Eclipse Fever collides with Wildfire in my environmental newsfeed this month. In only ten days, my abnormally “normal” town will become a swollen version of itself. As the planetary wheel turns, we’re one of the very first and most reliable viewing places for the total eclipse, given that the Oregon Coast has a foggy and questionable personal history. Frankly, we see it as the most charming place from which to watch, bar none. But just how charming is something we try to keep very quiet. Notice I’m not being very specific or dropping its name.
The jig is up already up, though. Most of us with empty rooms in our homes have long had them booked with long-lost family or friends. The Willamette Valley floor is sprouting campgrounds in abundance, at $200 to $750 per site. We’re stocking up as if a snowfall were imminent, aware that our town will likely double or triple or quadruple in size. We’re also tuning up bikes so we can stay on the bike paths and out of traffic snarls, the ones that we’ve we’ve been warned about since April.
This will be the second total eclipse I’ve witnessed. The first one was in 1979. As I was recently reading the mystical accounts of eclipse stalkers, I reached back to remember…very little. Popular culture seemed far less interested in things celestial back then. The path of that total eclipse was a Nike-shaped swath over Washington and up into Canada so there was almost no Eclipse Hoopla. My husband and I and baby Ben simply drove the night beforehand a couple hundred miles to the rolling hills of southern Washington and parked our VW van on a wide spot in the road. Across the gentle hills a smaller version of Stonehenge was visible. Despite the dramatic location, there were only a few of other cars in the nearby parking lot. The sun was just up, and it was a showery February. The sun did break through the clouds to cast shadows over the hills as it chased a sweeping line of darkness. In my mind now it’s another subtle and rich life moment, thanks to my somewhat intact memory and a beautiful painting by my friend Jan that still hangs over my bed.
Meanwhile, right now, there’s another more pressing emergency situation in my other summer world, one that could (literally) eclipse the actual eclipse. Across the valley and up in the mountains lies our summer cabin, also in the path of eclipse totality. A wildfire has been burning on the shoulder of nearby Mt. Jefferson, and it’s only a couple of watersheds away. At risk are the old growth forests that are such a global treasure. Lately it’s been growing some days and sitting relatively still others, and there’s a staff of over 200 professionals on the case. Ironically, when the smoke is thick enough, the fire slows down, since it feeds on the heat generated by the powerful summer high-altitude sun, among other things. This whole area will thankfully be closed to Eclipse watchers because of the serious increased risk of fires.
The preparedness required here is a little more complicated than stocking our Valley home with beer and barbecue supplies. We’re clearing out brush to make the area less hospitable (my interpretation of the official fire containment plan). Unlike the solar variety, this crisis won’t likely be all over in a week. For that we’ll need to wait until the rains come in late October.
We’re fortunate to be able to soothe sore muscles at the hot springs retreat center down the road, where my husband is a big support of the BFD, or the Breitenbush Fire Department. We hear that the risk of the fire reaching here is miniscule now. We return back to the valley, a hundred miles away. The winds have blown the smoke from the Whitewater fire in the mountain to settle right outside our window. Sunsets here are rubber ball red. There’s little chance that the eclipse will actually be eclipsed by smoke here, but there’s a sizable risk of other fires, what with all the increased human activity.
So much for Oregon laid-back summers. Living so close to the awesome power of the sun brings a sense of aliveness here in the path of totality. We plan ahead to care for our visitors and our residents, in and out of the forest. We work prudently to protect the lives around us. We live in the traveling light shadow of not knowing what the future will bring, even as we savor the summer breezes. It’s an incandescent time. There’s a totality, a presence, to it all.
I want to remember this, I think, when I start believing that life is dull or boring. This sense of being fully engaged and awake, of being “all in.” Perhaps this is the real awe-inspiring nature of the eclipse, or of wildfire. For the moment all the murmurings and distractions of our daily lives cease and we can see the magic inside the enormous power of nature, so far from our actual ability to control it.
I’ve been taken captive by the sheer beauty and the energy of the first true days of summer. It’s a season of wonder, this short and brilliant burst of color and light after an unusually dark and wet winter. Farmer’s Markets thronged by pale people baring themselves to sun, to heat. The scent of promise in the air as festivals and fairs bloom. Mountains Rainier, Hood, Jefferson, Shasta on their thrones, reigning over it all.
Summer here is a quickly moving target, reliably launched in mid-July and lasting for a couple of months. With an urgency driven by my mother’s recent death, I delight in the good fortune of having the energy to experience so much of this Life Force. I move through forests, mountains, and beaches here in “God’s country,” trying my best to savor every little drop out of the season. But the more I revel in the beauty and activity around me, the more I move, the more I long for the the still center of an actual target.
Each year I set my sights on my birthday, smack dab in the middle of the season. For most of my life it’s been a perfect day to gather with friends to celebrate with sour cherry pie or peach ice cream, a time to cram it full of love and gatherings. I’ve celebrated at fairs and festivals, from the Oregon Country Fair to Bastille Day. It’s been a big pay-back for the times in my childhood when I missed celebrating with my schoolmates because of my summer birthday.
But about twenty years ago I decided to declare a day (or week) right around July 15 as a time for personal retreat. It was counterintuitive, but I was desperate to land somewhere. Since then, this date has become a still point right in the center of all the goings on, a quiet place where I can gather the fragmented parts of myself, where I can see the silver and pearls that I carry inside myself, those parts which often go unheard and unattended. I spread them out on the carpet of time, slow it all down, and listen.
That first year I heard a name change as I immersed myself in a tide pool: Susan Grace. I listened. I changed my name to two names, just to be reminded of what’s truly at the center of the target. Not me. Not Susan, with all her personality and accomplishments. Grace. Which does not belong to me. This has come to mean a deep trust in the greater Mystery, in the stillness in the center of movement.
When I remember this, when I honor this, the target stops moving. There is the still center. This is what is true. And so, once again this year I gather the fragments of self and stand for a few minutes in the stillness. And this life makes a deeper kind of sense.
And you, Dear Reader. How can you find stillness in the center in the midst of all the moving parts that summer offers? You don’t need a birthday to declare a time out, whether it’s for a day or for a few minutes daily. Whether you go big with a silent retreat or small with daily meditation, it’s time to slow the target down and find the center, in the bullseye hidden in stillness.
Facebook became a Real Thing around the time I began my late life career of coaching and mentoring. I welcomed all comers, thrilled to connect and/or reconnect with kindred spirits from near and far. In the ensuing years, I’ve stopped by FB infrequently, and I hardly ever pulled up a chair to stay a while.
Why? My Friended Folk list is a bloated blend of more than 65 years of friendships, extended family, interesting people I met at a retreat or on a shuttle bus, or others I’ve never met but who are a part of my tribe of Wayfinders or coaches or yogis. It’s a weird mix of public presence (meaning I may not know the friend personally) and a longer friendship or deeper connection.
Over time, my more private and introverted self has been getting hives even THINKING about the trip to Facebook. At the root are many old stories in which I protect my internal life from public inspection. I would be overwhelmed. Then I would lose my inner life. They wouldn’t like to know this about me. On and on.
I’ve also had many opinions about all the promotion I need to wade through to get to authentic connection on Facebook. And this was all before the political climate of the last year. It’s been getting so that a trip to FB is like enduring a visit to my great Aunt Mabel’s house. All the clutter made the air too heavy to breathe, so I stayed away.
Then last week my mom died. My first thought was to keep my grief close in, to pray and meditate and watch for dreams and listen for her presence and create little grief rituals for myself. This has long been my way of dealing with deep stuff. But in this case, there were so many demands and arrangements and people to inform that the first couple of days I spent most of my time on the phone. I could barely feel that particular frozen feeling of tears waiting to escape.
After the first day, I had the house to myself. I had intended to bathe in the solitude. But something led me to Facebook. Amazing luck, distraction, divine guidance. Who knows.
I posted a question about why people describe the loss of a mother as “huge.” And, sure enough, I was overwhelmed. A good kind of overwhelmed. I read each response and every little heart emoji, and I imagined their faces in front of me as I read. Each time, the tears flowed freely in the privacy of some inner Oasis.
My FBF’s surrounded me in a blanket of love. They shared their beliefs and experiences. Some were so grateful that she was in the bosom of Jesus. Others envisioned the Light of Pure Being (which, in my mind, is Jesus). There was always such wisdom and kindness in their words. Something deep and true was triggered, a kind of thawing. Tears flowed in awe of the powerful bond that transcends time and space.
One of my FBF’s and deep friends from long ago wrote This is Facebook at its best.
I seldom share my poetry in my blog, but this one belonged here, a thumbnail sketch of my year so far.
Dark rainy days of river-flooding March.
Muddy twilights of brackish pools and raindrop rhythms.
None of it touches the tears that won’t fall.
Some days are too small to contain this me I think I am.
Because that one hangs on the cross-hairs of not-knowing.
As the one who came before me prepares to leave
And the job of being here, that job,
That it’s not my time to go but hers.
It could go either way, I think.
The sky, an indeterminate steel gray.
Light is suspended in the balance between seasons
On the cusp of some new life,
I linger in the colorless dawn
Which might also be dusk.
I hold the early swelling of buds as they begin their inevitable festival of life
Next to my mother’s certain march toward nonrenewal.
I long to be broken open, to flower.
To give birth to new life.
Or two of them.
One for her, one for me.
I sit in the space between worlds, in the not-land of unknowing.
For this moment, enough.
Spring is undoing me, flowering tree by tree.
I prepare to kiss my mother goodbye
Or not my mother, but some confused absence of her.
I imagine holding her hand, and without words
giving her permission for something or other, as if it’s mine to give.
A thousand little tasks steal my attention,
And then I remember the green, greening and greenest
Spring spilling all around, demanding to be seen and heard.
My feet touch ground, even as my mind ricochets,
So I breathe three extra deep breaths to take to her bedside
And return, again and again, her sidekick, as always.