Friday, November 27, 2009


Magically the other day, without having read my last post “OLD”, my Chiropractor Kristen Wright began talking to me about “getting old”. Was it something I said? Or could she just feel “old” was on my mind? She warned against the energy-less, dull sort of aging headed toward nursing homes and wheel chairs. Maybe it’s better to imagine golf courses, assisted living and senior cruises (do they still play shuffle board?). I was feeling “old” because I fell and “ruptured” my shoulder. My valuable right shoulder often engaged whether it is pruning, shoveling, doing the dishes, or, like now, typing. So I felt a little old this week, or feared getting old a little more. My livelihood is in my right shoulder. I think Kristen would like me to use my head more. Think about better ways to use my body. “Work well, not hard,” she often tells me.
Although I am getting older, I healed quickly. And with Kristen’s help was back to to pruning, shoveling. And typing.
My father who is also getting older is slowly being dismantled by Alzheimer’s. What I used as a symbol of heightened awareness in the last post was just a pleasant symptom of a disease which now makes him uncontrollably angry, like a child, petulant, like a child, easily hurt, like a child. Is this also a state of grace?
There are many better symbols for the beauty and grace of age: the ancient sequoias of California, the beautiful ruins of the acropolis, the venerable cherries of Japan.
I still want to spend my birthday in Japan one year, under the cherries. My birthday falls during Hanami, the Japanese cherry blossom viewing festival. I love the pictures I’ve seen of the cherry trees, hundreds of years old, propped up with the utmost care and flushed with flowers like a school girl with a crush. And like a school girl’s crush the blossoms fade quickly. This tree represents to the Japanese the fleetingness of this life. Their drunken celebrations revel in it.
There is a Japanese photographer (unfortunately I can’t remember his name) who makes nude portraits of 100 year old women. A large “Eww!” just went off in many puritanical American minds. We live in a land where old is ugly. But this photographer, who spends months living with his models, cooking for them and bathing them before he ever takes a picture sees something else.
These life sized photos, not candid but posed, are not erotic or perverse, but some of the most loving and lovely photos I’ve ever seen. When you stand in front of them you stand in front of radiant mythological beings. You also stand in front of a full length mirror. See yourself in these wrinkled, gravity stretched women. Is it the photographers eye? Or does a sense of self forgiveness rise naturally?Transcendently? Benevolently?
As I get older it is much easier for me to be benevolent to others, and even my self.
There was a very benevolent character on "Six Feet Under", one of the deceased, simply called “Daddy”. He had a harem of wives and a herd of children he held in the embrace of his love cult. One of the precepts of his religion was to “ dance a little dance each day, even if it is only in your heart.” Now, I don’t usually recommend the advice of cult leaders, especially fictional ones form HBO. But there is some truth in what he said, some moving toward childlikeness in this little practice. I don’t always remember to dance ever day, still I think it’s a good idea no matter where it comes from. And if that dance deep in your heart brings a crush like blush to your face all the better.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


My friend and writing teacher, Theo Nestor, author of How to sleep Alone in a King Sized Bed said to me the last time I saw her that I should write a book about old people, because I am always writing about old people. I was puzzled and shocked. But as I ran my finger across the flip file of my mind tracing the umpteen stories I wrote since beginning to write 5 years ago, I realized most of the stories were about old people. The one story about a young person was about an old flame, Bahram Najafi, who was 30 at the time. He was old both culturally, he is Iranian, and at the time spiritually, he had lost both his parents and niece and had fallen into a deep depression, which made him slow and cranky...old. I, having just turned 40 and under Saturn’s influence, living in the Old World ( I had set up camp in Cologne for a few years) was feeling “old” myself. It was a momentarily perfect fit, except that Bahram was the type of lone wolf that is not feral.
When I returned to the States after “things fell apart”, I found everyone here a bit annoying. Like being dropped into a room full of texting teenagers. I got used to it and back into being an American, whatever that means, but still wonder about this fear we have about getting old.
My parents are old now. Of course they were always “old” but now they are really old. And as much as I avoided patterning my life after theirs, as much as I resisted their lessons, especially the one about frugalness; oh, and the one about stick-to-it-tiveness, there is also a great deal I absorbed. I became them in a way. And in becoming them I realize I am becoming old, too. It is inevitable I know but my childish mind puts it’s two impudent feet down and refuses to budged. After all isn’t zen mind beginners mind? Didn’t Jesus say “Such is the Kingdom of God”? I guess he was talking about child-likeness, not childishness.
I am guessing again, when I say my fear of growing old is childish. Is it something inherent or learned? Cultural or personal? I remember when I was very young, truly a child, hearing about Second Childhood. I was not a child looking forward to being an adult. But Second Childhood, that sounded promising. To get childhood again after all you learned from adult life. Wow! I guess Second Childhood has become Alzheimer’s or Dementia in our modern parlance, like my prolifically knitting grandma would probably be told she had OCDC. I like the old terminology.
I recently called home and asked my father, who has Alzheimer’s, what he was doing. When I was growing up he was always doing something (did he have OCDC, too?). He said, in all seriousness, “I am sitting here watching the leaves grow on the apple tree?” Remember the child-like freedom of laying on your back and staring a clouds? I wouldn’t try it today there are no pictures to be seen in our nearly seamless gray sky and you’d get a face full of water. But you get my drift.
The other morning as I drove down the asphalt road through Carnation Marsh a scrawny coyote ran in front of my truck. He scurried frightened from the road, plunged into the water filled ditch. He must have been 100 years old in dog years, gray and crippled with arthritis, I could see it as he pulled himself out of the ditch nearly slipping back in. I don’t think of fear as a good motivator, but for him, then, fear worked. I felt a strange kinship with this lone coyote, I attached a part of myself to him and ran into the marsh.
I could not get the image of that old coyote out of my head until later in the week when I saw him dead on Tolt Hill road. I nearly cried, but there were caffeinated commuters behind me pressing me on and no turn-out in sight. I wanted to stop, I had to go.
In this moment, both crucial and absurd, I threw up my arms (not literally, I was driving) at the rapidity of my life, slower than most, especially the commuters behind me. The passing of time, as I flew past the coyote at a speed he could probably run as a youth, weighed heavy on me. And eventually a few tears fell.
When I got to work I yanked out summer: moldy marigolds, salvias, dahlias. Leaves fell in the sporadic gusts of wind. The summer party dresses are off the hermaphroditic garden. What is left they say are “the bones of the garden”. I find the thought rather macabre. For me the bones are the the mineral aspects the stones, the soil, the asphalt if need be. What I see in the bare trees, the hedges and shrubs is the musculature. There is something erotic in brawny trunks and the vertical posturing of conifers. The garden also looks “old” too, stripped as it were of its charms. But it is a beautiful old. Like the old coyote was beautiful, even his crippled escape seemed beautiful as I followed him into the marsh away from the work-a-day world, the bills and the chores and into the venerable soggy marsh. Not a garden at all but a graveyard of snags, impenetrable with browned grasses, bare branches, flood debris and peace.
Maybe the coyote wasn’t running out of fear but toward peace, off the asphalt into the subtle undefined world of wildness. Maybe all my running out of fear of not making ends meet or keeping up, or getting old is also more a running toward the subtle victory I think my father feels when he sits and watches the apple leaves grow.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


With all the shootings, unemployment, global warming and general cultural malaise it’s hard to find a scrap of good news these days.
But I’ve found some: Autumn will be more colorful in the future.
At least according to an article in the September/October issue of “Audobon”. I was glad to read that scientists are predicting that higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and subsequent warming will not only delay fall color, turning golden October into amber November, but also prolong and intensify the color.
Michael and I had noticed the cottonwoods have turned an intensely golden yellow this year . “Like the aspens in Colorado,” he said. Quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides) are very closely related to our native black cottonwood (Populus balsamifera subsp. trichocarpa). And despite frequent windstorms, frosts and heavy rains the leaves are finally, after a month, starting to fall.

Yellow as gas station signs. ( If you look closely you’ll see a rainbow in the background portentous of the 2 sunny days that followed.)

Yellow as taillights.

While I’m on the theme of golden yellow I’d like to promote an ornamental grass. My favorite to date. I am tired of the dramatic collapse of miscanthus in my borders. I actually had my helpers dig 5 big collapsed clumps out , while I took this photo feet away. Is it too much water, too little water? Too crowded? I give up. But I am sticking with purple moor grass ( Molina caerulea ‘Strahlenquelle’, in particular). Look at those ‘golden rays of sunshine’, in November, standing up to wind, rain, rabbit colonization, and juncos hanging tight to the stalks and plucking seed.

It’s not really time to start feeding the birds again. There’s plenty of foraging still available. Which makes me worry when the owl’s on the roof and the cat, who is delectably plump, is in the garden at night. But I have no problem with the owl de-populating the rabbits.

Remember those brightly died rabbit’s foot key chains you won at carnivals as a kid? I bet PETA put an end to that. I wonder what sort of portent a rabbit’s foot dropped by an owl has for the finder?

Sunday, November 8, 2009


The land we live on was logged like much of Western Washington. Near 90% I read recently. We have 2 old growth cedar stumps in the back of our property, that attest to the giants that once stood here. They are now “nurse stumps” and support nearly full sized cedar trees along with ferns , shrubs and perennials. Nature wastes nothing, especially time. Trees that fell 2 years ago in a tremendous wind storm are covered in a pelt of moss from which sprout young ferns, perennials and even little trees. I adore these trees as much as I adore the ghosts of the giants that once stood here, their knuckled stumps like monuments to fallen heros. I wonder where that wood went, if it exists in any form: a shake roof, a fence, a garden shed.
Sufi mystic Serif Catalkaya, who Michael and I had the good fortune to spend some time with, used to say that a tree was not useful until it became a chair. This riled the hackles of this wilderness adoring and protecting American. How can he say that? It was a metaphor I know for human nature, it needed to be sawn and hammered and sanded and varnished into something useful, something of service. Though I bristled at the metaphor I had to admit I have a lot of wooden chairs, a wooden floor and a wooden house. And a wood burning stove.
And lately we’re burning on a daily basis again. Alders that had dieD on our land, a cedar that a friend removed to get more light, and an old apple tree from a client’s garden.. It drives the damp out of our lives in this foggy valley. It gathers us all --2 dogs , 2 cats, 2 men -- into the living room each evening, where I nod off earlier and earlier each night. I like to blame it on the wood fire sucking all the oxygen out of the room.
Michael laughs, “ In this drafty old house?”
I don’t want to admit I ‘m getting older. A day of hard outdoor work this time of year wears me down a lot quicker than it used to. I must admit I’ve been a grumpy old man lately. Nothing seems to fit right, to work right. I hate these moods that come in with the darkening days of October and set up camp in November. They require a different diligence than the busy sun-filled days of summer. On the prompting of my yoga instructor, Kelley Rush of “Two Rivers Yoga”, I am doing a thankfulness practice. I have been introducing thankfulness into my small daily activities. When I make the morning pot of tea for Michael and I, I remember the woman at Pars Market who sold us the tea, I imagine the many hands that brought the tea to us. I think of the small delicate Ceylonese hands -that’s how I imagine them, because I dated a Ceylonese man who had the most brilliantly delicate nature and the smallest hands I had ever seen on a full grown man- that picked the green leaves of the tea tree (Camellia sinensis).
This probably seems like a lot of thinking and thanking for a cup of tea. Part of the magic of this process is that it all happens in a flash of thought, in a nano-second pause in the doing. This morning I took it a step further, thanked the living tree that captured the sunlight in Ceylon, where I bet it is like summer all the time. I even thanked the sun, which we rarely see these days, but which enters and energizes me like it were here in this cup of tea.
Then I returned to the fire. It’s a rainy cold Saturday, so we’re having a morning fire.
“What is fire? “ I asked Michael once. Thinking him more the scientist than I, I was sure he would have some good explanation. All I got was a dumb-founded look and, : “What kind of question is that?” He paused never feeling comfortable with not having an answer and then continued, “Fire is fire.” He didn’t know.
I have a stubborn 3-year-old sort of mind, So I decided to ask someone who might know, Google. This what I found:

"Fire is the rapid combination of oxygen with fuel in the presence of heat, typically characterized by flame, a body of incandescent gas that contains and sustains the reaction and emits light and heat."

It sort of takes the magic out of it. I like to think of wood as “bottled sunshine”. After all the trees are absorbing energy from sunlight - fire- and converting it to cellulose. (Do your own google search on photosynthesis). On a day like today when the sunlight is spongy and gray we can release, like the genii in the bottle, the summer sun in our living room.
When I think of the generosity expressed, I return to Sherif Catakaya’s metaphor of a tree becoming a chair. Of a tree becoming fire, becoming warmth.
Serif Catalkaya once asked us, “Do you think the sun is a ball of fire?”
We sat mute. Was this a trick question?
He pointed out the window on that particularly sunny spring day filled with blossoms and birds, “ It is the love that makes all life possible.”
In my parsimonious Lutheran up-bringing, sun-worshippers were the enemy, look how the Egyptians are portrayed in the Bible. In our modern parlance a sun-worshipper is some one who tans a lot, or vacations in Mexico. I,myself, cursed the sun this summer as it pelted us with hotter and hotter rays, sapping the very life out of my body. I don’t know how people live in deserts,or why so many religions were born there.
I am not a religious man, though I find religions fascinating. I do believe in one unitive principle, whether you want to call it God, or Allah, or Quantum Physics, is up to you. And though I believe this, these humongous concepts are bafflingly unapproachable to me. That’s when I become a pagan, or a least long for the time when everything was a deity, when the world was magical, alive.
I love thanking the tea leaves each day. And as I crouch next to the wood stove prodding a log into flame, as I release the suns energy from this seemingly inert piece of matter I feel I am involved in a ritual, coaxing a small god to offer comfort. Maybe I am a fire-worshipper, a Zoroastrian.
When we were in India a few years ago we went to Varanasi, where the Ganges turns north for a few miles. It is a high holy place for Hindus. Not far from where we watched a rather theatrical “Agni Pooja” in which both the sun and fire are worshipped, are the burning ghats. Hundreds of bodies are brought there each day for open air cremation. Michael and I watched as attendants prodded burning bodies with long poles coaxing flames into what seemed more like smoking and smoldering logs than bodies. Bodies are burned there continually, 24 hours a day, for thousands of years. As we watched body after body being burned a strange beautiful tranquility came over us as if all our earthly worries were being sent up in that smoke, like temple incense, like the plume from our chimney.

Though I know some of you would disagree I like to think of myself as a quiet, inward man.” A bump on a log” is what my mother used to call me when I would stay on the sofa all day reading books. So I developed the habit of going for walks very early. Slow, quite walks along the railroad tracks, or to Jacobus Park along Honey Creek in Milwaukee. Now I am lucky to have landed in a park-like setting where I can easily slip into boots and walk. I walked today around our little farmstead, petted the moss pelted logs that fell a few years ago, called it green flames in my head knowing the kinship between digestion and fire. I walked along the swollen river, once a loggers highway from the Cascades to the Sound. I was thankful it wasn’t flooding, and to lend poetic justice to the moment the sun broke through the clouds and ignited the golden poplars into flame.