14 November 2015

Mosaics in the Making

It is no coincidence that last night after learning the awful news from Paris, with a heavy heart, I began to read Terry Tempest Williams’ Finding Beauty in a Broken World.  It is a book about many things and many places, among them, learning the ancient art of mosaics in Italy.  Taking broken shards and creating something that catches and reflects light is something that this world of ours could use more of, definitely. 

I awoke this morning still sad and angry about humanity’s incessant ability to destroy one another, not only in Paris but also in Beirut and Syria, and a myriad of other places I’ve never been that always includes Sandy Hook, too.  But the acts in Paris hit home as deeply as the mass shooting in Tucson several years ago that injured Gabby Giffords and killed many others.  Both Paris and Tucson were home during significant phases of my life.  But my heart was softened this morning by a message posted on Facebook by Frans, my Parisian host father from all those years ago.  While his message acknowledged anger and sadness, he reminded me that now we should look inward and for the Soul to reclaim its liberty.  He ended with a beautiful phrase:  Je suis en devenir – I am in the making, and I realized that we are all in the making, not one of us is yet complete, not a single one of us.

But of course, I was still angry and sad.  I still am.  It takes time to heal.  And often it takes more than time.  For me, I often need time outdoors on my feet – walking, running, hiking – to sort out the thoughts chasing one another around my mind.  I headed for Old Kettle Road, the farthest road from our house in the neighborhood, a journey I’d made while mentally composing my first post for this blog several years back.  Back then, it wrapped around an open meadow, which legend holds, was used as an airstrip in the 1940s.  In the last several years, though, it’s been subdivided and homes in various stages of construction and habitability line its edge.  I came here because it’s a quiet walk, it’s rare to see others, and solitude was what I was hoping to find.  I was mostly alone, however, the natural world held surprises for me.

On my way down the hill, an adult American kestrel flew right in front of me – maybe five feet away – and perched in a nearby tree and showed me its tail feathers.  A raven did a similar maneuver about a mile further down the road, flying close enough that I could feel the movement of air from its wings.  And then, when I turned on Old Kettle, thinking of Paris, there was a coyote, maybe 40 feet beyond, trotting away from me down the road.  And in that moment, the wiliness and adaptability of the coyote seemed very à propos for Paris, a city that is constantly reinventing itself while maintaining its allure and history.  The coyote sensed my presence and stopped, looking back at me over its shoulder.  We regarded one another for a long minute or less, until she lost interest and resumed her silent trot, at the quick, even pace that only belongs to the stealthy.

I spent the afternoon at Watson Woods with Madeleine and several of her friends.  We were volunteering with Prescott Creeks to help eradicate wild teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) from the wetlands there.  It was hard work, using shovels to remove these plants with roots the size of carrots from the mucky, sticky mud.  Teasel is a European species, introduced in the eastern US on purpose, but which has spread throughout the West choking out native grasses and plants.  In some areas the ground was carpeted with teasel and it was difficult to see the progress we were making.  I had to keep reminding myself that every plant we took out was not going to flower and go to seed and give life to thousands of others.  I felt like the Little Prince battling his baobabs on Asteroid B-612.  It was good therapy to attack this plant under the watch of the stately golden cottonwoods, even if our work made a rather small difference to the Watson Woods. 

A few weeks ago, I went with a dear friend to hear Terry Tempest Williams speak.  Williams is a writer, activist, and conservationist, a champion of the American Southwest.  I first encountered her writing through Refuge, her account of her mother’s death from breast cancer, while I was in the midst of my own breast cancer experience.  It also expresses her dismay that, while shepherding her mother toward death, she was also witnessing the destruction of natural habitat due to the Great Salt Lake rising to record levels, a place which had previously given her much solace. Williams does not mince words and yet also writes with a sensitivity that is simultaneously delicate and powerful.  Refuge is so eloquent and potent that at times I had to set it aside, unable to bear the truths about human and ecological suffering that it contains.  I know that Finding Beauty in a Broken World will not be an easy read either, but that it will be worthwhile.

At this talk in October, though, Williams spoke about her work in conservation and how it is that change is enacted.  She and her husband Brooke have found that one tactic that has worked is what they term “uncomfortable dinner parties.”  They’ll host a dinner party, inviting people who have different visions regarding a difficult topic, and after dinner they’ll have a conversation about it.  They might invite ranchers, tribal leaders, developers, environmentalists, and lawmakers to discuss an issue like the Bears Ears, a proposed national monument.  And through these conversations around the dinner table, they’ve been able to make progress through compromise and listening.  Again and again, she returned to conversation as a solution for every issue for which the audience members sought her advice.  It’s such a simple idea, and yet how often do we avoid it?  We avoid it for a simple reason, too:  it’s difficult.

In the midst of our sometimes seemingly endless grief, whether it be due to our own personal suffering or that caused by a global event or something in between, conversation quite possibly could make a big difference.  So I ask you to start one, perhaps even an uncomfortable one with a person you might not ordinarily choose.  Invite someone, especially someone that you perceive as different from you, into a conversation and be sure to take some of that time to breathe and to listen.  We are all in the making.  We are all becoming.  We are all mosaics, trying to make something beautiful from the broken pieces around us.

11 October 2015

The Spaces in Between

I’m sitting on the beach watching the tide lap in and the sun is slowly sinking beyond the horizon.  A few puffs of cloud strategically frame the setting sun.  My family is playing Frisbee in the sand behind me and I’m thinking of the family of a college friend I’d fallen out of touch with who passed away this morning after a long and difficult struggle.  He spent nine long months hovering in that in-between space that bridges death and life, moving from ICU to less acute care and back again and again.  He was younger than me.

These in-between spaces are where struggle often seems to reside.  I think of this as I watch the waves lay claim to the land and the land wears itself to smaller and smaller particles.  Here, on the edge of the continent and the edge of the sea, I sit on a narrow sliver of land called the Strandway.  I wonder what it might resemble in another generation’s time, how climate change might affect this densely populated and low-lying strip between sea and bay.

Forty or so minutes south, lies Mexico, whose culture and language enriched my childhood and early career teaching English as a Second Language.  That in-between space of borderlands from here and stretching east through Texas, too, has been a place of struggle.  As I learn the stories of refugees fleeing Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan today, hoping to arrive in Europe or North America, I think of this border here, too.  I think of how the struggle of the refugee is one of bleak hope and abject desperation, the likes of which is even more foreign to me than life underwater or in outer space.  The in-between space occupied by refugees and immigrants, even into the subsequent generation, is one that few of us in America can fathom.  When we talk about immigration, it’s often framed in terms of cost, but how often do we think of what it costs a parent to take a child from the only place they’ve called home, at great peril to all, likely never to return?  And to have such faith in the investment of their own resources into their offspring’s future, even if death is a likely outcome?  I think of this massive flow of refugees from the Middle East and I have no answers and no solutions and I hate how helpless I feel.  At the same time I question how Europe will balance the unanticipated logistics of such a huge human migration. 

It’s hard not to feel a sense of guilt regarding my own good luck to have been born when and where I was.  I ponder these in-between spaces and the one I occupy while on vacation, sandwiched between one grading period and the next.  And yet, in spite of my own good fortune, it’s somehow still easy to get cranky about feeling slightly hungry while playing tourist, or about being less than enthusiastic at how the rest of the family’s interests are not always meshing with my own.  It’s easy, too, to feel annoyed that our little cottage here lies beneath the flight path of the San Diego Airport.  At regular intervals throughout the day and into the night, jets filled with humans whose needs (I remind myself) are just as valid as my own, roar overhead to various destinations.  But I’m trying hard to maintain perspective, which sometimes reaches us in the most mundane of ways.  When we first arrived here at this cottage, we briefly met a guest staying in another part of the building.  When I saw him later, I asked him how he was doing, and his response was, “Better than I deserve.”  And I thought what a fantastic sentiment.  Surely that’s an attitude that I can cultivate, living in this land of plenty with an abundance of good fortune.  Sometimes, though, it’s hard not to want more, to feel like we deserve more, even when we surely have more than we will ever need, even though I often remind myself that gratitude is the key to turning what we have into enough.

These in-between spaces, too, in spite of the struggles that exist in them, are also rich in diversity and life.  What exists in between is unique and often not found elsewhere, in terms of ecosystems like tide pools and also more esoteric thoughts, too.  The clarity that finds us here, gazing out at the ocean, also rarely exists elsewhere.  Once I’ve ventured inland, back beyond the scent of the ocean breeze, where the shushing of the waves no longer calms my noisy thoughts, I return to that chattering state of mind which crowds out any quieting effect the ocean might have had.  The peaceful thoughts fall like the proverbial sand through my fingers.  But the memories remain.  We can reflect on the beauty of the sunset, or good times with old friends, and our gratitude that these things did, in fact, exist.  And perhaps at times those memories, the mind revisiting those in-between spaces, are enough.

Here at the coast, my gaze is drawn out, toward the wide horizon, into that space between here and there.  And after an interval, my eyes still on the horizon, I shift the gaze inward.  There’s a mental inventory of sorts that I calculate every time I take in a vast landscape like the ocean.  The waves rise and fall, advance and retreat, their constancy soothing and calming on a fair day such as this.  And, as if in time to their rhythm, a litany of gratitude answers their cadence:  family, friends, health, freedom, and so much more, and the waves echo the thanks in my thoughts:  this is enough, this is more than enough, more than enough.

19 September 2015

Lessons from the Hive, September 2015

For each of the past three school days, I added a pause to the typical after school routine.  Formerly, we'd arrive home and jump right into homework, grading, dinner prep, or whatever the evening required.  But this week, I took a few moments after arriving home to head out into the backyard to watch the bees.  It's a very calming and centering moment, watching the bees leave and arrive, much like watching fish in a tank, really.  The older worker bees leave the hive, taking their funny little bee steps and then suddenly, they take flight without preamble.  Other workers are returning with nectar or water, or my favorite to note, pollen.  Pollen with some other secret bee ingredients is fed to the larvae (beekeepers call this 'bee bread').  The bees returning from foraging with pollen carried in 'buckets,' hairy receptacles found of their hind legs.  Right now the pollen they're bringing in is white, or yellow, or bright orange.  Earlier, it was mostly yellow or purple.

Pollen buckets, aka pollen pants:

It's fascinating to watch a species that works so communally.  Each worker bee, throughout the course of its life, cycles through a series of jobs.  Each of these jobs is for the good of the whole hive and many of the jobs that a bee performs does not actually benefit that individual bee.  And from my human perspective, it seems that the bees perform these tasks without complaint or expectation of reward.  Even when the new bees emerge after pupating, they begin to clean the cell they were just in to prepare it for another egg to be laid by the queen.  These young worker bees, sometimes called house bees, feed the young larvae and help make honey.  They guard the hive, make honeycomb, and help the foragers by removing their pollen and storing it in cells.  They eventually, toward the end of their life cycle, leave the hive to forage for nectar and pollen which will feed the next generation of bees.  The worker bees also act as undertakers, removing any bees that die in the hive.  On Friday afternoon I witnessed this, and even captured on video, two bees pulling a bee carcass out of the entrance and one of the bees flying away with it to dispose of it.

Bring out yer dead!

This sense of absolute devotion to community rarely exists in the human world.  We certainly have our moments of selflessness, our acts of generosity and heroism, but notice that we humans sometimes reward these unusual acts with honors and awards because they are out of the ordinary.  Our sense of individuality trumps our collective best interest more often than not.  If we can learn anything from the bees, perhaps it should be that there are sweet rewards when we can find it in ourselves to work together for the common good without the expectation of what's-in-it-for-me.

A second lesson I’ve learned from the hive is not to neglect wonder.  Two months ago, all I knew about honeybees was that they produce honey.  Ever since we impulsively acquired this hive, I’ve been obsessively reading and learning all I can about them.  I’ve gotten some flak from some people, but to each her own.  I don’t expect anyone else to get as excited about bees as I am.  I don’t get excited about some of the more conventionally acceptable obsessions of our society, like football, television shows, or Disneyland.  But here is what stuns me:  there are incredible worlds within our world, most of which we walk on by and fail to notice.  But new worlds are awakening my senses, and it’s fascinating how much I still have to learn at my age.  Caring about bees has made me look more closely at flowers.  And I look at all kinds of bugs and spiders with interest now.  I’ve been thumbing through Audubon’s wildflower and insect identification guides.  I am learning the naming of things.  I am learning to wonder.

03 August 2015

Bees, Knees, & Transitions

Colin Meloy is singing the soundtrack of my daughters’ childhoods this morning, much as John Denver sang mine.  It’s time to say goodbye to yet another summer.  This morning I return to work and on Thursday school begins.  It’s been a summer of transitions and reflection.

Last week we made a very difficult family decision to have our beloved pet cat put down due to increasing behavioral issues (the technical term is inappropriate elimination).  We have each made our peace with losing Lucie, but there are moments of acute loss that each suffer, often at unexpected times.  To walk into the space where her food dishes were causes my heart to drop, every time, and my heart seems to beat out, “she’s gone, she’s gone, she’s gone.”  The evenings and mornings when she’d be especially cuddly and purry seem so empty to us now.  Every now and then, I think I see her out of the corner of my eye, curled up in one of her usual places.  Emptiness seems the primary description for losing a pet.  Lucie occupied such a presence in home and heart.  She was an exceedingly social cat, greeting visitors and needing to be wherever we were.  We miss her so.

As if called to fill this void, thousands of bees swarmed into my in-laws’ garage the day after we said goodbye to Lucie.  Dan contacted friends who are beekeepers to assess the situation.  They said the bees might leave on their own to find a more suitable home, but if not, they’d capture and relocate them on Sunday.  The bees were still there the next morning, a mass of solid bees the size of a basketball, clinging to one another and the ceiling of the garage.  Peggy and Dave arrived and suited up, explained the plan, and talked with such love about the bees.  Something clicked inside me and I was intrigued and fascinated and immediately wanted these bees placed on our property.  I asked impulsively if we could have the bees, and Peggy was delighted that I was a convert and explained what I’d need to do to prepare a space for the bees.

Sunday night, the bees were moved into a box on our property, under a juniper tree south of our house.  From our deck we check on them multiple times a day, using binoculars, observing patterns in their comings and goings.  We’ve ordered our own bee suits, have a pile of bee books from the local library, and have had conversations with our neighbors to make them aware.  We’ve spoken to several people who are or were beekeepers who have been so supportive and willing to share advice.  We definitely feel part of a community of environmental stewards – the beekeeping community is welcoming and eager.  There are moments when I am watching the bees when a paraphrase of Bogie’s line from Casablanca pops into my head:  Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, these bees buzzed into mine…  I’ve never felt quite so obsessed and concerned about anything like I do about these bees.  Truly, they are incredibly low maintenance, and in fact do their thing without human assistance and in spite of human interference, as they’ve done for millennia.  But to provide them a safe place to call home during this time of crisis for their species feels like very important work.  Beekeeping is a lot like parenting, teaching, or gardening, in that my first task is to create and maintain an ideal environment for them to thrive.  I’m learning all I can and hope that this colony will succeed.  If they make enough honey to share with us, that’s an added bonus, and I hope to have plenty for anyone who wants some.  They do appear to be a strong colony and my first glimpse into the bee box two days after their placement showed them to be busy building comb and setting up house, as perfectly as we could hope.

This summer we also replaced our flooring, which required us to move out of the upper floor of our house.  We slept in our camping trailer for a week, our garage and downstairs filled with furniture and boxes.  We spent many days this summer sorting through clothing, toys, and such, deciding what to keep, what to donate, what to pitch.  It was a cathartic process that involved many trips to Goodwill and the Humane Society Thrift Shop to drop off bags and boxes.  Madeleine and Arden said goodbye to numerous toys they’d outgrown.  We repainted their bedroom and still need to hang pictures back on the wall, but it’s mostly back together.  I had the realization that Madeleine has three more summers with us before she heads off to college, and my mind’s been frantic with planning those family vacations we’ve not yet done (Hawaii, Europe, Baja, Washington DC).  Of course, we don’t have to do these family trips before she goes off to college, but she’ll soon have other interests and a summer job.  She did have a small job this summer teaching music reading to a young violinist.  I’m definitely feeling the clock ticking in a way I haven’t before this summer.

Exactly a month before the first day of school, I tore the medial meniscus in my right knee while on a morning run.  I was laid up for about a week during which I had a lot of time to read and think.  I saw an orthopedic surgeon who indicated surgery is my only option for this injury, but that I would be the one to decide when that should occur.  A steroid shot into my knee has given me much mobility and I can do most any activity I want (except hiking and running).  It’s a waiting game at this point to see what I can tolerate.  Just this week I began taking slow walks around the neighborhood, managing to do two miles without much discomfort.  As always, though, an injury or illness makes us take stock since it slows us down to the essentials of life, temporarily, if we’re lucky.

In spite of not being very physically active, I haven’t been writing much this summer, or even this year if I’m honest.  I can’t really pinpoint why, although there is often a sense of overexposure of the self, or feeling as if I’ve revealed or might reveal more of my inner workings than I want.  So this season has been one of inward retreat and renewal.  It takes a lot of physical and emotional energy to exist in this world, even in my cushy, semi-rural existence here in America.  As I gear up for another year in the classroom, I am more grateful than ever that my profession offers this very important and very necessary perk of summers off.  I am refreshed and revived and very much looking forward to the new challenges the school year always brings.  I am grateful, too, for new professional opportunities like coaching Academic Decathlon, and new personal interests like beekeeping, that keep each day fresh.  Dan and I celebrated our 22nd anniversary last month and some days I feel very old in my bones, very set in my ways as I go about my routines.  But these transitions to new stages, new interests, and new dreams will help to keep us young.  As Gabo said, “It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.” 

We’ve transitioned from a one-pet household to being stewards for thousands of creatures, from a household with two children to one with two young adults.  I’ve gone from being physically active to slowly working my way back to being able to walk a couple miles.  It’s an adventure, this life, filled at times with heartbreaking detours and unexpected curves, and always, always, always, with changes.  Wishing you some new dreams that will set your heart abuzz.

26 June 2015

Something I Thought was for Other People

Today is a historic day.  This morning the SCOTUS ruled that same-sex marriage is constitutional and that states do not have the right to declare otherwise.  I didn’t really expect to see this happen – same-sex marriage legal across the entire country – in my lifetime.  Tears are spilling over as I write this, which surprises me.  I knew that I believed this to be right and good in my heart, but I am shocked at my relief and happiness regarding this decision.

All morning I watched as positive reactions filled my Facebook page.  But probably the most poignant of all was this one, from a dear college friend:

It affected me deeply, but not so much because it shows how it feels when a barrier comes crashing down, which in itself is huge.  Barriers are rarely toppled so decisively.  With a few notable exceptions, like the literal and symbolic barrier of the Berlin Wall coming down, barriers generally come down in such small increments that one day we look up and finally realize that they’re now, somehow, much more surmountable. 

But that’s not why this post, especially, brought me to tears.  This ruling was the removal of a veil and a gag, enabling love and marriage to be a vision that anyone of us can now see as our option.  Think of how seeing yourself as part of a scene allows you to play your role.  This is everything.  Think of the young girls today who can envision themselves as engineers, physicians, astronauts, rather than the limited number of career options available to them a couple generations ago.  Think of children of color who can envision themselves today receiving the education they deserve, free from segregation.  Think of two people in love who can now share the rights and privileges today’s ruling finally permits.

Unless and until you can see yourself as part of the picture, you can’t know how far your dreams extend, how much you can accomplish, that what we can barely fathom in our dreams can indeed come to pass.  This is why MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech still resonates today.  He was planting a vision of a better world in our collective dreams.  Today we moved closer to that dream of equality, which is perhaps even more stirring after the darkness behind last week’s attack in Charleston moved us away from it.

A memory:  When I put on my first pair of glasses as a young girl, I could distinctly see what previously had been blobs and blurs.  I saw with new eyes a new world:  images and words all at once in focus, sharp and clear.  And I was filled with wonder.  This day, yes, feels like that:  filled with wonder and joy that at times we can see tangibly that love is indeed stronger than hate.

03 May 2015

Twenty-five Bucks and a Degree in French

I just completed the second stage of an application process to become a volunteer translator for Kiva.  You might have noticed an ad for Kiva on my sidebar here at Chez Cerise.  Kiva is an international microfinance organization which matches borrowers (typically in the developing world) to lenders throughout the globe.  Lenders can peruse lists of borrowers, categorized by location, type of business, length of loan repayment, and more.  Click here to see how it works.  As a lender, I can pledge as little as $25 toward a loan of perhaps a few thousand U.S. dollars that the borrower, a small business owner, can invest in his or her business, and then repay by the end of the term.

Dan and I have made 49 loans over the past several years, totaling $1,125, through Kiva.  At any given time, we have about $250 circulating through various hands.  We’ve loaned money to entrepeneurs in twenty-eight different countries on four continents and have only experienced one default (but our $25 was refunded to us via the lending organization in Peru).  We currently have active loans that are in the repayment phase in Guatemala, Azerbaijan, Ghana, the Philippines, Burkina Faso, and Colombia.  Our daughters each have their own Kiva accounts and have chosen to support specific borrowers as well.  We’ve recommended Kiva to a number of friends and family members who have made their own loans, too.

Quite some time ago, I signed up to become a volunteer translator with Kiva.  A few weeks ago I received an invitation to officially apply, and today I took the next step in the application process.  This step consisted of two parts.  The easy part was the translation test.  I was given sample passages to translate from French to English.  These passages enable the borrower to give a snapshot of his or her business, and often include some details about his or her personal life, which the prospective lenders read in order to learn more about the person or organization receiving the loan.  The second part of the test was more challenging and asked me to evaluate various loan requests for acceptability – really a kind of proofreading and fact checking, or a vetting of the request.  It required me to code various issues I encountered, to identify what sector of business a loan would fall under, and to determine if the loan request was legal and/or accurate based on the information given.

I should learn within a month if I’ve passed this stage of the process.  It’s been a fun one and I hope that I am offered the opportunity to help Kiva in this way.  Click if you’d like to learn more about Kiva, or to sign up to become a lender or to help in any other way.  While any money loaned on Kiva is not considered a tax-deductible donation (because you’ll likely be repaid), Kiva has a very high rating from Charity Navigator, if you want to see where the money actually goes.