Trees. Bees. A flirting bird.

As morning rituals go, sipping coffee and reading are a constant, sometimes following meditation, sometimes a meditation of its own. Autumn and winter I have my indoor perch. Springtime and summer find me on my deck.  This week has me caught up in The Quantum and the Lotus, as perfect a follow-up as it gets to Richard Powers’s The Overstory.  It’s a brilliant novel and not the first time I’ve been awed by the author.  Anyone who can integrate a knowledge of physics and music the way he does in both The Time of Our Singing and The Goldbug Variations has my attention.  Anyone whose prose is lush and poetic gets right to my writer’s heart.

The interconnectedness of things, with its Buddhist undertones, is at the heart of his latest novel, so why should it surprise me that the book now calling out to me is a dialogue between a Buddhist monk and an astrophysicist born into a Buddhist family?

Hard not to marvel at the way the mind works.

Hard not to smile when distraction takes the form of a bird call. It’s a very particular call, a two-note flirtation. I can ‘t see the bird, and that’s probably his point. But my need to identify him has me searching the Internet.  This little bird, apparently a Black-capped Chickadee, issues a mating call that’s as close as it gets to what we think of as a catcall. How is it that the two-tone harmony enchants me when it’s coming from the bird and irritates me when I hear it from a man?

This particular chickadee appears to be perched somewhere in one of my Locust trees. Barely two weeks ago this Black locust was dripping with clusters of fragrant white flowers that had me realizing there were more trees of this variety on my property than I was ever aware of.  In the cyclical way that Mother Nature works, this may have been a particularly abundant year for those flowers. Or maybe attention to my surroundings is becoming more fine-tuned. Part of my motivation for leaving the city years ago to take up residence in the exurbian world was to be able to tell one tree from another. Sometimes local friends give me answers. Sometimes I resort to Google. Oak trees are easily identifiable but now I take pride in singling out a Hickory, an Elm, a Linden. A Black locust whose flowers fill the air in a way that almost intoxicates me.

The flowers have dropped but now I have my wild roses, another bit of flora I needed help identifying. For my first years up in Northern Westchester there were no wild roses on my property though I’d be captivated by the sight and scent of them on my walks. One spring just a few years back they landed on a Barberry bush alongside my driveway. That’s what they do, attach themselves wherever they see fit.   And that’s what I love about them most, besides their fragrance.

I’m not by nature a gardener but I do have a beautifully evolving landscape, a product of my husband’s vision, coupled with a gardening guru who does her magic. When he sees bees hovering around the Catmint my husband is happy. Doesn’t matter whether Einstein ever really said we’re doomed if bees disappear from our world; what matters is that enough people, including my husband, know there’s wisdom to this prophecy.

“A forest knows things,” says a central character in The Overstory. “They wire themselves up underground. There are brains down there, ones our own brains aren’t shaped to see. Root plasticity, solving problems and making decisions. Fungal synapses. What else do you want to call it? Link enough trees together, and a forest grows aware.”

Even if I grapple with comprehending a world in which everything I see and touch exists as an independent, immutable thing in contrast to a reality premised on interdependence, the combined wisdom I glean from a great novelist, a Buddhist monk, and an astrophysicist lead me in the direction of knowing things we don’t know we know.

Then there’s Shel Silverstein: “Once there was a tree. . . and she loved a little boy.”

April crow in the snow

April 2, 2018: it’s snowing outside, at least four inches’ accumulation by 9 a.m., no April Fool’s trick here. Yesterday a woodpecker caught me by surprise, a beautiful bird despite the damage it can do. Winter storms had blown away the strips of foil pinned to the column of wood that rat-tat-tatting bird has a taste for and which actually deter it, so I went looking for them in the yard—only to discover more miner bees than last year making nests in the soil. Otherwise known as ground nesting bees, you see them hovering near the little mounds of dirt that mark the entrances to their underground nests (no hives) and several females may nest in the same vicinity. They’re docile and they do lots of good pollinating and they don’t stay around for too long. But I can be forgiven for fearing an imaginary sting.

Today it’s the solitary crow in the snow demanding my attention.

A Yahrtzeit candle burns on my window sill. Lit at sundown last night, it’s a memorial candle marking my mother’s death according to the Jewish calendar, 17 Nissan, the second day of Passover.  A gorgeous full moon, a blue one this year, lit up the sky during Saturday night’s seder.

Well maybe not a full-scale seder since I opted to make it simpler this year.  I try, really I do, to keep the spirit of the Jewish holidays, not to mention my mother, alive, and I’m grateful for the friends and family who gather around the table each year.

 Even without a traditional seder, I need to mark what brings us together by reading from some Haggadah recalling the wonderful story of freedom from slavery in all its Cecil B. DeMille splendor.  This year’s choice was the New American Haggadah, translated by Nathan Englander and edited by Jonathan Safran Foer. It was a gift from friends who come every year. They know I’m a sucker for a beautiful book with a literary duo at the helm.  Here are some random passages that we read:

We live in a broken world . . . Exile—another name for brokenness—is not just the current condition of the Jewish people, according to the Kabbalah, it is the fundamental condition of the universe and of God.

Kafka once wrote in his journal: “You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world. That is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature. But perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.”

Passover is a journey, and like most journeys, it is taking much longer than it ought to take, no matter how many times we stop and ask for directions.

By no small coincidence, the fiction I’m caught up in right now is Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles. The novel casts a spell mostly in its reimagining of the heroes at the heart of the Trojan War.   There are slaves here, too, women taken in raids by the Greeks as a prelude to the war and it’s hard not to be taken with the humanity of Achilles and Patroclus in doing what they can for the few in their charge. Then there’s the war itself, as epic and classic as it gets, with its reminder that there’s no escaping the appetites of men for glory and greed, not to mention revenge. We get our archetypes from myths. We get some understanding of human foibles and the way gods have played with them. There may never again be a war of a thousand ships waged in the name of a beautiful woman. But there will, alas, always be wars, more often than not in the name of nameless things.

 

 

One year ends/another begins

Barely a week into December and already my thoughts are turning to the New Year. Can’t say I feel its approach with a sense of the promise I was counting on. But a certain resolve has crept in. Never one to rush time, I can’t help seeing the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year as packaged and pressure-sealed—even as I relish time spent with family and friends in the spirit of it all. Short of a humbug frame of mind, the waning days of 2016 have me wanting them gone. ASAP.

One of the many lasting impressions I took away from a Toni Morrison/Paris Review interview I first read many years ago was the discovery that she wakes before dawn to start her writing. A habit begun out of necessity when her children were young gave rise to a ritual: a cup of coffee made while it’s still dark and sipped as she watches the light come. “Light is the signal in the transition,” she says. “It’s not being in the light. It’s being there before it arrives.”

Until you do that—watch the light arrive—even once, night and day are entities unto themselves (i.e., you look up at the night sky, stars twinkling/ you wake up and they’re gone). All it takes is one all-nighter to grasp the subtlety, light gradually encroaching, for it to dawn on you—the stars never really disappear, they’re simply outshone by a far brighter one.

Metaphor aside, we are our own stars, the constellations we belong to a mix of circumstance and choice. I was a daughter when my parents were alive. I am a sister/sister-in-law/cousin/aunt/wife/mother/friend/writer. The unconscious, in all its wisdom and mystery, gives me no room to deliberate in rattling off these roles of mine. If the whole truly is greater than the sum of my parts, it’s that singular one (last in the list, with neither least nor best qualifiers) that allows me to step outside of my own story, stand back/observe/try to make sense of the world.

Again, the inimitable Toni Morrison to the rescue. The time is Christmas 2004, and in the very first paragraphs of an essay that appeared in the 150th anniversary of The Nation, she writes of an “extremely dark mood” precipitated by the reelection of George W. Bush. She has trouble writing, feels almost paralyzed, something she’s never before experienced. A friend insists no no no, times of dread are exactly when artists need to get to work, after which she writes:

“I felt foolish the rest of the morning, especially when I recalled the artists who had done their work in gulags, prison cells, hospital beds; who did their work while hounded, exiled, reviled, pilloried. And those who were executed.”

The wisdom of the greats indeed feeds me.

It was the 7th of December, 1993, that Toni Morrison delivered her utterly eloquent lecture/speech on accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature. The heart of it is a parable of sorts that speaks to the complexities of language and the consequences of its manipulation when we don’t pay attention to what we’re really hearing/reading. Elections, alas, are won on the bastardization of language. On the 10th of December, 2016, a master of more than language will not be there to deliver his acceptance speech. We can speculate forever on Dylan’s silence and evasiveness, but truth be known, his words are needed more than ever. Can’t ask for much more than Patti Smith as a pinch hitter of sorts. Turns out she’ll be singing a song of his at the ceremony.

I’m writing as day gives way to night and a different light, deferential in a way, fills the sky. If I seem to be channeling my literary/music heroes, it’s out of need, not grandiosity.img_4876 The freshness of winter—trees stripped of leaves, a touch of snow on the lawn—is the starkest reminder I have that there’s no hiding from oneself and regeneration is a given. Climate change naysayers may never see the forest for the trees.img_4874

Bruce Springsteen, in his very telling memoir, writes, “In all psychological wars, it’s never over, there’s just this day, this time, and a hesitant belief in your own ability to change. It is not an arena where the unsure should go looking for absolutes and there are no permanent victories. It is about a living change, filled with the insecurities, the chaos, of our own personalities, and is always one step up, two steps back.”

“The year 2017 may be a time for some stepping back, doing things a little differently. For one thing, no more news—real, fake, Facebook, or otherwise—until I’ve had a (reasonably) productive work morning. For a time I tried clearing the fluff out first—check email, say hello on Facebook, read the headline news—and there’s something to be said for that strategy. Except when what passes through a newsfeed clouds my brain, messes with the synapses. (Just seeing the face of he who shall remain nameless makes me physically ill.)

img_4882A tree is uprooted, it falls against another that keeps it from completely tumbling. Hermits are a rare breed but they do exist. More of us, thankfully, fall into the “No man is an island” trope given to us by the great metaphysical poet John Donne. If there’s any hope these days, it’s in the broader view, more encompassing. For all the disappointment, I remind myself that it took a wise woman to remind us it takes a village.

Happiness is . . .

Take a minute, say the phrase, ask yourself what comes to mind.

A warm blanket? A warm puppy?

A warm gun.

That first hint of springtime green which really is gold.

A deep ruby Grenache that catches the light and warms the spirit.

A walk around the lake, alone, or through a museum, with a friend.

A very dry martini, straight up, with a twist.

A new dishwasher with a half-load cycle (let’s hear it for energy-efficiency!)

dolphins national aquariumWatching dolphins blowing bubble rings underwater in a PBS/Nova series, Inside Animal Minds.  Evolution takes on a new light when you see the real connection between socialization and survival of a species.  Communication runs deeper than thought.

Dancing with abandon.

Plunging into a book that begins with these words, “It was the happiest moment of my life,” and ends with these: “’Let everyone know, I lived a very happy life.’” Between those bookend phrases are 530 pages riddled with irony, and sadness, obsessive love and the longing it gives rise to.

Is happiness contingent on love?

Try to find someone
Keep on walking strong
With your heart open wide
You’ll be satisfied . . .
  —The Subdudes

Is a simpler life really the answer?

Down in the jungle living in a tent
You don’t use money you don’t pay rent
You don’t even know the time but you don’t mind . .
             —Paul McCartney

In the spectrum of things that embody happiness, music is as close to the top of the list as it gets.  It’s a body thing, out of thought. Even sad music, for the pure pleasure of listening and every nuanced emotion it encompasses, hails with happiness.

I’m only home away from home
I’m only all there when I’m gone
I only miss you when I’m with you
I’m only happy when I’m singing a sad sad song
                   —Rhett Miller

Making playlists is an unabashed joy. There’s an art to the segue, song to song. When I’m at the gym, on the Elliptical machine, a playlist that includes Johnny Ray Allen (You’ll Be) Satisfied and Paul McCartney, Mrs. Vandebilt,  Craig Finn, Honolulu Blues and Rhett Miller, Out of Love, is very very good for the heart.  Picturing David Bowie and Mick Jagger in their classic Dancing in the Street video is good for the soul.  Not that the Laura Nyro/LaBelle cover, or the original Martha Reeves and the Vandellas doesn’t have pride of place in my ‘Dance’ playlist, along with Lady Gaga (duh) and the Scissor Sisters. And Billy Idol. I’m big on dancing with myself.

Satisfaction? I can’t say I don’t get no. Depends on the day.  One good paragraph, a line that sings, caveat (‘Kill your darlings’) aside.

A row of turtles resting on a log in the lake always stops me.

Looking up at cumulus clouds floating against a backdrop of at least five shades of blue.

The eerie trill of toads, a mating call as intoxicating as it gets.

A blue jay’s whistle.

A reflexology foot massage.

I could go on and on, and we all have lists of our own making. . . but isn’t there something a little less tangible at the heart of true happiness?  Isn’t looking from the outside/in worlds apart from going from the inside/out? Pema Chodron says we’ll never find happiness as long as we keep looking for it all the wrong places, a habit that’s hard to break.  Matthieu Ricard, who has been dubbed the happiest man on earth (a label he disclaims),  makes a distinction between things that give us pleasure and an inner sense of flourishing, fulfillment.

In the truest of all possible worlds, happiness is that thing that knows we’re part of a greater whole, interconnected. It comes from a place deep inside, where mind stops chattering, serenity takes hold, compassion is a given.  In the day-to-day world as we (mostly) live it, it’s something outside of us—riddled with longing, hope, waiting for something that might make us feel better. Today.

Tomorrow I fly to California, a long way to go for a mini-roadtrip with my daughter in her spiffy new car. It will be the first time in a few years that we’ll be spending Mother’s Day together. On the grand scale of things that make me happy, doesn’t get much better than that.

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