The Poet in the Woods

Ice bubbles in a pond at Partridge Run, December 2014.

Signs of life–though frozen–bubbles in a pond at Partridge Run, December 2014.

I pictured a poet.

In my mind I saw her flowing, reddish-brown hair, loosely twisted into a bun to keep it from catching on low branches, wearing a green-and-white checked flannel jacket, and carrying a notebook and pencil. Poet or not, she was making her way ahead of us, up the side of the snowmobile path off the southernmost trailhead at Partridge Run, in early December.

I knew I was embellishing the facts with this mental picture—but that day in the woods, I could clearly see evidence of her narrow, well-worn hiking boots. I could tell The Poet was short (because of her length of stride) and curious (wandering some, clearly stopping here and there), and in good enough shape to climb the side of the hill, though she wasn’t particularly skinny, looking at the depth of her steps. Snow had fallen the afternoon before, so all the tracks were fresh.

At the near freezing temperatures, shards of ice and sunlight. Partridge Run.

At the near freezing temperatures, shards of ice and sunlight. Partridge Run.

My friend C and I had ventured out on a sunny day into the glittering white of Partridge Run Wildlife Management Area, huffing and puffing while we followed the course of multiple snowmobiles, along with plenty of hunter boot prints and shotgun shells, dog tracks, square snowshoe indentations, and traces of quick light mice along with vole burrows. The hemlock- and red oak-lined path had been somewhat traveled after the snowfall.

Dried flowers, wild like the poet’s hair.

Dried flowers, wild like the poet’s hair.

After half an hour on the trail, we consulted our map.

“I don’t want to double back to the parking area to get to Pickerel Ponds. If we bushwhack over the hill to our right, we can hit Partridge Run Road instead of slogging the long way around.”
“Ok, I think I remember what the ledge looked like from the other side, when we were here in the summer. Let’s do it.”

As we trekked up into deeper snow, we were happy to see others had done this before, including a large-booted hunter (more shotgun shells) and the woman I was calling The Poet. Due to the hunter’s presence, I re-imagined her outfit, with a neon orange vest for safety.

My hiking partner struck out in front of me. “Look, she headed this direction, toward the fence. God, I love the old stone fences in the woods!”

Hip high stacked rocks wiggle and waggle all over woods and mountains in the Northeast, climbing up at near-impossible angles; in addition to stone fences, in the woods we often find evidence of rusting farm trucks, decrepit apple orchards and even the foundations of homesteads, with domestic bulbs and roses sprawling untended but lush in the middle of the overgrowth.

View through a late 1930s sedan on the W5 Trail, John Boyd Thacher State Park.

View through a late 1930s sedan on the W5 Trail, John Boyd Thacher State Park.

“She went over here! Boy, her boots seem awful pointy, for being in the snow! I wonder if she didn’t know it was going to storm.” The footwear pictured in my mind changed to western boots.

“This doesn’t seem to be the top of the hill we were thinking about. It looks pretty marshy down below.”

I followed one of The Poet’s side tracks as my partner veered left. The woman had scrambled over a tall pile of wiry brush. I half-wondered: why would she do that? If she were hiking over the hill like us, or even taking pictures or writing—none of those scenarios made sense with crawling like that.

I started to get a funny feeling; not sure why my heart had started racing, I called to my companion.

“Umm, I don’t think we are following a poet!”
Silence. Hiking Mate was obviously distracted.
“I mean, I don’t think these are human prints.”
“Huh?” She readied to climb over the wall to follow the recent steps.

As I hurried to catch up with my pal, following the prints between her and me, sunlight from the east glinted in the rapidly icing holes. I could now see distinct indentations at the front, of claws, and then the somewhat loping pattern of full and partial marks stretching out in front of me.

“Oh my gosh, stop right there! I don’t think it’s human—I think, I think—“
I couldn’t get it out fast enough— “I think it’s a bear!”

“What??!! Oh shit!”
“A small one. I think bear. If not, maybe wolf? Good-sized something….”

We didn’t stop to pull out our laminated Animal Tracks brochure to confirm one way or the other.

The lope and pigeon-toed angling of paw prints looks like a bear, but I am still not sure.

The lope and pigeon-toed angling of paw prints looks like a bear, but I am still not sure.

We once again experienced hightailing it out of the woods, sensitively aware how the energy changes when you believe you are close to an omnivore, even a probably-shy one. The tracks could not have been more than eight hours old. Maybe fresher.

A vague memory hovered in my mind, of something familiar about this situation, perhaps a news story I’d read long ago?

The details returned with the same increasing speed as our legs, which wheeled faster and faster back down to the snowmobile path—yes, that’s right, it was a report of people following with relief what they thought were human prints. Laughing and relaxed, they’d enjoyed themselves on the path back to civilization, only to find themselves instead facing a bear at its cave entrance. I don’t remember what the consequences were for them, didn’t want to actually, even when we were back on more well-traveled terrain. We could have repeated that story. Gulp.

The path of the fronds froze in ribbons.

The path of the fronds frozen in ribbons.

The rest of the day we joked about the bear, with a slightly nervous edge to our laughter. How tricky that bear was. How it wore such nice boots. How it sometimes switched to snowshoes just to fool us and left its shotgun shells behind to throw us off. How it rode the back of the snowmobile, hanging off the side and careening, breaking branches that we had to move out of the path. How it had tossed beer cans and candy wrappers out the back—what an ill-mannered bear! How it pretended to be a poet, just to get us up that hill.

I was glad we didn’t actually stumble across The Poet. Since she wasn’t a poet at all.

Winter sun over side of Pickerel Ponds, Partridge Run Wildlife Management Area.

Winter sun over side of Pickerel Ponds, Partridge Run Wildlife Management Area.

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Part the Eleventh: Wherein winter continues, but Color intervenes—Endings and Beginnings

Winter sky rainbow, The Crossings of Colonie (Albany NY)

Winter sky rainbow, The Crossings of Colonie (Albany NY)

Friday, March 6. Winter and weeping are wearing me down, along with the monochrome light, and dirt-infused precipitation on everything. I used to say Chicago street snow looked like the bottom of an ashtray. After this long winter in upstate New York, innumerable cigarette pellets of gunmetal ice and ashy road salt line our avenues–and spirits.

Even where the snow is still blank white, it has grown dull to my eyes. It’s been months since the amaryllis bloomed, and a week since my pale yellow butterfly faded away.

I travel in search of color, to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MOCA). Once again I am surprised by serendipity.

Sol Lewitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective, Mass MOCA Winter 2015

Sol Lewitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective, Mass MOCA Winter 2015

Swirling, spraying, wiggling: wall after wall after wall of gorgeous and intense paint by Sol Lewitt swims around me.

More Sol Lewitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective

More Sol Lewitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective, Mass MOCA Winter 2015

Liquid looking gold and black (Teresita Fernandez) flow over me.

Teresita Fernandez: As Above So Below, Mass MOCA Winter 2015

Teresita Fernandez: As Above So Below, Mass MOCA Winter 2015: window reflections in her black and gold sculpture.

On the way to Massachusetts, a friend and I crunch through snow to meditate in the icy stillness of a small temple at the Grafton Peace Pagoda.

Golden peace cranes at the Grafton Pagoda.

Golden peace cranes at the Grafton Pagoda temple.

We are surprised by a Japanese Buddhist nun wearing a headlamp, who pops out from behind the altar where she’d been organizing items. She is startled by us. So cold! So cold! Come and have tea when you are done.  

After sitting zazen in the frigid air as long as we can stand it, we find our way to the kitchen, where we nibble a cookie, sip hot brown Kuchika Twig tea and get to know her—Jun-San. We speak of peace walks and meditation and the essence of the Lotus Sutra.

My companion says, Ever since I first heard Na-Mu-Myo-Ho-Ren-Ge-Kyo, I have wondered what the words meant.

She answers that it comes from the Buddha’s last teaching, where he moved from the internal, concentration on just the self, to concentration on the other, the community  (something about the Golden Rule). She added: But really, you should not look to others’ translations because then the meaning does not come from within.

The acts of chanting, breathing, sitting with its sounds reveal the sutra’s message for each individual.

We laugh over it later: Here you spent forty-some years pondering, in search of what you thought was a mysterious, erudite, complex and distant definition, and she tells you you’ve had it inside all along!

My acts of weeping, seeking color, meditating on life, breathing, walking and sitting with moments regardless of their pain or joy—reveal the meaning of those acts and moments for me. Wisdom inside of me all along. Color inside of me all along.

Now my stomach and heart don’t go sour when I see the gray light over the gray hills and gray snow. Spring will come.

Buddha statue at Kripalu, October 2013. The answer is inside of you.

Buddha statue at Kripalu, October 2013. The answer is inside of you.

****

Accidents happen. Living long doesn’t always happen.

I think of the children who come into our lives, how we are often trying to save them, sometimes not able to: horribly, sadly, naturally. We have saved them so many times to start with, watched over them, cared for them, taught them. And if they live, if it all goes as it often does—they can grow into gorgeous young people we adore, full of creativity and angst and love.

We are called to pay attention to each day and moment, and to love: love and care for our individual selves as best we can, love the people we love, deeply, honestly; and not search way-out-there for meaning but find it right here next to us, in us, shining through us with unexpected color.

Spring comes. But sometimes it is bittersweet.

****

In memory of one Dainty Sulphur, who appeared unbidden in my apartment on February 11 and exited on Feb 28.

In memory of a creative soul I never met except through his mother: photographer, student, beloved son, brother, and more, Max Maisel, who went missing Feb 22, whose memorial service was March 27 and whose body was finally recovered April 17.

Winter bittersweet.

Winter bittersweet.

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 Second: Wherein the Butterfly Drinks, And I Consider the Bugs in My Living Space

Dainty Sulphur, drinking!

Dainty Sulphur, drinking!

I’m still talking to a butterfly, in my kitchen.

February 12, 2015, later that day. Since she would not come to the tiny plastic feeder that I put out, this afternoon I spilled some of the honey water right next to her, onto the top of the air conditioner. She actually came and drank! It was fascinating to watch: antennae started waving once her tarsi (feet)—through which butterflies can “taste”—hit the liquid; her proboscis unfurled, so long it went under her belly, but into the fluid; and then she stepped away and curled the proboscis up again.

See the C-shaped, rolled up proboscis?

See the backwards C-shaped, rolled up proboscis in front of the green compound eye? The feathery looking bits above that are the “palps” which sense what is food and not-food.

Thinking about her survival, I flit between hard-edged City Woman and warm Earth Mother. Well, anyway, I say, there’s your honey water for a couple days. Don’t get stuck in it. Now she’s looking all satisfied, her previously flopped down abdomen—which is the hind end, with the center part actually called the thorax—bent up high.

Am I stupid to put out this sugary fluid for food? Aside from getting stuck in it, her wings might get wet! I blow gently; no, she can pull them up just fine. Nothing like a snack, I think. I could use one myself.

I am playing with anthropomorphism again, I realize, but am really, really clear I know I’m doing it.

****

The Dainty Sulphur is a small crushable creature, one of trillions.

I’ve stepped on, swatted and flattened probably hundreds of bugs its size and much larger: horrifying palmetto bugs and leaping hairy spiders in the Florida of my childhood, and hordes of German roaches in multiple student apartments. Even mice and rats were caught and drowned when they overran other living spaces. My mother always said to invading creatures as she squashed or sprayed them: You can live outside, but I can’t let you stay here. This is MY space.

I don’t mind sharing, but not with things that bite or sting me, or spread disease. I’m really allergic to dust spider bites and mosquitos, but understand that larger spiders and thousand-leggers eat such critters, so yes there is a hierarchy of acceptable and unacceptable bugs in my living space. I can whisk unwanted ones—bees, wasps—out the window but if they don’t go I can become insistent, and murderous—depending on how you define murder.

Luckily butterflies don’t hurt humans, though we can hurt them.

Chicago Botanic Garden.

Late summer Chicago Botanic Garden.

Carolus Linnaeus was the Swedish physician who established “binomial nomenclature,” the multitiered system of scientifically naming plants and animals. I recall the huge bronze statue (which, when my children were small, you could still belly up to and touch) of a kneeling Linnaeus at the Chicago Botanic Garden.  Up close, Linnaeus’ roughly hewn figure was formed of creatures and plants alighted on him, under him, wrapping him; with the collecting bag on his hip and eyes open and curious, his eager hand reached out to touch and identify still more on the ground.

Dainty Sulphur Butterflies, in Linnaeus’ classification are truly Insecta, and moving more specifically down the entomological nomenclature, fall into Lepidoptera (moths & butterflies) and Papilionoidea (non-skipper butterflies; do you see the French word for butterfly “Papillon”?), Pieridae (whites, yellows, sulphurs), Nathalis (sulphurs) and her full name: Nathalis iole.

Like a softie, I’ll leave the sweet water there for a while, probably wipe it up and then put out fresh, for this particular Nathalis iole. (Boy I hope I’m right that it’s a Dainty Sulphur! I would hate to find out I am All-Wrong scientifically.)

I cannot guarantee this butterfly’s survival or quality of life. However, I don’t have to squash this insect either, “put it out of its misery.” She does not harm me, and in fact is a little company, on a cold cold day.

Because bitter wind chills, twenty and thirty below, cause me to hunker down inside, both of us are stuck in my apartment for now. And I am getting to know this creature better.

Sure is snowy and blowy out there, isn't it?

Sure is snowy and blowy out there, isn’t it?

To be continued.

A taste of full summer with fountains: Brazilian vervain (verbena), which butterflies come to visit.

Remember summer? Fountains with Brazilian vervain (verbena), which butterflies come to visit (Chicago Botanic Garden).

Part the First: Wherein the Butterfly Arrives

My unexpected visitor.

My unexpected visitor.

February 11, 2015.  I’m talking to a butterfly, in my kitchen.

At first I thought it was a moth. My internet research indicates it’s a butterfly, and might be something called a Dainty Sulphur. I have no idea how it materialized in an upstate New York brownstone in the middle of winter.

Could it have been hiding in my apartment and if so, where was its chrysalis? Could it have traveled from another part of the country, the pupa attached to the dried moss of my December birthday amaryllis? Or did I carry it in with my bags of produce from the Niskayuna Coop?—after all, bananas, grapefruit and even paper bags come from far away.

Further investigating Dainty Sulphurs, I find its arrival proves somewhat unusual—they are not native and don’t overwinter here or fly in every year like an immigrant species; in fact, they are considered a vagrant species, one that only rarely comes up from the south.

It seems to be a summer phenotype, too, because of the yellow hindwings. In a winter individual, the hindwing would be greenish-gray, with additional black patches to absorb solar heat.

Sun-seeking.

Sun-seeking.

If I were to anthropomorphize—which as a scientific person I tend to avoid—right now it looks like the perhaps-summer butterfly is perched staring out the window, yearning for the sun, a whole-insect-body aching for outside, to move and flutter and find nectar and other butterflies.

When I go to bed, the butterfly is still there.

February 12, 2015. I know if I let it outside, it would freeze. I know inside, it will not survive, though how long does a butterfly live anyway? However, it certainly won’t mate, and I don’t quite know if and what it needs to eat and drink.

My sentimental heart, in spite of my lack of knowledge about butterflies, caused me yesterday to put out a little water-honey mixture, like you would for hummingbirds. This morning she—further research indicated it’s definitely a Dainty Sulphur but probably a female because she doesn’t have the reddish-orange hindwing scent patch of a male—this morning she was still resting, midlegs and hindlegs on my peeling paint window ledge, forelegs on the icy glass, peering out with her compound eyes.

Do butterflies sleep? She’s in the same position, and hasn’t touched the honey-water I dripped onto a tiny flipped-over plastic cup. (I thought it was a perfect shape, like a birdbath with an edge to rest on.)

Inside, looking out.

Inside, looking out.

Her position looks like: Mom, Mom, I want to go out and play! Like my kids used to sit on the back of the couch, heads in palms and feet warm on the radiator, looking out into the snowy exterior, thinking of all the adventures to be had later in the day, once breakfast was done and snowsuits were put on.

But this butterfly has no snowsuit and I have none to offer it. If nothing else, I will at least accompany this creature as we both look out the window, into the deep snow, into the near future. I don’t want to be a well-meaning idiot, like those who “rescue” baby birds from perfectly fine nesting areas when they have ventured a ways from their nest. So I’ve gone online and further studied forms and colors, behavior, size (yes at 22 mm she is a Dainty), and learned that the honey-water is perfectly acceptable food.

Mostly I marvel once again at the variety of things I have not seen, or did not look for, that I am discovering now, thanks to my Dainty Sulphur.

To be continued.

(Many thanks to my favorite insect information and identification website, Bug Guide.net, and in addition, the North American Butterfly Association website. I invite comments, especially from lepidopterists!)

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.

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.