Friday, December 30, 2011

Two Cats Again

After five consecutive days of holiday company – including one Welsh Corgi (that’s a dog, sort of) -- my house is once again quiet.

One cat, Herbie, enjoyed everyone, even the dog.

The other cat, Guinness, mostly hid except for those nanoseconds when, made desperate by hunger or other basic needs, he tore through the living room so fast that he was a charcoal blur.

Several of my guests actually saw this. They had to look fast.

This afternoon, now that the house is quiet again, he has emerged. He spent most of the day in my vicinity – or on my shoulder or on my lap.

And when he took a break, Herbie showed up.

It was great to have holiday company. I enjoyed each visitor.

But it is also great to have two cats again.

Long may they purr.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Tribute to a Great Human Spirit

On Oct. 7, my brother had thyroid surgery. One week later, his wife went into intensive care. She died Oct. 17. While still planning her memorial service, he went in for his post op exam where he learned that the tumor they had removed on the seventh was malignant and they would have to take out his entire thyroid.

Jayne’s memorial service and reception were held on Nov. 19 – hundreds came. She was loved by so many.

After Thanksgiving, he put up his Christmas tree – angels and doves arrayed at its peak.

On Dec. 16, he had his thyroid removed and on Dec. 18, sang in his congregation’s Christmas pageant.

On Dec. 23, he mailed the last of his 60 hand-printed Christmas cards -- the most beautiful he has ever created. I’m going to frame mine – wonderful linoleum block prints of blue birds in a scarlet tree, resplendent azure and crimson on white.

We went to the Christmas Eve service at his church where he, with others, sang five songs. [And I learned that they had removed all the cancer when they removed his thyroid.]

We made it through Christmas Day together - as did his sons and their families. I know each of us had moments of intensely missing Jayne. But we had enough love to share and, who knows? perhaps she was there with us amid the great un-wrapping and the over-abundant food.

If I needed an example of a resilient human spirit, I need look no further than my brother, Bill McClure.


Friday, December 23, 2011

Cocoa Connections

At precisely 10 a.m. a small parade approached my house. The woman in the lead carried a large object encased in a white plastic garbage bag. She was followed by three pint-sized humans, two boys and a girl (Max, J.D. and Olivia) and a man holding the hand of the smallest boy, Parker, who is not yet two. The woman and man – Judy and Eldon – run a small daycare center a few houses down the block.

I had invited them.

They came up the walk and into the house simultaneously shedding padded jackets and handing me their personal versions of Christmas cards and singing snatches of “Jingle Bells.” The one girl, Olivia, actually sang the entire song. Judy removed the plastic protection from a humungous poinsettia –an unexpected present. After the initial chaos, when the coats had been piled in the designated area, Max approached me. Quite solemn, he inquired if I indeed had something for all of them. Cocoa to be precise.

I confirmed the treat but pointed out that before a drop could be consumed, I needed them to finish decorating my tree. They were delighted when they saw the array of ornaments and went to work with glee. There were giggles and questions and occasional "oohs and aahs” as the each ornament found a new home – generally on the bottom half of the tree.

Wandering from wonder to wonder, they discovered Herbie, the world’s friendliest cat, and each gave him a pat, marveling at his softness.

Then Max approached me again. “Is it time yet?”

“Yes,” I responded and directed them to sit around the table where plates and napkins and a plate of cookies awaited. I delivered mugs of cocoa, one by one, to deeply appreciative recipients. They laughed when Herbie sat in my chair but agreed that it would not be good to give him any hot chocolate.

Eventually beverages consumed and cookies devoured, they wandered back to the living room. A Christmas CD was playing and Parker started sort of dancing then J.D. joined in with impressive gyrations.

It was time to leave. Only slightly prompted, the kids said thank you then – spontaneously—wove themselves around me in a group hug.

It was about 11:15 when they left, a parade in the opposite direction as I waved from my front door.

Who needs more Christmas than this?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Not Enough

My New York Times subscription runs Mondays through Fridays. On the weekends, I get the e-mailed NYT digest. Last Sunday, Dec. 11, there was a 58-word story, here quoted in its entirety:

     3 Women Receive Nobel Prize
     The 2011 Nobel Peace Prize was presented to three activists and political leaders on    Saturday in Oslo for “their nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights”: President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, 73; her compatriot, Leymah Gbowee, 39, a social worker and peace activist; and Tawakkol Karman, 32, a Yemeni journalist and political activist. (NYT)

Perhaps somewhere in the real newspaper and/or on PBS television or even a network or cable news program, the women received a bit more attention.

One would hope.

Admittedly, back in October, there were longer stories. And, apparently serendipitously, PBS broadcast the remarkable series “Women, War and Peace.”

So, I guess they have received ‘enough’ attention. Still, their monumental struggles for the rights and safety for other human beings should have generated a little more about the presentation – what they said, the response of the audience.

Maybe even (since after all they are mere women) what they wore.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Wrapping Things Up

Like Scrooge, I have reservations about Christmas. It sometimes seems a pointless frenzy of buying, wrapping, mailing, decorating, and cooking.

I do it, but there are days I wonder why.

Yesterday I started to wrap the present I found for my six-year-old grand niece. The face of the cloth doll looks a little like Iris’s face and I could not help but smile.

The doll and I held each other’s eyes for a while and I got it.

All the mess of wrapping paper, tape and ribbon that I was struggling with had a purpose. The package for my brother contained something to evoke an important memory. The packages for my sons in Chicago were mostly intended to help keep them warm. The package for my older niece holds things to acknowledge her as a nascent woman.The gifts for my nephew and his wife are mostly just beautiful and fun. Etc.

All of these things are concrete expressions of the love I feel for their recipients. As wonderful as good conversations and hugs might be, it is important to occasionally present some symbol of that love -- something people can wear or carry around or put on a shelf or wall. When they see it or feel it they can remember, “This was from Mim. She loves me.”

Every card, every present (or almost every card and present) reinforces the connections that hold us together.

So, like Scrooge at the end of The Christmas Carol, I come to celebrate Christmas in my heart. And like Tiny Tim, say “God Bless Us, Every One.”

Monday, December 5, 2011

Comfort and Joy

It’s interesting to discover what brings me comfort after the loss of my sister-in-law.

Every morning – usually before I intended to wake up – one of my cats (Herbie) finds a way to snuggle as close as possible to at least one of my hands and lies there, purring and warm.

And after breakfast, the other cat (Guinness) and I routinely have a play session as he ‘helps’ me make my bed.

My bed is on the east side of the house so the Colorado sun warms us both. Sunshine always helps.

And cholesterol. Cheese has always been a downfall. Now even more so. And Friday, while doing my regular shopping, I actually bought half a pound of bacon. I had bacon (and a egg) for breakfast on Saturday and Sunday. It felt quite luxurious. And comforting.

Oh and music. I made myself go to a concert Saturday. At one point, I closed my eyes and just absorbed the harmonies. The healing was perceptible.

And in this time of diminishing light I have created a kaleidoscope of supplements: my Christmas tree, the outside lights, the back window lights, the study lights. And every single one of them helps.

Hugs. Of course. There is a member of my congregation whose husband is rapidly deteriorating. She comes to church, she says, as much for the hugs as for the message. Now I do too.

Friends. Friends who reach out with a phone call or an email or a hug or an invitation for lunch or a card. Each of them weaves a strand in the net that holds me up when sorrow threatens to overwhelm.

Beauty. There was hoarfrost Friday morning. Absolutely astounding. And the prisms that dance in my dining room when the morning light catches the crystals in the east window or those that dance when the afternoon light hits those in a west window. The light of a waxing moon on the snow.

All these things (except perhaps the bacon) are components of my life -- in times of loss and in times of celebration.

Perhaps if each of us were to just pay attention, we could find an abundance of things to bring us comfort and joy.

May it be so.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

More than a Sister-in-Law

I’m Bill McClure’s sister, Mim – officially, Jayne McClure’s sister-in-law.

But, really, Jayne’s sister.

Not because we were very much alike.

I wear make up. Sometimes, when she was dressing up, Jayne wore lipstick.

I’m obsessive/compulsive about almost everything.

Jayne was matter-of-fact, casual, straightforward, practical and brilliant.

I’ve wandered down many woo-woo spiritual paths that Jayne pretty much ignored.

I love my cats. She put up with them.

None of these things mattered.

We pretty much always loved each other because we loved the same people.

But after a while, it was clear that we just plain loved each other.

I admired her as a wife, mother, teacher, citizen, and, finally as my sister.

And I saw her wisdom, and courage, and great, great heart.

Even during her last days.

I loved her. I miss her. I will honor her memory forever.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Memorial Service

     On Saturday, Nov. 19, a memorial service was held for Jayne E. McClure in the Washington Park United Church of Christ church in Denver, Colorado.
     At least 200, probably 300 people came. The church had never been so full. 
     Enlarged photographs of Jayne – as a student teacher, as a bride, as a mother, as a grandmother—were propped up on the circular altar table in the center of the sanctuary. A microphone and music stand were placed next to the piano on the east side of the room. Her immediate family – sons, daughter-in-law, granddaughters and husband sat in the first row on the west side of the room. In other first rows: her sister and her family, her aunt, her great good friends, and her sister-in-law and nephew.
     The service began when her husband, Bill, lighted a single candle. Robert Johnson, a wonderful bass, sang “Lord, Listen to Your Children” as a prelude. The senior minister welcomed everyone, and (as he would throughout the service) helped people find places to sit. Then Robert Johnson sang, “Wade in the Water,” an African American spiritual.
Her son Lance read words by Eleanor Roosevelt – one of Jayne’s heroes. Her former minister and great family friend, Rev. Bob West, read words by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.—another of Jayne’s heroes. Those assembled sang “This Little Light of Mine.”
     The host minister reviewed Jayne’s life. People spoke spontaneously. Her daughter-in-law Kelly read something little granddaughter Iris had dictated. Her older granddaughter Emily spoke eloquently. Then great good friends – fellow teacher – her sister in law, her nephew shared memories, stories, tributes – keeping it short, as Jayne would have wished.
Then her other son, Michael, read “To Autumn,” by John Keats. A young guitarist, J.T. Nolan, performed the song “Timshel.”
     After a benediction, the church music director, Luke Rackers, played an original composition called “Jayne’s Joy.”
     The candle was extinguished.
     People stood and mingled, sharing stories and hugs and passing boxes of tissues. Eventually, people left, many driving across the city for the reception at Jayne’s last home. The reception, the stories, the tears and laughter lasted a long, long time.

The memories of Jayne will last significantly longer.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

through a long, dark valley

On October 7, my brother Bill had thyroid surgery. On October 13, his wife Jayne went into the hospital. On October 14, she was moved to intensive care. She died October 17.

Bill had his post op check up Monday, October 31, Halloween. His doctor told him that the tumor they had removed was malignant and that he needed a second operation. Bill told me Friday -- said the operation would be Dec. 16. I couldn't process the information at the time. After he left, I sleepwalked through the afternoon. Saturday, the news sank in. I was devastated.

By Monday, November 7, I had learned that thyroid cancer is the easiest to defeat. Once the thyroid is removed, the cancer is removed.

I felt about six tons lighter. It wasn’t as bad as I had thought.

The universe found a way to drive home the point. I took myself to see a non-mainstream movie in Fort Collins's funky little independent theater. It was a pretty good movie but when I got out, there was a parking ticket on my windshield.

The next morning I opened the parking ticket envelope -- no fine.

Another thing that isn't as bad as I thought it was.

We are going to make it. We’ll make it through Jayne’s memorial service. We’ll make it through Bill’s operation.

This is a long, dark valley but we will emerge. We will be okay.

I insist.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Broken Trees

Last week, a premature snowstorm maimed trees and downed power lines all along Northern Colorado’s Front Range. Over the weekend, another heavy snow maimed trees and downed power lines from Virginia to Maine.

Why is there no eulogy for the broken trees?

Nine years ago when I was looking for a home to buy, I stopped in front of the house with the magnificent maple in the front yard. Now my study looks out into that maple in all its phases – deep mahogany leaves in early spring, jade green in summer, golden in autumn, and skeletal lace in winter (sometimes accessorized with snow).

Last week, I opened my front door to look at a massive four-foot high briar patch spreading from my porch to the street. It took four people three days to clear the debris and trim the mangled branches.

My maple still stands, covered with an icing of new snow – great hunks of it gone forever.

Why is there no eulogy for my broken tree?

It’s been just over two weeks since my sister-in-law died. There will be eulogies for her during a Nov. 19 memorial service. Jayne helped me find my house, as attracted as I was by my magnificent maple. She loved it too.

It is nice to imagine that, in some other sphere of being, she is saying a eulogy for my broken tree.

Thank you, Jayne.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Still Grieving

Of course.

When someone very dear to you dies, you don’t just ‘get over’ it. It’s been 10 days. For the most part, I am pretty functional. For the most part.

We had 10 inches of wet snow Tuesday night. It fell on trees that still had all of their leaves so branches and wires were down all over town.  When I looked out my front door yesterday morning, I saw the entire yard, sidewalk, front walk – everything -- covered by a four-foot high briar patch of fallen limbs. My huge maple was severely wounded – in part, by a huge branch that had fallen from my neighbor’s walnut tree. The red bud tree in my back yard lost only one 6-foot branch. Dealing with that (finding someone to haul away the enormous pile of debris) entertaining two afternoon visitors, changing litter boxes, and writing letters filled my day. I did pretty well.

Then I awoke about 2:30 a.m. and could not go back to sleep. I was obsessed with a need to find the name of the church where Jayne’s memorial service would be held. [It was not a good time to call anyone.] I knew (or hoped) I had saved a document with the name in one of the largely neglected but incredibly stuffed drawers in a study desk. So at 2:30 in the morning I went through three drawers, amassing a pile of things to be recycled and things to go in the garbage. I found the document and went back to bed about 4:30. I must have slept for a while. The next time I looked at the clock it was 7:30 – time to get up.

This is crazy.

I seem to do crazy things, say crazy things – every once in a while. The rest of the time, I am fine – except for the times waves of grief sweep over me.

So that’s how it is. And it will get better. My beautiful, severely wounded, maple will survive and so will I.

Eventually, my heart will heal.

Monday, October 24, 2011


It’s been a week since my sister-in-law died. Grief comes in waves. I function, laugh, take walks, and then wham!

On Saturday, I had bustled around, doing errands and chores. No problem. That night I could not sleep. When I did begin to doze, odd creatures threatened the edges of my consciousness. My legs cramped. I got up and rubbed them with an analgesic lotion. Still no sleep. I found a book but couldn’t read. Finally, I ran a warm bath then tried sleeping on the guest bed. That worked for a while.

But I slept Sunday night. So far today, I’ve only been overwhelmed by sorrow a couple of times. Yard work in the sunshine helped.

It’s interesting to notice what does help. Cheese helps. For five days in a row, I had scrambled eggs with cheese for dinner. [I knew carbohydrates were comforting. Cholesterol is new information.] Going back to church, talking about Jayne’s death to people in my community helped. Crying a little helped.

And cats. Guinness and I play in the morning sunshine as he ‘helps’ me make my bed. And they both cuddle and purr.

Television, even DVD movies don’t help. Perhaps tonight. Oddly, reading helps – perhaps because more focus is required.

And of course friends help. One of them connected me to a sermon by Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed who had delivered it to Unity Temple, the Unitarian Universalist church in Oak Park, Illinois. The sermon centered on a poem by Elder Olson:

"Nothing is lost; the universe is honest,
Time, like the sea, gives all back in the end,
But only in its own way, on its own conditions:
Empires as grains of sand, forests as coal,
Mountains as pebbles. Be still, be still, I say;
You were never the water, only a wave;
Not substance, but a form substance assumed."

The sermon and the poem reminded me of a phrase by Thich Nhat Hahn that I have read and heard and which inevitably blows me out of my egocentricity: “Enlightenment comes to the wave when it realizes it is part of the ocean.”

Still, the loss is overwhelming – even when part of me knows it is not really a loss.

I miss her.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Jayne's Slippers

I returned a pair of slippers yesterday. I had bought them online as a Christmas present for my sister in law. Jayne died Monday.

It was, I guess, as good a death as possible. Last Friday, when she went into intensive care, the word went out to her family and friends. And they came. All those who could possibly be there were there. After the initial shock of seeing her on a respirator, they connected, sharing their love, their memories. There was probably as much laughter as there were tears. The stories were wonderful. So were the tears and the laughter.

The hardest part for Jayne was, I think, the fact that she could not talk (because of the breathing tube). Eventually, someone worked up a system. They printed out the alphabet and watched for Jayne’s signals about which letters to choose. Slowly, she was able to share two sentences: "I cry because I am so blessed" and (when someone asked her if she was angry about anything) "I am angry because of the chocolate cake." (Her very good friend Louise had made her famous chocolate sheet cake for Jayne's family ... but Jayne could not eat it.)

For three days they came – her husband, her sons, her sister, her friends, old neighbors who had stayed in touch, teachers who had worked with her, members of the League of Women Voters, and of her church. When her room got crowded, I’d move out. When others left, I came back.

On the fourth day, Monday, she was able to make her instructions clear: remove the tube with her husband and sons in the room and me and friends close by. So that’s what we did. She lived about 40 minutes after tube removal and died at approximately 1:30 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time.

Eventually, her sons and I went to lunch at a Mexican restaurant where her husband joined us. I am not a fan of Mexican food but I ate a huge lunch. After lunch, we parted – some going south, me going north. On the way home I stopped at a Walgreens – to use their ATM, and to buy some Alka Seltzer.

Yesterday, taking the slippers to the UPS store for their return, I was both incredibly sad and a little amused. In listening to all the stories, I had learned that Jayne had very hot feet. Why had I not known that? Slippers would have been a least desired present – although she would have been politely grateful.

I showed them to her at the hospital. She was probably grateful that she would never have to wear them. I’ll bet she enjoyed the irony.

I so enjoyed her.

Monday, October 17, 2011


A recent edition of the New York Times science section was (if we would but pay attention) a cautionary tale for citizens of the United States. The section contained articles about low cost innovations that are reaping profound benefits for thousands with less access to medical advances.

  • One was a piece of paper, the size of a postage stamp, that can identify an illness from a drop of blood.

  • In Bangladesh, folded saris used to filter river water reduce the rate of cholera.

  • Village Health Volunteers in Thailand have significantly reduced childhood deaths.

  • AIDS patients in Mozambique use relay teams to collect lifesaving medication.

  • Vitamins you can sprinkle on food now help prevent childhood malnutrition in Mongolia.

  • Other scientists have found nectar toxic to mosquitoes thus combating malaria.

In contrast, people in this country have now virtually abandoned one of the greatest of the disease-preventing tools – the bar of soap. “Lo, a simple good thing has been tweaked until it is no longer simple. Instead of soap we now have a gigantic selection of luridly colored products augmented with every variety of additional germ killer imaginable. … And no one has managed to prove that any of them controls infection rates in a hospital (or for that matter, in a home) better than universal, assiduous scrubbing with regular, inexpensive, plain old soap.”

Evidently, as the rest of the world moves toward simpler, less expensive solutions, we here in the United States hurtle ourselves toward ever more complicated (and more expensive) remedies.

This is not universally true of course but there’s enough truth in it to warrant some second thoughts. Or third.

Friday, October 14, 2011

An evening out

It had been a long time since I had ventured out for any kind of entertainment but recently I was tempted to buy a ticket to a guitar performance.

Black curtains hung at the back and the sides of the stage. A low chair in the center was flanked by two microphones and two speakers. That was it. After brief introductory remarks by a spokesman for the organizers, a short man with black curly hair walked out carrying a guitar. He wore a black shirt and pants.

His name: Alfredo Muro.

There were no special effects. No sheet music. Just a man and a guitar in the spotlight.


No one in the audience coughed. We were all mesmerized.

I don’t know what I had expected. Perhaps a nice, lovely interlude in my routine, some pleasant, harmless strumming. Instead I heard a diversity of sounds beyond anything I could have imagined one guitar could produce. Two hours was barely enough.

Sometimes I make the right decisions.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

October Flowers

My morning glories waited all summer to bloom ---

as did my dahlias.

                                          The weird geraniums persist.

And zinnias defy both frost and gravity.

The beauty of October flowers is enhanced by poignancy.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

spot of gold

Felled by flu, I did almost nothing yesterday. 

But as symptoms subsided, I made my way to my front porch where I could sit on my swing and sort through my mail. 

My body gratefully absorbed the late afternoon warmth. 

My eyes gratefully acknowledged the first spot of gold in the front garden.

And I was substantially restored.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

All Cats Are Hunters

All cats are hunters.

People with ‘outdoor’ cats inevitably receive offerings – dead mice or birds or other small dead things – as tokens of both the cats’ prowess and esteem.

'Indoor' cats can get pretty bored. Feline boredom is not good. It’s not good for cats or furniture or for other cats who may share an abode.

I have two indoor cats, both rescued strays purchased from the local Humane Society. Recognizing their hunting instincts, I have literally littered my home with cat toys. And I try to play with the cats for at least a few minutes every day. 

But it's not enough. I tend to get busy, working on the computer, being – in my cats’ eyes – pretty boring.

Therefore it's a really big deal whenever a small flying insect, such as a moth, invades the house. Immediately, my cats’ lives perk up. Their every nerve and muscle focuses on the fluttering prey. Darting impossibly fast, in and out of impossible places, the cats pursue their victims. 

Moths traditionally head for light sources – daytime windows or nighttime lamps – with the cats hurtling after. I monitor chases as closely as I can – trying to protect any fragile objects that may get in the way.

At times the drama can last several minutes, involving action on both the first and second floors. Other times, it’s over quickly. But the ending is always the same. 

Inevitably, sooner or later, the moth, pawed and dazed, falls and is eaten. The mighty hunter is triumphant. And, inevitably, sooner or later, the mighty hunter throws up.

How ephemeral the pleasures; how enduring the messes.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


On the first day of autumn 2011, I gave myself a day off. I had no agenda other than escape – and time in the mountains. Wildlife would be a bonus. Especially bugling elk. But nothing was required. It was amazingly liberating.

First stop: Estes Park. After finding a good selection at the excellent card shop, I spent an hour or so drinking tea and reading a friend’s manuscript on a sun-drenched patio. I then wandered to a favorite shop but bought nothing. Then ambled to a favorite restaurant for a nice long lunch, reading more of the manuscript.

It was time to go into Rocky Mountain National Park. There was elk drama going on before the entrance station!

Once in the park, I drove to Sprague Lake and, although unable to walk its perimeter, I did manage to, for the first time in my life, take a photograph of trout. I then retired to a picnic table to read more of the manuscript. Once, looking up, I saw a raven eating a tiny trout. I didn’t even know they fished!

Eventually moving on (no agenda means no hurry) I drove to good elk viewing spots. First, Moraine Park, which looked too crowded, then Upper Beaver Meadow. At the end of the road there was one young bull at the very edge of the parking lot. Posing!

Driving further, I stopped next at West Horseshoe Park, attracted by the tailgaters leisurely enjoying snacks as they waited for the elk show. After some pleasant, casual conversations, I moved on – to a spot that seemed to have more ‘action’ at Sheep Lakes. And indeed, I could see the whole saga – the bull protecting his harem with bugling and feinting. Fascinated, I watched until about 6:45 before getting back into my car.

There’s a steakhouse about a mile outside the park that I’ve been meaning to try but its parking lot was overflowing. I found another, more unassuming, restaurant on the east side of Estes and after a nice dinner drove down the canyon and home.

A great day. A perfect way to celebrate the equinox … and restore my equanimity.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Raspberry Lesson

Today was a big harvest: 25 little raspberries from the bushes in my back yard.

I’ve often told people that had I known about the raspberry bushes, I would have paid more for my house. (Raspberries are my very favorite fruit.)

I also have a magnificent, almost historic, redbud tree in my backyard. Like all trees, it grows slowly. But it does grow. And over the nine years I have lived here, the shade it provides has grown denser and denser.

And my raspberry crop has grown smaller and smaller.

I’ve decided that that’s okay.

Shade is wonderful. The tree is wonderful. And I think I appreciate each scrawny individual raspberry more than if there were an abundance of fat, luscious fruit.


Actually, it’s a good lesson: to pay attention to small gifts.

And big trees.

Appreciation is the the foundation of joy.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Routine Chore --- Plus Cats

Recently, Wednesdays have been my change-the-sheets days. A simple process in many households. An entire morning's production here. First, both cats were snuggled on the bed -- Herbie at the foot, Guinness in the middle. I removed the pillows/pillow cases, no problem. Then walking around the bed, discovered cat vomit on the rug. Cleaned it up. Removed the quilt. Discovered cat vomit on the rug on the other side of the bed. Cleaned it up. Started to remove the blanket. Discovered cat vomit on the blanket. Removed the blanket for future transport to the laundry room. Decided to just go with the quilt. It's not that cold. Unfurled the clean bottom sheet over the mattress (and Guinness -- Herbie had left). A button came off the blouse I had retrieved from the back of the closet (a blouse appropriate for the cool, wet weather today). A forgotten pair of underpants flew across the room, evidently inadvertently tucked into the bottom sheet after the last washing. Guinness stayed, escaping only at the last minute when I finished securing the bottom sheet to the bed. But getting back on top, of course. So. I unfurled the top sheet over the bed. Guinness didn't move. Okay. So I hauled the quilt up onto the bed. Guinness didn't move. I put the two cat toys back on the bed. The lump under the quilt/sheet moved. Guinness emerged to play. We played for a bit. Herbie, who had been observing all of this from the hallway, decided to join us. So we all played for a while but, for heaven's sake it was approaching 11 a.m. Enough already. I retrieved the pillows, put their clean cases on and declared an end to the process. Except for carefully taking the vomit-embellished blanket down to the laundry room. And, while downstairs, finding needle and thread with which to re-attach the button.

The button reattached, the bed made, it was time for lunch.

Friday, September 9, 2011


In a recent edition of the New York Times, Edward Rothstein wrote a review of the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, Pennsylvania that contained some (if you will excuse the phrase) eternal questions.

“What exists everywhere in the universe but occupies no space?”

“What can be measured – but not seen, heard, smelled, tasted, nor held in our hands?”

“What can be spent, saved, frittered away or killed – but never destroyed?”

Time of course.

“Where does time go after it passes?

“What are we really measuring when we tell time?”

“In what ways does measuring time end up shaping time? How does shaping time affect how we think and act?”

Rothstein proposes, “The measuring of time may be the defining act of civilization. It makes planning and strategy possible. … It increases awareness of both constancy and change.”

Humans may have first “become aware of time through repetition. Something happens again and again, yet at each recurrence something else has changed: Time has passed. Sunrises, shadows, solstices: the regularities of such phenomena give pattern to experience.”

Rothstein goes on to describe some of the 12,000 timepieces in the museum.

What he fails to consider is the Buddhist belief that time (like separation) is an illusion.

Things to ponder – when you have a moment.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


In a lunchtime conversation, a teacher spoke about the freedom he felt after teaching for several decades. No longer worried about his grasp of the subject matter or teaching methods, he begins a school year confident, and eager to share these treasures with a new crop of students. And in staff meetings, he says what needs to be said without fear of censure.

He recounted a recent meeting on a very hot day as teachers and administrative staff gathered. One topic: how to teach the kinds to infer. My friend piped up: “Perhaps we could ask them what they might infer when all the classrooms were un-air-conditioned and sultry and the room in which the staff was meeting was air-conditioned and comfortable.” That is something, he noted he would never have had the courage to say was a beginning teacher. [A friend of his afterward remarked that his comment had enabled him to simultaneously be smart and a smart ass.]

I am not a teacher. But I have recently had a milestone birthday. I too have a kind of tenure. I must remember to enjoy the concomitant freedom – to say and do whatever needs to be said and done.

While the tenure holds.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Blanket Statement

Last night for the first time in probably three months, I pulled my summer blanket up over my shoulders.

The breeze coming through the bedroom window was more than cool (less than cool?). It was chilly.

And the act of snuggling under a blanket felt euphoric.

Until I fell asleep.


Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Feline Felicity

I know there many good reasons to like dogs. In fact, some of my best friends are dogs. However, I feel compelled to testify to some of the ways my two cats give me great pleasure.

-- Companionship. On good days, I spend a lot of time at home – writing and doing chores and writing. Inevitably, one or both cats is (or are) nearby (sometimes in front of the keyboard). In the case of chores, I feel gently supervised. In the case of writing, gently encouraged. In the case of making my bed, I am unquestionably ‘assisted’ by the one cat who pounces on seen and unseen objects as each layer of bedding is applied.

-- Welcoming. I know people tend to anthropomorphize animals' antics and I know cats are not famous for this (and probably have a greater tendency to do so when they are hungry) but it feels really quite nice when they both come trotting to greet me when I return from errands and meetings.

And above all

-- Trust. Complete trust. One of my cats (the same one who helps me make my bed) throws himself across a stair as I am descending. He absolutely trusts that I will not only not step on him but also – once I have reached a step lower than his ‘barrier’ – turn and scratch his tummy and rub his back. The other (less neurotic and more affectionate feline) finds me whenever I am in repose and curls up close placing his head on my hand. Think about it. Would you put your head in the hand of someone ten times as large as?

And finally, you could anticipate this one:

They purr.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Holding Peace in Our Hands

I never go to a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh without buying a lot of books (mostly his). This year I found in one of those books a poem that he wrote during the war in Vietnam after the U.S. Air Force bombed an entire town 'to save it from Communism.'


I hold my face in my two hands.
No, I am not crying.
I hold my face in my two hands
to keep my loneliness warm --
two hands protecting,
two hands nourishing,
two hands preventing
my soul from leaving me
in anger.


When I sent it to a friend, she responded: “This is sort of how I feel every day in our violent, isolationist, emotionally armored culture.”

She is right, there are many reasons to feel anger, fear, despair. Still, if we can but be still; breathe into calmness; hold our faces in our two hands, it may very well be possible to restore peace and compassion at least within our own spheres of influence. And, possibly, let that peace gently ripple out to the very edges of the cosmos.

May it be so.

Friday, August 26, 2011

the Zen of a Torn Meniscus

It may not have been too bright but even though I was told I had a torn meniscus in my left knee, I went to the mindfulness retreat led by Thich Nhat Hanh and the nuns and monks from his corps of caring followers.

The retreat was held at the Rocky Mountain YMCA outside of Estes Park, Colorado. The Y is in an alpine valley, altitude circa 10,000 feet. Other than the floors of various buildings there are probably no flat walking surfaces.

This is not ideal for someone with a torn meniscus.

I had brought my cane and often would be able to get from place to place with no problems. But occasionally, with no warning, my leg would freeze in excruciating pain.

Whenever that happened, there was someone nearby willing and able to help. For the first few days the pain attacks were relatively minor and I could, with minimal assistance, could begin walking (very slowly) again.

One evening toward the end of the retreat, my leg gave out with more emphasis than before. Although it was a time of community silence, I told the woman standing next to me that I had a problem. She immediately moved to my left side and provided support as I tried to move. It took a while. When at last I could walk again, the walking was very tentative – small steps taken in slow motion.

We moved out of one building toward the path to my dormitory room. My assistant saw a friend coming the other way. The friend immediately grasped the problem and when assured that the two of us could continue on our own, offered to find some ice.

The distance from the meeting hall to my room was close to half a mile. We may have set the world record for the slowest half mile in history. But we made it. Ice bags were created. Both assistants told me the best way to use the ice and elevate the leg.

I listened attentively. It turns out that they were both occupational therapists.

How extraordinary. And how predictable. All those participating in the retreat had coalesced into a vigorous, peaceful community that, literally, emanated healing energy. Even if I had not heard Thich Nhat Hanh’s wisdom, I would have learned the power of compassion.

Monday, August 22, 2011

More Thich Nhat Hanh

While I am at a retreat listening to Thay (a Vietnamese honorific that means 'teacher') and the monks and nuns who have learned from him, I'm sharing some of the things he has said:

-- "People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar." ~

~ "Enlightenment is always there. Small enlightenment will bring great enlightenment. If you breathe in and are aware that you are alive—that you can touch the miracle of being alive—then that is a kind of enlightenment." ~

~ "Many people are alive but don't touch the miracle of being alive." ~

~ "It is possible to live happily in the here and now. So many conditions of happiness are available—more than enough for you to be happy right now. You don't have to run into the future in order to get more." ~

~ "People suffer because they are caught in their views. As soon as we release those views, we are free and we don't suffer anymore." ~

~ "Mindfulness helps you go home to the present. And every time you go there and recognize a condition of happiness that you have, happiness comes." ~

~ "Life is available only in the present. That is why we should walk in such a way that every step can bring us to the here and the now." ~

~ "When you love someone, the best thing you can offer is your presence. How can you love if you are not there?" ~

~ "To be loved means to be recognized as existing." ~

~ "Every thought you produce, anything you say, any action you do, it bears your signature." ~

Friday, August 19, 2011

Thich Nhat Hanh

We have to understand in order to be of help.
We all have pain, but we tend to suppress it because
we don't want it to come up to our living room.
The most important thing is that we need to be
understood. We need someone to be able to
listen to us and to understand us.
Then, we will suffer less.
-Thich Nhat Hanh

It’s so simple. Like all of things he writes.
And so true.
And so helpful.
Today, I’m going up to the YMCA of the Rockies to start a five-day retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh and the nuns and monks of his spiritual centers.

I have a lot to learn.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Why Didn't He Cry?

Remember the last scene in the movie “A Wonderful Life”?

There was a point during the party I threw myself for my milestone (there’s no reason to let you know which one) birthday party when I remembered the cake. I could only find five candles so I jammed them into the cake and lit them.

All of a sudden everyone there was singing ‘happy birthday’. I looked around the room, at the mass of friendly, beautiful faces of people whom I genuinely admire and enjoy. I felt like Jimmy Stewart in the closing scene of “A Wonderful Life".

Except that I felt like crying. I was so overwhelmed by my friends’ affection and so grateful for their apparent appreciation. It seemed as if all those people really wished me well, really cared.

Shit. I had angst-ed about not having accomplished anything in my many, many (unrevealed) years but all of those people seemed to think that I don’t really have to do anything but just be me.

What more does anyone need?

[I’m still going to keep working on my novel.]

Monday, August 8, 2011

tiny, tiny courageous act

I know it’s not much but still, it was the first time I did such a thing.

And I did it.

The guys doing some routine plumbing work noticed it -- fastened overhead about three feet from the back door.

It was small but busy; wasps teeming over the incipient nest.

“You’d better get rid of that.”

Well, yes. But how? On my garage shelves there was a can of aerosol wasp killer spray. The instructions said to use it either at dawn or dusk, when the wasps were less active.

I’m not a dawn person – even in summer. So, after dinner, I sat at the table watching the clock as I read the paper: 7:30 (perhaps still too early), then, finally 8 p.m.

Taking the stool from the pantry, I left the house. After checking the wind, I decided to stand slightly to the west of the nest. I shook the can, vigorously. I sprayed. White foam enveloped the nest and globs plopped to ground. I could see writhing little creatures. I left, taking the stool, went inside and washed my hands.

I felt like Lady Macbeth.

The next morning, there was a scattering of bodies and other debris. I saw no activity. I felt neither proud nor secure.

So the next evening I repeated the process – just to make sure.

And yesterday morning, after 48 hours of no nest activity, I hauled my ladder outside. With a spatula, I scraped the nest off the overhead beam onto waiting newspaper.

I’m sure that the nest was one of Nature’s wonders—intricate design, amazing texture. I just wanted it gone. I wadded up the paper and deposited in the garbage.

No one applauded. I had not asked for either assistance or audience. Still I had done something I was afraid to do.

And it was done.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Tomato Sandwiches

Yesterday I had a tomato sandwich. I could have had something else but I was afraid the tomato would spoil. The lunch reminded me of my first tomato sandwich, eaten on a pier in Darwin, Australia, 18 years ago.

I had been in Melbourne on assignment. I had read that Kakadu National Park was a great repository of aboriginal rock art and was determined get there. While still working, I happened to talk to someone who had a friend in Darwin who might possibly guide me into Kakadu. During short breaks, I made the phone calls and reservations to get me from Melbourne to Sydney to Cairns (with a brief stop in Brisbane) to Darwin.

So I made my way to Darwin and to the motel that the possible guide – whose name was John -- had recommended. I was just getting settled when he called, inviting me to join his family for a picnic on one of Darwin’s piers. What could be better?

We sat on the wooden pier, arranged ourselves around the picnic basket, and watched the antics of sea birds, fishermen and bungee jumpers. The picnic basket was opened and each of us was handed a tomato sandwich. I had never heard of tomato sandwiches. I thought tomatoes were what you put on other stuff in sandwiches. It turned out to be one of the great feasts of my life.

John and his family were wonderful hosts and guides. The next day John led me through Litchfield Park, telling the Aboriginal stories for every place and use for every plant. Then he arranged my two-day tour into Kakadu (at half price).

In those two days, I saw more kinds of birds and animals and plants than I had in all my previous years: bower birds, prehistoric trees, termite mounds, crocodiles, spoonbills, herons, ibis, water buffalo, pelicans, rainbow bee eaters, lizards, jabirus, lotus, egrets, storks, corellas, eagles, even odd frogs.

And I saw the amazing, millennia-old rock art. At Nourlangie Rock and Ubirr, I marveled at huge cliffs etched with depictions of history and myth and the right way to cook certain kinds of fish. At Ubirr’s Lookout Point, I looked out over a vista that so many others had seen for thousands of years. Woods and billabongs and vast plains. Some vistas velvet with scrub, others shimmering smooth, green and blue. And in the distance, another mesa, that was almost certainly another ancient Lookout Point.

When I returned to Darwin, I reconnected with John’s family before my long trip home. And I stayed connected with them. Hosting his daughters in Chicago and, years later, his widow when she visited Colorado.

I highly recommend tomato sandwiches.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sports Story

     Most days, I automatically put the sports section on the recycling pile, unread. But I only take the Monday – Friday editions of the New York Times, so I scan the Saturday and Sunday online versions and today inadvertently read a sports article.
     Today, at the back of the sports section – just before I deleted the document -- there was a story about a Ugandan Little League team that had qualified for the Little League World Series (to be played Aug. 18-28 in South Williamsport, PA.).
     For the second year in a row.
    And for a second year in a row, the United States State Department denied the teams’ visas to travel in this county – because their documentation “contained discrepancies.”
     We forget -- and obviously State Department officials forget – that not everyone has a birth certificate. That there are parts of the world where the paperwork that we take for granted – the paperwork that enables us to vote, drive, drink alcohol and travel to other countries – simply does not exist. Or if it does exist, does so only erratically.
     Because of this, the Rev. John Foundation Little League team, which was to play its first Little League World Series game against Canada on Aug. 19, will stay home. The boys qualified by winning the Middle East-Africa regional tournament last month against Saudi Arabia.
     They qualified by working hard, following a dream. Most live in poverty. Their parents, if they have them, “are often illiterate, making it difficult to verify birth certificate data.”
     Little League baseball was introduced to Uganda eight years ago by Richard Stanley of Staten Island. Stanley pointed out that Ugandan kids may not even know their own birthdays. “They don’t have cake and ice cream parties in Kampala.”

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Poetic Resonance -- Ulysses and Mim

Years and years ago I first read the poem, Ulysses, by Alfred Lord Tennyson. One line lodged forever in my brain/psyche/soul:

“I am part of all that I have met;”

There are more lines of course. The poem is a dramatic monologue and pretty macho. The narrator does not want to sit around and rule his little kingdom; he wants to set off with his buddies on perpetual adventures until he is enfolded in the ‘eternal silence.’

I can identify with the last stanza:

“Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in the old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are,
One equal-temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Oh yes, ‘that which I am, I am’ – not as young, not as strong – but still striving, still searching, still trying to contribute whatever I am to whomever or whatever might need me.

But, for me, that one line needs expanding. Yes, “I am part of all that I have met” but, more accurately, all that I have met is part of me – all the people, all the places -- the entire rainbow of human cultures and the abundant and infinitely variegated planet. The beauty that pervades existence.

I am grateful to Tennyson. Poets plant thoughts that grow into our souls and, lo! become a part of us.

Monday, July 25, 2011

cool cat

When it's hot, everyone must find a way to cope -- 
as Herbie has.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

accidental beauty

My garage is on an alley.

When I moved into my home I was impressed by the fact that other garages on the alley were fringed with flowers -- iris, sunflowers, hollyhocks.

As I worked to establish my gardens, I planted 'leftovers' by my garage door.

This summer, they have come into their own. Splendid, however unintentional.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Some Shade for a Summer Day

It's hot here -- and probably hot wherever you are. So here's some shade and cool waters -- from Muir Woods again.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

More Muir Woods

Muir Woods is home to Old Growth Redwoods -- many trees 
(the tallest in the world) 
one thousand years old. 
A place to wander and wonder 
and ponder the beauty of things 
left alone.

Saturday, July 9, 2011


--- Perhaps you knew that. Mine tend to prove their perversity daily.

Take Herbie, for example. On days when temperatures approach or exceed 90, he will often curl up inside the upstairs bathroom sink. Presumably because it is cool.

Today is about 90. Earlier this afternoon, he was there, surprising me as I prepared to wash my hands.

Later, I was preparing something in the kitchen when the dryer buzzer rang. Herbie trotted into the kitchen and out to the laundry room. I opened the dryer door and Herbie jumped in. [In this house, black slacks have no chance of pristine-ness.] I pulled all but one item from the dryer, sorting and folding. Halfway through this process my other cat, Guinness, jumped up on the warm, dry clothes. [Did I mention that in this house, black slacks have no chance of pristine-ness?] I left Herbie and the one item in the dryer – with the door open. And Guinness atop the warm, dry clothes.

I did mention that the temperature is about 90?

There is no explanation for cat behavior – except perversity. Bless them both [and my black, furry slacks.]

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Antelope Spotting

You can learn a lot at rest stops. While waiting for my traveling companions, I struck up a conversation with a gentleman awaiting his passengers. Looking at the vast Wyoming landscape, I believe I muttered something to the effect, “this is truly magnificent in its own way.” The gentleman agreed, noting with some regret that his granddaughters spent most of their time in the back seat playing with their hand-held games. And his daughter sat in the passenger seat reading her book. I was about to tell him what I did to enjoy the ride when our respective parties reassembled and we left in separate vehicles.

All the way across Wyoming, I practiced antelope spotting. [Well, I thought the mammals in question were pronghorn antelopes but according to Wikipedia, they’re not antelopes at all so it is best to refer to them simply as pronghorns.] At any rate, sitting in the backseat with three suitcases piled to my left and a window to my right, I had a grand time trying to spot these graceful creatures. It takes concentration but is really quite rewarding. Often I’d see one wandering alone. One shared a spacious pasture with a scattering of cattle. One doe stood with her two fawns as if posing for a portrait. Once in a great while, a buck.

 As the sun began to sink toward the horizon, many seemed to settle down for the night, facing west. The only exceptions to the mammalian landscape of cattle and pronghorn were an occasional herd of horses and two mule deer. All of these creatures kept me delighted until dusk after the overcast sky was graced with rainbows that segued into sunsets before dissolving into rain.

And it was magnificent.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Late Bloomers

Around here, the catalpa trees are in abundant bloom
 -- actually spectacular.
Unlike the fruit trees and dogwood 
which detonate color into the spring landscape,
catalpas bloom in mid-summer
 -- after crocus, tulip, daffodil, and iris
have come and gone 
and all the trees are so lush with green 
that I suspect many people do not even notice.

It's a little sad.
It should not matter
when a tree (or person) blossoms.
Beauty is beauty, whenever and however it happens.
And appreciation is always appropriate.
So, thank you. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

This is not a squirrel

I know. It looks like a squirrel. It's almost as big as a squirrel. But it's a prairie dog. It lives, with hundreds of others, at a rest stop on I80 east of Park City, Utah. It, and hundreds of others, have learned to scamper close to the sidewalk looking cute. They peer out of the undergrowth and pose when people pass. And people feed them -- which is why they are as big as squirrels.

It's probably not evil. But it doesn't do the prairie dogs much good. I wonder if they can fit into their burrows.

Just a passing thought on a long drive home

Saturday, June 18, 2011


How's this for a classic photo? It was taken in Monument Valley, Utah. The cowboy in the red shirt is a Navajo who sits behind a little wooden shelter topped by a sign -- "Photos $2.00." When a tour jeep pulls up, he rides his horse out to the mesa while dozens of people take the same picture.

[I was with the North American Cultural Tour, which paid for the photo.]

Monument Valley became synonymous with the American West because the proprietors of the local trading post sent photographs to Hollywood producers encouraging them to make Westerns in this spectacular landscape. So they did. Especially John Ford (in movies starring John Wayne).

This testament to American entrepreneurial spirit, lives on --- in the cowboy in the red shirt