Plain Speaking

I'll say it plainly:
There are things that we know
that do not come from
     common sense.
     the news.
Like how the marsh looks
     through a heron's fierce eye,
Or how to dance;
That the pines sing
     even when we are gone,
And a baby is born
     with wisdom;
The smell of damp soil
     is holy --
And true love exists.

Stop talking.
Face into the wind and feel the weight of your stories --
     they hold you
     the ground.
Trust them. 
fossil nautilus


Singing - II: Night Singing

     I lay in bed last night listening to the whirring sound of two American Toads somewhere out in the dark. It is one of the most calming sounds I know. For falling asleep, I'd say it's about equal to the sound of what the Navajo call the gentle “female” rain. I wonder if these are the sounds they put on “white noise” machines that people play to feel soothed. Is it called white noise because it's like white magic?
     We have – or I should say used to have – another kind of night music. It was much more active.
     “Who's ready to sing?”
     “I am!” – three voices from different bedrooms would call out, and Meg's feet came thundering up the stairs so she wouldn't miss a moment of this bedtime ritual.
     We chose Anna's or Andrew's bedroom, and the three little pajamaed bodies would wriggle into two big laps. That meant two had to share a lap, and once that got sorted out, we came to the next question.
     “What shall we sing?”
     It used to be that there was time for each of them to choose a song. At first, the repertoire was traditional children's songs and nursery rhymes set to music: “Little Bo Peep”, “Mary had a Little Lamb”, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, “Little Boy Blue”. There were others, but I only seem to remember the ones with “little” in the title.
     As time passed, the collection expanded to include some of my old camp songs, songs of woods and blue waters and wilderness. They knew these because I used to sing them back to sleep in the middle of the night after an earache or bad dream or passing snow plow had woken them. “Way up in Algonquin” used the familiar tune “The Ash Grove”. “There's an Island Somewhere” was about getting away from “the bustling city”. They didn't know what a bustling city was, but they liked to sing about it.
      “The Star-Spangled Banner” seemed like a good one to teach them, handy for the baseball games of their future. No one predicted 9/11 though, shortly before Andrew's second birthday. We added “Oh Beautiful (America the Beautiful)” and “My Country 'Tis of Thee” then.
     As the kids got older, we started doing rounds: “Frere Jacques”, “London's Burning”, “Dona Nobis Pacem”. Then they began to bring their camp songs back, so we added those. We sang wherever we were going to bed: in a tent, at Grammy and Grandad's, in a shared bunk room with friends. Three choices dwindled to one as evening time became more compressed. But every night, we always ended with the same last song:
Day is done,
Gone the sun,
From the lakes,
From the hills,
From the skies,
All is well,
Safely rest,
God is nigh.”

     The first time they ever heard it beyond the bedroom was at a Memorial Day gathering by the Civil War monument in our small town. The parade was over, speeches and prayers were finished, and then from one corner of the town green a lone trumpeter played “Taps”.

     Anna and Andrew, sitting in our laps, looked up at us, confused. Another trumpet, a little further off played it again. Grown men in uniforms were wiping their eyes. A third and last time we heard it, far off, fading.

     Homework has overtaken our night singing now. I think that we will try again, once school is over, before Meg leaves for her summer job. My guess is that her feet will eagerly come thundering up the stairs, and while our laps are no longer big enough, there will be some arrangement of connected bodies across the floor. And when we're done, they will stay up, and Bob and I will go to bed.


Singing - I: The Dawn Chorus

     Meg came home yesterday after being away for three days. She was tired, but happy. We had a family dinner with fajitas, and while I was cleaning up, I heard her singing in the other room. This is so Meg; before she could talk, she would wake up in her crib every morning and sing. Life goes on its busy way while she's gone, and I'm distracted enough to not realize that I've missed her until she's home again, singing. Then I feel my body ease, and the sense of completeness return to our family.
      The birds are singing like crazy now, especially in the mornings. This dawn chorus is only with us for a couple of months as the birds define territories and seek mates. Here in Maine, sunrise is just about 5:00 a.m. these days, but the birds can start singing up to an hour before that. We sleep with the windows wide open, and the early melodies outside rouse me to just below conscious levels. It is a side-effect I didn't anticipate when I started to learn bird songs: my mind whispers “Phoebe”, “Catbird”, “Common yellow-throat” into my dozing brain until my alarm goes off. I like this, actually. ­There is an intimacy that comes from sharing the early morning with the wild world. Some people complain about these birds. To me, they are the Grinches of spring.

     Not everyone is a singer, but I want to believe music is as intrinsic to our souls as love is. Making music is a whole different energy than passive listening. And singing is the music of our bodies; we breathe, we vibrate, we create. Singing physically changes me. I can howl like a wolf (alone in the car, singing to a certain song), or weep the tears that were barricaded inside me until a hymn begins. Those places – and the shower – used to be the only “safe” places non-professional singers like me could sing. But now singing is cool; “Pitch Perfect” is the movie of choice at Anna's sleepovers, and even Andrew wants to try out for an a capella group when he gets to high school. This resurgence in singing gives me hope.
     Soon the birds will be settled with mates and territories, and the dawn chorus will fade. Soon Meg and Anna and Andrew will be off to camp for the summer. I suspect they will be singing there, even more than they do around home. It will be quiet here this summer. But summer has its own magic, the magic of fireflies and thunderstorms and buzzing crickets in the meadows. That is the coming season.
      Now, though, I keep the windows open, and the birds sing me into a new day the way Meg did from her crib. I hope nothing ever takes their voices away.
Phoebe at the windowsill


What I want for Mother's Day

      May is challenging for me, because I was never very good at sending birthday presents or holiday cards on time. In my family there are at least four birthdays and Mother's Day to anticipate. While I would rather mark the moment with a dinner or a walk or an adventure, I try to honor that others really do like a wrapped gift, and I try to be thoughtful – when I remember.
      Last Thursday was another significant day. Will it be remembered in the future? It was the day that the average daily level of carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, passed 400 parts per million (ppm). For perspective, the last time this happened was at least three million years ago – before humans. Greenland was forested. Sea levels were at least 60 feet higher*. Scientists tell us that 350 ppm is the safe level to sustain life and the climate as humans have known it**.

      I am at a loss. It's almost like I'm in a dream. Can this be really happening? 

      There was a picture in the paper this morning of two scientists in the Arctic, kneeling at the edge of an ice shelf and reaching into the open water. The article was about the competition among major international powers for the rights to control these increasingly open waters. Why the competition? Everybody wants access to – get this – the oil and gas stores previously untappable under the ice. Global warming is creating conditions that allow us to extract more fossil fuels that will further contribute to global warming. We are like an addict drinking or shooting up to stop the pain of the addiction.
      I would rather pretend this news is not real, and just go about my business. But I think I must look it straight in the eyes, and make a choice. How do I confront the path ahead: with fear, anger, and guilt (the negative energies) or with love, hope, and opportunity (the positive energies)? The negatives can be very motivating: “be part of the change, or we'll all suffer”. Hurricane Sandy woke a lot of people up. But that energy is not sustainable, and our human tendency is to give up, and return to business as usual. The positives, on the other hand, are sustainable, and very powerful. Look at parenting: we don't raise children because we're afraid of letting them die, we raise them because we love them, and hope for their future.
      Well, I love the earth. I love the amazing way it works so perfectly to support life. I love the beauty of the sky, the smells after a rain, hearing a catbird in the morning, the colors of flowers you buy at the grocery store, the taste of garden corn. I love the people of the earth; I know this because my heart aches when I learn about suffering.
      And I also see hope and opportunity in switching from fossil fuels to innovations in new clean energy technologies. There is money to be made here. Why do we stay addicted to the very technology that is killing us? If it's the lure of wealth, then we need to change the source of opportunity for that wealth.
      My family has done the things that we as individuals were told to do to contribute to the climate change solution. We did energy audits on our house and followed the recommendations. We have a hybrid electric car. We even put solar hot water and PV panels on our roofs. We could do more, and we will. But what I have learned is that the problem is bigger than what we volunteers can address.
      Change needs to happen within the major institutions of our society. We need government – town, state, federal, and international governments – to commit to clean energy in practice and policy immediately. We need the world of business to do the same, to stop drinking the koolaid, stop leaning in to the lure of oil and gas, wake up from the dream, and see a real future fueled by the sun, wind and clean technologies we haven't even developed yet.
      And there is one more major institution that can be part of the the positive energy of change: Parenting. Every government official, every business person is somebody's child. This is what I want for Mother's Day: I want every mother to tell her adult child that she doesn't need a card or a toaster or flowers flown in from another continent to honor her. Let's tell our children, our adult children, what we really want: we want them to divest from fossil fuel investments, change their business models, stop voting for short term economic fixes, and instead invest in clean energy, steer their businesses to a triple bottom line model (profit, people, planet), and vote for incentives for clean energy generation with long term economic rewards.
      Maybe the mothers of the world can do what the others haven't.
      The time is now. The need is real. Let's make this Mother's Day a beginning of the real change. And that means no gas grills for Father's Day. Do they make solar-powered ones?


Mosquitos in my woods

     Yes, there are mosquitos in my woods.

     It was in my writing group maybe ten or fifteen years ago that the woman broke the rules of feedback. I had recently left my job in the research forest to stay home with my babies, and once a week I got out to write. In my group, we did a twenty minute “free write”, and then took turns reading what we had written aloud. Our purpose was self-discovery, not polishing for publication; to read aloud was a way to have a kinesthetic experience of your own words, shaping them with your voice, and hearing them. Feedback from the others was optional, intended as an offering of the listener's personal response, and specifically not a critique. I wrote a lot about the woods, things that happened there, and often about the merging of my soul with the greater spirit I encountered.
     And then one Monday during feedback this woman told me that I was being untruthful in my writes because I never wrote about the mosquitos. I was shocked. For her I guess the mosquitos and the black flies were the predominant force of nature in the woods – in her whole life I think. The truth of it was that the mosquitos were a major force affecting my life in the research forest, but I had learned to deal with them physically and emotionally and they became just a part of living in the richness of the forest.
      My forest was in midcoast Maine, bordering the vast areas of salt marsh adjacent to the upper Back River. The mosquitos were intense and unescapable. As a child and even as an adult, I had remarkable reactions to mosquito bites – red, itchy, swollen volcanoes on my skin – and I scratched. Consequently, I always looked poxed by the end of summer.
     To work in my forest, I devised an effective mosquito-proof uniform. I looked like a tramp. I wore baggy pants, the kind with elastic at the ankles, to prevent a bite through fabric stretched taught against my skin. Thick socks and light-weight hikers covered my ankles. I needed two layers to barricade my reaching and measuring and crawling and counting upper body, and so I started with a cotton turtleneck with the sleeves cut to short-sleeve length so I wouldn't be too hot, and then a baggy button-up long-sleeve shirt over that. 
My greatest innovation though was my headgear. First a billed hat – a baseball cap. Over that, a head net. But the fine mesh of the head net strained my eyes when I was trying to measure red-backed salamanders. So I cut holes for my eyes and taped in a pair of clear-lens safety glasses. It worked brilliantly. The only thing left was my hands. I bought cotton garden gloves and cut off the finger tips so I could hold a clipboard and pen to record the data I was collecting.
     And still – I did get bit, though far, far less than I would have suffered. And thus for those remaining bites I learned to practice a critical emotional and psychological yoga: I didn't scratch. I had about five minutes of insane itchiness at the bite site, but if I didn't scratch, it would die down to a below-the-radar itchiness. And I learned that after the first dozen bites or so of spring, I seemed to become inoculated or immune, and my body's reaction did not jump up to that insanely itchy level for the rest of the summer.
     So there. There were mosquito in my woods, and I dealt with them, and wound up discovering common spirit – a home – in the layers of air and light and life in the forest.
     I worry that I come across as a pollyanna when I write, that there are others who may read what I write and not believe the truth of my words that I offer. But I stand in the truth of my world, and if you want to know about the mosquitos, you can ask. They are there. But I've learned not to scratch.