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The Solace of Destruction

Three years ago, at the end of the ill-fated summer of 2020, George and I went to our off-grid mountain cabin as we had for so many years. Our cabin was in a little enclave of summer homes perched along a snow-fed river within an Oregon old growth and second growth forest. It was situated a couple of hours from our home in the Willamette Valley.

When we heard about wildfire to the east, we were more concerned about the effects of smoke combined with Covid than we were with fire’s spread. Our Anniversary only a day away, we thought we’d stay one more night, After all, we’d weathered storms there before. Then the local rural fire department stopped by to upgrade our evacuation status to Go. We agreed that this was a most excellent idea. 

As soon as we finished staining the decks.

With the dozen or so other cabin owners gone, the forest had gone strangely silent.

While we were closing up, I looked around for Calvin, our little white designer mutt. I called his name. No response. We searched the woods. Nothing. A few panicked minutes later, I found the little guy quaking and refusing to get out from under our car. I crouched on all fours to pull him into my arms.

That’s when time stopped. I saw myself in an eerie tableau, surrounded by the vertical green uprising of a heavily wooded two-hundred-year-old forest of at least 13 varieties of ancient trees and countless species of animal life, and yet no chipmunks or jays squawked into the vacuum.

At that moment it still didn’t occur to me that any part of what was present all around us could ever be lost. The silence was that deep and that wide, an enormous space filled with a world of peace. I sat quietly, savoring the enormity of the feeling.

Meanwhile, the staining done, we snapped into autopilot, locked up and left, leaving the guestbook of cabin history we always left on the kitchen table for posterity.

A toxic yellow cloud tailgated us for the entire the 85-mile trip back to our hometown. It arrived at our doorstep along with us, having traveled roughly 70 miles an hour. This was the same cloud that broke records for air pollution and later settled around the entire globe.

That day, of course, we didn’t know any of this. All we knew was that the radios on the ground were gone and only a couple of firefighters were fending off destruction of a historic lodge and retreat center. The next couple of days we were part of an informal network, trying to guess from Forest Service maps which of our cabins had gone up in smoke. We guessed and said goodbye to one summer home after another via chats. Months later we finally learned that 69 burned. The mystery of the one that remained has yet to be solved.

It’s been three years since what has come to be called the Labor Day Conflagration of 2020, which drove those faraway fires to burn that entire valley and so many more throughout the West.

I refused to return to the site of destruction when my husband and others made trips there. I simply wasn’t ready. This allowed me to create an untouchable cabin tableau in which every corner of my mind is filled with sentimental objects from a century of family life. This included family quilts, even the one we once huddled under after we first made love in his college apartment. In the corner was an irreplaceable handmade cajon my husband bought on the street in Havana from a Cuban drummer, and the walls were covered with maps of the area and original art created by friends. All alive now, preserved only my memory. Beautiful and inviolate forever.

Last weekend I finally returned to the burn. When we arrived at the knoll that once held our summer home, the sky was open and the nearby mountaintops were suddenly visible, a new backdrop to the mass graves of piled logs. Instead of being flattened by a sense of emptiness and loss as I had expected, I stepped into a familiar and soothing refrain: the buzzing and bumbling of dragonflies and horseflies, competing with jays and crows for airtime. Purple fireweed heathered all the clearings, their cheerfulness broken by black horizontal stripes of fallen wooden soldiers.

I looked up to see the shell of a tall tree that had once been the best view from our outhouse, as it stood tall pointing to the stars and moon. It was still vertical. Remembering how I once piled stones there, I reached down to find a sleek river rock, once black and now a mottled red. It was hot. I stood quietly, in awe of the power of fire, whether from the sun or wildfire. Ghosts of old growth cedar and yew and spruce and fir stood in silent sentry around us, witnesses of an older order.  There was some solace in the sheer force of destruction.

in the middle of the scene was a giant redwood snag I had called the Grandmother. She had been my mentor, my elder, my friend and meditation teacher for 17 years.I even introduced her to my real-life mother. Each time I had arrived at the cabin and each time I left, I had greeted her, honored her enormous life cycle, noticed how she was leaning but still unbowed, sheltering frilly ferns and thick moss at her base. And here now just beyond the clearing she leaned, her bark whitened above the flame mark, and yet her roots still held firm, deeply connected in the earth.

The deep well of destruction. The buzzing sounds of creation. All of this held in the enormity of a moment of Silence.

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Fireweed Dance

Yesterday I hobnobbed with ghosts,

danced on the grave of the ancient forest,

trucked with shadows from the trees. 

I did the fireweed dance 

The mullein dance, the dragonfly dance

On that place where something else once stood.

And then

 

for a still moment there was and there wasn’t

an absence of anything,

even that cabin with the shaky floors 

and the stained-glass skylights

once dwarfed by forest giants

now eloped, fused together forever

carried away 

by the mountain wind 

— SgB 2023

 

Life Is a Demanding Lover

This summer I turned a new page in my imagined book of life. Perhaps it’s even a new chapter. I’ve done the math so many ways: I’m entering the last quarter of my life (if I live to a hundred). Or, more realistically it’s the last one-sixth of life coming up (if I top out at ninety). In other words, I turned 75. 

It took me a while to come out because, for the first time in my life, I didn’t feel so proud of my age. Perhaps all the ageist humor about my generation has taken root in my head. Or maybe it’s the Post-it notes I unintentionally slap on to “people of that age,” a lifetime habit. Yesterday when I was at the hospital for a routine procedure, a nurse looked at my chart and asked if they got my age right and gave me a Girlfriend Thumbs-up.

For a long time now people have seemed sincerely surprised when I reveal my age, having assumed that I’m still in my youthful sixties. Or at least that’s what they say. So maybe I’m not the only one with the Post-It notes.

I spent most of the early summer in a Life Review Project. What a luxury to be able to take slow-down time to question childhood assumptions and discover lessons that life just keeps teaching me! The more I look inside, the more I see. I still have a host of other assumptions and beliefs about EVERYTHING having to do with aging. The truth is I’m fortunate to be reasonably healthy. As far as I know, no wicked cells are lurking in my body planning a coup. And, although my memory for details is sometimes hazy, it feels like something stronger has taken hold. Perhaps it’s wisdom, grounded in the losses of these years which serve as continual reminders of life’s impermanence. 

Besides, it’s very clear to me that my Eternal Self has no age whatsoever. She also doesn’t even have a name, she reminds me, usually with a wink.

A T-shirt caught my eye while I was on a recent ramble. Reality is a Demanding Lover, it said. The phrase resonates like a Zen koan.  I remember all the times I’ve bet against Reality and lost, discovering in the process what it takes to truly cooperate with Life. The longer I think, the more I notice myself writing another, equal, message, perhaps for the back of the T-shirt: Reality is a Generous Lover. 

And I know both are true. Life has sometimes slapped me with demands that I never would have believed that that I would be able to meet. And then it has generously showed me that there is more than enough support to meet it all.  The more often I surrender to reality, the easier life goes. And so I surrender once more. When all is said and done, my initiation to the last one-sixth of my life has left me with more clarity. I’m officially committing to spend the rest of my life learning to love life better, whether reality is demanding or generous. I’m down for all of it.

May your passages be as gentle.

  • ——

Wounded Love

     I

Last night a drawing caught my fancy.

Wounded Man.

500 years old, 

A cookie cutter outline of a human form

Impaled by knives,

by swords, by arrows 

pierced ten, twenty times, more, 

soon to become an index for the very

first doctors.

Wound Woman,

I thought,

That’s what I feel like today,

I see this body,

riddled as it is 

by wear,

by steps and missteps

held together

for a time

by miracles

and titanium.

I think of this

brave heart, 

how it expands

again, again, again after each break.

I looked down to see 

a landscape carved by life.

In gratitude,

I call all of this Me.

              II

I take Me out to a concert in the park.

How’s your summer going?

The standard greeting rushes out

when I see my

long-missed friend.

Then, remembering his body’s battle with cancer, 

I tender the next question

How are you feeling?

Okay, he answers, 

on the weeks I don’t have chemo,

That’s half the time, 

which is pretty good.

He tells me of trips to see his sons, 

stare at the stars, listen to music

savor the company of friends

How do you keep going?  I ask, 

suddenly aware of my complaints 

of creakiness and fatigue.

He gently holds my eye.

I love life, he says simply.

And that answer catches the breath

and still rings bright and true

as summer breeze turns to fall.

— SgB 2023

How to Celebrate Survival: Sidewalk Art and What Matters

I know you, she comments, toddling along in tiny half steps, supported by her walker. 

I squat down to get closer. “Listen up!” I remind myself, aware of how quickly she could pack her wisdom in just a few words. 

“You’re a survivor,” she declares. “And you should tell everybody that a 97-year old woman told you that!”

I’m visiting my friend Anna Marie at her care center. This was to be the first of many short visits we would have now that she was settling in closer to me. We both knew that something would be coming for her someday, probably soon, given her age and fragility. This made each word from her mouth precious.

I could never have imagined then the pandemic cloud that would swing our way a couple months later. Or that both she and John, her life partner of more than seventy years, would each die merciful deaths in those years. Just now, four years later, I’m passing her words on to you, wondering what she meant when she called me a survivor and why it was so important that I pass it on.

Anna Marie was my best friend’s mom. She was the most talented listener I’ve ever known. Although I now know that she might have seen me as one of one of her special support projects, she never let on at the time. For several years I was often overwhelmed maneuvering through serious dysfunction in my family of origin. On any given Fourth of July or family birthday you might find the two of us huddled, chatting in a corner. I’d report the latest drama or tragedy, and she’d mostly just listen. Over time she became a kind of personal Yoda, with her tiny stature, her kind heart, and her pithy observations. So when she had something to say, I listened up. I knew that any words of wisdom that she offered would likely be chewable for a long time. 

But. Me? A Survivor? I just couldn’t see it.

At my stage of life, everyone is a survivor of something. Being upright and alive after sixty is qualification enough. Most of my life I’ve been a juggler, determined to keep all balls afloat, somehow believing that I could also manage the lives of a several other people in my orbit. My plan was this: I would keep their lives from exploding and avoid getting the mess all over me. (I know. A great plan. And hopeless. For one thing, follow-through on way too many decisions is up to them, and they didn’t have my superior skills in project management.)

But. Me? A Survivor? As I visit the idea today, I still struggle to find it. Not me. I’m not a Survivor. I never had to fight or flee for my life. I’m not in the category of people who have truly earned the distinction of a Capital “S” for the generations their families have survived. (At least we finally have holidays like Juneteenth celebrating some of these Survivors.)

As far as survivors in my personal life, Survivorship honors go to a dear friend who’s still bringing home Pickleball trophies despite her Parkinson’s diagnosis of several years. Or one who just completed chemo treatments for her ovarian cancer. Or another who did all the caregiving for his beloved wife as she slowly died of a brain tumor.

However, I do have some experience with “small s” surviving and perhaps even thriving when others were stymied or stilled. I’ve lost nearly every member my first family from self-harm (either literally through suicide or passively as the consequences of drugs or alcohol took their toll. 

I was lucky enough to experience serious depression as a teenager and young adult. Back then I swore I would do anything to avoid a recurrence. And I kept my promise to myself to make radical self-care a top priority. Since then, I’ve developed a personal anti-depression protocol that includes emotional and spiritual self-love. I somehow survived to adulthood and now to true elderhood. I guess this makes me a survivor, even if I haven’t earned a capital letter S.

I’ve learned to give myself some credit for simply showing up as I am and listening to my inner voice. This may seem like nothing, but it all adds up. Because what I’ve discovered is that taking time to relish tiny ordinary moments of life is a secret to a gradually happy survival. I’ve learned to celebrate seemingly minor accomplishments and playful human enterprises, like sand sculptures or sidewalk art. 

And so this summer and fall I’m acknowledging my survival and the thriving life of a Survivor by checking out some Sidewalk Art festivals. The summer tradition is popular here in the Northwest. Many cities around the US host similar events. 

Survival Sidewalk Chalk. Why not?

Survivors and survivors, unite! 

———-

Mo Love

Years before encampments,

just those two words scribbled

by a hobo in a stocking hat 

dragging himself on a skateboard

having lost his wheelchair again, 

moved by his mission, 

to remind them what matters:

Mo Love. 

They called him Flipper before he was born

for his ceaseless movement.

And when he emerged they called him Philip. 

Or Prince Philip of the Silver Spoon, 

dressed him in the style of the President’s son,

cheered every season:

football, basketball, track

always a starter, an American hero

Phil.

What happened next is not new 

for golden boys

who begin with victory and hope.

Assurance just beyond the next step

until he landed on the wrong side, 

in a pool of alcohol, drugs

and broken promises.

At last a fall from a slick roof

shrank his athletic limbs, 

cut short all the rich opportunity of his birth.

Mo Love.

He called himself Mo, 

for his home state, 

Last name Love, 

for the home he never left.

— SgB 2023

Spring in the Land of Longing

Happy Spring!

Wherever I go lately, people are lit up. It started here when we were graced with two straight days of sun following three full weeks of rain. Trees delayed by a very late winter suddenly flowered with a vengeance, as did allergies, but we didn’t mind. Spring has always drawn people here in the Northwest out from under our rocks to bask wherever (and whenever) we can. But this year is different, with a communal sense that we’ve made it through Something Big, Or several Somethings Big all at once. Global pandemic and Rampant Wildfire Big, just to start the list. 

The fires are behind us for now, but we’re still assessing the damage. Old haunts and hidden gems have been erased. The mountains are still blackened with falling trees. But undergrowth and wildflowers are returning, and gradually homes and businesses are too, at least those that can. Even if it were possible to rebuild, the communities that burned to the ground will never be the same.

Wherever you live, whatever natural (or national) disaster you’ve faced, human hearts around you are just beginning to recover, still bruised from so many losses and so much fear. This is the great tragedy of all the Big Somethings we’ve faced: a reluctance to trust or rely on each other like we did before. Many of us are deeply lonely: statistics for the US say over 30% of adults and higher for young people, and these numbers are growing throughout the world. Even if we’re not lonely, we all long for connection, a problem that can seem overwhelming at first. But nothing could be more important. In the end, the best way to cure the cost of social distance is with social connection, which is the best glue to hold us all together as we move forward.

The facts are these: we’re all humans who are facing hard realities. AND we desperately need to be with others for mental, physical, and spiritual well-being. According to the brand-new US Surgeon General’s Advisory, a lack of social connection (or belonging) is a mortality risk greater than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The report is packed with research results, and it’s presented in a colorful, clear, and comprehensive form. The writing and graphics are compelling and easy to read, which is a bit surprising in a government document. Check it out here.

It’s a good thing that human beings usually have a strong need to belong. After all, our survival is at stake. But, just as important, we also have a longing to connect to something Bigger. Something Much Bigger. Bigger and Kinder.

Easier said than done. Loneliness and a desire to interact may motivate us to rebuild our lives, but the old ways don’t feel natural. We have changed and so has the world.

Social media, although lifesaving, doesn’t meet the biological desire for real presence. With eye contact. And conversation. (I know. I’m old fashioned.) So here we are: Longing to connect others and yet finding it uncomfortable to reach out. It may no longer feel intuitive to reach out to strangers, but we can do it.

All each of us can do is take a next step. The one that hasn’t happened yet. A smile, a wave, a kind word. Help a neighbor out. Assume good intentions. Notice the places you’d like to belong. Take the step you know to take. A coffee date, a volunteer shift, a language or yoga class, a family or community celebration, involvement with a cause that has meaning for you and for the world. Make your own list.

Each day brings a new opportunity to take the next awkward step. This is how we learned to walk, and it’s how we welcome ourselves back to humanity. Little by little.

May all of us find the courage and creativity to greet whatever (and whoever) awaits us as we honor the importance of belonging. Together.

 

Spring in the Land of Longing

I am from the land of cinnamon and longing

Chocolate and longing

Incense and longing

And I don’t belong here.

I don’t belong anywhere.

This is how we are in the Land of Longing.

We do not belong anywhere.

Take springtime. 

Even though

we feel the hope of flowering blossoms

Spring isn’t for us 

because it reminds us (screams at us really)

that it’s leaving soon and so are we

and besides

it’s never as sweet 

as that one time.

The people from my land 

do not belong anywhere

Except that one place

the one that hasn’t happened yet.

That one. That’s the place.

 

A place to start.

—SgB

May, 2023

Mother, Simon, and Me

 
 
Nearly every recess in second grade, I raced to the playground to play one of my favorite games, either Mother May I or Simon Says. I didn’t care which. I don’t remember loving the power of telling the other kids how many baby or giant steps they could take. I just liked the way the rules were so easy, as long as you paid attention. If you weren’t listening or you didn’t mind Simon or moved without Mother’s permission, you were O-U-T. 
 
So very simple and clear. 
 
Ever since 2020 I’ve been longing for that old certainty. At first I studied daily updates and followed the leads, somewhat obsessively focused on decoding pandemic rules. Mostly I obeyed them, which wasn’t too hard since I’m of the certain age that makes caution advisable. But lately Simon has been MIA and I haven’t been able to get a clear answer from Mother. So, like everyone else, I’ve been following my best educated guess about re-entering the world of people. 
 
At least that’s my excuse for my questionable decision to fly to Las Vegas last month for an extended family errand. Somehow the first night, looking for a restaurant, we found ourselves smack dab in the middle of several crowd events, mostly outdoors, but still. I was not prepared for the overstimulation that is Las Vegas, a place I hadn’t visited in years. And having been (mostly) sheltered, it was a lot. 
 
A part of me was excited. At the same time another part (my whole nervous system?) began to scream for shelter. After a couple of days of entertainment laced with terror, my husband and I drove a few hours to pick up an RV. We drove it nearly a thousand miles back home to Oregon. This involved learning how to manage all the systems along the way and included a short Siri-directed diversion through San Francisco’s winding streets. Did I mention we were in an unfamiliar vehicle? In an RV? I’m still unpacking from the adventure of the trip. 
 
In the end I didn’t get Covid, something I’ve resigned myself to experiencing as it becomes endemic. As it turns out, several of my friends, both traveling and stationary, did contract the virus. What to do? I’m hearing from lots of other folks about how awkward it is to make plans to reconnect, even though we know itwill probably be worth it in the end. Yesterday, a friend pointed out a people-friendly website: https://covidactnow.org. Having this resource has opened the door to more clarity in summer planning, began with a BIG stretch: indoor singing (with mask). ALMOST like the good old days. But I’ve mostly returned to my old cautious ways.
 
I don’t want to forget the quieter pleasures of the life lived at a slower pace. Walking my elderly dog. Quiet time in solitude by the sea. Following the rise and fall of the ocean, the graceful arc of seagulls and raptors. Life lived on my own terms.
 
I think Mother would approve.
 
Be well,
Remembering Las Vegas 
(or How Not to Emerge from Pandemic Isolation)
Brilliant collage of magenta
Cosmic calliope of punk
Decibels killing to the human ear
Street zipping over the projected sky
“Nuns” with pasties, fishnets and thongs twerking,
Moonwalking the tricky world between sacred and profane.
 
Mother May I?
Take one small step into morning 
this moment of arising 
of drifting in and out without effort
into not being a me and then being one,
becoming and unbecoming 
again and again.
in the dark margin. 
May I taste this tiny slice of life
and savor this small knowledge of death?
 
—SgB 5/2022

Is Spring enough to match the war of hell?

Words have been eluding me this month, mostly because news of war is always lurking, even in the early rays of morning light. I recently recovered from the bad habit of doom scrolling over Covid or presidential politics, and I was finally settling into the soothing early-morning habit of meditating and reading or writing poetry. Then along came Russian invasion of Ukraine, and tragic scenes from Kiev and Karkov (and other places I can’t even pronounce) flooded my mind.
 
I became acutely aware my own helplessness in the face of such enormous tragedy. Then I thought of our sister city Uzhrogod in the Ukraine. And so Geo and I went down to the courthouse and held a sign in solidarity. We donated money for supplies. Then we gave some more to support a local couple who were traveling to the warfront with medical supplies. This helped, but it didn’t feel like enough to match the hell of that war. 
 
Then I thought of the painful losses within my own family from suicide and addiction, another hell in another time of life. And I remembered William Carlos Williams’ words: “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” The last few days I’ve managed to pick up a pen or remember a few words from trusted source Mary Oliver, determined to save the only life I can, my own. When I do that, the day dawns with a new dimension. If I’m lucky, I can be absorbed by a different world, the one that has been right beside me, all around me, all along.
 
To my amazement, Spring has come. Yesterday I sat in the sunshine on my deck in the woods on the meadow with a poet friend. The plum blossoms blushed pink and, and one of them floated like a tiny lotus in the bird bath, accompanied by the bubbling fountain over my shoulder. I knew right then what it is to be in heaven. Sometimes it feels as if there’s no place big enough to contain all the contradictions of life. Guilt came up, along with one image of starving people in Mariupol. Suddenly, the plum tree, along with the song of the yellow-rumped warblers, all of it was gone. This is how it is for me nowadays. My heart breaks from the hell of war. I try to do something to useful. But all the while there’s the heaven of spring, right outside my door. 
 
Meditation helps. Walking and biking and yoga help. But what helps most of all is simply stopping, breathing, and looking around to take in the wonders of the world where I’m embedded right here and now.
 
Yesterday I saw a photo of a subway car in Karkhiv where many families shelter. A mother had placed a tin can with tulips in the window where she and her two sons were sheltering. (Check it out here.) May this be an image we all remember, a moment of spring poetry. A piece of heaven to honor the soul in us all.
 
There is a quick moment
somewhere between dark and light.
Neither this or that.
Mystery sits there.
Nightmares become dreams and dreams nightmares.
Dome of sky offers a day uncut by sorrow
and morning is born again
with news of war waiting
unbidden in the shadows 
 
—SgB 3/2022
 

How to Get Rich on Love

Morning meanders take me out my door and into the meadow outside for a loop to the top of a little hill. When I get there, I catch my breath and take in the expansive pastoral view of a green gully with a large barn across the way. This has been my habit most every morning for many years. In my mind it was my little secret before the pandemic made it a wider walking path. A couple of weeks ago, a classic park bench appeared at my usual breathing spot. A plaque on the back declared the more you love, the richer you are. No Parks Department insignia. No dedication to someone’s father, mother, sister. Just those eight words. 
A mystery. 
 
My imagination went on a walkabout. This wasn’t an amateur installation. Someone rich had been here, someone who had loved and been loved enough to memorialize it with an anonymous public installation. I live in a small city of overlapping relationships. So it wasn’t long before I began to hear speculation and nearly first-hand origin stories about the bench. The first, of course, was a secret romance of star-crossed lovers whose ashes were spread right there. 
 
But my favorite (the one I made up, sort of) was about two people who fell in love and decided that they wouldn’t keep it to themselves. In my story, their expanded hearts multiplied and multiplied, spreading their love to this generation and the next through their generosity. And when one of them died, they died wealthy by every measure. In my heart I knew these people. I loved them both. 
 
An old storyteller once told me: if it weren’t true it shoulda been, And so I’m choosing my version. This is a Love Bench, available to all, a place for love to grow. And now it’s a new addition to my morning walks. A place to steep in the power of the heart, every day of the year. A sure way to get rich.
 
May you feel the wealth grow around you and let it grow your heart. Every day of the year.
 
 
PS. Special thanks to my Valentine of more than 50 years, Geo, aka George Beekman, for photos and help putting this together. I’ll sit on that bench with you any day.
Invitation to a Wandering Queen
 
This is just to say the welcome mat is out.
The table is set.
And also this:
I never forgot you.
There’s a soft seat here, tucked inside
this rib cage
as small and as big as the known universe
offering everything and nothing 
but a throne fit for a sovereign
queen of hearts, a place to sit and be
or maybe not be 
anything at all, 
protected by
a foggy moat. 
Ready embers still await you.
Won’t you come to stay?
—SgB 1/2022

Runaway Rescue! (Resolution Revolution)

Once again reality didn’t agree with my plans. The nerve of it. Less than month ago I reflected on a Christmas past, the year our family spent the holiday tending sick puppies and watching them die from Parvo, one by one. For me it was a story of grace and humor in the weirdest places. I had no idea that another dog-centered holiday movie was about to be released.
 
This year on Christmas Eve the scene was set. The lights. The wrapped presents. The Tree. The baking. The full refrigerator. The early afternoon arrival of my son and his partner Liz-e, along with Finn, a year-old beagle they’d rescued from Korea, where a stray might be headed for the meat market. He had experienced more than a little trauma in his life: a tsunami, loss of his entire litter, being shipped half-way around the globe. But in the end he was rescued by a warm-hearted network of dog lovers from both countries (https://wildheartspdx.com).
 
Within a couple of hours of his arrival, as a rare Oregon snow began to drift in, he zoomed out the front door, down the bike path, and (eventually) all over town. We were able to follow him some of the time by using Air Tags, which sent occasional beeps to my son’s phone when an iPhone is close by. For three below-freezing days a scattered tag-team of family and friends and firemen and security police random strangers stalked him through the snow, many of them foregoing their holiday plans. Gratitude isn’t a big enough word for these many acts of human generosity. He had travelled almost 30 miles over three days when he stopped running and took shelter under a parked truck. The smell of Korean carry-out food was what it took to lure him out in the end. And all was well. It was The perfect Hallmark holiday movie, with less kissing. And afterwards a few more nightmare-type dreams of losing control. 
 
Isn’t that the way life shows up sometimes? Just when you think you’ve got some idea packaged into a preplanned version, it can explode into something more chaotic and less welcomed. You’d think this is a lesson we’ve all learned from the last couple of years of Covid. And yet along comes the terrible surprise of one more highly transmissible variant just as things were settling down and life was returning to something we recalled as normal. The only surprise here is the fact that we’re surprised, having lulled ourselves into the belief that things would match our intentions for them. 
 
A teacher of mine once asked me if I’d rather have a flexible mind or body as I age. I don’t like having to make that choice, but I would land on the mind every time. Because when it’s limber, it’s easy to see what’s negotiable with the Universe and what’s not. And at its heart the mind knows to love what it has no choice but to accept. In a throw-away line last week, Stephen Colbert said, “Can I change it? I can’t? Then I love it!”
 
Now that’s flexibility. A tall order during these trying times. A full-time job, really. But this is the kind of freedom I want in life. This peace. This freedom. 
 
I want this for all of us.
 
—SgB
 
Resolution Revolution
 
Here I am once again
 
same time new year
 
holding tight to the road,
 
to this revolution of my own making. 
 
The one where I resolve 
 
not to resolve
 
to be lighter, brighter orsomeone
 
with nothing out of place,
 
a corrected version of me,
 
but built back better. 
 
Instead, let me evolve into someone 
 
good enough but better when still.
 
Because this revolution is not televised. 
 
 
—SgB 1/2022

Dead Puppy Christmas and Carbonated Holiness

One Christmas past, my daughter and her friend brought home fifteen sick puppies from a kill shelter rescue mission that had gone awry. I imagined a family home Christmas as a video, swarming with curious, slightly weak puppies around the Christmas tree.
 
I didn’t know much about Parvo at the time. Reality hit quickly. When we saw how sick the puppies were, we rallied to a new mission, setting up an emergency vet clinic. 
 
For the two days leading to Christmas we nursed half-pound infants, trying desperately to save them from the grim effects of the disease. We kept our arms full, set alarms and devised a way to hydrate with homemade IV’s. Instead of going to a midnight service we prayed for their survival as we held them and watched them fade. Hour after hour the little pile of bodies in the corner grew. In the end only one survived, born miraculously on Christmas Eve.
 
My blog post that season said “This will be the Christmas of Dead Puppies soon, and we will laugh. Someday.” When my son Ben read it, he said he cried, and I saw how powerful my protective shield had been, and how truly traumatic it had been for all of us. We needed to grieve. Now, ten years later, I have the distance to see the whole picture and appreciate how we coped.. We cried plenty, but somehow even in the midst of it all there were moments of hilarity.
 
What saved us was being able to see our own powerlessness in the face of the absolute absurdity of the scene. We told ourselves that it couldn’t get any worse and then it did. Again and again. I guess you could say that dark humor became our greatest ally. This and the power of distraction. My memories of the year feature us stumbling through some Christmas carols, playing Pictionary, and awkwardly dancing to a Wii Rock Band workout featuring Beatles music. But mostly I remember the laughter.
 
It may seem strange, but ten years later I realize that this may be have been our most deeply soulful Christmas of all, working together through the crisis and still finding a kind of humor in the midst of an awful situation. Later I heard Anne Lamott call laughter “carbonated holiness,” and I knew just what she was talking about.
 
This is what I wish for each of you this holiday season. 
 
Without the dead puppies.
 
Just some carbonated holiness. 
 
With love,
 
Susan Grace
 
Dead Puppy Christmas
 
Today in the mist of a stroll 
through the Advent calendar
I open tiny windows of Christmases past,
The first scene is one I tenderly recall, 
Dead Puppy Christmas
There we are, five of us humans,
 jostling fifteen half-pound puppies 
recently rescued 
before the Grinch of Parvo took over,
now sick and getting sicker.
Across from the tree in this diorama 
is a small I-V stand
Each hour another pup stops breathing 
and a tiny body Is added
to the pile in the corner.
In between we cry, 
stumble through carols,
distract ourselves with sugar cookies,
eggnog, gingerbread and games,
Tending to life and to death,
Awaiting the miracle of Christmas Eve, 
one surviving puppy.
 
—SgB 12/2021

First Step, Second Step

 It is pointless to know where the way leads. Think only of the first step. The rest will come.
 
— Sams of Tabriz
 
It was time for my first big step. I was finally able to bear my own weight after a bike accident resulting in six weeks of complete dependence on everyone around me. My heart was full of gratitude, but my balance was precarious as I ditched the surgery boot and slowly began to reclaim my own two feet.
 
This is when I convinced my husband that we should take our first road trip in forty years. It made sense, I argued, using Lockdown Logic, for him to drive and for me to ride with my foot elevated on the dashboard for several days along western edge of the continent from Oregon to the Southern edge of our country. Lockdown Logic said that it was time to use that car we bought just before the pandemic. It said that we should get out of our little bubble and drive, not fly. Some of my lifelong friends had been planning a gathering for a year in San Diego, so logic said that now must be time to hazard a trip out of the cocoon. In addition, secretly I wanted to reconnect with my rural roots by simple human interaction in more far-flung parts of this divided land we hear so much about.
 
Half-way through the trip, I bragged to my friends about our small safe haven of a city, especially our local school board. We live in college town with a deep dedication to education. Our little city leans left in a state that is famously unpredictable. We’re well outside of the newly vilified city of Portland, so we’ve seen few so-called culture wars.
 
While we were traveling, we saw proof of a country more united than the news would have us believe. Except for a few drivers who didn’t like our slower pace as we followed directions like the old codgers we are, we were met by human kindness throughout our trip, whether red or blue. We saw little mask or anti-mask mania. Little evidence of vax wars. We came back relieved, ready to report that rumors of civil war are greatly exaggerated.
 
So the first big step back to “normal,” was a complete success.
 
The second day after our return, I went down to my local food cooperative, where I ran into a friend who filled me in on local news, referring me to the New York Times. One of our bright lights, Sami Al-Abdrabbuh, our school board chairman, had been under physical threat almost since he was re-elected by a landslide.(More here)
 
I began to doubt my recent travel experience and felt the cocoon calling me back. After a couple days, I remembered one of my favorite quotations, attributed to Rumi’s teacher Shams: It is pointless to know where the way leads. Think only of the first step. The rest will come. I know that I can’t un-step that first forward step toward my fellow beings. All I can do now is get stronger, more educated, and more flexible to prepare for the next step. So I‘ve been educating myself on harassment and cyber threats. By moving out of denial and into reality, I armed myself with information about how I can take a more grounded and informed stand to support my very real oasis of a community..
 
I want to reboot stronger and lighter. My second step has been to return to my physical therapy schedule. Who knows what the next step will bring? For now, it’s showing up for my body so that I can take more balanced and healing steps. It turns out that this is the perfect time for this challenge, what with all the traditional expectations and the challenge of reconnecting during upcoming holidays . My prayer is that I remember all the lessons of the last two years as I continue into the future with step after ever-stronger informed step.
 
May we all notice human kindness permeating our coming days. May we move forward to the beat of our shared heart, our shared humanity, our shared planet…
 
Road Trip
 
Her country, newly
humbled by fear
called to her, 
offering its western perimeter. 
A whiff of youthful memory
cried out, which caused her to 
stare sit stretch 
and then sit again, 
watching sky television
a dream of a parched world 
flying by 
not the same as before 
but still 
ocean met dunes 
rocks stood sentinel
days were fruitfully spent
moving under bowl of big blue
 
cities came and went 
with humans still busy 
annoying other humans 
passing on the right 
honking from the left
and then the gusty rain came
erasing it all in a big wet huff
and after that there was this:
a miniature freeway oasis 
appearing from the fog
with fairy lights and
breakfast in little brown bags
but most of all the kindness 
of a muscle flexed, a stranger’s hand 
lifting a bag, opening a door 
just because you with your cane 
could use one.
 
 
—SgB 10/2021

Spider Sense

During my slow recovery from a broken bone and surgery this fall, I’ve given myself the luxury of silk. Spiderweb Silk. The spider on my windowsill creates its miracle of tensile strength slowly and steadily. As I watch I think of the body magic that is healing my body with very little help from me. With plenty of time on my hands and a new curiosity, I’ve dipped into the human Interweb to find out more about spiders.
 
Newsflash! Spiders aren’t all hairy monsters who devour their own. Only some of them. About 40% can get cranky enough to consume each other. Biologists who focus on the social life of spiders discovered that adult spiders seem to forget how to behave together after being alone too long, which causes them to become aggressive. They’re still not sure why some spider species like to hang out together while many eat spiders if given the chance. As it turns out, spiders raised in groups almost never try to eat even unfamiliar spiders. When they remain together, they respond to chemical cues and remain tolerant. But when they’ve been isolated, the familiarity is lost, and that’s what leads to intolerant and aggressive behavior. 
 
I’ve seldom ventured out on my own two crutches at all, but last week, I headed out with the help of my trustworthy life partner and nursemaid Geo. Out of necessity we went to a big box grocery store where masks are still required. People are my favorite! I thought, looking forward to the quick exchanges of connection that are part of the human social world. I tried the “smiley eyes” thing out as I motored around in my electric go-cart. People mostly ignored me, which felt lonely and awkward. Then at the check-out line one guy, his mask down below his chin, told me that I was cutting into line. I saw that this was true and I apologized, but he just glared back. 
 
Immediately my mind got busy judging him. Then it began to criticize other people’s pandemic behavior. There are some very sticky thought webs about that subject, I noticed. I couldn’t wait to get to my safe and predictable home, shocked at how one interaction had shifted my whole mood. Back with my spider and its web, I remembered another spider factoid: most spiders create a new web every day. Then I remembered that I had forgotten for a minute: the energetic kindness of strangers who have bounded ahead of me to help open doors. The beautiful emails and cards of sympathy and kindness. The meals prepared and cheerful visits of friends. 
 
There was such clarity in that moment that I began to spin a new web based on my simple truth, backed by more than 70 years human social life. No matter who smiles at me or gives me crap or what gets spun in the news cycle, I know for sure that most humans are not unkind. I could see the likelihood that our species will get less cranky as we get out more. I think we’ll learn again how to tap into our basic human need for kindness and connection. And when I’m in doubt, I remind myself of the words of spiritual eco-activist Joanna Macy: “Let life through, in the biggest doorway in your being.” When I do that, there’s enough room in my heart for all of creation, including cranky humans and spiders.
 
May we all remember that in the coming months.
 
SgB 10/2021

Letting It Roll

Resistance
 
I tie my limbs with rubber bows
red yellow blue green
remembering not to hold,
I breathe and count rep by rep
the movements of slow recovery.
 
—SgB

Now has come an easy time. I let it roll.

 
Thus began my personal mantra for the month of August, courtesy of my favorite poet William Stafford. And so at the beginning of last month I changed my daily practice to include rolling around town and country on my electric bike. Clever, huh? But then, a couple weeks in, I hit a pile of loose gravel.
 
My understanding of letting it roll changed radically in that moment. I was forced to drop immediately any idea of managing the situation. There was no choice but to let the Universe roll on without my guidance. So much help began showing up, from the angels on the spot who helped out at the scene, to my husband who was impeccably on call for the first two weeks, to the long list of family, neighbors, and friends who came forth with offers, food, and encouragement. Now a metal plate and a few screws are holding the fibula back together while I experience the meaning of surrender and dependence and still manage a humble brag concerning my Athletic Injury.
 
Now has come an easy time. Right here. Today, I remind myself, with my leg propped up on various surfaces around the house, I’m finally freed of the lessons brought by the pain of the first two weeks. I repeat the Easy Time mantra frequently, even while I continue to give up some pride and gratefully accept help. Since there will be no wild times requiring bearing weight for a total of nearly eight weeks, I’m learning all kinds of other things about asking for help and releasing a few dozen unexamined preferences. My walker and I roll along fine when I keep these things in mind. But sometimes I forget, and then come the thought storms about how long this will be, how pathetic I am, how bad it is for my body and mind to be largely sedentary for four weeks, how unbearable the pain is.
 
Suddenly it’s not an easy time anymore. Everything becomes harder and I get lost in a little pity tea party. Then I take a sip of the nettle tea my friend sent to help knit my bones. And I notice I’m breathing fuller and my monkey mind is taking a nap. And the serene beauty of autumn takes over the healing.
 
This is that easy time. And I am grateful.
May you find some easy times and places this Autumn.
 
And may you let this good time roll.
 
SgB 9/2021

Why I am Happy

I hate summers.  Every year by fall the words tumble out. Admitting it seems sacrilegious. And yet there it is. Even today, as I savor the summer world waking up, I know that it’s not completely true. I don’t really hate it. But still.
 
No. Not still. That’s the problem with summer, I think. All the hubbub and activity. Summers are composed of too muchness. Overwhelm. Not enough stillness. So big. So busy. So much coming and going and not enough time to land. 
 
 
 
 Like most everyone around me, I’ve been trying my best to make up for lost time with family and friends while responding to the reality of a rapidly shifting world. Yesterday I sat for a time in my garden, trying to catch up with myself. Essentially nothing from my activity-based checklist is completed, and yet already there’s that sense of depletion. A phrase from a beloved poem by William Stafford, Why I am Happy popped into my mind. My framed and beautifully scribed copy burned in a forest fire last fall, but the wonderful thing about words is they don’t burn but keep doing their magic as long as we can string a few phrases together.
 
The next words, I let it roll, come into my mind.
My to-do list for the next month just got a whole lot shorter. 
 
And so we come to my summer wish list for you, my friends: 
 
May you let it all roll as you remember the peace and ease of the blue and free lake you already carry inside yourself.May that elusive peace of mind be your guide as often as you can during these precious days.
 
It’s a wish and a prayer. For you. For all of us.
 
SgB 8/2021

Now That I Know

Now that I Know…

These are the words of my spiritual director, a radical priest who holds space in a small loft in Portland. I’m not a Catholic, but I trust this guy.

I’ve just weathered the traumatic accidental drowning of a friend and an addiction crisis with a family member. Both were situations requiring me to find the ground under my feet ASAP while at the same time surrendering to all the things I couldn’t control even if I wanted to. Other people’s needs seemed to dictate my days. 

Now that I know, he said quietly. 

What?  I asked, leaning in.

What did you learn? What do you know now that you didn’t know before? He asked.

For a moment the overwhelm and fog lifted. Clarity. A felt sense of calm, a perspective. A way to move on.

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