Surprises on the Path

One of many ponds at Partridge Run, E. Berne NY

One of many ponds at Partridge Run, E. Berne NY

It was small, strikingly bright in the winter sun, and rested on dried yellow grass not far from the pond. A rectangle of the softest gray and white fur shimmered in the January-thaw wind. Belly up. All four pinkish paws poked out of its luxurious coat and curled up off the ground.

And where the head should be, a tiny red triangle of exposed throat. And, well, smooth connective tissue of the neck, and a glistening, smaller than I anticipated, slightly flat brain. No face, no black bead eyes, no whiskered nose.

Whoever slashed the little vole had sharp, surgical tools. It was a quick move, irreversible, with no real struggle. Talons, we figured. An owl, red-tailed hawk, or raven. Interrupted at lunch-time, by us.

I didn’t want to take a picture of it.

On past hikes, we’d followed rabbit tracks out of the cover of woods, where scuffle-marks in the open snow were then followed on the cliff path by isolated splats of bright blood—the creature lifted high, bleeding in the grasp of a raptor. We’d also witnessed evidence of more obvious fights on a path from the winter meadow into the woods: a swath of fluff and blood and bits of intestine. Then drag marks.

Remains of a paper birch.

Remains, of a paper birch.

I never used my camera or mentioned these incidents in my writing. It seemed macabre, somehow. Or just that I didn’t want to make it more or less than it was; perhaps I’d feel the need to editorialize and thereby risk trivializing, just because I’d captured the image. So I didn’t.

But what we came upon this day was so anatomically precise, clear, not savage or frightening. It was open, like the vole’s throat. It was clean, but not scarily. At least, I didn’t think so. I wasn’t sure.

I could always delete the photos later.

I was drawn by the elegant structures exposed. Touched by the fragile exposed. Aware of the anthropomorphic draw to fuzzy creatures, the Oh no! factor where we prefer the cute and baby-like to the musky terrifying bigger-than-us, say bears or bobcats. But I didn’t experience that, either.

I took three pictures. Click, one angle. Move, another angle, click. The macro lens allowed an even closer view, the final click. Still, I felt odd. Reflective, and yet detached.

Maybe the photos would appear flat. Resembling a lab dissection. After all, I could make out bilateral glands at the base of what had been the neck and the thin intact membrane that wrapped the brain.

Maybe I would see it later as an horrific image—mammal with no face. Or voyeuristic. Too much like something a creepy abuser would enjoy, masturbating over someone else’s pain. Or a bystander to something you are not supposed to see, and it is made normal—such as a fellow soldier separated into body parts by explosives.

But the portraits on my computer were plain. Sun on intact downy fur and what was gone, and what was there. I felt merely the witness, witness to this after-death, un-devoured pose.

I didn’t have any nightmares that night, though I thought I might.

Viewing the pictures now, I think sometimes we feel like the little vole looked: laid bare, breakable. And also beautiful. Even in being torn open.

“Here it is. This is the way we exist, live, die. It doesn’t hurt too much right now—at all, actually—after the fact.”

Submerged tree: what you can't see, and what the ice reveals.

Submerged dead tree: what you can’t see, and what the ice reveals.

Chanting? Really? Yes.

Oscillations of water wash over fall leaves, at Partridge Run, Berne NY.

Oscillation of water, like sound, washes over fall leaves, at Partridge Run, Berne NY.

Most mornings, I chant.

I have always been told I couldn’t sing well; whichever octave sits next to me is where I jump, and I waver when unsure if another note might be closer.  I’ll sing snippets with my CD player or part of a hymn I’ve practiced a hundred times, but only when I am fairly confident I will land correctly.

Still, I wibble and wobble.

But at yoga school, chant began our day. I had to open my mouth and make sound come out. On-target or out-of-key, it didn’t matter; first thing, we intoned “the resonance of the universe,” Om, followed by three Sanskrit stanzas of the Student-Teacher Mantra.

Almost sixty of us perched sit-bones on little black cushions while out the window, sunrise pinked the eastern sky.  The mantra song felt strange to many and made them itch in discomfort and wiggle like little kids.   Mountain fog dissipated into the evergreens while our eyes remained closed, or followed the lines on a large-print poster at the front.  Over twelve days the chant became more familiar.

IMG_4024

Clouded Kripalu morning over the mountain.

During the break between sessions, I committed to continue, using a grainy digital video I’d recorded at Kripalu.

At that point, I needed to be led.

By the third stanza, usually my throat hurt.  I tried again every daybreak to coax energy, with a vocalization some mornings tentative and froggy, other times expansively bouncing off the yoga room walls. Breath slowed and deepened out of necessity, and warmed my throat. Warmed my thoughts toward myself.

This was not just a tune.

Then came even deeper breath and movement, heat, circulation and all the good invited onto my mat with those sensations. Finally, my nauseated frustration flirted with comfort. I recognized unwanted thoughts and let them float away.

When we returned to Kripalu, I heard my morning voice steady and confident.

Tibetan singing bowl with symbol of wisdom eyes.

Tibetan singing bowl with symbol of wisdom eyes.

Now out of school, why do I do it?

One afternoon I sat in a kitchen that reeked of the detritus of cooking, home early because my therapist forgot my appointment–what deep things does THAT say? I asked myself melodramatically. Basil stems and onion ends needed to be taken to the trash, cabbage bits and tea leaves laid sodden in the sink, crumbs sprinkled the table and floor.

Earlier I’d stopped at the used book store and found two 25 cent paperbacks for the lake-vacation planned with my best friend.

But at my table I acknowledged it was a vacation she and I would have to put off–because her brother is sick, so she will instead drive five hours back and forth to him a couple days a week, and then to doctors and hospitals in search of diagnosis, prognosis, the plan, whatever-that-plan-might-be, however long it might take. Because of love.

How can I make my life like a vacation without a trip? Give yourself permission, my therapist might say, like the night before, to stay up and crush the basil into pesto, to cut the watermelon and freeze the grapes for hot afternoon snacking, to wash the lettuce–but also to toss the sprouting sweet potato, feel the sticky floor under my feet, acknowledge I ate maybe one too many pieces of the blueberry buckle baked in the beautiful dark. Feel it all.

Blueberry buckle: crunchy top, tender crumb.

Blueberry buckle: crunchy top, tender crumb.

I had given the therapist some blueberry buckle as we laughed over the scheduling error. I thought, I would send some to my best friend if I could fly it there. In the midst of her pain, she’d mailed me a royal blue Pashmina shawl; the card read: Wrap yourself in this hug from me.

I want to take her to the lake we’d planned to visit, to hear the loons and go on long photo safaris in search of wild flowers and angles of light, to huff the thickly oxygenated Canadian forest air.  Drape myself like a scarf around her sad, sad shoulders. Feed her blueberry buckle and sip Chambord into the evening, watch the hummingbirds and fog dance in over the beach.

That’s why I chant. I chant to create space, to feel distress and delight. I chant, holding my best friend close, and her gravely ill brother. I chant and remember my friend J who died a year ago this month. I chant love gliding out of me for all of my existence.

I chant into the lakes and ponds and rivers and creeks, up the farmland and mountains, through the cumulous and wispy and mackerel skies. I chant into my cells, lungs, intestines, skin and fat and muscle. Into my toes and fingers. Through my navel: center of gravity, center of balance, center of self. Then out again and out again. Stretch, release.  Expand, contract.

Time passes and I am inhaling, vibrating, exhaling, feeling.

Time passes and I am in my breath in my body so time is inconsequential.

Chanting beckons me back to the mat and back to myself.

Chanting opens me with sound.

So most mornings, I chant.

Electric zing of fall color; energy courses through.

The visual zing! of fall; a path of green revealed by seasonal red.

Washing Dishes

Today’s view from the kitchen window

There the pile sits in the morning kitchen: water glasses with lip marks and fingerprints; small plates smeared with food, accompanying utensils splayed over them; tea cups and travel mugs with rings of dried milk and sugar; plastic leftover containers, greasy lids akimbo.

Usually it doesn’t feel like an onerous chore. But a not-unexpected sadness has come to nest in my house this fall.

I know that when you lose someone, like I’ve lost J, you revisit your other deaths, especially those you have not finished mourning. You acknowledge and examine the loss of friends, places, homes, relationships, belongings, patterns of behavior, certainty.

That is the work I am doing.

Part of the floundering has included a scary disinclination to write, choosing entertainment over introspection, an old habit I thought I was done with. I haven’t felt like cooking. Or even cleaning up after the take-out.

But then I remember J half-joking, half-begging: With these lungs, I may not be able to vacuum or dust, but I can still stand here and wash a few dishes. Just let me do them!

A little bleary-eyed, still in slippers and ‘jammies, I set up the water boiler on the counter, fill the empty ice cube trays and put away the clean dishes washed a week ago.

Another voice from the dead, Great-Aunt Helen, whose legs were heavy and painful, fingers mangled by arthritis: This is my house and don’t you touch those dishes!

But Aunt Helen, we helped make this mess, and you must be tired after baking cookies and Mahogany Cake–and cooking brisket and dirty rice. It will be so much easier for us to clean up.

We’all are gonna sit in the screen room, have some Dr. Pepper, and listen to the night sounds. Leave the dishes ‘til morning! When I wash ‘em up tomorrow, I can take as long as I want and relive all the arguments, and the jokes, and the silliness. I know you mean well, but I want to remember the good time we had while dirtying these very dishes.  No arguments; it’s settled.

So today at the sink I pay monk-like attention to details: the sound of the tea water moving toward a boil, then the smooth matte surface of robin’s egg and gold stoneware plates in the sink, essential oil of lavender soap bubbling my hands.

I remember the phone conversation with a fellow writer while I drank the Earl Gray Cream out of this Shakespeare Quotes mug, and commiseration with an out-of-work friend accompanied by Russian Caravan in that blue flowered cup.

Having reached temperature, the water in the boiler is poured over loose Truffle black tea, bits of dried coconut and chocolate chips visible. Back at the sink while it steeps, I revisit Lad Nar over garden green beans here, the half sandwich left from a writing session at Professor Java’s there, and an apple-farm Honeycrisp purchased in September after a sunny bike ride along the Mohawk River, sliced carefully onto a blackberry colored plate. Washing, rinsing. Washing, rinsing.

October ivy

Outside the window, ivy reddens on my building, the green ivy opposite just barely blushing yet. Rain pelts the cars rushing by and students grind wet gravel underfoot as they hurry to class. Up the hill, willows and maples and birches and oaks are all changing color at different speeds.

I scrub to get every bit of scrud off a pot, rinse it thoroughly in hot water, then place all the dishes one by one on the gas stove so as to be perfectly dried by the heat of the pilot lights. When ready, there will be the satisfaction of putting each plate, each mug, in its own place once again.

After the fixtures and counter are wiped down and dry, I pour a cup of tea and finally, finally make the frittata I planned a week ago.

It consists of: freezer spinach overdue for use, a teeny green pepper from my garden (one of five whose existence completely surprised me two weeks ago), four ounces of muenster cheese, half a white onion, a teaspoon of salt, some crumbled dried sage from another friend’s garden, a pinch of nutmeg, six local eggs, a couple tablespoons of flour to thicken. Out of milk, haven’t gotten myself to the store, so I just steam all the veggies in the microwave, keep the liquid, and stir it all together with a tablespoon of butter chopped up.

I bake the sun-yellow concoction in a greased oval pan in my convection toaster oven at 375 for 15 minutes. With puffy browned edges, eaten off a pretty green plate, the frittata tastes of warm kitchens past and present, meals present and savory meals to come.

Tomorrow morning I will make tea and wash these dishes, too.  No arguments; it’s settled.

Grief and Green Beans

I harvested the last of my pole beans before J went into hospice. The beans are a bit of trouble, since they take forever to steam to softness, and thick strings seam each pod–hence the name “string” beans. A bag kept them fresh in the fridge while I travelled first to say goodbye to J and, two weeks later, to her memorial.

Late one evening after my second flight home, I cooked and cooked the green beans, drained and stuck them in the fridge for later processing.  A friend took me to wander in Vermont, to touch handmade dishes and pause at autumn leaves in the mist. And talk about J.

Home again, there they sit in the fridge, those green beans. De-stringing and freezing loom but I am too tired. I swim through the air as if it were thin syrup, every day or so surprised by forgetting and remembering suddenly, with a sharp inhale, that J is gone.

I don’t even want to open the container, afraid the beans will be moldy, but in a way hoping they will be, because I find myself unable to make decisions. Especially since, after the leaf peeping, the seven year old computer I’d been nursing along just up and died, Zap! screen gone to black. Finally I have to buy the new computer I’ve talked about and put off for months–the money’s in the bank but it will involve more thought, more study, change more change.

On the dead computer I had written three perfect paragraphs to open this week’s post, the only document not backed up to my external hard drive. Now I can’t remember the story. It certainly had nothing to do with string-beans.

I look in the fridge. Just a small bowl of beans, not quarts and quarts, but I hate to waste food, waste all the time planting seeds, watering through drought, harvesting, boiling–yet perhaps it is too late already; maybe the universe and time passing made the decision for me, just like the computer, just like J’s death, can’t put it off, have to face it, I’ve spent my time how I’ve spent it and here I am.

Ghosts of old surgical pain visit in the afternoon: the sore throat memory of intubation and a deep ache under the ribs. Front teeth throb, revealing I’ve been literally gnashing my teeth during sleep. On the yoga mat, tears come up, the ones held in during the expected talking about her death, the rearranging of schedule and inevitable too-soon return to regular life. I am swept along by daily chores and interactions, like currents pulling at me while I stand in a lake, when all I want is to float without effort, study the changing color of the sky and view fluttering fall leaves reflecting in the water’s surface.

We are always asking to be able to slow down and now I feel more stuck than blessed in my slowed-down-ness.

Serendipitously, my best friend comes to visit from out of state, and speaks that language of not-having-to-speak, of long history together. She drives me to the computer store.

I hear the strange notes my speech strikes, mind-on-grief, describing my work to the saleswoman:  The blog’s about living in the moment, has turned out mostly about gardening, gardening as metaphor for life, but lately it is about death; hearing how flat and dark that sounds, my best friend does what I usually do, elaborates for clarity–because a dear friend of hers died recently. The computer has to be special-ordered; I only complete the purchase because the best friend stands next to me.

After she leaves, I think of Thai food delivery but feel guilt over beans already cooked.

What would J have said?

Don’t worry….think of all the food you DID freeze, make into soup, share with others this summer.

We could order pizza; remember last winter when you taught me I could eat it for breakfast?

Have some more tea.  A new laptop, how exciting! Let me tell you a story about–

I toss the smelly green beans and order takeout. I stare at the auburn and gold out my window. I sit and cry over loss–unintended loss, and loss you can’t put off. I borrow a computer to write and post. 

I live in grief-time.

A vista to ponder, Bennington VT

 

Mind-Out-Of-Time: Writing, and Teapots

My teapot from J, tucked behind an electric kettle, another teapot, and a locally crafted mug,  on my early morning countertop.

I miss talking to J about my writing life.

This afternoon I will concentrate on writing, I’d say.  I’m deliberately ‘concentrating on,’ not ‘working on’–no more of the furrowed brow that ‘work on’ entails.

She’d laugh.  I used to have that furrowed brow, too; hell, look at my wrinkly forehead.  J would talk about the struggle to get to her drawing, even with new chalks and paints around her, how daily chores and her own busy mind pulled her away from something she’d never had time for, yet couldn’t quite get to, even now.  She’d encourage me to keep going, and I’d tell her more.

When I give myself over to writing, or create space for it, then I can relax and play. It’s what I call Mind-Out-Of-Time, what I sometimes think heaven is or would be: you are so involved in something that clock hands move unnoticed, you look up and the afternoon light is bending across your desk and you gasp–how long have I been here?

Mind-Out-Of-Time comes also when I choose to immerse myself in how life looks and feels, tastes, sounds and smells. It comes when I give myself permission to be right where I am, at that very moment, open to pleasure even in the midst of pain.

So I think of J, steeping tea in her beautiful cobalt blue teapot, when I came to visit six months ago. Napkins in hand, she danced oxygen tubing between pieces of furniture as I carried the prepared cups and cookies to the front room. We laughed about how, on our last big trip, she’d pulled her portable oxygenator, nicknamed ‘Fred’ after her father, all over the up-and-down hills of downtown Vancouver.  Fred sure got a workout, didn’t he? Took care of me just like Dad did.  We discussed once again her wish to die at home.  She asked after my teapot, a twin of hers, which she gave me when I moved away. Every time I make tea in it I think of you, I told her.

Two weeks ago, her caregivers still made English Breakfast in her blue teapot; she rested in the home hospital bed, I held the mug, she sipped sweet lukewarm liquid with a straw.  During the moments she was awake, she rolled her eyes sardonically, joking with only a few words about the little yellow curlers in her hair that looked like baby corn; I teased her back about how she finally got us all to wait on her hand and foot, and more seriously, how much we loved doing it.  As she drifted into medicated rest, she murmured about death, it will be pleasant; it will be pleasant. See you on the other side.

After the memorial service last weekend, I wrapped up the cobalt blue teapot in crinkly paper, to deliver it safely to her chaplain, someone who’d shared tea with her every Wednesday for many years, someone whom I suspect also understood mind-out-of-time with her.  I took one of her mugs and packaged one for yet another friend.

This morning, kitchen lights reflect on the curve of my round teapot as rain drips down the apartment windows.  Cars splash black puddles up into the air outside.  J’s goldenrod colored, cartoon-cat covered mug, full of toffee-chocolate-hazelnut tea, sits beside my keyboard.

Guess what.  I’m still talking to J about my writing life.

Living in the Moment: Friendship

Fire tower at Goodnow Mountain

My garden is end-of-season-neglected, but not because all the vegetables have been harvested.

I am not sure what I will find when I return to it, much like I was not sure what I would find when I sat last week in the front room of my friend J, who entered hospice three weeks ago.

Before that visit, she called me.

Hi, it’s Me. I’m really, really sick you know.

J, my dear–sick in the mind or sick in the body? Or sicker in both? Tee hee! Is there a prosecutable offense involved? Or lots of juicy drama?–

–Actually, the pulmonary fibrosis has progressed. A lot.

Oh.  Well, you and I knew that would happen eventually.

At 74, I’m not afraid of dying. I just don’t want to be intubated again.  I don’t want to be poked or prodded or in pain.

Your DNR orders and advance directives—we’ve made sure that won’t happen.

Oh, enough about me! What have you been up to?

J, I hiked a little mountain this weekend, Goodnow, near Santanoni. It took about three hours; the trail was full of tree roots and rocks.  And then I went up the fire tower.

I don’t think I could do it, climb that mountain.

Not with your oxygen tank, no. But perhaps we could get one of those things you sit on, a litter, with the four guys, to carry you up.

Only if they are hunky.

Ok. And fancy tassels will hang off this, waddya call it, palanquin, that’s it! With soft pillows for you to recline on.

And a scarf! I want to wear a white scarf, flowing in the breeze. But wait, what about that dancer, who got strangled by her scarf?  What was her name?

Isadora Duncan! Hmm. I will plan for a fifth guy, who will be there just to make sure the scarf swirls around artistically but doesn’t choke you.

How was it, the mountain?

You could see peaks all around for 360 degrees. The Adirondack lakes below were so cold and clear and blue. My knees were shaking while I climbed and then I was so scared of the heights I was growling like a wild animal to keep myself moving on the stairs! Hanging off the metal fire tower, that was perched on the rock, over those fall colored trees, up on the mountaintop–I was on the edge of the world.

Thanks for taking me there with you. But I’m going to lie down now.

Well, all right….I miss you. I love you.

I love and miss you too.

J, do you want me to come out to see you again?

Yes, please!….It’s been really good talking to you, but my memory is so bad, what if I forget what we said?

Well, are you enjoying yourself right now?

My side hurts from laughing.

All that matters is that we are talking. If you forget, I will remind you what we said. Or if I forget, we’ll do it all over again next time, and just laugh some more.  Wow–I guess that’s what they mean by living in the moment.  See you Tuesday.

Tuesday came, and I went for a week and lived in that space some call Kairos-Time, Meditation-Time, outside of our normal lives, in a place that is exhausting and sad, long and short.  I was glad to be there to say good-bye.

For now, J is at home, and comfortable, resting in her palanquin of quilts. Her bearers,  the many friends and family, come by to visit, waiting in her front room for the moments here and there when she is awake, to share their own memories of the hard climb, glimpses of silk scarves and long views of lakes.

***

While performing final blog-edits, I received word J passed away early this Friday morning.

So my dear friend has finished her own end-of-season harvest.  It may have looked spare and imperfect to outsiders–that’s just the messy way fall in the garden is–but whatever was there had matured and grown somehow perfectly ripe, sweetened even, by the inevitable change of season. I’m grateful that, for eighteen years, we got to hang out together in this part of the garden.

View from Goodnow Mountain fire tower