Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Sweet Side

After Friday yoga, I go to the Olympia Farmers’ Market to fill my mom’s order for green vegetables and peaches; and a couple more honey crisp apples for me, in spite of the fact that there are buckets of transparents and gravensteins on the porch picked from the trees at my home and the neighbor's. Passing the cart of red, yellow, green, and orange peppers-its sign proclaiming one side as the sweet side, as opposed to the other hot side-I think, there next to the end waters of Puget Sound under the blue sky and the free-wheeling gulls, “yep, I am living on the sweet side." The sweet side of life, the sweet side of this country. (In my opinion, of course.)

My yoga instructor had offered earlier that there are two sides to all things. As we enter into this season of autumn and cooler weather and stillness, the southern hemisphere is gearing up for summer. As I stilled myself in supta baddha konasana, I thought about my life and how just about everything has a flip side. For every gladness there is a complementary ache; and vice versa.

I would be beginning the annual ritual of pulling out summer vinca and marigolds pretty soon in North Carolina, and planting winter pansies. It is a duality of tasks that always made me a little sad, since the summer annuals were still pretty; until I started doing it, then I enjoyed creating openness. I haven’t bonded with my mother’s garden, beyond enjoying its beauty; but I do hope to enhance and renourish the soil this fall in the little patch around my patio to ready it for spring planting. Maybe by then I will be ready to create another garden. Sometimes all we can do is prepare and then wait to see what inspiration might come to us.

Thursday I take off for Mt. Rainier: one last romp in Paradise before the onset of winter snows shuts it down. It is a beautiful day, only somewhat marred by the eau du smoke de plumé from the wildfires on the eastern side of the mountains that mostly dominates the alpine parfum. Every now and then, I round a curve and come up close to the timberline trees and my nostrils fill with the true essence of paradise. The smoky haze obliterates the view of the rest of the snowcaps behind the silhouetted Tatoosh Range, but at my back, Mother Mountain is clear as a bell. Two sides.

I hike up Dead Horse Creek trail, the one that was still under snow when I was there earlier in the summer, then detour off onto the Moraine trail. It is mostly a non-maintained trail, with a sign warning hikers to "travel safely and make minimal impact." It is a beautiful footpath through an alpine meadow of mossy dampness, up close and personal to the mountain. I can hear the roar of the waterfall coming off the glacier; and, I guess, boulders rumbling as they bounce down the bare rock and ice slopes. Though I scan the slopes when I hear it, I never detect motion.

Back on Dead Horse Creek, I follow the trail to where it joins with the Skyline trail. Three or four years ago, I hiked up the other side of the loop until it came to the permanent snow field and turned back without reaching Panorama Point, in view on the other side. This time I take the trail clockwise to the Point. I eat my sandwich on the promontory at the base of the top of the world and wish I could see the other mountains: Adams, St. Helens, Baker; I did go to all that climbing effort, afterall. I watch a man with neither poles nor cleats, either brave or stupid, cross the steeply-pitched snow field from the other side. When he arrives, I comment on the personality choices I had assigned to him, and he wonders if he might be both. He says he saw the sign, .8 miles up and over, .3 across, and figures that’s a no-brainer. I think he lost his. One slip would be a really quick trip back to the lodge.

Pleased to realize I have more in me, I head up the High Skyline trail, the one up and over the snowfield. (I don’t have a death wish.) I get to the apex of the trail, the highest point one can climb on this mountain without equipment and a sherpa, and am rewarded with an art installation! Dozens of carefully stacked and balanced sculptures of volcanic rock on boulders. I am unspeakably enchanted. (The brave/stupid, “take the shortest route” guy, missed it.) I wander around the rocky point looking at the efforts, and add my own contribution. Community art in the high Cascades.

I had thought I would turn around here and return the way I came. Though the other side of the loop is my favorite side of the mountain with its vast meadows and gentle slopes of brilliant color, it is a considerably longer descent. (It is also a considerably longer ascent. I don’t know if that is the reason for the burning lungs and shaky legs I recall from my last trip up the trail, or if I am also in better shape today-thanks to three years of yoga.) But, what the heck, I am in no hurry. I head down the other side.

I immediately encounter a three foot length of very narrow path around a point. I am so filled with fear I forget to take a picture. Or maybe that is because I am, now, going to turn around; I don't want to record my failure. Having just met a quite elderly couple who had obviously navigated it, though, I decide as I did at Hurricane Ridge, not to let my fear win the day. I take it carefully, holding onto the embedded rock shards that is taking up the inside half of the trail, and not stepping on small loose rocks. Also trying not to think of the father that fell off a similar spot on another mountain in front of his young son a couple of weeks ago.

I don’t fall off; the rest of the trail is glorious. And I am enormously proud of myself. I have never done the entire Skyline. It is an elevation change of 1700 feet from the lodge, to a height of more that 7000 feet-nearly (only) half the elevation at the summit. But it is my summit, and I claim success.

I meet another couple, brother and sister about my age, coming up the other way. He comments on the smokiness, and blotted out views, and then shrugs and says, “That’s what the experience is on this day.” Indeed. Everyday is our experience on this day. However bitter (or hot pepper hot) it may seem, surely there is some moment of sweetness.

“What day is it?” asked Pooh.

“It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.

“My favorite day,” said Pooh.

This day is surely one on the sweet side of my life.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Finding the Rhythm, Learning the Words

It has been exactly three months since I left my North Carolina garden and its bloom of friends, meaningful work, and familiar places and routines. It was just after the summer solstice; and now we have celebrated the autumnal equinox and the northern hemisphere is halfway through its long exhale. I am exhaling, too; and trying to feel the beat of this new song.

The summer was chaos. I should have been sweating through the North Carolina heat, watering the garden (or not), harvesting tomatoes and summer squash, watching the banana tree shoot its broad leaves skyward, having wine on a friend's deck, taking pictures of baby birds learning to eat from my feeder, doing Julie-yoga, writing on the porch at Cafe Carolina with the Fresh Market blueberry scone (until they stopped making them), throwing my windows open to hear the thunder and the pounding rain then slamming them down before the humidity slithered in, visiting my grandsons, and pitching my tent beside a murmuring mountain stream in the gentle Appalachian mountains.

But I wasn't doing any of those things. I stepped off the edge of my familiar life into this chaos where I don't know the words. I drove across the country with only my cat for company and moved into a house with another human being for the first time in more than eight years. There has been no thunder, nor much rain of any sort-certainly not pounding. I have not been able to lure the shy birds to the feeder; and my writing place is a few steps from my living room, having given up on coffee shops. My yoga class is, well, different from my familiar and beloved. My new grandson will be nearly a year old before I see him a second time. Dear Vee took a picture of the bigger than ever banana tree and its first ever flower and fruit, that I missed; it is no longer mine.

We think we know all about the song of our lives, then over time the tune doesn't quite fit anymore, and we tumble into chaos or despair. But there are many songs in the universe and I am finding the rhythm to this one and the words are beginning to come; I make up some and adapt others. I am slowly letting go of what was and letting in the wonder of what is. I guess we are all always doing that.

 "Wonder and despair [order and chaos] are two sides of a spinning coin. When you open yourself to one, you open yourself to the other. You discover a capacity for joy that wasn’t in you before…. As far as you are willing to venture into shadow, so far may you venture into light” (Christina Baldwin; Life's Companion: Journal Writing as a Spiritual Quest).

I have had wine in my sister's courtyard with her friends and camped at the foot of a mountain in lush greenness with my daughters. My windows are always open and the cool night air wafts in around the bedclothes; I wake to morning fog in the valley. Cows bawl in the valley and coyotes howl in the hills beyond my window. I have harvested my tomatoes finally, this week. Cooking for someone else is becoming a little less onerous. I am discovering new friends and reconnecting with old ones. I bought Washington-grown Honey-crisp apples at the farmers' market-in Washington! My writing was published in the local newspaper this week. I have explored from the mountains to the sea and all over the enormous county that is my home now. I am rediscovering life in a small town; it has its challenges and its beauty.

Perhaps it is because it's autumn that I am settling into a rhythm finally. On the Native American medicine wheel, the season of autumn lies to the west. Since I can remember, autumn has been my favorite season. The west is where my soul was born, and where it has always resided-in spite of long seasons away.

Autumn is a time of introspection and manifestation. In autumn, I travel inward to the center of the spiral, my favorite symbol, after hanging out on the edge all summer. From that place, seeds of renewal and new life germinate. Through our chaos we receive the world’s calm. I will learn the words and rhythm of my new song in time, as I step from the chaos of summer into the calm of the earth's center. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Conversation with Apple Trees

I attended a writing retreat/workshop at the Whidbey Institute on Whidbey Island this week: “Writing Nature’s Wisdom.” The leader, Christina Baldwin (PeerSpirit), spoke of the three story voices that live in all of us: observational, social dialogue, and mythical. (The latter is third person.) Quite often one or two of the voices fall apart, but rarely do they all leave us at the same time. How we use the remaining voice(s) is what holds us together.

In a departure from my usual strictly observational writing style, the following came out of one of the exercises we did: the mythical voice. Not being seasoned in the whole concept, I think I have actually combined all three voices.

Conversation with Apple Trees

The woman lifts the latch on the simple pole- construction gate and pushes it open. The garden tools hanging on nails in the roofed entry give evidence that the garden is cared for, at least from time to time. A small hand-painted sign identifies the small Apple Tree Garden. The woman steps down into the unkempt orchard and begins around the path that circles off to the right of a large apple tree, her legs brushing aside flowers gone to seed that, in their late-season death throes, she can’t identify. Black-eyed Susans, Queen Anne’s lace, and polka-dotted foxglove, still blooming, stand tall among the death, faded a bit as they contemplate their own soon-to-come retreat.

The footpath meanders past a small bench that beckons from beneath a second and wizened apple tree; but the woman is in exploration mind and not persuaded to stop yet. Walking here requires attention as the track winds around plant beds and is dissected by hoses that coil and snake underfoot-further proof of maintenance belied by the dry dirt. The woman is forced to move slowly to avoid stumbling and, peering through her camera lens in macro setting, to examine the bees and insects interested in whatever the exhausted flowers might still have to offer.

Another bench partnered with a small table sits in front of the compost piled with discarded spring and early summer bloomers. This time the woman accepts the invitation. She looks out over the imperfect garden, at one with its descent into fall. It has been a long summer; it’s time for the flash of fall and the quiet of winter.

She pulls her journal and a green pen out of her bag and settles into the quaint bench. Really it is not at all comfortable, with its twisted-vine back; she thinks her life is a little like that-not quite a fit yet. She misses the garden she left behind; the one she had nurtured, pouring her life blood and tears into raising like a third child after
the first two had left the nest. She allows herself a moment of grief. But as she looks around, observing what is here in this garden, she forgets her discomfort in the bench, and her memories, choosing to be mindful of the moment.

Her eyes are pulled to the two apple trees that centerpiece the garden. The one near the gate is a sturdy, middle-aged tree with healthy branches bursting with ripening red-splashed fruit. Her trunk began leaning early in life, stretching for something outside the straight path of expectation. Later it forked and reached back for the familiar. The wayward path is the larger part of her, with many and strong branches. But she is balanced by valuing where she came from.

Woman: Tree, what is it that you are telling me?

Tree: My path, like yours, has not been straight. I explored outside of the expectations. But my limbs are strong, I am healthy and happy. I am growing. You are looking at the result of my unconventional life and finding me interesting. I am like you in my stretching and searching; yet here I am, rooted in this familiar garden.

The second tree is the crone: a wise, elderly woman. Her single trunk is ramrod straight; lichen encases her brittle branches. Though her south side is full and bearing fruit, her northern exposure bears evidence of great loss. She carries on with what is left to her with pride and a fierce spirit.

Woman: Tree, what is it that you are showing me?

Tree: I took a different path than my companion in the garden did; a different way than you did. Whether it was choice or happenstance doesn’t really matter. My straight path has served me well. An important part of me has left my side, but my essence remains strong. I may be old, but as long as I am able, I will bear fruit. When it is time for me to leave the garden, I will; but until then I am here living life. Don’t count me out.

The two trees bear witness to one another, and to the woman who sits on her uncomfortable bench and listens.

Woman: Trees, what does your relationship to one another have to teach me?
Trees: We are here together in this garden; but unlike many trees of the forest, we have not grown together and do not need to hold one another up. We are here, together, encouraging the other, providing support when it's needed, and respecting one another's independence. 

The crone said: See this bench beneath my branches? Many like you have come here to sit with me, and many more will come. The village is here with me, sitting at my feet and learning from my wisdom. My fruit drops from my branches and enriches the soil, providing nourishment to living and growing things. My soil will continue to provide life long after I am gone. 

The younger tree went on: In her strength, now waning, the wise tree has taught me and loved me. She continues to show me her courage. My branches are still growing. Those to my north and east and west are seeking new adventures. But see my strong branches on my south-reaching trunk? They are growing, too, and stretching out to reach the wise one. They will be there for her when she needs them. Sometimes I am stubborn in my independence; she has taught me that, too.

Woman: I am afraid. I don't know how to do this. I'm afraid that I will do it wrong; that I will let someone down; that I will not be able to live up to what is expected. I am afraid I will lose my way and my self.

Trees: You will take it as it comes, and figure it out as you go. That is what you have done all your life, and it has always worked out. It is what we have done. It is what we all must do. It is the only way there is. 

The woman thanked the trees and rose from the bench to continue her walk. She had much to contemplate. 



Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Trajectory of the Moon

From my bed, all summer I have watched the moon out the window until it disappears behind the fir tree. But the night of the blue moon, the orb changed its trajectory. It now passes over the house, and I can't see it.

I also observe the morning weather in the valley each morning, before I get up. I don't like curtains, I don't close mine. I need to see the day as soon as I open my eyes. My favorite mornings, remembered from childhood through the same window, and the one I have been waiting for since I returned home, finally shows up this week. The dense fog clears from the top down, and we and the mountain and the tree tops layer between the white blanket and the sun and blue sky. Cows bawl in the valley, cars growl unseen on the road at the foot of the hill, trains shriek down the tracks in town submerged in the blankness. It is unusual this time, or perhaps my camera and I are watching more closely: It begins to clear, then fills up again, then begins to clear. Back and forth for an hour until the strength of the sun finally burns it off down to the valley floor and the way is clear.

New trajectories are kind of like that. The path seems to be clear, then it gets foggy again; the next time it becomes a little more transparent, then all is dense cloud again. I am still waiting for clarity in this latest shift in my life, with faith that it will come in its time.

“When will you listen more closely to your soul and less to your scales?” As I sped down I-5 past the truck bearing those words-which carried, according the small print, nutrition bars-I thought about scales I pay attention to. Or don’t pay attention to, as the case may be. Those of reason and expectation. Months before a friend knew I was planning to quit my job-"yes, in this economy"-and leave Raleigh, she said of another friend who was leaving her job voluntarily, “Quitting a job right now is the most reckless thing I have ever heard,” or something to that effect. It is unreasonable; and society expects us to be reasonable, and responsible. But sometimes you have to stop weighing yourself on the scales by which others find balance and just to listen to your soul.

I went on to my too-easy yoga class, still thinking about that truck, and the teacher began our gentle practice with these words: “Whether today is your first time with yoga or if you have been practicing for many years, we take a beginner’s inquirer’s mind.” Throughout the class, she continued to gently admonish, "Listen to your body. Inquire. What was easy yesterday, might not be the right thing for today."

I just finished a book on writing by Elizabeth Berg, one of my favorite writers (Escaping into the Open: The Art of Writing True). As I sit on my patio with a glass of Cabernet at day’s end this week, I turn to the last page to finish the book. As I am reading, a butterfly (moth really, I suppose) lands on the corner of the last page, the homework assignment for the final chapter:
    "If you want to write for publication, spend time today polishing something you wrote.    
    Then, tomorrow, send it out. And then get busy on the next piece.
    If you want to write only for yourself, put this book down and pick your pen up.
    You’re ready.
                    THE BEGINNING"

There is something so perfect about that, I just sit looking at the juxtaposition of that metamorphosed insect and the words, “THE BEGINNING.” And weep for the beauty of it. It is what I have done, am doing, changing my trajectory; beginning; inquiring; and living with the fog.

I tend to think of spring as the “beginning” season, and all the others follow it in natural order. But really, aren’t all the seasons new? Isn’t there something new all the time? The sprouts from the ground in spring, the flowers in summer, the berries and colored leaves in autumn, the silence of winter. Is it just that the trajectory shifts? The focus changes? Any season could be the beginning. Kristy sent this picture of my grandsons this week. Ethan: first time beginner at everything, looking to his brother to show him the way; and Max, been-there-done-that man of the world. But Max is a beginner, too, at so many things. As he starts first grade, and life as big brother rather than only child, his trajectory has shifted.

Last night at dinner, after a hot week, Mother and I feel a blast of cold air through the open screen door. This morning is gray for the first time in some weeks; I can almost see the leaves turning red and gold. A blogging friend who lives in Virginia, wrote in her post today, “The air was cool and crisp this morning. Just like that, fall snuck through the woods and slipped in around us. The season has changed. I take it as a reminder that life does not remain constant; it evolves from one moment to the next. This is a gift to each of us that we can make of what we will” (Donna Knox). Perhaps it is the responsible thing to listen to our shifting seasons and inquire as to what we will do with it.

And I read this from Eleanor Roosevelt recently: “We are constantly advancing, like explorers, into the unknown, which makes life an adventure all the way. How interminable and dull that journey would be if it were on a straight road over a flat plain, if we could see ahead the whole distance, without surprises, without the salt of the unexpected, without challenge” (Eleanor Roosevelt).

The road is not straight; the trajectory changes, we change, we begin anew. Again and again. We watch, we inquire, we wait for clarity, we adopt a beginner's mind.

Meanwhile, my grape tomatoes are finally getting ripe.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Being Gretchen (in the round)

I wish I liked going to festivals. There are a lot of them during the summer in southwest Washington. It seemed like a good thing to put on my bucket list: attend all the small town festivals. The Morton Loggers Jubilee, Winlock Egg Festival, Mossyrock Blueberry Festival... I thought it would be a fun way to embrace rural living. I've arrived too late for most of them this year, but the Garlic Festival was last weekend. I thought I would go, get started on the list. Then I didn't want to. I don't really like crowds and noise.

I'm reading a book called The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin. She identified Being Gretchen as one of her goals toward being happier. I found an easy connection with that chapter, since she kept saying "being Gretchen." Helpful. I often think I would be a better person if only I liked opera, read more nonfiction, was enraptured by poetry, was transported by classical music, supported up and coming singer-songwriters on the bar circuit, frequented art museums, watched ballet, volunteered, was passionate enough about issues to get actively involved, followed sports (okay, maybe not that one), enjoyed talking on the phone, loved dogs. I don't. I don't take pleasure in any of those things. Long ago I stopped trying, but I haven't stopped thinking I was deficient in some way, or missing out on something. And perhaps I am. But maybe it's time to just embrace Being Gretchen.

By this age, I have tried out a lot of things. I didn’t just decide I didn’t enjoy them. I experienced them. And then decided. Along with the things listed above, I don’t like working with numbers, I never have. And yet I spent the last eleven years supporting myself financially as a bookkeeper. I am challenged during this year of sabbatical to consider how I want to next making a living, and stay true to being Gretchen.

So I am thinking about what I do like. I like sitting in coffee shops and watching people. I like solitude. I like words and I like to write. I like to take photographs. I like chatting with friends on Facebook. I like making a delicious meal for a few friends who gather for dinner sitting on cushions around my square coffee table. I like creating art and gardens and space in general. I like getting rid of clutter. (Well, I like it when the clutter is gone.) I like road trips (but not traffic). I like movies and plays and concerts (except for classical music, opera, and ballet-see above).

I am not doing many of those things these days. I am going on more road trips. The coffee shop doesn’t have many people, which of course I have mixed feelings about: solitude vs. people-watching. I have yet to make friends to invite to my coffee table. I enjoyed creating my interior spaces, but now they are finished. I tackled some garden clutter this week, and created some visual space there. I am starting to do more writing-baby steps, but it is a beginning.

I had lunch with two of my high school classmates this week. We were not particularly good friends in high school, but from the 42-years-ago standpoint, just that we knew each other so long ago makes me feel close to them. Kind of like meeting someone in North Carolina who is from California. That’s practically next door to Washington, relatively speaking. (And I didn’t have many particularly good friends then, really. Friendship is a relatively new addition to Being Gretchen, and something I don’t want to lose.) The three of us have had very different lives. One is living the life I might have thought I would have, but don’t. She is perhaps a little surprised that it is her life. The other has done some of what I would have expected-though with a surprise or two, probably to him as well. You plan a life, and then you live whatever comes.

As the week arrives, I am a little anxious about re-meeting them. The Gretchen I know isn’t good with new people, and new people from my past seems somehow more scary. They know who I used to be: a quiet (I called it "shy" then) person some might have misconstrued then as snobbish, though nothing was farther from truth. Who will I be now? And will I feel like a complete fraud, or will I become that Gretchen again? Am I still that Gretchen? With one, especially, who is and was brilliant-and who has made a life and a personality loving several of the things I mentioned above as not liking-I expect to be tongue-tied, intimidated, and embarrassed by my life compared to his.

I am quite sure that my current friends watching our interaction would have recognized me. But I am astonished. It is like seeing someone you haven't seen for 40 years: you half expect them to still look 20 years old-as you last saw them. Not having seen gradual growth, you are surprised they have aged as you have. I stand off to the side watching myself and see someone who is animated, bantering along with him, proud of what she has done and where she has been and who she is. I see someone enjoying the time a great deal. I thought nothing of our exchange over lunch, but the next day I said, "Wow! Who the hell was that and where did she come from?"

All this is not to say that I don’t hope to always try new things. I do that a lot, especially when it comes to art. Being well-rounded is a good thing. So I am looking for new ways to be Gretchen, as well. I have a page on my computer (and in a spiral notebook I carry with me, when I remember) where I jot “notes to self.” One is an AT&T ad (I have actually gotten several pieces of important wisdom over the years from advertising): “Rethink Possible.” This year will not only be about meeting the Pacific Northwest again, but also about re-meeting myself. Being more Gretchen and rethinking who Gretchen is and who she could be.

A woman in harmony with her spirit is like a river flowing. She goes where she will without pretense and arrives at her destination prepared to be herself and only herself.” 

-Maya Angelou