Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Wild Grace III

Back in the mid-80s when I finished my masters degree at Wright State, I had just embarked on a long and rich relationship with the Audubon society. I was lucky enough to win a scholarship from the Dayton chapter to attend a two-week program at the Audubon Ecology Workshop on Hog Island, Maine. Life has not been the same for me since.

Just prior to my departure for that summer program in Maine, I had completed a graduate level workshop on Emily Dickinson. With the trip to Maine on the docket, I thought how cool it would be to visit Emily’s homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts. From my starting point here in Ohio, central Mass was right on the way.

To be most accurate, it was the stop in Amherst that was the beginning of the big changes. The Dickinson Homestead was closed to visitors on that day, but I was able to find the Dickinson burial ground where Emily and her sister and parents are interred. My shot of Emily’s gravestone taken that day is still one of my favorite pictures in my personal portfolio.

Trust me. I could go on about this story for some time. Just let me say here that Emily and Audubon have grown to inhabit big chunks of me since. I served on Dayton Audubon Society’s board for close to 20 years; worked hard to see Audubon Ohio (the state office for National Audubon) come into fruition; functioned as president of Friends of Hog Island (FOHI) for a short spell; edited the FOHI newsletter for a couple of years; and am now in the process of writing a book on Mabel Loomis Todd, the original editor of Emily Dickinson’s poetry AND former owner of Hog Island. And as many of you know, I am a member of the local writers’ group, Emily’s Boys, who is celebrating the first anniversary of the publication of our first collaboration, Letters to the World.

But the topic of today’s blog is Wild Grace III. Ever since I first set foot on Hog Island in 1981 and recognized the magic of living on an island, I have pondered the possibility of buying a wooded piece of southern Ohio to be my ‘island.’ My ex- and I bought 10 acres of Adams county about the time I finished my masters work. Unfortunately, our marriage didn’t survive -- neither did land ownership. I got the land in the divorce, but I couldn’t keep it due to tight finances.

Now, however, as I enter my 60th year, I am re-energized by the possibility of reacquiring a piece of Ohio I can steward. Cindy and I have looked at a couple of parcels so far, neither to our liking. Too busy and not open enough. But the search continues. And there is the long-range hope of putting a modest cabin on the spread that could serve as a weekend/summer retreat. The thought of moving forward on the purchase of that wild piece of my home state really has me going. Hopefully I’ll be able to report a purchase of land some time in 2010.

Why the name Wild Grace III? I’ll take a crack at explaining that in an upcoming blog. Do you have a hankerin’ to have a patch of something to just be with?

Today’s elder idea: ‘Wild grace has its own place / has its own face prone to fly’

from Michael Martin Murphy’s ‘Swans against the Sun’

photo: Emily Dickinson’s tombstone with the inscription ‘Called Back.’ [Tom Schaefer 1981]

Monday, December 21, 2009

Winter solstice

I was going to offer in today’s entry that, while I love Christmas, I’ve grown to feel more connected to winter solstice in the past twenty years or so. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized such an idea was really more complicated than I originally thought.

First, let me say, Christmas is great. It is perhaps the best national/international holiday around. I don’t mean to discount Hanukkah, Kwanza, or Ramadan, but as a Christian, I have a lifelong experience with the celebration of the birth of Jesus. And for most Westerners, whether Christian or not, this end-of-year season permeates just about all aspects of culture: music, literature, commerce, mythology, cuisine, even social contracts. No other Western holiday or holy day can compete with that. The three other events mentioned above are also multiple day ‘seasons,’ but again, they aren’t in my cultural experience. I’ll let other folks sing their praises.

Ever since I was a kid, Christmas was special. The Jesus-thing was front and center for our family. When I was little, my father made a small business of building creches he sold to friends and, for a time, even sold through a downtown church supply. We kids helped collect bug-free bark from downed trees to side those little nativity buildings. After the bark was nailed to the plywood walls, we gave it a black ‘wash,’ then a splash of white or silver paint to give the appearance of frost. One of those wonderful little buildings survives and currently resides on the piano upstairs, just opposite the Christmas tree. I look at it as a family heirloom. My sibs feel the same way about theirs.

And then, of course, there is the Christmas giving. I mean, what kid wouldn’t like Christmas? ‘Good’ behavior is rewarded with gifts from Santa. What’s not to like about that? But then comes all the commercial hype that encourages us to buy Norelcos for the guys, something from Kay’s for the gals, and tons of toys for the little folk. Commercials, commercials, commercials. Combining that with the idea of ‘saving’ retail businesses with strong end-of-year sales, tends to leave me, as an adult, with a guilt complex that, if I don’t spend enough, retail job loss will be my fault.

Winter solstice. Now that’s a different idea. A natural idea, in fact. First, Christmas was placed in the Christian calendar because of solstice. I’m not sure exactly how many cultures recognized the shortest day/longest night of the year with ceremonies, but you can bet it was widespread. Christians placed Christmas in this timeframe to compete with ‘pagan’ rituals and give the faithful something special to celebrate. Same thing happened to springtime’s Easter ‘rebirth.’

Christmas has had a long and healthy run for the last two millenia. But winter solstice goes back much farther. And that is the main reason I want to be mindful of it. Long before homo sapiens lived in community, there was seasonal awareness. The changing starting place of the sun on the eastern horizon was connected to warm and cold, hunger and the growing season. Life depended on early people’s awareness of when days began to get longer and an anticipated more plentiful food supply. That’s really important stuff, you know? And it’s not mythology, either. It’s life.

And I guess that’s why I want to feel more connected to solstices and equinoxes these days. As I get older I recognize I am more human than Christian; more product of the earth than product of ancient mythology. Both are significant, but I prefer to think of myself first as an Earthling.

Maybe I ought to start a fire out in the back yard tonight to remind the sun not to forget about us and begin its journey back to our growing season starting tomorrow. Care to bring your drum?

Today’s elder idea: Love is all --

Emily Dickinson

Inscription on Cindy’s and my wedding bands. On this winter solstice we celebrate our 17th anniversary.

photo: The first Windham Hill solstice music sampler (1985).

Frosty the Waffleman

For those of you waiting with bated breath for the outcome of Frosty's 'shooting,' I offer the above proof that all went well. No snowmen were injured in the picture taking.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Shoot Frosty

I found a note with the title of today’s blog in my pocket after church on Sunday. I had to grin. ‘Shoot Frosty.’ Dude. Sounds downright violent, you know? And all for a guy who never asked to come into existence. He just showed up one day when kids, for pete’s sake, had enough time to play in the snow and actually create a new life form. I mean, really. And for this the guy has to pay with his life? Sounds oddly like Frankenstein.

The note, of course, did not refer to killing the poor dear, but instead, recording him digitally as art. ‘Shoot’ as in ‘take a photo.’

Frosty, pictured here, came into our lives one year ago at Waffle Shop. There he was, hanging on the wall in perfect light. I stopped and wondered how he got there. He had been brought in to sell at Elsie’s Attic (think indoor garage sale) and, for lack of a better place, I assumed, was hung there in all his glory.

I determined that he would have to be purchased for Waffle Shop and become our mascot. Alas, I discovered, Frosty had already been sold to a parishioner who planned to ship him down to her daughter’s family in North Carolina. We talked a bit, and she was ready to give the old boy up for Waffle Shop. I insisted that she found him first and her wishes ruled. Frosty made his way to North Carolina soon thereafter and arrived in time for Christmas.

But he wasn’t that far from my thoughts. I’d ask my friend at church how old Frosty was doing in his new digs. ‘Well,’ she worried, ‘I don’t think they appreciate him down there very much. They don’t seem too excited about having him.’ Hmmm, I thought.

Sure enough, one day late last summer/early fall, I was informed that I had a visitor in the church office. And there he was! Returned in all his glory, Frosty!

And so it is: Frosty the Waffleman has returned as Waffle Shop’s official mascot.

But not so quick. After all, the frosty fella’ is holding a star after all. I mean, holding a star is ultra cool. I wouldn’t want to keep anybody from that experience. But what is more cool: a star or a waffle?

Well, for those of us who know and love Waffle Shop, during that single week in November, stars come second. Waffles fill the galaxy -- er, dining room in our lives. And, after all, Frosty was now one of us.

So my good buddy and Waffle Shop kitchen manager -- and all around cool artist Mary Dahlberg -- took Frosty home for a short stay and a little physical therapy. And now -- voila! -- Frosty is, indeed, Frosty the Waffleman, complete with a beautiful, fluffy waffle!

And, well, I’ve got to go to church and ‘shoot Frosty.‘

When I do, I’ll be sure to share it with you here. In the meantime, have a warm and revitalizing holiday. Merry Christmas to most of you; Happy Holidays to all the rest!

Today’s elder idea: Frosty the Snowman is a fairytale they say. He was made of snow but the children know how he came to life one day.

Monday, December 7, 2009

First snow

It’s nothing to get too excited about -- the snow shovel remains safe and stowed in the garage -- but my part of the world saw its first snow of the season last night. Cindy Lou had stayed up until 2 AM decorating the house for Christmas, which she does so well. Waking up this morning to the first dusting of winter seems appropriate and another good reason to celebrate the season.

I pulled out some of our winter solstice music collection last week, too. Windham Hill Records released A Winter’s Solstice, their first eclectic offering of this season, in 1985. Since that time they have released a handful of solstice recordings. We have a soft spot in our hearts for them all. Since Cindy and I were engaged on autumnal equinox and married on winter solstice, these recordings celebrating the turning of seasons hold special meaning for us.

The birds seem to be behaving differently this week, too. I know we’re getting a much better look at them since the feeders went up, as mentioned in this blog a couple weeks ago. But with the leaves down, we are able to look more deeply into the trees out back and last week we both spotted not one, but TWO, pileated woodpeckers working the standing timber in the yard behind us. I spotted two hawks at different times perched up high above our backyard, too, last week.

Grandson Noah correctly guessed that a chickadee was the first bird into the feeder. He was not here to see it, but I challenged him by saying the first bird was a pretty common one for us. He guessed correctly. I’m so proud of him! Along with chickadees, we’ve also had red bellied and downy woodpeckers, goldfinches, tufted titmice, white breasted nuthatches, house sparrows, house finches, and juncos. I'm keeping a careful eye out for a hermit thrush at the birdbath, too. And, of course, cardinals, and well, squirrels. Last year squirrels didn’t seem too interested, but we’ve witnessed at least one already make its way across the canopy tubing and up onto the window ledge a couple of times. From there, it’s a short vertical jump to a bounty of peanuts, suet, and sunflower seeds. And I don’t think a bird ever gets the stale bread we throw out on the back porch, either. Chipmunks and squirrels are the diners on that stuff.

So winter is progressing. I know it’s not officially here yet, but the temperature and conditions seem pretty blustery. My body tells me it’s winter.

But my heart and head tell me it’s also Christmas. Placed in the Christian calendar to match up with winter solstice celebrations, it seems appropriate to celebrate both the hope of new birth and the coming of deep cold at the same time. It’s all life in this world that we know. Let us celebrate being a part of it. After all, this moment is really all we have.

Today’s elder idea: Our true home is in the present moment. To live in the present moment is a miracle.

Thich Nhat Hahn

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Doing good

When I started this blog back in the spring, one idea I wanted to get to eventually was philanthropy. You know, doing good with the resources one is gifted with.

I wanted to write just now that philanthropy is giving from one’s abundance. And while that is probably true for most of us, really meaningful giving can come from one’s meagerness, as well. Perhaps you remember the Bible story of the poor woman who put her last coins in the synagogue’s alms box. Her deeply felt gift to her community’s other poor was celebrated in the parable much more than the rich man who gave a big gift, but not big enough keep him from knowing where his next meal would come from.

I do have trouble with this Bible story, just like I squirm when I hear it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. How much giving is enough? How much stuff am I allowed to have? Such is a quandary. We talk about such things at our house.

The lead of this entry is graced with next year’s Waffle Shop poster, the 81st such event sponsored by Christ Episcopal Church here in Dayton, Ohio. I am proud to say that with proceeds from last month’s 80th Waffle Shop, we should be able to award at least $9,000 in Outreach Grants. The books aren’t closed yet, so we don’t know exactly how much there will be, but 9 grand should be close.

And it is for that reason why I feel so good about Waffle Shop: Dozens of regular folk spend lots of hours creating stuff to sell, setting up for 1600 guests in four days, cooking for most of them, and serving all with a hefty dose of hospitality. Money is one kind of philanthropy. Time and talent is another. Waffle Shop is a beautiful convergence of all three.

I suppose with some giving, one expects something in return. Non-tax deductible political contributions come to mind. The bigger the gift, the more influence one has over legislation.

For most of us, though, I hope, we give because we want to share the wealth. Cindy Lou and I have been working on putting all our earthly possessions in a joint trust since her dad passed one year ago. The idea is that less assets in the estate will be lost to court proceedings if it is protected in trust. One thing we have to do yet is determine how those assets will be divided after we both die.

I suppose the first logical destination for the wealth we can’t take with us is to give it to my two girls and their families. Such will happen, but they won’t get it all. And here is where this entry circles back to philanthropy.

I’d like to see most of my money go to places I knew and loved in this life: Places doing good work for humanity. Aullwood Audubon Center & Farm. Christ Church. The Hog Island Audubon Center. Episcopal Relief and Development. Habitat for Humanity. Those kind of folk.

And not that you have to wait until the end of days to be a philanthropist. I imagine you’ve gotten a handful of ask letters this giving season for organizations looking for year-end contributions.

Who can you help? How? How much do peace, justice, and generosity energize you? What’s the right thing to do?

Today’s elder idea: We cannot do great things on this Earth, only small things with great love.

Mother Teresa