Salvation

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Sometimes it feels like grief and sadness will overwhelm me. It seems that the world has become a callous, bitter and mean place. The evidence is impossible to ignore.

The news is filled with misery and anger and vitriol. Governments everywhere are in turmoil, with uprisings and revolts around the globe. The president of the United States is mad at almost everyone, and almost everyone is mad at him right back. There are ugly, shameful things going on here. No matter how many telephone calls I make, letters I write and petitions I sign, I feel helpless to make change.

Local conversations lean toward gossip, sarcasm, and complaints. The days are too hot…and then it rains. Are we all tired of each other…or just tired?

Customers file in to the hardware store with death on their minds. They want to kill all the spiders, or rodents, or snakes. They want to kill every dandelion, or blackberry bramble or weed. “The killers are all in the first aisle,” I say, over and over, every day, sending them to the shelves of traps and poisons, herbicides, pesticides and noxious fumes. The other day, I heard, “I got lucky: the winter snow and wind knocked over a whole bunch of trees on my property, saved me the work of cutting them down.” I wanted to cry.

Yesterday my newest and best behaved little dog, the one who tries hardest to please me and always comes when he’s called, abandoned our walk to wander down the neighbor’s driveway. Then refused to come when I called him. Then, when I went in to retrieve him, and right after I said what a nice little dog he was, he snarled and snapped at their sweet little girl!

On top of all that, I am pretty sure I have crossed the line: there are now more people that I have known, and loved, and lost…than people that are still here, known and loved, in my life. The dead accumulate.

Some days, when too much work or too little rest leaves me exhausted, it is easy to let it overtake me, to feel buried by the sodden gray blanket of it all. It is a fight to rise up out of all the misery.

Last evening as I was gathering up windfall from the yard, I noticed a bird on the ground under the little cherry tree. It fluttered, but could not fly. Maybe it had fallen there after colliding with a window. I moved away, to keep the dogs from seeing. Damn windows, that fool the birds.

I brought out a shallow dish of water. A burst of flapping wings warned me away, but I slid the dish in close before going back inside. Later, when Darla noticed the movement and pressed her nose to the window and growled, I diverted her attention with a treat and a belly rub, and kept her inside.

Much later, I glanced up from the book I was reading. A movement caught my eye. I looked toward the spot under the cherry tree just in time to see the bird flutter, flutter, shake his head, then burst up onto his feet, then hop, hop, hop…and then fly!

Just like that, the cloud lifts.

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A Day on the Mainland

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Tuesday, I had to go to the mainland, to the hospital, for a screening procedure. I scheduled my flight off the island for 10 AM, so that my morning wouldn’t be too hectic. My appointment at the hospital was set for two in the afternoon, and my return flight was 4:30. I made arrangements to use the car that my cousin keeps on the mainland.

Because I’d be off and back on the same day, in roughly the same time that I’d be away for work, it wasn’t necessary to tell the dogs any different. I had time to walk them before I left. There would be plenty of free time for browsing or relaxing or shopping before my appointment, and time to get groceries afterward. It should be an easy trip. I hated to count on it, though, because there’s always lots that could go wrong.

This is a busy time of year all over northern Michigan, and the little town of Charlevoix is no exception. They have major traffic congestion in the summer, compounded by a bridge on the main street that opens to let boats pass underneath. In the last couple months, the bridge has been stuck in the open position at least twice, for hours at a time, necessitating a lengthy detour. Under the best of circumstances, automobiles and pedestrians can make it difficult to get from one end of town to the other.

The last time I went over for a mammogram, the technician was mean. She snapped at me for not getting into the position that she was doing a poor job of describing to me, but clearly wanted me in. I was unprepared for rudeness so, instead of standing up for myself, I struggled to please her, and crept out of there feeling inept and ashamed. Then, put off scheduling another mammogram for longer than is recommended.

Monday night, I lay awake, trying to prepare myself. Traffic would be fine. If it made me too nervous, I could just park in a central location and walk. As for the technician, I would be ready. I planned my response, to be delivered with confidence and only a hint of sarcasm, as soon as her attitude deemed it appropriate.

“I’m sorry to be flat chested,” I planned to say, directly. “I’m sorry that, with age, my breasts have tended to gravitate toward my armpits. I’m sorry for many reasons, not the least of which is because it obviously makes your job so much more difficult. And it’s kind of a crap job to begin with, isn’t it?”

Having gotten her attention with empathy, I’d add a bit of sharing. “I have kind of a crap job, too. It’s not always fun, and it’s often damn hard. But I do it, because it’s my job. And I don’t take my frustration out on my customers. I’d appreciate it if you’d show me the same courtesy.”

Too pumped up from creating a plan for my anticipated problem to sleep, and having introduced the thought of my job into my restless brain, I went on to write an imaginary letter to my boss. I mentioned how discouraging, and bad for morale, it is – right in the middle of a killer-busy season – for him to talk about his plans to start dissolving the inventory before the end of summer, and shut down the business for the winter. He might presume he’s giving us fair warning, but what it sounds like is, “Ha-ha, you bunch of screw-ups, you’ll all be out of a job before long!”

Finally, at around three in the morning, I was able to fall asleep. Then I overslept. Not so much that I missed my flight, but enough to put “hectic” back in my morning. After one quick cup of coffee, I threw on my mosquito netting and took the dogs for their walk. Then a quick shower, dress, put out morning medicine and treats for the dogs, and out the door. In plenty of time…with a big sigh of relief.

The plane ride was lovely. Then I had a cup of coffee in a cute new place while reading the newspapers that were available there. I worked two crossword puzzles while drinking my second cup. I made a trip to the big thrift store, and found pants and shirts that meet the requirements for work, and for a working vacation I’m taking in August. I stopped at the bookstore, just to look, though I am not in need of books. The drugstore next, for a few essentials, and one bottle of jasmine-scented bubble bath. I bought two magazines, and paged through them over a BLT at lunchtime.

I got to the hospital a little early, and was moved through registration without delay. The technician that called me in for the mammogram was not the same Nurse Ratched-like character I remembered from the last time. This woman was cute and friendly. She had a nice smile, and bright red hair done up in braids. She gave excellent instructions, apologized for the discomfort, and never scolded me once!

Next, the grocery store, to take advantage of sales, and generally better prices than can be found on Beaver Island. Fresh blueberries, three pints for five dollars! A big bag of pistachios. Two perfectly ripe avocados. One rotisserie chicken. A Ciabatta loaf. Handmade wild mushroom ravioli!

Then to the airport, and home. An enthusiastic greeting for the three dogs, who were glad to see me, too, then I unloaded the car and put away the groceries. A happy walk through the woods was followed by dinner for all, and an early bedtime.

Trips to the mainland are nerve-wracking affairs, fraught with the possibility of discomfort or disaster. Sometimes, nothing goes wrong at all. Sometimes, like Tuesday, a trip to the mainland is a mini-vacation, refreshing and rejuvenating…and just exactly what I needed!

Cool Summer Mornings

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We have arrived at summer on Beaver Island! It’s obvious at the hardware store. Last week, we hooked up the air conditioning, and the complainers have gone from, “Will summer ever get here?” to “It’s too damn hot!” It’s clear in my garden, where pole beans are suddenly climbing poles, and flowers are bowed over from the heat.

In my house, I have finally opened all the windows. Opening the kitchen windows is a seasonal ritual that is pondered, debated, and put off until I’m absolutely sure that summer is really, truly here. Though most of the old windows in my house have been replaced with more modern double-pane versions that easily slide open or closed, that’s not the case in the kitchen.

The kitchen windows were already old, being replaced in someone else’s house, when I grabbed them up for mine. The wood is swollen, and springs are missing. They slide sideways, with great difficulty. The cupboards make them difficult to reach. Plastic, bubble wrap and duct tape covers their surface in an attempt to make them more air-tight when it’s cold.

Opening the kitchen windows involves removing all of that excess, plus taking down the dozen or so baskets that hang there. I need a short ladder, a rubber mallet and a wood chisel. Sometimes I have to stand in the sink, to gain leverage. I bring the hand vacuum along, for the dead flies, spider webs and chips of putty and paint that I’ll find in the channels. Once those windows are open, they stay that way until October!

Last week, with daytime temperatures in the eighties and nights warm enough to trade my usual covers for a simple sheet, I opened the kitchen windows. That has made me especially aware of the change in temperature this week

The sun shines warm and bright all day, and the beaches are busy with folks that have time to revel in it. When the sun goes down, though, it gets considerably cooler. By the time I’m ready to call it a night, I’ve turned off the little fan in the bedroom, and closed the sliding glass door. I put the light-weight comforter back on the bed, and opt for the flannel pajamas.

When I wake up, though it’s warm and cozy in my bed, I can feel the chill in the air. For three days in a row, the temperature has been in the mid 50’s (that’s about 12 celcius!) when I got up in the morning! If there’s any breeze, it feels like a winter wind when the kitchen windows let it in.

I put the heater on in the bathroom. I’ll put on sweats to walk the dogs. Meanwhile, though, I add a robe and slippers to what I’m wearing. I pour hot coffee. And I think about how much I love these cool summer mornings.

Enough!

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I have a tendency, maybe you do, too, to live my life as if I’m travelling a long road.

I can look back, and I sometimes do, to see where I’ve been. Sometimes, when I’m feeling thoughtful or melancholy or nostalgic, I can contemplate all the twists and turns that brought me to where I am right now, and many of the encounters I had along the way. Most of the time, the view is short. What happened yesterday, or the day before.

I can look ahead, though the future is uncertain. That’s where hopes and dreams can be found. That’s where plans and expectations abide. It’s where all the things that I’m afraid might happen, or that I hope will happen, or that I should make happen live.

I spend far too much time in that vague space. I rarely do anything, no matter how momentous, without immediately thinking, “Now, next I should…” Whether I’m doing housework, creating in the studio, or working outside, it seems I am never done.

Yesterday, I spent three hours pushing my little mower through the tall grass in my side and back yards. For the first time this summer, all of my grass was mowed. And it looks great! And yet, I didn’t allow myself more than a single minute to feel satisfied. Right away, my mind went to the things that still needed to be done.

So, I then trimmed around the fire pit, worked on weeding the flower beds, moved a bunch of stones, hauled away some brush, and watered the garden. As I drifted off to sleep, I thought, “Damn, I didn’t get those fruit trees planted!” Today, I planted the fruit trees.

There is still plenty to do. Grasses are taking over the flower beds. I could spend a whole day working with the string trimmer around shrubs and beds and edges. The rake could take up another day, and the leaf blower another. The climbing rose is crawling over the walkway. Weeds are poking up through the straw mulch in the garden…Enough!

There has got to be a time when I can just be finished. When I can look around this road I am on, and appreciate the place I am at. When where I have been or where I am going is less important than what is right here, right now. In fact, no matter what has brought me here, and despite what might lie ahead, this is all I really have. And it’s enough.

Long Night

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The hours from dusk to dawn seem interminable when I can’t fall asleep.

When I was much younger, a sleepless night was like a bonus. I simply got out of bed and filled the nighttime hours with things I was behind on, or things I didn’t otherwise have time for. Nights were filled with rearranging, sorting or deep-cleaning projects, with art-making, and with reading or writing. I’d be tired the next day, but knew that I could hammer through.

Now, when I am too wide awake to sleep, I’m also too sleepy to tackle anything productive. I’m often too tired to even get out of bed. If I do manage to get up, I don’t do much beyond sitting at the computer, watching the news and drinking tea. I know that, without a good night’s rest, I’ll be miserable the next day.

Last night, I lay wide awake in bed. There was no particular problem or worry that kept me from slumber, but sleep evaded me anyway. I filled the time with an assortment of mindful deliberation.

First, the book I am currently reading: 1588, A Calendar of Crime, by Shirley McKay. Should I put on the lamp and read for a while? Set in Scotland in the year 1588, the Plague is recent history and war with Spain looms on the horizon. Witches are persecuted; doctors practice bloodletting. The language is a bit hard to follow. I grasped right away that “kirk” means “church,” “bairn” is a baby, and “neb” is “nose.” Verbs are a bit more difficult, but, in context, I get the gist. Still, it’s not the best choice for middle-of-the-night reading.

Next, a rundown of my physical condition. My back was a little achy, but not bad. I had a stitch in my side that welcomed in all kinds of morbid midnight diagnoses. Likewise, the sore throat that has been hanging on since early spring. I stretched as much as possible while sandwiched in between two chihuahuas, and changed position. Was I too warm? Too cold? Did I have to pee?

I plotted out a few drawing workshops. I compiled to-do lists in my head for the next day, and the next week. They included housework, yard work, gardening and studio work. I thought of all the things I need to do before my sisters come to the island…before my trip in August…before cold weather comes again. I made a mental note to remember to write down the dimensions for replacement windows for the kitchen.

I experimented with several relaxation techniques, and a few mind-quieting tricks. I tried to move into a meditative state. I attempted to just embrace my sleepless state. “Just lay here,” I told myself, “eyes wide open, mind racing…just be one with it.” Ugh! Finally, I got up and made coffee.

If I’m going to “be one” with something, I’d just as soon be up, and choosing how to fill the time. So, briefly, I appreciated the extra time for writing, news-watching and coffee-drinking before I had to go to work. Then I remembered, long sleepless nights make for extremely long, exhaustion-filled days!

Smell the Coffee

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There are people here on Beaver Island who travel regularly – even daily – to places where land meets the big water of Lake Michigan. They go to experience the glorious display as the sun rises in the morning, or sets in the evening. Every day unique; every day spectacular. It’s not always easy. Especially at this time of year, when our days are longest, it requires quite a commitment!

I admire those people. Like my friend, Donna, who has set an alarm in order to move from her cozy bed out, with a blanket, to her lawn chair in the middle of the night in order to see the northern lights, these folks are determined to relish every single day. They make me want to recite Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day, that ends with the question “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

I admire those people. Alas, I am not one of them. I see the sun hours after it has lifted over the horizon, when it finally shows itself above the treetops. In the evening, it dips behind those same trees long before its illustrious exit on the shoreline. I live in the center of the island, far from water in every direction. I’m busy. I’m tired. Gasoline is expensive. And though my excuses ring hollow even to my own ears, the fact remains that I rarely get to the shore for sunrise or sunset.

I do pay attention, though. As I walk the dogs, morning and evening, I notice the way the light filters through the trees, leaving patterns on the gravel road. I note the movement of the earth through the year in the woods on either side of my path. Snow melt gives way to spring blossoms, to yellow grasses, to ripe berries, to russet fall colors, to gray, to snow. Birdsong, the buzz of insects, and the startling rustle of a surprised partridge. The bright smell of wild leeks gives way to the heady perfume of milkweed flowers. There is something new every single day.

The other day, as I poured my first cup, I was aware of a burnt-coffee smell. It was probably caused by a stray coffee ground on the burner, but it caused me to dip my nose to the freshly prepared cup, and take a deep sniff. Aaah! There was the deep, rich scent of roasted beans, mingled with the smell of warm cream. Right there along with it came my mother, in the form of an old memory.

Mom brewed her coffee in a percolator on the stove top. it was a strong, familiar smell in our kitchen. When it was ready, she’d pour a half-cup, then add lots of milk and sugar. As a small child, I would dip my face close to the cup in order to smell my mother’s coffee, milky and syrupy sweet. She’d sometimes allow a small child to take the first sip from her full-to-the-rim cup. Until I paused to smell my own cup of coffee, that memory had escaped me.

Likewise, my snowball bush brings gifts that span time. I remember the snowball bush that grew between house and driveway in my grandparent’s yard. It’s branches tipped down to the ground all around, and we – tiny children – crawled inside. The earth was soft and powdery in that dome-shaped space. It was mostly shade, but the sun came through in some places. Overhead, ball shaped blossoms bobbled as we played.

Fifty years later, having heard me tell about my grandparent’s snowball bush, my friend Wendy bought one for me. It was an unexpected surprise, and that has added to the sweetness of having it. Now, ten years later, that is the same snowball bush that blooms right now in my front flower bed. Its bouncy white blossoms make me smile every time I pass by.

So, I advocate for the ordinary. The simple, everyday experience. We can’t all get to the shoreline to experience sunrise and sunset. We can’t all get to the mountaintop. If we pay attention, though, as we move daily through our days, we’ll see that it’s all pretty wonderful. Watch. Listen. Smell the coffee.

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver

Mosquito Season

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It’s barely eight o’clock in the morning; I’ve just poured my first cup of coffee. Already, I have killed six mosquitoes. They came in with my big dog after her morning constitutional. They bounced around the surface of the sliding glass door as I singled them out and killed them. One by one. I feel no regret.

Every day, the big dog goes on the prowl, searching out garter snakes in the flower beds around my house. She’s pretty good at finding them, and shaking the life out of them. I can’t stop her, not for the sake of the snakes nor for my poor, battered flower beds. But I do feel badly for the snakes. Sometimes, when I find one blatantly sunning himself out in the open, I move him into the surrounding field. Better to have less sunshine, and another day to live, I tell him.

A few years ago, Beaver Island – maybe all of North America – had a severe infestation of Japanese beetles. They look like ladybugs, and did little damage that I could see. Still, they moved into spaces by the millions. People told of entering houses in the spring, only to be showered with masses of the speckled, hard-shelled insects.

At my house, the beetles found a cozy home in the open spaces under my vinyl siding, and continuously migrated into the house. They found cracks around doors and windows, and daily filled every window in the house. I used the vacuum to get rid of them. I’d start at the upstairs windows, then do the windows and doors downstairs. By that time, the upstairs windows would be full again.

Through the course of that year, I filled thirteen vacuum cleaner bags! They were stacked like cord wood along the side of my compost bin, evidence of my daily killing spree. It had to be done. The idea, though, of those insects crowded together inside of those bags still makes me shudder.

Because I live in the country, mice frequently find their way into my house. I keep traps set for them, all year ’round. I use snap traps, which kill them quickly (and most humanely, because, yes, somebody has researched the most humane methods of killing mice!), and I’m fairly accustomed to disposing of their little dead bodies. Still, I often feel a twinge of sadness for the plump little rodent as I take it out to toss it away.

With mosquitoes, I have no shame. I’ll swat mosquitoes all day. I wear mosquito netting, plus a spray that contains 30% deet to keep them away from me. I put mosquito dunks in any open water, to prevent it from becoming a mosquito nursery. I do not wonder about the lives I’m snuffing out; I don’t feel remorse at the one million mosquito eggs that will, now, never have a chance. I have a kind heart. I am not good at the killing or death of almost any living thing. When it comes to mosquitoes, though, I am merciless!