A reprint for The Solitary Watcher

Since some were unable to read from the electronic version of Still Point, here’s the essay. You might, however, want to go in and look at the visuals. The editor, Christine Cote, does a remarkable job.

The Solitary Watcher

Solitary and lonely are not the same although often confused. It is possible to be lonely when one is solitary, but it’s also possible to be un-lonely, in other words, content. A loner, perhaps one could say.

I grew up in an old and solitary farmhouse on the Great Plains of Kansas with five siblings, two parents, and a grandfather. That’s hardly a lonely life. And yet, as I look back at my childhood, I see myself solitary, wandering pastures, or out on a tractor, alone, plowing a field. Being left-handed and a dreamer, my solitary times often included falling over or off, in one way or another, and once tangling a plow in the fence and tipping both plow and tractor. Those sorts of tasks rarely meshed well with solitary dreamer.

Sitting by a window, staring at our backyard’s willow, the small fountain, the grass, or up on the farm, which we yet own, and staring out over the tallgrass prairie, works well for me. I’m reminded of the joy Thomas Merton took in his solitude: But my chief joy is to escape to the attic of the garden house and the little broken window that looks out over the valley. There in the silence I love the green grass.

Of all the things Merton knew and taught and wrote, solitude was the breath in his life.

Some of the earliest stories about me, from when we lived on a farm in Arkansas before we moved to the Kansas farm, tell of my wandering spirit, especially when I’d go visit Miz McNeil who lived on the farm next to ours. We left Arkansas sometime around my fourth birthday, so my wandering habit began early.

Miz McNeil grew peanuts. I loved peanuts—for that matter, still do—and Miz McNeil fed me peanuts when I visited. Peanuts roasted or boiled in the shell. One day, she decided to send me home with a supply, so she levered peanuts into my pockets; however, I had holes in my pockets, and do to this day from jamming my hands in too fast too often. The peanuts went into my pockets and out the holes and down my legs to shower around my feet.

Miz McNeil, clever woman, tied strings around the bottom of my pants legs and kept filling my pockets with peanuts until both pant legs were filled. Probably laughing as she did so. I waddled home. These were roasted in the shell peanuts, if you’re wondering, as boiled peanuts can get soggy.

On the Kansas farm, across the field west from the house, I’d wander down to the spring where Dad’s Uncle August and Uncle Louie once built a still. Three stone walls were all that remained. But the spring was there, and a pipe, pushed by an unknown hand into the bank at water’s edge, poured cold fresh water into my cupped hands. Matted pads of watercress grew in the pools between rocks. I carried a plastic bag in my pants pocket for those trips. If I brought home fresh watercress for Dad, he forgave my absence from whatever work was going on.

I learned to watch the sky from those wanderings, and the way light shifts and slides over a wheat field ruffled by wind. Annie Dillard says it best: There is a muscular energy in sunlight corresponding to the spiritual energy of wind. When thunderheads piled at the horizon and the light turned thick and coarse, it was time to head up the hill to shelter in the safety of family and house as the energy could turn wicked and threaten in the space of moments.

Solitude becomes more pricey in a city, but it’s possible. When I lived in New York, I had a small apartment on the second floor of a brownstone on West 85th Street. With windows. I’d sit with my first coffee as early sunlight tipped over the edge of the women’s residence across the street. The building, while long, was no more than three stories, and I’d watch from my solitary perch as women left in summer dresses, unencumbered, or in fall’s blustery wind, umbrellas tucked under arms.

One morning, a fierce storm tossed the branches of a small tree growing in a small patch of earth at the sidewalk’s edge. The tree survived the storm, but trashcans were tossed into the street. Trashcans in New York lead perilous lives.

Poets know solitude and weather: The four elements doze and wake./Who knows, behind the dark cloud/a small star may be playing. Adam Zagajewski. I met him once, at a reading, in a press of people and space. No time for anything but a thank you. He was kind. He signed his book for me. But I have his wanderings and his words for company.

Zagajewski liked walking in cities, too. I lived a half-block from West End park so could walk solitary among trees, but walking the sidewalks, pausing to look up at glowering gargoyles perched on ledges as people-streams sloshed around me, was just as alone. It’s easy to feel alone in a city. The iconic painting, Nighthawks, by Edward Hopper shows it. A couple sits at the coffee bar, not looking at each other, a single man sits apart, his back to us, and the barista bends over an invisible sink.

But I prefer walking country roads. The only thing to watch for is a blacksnake, its head lifted on a twig, sunning. Blacksnakes, our dad taught us, are a farmer’s friend. They eat rats. On a country road, I can allow my thoughts to wander in time to my steps. I watch for the red-winged blackbirds crossing my path, for the meadowlarks skittering away in the prairie, for the white-faced cows, lifting their heads from grazing to look at me, curious.

I watch the sky and the light to know when it’s time to turn back.

The End

 

 

My Least Favorite City (although you wouldn’t know it from the photos)

 

I’m staggering back to what passes for normal after a week in Las Vegas. As a rule, I love cities: the structures, people, old shops, twisting roads. I do not love Las Vegas. It’s miles and miles of sameness: same style of houses/same color of houses/gigantic, confusing, under-construction-everywhere freeways/and impossible to spot landmarks (all streets/houses/shopping areas look the same–thank goodness for Google maps!). However, our grandson was graduating from a grueling year of nursing school and flying back and forth to San Diego where home and wife and newly born son were, and we are proud of him.

Ergo. La La Las Vegas.

Cliff and I ran away from the family one night and went to The Eiffel Tower Restaurant in the Paris Casino. From the top of the Eiffel Tower, I can deal with the city. And when I’m graced with exquisite food, I’m even nicer.

The tower restaurant has floor to ceiling windows and Cliff reserved a window table across from the dancing waters of the Bellagio; the same dancing waters made famous in various movies, especially Oceans Eleven and twelve and thirteen. At any rate, we had a ringside seat to dancing waters without having to stand with throngs of people on the sidewalk.

And the meal was extraordinary. I chose Dover Sole and Cliff, Veal Medallions. We shared a spring greens salad, which, instead of being in a bowl, was heaped inside a ring of paper-thin slices of zucchini, and a final souffle desert. And champagne and a perfect Negroni. Oh. My. Goodness.

Here’s the video that drew us in – watch it all the way and you’ll learn from a master chef how to make a perfect Dover Sole. You’ll also get a better view of the restaurant in general.

The first shopping trip we made after coming home? Trader Joe’s for Dover Sole. I followed the Chef’s directions from the above video. Not quite the Eiffel Tower Restaurant, but just as good and quieter.

So, all in all, a lovely dinner which, along with a fine grandson graduating from a tough program with a 4.0 and an eleven month old great-grandson and his mamma and visiting with son and daughter-in-law, made Las Vegas worth while.

Maybe that’s also why I’m still recovering!

 

Songs I Never Sing

Three favorite songs? That’s not as easy as it sounds. I’m not a sound person. I have no auditory memory. So sounds get in my way more than they help. My writing room is silent. I’ve practiced writing to music, but alas, it never works for more than fifteen minutes. Songs. What songs stay with me? Well, this morning, when I saw it was a friend’s birthday, a friend who exceeds me in age by not so much, I wrote, “If I’d ‘a known it was your birthday, I’d have backed a cake” because the old song, If I’d known you were coming I’d’ve baked a cake; baked a cake; baked a cake…” I hoped my friend was old enough to catch the pun from a song my mother sang years ago. I remember those songs. Another that came to me just a few days ago was “June is bustin’ out all over, all over the meadows and the hills….” It always comes when June comes. Mom sang that too. My older sister has a great voice and sings. Me, not so much. When I lived in New York and part of the acting world, I took singing lessons. Voice lessons vital for New York actors. I studied with a reputable teacher but he decided I was a soprano. Not. I didn’t know it at the time and I worked hard to be a soprano, but I should have remembered my mother was an alto. I am too. He didn’t seem to recognize that or perhaps my voice was stronger in those days. I could almost sing bass these days. But I’m getting off track. Favorite songs. Favorite songs. Beatles? Oh, maybe. John Fogerty? Yeah, I like his work. Probably my favorite songs come from old blues singers. “I got a man, crazy for me. He’s funny that way….” Billie Holiday sang. No one could phrase like she did. Yeah. Several of hers are favorites. And Willie Nelson. “Mamas don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys….” But I did. Both of them. Abet 20th Century cowboys whatever that means. But what other favorite songs? What I like about the two I mentioned was the story in each of them. I like songs with stories. The rest? Oh, I can listen to classical music and soar with the sound, but it doesn’t stick. Words stick. “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…” Mother sang. Me, I write words. Remember words. Stacks and stacks of words line up and layer around my writing space. And now I’m about out of words for remembering any songs and free writing is still demanded for a few more minutes. I can free write. That’s words. Songs? I only sing snatches of songs or listen for snatches and then I smile and remember the story and go on with whatever I’m doing. I don’t sing when I’m cooking or driving or walking. I think words. You’d think that having a mother who sang would have rubbed off on me some way or another. Songs for morning or afternoon, songs for dinner, songs for….well, anytime like this when asked what’s your three favorite songs. Duh. Not. Well, maybe if I can dredge some up. Oh, yeah, Mom’s songs. So that’s what I can do with the prompt today. But my fingers are warmed up for writing words…..Oh. Here’s one more….. “She’ll be comin’ around the mountain when she comes….” Yep. That’s me. On the road again… and that’s another Willie tune. I made a movie with Willie once long time ago. He kissed me as I left the set. One of many kissed he bestowed on various ladies. My friend Jessica says I should get a button made: I got kissed by Willie Nelson. But I haven’t.

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Entering the Crossroad #1

I’ve made precipitous turns at so many crossroads you might think I trained for an international cross-country race. But no. Only for life. The problem with a crossroad comes in figuring out which way to go. Sounds like something the Cheshire Cat would say. I, however, dithered in the choosing. Unsure.

The second problem with crossroads is that they’re painted on the reverse in ink destined to remain invisible for an unspecified length of time. Sometimes years. That is, until you remember to look back and say, “Oh. That’s what happened.”

My most recent crossroad showed up three months ago. I knew something was up for me when my spring semester courses were cancelled, and while I’m an adjunct professor and subject to the vagaries of enrollment, this was the first time in twenty years of college teaching my courses didn’t make. I was bummed. But I also saw the downtime as a blessing. Time to write? Time to figure out the next step? I had no idea what the proverbial invisible ink said, only what it felt like: Stop. Not this way. I stopped.

I worked on some poetry, began a plot line for the memoir. And then my sister Jeanne called. We don’t talk often — she’s the captive of two computers and an ecco-retreat spa and lodge she and Robert build on Hawaii Island. We began visiting. I told her my classes had cancelled.

“Oh,” she said. “Then you can come to the wedding.” The previous November, and before items of cancelled classes, Cliff and I had regrettably declined an invitation to my nephew’s wedding at the lodge because it was the last week of spring classes.

The Lodge from the lily pond in front.
The Lodge from the lily pond in front.

“Well…” The dithering began. “I don’t know. Cliff can’t come. I don’t know….” (Yes, I know, you think me a fool.)

“I just found out they don’t have a minister. And Aimee asked if you could come.” Aimee is my nephew Daemion’s bride.

“Oh. Well. I’ll talk to Cliff…” More dithering. The last time I’d gone to Hawaii, two years previously with the other sisters and without Cliff, I’d turned into a minor — well, major — cranky bear missing her hibernation after the first week of spring. The sisters had agreed. Inviting me anywhere without Cliff would not be wise.

I talked to Cliff. “It’s family,” he said. “You have to go.”

I slept on it. The tug to go and the danger of crankiness woke me in the night. Several times. You’d think a wise and generous person who loves her family would simply say, well, I won’t be cranky this time. You’d think.

When Jeanne called the next day, I told her what Cliff said. “But if I get cranky, just do what Cliff and Stephen do. Tell me to go to my room.” She laughed. And immediately made flight reservations to lock me in. And there I was, scheduled for Hawaii Island the third week of April.

I still didn’t know I was at a Crossroad. All I knew was that I was going to Hawaii three days before the wedding to help get ready and then to preside at the vows.

The minute I stepped out of the plane and smelled the honeyed moist flowers, even over  airplane-breathing tarmac, I began smiling. Home. I collected my suitcase, opened and pulled out a muumuu, and in my niece Lia’s front seat of the van, stripped off the city clothes and slid into the soft fullness of muumuu. I wouldn’t wear city clothes again until I dressed to return two and a half weeks later. And I called Cliff twice a day; and I remained un-cranky; and I retreated for naps when I needed to.

Hawaii is home in an odd, perhaps unspecified way. I’d lived there, with my sister and her family, for a year in 1993-94. A transformative year. Part of that time, I’d also lived at Kalani Honua, a jungle retreat near Volcano and participated in a program with other healers who came from all over the world. At the time, I didn’t know I was a healer. All I knew was that I’d been initiated by a Mexican curendera several years previously when I was in Mexico working on a movie. That initiation led to giving up a New York acting career and living in Mexico for three years. Even after I returned to the States, to Washington D.C., and even after I’d decided to start a business, specifically a restaurant called Kansas Bar and Grill, I knew energy would pour through my body and out of my hands whenever I meditated or gathered a group of women to do visioning collages or when young people came to me for advice. But I didn’t know what to do with it. So I’d tried to start a restaurant.That didn’t work. But it did lead to me moving to Hawaii.

While living at Kalani Honua, one of the visions that came to me, one of the many dreams and visions, was me as an old Polynesian woman in a full, green-flowered muumuu, the wise-woman of a village, with children trailing behind her. However and wherever ancient memories come, it felt honest. I wanted to stay in Hawaii. I felt welcomed, at home. But I couldn’t stay and in the end, family responsibilities called me back Stateside. My son and daughter-in-law needed help with putting their son, my grandson, into kindergarten. With two businesses, they felt swamped. And so, from Hawaii, I moved to Georgia. To be a room mother for a kindergarten child. What a crossroad.

But if I hadn’t gone to Georgia, I wouldn’t have found a part-time job in a small community college teaching remedial English; and if I hadn’t begun teaching, I wouldn’t have looked for a Master’s Program so I could qualify for a better teaching job; I wouldn’t have moved to Santa Fe to attend St. John’s College. And I wouldn’t have met Cliff.

You see. Sometimes it takes a long time to understand invisible writing on the back of a signpost.

This time, however, when I visited Kalani Honua and spent the night, I re-anchored in the healing energies I’d experienced when I lived there. The Kalani director offered a watsu (water) massage and I accepted. The masseuse, Sylvie, a woman near my age and immersed in both water and healing, swirled me through the pool loosening joints and turning me into a willowy mermaid.

“Your heart,” I heard her say as she pressed an always sore spot where my ribs join.

“My father died when I was eight,” I whispered. “It’s the last piece of forgiveness I have to do.”

She lifted and swirled me in boneless emotion; lifted and swirled. And my whole body opened. I laughed. And I heard, “I couldn’t stay but I sent you Cliff.” Sylvie and I held each other and we laughed and we laughed.

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Reaching for Hawaii, Gathering Mexico

Sisters at Sunset

I’ve had some trouble re-anchoring after my visit to Hawaii. It’s the same trouble I have when I visit Mexico, both Mexico and Hawaii being lands where I’ve lived and where my spirit found peace and comfort. Even more, where the balance of feminine and masculine energies come together in a wholeness I don’t experience in many places.

When I lived in Hawaii in 1992, I’d already lived in Mexico for three years, and I felt confounded and amazed from time to time about how much I remembered Mexico in a sameness that nurtured me. The ocean and beaches of course, but also the craggy land and the cattle and goats roaming free across scrubby land. The wide-open and often barren stretches of land. And when I speak of Hawaii, I’m talking about Hawaii Island rather than the entirety of the island chain.

It’s taken some time of wondering and thinking to come to a theory of why it’s difficult for me to be back. The only one that makes any sense is to say that the strength of both feminine and masculine energies feeds me in a way I’m not fed in the center of the country.

People who visit Mexico and Hawaii, even New Mexico for that matter, have a tendency to say “how beautiful” without really considering what they are saying. Yes. Each of those three places is beautiful. But they are also each fierce and tough. And while I have lived in each place, and don’t want to live there full-time again, I do yearn for that balance of beauty and fierce that softens my shoulders and puts a glide in my step.

They are easy places for me, who is tough and gentle, to feel at home.

Palenque

In Mexico, and in Hawaii, the sacred is an everyday part of life rather than an after thought or a Sunday church service. Perhaps because in both places, a ruling class came in and took over and the indigenous peoples held on to the sacred quality of their life as a refuge. But for whatever reason, the sacred is a part of the air and wind, a part of the scent of sea or desert or jungle. And the ancient sacred lives comfortably alongside modern religions. There’s no separateness. There is only a recognition of the whole.

In Palenque, in the depths of jungle green and misty clouds, the sacred rumbles just below conscious hearing.

And the divine feminine is a visible part of the whole.

At the famous Painted Church on Hawaii, the church building is justly famous for its colors and murals, and in the cemetery below, among neatly lined up white crosses, a lady stands on a natural rocky formation with a kneeling figure below her.

This is probably a statue of Mary although no name is given it on a plaque beside the rock. She could as easily be called the Lady of the Waves as she stands between the petitioner and the waves of the wide sea behind her. People have prayed to the divine feminine and asked for protection for countless centuries, long before Christianity.

Is the Protestant energy that founded this country responsible for the current “War on Women?” An anti-cleric, anti-Catholic history in this country may also account for the lack of wholly and holy feminine energy in all our lives, even today.

I wonder if that’s why a President’s wife is so important. She represents a feminine power source close to the top.

And that brings me to laughter. In Mexico and in Hawaii, laughter is close to the surface and bubbling over into conversations all the time. Laughter is a part of life. Laughter is a part of everyday living and conversations, sometimes just a conversation with self.

Old Man Laughing

This man from Mexico laughed all the time as he talked to me and as I struggled to make coherent sentences in Spanish. He laughed in delight at my clumsy attempts and he laughed to encourage me. In Hawaii, people laughed all the time: while dancing hula, shopping for gas, dropping a bag – oh, oops. And we talked story. By buying a container of pickled ginger, a simple purchase, I also bought laughter and stories of family and grandchildren.

And maybe, at base, it’s the mystery I miss. A mystery of why and how, the mystery of being a human on this life journey with other humans, a mystery of jungles and sea, of craggy mountains, and hidden walks.
And maybe what I’ve learned in all this musing and looking at photos and wondering and writing, is that I ask why all too often. Too often I try to figure things out, a very American characteristic, it seems. Maybe I just need to live in the mystery and let all of the rest of it be as it will.

Just look over my shoulder…and laugh.
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