Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Sense of wonder

Summer’s here, and so is additional grandchild care. This is our eighth summer with grandson Noah spending much of the week in our home. It’s a special time. I try to get him to ‘work’ with me when I can. That way, at least, I get some projects done.

When Noah’s here, the schedule changes and our world, pretty much, revolves around him. He’s helped us on a laundry room painting project and some garage clean-up so far, but we’ve had lots of Dairy Queen visits and Grandma’s been throwing wiffle ball batting practice in the driveway. He can really pop the ball these days! He’s also the chief gatherer-of-cucumbers from our little front yard garden. Of course, he eats most of ‘em, too. Such a little man.

This summer, of course, I need to be working on my book project. Not so much with Noah around. I suspected that’s how it would be. Another disturbing postponement of serious, long-term project writing. Still, Noah is a glowing nine year-old who will pass this way but once. Before too long he’ll have a summer job and won’t need grandparents for babysitting anymore. While Grammy and I both need to work on our own stuff, postponing much for Noah is the stuff of memories. We’ll find a way to juggle what we need to do to make room for Noah in our summer lives. We both count ourselves mighty lucky for having him here. Fall and his return to all-day school will come too soon.

So much of what has become special for all three of us happens just because Noah spends days at a time at our homestead. True, he loves playing Age of Empires on his Mac -- my old one with limited computing ability. He likes the RC plane game on my iPod Touch, too, and watches lots of Spongebob Squarepants. He’s a techie kind of guy. We have to limit time spent gazing into screens.

Still, he’s very interested in much more. Not just the aforementioned cukes, but the momma robin who has built a nest just under the soffit on the back of our house. He checks on her daily. Of course, he’s often packing a plastic firearm at the same time, busy keeping us all safe from imaginary invaders.

I remember playing with pretend guns too, but my fondest memory of summers about his age was playing in the backyard dirt with my Tonka trucks. Oh, the lovely dirt roads and little cities that populated my yard and my mind. I don’t remember getting hammered with mosquito bites like Noah does, though. In any case, he isn’t piqued by earth moving in the same way, but he surely loves to put on his backpack and patrol the premises, military fashion. Such physical outdoor play seems to be seared into the boy’s imagination.

The real reason for today’s blog is this: The other day we had to stop by Noah’s house to pick up a school bag he needed for his special summer math program. As I waited in the car and let him enter his house like a big boy and get what he needed, and then lock up the place, I sat back and watched how responsibly he handled things. The front door lock is combination, so he put in his numbers and went on in.

When he was locking up, though, something very interesting happened. All was going as it should, but when he went to close the screen door, he noticed a moth caught between doors. He could have paid no attention, slammed the door and ran back to the car. But he didn’t. Instead, he looked up at the moth, left the screen door open, and waited for the little critter to flutter away. When it cleared, he closed the door, hustled over to the passenger seat, and we were off.

I was so proud of him and I told him so. His growing brain fires in response to so many things that make up his life experiences every day. Computer games. Disney Channel. Times tables. Reading. Cucumbers. Birds. Protecting us all from invaders. Still, he had the presence of mind to take time to respect one little life who had been caught up inadvertently in his actions.

As much as I think of myself and the birds in my backyard as Nature’s people, as Emily Dickinson coined the phrase, Noah has become one, too. It’s enough to make a grandpa proud.

Today’s elder idea: If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder...he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.

Rachel Carson

from The Sense of Wonder

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Beauty at solstice

Some thirty years ago when I was about that age, I remember hearing my dad, who was in his early 60s at the time, say something about his own death. I was pretty stunned. I mean, he was healthy and as far as I could tell, still feeling like a ‘young’ man. He still enjoyed to fish and camp. Still got on his knees and installed carpet. Still loved playing Santa at Christmas. Seemed like an unnecessary dwelling on the morbid to me.

Of course, being 30 and feeling one’s oats with a young family, like myself, can leave a guy feeling pretty impervious to the inevitable. Life was mighty sweet back then. No sense in considering the end of it.

Over the last couple of weeks, though, I’ve had a recurring thought that has given me pause. I was sitting on the back porch, appropriately enough, looking up into the neighborhood canopy of trees late in the evening. All of our trees were in the gloaming darkness at the time, but one tall crown a few blocks north still glowed brightly in a brilliant sunset. Temperature was pleasant. Birds still chattered, awaiting the quiet darkness would bring. All my senses told me what a beautiful moment it was.

Then I thought: There will come a time when you won’t be able to experience all this. Eyes might fail. Sickness might make just sitting on the porch an effort. Anything could happen. Then I was reminded of mindfulness and how every moment lived is the one to savor. I took another sip of my cold beer. Life was good. Right then. I was thankful.

Still, things change and I will end up giving up physical gifts. No doubt about it. Cindy, Noah, and I spent some time with my mother this week. She’s still motivating very well at age 89. She still fixes her own meals, watches Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune every evening between 7 and 8, always works the newspaper crossword puzzles, and walks the hall of her apartment building multiple times daily. As I’ve told lots of people, If Mom doesn’t live to be 120, she’ll be pissed. I suspect that’s true. Still, on one of her walks up the hall a couple weeks ago, she turned, just like she had so many times -- and fell. Hard on her right side. Hit her face just above her glasses. Thankfully, no bones were broken, but she’ll have some technicolor bruises for a while.

But she could have broken a hip. And from what Cindy and I have seen and read about over the last few years, breaking a hip can be the beginning of the end for a body. Mom was lucky. And feeling pretty dumb these days, to use her words. She doesn’t want to walk much now, though thinks she’ll get back to it in a week or so. She has been very wary of where her feet are and recognizes she can’t see as well as she’d like. Still, being careful wasn’t enough.

And here we are at summer solstice. On December 21, when Cindy Lou and I celebrate our wedding anniversary, we know it’s the longest night of the year, but the truly cool thing is that even though winter is just beginning, days are beginning to get longer. It’s a comforting thought. In the middle of darkness, the sun is on its way back. Summer solstice? Lovely sun, but it begins its journey back south tomorrow. Fall and winter are inevitable. As are our loss of gifts.

I’m a Western culture guy who runs around pretty busy most of the time. The Puritan ethic this country raised me on encourages us all to keep moving, get an education, get a job, raise a family, and contribute something of value to life on the planet. The idea of being still and present is the stuff of vacations on the beach. Zen mindfulness, while appreciated and practiced, most often seems to be on the periphery of my awareness.

So, I suppose we can conclude that life is a dichotomous struggle. Mind wants to go one way, teaching wants to direct us back another. And so it is, with such a ride of variables along the way. I feel damned lucky to be here.

Today’s elder idea: For Mom -

I shall keep singing!

Birds will pass me

On their way to Yellower Climes -

Each - with a Robin’s expectation -

I - with my Redbreast -

And my Rhymes -

Late - when I take my place in summer -

But - I shall bring a fuller tune -

Vespers - are sweeter than matins - Signor -

Morning - only the seed - of noon -

Emily Dickinson

Franklin #270 (1861)

Friday, June 18, 2010

State of my state

Took a drive up to Columbus this afternoon. Pretty simple errand, actually. Dropped off a long-term project I’ve been working on for over four years now. Audubon Adventures, Ohio series, it’s called. Student newspapers with activities focusing on Ohio’s natural habitats: forests, grassland prairies, and wetlands. Really good team putting it together. Glad to get that one done, though. Proud of it, too.

Noah spent his first summer week with us. He’s nine, and ready to take on about anything. Except maybe the dark in the basement and the occasional bumble bee. But he’s a trouper. Tree climber. Skate boarder. Bike mechanic. Age of Empires master. Guitar Hero and real guitar player. Common laborer, from which he earns three bucks an hour. Earned $10.50 this week. Cindy wants to write him a check every two weeks so he can consider what goes into a savings account. We’ll talk to his mommy about that one. A good week.

For us maybe, but surely not for many on the Gulf coast. What a nightmare. Bad news, then worse news. Horrible images of birds stuck in ooze and brown, diluted oil gunk washing up into sensitive wetlands. Wetlands will die. They will seem to flourish for a time, then die off due to the consequences of no oxygen at their root. Fisherfolk can’t fish. Vacationers are changing plans. Lots of volunteers, but you need a haz-mat suit to participate. Then today the word of excess methane, which along with the dispersant, might be brewing up another toxic nightmare. I should go, I know I should. And maybe I will. But right now I need to stay here and work on my book. The birds will have to wait this time.

How about them Reds? Here we are, late June, and the current cardiac kids are hanging tough. Lots of late game heroics. Most last-at-bat wins of any team in the majors. 12? Something like that. They’re in Seattle this weekend. Last time they were there, Ken Griffey Jr. was playing right field for the Redlegs. Oh, such a reception the whole team got. The tv guys were very impressed with the welcome carpet rolled out for Junior’s current team. I hope they have a good weekend this time around. First place. Ain’t shabby for June 19. But you gotta’ keep winning.

A new book on its way from Amazon: Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds by Lydall Gordon. Looking forward to seeing that one. I was disappointed how Mabel Loomis Todd was dismissed in the New York Botanical Garden show. According to them, all of Emily’s history was with Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Yes, he corresponded with her and came to Amherst for a visit a time or two. And, yes, he co-edited Poems, First Series and Poems: Second Series, but damn it, it was Mabel Todd who got the ball rolling. And it was Mrs. Todd who collected Emily Dickinson correspondence that she, indeed, edited that we know today as Emily Dickinson’s Letters. Know that some of Emily’s letters are as magical as her verse. Both are important contributions to the American literary canon. And Mabel Todd had much to do with it. Giving all the credit to Higginson is re-writing history.

Cindy & I splurged on a new washer and dryer this week. The old ones were still working, but were over 15 years old. The dryer lost its sensor cycle years ago. Now both are HE -- High Efficiency. Had to buy new detergent. Uses lots less water. Supposed to be lots easier on clothes. Less lint. Less drying time, too, since HE washers spin clothes so dry. All the paperwork makes me think we’ll save money on water and electricity. We’ll see.

And what do you think of Pandora radio? I am most impressed. Found it a couple weeks ago, thinking it was unique for use with my iPod. Not so. Works great on the desktop computer. The ‘station’ is currently set on ‘nature sounds radio.’ My other favorite choice is ‘New Age ambient.’ Both fill my office with music that aids my creative process. Call it muzak if you want, but it works for me. Rich instruments, easy cadences, thick harmonies. My, my. Really good stuff. And all for free, if you’d like. I went ahead and paid the $36 annual for the Pandora One desktop browser. Works better for me. No ‘commercials.’ I’m always eager to find new music, but I don’t know where to look. Pandora lets me hear lots of very specific stuff, then I can buy it if I want. Picked up a couple new albums so far. Good investment for a guy who ‘works’ hours at his computer. See

Weather’s been great, but now a hot, humid session moves in. High tomorrow over 90. Then back into the mid-80s, but still wetter ‘n heck. Air conditioner time, for sure. Not a big fan of this stuff. If we have to have severe weather, I prefer a snowstorm. More meditative. Heat gets me down. Gotta’ keep things watered, that’s for sure.

What I really wanted to write about today was how beautiful things are. I look up into a maple tree and see sun illuminating a branch full of green dancing in an afternoon zephyr. Carolina wren and American robin make soundtrack not much different from the ambient stuff I love in my office. Scent of flowers in the air. Hummingbirds buzzing into the feeder. Can’t get much better. Then I think some day I won’t be able to see and hear such things. Losing gifts, you know? Not trying to be morbid, but realistic. But that’s for another day.

How’s the state of your state?

Today’s elder idea: You want to be a writer? Don’t know how or when? Find a quiet place. Use a humble pen.

Paul Simon (the musician)

Friday, June 11, 2010

Emily's garden

As you probably know, I’m a real Emily Dickinson fan.

I’m not exactly sure when it all began, but my guess is it started with Mr. Hemmert, a favorite high school teacher of mine I had for both sophomore and senior years. It was during time in his classroom that I realized I connected with literature and the humanities a whole lot more than what I thought I was supposed to, math. During that last year at Carroll High School, when we were all attempting best guess career decisions, I applied to colleges as an engineering major. But even by the time graduation rolled around, I had a bad feeling about that choice. When I got to college and filled out first year paperwork, I told Wright State I wanted to be an English teacher. They didn’t seem to mind. And so it was.

I remember, too, a day when Mr. Hemmert stood before us and read an original poem of his. I was rapt. I want to say it was a piece on the death of a kid in Vietnam who we all knew, a class leader who had graduated only a year prior. Maybe. What I do remember was realizing that poetry wasn’t just an academic exercise for educating those of us in the student seats. This man who I respected as much as my own father, expressed himself in the magical cadence and rhythms of verse. I could do that, I remember thinking.

I remember, too, an aphorism Mr. Hemmert had posted in his room. He, or somebody he commissioned, had carefully calligraphied a number of ideas to, perhaps, ignite some spark within his charges. I remember none all these years later, save one. It was from Emily. It was a paraphrase of the following, a note Ms. Dickinson wrote to a mentor of hers, Thomas Wentworth Higginson:

If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?

Well, as you probably also know, I made teaching a career. While spending some time promoting history among the unwashed, my first love was literature. Years later, in graduate school, I rediscovered Emily under the tutelage of Jim Hughes, a Wright State professor/poet I’d had the good fortune to study with in undergrad. This part of the story gets really interesting and did, indeed, lead to a deepening of my appreciation for Emily. It was during this time that I began writing poetry in earnest, and on one mystical trip to Maine, found Emily connected to so much I could not believe it. When I told Jim Hughes, he wasn’t surprised at all. But that whole story would take a book to retell. Trust me, I’m still working on it.

So it was with great interest that I heard about an exhibit at the New York Botanical Garden this spring called Emily Dickinson’s Garden: The Poetry of Flowers. My first knowledge of it was from a former student living in The Big Apple who somehow found my email address. Within a few days I found a couple of other references to the Emily show in the New York Times online. It took me another day or two to figure out that I should actually go to the Bronx to witness the exhibition for myself. Just got back last night.

You know that book I mentioned a paragraph ago? Well, its main focus is on Mabel Loomis Todd, a Washingtonian/New Englander who bought most of a Maine island in Muscongus Bay over one hundred years ago and with her family, used it as rustic summer camp for many years. After she died, her only daughter turned the place over to the National Audubon Society, and in 1936, opened the Audubon Nature Camp on the 300+ acre island. By the time I got there in 1981, it was called the Audubon Ecology Workshop.

I felt a tingle up my spine and the spirit moving back then when I looked at Mrs. Todd’s picture hanging on the Fish House wall and recognized her as -- get this -- the original editor of the Emily Dickinson poetry. On the way to Maine I took it upon myself to stop by Emily’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts, and by the time I got to Maine a day later, found they both were connected. Small world, indeed.

I learned not long ago that when Emily died, her neighbors did not know her as a poet. A few short pieces had reached publication during her lifetime, but the work of getting the Dickinson poetry in front of a larger audience fell to Mabel Todd and the aforementioned Thomas Higginson.

What her neighbors did know about sequestered Emily, was that she was a darned good gardener. She had a special thing for roses. And that is, in part, what I want to present in my book. The other big piece of the book is to portray Mabel Todd as a sister nature lover. Emily had her flowers and poetry. Mabel had her all important editing and summers on beautiful Hog Island.

Much has been written about Emily and Mrs. Todd. Nobody has connected them as Nature’s people. Sounds like a fine non-fiction book idea to me.

Today’s elder idea: I was reared in a garden, you know.

In a letter from Emily Dickinson to a cousin. (1859)