About theperpetualpilgrim

Come and share my past journeys and join me in my future adventures both in my mind and heart and in the world.

Books and Reflections

January might not be at the top of the list of favorite times of the year but I can appreciate the gifts of this darkest and coldest time of the winter.  Spring is still two months away and Christmas is a quickly fading memory. January seems to be a time for quiet reflection and a fresh slate to write the hopes and dreams for the coming year.  The last two years had such intense twists of fate that I’m a little reluctant to do much planning but I can reflect on what changed, what stayed the same and what new I want to explore. 

My now-annual review of my books of 2021 comes with a natural review of the last year. Last January, Alexandra was still home and working from the library. My mother was living in my middle parlor (I live in a very old home and the rooms reflect a different era).  I was reading the last of the course work for my self-directed PhD year.  I might not technically be in school, but I wanted to keep going with my classmates and that meant lots of books in a final course on Alchemy—the ancient science of turning lead to gold and the modern interpretation of turning our hearts and minds to gold.  Some of my favorite books: Anatomy of the Psyche: Alchemical Symbolism in Psychotherapy by Edinger, The Forge and the Crucible, by Eliade, Alchemical Studies and Mysterium Coniunctionis by C. Jung and finally A Most Mysterious Union: The Role of Alchemy in Goethe’s Faust by Wilkerson.  All of that was wonderful and intense and head spinning and I was very tired at the end. So what did I do? Took an on-line course on Jung’s recently published The Black Books. By spring I needed a nice break from Jung.  But, alas, I forged on to another on-line class on Archetypal Astrology and read longest book of the year, Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View by Richard Tarnas.  This ground-breaking and alternative world view positions our cultural and psychological evolution as part of the workings of the entire cosmos.

By summer my mother was in assisted living and Alexandra was back in California and I was on to some easier reading. The warm summer air and intense singing of the Brood X cicadas brought me to the most beautiful writing of the year, Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Robin’s combination of science, nature and wisdom wrapped in lyrical prose soothed my soul and calmed my overactive mind. If you read or listen to one book this year—this is the one I recommend.

Last year also included reading a few books that had been lingering in my library, unread but still wanting, needing to be read. That led to some delightful rabbit holes.  I started reading Winifred Gallagher’s The Power of Place which quickly led to Spiritual Genius: 10 Masters and The Quest for Meaning and Working on God.  I really enjoyed reading several books in a row by the same author.  Later in the year, I picked up another book that had been on the shelf waiting for the right moment, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountains Spiritualities by Belden Lane.  I hadn’t even finished the first chapter when I ordered two more books by this wonderful writer. I finished the year reading Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as a Spiritual Practice.  Seems like saints were the calling of the last half of the year because I enjoyed a vicarious trip to Italy reading On the Road with Francis of Assisi: A Timeless Journey Through Umbria and Tuscany and Beyond by Linda Bird Francke.

In October it was my turn to choose a book for my neighborhood book club. That was not an easy task since as you can see, I’m not a novel reader. But The Personal Librarian by Benedict and Murray seemed to be a good fit for my interests and the interests of my reading friends.  This charming historical fiction reveals that remarkable life of Belle de Costa Greene who became JP Morgan’s personal librarian around the turn of the last century. She curated his collection and was a force in the art and literary world all while hiding her identity as a black woman. I have been to the Morgan Library on Madison Ave in NYC and it is a magnificent building, art gallery and literary collection.  Oh, and my friends enjoyed my apple cake after the book discussion.

It is now January 2022 and my life has changed a lot since last January. I’m now back in the library after giving it over to Alexandra during the pandemic.  In November, my mother passed away after a long year of poor health. I’m now free to start a new chapter, a new season after 12 intense years of parent care.  I look forward to the change and yet it is a bit daunting, too—I no longer have any excuses.  I now must get on with my hopes and dreams for the second half of my life. Fortunately, a few days ago, my inner voice gave me a kind hint that I have repeated daily ever since—“Don’t be afraid of the open space”.   Thanks to a warm fire in the library, hot cup a tea and a cuddly cat, I’m allowing myself some much needed open space.

Gifts for the Journey

As we enter the season of giving, I want to share with you some of the gifts to take with you through the darkest time of the year and on into the growing light of next year.  These are the gifts for the pilgrimage, out in the world or at home.  These are intangible gifts that don’t come wrapped neatly in a bow but gifts that grow the heart and remind us of our essential nature.

Ceremony:    This is the conscious interaction of giving and receiving.   When you are at a sacred site you honor the spirit and energy of the place with a ceremony.   The ceremony is totally of you, in the way you choose.   I prefer to do a ceremony that doesn’t draw attention to myself or the act.  This is a very personal moment and can be shared with others or just for your personal connection and thanksgiving.    The elements are a prayer or words of connection and thanks, a desire to receive the gifts and energy of the site and a gift back to the site.   These gifts can be a prayer, song, holy water, traditional offering of tobacco or sage, flowers or anointing oils.   The gifts should be appropriate to the site and not interfere with the energy or physical space of the site.  

Prayer:   Formal, informal, walking or just breathing, pilgrimages are a living prayer.   These are the words that form the devotion and connection to the Divine.   All religions have prayers, and the repeating of those prayers bring power to the space and comfort to the pilgrim.   I went to the cathedral in Santiago early in the morning and sat in a small chapel with a few pilgrims that were saying the Rosary.   That beautiful prayer of longing that has been repeated billions of times was perfect for the time and place that morning.   Choose a prayer that you are comfortable with and that is appropriate for the place or find the spontaneous prayer that comes from your heart.    Thank-you is prayer enough.

Maps:  For millennia, map makers have been trying to make sense of our world by making symbols on a piece of paper.   The coastlines, forest, mountains, deserts and rivers become accessible in our minds with maps.   Without a map, we don’t have directions to find our goal.   The modern GPS may give us the next turn but there is nothing like a large paper map to see our world.   A pilgrimage needs a map to see the overall experience, to learn the terrain, see the obstacles, find the right road or path.   Our heart also has a map and as you step out into the world the map of your heart is drawing new territory.   You have the abundant rivers of the good times, the forest of the unknown, the cities of community, the oceans of knowledge, deserts of sorrow and mountains of attainment.   On a pilgrimage you will remember your personal map of your past and make new routes for your future.  

More gifts:

Joy, Silence, Music

Books, Fire, People

Time

Chimayo, New Mexico

In September, I once again heard the call to another pilgrimage.  I rebooked a canceled trip from last year to the Land of Enchantment—New Mexico.  My parents loved New Mexico and would make an annual trip to Taos.  I visited Santa Fe and Chaco Canyon in 2018, but since then my dear friend and fellow pilgrim, Val, moved to Santa Fe and now the southwest will be on my regular pilgrim path. And for good reason, it is magnificent and healing to my soul.  I love living in green and lush Tennessee but the open desert and big sky are always awe inspiring. 

I chose to visit New Mexico around the autumnal equinox. There is a power to this time of year as the seasons change and my heart and mind start to move from the outward activity of summer to the inward time of autumn and winter.  Honoring the movement of our sun and the changing of the seasons helps me to find the rhythm of my own life.  My daily life has shifted as the busy projects of the year are finished. I came to New Mexico to pray for my next season of life.

Val and I started our week together at the Ojo Caliente hot springs. Nothing like a long soak in mineral hot springs to unwind and breath the fresh western air.  I love water and a final round of pool time felt like a good finale to summer.  During the week we also had lunch with a friend in Taos and toured the little town.  We visited the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe and walked around the Basilica of St. Frances which was closed except for Mass.  We finished the week with a glamping trip to Chaco Canyon. I’ve already written about going to Chaco Canyon for spring equinox so I will link to that blogpost

After a delightful Sunday brunch with good conversation, lots of coffee and breakfast burrito, Val and I head northeast out of Santa Fe to the little town of Chimayo. The drive went through empty and alien land that had its own unique beauty in stark contrast to the gentle green oasis of the Sanctuario of Chimayo.  Nestled among trees and grass and a small babbling brook is an old chapel and surrounding gardens full of shrines for healing and prayer.  There is an origin story of a mysterious cross that would reappear which then became a place of miracles.  An American version of Lourdes in France, people started to come to the Santuario for the healing earth, dirt that had miraculous properties. 

We arrived just as the outdoor Mass was ending and we wove our way through the dispersing crowds to the chapel on the side of the hill, a beautiful Spanish colonial church.  We went inside the small chapel filled with candles, saints and a colorful painted altar.  I took a seat on an old wooden bench and whispered my prayers and my gratitude.  The chapel was full of other seekers, some in tears as they prayed for their suffering and for those they love.  Unfortunately, the spell was broken as a woman in front of me answered her ringing cell phone.  But I had said what I needed to say and quietly slipped into a small room with a low ceiling to the left of the altar.   As I adjusted to the low light, I could see dozens of crutches and hundreds of photographs lining the walls, evidence of healing and those who need prayers. There was a tiny door to an even tinier room for the holy earth.  I wasn’t ready to go in that room yet. 

Val and I headed toward the nearby saint shops full of rosaries, statues and books.  I bought two small containers.  When we finished shopping, I walked back to the side of the chapel to the rooms with the photos and the sacred earth.  I waited a few minutes as two women, one obviously very ill, took their time to gather the earth and ask for healing.  Then it was my turn to crouch low through the small door into that holy room.  I took out my two containers and used a small spade to fill them with the fine red dirt from a hole in the center of the room.  Every year, thousands of people come to this same tiny, plain room to gather the soil to release the sorrow and pain of life and ask for hope and healing. The power of all these pilgrims is palpable and a reminder that the holy comes in the small, everyday moments that are met with gratitude and faith.

We finished our tour around the grounds; I particularly liked the seven stone arches that represented the seven days of creation.  Many of the statues had flowers, rosaries and other objects as tokens of appreciation and anticipation.  We did not linger long and were soon heading back to Santa Fe on the winding road through the desert. But the little oasis of healing and the short moments in the chapel will be with me for a lifetime.  The little containers of healing earth are now in my library here as reminders of hope and the healing power of earth and sky in the land of enchantment.

Yosemite

The first time I visited Yosemite it was like walking in a dream. I couldn’t seem to wake myself and hold onto the immense, overwhelming reality of nature.  I could see the granite walls of El Capitan and Half Dome, I could hear the waterfalls and watch the mist fall to the rocks below. But somehow it was just too much for me to process in a short visit and I knew I wanted to go back someday to really experience this mighty land. Yosemite was at the top of my travel wish list.

Then, the perfect opportunity appeared. I had airline vouchers left from a canceled trip and had plans to visit friends in central California—Yosemite seemed the perfect socially distanced vacation.  I was able to book early enough to get a hotel in the park, allowing us a coveted entry permit.  This time, I wanted to experience Yosemite the way I love to see the world, on foot, following my heart deep into the beauty of nature.

The first day we stopped at a grocery store to pick up breakfast and lunch supplies and then drove the rest of the morning, arriving at the park entrance at lunch time.  It isn’t easy to get to Yosemite. There are long curving roads with few guardrails to protect from the precipitous drops as we climbed higher into the great Sierra Nevada mountains. We spent the afternoon enjoying the famous and spectacular Yosemite Valley.  High granite walls make a narrow valley floor with large ponderosa pines and a gentle, meandering river.  We stopped and put our feet in the river, smelled the warm pines, said hello to a deer who was complete unimpressed with our presence.  I love the dry warm air with a gentle breeze and the amazing smell and feel of the vast western United States, so different from the humid south. By late summer, the waterfalls that make the valley impossibly beautiful have dried up but we were able to walk the short path to lower Yosemite Falls which still had a bit of water.   Hamilton spent time rock climbing in the valley in his 20’s and enjoyed reliving the memory of his adventurous youth.  

That first evening we drove about thirty miles down to our hotel at the far southern end of this park which is about the size of Rhode Island. I booked us into the newly renovated Victorian hotel, The Wawona, built around 1903.  It is charming with claw-footed tubs and wide porches; but, alas no air conditioning so we made do on the hot summer nights with a fan.  The dinning room offers three buffet meals a day and I was happy with the quick and easy dinner and then back to our room to read ourselves to sleep—no tv or internet but some cell service.

We had the next three days to hike so I strategically chose trails to give us the best experience of the park. I knew our hiking limit was around 8 miles a day at 7000 feet altitude and I don’t really love trails that are extremely steep. With the help of a good guide book, I chose our first trail close to our hotel—the trail to the Giant Sequoias. The largest trees on earth, they only grow in a small area of the western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas. They grow up to 300 feet tall, 29 feet in diameter and live to 3000 years.  Because of pandemic restrictions and a storm that badly damaged the trees near the parking lot, the only way to reach the Sequoias is a two mile walk to the beginning of the trail and then another mile to Grizzly Giant and California Tunnel Tree.  Further up the trail, we met Cothespin Tree and The Faithful Couple—two trees growing together.  Ultimately, we made it to the Mariposa Grove of about 80 Giant Sequoias, all identified but not named.  Our final destination was to a summit overlooking a green valley and a fire watch station for the surrounding area.  We had lunch of peanut butter and honey sandwiches, cheese, apples, cashews and chocolate.  The trip back down gave us another perspective of these amazing beings, sentient and strong, wise and resilient.  We hiked nearly 10 miles and were ready for a cold drink and a hot shower.  Hiking brings the most delicious exhaustion with brilliant memories of beauty and a satisfaction of a trail well walked.

For our second hike, we chose to drive to Glacier Point, an overlook of the Yosemite Valley and a closer view of the iconic Half Dome. We arrived early so we could miss the crowds and see the valley in the morning light, tinged with a bit of smoky haze from the wildfires farther north.  We parked at the McGurk Meadow trailhead that went to the Dewey Point trail.  The first half of the trail was through a boggy meadow.  I didn’t expect to see such beautiful wildflowers that time of year, but the purple and yellow flowers were busy with golden butterflies and fat yellow bumblebees.  Farther down the trail we climbed higher through large groves of pines, weaving through the freshly cut stumps of downed trees recently cleared by the park service.  After a final steep hill, we came to a magnificent overlook directly across from El Capitan and looking down the valley to Half Dome.  Yet another perfect luncheon spot with the same menu as the day before—peanut butter is always delicious after a four-mile climb.  I was delighted to see the flower meadows again on the way back to the trail head and happily climbed into the air conditioned car after 8 miles of hiking.  We stopped again at the market near the hotel and got gas and cold drinks. The only beer available just happened to be Hamilton’s favorite oatmeal stout.  We flopped onto the porch chairs and pulled off our boots and enjoyed our drinks with some snacks before a bath and an early dinner.  The evening was warm and the room was hot so we mostly fell asleep early and enjoyed the extra rest.

On the third day, we debated how far we would be able to hike but as we drove along and had some coffee, we made our next plan for the Tuolumne Meadows area north of the valley and in the more alpine country of the John Muir Trail.  The Elizabeth Lake trail seemed to be the right length and incline for our sore legs and time constraints, and it turned out to be perfect.  The first part of the trail was fairly steep and, at 8000 feet, I had to stop often and catch my breath and drink some water but eventually the trail leveled off and I found myself in “Alpine Hobbitland” all presided over by Unicorn Peak (10,823 ft). I’m sure if I looked closely there were fairies and water sprites–it was that picture-perfect.  We chose a log by the shining Elizabeth Lake and had the same hikers’ lunch that always seems to satisfy. Around the edge of the lake were a few other hikers with fishing poles and families enjoying the clear, cold water.  This trail was only five miles but the incline and the altitude were plenty for the third and final hike of our Yosemite adventure. 

That afternoon we drove back to Sacramento to an airport hotel for our flight the next morning. We were so hungry and dirty, the best we could find was a dinner of In and Out burgers and fries and a shared chocolate shake to end the long but glorious trip.  I enjoyed the air-conditioned room and made sure I was good and cold all night long.  The flights back were slightly delayed but otherwise uneventful and we got home safe and sound. Caroline did a great job taking care of the farm while we were away. 

I was so happy to have such a complete experience of Yosemite and feel like I really got a long and deep encounter of this iconic land. By walking into the land, I saw, smelled, felt and heard the world around me and was able to absorb nature deep into my bones. To a certain extent, Yosemite will always be a dream but now it is a dream I can hold on to and re-experience anytime my mind wants to wander down a deep forest trail or overlook a granite valley.  Dream and memory are now woven tightly together. 

Hamilton and I enjoyed our adventure so much that we are now planning to visit other parks for some extended day hikes and adventures—I’m looking at you, Olympic and Glacier.  Thank goodness the Great Smoky Mountains are in my back yard to keep me happily hiking through out the year.

Moving

Painting bookshelves

In July, this perpetual pilgrim was once again on the road for the first time in a year and a half. Oh, there were a couple of short driving trips but nothing that required more than a duffle bag.  So, I brushed the dust off of my carry-on and tried to remember how to pack again.  My exciting destination—Alexandra’s new apartment in California. My first trip was a working trip to get her settled after living on the farm for fifteen months. I can’t say that it was the most thrilling and inspirational destination but there was a purpose and a goal and that was to make Alexandra’s first real home her own. Since I’m really a homebody myself, I wanted her to have the space she needed to feel nurtured and supported after a busy day of work.

Alexandra found a new apartment when she went back to California in May.  Her old micro apartment was way too small and the neighborhood was no longer safe. She was relieved to move right away and make plans for a home big enough for a table and chairs and, more importantly, a cat.  She came back to Tennessee long enough to gather the new-to-her furniture she needed, some beloved family heirlooms and get it all loaded on a truck heading to LA.

I flew out just in time to meet the movers and start the challenging but satisfying task of unpacking and making a home.  First there was a lot of painting—yes I painted all the walls with the help of a good audiobook.  Then I painted two big bookshelves since she has inherited her parents’ obsession with reading and needed lots of space to put her beloved collection.  Meanwhile, her newly adopted cat, Rufus, was settling into his forever home.

Each day I worked and gradually got things in their place and boxes out the door.  Everyday there was a bit more space to move about.  I finally finished all the painting and had a couple of days to relax and enjoy the beautiful summer weather.  There were long walks along flower-lined streets, a trip to the beach, a massage and a visit to The Getty Art Museum to see the gardens and illuminated manuscripts.  I read a lot and played with my grandcat Rufus.   I entertained myself while Alexandra had to work overtime on a big project.  Each day she came home to see the progress and talk about changes in her job and life in general.  I cherished those moments at her new dining table to talk and plan.

It was a lot of work and I really don’t love painting but I wanted Alexandra to have the home of her dreams that would bring her comfort and joy.  The ultimate goal of a pilgrimage is to come home and integrate the experience into your everyday life. Home nurtures our soul and supports our journey to the next adventure into the world.  

The Getty, Los Angeles

Fireflies

Great Smoky Mountain fiireflies photo- recreation.gov

We are showered every day with gifts, but they are not meant for us to keep. Their life is in their movement, the inhale and the exhale of our shared breath. Our work and our joy is to pass along the gift and to trust that what we put out into the universe will always come back.

—-Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Summer is a magical time here in East Tennessee. The giant magnolia trees are full of waxy white flowers that smell like lemons. The mama turkeys parade around the yard with their babies. Occasionally we get to see fawns who are more curious about us than the mama deer think is prudent. But the real magic happens in the evening around dusk when the fireflies start to come out and the meadows and trees around the house light up with these amazing and gentle bugs. Fireflies are easy to catch and every child in these parts delights in running after the sparkling bugs to capture and put them in a mason jar with air holes punched in the lid. It is an annual right and part of the long lazy evenings of summer. These are bugs everyone can love.

About an hour away in the Great Smoky Mountains, there is a one area that has a special type of fireflies that don’t just flash randomly like in my woods but instead has a way of synchronizing their display to attract potential mates.  These enclaves of fireflies have been a big attraction the last decade or so and definitely a bucket list experience.  I was always very happy with the fireflies around my house so I never felt the need to venture to the mountains. But this year, my friend Lynn managed to get a coveted parking slot in the lottery and invited several of us hiking friends to join her.  We packed a picnic supper for the long wait until dark and headed on the curvy roads to the Elkmont campground not far from the main visitor’s center.

Elkmont was once an enclave of summer homes before the national park was formed.  The tenants retained lifetime rights to the cottages but the last few decades the empty cottages fell in disrepair. Currently, a few are being restored as part of the history of the park.  We picnicked on one of the front porches before heading down the trail with our chairs to wait for it to be pitch-dark. There were several hundred people along the near-by trails eagerly awaiting the bugs to show up.  I personally found it wonderful and remarkable to see so many people so excited about bugs—it warmed my heart. I loved the chance to be in the deep dark woods, wandering around like nature’s Halloween party collecting bugs rather than candy. There was an air of happy anticipation for the show.

Well, the show was not its best that night.  The weather had just been a bit too cool for the fireflies liking. We did see a few.  Blink, Blink, Blink—-dark.  Blink, Blink, Blink—dark. All the male fireflies went dark at the same time.  But I was there, I got to see some of it and I was in the ancient woods loving nature with other wonderful nature-loving people.  Maybe next year I can see the full display but meanwhile I had a delightful evening. I’ve been enjoying my fireflies even more and I even have a bat the comes around to enjoy the fading light.

The Brood X cicadas have faded now and the land is quiet again.  Caroline spent all of June enjoying these very sassy bugs.  As I would walk along the road by the meadow, cicadas would fly in front of me, buzzing and letting me know I was disturbing them. Their gossamer wings made it feel like little fairies flying up around, very ethereal and surreal. 

Caroline collected their beautiful golden wings and laminated thousands of them—preserving them for art projects. She is sad she has to wait another 17 years for Brood X to come back.  Her friend Maddie has turned these wings in earrings; art and nature, nature and art—they can’t be separated.  

Usually, bugs are seen as pests and we have many of those here on the farm—ticks, flies, mosquitos, stinkbugs, invasive aphids. But sometimes bugs can be friends. Now if I could just feel the same way about the rat snake who came into the basement and has taken up residence in the bushes.

Spring on the Farm

Mama Turkey

We save the world by being alive ourselves—-Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

I took a screen shot of this quote a couple of years ago and found it again the other day when I was going through some old pictures. It felt like those words were meant for me to find at this time, in the springtime when the world is coming back to life again.  For it is nature that makes me feel alive, breathing, joyful and ensouled. The author, James Hillman wrote that soul was not a thing or a place but a perspective— a way of seeing, experiencing and participating in the world.  Nature flourishes in the spring and it is easy to feel alive and refreshed with the green trees, soft breezes and bird songs. Here are somethings in my world that make my soul sing with life and joy.

Mama turkey is nesting just at the edge of the lawn. It was by sheer accident that I found her nest so well hidden in the undergrowth.  For 28 days the hens sit quietly on their nest, moving just enough to gently turn the eggs about every hour or so.  I sneak down every day to check on her and see her beautiful brown eyes and body so perfectly camouflaged. It is a joy to be up close to such a miracle of life and instinct.  I highly recommend the award-winning documentary My Life as a Turkey, a charming story of a naturalist who became a turkey mama for a year. 

The Brood X cicadas have come to life again after their 17-year wait.  They are a pest and a miracle all in one.  Since we live in the woods, their numbers are vast here and their sounds have become very loud from dawn to dusk—something like a car alarm going off all the time.  I think it sounds like alien ships landing—and they do look like aliens. Caroline is fascinated by their long breeding cycle and sheer numbers—billions of them over several states.  She has been eagerly awaiting their arrival and is now gathering their gossamer wings. The structure and golden color are works of art.  You can see her life as an amateur naturalist on her Instagram @eigenstuff. But fair warning, she has a unique and lively mind and her perspective can be very funny.  

My peacocks! Have I told you how much I love my peacocks?  Mimi, Brunehilde and Figaro are a year old and have lots of personality—OK they are opera stars and use their beautiful voices to honk when stressed.  They are growing up and are learning to do their peacock jobs, mainly eat bugs and make me happy.  We built a large outdoor run so they can bond with the land and eventually learn to roam the property and look beautiful doing so.  Every evening I go down with a couple of pieces a bread, their favorite treat, and talk with them and just take in the evening light.  It is a beautiful flourish to the end of the day.  I get them back in their roost and lock them safely away for the night, a perfect evening ritual to take me one last time into nature now bathed in moonlight and the haunting call of the wippoorhorwill.  

A few weeks ago Hamilton and I planted 20 small trees.  We needed a privacy screen and some fast-growing Thuja Green Giants seemed to be the right choice for our land.  Although very small now, they will grow to be very tall. But to give them a good and healthy start I have a summer of watering. Most of them I can reach with a long hose but eight of them require hauling buckets of water, not an easy job for me.  Every week I get to talk to the saplings and now I’m seeing tiny bits of bright green on the tips of the branches.  I love nurturing these small plants now so they can fulfill their destiny as mighty trees.

Our world is so precious and vibrantly alive, inviting us to be alive too. The animals, insects, birds and trees know their purpose and place in the world and they go about doing their part. That doesn’t mean life is without problems. The peacocks pick on each other and I have to clean their roost. The turkey chicks are in grave danger from owls and hawks. The little trees are vulnerable in the dry summer. The cicadas have a short life and are all over my front porch. Thoughtless people throw garbage on the roadsides and my sweet friend Lynn helped me clean it up.  But imperfection doesn’t mean that life isn’t beautiful. Wabi Sabi, a Japanese idea, holds that beauty is in the imperfection.

Nature just is and welcomes you, just as you are.  — Beth Kempton, Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life.

Mount LeConte

It seems that 2021 is about getting to do the things that we canceled in 2020.  One of the delayed trips was a long-coveted trip to Mount LeConte in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I’ve hiked to the top of Mount LeConte several times before as a day trip.  It is a big hike on Alum Cave trail, 10 miles round trip, an altitude gain of 3000 feet, but with a wonderful reward of a view at the top and great accomplishment at the end. I used this trail to get ready for my Peru hike in 2016 and it really helped get me in shape. Since the 1930’s, there has been a lodge at the top of the mountain with a dozen or so cabins plus dining hall and office/store. It is a throwback to a bygone era of old mountaineers and charming rocking chairs to “sit a spell” and enjoy the view.  The lodge is off-grid and only accessible by foot.  The cabins are equipped with propane heaters and kerosene lamps and are resupplied three times a week by llamas carrying food and clean linen.  Reservations are made by a lottery system the year before, so I was disappointed when my reservation for last April was cancel but was glad to rebook for this year and include Alexandra in the trip as she loves a good hiking adventure. Hamilton and Caroline also enjoy hiking and nature, so we were all happy with the plan.

I watched the weather forecast closely the week before and was pleased that the day would be sunny but, alas, we were going to have a cold snap. We packed long johns, hats, gloves and wool socks for the adventure, knowing we would be adding layers the higher we climbed and it was going to be a very cold night.  We set out mid-morning for the hour and half drive with a sense of adventure and plenty of snacks and water.  Our first ‘trail miracle’ was a small black bear just off the park road. It is rare to see a bear and there were quite a few cars stopped to see the little fella wandering in the woods.   We made it to our destination just in time for our second ‘trail miracle’. The very crowded parking lot had just the perfect spot for us to park overnight as I really didn’t want to leave the car by the side of the road for that long.   We ate our picnic lunch and put on our backpacks to head up the trail.  The first couple of miles are flat and along a magnificent rocky stream.  There are several log footbridges to cross and I always like to take a moment to breath the fresh mountain air and enjoy the rushing water.  Further along are stairs that go through an open cave.  There I saw my first hiker with ice cleats on her boots—yikes, I was a little worried about the rest of the trail.  As the trail went up, it got colder and icier.  There were overhangs with giant icicles randomly crashing to the ground or dripping to form thick flows of ice on the trail.  Much of the upper part of the trail is carved out of stone with metal cables to hold onto—very helpful when the rocks are covered with solid ice.

We took our time and enjoyed the view but by the time we got to the lodge it was getting dark and very cold and I was hungry. The cabin was tiny and cold except the top bunk which was very hot as all the heat rose to the top and a continuous stream of frigid air seeped under the door.  We snuggled into the beds until supper was delivered, hot and delicious after a long hike. Because of Covid, the dining hall was closed and it was well below freezing so outdoor dining was not a good option.  I read on my Kindle and we all went to sleep early. I did keep waking up in the night to worry about getting back down the mountain in the morning after the trail refroze overnight. 

The next morning it was 4 degrees and we were happy for hot coffee and breakfast of pancakes, eggs, biscuits, and grits to fortify us for the trek down.  The morning was beautiful with every tree covered with a dense hoar frost all glowing with the pink light of morning. I went to the store to check out and had my third ‘trail miracle’, they sold ice cleats for our hiking shoes, we were saved!  I would happily give them all the money in the world so that we wouldn’t break an arm or leg on the way back down.  With the our more grippy shoes we could take our time and see the amazing frost covered world around us. We still were careful on the trail but enjoyed the treat of the crisp white world just as spring was around the corner.  It was a glorious hike down the mountain.

We arrived back to our car, tired but warm from our adventure. We drove to the local tourist town, Pigeon Forge, to eat our first restaurant meal together in over a year.  Pizza never tasted to good. We made our way home through the valley with a quick stop for coffee.  I was so happy for a hot shower as it was so cold overnight, we slept in our hiking clothes. We all hobbled around the next couple of days with sore muscles and I had some tendentious but it was all worth it. I want to make the trek again in warmer weather and when the dining hall is open so we can visit with our fellow hikers and enjoy the view.  I wouldn’t say our adventure was “fun” in the traditional sense but we all loved the thrill of the challenge, the amazing beauty and the time spent together. Success all around.  

Emerging

Cherry trees in March

March always brings in the new, the subtle tiny blossoms and delicate green leaves of spring, renewal after the long winter. This March holds the first anniversary of a year-long forced hibernation.  We all remember that fateful week in March 2020 as the new realities of a pandemic changed our ways of being in the world in one quick stroke.  I also feel myself emerging from the difficult years of elder care and the structures of academia and academic writing. I’m starting to imagine what I want to see bud and emerge in my life. 

Thanks to the miracles of modern science, bit by bit, we are starting to emerge from our cloistered lives. What will that look like? What are you longing to do? For me, I find that I still want to hold on to some of the things I’ve been doing the last few months.  I love cooking more and being more adventurous with food.  I love “time spaciousness” where the day expands and I don’t have to go anywhere.  But I do miss small groups of friends and going to live concerts.

What else is emerging is a desire to get going on new projects, new routines, new experiences. Spring is the time for sowing the seeds you want to grow and cultivate in your life. So I’m committing to growing ideas that have laid dormant until the right season, the right conditions. I think that is one of the best ways to let life flow—don’t force the things that are not quite ready to emerge– like planting flowers before the first frost. But when the time is right, the project will let you know it is time.

I often find that a synchronicity (meaningful coincidence) lets me know that the time is right.  The last few weeks, I’ve been listening to The Dutch House by Anne Patchett, this month’s selection for my neighborhood book club.  Read by Tom Hanks, the beautiful prose has washed over me like a warm wave. I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed a novel more. Rather than constant tragedy forcing an overwhelming story line, an old house is the container for lives, loves and sadness. There is a gentleness to the stability of the constant presence of place and history.  In the story, a large home with lots of history, is the catalyst for the lives of the individuals that live and work in the house, the Dutch house. Some people thrive, others struggle under its roof, but all are changed by the physical structure that holds their daily lives.

All of our lives have been shaped by place and its climate, culture, history and geography. We are also constantly influenced by the daily surroundings, big, small, extravagant, humble and everything in between.  I’m fascinated by how our place in the world reflects in our psychology and how we also influence place with our desires, interests and even neglect.  It is easy to see how friends, family and even enemies can influence us. But more than ever before we can see how our place influences our health and wellbeing.  For several years, I’ve been thinking about the influence of home on our psychology, our unique consciousness, and how our psychology forms the home around us. It is a special and important relationship. 

The Dutch House certainly reminds me to sow the seeds that I’ve been collecting and get to writing my ideas and experiences on “home”.  No more excuses or I will have nothing to harvest in the future.  What can you sow during this glorious springtime? What pieces have you been gathering in your heart and mind that you need to set into action?

Pandemic Winter

The morning sun on a winter Amaryllis.

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey than the work of the stars—Walt Whitman.

It has been a long winter and I struggled to find inspiration for a blog post for February.  But, this morning I saw this lovely quote by Walt Whitman and it seemed to reflect the winter. Currently life is not about the big things but the small world I currently inhabit during the pandemic. I’m starting to dream of travel and lunch out with friends but it still isn’t yet time. So, I will continue to focus on the leaves of grass, wild birds and dreams of coming wildflowers for my inspiration during this quiet and dark time of the year. 

My winter has been filled with housework, paperwork and care for my elderly mother.  Not the things that feel inspiring or exciting but what needs to be done as part of life.  Winter is that hunkering-down time.  Every morning I would start “my assisted living job” and help my mother with breakfast and medicine, dressing and bathing. Throughout the day, I would tend more meals and turn on Mom’s favorite YouTube channel, a Russian piano prodigy Alexander Malofeev.  She would watch Alexander play Rachmaninoff and Bach on an endless loop.  Mom is very deaf now and any kind of narrative or conversation is difficult, but the repeated melodies of her favorite music lull her into an afternoon nap and I could go about my errands or day’s work.  This became the rhythm of the day and somehow we made it work.  By the end of February, it was time to move Mom to the assisted living building in the same complex as her independent living apartment. I packed up all her cherished memories and favorite furniture for the move to a smaller place with more care.  It was a challenge for her emotionally and a challenge for me physically and psychologically.  I am not sorry to see dreary February go and be replaced by the winds of March blowing in the spring.

We did take time for a few adventures in February when weather allowed.  Valentine’s Day always encircles Caroline’s birthday, the next day, and we celebrated with fondue and a homemade funfetti cake, because sprinkles make everything more fun.  Hamilton’s birthday the next week arrived with bright blue skies so he and I took our annual pilgrimage to Hot Springs, nearby on the border of North Carolina, to soak in the mineral water.  Individual hot tubs are filled with the naturally warm water in private outdoor enclosures with a lovely view of a little river. This day I enjoyed the cloudless sky and the waving bamboo trees along the river’s edge.  I always sleep well the night after a soak in the mineral water—a way to help release the burdens of the world.

One more small adventure in February brought back happy childhood memories for the family.  Alexandra wanted to go to the local zoo as a way to safely be out of the house and enjoy the animals. She loves animals.  It had been well over a decade since I had been to the zoo so there were new things to see and old memories to enjoy.  We loved the lions but also the less exotic armadillo and bat-eared fox. Hamilton and Caroline loved the owls. I enjoyed being with my family and seeing all the young families with excited children.  The girls recreated a photo on a bronze turtle when they were just toddlers at the same zoo—it seems like yesterday.

February 1992
February 2021

Here in Tennessee, when you get to the first day of March, winter starts to lose its grip and beautiful days start to outnumber the cold and dreary ones.  The dark days of the winter begin to recede and the spring frogs and willow leaves foretell the next season’s arrival.  Our world is a beautiful combination of life in the small, insular worlds of our pandemic pods and microscopic virus but also reaching for the stars as we see the dramatic, red world of Mars for the first time.  Our lives are enriched by holding the paradox of the opposites, large and small, joyful and hard, soft and harsh, earth and universe.