Naming the Turtles on a Healing Journey: Everyday Magic, Day 974

Meet Orlando Bloom!

Throughout my healing journey — the cancer diagnosis and visits with three oncologists,  the big-time scans and fears, the  joys and reliefs, the waiting and preparation — I’ve been naming turtles. While this might be true metaphorically, it’s also truly happening beyond the world of symbol,  sorrow, and surprise. I have a friend, Ben Reed, a professor at Washburn University, who has been tracking and studying ornate box turtles in southeast Kansas, and he’s given me the honor of naming each turtle. Because Ben is a turtle whisperer, he’s kept me busy.

It started when Ben dropped by one day with a beautiful large female he found, then numbered to track for his research. I told him she was surely worthy of a name made of letters, not just numbers, and he agreed. That was last summer, and this spring, he found Lucille again because of the transmitter he attached to her last year. He also re-found Samantha, Theodore, and the three-toed box turtle Rudolph. Lately, because of rain in biblical proportions, he’s found a bumper crop of new turtles for me to name.

I named Demeter, Persephone, and Priscilla — a trio of goddesses — the day after my brand new ocular oncologist said there was a good-sized melanoma in my right eye. I was sad and exhausted that morning, and it helped to distract myself by thinking of turtle names for three strong, old wise women turtles, or maybe it wasn’t a distraction at all, but a way to take in the larger  breathing and changing world.

Ben and Ursula

In between phone calls with my regular oncologist’s office to set up scans and tests, I was further connected to this bigger world by naming Yoda although all turtles look like Yoda. Then again, many of these turtles also look like Gandalf (the Green), which I  bestowed on a very old male, surely is the incarnation of the previous Gandalf. I mean, if he can keep go from Gandalf the Gray to Gandalf the White in one lifetime, surely, he can come back as a turtle in another.

Just home one afternoon after a much-needed session with my therapist, I had more turtles to name: Leah, from the Old Testament, who Jacob had to marry to get to his much-desired Rachel. I always thought Leah had a bad rap, so why not let her be a vibrant turtle of intricate patterns?  There were also two teenage turtles, both female, so I went with Amber and Topaz, assistants to the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. I played one of them in the only play I was ever cast in (and not for a lack of auditioning through my childhood and teenage years), a small production held at a camp I attended when I was 11 years old.

The night before my PET scan, when I was pacing the deck talking with friends to calm myself from anxiety and a healthy dose of claustrophobia, I was interrupted by the need to name turtles: one very old, so I went with Saul, an old Jewish man from Brooklyn, Sparkle for a lively young female, and Ponderosa for a sunny young male.  The next morning,  buoyed by energy healing from my friend Ursula in Germany and a good dose of pharmaceuticals, plus a lot of slow breathing to relax myself. I also was lifted by the thought of naming more turtles, which was helpful since later that day, Ben texted me with a magical female I named Ursula.

Yoda, but then all turtles look like Yoda

After the MRI a week later, another big challenge for me involving a small tube, big prayers, Versed and fentanyl, I was so relieved to have gotten through that I was utterly delighted to name Orion after the constellation of the same name.

Later, before driving to the ocular oncologist with a fear storm in my digestive system because of how suddenly my eyesight diminished, I named Thor and Odin. Such mythological names helped me envision greater courage. Coming home that day, Ken and I were greatly relieved to discover that the tumor wasn’t growing, and my eyesight was being impinged instead by fluid build-up in my eye (made worse by, guess what?, stress!). As my eyes slowly undilated from Anime-sized pupils to more normal ones, I got to name a large and beautiful female Leslie Jones (from SNL fame) because badassery is also the name of the game now.

There’s also a pregnant Chrysanthemum and Clematis from a day the turtles from a day I was in a botanical mood,, and Sunshine  who I named when a storm was bearing down, both around and within me. And let us know forget Goldy and Silverado, two western-style guys (at least how they looked to me) with yellow and golden touches.

Demeter, Persephone, and Priscilla: Three Goddess Gals

All these turtles, even the ones who struggle, seem to have a beautiful grip on the life force. When Ben found a female turtle upside down in a just-burned field, so light because of near-starvation because of an invasion of bot flies, we both agreed she needed an especially strong name, so I suggested Herculia. He brought her to his lab, where she became a mascot for the Washburn biology department, everyone cheering her on after Ben removed multiple bot flies, parasitic jerks who has destroyed her back legs and possibly her digestive tract. He didn’t expect her to survive, but six weeks later, she’s still alive, and just yesterday, she finally ate something of substance, a worm, so maybe she’ll make it after all. While Ben will need to make some kind of wheel prostheses for her back legs, she may one day propel on her own.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a turtle biologist to see the parallels between us messy humans and these ancient and resilience beings, although I’m sure the turtles outrun us in patience and even grace. Come fall, they go underground to hibernate through the winter, then emerge into the mud, rain, and wind of messy and changeable spring, finding their footing through storms and droughts, trials and tenderness. However the weather and light shift, they persevere.

Turtles pre-date humans, and from what little I know, their ancestor proto-turtles may be as much as 220 million years old.  Ben explains that many species “are virtually unchanged morphologically since the dinos, which is pretty incredible.”

Yes, incredible indeed, and so is simply holding a turtle, marveling at their ability to live below and among us,  navigating water and land, earth and fire with a hard shell that tells their stories of age and art and inside that shell, a beating heart committed to life. Surely we are all, turtles all the way down, on our own healing journeys, so let us pause and name what gives us strength and sight.

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The Power of Blossoms: Everyday Magic, Day 971

Emily Dickinson writes, “I started early — Took my dog.” In my case, I started late and took my croissant, and unlike Dickinson, I wasn’t looking for mermaids in the basement of the ocean or fleeing from the silver-tongued tide. Nope, I was savoring one flowering tree after another, that and buttery layers of flakey wonder.

Each spring, I hit the pause button on my life at some moment, and if I’m smart, many moments, and head out into the neighborhoods to worship at the fleeting faces of magnolia blossoms. Some weeks later, after the frost has zapped those magnolias brown-edged and fallen,  I mosey along the lilac. I’ve also done lily-of-the-valley walks because those tiny white bells hold whole worlds of exquisite joy. This year, with winter holding its ground far later than usual and a sluggish spring, everything exploded into blossom at once, so a few days ago, I parked the car near the Barker Street bakery, got my provisions, and headed out into the blossoming world.

Instead of a somewhat orderly procession of daffodils before tulips and magnolias before redbuds, this year, everything is showing off at once. Turn a corner and behold! Lilac is just starting beside a spread of tulips. Cherry trees are partying on high, one happy hand of pink piled against another. Grape hyacinth sings the song of its people below a bevy of flowering dogwood and against the backdrop of Rhododendron (what are you doing so far west, Appalachian flowers?). From the ground, covered with thousands of slips of Bradford pear paper petals, to the heavens, framed with interlocking purple, pink, and white, the world is blooming faster than we can comprehend.

It’s also changing wildly fast after winter’s long dormant stretch of snow, ice, gray skies, and sudden jolts down in temperature, all of which makes life seem more monolithic than it is.  What’s peaking today will be hollowing out in a week. What’s just opening its doors, flower by flower, will soon dissolve or fall away. That’s why I write and walk into this most springs: to acknowledge that yes, this is remarkable even if seasonal, and yes, we’re alive to bear witness to more than just the grief and insanity of the world.

Tomorrow, if I’m not an idiot, I’ll be the one walking slowly, phone in hand, to take pictures of what’s shining, to paraphrase poet Li-Young Lee, blossom to impossible blossom. I might even be crawling along the sidewalk to smell the lily-of-the-valley. Each bundle or spread or hidden conclave of flowers here, in all their power, demand no less.

Driving Home the Full Moon: Everyday Magic, Day 969

There I was, looking for the rising moon and wondering why it hadn’t yet shown itself. Maybe it was  too early for moonrise or prairie fires just to the north of Hwy. 35, which I was driving from Emporia to Lawrence, were hiding the ceiling of the sky. So I kept driving and looking, hoping for the moon to catch up with me.

I was also simultaneously tired and exhilarated, in part because of the moon the night before keeping me up despite my “go-back-to-sleep-you-have-a-big-day-tomorrow” self-talk attempts. Even with the curtains of our bedroom closed, I could feel that big moon energy, making me want to get up and fry an omelette or read a book, but certainly not sleep.

It was the tail end of that big day — one that brought me meaning and joy, starting with visiting a wonderful poetry writing class at Emporia State University, where we talked about what real work was calling us and what truest words were singing through our writing. I had my first-ever professional studio photo shoot with the wonderful Dave Leiker, who brought me a surprising sense of peace while placing me in the middle of clamshell lighting. I ate gyros with one of my publisher-friends at the local brewery, then guzzled a whole lot of iced tea in the Granada Coffeehouse while revising a grant. I also got to talk deeply over Mexican food about land and literature with the current Kansas Poet Laureate, Kevin Rabas, who teaches at Emporia State, the wonderful creative writing chair, Amy Sage Webb, and a lovely young poet, Linzi Garcia, before giving a reading from Miriam’s Well.

Now I was driving 77 miles home, coming over a ridge to find a prairie fire dancing a line shaped like a question mark to my north, and then another kind of fire: the full moon, half-risen, raging orange, enormous on the eastern horizon.

The rest of the drive the moon rose fuller, slowly getting smaller as it got higher, turning from fire-orange to sherbet to peach to butterscotch to manila. I turned up my CD player, singing along with the whole score of “Godspell,” then rocking out to Kansas’s “Carry On, My Wayward Son” until, so appropriately, Sarah Vaughn’s “Moon River” aligned the moon, the music, the highway, and me.

Driving into the rising moon on an early spring night is a lot like standing outside on the first warm enough day when a sweet breeze blows through our beings and happily clears all the debris of winter and other life challenges, sadnesses, and heartbreaks. The more I drove with my good friend the moon lighting the way, the more I came home to how much I love this world.

In Praise of Mary Oliver: Everyday Magic, Day 962

“I started early — took my dog” begins an Emily Dickinson poem that speaks to Mary Oliver’s generous life and poetry. She loved her dogs, getting outside early to wander  for hours (“Tell me, what else should I have done?” she writes) and, along the way, inviting countless people to  love poetry early, or at least earlier than never. Oliver’s writing is a gateway drug to poetry, gently and fiercely cajoling would-be readers into the wilds of the shining earth and living poem.

I can’t remember when I first encountered Oliver’s poetry, but I know this: it wasn’t when I was doing a PhD in poetry despite my comps requiring me to become well-versed on over 50 poets from Beowulf to Sharon Olds. Oliver wasn’t invited to the party of the canon of what was deemed good literature, at least in the early 90s, but then again, I didn’t encounter Rumi there either. Although her spectacular book American Primitive won the Pulitzer Prize, her lack of verbal gymnastics and her abundance of accessibility didn’t land her on the reading lists of the graduate courses I took.

Instead (and even better), Oliver’s poems landed on thousands of refrigerator doors and in multitudes of journals, scribbled by people at wit’s end finding solace in the questions she asked, such as “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?” and in the advice she gives, such as these lines from “In Blackwater Woods” so many of us hold close to our bones:

To live in this world

you must be able

to do three things:

to love what is mortal;

to hold it

against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to it go,

to let it go.

Her wisdom is hard-won and home-grown. Born in 1935 in Ohio, she found refuge in the natural world and poetry. She told Maria Shriver in an interview that she had been sexually abused while growing up and couldn’t shake recurring nightmares. Poetry, which she began writing at age 14, gave her a frame for a healing narrative; the earth and sky filled that frame. She set out from home following both, which led her to the home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay in Austerlitz, New York, where she befriended the poet’s sister, then moved into Millay’s home to organize Millay’s papers.

She dabbled in college, but didn’t earn degrees; likewise, she made it a point never to take on work that might lure her away from poetry, saying, “If you have an interesting job, you get interested in it.” She did a myriad of menial jobs so that she had time and space to write about what she was called to do most, such as in “The Journey,” a poem about finding our own voice as we wander deeper into the world, “determined to do/ the only thing you could do –/ determined to save/ the only life you could save.” She said the natural world was “salvation from her own darkness,” so it’s no surprise that she wrote in ways that helped others do the same. Poetry, she said often, saved her life.

So did love. Sometime in the late 1950s she met photographer Molly Malone Cook, later writing, “I took one look and fell, hook and tumble.” They were in love for over 40 years, living together in Provincetown, MA, a more protected perch for lesbians and artists making a life together, until Malone’s death in 2005. Oliver wrote in Our World of how they had a “rich and abiding confluence” on influence on each other, going on to say:  “I don’t think I was wrong to be in the world I was in, it was my salvation from my own darkness. Nor have I ever abandoned it — those early signs that so surely lead toward epiphanies. And yet, and yet, she wanted me to enter more fully into the human world also, and to embrace it, as I believe I have.”

For days and years, Oliver wandered the woods and beaches. What was she searching for? Obviously, as she wrote about in poem after poem, the life force as evident in white moths in flight, a grasshopper in the palm, skunk cabbage up close, and weedy morning glories as totems of beauty. She wrote of her dog (well, all her dogs), a little hawk leaning sideways, and a “black ant traveling/ briskly modestly.” She modeled a life of close observation to recover our vision of what David Abram calls the “more-than-human world,” even if dying and changing all around us, shining a flashlight on the magic inherent in the ordinary as well as a search light on how we’re just one species in “the family of things.” From such awareness, she showed us what Rumi, one of her all-time favorite poets illuminated: “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” Or as Oliver put it, “When it’s over, I want to say all my life/ I was a bride married to amazement.”

Although Oliver wrote “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is” in “The Summer Day,” her poems resonate as prayer, teaching us what she also says in that poem: “I don know how to pay attention” and how such attention can grow our kindness, strength, acceptance of what we can’t change, and bravery to face what we must. One of my favorite poems of hers, “West Wind #2” sings a song of courage to our “heart’s little intelligence”:

You are young. So you know everything. You leap
into the boat and begin rowing. But, listen to me.
Without fanfare, without embarrassment, without
any doubt, I talk directly to your soul. Listen to me.
Lift the oars from the water, led your arms rest, and
your heart, and heart’s little intelligence, and listen to
me. There is life without love. It is not worth a bent
penny, or a scuffed shoe. It is not worth the body of a
dead dog nine days unburied. When you hear, a mile
away and still out of sight, the churn of the water
as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the
sharp rocks – when you hear that unmistakable
pounding – when you feel the mist on your mouth
and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls
plunging and steaming – then row, row for your life
toward it.

Oliver spent her life rowing toward the long falls, yet she was remarkably down to earth. When she came to the University of Kansas in 2010, I got to have dinner with her and other guests the night before she gave a talk. She was gracious, honest, funny, and irreverent,  joking with us, “You are all welcome to visit, but you won’t find me” and “This is the first time I’ve been in Kansas, and it occurred to me I had to land in Missouri to do it.” She embodied her writings, both her prose and poetry, without distance or pretense. It was easy to imagine her, back on the Cape, like Dickinson, out early with her dog, skirting the sea, then darting through the woods to pick up one of the pencils she hid in a tree so she could write something down.

“I love the earth so much, and I am so grateful for my single life that it doesn’t scare me that I would give my life back one day. I would give the earth everything,” she said that day in Kansas. Now she has, but on her winding and wobbling trails through this life, she also given the earth to us.

See my blog post from 2010 on “Mary Oliverisms” here, and please consider subscribing to this blog (see “Subscribe to this Blog” on the right-hand side).

Looking for Patterns and Finding Them Everywhere: Everyday Magic, Day 961

A Mount St. Helens Vista

When Ken and I went to Mount St. Helens with friends several years ago, I was dazzled by the patterned forests full of checkerboard green across green. Ken explained that this pattern, so unlike all other mountains of forests I’ve ever seen, was because all the trees were the same age, starting anew together after the volcano blasted all this land clear and bare.

I’m a pattern-hunter, watching, tallying, and seeking to understand patterns that come through my life. This particularly appeals to me when happy things tumble together, like in the last 24 hours when a friend resolved a scary medical issue, my son got a new job, various friends and family landed on happy endings to challenging stories, and just this morning, several new freelance jobs of the Yes-I-Want-Them variety landed in my inbox. But sometimes a bunch of seemingly bad things happen at once: migraines, the sudden need for expensive car repairs, disappointing news about work, and loved ones getting bad or downright devastating news. Likewise, it seems that the old adage that deaths and/or other difficult news happens in threes often proves itself true.

Looking for patterns occupies me various ways, like counting how many Honda Fits and Honda CRVs I see each day because those are the cars we own (usually 2-to-1 on CRVs over Fits, but sometimes the opposite is true). If I run into three old friends in a week, that’s a pattern I embrace. If I have repeated nightmares involving looking for pay phones (remember those?) in strange cities when I didn’t have a dime to my name, I consider what this pattern may be saying to me (then again, dreams are the very stuff of patterns).

A Patterned Fern

Maybe I find the pattern, or I just put pieces of the uncontrollable mystery and chaos that is life into temporary patterns to explain it to myself, but I thrive on seeing the connections of one thing to another to another. Then again, the juxtaposition of like with not-like is at the heart of writing poetry and making all sorts of other art: it catalyzes new textures and possibilities, widens perspectives, and shines up each moment to be a bit more fresh and vibrant. Looking for relationships between happenings and sightings also helps me see the wild strands of the marvelous and miraculous in the everyday.

Then again, what isn’t a pattern? Nature is all about patterns of growth, decay, and regeneration. A plant, like this fern, grows in a patterned way, and so do we (although we can tweak the pattern with diet, exercise, or the lack of). Seasons pattern us in their patterned parade through, and life itself cycles through its patterns.

What we tell ourselves about being alive, our very philosophies, are often the bedrocks of patterns, such as  “Everything will be okay in the end, and if it’s not okay, it’s not the end” (repeated often in the movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel). No doubt the flip side pattern will take center stage again….and again….but I choose to embrace the inevitable good, or at least not horrendous, ending.

Which brings me back to Mount St. Helens, one of the worst tragedies imaginable for people and other species caught in it, yet now that place is bursting with life, such a diversity of plants and animals reinhabiting the valleys and mountains, seemingly growing at the speed of sound. But new life is like that: it comes fast and with great promise, so why not take the time to consider its textures, shapes, colors, and meanings in our own life patterns?