When This Is Over

UntitledThe week before we left our home in Livermore to move to the North West, a raven began hopping around in our front yard. That was seven years ago next month.

It was a sign, I thought. Raven is the wolf bird. Raven follows wolf. Wolf is my spirit animal. She really is. I even had a dog that was part wolf.

Now, ravens have taken up residence in the back part of our property here in Sequim, nesting in the majestic evergreen trees that occupy the back 40, as I like to call it.

I think they are ravens. Though they might be crows. When I Google to find out how to tell the difference, I get results like one has tail feathers that create a diamond shape. I have yet to have any stand still enough for me to discern the shape of their tail.

The main difference the results reveal is that ravens are bigger than crows. Which of course begs the question, how big is a crow?

May 9th will be the 11th anniversary of the Writing Shed. I have not been constant in writing blog posts. I go long periods without writing one, then dip into my well of words and out comes a blog post.

So why now? Why today?

I actually started this blog about a year ago to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Writingshed. It’s been hovering ever since.

When this is over, people say. But no one really knows what “this” is or when it will be over or how we will know it will be over. This pandemic, this microscopic organism that has us perplexed. You can’t reason with it. You can’t negotiate with it. It has no language, or at least not one we can speak or hear or translate.

It is just going about the business of being itself with no regard to who it is doing its business to as I wait . . .

A couple of days ago, I picked up a book I’ve had in my Writing Shed for a number of years, “The Celtic Book of Living and Dying,” and began reading, feasting on the beautiful illustrations of Celtic art, drinking in the information. The art affects me much like the art I see up here on the North Olympic Peninsula. Art that has a sense of being, rather than completion.

So, maybe that’s the answer to why today—this sense of waiting is a sense of being, not knowing, not having enough information to know, not knowing when the knowledge will come, or even knowing what I am waiting for.

When this is over . . .

Life’s journey, the book says the Celts believed, is one of moving from innocence to knowledge, from vengeance to forgiveness.

It is humbling to know the power of a microscopic organism. It certainly shakes one out of innocence. For years I wanted to reclaim the innocence I lost when I was molested by my grandfather and uncle. I longed to be the girl who climbed on her uncle’s lap thinking he asked me to do that because he loved me. This was a family who ate long, slow lunches together after church on Sunday. Who was relieved when the polio vaccine saved us from the terror they felt when Spring arrived and the images of rows and rows of children in iron lungs began appearing on television—in their living rooms.

They wanted to protect me. Perhaps they knew the virus that was a part of my family, perhaps they didn’t.

It came over me like a revelation, I don’t know when or how, that innocence is never something that can be restored. And that the opposite of innocence is not cynicsm, but rather experience. And with experience comes knowledge.

There are people in the world who just go about the business of being themselves without regard to who they are doing business with, or its effect on them. Much like a virus.

That’s good information, good knowledge, to have. It’s actually good wisdom for the heart. It helps you protect it when those around you don’t or can’t see the danger.

I’m not even sure where I’m going with this today, except that I feel like we are experiencing a cultural loss of innocence. We are not the center of the universe, we are learning. We are not omnipotent. There are microrganisms, as well as other humans, out there who are just going about their business of being themselves without regard to, or concern for, their effect on others.

Up here where I live in Sequim, there is a force that has arisen—people who are sewing and sewing and sewing masks. These masks are the ultimate acknowledgement that we have an effect on each other—I wear a mask to protect you from me—as we journey through this pandemic.

I can’t sew my way out of a paper bag. I confessed that on a Facebook group, and within a day, a woman I have come to know through Facebook had delivered two homemade masks to my front door. Another wrote me to let me know she could make some for me.

As I wrote this, it swept over me like a revelation that these gracious gifts of kindness were the medicine I didn’t even know I needed.

As much work as I have done to understand, cope with, rise above that early betrayal, there still lingered in my soul a memory that seemed to say, you don’t matter.

Linda Klinefelter and Robi Andison, your offers of homemade masks made me feel like I mattered. It was the medicine my soul didn’t even know it needed. I can’t begin to tell you how much my heart has been opened up by feeling that I matter.

The simplicity of knowledge.

I’m sure there is more knowledge to be revealed as I wait through this pandemic. One never knows when something like this is over, until long past it has been over.

Because I started this with ravens, I read about their role in lore across cultures. One of their roles is to dive into the darkness to find light and bring it out.

I think many of us are feeling a bit lost and wandering (and wondering) in the darkness that comes with this waiting without knowing what we are waiting for.

I don’t think being compelled to use this time to learn a new language, clean out that garage, learn a new skill or whatever is called for.

Instead I think we can be the raven willing to dive into the darkness to find the light. We will need this on the other side of this bout with a microscopic organism when we need to rebuild a society that has become sick with greed —that considers empathy a weakness.

Shakespeare allegedly wrote King Lear during his time of quarantine during the plague. He could not have done that if he hadn’t been willing to dive into the darkness of the story. The light is revealed in the final verse:

The weight of this sad time we must obey, Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. The oldest hath borne most: we that are young. Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

One Puny Voice

writing by hand

Ed Brush’s fountain pen

Ed Brush was my high school sophomore English teacher.

Mr. Shakespeare we called him because he made Shakespeare relevant to our hormone-confused lives. Heroes had fatal flaws that brought them down. Villains were blinded by hatred, revenge, rage. We could identify with both hero and villain.

He taught us all equally. That is, from jocks to those college-bound to those determined to flunk out, he assumed Shakespeare’s words would awaken something in us. And he succeeded.

“William Shakespeare told human beings why we are the way we are emotionally and spiritually,” Ed would later write.

Shakespeare wrote King Lear while he was isolated to avoid getting the plague. Or so goes the story currently being spun. I don’t know and don’t care if it is biographically true, for its emotional truth stirred me in light of our current reality.

And emotional truth is what Shakespeare revealed.

How, I ask myself, would Shakespeare write of a character such as Donald Trump, who, like the monarchs of his time (Trump has even begun referring to himself with the royal plural) had the power of death over life.

But I come up short.

For he is his taking every crisis as an opportunity to inflict or threaten to inflict cruelty and suffering on others. It is in that that he sees his power. And he relishes in that power.

How does a human become that? And how did that become our national character?

When a blind Gloucester finds Lear, his King, raging and manic on the stormy heath, he asks to kiss his hand. Lear replies,

“Let me wipe it first. It smells of mortality.”

Would that Trump could have that stormy-heath moment. It is hard to imagine. And so it is hard to form a story around him—how the humanity in him can be revealed.

So I go back to how does a human become that and how did his story become our national story?

Everything Midas touches turns to gold goes the myth. But what is often left out of the myth is how it ends. As his daughter rushes towards him he cries out to her to stop. But her love for him prevails and so she embraces him and his touch turns her into a gold statue. She dies.

That is what happens when we think gold gives us power. That gold is the power—that it makes us immune from mortality. We kill love.

I’m not even sure where I’m going with this but I woke this morning with fear permeating my workshop. What if, I wondered, there is no one left to hear our stories? Should I still tell the stories I see, hear, feel?

Then I remembered Faulkner’s  words. Bert Fraser, my high school freshman English teacher, and later my Senior English Honors teacher, introduced me to his Nobel Prize speech. The year was 1967, seventeen years after they were delivered, when fear of nuclear annihilation hung heavy in the air.

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.
He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.

I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

I don’t know that I believe or need to believe that mankind will prevail. When we cry “Save the earth,” we really mean save mankind. But the earth will survive regardless of what happens to us.

Yet I still feel the need to save humanity, or at least my own, from cynicism. It is our mortality, ourselves that exist within a parenthesis of a much longer story, that will save us from our cynicism. For it is our mortality that connects us to the living world. And what we do can make a difference one way or the other even if it is only in the expanse of our own puny lifetimes.

How do we rid ourselves of this self-installed King? This Midas who would even turn his daughter into a statue of gold to shield him from his mortality?

I don’t know.

Stories venerating wealth and power have brought us to this moment. In the background stories of courage, compassion, and sacrifice seem to be surfacing as we wait for an outcome. One hopes that it is those stories that will prevail.

So I feel compelled to be to be one puny voice still talking, banish fear from my workshop, and carry on.


Note: Faulkner is sometimes referred to as the American Shakespeare.

What’s the Use?

words of wisdomI chastise myself for not writing. I hear the clock ticking, or rather the calendar. Ever more so since I turned 70 in October. Not because I feel old. It’s just that 70 makes it real. This is not a dress rehearsal.

I have the novel in short stories to finish (Because I Could Not Stop). And then there’s the Beans-and-Meatballs-and-the-Pink-Stuff memoir. Half way through one. Three chapters into the other.

I haven’t written a blog post since last July. Started one. Called it “How Big is a Crow?”. Stopped four paragraphs into it.

I think about it. Writing. Finishing. Continuing.

But what’s the use? I conclude.

The what’s-the-use demon has been strong in me for the past months. I can write my way through despair. But that demon overrides all that is holy and sacred in me.

And so I have been wandering in the Waste Land.

I think it started last July when the town I now live in, Sequim, Washington, became a microcosm of what’s happening in the country. Othering has run rampant.

“Time for cowboys and Indians,” reads a post on the Facebook group page of Save Our Sequim—a group that demonizes the local tribe, the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe—the descendants of those who lived here for centuries before having their traditions, their ability to feed themselves, their economy, their rich spiritual life stripped from them. For less than pennies on the dollar, land was taken from the Tribe.

“Indian Land for Sale” read the advertisements meant to attract white settlers to the area.

Slowly, over time, the Tribe bought their land back. They became very successful through their businesses, including a casino, sharing their success with the community of Sequim. When Virginia Mason withdrew its support from the local clinic, the Tribe took it over, running it at a loss at first. It now serves 17,000 people in the area, about 16,000 of whom are not members of the Tribe.

In response to the opioid epidemic, which hit the North Olympic Peninsula particularly hard, it made plans to open a regional clinic for treating opioid addiction—a facility that will bring a John Hopkins’ level of health care to this rural location.

Rural locations are notoriously underserved when it comes to health care.

A local politician, one who creates wedge issues for their political agenda, seized on the Tribe’s plans as an opportunity to stoke fear and hatred in the predominantly white retired demographic that lives in the greater Sequim area.

Sequim is Mayberry they claimed. Idyllic—a gated community where nice people live. Nice people. You know not those others. The ones who are poor, addicted to drugs, are homeless.

Or aren’t white.

The “nice” people moved here to escape the urban landscape of the “other” for the idyllic landscape of rural.

But rural has never been idyllic. Drug addiction, homelessness, and poverty have long been here in Sequim. Rural communities have been at the mercy of the natural world, not the idyllic. Nature exists for its own purpose—to perpetuate life. It does not recognize privilege as a get-out-of-life-free card.

As I watched the country descend into the tar pit of fear and hatred, led by a sociopath who brags about assaulting women and teenage girls, normalizes racism, and robs the national treasury to enrich his own coffers, I have said that this is not the country I grew up in.

What I have learned is that this is the country I grew up in. As late as the 1970s, Native American women of child-bearing age were sterilized without their consent. Native children were taken from their families, abused emotionally, sexually, and physically. “Kill the Indian in the child” was the war cry of white culture.

The Civil Rights Movement exposed the landscape of fear and hatred—and I believed that that meant we had created a new one.

But, it’s never that simple. Trauma is passed down through generations. And until we as a nation face the gap between our ideal that all men are created equal, and the trauma inflicted by the centuries of otherizing those who were not considered the men referred to in that document, we are a culture, a society wandering in the Waste Land.

“The Waste Land, let us say then, is any world in which (to state the problem pedagogically) force and not love, indoctrination, not education, authority, not experience, prevail in the ordering of lives, and where the myths and rites enforced and received are consequently unrelated to the actual inward realizations, needs, and potentialities of those upon whom they are impressed.”

Joseph Campbell, Creative Mythology (Vol. IV of The Masks of God), p.388

There are no saints. Just human beings. We have the capacity for grace, as well as the capacity for vengeance.

I recognize grace when I see it, when I feel it. I believe in its power. I believe it is amazing. But it’s a rocky road for me. The road to grace. I have to find my way around the boulders and twists and turns of desire for vengeance and claim to victimhood first.

What I see, what I feel from the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe is their grace. They did not have to serve non-Tribal people in their clinic, but they do. Their planned opioid treatment clinic is not restricted to Tribal members. It will be available to all residents of the North Olympic Peninsula—residents of Jefferson and Clallam Counties.

Grace. The unearned gift. We need to extend it—to others and to ourselves for life is not for the faint of heart.

The present, I once read, is where the past flows into the future. I think I understand that finally—that what we do today, in the present, can shape the future, regardless of what the past might have been.

I think I found my way out of my Waste Land by writing this post, rambling as it is. Instead of hearing what’s the use as discouraging words or a demon, I heard them as a question from an inner mentor. What is the use of writing?

“ . . . (humans have) a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.” William Faulkner

I will do my part to craft our future with grace as my guide and words the tools of my craft.


Note: I wrote about the S’Klallam Tribe’s influence on me in 2015.

My Back Forty

51818499_10157341370533949_8502569876253048832_nAs I sat in our sun room back in February waiting for the snow to do—something—I started to wonder, what is underneath all that snow?

Well, now I know.

I have decided to let our Back Forty (basically our half-acre backyard) become a meadow. Tom had been there a while, but I thought I was supposed to please some imaginary home owners’ association (HOA) and keep it closely shorn.

It isn’t even really a lawn in the traditional suburban sense. It’s some kind of grass interspersed with various “weeds,” including dandelions. As it turns out, mostly dandelions.

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For weeks, I have overlooked a sea of bright yellow dandelions basking in the sun, waving in the breeze, drinking in the occasional rain. They grew tall around our patio, prevailed right in front of the sun room windows, dispersed themselves around the sides of the back forty.

As they turn into the fairy puffs, new smaller yellow flowers have begun to appear. Along with thistles that, quite frankly, don’t quite know their boundaries. Eventually they have pretty purple flowers, but they do try to take over.

I don’t know who declared war on dandelions, or why. They are quite lovely and I have noticed more bees buzzing and butterflies fluttering about since I let them have dominion.

I don’t think this is a coincidence.

I have never “gardened.” It’s mysterious to me. Neither my mother nor my grandmother gardened. So, perhaps, that is why. I have said that plants thank me for not paying attention to them for that assures their demise.

So, here is what I decided instead. I will let things grow and then listen to them.

I adopted this approach after discovering that snow does not exist to enthrall me. What it covers will be revealed in its own time. And it is not just snow that transforms the landscape. Look at the dandelions.

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All this as I find myself sailing into the harbor of seventy. In less than three months, I will have completed seven decades of one-more-trip-around-the-sun. It’s not so much that seventy years feels old or final, as that I find it demanding that I listen to it.

Here’s what it’s said so far:

I get to decide what my garden looks like. I am the artist in my garden. I do not have to listen to some mythical HOA to define its colors, forms, or purpose. Instead, I can let the garden grow and listen to it, let it show me the shape and rhythm of each coming journey around the sun.

It took courage for me, a people pleaser, to let the Back 40 be. People pleasing has always been a way of distracting people from seeing me, a way to fend off abusive behavior directed at me—behavior intended to keep me in line, well behaved, ready to serve. It was my inner HOA, as it were.

As I sat down to right* this, I remembered Alice Walker’s book of essays, “In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens.” She introduced me to the word “womanist,” saying that it is to feminist as lavender is to purple.

“From the black folk expression of mothers to female children, ‘You acting womanish,’ i.e, like a woman. Usually referring to outrageous or willfull behavior. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered ‘good.’ . . . Responsible. In charge. Serious.”

Alice Walker from “In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens”

I am a womanist.

In the spring, I plan to scatter some wildflower seeds. I hope to create paths that lead to the fruit trees in the far reaches of the Back Forty, and use containers to grow a few vegetables.

Most of all, every morning I will sit still and listen to what the grandmothers have to tell me about this small piece of earth that I have decided I belong to.

Motheroot

Creation often
needs two hearts
one to root
and one to flower
One to sustain
in time of drouth
and hold fast
against winds or pain
the fragile bloom
that in the glory
of its hour
affirms a heart
unsung, unseen.

Marilou Awiakta
Abiding Appalachia


*Note: I intended to write “write,” instead of right. But then I realized that I actually did mean I wanted to right what had been wrong minded on my part. Stop listening to my inner HOA, let things grow, and listen.

Spring Clearing

spring snowIt was as if that last patch of snow knew it was the last day of winter. Actually it’s stretching to call it a patch. It was more like the remnants of a discarded snow cone. It was gone by the end of the day.

I have never lived through “snow” before. Over the past 6 years in the Pacific Northwest I experienced snow’s occasional visit. It would last a day or two. I would watch sadly as the snow disappeared.

This year, I learned about the persistence of snow—how it can take root and linger, blanketing the landscape with its whiteness, burdening tree branches with its weight, covering what lay beneath.

I had wanted this, hoping the transformation of the landscape would transform my inner landscape. But as it lingered, I found myself almost anxious about what would be revealed when it finally relented.

The snow arrived in February as I was wrestling with grief and depression—an ordeal that began in October, midway through autumn. Winter seemed like it would be just an extension of autumn, as if it would drift placidly into spring, with no transforming landscape.

Then that last month of winter happened.

I have never experienced such a clear demarcation of the end of one season and the arrival of the next. Normally I know it’s spring when there is that one crisp, clear cold day — spring cold. Not a winter cold. Not an autumn cold. Spring cold.

This year it went from winter cold, to spring warm. Almost overnight. The landscape has turned to green with flowers starting to bloom. I don’t know if the tulips will have survived. Scattered around are the occasional branches taken down by the weight of snow.

I think I remember this landscape. But it was covered so thoroughly in white, it all seems a bit new to me.

I seem to have worked my way through grief and depression. I spent a good portion of fall and winter doing the shoulda’, coulda’ woulda’ dance. Walking barefoot over the red-hot coals of disappointment and failure, strangely hoping that would somehow change the outcome that led to my grief and depression.

It did not. I read in an Anne Lamott book that forgiveness is giving up all hope that the past could have been any different. So I forgave myself and accepted that the past was what it was.

There are no do-overs in life. Only well let’s-try-this-then. I discovered there were fewer this-thens this time around. That’s actually a function of wisdom gained from experience. And it’s a good thing because as I wander into my 8th decade (as in turning 70), I get that as the road ahead gets shorter, having fewer options is actually better. The illusions distract.

Teach us to number our days that we might apply our hearts unto wisdom. That’s from Psalm 90. I don’t quote scripture out of purity, but rather for its poetry.

I have arrived at my present. There are no bells and whistles or the desire to charge forth into the future. It’s simply one season following another. There’s work to be done. Not so much a spring cleaning, as a spring clearing.

And an understanding that when winter arrives, light returns.

Snow Relents

52696020_10157364199903949_8765742206314086400_nMy dad dreamed of giving us a white Christmas, though his love of exploration meant that we lived in Saudi Arabia. I’m pretty sure it has not snowed in Saudi Arabia in this archeological era.

Then we moved to the San Francisco Bay Area where we would get excited to see a dusting of snow on the hills surrounding Livermore. It did snow once when I lived in San Francisco—February of 1976. At some point after I returned to Livermore in 2001, the downtown merchants’ association trucked in snow shortly before Christmas and dumped it on Lizzie’s Fountain. Livermore kids went berserk making snow angels, forming snowballs, and generally playing whatever kids play in snow. It usually lasted no more than a day—at the most two.

Last year, here in Sequim where I now live, it actually snowed on Christmas. It was my wish for a Bobbsey Twins’ Christmas. It stayed around for two, maybe three days. It never impinged on our ability to get in and out of the driveway or walk to the garbage cans, nor did it cause pipes to freeze.

It looked like we were going to get through this winter without a snow event. There were occasional snow showers, but never enough to stick around. It made me sad. I wanted snow that stuck around—that changed the landscape as I was fond of saying. “It’s magical the way snow changes the landscape,” I  claimed with great authority.

And then the snow came.

In February. January is supposed to be the coldest month.

51818499_10157341370533949_8502569876253048832_nIt didn’t just snow, it snowed for two days straight. A relentless, robust infusion that transformed the landscape. It stuck to the ground, piling deeper and deeper, covering our driveway, our car, the roof—the branches of trees bending to the ground with the weight of the accumulation of snow. I sent a picture to high school friends and asked, “Is this what Kilmer meant when he said trees bend their leafy arms to pray?”

They got the joke. Ed Brush’s (our high school English teacher) graphic of the tree Kilmer describes was etched in our minds some 50 years later.

I had no idea that snow was so tenacious. And I think I was a bit surprised to learn that snow didn’t exist simply for my enthrallment. I still marveled at its pristine beauty, but also felt an underlying threat. The pipe in the pumphouse froze. Fortunately we caught it early. Would it freeze again? Would our roof hold? Would we lose power? How could we get out of the driveway and to the store before the next onslaught of snow?

It’s not so much I took it personally as I began to see that snow has its right to be what it is, Bobbsey Twin fantasy be damned.

The snow is relenting. A few warmer temperatures, some rain, some sunny days and the snow is not so ubiquitous.  Instead of a pristine white landscape, patches of brown create a contrasting landscape.

But still, the snow persists. In fact, it has started snowing again as I write this post—those big fat clumps of descending snowflakes.

I wanted it to snow, to watch the landscape transform, to help me work my way through a depression I could not shake. I discovered, or rather I am discovering, that transformation isn’t as simple or predictable as I was thinking. There are times I feel sad that the snow will relent, will give way to a landscape that has no snow. I even have some anxiety about what lies beneath the snow. It’s the lot of the poet, the writer to ponder all of the above.

Snow on the roof is also a metaphor for evidence of aging. My depression descended on me after some profound losses and with them, deep disappointment that many things (more than I wished) simply did not turn out the way I had hoped. I spent several nights anguishing, sleeping fitfully and in spurts—mulling over the life I have lived to discern what had I done wrong, searching for ways to do things different as my seventh decade starts to recede in the rear view mirror and my eighth decade is the road ahead.

I will turn 70 in October. I need to write that out loud so I can let it sink in. Seventy they say is the new 50, but it certainly isn’t the new 20. My father died at 77, my mother at 83, my grandmother at 99, and her father at 106. I really have no idea how far the road ahead stretches, but it doesn’t start from 20. It starts with 70, and that has an impact on my choices.

Yesterday, I relented. I got it that the past is what it was and my present is what it is. I actually don’t regret much about the choices I made with my past, despite the disappointment and loss. Mostly I made choices based on my integrity—I loved the way I think it is important to love.

I still don’t know what lies beneath the transforming landscape. I’m not sure what choices lie ahead for me, or how to navigate the economic and physical vulnerability that comes with snow on the roof.

Maybe, just maybe, this relentless infusion of snow is helping me put the past to rest. The silence of the falling snow mesmerizes.

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.