Sunday, June 26, 2011

Walking Under the Banana Tree

Once upon a time my father delighted in devising contests for his four fabulous females; like seeing who could find the roundest stone at Ruby Beach on the Olympic Peninsula. At least I think it was Ruby, the one that has a hundred bijillion stones worn smooth and round by the wild sea. And he didn’t just eyeball the contenders, either. He measured them and performed mathematical hoodoo on them to find the winner. There are still wooden crates and coffee cans full of round stones under the carport at my mom's house. Daddy was also hellbent on one of his daughters being able to walk under the dining room table. That meant the child had to be either really short, or precocious. Rebecca won that one on both counts. Although it doesn't seem she ever really walked. In my earliest memories of her, she was always running. She’s still short. And she is still precocious. Today is her birthday. She is also still five years younger than I am. Back in the day, that was advantage Gretchen; but it has long since been advantage Rebecca.

I am thinking of that walking under the table thing today, because I can walk under the umbrella leaves of my banana tree. This is the tree’s third year, and the first year it’s tall enough to walk under. Pretty exciting. (You may know, from reading this blog if nothing else, that banana trees are not evergreen. They sprout from near ground level every year; then grow to new heights. It's never too late to start over.) I love to sit on my new patio in the back yard under the dogwood and look down the side yard at the banana fronds dancing in the breeze. One center leaf often dips, sways, and spins to music I can’t hear. And the elephant ear caladiums are doing well, too; one in its third year, and two in their second.The interesting thing about them is that they are annuals. Defying all odds. Speaking of defying the odds, it must be noted that on Friday New York declared that all people—including gays and lesbians—who are so inclined can get married. Only 44 states to go. One leaf, one inch, at a time.

Beyond the broad leafed plants, though, I am rapidly losing interest in the garden. It happens every year. It seems earlier this year is all. I don't think it will ever rain again. I sit thinking yesterday about what is good about the stage 2 (moderate) drought the county is in. 1) The yard, which crunches when I walk on it, hasn't been mowed for over two weeks, and is nowhere near needing it again. 2) The moles are in absentia. Um. That pretty much covers it. Even the plantain weeds, one of the many "native plants" that make up my yard, are puny this
year. (I guess that's three, except without the weeds I have no lawn. I don't like the plantain though, with its spiky "flower.") I'm not sure what the grackles are finding to eat in the yard, but they are welcome to it.

I water the tiger lilies, trying to keep them alive until they bloom. They have been closed up for tight for a couple of weeks. I fear they will fall off without opening. I decide if I buy any more ferns I will stick with Autumn Brilliance. Others are retreating into nothingness, but the Brilliance seems drought resistant. The balloon flower, another of my summer favorites, is doing nothing. I do nothing, either. I'm grumpy and unmotivated. Closed up tight. I finally figured out why I am so tired so early in the evening—pretty much as soon as I get home from work. It's my sofa. As soon as I sit down on it, I get sleepy. Maybe if I sat someplace else... In all fairness, last evening and this morning have been pretty glorious outside. I  pick a handful of grape tomatoes at a time now. Tomatoes and basil; avocado and mango: these are a few of my favorite things. A handful of tomatoes and several basil leaves: free from my garden. One ripe champagne mango and one ripe avocado: $1.50 at the Hispanic open air market; $6 at Harris Teeter.

The gigantic hosta and the mini one, are blooming in spite of themselves. And the crepe myrtle, when did their fireworks display erupt? I think it might have been Friday. All of a sudden the city streets are full of their show-off bloom. I love crepe myrtles. They don't exist in the Pacific Northwest. There are three eggplants in the garden, in their glorious color that can only be described as eggplant purple. I don't know how big this variety is supposed to get, so I don't know when to harvest them. Not yet, though. The first summer phlox opened
yesterday, and my one surviving volunteer sunflower is unfolding. I have several volunteer cosmos, too. I love volunteers; they are such a happy surprise. For the first time I have a whole clump of cone flowers and black-eyed susans. The pincushion plant is finally doing well. How can I stop watering now? Soon, I fear, the county will dictate that I stop. And in the meantime, I feel guilty for using the precious resource on mere beauty.

A couple of weeks ago (June 12, 2011) I posted a blog about the time being now to do what I have dreamed of doing, if I can just identify what that is. Yesterday Patti Digh (Life is a Verb) challenged me to create a criteria to use when making decisions about what to say yes to. She, and the person she got the idea from, believe that if you can answer yes to at least four—or better, five—of the things on your list, your project or opportunity will be successful in some way. Three or less and it is usually a bust. (Of course there are some things you have no choice about saying yes to that barely meet one goal, but I wonder if even those dictates can be revised in some way to make the "okay, whatever" into "YES!") So here is my list:

1. Joy—Will I enjoy doing it? Will it make me happy?
2. Learn—Will I learn something new from it that is useful now or will be in the future?
3. Teach—Will I impart some bit of wisdom to someone else?
4. Earn—Will it provide for me financially, either now or for the future?
5. People—Will I meet new people, connect with friends, or will it enrich old relationships?
6. Leisure—Will it provide rest, relaxation, resurrection?
7. Health—Will it enhance my physical, mental, or emotional well-being?
8. Travel—Will I see new places, either literally or virtually?
9. Kindness—Will it make someone else happy, or help them in some way?
10. Authentic—Does it fit my sense of who I am?
11. Stretch—Does it challenge me to expand my sense of myself?
12. Meaning—Will it make a difference?

What is on your list? (Editorial note: I think Joy should get triple points, personally. Make your own rules.) I am pretty sure sitting on the sofa, the one that causes fatigue, watching America's Got Talent, probably doesn't meet the four point criteria for a good decision. And writing this blog meets eleven of them. So there you have it, the worst and the best of what I do.

"The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing." Larry James

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Circles in Time and Space

I spent the week at the Tinker Mountain Writers' Workshop at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, sleeping on a back-killer dorm mattress, consuming cholesterol, and “workshopping” the creative writing of former strangers in the Pleasants Hall classroom. Shoving apprehension to the side, I have eagerly anticipated this week since February, when I answered the call of the brochure that mysteriously showed up in my mailbox at work.

Getting to Hollins is a circle back in time for me; having driven the route through the rolling hills farmland of northern North Carolina and southern Virginia many times to visit Emma at Roanoke College a few years back. The reader board outside one of the small Baptist churches that dot the roadside still reads "Exposure to the sun [sic] prevents scorching." The new bypasses around Danville and Martinsville mean missing the roofless brick mansion that vegetation has been reclaiming for decades and the wedding cake house. I am sorry.
As I walk around the antebellum campus of this small women’s college, my eyes leap to more circles and arches than I have ever noticed in one place. The circle is a feminine image, so it fits. I wonder if it was intentional. One of the first people I meet, sitting in a rocker on one of the huge covered porches the first night, is a woman who turns out to be a nearly life-long friend of one of my friends. The circle theme begins early in the week. The memoir workshop I choose for my “Writing Camp” week is full of circles and arcs; and women. We are seven women and Jim McKean, our instructor. I connect immediately with Jim; though he lives in Iowa and has for decades, he is from Washington. A six foot nine soft spoken giant, he played basketball for Washington State against UCLA's Kareem Abdul Jabbar (Lew Alcindor back then), just a few short years before I cheered the UW Huskies on.

Jim is an egoless professor emeritus at a small Iowa college. And I think his students over the past 40 years are among the luckiest on the planet. The week with him was not only a writing lesson, but a lesson in the arc between people. Jim heard our questions and our comments and responded to them—to us—at the point of our experience. So many teachers skim over the stories of their students' lives—that which makes them unique—in a time crunch to get the intended lesson plan into their notebooks by the end of the hour. I am reminded of my father, on this Father's Day, and the hours we spent side-by-side on the brown sofa with my algebra book on his lap. "Do you see it, Honey Patoozle? Isn't it beautiful? Ah, isn't it beautiful?" At the smallest [fake] glimmer of light in my eye, his face would light up. I GOT it! And we would be off on the next problem. I saw the same twinkle of passion in Jim's eyes this week. The joy of teaching the craft that he loves above all else. I hope he saw some glimmers of understanding in our eyes—genuine ones.

We learn about and discuss story arcs—the threads that run through a story—and whether promises made in the opening lines of our memoirs circle back around to fulfillment by the end. Today I find myself musing on promises I have made to myself—where to live out the coming years and what to do there. I add working at a small college to my short list of places I would like to work. I discover a thread running through the list, that at the moment includes only "retreat center." Perhaps I could make omelets. Jackie makes the slowest omelet that ever hit a saute pan. And it is delicious. I wonder if the college girls appreciate the wait. At 47, Jackie has worked at Hollins since she was 16; and her mother worked there 50 years. Circles. She says she guesses she is too old to do anything different now. I would say, "Never too old, Jackie," but why would she want to leave? Except to give me her job.

I worry that having my writing critiqued will be discouraging—I’m not accustomed to such scrutiny, and am relieved that it is helpful. Determined to engage in the full experience that I paid a pretty penny for, I put my name of the list to read one of my memoirs before the whole group of poets and writers of fiction and nonfiction. I stand before my peers and instructors for my first ever public reading in Hollins' Rathskellar. I get through it without a stumble. I am satisfied with that. A good enough reward for the leap beyond my circle of comfort.

An unexpected bonus this week is that the usually omnipresent cell phones are out of sight and out of earshot. The writers—ages 30 to 65—in my group, with our stories that range from the tantrum thrown by a six-year-old when told the majorettes would not wear the sequined short-shorts in the Christmas parade, to heart-wrenching stories of abuse, were connected only to one another during our hours together this week. Thank you to Jim McKean, Tori, Laura, Margaret, Tekka, Elizabeth, and Donna for opening the circles of your lives to the examination of strangers; and for the connections that can be made when we trust others with our stories, be they magical or tragical. I dedicate this quote by Isak Dinesen to the Tinker Mountain memoir workshoppers; “All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story...”

It is dangerous to use the superlative "most" when reflecting on a week packed full of learning and affirmation, but when Jim said to me your writing is a garden...well, I will just say it is most gratifying to know I got across what I intended. And what an incredibly beautiful and knowing way to express it to me. Meanwhile—back in the actual garden—a second pepper spontaneously aborts; I pick the first of the grape tomatoes from the loaded vines, which pigishly cross the fence to compete for space with Gwen’s tomato plants; and there is a tiny purple eggplant. The flowers fight to survive the dearth of rain; and this morning I find the first tiny puff of blue on the balloon flower. Sparrows have found the new feeder, suctioned on the window outside the hearth room. Smudge Cat is intrigued.

I am glad to be home to my garden. And I want to be back in the garden of learning with like-minded lovers of writing. I want to have time stretching out before me to write, and to read about writing in the books on my new reading list. I want to know how to make time and space to muse and make memory lists and to write, while so many of my physical and emotional hours are engaged in my day job. I want to live in the arc of my passion. The Hollins' motto is "Levavi Oculos," lift up your eyes. Perhaps this will be the year I get beyond tunnel vision, and look up into the eye of the next chapter of my story.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Let Me Tell You About My Mother

It's hot. It finally rained, if you call just enough to fill the shallow birdbath rain, after two weeks without a drop. I’m tired of watering, especially since it’s so ineffective. All that has nothing to do with my mother, but I will get to that. I saw the deer this week; there really is one. It ate my neighbor’s roses. And tomatoes and cucumber leaves. It had dessert in my yard, but not too much. I sprayed my cayenne/curry tea again; and Gwen sprinkled hair spiked with garlic before she went out for Deer Off. I hope her repellent will keep the darling away from my garden, too.

What can I say good about way too much heat too early in the not-quite-summer? There is a gardenia bush at the end of my driveway, at the street. When I pull in each evening, with my windows rolled down because I don't use the air conditioner in town, the sweet heady scent soaks the thick air and fills my nostrils. The Rose of Sharon is blooming. Some people consider it a garbage tree--and I suppose it is--but I like the crepe paper flowers. Fireflies like the heat, and I like fireflies. It is a few degrees cooler on my new patio under the dogwood, and I sit each evening and breath summer in the south. The banana tree is tall enough to shade me when I stand beneath its broad leaves. I discover a cardinal nest, with mama sitting on it. After the rain I find it hanging by a straw, no babies or eggs in sight. I hope they got away. I'm turning wine into water with slow release garden art.

And so, to my mother, who loves the south and loves the heat and hasn't lived here for some 70 years. "Hot enough for you Stellajoe?" my father's voice echos in my head, whenever the northwest temperatures reached a sultry 80 degrees. Her 95th birthday was yesterday. I come from longevity, healthy longevity, on both sides of my family. It scares me just a bit. I feel pressure to make sure now that I am doing what I can to be healthy.  If I am going to live that long, I want to be as strong and independent as she is. Knee injury has set me on a new path; not one I really want to tune into. I am forced to acknowledge that I am racing toward old age. My knee is still too stiff to do my favorite yoga poses. It doesn’t bend right. I wonder if it ever will. I must get back to yoga, which more than anything makes me feel like I am looking out for my future.

Most of my friends are several years younger than I, but this week I spend time with two of those who are not. They get it: it is time, time NOW!, for the next big thing--maybe the last big thing. Time NOW! to step out of the frame that holds our lives when children need us; when we have to be “responsible”; when there is a mortgage to be paid; and when we seek fulfillment through the expected routes--the right job and the accumulation of stuff. Friends approaching 60 or  beyond know this deep inside. The knowledge rolls around in our heads and our bodies and our souls and nags at us. "There is no more time," the voice says. No time left to say, “in ten years...” It is the tenth year. I don’t say that fatalistically. There is time to do it. But NOW!

"They say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” (Andy Warhol) Here's to all of my friends and family who have changed things, are changing things, or are thinking about changing things--whatever your age. You are my people! Change doesn't have to be radical--get rid of the couch you have hated for years. But dream--dream of the you that you want to be when you are free. Redefine free. Life, even when it lasts 95 years and counting, is short.

I want to share with you a poem I wrote for my mother, Stellajoe English Staebler, for her 86th birthday, and updated a bit for her 95th.

I want to tell you about my mother.

I will tell you how in 1952 she gave birth to a fat, happy ten pound baby girl and how tired she was.

I will tell you about the costume birthday party she had for me and my friends.

I will not tell you about the big deal she made of my one boy friend not putting the toilet seat down
because my little sister said she almost fell in.

I will tell you that she signed me up for French lessons and art classes and taught my Girl Scout troop how to make fudge and neat corners in the bed sheets.

I will tell you she kept sending me to piano lessons beyond when I wanted to go.
And I’m glad.

I will not tell you she didn’t show me the importance of making time for myself.
But maybe I figured it out because I saw that she didn't.

I will tell you she sold encyclopedias so we could have a set
and concert tickets so we could attend.
I will tell you I hope she also did it because she enjoyed it. But I’m not sure.

I will tell you she loves the natural world best of all, and showed me how to love it.

I will tell you she knows about love for the long haul, because she and my father had it.

I will tell you I know now that it wasn’t always easy, because she told me.
But she didn’t let on back then. Maybe she should have, maybe not.

I will not tell you how hard it was for her to tell me the facts of life.

I will tell you she thinks I was a great mother and tells me often.

I will not tell you she thinks she didn’t teach me how to love my kids best of all.
That she’s always saying I know what I know and am who I am in spite of her.

I will tell you she is wrong about that.

I will tell you she misses my father.

I will tell you she’s the clipping queen, sending me and my sisters and our children articles on everything we might be remotely interested in.
Or not.

I will tell you she knows about being brave and strong.

I will not tell you she thinks nothing she does is ever good enough.

I will tell you how she still walks faster than I do, in her fashionista lace-up, ankle-protecting boots. With a cane that has flowers on it.
That she uses like a walking stick.
Not like a cane.

I will tell you the hats and visors that protect her well-used eyes always match her ensemble,
even when she isn’t going out.

I will tell you how lucky I feel inside that she is still here,
and still teaching me.

But what I really want to tell you is that my mother is like a warm shawl,
With patterns formed in her beloved Smoky mountains
With fringes that reach back to the strength of her mother,
With the warmth of her love for me that wins out over long-past disappointment in my choices,
With the love of my father she keeps alive,
With threads that bind her heart to mine.

I want to tell you how
the weave of her life
the truths, the not-so-truths,
the dreams realized, the dreams abandoned
wrap me up with love.                                

Poetry form borrowed from Sarah D. Haskell

Happy Birthday, Mother!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Secure Your Own Air Mask

Oprah, on her last show, told listeners and viewers that everyone has a calling. She urged her audience to find it and do it. “Make a difference in your own life.” That got my attention. How many times have I heard that we are here to make a difference to others. It was drilled into me in my childhood by my mother. By her words, but mostly by her example. I believed it. I wanted it. I wanted to change the world; to make a difference in at least one someone’s world. I’m not doing it; at least not in the way I thought I needed to, saving the children and all that.

But now here's Oprah, urging me to make a difference in my own life. I have said before that among my favorite philosophers are airline attendants, with their spiels at the beginning and end of flights. My favorite bit is "Please secure you own oxygen mask before attempting to assist those around you." Don't you just love that? It is kind of what Oprah says, but she takes it a step further. We are simply no good to others if we haven't attended to our own house. When we are doing what we are passionate about, what gives us pleasure, what makes us whole and happy, we are not being selfish. That is how we will make a real difference in other people's lives, without even noticing.

It is my hope, and some of you had told me it is true, that my blog makes a difference in your life from time to time. It makes a difference in mine. I begin with a thought that pops into my head while I am working in the garden, or that I hear on the news or read in a book, and I work out what it means to me as I write. And sometimes you write back. Some of my best learning about myself comes from readers who take the time to tell me what you hear in my posts, and how it intersects with your own life. It's my favorite part of blogging. And I assume that for every one I hear from there are more who, even though you don't write, are sparked by a single line or a thought and figure something out for yourself. Securing my mask; everything else follows.

A few years ago I vowed to notice. It was a resolution for the new year. Just to open my eyes and pay attention. To the birds feeding crumbs to their young--the quivering little one opening its mouth wide in expectation; to the cloud formations and the color of the sky; to the progression of the garden into  summer--the eggplant has a bloom, the red pepper is bigger, and there are tomatoes!; to the sweet gardenia scent floating on the breeze and the evening light glowing through my church windows; to really hear what people are saying; to read favorite sentences in books over and over, sometimes out loud, letting the words roll around in my heart.

I read a book a couple weeks ago called Still Alice by Lisa Genova. It's a novel about a 50-year-old Harvard professor with early onset Alzheimers. When well into her dementia, but still lucid enough to know what was happening to her, she gave a speech to a conference of neurosurgeons. She said this:
"My yesterdays are disappearing, and my tomorrows are uncertain, so what do I live for? I live for each day. I live in the moment. Some tomorrow soon, I’ll forget that I stood before you and gave this speech. But just because I’ll forget it some tomorrow doesn’t mean that I didn’t live every second of it today. I will forget today, but that doesn’t mean that today didn’t matter.”

That's how I feel about my vow to notice. I may not remember what I noticed a year, or even a week from now. But I can remember that I paid attention. I will write it down; that way if I forget, I can read it--or someone else will read it and know.

Last week I heard an interview with a relentless backpacker on WUNC's State of Things. She said, "We pack solutions to our fears in our backpacks. If we are afraid of getting hungry, we pack too much food. If we are afraid of being cold, we pack too many clothes. If we are afraid of predators, we pack heavy sticks. And then we put on our packs, and they are too heavy to carry on our journey." Wow! We go about our lives afraid so much of the time, that we can't enjoy our days. I have been afraid that I am not doing anything to make the world a better place--to justify the space I take up on the planet and the oxygen I breathe. I am finally realizing that if I take off the backpack of guilt, and the weight of Time Running Out, and just do what I love doing for me, perhaps I am making the world a better place. And here we are, back to Oprah and the air masks.

The trick, of course, is finding what you are passionate about. It's taken me a lot of decades to figure that out; but I can see now that much of what I have done has not been wasted effort, it's just part of the process. The learning of anything is not a straight path. It's a winding, twisty trail--with false starts, hairpin turns, and detours. There is a Zen saying, "We stand in our own shadow and wonder why it’s dark. Like the bumble bee in its panic to get out of the house, fails to look for the open window." I think I have finally found my passion: writing and digging in the dirt. And it's been there all along, waiting for me to notice, and to stop being afraid. I think the garden part is metaphorical, though. My next garden may not be made of dirt and plants, it may be something all together different. I will just take off my backpack, get out of the shadow my fear casts, secure my air mask, and watch for the open window.

Summer Day

...I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
                                             -Mary Oliver