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.
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.
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
by the mountain wind
— SgB 2023
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.
Last night a drawing caught my fancy.
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
That’s what I feel like today,
I see this body,
riddled as it is
by steps and missteps
for a time
I think of this
how it expands
again, again, again after each break.
I looked down to see
a landscape carved by life.
I call all of this Me.
I take Me out to a concert in the park.
How’s your summer going?
The standard greeting rushes out
when I see my
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
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!
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:
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
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.
He called himself Mo,
for his home state,
Last name Love,
for the home he never left.
— SgB 2023
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.
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
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.