Tuesday, August 31, 2010
Today along Route one a flock of two-toned birds
flitted in a roadside patch of grass;
Their gray and black bodies rising
and falling as cars passed by.
Their thick beaks searching out
seeds it seemed in the grass.
Everywhere I go it is like this
A bird I’ve never before seen
defines a place, or an experience.
In southern Oregon it was the Towhee
In Pennsylvania the bright feathered Cardinal.
In my home place of northeastern Utah
the Sandhill Crane and the Osprey
frame the landscapes of memory
In New Jersey, the new bird was the Mocking Bird.
Some birds just appear enough in one place
to seem forever connected. All golf courses
remind me of Meadow Larks and rivers belong
to the Merganser. Route One I guess now belongs
to this two-toned bird whose picture I can’t
quite find in my National Geographic bird book.
Sunday, August 29, 2010
When my two-year old begins to throw a tantrum, I often sit him down in a chair and ask him to take a deep breath. He usually continues squirming, hitting, screaming, or some other physical display of his disappointment and anger. Toddlers throw tantrums because they do not yet posses the same emotional valve that adults do that would help them gain perspective. The disappointment of “you will never eat cake again” would be similar to “you can’t eat a cupcake until after dinner” to a two-year old. And although I know this, my own temper rises when my son takes disappointment poorly. And while I am an adult and (according the parenting books I’ve read) I posses this emotional valve that my son lacks, these tantrums have the tendency to make me want to yell and stomp my feet if they happen too often or too long.
When my son does not take a deep breath when I ask him, I take one myself saying “like this.” I suck in my breath hold it for just an instant then blow it out slowly. I then do it again and then once more. I read once in a mediation exercise that “god exists between breaths.” Somewhere between my third inhalation and my third exhalation, love replaces my anger. Sometimes my son will take his own deep breath. But even if he doesn’t, I can now see that he is just disappointed and sad and I remember that I also get disappointed and sad and that anger would never help me get over my disappointment and sadness. This is just one door parenting invites me through.
Saturday, August 28, 2010
I live in an apartment complex surrounded by apartment complexes. The space around here stretches out from expansive lawn to lawn with patches of hedge and other typical landscaping plants filling in the borders near the buildings. In many ways all the public space is convenient. My two year old has a much larger yard for running in that he would if we had a fenced in yard. And yet the private space—where one might grow a garden—is technically non-existent. But lately I’ve noticed this technicality has not hampered many of my neighbors. Two apartment buildings down from me in a patch of bare dirt—where most buildings have a yew hedge—my neighbor has only bare dirt where she grows beans. She’s built a kind of tee-pee trellis and the beans rise up over five feet. I’m almost certain she did not ask permission to plant directly in the ground, but there are her beans just the same. She also has a dirt patch on the opposite side of her porch where tomato plants climb a similar trellis-structure.
All around this neighborhood people have claimed a few feet of dirt for themselves in this fashion. Some have built garden boxes full of soil that sprout flowers, and some vegetables, but many have planted right in the ground. On a walk today I saw a large squash runner intertwined with a landscaped hedge, the big leaves and yellow flowers flaunting their usefulness overtop the merely decorative hedge.
In a world of urbanization, overcrowding, corporate landscape, and political division it can easily feel that there is no space to breath—and certainly no small spaces to make personal and beautiful and productive. And yet everywhere I look, I find incidents that prove this idea wrong. I’d like to learn better to do this myself. To embrace the small spaces that do exist—a crack in the landscaping, a hidden corner of sun. A space where a little care and a bit of rule bending from me might produce something beautiful and life-giving. I have two potted tomato plants on my shared porch this summer. It’s a very small start.
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Humidity makes you feel like you live in an ocean.
You walk out the door and you are wet.
The heavy air makes swimming easier than walking.
But now it is almost September and the waves have begun to recede.
You can smell the fresh air, you can hear the seagulls.
And soon you will be able to pour the sand out of your shoes.
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
A serotinous pinecone holds itself tightly closed for years—over 20 years in some cases. The seeds waiting in that cone can’t get out until a fire burns hot enough to melt the cone’s resin causing the cone to fall open.
What kind of fire might allow me to fall open? Not the fire of anger, pain, or frustration--this curls me back in on myself. But there is some kind of heat that allows me to blossom outwards. There is fire in noticing the small details of the world—the way some flies have orange eyes. The specific gold of a striped-maple leaf in August. The maraca rattle of some small member of the world’s evening chorus. They work like kindling or the scraps of paper one might use to begin the fire. They are the ignition source that invites me to see the bright light of the world and to let that heat crack me open.
Monday, August 23, 2010
Yesterday my two-year old son and I
made ourselves into buckets
cupping the day’s rain
in the folds of our clothes
our hair gathered gallons of water
and even our eyelashes
held a few cups
still we stayed under the sky’s open faucet
until our skin overflowed
and we had nothing left empty.
Today we stayed indoors
wringing ourselves out
of all that rain water
watching each other pool onto the floor
with each successive twist
and now the house smells
of apples and drenched pines
and we use the couch as a sort of boat.
Saturday, August 21, 2010
The Wise Old Owl?
The owl has a small brain for its body size. Which according to one researcher means that it scores low on the bird intelligence scale. So instead of saying the wise old owl we should say the wise old parrot or the Wise old crow since both these birds score higher on the bird intelligence scale. In Hindi ‘Ulloo’ means Owl and often Indians refer to the idiots in their community as ‘Ulloos’.
Friday, August 20, 2010
This morning I woke to the call of the Jay, its voice piercing and insistent not coaxing or melodic like other birds. The Jay’s call is the same command over and over—“pay attention.” Though somehow it manages to say it in one syllable. When I’m walking outside the Jay’s call works like a meditation mantra. I’ll be thinking about anything, except where I am. My work, my breakfast, an old friend that I miss, and the Jay will yell out “pay attention.” And in looking for its flashing blue body, I’ll see the light filtering though the full summer foliage. I’ll see the way some small branches coil around others forming woody corkscrews. And the way the earth under the trees smells damp and old, productive and alive even here in central Jersey. Most of all I’ll notice how good it feels for my body and my mind to be in the same place.
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
“Ravens have been even taught to count” says a website of “amazing raven facts.” What, I wonder, would a raven need to count for? Would he finally know how many feathers adorn each glossy wing? And that like other birds he has just two feet? Could he remember back to count the years that, for some, can reach 40? Would he finally realize that he eats five meals a day? Would he worry that he should cut it back to three? Perhaps he could finally count his calories. Would he know it had been 73 days since he’d tasted fresh rabbit? Would he be able to better keep track of his daughters now that he knew there were three? How did he know one was missing before he could count? Could the bright days of soaring higher than his brother the crow, or living up to his accolade as the “most intelligent bird” be somehow brighter if they were numbered?
Monday, August 16, 2010
Who wouldn’t like to see the sky dark with a passing flock of birds? And not just a momentary flicker as wingbeats come between you and the sun, but minutes that stretch on and on as throngs of flying bodies block your view of the sun. This is how numerous passenger pigeons were once. How the sound must have thundered.
Just now out the car window I saw a flock of small black birds—starlings maybe—spiraled out above a field. The birds flew in a long formation 50 or so birds thick that corkscrewed slightly like half of a double-helix. I drove east and they flew west and the line continued for nearly 30 seconds as I sped along its length at 80 miles an hour. And in that last 5 seconds when that line of birds just didn’t end, I felt a stirring of awe.
But these moments, when my heart jumps at the fecundity of the world, cannot compare to the overwhelming awe a person must have felt watching millions of birds pass overhead at once. The stirring would have time to magnify and turn into a kind of wonderful dread as the wingbeats continued like pouring rain and the sun did not even flicker behind the bird curtain.
I would like to learn to see the way the world is still this huge. A million miracles pass unseen before my eyes each day. I would like to learn to see the immensity of this beauty and to fall down in gratitude and even in fear
Sunday, August 15, 2010
Because I am staying in a second story room, I can look out
the window into the branches of a mulberry tree.
Yesterday, I watched a chickadee hopping busily
around the branches, his actions so quick yet deliberate;
his feather markings so much like a black cape and cap,
he seems perpetually ready.
Life does seem often like a process of continual preparation—
getting smarter or fitter or wiser, slower or faster.
Yet what exactly we prepare for is the mystery.
And yet this little bird seems to know with his cape and his cap
and his pale face shining out like expectation.
Saturday, August 14, 2010
Of course there will be times of darkness. You will dig your way through, stopping for the small things that bring you sustenance. It will be long but it will not be forever. You may find comfort in the closeness of the earth, in the smell of the dirt, in all that quiet darkness. But do not get too attached. Eventually you will stop burrowing through and you will burrow up and finally out.
Perhaps it will be night when you emerge, but those clear white stars will begin to prepare you for the brightness that teased the edges of your dreams. When the sun rises and makes its way to the tree you have so slowly spent the night climbing, you will feel a new kind of warmth. As the sky lightens and your body heats up, you will begin to resonate. And there is only one thing you can do with all your gratitude. Sing.
Friday, August 13, 2010
The pregnant bellies of women in the summer months bulge out unexpectedly like the head of a beluga whale or a pumpkin in a bean field. That round moon is simply more surprising on a form wearing shorts and a form fitting tank top. Winter babies are a secret, riding out their time under sweaters and coats. Even a noticed bulge, then, can be attributed to too much holiday eating. But summer pregnancies are bright balloons pushing up underneath pink , blue, purple and white summer tanks and tees. The orbs of expectant summer mothers’ bellies sing out their existence. They are a frog in the library or a banjo in the string section. Always unexpected but strangely compelling.
Thursday, August 12, 2010
Today, somewhere, after years of underwater living, a dragonfly in its larvae stage pulled itself out of the water, split its skin, and crawled out. The new body is so different from the old one. It has a type of lung (instead of gills), it has mandibles (instead of a thrusting lower jaw) and of course it has wings. Wings that will carry the new body up to 40 miles per hour.
Dragonflies have been called “darning needles.” English parents used to tell children if they were bad dragonfly would come and sew up their eyes and mouth.
A dragonfly once landed on my shoulder. Instead of brushing it off, I froze. I watched it chew up the head of a fly only six inches from my face.
I know a woman with dragonfly tattoos that cover much of her torso.
The dragonfly is a child much longer than it is an adult. It lives only a few months after it grows those wings.
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
You wake to a life unrecognizable to the one you inhabited yesterday. Yesterday you had time to read the paper, to stop for a latte, to watch the river water lap gently at the bank. Today you don’t have time to sleep. And just barely enough time to breathe. Milk, and diapers, and finding two thumb-sized socks, and all the life sustaining needs of another being inundate your time, sending your myriad small desires shooting out through the cracks of your life to swirl away down some drain. Yet each day those cracks are filled with a small animal body curving against your own, a chuckle impossibly big for his little body, or the adorable concoctions of new words like “moeycycle” or “helicopt.” All of the details of each day—even the exhausting ones—seal those cracks until your life possibly for the first time feels nearly whole. And the apathy and shiftlessness of yesterday along with long lonely days bead off and evaporate from this new you.
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
One moment we were driving
though the suburbs of Chicago
the houses and lawns
passing in a blur of uniformity.
We were thinking only of arriving
the journey between places
except a bother
a suck of the time
we felt was precious.
The next same moment for both of us
gold finches caught our attention
in the bright nets of their wings
drawing it out of the car
and into the heavy summer air
and the trees with the birds.
They must have planned it these two birds.
I almost exclaimed in hopes that the net was big enough for two
only to look back and find you already whisked out of the car
And into the precious details of this world.
Monday, August 09, 2010
It is difficult to look at the metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly and not think of that process as a metaphor for human growth. The worm to a butterfly. A crawling creature to a flying creature. We almost cannot talk about human personal transformation without talking about “coming out of the cocoon” or “transforming into the butterfly.” But the life of the butterfly is transformative right from the beginning. As soon as that small worm is out of its egg, it begins to figuratively eat its way out of its skin. The amount of food it takes in soon makes its body too big for its skin. It splits out, leaving the crumpled skin sack behind and just keeps eating, soon splitting out again and again. Each time growing bigger. Each time leaving a bit of itself behind.
I always thought when it was time for the caterpillar to begin its final transformation into a butterfly, the caterpillar spun itself a cocoon. But recently I watched a video of the swallowtail metamorphosis and this is not the case. The cocoon is one more stage in the transformation—not simply a woven sack. When the caterpillar reaches maximum size it ties itself to a tree, or leaf, or some other structure for support. Then it splits out of its caterpillar skin for the last time emerging as the “pupae.” This new shape, what we call the cocoon, is simply one more stage of the caterpillar. When the butterfly is ready to emerge, it splits out and into itself.
Sunday, August 08, 2010
“The sun,” says Brian Swimme “each second transforms 4 million tons of itself into light.”
How much do you weigh? Can it be so hard?
I want to acknowledge that I first came across this Swimme quote in a book by Therese Halscheid where she used it as an epigraph to her poem “The sun’s sacrifice.”
Saturday, August 07, 2010
Each year it happens and each year it is a surprise. One day the peonies are tight fists and the next they are open hands, palms overflowing with absurdly pink lace. When the green buds were still resolutely shut, all day the shiny black ant teased at the corners unfurling, knowing it could mine sweetness there despite the misleading fist.
And here I am falling open as the universe unfolds me once again.
Friday, August 06, 2010
Thursday, August 05, 2010
In the mornings when I go down to the river, the bank lies exposed. The river slips down stream with the tide, spends half the day cooling off in the depths of the river bed and chasing the retreating sea until the game is reversed as the sea pushes back. By afternoon the bank has disappeared, covered up by the bounty of the river returned.
I never hear the river groan as it returns to the same old riverbank. It doesn’t sigh as it settles back onto the shallow shelf of mud that has dried in the sun. The river never pulls back crying “why does everything still feel the same here? Why so predictable?”
And as the river returns, barely lapping at the bank at first then consuming the bare space in its enormity, the bank never says “What took you so long?”
Wednesday, August 04, 2010
The Sufi poet Rumi says:
Listen to the reed
And the tale it tells.
How it sings of separation.
“Ever since they cut me from the reed bed,
my wail has caused men and women to weep.
Whoever has been separated from his source
Longs to return to that state of union.”
If you can identify your source at least you can know what all this longing is for.
Poem translation by Coleman Barks
Tuesday, August 03, 2010
According to the Oxford English Dictionary the word “relate” can be (or has been) used as an adjective, verb, and noun. As a verb the word carries its most common uses—“to recount, narrate, give an account of.” “To refer to.” “To be important or of interest to or unto a person.” “To have some connection with..” “To understand or have empathy for; to identify or feel a connection with.”
But it can also be used as an adjective meaning related or connected, or the usage I find most interesting, as a noun used to refer to “relatum” meaning “Each of two or more terms, objects, or events, between which a relation exists.”
I like the idea of using the term “relate” to discuss the objects that might have a relationship. The bird is a relate of the tree. (Or perhaps the tree and bird are relates). This allows the sentence to communicate that the bird has a connection with the tree (it’s physically connected when it perches and connected by its use of the tree as protection and a nesting site) but the sentence also suggests that the bird might also understand or identify with the tree, and in the sentence in parenthesis the suggestion is that this understanding is mutual. It doesn’t have to mean that, but the possibility perches there in the sentence.
Reference: "relate" Oxford English Dictionary online. 2009. Oxford University Press. Accessed: 8/3/2010. dictionary.oed.com
Monday, August 02, 2010
If you lean close to a fly you’ll see the strange sheen of iridescent eyes. It’s the same green you’ll find on a the head of a male mallard duck, a magpie’s wing in the sun, certain animal-eyes staring back at your headlights. Color connects these unrelated forms weaving them together by association. We abstract color. We don’t have to think about a red cardinal or a black head of hair to think about color. We have separated the color from the concrete form through language. This allows us to just think red or black. With this abstraction we can also notice the ways certain manifestations of a color show up in different places.
If you spend a day just looking for a particular color it’s surprising what your brain notices. The shiny line of green stitching on your shoe, the startling eye-color of your grocery store clerk have possibly been within your field of vision for years. But until you simply think green nothing in your brain registers the small iridescent details of your life.
Sunday, August 01, 2010
When you see an ant chances are its female. Most ants are female. An ant colony generally consists of one queen and hundreds or thousands of “worker” ants. These worker ants are all sisters—daughters of the queen. Sterile daughters of the queen.
An ant queen experiences two life-changing activities on the same day—flight and sex. When an ant colony is of a certain health and age, the queen produces fertile ants—both male and female. These fertile ants have wings. Lacy, transparent flight tackle. At certain times of the year colonies (of the same ant species) send out their winged fertile males and females. These ants pair with other opposite sexed ants from neighboring colonies for a “nuptial flight.” Sex happens on the wing then both drop back to earth—the male to die, the female to lose her wings, burrow, and begin a new colony.
Ant reproduction is perhaps more mysterious than ant sex. The queen ant stores sperm—which is why she only needs to have sex one time. She uses that sperm to fertilize her eggs—the eggs that develop into her daughters. Her sons (the short-lived flying lovers of the winged females) come from non-fertilized eggs. This means that while male ants have grandfathers, they don’t have fathers.
Ants have a genetic system called haplodiploidy. A fascinating and somewhat complicated system that I don’t want to (and truthfully can’t) explain fully here. But in the haplodiploid system the fertilized sister ants share ¼ of their genetic material from their mother’s side. This works like human biology. We receive ½ our genes from our mother and ½ our genes from our father. Of the genes we receive from our parents about 1/2 (1/4 from each parent) end up the same for each sibling—meaning we share about 50% of our genetic makeup with our siblings. So like human siblings, ant sisters share ¼ of their genetic make up on their mother’s side. But a male ant passes on its genetic material differently and ½ of what ants get from their father’s side is shared genetic material. So while human siblings again share ¼ of their genetic make up that comes down on their father’s side—ant sisters share ½ of their genetic make up from their father’s side. They end up with ¼ more genetic overlap with each other than do human siblings. So sister-ants share ¾ of their genetic make up.