Say What? … She What? … But I Just Talked To Her …

On Monday a friend of Robin’s, a lady of 87 years, was perky and going through her regular routines and looking forward to Zoom Bible Study on Tuesday, but that evening she passed away. Quietly, no fuss, no drawn-out or painful rite of passage. Two eyes closed in the evening and the last chapter in her personal story on Earth was written.

As always the finality of death was shocking, even when it comes to someone at that stage of her life. You can’t shuffle off this mortal coil at 87 without disturbing everybody you know, not even then. Her friends weren’t yet ready to say goodbye. For me it has always been that irreversibility, that complete resistance to petitioning, that refusal to listen to reason that has sometimes greatly pissed me off about death. The absolute lack of recourse.

Along came this piece by Margaret Renkl in Wednesday’s NYTimes, describing the role of poetry in helping people deal with hard places in life. This help comes at those times when we have run out of words to describe what is happening to us or how we feel. It comes when our own store of language fails us. Knowing that the poet could not have written what they did if they hadn’t seen what we are seeing. And if they survived, why, so might we.

I recall as a very young child overhearing my parents having a serious disagreement. Voices were raised and harsh words were exchanged. There were two things that were my takeaway that night. One was the terminally scary thought that mom and dad might separate and then where would I be? The other was that even while I was feeling so small and terrified, the people I could see through my window out there on the street were going about their own busy-ness, without a care for my troubles. How unfeeling they were! How unfair it all was.

If I’d had someone else’s words to lean on, I might not have felt so alone and powerless on that turbulent night. But hey, I was just a kid. Who writes tragic or even thoughtful poetry for six year-olds? Here is the huge advantage in being an adult. There are places to which we can turn for support, if we will. Poetry is one of those.

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From The New Yorker

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The Peace of Wild Things

by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

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Musée des Beaux Arts

by W.H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.


In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

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Icarus

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We are off later this morning for a four-hour drive to the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Camping there with the Hurley family. I’ve dusted off the camper, put the proper amount of air in its tires, and checked the supply boxes. The daytime weather is predicted to be good, but the nights are all scheduled to be below freezing so we’ll be wearing our socks to bed and bringing out Mr. Heater for those nights. I look forward to rolling up like a hedgehog in the bottom of my sleeping bag and wearing all of the clothes I brought. It’s one of those recurring situations in life that go like this –

“Why do you keep hitting yourself?”

“Because it feels so good when I stop.”

We’ve been to this park a couple of times, and if you’ve never been, it is pretty amazing. You drive along the highway and it is nothing but mountains and the lovely San Luis Valley and then all of a sudden – what the hey? – gigantic sand dunes, hundreds of feet high, piled up against those Sangre de Cristo mountains.

Be prepared … we may take photos.

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Something of Value

In 1955 I was sixteen and OMG was I impressionable. There were many things that made dents in my psyche that year, dents which still show if the light is right and if I turn my head just so … . One of them was the book Something of Value, by Robert Ruark.

It was a novel about the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, which was very much in the headlines in the middle 50s. Lots of killing. More atrocities than you could shake a lion’s tail at. Colonials versus natives and all that. A very juicy set of horrors better viewed safely from several thousand miles away, which is exactly where I was.

Mr. Ruark was a White Hunter. Which means he was a member of a highly privileged group who traveled regularly to Africa to kill large animals for the fun of it. They would then take the heads, bring them back to the U.S. and build rooms in their homes to display them in, as evidence of their prowess. Ruark would write about his exploits, and publish these stories in magazines like Sports Afield and such. He was quite a good writer, actually.

When he decided to write about the Mau Mau, his informants were most often white people like himself. In spite of this handicap, he wrote a compelling novel that was very popular and which was my first little peek into the joys of colonialism. I learned that those brave and stiff upper-lipped British settlers could be quite awful at times in the way they treated indigenous populations. I learned that cruelty begets more cruelty, and that there seems to be no end to the creativity that can be brought to beat when doing harm to others.

It was a grim book, but had to be so if it were to accurately report the time and the events. The title comes from an African proverb which translates into something like: When we take away from a man his traditional way of life, his customs, his religion, we had better make certain to replace it with
something of value
.”

It was that thought that stuck with me from then on. I remembered it when I began to be more aware, as a young man, of the true history in my own country of European settlers and Native Americans. (I say true as opposed to the heavily laundered version found in movies, which were my first source of information on the subject.) More cruelty, more horrors, more taking away without replacing.

They made a so-so movie out of the book which starred Rock Hudson and Sidney Poitier as the friends turned antagonists. If you think it might be hard to imagine the dignified and righteous Poitier doing very bad things, you are right. It was.

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Which brings me to Easter Sunday. I can almost hear you saying “Huh? What fool sort of segue was that?”

My personal spiritual journeys have taken me on a zig-zag sort of route, and some of those directions have disappointed people I loved. So far I have caromed from Lutheran to Catholic to Lutheran to agnostic to Lutheran to Buddhist. If I live long enough, I might add yet another category to the list. Two things stand out for me. One is that you never know where your studies and thinking might be going until you find yourself there, and then what do you do?

The second is that I have never felt so rock-steady at any of these stages that I was tempted to proselytize. When I would leave one tradition behind for another, I have always been cognizant of the fact that … well … I could be wrong. That what I was leaving behind could be closer to the truth than where I was going. To debate with friends about religions has been something that I have avoided for these reasons. And to a large degree, it went back to that phrase from the book long ago:

When we take away from a man his traditional way of life, his customs, his religion, we had better make certain to replace it with something of value.

Something of Value, by Robert Ruark

So … if I were to argue religion with another person, and if I were successful in converting that person to my belief system, and if it turned out that my beliefs were wrong, what would that make me? What sort of friend would I have been?

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From The New Yorker

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All of the predictions are in place, the stars are aligned, and this Easter Sunday promises to be one of purely gorgeous Spring weather. It will be in the 70s here in Paradise, and there will be sunshine all over the place. Nor any drop of rain to fall. What will we do with this fine day?

We will have friends for brunch later this morning, for one thing. It will be our first indoor socializing since the onset of The Plague. Hopefully this is a true turning point in this disease’s dreary history, and a good first step back toward whatever normalcy will be.

I see myself lying back in the grass by a riverbank somewhere later on today, listening to the water and letting the unquiet air pass me by as I do the water in the river. I can almost feel the warmth of the sun on the aching places that I seem to have accumulated over time. And all of this in the company of my good and tolerant friend, Robin.

What a lucky man am I.

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Let It Be

It’s been an emotional week here in Paradise. The Pema Chodron book that am in the middle of reading is so applicable to recent events in our lives that it’s uncanny. Each evening I finish one short chapter before retiring, and it helps me to clarify and to center myself. To be present with what is, rather than resisting it sounds so dry unless you are actively practicing it. Until you really need it.

Of course I ‘need’ it all the time, but I feel that poverty most strongly in harder times. I’ve heard said more than once in AA meetings that “he’s not the first person to find God in the back seat of a police cruiser.” Those hard moments are the ‘foxhole’ sort of events, where the supplicant tries to make his deal with the Universe for a specific purpose. When we realize that our ideas of control in our lives were mostly fictions. Stuff we made up.

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We’re already in the beginning of mud season here in Paradise. Yesterday Robin and I took our regular 4-mile walk on asphalt exclusively, with exuberant gumbo on both sides of the trail. On one occasion I saw footprints in the mud that suddenly vanished, as if the person had simply been swallowed by the muck. Is there such a thing as quick-mud?

Yesterday was the sort of day that our cats just gave up on. Not so cold, not so windy, not so rainy, but a little bit of all of these. So they became part of the furniture, changing their sleeping stations every couple of hours or so. Whenever they did step out for three seconds, they would come back indoors indignant, giving us an angry Rrrowwwrrr as if we were to blame.

I just hate being judged by animals, don’t you? And it’s so frustrating that they won’t listen to your explanation that humans are not in charge of the weather. They walk away even as you are talking to them, tail in the air, the picture of disdain. So rude.

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There are interesting little dialogues that are happening between people who are receiving the Covid vaccine. What they all come down to is: When you’ve had both doses, are you going to manage your life differently?

So far my answer has been: Nope. When most of the rest of the Coloradans have had their vaccines, then I will walk out the door without a care. But a new category of entertaining does open itself up. We have several friends up and down the street in our little part of town, all of whom are senior citizens, and all of whom will have been immunized within the next month or so. From my standpoint, I think that they would be safe to have over for dinner and a chat. Like in the good old days when I was blissfully unaware of the novel coronavirus’ existence.

The reason for persistent caution in approaching the general population is that the vaccine we received is 95% effective in protecting us, not 100%. That means that 5 out of every 100 people who receive their two doses are not protected, but they don’t know who they are, since no post-vaccine blood testing is being done. If I am one of those 5 people, it’s like I never got the shot.

It’s a numbers game, to be certain.

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Resistance

Robin gave me a small book by Pema Chodron for Christmas, which I am finally in the process of reading. Sister Pema is a Buddhist nun who writes simply and clearly on matters of the mind and spirit, all from a Buddhist perspective. I enjoy her books because I am very fond of simplicity. I dote on it. It suits me. Early in Chapter Four I ran across this passage:

The Buddha spoke a lot about the importance of working with one’s ego. But what did he mean by “ego”? There are various ways to talk about this word, but one definition I particularly like is “that which resists what is.” Ego struggles against reality, against the open-mindedness and natural movement of life. It is very uncomfortable with vulnerability and ambiguity, with not being quite sure how to pin things down.

Welcoming the Unwelcome, by Pema Chodron, pp 30-31.

What an interesting definition for “ego.” It was one of those times when I read something that rang so true that I can’t believe that I hadn’t seen it for myself. Then I remind my self that original thinking is not a strong suit for me, I am much better at being the enthusiastic follower. But “that which resists what is” …. yep, yep, yep, yep, that’s how my own ego busies itself. Rarely for better, occasionally for worse.

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[Continuing this thread, below is a sort of “present moment” piece by our Poet Laureate.]

Praise the Rain

by Joy Harjo

Praise the rain; the seagull dive
The curl of plant, the raven talk—
Praise the hurt, the house slack
The stand of trees, the dignity—
Praise the dark, the moon cradle
The sky fall, the bear sleep—
Praise the mist, the warrior name
The earth eclipse, the fired leap—
Praise the backwards, upward sky
The baby cry, the spirit food—
Praise canoe, the fish rush
The hole for frog, the upside-down—
Praise the day, the cloud cup
The mind flat, forget it all—

Praise crazy. Praise sad.
Praise the path on which we’re led.
Praise the roads on earth and water.
Praise the eater and the eaten.
Praise beginnings; praise the end.
Praise the song and praise the singer.

Praise the rain; it brings more rain.
Praise the rain; it brings more rain.

I particularly like that next-to-last stanza. Put me in the group that praises both crazy and sad. My tendency is to praise happy and joyful, giving the crazy/sad category shorter shrift than it deserves. Life presents all these to me, why should I promote one set and resist another?

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You may not have thought about the fact that there is a Buddhist theme running through rock music. My particular favorite is by Joe Walsh, and it is Life of Illusion. But how about Lennon’s Instant Karma, or the Rolling Stones’ The Last Time? Or a group calling itself Nirvana, for goodness’ sake? I found a light-hearted article on the Rolling Stones’ contributions which I pass along to you.

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Grateful for the little things. Our local paper, right here in the middle of Cluck County, prints the Doonesbury comic strip. Go figure.

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Looking For Mom And Pop

We’re off to South Dakota later this morning. Plans are to bed down in North Platte NE for the night, then drive on to Yankton SD the next day. The total trip distance (to Yankton) is 866 miles, give or take a foot. North Platte seems a decent little town, with the usual cluster of motels, restaurants, and gas stations along the interstate. We’ve chosen the Husker Inn, which came up #1 on Trip Advisor. It looks to be a typical mom-and-pop establishment … one level, each room opening directly onto the parking lot. Seems just right for traveling in the Covid era, with fewer opportunities to actually come in contact with other living and breathing human beings.

Even before the pandemic came along, these little places were my favorites when traveling. Not when the hotel is a destination, mind you, but when all you want is a clean bed in a clean room for the night. Forgot something in the car? Why, it’s no problem at all. Your vehicle is just outside your door.

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The weather here in Paradise promises nothing but sunshine for the next week, with very moderate temperatures. It’s the golden time of year, when all the windows can be open and neither the A/C nor the furnace are needed. Most of the flying things that bite you are long gone, and you can actually walk to the end of the block without needing a full canteen.

Our cats love this weather. They tolerated (because they had to, as did we all) the slow roasting that this past summer provided, but now they can sleep or stretch out whenever and wherever. It is what cats do best. Total inactivity interspersed with bursts of intense mouse-chasing. Last evening Willow caught three mice in four hours, bringing each one indoors and being instantly shooed back out. Robin and I are just not into providing living space for small rodents.

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I was sitting here with my second cup of coffee as companion, thinking back on the good parts of our camping season this year, which did have its negative aspects, I admit. But in between calamities there were moments of great beauty and serenity. There was also the feeling that I get at those times of being, I don’t know, sort of capable. We pick a spot, we erect a shelter, we cook our food under relatively primitive conditions. We eat a pine needle or two in our chili and call it seasoning. If a fleck of forest duff blows into my coffee cup in the morning I fish it out and keep on drinking.

We clean up after ourselves while paying attention to what needs to be done to keep bears honest (and alive). In short, for a few days we take care of ourselves with few barriers between us and the natural world. It’s sweaty and dirty and showers are hard to come by but we do profit.

You don’t need to go to the woods or the mountains to meditate, to get some perspective, but it is just so much easier to do it out there. At least it is for me.

When I leave home for these few days each year, the absence of distractions helps me to be mindful. I am ancient enough that I had my brand of ADD for thirty years before everybody knew there was such a thing. Robin can tell you that taking me out to lunch in a sports-bar sort of establishment is a bad idea. All those television screens going at once makes me crazy, and I don’t get back to full self-control until we’ve paid the bill and walked out. I may not even remember what I ate, and my shirtfront is occasionally covered with mustard.

But put me in the woods, and you can have my full attention. I see, hear, smell, taste, and feel everything. I am entirely present. The real trick? To be able to do that when I return home. When the student asked the venerable Zen Buddhist monk how to achieve enlightenment, his answer was: “Chop wood, carry water.” Meaning you can achieve peace in your life by doing everyday tasks and living everyday life, but doing it all mindfully.

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From The New Yorker

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On Wednesday I went to see my grandson, the ophthalmologist. No, he’s not really. My grandson, that is. He’s just that young. I had cataract surgery on the left eye a couple of years ago, but the right eye wasn’t bad enough to please the folks at Medicare. They have their criteria as to when they are willing to pay for surgical correction. Time passes and the cataract worsens and finally you qualify. For about six months now I haven’t enjoyed three-dimensional vision because the right lens is mostly clouded over. So today I gave all the right answers on the questionnaire and got on the schedule for surgery at the end of October.

The surgery should be pretty much a breeze … for me, that is. I don’t know how it is for the surgeon, because I see him only for a nanosecond and then somebody gives me something very nice to tumble me off to sleep. When I wake up this time I will see well out of both eyes, thank the nurses, and Robin will take me home. Piece of cake. A miracle of sorts, made possible entirely through technology.

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I moved my writing station to the front of our home this past week. It’s less private, but I do get to watch a different set of people moving around, some of them in their automobiles. You remember autos? Before electric vehicles came around, people actually depended on those smelly and noisy internal combustion engines which did so much harm to the environment.

To make things worse, they had no guidance systems, but were piloted solely through the skillset of the driver. Which varied so much that there were tens of thousands of citizens who were mowed down by their neighbors each year in horrific collisions of flesh and bone versus metal and plastic. Of course we still have the odd collision nowadays, when an onboard computer develops a glitch. Like last year when that semi-trailer plowed through a St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and when the police approached the truck they found no one in the cab. Somehow its program had gone off and started the engine without any human input, and that was all she wrote.

At any rate, there are still a few of those things around here in Paradise, and since most of them are operated by senior citizens, be aware of that fact if you come to visit us and set your EV’s hazard control systems to “High Alert.”

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Sunday Morning

Zoom-church hasn’t quite been cutting it for many Christians here in Paradise. I overhear their conversations and there is a longing in their voices to come together, to share the words and songs in the way that they love best, in a place that is sacred to them. A virus has taken this away, this ritual assembling that is the beloved focus of the week in normal times.

Oh, they’ve been using video very well, as ministers preach to cameras in empty halls, “coffees” are held on Zoom, and bible studies are planned and conducted by people who are miles apart from one another. But the synod of Robin’s church has not given official permission for their congregations to meet as yet, not in the “old” way. That does not make these parishioners less restive. Indeed, they chafe at the uncertainty as to when religious life will return to something like normal. This month? This year … ?

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My own spiritual life has been a solo one for so long that Covid hasn’t really made a dent in it. Small town America is not filled with Buddhists, and although there is a very small local group that meets in homes, I am reluctant to join it. There are Buddhists that can be just as annoying as any hard-core evangelical Baptist who won’t leave you alone until you are saved three times over. Such followers of the Buddha will natter away on arcane subjects that hold no interest for me. The intricacies of karma and rebirth, for instance. Or the purity of their religious practice. Since I am not required to believe in these things I don’t, and therefore discussing them seems time ill-spent, pour moi.

One of the first books I read on these subjects was Buddhism Without Beliefs, by Jack Kornfeld, and it remains my “gospel.” The title says it all, I think.

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I was about to close this blog post when a headline on CNN caught my eye:

Yellowstone Warns Visitors Not To Get Mixed Up In Elk Mating Season

Now I don’t know about you, but for me this falls into the category of things I never needed to be told but knew instinctively. If you want to read the story, here it is.

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No Title

Well, whaddya know? Less than 7000 of America’s finest showed up for the Cluckaganza in Oklahoma. The organizers were expecting … six times that number.

Turns out it was all the fault of outside protestors who were nasty radicals armed with unfriendly placards. And then there was the problem of the media that had told people to turn their cars around and stay home, and by golly, tens of thousands of them must have done just that.

All in all it sounds like a disappointing party. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

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Robin said: Whatever you want to do, we will do. So on Sunday off we went to explore new terrain. First you drive to Norwood, which is 66 miles south of Montrose. Then you turn left and go south-southwest for about 15 miles until you get to a reservoir named Miramonte.

It’s set in the beautiful broad valley that you see in the photo below. We had a picnic, explored the area, people-watched for an hour or two, and then returned home.

For most of this trip we were out of phone contact, which is par for the course in this part of the world. Since the entire drive there and back was through beautiful country, and the destination itself also very cool (in its own spartan way), we counted the day as a complete success.

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Good news and bad news from the garden. Out tomatoes are doing wonderfully, with fruit-laden plants approaching the size of the carnivorous one in Little Shop of Horrors. I never get to close to them for this reason, and water from a respectful social distance. I have also warned the cats repeatedly not to get near the tomato cages.

Which is where the bad news comes in. Tomatoes are awfully thirsty plants to grow. Ours are set in containers, which only increases their demands for water. They require around two inches every few days, and more when the weather is hot. Since we have been blessed with little more than a soupçon of rainfall this summer, nearly all of that moisture must come from the tap.

But those of you who have been forced to read my past rants on the subject of commercially grown tomatoes (which I will mercifully not repeat today) know that my duty is clear. Pay the water bill gratefully and enjoy the fruit when it appears … and don’t go picking them without another person nearby holding a rope that is securely tied around your waist, to pull you out of danger should those plants get frisky.

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Bob Dylan has a new album out, of all original songs. The first such album in ten years. For a change, I’m not going to tell you what to think about them. It’s Dylan, and listening to his music usually asks something of us that is very personal.

I will mention something about the title I Contain Multitudes. The phrase seemed familiar but I couldn’t place it. I had to look it up, and found that it’s from Walt Whitman.

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself;
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Walt Whitman: Song of Myself

Here are the first three bands on the album. They are: I Contain Multitudes, False Prophet, and My Own Version of You. I’ll dribble the rest along later on.

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There are times when I am in danger of being swamped by the examples of the horrors committed by members of our species, as in the litany of murders of black people that we’ve heard read off repeatedly during the past weeks. At such times, I need to step back, take a deep breath, and remind myself that brutality is not the all that’s out there.

There is also beauty. Much of it created by other members of our same rough species. Beauty enough to wring the poison out of one’s heart and leave it open again to love and understanding.

For me it is poetry, music, and the natural world that I often turn to at those toxic moments. Or to the memories of everyday acts of heroism that I have personally witnessed. Or when I look deeply at those dearest to me and am warmed and humbled by the love and goodness that I find there.

It serves little purpose for me to turn away from the daily uglinesses – how can I begin to help in the repairs if I don’t see clearly what is broken? But I can’t look at them without using these resources to keep me from drifting into despair and cynicism.

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Solitaire

Got our taxes done and off in the e-mail. Our preparer is a down-to-earth woman who lives on a very small farm near Delta CO. She’s probably somewhere in her 60s, plain-spoken, always professional. Year before last she had gotten involved in raising sheep, but quit after a single year when “the coyotes got all the lambs.” The way she tells it, that episode broke her heart.

She’s the sort of person I have no problem visualizing on the seat of a Conestoga wagon heading West in the 1800s, reins in her hand and moving steadily toward an uncertain future and away from a grudging past. Her name is Darla Haptonstall and she’s a gem.

This year she doesn’t get to chat with her clients, which is one of her main reasons for getting up and going to work. Because of the emergency we all bring in our contaminated papers and leave them at the door, and she turns them into refunds, which are signed electronically. The work gets done, but is devoid of en face human contact.

I spoke with her briefly on the phone yesterday, and I’m not quite sure what I said but it had to do with toilet paper and it broke her up entirely. The poor lady must be starved for amusement.

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I don’t mind paying my taxes, because I know that our elected officials will use them prudently. If Pres. Cluck can take my few dollars and funnel them into some needy plutocrat’s pocket, why, isn’t that what he’s there for?

If I were to keep those pesos for my own use, I might squander them on fripperies like food and shelter and music and have nothing to show for them at the end of the day but a smile on my face.

No, it’s better by far that I send my shekels off to Washington D.C., where there are skilled people who know exactly what to do with large quantities of other people’s money.

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Here’s a touching John Prine story. If you’ve ever in your sweet short life known a 10 year-old girl, I guarantee you’ll like it.

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I am rereading Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey. This will be the third time I’ve gone through the book, and this time promises to be the best of all.

I was a twenty-something living in Minnesota when I first read it, and had to try to imagine through Abbey’s descriptions what it was like living in Arches National Monument for those seasons. I read it the second time as a middle-aged South Dakotan when I visited Moab UT for a couple of days on a swing through the southern part of the state. I understood his book on a different level then, having actually seen some of the places he had written about.

But this time I know so much better all of those locales, especially Arches (which is now a national park) and the Moab area. I’ve spent an accumulation of weeks wandering about the red slickrock of southeastern Utah and southwestern Colorado and have a deeper appreciation for that desert landscape and what it does for my spirit to be there.

To be there and to take the time to do nothing at all. To walk without any agenda that the land itself does not provide.

[Wikipedia has a particularly good review of the book that I can recommend to you.]

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Moments

Forgiveness is letting go of the hope for a different past.

This pithy saying is a takeaway from an orientation talk at a rehab center many moons ago. It somehow made it through my muddy thought processes at the time, being one of those moments of clarity when I felt I was face to face with wisdom. Something to truly hang one’s hat on. I still see it that way.

The world of recovery is filled with slogans, enough to last a person their entire life without ever having to repeat one. They are all over the walls of AA meeting rooms, on the pages of the books and bumper stickers, etc. Some of them raised my gorge when I first laid eyes on them and still do. Some of them provoked tears of relief and have that power today.

Are you ready for a Sunday morning metaphor? When you are drowning in a rapids, as most addicts are, these slogans are branches floating by that you can grab onto for a moment’s rest from the need to fight the current continuously.

Most of the aphorisms are perfectly applicable to people’s lives who are not addicts, which is what you might expect since these sayings are drawn from all of literature.

Early on in AA, I began to feel a little sorry for people who weren’t addicted, because there was so much good stuff to learn in the world of recovery. The only problem was that you had to be a soggy mess in danger of losing your life to get through the door, and being so afraid of drowning that you were willing to do the hard work of learning, of letting go.

But there are really marvelous resources out there for us all, and we all have free access to them.

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So this year’s answer to the question – What did you give up for Lent? – will hopefully not be repeated in our lifetimes.

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I have recognized a feeling just this morning, and that is survivor guilt. There is a typhoon blowing through much of the world, but only the slightest of breezes here in our mountain valley.

Oh, we are doing all the moves along with everyone else – we wear masks, stay six feet apart, make only essential trips away from home, don’t scratch our noses, etc. But there have been so few positive tests in our county, so few hospitalized people, and the single death was just reported this morning. We are a smallish town geographically isolated. Once the ski slopes were closed, there were even fewer reasons to come this way in the wintertime.

It’s likely that there are harder trials still ahead of us, and we will yet be given the opportunity to be tested as our brothers and sisters elsewhere. But right now, we are watching the eastern cities burn while our tin-pot Nero fiddles. We help where we can and however we can.

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Daughter Maja related a story to me just yesterday that I am sharing with you with her permission. Adversity is not without its opportunities for grace, in fact, perhaps they stand out more vividly when we are under fire.

I will let Maja tell the story.

It is very common here in Lima to live in an apartment and have doormen as security.  Before the State of Emergency, there were 3 doormen in my building and now there is only one:  Giovanni.  He is here day and night every day, working tirelessly.  He keeps us healthy when we leave and return by spraying disinfectant on our feet, giving us hand sanitizer, spraying down the elevator buttons, etc.  The other day the hot water went out in my apartment and even though it isn’t his job he came and fixed it!!  I tip him exorbitantly whenever possible.

Every time I leave the building to get groceries, I ask him what he needs.  He only ever asks for water.  I always return with water and a small something else, usually a pre-made meal of some kind like chicken and rice.  Today, for some unknown reason, I brought him these items and also a large brownie cake with festive sprinkles.

He told me that today is his birthday and how did I know? I didn’t.  He started to cry.  I started to cry.  We couldn’t hug.

Small gestures to those around us mean a lot.

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God Bless The Equinox!

On our walks this week, out in the fields only a block beyond our home, we have encountered three new arrivals – robins, mountain bluebirds, and meadowlarks.

That lovely call of the meadowlark is unmistakable and a perfect addition to any warm afternoon’s perambulation. (Like that word? I’ve got a pocketful of ’em, all for shameless showing off that I used to comb the Reader’s Digest for new words).

But these birds’ presence means that the icy fingers of winter are well into being loosened from about one’s throat, and it happens just in time each year … about the time you start looking for a length of good hempen rope and a barn rafter.

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If you haven’t lived with a cat, you probably don’t get this next cartoon. If you have, you are ruefully smiling.

Poco, especially, is the master of walking from side to side across the keyboard. He will continue to repeat this maneuver until you either start to get serious about petting him or chuck him out of the room. My personal record for cat-chucking is from the bedroom/office across the living room and into the foyer.

There are sounds that the Macintosh makes when he wanders across the machine that I have been unable to reproduce on my own. A specific chorus of bleeps, warbles, and honks. They are sounds of computer distress, I think. Or perhaps of amusement … quien sabe?

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This is an interesting time for so many reasons, but one that Robin called to my attention the other day hadn’t occurred to me. It will be an Easter without a church service here in Paradise, for those doors are among the ones that are closed. Ministers are trying to come up with televised services, podcasts, and the like, but it’s obviously not the same as gathering together.

Way back when I was a student Catholic, I was taught that I needed to attend church a minimum of once a year, and Easter was that day. I wonder if that requirement still stands, and whether listening to a podcast would count?

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A Guindon cartoon

Which Wolf To Feed?

You know things have gotten serious when they close Aspen, Vail, and the other ski resorts where the one-percenters go to play, and that’s just what happened this past weekend here in Colorado. It apparently dawned on our government that these are very efficient distribution centers for a communicable disease.

People fly in, do their turns on the slopes, and then get back in their airplanes to sail off to somewhere else taking their wrinkled ski costumes memories and newly-acquired microbes with them. All over the world.

Folks in Denver, which is the largest village in our beautiful state, are wondering what they are supposed to do with these children of theirs who can’t be sent off to school any longer. Not only have they lost their 9:00 A.M. to 3:30 P.M. babysitter, but there’s no easy backup place to send them, what with all the closures of public spaces.

They are facing having to deal with their progeny 24/7, and that can be daunting indeed. A citywide overwhelming of mental health professionals is anticipated.

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Somewhere along the way I began to see that each painful experience in my life was not without some eventual benefit to me. Much was of the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” variety. I have been known to bore others with the remark that “I learned so much because of what happened, but it was tuition that I would not have paid.”

What we are being given today is an invaluable opportunity to learn deeply about so many things. Things like interdependence, cooperation, human fragility, the value of science and factual knowledge in general. To bring our innate courage and understanding to the recognition that being a human on this planet is always, every day, a hazardous enterprise. That everything works better when we have something or someone to lean on if and when we are just plain worn out.

The only thing different about the coronavirus threat as opposed to that posed by the pathogens that we are surrounded by every single day is its scope. It is new, it is dramatic (and in many respects America is a nation of drama queens), but when Covid-19 has passed into history most of us will still be here, straightening up the mess it left behind and applying the lessons we are being offered

[To keep perspective, let’s not forget the hazards which are not infectious diseases. The average number of people who will die in the USA today in car accidents is 3,287. Using last year’s numbers, 42 Americans will die today of gun violence and accidents.]

Was Franklin D. Roosevelt correct when he said that “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself?” I think he was, and that he inserted a great truth into a memorable oversimplification. He was encouraging the American public not to fall into a panic which would make their daily lives a hell of useless worry and produce a paralysis that would prevent them from doing the next right thing, the necessary thing.

I love the following story, and you’ve probably all heard one variation or another on this theme.

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life:

“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil–he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”

He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you–and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Folk Tale

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From The New Yorker

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Robin and I are well into the second season of Manhattan, the series that deals with the lives of the residents of Los Alamos during those intense times in 1943-45 when the first atomic weapon was being developed.

We very occasionally have watched more than one episode at a time of any series we’ve tuned in to, but we routinely sit in for a double feature with this one.

The series’ designers have done a terrific job with the sets, the clothing, cars, and the dust … the dust of New Mexico is everywhere. You can smell it.

[Spoiler alert: Even though this is an excellent and thoughtful series, the wretched public in 2014 didn’t watch it in the numbers that they should have, so it only ran two seasons. Still way worth it.]

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I found some interesting statistics in Wikipedia dealing with the present-day town of Los Alamos.

The median household income in Los Alamos is $98,458, and per capita income is $54,067. Income is significantly higher than the rest of New Mexico. 

Los Alamos has the highest millionaire concentration of any US city, with 12.4 percent of households having at least $1 million in assets. This is a result of chemists, engineers, and physicists working at LANL since the Manhattan Project. 

Only 6.6% of people are below the poverty line; half the rate of the United States, and one-third the rate of New Mexico. As of January 2015, there were zero homeless individuals.

Wikipedia: Los Alamos

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This is a small but great story. Small in the numbers of people affected … great in pointing out a creative way to help out in this unusual time.

A handful of distilleries are using some of their alcohol to make hand sanitizer and are giving it away. Yes, friends, for free!

The companies explicitly and strongly recommend that their free product not be used for making cocktails. They have a line of other bottles for that.

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