Pasture Walk

I have, once again, been in a mood for the past two weeks. I thought about taking up the negativity challenge my cousin sent me a few years back when there were too many gratitude and positivity chain posts sweeping Facebook. The gist of the negativity challenge is that you name ten things that get on your nerves, the pettier the better. It is quite fun and even a little cathartic, but the problem right now is that the things that are getting on my nerves aren’t petty. The other problem is that when so many people are getting on my nerves with big things, it’s probably a pretty good sign that I have some work to do in those areas myself, and I don’t feeeeeeeeel like it. So there.

I had two different writing exercises assigned in this same two week time frame. One was a praise poem, and I got one of the projected five stanzas done because the only thing I felt like praising was coffee. I tried to move from coffee to other things in the kitchen that I wanted to praise, but I stalled out at:

“I give thanks for the dogs that lie under my feet
Tripping me as I gather ingredients.”

Looking back, even the coffee stanza is a little disgruntled.

The other exercise worked a little better, since it did not require me to be actively grateful, but just to think about something I do regularly that I take pleasure in. Here it is, in hopes that anyone else who has been having the same kind of April I’ve been having may feel better for a little walk through the pasture:

This is a walk I do every day, but not a walk from any particular day. It’s a walk that I do in all seasons, but for today I will walk in the fall, with its background music of geese muttering on the pond next door, the leaves on the trees changed or fallen, the still-green grass eaten down to a haze interspersed with patches of bare dirt.

I’m walking through a field, on my way from one pair of horses to the other, a fence on my left, a small hill on my right, a bucket of grain in one hand. The field, like all the fields around it, is a minefield of primarily horse manure, but also that of fox, goose, skunk, and any other creature who takes this path when I’m not on it. A lot of my looking is down.

My downcast eyes start to steer me around a pile of horse manure, but then I stop, and stoop. This pile is covered with something that from above it looks like a convention of tiny parasols. Each one is open and translucently striped, and I pull my cell phone out of my pocket to take pictures, which is the main reason I have a cell phone. I stare at it in paralyzed horror on the rare occasions it rings, but it is silent now as I crouch down to photograph the last signs of the fairy party.

The sun is up but not high enough to clear the trees in front of me, so the rays pierce the scantily clad limbs only to get caught and fractured by the chilly morning fog. The parallel lines of the fence boards are periodically connected by spider webs, which with all due respect to Charlotte have much more beauty in their rainbow sparkling dew concentricity than any words. I stop again, angling so that the web is clearly visible against the backdrop of the ground, and the light reflects off the dew droplets but does not shine directly into the lens. I’m interrupted by an indignant whuffing and the sound of fifteen hundred equine pounds landing from an impatient but balletic leap. I pause by the big bay body after I tip his breakfast into his bowl, trying to catch his whorls of hair in the dawn light but he steps his hind feet away, muzzle still firmly planted in his food. I settle for the silhouette of his withers, back, and croup against the fog: sunrise over Mount Finn.

On these morning walks, I feel compelled to try to record these sights as I see them. If I succeed, they will look not like what they are, but like what they feel like to me, a city child transplanted into these country fields more than half my life ago, starting my days on my knees in the wet grass amid nameless scat, trying to capture the view from behind my eyes.

Postcards from Terra Firma

The ash tree is known in some mythological traditions as the world tree, the tree of life, the tree that spans between worlds. I chose our lone ash tree over fifteen years ago without knowing anything about the tree from either an arboricultural or mythological perspective. I liked it for its straight trunk and symmetrical branches. In our first two waves of planting trees here, we chose trees for practical reasons. We chose them for their crown shapes: some spreading, some rounded, some upright. We chose them for their growth rates: near the barn and the horse pastures we wanted fast growers to produce shade, so we planted London planes and tulip poplars. Near the house we wanted less shade, so we chose ironwood, crimson king maple, ornamental plum. Some we just find pretty, like the weeping cherry and the redbuds. We planted the ash for my mother two days after she died, and it has grown untouched by ash borers for over fifteen years, spanning the world where I am, the world where she is, the world where I remember us, and the world where I picture us together.

Birds are a constant presence, their specific populations shifting with the seasons and the birds’ own whims. Birds that are just passing through, birds that come for the summer, birds that stay for the winter. When we first moved here, there were few I recognized: robins, bluebirds, starlings, grackles. Every small brown bird was a sparrow, every red bird a cardinal, every raptor a red tailed hawk. The year my sister died, I took up bird photography. I went through bird crushes, stalking and trying to capture closer and clearer shots of the Coopers hawk pair, the female cardinal, the nest of Dr. Seussian green heron babies. I spent days waiting for birds, thinking about my sister who was dying, and then I spent days waiting for birds, thinking about my sister who was dead. I can differentiate a goldfinch from a pine warbler from a yellow-breasted chat, even if I can’t quite yet parse grief from anger from loss.

Ice storms are a part of winter every year, though between winters I manage to forget about them and am surprised anew each time. They embody the exact intersection of destruction and beauty, dropping tree limbs on fences, downing whole trees across our driveway, cutting off power and rendering driving impossible even if we could find a way out. As I make my careful way around to inspect the damage, I carry a camera to try to capture the magic of the sun sparking rainbows through the ice encasing every twig of the ironwood tree, the icicle stalactites growing downward from the barn eaves, the jewel-bright dogwood berries glowing red through ice teardrops. We mourn the fallen Bradford pear even as we plan what to plant in its place: a tree both sturdier and more flexible to weather the inevitable storms.

Blinking one by one into the dusk, shining brightly in the black of late night, hiding behind cloud cover, stars both visible and invisible fill my nights. Shooting stars, not stars at all, grace my late and early outings with the dogs just often enough to keep me, like the dogs, looking up for the intermittent reward. I have traveled to places where I can see the Milky Way, where the stars are so numerously visible they form a web of light, but here at home they remain individual points even on the clearest night. I can pick out a few constellations: Orion, Cassiopeia, The Big Dipper, the Pleiades. I am less certain of Taurus, but in true Taurus fashion I will confidently point out where it is. I have lived in this spot for more than a third of my life, lucky enough to have my views both day and night unchanged in twenty years. When my father was dying I returned to the city where I grew up, spending nights in his spare room lit by the orange glow of the streetlamps, unable to comprehend how to sleep with no true darkness to delineate night from day, with no stars to remind me: Look up! Look up.

The trees on the front and back edges of our property are trees that were here before us. A stand of tall white pines whose needles have made their own ecosystem at the entrance to the property, a ridgeline of locusts that shed their limbs more readily than their leaves, mulberries on the edge of the back woods, their berries drawing birds and squirrels to their branches and white tailed deer and foxes to the fallen fruit below. The rest of the trees, the trees closer to the house and barn, we planted ourselves, sweating and swearing our way through digging holes in our rocky soil. There is the weeping cherry I can no longer wrap my arms all the way around, shading the living room window. The plane trees that tower over the barn. The oak and maple trees that mark the graves of the four horses who moved here with us – each of those trees a seedling the year we buried each horse, the smallest tree now fifteen feet tall. I am particularly drawn to the trees in winter, their skeletons visible to the world. Bare branches cast shadows on the snow like visible roots that ground us here, or split around the solid line of the trunk shadow like the branching of veins and arteries around an aorta, carrying blood to and from the heart and lungs of this place.

Wineberry plants grow thick along the edge of the back woods, and they spring up anywhere else we let them. Canes bend to the ground to bury and root their tips in their ongoing crawl towards the sunny pastures. A welcome invasive, they feed us when we remember it’s the right time of year to pick them, and otherwise they feed the wild creatures. Wineberries look like raspberries lit from within, their drupelets smaller, brighter and more translucent than even a raspberry from the farmers’ market stands. When my mother stayed with us after her second to last hospital visit, her appetite dulled by cancer and drugs and depression, I tried to create small plates of things she loved to tempt her to eat. A quarter of a bagel, smoothly cream cheesed and covered with a thin layer of lox plated with a small fruit salad: bright red wineberries with blueberries, a few slices of banana, two-toned green kiwi. A small dish of yogurt bejeweled with wineberries. “Too pretty,” my mother declared, “not to eat.”

Let Her Eat Cake

My friend Elaine died last Tuesday. I knew it when I woke up that morning, but having it confirmed still took my breath away. The first thing I thought when I heard the news, right after “damn it to hell,” was “I need to make her a cake.” I am quite sure it is the memorial she would most have wanted from me, and it is the one I most want to give her.

Her death from cancer was no surprise. I met her through an online writing group in which many of us began blogs. Her blog was called a horse, a husband, and cancer, and in it she openly discussed her 30 year battle with cancer. More than anyone I have ever known, Elaine recognized the relationship she had with her cancer – the actual til death do us part nature of it. Before I even knew her, her doctors had deemed her cancer incurable, terminal. So no, it was not a surprise. And yet. How can she be dead?

We met through our writing. We bonded through our shared interests in horses and baking, and our dark senses of humor. We became friends through our blogs. In Ann Patchett’s Story of A Happy Marriage, a friend asks Ann of her first husband, “Does he make you a better person? … Are you smarter, kinder, more generous, more compassionate, a better writer?” And to all of these things, but especially the last one, I can say a resounding yes about Elaine.

Ours was a writing friendship, something I didn’t even knew I needed or could have. We were motivated and inspired by each other because of how much we loved each other’s writing. Each blog post, each comment, each tangential discussion was fodder for our next writing efforts. Reading each other’s work was a pleasure in itself, and it also made us both want to write more. We never tried to be editor or critic for the other; we were just enthusiastic readers and sources of more material. “Just,” I say, as if those aren’t the things we writers want most. Fairly early on Elaine said to me, “But most of all I want you to write more because the subject almost didn’t matter, I just want your words,” and that is exactly how I felt – how I feel – about her writing.

Elaine began posting a weekly blog last spring, and I was inspired to do the same when I realized how eagerly I read her words first thing every Thursday over my morning coffee. It was like getting an anticipated letter in the mail (and oh, I miss letters), ripping open the envelope and starting to read right there at the mailbox, the letter in one hand and the torn envelope in the other. When I started posting on Mondays, she read and responded to my work as avidly as I did hers. We said we had a biweekly tea date – well, tea for her on Mondays, coffee for me on Thursdays – as we sat down with a hot drink (and maybe cake) and each other’s words. When I was stuck for an idea I would sometimes think, “What do I want to tell Elaine about this week?”

We grew up in different countries, different decades, different families, different schools. Sometimes we wrote about the parts of our lives that had no intersection, and we learned things from and about each other. Sometimes we wrote about the same topics – cake, for example – cake was always central for us – and all the things that baking represents, and the people and rituals it connects us to. Birds, and how they helped us find our way to dead relatives (my sister, her mother). I often wrote about death – of family members, of beloved animals. Elaine often wrote about her cancer, her own death looming far or near on the horizon.

Of course we wrote about our horses. We each had a truth serum horse – the kind of horse that doesn’t let us get away with any of our shit, the kind of horse that requires us to be our truest, most honest, most vulnerable selves in their presence. We both had a tendency to armor up with humor and a veneer of toughness when facing fear, and those truth serum horses have no patience with that. Last summer, Elaine wrote a multi-part series about her horse, Bruce: his life prior to her, and his life with her. Part fact, part conjecture, all truth, she brought him to vivid life for her readers. Less than two months later he was dead from colic. Shocking, unexpected, heartbreaking. And yet I also see that Bruce blazed the trail for Elaine to follow not long after. Shocking, expected, heartbreaking.

In her last message to me, just a few days before she entered hospice, Elaine related her recent terrifying hospital visit in a typically dry yet hilarious way. Her last words to me were “I miss Bruce like my heart is breaking and I might never get to meet you.” My last words to her were “I miss your voice,” and I always will. Until I heard of her death I held out hope that I would get to see her in person for our long promised tea and cake visit, but I know us. Bruce was waiting, and we would both agree with a paraphrased John Muir: “The horses are calling, and I must go.”

The last thing I wrote that I know Elaine read was my Christmas Bat piece, which I wrote because it was a story she asked me for. It began, though, with my explanation that I was giving her the story because I was not able to deliver the 10 layer Russian honey cake she had also asked for. I also wrote of my sadness over the prospect of my friend’s death. Her reply to that was “I expect your friend will change her mind and decide to wait for the layer cake. I know I would. And with covid restrictions, exchange rate, costly flights etc, it might take a looooong time til you deliver the cake to her?” I wanted that time. I can’t separate how much I wanted it for her and how much I wanted it for me. I can honestly say that I would have traded ever meeting her in person for her getting as much life as she wanted. I also know I would have wanted to keep sharing that life, even if only from across the ocean.

I started this piece the day she died. I almost posted it that day, but I knew it was not finished. I revised, and rewrote, and chainsaw-edited. I almost posted it on Thursday, Elaine’s day, but I was still revising. By Friday I realized that as long as I am working on this, I have her with me in a way I won’t when I finish it. Part of me can still pretend that she will read it. The rest of me is grieving daily as I write. I need both the illusion and the grief right now.

When I make Elaine’s cake, it will most certainly be that 10 layer Russian honey cake. It is complicated, time consuming, and it will give me many hours of preparation and baking and construction to commune with her in my kitchen. I will cut it into thin slices and freeze it, to make it last for as many Thursdays as possible.

“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”
E.B. White

To read Elaine’s words please go to her blog: a horse, a husband, and cancer

Writing, or Not

Current Mood

Almost three months ago I decided I was going to post a blog every Monday. I didn’t tell anyone for a few weeks that I had a schedule, and since then I have told just a few friends, and my writing group. The down side of announcing a schedule for writing is that I then have to actually write according to the schedule and sometimes I don’t feel like (it’s ok if you read those last few words in a super whiny tone – you wouldn’t be wrong).

I mean to write, but I end up reading. It’s a lot like the detours I take looking up a word in the dictionary.  On the way to my word, I see another that is stranger or more interesting or otherwise more attractive or eye-catching.  On days when I have more restraint I mark that page with a finger and come back to it after visiting the spelling or definition or synonym of the word I was after.  Sometimes I wind up with my entire hand in the dictionary, each finger marking a different page.  I may then return to the word or words that caught my eye, or perhaps something else will have jumped off the page of the original word – another word, or in the case of my favorite American Heritage Dictionary, a usage note.  Any of these may – likely will – lead to other words until whatever drove me to pick up the dictionary in the first place has been completely lost.  This process is rarely derailed by the presence of another person, usually the person who asked me for the definition of the first word that I did not know precisely.  If I can I will pull them along with me through the dictionary maze, but I am not easily deterred.  Even when they throw their hands up and leave the room I will happily continue my wordly wanderings.

In high school my favorite parties involved the game Fictionary.  I believe this has grown to some kind of board game now, but to us it involved paper, pens, and a dictionary.  One person would look up a word that none of the others knew – no easy task in this group – and the others would each write down a definition they thought likely or that at least sounded plausible.  The holder of the dictionary would then read all the definitions out loud (including the actual one which was also written on a sheet of paper to disguise it) and the other players would cast their votes as to which was the real definition.  Points were given for guessing correctly, but more points went to those who wrote the incorrect definitions that were selected as real, and still more points to the word-chooser when no one guessed correctly. My shining Fictionary moment was when I made up a definition that was chosen by every other player. I don’t remember the word, or the definition, but i remember the feeling.

Given my love of Fictionary you’d think I’d have a better poker face than I do, but I don’t have one at all. I am best at keeping a straight face while saying something patently absurd, a skill I likely learned from my father who reportedly once convincingly informed a colleague at the newspaper that she should clean her typewriter with peanut butter. It helps if the fakery does not involve words, as in the time my son asked during dinner where the cat was, and I just looked at him with wide eyes for a minute, and then looked at the platter of flank steak in the middle of the table, and then I looked back at my son. He didn’t exactly believe me, but I freaked him out a little, and I was pleased. I am not all that good at misdirection when anything personal is on the line. Ask me why I’m treating my writing deadline like a term paper deadline – the kind where you stay up all night the night before because you did nothing all semester – and I will probably turn red and stammer.

Like my dictionary detours, when I start to write I often have a quote from some other writer in my head.  I go get the book to look it up for review or to quote it accurately.  On my way to the quote I may fall into a page more compelling and from there to another.  I may go right to my quote and instead of writing it down I just keep reading.  Depending on the book, the author may quote another whose book I must go get, or this may lead me to Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations which is the like dictionary all over again. Months may go by if any of this leads to an internet search, which will usually lead to the purchase and subsequent reading of more books.  Meanwhile I have yet to put pen to paper but I still consider this part of my writing process.

With all that in mind, it’s probably not such a bad idea to have a day by which I need to get something on paper (so to speak). Like too many other things in life, it’s easier for me to commit to a thing when I’ve committed to someone else than when I’ve committed to myself, which seems backwards but I know I’m not alone in this. I’m pretty sure the three people I’ve told I’m writing weekly will not come after me with pitchforks for my weekly dose of whatever this is, but damn it, I’m going to come up with something. This week, this is it. Put your pitchforks down, friends.