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Posts Tagged ‘in the moment’

Surfing channels the other night we got stuck on a home improvement show and before leaving TV behind for sleep we witnessed the woes of a family whose kitchen layout was so awful, their stove was crammed into an alcove by the back door. Lying in the dark coming out of dreams the next morning I was picturing my grandmother’s kitchen, trying to remember: where was the stove? I got it in place against the wall shared with the living room; next to it, the fridge. Then the doorway through to the front of the house; and I went around the room like that, filling it in, nailing it down. Like staking out a tent before you go inside.

As I worked my way around the walls things came back to me. I couldn’t actually see the stove, or its color—probably white, definitely electric—but I remembered that Grandma used to store crackers in the oven. Club crackers, my grandparents liked. I guess they stayed fresher behind the oven door and its seal.

Atop the fridge were two ceramic roosters—well, actually a rooster and a hen I think, one being large, the other small. I have them now; they have red-painted combs, gray and white feathers, ochre-colored feet standing in matching clumps of green. You should always have a rooster for your kitchen, I think I remember my grandmother explaining. Certainly no farm would be without one, and she did start life on a farm.

Passing the fridge and the doorway in my mind I turned to the north wall; up against it, the kitchen table. Very 1950s, it was chrome and cornflower blue formica and suddenly I was seeing the blue light in the kitchen, on a winter morning. From my highchair pulled up to the end of the table I could see out, see the snow drifted and heaped everywhere, piled on the sills of the screen porch beyond the back door. The light is sudden and fierce, almost scathing, bouncing off the snow and into the room.

Behind me in the corner there is some kind of electric roaster, a behemoth that sat on its own cabinet, the kind of kitchen fossil that I imagine a lot of women of my grandmother’s age had standing around. Above it, the black telephone, mounted on the wall. I remember my grandmother talking on the phone. My grandfather almost never did—his hearing was bad, and he was telephone-averse. But I can hear my grandmother’s voice, clear, echoing just slightly in the open room with all its hard surfaces, and I remember the lilt in her voice in just the single word, hello. When she answered the phone she did not ask a question: “Hello?” Who are you? Instead she sang, gently: “Hello!” I am here.

She was there, they were both there, as was I. As I work my way around the kitchen I take on this feeling of my grandparents and their lives, a slowness and a kind of solitude but also presence, intention. Without the distraction of electronics, email, smartphones, cable, so unlike my life today. I remember how my grandparents turned on the television to watch a particular “program,” as my grandmother called them, Lawrence Welk or the evening news. Grandma liked to watch a John Wayne western if one was on.

My circuit around the room takes me along the eastern wall, passing the door to the porch with that winter light streaming in like an ice-bright river and next to the door the sink, framed on both sides by cupboards, above and below. I can’t picture the curtains in the window over the faucet, but suddenly I see a pale green, the cupboard doors or the walls must have been painted that hue. Then I’m seeing wallpaper, a pattern comes almost into focus: neutral tones, flourishes and a spice grinder. I think it was on the wall over the table.

On the fourth and last wall, more cupboards and then the washing machine. This is a small house, my grandparents’ place, even though the kitchen feels large and open in my childhood memories. But there is no basement or utility room, so the washer is here and the dryer is in the attached garage, beyond the dining room. When it’s really cold outside Grandma will open the small closet next to the washer (I can see the door, it’s louvered), take out a Pendleton shirt hanging on a hook there, and put it on before she carries the clothes out to the dryer.

I feel how big the day was, opening up before us on a bright winter morning. I see my grandfather take up his coffee cup (and it was a cup, sitting on a saucer), I hear the sound of my grandmother’s chair scraping softly on the floor as she gets up to take dishes to the sink. They did not rush, or hurry. I realize that they were retired; but I believe their calm ways and measured pace had as much to do with who they were and the world they came up in as with circumstance.

Breakfast in the kitchen. I turn the memory over and over in my mind and study it like a small but endlessly faceted diamond, and in that expanse of time there is something vivid and real that I have trouble finding in my life today: that slow, deliberate act of living even in the smallest things, especially in the smallest things.

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Through a Window

I had a dream last night. I was at a gym or a rec center, trying to sort out my gear which seemed to be spread all over the place when a custodian cautioned me to mind what I was doing, he wouldn’t want to have to call my parents. My parents? I shot back at him. My parents?! I’m fifty! I yelled.

Actually, I’m over fifty—but anyway, I made the point. Just recently I’ve begun to think that I now have the years on me to have experienced some things, and even chew them over for a while. It turns out a lot of stuff happens in fifty years, even in a fairly ordinary life like mine. In fact, everyone’s life, including mine, has remarkable moments. I think I had to get to fifty, almost, before I could even recognize this, or see them—the remarkable moments—for what they are.

Yesterday I stood at the big window over the staircase at the library, a wall of windows really, looking out on the garden under a thin blanket of snow: beds with huddled stalks and clumps of old plants draped in white, the sculpture (of a boy, balancing on a ball) and the benches anchoring the paths, the big spruce trees towering over all, lending scale. Beyond the garden I saw the ravine where the Paint Creek runs by, the far side rising steeply, all snow and a tangle of dark branches. The sky above the pointy tops of the spruces was gray but still light was flooding the immense window this cloudy November day.

I stood there just looking. In fact I’d only run in for a minute and I had no business on the second floor but I’d climbed the steps to the landing anyway, just to stand at the window and look out. Two boys half-ran, half-stumbled through the garden, scooping up snow and throwing it at each other in barely formed missiles. I could see they were laughing as they disappeared beyond the corner of the building. I went back to gazing at the sky, the spruce trees, the far bank of the ravine so dramatic in snow. Last winter while sitting at a table by a window upstairs I saw deer over there.

I stood looking out as people went up and down the stairs behind me and I was overwhelmed with the thought: all of this is so beautiful and often we give it the merest glance, going back and forth, on our way to and from. I’ve admired the view from the library stairs before but still it seemed a rare occurrence, to feel so strongly about it. I had the thought that maybe I was feeling something similar to what people who have had a reprieve feel, after their cancer has disappeared or their heart stopped and was re-started or they survived the plane crash.

I haven’t lived through any such dramatic turn of events, but I know this: I’m over fifty. To and from?

This is to, and from. This is where I was going. This is where I begin.

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Last Thursday Lucy was still a kitten.

The vet tech said “Awwwwwwww!” when she plodded out of her crate on her short little legs, and the vet called her “this little cutie” while holding her up to examine her. She’d shown signs of a cold, off and on, for days, and it turned out she had an infection. When she got nervous in the exam room as we waited for the doctor, she tried to climb up my leg so I would hold her. Back home as she got ready to nap she crawled onto my chest while I sat on the couch, purring and curling up to doze under my chin.

But three days and many doses of antibiotics later, Sally and I looked at her and then at each other and said, “She’s not a little kitten anymore.” She seems to have grown overnight, like Jack’s beanstalk. She’s still compact, but her legs are longer and her torso has stretched out under her too-big head. She’s suddenly gotten feisty about her medicine, trying to fight us off where before she just squirmed and squeaked while we squirted drugs into her mouth or eyes. Yesterday, she didn’t climb up on me even once to cuddle.

Sigh.

We’ve had our two rescue kittens about a month, and already their childhood is nearly over. Of course, they’re still wildly entertaining, even if they are nearly “teenagers.” Yesterday I had figure skating on TV when Callie suddenly became entranced by the action. She jumped up on the TV stand and plastered her nose to the screen as the skater twirled and twirled, a blur of hot pink. I couldn’t help but grin at the sight of Callie’s huge ears and slender body in silhouette against the bright TV screen. Our cat, watching Olympic figure skating trials.

A few minutes later Lucy was trying, as usual, to draw her older sister into rough and tumble. Callie, seeking a reprieve or at least a tactical advantage, crouched under the magazine stand. As I watched, Lucy approached her, but after a few steps went into what I call her sideways war dance: back arched, tail held like a pony’s, bouncing obliquely towards her target.

I laughed out loud.

I know there are plenty of fun times ahead. Neither of the cats is six months old yet. Callie, the oldest, is coming up on five, and when she gallops around the house on her long legs she looks like a colt. (I did think, for a brief moment, that we should name her Flicka.) The two of them will be running around, getting into stuff, tearing up the house and making us laugh with their antics for some time to come.

Still, I already feel a little nostalgic and misty-eyed for Lucy the baby. How adorable she was when her legs were even shorter, as we watched her trying to do a pull-up to reach the top of a table or the edge of the drawer under the bathroom counter. I feel happy that the fur behind her ears is still fluffy; Callie’s is all smooth as silk. “Take a lot of pictures!” my sister-in-law, also a cat lover, said on the phone yesterday. I wish already that I’d taken more.

It’s hard to try to compute cat age on a human scale, but lots of us try, anyway. At six months cats can already reproduce; so among the various numbers I found on veterinary websites, 12.5 human years seems a reasonable comparison to a six-month-old cat. That would mean that in one month, the kittens have covered a portion of their lifespan equivalent to two years for a human. No wonder I feel like they’re moving at warp speed—kind of like that old Star Trek episode, where the aliens are moving so fast through time that they’re an undetectable blur to the crew of the Enterprise.

Anyway, I’m trying to learn from this experience: one, to live in the now, and two, to be ready with my camera. I still hope to catch a shot of Lucy’s sideways war dance. I’ll have to set my shutter speed very, very fast.

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While I work on editing a collection of my “cottage” writing, here’s a bit from 2011:

This morning I paddled north in my kayak, traveling two coves up. After crossing the sandbar at the second point, I found deeper water, and a sudden surprise of stones – big ones, heaped up right beneath me. I paddled around the spot for a minute, looking down at what seemed to be the top of an underwater rock pile, dropped there by the glaciers. Some day when I’m feeling ambitious I may come back with a snorkel and mask and get a closer look.

The air was warm, and still. Lured by the calm weather and the easy paddling I headed out to even deeper water and watched as the color under my bow went from bottle green to a dark, inky hue. The sea floor beneath me started to lose detail until I could see only the murky outlines of plants or stones, and then even those shapes began to disappear and all that remained was the rippled pattern of sunlight, shining dimly on the bottom.

In front of me the peninsula now looked tantalizingly close – as if I could reach and touch its wooded, shadowed slopes, even though I knew it was miles away. I paddled along for a while, enjoying the illusion: the arm of Old Mission a miniature landscape, the white motorboat cruising along its shore just a toy, the distant drone of the motor something I could disregard, like a far-off insect on a lazy summer day.

I turned south and paddled on. Another sandbar appeared suddenly close under the belly of my boat, golden and etched with the sinuous patterns made by the waves. White clouds stretched across the sky and were reflected on the surface of the water in front of me. Feeling suspended between sea and sky, I stopped.

I was looking down the Bay, swinging slowly on the edge where air meets water, hearing not a sound but that distant boat – the mere thrum of an insect. Despite the houses lining the near shore from which I’d launched just a short while ago, I was alone. I could see the neighbor’s big party tent, still standing from Saturday’s event, but like the powerboat, it receded into a different reality: a toy tent, toy houses, a toy road coming down from the hill behind. What was real was being there, rocking gently on the water.

I felt like I had all of east Grand Traverse Bay to myself. And in a way, I did.

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In Summer

Shadows flutter on the desk, the wall, the bookcase.

In winter bare branches against the sky touch me with their beauty – delicate, lacey, pale as smoke in the distance.

In summer I have this: the flickering shadows of leaves, trembling on the walls.

The slat of vertical blind looks like a stalk of bamboo, trimmed with fluttering leaves. In a column of light along the edge of the window, bits of shadow open and close like butterfly wings. The soft shape thrown by a branch rocks like a boat at anchor, tethered to the desk.

Everything is still for a while; the wind has died to nothing. But as I look longer and harder at a stack of books, I see one faint little shadow still pulsing – like breathing.

Shadows may be an after-image, an echo; but they are also things unto themselves. Behind the still, sharp upright of the lamp, some small, live thing still beats and quivers. The breath of the world, coming silently through the window.

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In the office building where I work there are skylights over the central atrium and balconies that connect the two sides of the building. Four floors up, I walk out there now and then just to get some natural light. The sun is weak coming through the glass, but I can see it falling in pale bars across the bridge – unlike the room I work in, where the single window is heavily tinted and covered with a blind. Nothing much, either light or view, comes in. I forget the window’s even there.

Along the outside edge of the bridge across the atrium there’s a planter, filled with designer stones painted black and a strip of bright green grass. I’m drawn to the neon-looking grass, but on close inspection, I can see it’s not real. Totally uniform in height and color, at a certain angle the light passes right through. It’s plastic.

I stand in the open space and the timid sunlight, listening to the fountain splashing from the lobby below and it seems kind of sad and a little spooky, what the designer did with this office building. The decorator astroturf,  the black stones that must have been trucked here wrapped in plastic, the sun filtered to an inoffensive level through the skylight – it all seems part of a lie in which I participate. These touches of “nature” are all meant to reassure me that locked in a box for eight hours or more, I’m still in contact with the natural world from which I come, of which I am a part. But in reality my separation is complete. The time it takes to get from my chair down to the door and back up again is long for my hourly stretch. I can’t spend too many minutes away from my workstation, but even so I will haul down the stairs a couple of times and poke my head out the door – just to feel fresh air on my face. (And yes – I did this even during the recent heat wave, because even sultry, muggy air feels like freedom when I’m closed up in a dark and refrigerated room for the day.)

There’s a premise here I’ve always been uneasy about: that this total immersion in exchange for a livelihood is a worthwhile bargain, week after week, year after year. Like plastic grass, the idea may shine from a distance but it doesn’t bear close examination. I heard the biologist E. O. Wilson on the radio recently, talking about how best to prepare young people for a career in science. The interviewer asked if kids need a lot of unstructured time, if they should have their summers off. The venerable man of letters said that given a choice between two months of college-prep summer camp or “cutting them loose in the woods or a very interesting natural environment,” parents should do the latter, “for heaven’s sake.”

Sometimes I feel like I’m in the adult equivalent of academic summer camp – like now, standing on the parapet high above the artificial fountain. There’s more to it than economic pressure. When I’m honest with myself, I know that at times I’ve “bought in.” And as a result I find myself stealing a few minutes to stand in the filtered sunlight beside the plastic grass.

Keeping me going: the thought that better days are coming. Unlike a school kid, I don’t have my summer off. But I am getting ready, packing my bags (both physical and mental), biding my time. At first opportunity, I will head for the woods – or the water, or the hills – again.

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Sitting on the porch in the mild, fresh air, I hear a cricket chirping rhythmically from the grass on the beach. Out on the water a seagull cries – a plaintive sound, but I know better than to think of it as mournful or lonely. Seagulls are perpetually crying. I think it is their nature.

A crow hops across the yard and from the branches overhead comes the quick, bright call of a chickadee. The air smells moist and clean: sandy, like the Bay. The sun falls in bars between the tree trunks, warming the pine needles blanketing the ground and sending up their scent, too. A squirrel runs headfirst down the trunk of an oak and scurries over to climb another tree. I can’t see his color, in silhouette against the light of the water, faintly blue in the morning sun. Then he appears suddenly on the pine tree at the corner of the porch, peering in at me. He’s golden-brown.

There’s just enough breeze to set the ferns on the front of the bluff dancing, and I see the water moving north, the troughs of waves appearing as tiny, sand-colored lines. No jet skis are out yet, and I can’t even see the neighbor’s boats from here. The seemingly endless fireworks of the 4th and last night’s leftovers, a few stutters of booms and flashes, are a thing of the past. It’s quiet, but for a small plane that comes into hearing and drones into the distance.

This is what I live for: morning coffee on the porch at the cottage. Nothing is happening. Everything is happening.

Last night we had guests at our campfire, friends from up the beach. One of them had never been to our place before. At the end of the evening in the light of the flashlight we walked up the stairs to the cottage and our guest looked around the yard, mostly in darkness, at the trees, the hard-packed sand and the moss, the dirt driveway. She said something about it being so unlike her parents’ place, up the beach – no landscaping. This is nice, she said. Rustic.

I said yeah, it’s rustic. She probably couldn’t see the smile on my face, in the dark. What she called “rustic” is what draws me here to sit under the trees, watching the squirrels and the chipmunks run around the pine-needled ground, seeing the ferns and the chokecherry dance in the wind along the bluff, watching as the bands of morning light slip slowly down the tree trunks and the shadows shorten, heading for noon. Hearing the birds call, wondering if I’ll see the mergansers pull up down in front, zipping along the surface of the water, fishing.

Rustic is a word that conjures for me an effect, something to be achieved, purposefully shaped if not contrived. Perhaps that’s only when applied to interior decorating. There’s purpose to the way things are here – but the purpose feels larger than me. I’ve shaped nothing much here; neither did my parents before me. The small things they did to the landscape, the rough stairs my dad built, himself, to get down the bank, the screen porch they added on years after they built their tiny cottage, trees growing mere inches from its screens – these only serve to make the presence of the outdoors even larger.

I don’t think of myself as religious, and I don’t believe in a god with a human-like personality, a king-like “deity.” I never did, despite all the years of church I attended. Something did stay with me from all that time, though. Words from a hymn I’ve always loved:

For the beauty of the earth, for the beauty of the skies

For the love which from our birth over and around us lies

Rustic. Whose purpose? What purpose? I’m not sure I can define it. But I can feel it, lying “over and around” me – and within me – here.

For the Beauty of the Earth, lyric by Folliott S. Pierpoint, 1835-1917.

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