Why I Walk Under a Full Moon in June

The old Navajo woman sat on a wood stool in front of her weaving loom, her hair threaded with grey and pulled back into a “tsiiyeel,” a hair knot. A heavy turquoise and silver studded chain hung from her neck. She was in her finery to meet me, a young white woman working with her missionary friends on the reservation. I watched her gnarled hands move the shuttle stick down again and again, tightly compacting each strand of wool. Before I left, she smiled and gave me one of her small woven blankets. She explained the significance of this blanket, and pointed out the loose threads at one corner to allow all the evil to escape.

I still have that little Navajo blanket and look at it occasionally, touching the geometric pattern, important symbols in Navajo myth. A friend once told me: people matter, not things. And yet, certain things do matter, sometimes a great deal.

Objects, both animate and inanimate, can have special spiritual significance to us.

We notice them or hold them in our hands, see pictures of them or hear about them, and have an emotional reaction. The world speaks to us through these symbols in a personal way. They enrich our lives or give us comfort. After my mother-in-law died, my husband planted a white rose bush in her honor. He enjoys smelling the roses and swears they have a fruity scent, a raspberry-like smell, something my nose never picks up. But his mother, Doris, loved raspberries and always grew a healthy patch of them in her garden every year.

The moon is an important symbol for me.

My birthday is this month, in June, and though I don’t believe in astrology I’m aware that my astrological sign is Cancer. As a Cancer, I’m considered a “moon child.” Coincidentally, my name, Diana, also has something to do with the moon. I’ve never really liked the name Diana. It has too many syllables, so family and friends shorten it to “Dee” which makes me sound like a gum-smacking truck stop waitress. I’ve tried to regain some dignity by telling people the name Diana is actually the Roman translation for the ancient Greek goddess, Artemus. And, surprise, surprise—Artemus happens to be the goddess of the moon. Though lots of people like seeing a beautiful full moon, I make it a point every June to take a night stroll when the moon is full. As I walk I watch my moon shadow and listen for any moon eaters about, the deer that like to browse in bushes and trees nearby.

For many northwestern and Alaskan Indian tribes, deer are emblematic.

They’re considered totem animals, signifying direction and guidance because deer see so well even in the dark. I’m reminded of The Deer Hunter, one of the first movies produced about Viet Nam after the war. I’ll never forget the scene where Viet Nam vet, Michael, makes the difficult decision to go back and search for his best friend, Nick, who’s gone missing in Viet Nam. When Michael makes up his mind, he’s hunting in the Allegheny Mountains. He finally corners a beautiful stag, shoots, and misses the deer. Then he drops his rifle and yells to the open skies, “Okay…okay!” It was as if the deer, with its penetrating stare, reminded Michael of his obligation to find Nick.

Above my kitchen sink, on the window shelf I have a smooth, polished stone the size of the palm of my hand. My friend Gail gave me that stone when my husband and son were both about to undergo surgery, my son donating one of his kidneys to his father. Gail told me it was a “worry” stone, and that I should rub it whenever I was afraid or anxious. The stone seemed like a pretty rock to me so I sat it on the window ledge. Then one morning I held the stone up while I dusted underneath it. It was warm from sitting in the sun and pleasant to hold. I rubbed my thumb over the top of it…and felt soothed.

 

Image credit:  All images by Diana Hooley

 

What’s That About Lazy People and Free Money?

“No one wants to work anymore. They just want to draw unemployment or cash their stimulus checks,” the guy fixing my garage door shook his head disgustedly. His comment was in response to me saying I was having trouble finding someone to pour a cement pad in my back yard. The garage door guy was young and strong with dark brown hair. Why did he act like such a grouchy old man railing about shiftless people?

Watching him poke and pull at the hinges of our garage door I wondered whether he’d cashed his stimulus check yet—and what he did with it.

Did he rip it up and throw it in the garbage—or did he go out and buy some chrome attachment to trick out his motorcycle with?

Apparently, my garage door friend is unaware that money isn’t the only reason people work. Despite being flooded with money, over two-thirds of million dollar lottery winners still want to keep their jobs according to www.stat.berkeley.edu. Studs Terkel said in his oral history, Working, that “Work…is a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread…”  Many of us work not just to pay the bills, but because it gives our lives purpose.

Maybe my garage guy was angry because he’d seen all the headlines about thousands of unfilled job openings this spring. Job vacancies soared to over 15 million according to NBC news, much more than pre-pandemic levels.

It’s being called a vaccination job boom because vaccinations are making it safe to go back in the workplace again.

This month The Guardian reported that people might not be scrambling to fill these new jobs because, well, they just don’t feel like scrambling. Though employment opportunities have quickly sprung up, many of us are still trying to recover from the chaos of Covid.

Covid’s impact on our working lives cannot be understated. This past year uncertainty was the new normal. Some people were laid off or lost their jobs entirely. Others had to find new ways to work. Though my adult children managed to stay employed throughout the pandemic, they still had pandemic work challenges. My son-in-law, who’s an engineer, had to move his office home, and like many others, watch the kids or the dog while he worked at his computer. One day I asked him how it was going, and he told me, “It’s okay, but I miss my colleagues at work.” My son, who’s a teacher, didn’t know from one week to the next whether he’d be back in his classroom, or if he’d have to Zoom lessons to his students. In the middle of the school year he told me he was temporarily “out of work.”  The school district abruptly announced an extended winter break due to Covid.

Though employment (or lack thereof) was a traumatizing experience for some this winter, others were grateful to have more time and space to reconsider job and career goals. My nephew Andy is a very different young man compared to the garage door guy.

Andy’s not lazy or money-grubbing, but his minimum-wage, pizza delivery job was a dead end—and he knew it.

This past Covid year Andy was able to finish up some college course work online. He texted our family a picture of a letter he’d just got in the mail:

“Dear Bronco Nurse, Congratulations you have been granted conditional acceptance into the Nursing Program at Boise State University beginning Fall, 2021.”

Now that I think about it, the garage door repairman’s comments may have been politically driven, he was so harsh and judgmental. Really though, most things in life aren’t about politics—gainful employment not only has to do with making a decent living, but also making your life happy and fulfilled.

 

Image credit: Lazy Man     Image credit: Help Wanted      Image credit: Working

 

 

 

 

And Then My Heart With Pleasure Fills

Forsythia, gaillardia, penstemon, and euonymus. It’s springtime and I’m struggling once again to talk plants and flowers. I have to repeat their names in my head over and over in order to remember them. Sometimes mnemonic devices work, but though “harrow” sounds like “yarrow,” a piece of farm equipment does not make me think of this fern-like flower.

Some people have a preternatural memory when it comes to flower names.

I have a friend (a little unassuming lady who wears sweaters with pearl buttons and goes to Mass every Sunday) with an amazing skill. She knows the language of philosophers and princes. She speaks Latin. Just point to the big yellow flower next to her neighbor’s fence and she’ll immediately say, “Helianthus.”

Sometimes I think I just have a memory block where flower and plant names are concerned. Then I get flustered at my lack of recall, which only makes things worse. We all deal with selective memory though. According to research (exploringyourmind.com) we tend to remember the things we care deeply about and find meaningful in some way. When I was much younger and took a night school class I had a reading professor who often gave poor, unfocused lectures. Not long after I took his class, this professor left the teaching profession altogether and began selling luggage at a store in the mall. He may have been a bad instructor, but he did tell our class one thing I’ll never forget.

He said, “If you want to remember a word, ANY word, you have to develop a relationship with it.”

Though I like plants and flowers, their beauty and fragrance are only for a season. As Robert Frost once wrote in a poem about the impermanence of both life and spring flowers, “Nothing gold can stay.”  Which brings me to an area I have a year-round investment and interest in: books. My daughter-in-law asked me last week if I’d ever heard of a novel called The Overstory. She told me she was curious because she saw the title in her e-library account. I read The Overstory a couple of years ago when it was first published. The content of that book immediately flashed in my mind. I told Amanda the book was a collection of stories all having to do with trees and the impact trees have on people’s lives and the health of the planet. Not only was I able to summarize the book despite having read it so long ago, but I even remembered the author’s name: Richard Powers.

My hippocampus clutches at all things literature.

So though I can’t remember the name of that blue, stalky flower (delphinium), I can distinctly recall stories about flowers. In Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, the protagonist, a pioneering miner, finds out his wife’s cheated on him with a friend, and rips out all the rose bushes he’d planted for her next to their house. Larry McMurtrey’s novel, Lonesome Dove, is about a couple of tough Texas rangers. One of the rangers, Gus, has a lady friend who repeatedly plants flowers around her house only to have them die, subject to the merciless wind and drought of the Great Plains.

Though the genus names for flowers easily escapes me, I often do remember their common names, like daffodils for instance. And again it’s through the lens of literature, prose and poetry, that my memory is enhanced. Who can forget poet William Wordsworth writing about taking a nap and dreaming of daffodils dancing in the breeze:

For oft upon my couch I lie,

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye,

Which is the bliss of solitude,

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the Daffodils.

 

Credit Image:  Daffodils    Credit Image:  The Overstory

Fowl play: Judging Meghan and Woody

The thing about chickens is, they have both good and bad character.  When I open the coop door and allow our chickens to roam the yard, they lurch along from leg to leg crowding and nudging me, wanting the bag of table scraps I have in my hand. They’re annoying and don’t know how to share with each other. They like to hoard, and they can be vicious and nasty in a fight. Still, chickens are generally good mothers, protective of their nest and amazingly, they turn all our leftovers: sour milk, brown lettuce leaves, and old cereal, into rich, yellow-yoked eggs.

Humans have a lot in common with chickens, including an unreliable character. Even Shakespeare had something to say about our shared shortcoming: “…tis but a base, ignoble mind that mounts no higher than a bird…”

Maybe it’s because of our fickle characters that we like to lionize or villainize others, placing people in categories of good and evil.

We easily and readily judge, anointing saint and sinner.  Look at the response to the recent televised dramas about the problems between Meghan Markle and Britain’s royal family, or, the Woody Allen-Mia Farrow abuse saga. Serious allegations have been made in these situations, but that’s not my point. What I find interesting is how much we enjoy passing judgement.  It’s the same with chickens. There’s always an effort underway in the coop to ferret out a bird that will become the sacrifice for everyone’s sins. She’s the chicken that gets pecked at. And once this happens, predictably, all the other chickens pile on until there’s nothing left of her but dried blood and tail feathers.

Certainly, justice is important. People do bad or criminal things and should be held accountable. But why do we relish the role of judge so much? The desire to impugn someone’s character and place blame is such a strong impulse (in both chickens and humans) that even friendships become susceptible.

People can’t deal with each other’s failings so they go to counseling to learn how to cope with “toxic” relationships.

My therapist daughter tells me Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) helps clients view themselves and others through a more multi-colored lens, rather than black and white. One aspect of DBT is to recognize there are different truths about us all, and we are complex. History is full of flawed characters. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence with both eloquence and inspiration, yet he kept a slave mistress and died in debt.  Aviator Charles Lindberg exhibited great skill and courage in 1927 with his nonstop, solo flight across the Atlantic. Yet, Lindberg also was a racist, and widely reported to be a Nazis sympathizer.

I just read Kristen Hannah’s latest novel, The Four Winds, and marveled at what a compelling story she told of a family surviving the dust bowl and migrant labor camps in the 1930’s. Good literature usually moves you emotionally, and this book did that for me.  Even given this, I was acutely aware that Hannah’s book was historical fiction. The characters weren’t real. They were not rounded. They were one-dimensional, either good or bad. The protagonist mother was a long-suffering angel, and her boss at the migrant camp was unscrupulous and greedy (the MO, by the way, of several “tough” business leaders today).

Lately, there’s been a lot of discussion in the media about the “cancel culture,” a social phenomenon involving judging and shunning. 

It’s not only a problem across the political spectrum (for both conservatives and liberals), but also in our communities and family systems where estrangements can occur.  It’s one response to people in our lives that we find intolerable.  Another might be, understanding. We may not be able to accept everything about another person, but pecking them to death is not a solution either.

Blog posts at: http://www.dianahooley.net, image credits: Diana Hooley, Meghan and Harry Interview, The Four Winds

 

 

 

Getting to Know Each Other Again After Covid

Some people thrived this past year during the pandemic, barely noticing the lock-downs, shut-downs, and shout-downs between the maskers and anti-maskers. Others were just “doing time” in their own home, a house arrest. And then there were the social butterflies forced to live less colorful more grey lives, pinned by a pandemic.

I spent this Covid year largely at my computer in my favorite outfit: yoga pants and a T-shirt.

Dressing up is now something from my distant past. I’m also less talkative. I grunt more. Movie star Sylvester Stallone said he preferred grunting as opposed to speaking in his portrayal of Rambo, an ex-military vigilante.  Stallone said the less dialogue the better—and that much can be communicated through grunts. So, I defer to Rambo’s wisdom.

Now though, with increasing Covid vaccinations and infection rates dropping precipitously, life as we once knew it may be returning. We’ll soon be able to eat at restaurants and see grandma face-to-face again. I have a friend who lives in British Columbia but her elderly mother is in a nursing home just across the border in the United States.  It’s been a year since she’s seen her mom. First the nursing home said no visitors, and then the Canadian border closed. I’ve wondered, after Covid will my friend and her mother have a happy reunion? Or will her eighty-eight year-old mother have grown too frail for a hug?

For some of us, a year is a long time.

Covid has changed us in many ways, including how we live and work.  It also may have altered the way we relate to each other. I took a walk with a neighbor this morning who told me that she suddenly felt like she’d become an introvert.

“I don’t know,” she said, “I just don’t have a longing to join in with my old groups anymore.  I’m a little lonely, but I don’t have the energy for socializing.”

Our social and emotional lives can experience Covid damage. Sciencemag.org (online, 3/16/2020) says chronic social isolation increases mortality by as much as 29%.  Apparently, just being social makes a big difference on our stress levels. The institutions and activities that bind us, churches, community organizations, and sporting events for example, bring us both pleasure and comfort.  Such activities connect us.  I haven’t sat next to someone in a movie theater or at my granddaughter’s piano concert in over a year. Superficially, I haven’t missed the togetherness, but Harvard sociologist Mario Small says being with others can give us a reassuring sense, “… that (we’re all part of) something larger…”

Now thinking ahead to post-pandemic, I’m wondering if we can pick up where we left off relationship-wise.  Last March I sat at a dinner table with my book club friends talking and laughing through the night.

Zoom meetings have replaced those relaxed, fun times, but tech can only go so far in giving us a sense of community.

I politely declined when my sister-in-law recently asked me to Zoom together with other family members. I’m all zoomed out. You can’t read body language on Zoom, and that affects the flow of conversation. Either you’re talking over someone else—or you sit there silent, smiling dumbly into the computer screen.

A good analogy for our year-long Covid withdrawal is the story of Sleeping Beauty. When we wake up will all our castles be overgrown with vines, as neglected as our social lives?

My best hope is to smoothly transition back into former relationships.

The military has a protocol for service members returning home after an extended deployment. They advise them to take it slow “reintegrating” with family and friends. Military.com (online) says, “That first kiss back can be an amazing one, but it can also be awkward (nine months or a year of no kissing can do that).”

So, to all my affectionate family and friends that I haven’t seen in a year, I’m as ready as you are to get back together.  But just so you know, a simple grunt “hello” is the only greeting I need.

 

Blog post at http://www.dianahooley.net.  Image credit: Rambo, and Friends,

 

What We Don’t Know About Our Friends and Neighbors

I was visiting with my neighbor Bea in her home when she suddenly turned toward a table in the corner and said, “I want to show you something.”

Bea walked over to the table and picked up two large, clear plastic bags each containing a colorful quilt in them.  “Look what I’ve been doing this winter!” she said, pulling the quilts out of the plastic and proudly draping them over her arm.

I was amazed at Bea’s quilts, their beauty, their crisp seams, and the colorful designs.

She told me one quilt was called “The Disappearing Four Patch.”  She’d seen the pattern on a quilting TV program: “Fons and Porter’s Love of Quilting.”  The other quilt was a collage of antique pink and yellow-themed blocks, and was sewn in a garden star pattern.

I marveled at Bea’s craftsmanship especially since I’m not a quilter myself, and left Bea’s house thinking about a book I read once, The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham.  The book was about a man who searched the world for the meaning of life. He eventually found his answer in India where he watched a woman weave a blanket. He thought this was our purpose: we’re each a colorful strand of thread making a contribution to some universal pattern. I was disappointed in the book’s conclusion.  The book was a bear to read, and I was looking for something a bit more mystical.

Bea is not the type of person I see quilting.  My image for that comes from my mother-in-law who was an excellent homemaker and spent years cooking and sewing for her family.  Bea’s been a homemaker among other roles, but to me she’s never looked or acted like one.  For example, I’ve never seen Bea wear a dress much less an apron. She seems most comfortable in an old T-shirt and jeans.  Often I’ll see her in a pair of muck boots working in her half-acre yard moving irrigation pipes or firing up her tractor mower. She has short hair and brown, leathery skin, and she spent years weighing potato and grain trucks at a local farm scale house.  Bea’s always been so practical, I just never knew she harbored so much creativity.

Who we are inside, our talents and thoughts, can be a big secret to the world.

We can be like Russian nesting dolls.  Layers need to be uncovered before you actually find the core of us, and it’s only in how we express ourselves, what we make, do, or say that you catch a glimpse of our inner life.  Sometimes that core can be surprising—and sometimes disappointing, even shocking.  For example, Abraham Lincoln was described by opposition newspapers as “…the leanest, lankest, most ungainly mass of legs, arms and hatchet-face ever strung upon a single frame…”  Furthermore, these newspapers said Lincoln’s speeches were “illiterate compositions…interlarded with coarse and clumsy jokes…” (medium.com). On the other hand, Ted Bundy, the serial killer, was characterized as “… young, handsome, and well-dressed in a preppy kind of way (Quora.com).”

Appearances aren’t the only possible deception in the package of who we are.

I was struck by this fact watching the fall-out from the riot last week in Washington on television.  NBC news reported that many of the participants were simply regular people, teachers and truck drivers, some even held jobs that contributed to public safety, like firemen and former police. The old axiom that you can never judge a book by its cover is amplified here. You can’t even judge a book by its plot or characters. You have to go deep to the theme, what animates the person.  For my neighbor Bea, surprisingly, it’s quilts.  For others, apparently, it’s something far more dark and angry.

Blog post at http://www.dianahooley.net and credits:  garden star pattern    The Razors Edge    Capitol riot

 

Reading about the Universe on New Year’s Eve

There’s a room upstairs in my house where I store things: my old skis, high school yearbooks, family photos.  Everyone has a place like this.  I foraged around in this room and noticed my personal journals on a shelf, journals I’d written in over a life time.  I rarely reread my old journals.  Writing in them was enough.  But I leafed through a few out of curiosity and was surprised by what I found.  I knew things in 1993 and 2001 and 2010!

It occurred to me that I’d never given my younger self much credit for wisdom.

I’ve always thought wisdom and the knowledge that undergirds it takes years to acquire.  It’s the wheelhouse of the very old—but it seems I was wrong.

For example, the last day of February 1993 I was anxious for spring and the weather wasn’t cooperating.  I wrote: “The temperature outside is 20 degrees—and falling!  Forget global warming!”

Apparently, decades ago I knew about climate change.

I knew about it long before Al Gore’s book An Inconvenient Truth, or young Greta Thunberg’s climate protests.  In 1993 I was a high school reading teacher and a busy mother of four.  I remember grading papers until late in the afternoon, and then picking up my kids from after-school sports.  On the way home we ate take-out Little Caesar pizza in the car.  When did I find time to read about trapped greenhouse gases?  And, where did I read about it?

I wrote an entry in my journal in 2001, the day before the September 11th terrorist attacks in New York.  Interestingly, my topic was life and what it meant to live.  I’d just had my first colonoscopy, and I wrote: “I’ve reacted to this colonoscopy with disabling apprehension…I barely got through it…what with fear and anxiety over cancer, tumors, polyps, biopsies.  How many times will I have to live through these horrid experiences?  And then, THEN, Dr. Williams gave my colon a clean bill of health and told me she’d see me again in ten years.  My spirits went up like a kite.

I wanted to shout to the sky, ‘I’ll live!’—as if ‘living’ is solely dependent on physical health…”

In 2010 I wrote something in my journal that reminded me of a book I’m currently reading about Einstein and physics.  I barely made it through high school physics so I was intrigued to find out if The Dancing of the Wu Li Masters could explain the universe to me.  The author, Gary Zukav, wrote, “…all of the things in our universe (including us) that appear to exist independently are actually parts of one all encompassing organic pattern and …no parts of that pattern are ever really separate from it or from each other.”

The Wu Li Master’s book soothed my grieving spirit this fall when my brother suddenly died, and I felt permanently “separate” from him.

Weirdly, in the spring of 2010 I speculated about how the laws of the universe and the elasticity of space and time might have something to say about death and dying on earth. I wrote:

“…there (are) all kinds of stories:  the story of childhood with its myth and magic; the story of adulthood with its passion and suffering; the story of old age with its death and loss.  But the mitigating factor in old age, in all of life, is the story of the universe, of time and space.  This is comforting to me because in the face of our cruel natural world, there’s a much bigger reality: time and space…”

When I finished reading my journals I restacked them back on their shelf, glad I took the time to revisit my younger self.  My journal writings turned out to be hopeful letters to the future me, that white-haired lady living in the year 2021.

 

Image Credit:  The Universe       Image Credit:  Dancing of the Wu Li Masters         Image Credit:

 

Let’s Travel to Another Place…

I’ve been living in the Land of the Sick—and I’m ready to move.  To begin with, I’m sick with some kind of non-Covid throat infection, and this despite the fact that I wear masks, social distance, and disinfect.  How did these bugs sneak by my PPE to my tonsils?  Then, my brother and elderly mother have spent time this month in the hospital.  My daughter-in-law just video-chatted and said their whole family is sick with fever and nausea and waiting on Covid test results.

Looking for a reprieve from ill health, I turned on the TV…

and the screen lit up with people in hospitals on ventilators.  I walked to the kitchen to make a cup of tea (for my throat) but couldn’t miss my kitchen counter covered with thermometers, throat lozenges, and ibuprofen.  A sticky pad listed the health clinic and doctor’s phone number. The scenery in the Land of the Sick is not so great.

There are other lands to live in and plenty of examples of people who, in dire times, discovered them.  Novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote Treasure Island, spent much of his youth in bed sick with bronchial infections.  That didn’t stop him from letting his mind jump a ship bound for exotic, ocean beaches full of nefarious pirates. Teddy Roosevelt too, was a bed-ridden, sickly youth, yet he spent hours with his toy soldiers dreaming of great deeds and military conquests.  Being physically trapped in their beds didn’t prevent these young men from roaming far and wide in their minds.

Another woman I knew told me about her own journey out of the Land of the Sick.

“Koontz and his stories, they saved me,” said Pam. “I got through my cancer treatments and came out the other side, amazingly still sane.”

Pam was just a young woman when she found out she had breast cancer and needed both surgery and chemo. It was a nightmare. She was frightened and became obsessed with thoughts of death.  Then someone gave her a Dean Koontz mystery/horror novel.  Pam told me reading Koontz book she was transported from her hospital room to an alleyway in southern California where some telepathic dog was tracking a killer.

“I wrote Dean Koontz a long letter thanking him for all that he did for me,” Pam told me excitedly, “and guess what?  He answered me back!”

Other lands are far more pleasant than the Land of the Sick.  There’s the Land of Music, the Land of Adventure, the Land of Building.  My father was a trucker in norther Indiana hauling trailer homes across the country.  He spent long hours in the cab of his truck with little else to do but watch the ribbon of highway stretching ahead of him. Dad trucked in a time before podcasts and other entertainments were available. His only diversion was the radio—when he could get reception.  But it was on these lengthy, boring trips to Florida or Massachusetts that dad would design and build a large addition he planned for our house.  He told my mother he had the blueprint in his mind.

This past week I took a hiatus from the Land of the Sick to binge-watch Netflix.

There I saw a great mini-series, The Queen’s Gambit, about a young woman who became a chess master.

In order for Beth Harmon to visualize her chess moves she had to leave the Land of Anxiety and Fear.  No one can concentrate if they’re locked in some awful headspace, but sometimes leaving is harder than we think. Beth Harmon took drugs–not an option for me, unless of course you count Ibuprofen.

Today, my throat still hurts, but I’m no longer contagious. I think I’ll take a drive down the road, not far, just to the place where there’s a little rise. I’ll park the car and sip my water bottle and and watch the traffic in the valley below. Maybe I’ll see a car with an out-of-state license plate, maybe Oregon.  Then I’ll think about that wonderful time we flew kites on the Oregon coast—and escape the Land of the Sick for a while.

 

Image Credit: Covid patient  Image Credit:  Dean Koontz   Image Credit: The Queen’s Gambit

Poetry and Electing an Honest Man

I bent over the worksheet on my desk and followed the outline of the leaf with an orange crayon, and the acorn with a brown one.  Then I filled in the body of the leaf and acorn, lightly stroking the crayon back and forth. I remember how I admired my artwork in third grade.  Below my colored oak tree was printed a poem, the last two lines I still remember: “Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.”  I thought about that poem this morning marveling at the colorful ash tree in my front yard turning with autumn. These days pop culture has little use for poetry, but a century or two ago poetry was all the rage.  For me, certain poems are so unforgettable they’ve come to define each step of my life.

Most people are familiar with Robert Frost’s poetry and particularly his most famous, “The Road Not Taken.”  When I was in high school I won second place at the Indiana State Forensic competition reciting this poem.  I remember slowing the final lines down for dramatic effect:  “And I?  I took the road less traveled by—and that has made all the difference.”  The desire of my youth was encompassed in that line.  At seventeen I longed to be unique and make my own mark in the world in my own way.  Now, at the other end of the life cycle, “Birches,” another Frost poem, rings more true.  Frost writes how as an adult he misses his carefree youth:

“So was I once myself a swinger of birches

And so I dream of going back to be.

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,

And life is too much like a pathless wood…”

In college I became a cynic and lost all faith in God.  It was the Viet Nam era and over 58,000 young men and women were fated to die. In 1972 my first grade crush, Dennis Collins, would become a paraplegic fighting in that war.  The banality of weekly death counts numbed me.  I eventually turned to art to reignite my passion for life and living, and joined the college drama program.  I directed my fellow actors in a short performance of T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.”  I asked the players to paint their faces white and wear black turtleneck tops and pants as they took turns reciting: “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.”

When I was newly married a relative of mine, someone I cared for very much, “came out” and told me she was gay.  I remember castigating her because I felt this was a lifestyle choice, and she didn’t understand what she was getting into.  To support my argument I referred to the memoir of poet May Sarton, and the struggles she experienced as a lesbian.  It took a few generations before my thinking, and the thinking of the culture at large, shifted. This attitude change was expressed well in Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese”:

“You do not have to walk on your knees a hundred miles through the desert repenting…

You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

Eventually I raised my family and began a mid-life career teaching high school English.  I tried all kinds of imaginative ways to make poetry more palatable to my students: a poetry unit using rock music; lessons on dating and romantic poetry; an awards ceremony for the most funny or creative poetry my students could find or create.  Some years I began the class discussion on poetry with Billy Collins’ clever, “Introduction to Poetry”:  “I ask them to take a poem and hold it up to the light like a color slide…but all they want to do is to tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it…”

When I finally retired from education, I had more time and became more civic-minded and politically active. Again poetry encapsulated in just a few stirring words my worst fears and best hopes.  Poet William Butler Yeats wrote with such profound insight, several lines of his poem, “The Second Coming,” have been used for numerous book titles:  “…Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity…”

Just this past week I glanced at British poet, Sheenagh Pugh’s, fall poem:

“Sometimes things don’t go, after all, from bad to worse. Some years Muscadel (grapes) face down frost…

A people sometimes will step back from war; elect an honest man; decide they care…”

As time marches inexorably on, I’m beginning to mourn the loss of friends and family members. Soon it will be my turn, and the thought of leaving this life is fearsome indeed. I find it oddly comforting to consider all the great people who’ve gone on before, Shakespeare for example.  I carry the great poesy’s words close to my heart at this age, and it seems a fitting way to end this meditation on my life’s poetry:

“That time of year thou may’st in me behold when yellow leaves…do hang upon the boughs…

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong—to love that well, which thou must leave ere long.”

 

 

Image Credit: Diana Hooley    Image Credit:  May Sarton 

That Thing We Have in Common with Caterpillar Moths

Whenever I encounter dumb, really numb-skull human behavior, I think about a story I read years ago by author Annie Dillard. I’ve never met Dillard, but she seems like my kind of person, someone who likes being outside and enjoys observing the world around her. I’ll readily admit I’m not as keen of an observer as Dillard, and she likes to watch small creatures: birds, mice, insects, and such. I’m more fascinated by large, hairy humans. Some have called Dillard a naturalist, but she’s a great writer. I’m particularly fond of a story she wrote about the caterpillar moth. My only experience with caterpillar moths was when I was a little girl and held them in my hand, and watched their wooly bodies inch across my palm.

As Dillard describes it, caterpillar moths like to line up behind a lead caterpillar whose role it is to seek out pine needles, a primary food source. In an experiment, the caterpillar leader was removed to find out if its followers would break rank and find food for themselves. Dillard reported that astonishingly, the caterpillar followers did not vary the route set out for them by their leader, even when there was no food available along this trail. They continued in a “doomed march” head-to-tail around the rim of a garden vase, when just below them down the side of the vase was a stash of tasty pine needles. They mindlessly circled the rim of the vase for seven days, and probably would have starved and died without rescue. Caterpillar moths apparently are insects enslaved by instinct and habit.

I knew a man once, Michael, who like Dillard, enjoyed being out in the natural world. Michael was a fan of all kinds of science though: physics, engineering, astronomy—and bragged to me that he read The Scientific American magazine cover to cover every month.  Michael was truly an intelligent man, not a caterpillar moth at all.  One evening my husband and I invited Michael and his wife over to play Trivial Pursuit, that old board game you play by asking participants to answer questions from different knowledge categories.

Predictably, Michael breezed through all the science and science-related categories, but he was stumped when he drew a Literature category card. Michael was unfamiliar with novels and authors. I wasn’t surprised and thought for sure he’d steer clear of this category in future plays—but he didn’t.  In fact, he repeatedly asked for Literature card questions and repeatedly missed them.  It was as if he thought sheer persistence would gain him the knowledge he needed to answer the Literature questions correctly.  He seemed fixated, unable to break a pattern—just like the caterpillar moths.

My friend Bob on the other hand, is definitely not a caterpillar moth. Bob is a former biology professor who sometimes likes to tease and make comments just to catch people off guard. I mentioned to Bob that I’d gotten my DNA analyzed so I could explore my ancestry. Bob didn’t ask (like most people would) what country my ancestors came from.  Instead, Bob asked, “How much Neanderthal DNA do you have?”

Neanderthal?  I looked at Bob carefully to see if he was joking. Nobody wants to be called a Neanderthal. Everyone knows that Neanderthals are big and dumb. I used to call my teenage brothers Neanderthals because they were hulking brutes that ate peanut butter out of the jar with their index finger. Novelist Jean Auel thought so little of Neanderthals she characterized them in her book, Clan and the Cave Bear like they were caterpillar moths: hobbled by tradition and unwilling to learn anything new.

I did a little research on Bob’s question though.  I found out Neanderthals were actually quite intelligent.  They used tools and could be creative.  They made art.  Most of us with European ancestry have anywhere from 1%-2% Neanderthal DNA.  Whether Bob’s question was meant to be provocative or not, I know how I’d respond to him now:  “Neanderthals aren’t so bad.  Like moth caterpillars and other creatures, they have something to teach us–and of course, the most important lessons are always about ourselves.”

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Image credit: caterpillar moth     Image credit: Trivial Pursuit      Image credit: Neanderthal