We’re instinctively attracted to the dramatic. Flashes of excitement command our attention. A thunderbolt, fireworks, a human tragedy! We’re pulled together out of collective concern. Our media and entertainment generally exploit this innate tendency.
In a powerful but different way, the Grand Canyon, a new born, a heartfelt song, or a gorgeous sunset can all sweep us together in wordless awe. I find it more interesting to cultivate ways toward this type of connection. Some traditions use the rubric of turning inward and focusing on one’s breathing, acknowledging the immediate sensations of one’s body; or noticing one’s thoughts or emotions without engaging in them. I’ve always been a fan of folks doing whatever works for them to find their center if it causes no harm to others.
Being a borderline introvert, it comes easy for me to softly engage with the world. Our cultural and intellectual awareness is primarily visual. It can reinforce our habits and sometimes, our addictions and prejudices. Visual beauty captivates me, but from early on, I wondered what makes me think something is beautiful? So I was also drawn to the less showy, the unrecognized drama. Heated societal debate may go on about which shock topic is more special or deserves our priority. Often I’d rather explore the rich wonders that lie “in plain sight,” humbly awaiting my discovery beyond the boisterous, exuberant melodramas.
There are profound wordless insights within exchanges in the quiet. Only when I silence the clamor of my worldly concerns, do I create space to receive them. Such “listening” requires a certain unforced awareness. It’s not intellectualized, nor wholly sensory, but I find the path through the senses offers me a foothold and a springboard. It’s not limited to places nor things, sometimes people evoke this mysterious merging.
Some of the most engaging and enriching people in my life have been quiet and unpretentious. Whenever it occurs, the bonding is less a process of building and more about disclosing what already is. If I can set aside self-centered urgency, be patient and fully present, the genuine connection has room to be revealed. All sharing is enhanced if not rushed; as our experience deepens, it becomes more timeless. Whether with our own breath with the atmosphere, our awareness with a humble flower bud, or our essence with another being of any form, for me this beautiful communion of presence is the joyful purpose of life.
The wind pressed into my awareness lately. It’s not something one generally factors into deciding about a float on the river. Yet on a recent float a headwind greatly extended the time a friend and I were on the water—despite our low profiles near the river’s surface, a light breeze will silently accentuate or buffer the gravity-driven current. And it can reveal our fragility by chilling a wet body in short order. Even our colorful sunsets can be ascribed in part to the wind-driven wildfires across the globe.
We’ve had several storms pass through here, hurricane remnants. Enhanced by our climate changes, these now can include tornado-watches, a once-fragmented by the mountains novelty that more robust storms have made more common. Storms routinely dump 1-2+ inches in quick deluges, something rare in my childhood that’s also now the norm.
Floating the river on a breezy day can reframe one’s view. The glass-like surface becomes rippled, transforming rays of sunlight into a hypnotic shimmer. The river’s usual reflective mirror becomes instead an abstraction highlighting the pulls and vibrations of the wind. Unseen force are made visible. Evening colors dissolve toward silvers and golds, as if the wind eschews being robed in the colors of material things.
Intrigued by the metallic palette, I plunge my hand into the waters, captivated by the whorl it creates. For an instant I see a world unto itself. It melds into the whole, as surely as we all will. But it was never really separate from the river, so the notion of merging is a falsehood. Can we recognize we too are not separate? That we too are never really apart but rather, just an integrated part of the whole?
The breezes sweep us forward like leaves, bit players that we are. Mostly we act out futile egos in this timeless drama, even as we have the potential to recognize the larger view. Relinquishing control to the elemental forces of gravity, wind, and sunlight, I pass under the canopy of century’s old trees, between boulders worn over thousands of years. Waving my hands within the gentle flowing resistance of this ancient river, I feel connected to mountain springs pouring into creeks far beyond my limited sight. Floating helps me sense the limitless, unseen energies sustaining all beneath our minuscule roles. Without answers to the many pressing questions storming through our time, I try to listen to my heart and take love and beauty as my guides.
The last few weeks I’ve been gifted with many great conversations. Maybe it’s partly a result of all the isolation during COVID, and our societal desire to reconnect, but it got me wondering about what makes good convo happen.
I’ve enjoyed sharing in rambling discussions while walking along city sidewalks, while dining at eateries, and trading in meandering streams of thought while floating on inner tubes with friends. A multi-generational community gathering recently offered our neighborhood a chance to break bread together, raise our glasses, and delight in each other’s company. I met up with several old friends but a highlight for me was engaging in a lengthy and enthralling exchange with a bright 8 year old and her younger sister.
This week a house guest and I, each alone through the last 18 months of COVID, have had several nurturing, deep conversations (punctuated by many laugh-so-hard-you-snort contagious belly laughs) on my front porch and at my kitchen table. Clearly we’ve both been hungry for genuine companionship (and the chance to just be silly). I’ve also had witty, playful discussions via texts and some wonderful chats over the phone with siblings and nearly always with my mother. I’ve even had some lovely heartfelt exchanges via FB messenger with a friend who was literally on another continent six thousand miles away.
So while geography can set the tone, context affects the flavor, and the means often sets the pace, there’s something about our desire and need to connect with others that seems to transcend all the above.
In the best of these interactions trust and sincerity seem to me the foundational components. Whether engaging with someone we’ve known literally our entire life (like family members or lifelong friends) or a first encounter with someone, we want to feel safe when we share. Sometimes this need is overt, at other times it’s barely perceptible or even unconscious. I find when we can allow ourselves to be open and vulnerable and offer our authentic self to others, it makes for the richest exchanges.
For me hearty connections also oblige deep listening, without distractions. Maybe I’m just not as adept at juggling as others, but I prefer giving singular focus to the tasks I do and to the conversations in which I share. When dialoguing in person this means tuning out all devices; when communicating through a device, it means not multi-tasking while engaged. Perhaps it’s the artisan in me (or perhaps I’m just “simple”), but I want to be fully present. There’s a unique emotional and physical energetic communion occurring within every particular conversation; I try not to miss it.
I enjoy such sharing immensely but I seem to be equal parts introvert and extrovert, so I savor my “away from humans” time as well. Floating solo on the river hundreds of trips has offered me a familiar, mostly quiet space to recharge. Inevitably, even if I encounter no humans, a “co-mingling” occurs. By not talking and quieting my mind, I become more receptive to the non-human “energies” of the world through which I am floating.
It may be feeling the power and presence of an eons-old boulder sculpted by the currents over thousands of years; or sensing the soft transition of a centuries-old tree trunk into humus; or feeling the vitality of a seedling emerging between both, bravely reaching skyward to catch some sunlight. Often on a float I’ll catch glimpses of minnows wriggling between the waving river grass, and in doing so my limbs seem to mimetically loosen. On evening floats I may mindlessly spy swallows making flowing arcs and slow-turning pirouettes overhead. They echo the unseen breezes on my skin as I’m gently rocked on the water flowing below them. Literally floating between earth and sky, their aerial ballet amid the panoply of sensations always lifts my spirits.
On a float in the early morning, a few days ago I spotted a smooth as silk, svelte critter darting among the rocks along the river bank. It was a mink. Within an instant it scampered over a branch, plunged fully into the river without a splash, was out in a wink, gave a split second shake, slinked under and then over a limb, and pausing, for just a second, looked my way and our eyes met, before it continued along its mercurial journey. The brief encounter lingers far beyond the experience. No sounds were shared in our exchange, but passing it instantly quickened my senses. And the memory still resonates—the sleek critter’s speedy, seemingly effortless movements, somehow unconsciously inspiring my muscles to emulate its efficient grace.
A bit further, there’s a form far off downriver (barely a speck in the riverscape, really). I know at once it’s a great blue heron. I’m 500 feet away, and already it turns its head and acknowledges me. It takes flight passing overhead upstream before I’m anywhere close. It conveys by example: be watchful, notice details, yet stay aware of the broad world in all directions with “soft eyes.”
Moments later on the float, its mate extended great trust, allowing me to get very near in these early hours of the day. Abruptly, this enormous, gangly yet supremely majestic bird pushed itself upward into the morning air, long legs dripping, it defied the boundaries between earth and sky, even while defining the boundary of our intimacy. I was awed by the sheer beauty of the whole: the glistening water, the fresh new foliage, scents of the river on the cool breeze, the heron’s powerful departure from river mud into the atmosphere. Consciously yet without thought, I absorbed it all — my being merging within all aspects of the instant. I sense and intuitively feel the heron’s presence has imbued something more potent than words within me as I climb the bank to head home, grateful for the gift of yet another rich conversation.
Sometimes over a period of time, we are privileged to come to know a dear friend. They’re so engaging and wonderful, you find yourself wanting to share pictures of your time with them, and end up talking about and considering and musing over your experiences together when you’re apart. It’s so appealing and calming and vitalizing to be in their company you feel fortunate and grateful and are happy to share them with others.
This is how I feel about the Roanoke River in my neighborhood— the inconspicuous, mostly unobtrusive life-blood and ancient lifeline through this valley. I was floating the other evening and from a distance saw a young woman on the bank. There was something about the way she was walking, slowly, with a reflective air that caught my attention. Somehow from afar I could feel she was consciously connecting to the river. As the current carried me close, I recognized her, and she me, and she shouted over the light rumbles of the falls “We’re FB friends!” But in seconds we were too distant to talk and that was it.
I thought I knew her name, and FB (despite its deserved negatives) helped me verify my foggy brain was accurate; it was Katie Trozzo as I thought. We have many mutual friends and yet as far as either of us could recall after, until this instant had never met. So I sent a quick note and, spurred by some unspoken sense during our brief crossing, invited her floating. She was immediately game, even for a pre-workday, dawn float.
We embarked as the sun was rising. One of several delightful surprises was seeing that she had brought a cache of sunflowers and set them to float in the river when we entered the water. It was a genuine, heartfelt gesture of admiration and “thank you.” This first “flower blessing to the river” for me, felt somewhat akin to lighting a candle at a shrine. I very much appreciated it in every way.
From this lovely commencement we shared in rich, sincere conversation about her daily outdoor singing ritual, the possibilities of granting a river rights in our society, ecology, COVID, vaccinations, aging parents, and the many challenges of finding our own path and our tribe in this ever-more complex world. It’s so very heartening to me to engage with smart, sensitive young people who are willing to consider hard questions and further, are concerned about life beyond their own, recognize the interconnections, and who are in turn actively engaged in forging communal paths on their own courageous initiative.
We also shared several sweet silences, encountering or floating past no less than six herons — two great blues at the start, two not quite mature adults (black-crowned night herons, I think), a green heron intently focused on breakfast, and another great blue (very possibly one of the first pair that had flown downriver) just beyond the bridge where we came out, which beautifully and appropriately bookended a most serene morning.
Less is More
Over time, you come to know a place. In our culture we mostly pass through the world focused on where we are headed or “need to be.” Sadly, I can catch myself thinking about a destination rather than the experiences in front of me as I travel.
That’s one of many reasons I love floating on the river. The whole point is to immerse myself deeply into the float. If I put any “effort” into it, it’s mostly to try and not think a whole lot, but rather just absorb the experiences as I’m gently carried along within its welcoming banks. Floating in a tube puts me directly in the water. I move at a slow pace, and tubing allows me to let go more completely (it’s not easy to spin freely in a kayak or canoe on a flowing river). There’s almost no need to steer when you’re literally surrounded by a rubber bumper. I also have the option to be silent— which allows me to listen and hear more as well as scare critters less.
I like variety but my art training taught me long ago that less is often more. By going along the same route (I recently estimated that I’ve floated this same section 250+ times since 2019). I’ve been on this stretch of river April-December, at all times of the day, even done a handful of floats at night. I’ve developed a pretty good sense of what to expect around every bend. Yet I never know for certain. So this awareness, like a familiar old friend, opens the space within the experience to find and appreciate subtleties and richness within the rapport.
The river, and every landscape we pass through (too often, numbly) are alive and an interconnected web, so there’s inevitably changes. After big floods, the changes can be dramatic. Grand old trees sometimes get uprooted. I’ve noticed the banks get carved out by the immense force of the water (sediment in it acts like sandblasting). Sometimes the protruding boulders are even reshuffled a bit. Different plants emerge, flower, seed and die back each season. Over time some trees hollow out and became havens for raccoons, woodpeckers, or wood ducks and anything else that can make use of them while empty and upright. When gravity finally wins and they lay down on the bank, crayfish will thrive underneath, turtles may sunbathe atop, and herons may perch on the dusty wood to spy and harvest minnows.
The spot in this photo is just under the Elm Ave / Main St bridge. There’s a small island of sorts on the right, which obliges keeping to the left if one wants to float without getting hung up in the shallows. Just as mature plants tenaciously cling to life, new sprouts must be incredibly hardy to gain a foothold. Two young sycamores on the mid-river island just right of the large rock have somehow taken root. They’ve valiantly survived at least three severe floods where they were fully submerged for a day or two while incredible water pressure tugged at them. The tiny rocky island attracts ducks and herons. I imagine it’s because the food is good and easy to come by there. They likely feel relatively safe (humans tend to move past pretty quickly as there’s a slight drop in the river just before it), and so with the weeds and foliage they can be nearly invisible.
Most of us are pretty distracted right here anyway, because that slight drop in elevation obliges paying attention to three big rocks and aiming for a pass in the brief falls between them. The falls make for a mini-water slide that takes one back to childhood for about 3 seconds. Or not—as in the time I was distracted taking photos of a great blue heron on the aforementioned weedy island one early morning. My leaning body, eyes and attention aimed opposite the flow, and the projecting angle of the smallest of the three boulders combined with a slightly bottle-necked force of water and all at once I realized I was fully underwater and had flipped at 7 AM!
I managed to grab the tube and spot then grab and toss my encased but untethered phone into the tube as the currents swept my water shoes (which I had removed and had in the mesh bottom of the tube) downstream. However, while shaking off the shock, my bare feet didn’t fare too well on the smooth mossy rocks, so I slipped while attempting to reach one of the shoes. In doing so, I flipped the tube that I was leaning on for support in the waste deep water—and into which I had tossed my cell! Choice words were expressed and I searched intently for 5 minutes to no avail. Finally I gave up and tried to mentally mark the location by the trees on the bank figuring I’d have to come back later—it was a workday as I recall. (Word to the wise— this was as effective as remembering one’s way in the woods by “memorizing” the trees in a forest—hopeless.)
I stood there dripping and chilled, resigned to be paying for a new cell phone, and took some minor solace in seeing my other water shoe hung up on a tree branch upstream along the bank. As I climbed back into the tube, I was stunned (happily) to discover my phone had wedged between the mesh and underside of the tube! Another stroke of luck, like so many throughout my life
Every bend has character and a tale. A few yards beyond the large rock in this photo, on the left side, is a leafless tree with the girth of a utility-line pole. It’s in the water about eight feet from the bank. It looks to have died. But because I’ve became intimate with this “neighborhood” the last few years, I know otherwise. In fact it was “deposited” there by a flood in 2020. It apparently was uprooted and floated downstream, vestiges of its roots got lodged in some boulders in the river bottom where it now stands, and the force of the flood waters propelled the tree upright. The top of it caught against some existing trees overhanging from the bank. So for nearly two years (and through a couple lesser floods) it has remained locked (somewhat precariously) in place.
At a glance it may just seem to be “any old river scene” and in a way, it is, like your besty is just “an old friend”. I love the way the cloud is reflected in this image, and how it plays off the heaviness of the rocks, and the smooth fluidity of the river’s mirror surface, and the melting image it offers of the lacy, merging tree branches. I like the mysterious dark lushness of the bank beyond the island. The vital greenery of the plants thriving along this river, which was returned to health by the hard work of so many folks during the last few decades. As I passed just after taking this photo, I saw a black crowned heron wading on the isle. It’s an old river, and yet it’s not a “thing” at all — this photo is just a momentary view of a slice of a place I’ve come to know, grown to appreciate for its beauty, experienced some of its wordless magic, always enjoy passing through the center of, and so often, find my own center within.
Yesterday was the longest day of 2021 and it was the hottest day so far. I do my best to avoid direct sun, but it was the kind where even light activity in the shade breaks one into a sweat. I was eager to wrap up the work day, swap paint clothes for trunks and water shoes and head to the river. On the walk to my drop in spot, someone a bit ahead of me on the street kept stooping and reaching down. As I neared I realized she was a young lady picking up plastic cups, bottles and litter. I thanked her. She humbly responded “I’m just trying to do my part. I’m a smoker but I never toss my butts out the window. We’re all a family. I jus’ don’t understand some folks.” I told her how much I appreciated her and agreed completely. Maybe it doesn’t matter, but it seems to me we won’t end such habits until we comprehend why folks have them. For me solutions are about finding the balance—avoiding harm and nurturing good without provoking defensiveness.
It was so wonderful to feel the evening breezes after the exhausting heat. The extra long hours of sunshine made the water warm, but I was immediately able to cool down. As I came around the first bend I was delighted to see a dad with a fishing pole assisting a pint-sized girl with hers as they stood in the water. From 50 yards I thought, that looks like Ryan. Before I uttered a word he said “Hello John!” He was guiding his nine year old, Emma (who I learned had a birthday yesterday) on casting. I asked how it was going— “I had a couple of nibbles just as I was pulling it in, but both times I tugged it out of their mouths. So close, but so far!” I smiled and encouraged her to keep at it. Seeing adults sharing their love and respect for the outdoors in such a way with kids seems so heartening and crucial in our era. Maybe this is how we curtail litter habits…
Further along, a foursome, two older and two young adults were foraging in the water, bent over like gleaners. I assume hunting for “river glass” or some particular type of stones. Every now and then one wold hold one up and carry it to a bucket on the bank. On the opposite bank I passed another family, the now familiar trio of white ducks, two adults and a juvenile, all so engaged in their digging something tasty from the mud they barely acknowledged me passing. A spin over the small rapids and there was a dad hoisting a large stone like a super-hero over his head as his female partner, and son, and an adorable puppy (the tails of the latter two wagging excitedly), anxiously watched for the climactic splash! A one-day hydrology engineer toddler daughter nearby, wearing an over-sized beach bonnet was contentedly pre-occupied, pouring water into a bucket in the shallows oblivious to the dramatic event.
Beyond the bridge I passed another duck-billed family, speckled brown momma and several ducklings, so perfectly colored and safely silent, they only caught my eye in the last instant as I passed. I bounced over a few gentle ripples and I was transfixed as usual by shimmering golden light on the surface intertwined with the ochre-colored river bottom, silvery boulders worn smooth over thousands of years and marine green water in the shadows. I snapped a few images, and when I spun, suddenly realized a black-crowned night heron was directly across, fishing and watching me float past. It was focused on dinner and I suspect, happy to see me head downstream.
I arched my back, reached out my arms, let my spread-eagle frame drape the tube and hung my head all the way back until my hat dipped in the river. Floating this way for a moment or two, I was reminded of a comment from a Jewish friend the other day, about how the hangman in Tarot cards had evolved from the Judaic scholars’ practice of hanging upside-down in order to gain new perspective and provoke insight. I however, had no brainstorm, only a wet skull. But I DID notice the nearly full moon. Sitting upright, I was entranced as it glowed and faded behind veils of clouds, high on the horizon toward which I was headed. It was cool to see it framed between the fifty foot spans of the towering Elm Avenue bridge.
Another fowl treat appeared as I swooped the last water mini-slide just beyond the bridge. A juvenile black-crowned heron (perhaps the offspring of the one seen upstream), was poking about in the weedy, mid-river island. Lacking the adult’s striking light gray and black markings and yellow “crown”, it has mottled brownish plumage but, like its parents, an unmistakeable stunning red iris. Encounters on the whole float seemed to flit back and forth between humans and birds.
I slowly meandered on the surface of the waterway to the bridge where I pull out. As often occurs, the tables turned. I became the main object of interest to a family walking the greenway with toddlers; they stopped and pointed at me as if I was an exotic wild being, floating toward them. The kids were delighted when I waved, the friendly gesture of a strange creature on a giant spinning black doughnut, part of some river family, drifting by from its waterworld.
I love that even though I live within a mile of downtown, it’s quiet enough on my block to literally wake up to birdsongs. I enjoy getting out the door early in the morning and taking the ten minute stroll to the Roanoke River. Walking the slightly over-grown alley, the rabbits and squirrels scoot as I interrupt their breakfast. Though the critters and birds are stirring before me, I come across few humans. Those I do encounter, like me, are content to wave and not jabber at this serene hour. I enjoy conversational walks too, and savor catching up and connecting with good friends, but as often the quiet suits me just fine.
I sometimes go through a workday and entirely miss the scent of the rosemary in my front yard, so such lingering walks help me maintain a connection to this world. I’m guilty of focusing too much on where I’m headed, or getting trapped within my head, and can go “swimming” through life, barely noticing the moment and sensations I’m enveloped within. But when walking unhurried, quietly absorbing, insights somehow have more space to arise. Even though I rarely stop thinking, this wandering practice also offers me a chance to be more aware of my ceaseless internal chattering, my “monkey-mind” as some traditions would call it. So I can also gently work on being an observer of my thoughts. In essence, my solo walks help me practice Being. They also defy the silly notion that I’m an independent entity.
In the best moments, as I amble along my sense of self begins to loosen (horror of horrors in our self-made, individual-praising, American culture!), and a deeper connection emerges. One that transcends my “identity” — this accumulation of ideas about who I am. The mockingbird laughs at my titles, professions, roles and names, and all the personality tags that I conveniently (yet falsely) use to define “me.” Paradoxically, tuning in to the sight of the sunrise, the sound of the river rippling gently across stones, the quiet buzzy mew of a cat bird, the lushness of the spring field grasses underfoot, the smell of river mud and blossoms opening to the dawn — something about focusing softly outward allows me to dive inward.
What at first seem to be discreet “things” that I can name (this type of flower, tree, bird) that are outside of “me” are slowly revealed to not be “things” at all, but interwoven processes: butterflies pollinating blossoms that will bear fruit; decaying logs in the muck harbor crayfish on which herons will feast; prints in the mud from deer that drank at the river bank and left scat where mushrooms will sprout; the only constant is life feeding life. Similarly, this physical “thing” called me is really a dynamic process as much or more than an unchanging constant. I’m not the person I was two years ago, or last year, or last month, or even yesterday.
This familiar being I refer to as “me” is not a static, fixed thing. Cells are dying and being created, muscles wear and are renewed, interactions with others triggers emotional pathways, creative instants have expand synapses and understanding and so I’m changed. Strangely, we insist on identifying ourselves as the same, and even strive to force all life into rigid separated “things” and categories.
Yet, allowing my sense of self to be washed away on the river bank, the boundaries start to dissolve. I’m am occasionally conscious, ever-changing cluster of energies interacting within the ever-shifting whole of life. In losing my limited sense of self, I discover the wonders of an unlimited “self” immersed, merged and inseparable from all other life forms. We’re far less important, and yet so much more integral than we can begin to imagine...
Appalachian spring has arrived. Away from my home base for two weeks and enmeshed in three intense work projects in a row, I’ve managed little time to make art, write, ponder, or really take in the wonder. Yesterday morning I chose to notice.
It was a drizzly, misty morning and everything had been freshly cleansed by the soft rains. It felt soothing just to be out walking, taking in the atmosphere and literally taking the mist within. Something about such days makes me more aware of my body’s permeability — as if the water within my cells more readily merges with what we like to think of as the world beyond our selves. Maybe because the potency of the sensations overtakes my often restless mind, tunes it down a few notches.
Blossoms had already burst forth a few weeks ago but now the predominant tone was verdant—trees that were just budding with tips of green when I left town suddenly were abundant lush textures of fresh growth. The color of the river reflected this change, the canopy of the trees shifting its hues toward a more olive green with hints of golden ochre.
I appreciate folks making the most of their time, but have no desire to wear earbuds and press something into my mind while I am experiencing a walk. I savored the familiar music of birdsong, a raven’s deep Cronk!, and the river rippling softly over ancient rocks. I was almost alone on the greenway, but then, by typical serendipity, an old friend strolled toward me. Two days prior, her name had come up because a new friend (now living four hours away where I was working) had a brief stay in Roanoke a few years ago and the approaching friend had been her host. So it goes in my life, that threads of connection are always appearing and appreciated.
We had a meaningful chat, about challenges when family or personal health issues arise, and how COVID-19 had pushed some of us to face and reconsider the trade-offs of our sacred American individuality related to separateness and family and community and death. The issues are not new, but this year for me they feel more pronounced. Will the post-pandemic recalibrate our life-styles and values? Are the changes moving us toward a healthier future? Life is never static, much as we sometimes ache for the security of stability.
As I walked up the alley toward my inner city home, I came upon a pair of deer, who ceased their munching on tender greens and stared. I couldn’t help but consider they were in the yard of the former home of a couple of friends, since divorced and moved away. I learned the mother of one had passed away last week. Changes...Stability... For a moment the deer seemed uncertain whether to stay and engage with me or flee. They opted for the latter and we all continued on our chosen paths.
My backyard is overgrown a bit, and the overwintered kale had bolted, so I nipped the tops and clipped them into the compost pile, along with the pruned shoots off my dwarf pear. Especially when things in my life are shifting, a part of me craves such simple repetitive tasks. I spent ten minutes snipping the branches into small bits so they’ll more readily transform into rich soil to feed new life. As if on queue, I noticed another shoot of raspberry had popped up in the compost.
While peacefully mindful at my mindless task, my shoulder was sprinkled when I brushed against a Japanese maple on the side yard. It had nearly died a few years ago, but this moment was thriving. Bending below its lower limbs, I discovered a glorious array of colors—golden bronzes, scarlets, sprouting greens, maroon buds set against the misty gray morning sky. The fresh rains adding both a hazy softness and a clarity, the view epitomizing the richness, mystery and certainty of life’s progression.
Ecstasy is identity with all existence.
~ Peter Matthiessen, “The Snow Leopard”
Spring is springing out everywhere here. This year it feels like we’re more hungry for it than I can remember. Maybe seeing the buds and joyful blossoms restores a sense of order and normalcy, an assurance life is going forward.
We’re always eager for spring but maybe we’re extra hungry because this year has forced death and transitions into our consciousness — a scary thing in a culture that does its best to deny decay as an equal half of the circle of being. Generally our society prefers not to recognize we’re engaged in an endless process of growing and aging and continuous change.
Along the riverbanks the natural toll of the winter is conspicuous. Like every year, ancient trees, seemingly solid middle-aged adults, and some young saplings all succumbed as part of the ongoing cycle and the energy they accumulated steadily infuses new growth. I write this knowing many have lost family members and close friends and in no way mean to diminish the pain and challenges of letting go of those we love. I feel it as my own mother approaches the midpoint of her 10th decade. Considering letting her, or anyone we love go, literally breaks one’s heart. This breaking and healing too is a process.
Many have also stepped up this year to take on extra care for those who are ill, attending to seniors especially, but those in need of all ages. For some of us who aren’t directly offering physical care, our wishes may translate into concern for those we know and love. I try not to let this manifest as worry. I aim toward “conscious awareness” of others that, in my better moments, might be labeled “sending intentions.” Some might call it “prayer” of a sort, though I prefer the former term (hopefully without offense to anyone) because the latter suggests mythologies interceding that I don’t require. However we name it, for me it’s a way to consciously reinforce our too-often ignored bonds to one another.
The fishermen were out in droves along the greenway early this morning, playing their part in the food chain. I assume the waters were recently restocked. Several brought along young ones. While dad may be able to savor patiently watching his line, it made me smile and recall my own youth watching his restless eight year old boy playing his part: meandering the bank, spinning twirling twigs, hopping rock to rock, and creatively looking for any way to lessen his own boredom. Further along, a trio (dad, boy, and girl) are leaning on the wall of a concrete bridge gazing down where the babbling creek pours into the river. It’s a treat to see the gangly son fully engaged and pointing at the water toward what I assume is a “big one”, and an added bonus to catch the girl glancing my way, return my smile as she softly waves.
The path along the river is always a mix. There were folks with dozens of seasons pushing their limbs and hearts to keep strong. From a distance I see a young couple with a beautiful lab stop. Curiously, the man has gone into the weeds by the water. He emerges and proudly hands a single daffodil to his partner. It occurs to me they may be pregnant as I pass them.
Kids are on my mind the last couple of days. One close friend has been struggling through the somewhat expected, still challenging, melodramatic “teen-into-adulthood” moment with his daughter. Another friend’s not-yet-teen daughter contracted COVID and (thankfully) burned through a few days fever and is now on the mend. I can only offer shoulders and ears to one, and support from a distance to the other. I try not to give advice nor platitudes, having learned by past trials and especially this year that nothing is assured.
When not distracted by people or my own thoughts, beautiful, hopeful yellow buds silently reveal their presence, emerging amid the decaying trees, dead stalks, and ever-changing river. Whether in moments of strife, transition, or joy, the best we can offer one another is an open-heart, an awareness of our shared energies, and our inextricable connection to each other and all life.
Writing offers an opportunity to clarify my thoughts and feelings. Often these relate to my art and may offer insights about my work. I learn from engaging with others and welcome comments.