The Little Farm of My Meditations

There is a small farm called Dream Acres. It is not of my dreams. It is real. Its curving meadows lie adjacent to the place where I live. My living room and bedroom windows look out on it whereby I view its seasonal changes and the daily coming and going of bird, cow, coyote, raven, buzzard, airplane, and farmer. I observe the delicate changes of light and wind, rain, and cloud on its surface.

When I first arrived here I was annoyed that I could hear the eternal drone of an interstate, and that another busy thoroughfare bordered the other end of the farm. I watched the cows to know if it bothered them like me, or, to discern if we all had just given-in to it. A perpetual state of mourning as it were.

Days and months passed and the cows came onto the meadow to graze and went to sleep in the barn at sunset. Years passed. New groups of cows and steers adjusted to the long, narrow meadow and the grassy sink hole with its gnarled, sturdy tree at the bottom — the only feature in an otherwise green grass and golden reed sea.

I also adjusted to living high above the meadow and its constant presence in my life on the third floor of the apartment complex. I suppose some bovine members might meditate on my comings and goings which are as regular as their own. What do they think of me? Alone above the earth looking down on moonlit nights when they have chosen to sleep under the stars on warm nights, or during the rainstorms or frosty mornings when I check on them to make sure they are alright?

Early on I began to photograph the meadow with my cell phone camera. I shared photos on Facebook and here on WordPress. Later I learned that old friends, John and Erin, had taken a painting class and asked permission to paint the little farm. I can’t wait to see what they see from the photos. I guess the little farm is now seen by dozens of people as the place where I live.

When I was growing up, my family visited another small farm in east Tennessee – Watauga. My grandparents’ farm. It was on these yearly visits that I formed a loving attachment to Earth. One cannot live without it, no? Like an umbilical cord it ties us to our origin and stabilizes us through the storms and droughts of daily life.

Remembering the beloved place I envied the cows at Dream Acres who lie warm upon its grasses under the stars, breathing the scents of soil, grass, pungent odors of manure, and the sweet air. Some long ago memory–blood memory–rises in my subconscious and I feel one with the Earth standing on my little porch under that same canopy of stars just as my relatives from Scotland, Ireland, and the Appalachians, all farmers. All coming and going with the meadows and mountains that formed the borders and vistas of their lives. I guess I come honestly to my nostalgia for small farms and their secret lives of which I am blessedly welcome at Dream Acres.

My grandparents’ farm house in Watauga, TN.

Helene Hanff Letters: How to tell a story without trying.

Years ago I watched a lovely video about Helene Hanff, a New York script writer with a passion for antiquarian books. 84 Charing Cross Road is the title of it. Based on the book of her letters to Marks & Company, a colorful, poignant story emerges about a starving New York screenwriter and Londoners recovering from the devastation of the war who became her friends through their love of literature.

The shop employees became Helene’s friends over a 20-year period of correspondence. She had learned, from an English couple who lived in her building, that Londerers were under strict rationing of meat, eggs, and other commodities in post war England. She began to send packages filled with canned meats, dried eggs, and later, nylons to the women employees at the store. Each one began to write Helene notes stuffed into the envelope with those of the proprietor, Frank Dole. Most of the letters are hilarious, others sad, but all dripping with the little details of lives during this period of history in the U.S.A. and London: 1949 – 69.

However, the letters between Frank Dole, proprietor at Marks & Company, and Helene, function like an artwork where a few essential lines allow the viewer to fill in the full portrait. I love books like this that spark the imagination while providing an essential record of the times in which they lived. It is a love story of a kind which you will just have to investigate yourself to know what I mean. 

Helene Hanff’s humorous and unedited opinions on everything from “cardboarddy” American published books to baseball are timeless. We learn about a self-educating writer whose love of English literature filled her mind and soul with inspiration as she followed her heart’s delight through the diligence and exceptional taste of Marks & Company and whose employee — Frank Dole — roamed the castles and estates of Merry Ole England finding rare and second-hand antiquarian books of English Literature. Helene’s tastes were specific to the point of eccentricity but Frank “got” Helene. His letters include a satisfying refrain that makes this second-hand book lover feel deep satisfaction: “a good clean copy”. 

Helene writes that she loves a book that has been read before with notes or marks that link them as voyagers on the same journey. Do you relate? I am a reader who loves that. I like to find original purchase receipts from, say, the 1950’s or earlier. Maybe its been made on an old receipt pad, the ones with the black inked page in between the proprietor’s copy and the buyer’s receipt.

The copy of 84 Charing Cross Road that I purchased is a limited new edition published by  another antiquarian book company in London — Slightly Foxed. My edition came in a nice cloth binding and eggshell-colored paper with gilded edges, a very “clean copy”, and a note handwritten by one of the women proprietors. I regularly tune into the Slightly Foxed Podcast to learn about books, publishing, and authors “across the pond”.

It was not until after Frank Dole died, and Marks & Company closed, that Helene thought to publish the letters. She finally received a decent enough income from the popularity of the book that allowed her to visit the London “of English Literature” and the old building and shopfront at 84 Charing Cross Road which had become such an important part of her life.

Think about what letters you may possess that could tell a story which is actually never fully manifest on the page but which is evoked between the lines. I highly recommend that you read Hanff’s book before you embark on that journey! Also watch the video, in which Helene is played be Anne Bancroft and Frank by Anthony Hopkins.

Order your book from Slightly Foxed. Let’s help out those London girls with a passion for good literature.

 

 

Replenishing the Earth – Wangari Maathai

Winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2004

Wangari Maathai grew up in her homeland in Kenya, living close to the earth and learning traditional Kikuyu values and practices. Her memoir, Unbound, describes her daily activities as a child, her mother’s teachings, and how her people regarded the streams and forests in a land where the balance of nature is delicate, not to be abused without serious consequences for its inhabitants.

In Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World, Maathai’s wisdom is distilled onto each page, every sentence the next drop in the flow. Wangari describes herself as working practically to solve problems she learned about in discussions with communities and among women’s groups. Their need for clean water, and for access to earn a living, were her daily concerns. Eventually, Wangari and the women she served established the Greenbelt Movement that planted over 30 million trees in Kenya.

In Replenishing, Wangari’s concerns about the destruction of the environment in Kenya are examined in light of the world’s sacred traditions. Always a practical perspective, her observations and reflections give readers much to consider often through humor. For example she writes that God in his wisdom created Adam on Friday. If he’d created him on Monday he’d have perished for lack of food!

Wangari Maathai’s clarity of thought is invaluable in this age where massive destruction of oceans, rivers, wildlands, and forests have imperiled life the world over. She and the women of Kenya remind us of the earth-shaking power of people to replenish the earth, if we choose to do so.

Listen to an interview with Wangari Maathai on OnBeing.org.

 

 

Songs of Ourselves – Great Read

In 2015, Blue Heron Book Works published a collections of blog posts, journal entries, and other writing forms from writers across the nation. Bathseba Monk, the intrepid and visionary editor of Blue Heron Book Works, and her editor Mary Lawlor, put together a book of American voices as varied as the landscape between our coastlines.

Songs of Ourselves is a real trip into and across Americana. If you haven’t read it, I compare it to about two dozen Blue Highways wrapped into one volume.

Listen to Tomas Benitez: Quietude in the Gully. No moaning animals or ruckus. It’s as if the Pomona Freeway Ocean knows and slows to a steady heartbeat rhythm. The waves rumble with a distant peace. La Luna is framed by the dark outline of the palm fronds on the left, the Yucca tree on the right seems to be reaching up like a hand holding her aloft. She is so beautiful tonight; it is all about her I suspect. Maybe the animals are huddled in their shadowed hollows also watching her. Not even Jinx is dancing in her moonlight. We’re in church. ~ pages 15-16.

Well worth the read. A treasure of American voices across our land. Buy it here.

 

National Parks: Citizen Library

Carlotta Walls LaNier

In the previous post I described my joy in visiting the Central High School National Historic Site which preserves and tells the story of desegregation in Little Rock, AK. There I bought two memoirs, one by Daisy Bates (The Long Shadow of Little Rock), the other by Carlotta Walls LaNier with Lisa Frazier Page (A Mighty Long Way). [*This link includes an interview with Mrs. LaNier and an excerpt from the first chapter, and links to purchase a copy of the memoir.]

Both memoirs brought me renewed appreciation for the personal struggles of individual Americans striving for their civil rights, and the importance of parents being involved in their children’s education. Reading both books rendered a deeper understanding of historical events through the lived experiences of my fellow Americans. The NPS Interpreter was also a powerful communicator who brought history to life–another important function of our National Parks.

On my current sojourn in Kentucky, I drove to Mammoth Park –another National Park site–preserving and interpreting one of the world’s great natural wonders. In 2016 it celebrated its 200th anniversary!

Stephen Bishop Portrait

In their gift store, I headed for the books section. There I found a historical novel by Roger Brucker, about Stephen Bishop, a famous and early explorer/guide at Mammoth Park (Grand, Gloomy, and Peculiar). Stephen was a slave at the time his owners assigned him the duty to serve as a guide at the privately owned wonder.  It was already a favorite travel destination for wealthy and local people. The associated hotel inn for guests owned slaves who cooked and cleaned for guests. Charlotte Brown was a slave working at the inn. It was there that she fell in love with Stephen Bishop. They would eventually marry.

The novel’s story is told through the voice of Charlotte Bishop. The narration is based in part on Charlotte’s real story. Historical documents and testimonies from people who met and knew Stephen and Charlotte guided the author in writing this delightful book. (I am about half way through.)

My point is this: if we do not know history, how can we navigate the future? Each of these National Parks sites, and the books I found there, provide citizens with living history. Our National Parks are repositories for learning and recalling great moments and individuals in history.

A Tale of Two Cities: Tucson & Pensacola

Pensacola BeachMy parents moved to Pensacola as retired military. Nearby Pensacola Naval Air Station gave them access to the commissary, officer’s club, and other amenities. They were smitten, as are so many visitors, with the incredible beauty of the Gulf coastal region and relaxed Southern lifestyle.

After moving to Tucson in 1999, I began annual treks to the beach and back, linking me to what at first glance appears to be environments at opposite ends of a moisture continuum: desert to marine systems. But I began to find uncanny parallels:

  • Barrel BlossomsThe spectacular high desert of Tucson with its tropical blooming cacti and tall saguaros, evolved from a subtropical environment as recently as 8,000 years ago – America once had a large inland sea in the Midwest;
  • The Gulf and coastal environs evolved from a dry savannah that supported lions, elephants, and other megafauna that thrive in dry, hot weather;
  • The desert hills of Tucson and the sugar white dunes of Pensacola both support prickly pear cacti and similar species of horny toads!

    Prickly Pear Fruiting
    Prickly Pear Fruiting

I also found that we are on very close latitude lines: Tucson is   32.2217° N and Pensacola is 30.4213° N.

 

 

Where I live!
Where I live!

Strains of Jimmy Buffet come to mind:

It’s those changes in latitudes,
changes in attitudes nothing remains quite the same.
With all of our running and all of our cunning,
If we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane.

The Tucson Connection

My romance with Tucson seems predestined.  This long relationship began in my childhood with Dad’s assignment to Davis Monthan AFB.

Fifty years later, I moved back to Tucson to accept a position as Director of Education at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum. Little did I know that a future friend and writing fellow was finding her way to Tucson from her home in the Republic of Columbia, in northwest South America. We never met while we lived in Tucson but we would later share our love of the desert in a more tropical habitat.

That is because both of us left Tucson and ended up in Pensacola, Florida. Vicki is a member of the Portfolio Writers’ Group, one of many writing groups in the West Florida Literary Federation. She is a poet and talented painter who not only continues to inspire my writing, but who, by virtue of membership, became an early editor of drafts of  the Threshold manuscript.

For me it was wonderful having a talented writer/friend who knew Tucson and is bilingual. She was able to spot problems and to provide correction to Spanish terms and translations. (Vicki is a Spanish instructor at the University of West Florida and provided instruction for students at the University of Arizona while in Tucson.)

It seems that wherever I go, Tucson follows along. I am so glad because it is a community that won my heart. I even bled for it (see previous blog). That initiation got buried in my unconscious. Good thing. I might never have returned!

My Tucson "Connection"
My Tucson “Connection”

See Victoria’s new book of poetry including her gorgeous painting.

How fragile our lives

IMG_0188For readers: I wrote this short essay in 2009. Dad passed away on December 7, 2012. When I wrote this piece I was living with my Dad, helping him recover from pressure sores on his heels after surgery.

Being with Dad

He is not up yet. I think gloomy thoughts. Usually he rises before me and struggles past my bedroom door. I hear the heavy breathing and the cranking noise of his walker.

Should I go check on him? I decide to wait until 7 a.m. It is 5:45 now.

What would I do if I found my father dead in his bed? I envision the scene: opening the door and listening intently for his breathing, made audible by emphysema.

Hearing nothing I creep down the hallway past the bathroom and as I turn the corner there he lays, mouth open, eyes closed, withered into his pillows like an old wrapper.

My Dad…

The birds are munching happily now at his feeders, a cardinal’s clarion call pulls on my heart. For over twenty years my father sits at the front windows in the condo’s watching birds, smoking his pipe, and trying to complete the NY Times crossword puzzle.

For many years my mother lived here, too, until she passed away in 1996—thirteen years ago. Dad has lived a peaceful albeit lonely life since then. Her struggle with cancer, over so many years, drained him of all his mental and physical resources so that these years have been an island of tranquility.

Retired Air Force pilot… During “Saving Private Ryan” on TCM a couple nights ago he came out of his semi-awake fog with an emphatic “Seeing all those gravestones fills me with rage!”

Z-49 Over MtHe led his crew on low altitude bombing raids over Tokyo in the B-29 they named The Three Feathers in his honor. Lt. Col. EB Feathers recalls the smell of burning flesh that haunts him now. “Will I burn in hell for that?”

I can tell he worries about dying and wonders what will happen to him, or worse, nothingness…oblivion…

My journey to living with Dad in these last days and months of his life was not planned nor is it heroic by any standard. I shipwrecked at a job that was completely wrong for me and he invited me to stay here until I can get back on my financial feet.

Even in his nineties he is still taking care of his four daughters. But that is not entirely true: lately we have become his caregivers and decision-makers as we see that he has given up trying to live and is just waiting now.

Being with Dad at this juncture on his life’s path has caused me to reflect on my own. We never know what may become the defining event of our life while we are in the midst of it but later it emerges like a fulcrum on which before and after impinge.

For Dad the memories of war haunt him. He finds no glory in the carnage and has lately become a true pacifist.

I listen to the stories of his early life—how Lindbergh inspired him to fly and how it felt to be airborne on his solo flight, the fear and excitement mixed with the sheer magic of winging high above the green rolling hills of Tennessee.

I see him tall with a full head of dark brown hair and real teeth.

He is stirring. I hear him go into the bathroom…one more day, then.

I recall a beautiful poem by Crowfoot on his deathbed:

What is Life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night.
It is the breath of a buffalo in the winter time.
It is the little shadow which runs across the grass
and loses itself in the Sunset.

Sweet Leilani – Our Mother

Sweet Lailani, Our Mother Performing Hula She Learned at the Bishop School in O’ahu in 1949Mom Performing Hula in Michigan[Also see links on blog about Hawaiian history and culture.]

Our mother was known as Mickey Jones when she was a teenager and “20-something”. Born in a small town in Tennessee she longed for places far and away. She loved beautiful things and wanted adventure in her life. Mom loved to sing and to dance. She was an excellent cook. As a military wife of a career Air Force pilot, Mom set up homes all across the U.S. and in Hawai’i.  I have very lovely remembrances of Mom and Dad in Hawai’i. They were very much in love. These are kid memories so fuzzy and sensory. A sweet scent of plumeria wafted from my Mother. She was happy in Hawai’i. Dad was a pilot on Hickam Air Force Base established in 1941 to protect Pearl Harbor and near by Honolulu.

Hawai’i was still recovering from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet the natural beauty of the islands was already transforming the tragedy to the pervasive love and ease natural to the island kingdom. Mom hummed Hawaiian songs, Dad played a lot of slack key guitar music on a phonograph. He wore colorful silk shirts; Mom wore sarongs filled with flowers. She wove flowers in our hair and we often wore leis. I remember making leis from aromatic blossoms at a picnic table under a towering banana tree with leaves like green rafts hovering above.

Mom learned traditional hula from a teacher who told stories about her ancestors who came from Polynesia. Later Mom performed more modern forms of hula for military families at bases where we were stationed around the U.S. The photo above is in Michigan at Selfridge AFB. Through our mother we carried the heart and soul of Hawai’i in our hearts. This day the stories told through the dance and chanting of traditional Hawaiian music remain with me as some vestige of a true connection with the Earth Mother. See link to the Merrie Monarch Festival and the Prince Lot Hula Festival.

[I recently found this new story and art animation about the original Hawaiians, and authentic experience in the form of old time storytelling: Voyagers – The First Hawaiians. **Highly recommended.] “The discovery of Hawaii told through the art of Herb Kawainui Kane in stunning 2.5 animation.”

I often think about my mom. She would have many struggles later in her life but in her youth and early days of rearing kids and being a wife she was a joyful person, filled with hope and love of nature. She was high-spirited. This is the mother I remember, honor and love with all my heart. She brought elegance to simple spaces, traditions to an otherwise mobile lifestyle, and always a sense of wonder about the world at large. On this Mother’s Day I honor her for what she gave me and my sisters and all who come after us….