About Me

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I'm a woman entering "the third chapter" and fascinated by the journey.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Today's birds

The best thing about winter is perhaps the flurry of activity it brings at the feeders. Within ten minutes, I spotted
  • the usual flurry of house sparrows
  • a jumble of juncos
  • a chickadee
  • a tufted titmouse
  • a Carolina wren
  • a male cardinal
  • and an unfortunate squirrel that just couldn't manage to climb the wet pole (and would have been disappointed, anyway, as the feeder atop that particular pole holds only safflower seed, not a squirrel favorite).

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Inspired by a message from an old friend

That’s “old” as in “of long standing,” not “exceedingly advanced in years,” which neither of us is (though we are, to speak truly, well-advanced into our fifties). The message referred to “the shadowed journey we are on” and urged that we “with a lighter heart, sing gladly toward its inevitable end.”

Beautiful as the message was, my immediate reaction was “Wait a minute! I’m not going ANYWHERE yet!” then had to ask myself if I’m growing old ungracefully, hanging on when I should be letting go. Looking to my general sources for answers, poetry and the natural world, not necessarily in that order, I had the following revelation (nothing to do with Christmas): nature does not “go gentle into that good night” (though individual organisms may well do so). Autumn is perhaps the most alive and extravagant season of the year, so why not of our own lives?

Yes, spring is wonderful (literally, full of wonders), and for most of my life, it was my favorite season. What’s not to love about daffodils, dogwoods in bloom, and baby birds? Yet, beautiful as it is, spring is not the season of greatest abundance, though it may be the season of greatest energy. In earlier centuries, spring was often “the starving time,” when the last year’s harvest ran out and the new crops were not yet available. I remember reading somewhere that many Neanderthal children died in the spring, often when they were three or four years old. If their mothers had birthed new babies over the winter, the older children were weaned, and if no food were available, they all too often died. Spring is beautiful, but it isn’t always kind.

The spring of human life isn’t always kind, either. Think of puberty, high school, your first heartbreak, the difficulty of establishing a career and figuring out who you are. Would you really want to go through all that again?

Summer is the story of exuberance, busting out all over like June in the old song. There’s too much of everything—think zucchini and mosquitoes. Think July temperatures. Think of our own lives—too much work, too much responsibility, too much worry over having to be everything to everyone at all times.

But autumn—autumn has all the virtues of summer (okay, maybe not strawberries) with none of the vices. Temperatures moderate, the air clears, even the light seems crisper. Then, the miracle happens. The late crops come in--apples, wheat, potatoes, the glorious abundance of winter squash—all the good, solid things that carry us through the winter. The year as it ages puts on a show possibly more impressive than those of spring and summer. Besides the trees covering the hillsides in colors unimagined by spring’s more restrained palette, the warm-season grasses bloom, creating lower-level mists of soft color, followed by the bronze, tan, and orange of drying stalks that will last through the winter if we tidy humans can manage to leave the grasses standing. And the flowers haven’t finished, either: fall brings armloads of asters and gaggles of goldenrods, along with hangers-on of some of the species that were part of the summer show, all working with pollinators busily pollinating before the first real cold puts an end to this year’s growth. Whole flocks of birds settle in our trees and bushes, clearing them of berries, stocking up for the trip south. While the year is indeed moving toward its close, nothing is more alive than an autumn afternoon.

And so with us. The autumn of our lives is slower than the earlier seasons, and I for one am not enamored of arthritis, but we can take a hint from nature and revel in this phase of our lives. If we are ever going to make peace with ourselves, now is the time. Color change is part of the process (are you listening, L’Oreal?), as is the end of fertility (does anyone really miss periods?), but autumn is not a sad, shadowy affair. Instead, it dances out the door and leaves sustenance for the next phase as it goes. When those red and yellow leaves finish their moondance and turn brown, they are generally bearing eggs for next summer’s butterflies and bird food, and by the time they disintegrate, they have helped to feed the trees that feed the bugs that feed the birds that…you get the picture.

Now, at the age when most of us no longer have children at home, we can be in the world wholly as ourselves, free of the summertime responsibilities that took so much of our time. If we are lucky, we can work more on our own terms now, choosing the projects into which to put our energies; we need not take on everything. We can celebrate the lives we have lived, revealing our true colors as the decline of chlorophyll reveals the true colors of leaves.

Moving into these late phases of our lives, let us be gaudy as gumtrees, tenacious as turnips. Let the young ones see us with our roots in the good soil we helped build and our branches in the air, moving with the breezes, unwilling to miss anything. Let us be lighthearted and singing, unconcerned with the end (for which we should have prepared in some way during that hardworking summer). Let our legacy be remembered sweetness, but sweetness with the perseverance of pumpkin, the solidity of squash. Let us be.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Solstice Musings

The shortest day of 2011 has proven to be an atypical one, beginning with heavy rain in the wee hours, shifting to seventy degrees and sun by early afternoon, then moving a variety of clouds with changing wind patterns by early evening. Whatever happens in the last few hours of Solstice 2011, the big news is, THE LIGHT IS ON ITS WAY BACK!

Having grown up in South Florida, I have never fully adapted to the long dark of central Appalachian winters (and I know, winters are longer and darker in places like Wisconsin and Alaska). Summers in which the light lingers until nearly 9:30 are great, but 5:00 PM darkness makes for long, isolated evenings for those of us who don't drive well after dark. (Note to self: glasses that aren't so scratched would probably cause fewer problems with oncoming headlights.)

But our modern winter isolation is nothing compared to that experienced by our ancestors. In Beowulf, Danish king Hrothgar's reign is described as having lasted for fifty winters, a description that leads to a class discussion of what Scandinavian winters must have been like in the centuries preceding what climate scientists now call the Medieval Warm Period, which started around CE 950 (and which was not as warm as the decades we have recently experienced). No central heat, limited artificial light, lots of snow, and no roads to speak of in the lands of the Geats and Danes--no wonder these people experienced frost as the primordial element of their part of the world and believed that the first being was a frost giant. This Northern mythology gave rise to a literature that to this day often feels cold and alien when we first encounter it. Wrapping our minds around the cold, dark world of the eight century requires imaginative effort.

But less of it on the longest night of the year than at other times. Tonight we want to surround ourselves with light, to be reminded that the darkness is a phase, one that as early as tomorrow will be begin to pass. Our candles and bonfires and lamps are figures and reminders of the light that will always return, as long as the world lasts.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Signs of winter

While you'd never know it from the weather (right now 40-something and partly sunny), winter has officially arrived in our yard. Away since their sudden departure last April (or was it March?), the juncos are back. A glance out the dining room window revealed several of the northern sparrows scratching in the mulch under the bird feeders. These little birds breed in Canada or in the western mountains of the US, then after their summer in places cooler than the Mid-Ohio Valley, they come here to escape the worst of the snow and ice.

© Michael Hogan, New Jersey, February 2004. Found at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Given that winter tends to be my least-favorite season (maybe once I don't have to worry about driving to work in snow, that will change), it's always good to know that for some beings, West Virginia is where they go when flying south for the winter.

Friday, December 16, 2011


Okay, I’m a sloppy sentimentalist: I love commencements. In my twenty-five years at the college, I think I’ve only missed two: one for my stepson’s graduation in another state and one for his wedding. I love seeing the people who started out as clueless first-semester students reaching at least one of the goals they set for themselves, sometimes after a LOT of detours.

This evening’s commencement ceremony brought more national media attention than our little-known college generally receives. Jessica Lynch, etched into the national memory when she was carried out of an Iraqi hospital in April 2003, finally got the teaching degree that was her dream before she joined the military. While she was never my student, I have been continually impressed with this young woman’s integrity, her refusal to allow a false narrative of her capture to continue, her continual giving back to the community. But her story, while probably more dramatic than most, was not the only story of achievement found in that multi-purpose room tonight.

A mother-daughter pair from a rural county graduated magna cum laude. Two former students, a couple with an adorable toddler, graduated after a semester that found them dealing with problem landlords, moving, and the usual stress of a final semester in college. A young father who enrolled in an upper-level English course, even though it had nothing to do with his major and was filled with English types, finished the course successfully. At least one graduate was older than I am, so there has to be a story there. A student from a long-ago English 101 course, now on her own with two children, received her nursing degree and hopes someday to work in Hospice. Another wonderful woman, the mother of a special-needs student who is now in college, graduated with honors and is about to become a teacher herself. The endlessly helpful student volunteer from my former office may in a few weeks be teaching in Panama. More than three hundred people, all with stories, graduated tonight.

I hope the lives they are commencing prove kind to them.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

They're getting closer...

The Black Squirrels of North Parkersburg, that is. Now I realize that the black squirrel is nothing but the melanistic form of the eastern gray squirrel, which is perhaps the most common wildlife in our neighborhood, but there's something about creatures a little out of the ordinary that sparks interest. When I lived across the river, we all got excited about the White Squirrels of Oak Grove Cemetery, though I fear that those particular rodents are too visible for their own good.

The black squirrels, though, are another matter. I've read speculation that back in the days of the Great Eastern Forest (that is, before extensive European settlement), the black squirrels may have been more common than the lighter gray ones because their dark coloring would have been an advantage in the dense forests of those days. With the clearing of the forests, however, came more light, so the lighter-colored squirrels got the upper hand and have kept it all these years. In our neck of the woods, though, the black squirrels are expanding their (extremely local) range.

Two years ago, I saw them for the first time about a mile from here. Then, last year, I saw that one had gotten as far as Broad Street. Given how busy that street is, I didn't feel good about the squirrel's chances, but evidently, our furry-tailed rodents are doing just fine. This morning, I saw a young black squirrel just a block from our Little Ranch on the (Eventual) Prairie. Stay tuned for further developments.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sunshine on My Shoulders

“Sunshine almost all the time makes me high.” Listening to the John Denver special on PBS and hearing that music of my youth, I’m struck by how well so much of it still works. I’m struck, too, by how much richer some of the songs are now than when I first heard them as a teenager or undergraduate. I hadn’t lived enough for them to make sense, evidently.

“Sunshine on My Shoulders” had never been one of my favorites. Living in Florida, there was often too much sun, and even though I enjoyed the beach, as most young people do, sunshine was something I took for granted. Now, though, in a place where winters are cold and dark and this fall brought so much rain that it sometimes felt as if I’d start growing mold, sunny days are cause for celebration. It’s possible, though, that I may get too enthusiastic sometimes. Taking a walk one sunny morning after days of rain, I got so chirpy that my long-suffering spouse looked over and asked, “Are you sure you don’t photosynthesize?”

Not in this lifetime (but I can’t guarantee that I may not have been a dandelion somewhere down the line).