Essay Tangles and Snarls

How I felt, essays all gnarled and ugly, on my way into the retreat.

Feeling defeated, essays all gnarled and ugly, on my way into the retreat.

Even with a short piece of writing, sometimes the initial story gets entwined in another.

The second small bit knots up with a third, maybe even a fourth and fifth, and all of a sudden you the author face thousands of words when you were only looking for a couple hundred. All the threads of connection seem intrinsically linked. Where can you slice so you aren’t left with a chopped up pile of confusion?

On top of it, the perfectionist editor-in-your-head won’t let go: The relationships between these things are amazing! amazing I tell you! She can’t allow the piece be simple and stand on its own.

That’s what happened to a blog-bound essay, then several essays, I planned to finish in October.
November.
December.

I did lots of other writing, for small groups and for the radio. I prepared to curate an evening of local memoir readings. I applied to artist residencies and photo exhibits.

Cut to the last weekend of January. I held one of my quarterly Move with Mindfulness/Write with Ease workshops. In the cozy retreat house, I led yoga and stretches for the writers and sun-on-snow hikes up the hill onto white pine lined trails. I cooked Mexican black bean soup and sweet rhubarb and blueberry coffeecakes.

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Mexican Black Bean soup savory with cumin, multi-colored carrots,  cheese curds and fresh cilantro.

No internet or TV, no voice phone service, and only minimal housekeeping interrupted us; instead, session followed session, where everyone was writing, including me.

The themes of the weekend were phrases we use often on the yoga mat:
Be grounded. Relax what you can. Be curious.

They apply equally well to writing.

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On the mats, in the welcoming morning warmth.

After one hike, I knocked the snow off my boots, made a cup of hot tea, and turned on my laptop. For months I’d averted my eyes, stomach aching, when confronted by the working titles on my computer screen. This time I clicked on the documents one by one to open them all together and finally faced down the matted tangle of five to eight potential blog posts.

I got mad when I saw how close I’d been to finished on several of them.
I got sad at how seasonal the topics “could have been.”
Then I got determined.

Over and over I learn the same lessons. That’s part of why I teach them.
Be grounded. Relax what you can. Be curious.

See the pretty things hidden in the tangles?

See the pretty thing hidden in the tangles?

I can’t yank apart the knots between them, I thought; that will break the teeth of the comb, and accomplish the same thing as sharp scissors snipping haphazardly (remember to be grounded). How were the strands initially woven together? My previous efforts deserve gentleness (relax what you can) and not being in a hurry (be curious).

What do you do to a mental or writing knot?

Same as the visualization in yoga: straighten out, unwind, free, loosen, unclasp, release. Breathe!

Deep sigh after deep sigh followed, with shouts of “D’uh!” (often, embarrassingly, out loud) as I realized places to tease out a conceptual filament and drop it separate. The connections didn’t have to be quite so tight as first imagined; pictured it in medical terms, the conjoining was at the toe, not the chest, and therefore my surgical intervention was simpler, with fewer complications.

Still struggling, I asked: What do you do with a physical knot of tightness in massage therapy? Breathe into the pain, stay with it and it will lessen. Your body (and your writing) will be happy you are paying attention. Be grounded. Relax what you can. Be curious.

I did that with my essay snarls. Over and over again. What a relief.

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Thump! Bump-bump! Pine cone rides the wind over snowy ground. Can I fly free, like that?

I’m not finished. But during the next few months, thanks to that weekend of attention to body and attention to writing, I look forward to posting some completely out-of-season, close (if not finished), relatively unsnarled meditations.

The sun setting on my work, at Still Point Retreat Center.

The sun setting on my work, sparkling its light everywhere, at Still Point Retreat Center.

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Structure: the Old Year, in Pictures

Bridge over the Mississippi, Minneapolis MN

Reflections that create balance. (Bridge over the Mississippi, Minneapolis MN)

Like monthly bills and seasonal equipment, 2012 will soon be put away.

Annually I take the week between Christmas and New Year’s and look back.  Not that I don’t regularly return to carefully saved artifacts and reflect on my journey at other times, but it’s an interesting practice to hold the twelve months in hand all at once.

Because I am still coming to the words–how can you encapsulate a year, a month, a day?and should you?–this week’s blog is almost purely visual: an admittedly incomplete retrospective of what has fed me, gifts given and received over the year.

The theme that emerged in my almost-random selection from the 6,000 digital photos? Structure.  Structure in general, and the structures I am building. Of what underlies my daily life, how to not split time into dreaded work and distracting play, but to find joy in all of it.

Once again, I wish I’d hatched a fully grown, spectacularly stunning concept that would bring surprising insight, followed by deep understanding–and aw heck, while I’m at it, world peace!–but laughing, I repeat the mantra: I accept being in-process in my thoughts and in my life.

Oh, and thank you, Gentle Readers, for joining me (however briefly or steadily) during the past six months.

The whimsical dancing turnip.

The whimsical turnip.

The whimsical turnip: its graceful arms reminded me of Shiva, whose cosmic Dance of Bliss simultaneously brings destruction and creation. How appropriate in studying days gone by, the wave pattern of the past, present, and future.  On the culinary side, it became part of a potato-turnip-leek au gratin dish for Christmas Day.

Watermelon radish in a salad of green leaf, cucumber, green and orange sweet pepper, carrots.

Watermelon radish in a salad of green leaf, cucumber, green and orange sweet pepper, carrots.

That shocking pink, what a surprise! Yes, I was ready to laugh at surprises, and open to new foods and sensations and thoughts and concepts.

Adirondack Park creek, near Jockeybush and Good Luck Lake

Adirondack Park creek, near Jockeybush and Good Luck Lake

Stillness in the water allows reflections. Same with my life.

Snowy tree early 2012

Snowy tree early 2012

Snow on tree. Just looking outside my window, I found meditation objects, beauty.

Votives, St. Patrick's Cathedral, NYC

Votives, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, NYC

I took them where I found them, those meditation objects and rituals, and adapted them to my own house: candles, incense, writing, yoga, walks, cooking, talking, time with friends and family.

Mohawk River: beauty in browns and blues.

Mohawk River: beauty in browns and blues.

Yeah, just some grasses along the Mohawk River, nothin’ special. But no–eminently special, subtle color and stillness again. Just look, that’s all. So I did.

A study in red, brown, and white

Food is fun! A study in red, brown, and white.

The daily is worth attending to, including the daily food.  Vegetarian chili with Community Garden tomatoes, those familiar basil-garlic cheese curds and black beans, followed by strawberries with chocolate sauce and slivered almonds.  (Yes, technically the tomatoes are more orange than red, but in other light they matched quite closely.)

Ice at Dyken Pond

Ice at Dyken Pond

Like a modern art painting of skyscrapers, just the beginning of the freezing process–I spend a lot of time “at the beginning,” but those moments are striking, too.

Mountain beyond Hildene (Battenkill Valley), Manchester VT

Mountain beyond Robert Todd Lincoln’s home Hildene, in the Battenkill Valley, Manchester VT

A classic wind battered evergreen with snow topped mountain behind. What does it evoke? Back to the idea of stillness. But more: active stillness, strength from within, a yoga thing. Responding to the wind, relaxing into holding the snow, moving with circumstances as they arrive.

Tomatoes and pears: early morning still life.

Tomatoes and pears: early morning still life.

My life is art, my food is art: more meditation objects.

Sunset over the Helderbergs

Sunset over the Helderbergs: note the teeny electric pole on the right,  which helps you realize the distance you are viewing

Beginnings and endings and the in-between.  A huge sky sweeps toward me, over me, I am immense and minuscule all at once. 

Pea sprouting in late spring

Pea sprouting in late spring

Back to the garden.

A pea plant breaks through hard ground, living into its defined structure, but how it grows, the rhythm and size and potential production, are all to come yet. How fragile it looks there, and yet it is so strong.

That’s me, that’s the new year. Delicate, to be nurtured, but hardy and riotously ecstatic and full of surprises. To be attended to every day, carefully but not with anxiety, just responding to changes as they come.

Along the Long Path at John Boyd Thacher Park: fall leaves color streams that are just above freezing.

Along the Long Path at John Boyd Thacher Park: fall leaves color streams that are just above freezing mark.

Detritus of the old is beautiful, and will feed the new life to come, after the quiet time, the enforced rest, of winter. Welcome, winter; Welcome, new year!

A wonder-ful 2013 to all.

The Golden Tamaracks

From the bridge on Route 30, facing Simon Pond, across from Raquette Pond and Tupper River.

It was a mustard-and-rust-colored couple of fall days through the northern Adirondacks, driving Keene Valley and Lake Placid, returning via Blue Mountain Lake and Speculator. The white trunks of broken-topped birches climbed up the side of Route 73/9N along the rocky AuSable River.  Rain had been heavy the previous week, so High Falls Gorge rushed amber with hemlock tannin’d water, reminding me of Tahquamenon Falls in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, colored also by swamp trees. I piloted my car next to flowing mountain ridges covered with smoky smears, indicating trees whose leaves had already fallen; but then there were these spires of gold, stands of trees matted in green by the pines and balsam firs around and behind them.

The instant these particular trees sparkled at me from a distance, I was entranced; they seemed like perfect Christmas trees, but colored flaxen and lit from within. What were they?

Tamaracks, I was told. What a poetic name for a tree, an Algonquian name I learned later, the only deciduous conifer–a tree that seasonally loses its needles, with a color change first from bright green to yellow.

Tamarack. Here was a plant I’d heard mentioned as part of the name of a place–Tamarack Lodge, Tamarack Inn–but never observed live. Didn’t know they were the source of turpentine, or another moniker for a Larch.  I’d even seen the outlines of them on wood signs, just thought it was Plain Ol’ Woods, or Evergreens. And here they aren’t ever-green at all.

Ecstatic with their discovery, I spent my day searching for a wonderful picture to take of the Golden Tamaracks. My travel companion told me they show up in patches here and there, but warned they would not be seen when we headed south, out of the spruce flats of the Adirondack Park.  I spied them here and there, but the roadside shoulder was too narrow to park on, or shadows marred their brilliance. Some half-way passable photos were taken at a quick muddy pullover, but electric lines disfigured the oh-so-unforgettable vista I craved in my viewfinder. I comforted myself with more common rust colored beech leaves and the sparse quaking aspen foliage.

Beech leaves, which will stay on the trees all winter, dabbing the snowy landscape with splashes of brown.

Finally, at the end of the day, heading back to the main road from a side trip up Route 8 in Wells, we came upon a single glorious glowing larch, lit by the sunset beyond it, a calendar-perfect shot backed by the curves of the mountains. And yet…I was tired from the fresh air of the day, the five hundred snaps already taken, watching river otters and walking out to Oxbow Marsh at The Wild Center in Tupper Lake.  I didn’t want to stop the car and get out yet another time.

So in my lethargy I sat back and watched the tamarack approach, growing taller then taller still, rising like the trunk and down-thrust arms of a giant slender woman, until I was finally staring from below, a child gawping up at the enormity of its towering parent.

The sun behind revealed the black bumpy outlines of the very top shoots, and I twisted my head around to see the back of it, as my auto moved on into the setting sunlight of Route 30 south.

Then the golden tamarack was past, gone, somehow irretrievable even though I could have stopped the car and turned around.  As soon as the moment was over, I regretted not photographing it. It became a lost moment, like other lost moments, not seized fully, followed by wondering if I would try to recapture it ever after.

But–I wanted to live it, see it, feel my mouth widen into an O as we advanced on the tree, let the light of the west-falling sun hit the back of my eyeballs, fully; hold that–and let it go. I decided to make do with the other, less impressive photos, to remind me of the one that got away, my own catch and release program for that single vision–only with a mental catch, then mental release. Of course now I attempt to relive it in words, amorphous dances around the reality, redrawing the picture in my head from many angles.

Even this morning, I see the yellow elm leaves outside my kitchen window carried off by the insistent wind, my red ivy leaves thumping the window hard as they fall, the ivy opposite now deepening its blush and splashing Neapolitan against the brick. I feel the urge to take pictures of the shift, but don’t; I can’t stop the change, can’t hold every second, have to let some of them go, and allow the memory to mellow into blurred edges, warm thoughts, awareness of having had an experience without clutching desperately at specificity of the details.

Autumn has come. Autumn will go. In the winter, spring and summer–indeed, until I can search them out again next fall–I will remember (not through a spectacular photo) that I have discovered Golden Tamaracks.

Golden Tamaracks in the Adirondack Park

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