Sunday, June 27, 2010

Clouds from Both Sides

The song has been stuck in my head all week. Normally that would make me a candidate for a padded room, but I decided to pay attention. I googled the words (though I could have looked at the back of my 1970s Judy Collins' album jacket).

     "Bows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air
     And feather canyons everywhere, I've looked at clouds that way.
     But now they only block the sun, they rain and snow on everyone.
     So many things I would have done, but clouds got in my way."

Have you ever flown past the ice cream castle and feather canyon clouds on a plane? I count it among the most incredible things that one can experience. On occasion, the plane cuts right through them. They have no substance. And sometimes the plane passes through storm clouds on take off, and continues on its journey above them. On a long journey the travelers might fly beyond the clouds, but often we have to come back through them to the rainy side to land. And though there is some buffeting about coming through storm-filled clouds, and the lightening flashes, and nervous flyers like myself wonder if the plane will land safely, it rolls onto the runway with a sigh of relief and we all go about our lives without a backward look. Even storm clouds have no substance other than our own fear and resistance.

I have let the words to the song roll around in my head. Clouds, both angel hair and black stormy ones, are part of a balanced life. Joy and loss come together, they are both sides of the same cloud. I can see that expecting my journey to be one way could have gotten in the way of living into the path of reality; idealizing a relationship or a job or good health into a sense of entitlement. And when our expectation of the way things should be doesn't continue to happily-ever-after it can jade us into thinking that there is a dark cloud permanently blocking our personal sun. We have a choice, stay in the stormy place--or the idealized place--or come through to check out both sides.

There is no room for expectation in the garden, either. Gardening is a humbling exercise in letting go, so much is out of my control. If I expect it to behave in a certain way, it will let me down. Sometimes what I plant grows, and sometimes it doesn't, and sometimes it gets eaten by insects, slugs, rabbits, or disease. Some perennials come up for two years and the third year they don't or they are puny. (The other side of that cloud is that sometimes volunteer flowers and even vegetables come up where I didn't plant them.) A friend gave me a tiny chocolate vine sprout--apparently its flowers smell like chocolate. Something was eating it, so I dug it up and put in a pot on my deck in the relentless heat and forgot to keep it watered. She says it could come back. There's room for hope, but not expectation.

Sometimes my life feels out-of-sync. This week I have felt particularly off balance. But nature is not always in rhythm either, or it doesn't seem so. The garden has had too much heat and too little rain this month; sometimes it needs its human gardeners to thrive. And one night I watched the female fireflies flashing in the grass, but there were no males in the trees looking for them. The next evening the males were there, but not the females. I knew a little about fireflies--enough to know that what we observe is not all peace and beauty--but I went on a Google exploration to see what else I could discover. There are more than 2000 species of fireflies and there are indeed some subversive and brutally aggressive ones. (Not unlike some varieties of humans.) Fireflies live underground in a larval state for two years and live above ground for two weeks before they die. Their lives are all about reproducing and providing a bit of beauty for human enjoyment. It seems a sin not to sit outside in the heat and mosquitoes and appreciate them. (If you want to know more about fireflies and their light patterns google "Blink Two Times if You Like Me.")

I discovered stars this week. I have become so accustomed to not being able to see them in the city that I don't look for them. I lay on my back in the grass after twilight, surrounded by the solar lights I recently put around the perimeter of my yard. The stars are weak, but they are there. I was an audience of one for the evening performance--the dramatic and beautiful dance of the fireflies weaving their lights high in the trees looking for love, accompanied by the song of the cicadas. I created a magic mood with my solar lights, but they were only the set design to Mother Nature's opera. (I am sure I don't need to point out what I would have missed had I observed my lights from inside the glass door.)

     "But something's lost but something's gained in living every day."

True joy must be willing to embrace impermanence. I am learning to grieve the losses in my life, again and again; and to embrace the joy of the present. Loss and joy, different sides of the same cloud. Life's illusion is that we think we have it figured out, that we are in control. But we are not. When we let go of expectation, then we can truly be alive.

     "I've looked at life from both sides now,
     From win and lose and still somehow
     It's life's illusions I recall,
     I really don't know life at all."

And now I hope I can put this song to rest.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Marking the Years

I don't know about other civilizations, but this one has an obsession with anniversaries. Young lovers celebrate their time together in months, or even weeks; partnered couples mark the years; and, happily or reluctantly, we all make a nod to our annual birth anniversary. We also remember less happy occasions each year: divorces and deaths. In my nuclear family and family of origin, June is heavy with anniversaries. I mark 58 years today (Father's Day). I share my birth month with my mother, one sister,  and my son. It is also the month my son and daughter-in-law were married. And 15 years ago tomorrow, on the longest day of the year, my father died.

I was out for a walk that evening at twilight. Nearly home, I rounded a curve on the greenway into a small glade. Before me were more fireflies than I had ever seen; their hundreds of little lights flashing in the grasses and just above the ground. I stood mesmerized for several moments before walking silently through them. It is the closest to magic I have ever been. Thirty minutes later my mother called to tell me my father had unexpectedly died...thirty minutes earlier. I have been back to that glade at the same time on the same day. I have been to mountain glades that are known as firefly mating areas. I have never seen it again.

June is also an abundant anniversary celebration in my garden. The annuals I planted from seeds after the last frost began to bloom this month. The first sunflower opened its face yesterday. The hostas, summer phlox, and Rose of Sharon began their blooming this week. The tiger lily buds are pregnant with expectation. The plants and flowers are all my favorites in their own unique ways. I feel the same way about my friends who joined me last night to celebrate my birthday, that of my friend, Grace, and the summer solstice. As I looked around the circle under the dogwood tree, in the flickering flames of the tiki lights, I felt incredibly blessed. There were new friends, friends I have known for several years, and friendships renewed. I saw in my heart,  the friends who couldn't be there. Each soul is unique, and together they make a whole. A whole heart, a whole community, a whole family. I need them all in my life.

As I grow older I find that I am less and less inclined to believe one person can fill all the nooks and crannies in my life that need filling. But when I have been in a primary relationship I have lost that knowledge, and my Self with it. Perhaps that is why I don't seem be able to be monogamous. Not in the biblical sense, but in the wholeness-of-life sense. For the first time in my life, I don't feel that any one person has Most Important status. Also for the first time in my life, I have a community that is Most Important. And I am grateful. 

The garden would be a dull place if the same flower filled each space. The Raleigh Rose Garden is a beautiful sanctuary; but though there are many unique varieties of roses, they are still all roses. I want some in my garden, and I have a plan to add them; but have you ever gently wrapped your fingers around the incredible softness of a ball of hydrangea petals? Breathed gardenia-infused air? Contemplated the face of a sunflower reaching for its mother sun? Delighted in the fireworks imitation of allium? Found the first spring bloom of crocus? Watched a banana tree grow before your eyes? And the balloon flower: my prize for most fascinating transformation of bud to bloom; the name says it all. It puffs up like a balloon, changing color from green to periwinkle, then bursts open. Its unfolding reminds me, too, of the paper fortune tellers we made as children.

As each flower and each friend provide me with something only they can, each flower and each friend ask something different of me. They require me to stretch, to look for what I can uniquely provide, and to look for opportunities to extend that love to them. As I mark this birthday, my intention for the  coming year is to find new ways to show extravagant love to the dear ones in my life. And to allow them to love me back in their unique and wonderful ways.

To Ed, the father of my children; to Nicholas, the father of my grandson; and to George Russell Staebler, my imperfect and beloved father--I wish you peace, love, and flowers.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

If You Can't Live in the Place You Love, Love the Place You Live

I always thought the song of a similar title was inane. Why not keep looking for a way to be with the one you love? Why settle? My grandmother once told me she was in love with a young man in her youth, but she ended up marrying his widowed brother who was 20 years her senior and had six children who needed someone to take care of them. She told me she guessed she learned to love him. Maybe I don't get the song, but I always think of my grandmother when I hear it.

Thirty-four years ago this summer, my new husband and I packed a smallish u-haul trailer with all our belongings and moved across the continent from the Pacific Northwest to the Southeast for what I expected would be two years. We don't always get what we expect. The husband has been gone from my life for 16 years and our two children, born in Virginia and Mississippi, are grown; and here I remain in North Carolina, the place we lived when we became a family apart. I have not used an inherited map on my life's journey, although I expected to. We don't always get what we expect.

I still miss Washington, and I have been free to return for several years. My daughter even lives there now. Why don't I go? Maybe because I am happy here. I have a job I enjoy, a home and garden of which I am enamored, and friends I love and who love me. But every once in a while I get a niggling feeling that there might be more to this life than I am being shown. What is it? Where is it? Is there something more I am meant to do or see or be? How do I find it? Barbara Brown Taylor (An Altar in the World) says, “The last place most people look [for the missing treasure] is right under their feet, in the everyday activities, accidents, and encounters of their lives… We cannot see the red X that marks the spot because we are standing on it... All we lack is the willingness to imagine that we already have everything we need. The only thing missing is our consent to be where we are.” Maybe that is what the song is about.

The sunflowers I planted in my garden from seeds are way over my head now. They have not bloomed yet, but the buds are growing larger. Even in their immature state, they turn their faces to the sun. When I check on them before leaving for work they are turned to the east. When I return in the evening they are looking west. Their heads don't droop as they wait for the sun to come back their way; they follow it wherever it goes.

My grandmother made the best of what life handed her, I guess. But she did not follow the map her life and times, and her husband, laid out for her. My grandfather did not want more children, but she did and she had four; the second one was my mother. I have often wondered how he expected to keep from getting her pregnant, and how she defied him. Yes, I know how babies are made, but in that day and time I can only think of one way they might have avoided it. I guess she was really fertile. She rented rooms in their home and managed the boarding house to bring in money. Later, after she raised the ten children, she left her abusive husband and moved across the country to live near my parents...not the map she was "supposed" to follow. I am so enormously proud to be her granddaughter.

For the past couple of years I have set an intention to notice what is happening around me every single day. I figure I may not recall the details years from now, but hopefully I will remember that I was awake at the time, and that will be enough. Some days I even think to follow through on that intention. But I don't know that I have very often consciously decided to love the place I'm in; to look for and make an accounting of what I love about it.

Growing up, my family visited my mother's home in Tennessee. Yesterday as I sat in my garden in the close, humid, gardenia-infused air, I closed my eyes and went back to those days. More than seeing, I feel myself sitting on the porch swing on the wrap-around porch of my Aunt Fannie's house in Maryville (pronounced Mer'vulle), Tennessee. The evening air has an exotic, unfamiliar heaviness. Fireflies light up the lawn at dusk and we catch them in canning jars with holes punched in the lid. I imagine going to bed on a sleeping porch my mother has described to me--designed to take advantage of whatever movement might be in the air. Thunder booms and lightening pierces the sky. Then the rain comes and pounds on the tin roof. There are no fireflies in western Washington; there is almost never a thunderstorm; and the rain doesn't ever blow in suddenly and pound down for ten minutes to be replaced immediately by sunny skies.

The incredible damp, evergreen smell that drifts through the air in the Pacific Northwest, however, is home to me. The hills and the snow-capped mountains and the driftwood strewn beaches are home. It will always be so because when we talk of home, we are really talking about our childhood home--for better or worse. I love it there; I probably appreciate it more now than I did then. All those years ago I loved visiting the Southeast. And then we returned to our taken-for-granted home. Now I love visiting the Pacific Northwest and I come home to my familiar home in the Southeast. Because home is right here under my feet: my family of friends, the fireflies, the thunderstorms, the humidity.

And so I am not staying inside this summer. I live in the South, it's hot and it's humid. Life is messy and sometimes we sweat. I sit in the shade of the dogwood tree with a book and a tall glass of ice water garnished with mint grown in my garden and a slice of lemon. I still don't like iced tea, but maybe this is the summer I will learn to make mint juleps. I breathe in the unique scent of the south that hangs in the thick air and watch the birds swoop from tree to tree and listen to them call to each other. I watch the sky for gathering storm clouds. If I had a covered porch, I would sit outside and watch the storm. Last night, from my bed under the eaves, I listened to an approaching storm. The single long roll of thunder was a perfect expression of what I am feeling this week. It began in the distance, and approached in a steady crescendo until it sounded as if it were just above my head, then moved off in a decrescendo until it faded away. And then the rain came and watered the garden. I breathed deeply and returned, satisfied, to sleep.

Excuse me for anthropomorphizing, but I am sure the three church windows I planted never expected to be an altar in my garden. Each evening the setting sun sends a ray streaming through the tall trees onto the windows. It lingers first on one, then the next, and the next; and they glow, as they did when they graced the south wall of the church. Altars are not only in sanctuaries. Sanctuaries are not only in churches. I feel the glow of the one who is More each time I observe the sun ray; and I feel--incredibly--full. We don't always get what we expect. But we can choose to love what we get. Maybe there is something else for me, and an as yet undrawn map will reveal the road in its time; but right now the treasure is right under my feet; and it is everything I need.

Sunday, June 6, 2010


As I sat on my deck on a recent evening in the Adirondack chair made for me by my son, with a glass of wine and a bowl of pasta garnished with basil I had reached over and picked from the plant next to the chair, I was overcome with a sense of life in abundance. The birds were singing, the scent of gardenias filled the air, and I had just gotten off the phone with a good friend who honored our friendship by calling in a time of need to talk to someone. Sometimes life is so beautifully full it hurts.

Speaking of gardenias, I have two bushes: one in front next to the driveway, and an enormous one in the back yard. When I was a high school senior my boyfriend, Marc, gave me gardenia corsages for the two formal dances we attended together. If gardenias grow outside of the hothouse in the Pacific Northwest, I don't think I ever saw one. It is not exactly the tropical climate I associate with gardenias. Being given the exotic bloom felt extravagant. However, having the flower right under my nose all evening was a bit too much of a good thing. I get the same sense of guilty, decadent pleasure having them in my yard; shouldn't they be reserved for gardens of the rich and royal? The one in front blooms first and is so full of blooms this year that the leaves are nearly hidden. When I pull into the driveway their cloying scent fills my nostrils. (My route home from work takes me past the Krispy Kreme--same thing!) And when I sit on my deck the fragrance of the one in the back wafts across the yard. Abundance.

I have been honoring my intention to spend time enjoying the garden. I have installed citronella oil lanterns in the shade of the dogwood tree to fend off the mosquitoes and have discovered that the tree branches catch the breeze and keep it a relatively cool place to sit. Yesterday morning, however, I was sitting on the deck talking to my girl child (speaking of loving and being loved in abundance) and observed a fascinating, if stomach-turning, sight. For a full five minutes a Grackle fought to pull what I first thought was a worm but realized was a baby snake out of the ground. She grabbed and pulled then let go, grabbed and pulled a little farther then let go. Over and over. It made me a little nauseated, frankly (I didn't know there were snakes in the middle of my back yard), but I couldn't stop watching.  Mostly  I was afraid she would give up and leave it there.  She finally got it extracted and flew off with the eight-inch baby dangling from her mouth. I wondered what in the world she was going to do with it; it seemed a little large for consumption by a not-very-big bird. Her family was about to feast abundantly.

My garden feels abundantly full of life and bloom this first week in June. It occurs to me that I have never had an established garden before this year; a garden where perennials return each year and grow faster and bigger than the year before. A garden where I can watch for the reappearance of what I know is planted there. The single stalk banana tree I planted last fall returned with an additional eight stalks. They are waist high now, the large leaves catch and hold the raindrops and sparkle with morning dew. I get a surge of abundant fullness every time I walk past it.

Sometimes in the garden (and in life) we get things we don't work or ask for. Weeds, of course, come to mind; and illness. But occasionally there are good things, too. In my first foray into vegetable growing this spring, I planted four grape tomato plants; eight came up--and the extras are not in the same spot as the four I planted. There are also two squash plants. I did not plant them. Perhaps seeds blew from the neighbor's plantings, or a good fairy dropped them in. Unexpected and unexplained abundance. Good things in life have come my way, too; as I am sure they have in yours. Think about it.

But the garden has not evolved without loss. Some plants have died during their season, or not returned the following year. Some have healthy foliage, but don't bloom. And the abundance I enjoy now has required a  willingness to experiment and sometimes fail, to get dirty, to sweat, and yes, shed some blood and tears. In sticking with it, though, I have found a wonderful relationship.

My dear friend reminded me recently that abundant relationships are not always with other people; and relationships with people mirror those with all other aspects of our lives, be it our work, a yoga or writing or music practice,  or a garden. As I struggle with where I "should" be at this stage in my life (e.g. coupled); and as I continue to experience bouts of conflict about what I "want" at this stage in my life (e.g. to be coupled), I share her abundantly life-giving words with you in the hope that they may resonant with some of you as they have with me.

You are growing and blooming and it is not without some ouch. This time is a new time in your life--both in your garden and in your personal soul. It has been a time of pulling up roots,
challenging every childhood belief, every reality versus fantasy of what 50+ is supposed to be like. Digging in the yard, being willing to get dirty, has been the metaphor for the messiness of this part of life.

This is the most intentional time that you have been in deep, capital R relationship with yourself - no wonder there are both wonderful, life-giving, energizing and connecting days; and contradictory times of loneliness. F*** all those people who are coupled; f*** and everyone who tells you to meet someone and try again. Don't rush, my dear friend, keep doing what you are doing. You are connecting with old friends and new, experiencing joy and disappointment over how humans show up sometimes and sometimes don't. I am proud of you, and honored to be your friend.

I have life in abundance. A capital R relationship with another human would just be the icing on the cake; or icing that is chocolate; or dark chocolate; or dark chocolate with fresh raspberries on top... Why do we always think we need something more when we already have so much?

This post is getting long, but I have two more thoughts about abundance that I want to share. I went to the Farmers' Market yesterday, an abundant feast for the eyes. I noted that the progression of vendors has moved from a majority of plant stalls to an explosion of those selling fruits and vegetables. The produce of the fertile soil of North Carolina. It is nearly too much to take in.

In a vivid contrast, I have just finished reading Stones Into Schools, by Greg Mortenson. It is the follow-up book to Three Cups of Tea, about building schools--especially for girls--in Pakistan (the first book) and then Afghanistan. Both books should be required reading for the human race. The practice, from which they rarely stray, of the Central Asia Institute is to start building schools in the poorest, most desolate, all but impossible to get to, forgotten places in the country (arguably on earth). These are places at the end of the road that do not know abundance. Snow covers the ground eight months of the year, cutting them off from the rest of the world and a food supply. What food stores they have for the winter must be accumulated from what is brought in over multi-day trips during the summer on tracks and trails traversed by bone-rattling rugged vehicles, transferred to yaks, and finally brought the last miles over treacherous terrain on foot. When a four room school is built to provide, for the first time, life-changing education, the residents rejoice in the abundance that has come their way.

The relativity of Life in Abundance.