Tuesday, January 29, 2013


Well, here we are at the end of another year.  

More than anything else, I suppose, the fact that 2012 leaves me one year older hits me in a way that I don’t recall feeling before.  Lately I’ve written on more than one card or e-mail, ‘Let’s stay healthy in 2013.’  It would seem mortality is a concept I will be dealing with more often in this upcoming year that witnesses my turning 63 in March.  

I am reminded that when my father was about this age, he mentioned something to me about his dying.  Nothing imminent, just the idea that ‘none of us are getting out of here alive.’  My thought at the time was something like, ‘Why is he thinking about death?  He’s only in his 60s!‘  At the time I was in my invincible early 30s.  Having Dad considering his own passing seemed unwisely premature.  I don’t feel that way today. 

Don’t get me wrong:  I’m not near the end of my life.  At least I hope not.  I feel good and as far as my family doctor and dermatologist report, all is well.  

It’s just that for me New Year’s opens up a period of reflection on life and what it means specifically for the body I inhabit, as far as I can figure.  Seems like an appropriate thing to do as the year meter ticks over another digit.  Cindy commented last night to friends that I have brought up more than once how many more years we might have in this house before we downsize.  She likes to say she can only fathom the next 20 minutes, let alone the next 20 years.  Still, as a football aficionado, I recognize that we’re nearing the 4th quarter and being aware of clock management wouldn’t be a bad idea.  

So with that in mind, a Beginning of a New Circle reflection:   

1.  Like most folks, I’m not very good at keeping New Year’s resolutions.  Therefore, I am not going to make any, though I’ll be constantly considering ways to improve my life and the world every chance I get, whenever an idea passes through.  I just hope to be paying attention when the Spirit moves. 

2. 2013 will be a year of travel for us both, but more so for me.  One thing I know is this planet has lots of great stuff to see and appreciate.  If I don’t make plans to get to the cool places I’ve said I’d like to see, then I suspect when the curtain closes, I will have missed once-in-a-lifetime experiences.  Here’s what’s on the docket for this year: 

February:  A week-long solo writing retreat at Lake Hope State Park.  In the past, I’ve driven to Colorado for such an event.  I’ve always wanted to do something like this in Ohio.  Reservation has been made.  

March:  Timeshare with Cindy Lou at Hilton Head.  I’m taking the slow cooker!  ;-) 

June:  Disney World with Kelly and her family.  She got the trip free through her business (Premier Designs jewelry) so we’re going to tag along.  I can’t imagine going back to Disney without having a kid along!  I look forward to spending some time at Kennedy Space Center, too.  

July:  Quick trip to Los Angeles to see Reds vs. Dodgers with my good pal Bruce who lives out there.  I love to provide support for my guys in hostile ballparks!  We had a great time in San Diego a couple years ago. 

August:  Hog Island, Maine for a volunteer week, then a bit more time to hang out and work on my book.  More on The Book below.  

October:  UK for three weeks with Cindy Lou.  We’ll fly into London and spend some time; then off to Sligo, Ireland for a retreat week at Holy Hill hermitage; then a bit more Ireland before going back to the big island for more site seeing.  It is Cindy Lou’s big retirement trip almost ten years late!

I like to write while I travel and I know the places on the itinerary will provide plenty of muse.  I’m already plotting other notable places for upcoming years.  Stay tuned.  

3.  The Book.  Heavens.  I must make good progress on The Dressy Adventuress: Mabel Loomis Todd’s Camp Mavooshen on Audubon’s Hog Island this year.  I’ve danced around this project for years now.  Yes, it still scares the bejeebers out of me, but it’s time.  January through May will be the peak production period.  As the note taped onto my computer monitor reads:  Focus.  I could use whatever prayers and positive energy you could send my way.  

I’ve got a few other things on my 2013 list, like ‘focus on family’ and ‘be mindful,’ but those things are perpetually on my list.  I also wouldn’t mind finding a spiritual director to work with.  I always seem to feel so scattered in the spiritual realm.  Still, something in my gut tells me that’s the way it’s supposed to be.  I’ll do my best to stay focused via zen mindfulness.

Here’s hoping we all find good health in 2013.  All the best to you and yours.  Let’s also hope our elected leaders make some wise decisions that are good for all Americans. 

Thanks, too, for sticking with me on The Back Porch.  I’ll try to make your visits worthwhile in this upcoming year. I should have plenty to write about!  ;-)

Today’s elder idea:   All my life’s a circle / But I can’t tell you why / The seasons spinning ‘round again / The years keep rollin’ by.   

Harry Chapin

image:  From back walk of our place, Wild Grace, looking east, early December 2012.  

Stuff I'd like to read

If the truth be told, I’m not a very good reader.  

What makes this detail all the more amazing is that I was an English major in college.  Well, a BS Ed in English and history education, anyway.  Still, I took a whole lot of upper level literature classes and wrote all of the papers just like the folks who got a BA did. 

But, man, that reading load really killed me.  There were lots of classes I went to where I was not current on the reading schedule and just did my best to pay attention.  I mean, when Moby Dick is assigned to read over a weekend, what’s a guy supposed to do?  Yes, I know I should have started it earlier, but on other nights I had other books to read and other assignments to complete.  As one who ended up later in life teaching some college comp as both a teaching assistant and an adjunct, I know I wasn’t alone in not completing assigned reading.  I saw plenty of blank stares on the faces of my own students.  

I have a bit of a personality complex about reading.  If I can find a book that really rocks me, like Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer or an Arthur C. Clarke science fiction novel, I’m good to go.  Love ‘em.  But most times I’m on line reading stuff, listening to music.  And in the evenings, I’m a whole lot better parked in front of the tv watching Red’s baseball or Rachel Maddow.  

Still, hope spring eternal.  Cindy Lou and I subscribe to lots of magazines and we always buy each other books at Christmas.  What that means is that most of the time I’m looking at a pile of stuff set aside that I’d really like to get to.  Occasionally I’ll pull something out of said pile, but more often than not I look at things when it’s time to recycle.  So it is.  

Today I thought I’d write about my current pile of stuff to read.  Even though I don’t devour everything, it is good for me to have these publications around, and in some odd way, they warm me just knowing they’re available.  If I didn’t care about their contents, they wouldn’t be there. 

Choosing Gratitude:  Learning to Love the Life You Have, a book by James A. Autry:  I heard Autry talking to Bill Moyers on his PBS show a month or so ago, was impressed, and so bought two copies from Amazon.  One for an old friend who works hard at loving life, and one for some meditational time of my own.  It will accompany me on our next vacation.

Orion magazine:  I will take time with this one.  Orion is one of my all time favorite environmental publications.  It has no advertising and makes its non-profit living through subscription and generosity.  Great writers, too, that promote a world view I aspire to.  With contributing editors like Wendell Berry, Scott Russell Sanders, Barry Lopez, and Terry Tempest Williams, what’s not to like?  

Friends Journal: The Magazine of the Air Force Museum Foundation:  Local stuff from the birthplace of aviation, my home town.  The issue that awaits is one with a piece co-authored by a friend who flew missions over Turkey during the Cold War looking deep into Soviet air space, keeping track of missile launches.  I love listening to Jack tell his flying stories.  

Audubon:  I’ve been an Audubon fan for years now.  And with all the volunteer stuff I’ve done with the local chapter, state office (while it existed), and the camps in Connecticut and on Hog Island in Maine, it’s good to see that Audubon is not just about birds, but solid environmental reporting.  

Psychology Today:  My subscription actually started as one to New Age magazine, but when that folded, it switched to this one.  As a student of human behavior, PT pretty often sheds light on mysteries of human behavior that intrigues this retired educator.  

Macworld:  As a dyed-in-the-wool Mac/Apple guy, I like to see what the writers who watch the folks from Cupertino are finding out.  Unfortunately, most of the time I don’t know what the editors are talking about.  Too many apps I don’t want to mess with and new features in the OS that I doubt I’ll ever use.  But it makes me feel like I’m trying to keep up, and that will have to do.  

The Sun:  A gift from an old friend, The Sun provides inspiration to writers.  But with so much other stuff I find myself writing (like blogs, poetry, the occasional essay, and my book on Hog Island), I never take up the challenge to contribute.  Even our defunct writers’ group never took a crack at one of their prompts.  Still, The Sun is about writers for writers.  It’s good having it around.  

Desert Call:  I’ve been lucky enough to have contributed to this little Christian contemplative magazine out of Colorado a few times.  The upcoming issue, I’m told, has a pic of mine in the centerfold.  Good folks put this one together at the Nada Hermitage in Crestone.  I count them as friends, and am downright tickled they like my work. 

There’s more stuff stacked around, like a new copy of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, Shakti Gawain’s Living in the Light, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Space Chronicles.  Plus my current ‘meditative’ piece parked out by the wood stove, Matthew Fox’s new book on Hildegard of Bingen. I’ll try to spend some time with her during Lent.  

The written word can be overwhelming, no doubt, but having lots of books and good magazines around makes me feel good.  It’s kind of like my affection for Emily Dickinson:  I might not read or understand everything, but having the ideas and concepts in my space is somehow a good thing.  I know I’m not alone in the world, that’s for sure.  The written word, of which I am a part, keeps me grounded.  

Today’s elder idea:  The more that you read, the more things you will know.  The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.  

Dr. Suess

image:  My office floor this morning

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


Do you have trouble sleeping the whole night through?  If the answer is yes, I feel your pain.   

For me, broken nighttime sleep has been going on for some time.  Years.  I wrote a poem in 1998 that, I think, marks the time when said sleeping problem was still pretty new.  I think of it as ‘The true gift of the elves.’  [See Elder Idea below.]

Sometimes I get to sleep reasonably quickly, say fifteen minutes.  Sometimes I lay there for over an hour.  I often play music in the darkness of our bedroom.  Good thing for Cindy she usually comes to bed later than I do.  I hate for the music to disturb her -- which it does -- so I hope to be deep into a dependable sleep by the time she comes to bed. 

Before the iPod-on-the-night-stand phenomena, though, as I lay in bed wondering why I couldn’t fall asleep, I considered counting sheep.  Seemed a bit silly to me, to conjure fuzzy critters hopping a fence.  Still, it gave me an idea and instead of counting sheep, I took to counting my own breaths.  

I’d try to count backward from 100.  I remember plenty of times being in the 70s and wondering how I got there.  Or I’d become aware that I was stuck on 82.  Sooner or later I drifted off and all was okay.  I got to liking my self-appointed practice of counting breaths to find sleep. 

Some time later I became interested in the idea of zen mindfulness.  The concept of just being present in the moment -- without guilt -- drew me in.  There I learned that breath awareness was essential to a mindful practice.    

Still, as much as I’d like to really embrace a zen practice, as I have mentioned before here on The Back Porch, I have this deep, dark feeling that my Western upbringing somehow condemns me to the inability to slow down enough to find true meaning in mediation.  I mean, I can slow down for a while, but my natural tendency is keep up a good energy while spinning from one thing to another.  Today it’s blog writing and fire-tending, all while trying to balance in some book writing time in the process.  

Most times I conclude I cannot slow down long enough to find peace and meaning in meditation.  Bums me out.  I’d really like to be something more zen

Then the other afternoon I took a little time in my porch chair set up next to the wood stove down here in my basement space.  I sat up pretty straight and looked out into the winter landscape just beyond the sliding glass door.  Birds coming into the feeders were distracting, but I found myself breathing deliberately almost right away.  

Sitting in my chair, relaxed, breathing deeply, keeping my mind as free as I can, brings a kind of wholeness to my chest.  I’m not sure how deeply I breathe while going about work at my desk in front of the computer.  My guess it’s pretty shallow.  I find sitting up straight in a chair, deliberately taking in air and exhaling, is deeply emancipating in some primal way.  

I know the zen way tells me not to punish myself for what comes naturally.  I try not to, but my Catholic upbringing -- full of sin and responsibility -- is hard to shake.  If you get it wrong, you’re a sinner.  

Still, breathing in deeply and feeling air fill my lungs, brings me to a ground that feels absolutely right and quiet in that moment in which I exist.  And after all, it’s the only moment I have, right?   ;-)

Today’s elder idea:  An original poem from 1998:  

The mid-life waistline betrays the 
evolution of metabolism:  no longer 

can the Little Debbies and Ho-Ho’s 
pass the body unmarked, leaving it -- 

still --  the temple tempered on pick-
up football games, evening softball leagues, and 

work in the warehouse.  Too much TV, 
too, to blame.  More sitting, more 

spreading, more time with the ice cream bowl.  It 
can become almost mechanical:  the 

remote in one hand, Keeblers in the 
other:  press, bite, chew;  press, bite, chew. 

Chunky Chocolate Chips, too, have invaded the night 
as sedative, when sleep interrupts

itself with a waking oasis, unwanted, 
but unnegotiable.  The thought 

that just two cookies will put all 
aright, and night’s rhythm will return. 

Instead, a truth:  inside the semi-sweet
moment (with half-closed eyes, unwilling 

to give back any more consciousness than 
necessary) the stuff of chocolate and 

sugar, flour and shortening, melts over 
tongue buds -- and elevates taste over 

sleep for just a morsel of time -- enough to 
reflect at dawn -- with dragon’s mouth -- on

the true gift of the Elves.

Tom Schaefer
August 1998

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Wild Grace visitors

As some of you know, I like to call the small plot of real estate on this planet we call home, Wild Grace.  It’s a lovely little spot with a few very nice trees and a back yard that can only be called ‘wild,’ I suppose.  We tromp around back there now and then, but most of the time we just enjoy looking out at a hillside that goes about it’s natural business.  

Right around Thanksgiving, when the canopy over the back porch patio gets stowed, the bird feeders go up just outside the dining room window.  We have four different types of food offered:  suet, peanuts, thistle, and sunflower; as well as a heated bird bath just beyond.  Needless to say, we get to see a lot of action while just sitting at the dining room table.  Drives Gracie the cat a little nuts, but I figure it keeps her engaged in the wild life!  

Twenty+ years ago my little sister, Susie, gifted us with ‘The Bird Lover’s Journal,’ a blank book with sketches of a variety of winged creatures on every page.  Ever since, this little book has been the written repository of any number of natural phenomena observed in places where we’ve lived.  It even includes notes on plantings we’ve encouraged.  

Last week as the calendar turned over to another year, I pulled out the journal to begin a new annual bird list.  At last count we’re up to twenty species we’ve seen in that short period of time.  

Even more interesting, and the topic of this blog entry, is the written record of 2012 sightings.  We like to consider Wild Grace more than just our yard, so we include other unusual birds seen in the neighborhood.  As much as I’d like to include critters down by the Stillwater River -- about a mile or so from home -- I think that stretches Grace a touch too far.  

So with no further ado, I offer the items written in our Wild Grace notebook from 2012: 

American goldfinch 
White breasted nuthatch 
Carolina chickadee 
Tufted titmouse 
Northern cardinal 
Mourning dove 
American robin 
House finch 
Red bellied woodpecker 
Downy woodpecker 
White throated sparrow 
European starling 
Blue jay 
Carolina wren 
American crow 
Cooper’s hawk 
House sparrow 
Yellow bellied sapsucker 
Hairy woodpecker 

Pileated woodpecker 
Canada goose 

Barred owl 

2 May
Ruby throated hummingbird

Indigo bunting 
Chipping sparrow 
Chimney swift 
Hermit thrush

Eastern towhee

Be advised that I’m lousy at identifying warblers, sparrows, and hawks, so my guess our neighborhood list could really be longer.  Also, I am particularly disappointed that I didn’t hear a Swainson’s thrush last spring.  It is such a melodic flute that it marks the ‘official’ arrival of spring for me.  We’ve had it here for years.  Hopefully we’ll have that song in a couple months again.  

Oh.  And another note:  ’17 Feb 2012: First coyote sighting @ the old trapshoot’ down by the river.  Noah was with me on that one!  Very cool. 

I can’t tell you how beautiful it is watching birds feeding just a couple feet away.  Most of the time we sit and watch without moving.  They can be pretty skittish.  Still, I’ve stood just inches from the window and waited for some brave bird to fly in anyway.  It’s usually a chickadee! 

Everything in nature seems to stop in winter, but I’m here to tell you, ‘Not so!’  I can’t think of any better way to winter in Ohio than pay attention to bird buddies.

Today’s elder idea:  Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you. 
Frank Lloyd Wright

image:  Wild Grace, fall 2012