Heart of a Whale, Ambition of a Hummingbird

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Heart of a blue whale that had washed ashore.

Birds own my backyard. I have the deed to the property, but birds own it.

I don’t know enough about birds to name all who live there, but I can identify mourning doves, mockingbirds, bluebirds, and red-breasted robins. At least I think they are red-breasted robins; they are birds with red breasts.

They come for the grapes, to bathe in the fountain, to nest in the trees and grape vines that cover the pergola, and, I would like to think, to sing. I know that the songs are territorial songs. But who’s to say that our songs aren’t a way to claim our territory.

Did I mention there were hummingbirds in my yard?

In “Joyas Volardores,” Brian Doyle writes that hummingbirds have more heart attacks and aneurysms than any other living creatures. “The price of their ambition,” he writes, “is a life closer to death.”

He also writes that the biggest heart is inside the body of a blue whale. As big as a room. Big enough for a small child to stand in, ducking only to pass through one of its four valves into another chamber.

Little is known of blue whales once they reach puberty, Doyle says. Humans aren’t privy to their domestic habits. I suspect they know how to ride out typhoons.

I spent seventy-five days crossing the Pacific on a Dutch Freighter when I was a kid. Once we left the Phillipines for Long Beach, California, our final destination, we didn’t see any land for two weeks. We sailed through the tail end of typhoons, waves crashing over the bridge, which in calm seas rose three stories over the ocean’s surface.

We were not in our element. That’s how I feel when I fly in a plane. Probably OK, but not in my element.

Doyle says that blue whales travel in pairs and that their songs can be heard underwater for miles and miles.

It seems to me that uncertainty is the pervading force in our culture right now. Crumbling towers and tumbling markets have pitched us out of our element and we are at sea, riding through the tail end of typhoons, but uncertain where we are headed.

Perhaps this is an opportunity.

Maybe if we have the heart of a blue whale and are willing to notice that we always live life close to death, we will know why the nectar is worth the risk to the hummingbird, and we’ll create songs that will be heard beyond miles even we can imagine.


NOTE: I first posted this in June, 2009. We lived in Livermore back then.

The Transforming Landscape

transforming landscapeAbout a month ago, I said to a friend that I was waiting for the landscape to transform. I wanted it to snow. I also knew it was a metaphor for my inner landscape.

The end of the year turned very dark for me. I rode a roller coaster of black depression with occasional moments of gray. The precipitating event that sent me on the ride happened the day after my birthday in mid-October. It involves a profound loss, but not because someone died. I would have to reveal others’ stories to include the details, so they will not be a part of this post. I did not lose Tom, nor is he responsible for the loss (just to reassure those of you who know the two of us).

What is important is that it coincided with the waning of my seventh decade. I will turn 70 in October.

As I worked through the loss I alternated between feelings—sometimes the landscape was the waste land, other times a blank page. I kept asking myself, why am I here, where is here, and what is “here”?

I turned to story, as I often do, to navigate the course—and accidentally landed on “13 Reasons Why.” I had avoided it, thinking it was something it was not. I think it is a pretty accurate depiction of adolescence. I’m sad to see that it is still a breeding ground for the Brett Kavanaughs of the world—a place where young women get ground down and good young men struggle to find their way as well.

I recognized myself in Hannah, the young female protagonist. Seeing her struggle with trying to fit in, I saw clearly that I had made the choice to not quite make a choice about being myself back then. When I was in my 30s, I met women in their 60s and 70s through the Gray Panthers who had navigated a different path. They had defied what was acceptable at a time when being “acceptable” was enforced with an even more heavy hand. They had written their own stories. They showed me an alternative.

Yet, even with their model, the heavy burden of wanting to be nice, likeable, and placating—to make people comfortable, to fit in—weighed me down. I didn’t necessarily behave in the nice, likeable, or placating way, but I felt guilty about it when I did.

As I made my way through the “13 Reasons Why“ story of Hannah, Clay, and the other characters, my family’s dynamic started coming back to me. It was the matriarchy as much, if not more, than the patriarchy who enforced the narrow path of choices for me. My mother was the younger of the two daughters. My grandmother and aunt (my mother’s older sister) dominated. They were not alpha females—they just inflicted their dominance, which was fueled by their disappointments and bitterness at what they perceived as their lack of choices in creating their stories.

My mother submitted to their dominance, muffled her own light, and so could not shine a light on a path for me to write my own story. Whether it was her intent, or my interpretation of how she felt, I made the choice to protect my mother from the truth that we are the authors of our lives. I wrote my story, but in secret. Or, as I have described it before, I became a wolf in sheep’s clothing—I donned the clothing not to fool the sheep so I could make a meal of them, but so they would find me acceptable.

But, there’s no fooling sheep. They know a wolf when they smell one.

In the waning days of my seventh decade, I can see the ways I have tried to fly under the radar and the consequences of it. Thus I have been confronted with that empty page in my story as I complete my seventh decade.

I woke one morning two weeks ago in acute anxiety, with no reference to why. I don’t even know how I changed my perception of anxiety from fear of danger to fear of the unknown. But I did. I understood that I had the option to leave behind that which wasn’t me: walking those high school halls being nice, placating, and likeable.

I gave up on waiting for the snow to change the landscape and realized that I had to just walk those high school halls (they still exist everywhere) without reference to the nice-likeable-placating expectation.

And then it snowed. This hasn’t been the usual snow we have here on the Olympic Peninsula. It’s been one that brings with it the challenges associated with prolonged snow, cold, and ice.

The snow-transforming landscape still enchants me, but it also brings with it a lot of unknowns.

The metaphor continues.


nancy and AOCNOTE: Nancy Pelosi, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Maxine Waters, Radhida Tlalib, Maria Cantwell, Ilhan Ohmar, Tammy Duckworth, Elizabeth Warren, Mazie Hirono, Kamala Harris, and so many more who are currently serving in Congress walk fearlessly through those high school halls as strong, kind, badasses—they are the alpha she-wolves who will transform our national landscape. I walk with them.