Tuesday, April 25, 2017

One Year

Today marks one year at my "new" job.  I know most names, can find most conference rooms and have located a stairwell that allows me back on the fifth floor once I do my stair-climb. (Shhh... this one is confidential; all other stairwells are locked from the other side!)

Anniversaries come more quickly than they used to, especially this one. It barely seems possible I've been here for one complete turn around the sun.

While I'm grateful that I could find a new job, meet new people and travel to far-flung places (especially grateful for that), I'm always mindful of the clock ticking, and of Mary Oliver's words, which I quoted here a week ago:
The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave it it neither power nor time.
So, as I start my second year here, I'll focus most on balance, on finding the creative path through every task. It's not just the right way; it's the only way.

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Monday, April 24, 2017

Second Beginning

A pre-dawn walk today in a light rain, Cyclops-eye blazing, cap and a hood to keep the drops at bay. These early outings merge into dreamscape. Did I really don shoes and socks and walk to Fox Mill Road and back? Or was that another walk, another day?

By the time I left the house this morning the day had lightened and the rain was steadier. The pink dogwood lifted its arms gracefully on one side of the yard, and the white dogwood took my breath away. In between were ferns, azaleas and forget-me-nots. The familiarity of the spring garden.

It seemed a different day than one hour earlier. A second beginning.


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Friday, April 21, 2017

As Morning Unfolds

I left the house before six today, walked into a misty morning with piled clouds and a chorus of birdsong. The air had a pastel fullness to it and the light was worthy of Bierstadt.

On mornings like these I leave the music at home so I can better observe the day as it wakes, stretches, waves his arms and opens its eyes.

Today, though, the morning clouded up as I strolled, and fat drops fell. But before they could gain too much traction, the day reversed course once again. Now it's gloriously sunny and green.

It's what I've wanted to do every day this week as I sat five stories up in a shell of glass and steel — watch the morning unfold, and be inside it as it wakes.

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Thursday, April 20, 2017

Free!

It must be spring cleaning time, because Folkstone Drive has become a bazaar. Within the last few weeks, you could have scored a kitchen cabinet, bathroom vanity and a grill — all sitting on the street, absolutely free!

It's hard to drive by this stuff without picking it up. It's that hunting-gathering impulse honed when I lived in New York in my 20s and practically furnished an apartment with pieces drug in off the sidewalk.

But with much internal dialogue ("do you really need a broken grill? don't you already have one sitting on the deck?") and a modicum of self-shaming, I've managed to ignore this free stuff and act like I'm above it all.

I concentrate instead on the backdrops into which these items are placed and what lies just beyond them — the woods, the flowers, the dogwood, the redbud! What's always free is the stride and the vista and what I see along the way. Everything else is just gravy.

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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

When Minutes Fly

I've had many commutes in my life. The easiest was a stroll down the hall. The most inspiring was a walk through Central Park from the Upper West Side to Midtown Manhattan.

The one I have now involves a drive, Metro trip, bus ride and walk. I might be in as many as four vehicles on the way home, since I switch from one line to the other to avoid being squeezed in what is known here as the "Orange Crush" (for the Orange Line to Vienna, where I park my car).

All of which is to say, I have a disjointed commute. What's consistent about it is that, unless I'm standing up and it's too crowded to breathe, I have a book, journal or newspaper in hand. What stitches together the minutes and hours is ... ( no surprise!) ... the written word.

It's amazing how quickly this makes time pass, how easy it is to miss my stop. So today I'm grateful for the words that make the minutes fly. Don't know what I'd do without them.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

A Dogwood's Year

After an early bloom and an untimely freeze, I didn't expect much of Spring this year. But it has surprised me. The hyacinths are wafting, the lilacs are trying (I have three blooms this year, up one from last year) and the dogwood, well, it's something else entirely.

I remember when we would have four or five flowers on this tree. And now, it has burst into life and threatens to overcome the mailbox if there isn't some judicious pruning.

Until there is, here's the shaggy, unruly tree in all its gleaming,white 2017 glory.

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Monday, April 17, 2017

Monday at Work

In many parts of the world today is an official holiday, schools and offices are closed. So when I arrived at the office before 8 in a spitting rain, I had the distinct feeling that I shouldn't be here, that I should be working on an essay at home with a second cup of tea.

Instead, I have a few minutes for a few words. And I'm giving them to the poet Mary Oliver, from her book of essays Upstream:

It is 6 a.m., and I am working. I am absentminded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. ... There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done. And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything. The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave it it neither power nor time.
Thank you, Mary Oliver. I hear you.

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Sunday, April 16, 2017

Happy Easter!

The trees are at their loveliest. "Nature's first green is gold, her hardest hue to hold." The azaleas shine out in their jewel tones, and there are buds on the rose bush by the deck stairs.

The refrigerator is stuffed with au gratin potatoes, deviled eggs, ambrosia salad, baked turkey — and asparagus and lamb that will be roasted today. Behind me, the smell of chocolate wafts from filled Easter baskets.

Soon it will be time to navigate the parking lot at church in hopes of scoring a seat at the 9:15 mass, to hear the words of that old story that is sometimes hard to believe but today seems completely possible. Soon it will be time to greet the family and friends coming here for an afternoon feast. 

But for now, for these quiet early moments, I have Easter all to myself.

(Mission San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, Arizona, built in 1797)

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Friday, April 14, 2017

Work of Redemption

Trotting down the road this morning I looked to my right, at the trees just greening in the forest. Little leaves still so young, so tender. They were shining with the effort and the touch of early light.

Maybe it was the music playing in my ears at that moment, a string trio by Mendelssohn, or maybe it was the release of a work week's tension, but I was suddenly overwhelmed by the bravery of those leaves, by the work of redemption they perform every spring.

Of course, there's a biological explanation for what they do. I vaguely remember it from high school biology class.

But for me, the biological becomes the metaphorical, just as the walk becomes the lodestone, the anchor of a day.

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Thursday, April 13, 2017

View from a Ramada

Driving from Tombstone to Bisbee last week the wideness of the West really hit me. Not the wildness but the wideness. The openness. It's what I crave when I'm here in Virginia.

But when I was there, I felt exposed. Where were the trees, the hollows; where could I sit quietly and take in all this grandeur?

If shade does not come naturally, then it must be created. And so it is. At the Desert Museum I learned a new meaning for the word "ramada." In the Southwest, a ramada is a open shelter, a roof with no walls. Made of reeds or brush or wood, it is the native's way of putting a layer between themselves and the sun.

I snapped this shot from a ramada in Tucson. It gave me a frame, a vantage point — a cool, sequestered way to take in the day.


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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Art of Memoir

At a gathering last week I was asked if I write memoir. It was a congenial group of bird-watchers at the Ramsey Canyon, and the discussion had veered from the black-crested titmouse to medicine and writing and the screen habits of young children.

No, I said. I'm a private person, and we live in a confessional age. What I didn't say was that I devour memoirs, I share memoir-ish details in this blog — and right now I'm reading Mary Karr's book The Art of Memoir.

Karr, the author of bestselling memoirs The Liar's Club and Lit, has mastered the form and has much to share. Here she is on voice:
Voice grows from the nature of a writer's talent, which stems from innate character. Just as a memoirist's nature bestows her magic powers on the page, we also wind up seeing how selfish or mean-spirited or divisive she is or was. ... So the best voices include a writer's insides.
And here she is on sharing internal agonies:
Unless you confess your own emotional stakes in a project, why should a reader have any? A writer sets personal reasons for the text at hand, and her struggling psyche fuels the tale.  
These wise observations plus a list of titles I now want to read — Nabokov's Speak Memory, Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior and Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life — have made this book worth chalking up a few days worth of late fees from the library.

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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Sky Islands

A sea of grass and plain. A valley of succulents. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, a mountain. And not just any mountain, not a rolling hill like those in the East, but a pointy-topped peak that shouts its difference from the surrounding terrain.

I'm still absorbing the sights of a week in the geological region known as Basin and Ridge, an area that takes in all of Nevada, much of Arizona and parts of Utah, New Mexico and California. It's caused by tectonic plates sidling rather than colliding — or at least that's what I can remember from Tom Clancy's explanation (not Tom Clancy the novelist but Tom Clancy the Ramsey Canyon tour guide).

What matters now are the memories I have of those sky islands, the panoramic view off the ridge of Geronimo Pass in Coronado National Memorial or the piney forests of Mount Lemmon, forests made of trees that could not survive if they were plopped two thousand feet down at the same latitude.

It's a lesson both expansive and tender, that we need what is immediately at hand but also what is far away, beyond the valley, where the next peak rises.

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Monday, April 10, 2017

Altitude

Attitude is everything, the self-help books tell us, and in many ways they're right. But in the West, altitude is everything.

On Saturday, we drove to the top of Mount Lemmon, 9,200 feet. From a start in the Sonoran Desert, all prickly pears and Saguaro cactus, we ended up in a cool pine forest, with a few dead tree trunks thrown in from the Aspen fire, which happened more than a decade ago.

Every 1,000 feet gained is like traveling 300 miles north, said the helpful sign at the top of the trail. By that reckoning, we were somewhere near Banff, Alberta, Canada.

Not bad for a morning's drive.


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Saturday, April 8, 2017

Desert in Bloom

Yesterday at the Desert Museum, I saw more beauty than I could imagine: macro beauty and micro beauty. Should I go for the long shot or the short one? Simple: I go for both!

I shot pictures of javelinas (sleeping under the bridge), a bobcat, a Mexican jay — and every kind of cactus under the sun. And a powerful sun, too by the way, which makes its presence felt in every frame.

I have to leave the desert today, the desert in bloom. But I have hundreds of photographs and a few ideas riding home with me.


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Friday, April 7, 2017

Bisbee 1000

Bisbee, Arizona, is a funky old mining town built into a hillside with shops and houses tucked into nooks and crannies. There are no straight streets here. Which means that if you need to get from Point A to Point B you can walk a few blocks — or you can take the stairs.

The town is criss-crossed with stairways, some with railings and some without, some crumbling and some whole, some decorated and others plain. You might head up a flight thinking it leads to the street above only to find that it dead-ends at a lavender bungalow with Buddhist prayer flags flying.

I walked the Bisbee stairs yesterday — at least 1,000 of them, maybe more. In between I heard a man strumming a guitar in his carport, and a bird (a hermit thrush?) singing in a shiny green-leafed tree. I wandered into a church built a hundred years ago by men who worked a full shift in the mines then spent four more hours a day building a house of worship.

Stair-climbing builds character, as does life on the frontier. Arizona was the 48th state admitted to the union, which means its frontier days aren't far behind it. Maybe that's why it's easy to imagine an earlier way of life here: a time when things weren't quite as easy as they are now.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

On the Border

In southern Arizona a border wall is not a vague threat; it's a reality. Or at least a border fence, a dark, menacing one that I spotted first from an overlook and then from a few hundred yards away.  A fence that people here call "the wall."

Built to block the flow of humans and contraband, it's doing a good job of containing animals, too. So Mexican wild turkeys like the one in yesterday's post are less likely to be up this way now. And the lone male jaguar who's said to haunt Ramsey Canyon will never find a mate.

The borderlands are rich in animal species that need to cross and recross in order to flourish. The wall has been hard on them. It will be hard on us, too.



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Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Birders' Heaven

Ramsey Canyon is birders' heaven, home to 14 species of hummingbirds — compared to the one or two we have at home — and plenty of other bird species that have crossed the border, like this Mexican wild turkey. He was courting the ladies and strutting his stuff.

He, of course, was an easy photographic target, large and slow-moving. Most birds are quicksilver flashes. To spot and identify them takes time, knowledge and patience — skills that I lack but skills that birders have in spades.

In fact, I wish I had a birder with me now to identify the flap of wings in the Emory oak, the source of the lovely song I'm hearing. Is it a hermit thrush? I've heard they live around here. I grab a bird book, look it up. Yes, it's possible. It could be. And there's just enough of the fudger in me to say, what the heck, let's just call it a hermit thrush and call it a day.

Thanks to the birders we've met I can verify that I truly have seen an acorn woodpecker: hepatic tanager; calliope, blue-throated and broadbill hummingbirds; a white-winged swallow; Mexican wild turkey; Cooper's hawk; a road runner; and a painted redstart, a "life bird" for many.

So from musing on birds, I come to musing on birders. What impresses me most about them is their dedication and gladness. They notice life around them. They savor its sights and sounds. They recognize its beauty.


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Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Thirty

Thirty years ago today, Tom and I were married in a snowy Lexington, Kentucky. We came here to Arizona to celebrate the day, and found colder than normal temperatures — but at least no snow!

A marriage is not just the union of two people; it's also the beginning of a family, and today I'm thinking about the wonderful family that Tom and I have created. Three beautiful daughters, a new son-in-law — and a host of friends and connections.

It's a web of relationships that sustain and nurture us, that make this day special in so many, many ways.


Monday, April 3, 2017

Seeing the Saguaro

When I was a kid we drove along Interstate 10 on our way to southern California. I can remember seeing Saguaro cactus out the window, but there was never time to get out and walk among them.

Yesterday, there was time. Yesterday, the Saguaro were the destination. We learned about them, hiked around them, took pictures of them.

Saguaro are 20, 30 even 50 feet tall. They might be 70 years old before they grow a branch. Though  they're found only in southern Arizona and parts of Mexico, they're icons of the American West.

I wondered as I walked whether that's why they seem so familiar. But there's something else at work. Some of them reach out with open arms, others give a stiff salute. They look a little human out there, and in fact the Tohono O'odham Indians treat them as revered members of the tribe, not quite people but not quite cactus, either.

After just a few hours among the plants I can understand why.



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