Part the Sixth, Wherein the Butterfly Weakens, and Demonstrates How to Live

Winter flight of female cardinals at the feeder.

In-snow flight of female cardinals at the feeder.

February 18, 2015. The butterfly this morning maneuvered back up to the windowsill; yesterday I had to clean some stuck fuzz from her hind leg. Seems like a foreleg is not working properly; when she starts to fly she flops around but apparently she can eventually navigate just fine. Last night when I turned on the wall lights in the bedroom she flew up and starting bashing against them. Today she’s head against wood under the bedroom window, following instinct toward light.

The butterfly continues to hang out motionless unless I blow gently at her to see if she is ok. Last night she flew off the bedroom sill toward the light, then down under my jewelry case, and on the floor down there. Then back up in the sun this morning, after I left the bedroom.

I worry about hurting her, the sugar-water freezing her to the sill or sticking to her as the water evaporates, so I spilled some out for her then wiped it up after an hour. Like my kids living on their own, I don’t worry so much about her. Now if I am away for a night or two, I figure she’ll just be living her lepidopteran life.

What will the end be? Will I accidentally step on her? Will she just fade away or disappear one night and not come back up to the windowsill? I can only be as careful as I can be; this morning I turned on lights to find my clogs and carefully shook out the sheets and blankets in case she was hiding below them—that’s how I found her the other morning, when she flew up and delighted me with her energy.

It could have been a short lived drama: the butterfly hatches, flies around, gets smushed, or starves or falls down and dries out. Humans, too. Or it goes on and we don’t know the ending.

I do think she is weakening, and I think that left foreleg is damaged. I hope I didn’t do anything to cause it or injure it further. You could look at us humans as we age, oh look we know where THEY are headed! Getting decrepit, limbs not working. Well, yeah. But we keep living, keep going, and I think as time goes on, don’t judge me on my infirmity, don’t figure I’m “down for the count” at any particular point.

Hell, look what all of us humans have been through, look what I’ve been through, and who knows what is to come, but I am here, now, in this moment.

Against the window the butterfly sits and rests while the winter sun glows through her wings.

Limbs buried in deep snow at a creek, Partridge Run.

Limbs buried in deep shadowed snow at a creek visited only by small critters, Partridge Run, in January.

This February’s extreme cold has been hard on us all. I’m feeling a bit stir crazy and grumpy, can’t go snowshoe or hike—wind chills below zero. Cooking inside, I get all sweaty but then when I sit down to write in the front room my legs become marble-cold in spite of three layers of long underwear, leggings, and pants.

Of course the butterfly has issues too, with a breeze from the old windows knocking her over. Just went in to check and she seems off-kilter, like a boat with all the weight on one side, threatening to keel over. But she keeps getting up, moving around, and then head first, back to the window. I want her in the warmer kitchen, but I don’t want to risk hurting her by luring her onto a piece of paper—anyway she can fly off that easily enough. She has made her decision. I know enough not to touch the delicate wings with my human hands covered in any number of skin oils, soaps, lotions, depending on the time of day.

Morning and butterflies.

Morning with sunshine and shadow, when the butterfly was in the kitchen before.

February 19 morning. She perches on the edge of the bedroom window casing, almost to the light but away from the breeze. In flight she is still delicate and precise but resting, is off-balance—like I sit on my yoga mat sometimes with a blanket under my rump, not so steady.

At first I was drawn to the very human reaction, oh no! she can’t DO what she is supposed to DO: fly outside and interact with other Dainty Sulphurs and so on.

But she looks like she is in meditation. Who’s to say what awareness is? Do they go into a suspended animation kind of thing, a decreasing of the input, to conserve energy until it might be needed? Or is she acutely aware of surroundings and constantly testing air and movement and light? Is she slowed by the chill air by the window?

She indicates by going over again and again, that by the light is where she wants to be. A lesson to me: move to where you are drawn. Sit in meditation. Stop trying to go go go.

Perhaps what you think you need to be doing, you don’t. Perhaps you need to sit in meditation, breathe, take in your surroundings. Perhaps this is all there is—well, that’s true. This existence IS all that you know and will experience, at least in this incorporation, this time around, not knowing if there are others, what existence might be after this life, not heaven or hell, but how we will experience it.

Stop being in such a hurry to get to the next part! She’s still. Why can’t you be?

Chickadee zooming in for a nibble.

Chickadee zooming in for a nibble.

I had an intense couple days of brilliant work, satisfying performance, beautiful interactions with people and nature and my artistic practices. But I didn’t take good enough or close enough care of my body, and it let me know (thank you!). I woke at 1 am, thinking it was almost dawn, tossed and turned, then headed to the yoga room, the body dissatisfied with its crunched up, stuck feel. I lit the candle inherited from a spiritual community I was part of for fifteen years, and a recently gifted oil lamp.

It was dark, dark. I was so achy. I rolled around, my shoulders and hands and feet crinkling, asking to be realigned; the fibers of muscles and connective tissue yearning to be warmed and stretched into supple dough. And so I did, just moved, turned quiet quiet yoga music on my phone to keep me company, as the street light outside my yoga window glowed yellow over snow covered cars, garbage cans and cement steps.

The butterfly seems to have found her spot, for now. I offered sugar water yesterday and she stumbled around but then just stood in it, two forelimbs. They can taste through their feet.

Perhaps she liked the idea of just having food available, and she’d drink when she wanted to. Kind of like keeping a full fridge. I decided that if in an hour she wasn’t out of it, I’d gently blow to make sure she didn’t get stuck in it. She moved on her own, to her almost-window view. I think about when I go out of town in a day or so; should I leave some sugar water like you would leave food and water for a cat?

She will do—or not—whatever she needs and wants to do. Just like my body and the yoga room that called me.

A paschal candle from my  spiritual community far away.

A paschal candle from my spiritual community far away.

Part the Fifth, Wherein I Am Surprised, and Meditate on Metamorphosis

 

Surprise! on the bedspread

Surprise! on the bedspread

February 17 2015. I can’t believe it—thought I’d lost the butterfly, that our short term friendship, for that’s all it could be, was done; but when I went into the bedroom, there she was, after two days, on my bedspread! I laughed out loud, even skipped a little, couldn’t believe it! How did she get there? Why was she there? Giddy, I got my spoon of sweet water in case she needed it.

She wasn’t quite so excited as me–or thirsty; perhaps she found other sources for nourishment in the kitchen when I wasn’t looking. I still couldn’t believe she was back. If she were on the bed in the night, I could have crushed her, but apparently she is busy taking care of herself, flying around my apartment, exploring and living her own short little life.

I want her to go back to the kitchen where it is safer but she is having none of it. Thank you very much, I prefer the rug under your bed. Like my children as infants who pressed their lips together to refuse more baby oatmeal, she knows what she needs better than I.

So she’s had a drink and her picture taken again, and I’ve left her to her own devices.

Resting on the carpet.

Resting on the carpet.

I didn’t know I’d missed her so much. Or rather, that I would be so excited to see her again. I’ve gotten to know more and more, as I’ve read about the butterfly life cycle, Dainty Sulphurs, and different families of butterflies. (Did you know that Monarchs have six legs like the other butterflies, but two of them tuck against the thorax, having lost the ability to aid in walking?) I fear showing too many photos of her to my friends and blog followers, like an obsessed parent incessantly pushing phone images of their cute child.

A friend came by, curious about the butterfly visitor and when I talked about feeding her, said, Oh I think you are not supposed to use honey; I know with hummingbirds you use white sugar. Just in case, I start mixing sugar and water….

I’m talking to a butterfly, in my bedroom.

A more external metamorphosis, of wood into nutrients.

A more external metamorphosis, of wood into nutrients, at the north end of Partridge Run.

The idea of metamorphosis now strikes me, all those grade school posters about caterpillars becoming butterflies, stories of ugly ducklings becoming swans. What being “ugly” meant to me as a child—a label I took on as a chubby kid with glasses. It still horrifies me that the duckling—actually a cygnet—was considered ugly and had to grow into some culturally defined idea of perfection, of others-judged beauty.

What if, instead, we felt perfect as we are, comfortable in our skin even as we grew into something else? That each stage, even in its clumsiness, was considered beautiful?

I was told once that in the metamorphosis of a caterpillar, its face melts. What a thought. In order to change, you will not be able to recognize yourself, because you change so very dramatically. Am I willing to take on that kind of scary change?

When I did research and found the original article, (by Ferris Jabr, at ScientificAmerican.com, August 10, 2012) I learned that it’s not just the face that melts—the whole caterpillar dissolves inside the chrysalis. Releasing enzymes, it digests itself, creates a kind of caterpillar soup, Jabr calls it, though with special organized cells called “imaginal discs” that help it reorganize to the next stage, into the butterfly with wings, antennae and mature sex organs.

What lessons for myself from this re-encounter with the Dainty Sulphur? To take time apart, build my own chrysalis for change, tuck in to look within myself, then take on the change, and emerge. Not to emerge too early. Not to do it without the structure and support I need. To know flying—whatever that means for each of us—is possible even if we can’t imagine it right now.

We have within us what we need for the next step. The taking of the next step can be messy, scary, and look disorganized, but it is exactly as it was and is supposed to be, when we move into it.

Yes (of course), to be continued.

Winter sun in the woods, waiting as things grow and change under the snow.

Winter sun in the woods, waiting as things grow and change under the snow.

 

Part the Fourth, Wherein the Butterfly Disappears Once Again, and I Think About “Otherness”

Butterfly drinking, head-on.

Butterfly drinking, head-on. Proboscis in sweet water, legs hanging on.

February 15, 2015. Last night the butterfly drank from the spoon of honey-water, then went to the window corner, and when I nudged gently to make sure her wings weren’t stuck, she flew behind the radiator and I haven’t seen her since.

I just took a flashlight and looked into all the dusty nooks and crannies of the peeled-paint housing. No sign of a body, or active cobwebs. She could have flown anywhere, then. She’s not on the wall, not between the wall and radiator, not on the floor. Just scraps of a dead ant, a binder clip that fell down there, a slip of paper, and a dried up pea from last summer’s garden (oh my).

The original peas with pasta, summer 2014.

The original peas with pasta, summer 2014.

February 16, 2015. In my kitchen, I’m talking to a butterfly who isn’t there.

The sun is bright, even though it’s mid-February. I haven’t seen my butterfly friend since the other day when she fluttered down to behind the radiator. But when I swept and (I will admit) got my flashlight out to see if she was down among the ancient dust puffs I can’t reach and I saw no sign of her, I was relieved I hadn’t accidentally set her into the path of spiders or too-hot surfaces. I invite her out: the sun really is beautifully warm this morning, come see! but I also know the wind is bitterly cold and comes through my 1920s windows. Other spaces might be more temperate for a butterfly who found herself in the wrong climate, at the wrong time.

The other night she fluttered up high to where my vases are stored over the sink; I realized the next day when I found her down on the side of the sink, resting on a half-window screen (stored there for when I over-toast my bagels and have to open windows to keep the smoke alarm quiet) that she went up high because the overhead light at night is like the sun, the sun she was seeking hard against the glass during the day. So that night I turned off the light, so she wouldn’t fight and fight and beat herself against it.

I put the overhead light on for a few hours after I lost her but she didn’t come out. I could imagine she is dead, worn out, captured by spiders; or off on an adventure I can’t see, in the corners of my kitchen. Dainty sulphurs live about a month or less I have read, and her color wasn’t the brilliant green of a just-hatched butterfly; she may have been middle aged like me when we first met. Humans are storytellers; humans look for meaning and relationship, even if it is a stretch. Particularly when it’s pleasant company.

I like being a human.

My refrigerator hums behind the tick of my battery operated bird clock and the backing-up sounds of plows and Caterpillar backhoes moving snow. As I listen, I understand we travel in and out of others’ lives, even insect and animal and strangers’ lives. I think of prisoners making friends with roaches and mice.

I have discovered in my photography that fleeting creatures, the iridescent green or bright yellow that flits by—when you study up-close, can appear grotesque, nightmarish, all maw and pincers and huge bulbous eyes. We must look odd and out of perspective to other creatures, if they perceive at all like us.

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September (paper wasp I believe) in the greenhouse at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

Appearance is also how we can make those who don’t look like us “the other,” and justify killing them off.

During my time in the peace community it was hammered into us (non-violently of course, we’d joke) that our mission was to make it not Us Versus Them, but rather All of Us Together. Even if our goals and lives and cultures are different.

I think about how the traditional Jains, in their absolute belief in ahimsa (non-violence) cover their mouths with fabric so as not to harm even a microscopic bug. Though in our present incarnation, we are too big, I believe, just too large in a world of very small, to avoid crushing and inadvertently destroying. The microbes and viruses that hurt and kill us might say (if they had sentience and could communicate) that they are just too damned small to keep from harming us.

I was brought up to see both sides, to such an extent it often paralyzed me; in addition, my own needs and experience were often left out. Not a formula for a life where I could stride forward and make my mistakes and own them. (Working on it!)

Sometimes someone passes through your life and you experience each other and then the moment is gone. I have had that on a train; people hand me a piece of wisdom from their lives, we smile at each and then they are gone. Like my dainty sulphur.

To be continued.

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If I hadn’t looked out the train window at that very moment, I would have missed this adventurer, flying boldly in the fall sky.

Part the Third, Wherein the Butterfly Disappears and I Ponder Life, Death, and Survival

A different sulphur, this one either a Pink Edged or Cloudy Sulphur, observed on the slopes of Gore Mountain NY Ski Area, in the fall.

A different sulphur, this one either a Pink Edged or Clouded Sulphur, observed on the slopes of Gore Mountain NY Ski Area, in the fall.

February 13, 2015 morning. Yesterday, after I looked up all the photographs of butterflies I’d taken in the last couple years–I had no idea I had so many!– I took more pictures of the Dainty Sulphur at the window, from different angles, and in the afternoon she moved down next to the air conditioner. By evening she was hanging at the floor trim. This morning—gone! can’t see the butterfly high or low. She might have been eaten by a spider.

There’s part of the situation where I don’t have responsibility—how far do you really chase a butterfly? It follows its instinct.

Even though one of my own instincts is a tendency to care-take (“Hey, I’ve got food here, places you can rest, even!”), I have to let the butterfly go where she will. In the same way I learned to let my teenaged children venture out into the world, and then release them completely (well, almost). I needed to let them go, for my own sake and theirs.

This butterfly, like my own children, like humans, has its schedule of daily life, and of life and death.

Dainty Sulphur sips from the edge of a spoon. She really is dainty, isn't she?

Dainty Sulphur sips from the edge of a spoon. She really is dainty, isn’t she?

February 13, later in the day. The butterfly fluttered in the kitchen; it had been over by the stove. I made more honey water but I don’t think it’s interested or has to find it on its own. I’d almost been relieved it had been “lost,” that I had no longer felt the pull of keeping track of it.

February 14, 2015.  The butterfly is living its life cycle. I don’t have to save it like some protective “master” who has more power and more intelligence. How about we live our life cycles next to each other, not intending harm, but not fretting unnecessarily about it, like I do about most animals, and most people? To do the kind thing when I can, but not to wear myself away figuring out how to save or fix the situation? What is there to fix, anyway?

Before, I said that here in my apartment and in winter, “it won’t survive.” What does that mean? Of course it will survive—it is a alive, it continues to be alive. But life is not just survival, it is living in and through the moments. We are all NOT going to survive in the end. We all die.

How long would it live in a normal life cycle? Two weeks to a month, the internet tells me.

Another butterfly, this one from summer at Partridge Run: Fritillary.

Another butterfly, this one from summer at Partridge Run: Tiger Swallowtail.

The definition of survive: “continue to live or exist, especially in spite of danger or hardship.” Isn’t living always a bit of an ordeal, under difficult circumstances? Is this life here in my apartment a hardship for her? Maybe, but danger is everywhere for butterflies: frogs, birds, getting trapped, getting smushed, parasites. Survival means getting through some situation—but both of us are not only getting through, but living in, our respective life situations.

I see me looking out the kitchen window, as the butterfly hangs on the glass today looking out as well into deep deep winter. Both drawn to what we are drawn to. I am not doing harm to it, not wanting it out of my life so I don’t have an obligation to it. Yes, I talk to the butterfly, Oh you don’t have to run so madly against the glass! but that is a message for me as well. I don’t have to fight against difficult circumstances, either.

If the tiny butterfly were sentient in the human way, perhaps she would wish things weren’t such a struggle for me, and even wish it could do something for me. As she hangs, rests, it reminds me of my meditation, in which I don’t have to get someplace, I can merely BE. On my yoga mat, feeling what I feel, thoughts wild or calm doesn’t matter, I note them and let them pass; I breathe. Perhaps she is just BE-ing, respiring.

A fritillary of some sort, also at Gore Mountain in the fall.

A fritillary of some sort, also at Gore Mountain in the fall.

We humans like to read meaning into things. For example, I was reading the All Over Albany blog, came across a link to a local writer, Amy Biancolli, and her blog, Figuring Shit Out, went to the blog, read some of it, ordered two of her memoirs from the library and then on a drive across town, happened to hear the beginning of her storytelling on The Moth Radio Hour. Ok, so I am meant to connect somehow with her or her writing. Or maybe she’s just out there, and I’m out there, and we intersect, like this butterfly who just happened to show up in my apartment, and I am learning things from the experience.

I fell in the love with the prologue to Amy’s first memoir, House of Holy Fools, where she writes about Death in her family as “an unwanted guest, oily and shrewd, with a stalker’s bad personal hygiene and pants that gave him a wedgie…”

I am thinking about the feeling of being stalked by death, what survival means, the role of death in our modern lives versus other eras (the 1918 flu epidemic, tuberculosis, recurrences of the plague through history). How unnatural death can seem, and yet it comes to everyone.

So here’s this butterfly to remind me: stop trying so hard; stop banging around. Just BE. It is valuable to JUST BE.

Back at the Chicago Botanic Garden, swans with babies, be-ing.

Back at the Chicago Botanic Garden, swans–symbols of fluidity, intuition, and dreaming–with cygnets, be-ing.

A radio essay, as your holiday gift

Christmas lights in New York City, 2014

Christmas lights in New York City, 2014

Here’s part of why I have been otherwise-occupied the last month or so: one of several essays I’ve written for public radio.

The link is not direct, and as time goes on you will have to search through a couple layers on the website, but for your listening pleasure:

Go to http://wamc.org .  Search for Programs: The Roundtable, December 22, 2014 Listener Essay (11:35 am) and look for Diane Kavanaugh-Black, “God Rest Ye Merry, Elmo Doll.”

The A-plus student sighs in relief, that the only recording error was not her own; but it would have been fine if she had made mistakes, too.

Peace, stillness, and plenty of sparkling lights to you all.

Holdfasts

Outside my kitchen window.

Outside my kitchen window.

It is September and the Boston Ivy has signaled autumn.

Stems went red in mid-August; now the big green dots of berries that popped out over the summer are deepening to blue. Shiny leaf umbrellas shade this transformation until breezes quiver the ivy and pull it away from the brick, revealing the ripe fruit.

Berries become obvious in the fall.

The part of the ivy that I ponder more deeply belongs to spring.

The building kitty-corner to my kitchen window.

The building kitty-corner to my kitchen window.

For five years—five springs—I have meditated on a brick partition perpendicular to my kitchen window, along with the wall around my window and the next building over.

In March they are all covered with what looks like dried up vines.

First sign of growth.

First sign of growth–see it?

In April, from those ramblers, brown-horned growths issue, then beginnings of leaves, cherry and lime colored. Under the new foliage, tendrils creep that extend the plant’s reach; at the ends of those tendrils are what I can only see as little alien pod-feet.

Leaves and...

Leaves and…what are those?

Squishy wet, secreting calcium carbonate as an adhesive, they venture forward to attach the ivy to the brick, suction cupping step by step to climb the buildings and cover them with more and more leaves.

These sticky pads are called holdfasts.

Onto the mortar--

Onto the mortar–holdfasts.

Eentsy-weentsy gummed cushions, the only support for pounds and pounds and pounds of greenery.

Holdfasts.

The wind whips the moist leaves, pulls at the vines, and the holdfasts? They hold.

Walls of ivy

Walls of ivy

Every year, Nature’s prompt: What are the holdfasts in my life?

What are the things that, once I’ve ventured forth, clasp me firm and fast to my true self, keep me from blowing away?

—That don’t seem that strong but really are.

—That form even as I merely think about moving.

—That prepare in advance for the eventual step, wherever it takes me, whichever surface and direction.

—That understand (whether I am willing to acknowledge it or not) there will always be a next step.

hold on!

Wrapped around the old vine, growing new vine.

Whatever those holdfasts are, I need to identify and guard them, because they keep me stable and safe, and are absolutely necessary for growth and expansion, no matter how insignificant or odd they look to the rest of the world.

**

A visitor to the ivy.

A visitor to the ivy.

As summer marches in, bigger leaves follow the small ones, which expand to cover increasing territory; then those green berries appear while I am out in the mountains and going lake swimming and kayaking; next a smell of fall blows before I think it is due–while the petioles blush and glow from the bottom of each leaf to its base–which is right now, here in September. When I start to need a jacket for bike rides, the leaves turn red and brown and yellow-white, like Neapolitan ice cream, sometimes all on the same leaf.

Fall ivy.

Fall ivy.

Finally groups of birds arrive, luckily often on days I am home to watch. They fly at the walls, flapping crazy wings, picking at the berries. Like a scene out of Hitchcock’s The Birds, they attack over and over again, determinedly seeking purple-blue morsels and knocking the already loosened French vanilla, strawberry and chocolate leaves down to the yard below. As that group moves on, some berries are left, to be picked off by the next day’s migrating flock.

The holdfasts darken but remain. Empty brick walls are looped once again only with vines, where small clumps of snow find a precarious perch in January and February. Then the light changes again and signals the slow reaching out of buds and tendrils—and fresh holdfasts to join the others.

Winter light on old vines.

Winter light on old vines.

 

The Day of Slow-Moving Bees

Morning bee warming up at Partridge Run.

Uncoordinated morning bee at Partridge Run.

The morning of August 15 was cooler in the Helderbergs than it had been in months, only in the mid-50s by 10 a.m.

Bees at Newt Pond clung to the goldenrod, languid movie stars on incandescent chaise lounges. After the drama of previous weeks’ nectar gathering and pollen dispersing, they barely crawled around: aware they had scenes to perform, but disinclined to rise just yet.

It was The Day of Slow-Moving Bees.

Slow-moving bee.

Slow-moving, and decidedly fuzzy.

***

Queen Anne's lace, not yet open.

Queen Anne’s lace, not yet open.

A beaten down path through thigh-high wild bergamot and Queen Anne’s Lace led us to the dock on Tubbs Pond. My hiking partner and I were slow-moving bees ourselves, as we drove from pond to pond instead of walking, only gradually warming our muscles. The yellowing of trees across the water became obvious as we sat with tuna sandwiches, garden tomatoes, and a huge tub of cut up watermelon to energize for a trek into the woods.

Reflections of red at Fawn Pond.

Reflections of red at Fawn Pond, before lunch.

***

It is of course the season to gorge on watermelon and tomatoes—and blueberries and corn on the cob and peaches, until we are sick of them and welcome apples and squash and cabbage.

Full summer now slides into September. The angle of sunlight is shifting again. On some days, like this one, air blows up cool from the ground while our scalps still bead with sweat.

Cherry tomato from my garden, amongst late season yellow and green beans.

Cherry tomato from my garden, amongst late season yellow and green beans.

***
By afternoon, the bees had thrown off their weariness and the back leg pollen baskets plumped like egg yolks. They zipped around like heavily caffeinated actors, investigated each flower briskly and flew off faster than I could focus my camera.

The dull gold behind the bee is pollen on in its "baskets."

The dull gold behind this momentarily still bee is pollen on in its “baskets.”

As we hiked after lunch, we gathered our own nectar for winter, visions and experiences.

Thus that Friday also became known as The Day of Glorious Pink Joe-Pye-Weed and Glowing Blue Chicory.

Boneset, in the same family as Joe Pye Weed-- Eupatorium

Boneset, in the same family as Joe Pye Weed– Eupatorium

The Day of Burdock Opening Its Deep Purple Thistles.

And wild oregano flowering.

And wild oregano flowering.

The Day of Orange Slugs on Moss.

And on dirt, too.

On dirt, too.

The Day of White, Violet, Black, Brown, Orange, Yellow and Turquoise Fungus.

Yes, turquoise.

Yes, turquoise.

And The Day of Finding Variously Colored Aspen Leaves Every Few Feet.

Variously colored, yes.

Variously colored, all on one leaf.

Unexpected variations, at that.

Unexpected variations, at that.

***

Back in April, I mourned the coming of summer, the loss of bug-free walks and crunch of snow.

Here in August, I mourn the coming of jackets and long underwear, the loss of flowers and bees and green-green lushness.

However, the new season’s gifts will reveal themselves: leaves that burn then drop, an opening of the view when trees have slimmed to only trunks and limbs, crinkles of frost on chilly mornings.

Eventually I’ll mourn the fall passing, then the winter, and next spring.

Gray skies alternated with bright blue that August day.

Gray skies alternated with bright blue that August day: coming to the end of the best summer ever for chicory and purple clover and Queen Anne’s Lace.

***

For now, the theatrical bees know their lines, how the plot develops—this is the falling action. Autumn approaches. Steady drumbeats toward the denouement. No wonder the aspen leaves, the changed light, the final frenzied putting up of nectar.

Flowering before dying.

Here I am! Hurry up! the flowers call to the bees.

To Be Human

Pollen frosted close up of roadside chicory flower.

Pollen sparkled stamens of common roadside chicory: delicate and tough together.

I’ve been off the grid for many months, in terms of writing posts, due to some health issues.

It’s been hard to let go of the happy disciplines I crafted over time in favor of other, uninvited ones: from days of writing and hiking and yoga studies and business building, to pain management, miserable medication interactions, diet changes, self-care regimens and (even though it was minor surgery) post surgical rehab.

Unable to sit on the floor and do my yoga in its usual way, I had to figure out what part of my practice “transfers.” Sometimes I couldn’t look ahead into the future, or even the next thirty minutes, so the asana practice simplified into breathing in the moment, then breathing into only-the-very-next moment.

Sometimes I felt like this frog at Partridge Run: barely head out of water, plagued by flies.

Sometimes I felt like this frog at Partridge Run: head barely out of water, plagued by swarms of flies that just wouldn’t leave.

Until I’m consumed by Being-Ill Time, I don’t recognize that my usual experience is Relatively-Healthy (even though I’ve done this being-ill thing before). Since February, I’ve stepped out of ordinary time–like the final months with my friend J. Because it went on for a while, illness became my ordinary time. I had to give up activities I was attached to, like honing essays for this blog.

I stayed with the disappointment, frustration, and unexpected physical weakness. I centered on curiosity, listening to what was actually going on in my body, instead of anticipating procedures with dread or remembering previous ones with trepidation.

I had to bring my self-care tools with me into Being-Ill Time, and develop some new ones. (More on that in later posts.)

Daisy--closed, preparing for bloom.

Daisy–closed, preparing for bloom.

As humans, we often have to respond to what happens that we don’t choose. To glory in the pain-free moments. To become comfortable in “waiting to see” and not making plans. Here I thought I was moving so much more slowly than in my old perfectionistic, A+ Student self. Now I have been taught to go even slower.

Of course initially my mind went crazy with thoughts: How long will this last? How bad will it get? Am I a wimp?—justifying myself to loads of imaginary detractors.

Then one day on the way to replenish my medical supplies, I ran into an acquaintance who asked about what I was up to.

I’ve been ill lately, but I teach writing and movement workshops—and I’ll be doing yoga with hiking at a local nature area this summer.

But what do you DO?

With my sister, I’m working on a book about meditation and the creative process. Progress continues on the memoir. I’ve been enjoying my nature photography as well.

But what do you DO?

Hearing these persistent questions, I could have become discouraged. No, I’m not working a typical nine-to-five job with a fancy title or perks. I’ve been sick, so certainly my business’s forward movement has been disrupted.

However, for the first time, instead of self-judging, I noticed how her thought patterns and expectations of how I measured my life were upsetting HER. The chosen flexibility and unconventional schedule of my life—which made her uncomfortable—were getting me through some tough times. My response? I didn’t take it personally. I merely wished her well and went on my way.

Daisy, full open in morning dew.

Daisy, full open in morning dew.

It reminds me of what I used to ask my adult literacy students: Not Where do you work? but rather How do you spend your days? The question delved into who they were as people, and acknowledged that personal value is not based on how much money we make or our job descriptions. Some of us raise children, make a community, rest in retirement, volunteer, enjoy our professions or, alternatively, do meaningless repetitive things in order to pay the bills.

The better questions: How do you feel about how you spend your days? What’s important to you? What have you learned about being a human?

I’ve spent my days lately paying attention to what’s happening in my very human (concurrently fragile and powerful) body, researching, breathing, undergoing, recovering. I am living in my moments, honing skills of survival that I also tuck away for when I might need them next.

Dragonfly at Partridge Run seen on a recent come-back hike: symbol of (among other things) renewal after hardship, transformation, adaptability, joy and lightness.

Dragonfly at Partridge Run seen on a recent come-back hike: symbol of (among other things) renewal after hardship, transformation, adaptability, joy and lightness.

 

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.

January Thaw

Acorn cap in the ice, Partridge Run.

Acorn cap in the ice, Partridge Run.

I was struggling. And then I froze.

First in September, October, and November came an extended burst of business activity, wherein I neglected much of my essay writing in favor of creative-writing-to-build-my-new-venture. Stiffening commenced.

A long viral illness ran concurrently.  Rime condensed on the edges of me.

Painful anniversaries blew in; December holidays challenged.  Whether it was the early darkness of the afternoon or the late darkness of the mornings, I slept longer than I wanted to, resistant to pull up and out of heavy-blanketed winter slumber.

The weather turned truly arctic, hikes became sporadic; cookies called my name beseechingly, promising energy, and I answered, too often. (Those no-good sweet-talking sweets.)

Movement slowed to glacial and the yoga attention wavered. Through the swirl of internal storms I couldn’t make out my wonderful new habits.  Extra pounds crept onto my body.

I solidified.

Fall leaf captured by ice.

Red oak leaf captured by ice.

Inside my hardened self, I started worrying:  How can I get back to my contemplative life? Why don’t I have energy to write about things that yes, really do, excite and feed me?

Finally, self-judgment crinkled deep into me, a solid-through, could-drive-a-loaded-semi-on-top-of-my-lake, subzero temperature drop: What’s wrong with me? Am I a failure at all of this? Will my blog join the thousands of “dead” blogs out there?

Perhaps I froze because over the months I would come home from the few hikes and instead of meditating on them, I would be planning yoga classes. Or writing about a workshop. Processing how those classes and workshops succeeded—or didn’t. Corresponding with people. Building networks. Learning my new phone. Applying for tax IDs. Rediscovering aromatherapy, selling products locally.

-Ing, -ing, -ing. A fall-into-winter shower of unique “-ing” shapes that softly, quietly, buried me.

***

Now it is January.  I took a four hour tromp on the melting icy paths looping through the woods and around Tubbs Pond, at Partridge Run.

My hiking partner called the weather a “January thaw.” I’d never experienced that at higher elevations before; just imagined it, from books. Above freezing, the snow melted some and then some more, and streams ran.

The legs were sluggish at first and didn’t want to pick themselves up over frozen upheaved beech and birch leaves, and stones covered by slushy moss.  The hiking partner’s legs protested too.

We walked and walked, up and down. I started to sweat, pulled off layers, walked and walked, got hungry, devoured peanut butter and apples, walked and walked; I walked the worry out of my body, walked until I was so tired by dusk that my eyes could barely focus.

I got to see three ponds I’d not seen before.

And ice. Oh, the ice.

Woods detritus on ice, in ice.

Woods detritus on ice, in ice.

If this were a painting, the brush strokes are magnificent.

If this were a painting, the brush strokes are magnificent.

Harsh angles.

Harsh angles.

Soft blobs.

Amoeba-like blobs.

Broken glass.

Broken glass.

Photo after photo, I lost myself in the teeny tiny: a single leaf on snow, and closer still the ridges of its veins, the iridescence of decomposition, backed by reflective crystals.  Jagged shapes, clear, opaque, rectangles, rounded blobs, layer across layer of frozen, half-frozen, refrozen. Miniature hemlock cones, red pine needles stacked pick-up-sticks style over white pine needles, leaves trapped under bubbles that couldn’t move.

The light--

The light–from below and above.

We two photographers gasped, giggled, and gestured: Look here! It can’t get more amazing—yes it can! I LOVE ICE.

Movement of water captured as it froze.

Movement of water captured as it froze.

The winter sun moved from white to gray across the sky.  We stumbled past Tubbs Pond and cheerily waved goodbye to snowmobile and deer tracks, and the chickadees who flirted from tree to tree.

My cheeks were ruddy, legs exhilarated. Days later, I still feel the warmth of following my instincts, listening to my body’s craving for beauty—and the walking, walking, walking.

I think I’ve been thawed, by the frozen.

Shimmering seeds on snow.

Winged seeds glowing red on snow, ready.