Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Messing with the Past

I wanted the past to go away,
wanted to leave it, like another country;
I wanted my life to close, and open like a hinge, like a wing,
like the part of the song where it falls down over rocks:
an explosion, a discovery; I wanted to hurry into the work of my life;
I wanted to know, whoever I was, I was alive for a little while.
~Mary Oliver

There are days when the drag of simple routine allows room for some interesting thoughts, gives time to think, "What if ... ?" and dwell on the old bugaboos, "Why didn't I ... .?" and, "If only ... ."

However, unlike the talented poet Mary Oliver, I've never wanted my past to go away. There have been far too many amazingly wonderful, life-enhancing, life-altering, joy-filled experiences. I may wish I had been more loving, more considerate and, in many cases, shown more understanding. There's advice I wish I had taken and advice I wish I had asked for. But that's all predicated on my knowing then what I know now. 

A few days ago my sons and I talked about our choices and how those choices have impacted our lives. My oldest son opined that we tend to believe different decisions along the way would have made our lives so much better, yet we'll never know. Life might have been much more of a struggle and not nearly as fulfilling. Of course, on that very philosophical level, he's absolutely correct. Therefore, 

Go and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes,

make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules.
Leave the world more interesting for your being here.
~Neil Gaiman 

I've definitely made some "interesting mistakes."  However, as I said to a friend last week, I liken the way I once painted a room to the way I managed most of my life: I made some big, sloppy messes, but I always took responsibility for them and always cleaned "things" up afterward (as best I could). 

Again, referring to my eldest son, when he paints he's very, very meticulous. It takes longer at the outset, but at the end he doesn't have to go back, go over, redo or make excuses for sloppiness. He acknowledges he didn't always "paint" his actions with forethought.

Good decisions come from experience 
and experience comes from bad decisions.
Physical limitations mean I no longer paint the walls of my interior rooms, but I do slap and spray paint willy-nilly on my outdoor furniture, shed and garden decorations (no gnomes or flamingos, by the way!)

I'm not making those other kinds of  "big, sloppy messes" but I am certainly satisfying some inner need to make changes and stir things up ... just a bit.  

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

May the Forest Be With You*

File:Oregon forest and mist.jpg
Stand beside me as I stand beside a tree and you will likely hear me say, "Trees are my talisman." 

Whether walking in the woods, sitting on my front porch near the stalwart Persian Ironwood, looking out the back windows to towering fir trees in a neighbor's yard or marveling at the beauty of the many varieties of maple tree in my own backyard, the same sense of delight and wonder comes over me. 

I feel such a oneness with trees that when I see a log truck barreling down the highway loaded with newly hewn logs piled high on the trailer, a real sadness comes over me. I know, I know: lumber is necessary to build our homes (but wait: does anyone really need a 10,000 sq. ft. home???) and the "timber counties" in Oregon benefit (or have benefited) from Federal timber payments (which strikes me as ridiculous as tying our school funding to income from lottery dollars). 

The Oregonian newspaper's December 24, 2014 edition featured a guest column by George Wuerthner, a Bend, Oregon ecologist writing about forest fires and forest ecology. Wuerthner states, "Though it is nearly universal among most people who have been taught to think about wildfires as destructive, from an ecological perspective it belies a failure to really understand forest ecology."

A few days later another article appeared which seemed to imply that both timber company owners and those who usually decry clear-cutting were in some kind of agreement regarding the thinning of our "forests." I can't help but think there was a bit of skewed reporting going on here. 

Planting trees in order to remake a "forest" is clearly impossible. A true forest can never be made by man. When forests are clear-cut, scabbed and scarred land becomes ripe for landslides. 

As with all of life's conundrums, some middle ground must be found or else, in this case, we risk slipping and sliding down a muddy, barren hill without a limb to grab onto.   

*Portland Nursery marquee December 2014
Photo Michael Richardson, -2-7-2012 - Oregon 

Monday, April 6, 2015

An Apprentice Poet's Legacy

Nine months ago she died. Shall I say, "I had a friend whose name was Diane English"? No, no, I won't begin that way because Diane English, although no longer in my physical world, is with me every single day. That's the kind of impact she had on me and on everyone who had the good fortune to know her--on any level. I call it the "Diane Effect." 

I first met Diane in 2006 at a combined screenwriting, acting, creative writing class at Marylhurst University. Approximately 40 women, ages 20 to 75, were in attendance. After a short talk centering on the merits of allowing our "creative inner child" to emerge, the moderator of the event asked us to choose one of the three disciplines and gather into groups. 

Eight women, strangers to one another, sat in the circle comprised of those who chose "acting." We were instructed to grab something from one of two boxes situated in the center. 

Diane, sitting across from me, reached out, grabbed a brightly colored silk scarf and, with great flourish, tossed it around her neck and over her shoulder. About the same time I reached into a box and came up with a turquoise Robin Hood-style felt hat which I plopped on my head. Our eyes met, a spark of impishness crossed Diane's face. 

I looked around the circle after all had taken some treasure from one of the boxes. I saw a woman of about 50 holding a cardboard sword and another tying a chef's apron around her waist. Two women who looked to be about 35 were already in play-acting-phase: they each held an old, black telephone handset and were mouthing words as though they were talking on the phone. One woman held a toy violin and another a pair of old tennis shoes. 

What in the world was this all about? 

We soon discovered it was about unleashing our creativity, about spontaneity, about letting go of a few of our inhibitions--those bugaboos that warn us to "Stop being so silly and act [our] age." 

Jodi led our group of "actors." She didn't have to give any of us much of a reason to begin pretending. Diane and I, now sitting side by side and both showing childlike delight and abandon, began a dialogue. 

Never in my life have I had such an immediate connection to another human being. 

From that day forward, Diane English and I became fast and dear friends.

In 2012 Diane moved to a studio apartment in an assisted living facility. On one wall Diane hung six or eight wildly and colorfully patterned diaphanous scarves. When she was expecting visitors, she wore a scarf from her collection. 

Each time I visited her there, memories of that first meeting flowed back in bright waves as I easily recalled her devil-may-care tossing of the scarf she chose from that eclectic pile of "props."  

She called herself an "apprentice poet." About a year before she died, Diane published a book of poetry titled, Sunbreaks and Magic Acts. "Upon Leaving My Earthly Form" is the final piece: 

Upon Leaving My Earthly Form

I ask those I love and leave behind

to remember when my body held breath
how hour upon hour I stood
near speaking streams immersed
in language of gurgle and gush
walked cliffs above the sea, watched
sacred tidings from the deep
roll onto shore in unfurling
white, scroll after scroll.

I was never rooted in the ground, preferred being
where current meets current, seeing
sunset mirrored on a Sound.
Why then, once I’m gone,
would I wish to be buried underground,
encased in urn, or weighted down by stone?

No dust to dust for me. Rather, gaily fling—
yes, fling—burned remains of my earthly form
far out to sea, to travel tides and moonbeams.
If the ocean is too far to go, sweetly scatter my ashes
on a river, to whorl and eddy with its pulse.

Let this stand as last request to those I love
and leave behind: find me a watery bier
and if you wish to contact me where
my spirit keeps vigil, visit me there.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Language: Comprehension & Perception

The finest words in the world are only vain sounds, 
if you cannot comprehend them.  
~ Anatole France

Even before I could actually read, letters, and all words made up of those letters, fascinated me. It didn’t matter what the material was—cereal box, signboard, mailbox, the raised letters on the tires of the family car—if there were words, I wanted to read them!

When I was a child, my father often brought home (used, discarded) National Geographic and Scientific American magazines. The one magazine he had a subscription to was Popular Mechanics. Big words, odd words, never-before-seen words ran through these magazines. I didn’t ask for definitions and seldom looked them up in our family’s dictionary. Most of the time, there were enough familiar words interspersed so that I absorbed what was needed to satisfy my young mind. Once in a while I even learned and then understood a new word.

Several years ago I worked for a doctor whose reception area was rife with magazines dedicated to scientific quests and discoveries as well as publications dealing with amazing architecture, aesthetic elements and environmental issues. When two or three back issues piled up, I had approval to take them home.

During my recent weeks of reading The Great Bridge, I was struck by how fascinated I had become with the extremely detailed engineering data, with the ways in which the laborers maneuvered and manipulated the tons of steel and miles of wire and by the minute, onsite calculations which had to be made in order to complete that massive bridge.

However, I don’t remember one iota of that information! Why did I enjoy the book as much as I did, considering my inability to comprehend the intricate details? Did I enjoy the book less than a scientifically learned mind? There’s really no way of measuring that, of course.

This is why I began thinking about the ways in which language comprehension affects our perception—of life and of life’s events (yes, I easily go off on tangents such as this!).

Nanci Bell of Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes, San Luis Obispo, California has written, “Language comprehension is the ability to connect to and interpret both oral and written language. It is the ability to recall facts, get the main idea, make an inference, draw a conclusion, predict/extend, and evaluate. It is the ability to reason from language that is heard and language that is read. It is cognition.”

Even if I don’t recall all the facts in The Great Bridge, I certainly grasped “…the main idea.” Therefore, I feel I can discuss the book fairly intelligently. If I were speaking with someone who had also read the book it’s likely some pertinent data buried in my brain might surface and I would feel comfortable adding that to the conversation.

There are times when language comprehension, or lack of, can lead to great misunderstanding and anger; and not simply for people whose native language is not English (as we know it). Even for those of us who speak the same language, there are many times when simple statements are heard as threats; times when we read an editorial in the newspaper and infer something entirely different than what was actually meant.

Maybe our perceptions are what determine how we comprehend language, rather than the other way around?

The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.
~Henri Bergson.