For the last couple of months I’ve been attempting to help a friend who has been in dark night of the soul for a long time. I attempted even when I knew that, in a way, no one ever helped anyone except, maybe, by holding on. People are complicated creatures. The crisis reached a turning point (funny how that always happens) and he ended up having to contend with himself. The thing is, he is one of the luckiest people on the planet and he didn’t have to contend for long. Just when he let go of an opportunity (which he was right to do), the very opportunity he wanted fell into his lap. He’s a relentlessly fortunate person, so much so that often he can’t even see it.
My work here is done. Very very very done. Dumb as I feel for ever attempting, I also think humanity would be a lot less human if people didn’t try.
But I’m worn out. I woke up this morning at 4 and couldn’t go back to sleep which, for me, is unusual. I just wanted a cup of coffee. I didn’t want anything else from life at that point. I tried going back to sleep, but no luck. It was like a big cup of hot coffee was drifting along, just out of reach. So here I am, a couple hours earlier than usual, drinking the coffee (yum), pondering whether it would be OK to have another one, but, usually the second one isn’t as good as the first and just leaves me kind of nervous and weird.
It looks like the sun is about to rise.
In other news, Bear and I headed out for a saunter late yesterday morning. It was lovely.
Many years ago my friend Jenny (RIP) was having all kinds of personal problems. She ate lunch every day at a Chinese restaurant near our offices at San Diego State, not so much because of the food, but because of the fortune cookies. The longer I knew Jenny, the more aware I became that personal problems were a ubiquitous aspect of her life (mine too, yours, too, possibly).
One year I made her a “painting” collage thing of dozens of photo copied fortune cookies floating in a bright, blue sky. Out of each one came a fortune — all of them bromides. We’d decided at that point that these sayings — almost nonsense in some cases — were useful and often true. There was, “It’ll all work out.” “Tomorrow is another day.” “Put a good face on it.” “In the fullness of time.” “One day at a time.” “Time will tell.” “There’s no way to know.” “Wait and see.” “It was meant to be.” “The course of true love never ran smooth.” (We have Shakespeare to thank for a lot of these.) A bunch more. Jenny put the picture on a wall between her kitchen and dining area, by the back door and the entrance to her studio. The point of the “art” was to cheer her up. Maybe it worked.
I’ve noticed that these phrases come out of my mouth when a friend is sharing his/her problems with me, telling me what’s on their mind. I understand now that the important part for them is not my stellar, sagacious advice or perceptive insight, it’s “It’ll work out.” or “I’m so sorry. Time will tell, I guess.” In most situations I don’t want to GIVE my opinion beyond a general observation such as, “That sucks.” The exception? If I have something concrete to offer like, “It’s OK. I’ll loan you my can opener.”
Going further? Usually ill-advised. My friend Jenny pushed me beyond the bromides after I moved away from California and we could no longer hang out. Her “boy”friend (a man of 80) was an abusive shit — to her and to her friends. Her daughters despised him. BUT Jenny felt she needed him (she was physically disabled to some extent) and couldn’t break away. The reality was that she loved him. Our relationship shifted to a phone relationship when I moved to Colorado. I became the “sob sister.”
I loved Jenny like a sister. She was my longest-time friend and when I finally had to say, “I can’t listen to this any more, Jenny. If that’s all you call to talk about, don’t call me any more,” it was very very hard. The experience of moving to a new town where I knew no one and leaving a career of 35+ years was pretty intense and scary for me, but my life never entered our conversations. Jenny didn’t understand how harrowing it was to hear one recitation after another of this man’s abuses from a 1000+ miles away.
Finally I asked her, “Jen, do you love X?”
“I do,” she said. “You don’t seem to understand that.”
I did understand that. I’ve “loved” abusive men myself. It’s something I still find beyond description and not exactly love. But I understood that until she loved herself more than she “loved” X I was going to endure these nightmare phone calls from a friend I couldn’t help.
“OK, Jen. Don’t call me as long as X is in your life and hurting you. I’m too far away to do anything to help you. I love you.” Click.
She wrote me a very angry letter and said she’d forgive me under certain conditions. I tossed it and cried. Sometimes these situations go beyond, “It’ll all work out.” It doesn’t always work out.
Still, these apparently facile and trite attempts at consolation and hope are often useful and true. The time remedy, especially… My injured shoulder is starting to feel normal again, and last night I had a real night’s sleep, the first one is more than four weeks. I can almost use my shoulder normally. All of those bromides applied to this situation 100%.
Yesterday my friend/neighbors and I went “out on the town” — the first time since the pandemic hit. The town, of course, is the scenic county seat of Rio Grande County, Colorado, Del Norte. Del Norte is a typical one-main street western town, that street lined with restaurants and other small businesses that change frequently because it’s hard to “make a go of it” down here when the season of actual human beings is already short and, last year, VERY short, like didn’t happen.
A restaurant where we like to have lunch was very smart last year and when the pandemic hit, they almost immediately got a food truck and used it to promote their FUTURE business by setting up in all the local towns during the week. They didn’t fight the mask mandate, they just took the challenge. We wandered around on the very hot street (south side, of course) as the sun exsiccated every drop of moisture from our skin. The temperature wasn’t crazy hot — only 85 F (31 c) or something — but at 8000 feet (2438 m) it’s almost like the sun is RIGHT ON TOP of you.
We investigated new businesses and some old businesses. I was really happy to discover a small, natural foods grocery store. I don’t know, but they might get my grocery business, though they might be more expensive than City Market (Kroger). Across the street (in the SHADE!!!) is a small new bakery where we stopped for dessert.
It was really nice to hang out again. I’m often grateful for randomness of fate that landed me in a little house where I would find neighbors who became friends.
Meanwhile, I’m off to Colorado Springs (a city?) tomorrow to collect my paintings and visit friends.
Human to human hugs are sparse around here at the best of times, and these may or may not be the best of times (something we don’t seem to understand until they’ve passed), but human to dog hugs are pretty common. I guess science has determined that we need that kind of contact with our kind in order to remain mentally healthy. I remember back in the 70s when “hug therapy” became a thing. People would stand around wearing signs that said, “Free hugs.” Paying for hugs seems a little sketchy anyway. The last time I saw such a sign wasn’t that long ago, maybe 2003. A young guy wearing the sign was on the pier at Pacific Beach in San Diego.
But why did it become a thing? I can surmise that it was partly because my parents’ generation was a LOT less “touchy feely” than people are today. Some of my mom’s sisters (and my mom) would even say, “No, I’m not a hugger.” Because of this, some of the hugs with my aunts were definitely memorable, like the ONLY time I remember hugging my Aunt Dickie, for example. It was the late 1970s and my Aunt Kelly had died in New Mexico. The Montanans (Aunt Dickie and Uncle Stocky) drove to Denver in their RV to gather my mom and my Aunt Martha to head down for the funeral. I was at my mom’s house to lock the door behind them and take care of my mom’s heroic little miniature poodle, Misty. When my Aunt Dickie came into the house, she made a beeline for me, wrapped her arms around me, and said, “I’m so sad about Kelly.” “Huh?” I thought. Besides not hugging, they did not say how they felt about things. I wondered, “Why me?” That hug was unforgettable. It was in those moments that I realized how my Aunt Dickie felt about me and that proved to be true clear to the end of her life. Hugs from those people were a kind of honor.
One of my more recent hugs was a virtual hug on Christmas Eve from my step-granddaughter who was talking to me on her TV screen. I was talking to her on my phone so it was impossible to return the hug and I didn’t even know why she was rushing at me like that. “What was that?” I asked her mom.
“She hugged you,” said my step-daughter-in-law cracking up.
Last year at the Monte Vista Crane Festival at the Education and Craft Fair I experienced a veritable orgy of hugging. The neighborhood is vast and friends can be far-flung. That event is a giant valley-wide reunion and I got to see lots of people (five) I like very much but seldom see in real life. There was much satisfying hugging and catching up. I think that’s why, yesterday, when I learned that the Crane Festival would be virtual — which wasn’t surprising — I felt very sad. I think I had my hardest Covid experience in those moments. Until this year, the Crane Festival has meant my friend Lois comes from Colorado Springs and we have a great weekend of cranes, craft fair, seeing rescued raptors, conversation plus seeing friends from all over the Valley. It is easily my most “human contact” weekend of the year.
It’s pretty woodsy in my backyard at the moment. I went out yesterday with my trusty branch saw to reconnoiter and decided it was way too dangerous for me to approach. How do I know but what one little handsawable branch isn’t holding up the universe? I don’t. I said, “Teddy get out from under there,” and came back inside.
Today I’m taking the day off. Yesterday, I spent hours cleaning the remnants of the snowpocalypse from the garden part of my yard. I had a long chat with the beans, explaining that I was sorry a bunch of their leaves were hanging there near death from being weighted down by a wet and frozen bed sheet. I then told them the story of Faith, the Indomitable Aussie Pumpkin who came into the world this time last year and STILL grew to be almost 10 inches in diameter. “Buck up, Poets,” I said. “It was just a snowpocalypse. Not the end of the world.”
The tomatoes are just going, “Well THAT was different.”
Meanwhile, everything that’s not broken looks like nothing happened, like summer was never interrupted, and now it’s business as usual.
Today my Facebook memories brought a photo of me with a woman who was one of my dearest friends for thirty years. She was my boss at the first teaching job I had in San Diego, and our relationship evolved from a not especially great boss/employee relationship to real friendship. She was an extraordinarily talented painter, and some of her paints are in my “studio”. I don’t use them. I do use her palette knife and some of her brushes. In the paint box, in the colors she used, and even in the way the brushes are “worn,” I see Sally, her way of painting and, well, her. It’s very lovely. The featured photo is us together at her house, Thanksgiving 1997.
For the past week I’ve had more human contact than I’ve had since C-19 started. My neighbor and I spent a couple mornings together moving and placing flagstones — and talking, then we took a morning for a hike and conversation. Saturday Elizabeth came over with some produce from her garden and later on my friend Lois and her husband Michael met me in Del Norte where we ate pizza on the patio of 3 Barrel Brewery, social distanced and masked, but it was impossible not to hug. We usually see each other every couple of months, and the last time was early March at the Crane Festival. It was really, really wonderful to be together.
Then, last evening, I was walking Teddy, and as we turned toward home after sneaking onto the golf course for the last leg of our walk, I saw the kids by their fence waving frantically at me. In those moments I’d happily die because life really does not get better than two kids jumping up and down in joy because you’re coming to visit them. But, I didn’t die (thankfully) so we got to hang out.
A few weeks ago M told me that when she grew up she was going to ride wild horses. C, her brother, is going to ride bulls. Most of the people in their family — including their mom — have rodeoed so it just makes sense. I said to M, “You’re afraid of Teddy! How are you going to ride a wild horse?” She thought about it and nodded.
Last evening, they ended up out in the alley briefly (they’re not supposed to be there) and M decided she was going to pet Teddy. I told her to reach UNDER his chin not over his head. I made him sit. She petted him and even scratched his ears. Then she said, “Now I can ride a wild horse.”
This morning my friend Perla, an artist from Argentina who’s lived in the US since the 80s, came to visit. First we made a tour of Monte Vista’s trees so she could collect a variety of leaves for her eco-printing projects. Afterward, we sat in the shade in my front yard and talked for a couple of hours about what we’re going to do when Trump wins the upcoming election. Yes, I said “when” because I think it’s distinctly likely. Whether our plans are real or just dreams to help us through this anxiety provoking moment, I don’t know, but Perla already escaped an authoritarian regime and her perspective on current events is different, less complacent, even than mine.
I like our escape plan, but I hope I don’t need it. I love my little niche in the world — still, at the same time, the escape plan would be an amazing adventure.
I’m tired from this extremely unusual amount of human contact, but I feel very warm inside from being loved and loving in return. One thing this whole thing has shown me — including my recent fear that perhaps Bear had a very bad bone cancer — was how much courage it takes to love something, someone, and allow oneself to become attached to it. I believe this is a lesson I’ve gotten from being here in a world where my love for it is returned and magnified. This valley spread itself in front of me, poor beat up legs and all, as if it were saying, “There is more here for you than you can now imagine. Give me time to show you everything.”
Yesterday afternoon my neighbor and I took off for the Big Empty with Bear. It was a glorious cool day with wind, but not the kind that knocks over trees. We had a good time. She’s a wonderful walking companion. And, she has a good eye. Soon after we started out she spotted a feather. It’s a tail feather from a Northern Harrier Hawk. I asked if she wanted it and she didn’t. But I did. I wanted it to keep my Sandhill Crane feather company. I didn’t want to carry it all the way — I know it’s a feather and all but I didn’t want to smash it or lose it along the way. I set it carefully in the grass hoping it was fixed well enough not to blow away.
Karen is curious about things and I really like that in people. We took Bear’s favorite little loop and Karen got to see Yellow Headed blackbirds for the first time. At the end of our hike one of them posed on a reed fewer than 5 feet away from us for a very long time. “They’re not very afraid, are they?” she said.
“That’s the whole point of a wildlife ‘refuge’.” I thought about a talk she and I had had a little earlier. I’d told her I got into going out there because it was open, empty, beautiful, quiet, a natural world I didn’t know much about, there’s no virus, no riots, nothing but itself.
On the way back talk turned to current events. Where I live, BLM means “Bureau of Land Management” and I’m pretty sure people in the West have to take a minute to translate BLM to Black Lives Matter.
“I don’t even know any black people,” said my neighbor.
“I don’t think there are many out here.” I thought then that a lot of America — in area — is like that. It’s not a matter of exclusion, either. There aren’t many PEOPLE out here. Then I thought of the so-called “fly-over” areas that make up a lot of 45’s base, and it hit me that it’s exactly things like THAT that alienate people out here from people in cities. While American cities are in turmoil people out here are worried that they aren’t going to have enough water to bring the crops to harvest. Our biggest problems in the past 24 hours have been a massive power outage that affected 2700 people and below freezing temperatures just when the first cutting of alfalfa hay is on the horizon.
Fly-over regions feel “ignored.” A rancher I know and respect very much said that 45 is the first president to care about farmers. This is categorically NOT true, but it takes a LOT of noise to penetrate the Big Empty — partly because of the wind, and partly because a guy on a tractor for 10 or 12 hours a day or out with his stock is NOT watching the news. Maybe that guy saw 45 yammer about “Our great farmers” twice and never saw Obama say anything. That doesn’t mean Obama didn’t say (or do) anything; he did. It just means the farmer didn’t hear it. If a tree falls etc.
The “big city” of Alamosa had two marches in support of George Floyd. Compared to other spots in the San Luis Valley, Alamosa is pretty urban. It has a university and a community college (branch). The Walmart is there. There are 9000+ people there. It’s a good bet that the people in Alamosa are better educated than the average just because the professors are there. An urban life is definitely more techno centered than a rural life as far as news media is concerned, anyway. The demonstrations — judging from photos, I didn’t go — were, except for one bizarre event — small and peaceful. People walked down the Main Street with signs and other people stood on the curbs. I don’t know who was supporting the march and who was not, but if it had made the TV news it would have shown a very different world.
My friend asked me why I thought all this was happening now. I told her my belief that this is the moment that African Americans were fighting their OWN civil war, that I didn’t believe anyone could give another person freedom because that person could take it back. I told her I believed it was phase 3 of the liberation of the slaves, a “war” that had to take place but that I don’t like it. I told her it made me sad, that I thought about all the African American students I’d taught and how it was a wild spectrum of motivation, preparation and comprehension, that it wasn’t just about us white people understanding the Blacks, they had to understand us, too, because we’re all on the planet together. I told her I liked the birder in Central Park a LOT and I wished I could invite him out here to see the Cranes, but then, I said, “Maybe he’s been here already.”
“It must not be easy to be a black guy who loves birds,” she said, “I saw a black professor of ornithology and I thought that was very strange.” I nodded, thinking about how we are all inured to expecting African Americans to be in THIS place and not THAT place, to be good at basketball but never have tried Nordic skiing. I thought about how I KNOW there is an attitude among some African Americans that there are things white people do, but that black people don’t. It isn’t just white people stereotyping. Inclusion involves so much more than we think of at first.
We got near the place where I’d stashed my feather. We both walked slowly along the road where the feather should have been. It wasn’t there. My amazing friend crossed the road, thinking the wind could have picked up my feather, and found it caught in the grass on the other side of the road.
The other evening, with Bear on the golf course, I was ready for the imperatives of the time. I had headed out wearing a ski buff and was prepared to lift to cover my face although there are few people around. About 20 minutes out, I spied a man and his daughter coming our way.
I stopped, pulled Bear close and asked her to sit, my usual way of preparing Bear to meet new people. I’d mostly forgotten the “great imperative” of our moment. I lifted the ski buff. The man said, “It’s OK, it’s OK. We’re going to walk around you.” There was PLENTY of room, like the WHOLE golf course. He was very concerned that I was afraid.
I kind of woke up inside to something. “Thank you,” I said.
“She looks happy,” he said, looking at Bear who was disappointed at not meeting the people, but putting a good face on it.
“This is her happy place. Have a beautiful evening!”
I wanted to cry, touched by that man’s consideration of an older woman who appeared to be afraid. I wasn’t afraid. I’d mostly forgotten where we are right now and when I remembered I wasn’t sure what to do. It’s just weird.
Monday, when I got home from my ramble in the Big Empty, I was in a great mood in spite of the stupid woman who was letting her dog run where she shouldn’t. My neighbor hurried over with a flash drive on which the whole mailbox accident had been recorded. I asked her how she was and she said, “Meh.” I kind of teased her about feeling “Meh.” Later, I felt bad about teasing her. Godnose we humans have myriad reasons for feeling “meh” in normal times. I texted her apologizing. She said it was OK for me to tease her, but…
Yesterday we met in the alley (as per usual) and shared about this “Meh” thing. Tuesday I was “Meh.” We talked about the virus which turned out to be the source of our “Meh.” As she said, “Everyone has an opinion about what we should do.”
That’s true and moreso in her case because she has grown kids with families (and opinions). I explained my position which is the virus is nature. “I wish we’d had more snow last winter, but I’m not out demonstrating about it.”
“That’s a good point,” she said.
“Lot’s of people are never in nature. They don’t really know what it is.” I might have said, I certainly think it. We talked about the farmers. We’re sure they might be wearing bandanas against the dust out there planting potatoes, but are they “social distancing”? Why would they be? My “Big Empty” is a postage stamp in this immensity. We talked about how lucky we are here. We haven’t faced a lot of the shortages people have faced in other places. We don’t have crowds of people living here. She shared how she likes some of the changes to her life, changes I understand. I made some of them by choice when I moved here.
Nothing earthshaking in the conversation, just camaraderie. JUST camaraderie…and empathy. I’m more convinced every day that the best thing we can do for each other right now — and maybe all the time — is just BE there.
Englewood, Colorado. I’m at the hugging-the-parents-around-the-legs stage of life. Dad and I are Christmas shopping. I can only hold two of his fingers, my hands are so tiny.
Lincoln, Nebraska, eighth grade science field trip, sitting in a planetarium watching the show with Rex Bennett whom I’ve known since fifth grade. My first romantic hand-holding. “I think he likes me!”
At the Roxy Theater in Bellevue, Nebraska, my brother and I are there for A Hard Day’s Night. The small-town theater is packed with teenagers. I’m 14. The kid next to me reaches for my hand during the movie and we hold hands all the way through. I don’t even know him. A little voice tells me it’s wrong to hold a strange boy’s hand, but I don’t let go.
My dad’s in a coma. I am doing homework (reading, English major, you know). I feel a movement, a slight squeeze on my hand. I look up at him to see he’s come out of the coma and is looking at me with all the love in the universe. We stay like that for a while, savoring the moment and the envelope of love. I notice his IV needle has come out. I call the nurse. ❤ ❤
My niece, two years old, a little girl I barely know. We’re playing in a park near my brother’s house. She tells me there is a bear in the pine trees at the end of the park. I ask “Where?” and while she points, I get on all fours and roar. She puts her hand on my back. I walk on four “legs” on the grass for a while, Andrea’s hand on my back much the way I place my hand on Bear’s when we walk. Ultimately I have to stand up. Andrea reaches for my hand and we walk home. I love her so much. ❤
Arches National Monument. Francesco and I run across the slick rock to a look out from which we can see the Delicate Arch. The road below is closed and this is the only way. It’s almost dark. We can’t stop. We have a mile to go. We hold hands to keep each other near, safe, and on the trail. ❤
I am walking to my car after a day teaching at San Diego State. As I cross the bridge that goes over the highway to the parking lot, I am approached by a dad and his tiny, red-haired girl. She looks up at me. I look down at her. She lets go of her dad and puts her hand in mine. Dad laughs. “I guess she wants to go home with you!” My hair is also red.
I hold my mom’s hand in the hospital about a month before she dies. It’s sweet even though she thinks I am someone else.
My Aunt Martha is in the nursing home. She’s telling me the story of her adult life, how she’d made her decisions and why. “I love you, Martha Ann.” “I love you too, Aunt Martha.” ❤
Sometimes the weird little eventualities of growing older are painful — not physically but psychologically. On our recent exploration of the town of Del Norte, my friend has one of those moments of embarrassment, confusion and regret. In her usual gentle way, she confides her feelings. I take her hand. She squeezes mine. I say, “It doesn’t matter.”
I’m watching a movie on my lap top, sitting on my sofa. My big white dog comes in from outside, jumps up onto the sofa, and puts her big paw on my leg. I put my hand on her paw. ❤
The Monte Vista Crane Festival has been going on all this weekend and I’ve had house guests — my friend Lois and her developmentally disabled (and awesome) son, Mark.
Yesterday morning we went out to look for the cranes. It was the first time I’ve experienced driving at the Wildlife Refuge with the tourists. It was interesting. Lots of immense rented SUVs. There were fewer cranes in the usual places, but it was a gorgeous day if you like warm air, clear skies and that sort of thing.
After that we went to the Craft and Nature Fair. Among the exhibits was a raptor rescue from Albuquerque. I was involved with an organization like that in San Diego and I was so happy to be so close to the birds again. I talked a long time with one of the women working there. It was an incredible, engaging conversation about teaching kids to love nature by exposing them to these amazing birds.
I love Mark so much, but it’s difficult sometimes to tolerate the reality that he cannot look forward to the consequences of his actions like “normal” people do. I love him for his own sake, but also for the sad fact that some of the things he does remind me how lucky I am to understand WHY you do this and not that.
Yesterday Mark set his shoe on the table. I yelled at him, “Get your shoe off the table! You don’t put shoes on the table!” In my mind’s eye, I saw where that shoe had been, walking around on dirt comprising ground cow dung, elk droppings, spit, urine from various ambulatory beings, godnose. You know, dirt.
He looked shocked — I’m not a person who yells at people, or dogs. Bear ran outside and didn’t want to come back in. Bear’s breed is just like that. Mark was chagrined. I felt weird. Lois and I had to cajole Bear back into the house, and Mark went back to listening to music.
I thought the rest of the night how our knowledge and understanding of how to live life builds incrementally in immeasurable particles. I thought of how important reasoning is in our ability to navigate life safely. It’s actually a pleasure to be able to think.
In the early evening we returned to the Refuge, this time to a more distant spot, a barley field that had been mowed to attract the cranes. There were three school buses of Crane Tourists, and thousands of cranes in the field. There was also the 360 degree spectacle which is sun set in the San Luis Valley.
Most photos were taken by my friend Lois. My photo is the cranes in the field.