lesson, over and over.