Renewed Commitment for the Coming Year

It is New Year’s Eve. In our culture we refresh and reset goals. Make new commitments. Try again. I’ve been paying close attention to the news about the Australian bush fires for the past several weeks, some of the worst ever due to extreme heat, changes in rainfall patterns, ocean currents, and extreme drought. The amount of scorched acres is staggering, and the damage to the Gondwana rainforests (an ecosystem that dates back to the dinosaurs) appalling. Today, on New Year’s Eve, I woke up to hear just a brief news mention that researchers estimate up to 500 million animals are dead.

The broadcaster went breezily on to another story, but I had to sit down with that in meditation – 500 million animals. Including 8,000 koalas, 1/3 of the New South Wales koala population. There is a koala hospital there that treated 72 badly burned koalas on Christmas Day. Much of their prime habitat is gone.

I have no words. But it feels important to bear witness to this continuing tragedy. Humanity has major lessons to learn about being good stewards of the earth. Apparently we stubbornly stand to learn the hard way. And sadly, the world’s species are paying a terrible, painful price.

I will keep the spirits of these animals lost, and the ones still living and fighting for their lives, in my mind and heart. I feel grateful for all the fire fighters and animal rescuers on the ground in Australia. I wish I could do more than this in this moment. Separateness is an illusion. We are the web of life. The web of life is us. Those animals were and are us. I will continue to make whatever difference I can to turn this dark tide in the coming year. Who’s with me?

Elder, Not Older

Recently a friend emailed me that she noticed, the other evening while at a holiday gathering, that our friends are getting “long in the tooth.” This gave me pause with a not-so-wonderful feeling, as if I were an old nag about to be sent to the glue factory. At the same time, I have been listening to a number of different interviews with wise thinkers of our time on the topic of aging. I am only 56, but I like to consider what may be coming down the road in my life.

More and more, I strongly feel that we need to learn how to become “elders” as we age—not “olders.” As in how the elders of many indigenous tribes become wise leaders, seers, and guides.

The world needs us—all of us—desperately, right now. So we should resist falling into the box put around older people, and we should also resist the negative language that abounds about the experience of growing older. We should resist ageism.

As we age, we need to access our power as elders, and our beauty.

We have wisdom. We have big picture thinking and understanding. We have history and experience.

So, hear this: My “longer” teeth are for speaking, and biting into problems and chewing them up. Heh heh.

I will strive for good health for as long as possible. I will strive not to be doddering about, mindless and diminished, in calf-socks and orthotic sneakers, devoid of purpose and relegated to a TV. I won’t be marginalized.

I’ll wear beautiful dresses, glitter, ribbons and feathers in my hair. I’ll stand as tall as I am able. I’ll be fiercely kind. I’ll keep singing what matters. I’ll keep making a difference, no matter how small, for goodness, love, and a better world. I will become an elder.

 

 

 

Not So Slow

Pokey 2

 

 

Looking out of place, a horse trailer was parked next to the Everette Ice Area. In the parking lot near the trailer was a sizable round metal object, looking to me very much like a merry-go-round. Except there were no kids on it and there was no playground, only cracked tar with grass growing up in spots. 

Curious, my father slowed our woody station wagon that our family had named “Pale Blue Pig.” My mother stubbed her cigarette out in the ash tray and I rolled down my side window in the back to see better, also taking in grateful gulps of fresh air. 

“Look!” I pointed. “Ponies!”

My father pulled in and stopped. An old guy wearing dungarees, boots, and a cowboy hat led a series of short, stubby ponies down off the ramp of the trailer and tied them one by one to the railings of the metal “merry-go-round.” Last, a big white and red sign: Pony Rides.

“Pony rides!” I said. “Can I go? Can I go?”

“After we finish our errands,” my mother said.

Before long we pulled back into the parking lot of the Everette Arena. There were now several cars parked and, I was disappointed to see, a line of kids waiting. The ponies were trudging round dutifully in circles, each with a kid astride holding tightly to the saddlehorn. Some kids were grinning and others looked about to cry. 

My dad looked back at me over the seat, his blue eyes jolly. “Ready for your first pony ride?”

I swallowed and nodded, pulling up the knob to unlock the door. My mother took my hand and we went to join the line. It seemed to take forever. I watched as one kid burst into tears, screaming for his mother, terrified. The guy in the cowboy hat stopped the lead pony and went to the mother and kid. They talked for a moment and she removed the little boy who continued to scream and cry as she cradled him in her arms. A young girl in a pink dress was plopped on the now empty horse. The merry-go-round began moving again, the ponies’ tiny hooves making a clop-clop and the metal go-round squeaking as they turned in the circle. 

My dad turned to me grinning. “Are you going to scream and cry?”

I shook my head no.

Finally it was my turn and the old guy came over. “Well, well,” he said, smiling. His teeth were stained brown and he spit a bit of tobacco on the pavement. “Looks like a young cowgirl if I ever saw one! This here’s Slow Poke.” He gestured to the one empty pony.

Slow Poke was perfect—the pony in every little girl’s dreams. He was light golden brown and his long mane and tail were silver. He had mischievous, wise brown eyes. Best of all, he smelled like dust and grass and his fur was soft. My father picked me up and put me on. And around we went. And around. It wasn’t all that exciting really, going in the same direction, tied to the rail. But I was in heaven. And I wanted him. I wanted Slow Poke in the worst way. For my very own. 

I must have told my parents because the next thing I remember, Slow Poke was delivered to my house. I was over the moon! My very own pony. My mother already had a half-thoroughbred mare, named Ribbons. Now I could go riding with my mom!

In short order, Slow Poke was saddled and bridled. My dad held him out in the pasture. He gave me a leg up and I was aboard! I sat up tall. So very grown up! My father led me around, his big hand on the bridle, his large athletic frame reassuring me nothing could go wrong. He showed me how to put my heels down in the stirrups. 

“So your feet don’t slide through and you get dragged if you fall off,” he explained. 

My mother stood nearby. I was glad she could see how quickly I was learning and how brave I was.

“Would you like to try a bit by yourself?” my father asked.

Though I was uncertain about this move, I nodded. I wanted to be strong like him.

“Ray,” my mother cautioned.

“What? She’ll be all right,” he chuckled. “The pony’s name is Slow Poke.”

The second he let go of the bridle, Slow Poke bolted. I dropped the reins and grabbed the saddlehorn. I may have been screaming, which may have made Slow Poke run faster. Faster and faster Pokey ran down the pasture, my father hollering from behind us. And my new, stubby, smart-as-the-dickens Shetland pony headed straight for the only tree in the pasture. An apple tree with low hanging branches. He made for the very lowest branch. I was too busy hanging on to do much else. 

Wham! The branch caught me right across the chest and I was clipped off backward over his fat little butt to land on my back on the ground. Woosh! The air went right out of me. 

Slow Poke, well, he turned right around on his little hooves and galloped right back to the barn where my mother caught him. As if to say, “There, I took care of that!”

My father arrived. “You okay?” he said, feeling my arms and legs for broken bones.

I gasped in a breath of air and nodded, then stood shakily.

“Guess what we are going to do,” my dad said as he took my hand and walked me, limping, back up the pasture. “I want you to get back on your pony and ride.”

I might have cried or protested, or maybe I was stoic and did as he said, I don’t remember. But I know I got back on and rode, right then. For my dad knew, and I knew, that if I didn’t face my fear right away, I’d never ride again.

If I hadn’t ridden again, I would have missed one of the most magical parts of my childhood—my daily jaunts through the forest on Slow Poke, and later Topsy, a chestnut Welsh mare, and last Melody, a chestnut quarter horse. Four-footed furry companions for a lonely, only child. Horses brought me my three best girlfriends—Becca, Jessy and Jane—also horse lovers. Caring for horses all my young life taught me a lot about respect, responsibility, and courage. And of course, to expect the unexpected.

 

Summer’s End

Summer—
It just found me
old state forest
tall wise trees.

Dipped into
large tidal river running.

Still woods
silvery trunks so straight and smooth
leaves rattle and sigh.

Field of tall grasses
splashes of wildflowers
goldenrod
ragweed.

Merry painter
wearing summer cap.

We start to climb
a long hill but
now
places change.

Saw-teeth and tread roll
out the wide wheels
groaning and whining
branches break.

Where are we climbing to?

Re-framing a Homeowner’s Perspective on Wildlife and Insects: To Me They are Not “Pests.”

I wish people would find alternatives to lethal elimination of wildlife and insect “pests” from their property. In the past few weeks, I have learned of sad situations, in my supposedly nature-loving state of Vermont, in which humans have deemed a particular critter a “pest” and animals suffered as a result.

In one story, a resident was out for a peaceful walk when she came upon a raccoon in a steel leg-hold trap in a culvert. The animal was in terrible pain, and it was later discovered that the critter had a compound fracture on the leg that was clamped in the trap. Raccoons have heightened sensitivity in their front paws for feeling around for their food in rivers and such. Imagine the agony of having this appendage in the trap for hours and hours. Turns out the town road crew was setting the leg-hold traps to catch beavers as a way of maintaining their roads. The suffering coon was “by-catch.” After a public outcry and citizen letter writing, the town has thankfully pledged to cease the trapping and will find other nonlethal ways of mitigating the issues they perceive with wildlife. Let’s hope they keep their word.

In another recent story, a homeowner had decided a raccoon needed to be removed from her property. So she called a professional “pest elimination” company to come trap it, under the impression that the company would simply relocate the animal. (I am pretty sure relocating is deemed illegal, so not sure why she had that idea.) Instead she discovered that the pest elimination company had water tanks where they submerged the live animal in the cage to drown it. This is a process that takes up to six minutes. And in a cage. No escape. Imagine the panic. This process has been deemed inhumane by even conservative veterinarian organizations.

Then there are the various medieval-style torture traps for mice sold at the local Aubuchon Hardware store. Hard plastic boxes that allow not enough air so the critter suffocates. The worst – the glue boards that trap the mouse by sticking their feet in place. Thus immobilized, they die a frightened death of dehydration. Meanwhile, researchers have found mice to be incredibly family-oriented, with complex social systems. Do they really deserve such treatment for simply trying to find food and warmth? These are Maslow’s basic needs.

My slate is not crystal clean. I am not finger-wagging. But I’ve been significantly re-framing the notion of wildlife (and insects even) from “pests” to “community members” at my place of residence, and in the world at large. Since sixth-grade science class, when the idea was taught that all living organisms are connected in a complex web, I’ve felt this. But as an adult, I’ve been challenged to really live in a fashion of interconnectedness.

My story: I have had skunks live under my porch on and off for years. In my misguided thinking, I thought I must remove them since I had a dog and a cat. So I hired a trapper who, after careful research, I found was one who put them to sleep with an injection. But I was soon dismayed because every day he was trapping a new skunk near my house. Where were they all coming from?? As the death toll mounted to 5 or 6 beautiful black and white skunks, I felt like scum. The final straw was when the trapper had set the trap somehow at the drip-edge of the house eaves. And it poured all morning! I watched an adult skunk basically get water-boarded for four hours, water streaming off the drip-edge like a waterfall. I tried again and again to approach the trap with a tarp, but the skunk, understandably highly agitated, prepared to spray. I frantically called the trapper to say, please come soon! After that, I swore I would never ever again call someone to trap another animal.

Since then, sometimes a skunk or several winter under the porch. Other than an occasional light waft of “Pepe Le Pew,” they never cause a problem. When they wake up in the spring, there is sometimes a spray or two in the yard, but it dissipates in a day and no big deal. I wish I could put out some rabies vaccine bait, just in case, but am not sure how to obtain it…or if I even am allowed to. But otherwise the skunks, my cat, and I have cohabited peacefully (my old dog passed away).

And then I discovered that resident skunks have a benefit! I had a ton of Japanese beetles in my gardens and on my berries. All summer I would grimace in disgust while plucking the beetles off my plants to drop them in soapy water, where I am sure their drowning took equally long. I felt awful as I watched the beetles try to climb on top of one another to get to the top of the dish for some air. Horrible. I quit doing that method which had been highly recommended both online and by fellow gardeners. But soon I noticed the skunks were digging all over my lawn. Something that would send most homeowners over the deep end. Instead of getting mad, I researched online and found the skunks were eating the Japanese beetle grubs. Now I have no more Japanese beetles, without nasty pesticides! And my lawn looks just fine.

I also have a resident groundhog. Other neighbors consider them “pests” and shoot them. Even the babies. So sad. I call the groundhog in my yard “Chubby.” He (or she) has never once troubled my garden—I simply put a short wire fence around it. Veggies are untouched. Mostly the groundhog eats the clover in the lawn. And I have not seen a big invasion of groundhogs, as most folks online fretfully caution.

Last, one time a colony of carpenter ants came in on a piece of firewood in my fall wood delivery. Soon the ants ventured into the house! Tons of them. After several failed attempts to stop the problem with organic methods, I resorted to calling pest control. The guy came and sprayed all around the base of my house, for two years in a row. He wore only a light protective jacket and had his kid with him. He was a nice fellow, but wasn’t he worried about toxic exposure? I asked him about the safety of the stuff…for me, my dog, and my cat. Oh, just fine. Not dangerous at all. This was about 5 years ago. Still, when the crickets come out in late summer, I find a few crickets (and spiders and moths) who have the misfortune to hang out near the base of my house. Soon they are writhing in a chemical-nerve agent twitchy sort of death. The stuff he sprayed is still deadly. Not just to ants. Probably to us! Next time, I will be wiser. If carpenter ants come in on wood, I will not throw it in the brush pile (duh!!). I will carry it far into the nearby wild woods, so the ants are not deposited on my property. I am also in progress to redo the base of my house with solid flashing to prevent insect and mouse access. Really, the mitigation of these problems is up to me and my nonlethal, non-toxic ingenuity (well, and that of a trusty carpenter).

Anyway, I am finding, the more I just work to cohabitate with the wild creatures, the more peaceful, humane and even beneficial our relationship becomes. And guess what—my property is just fine. Side note: since as a human species I am only here for, if I am lucky, 80–100 years, I really don’t view the land as “my property.” It is land on which I live for the short time I exist. It is land that will exist long after me. The land belongs to plants, and trees, and insects, and wildlife, and for now, me. The land essentially belongs to Earth.

Delayed Mowing for Pollinators

A silly little poem I wrote, but what the heck. It’s all about the images that follow. For more on my thoughts about lawns, read my earlier blog post “Musings on Mowing the Lawn: An Environmental Conundrum.”

Delay the engine, the crush of wheels,

pollinators of all sizes are needing their meals!

Sunniest blooms, a lively display—

brings much more delight

than a lawn trimmed up tight

like a T on the green

of the PGA.

Long LawnSmall Bee 1Small Bee 2Wild StrawberriesDandelions

Screened

blue-jay-branch-tree-nature-animal-plants-1446183-pxhere.com (1)

Photo from pxhere.com

This morning I sat down at my breakfast counter to a creatively crafted omelet with broccolini and sharp cheddar, local-baked white toast, and raspberry jam from the farmers’ market. It was a simple feast, but a feast none-the-less. I took my first bite and looked out the window at a blue jay in the lower branches of a small pine. I idly wondered what it was doing. Was it eating the seeds of pinecones?

No sooner had I swallowed the bite, as this question drifted away, when an impulse seized me: I should check my email on my phone! The phone was lying within easy reach on the counter, facedown, the way I usually put it so I am not distracted by messages that appear. The ringer is off, so I am not hostage to every notification. Still, something inside compelled me to grab for it. But … I resisted. I consciously resisted, thinking, if I pick that thing up, I won’t taste this delicious breakfast I just made. I will mindlessly shovel the food in while my being is sucked into the screen and pulled in 20 different directions.

I finished my breakfast with mindful bites, allowing the salty cheesiness and the green goodness of the broccolini to rest upon my tongue. But as I ate, I wondered—what drove that impulse? Something inside me in that moment was not content to just BE, as if I harbor a fear of the mundane, of these moments in the actual physical world where nothing in particular is happening. Except, so much is happening! The jay in the pine, the snow sliding off the roof, the clouds of the big nor’easter rolling in, the water on the wood stove bubbling. Perhaps, too, I was driven by guilt. It was already 10 am on a Saturday morning and I needed to get to my writing client work if I had any prayer of taking Sunday off as a “normal” weekend day.

Getting “screened” is a ubiquitous cultural experience. It’s one thing to listen to a news story about technology addiction, and quite another to observe it in your own life, the lives of your friends, and then attempt to do something about it.

The other morning I stopped into my favorite bakery where they serve creamy lattes flavored with malted cardamom or ginger-maple. They have a range of cookies, scones, and croissants that keep me honest about making sure I get my body moving at some point each day, whether it’s a walk, yoga, or a fitness dance session. As I waited for my drink, I noticed a young couple sitting at a table facing the window to the street. Their backs were to me. What I saw was this: both of them were comfortably side-by-side, their heads and necks bent forward, and they were motionless. Intrigued, I repositioned so I could see what they were doing. They each had a large cell phone flat on the table, index finger on the screen, tapping and sliding. Neither of them spoke to the other. The whole 20 minutes I was there. Neither of them moved. As I passed on the way out the door, I glanced down and saw the comments bubbles and emojis of social media.

A couple weeks prior, I was in the same coffee shop meeting a dear friend for conversation. We were talking about pretty intense life challenges. But the whole time, her phone was face up on the table. At regular intervals she would jump as if jabbed in the back and pick up her phone. Then she would exclaim, “Oh, no, it’s my son. What does he want now?” Or, “It’s my husband. God, I hope he is okay!” The adrenaline rush that passed through her every time a message flashed was amazing to watch. It was clear that phone was keeping her, daily, in a constant state of mild anxiety. Needless to say, our conversation lacked a coherent flow with so many starts and stops. I felt genuinely concerned, with her being so jumpy from attending to every message.

I am not immune to getting screened, as my breakfast this morning illustrates. I am an information junkie. I LOVE to learn as much as I can about this crazy, fascinating world. This drive increases as I get older. I just want to have some sort of understanding of “What the heck?!” before I die. Where did we come from? Why are we here? What is dark matter and what does it mean about reality? What is that jay doing in that pine tree on this frigid morning? You know, those kinds of questions. Because of this, if a wondering pops into my head, I reach for my phone. This is one of the cool things about technology—all this knowledge at our fingertips! Such a gift!

I also use my phone to track my calories, my client hours, and even to make sure I haven’t died in my sleep to lie undiscovered for days while my cat roams the house traumatized by my demise and hungry. Yes, there is now an app called Snug that allows people who live alone to quietly check in each and every day. If you don’t check in, the app texts your emergency contacts. Pretty cool!

There are also endless, fascinating podcasts to download that make long car drives a pleasure.

The problem is, once that little device is in my hands, there is no telling where I will end up or how much time will pass in that state of mental fragmentation within my benumbed body. Over time, I realized that certain activities such as surfing my Facebook wall often caused me to experience all sorts of negative emotions, such as guilt for not knowing that remote acquaintance lost her dad. Or a lonely pang of wanting a dog again after seeing a cute post of someone’s pup. Or a feeling of missing the train because I can’t afford to plan any exotic vacations. Or disbelief and discouragement over someone’s heartless condescension on a political thread.

On a recent New Years Day, I went for a walk in the woods. As we tend to do during moments of “beginning,” I was pondering my writing coaching and editing business and what I wanted to do concerning its marketing. I was pondering my life overall, what I wanted to discard and what I wanted to enact. I stood in a small grove of trees. It was silent except for a crow’s intermittent caw. Then the wind picked up and the trees made a soft sshhhh sound. I made a decision. I wanted a robust physical existence, not a robust virtual existence.

When one has a small business, or a band, and I have both, social media and an online presence are a must. But just how much, how often, and what kinds of online media can be a choice. I realized that most of my best clients come via word of mouth. I took my business off of Facebook. I never, ever had gotten any client through that page. Instead, I ramped up my LinkedIn for professional visibility. And I delved into the joy of my blog. That was it. No Twitter. No Instagram. I am busier than ever.

And, in one of the best decisions I have made lately, I took Facebook off of my phone. I thought about and researched deleting the account. Or going dark. But I have too many friends with whom I don’t want to lose contact. So I just took it off of my phone.

It was astounding how not having Facebook on my phone changed my life. Just one simple change like that. I no longer lose hours a day to all those screened emotions. I spend less and less time updating my persona online. I read more books. I write more letters (remember those??). I send more cards. I meet more friends for coffee. I make more phone calls and actually talk to people.

I no longer think in Facebook posts. I no longer respond in comments bubbles. My blogs are intentionally long, like real chapters or developed articles. I fear that the breadth and lack of depth of thoughts and of information is at the root of many serious current issues we face as humans. So many people knowing so little about so very much. Just a little of this. A little of that. How can we ever make informed choices?

Recognizing the ways that getting screened affects my life is a work in progress. I must remain aware, observing my own behavior and that of my friends and that of strangers. How is this habit affecting me, affecting us all? Our relationships? It’s fascinating. And a little horrifying. And definitely annoying. Of course, I am as easily sucked in as the next person. The wild and wacky world of quantum physics theories? Right there at my fingertips. On that device! Or maybe a good omelet recipe. Or a page on the behaviors of blue jays.