Monday, November 30, 2009

Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here

Yesterday, I received a photograph from my friend, JB, over in Moab, Utah. He had been out scrambling around on the red rocks, as usual, and ran across an old abandoned car that provided some pretty cool photo opps. I'm jealous. I spent much of the '90's photographing abandoned cars, abandoned homesteads, abandoned barns. Do you see a pattern here? I loved the details. The grill of the car, rusty dashboards, the shadow of Chevrolet or Oldsmobile still attached to the hood. A doorknob, a hinge, a reflection in a window. Old red gingham curtains, torn and tattered, left perhaps when the Mrs. passed from this life and things were never the same (I'm telling this story). I had photo opps that still tug at me years later, a few I didn't respond to and wish I had. I try not to look at life through a rear view mirror, but these deserve remembering. There were the yellow daffodils (are there another kind?) alongside an abandoned house outside Russell, Arkansas, gray and forlorn, except for that beautiful yellow underneath where the windows used to be. A sign outside an abandoned gas station (here I go again) still asking for the business of passers-by. Little slices of life that have come and gone.

I remember like it was yesterday, the day I got my first camera. Taking pictures had always been something someone in our family was doing. They had these old Brownies-in-a-box. Wish I had them now. It would be the base for what could be a burgeoning collection! Anyway, I longed for my very own camera. And money was, shall we say, tight. I was scheduled to go on my sixth grade class trip that week: state capitol, state historical society, planetarium, Como Zoo, my first escalator ride, stuff like that. Remember, I was a country girl. I had just woken up when Mom came in to give me my birthday present a couple of days early. And there it was ! My very own camera. I thought I'd died and went to heaven. I was so happy I could hardly speak. I know, hard to imagine.

Needless to say, my first efforts were less than stellar. There were the golden horses on top of the capitol. This was back in the day when you could climb a small circular stairway and get to the roof, right next to them, back before lawsuits became a favorite American past-time. There was the class picture, double-exposed against the state capitol itself. I'm pretty sure I ran out of film before I ever got to the zoo. I've never been known for self-restraint.

Now, I need to get myself in gear and do more photographing again. It might help if I actually read the instruction manual for my digital camera I bought over a year ago. I'm still stuck on film and that process. My head hasn't made the adjustment yet. I suppose I should get with the program. It's time. Digital cameras being what they are, I don't even have to show restraint! In this endeavor anyway. I do have a few photos I've taken with my digital camera that I rather like. I'll post some on my blog. What the heck. The one of the car at the top of this is JB's, though (I got his permission to post it). I couldn't resist showing you that blue.

Like all artistic, creative endeavors, one can get obsessed pretty quickly. In a good way. You want to stay in the flow, the energy, that seems to carry you along from idea to idea. Once you start seeing the world through fresh eyes, watching new vignettes of life unfold, life becomes a smorgasbord. I'll take a smidgen of songwriting, a photograph or two, a poem, a little of this, a little of that. There's a name for people like me. Dilettante. Skip past definition #1, i.e. 'superficial dabbler,' and go right to definition #2: 'a lover of an art or science, especially of a fine art.' That's the one. It's a working definition. That means I'm working on it. Right along with that self-restraint.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

"Hymns and Hers"


I'm up on Taos Mesa, in a small "off-the-grid" community. I was invited to spend time at a friend's house while they are away for Thanksgiving. I'm loving the solitude, the quiet, the peaceful feeling. The energy is so good it's palpable. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains are the backdrop for this magnificent scenery. Some people might not like miles and miles of sagebrush, but I love the wide horizon, the openness that is also opening my heart, my thought, in some pretty wonderful ways.

I appreciate more and more every day the synchronicities that life shows us when we are willing to pay attention. While I was driving to Santa Fe a few days ago, my friend, Diane, called just as I was pulling into North Platte, my usual stagecoach stop. She has been reading a book by Stuart Wilde, Infinite Self, and wanted to share a passage that she thought described my own present "journey." And she was right. It hit the nail on the head.

Just before heading up here to The Mesa, I found myself driving to Border's, knowing I should buy that book. It would be the perfect reading material during my "retreat" here. It is sooo perfect. He is a Brit, with a great sense of humor. He makes spirituality/metaphysics really fun, but he also has some really solid ideas; ideas many of us have heard, more than once, but he has a style that speaks to me and makes me realize that spirituality can and should be filled with joy! Not ponderous or heavy-handed. Laughing is good for a person! Finding the humor, the absurdity of our human experience is, I believe, essential to our spiritual growth. It raises the energy, not just our own, but all the people we share it with; having fun as we awaken, remembering who we really are.

Today, a mutual friend of Diane's and mine, Peggy, mentioned she has read several of his books and is now re-reading one. She also informed me that he lives in Taos ! God has a way of dovetailing some nice elements in our life, don't you think?

He talks about conformity, the ways in which we are trained by our family, our culture, our "tribe," to conform. He says, "The idea developed that if you didn't believe what the tribe believed, somehow you would make the tribe vulnerable, and God would be displeased because of your lack of faith or action. Maybe you didn't follow through on the great hippopotamus ceremony or maybe every year in June when they threw two virgins off the cliff you said, 'I don't fancy this virgin-off-the-cliff-routine.'

He goes on to talk about neckties, as an example of conformity, "I don't know if you've noticed, but your neck is where air passes through to your body. You'd think that tying something around your windpipe wouldn't be conducive to your well-being or productivity. Yet millions of men go through the symbolic act of strangling themselves every morning, tying a colored cloth around their windpipe."

He once gave a seminar in which he encouraged people to "throw away the little piece of cloth around your neck and wear a chicken outfit instead....When your co-workers ask, 'Why are you wearing that chicken outfit?' answer 'What chicken outfit?' ...Do things to break up the binding rigidity that the mind imposes on you, and the fear it has of breaking away from the mold." His point is, "The routine you are familiar with day-to-day is part of your ego's authority over you. By doing things differently, you begin to challenge its authority."

So, think of some things you can do differently and I will too. We can start with simple things like what we eat normally, or what music we listen to. I do not like jazz, so I should probably start with that. If I can learn to like jazz, I swear, I will be the enlightened, awakened being I have long struggled to become. And please don't tell me I don't understand it. Cacophony has never appealed to me. See? That's where I need to start.

He asks us to trust our feelings more. He says, "The journey from the intellect to the Infinite Self involves wrestling the intellect into stillness...Too much thinking is a terrible disease. It brings on awfully chronic symptoms such as seriousness. I flee from serious people as fast as my chubby little legs will carry me. This life isn't serious. It's a comedy. With seriousness comes a lot of judgment and a lack of light and laughter and God Force. It's a very stony path to take."

Creativity, in all its permutations, is another thing he talks about with joy and freshness, "Mozart is still alive...his energy...and you can use that as an inspiration to improve your music and to make it more original. All of Mozart's energy is still in the collective unconscious - in the perpetual global memory of our people. You can call upon it and tap into it....just ask to be locked into his inspiration, say, 'Amadeus, bro, show me a few cool riffs on this guitar that no one has ever heard before.' Play what you hear in your mind."

Well, now I'm blathering on, as I'm wont to do. Anyhoo, you get the idea.

No, I am not a shill for Stuart Wilde. I'm likin' this book and thinking, oops, feeling, you might, too. I love his humor and I like that he walked away from his very abundant material life to find his own path, as they say, and has shared what he's learned so far with us. He literally lives with two suitcases and his laptop computer. He says, "In the end, my whole life is in two suitcases. I can look at the suitcases and think, 'Wow, cool - two suitcases, one for each arm. Three suitcases would be a problem.' He sounds like my kinda guy.

We are all Michelangelo, chiseling away at the marble, slowly revealing the Beautiful Idea, the God Force within. And that's what I'm doing up here on the mesa. Quietly chiseling away...

And as far as that virgin-off-the-cliff thing? Wheeeww! I'm glad I don't have to worry about that!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Dog is My Co-pilot

Emma and Holly are two of the coolest dogs I've ever met. Yes, that's them in the snow. But, that's not what makes them so cool (Emma prefers blue, Holly's into red). To call them empathic is probably an understatement. These girls bring a whole new meaning to that word. I experienced it first hand when I visited them earlier this fall.

It was the middle of the night when I started having some gastric problems, stomach, that sort of thing. I went downstairs to get a glass of water and as I passed through the living room, Emma looked up from her couch. Yes, that's right, HER couch (to her credit, she was willing to share it with me sometimes). I got my water, visited the bathroom, and went back upstairs. In a little while I was back down, feeling the need to be closer to the bathroom for a bit. This time, when I got back up to my room, there was dear Emma, lying on the floor right next to my bed. She just looked up at me with those sweet eyes. I laid down, put one hand on her back and quickly fell asleep. Around sun-up we both stirred and she quietly climbed up beside me on the bed and we both fell back asleep again. When I woke up, I realized the pain was completely gone. Dog as healer? Absolutely.

After breakfast, we did our usual morning walk at Cornwall Nature Preserve, just up the road from where they live with their equally cool and loving housemates, Murad and Abby. Emma never left my side during the entire walk. She stayed right next to me. She pretty much kept an eye on me throughout the day. Holly made her own contribution, running though the woods, chasing squirrels, showing me the joy of simply being alive. Her energy raised my own. And what a fine contribution it was.

Holly loves her "babies." These consist of Stinky Monkey, Flying Pig and Bear, to name just a few. She has several tennis balls in her toy box, as well. Once Titan, a pal of theirs, came to visit and he noticed Holly had posted herself next to me near the couch. It must have looked like a plum spot to Titan. Next thing we know, we're watching as he goes over to Holly's toy box, noses around for a tennis ball and gets one in his mouth. Making sure Holly is watching, he flips the ball around in his mouth a bit and then drops it in front of the television. Knowing Holly cannot resist a tennis ball, Titan quickly moves into position, assuming the vacancy left by Holly near me on the couch. It was a thing of beauty. Please know, I hold no illusions about their deep fondness for me. We do have a good relationship, but this is pretty much about who's doing the petting. Believe me, they know how to work a room.

If I ever find that Perfect Place for a Fort, it's gotta include a dog or two. I hear Holly is having a bit of trouble with her leg today, so this is for you, Golden Girls, sent with much Love.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

For All the Wilfred Owens of the World

About twenty years ago, I became friends with a man who had more interests than I could possibly keep up with. It provided me with some new interests and made gift-giving a snap. He had mentioned someone named Siegfried Sassoon, who was a poet from The War. Now, of course, more accurately known as World War I. It was getting close to his birthday when I found myself wandering the aisles of a local used bookstore. There it was. A copy of Siegfried's memoirs.

I followed that up with The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen. And that's where my love of war poetry began. It might seem odd saying you love war poetry, but it was a natural for me. I love poetry, and I love men, and men go to war. Yes, women, too. Plus, I was learning to have a deeper appreciation for the masculine mind, the male perspective on life, and nothing like war poetry to get to the heart of the matter. I was also falling for Wilfred. I have this tendency to fall in love with dead men. I'm not sure what that says and I don't intend to look into it. It started with Jack Kerouac, back in 1970. But, I'll write about him ... up the road.

Wilfred was, in his own words, "not concerned with Poetry." He said, "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity ... all a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful." There was nothing sugar-coated with Wilfred Owen. They stand even today, maybe especially today, as the ultimate anti-war statement.

He was born on March 18th, 1893 and died on November 4th, 1918, in the last days of the war. I'm not going to go into the facts of his short life here. I encourage you to do so, though. The Collected Poems ... is a good place to start. It's edited with an introduction and notes by C. Day Lewis, a poet laureate and Daniel's father. It contains interesting and insightful fragments of letters Wilfred wrote to family and friends during this time. I was particularly taken with this description, in a letter to a friend, while training troops in England and preparing himself to return to the front: "For fourteen hours yesterday I was at work - teaching Christ to lift his cross by numbers, and how to adjust his crown; and not to imagine he thirst till after the last halt. I attended his Supper to see that there were not complaints; and inspected his feet that they should be worthy of the nails. I see to it that he is dumb, and stands at attention before his accusers. With a piece of silver I buy him every day, and with maps I make him familiar with the topography of Golgotha." They say there are "no atheists in the trenches," but it's easy to see why a person's faith might be tested under such conditions.

I would love to quote some of my favorite lines, but in reading them now it seems inappropriate to take them out of context. Some of my favorite poems are probably everyone's favorites: "Anthem For Doomed Youth," "The Parable of the Old Man and the Young," and "Dulce Et Decorum Est." It ends with these lines which, although taken out of context, stand in the strength of their conciseness.

"The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori."

The old lie? How sweet it is to die for one's country.

A few years ago I felt led to stop at a used bookstore in St. Paul. I was passing through to see a friend, just having flown in from Santa Fe. There I found another copy of The Collected Poems. I snagged it for myself. By this time, he had become a part of my consciousness.

He and his fellow war poets keep popping up in my life in unexpected ways. When I first moved to Santa Fe, I met a man who liked poetry as much as I and he had a book of World War I poetry that I quietly coveted. It honored several poets from The War, among them Rupert Brooke and Robert Graves, and of course, Sassoon and Owen. Their poems were punctuated by images of art in every medium and genre. In some odd way they were a beautiful counterpoint to the horror of the words. It's titled, The War Poets, compiled by Robert Giddings.

Just this last summer, I drove over to a small town in Wisconsin to visit an acquaintance and his dad, a veteran of WWII who had survived Normandy. When I first arrived, he showed me his music room with an extensive and eclectic collection of vinyl. He brought out several of his personal favorites, albums with beautiful eye-candy cover art. He suddenly pulled one from among the many and said, "I think you might like this one." He really didn't know me from Adam, as they say, but he was right. It was a recording by Country Joe McDonald (yes, of The Fish), reading poems by Robert Service, who served as an ambulance driver in WWI. These were backed only by the sound of his acoustic guitar. We sat in silence and listened.

Later, I had a conversation with his dad who talked about his life as a soldier. He shared some interesting and painful to relate stories. He said to me, "I've seen things that no one should ever have to see." By this time we were both trying to fight back tears. And not very successfully.

Wilfred Owens represents to me the countless men and women who have "died for their country." And I do mean countless. I want you to know him, too. And never forget him. There's too much at stake. Maybe everything.

"The Parable of the Old Man and the Young"

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

-Wilfred Owen

Mary Black and "My Youngest Son Came Home Today."

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Searching for the Perfect Place to Have a Picnic

I spent a fair amount of time in my childhood searching for the perfect place to build a fort. This was akin to searching for the perfect place to have a picnic. It was on-going, as we rarely found anything that met our standards. I'm not sure what those standards were but we had them. It had to be off the beaten cow path. It had to have soft grass to sit on. Inside a nice bower was good. You would think with eighty acres it would have been easy. You would be wrong. It was a beginning case of the-grass-is-always-greener syndrome. And I don't mean over the septic tank. We did not have one of those.

We would spend the day in the woods with a lunch Mom had packed for us. My sister, Jane, and I, were usually on this adventure together. Our slightly older sister, Christy, stayed behind and carved knives from pieces of wood. We didn't think she was angry and needed to see a shrink. She was just a tomboy. She often gussied up her knives with some woodburning. You know, swastikas, things like that. Not really. Just kidding, Chris. We would check out possibility after possibility for a fort or a picnic. Sometimes we'd sit down on the grass and look up through the trees. We didn't know anything about feng shui. We just knew what felt right. And none of them, hardly ever, felt exactly right. As the morning disappeared and the afternoon waned, we would finally head back home, fortless but happy. Then we'd sit on the step and eat our sandwiches.

Recently, Jane and I were planning to have lunch together. We went to what we thought would be a good place. It was outside, across from a lake, had all the makings of a good picnic spot. Then the bees came around and we decided to try it inside. Inside was a bar. But, it was lunchtime. We found a booth near the window looking out at the lake. Then we realized the menu consisted of everything fried. Natch. It was a bar. We decided it wasn't quite right and told our waitress we were moving on.

Next stop was a Chinese place in a strip mall that reportedly had good food. We read the menu board just outside the door. I don't know about you, but good food, especially good Chinese food, does not consist of chow mien, lo mien, or any derivatives that include the word mien. Jane said, "I think we're still looking for the perfect place to have a picnic." We laughed. And got back in the car.

Next thing you know, we're heading across town to another place we'd heard was pretty good. Word was it had a deck on the lake. Naaaay. We even got temporarily lost trying to find the place and had to stop at a convenience store and ask directions. We kept driving by a house with a cop car in front of it. At least twice we made a u-turn near it. Until we decided it might be better to make the u-turn farther down the street. We had nothing to hide, but, you know, cops.

That reminds me of a story. I used to be more of a night owl and would stay up late to watch Tom Snyder. He was intelligent, funny, and kinda cute. One night he had Alfred Hitchcock on and he asked Hitch what was scary to him, what made him afraid. He replied,"The police." Yeah, I know. He went on to tell Tom that he was afraid he'd get stopped for some small, insignificant traffic violation, one thing would lead to another, things would go terribly wrong and next thing you know he's at the police station getting booked and thrown in the slammer. And that's when things would really start to go haywire.

Anyway, the place didn't have a deck and it was closed.

And the U2 song,"I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," was on a loop inside my head.

We drove across town yet again and ended up at yet another strip mall. No, it was a different one. And this one had a great Chinese buffet. It was almost the perfect place to have a picnic. Almost. What can I say. It lacked ... ambience. But, we went inside, picked our seat (yeah, good one, but I'm talking about feng shui here) and chowed down. Not bad. Besides, the alternative was to drive back to Jane's, sit on the step, and eat sandwiches. Which would have been kinda fun, too.

I'm still searching for the perfect place to build a fort. But, that's for another time. Anyway, they say it's not about the destination. It's about the journey. I'm going with that. It sorta offsets that grass-is-always-greener thing.

Painting: Thomas Cole   "The Picnic"

Back to the Land

It seems going back-to-the-land is enjoying yet another resurgence. It happened in the Sixties when communal living and living off the land became a popular way to, "get outside the system." It wasn't a new idea then and it isn't now and it's probably for the same reason: people want to have more control over their lives.

I grew up with parents who were back-to-the-landers, only I didn't know it at the time. I thought we were just lacking the amenities. I don't think they knew it, either. They were busy trying to improve our lot. They wanted out of this doing-everything-for-yourself way of life. They wanted something more.

We lived on a small farm with eighty acres. I know this, because the part of our land we rarely ventured into was known as The Back Forty. When we did cross over into that magical land we felt like we were in another part of the universe. Usually we were looking for our horses which had ventured in before us. Riding horses is what we did every summer day we could get away with it. Saddle sores became a way of life. Ever had saddle sores? It ain't pretty and it hurts like hell. I remember them well. It was worth it, apparently, because we kept riding every chance we got.

The other summer days were spent hoisting metal washtubs. Or, maybe it just seems that way. I thought we spent an inordinate amount of time washing sheets. I passed those days with music running through my head, singing whatever song or songs had caught my ear. I have a distinct memory of the Beatles,"Nowhere Man," catching hold. "He's a real nowhere man, living in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody." Ah, adolescent angst. Weren't those fun times? If someone said I had to repeat them I would borrow a phrase from Mark Twain in Roughing It, "Just order me some sample coffins."

Picking agates was a favorite early activity. We did it just for fun, walking the road, spitting on rocks that showed promise, declaring them "keepers." We took them home and put them in a coffee can, looked at them now and then. Then some idiot neighbor fed us some misinformation about white rocks being valuable and all. So, we went with our Radio Flyer wagon and embarked on the quest for white rocks, with a bit of shine of course. This turned into more work than we had anticipated. By the end of our first day out we'd had enough. We told ourselves it was all a stupid lie anyway. We trudged home, dragging the wagon behind us. So much for easy money.

No, we weren't back-to-the-landers. We were just country kids who had an omnipresent tub of homemade soap ( lye stinks) on the back porch. In the corner, on top of the summer stove, was a separater. For the unenlightened, this separated the cream from the drinkable milk. It was a large glass jar contraption with a turny thing. The milk came from a few cows. That we had to milk. By hand (I use the papal "we"). This was a job for the older siblings mostly.

Then there was the garden. But I'm too tired to go there.

So you want to go back to the land? Me, too. Been thinking about it a lot lately. A few acres with a small efficient, self-sufficient house. You know, "off the grid." There would be some veering from my early life. First, there has to be hot water coming out of the wall. There has to be a washing machine, not the kind with wringers (think photovoltaic panels and a lot of batteries). I'd like to have a chicken coop again, one the critters can't get into. The garden must consist of raised beds. Maybe a greenhouse to raise some orchids. Oh, and a local farmer's market would be nice. Goats. Maybe some goats.

Just go with it. I don't need any reality cops harshing my buzz.

Monday, November 2, 2009

"Starry, Starry Night"

When I was a kid I dreamed of becoming an astronaut. I had a comic book that explained all the necessary training with accompanying images. Apparently, training in a tank of water was required, which I didn't understand, since we were talking about space. Naturally, I had concerns about the fact that I always had to hold my nose while underwater. Then there was my problem with motion sickness. Many a car ride, and even several school bus rides, included a stop along the road so I could get out and get some fresh air. I'd walk around in the ditch for a minute and then we'd try again.

I don't remember giving any attention to the fact that there were no women astronauts back then. I thought anything was possible. Dreams die hard. Eventually, I changed my life-goal to photo-journalism (more about that another time), but I was left with a deep love for space exploration and I followed the space program with what can only be described as zealotry.

Nothing turns me on more than images from space. There is a YouTube video I love which shows Hubble images that are mind-boggling. I'm going to include the link so you can see them, too. Just last night a friend mentioned watching a DVD called "Cosmic Dance." I can't wait to see it. But, I have to say, there's nothing like actually viewing space through a good telescope. It's truly astonishing. I discovered a great website devoted to astronomy He sounds like a really neat guy, with a profound love of space. I can relate. He says, "Learning astronomy opens and expands your mind. It tunes your thoughts in ways that allow bigger ideas to pop into your head...possibly becoming life-changing, world improving actions." Check out his site. It's not at all dry or overly-scientific. It's for folks like you and me who simply love this infinitely incredible universe we live in. And I do mean infinite.

Remember the Don McLean song, "Vincent?" It spoke to me of my love for Vincent van Gogh, but it also made me realize that the stars speak to all of us on some level. All those many years ago, Vincent looked up, saw the stars, and wanted to share his vision with us. And he did so, beautifully. Sometimes, in the wee hours, I stand outside, look up at the vastness of the universe, and open myself up to what it's telling me about myself, about the infinite life expressed there. I will never stop being amazed and delighted by what I 'hear', what I feel. It's quite simply this: it's home.

Take a look at this: The final image is not of stars, it's of individual galaxies. How wonderful is that?

"Your mind, this globe of awareness, is a starry universe. When you push off with your foot, a thousand new roads become clear." - Rumi