Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Notes on A New Solitude

Trillium Lake and Mt. Hood

It is Wednesday, my daily journal tells me. Time seems malleable; it morphs from the moment I arise with a peculiar elasticity so that it might be morning or afternoon, sooner or later. And then flattens into a distant horizon I note but move past. The birds wake early, speak out, sing as they take their fill at the feeder, their wings a blur in the light between the trees branches, the cherry blossoms. The everyday dark-eyed juncos, black-cappped chickadees, wrens and robins look more beautiful each time they flit into my view. Deft, inquisitive, efficient, their bodies soft and strong.

*

Sunshine fades into a thin veil, then bursts into a soft fire as clouds scud about then stall out. The hours feel dense, thick as if sultry as the breeze cools. They hang upon the me as if in anticipation of something not always defined. The unknown is a thousand wisps of shadow. I wait. And wait. I move about, attempt to complete tasks well enough.

This time we live with now is about health and economics, also about life being lived in bits and pieces, starts and stops, then swirls into more familiar currents–as if little has changed. I live inside those groups of statistics that accumulate, fluctuate hourly. It can seem like watching from the edge not from inside. It happens like this when one is stunned.

Numbers do not stay apart from one another like we must, but bunch and crunch and spill into virtual atmosphere awhile a virus is carried across the streets, the tables in the plaza, the windows that blink, the swings that stand empty. So time takes on its own weight though I walk in and out and through it. My body takes in this day like it takes in the forest when noting the low huffing of bears: I find my way with squashed fear, heightened senses, with the caution of survival even as I still admire the sky, the trillium, small things that skitter and gobble and mate and seek cover as I pass.

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It was a gift our parents gave us: freedom. I didn’t know it then, but reveled in it alone or with neighborhood friends.

I sailed about, melded to my rattling blue Schwinn bike, on the sidewalk, around corners of each block, up and down an empty overgrown lot’s narrow path. Into parking lots where I’d practice tricks: balancing torso across the seat, grasping handlebars with taut arms and small hands; crouching on the seat while steering with a wobble; one knee on the seat and one leg sticking out behind me a bit. I was fearless. I knew I could do these things. When I could not, it was only a bleeding knee that would scab over.

Oh, the circus. I wanted to be in one–didn’t every child of my era? I used to envision the weird mathematics of flight called trapeze artistry, and at night would dream of a guy and myself high above the circus ring, our moves enabling us to fly through the air as if we belonged there. As if we had special powers.

But really it was learning how to exert energy, allow physics to work–and let each spare, coiled, tensile person to grasp those other hands or bar. A practiced synchronicity of factors set into motion and completed. As a child, I thought: magic, that’s what it was, and that seemed sensible.

I tasted a kind of sweet power on the bike and in those dreams. But it was easy, harmless, accessible. No thought of failure. A child knows the exhilaration of boundlessness. Until she does not. But it is potent before then. We try to replicate such ease and unfettered living ever after.

I think of all this today, of how movement and precision, spontaneity and vigorous energy impacted times of victory that have been a part of my life. Expectancy of more and better. That thrust toward greater heights. And how small and ground level it has all become, wavering expectancy in the face of growing catastrophe.

But at 69, there is still a burning fire in my soul, with that mysterious nerve center that carries me into and out of each waking day and sleep-seeking night. That keeps me alert to possibility and wonder. One does not need a bonfire to keep needed warmth and energy engaged. It takes a spark well tended to illumine what is needed, what gets and can keep one going,

I must be sure to tend it, feed it with appropriate and worthy fuel. The storm that brews and rages beyond the door, these woods–it could blow it out, leave only smoke.

*

It is not that I am alone.

My husband works at his desk nearby. He takes loosening-up steps about the place, pads around in tawny leather and sheep’s wool slippers. I keep on my red wool felt slippers, the hind end of a black cat outstretched on left slipper and its front half running across right one. Held side by side they make a good whole feline. I look at my slippers more–I am sitting down more than usual and there they are, the cat that’s one or the other part made entire–and on the move only when I am. We schlep around from chore to chore, though I do put on my usual clothing, not too often giving in to lazy stretchy yoga pants which I said I’d never wear for general use–they can make me feel old. Halfway through the day I might leave a dusting of blush, add a slick of sheer lipstick; old habits die hard. It makes no sense. I see no one but the man who took me for better or worse. And vice versa. And it has worked out well enough.

But other than the split cat and peeks of Marc, I am alone. Not counting the daily check-ins with friends and family–those have increased but are from the other side of somewhere else. We know what matters when there is a lack of things to busy and distract us. We see how time leaks away faster some days and then never gets around to wrapping things up nicely. And we don’t want to lose it, these moments that keep us better, fuller.

I mean, though: I am alone with my innermost self. That isn’t such news. But now it is tinged with a deep, conscious solitariness I have not felt in decades. It is the confinement. It is the drastic curtailing of activities, the fast shut down of the country and far beyond. I look out the windows and see no one there, mostly. My neighbor with the shimmering white hair and sunflower yellow pants and bulky white sweater, her chihuahua barking like crazy at the end of its taut leash. A car with an unknown someone who unloads grocery bags at a nearby door, quick quick and gone. It is silent awhile. What about the guy who sells insanely expensive fishing equipment–is he at home dreaming of finally only fishing– some day? He does not meet our eyes. And those delivery trucks come and go, roaring up and down the hills, drivers slack- faced as the package exchanges hands, then they race to the next stop, on overtime but under pressure, at risk themselves.

Meanwhile, the natural world blooms and shivers in a ritual carnival of color and fragrance as we seek the interior life literally and otherwise. I see the bees and they see me, circling, zigzagging onward to their targets of love. I used to be afraid of bees, after a few stings as a barefoot kid. They began to seem more like heroes and heroines–those blooms, that honey. It is apt right now, the terribly frightening stings and yet still gifts of bounty, often side by side.

I stand on our balcony, pull in gulps of piney air. Watch red maple leaf buds swell, a potted geranium release a flower. I am eager to plant lettuce seeds in the rich soil of pots, to order other useful seeds. I want to purchase and care for more flowers but still have patience for the ,long wait. This is who I still am, only a woman who sniffs each new bloom with eyes closed and heart swelling, who is entranced with the elegant work and guessed-at nattering of birds. Hears a cello playing an old hymn or an Elgar concerto, both rich and soothing so that within my chest a vibration hums along and takes me to a kind of ecstasy. Who finds the soles of my feet making quick purchase of earth as my mind bobs about in search of poems, a kite tethered.

And I await the lone owl who hoots in the dark when we are all tucked in. Wait with patience, as if it is a good sign.

But it isn’t too rough, or not yet– this aloneness that holds a big place in life. I have lived essentially alone with webs and mazes of interconnected thoughts, the spiritual and emotional wayfaring for a long, long while. Have had good practice dealing with pressures of sudden crises and a lingering of repeated loss and pain. We mostly all take the brunt and puzzle it out, find ways to endure. These times are not the same as before, no, at closer look more arduous. Clearly uncertain. Yet a solitude of spirit and mind becomes more significant only if I choose.

I am never actually alone within the numinous presence of God. And I am not without kinship all over the world, if I know your names or not. Still, solitude, the living with one’s self deeply has benefits. I know myself well. I can live with who this woman is. And there is room for more in my head and heart.

And so I will these bones and sinew to stay strong as it can as I climb the hills each day. But, everything is a gamble…I say that even though I have never played Rummy much less Black Jack for as much as a penny. Chance does what chance may do.

*

Where is this God?— some are demanding. Why are we nearly abandoned once more?

Are we abandoned? Why is this not the long and dangerous trajectory of intersecting factors?

Regarding God, I have no rational answers to those sorts of questions.

I have never been able to explain what was embedded in my core from the start. At age three or four I sat at my mother’s feet while she sewed by the big window. A pleasant, unremarkable domestic tableau. But she told my sisters and father I talked aloud with Jesus and God…she found it disconcerting, my mother a lifelong believer. A mother who had more than a few foretelling dreams and could size up a person inside two minutes more often than not. Maybe she was worried I would be like her.

Maybe I am. But I don’t really remember the talks she recalled. I straddled two (perhaps more) worlds so easily then, as children are keen to do. I recall dust-filled streams of sunlight cast over her feet and my knees and hands as i p layed with scarps of fabric. And singing to myself, the whir of her machine and the snipping of threads. I recall sheer happiness. Likely God was in the mix a lot. It never surprises me that this is so.

*

I find it startling that people don’t believe God lives and moves within and among us. Here. There. There. In me, you. Outdoors, inside. In darkness and in brightness and flux of in-betweens.

We come into the world quiet or bawling, vulnerable and alone; we will leave it by and with our own selves. In the moments beyond anxiety’s fiddling with us, this surely is not a bad thing. It is the sheen of separateness that is temporary, our singularity proscribed so we might make more of less, make greater from smaller, make complete from fragments. Recognize in our own existence a map of an infinite universe at rest and at work. We are given a momentary chance to practice human creativity, find unity in an onslaught of divisiveness. Or so I have lived long with this idea; it makes more sense to me than most.

Not understanding cosmic mechanisms at work yesterday, today and tomorrow does not diminish, much less negate, the mostly unfathomable realities of the Cosmos. What we do not know, we just do not yet know.

We are separate wherever we may be, but reside in the whole together, every creature and other living thing on a very small planet. The trees know about this; they depend on one another as their roots entwine and reach beneath the teeming surface and also receive one another’s every signal above ground, transmitting helpful chemical information in return. In their great varieties and with steady growth they shelter and nourish, give clean air and life-preserving shade. They watch and know much, survive and revive decade after decade. This is not just a fancy; it is now researched facts.

Science sometimes seems to lag behind what we intuitively know. Why do children run up to trees and hug them? Climb them no matter falls, and set up house in the crooks of branches? It is only natural. They love them, and so do we bigger people. I move among them in all seasons, see, listen, learn, gather joy. My hand upon their rough or smooth bark, my fingers skimming leaves and lichen and mosses. I embrace them gently, thankful. It is a welcome shared entirely without deceit or rancor.

Would that we lived more like trees.

I would rattle my spring leaves and arms right now, let the wind sing me, then settle in with the others who come by.

*

I learn from other people. On the way back from our walk, we saw this on a sign in a neighbor’s window:

“We choose brave love, fierce joy, and active hope for ourselves, others and the planet.”

Worth believing as best we can, even as we wave from behind panes of glass, even as we pass one another with a brief nod, gazes anxiously glancing off one another–and a real half-smile feeling more precious than a handful of precious gold. I feel rather brazen to offer a soft “Good afternoon.”

This new solitude brings solace and succor as well as the ache of separation for us social beings. But I am here, and you are there, and we are not so alone. It is, I think, an illusion, a self-centered error to assume we are that unique and on this trail of our very own. It has been trod for eons by those like us and unlike us.

*

Words, only words, I think. But words are a comfort to me. Words are one way of doing things when other tools do not or cannot. Words can transform and free and uplift. They are part of my life blood, in any case.

Words keep me in place as I, along with the rest, navigate this twilight time and try to survive an invisible power of a virus.

When we think it, speak it, pray it, we are clearer, stronger:

Hope. Courage.

Perseverance. Compassion.

*

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As a Christian I believe in much that guides me well–and may we all seek strength and wisdom from what we each do believe:

“Be not afraid, for lo, I am with you always….”

Everyday Beautiful Life in a City Park

Everyday Beautiful Life in a City Park

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At last. I have arrived at one of our neighborhood parks, a favorite. And I am filled with sweet relief. I’m released of artificial enclosures, set free in a world of green abundance and those critters who always occupy it. The park is its own entity, a series of paved and hard-packed dirt pathways, many varieties of towering trees clustered together or spread about the rise and fall of 25 acres.  Their quietly powerful forms arch overhead, massive and lithe branches rustling in the breezes. I want to greet them: “Great-grandmother, Great-grandfather, hello.” (I have recently read of research verifying that trees do communicate and live interdependently in a number of ways, as many have suspected. Or perhaps as we all knew once upon a time when the workings of nature included us more intimately and routinely.) Perhaps they know me and perhaps not, but they seem to welcome me.

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As I power-walk the steeper incline, the fist-sized heart muscle squeezes and releases fast and strong, glad of partnership with lungs, aiding my reaching legs and arms. All mental fog clears as oxygen is given rapid delivery to cells. It then commences to empty and refill with simpler and finer stuff. Eyes note rocks, twirling airborne leaves, patches of cobalt sky and chameleon clouds, birds a flutter of feathers and plaintive or cheery melodies. My senses are governing me, guiding me through each moment; they do what they do very well indeed. Without this daily walk I would be a lesser human being and far less fit. Without this rolling park and more in my city, I would feel bereft–yes, it’s true– of much my mind, body and soul crave.

I am near the top of the hill when I halt progress. There is something going on with the crows as they surround nearby area, a zigzag of cried orders or observations that change to scolding or an alarm signifying worse. I gaze upward into thickets of leaves and crisscrossing branches, searching for what it is they are fussing over. There, is that the issue? A barred owl perching in what appears to be one of the park’s pretty magnolia trees. That explains it: owls and crows seem born enemies. This owl must have been found out and disturbed. It’s nervous and perhaps annoyed, repeatedly turning its head ’round and about. I pull out my camera, capture its wild beauty. It darts its black eyes at me, looks away, back again. I more often site various owls in denser forested acreage, rarely in broad daylight–they are sleep of course and blend in perfectly. But this one has been spotted by more than just me.

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The mob mentality of crows takes over. They are diving about the tree, making a louder racket, harassing the singular creature. An ominous sense of anxiety creeps up as I watch; it is rarely a welcome party by the ever-governing crows. It will roust the barred owl if at all possible, peck it, swoop down upon it, perhaps even prey upon it. I stand and wait several minutes but the crows seem unable to reach the bird. Or that is not yet their intent. I am surprised by a slow anger toward the fifteen or more crows. They are such aggressive birds, dominating all they can. On the other hand, I suspect owls can make a meal of a crow or two when at their prime advantage. I have read that Great Horned owls are masters at it.

In a flash, the owl flees the magnolia for another tree and its wings are wonderful to see, its small soft-feathered body so strong. I can somewhat see the division of crows race after it. The owl appears to find refuge among branches again. I do not have a good enough view to note what is next. The bombastic calls of the relentless crows go on.

I feel for the moment that the barred owl has the upper hand and so press on, contemplating the natural order of things. The curious incidents experienced here and during other park walks. The hierarchies in place and dramas played out, the battles fought, lost and won. It seems no creature can be entirely free of it.

But there is usually better news at the park. I find it immediately.

There are grassy off-leash, dog friendly areas and they take right to it. I walk by and enjoy the fun vicariously, being without a dog these days. Large and small, energetic and more retiring, they’re game and take full advantage of freedom, as any reasonably healthy dog will. They leap for Frisbees, fetch balls flung far and wide, sniff and greet, race each other madly back and forth. And the subtle posturing of various canine messaging goes beyond my ken. But the not so subtle occurs, too, as one gets too friendly or another finds the personality, breed or rank of another unappealing or even threatening. The owners compare notes and chat like great friends, too, including their pets in sometimes baby talk, sometimes adult conversations. I am always interested in whom goes with which dog; it isn’t always so easy to guess correctly.

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I am particularly interested in the man who does squats while his dog politely waits for him to finish. It appears the man is talking to the dog, perhaps explaining his routine, or counting aloud or asking his pet to be patient– his time will come. I also wonder if the man is more motivated to exercise when out with his dog. Pets can do that for us–start us up, keep us going in one way or another. The park has plenty of older citizens walking with their faithful friends. I feel gratified to see it and like to greet them both.

There are friends in deep conversation, with linked arms or companionable silence everywhere. I was recently asked who I walk with daily and it gave me pause. Not that many, I admit. Some friends are still working or live a bit far away. A couple have hip or knee problems. My spouse is not so much a moving-right-along walker as one who likes to pause and look at every small thing that catches his eye along the paths, in a bush, peeking up from dirt, moss and grass. He is quite engaged in collecting rocks and sticks. I enjoy looking up and around as I speed by, catching bits of talk, noting the way the light falls through the leaves and the shadows dance. I do stop long enough to take photographs. My older sister says it exhausts her to see me go; she likes to mosey, sit on a bench and chat–which I do like doing with her. In truth, not too many keep up with my pace. It’s not even intentional; I have always been fast on my feet. Most of my five adult kids likely can outpace me; they tend to be quite active and fit. I look forward to taking off with them; it pushes me. I treasure such times with them, the brisk pace, the bright air, the sounds of nature mingling with human. Their nearness. But most of them live in other states, so it is getting more rare these days to share these times outdoors. (If I’m lucky, I can hang out some with grandchildren. My fourteen year old granddaughter told me today that she is NOT too old to go to the pumpkin patch and when can we go? I about leapt for joy but composed myself and texted back.)

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Yes, I sometimes wish I walked with others more. But not often; I well appreciate being one among others, amidst nature within the city. I feel safe; I pay attention. The park is full of all ages with their own life stories.

I’m a happy gal to be able to keep my heart strong, to commune with the natural designs about us. To observe the human theater, photograph the scenes. Everything fascinates me in one way or another: the butterfly’s wings against a bloom, the reflection in an inch of water, the sounds of a pack of teens running in concert, the sun beaming on a turtle, the child reaching for a duckling.  The breaths I still can take– in, out; life given, life shared. So I go to the park to ease aches physically and emotionally, to even connect more readily with God as I meditate on such small beauty, each curious anomaly. These moments given like many gifts unexpected.

I also walk to jar free some ideas for writing. A first sentence, an image, a character or two–these will come forward as I move across a landscape. It’s as if they are waiting for me to clear more space for internal movement, to allow creative energy to take rein. I find a good walking pace generates more useful moments, rather than depleting me. I return home or go on to the next task feeling renewed.

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In this city-block-sized park (actually two, also with a children’s playground, basketball and tennis courts) there are runners, power walkers, strollers, sitters, Tai Chi and yoga practitioners, cyclists and roller skaters and more. I frequently see people practicing acrobatics. Tumbling pairs of adults. Those balancing/walking atop what appears to be a cord strung tautly between two trees will stop me cold a few moments. Jugglers practice their art and draw onlookers, too.

There are sometimes groups of young moms exercising, babies in strollers beside them. Many park-goers spread feasts on picnic tables, feeding a slew of family and friends. Some read in the shady quiet spots while others doze and sunbathe, even in October before winter rains take hold. And musicians like to bring their instruments; I have enjoyed a tuba player (very good), saxophonist (also good), a flutist (fair but chipper), a violinist (beginning stages), many guitarists and singers of various levels of talent and piano players (there is an upright kept in a maintenance building, brought out now and again). I keep waiting for someone to bring a drum kit and wonder how folks would enjoy that. I’d listen.

Sadly, Portland has thousands of homeless persons. The parks are often temporary camp-out areas. I don’t know all public park laws or how stringently they are enforced. But it’s not unusual to come upon several empty or occupied sleeping bags, a tent or two, shopping carts piled high with belongings, circles of folks who must know each other on the streets and meet up at the park, too. They are living their lives. Occasionally someone is talking to himself or seems upset about something. They are mostly quietly talking, smoking, listening to a radio. Sometimes we exchange a greeting, other times barely nod. But I do not find them invisible. Something we clearly have in common is an appreciation for the park’s offerings: old sturdy trees with their shade, open expanses for roaming and areas for solitude. Its easy atmosphere. Its richness.

There is a good-sized pond inhabited by common water fowl. I watch the squabbling, floating, friendly ducks.  I admire an occasional elegant blue heron from a distance as it perches and stands tireless, still, and sometimes it swoops down from a treetop. There are turtles aplenty basking in sunshine on logs in the pond, and a garter snake here and gone in the grass. Everywhere are benches about the pond where people sit and commune or snooze or chat with friends or lovers. Many take pictures there, greenery casting glowing reflections upon its calm surface.

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Almost no one makes a fuss. Sometimes there seem to be tears shed. I, too, have taken refuge to settle a clattering mind, let sorrow wend its way from my heart. It’s as if we all agree to democratically share these common spaces in order to rest, rejuvenate, play, meditate. To acknowledge each other and share a smile, a few words, or to pass by without even a glance, safe in silence. How much life the park has witnessed, how many secrets it keeps from over more than a century of use. Its presence is rounded out by us, its visitors and keepers. (Many volunteers augment the park staff; I saw them raking today.)

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Portland is growing very quickly after a bit of a lull of a couple of decades. The natural  beauty of the Northwest is a magnet. It seems everyone from everywhere else wants to take part in our economy known for entrepreneurial ventures and the small businesses’ success stories. It is a city that draws people with creative energy and vibrant city center. Each day there are more attractive old buildings and houses torn down, replaced by plain, tall apartment buildings, often multi-use –and they cost a lot to live in. The lifestyle may be easy going here but the cost of living isn’t, not anymore. As we become more crowded, more will be seeking places to spread out, to breathe deeper, to find a spot to sit and gaze outward and inward. We have treasures nearby us–the Columbia River and Gorge, our mountain ranges, wild and gentle rivers, the vast Pacific Ocean and its beaches, valleys and vineyards, the arid lands in eastern Oregon. There is always somewhere to explore, to learn about and appreciate.

But in the city we need our public parks, places to go to at a moment’s notice, to access most hours of day and evening. Not all have to be impressive in size or history. We have about 180 parks in Portland, including the Guinness Book of World Records’ smallest city park in the United States. But we also enjoy over 5,000 acres of Forest Park within city limits, a mere ten minute drive for me. Around 11% of our city land is devoted to parks–a reason I love being here.

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I thought quite awhile today about what sort of post I wanted to write. To be truthful, I wanted to write about my youngest daughter’s wedding two years ago this date. Her wedding reception was at a venue right across from the park I visited. The couple lives in California for now. I would be glad to s hare much more but she prefers her private life to not be so public as she gains momentum in a fascinating career. Still, while I was musing about the parks’ importance, I also recalled her wedding day in a beautiful meadow, deep in a woodland park in our city. The pictures, I have to admit, are fairly breathtaking. I am showing just a glimpse of the forest dream of a wedding day: her hands and mine; hers with her husband’s, her crazy-fab shoes, of course…She and my son-in-law wanted it to be smack in the middle of nature’s wilds with  trees, plants and all creeping, crawling, flying creatures–along with people–as witnesses. I understood that desire, and we made it happen.

My spouse and I were hiking over there recently. We mentioned again how fortunate we are to have this verdant rain forest landscape to play in. No wonder she wanted that forest wedding; she is her tree-seeking mother’s daughter–and her rock-hunting father’s. Happy Anniversary, my beloved youngest and that good husband–the Northwest misses you both just as you miss it. We will share a happy park walking date again.

Now that my motherly moment is done, back to one of Portland’s loveliest parks. Please enjoy more pictures below. Celebrate public parks; they celebrate community and that includes you!

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