Sunday, February 24, 2008

Brick by brick

Buildings are built brick by brick. I once watched a mason work. He was an Irishman, from County Cork, he claimed. He would lay a brick, spread mortar, lay a brick: his moves were like a beautiful dance. The sun shone on him, his red hair alight with the fire of the day, ruddy as the bricks in his hands. His freckles stood out against alabaster skin, the hair on his arms was a golden down. I sat entranced by him, by his grace, by his dexterity. He whistled constantly, effortlessly. He seemed like a man in love with his work. He explained how bricks have life in them. Made from the earth they are solid and grounded. They hold the heat from the sun and warm us far into the cold dark nights. He held each one like a prize, a jewel to be fitted into an ornate fretwork. He knew an infinite number of patterns it seemed, each a mystery to me. But he whistled on as I watched, turning baked clay into grand dreams, and grand dreams into reality.

Mid winter

The days are short; dark comes so quickly now dropping like a curtain over the window of the sky. Dark and cold crouch like predators around the house: seeking the light and warmth, scritching at the windows, tapping against the panes, looming eve present until dawn...
Even then there is no guarantee of light. Or warmth. Morning is so indistinct this time of year. The grayness is merely a brightening of the night. The days remain shadowy and gloomy making even the presence of one candle a matter of rejoicing; a fireplace shines as bright as Mecca inducing us all to worship ancient light.

Who is my neighbor?

I am blessed to have wonderful neighbors. When we have been sick they have jumped at the chance to help us; mowing the yard, raking leaves, checking in on us...
We chat over the fence, across the street, on the sidewalk and even in the Walmart when we bump into one another.
Over the years the kindnesses have stacked up like cordwood.
I try to pay them back when I can, I always thank them hoping they know how truly grateful I am for their assistance.
Today I got a chance to pay it forward.
It was the Universe working it out for me.
In my "mid-winter purge the house of clutter" mode, I posted that I magazines for free on the Freecycle blog. I almost instantly got a hit. The person asked if I would mind dropping them off as they were home with a sick child. I emailed back and said sure. So I headed out about dusk to a not so savory part of town. I wasn't worried, having lived in NYC 11 years, there aren't many parts of this town that scare me.
But when I arrived the person who met me to get the magazines was amazed that I showed up.
"We can't even get pizza delivered here!" he exclaimed, marveling that I would show up laden with National Geographics, Smithsonians and Readers Digests...
"Aren't you scared?" he asked.
"No, I'm a social worker, I have clients down here" I said, "I'm here a lot"
When I got home, there was an email thanking me for my kindness. It made my day. I got to share some of my favorite magazines with someone who appreciated them and I hopefully got rid of a stereotype too...
I realized my neighbors don't just live on my street. They live all throughout the city. We just have to make a connection.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Lessons from the Zen Masters

Many of my best teachers have been animals.
Even as a child, I learned from them. Growing up on a farm I was privileged to see the cycle of life and death and the glory between. I witnessed the miracle of babies that arrived in the dark night, that took wobbly steps in the early morning sun and were galloping and frolicking by noon. I saw eggs that wiggled and rolled, until a tiny hole appeared which grew and grew until a bold chick poked forth its wet head, eyes large at the wonder of the world. I cried as the elderly animals trembled, sighed, heaved one last breath and grew still and cold beneath my small hands. I helped dig the graves for chickens, turtles, snakes and birds, all mourned and loved with the passion only a child can have for creatures of the world.
As an adult, I deepened the bond with animals. I rescued a few, loved many, and let go of some of the best "people" I have ever known...
Higgy, Lily, Bojo, Todd, Blackie, Elizabeth, Archie and Merlin; some were mine, some were not, but all are in my heart. All have taught me lessons.
Molly my dog now teaches me about faith and perseverance. She came to us as a miracle, an eight or ten year old dog on her last days at the Humane society. She was house trained, crate trained and walked on a leash, didn't bark, didn't chase cats, didn't climb on furniture and most of all, loved us from the first moment. We have since trained her to climb on furniture and sleep outside a crate!
Molly is now four years older. She moves a lot slower, often awkwardly and she stumbles, trips and occasionally falls, scaring me. When she falls, she lies still for a moment, Bob says she is taking stock, saying "Okay, nothing is broken, tail works, legs move, I'm OK!" before sitting up, then rising back to her feet. I ache for her, projecting all my feelings on her. I am saddened by her decreasing agility, woeful at her loss of dignity, stricken by the realization she will not be mine forever. But Molly doesn't care about any of that. She fell, she rests, she gets back up and goes on with her life, living in the moment. She is happy again, up on her feet, seeking out the next best smell, the next forbidden pleasure of food found on the sidewalk, the happy greeting of a doggie friend. She does not dwell on failure, she does not hang onto mistakes, she lets go of the past. She does not sit around complaining about growing old, losing her hearing, her eyesight dimming. Molly embraces life as it is, as it exists at this moment. For Molly, the moment is all that reality is. She doesn't worry about what other dogs are saying about her when she falls, she doesn't obsess over the gray in her muzzle. She puts one paw in front of the other and marches on, tail wagging, content that her human is at her side, that the rain is over and that the BarBQ place is in sight. Molly is a Zen master... she gets being in the moment. She gets just being.
We should all have more Mollys in our lives.

Cilantro tastes like spring

I remember a time when I was on tour in the still Soviet Union Russia. I arrived in January; it was bleak, gray, and cold. I didn't see sunshine for months. Every day was cloudy and there was always a bit of snow. I was in the company of strangers, in a land where I couldn't call home on a whim, receive mail daily or even read the newspaper. I felt lost.
I had trouble sleeping, jet lag I suppose, due to the time change. I would lay awake in the darkness, in the strange hotel room writing miserable letters home to my finance begging him to come visit. I celebrated my 29th birthday in Moscow, and the Russian theater crew presented me with a lovely cake~ a hummingbird cake it was called, because getting the ingredients was as difficult as catching a hummingbird!
I tried to appear grateful, I was, but inside I was so homesick, so miserable, I just wanted to go back to the lonely hotel room and cry. Everyday brought more snow, more gray dim light, and more frustrations.
The next stop was St. Petersburg/Leningrad: a beautiful city of waterways and bridges, set on the edge of the Baltic sea. There the sun did peek through occasionally and for relief I would walk the shore near the hotel picking up polished bits of glass tossed up on the beach by the cold salt waves. I stood for hours staring at the horizon wondering where Ky was, pointing myself towards it like Mecca, seeking out the love of my family, my friends.
Finally the show closed in Leningrad and we headed toward Tblissi, in Soviet Georgia. I advanced before the rest of the company, off schedule due to a stay in the Russian hospital overnight for something that was not appendicitis, and flew on a cranky, shuddering Aero Flot plane to Tblissi to land in the middle of a field in the middle of the night. I stood in the darkness, surrounded by strangers, women wrapped in babushkas, men in dark worn suits, holding suitcases tied together with string, children crying at being awakened from their night's slumber, and realized my team to pick me up was nowhere in sight. One of the Russians who had practiced English with me on the flight offered to take me to his home, his wife nodding eagerly until my friends could be found. I stood in the darkness, realizing the absurdity of the situation. Here I was, not speaking a word of Russian or Cyrillic, having no idea of the address of the theater or hotel at which I was supposed to be staying, no idea who was picking me up or when, and I just started to laugh. All these details were to have been taken care of by the tour director who assured me everything would be in place when I arrived, not to worry! She couldn't give me any information ahead of time, (remember this was still communist Russia) and I was just told to go, and trusting as I was, I did...
At the last possible moment as I was debating taking the offer of the husband and wife, a jeep roared out of the darkness with drunken lighting technicians spilling over the sides, yelling my name and brandishing bottles of vodka. My crew had arrived. I was kissed on both cheeks, pulled into the jeep after a hasty thanks and goodbye to my Russian husband and wife friends and driven helter skelter into the warm spring night.
Arriving at last at the hotel I found a feast laid out upon the balcony overlooking a beautiful moonlit river. There on the table was red wine, cheese, grapes and masses of cilantro and freshly baked flat bread. One of my crew members cut a slab of cheese, slapped in onto a hunk of bread, covered in cilantro and folded it over and handed it to me. "Eat" he proclaimed, "its Spring today!" I took a huge bite, as the cilantro, the first fresh vegetation I had had in months, burst fresh, green and fragrant in my mouth, the creamy cheese carrying the promise of gamboling lambs, the bread still warm and yeasty just baked within the hour...
I took a deep breath and smelled flowers, the river, the grapey wine as it flowed and I took bite after bite, knowing that for me spring would always and forever bear the pale green taste of cilantro.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

What Does Love Mean?

Someone was wise enough to ask a group of 4 to 10 year old children, "What does love mean?" Here are a few of their answers...

"When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn't bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So my grandfather does it for her all the time, even when his hands got arthritis too. That's love." (Rebecca - age 8)

"When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You just know that your name is safe in their mouth." (Billy - age 4)

"Love is when a girl puts on perfume and a boy puts on shaving cologne and they go out and smell each other." (Karl - age 5)

"Love is sharing even if you think you don't have enough." (Chrissie - age 6)

"Love is like medicine, and hate is like poison. If everybody knew that, we'd all be happy." (Keisha - age 8)

"Love is when my mommy makes coffee for my daddy and she takes a sip before giving it to him, to make sure the taste is OK." (Danny - age 7)

"My mommy said they adopted me because they wanted one more way to grow love in our family. She said I grew in her heart, not in her belly." (Hector - age 6)

"Love is when you tell a boy you like his shirt, and then he wears it everyday." (Noelle - age 7)

"Love is like a little old woman and a little old man who are still friends even after they know each other much too well." (Tommy - age 6)

"You really shouldn't say 'I love you' unless you mean it. But if you mean it, you should say it a lot. People might forget." (Jessica - age 8)

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Valentine's Day

Today I had several valentines...
From the hubster, my new favorite Doc Martin's boots.
Then at school a lovely red plate with a white doily and a poem glued in the center from one of my kids.
Also tons of hugs!
But best of all a little girl who is a friend of my special kids gave me a great hug and a chocolate rose. Which we will eat together tomorrow at lunch.
I am richly blessed.

Monday, February 11, 2008


OH! The anticipation of a snow day is so great! I just came in from outside with my dog and the night is silent except for the soft plopping of snow, the sky is light and gray, and the ground is covered in a layer of down...

Cocoa and jammies, books and writing, cats curled on my feet, chili simmering on the stove...
I can't wait!

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Writing practice

This exercise we went outdoors to find a natural object then went through a series of exercises with it, here is the end result of a fallen twig of a magnolia with 5 leaves still attached.

Five pronged star
Points as separate as souls.
Once covered in winter's felt
now shed for spring.
Hopelessness hangs in shreds.
The scarred flesh shows
your battles
your wounds
your victories
against the snow
against the cold.
Strength is at your core
where deep within
the seed of future
Your dying is not in vain.
Your decay
nourishes the ones to come,
your veins feed the future
where buds,
and hope reside.

Writing practice

Today I joyfully returned to the Carnegie Center after a long absence in which I earned my masters, started a new career, and entered middle age with a vengeance! It was manna for my soul. I saw some old friends, wrote some and just blissed out...
Here are some of the results...

The phrase was :moonlit beach

I remember sitting on the pier as the tide came in, my tears as salty as the sea.
"You broke my heart", I said.
" I did." he said.
"Why?" I asked, "Why?"
" I don't know, I didn't mean to hurt you..."
We held each other long and hard as the moon rose higher and the ghost crabs lifted from the sand to dance under the cresting moon.
The tide went out and came in again as we talked words falling from our lips like drops of rain, pouring forth all the anger, all the pain, all the hurt until only the love remained.
Then like children building castles in the sand we began to rebuild our foundation; this time on honesty, on truth; no longer on the shifting sands of lies.

The phrase: unraveled

Unraveling the past,
like a knotted necklace,
hard tugs
gentle pulls
teasing at memories
linked like a chain,
clasped so tightly
one fears it
will never
come loose.


I did not take your advice,
perhaps I should have.
But I thought I knew better...
It was better to leave home,
test my wings,
fly and soar on my own.

I did not anticipate the fall
the crash
the hard landing
that jarred to the bone.

(the phrase was: advice)

From the mouths of babes

Here are a few funny tidbits from my children this week:

"I have to go to the doctor to get my hippopotamus B vaccine" (Hepititis B)

"I felt sorry for you, Ms. Marymartha the way A****** was acting in class, cuz... well you are an old lady and really nice..."

"I am too young to be a babydaddy!" (3rd grader and yes he is!)

"Fish should be wearing underwear so we don't have to be seeing them poop."

There will be more posts soon, I am going to a writing workshop today to get my creative juices flowing, so stay tuned!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Down from the mountain...

Today was Transfiguration Sunday... Jesus went up the mountain, came down a changed man.

Today after church I went to the mountain, as my hubby and I fondly call Cedar Hill Retreat Center.Located deep in Nicholas County, it is a jewel waiting to be discovered: 80 acres of wooded hills, streams and fields, a labyrinth, a 'froggy bottom' trail, a pond, and the best porch this side of heaven. I have spent a lot of time there, both in official and unofficial capacities. I have been chief cook and bottle washer, retreatant, dog watcher, and family member. It feels like my second home. My friend Sandy gets to live there all the time. She gets to see the sun rise over the woods and set in the valley just beyond the labyrinth. She watches the seasons come and go on a daily basis while I just get a few privileged peeks.
But she graciously allows me free access to its charms.
Today was my first time back in many months. I think its the longest I have ever been away. For awhile I was there every weekend like a kid home from school, but then this fall due to illness, a new job and just life, I fell away from going. I shan't do that again!
When I drove around the curve in the road and saw the house, I nearly cried. I had not realized how I longed for its comforting shelter.
As I drove up the winding road, I saw many changes. The once steep curved driveway had been graded and paved, trees that were leaning dangerously close had been removed, and a new sign "Enter in peace" hung beside the door. Inside, I wandered about touching familiar objects, finding a book, meeting the new cat Anya, and letting the old gentleman dog, Koda up to visit.
Next to the kennel to let out the pack: Trey, Gypsy, Mary, Buster and Gus. As all 6 dogs swirled around me, tails wagging, snouts pushing to be petted, I truly felt as if I had come home.
While the 6 beasties took off for a run, I took my book to the porch and pulled a rocking chair into a sunbeam where I sat reading and rocking and petting whichever hound came by for over an hour. I would often pause to listen to the silence that is not silent. I listened to the creek gurgling over rocks as the pond cracked and popped its frozen skin in the warming sun. Birds sang, the hawk skreed loudly diving into the grass near the labyrinth. The dogs came and went, their footsteps padding across the wooden porch, their breath softly panting beside me...
The sun shone warm on me and the pups as they began to stretch out for naps. A rare car drove by in the distance, causing ears to twitch and heads to lift slightly. Only did they raise fully when Sandy came home.
After lunch, we went to a neighboring farm to see the newborn goat. I have an inordinate passion for goats. I adore them. These were particularly wonderful goats. They nibbled food from my hands and let me pet them for a long long long time... The baby did his tiny goat hopping, butting, prancing dance. The pygmies all crowed forward to get their ears scratched as they daintily nibbled at my fingers with their soft lips...
After picking up a striped kitten to cuddle and carry, we went to the chicken coop to see the 'fancy chickens'. About 6 different breeds of chickens strutted about pocking and pecking. There was a giant obsidian goliath of a rooster next to a banty rooster that was black and white, his red comb brilliant against the backdrop of mud and straw. The hens preened and cackled, their feathers ranging from sleek to silly and fluffy. Holding onto the kitten we then visited the rabbits. 20 or more rabbits slept, nibbled and played in their cages. There were large white rabbits with ruffs, small spotted rabbits with big doe eyes, two beautiful gray rabbits whose fur looked to be the lavender lilac of smoke or fog...
After we left, I packed up and started the drive home at sunset. The rose colored warmth of the setting sun poured across the hills lighting the barren trees in a burst of flame, russet and vermilion before fading to mauve and lavenders...
The shadows lengthened along the road, the water in the creek darkened with the coming dusk, and I realized that I too was leaving the mountain changed...
I had been away too long: too long from the earth, the animals, the silence, the incarnate God.
I know many will think it blasphemous to find God among goats and chickens, kittens and hawks, but I see the divinity in all creation. Especially in the animals. I never doubt where I stand with them. They either love me or fear me. They are not coy, they do not play games, they either accept me exactly as I am, or reject me completely. They do not base their reactions on how much money I make, whether I am driving a nice car, wearing nice clothes or with an important person. They don't care about that. All they care about is will I love them or hurt them? Will I respond to their needs, or ignore them? There was a flash of an epiphany, a moment with which I am struggling to articulate, a hint of the divine when I was with the 'creatures here below'. I felt life in the moment, as the goats were gently nibbling my fingertips. Nothing else existed, nothing else mattered, nothing else was REAL, except that moment, the feeling of a creature, so simple, gently taking food from my fingers. I was totally immersed in the present moment: totally alive, totally open, wholly holy...
I don't mean to be blasphemous or coy or weird, but it was a moment of transfiguration, standing with one of my most beloved friends, with life, creation, joy, surrounding us, engulfing us, uplifting us, connecting us, with one another, with the universe, with all that is and ever was.
In a strange and wondrous way, it was the second time in a day I had had communion.