Category Archives: Nature

Mary Oliver: My Mentor & Teacher

Mary Oliver, circa 1992
photo by Marv

The two summers I spent in Mary Oliver’s poetry writing workshop changed my life. A practicing psychotherapist for twenty-five years, lines of poetry had arrived in the middle of the night. At lunch with a friend one day, as I mused about the mystical quality of how lines arrive each morning, she asked how the revision process was going. “Revision,” I laughed, “I’m clueless.”  Poetry had seemed like a gift from the muse, not to be tampered with.

Tampering with grit and specificity is what Mary Oliver was all about. That first morning in July 1990, blond, lean, dressed in a yellow shirt, Mary was soft-spoken bordering on shy yet directive and clear about why we were there and what was to come. She said, “I teach what works for me.” We were there to learn language, technique, and process.

Session 1— a few highlights

  • “Sound selection is unconscious. The sense of the poem is carried by sound,” she began.
  • “You work with the equipment you get inside you.”
  • “The daylight part of the mind edits.”
  • “Any word is a help or a hindrance.”
  • “There is no such thing as a neutral sound.”
  • “Without this type of artistry, the use of sound, you don’t have a poem.”
  • “When art is right, the more bearable it is.”

I can attest to the truth of Mary’s words. I come from a line of music makers. My children are music makers as am I. Under Mary’s tutelage, I sung words to myself, tapped out rhythms, played with line breaks, varied stanzas, wrote multiple drafts of poems and rarely published. The creativity, the hope of artistry, the effort to shape the words and use the tools Mary gave me powered my effort and brought balance to my life.

After I retired from my practice, I shifted into the longer form of personal essay and memoir. The musicality of words, what I had learned about enjambment, the concept of the turning of the line, the difference between a slim poem such as Mary wrote or a long line, such as Whitman, whom she blessed for speaking to her, followed me.

In my Solstice MFA critical thesis, titled, Poetic Language and Musicality in Essays of E.B. White and Ted Kooser’s Local Wonders, I expanded on Mary’s specificity. I explored symbolism as well as elements of rhythm as depicted by beat, and melody as demonstrated by sound and physiological harmony in relationship to the particulars of imagery which evoke sight, sounds, tastes, smell and touch.

On the sad occasion of Mary’s death, I recall our private feedback meeting at Bennington in 1991. She affirmed my passion and work ethic as she offered, “Send me a few poems from time to time. I’ll run alongside you, to help lift your kite into the air.”

I am grateful for Mary’s generosity, respect and poetic commentary, which enabled me to express and trust the “equipment” I have inside. Like so many who mourn her today, I turn to her vast work of artistry, her ability to create “bearable art” and rejoice for her legacy.

On Reflections of the Winter Solstice

Happy Winter Solstice!
photo by Marv

On this day before the winter Solstice and the sun’s turn towards increased daylight, I am grateful to the many readers who have read and supported my Gratitude Blog.

My own turn towards the light of gratitude began when I turned eighty. Gratitude is about perspective; and at eighty, the lens widens in one direction and shortens in another. Looking back, I can catalogue years, events, people, trends, the richness of the life I have lived. Looking ahead, there is guesswork as to how long my body, my brain, my sense of purpose and meaning will continue.

Does my goal to live to 105 years make sense? Up to 85, I thought so. In the years between eighty and eighty-five, I have written two full journals on gratitude, read numerous books on the subject and published 115 blogs. I believe that if I continue to focus on gratitude— to search for what brings a sense of thankfulness with full appreciation even with the challenges of aging, I might make it to 100 years or longer.

In the past year, I am more aware of the importance of connection. As friends become ill and pass away, I am grateful for the memory of close and fine relationships. The missing is sometimes hard like this past Saturday when Marv and I attended the Bar Mitzvah of the youngest grandson of my best friend Flo who passed away over twenty years ago. I’ve stayed close to her husband and children and know her seven grandchildren. On every family occasion, her strong spirit is present and I am melancholy.

In the yawning sadness that lingered that evening and the day after, I was unable to focus on my Monday blog deadline and wondered was this the beginning of my winding down the blog? I let it drift until this morning when I began to write and the words poured forth. Writing takes focus and patience, as does aging.

For the coming year, I will be focusing on gratitude and often, on the aging process as I experience and learn about more about what brings good balance at this stage. My essentials?

  • Healthy and viable relationships with friends and family.
  • Knowledge about one’s body, what makes it tick well, how to manage vulnerabilities.
  • Good nutrition— I cook daily, am a reformed “health food nut”
  • Time for creativity— writing my blog, personal essays, poems
  • Time for learning— piano, particularly jazz, which challenges my mind, helps me create new brain cells.
  • Nature— gardening three season, house plants, visuals of green spaces
  • Time for reading— news, poems, books that grab, fiction or nonfiction
  • Engaging media– movies, television
  • Exercise— tai-chi, weights, cardio

I juggle a lot, suffer from over ambition and often, over exertion, lifelong habits I try to reign in. Moderation is a learned behavior and one I try to focus on daily. I am grateful that as I age, I am getting better at mindful pacing. Happy Winter Solstice!

Fall Leaves & Mourning

Photo taken from the back patio window

There is something about fall with its bold colors, each leaf distinct, the explosion of red, orange, yellow pigments in artistic play, a cacophony of hues.

I am especially grateful for the turning of leaves this November,2018. Days before the midterm, I am fraught with anticipation and anxiety. Will there be a falling?

The cleansing sweep of leaves represents change, the falling away of what has been in preparation for what is to become. I am grateful for the wisdom of Mother Nature’s seasons.

To thrive, trees must rest. To rest, trees must give up their leaves, strip down, be prepared for the weight  of cold and the blanket of snow which will bed, protect and ultimately melt moisture into the roots and provide nourishment for spring’s resurgence and growth.

During my fall childhood, as I walked the mile route to and from school, I scanned the sidewalk for “special” leaves— the perfectly pointed fiery red maples, the curved yellow oaks, the russet chestnuts. Upon arriving home, I slid each leaf in between the pages of Mom’s discarded Woman’s Day magazines. At season’s end, the magazines bulging with stems peeking out, I tucked them away in my room under a heavy book.

Often, as it happens in childhood, I moved on to my next project, forgetting the beauty left behind until spring or even the start of the next fall, when I would begin again. All these years later, still drawn to the search for “special leaves” such as the floating oak leaf caught in the spider’s web framed in the patio glass door, shown in the picture above.

A week has passed since the awful human carnage of faithful Jews, several near my own age, at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill. Raised in an Orthodox Jewish community, daughter of a first generation Yankee father and Lithuanian immigrant mother, I watched television images of congregants in mourning and men in black hoisting caskets of their beloved ones. I read about and listened to  stories of the deceased—men and women in the throes of their lives including a married couple wed in 1954 at the Tree of Life Synagogue, the same year as Marv and I were wed.

As my heart wept for the fallen,

I gazed upward

to the bold red/orange/yellow

leaves in change,

leaves in color, leaves falling.

 

Each precious one

soon to transform

into paper thinness

likes bones to dust,

eleven spirits in flight.

May the beauty of fallen leaves bring comfort to those who mourn.

Finding Calm & Compassion

Junior Blue Jay
McCauley Library
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

My home, located across from the Charles River, surrounded by trees, is a choice nesting site for birds.

Yesterday, as I finished whisking off the frayed bed sheet I’d thrown over my lemon tree to prevent freezing, I took note of a tiny grey bird tucked into the corner of the top step. Its stillness compelled me to pause and take note.

Still and barely breathing, the flutter of feathers at the edges, she was clearly alive. I surmised she was a fledging Blue Jay from the truncated tail, striped blue/black, just the beginning of a familiar tail.

Imagine what that first effort of fluttering one’s wings and leaving the nest must feel like. How many poems and stories have transformed this common experience in metaphoric language to describe separation and gaining mastery?

Often, in the spring, fledgling robins hit the windows along the front of the house. In their efforts to fly, I hear the “thwack” on the glass and run to the garden to see if a bird has fallen. There were one or two who were quite stunned but in time, regained their wits to try again.

I worried about this young one. She seemed sturdy and well fed, her coat soft and thick, her breath steady. Would she muster the energy to fly again? And if not, if she stayed through dark, what would I do?

In the moment, there was nothing to do. By dusk, just as silently as she had come, she left, leaving no trace except in memory, where she nested still.

What was it about the presence of that gentle, calm creature on the back step? As I recall her image, I breath slowly and more deeply.  Given the horrifying story of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi this past week, the fledgling Jay’s calm was a gift.

Like so many of my friends and family, I struggle with reactivity to the day’s events— they pile up, build into crescendos of anxiety. The fact that she landed on the step in the window of time when I stepped out was fortuitous.

I was drawn to her soft presence. Softness— and by extension, compassion, being the operative word for what has been missing in the day-to-day world in our October, 2018, headlines. Be it compassion for the children in “temporary” detention centers longing for family or the caravan of refugees with visions of America “The Beautiful,” this tiny creature embodied both the freedom to fly and the risk of vulnerability.

When I decided to write this week’s blog on the encounter, I wondered why I hadn’t taken a picture of the bird and had to resort to the internet for a likeness?  Upon reflection, I worried that my attempt to get “the perfect shot” might startle her.

I am grateful I had the presence of mind to step away and provide safety. In so doing, I was able  to gain perspective, as well as to write and share the meaning of the experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Gratitude?

Marv pondering in the garden

People are skeptical about gratitude; I can’t blame them. It’s not easy to tune into or away from events in this uneasy, the sky is falling,-wait-is-it-real-or-fake-news-time, in our country’s life.

I’m often asked, What is there to be grateful for? I understand. We are all anxious these days. Anxiety can cloud vision, focus, and point of view. I need not remind you who is president, who fawned over Putin, as we learn day by day how much of our way of life is being threatened.

Nonetheless, I believe, with focus, we can train ourselves to pause, take a breath and consider that which is in reach and palliative within our own small orbit. If you have read my blog on the benefits of time in nature, you know that by a daily practice in which I attend to a houseplant or walk out into my garden and pause, I am able to move into a state of appreciation for the color or shape or smell of what is before me.

The key is embracing possibility—that in the course of one’s daily activities, there are limitless options to notice and feel appreciation and gratitude. For me, the benefit of pausing and slowing my pace are immediate. I can feel my mood shift and for no other reason then to experience calm, I am grateful.

Take yesterday, at the grocery store. The temperature was 90. The air, humid. Late in the day, I was not in the mood to shop. But first thing, in the produce department, I was greeted by a gracious man I have endlessly seen unloading greens and propping them up for display. “Hello,” he greeted, with his wide smile. My smile in response was instant.

Before I knew it, I was caught by a loud conversation between a young boy sitting in a grocery carriage with his mom. He was talking vegetable talk— “yellow tomatoes, yum,” as his mother leaned over the display of tiny fresh fruits, filling a box to the brim and handing her boy one after another as a snack. The scene was intimate and sweet; it filled my heart. I was grateful to bear witness.

Near the finish, as I came up the aisle, an elderly man in a wheel chair turned the corner. Had I continued, we would have collided. He paused. I moved back and tucked myself into a cheese corner to let him pass. We made eye contact; he nodded with appreciation. “You have the right of way,” I quipped with a grin. I noted another special moment.

Can we be “in the moment” all the time? Maybe not, but we can take note of a moment some of the time. If we pay attention, scan and focus upon what intrigues, engages, inspires, delights, stimulates, stirs—you name it—one can gather gratitude and appreciation in small ways throughout the day.

Every minute, we have choices in how we approach our lives. Each experience is ours, to take in. The minutes, the immediate connections to others and the environment, add up. I hope you will seek gratitude in some way every day.

 

 

 

Mental Health and Mother Nature’s Nurture

Monarch Butterfly
on Asclepias tuberosa

The past three mornings, I’ve flown into my garden after checking the news in the aftermath of Trump’s worrisome press conference with Putin. Sharp pruners in hand, I tackled the wild, over-grown forsythia shrub at the driveway entrance. Branches, thin and flexible, stretching to the sun, had bent and curled between and betwixt one another in pursuit of the sun.

The first day, I followed each branch to its rooted undergrowth. Bending and reaching, I cut each one at its source. After an hour and a half, my back signaling “enough,” I turned to the lilies, always in need of tidying. Uplifted by the sight of yellow, vivid red, crème, and fuscia flowering, I plucked yesterday’s wet and drooping blossoms, filling half a bucket. Creating order is good for one’s mental outlook.

On day two, I began to shape the shrub. I targeted meandering, spiking branches and snipped at the nods between two leaves to encourage a soft, wavy pattern. As I moved up and down, over and around, I shaped and re-shaped the dancing tendrils. The focus on the task at hand, somewhat challenging, lifted my spirit.

On the third day, I was contented with the tamed, undulating shape and tended to the few dry, dead clusters at the base. At the last, I stepped back and scanned each side. Pruning is art. My vision complete, I sighed in gratitude.

When the world is wild with anxiety and worry, when I cannot stop checking the news, the garden calls. It is enough to set a goal, even a mindful walk and to proceed. The esthetics of the space— the variety of species, the coloration of purple and red astilbe, white, rose and yellow zahara zinnias, the dogwood, and the mooga pine and peach azalea shrubs—offer variety and delight. Our minds and bodies entrain (tune with) the shift in pace and rhythm.

Now that the frogs have returned, their heads peer out above the water’s edge along the rocks of the little pond. I missed them terribly in late spring; for over the years, I had come to rely on their presence as the garden awakened. But nature can be unpredictable. Last year, across the driveway from the forsythia, an Asclepius (butterfly weed) carried by a bird, no doubt, appeared. I wanted to pluck it from the bed of lilies and zinnias but Crystal, my gardening helper, cautioned me. It could attract butterflies.

Late yesterday, in my car, stopped for traffic at the driveway’s entry, I glanced to my left and there, perched on the edge of the Asciepius, was a monarch butterfly. It hovered, flew and set down again. I grabbed my iPhone and stepped out of the car.  In seconds, a shimmering green hummingbird darted below the butterfly and in a flash, sped away. The butterfly lingered on, flitting to and fro, setting down once more as if she knew how much I wanted to capture her spread winged. I’m grateful to share my picture; I’m grateful to Mother Nature for nurture.

 

 

 

On Self-Compassion

Zoe & Max
Thanks to Craig

I wore my therapist’s hat all day yesterday. My brain is still percolating with the ramifications of the seminar’s subject, Self-Compassion: An Antidote to Shame, and its relevance. How do we manage the day-to-day shaming behaviors of our president and our elected officials? I see and feel shame every day.

According to the psychological research on mindfulness and well-being, the best antidote to shame is self-compassion. But how does one attend to self-compassion if we are feeling angry, disgusted, anxious, overwhelmed, worried, scared, and incredulous? How often have I responded to a news alert or a banner on my i-phone with an out loud shout: “Unbelievable!”

As a therapist, during the decade of the eighties, my most challenging work involved clients with repressed memories of early childhood sexual abuse. Shame infused every session. Empathy and compassion for the client’s struggle, developing trust and a sense of safety, were key. The goal: to enable clients to face their story and to cultivate empathy and self-compassion.

Several of my most challenging clients uncovered events, came to an intellectual understanding, but continued to struggle with esteem and lifestyle choices that might ease their suffering. Shame and self-blame, often in the remembered voice of a stern and blaming parent, held a strong grip.

I don’t think it’s too big a stretch to say that our democracy is in the grip of a blaming, self-absorbed leader who puts family and friends first. Many pundits have likened his bullying to mob style leadership with all the innuendoes of secrecy, switch and bait, “what I can get away with” behaviors. For 483 days, we have been in the throes of a man decimating President Obama’s legacy and attempting to deconstruct our institutions. Abuse, in word and deed, are rampant.

Considering how Trumpian leadership triggers fear and undermines our sense of safety, I share the essence of yesterday’s 6-hour seminar on how self-compassion can be a significant resource in managing the stress of daily events. According to the seminar instructor, Chris Germer, PhD, a member of the Harvard Medical School and Cambridge Health Alliance, self-compassion consists of three main components—

  1. Self kindness: entails being warm and caring towards ourselves when things go wrong in our lives.

  2.   Common humanity: recognizes the shared nature of suffering when difficult situations occur.    

  3.    Mindfulness: involves turning inward toward our painful thoughts and emotions and seeing them as they are without suppression or avoidance.

Ask yourself, What do I need now? Is it a cup of soothing, hot tea, a walk in nature, a good book, talking with a friend, listening to music or working in the garden before the rain comes as I did earlier today? After planting the Zahara flame zinnias and deep purple stock plants, I felt relaxed and ready to tackle this post.

In this Trump era, we need to approach information mindfully and adopt a self-compassionate attitude. In so doing, we can sustain our empathy and compassion for others like the #Never Again and #Me Too Movements, the Dreamers, the refugees at the border, the women in danger of losing their healthcare under Title 10, and the many more who are vulnerable to every day threats to their safety and well-being.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Positive Aging

 

Faye’s 86th birthday
photo by Marv

A week ago, I posted a picture of myself facing a large bowl of fresh fruits holding an “86” candle. At that moment in time, looking into the flame of light, the abundance of color and sweetness arranged by my daughter, surrounded by my husband, daughter, her significant other and two granddaughters, my heart soared with gratitude.

Several Facebook friends commented on how happy I looked. A runner/writer friend said, “Yay, interesting, the cake you Bostonians eat.” I replied, “Yes,” and delicious, too.”

Do I feel 86? No. According to recent scientific studies, accenting the positive, such as embracing gratitude, has a positive effect on aging. The May 3rdBoston Globe highlighted a Washington Post article about how our attitudes about aging can effect our aging process. .https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/cliches-about-only-being-as-old-as-you-feel-are-starting-to-have-scientific-backing/2018/04/13/4ccd9c4a-3125-11e8-8abc-22a366b72f2d_story.html?utm_term=.d130e75d145e

Paola Sebastiani, a researcher at the Boston University School of Public Health, reports, Aging well is not only delaying disease…feeling good about your life is an important aspect of healthyaging.

It turns out that I am not alone in feeling younger. One study found that as people age, they consistently say they feel younger—“much younger”—than their actual age. In truth, when I ask myself how old I feel, I’m a little flummoxed. As I look in the mirror, walk the stairs in my house, practice Tai Chi, change the linens on the bed, garden, write, discuss, plan ahead, eighty-six is hard to believe. It’s not that I’m slowing down. Of course I am, but not much. Engagement, learning, following my curiosity, sharing with others, continues on.

I was a sheltered child. Yet, on a Sunday afternoon, perhaps seven or eight years old, I accompanied my parents to a visit to an Uncle’s home where, upon retrospect, I participated in a death vigil for Great Aunt Becky. She was truly old (though I have no idea how old), lying in a double bed—tiny, emaciated, smiling wanly, waiting to die. The image never left me. The article cites William Chopik, an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University.

Negative views about aging are communicated to us early in life, through media, books, and movies and what our friends and family tell us…These attitudes are present and pervasive already in childhood, so naturally it’s hard to enact meaningful change to these attitudes—but that’s what we are trying to do at the moment.

After many health events, I have learned about the importance of mindful listening to my body. This birthday, I decided to break a family tradition.  Because I have a history of candida and am lactose intolerant, I asked my daughter to bring dessert but to forego the family tradition of a Lizzy’s coffee-oreo yogurt cake laced with chocolate sauce. Savvy in her own choices, I was grateful for the ease in which she honored my request for a bowl of my favorite fruits including pesticide-free, organic strawberries filled with sweetness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Balm of Lullaby Road

Reading Lullaby Road
photo by Marv

Can a quiet novel written about a self-effacing, reflective character named Ben draw you in and transport you from the miasma of current events? I am grateful to my Solstice MFA colleague, James Anderson, for creating Lullaby Road, his second book about Ben Jones, a twenty-eight-foot tractor-trailer driver in the high desert of Utah who embraces the expanse of isolation and space while surrounded by characters with challenging circumstances.

I follow the poetic rhythm of Anderson’s words. There is no need to hurry, to find out what’s next. I linger, pause over Ben’s description of his route— tall grasses and twisted junipers, mountains of tires, filled with hissing rattlesnakes—as he delivers drums of water, propane, essential items to his varied customers

I rarely had sharp discussions with my customers. I rarely had discussions at all. Silence joined with indifference to keep conversation to nods and shrugs. Sometimes it almost compensated for how long it took some of them to pay me.  

Every aspect of Ben’s life—the landscape, troublesome and endearing customers, friends and loves still on this earth and those who have passed—are woven into the fabric of this novel. Yes, Ben is fictional, contained on the pages of a book, born from Anderson’s imagination. Yet, he is real and lingers long after I leave the page.

Characters, such as John The Preacher, Ginny, a teen, the Doctor, serve to speak the author’s truth. Combination philosopher, poet, human being with a high moral code, and exceptional story–teller, Anderson commits to bringing us a character of moral integrity. Ben Jones is the antithesis of Washington insiders, the subjects of our everyday news, the stories in which we are drowning.

…too damn often a gun might seem like a preserver….I considered them a tool…carrying one around all day was like putting a wrench in your pocket in case  one of your nuts came loose. In my experience it seemed that once you started carrying the wrench you started suspecting everyone’s nuts were loose except your own.

I met Ben three years ago in the pages of Anderson’s first book, The Never-Open Desert Diner.It was a page-turner, part mystery, love story and desert journey. I have been to the Southwest desert twice. Both times, I welcomed the change from the frenetic pace of the East coast as I entered the ease of meditative wanderings evoked by the landscape.

I walked out to the front of the truck and paused to watch the sun come up over the desert. …. the white expanse of snow-covered ground began to stretch out before me farther and farther until the sheer cliff face of the red, mica-flaked mesa a hundred miles distant was revealed, its flat top still obscured by clouds and behind them the first piercing rays of sunlight. And forbidding as the desert might be in summer, it was nothing compared to the silent and cold emptiness of winter…. Utah 117 ran straight through its bloodless heart. Driving it was my job…I felt safer in a natural world no matter how treacherous and unforgiving…

At the end of the day, tucked into the quiet night, I am drawn to the next phase of Ben’s journey. Satisfied and grateful for each well-crafted chapter, I sleep well, often dreaming of red adobe mountains, desert, and endless, high-country highway.

After The Storm

During the most recent ice storm, waffle sized snow pellets fell from trees and crashed onto my roof and skylights. I rushed from room to room to make certain that the jolting noise did not forecast an implosion of shattered glass and leaks inside. For two hours, the glass and seals held. I was grateful for dry floors and ceilings, the absence of drip and drip lines.

Afterwards, as I walked down the driveway to search for the Boston Globe, my smoke bush seemed off balance. One of the main branches had slit in two and crashed sideways into a pile of snow. Thankfully, plants regenerate. I was grateful to reflect upon how this corner shrub, exposed to the street, had been assaulted and felled by snow and rain yet regained its stature time and again.

Now on alert, I took note of three large severed branches off the tulip tree. A thick limb rested on the Daphne whose spring-fragrant branches were wrapped and secured to wooden poles. The shrub, a favorite, with a lifespan of five years, had survived double. Each year beyond the five had seemed miraculous. The felled branch means breakage near the root and likely a certain death knoll. For now, I am grateful the Daphne still stands.

Yes, there were many others— branches split in twos and threes, their jagged arrow shapes beseeching skyward. I am grateful for Jon, my go-to tree expert with eyes that scan and note the unusual— a cut, a misshapen turn in the crown, a thickening of branches, a sign that the tree is vulnerable to wind or ice. He comes by yearly to assess the tree line, recommend trimming or removal to keep us safe from trees uprooted or splitting off into a side or roof window.

Around the corner, up the hill, my neighbors were not so fortunate. The street, my access route for getting around the city, was roped off for days. Yesterday, at dusk, I did a double take as I drove to the top of the street and passed a four-foot wide ball root of a massive double oak tree lying in a driveway. I was grateful there had been no news of injury and more grateful for the many trees surrounding that remain rooted.

Here, in the Boston environs this past week, two massive Nor’easters moved up the coast pummeling high winds, massive tides, torrential rain and a mix of ice and snow. Houses were swept away. The sea raged for days, flooding roads, houses and trees, taking electric wires with them. On the 6:00 news, a street in a local suburb, without power for five days, finally had a visit from the electric company.

In contrast, my inconvenience is minimal. How can I not feel grateful to be among those who were sparred, to be able to cook my meals, sleep in a warm bed, to awaken safe in my home. Another Nor’easter is nearly upon us. I’m uneasy about high winds and the possibility of outages but grateful to be forewarned and as prepared as possible.