The difficulties loom large as I transition out of survival living and into a living where I am able to take the time to look around me. A large part of being a survivor is ignoring large swathes of life for sanity’s sake. The terrible occurrences and ongoing abuses are glossed over so that we can survive. A grave side affect to this is that slowly but surely the day to day annoyances are skimmed over too– the cooking, the cleaning, the self-care. Soon everything is lumped under horrible things to ignore and by then, everything is ignored and hardly any living is done at all. Surviving is happening. Reaction is happening. But not interaction. Nor action.

Even when the abuse and the abusers are left behind and the baggage has been unpacked, the half-living continues. It hurt to look at anything for so long, it was not possible to live and look and still function, and now the habit runs deep.

One way of lessening the fear of living is looking at art. Art can be like honey, it can be the healer, it can look when we’re too scared to look but would still like to. It takes what could could be an image of every day grimness and it can make the image sweet, make it worthy of examination.

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This is Garrowby Hill by David Hockney. It is just another hill in Yorkshire, England, one that has to be driven along to get from Point A to Point B. It stands in the way for a lot of drivers who just want to get to their destination. The boredom of driving along this road day after day must be interminable and undeniable.  But under Hockney’s gaze the road and landscape become joyful and alive. For Hockney, this is a view of rich possibilities. The possibilities here are endless, the life is endless, and the joy is endless. Hockney’s art teaches that looking with an open heart is worthwhile and can be a palliative to our sadness and pain. It’s scary to look so joyfully at anything with a wounded heart and so his art looks for us. The art beckons us forward to new kind of living.

North Yorkshire

North Yorkshire

blue

 

The holidays have taken a back seat to the sky.

I peer up at the sky every chance I get, noting clouds, colors, and motions. The leaves lie forgotten in the ditches and without their leafy apparel, the tree branches spread overhead like crones’ fingers in the sky. I see through the fingers.

Summer is a claustrophobic time and winter is the great opening. We’re all exposed now, to the sun and wind and elements. Gracious green canopies no longer spread out in umbrella formations, bestowing dappled light and easier breathing. No, it’s time for sullen scolding winds and scudding clouds.

I position my fingers on the trunks of trees to hang on while I view skyward, nearly whisked away by the drama overhead. The great burr oaks are the best for holding. They have seen centuries and still chose to linger on in this world. They’re rooted vast and deep. While I hold onto one, burr oak reminds me that time is like a spool of thread and the spool can be wound or unwound. Time backward or forward. The clouds overhead whisk by on wings of dark intent and their colors etch into my eyes and race to the brain. We are grey together, sometimes closer to white, other times to blue.

The spool unwinds and I am younger and back on my parents’ farm and the clouds are racing there too and I am turning away from them while standing at window. I turn my head and my body follows and I crawl into bed under the quilt/or turn up Winter by Vivaldi/or listen to Tess Wiley’s electric guitar solo/or write stories about an insane family I invented but might as well be my own.

The spool winds and I am back in my town and I am back with the oak. There are no birds flying, the wind is too strong for that, but there are squirrels in the trees, chomping fiercely and their backs and tails are as grey as the sky.

 

train dwarfed by sky

train dwarfed by sky

 

Portland Art Museum

I tossed my Tiny Travelogue to the side and succumbed to the pleasures of Portland, OR during my stay instead: roses, fountains in the parks, street food, Portland Art Museum, meeting new friends and catching up with a dear old ones, prowling through Powell’s Bookstore, riding the streetcars, and people watching all soaked up my days.

Portland surprised me with its impressive similarity to the Twin Cities back in Minnesota. Here were the same chill drivers, the same slower pace, the same type of architecture for single family houses, the same sort of river twisting through the middle of the city, and the same sort of friendliness. It was eerie—if weren’t for the backdrop of mountains, I could have sworn I was back in downtown Minneapolis or at other times, visiting my aunt’s neighborhood in St. Paul.

But Portland did deliver a note of randomness that the Twin Cities cannot encompass due its Midwest setting: Portland introduced me to the Power of True Tea Devotees. This came unexpected one morning when Jeff left early for a workshop and I ventured off to get breakfast on my own. I settled in at the hotel’s restaurant and ordered a pot of English Breakfast. The waiter brought my pot and gently inquired if I liked tea. I said I did and then he asked, “Loose leaf?” I replied, “Always.” He studied me for a second and then offered to bring out his own special brew of Zui Gui tea that he kept brewed in the back. I had no idea what Zui Gui tea was but I accepted. He hurried off and I wondered what I had gotten myself into but I enjoyed the idea of a hotel that allows its servers to keep their own special tea brews in the back.

He came back with a tiny pot and delicate glass cup. He poured the glass full and we breathed in the aroma together. It was a beautiful scent and I knew now I was committed. I was going to have to drink this cup—and I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant.

After we inhaled, he told me that Zui Gui Tea translates to Drunken Concubine Tea. It would help the heart meridian and settle any stress I was feeling. I studied his face after he said this. Was this man flirting (and if so, my god, this could be the number one way to flirt with a woman) or was he sharing the Power of a True Tea Devotee?

We talked in-between my meal and as he served other people. He told me about the different tea shops I could visit in Portland but emphasized one in particular called Fly Awake. It was a half an hour by bus from the hotel but it was well worth the visit. The owner would greet me when I’d arrive and inquire after my health. After I told the owner how I was doing, he would find the teas that would suite me best. And I would leave home with a taster of teas, all suited to my constitution.

I finished my breakfast and my Drunken Concubine Tea and thanked him for everything. He smiled and nodded; I left. I wasn’t entirely sure what had happened but one thing I knew for certain: Portland opened my eyes to the fact that I knew absolutely nothing about tea.

In the end, there wasn’t time enough to make it out to Fly Awake but the next time I get to Portland, that tea shop experience is at top of my list.

Stay Weird, Portland and may our Tea Adventures never end.

 

roses in Shemanski park, Portland, OR

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What strikes me most about this city is the lack of congestion: both people and traffic. I live near Chicago, and I’m used to bumper-to-bumper traffic during rush hours and non-rush hours too. I’m used to angry drivers and pedestrians, each swearing and spitting at each other in red-faced rage.

Portland is closer vibe-wise to the Twin Cities. And just like the Twin Cities, faces aren’t so tight. People aren’t millimeters from slamming each other as they pass on the sidewalk. Sure, some white man nearly sat on me — because what? It’s too hard to look where you’re sitting down? I had to rapidly leap over before he sat On Me. But that’s white male privilege, and it operates in all regions, at all hours of the day.

Otherwise, there was no further crushing. No shouting. No screaming. No middle fingers waved at me or anyone else. No one tried to grab my attention — it was all extremely pleasurable.

Even better were the square parks that dotted my walk to the Pearl District. One park cradled a deep belly red brick amphitheater. The other flowed with water falls cleverly constructed out of cement platforms and pylons. Bushes and grasses were green and lush despite the late summer season. I had left a yellowing Midwest behind me to enter a serene verdure.

Life runs on a different frequency here. The waves scamper along the silvery blue Willamette River, twining beneath my hotel window, and then the vibrancy rises and falls further on, towards the evergreen clad mountains and hazy horizon line beyond. I can catch only single notes that make up a blazing chorus my mind cannot fathom yet.

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spiderwort

Tradescantia ohiensis is more commonly known as bluejacket or Ohio spiderwort. It grows to 1-3 feet and produces bright blue, 3-petalled blossoms in early June to mid-October.

 

Back in January ’14, I tore a tendon in my thumb. It was a freak accident that occurred while I was easing into parking spot at CVS.  A driver backing out off the next spot over didn’t see me. I tried to sound my car horn to let her know I was there. The horn was broken, unknown to me at the time, and I tried sounding it over and over in a panic, desperate to alert another driver of my presence while her car backed towards mine. My hand was at a strange angle with my thumb on the horn and other fingers on the steering wheel. My adrenalin surged, I pressed the horn as hard as I could, and it never sounded.  The driver saw me but only after she missed me by an inch.

 

Ohio spiderwort can be found in to dry to mesic prairies and savannas. It grows along trail sides, fencerows, and railroads. It prefers wet, humid conditions.

 

I went to the emergency room that evening when the pain became unbearable. The doctor told me I had completely severed my right thumb tendon and recommended me to a hand surgeon. A nurse wrapped my hand, wrist, and arm in a splint and I went home.

The hand surgeon saw me a few days after and told me I had not completely severed the tendon. A thumb tendon was torn and new blue splint was fitted my hand, wrist and upper arm. I was sent on my way to function as best as I could with an immobile right hand.

As long as I wore the splint, I felt no pain. It would take months for the tendon to repair (tendons take longer than broken bones to heal) but in the meanwhile, I learned to function with my non-dominate left hand and my husband, Jeff, helped me with everything that involved two hands. He opened containers and chopped up food for cooking. Not having my right hand was frustrating and maddening but not impossible. It would all be over in a few months.

 

The plant’s range covers Massachusetts to Nebraska, up north to Minnesota and down south to Texas and Florida. It is resistant to herbicides and attracts butterflies and bumblebees.

 

This is not what happened. My hand came out of the splint and within a few weeks, the ache was unbearable. I went back to the doctor and she discovered I had developed ECU tendonitis. Since my thumb was so weak, the outside of my hand (pinky finger to wrist) had compensated for thumb and now there were tears in the tendon running along the outside of my wrist. It would take a few months for a year to heal.

That was the tipping point. After that, I developed lateral epicondylitis (tendonitis on the outside of the elbow. Also known as tennis elbow)  in my right elbow. And then medial epicondylitis (tendinitis on the inside of the elbow, known as golfer’s elbow) in that same elbow. That occurred because I had been guarding my right hand by holding it against my body.

Then my left elbow developed the same injuries as the right elbow. That happened was because my left arm had become overloaded from doing everything without the right hand for so long.

Then the right outside of my foot became painful and I had tendinitis there too. That happened because I had been injured for over a year. My body had been thrown off for so long that it was mirroring itself.

 

The stamen of spiderwort changes from blue to pink when radiation is present.

 

I was barely able to function over the fall and winter months and there wasn’t a medication that put a dent in the constant pain I was in. The splint no longer helped. I tried physical therapy, massage, acupuncture, supplements, anything that might do something.

While I tried everything within my means to heal, the physical therapy for my foot tendinitis took a terrible turn. I developed a severe allergic reaction to spray adhesive for tape (tape is often used to relieve pain in feet and leg injuries) and my leg broke out in a weeping rash and swelled to three times its size during Christmas. I ended up in the hospital after a blood test came back with the probability I might have a blood clot.

I did not have a clot.  Instead, I sat on the sofa with my leg firmly wrapped in ace bandages and kept my right leg elevated for two weeks till all the swelling was gone.

Needless to say, Christmas was the lowest point of this whole debacle and things crept along for the better after that.

 

The plant is edible, especially when young and tender. The greens can be eaten raw, parboiled or fried. The flowers can be eaten or candied.

 

This spring, the pain greatly diminished. My hand therapist believed my laptop keyboard could the culprit, inflaming my wrist injuries. I hunted down an ergonomically correct one that helps people with my type of tendinitis. I’m typing now because of this keyboard. It has been a savior.

My massage therapist was another savior. She listened to what my body was saying about the pain and her work and conversations helped me keep my sanity.

And then there’s the care of my acupuncturist. He was deeply troubled over my condition and he too listened to what my body was saying. His help gave me pain free moments during very dark times.

Dear friends and family members provided much consolation and compassion. I thank all of you.

And last but not least is my wonderful husband Jeff. His continual willingness to help was a bright spots during this ordeal. His cheerful smile and wicked sense of humor helped me find reasons to get up in the morning. He is one of the greatest people I know and I am so lucky to have found him.

 

In the past, the Cherokee Nations have used a compound infusion of spiderwort for female ailments or kidney trouble. The roots were made into a poultice to treat cancer. The plant was also mashed and ground to treat insect bites.

 

And so I have good weeks that are free from pain. But I have bad ones too where the pain won’t let go. My healers and friends rejoice with me during the good weeks and help me through the bad ones. I am incredibly privileged to know these people and receive their aid.

I was forced to give up a lot this last year and a half. A lot. But to my shock, life continued and all survived. Pain became a doorway for me. It forced me to make choices about how I saw the world around me and how I would chose to participate with it.

It’s a bitter thing to lose a year and half of your life. But, if I turn the lens of perception just so, I see I did not lose part of my life. I changed with my life. I made important internal decisions whenever I could. The time became holy; so much nonsense was removed because I couldn’t physically move or do anything about it. I was alone with my pain.

And now I’ve come back to talk about that and other issues. My pain is greatly lessened and I can do more but the pain is not all gone and I am still learning the delicate balancing act of pain. This blog entry is my re-entry into the conversation I left off when my injuries overcame me. Sparrow Post will continue to be a place where I muse on art, spirituality, and nature.

 

The 3-petalled blossoms of spiderwort point to balance. Three is about opening the mind, letting go of binary thinking. The blue flowers are cheerful and exquisite yet only last for a day once they bloom. They last than less than a day in fact—once noon hits, the blooming flowers close and die.

Pollination must happen in the morning hours and so bumblebee tumbles from flower to flower in the early light. A few other types of bees and flies join in the pollination.

 

For this summer, I’m inserting native plants into each entry. Plants are our allies and they are at their zenith in these sunshine laden months. Native plants are hidden stories begging to be told, medicines waiting to be used.

Beautiful Dana of Wild & Magic gave plant medicine to me during some of my worst moments and now I’m ready to learn on my own and share what I can in return. I will not pick these native plants with my hands but use my camera instead. Since my hand is not fully healed, I will not be concocting teas or salves but I will be reading and sharing.

 

The color of spiderwort’s flowers, ranging from blue to purple to white, is a small part of its charm. Its true powers are hidden in its physical properties. The pleasant blooms rapidly pass away but the plant gives more than its beauty: it feeds the hungry and aids the suffering.

 

spiderwort1

 

Summer is here. Let us enjoy it.

 

 

Sometime ago, I was tagged to answer What are your 10 Top Influential Books? Now that’s a serious list and I needed time to mull it over. The moment came last night when I was in bed with insomnia, tossing and turning and trying to quiet my mind. I didn’t succeed in quieting it down but I did feel the glow of satisfaction in coming up with 10 books and authors I cannot live without. Here they are, mostly in order.

  1. Beloved by Toni Morrison. I read this book three times before I finally understood anything in it. And what I did comprehend changed my life. And it keeps changing my life. Paradise by Morrison is another that does the same.
  2. The Story Girl by L.M. Montgomery. This was the first novel I read (age 11) where the gift of storytelling was viewed as life’s highest honor. Its set among children on a family farm and is still my favorite escape read.
  3. Violence by James Gilligan. I read this when I had a semester abroad at Oregon Extension many years ago. I reread it this year when I was full of grief and anguish over the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, and all the others who fall to police violence that we sometimes hear about and sometimes do not. This book aided me in understanding the rampant violence in our society and how our justice system fails to truly address or prevent violence. Violence is our national tragedy and the legacy we must address and heal.
  4. Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. This is a favorite book for so many reasons. Wharton’s critical gaze never flinches or falls aside. While she was a product of her time (unfortunately), she was also a sharp critic, superb writer, and craftsman. Her prose is some of the best—like drinking a biting cool drink in a crystal glass.
  5. Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. This is a hard one to admit. I tried to reread the Little House a few years ago and was floored by the strong libertarian tones and blatant insanity of Pa. Uh, illegally dragging your family full of little children into another nation’s land so you can bag better game? Your whole family nearly dying from malaria and no one noticing because you’re all alone (in a land you have no right to) and it’s better that way? Wrong, Pa. So wrong. But anyway, I read these books obsessively as a kid and I will say, they’re all about women getting through bad times and being tough. Every girl needs to read about other women surviving bad situations. I learned about survival early on, thanks to Wilder.
  6. Agatha Christie. The Murder of Roger Ackyrod was the first mystery I ever read (I was 12). And I’ve been obsessed with Christie ever since. I still read her for pleasure but I love to take her plots and paragraphs apart. No one has a character to leave a room and a new one enter as smoothly as Christie. The reader never notices it happening. Christie’s a workhorse and a cunning master.
  7. Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich. Her novel opened up a whole new way of writing and viewing the world. People can be terrifying and awful but still be magical.  Love Medicine haunts me.
  8. Middlemarch by George Eliot. Eliot’s love for her creation spills out in every sentence of this book. I read her for courage and compassion.
  9. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Another writer I struggle with as an adult. But every time I write a new story, I can hear Lucy stepping into the wardrobe, brushing past the fur coats, and into a new world. Much of my desire to tell magical stories comes from him.
  10. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. In a fit of thirteen year old boredom, I opened my mother’s lime-green college copy of P&P. I burst out laughing when Mr. Bennett wryly and verbally tangoed with his wife. And that was just the first page.  I couldn’t stop reading and I’ve been laughing and taking notes from Austen ever since.

 

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The equinox occurred last night at 11:29 (CST). This was when the sun shone directly over the equator. After last night, the days for the northern hemisphere will shorten and the beautiful balance of equal days and night will tip over the edge towards darkness.

The autumnal equinox is also known as the Second Harvest (where everyone takes a break from the first harvest rush before pressing on) and more recently, Mabon (a Wiccan name and a male figure from Welsh mythology).

I’ve been considering how to observe this equinox. I’ve been poring over magazines, hunting for images and phrases that speak of the coming winter and darkness, a time of the year I take great solace in. Woodcuts from fairytales leap out, as do leafless trees twining over paths. At some point this week, I’ll make a collage but I wanted to do a small observance for the day and prepare myself for how the light will be changing.

In the end, my observance was born from observing changes. Yesterday was the first day I wrote a to-do list and didn’t feel ashamed or frustrated I didn’t get it all done. Yesterday was the first day that I wrote and thought hard and then let myself rest with a walk and a short nap. Yesterday was the first day I observed that I was balancing work and rest without guilt or self-flagellation for not getting more done. This was a huge balance that came from years of emotional work and rocky ongoing struggles.

Creation and depletion is balanced by play and rest. And the equinox is all about balance, two equal sides. It’s a natural time to honor the balance in life and notice the areas it’s occurring. I chose to look at the areas where I was successful rather than not. It’s harvest time, after all. A time to count, savor and enjoy one’s riches. I don’t have a pantry (nor did I do canning this year) where I can walk in and gloat over my jars of preserves and jams. So I walked into my internal pantry instead and gloated over the new preserves and jams nourishing my internal world. It’s a new chapter for me—enjoying what I have rather than lamenting over what I don’t. Work is always pressing onward but it’s good to take a moment and celebrate what is working out and what is in balance. It’s a beautiful and sweet time, a moment of deep breath taking before the last lingering days of autumn come to an end.


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island park bridge

I took a little stroll by the river yesterday morning before the heat set in. Just as I came to a T in the trail, cigarette smoke wafted past in the breeze and I overheard an argument in progress. Two men stood at the intersection. One leaned over a sky-blue backpack and jerked out a grocery bag from its depths. A lit cigarette dangled from his lips and he articulated around it, his words loud but indistinct.

His friend paced around him with an easy swinging step. “You ain’t ever told me that. I never heard that. Don’t tell me that.”

Arguments happen on the trails, of course. Angry children yell at their parents in passing and disgruntled spouses huff out peevish retorts while flying by on bicycles. This argument was a little different, however. Two men were having it out over a backpack while all about them, people feverishly ran, biked and rollerbladed past. There were no pretenses to exercise in this argument. They were just two men on their way somewhere and paused to duke it out.

I had a decision to make at that point. I could turn left and dodge hissing geese guarding adorable goslings or I could swing right towards the park and march right through the disagreement. I didn’t want to walk past a public argument but I lectured myself that I was a writer and whatever was going on could make good material.

I took the right turn and swung past. The pacing friend paused in mid-argument flow.  He inquired, “How you doing?” to me. I replied, smiled in turn and their argument resumed as if I had never been there.

And that interaction was one of the huge pleasures of being a writer. By forcing myself out of my comfort zone and gliding past an argument, I saw a glimpse to another world. Two friends were comfortable enough to argue with each other at an intersection and they weren’t getting too heated up over it either. I’ll never know what that argument was about but I caught the roll of their words, the flinging of their heads and the easy way in which they disagreed.

As I walked away, I became so caught up in remembering their poses and looks that I forgot my own problems and worries. That tiny interaction pulled me right out of myself. It’s good to be outside and be an observer. And a writer.

 

 

One of my first real memories was climbing out of bed in the middle of the night and padding out to the living room. My parents had forgotten to turn off the Christmas lights and I knelt in front of the shining tree, singing little songs to myself with tears running down my face. I was so happy from the beauty of the shining tree.

And tonight I find myself doing much the same, after a wonderfully restful day full of snacking, cat cuddling, book reading and “Merry Christmas!” shouting. I turned the lights off, lit candles and settled into the couch, finally giving myself the time to look over the fairy lights surrounding the snow village, sniff the scented candles and then turn to watch the falling snow outside.

I want to wish everyone a restful day, whatever you believe in and I hope everyone gets time to fill their hearts with the beauty they love, whatever that might be. Blessed be, everyone. Blessed be.

snowvillage

 

It’s snowing. So beautifully. Winter brings a harshness, a steel edged beauty hallowing all it touches. Tiny little birds hop about in the snow, prancing on the deck and driving the two indoor cats mad. The birds’ feet make patterns of lace on the snow. I’ve spent many a happy minute meditating on their miniature prints. And I’ve heard it from trackers that it’s possible to differentiate bird tracks. The key is watching the bird make the tracks and note every behavior while they do so. Were they nervous when they made the tracks? Hungry? Hopeful? You’ll only know these answers if you give yourself over to fully observing the bird. Eventually, as you mindfully observe and take notes, the tracks begin to lay out a story about how the bird felt and what goal it was pursuing while it was hopping around. The observed bird’s tracks will become familiar as the palm of your hand and just as the lines and scars on your hand reveal your life, so will the bird tracks will reveal their tiny secret life.

When I first learned about the ability to track and the resulting possibility to enter the thoughts and feelings of an utterly different life form, I was staggered. I still am. But what really made me sit up and blink was the great feeling of familiarity the new concept brought. “Of course, I can enter their world. Of course, this is the way to do it. I knew this all along,” a deep spot in my soul declared. Of course! Of course! One of my absolute favorite abilities is observing and now I could take that power and use it to enter another world, both bird and animal.

The snow is here and it’s swung open a magical door, a gateway of animal tracks. It only takes a moment or two but it’s worthwhile to bend over a few tracks and study them. First, of course, is figuring out which animal made them. Many animal tracking books and online sites are available for this. From there the questions begin to branch out: what direction was the animal heading? What portion of the print is the heaviest and what does that mean? It’s by observing the animal and then their prints that the questions are truly answered.

I haven’t got to the point where I can tell what an animal is feeling or thinking from their prints or but every winter I take a little time to look at different tracks. The marvel and beauty of the prints calls me to the future promise of knowing. Great things are done in little steps and this may be the year I pull out a notebook, dedicated to juncos, the tiny snowbirds I especially adore and note my observations. Two black eyes: beady. One breast: white. One head, one back and two wings: dark grey, portions covered as if by a cloak. Eagerly looking for food, head swiveling this way and that.

And so the knowing begins.