Suddenly, I’m searching for sweaters, cursing the lack of mittens with me for a walk, and shiver-driving around town for the interminable stretch until the car heater kicks in. But winter is like that: it shows up, uninvited and wearing its heavy steel-tipped boots, then eats the cupboards bare (or was that me?).
Then again, in October, this kind of house guest should be expected to drop in for a few days, make us forget our complaints about heat and chiggers, and sweep out the luminous spiderwebs and sweet songs of crickets. Soon, Thursday actually if the weather prediction is accurate, summer takes back the wheel (highs of 86!) until the next too-soon cold front. There’s no doubt on who will win this back-and-forth autumnal clash.
Still, although it’s inevitable — and given the state of climate change, I’m even grateful for it — it’s still a deal to wake up one day and realize that days of porch-working and -lounging are no longer the mainstay but the rare-and-relished short stretches until sometime in March when the back-and-forthness of the seasons flares out in technicolor again.
The challenging of winter’s not-so-sneaky preview now is all-the-more apparent in pandemic time. For many of us, being outside has been our saving grace, if not among other humans, at least among dogs and dogwoods, distance herons and near-by ornate box turtles, butterflies and butterfly milkweeds. But from what I’m learning — and you may be too — what this means is that we need to bundle up and get our butts outside anyway, walking briskly in the icy air to touch base with the ultimate base of this living, changing world. That’s why I walked with my friend today, and one pandemic benefit is that I had a warm mask to wear when my nose got too cold.
I live down a winding and dipping gravel road, lately wet or puddled in its low parts because of underground springs and an abundantly rainy summer. Coming down this drive today after the long catapult from 4 a.m. in Paradise Valley, Arizona, to my son Forest’s car at the Kansas City airport, homecoming filled my lungs, eyes, and heart as we turned toward this house, supported and supporting this porch where I live. It’s a place of sudden sideways rain when the wind and humidity soar. I live here in this weather: changeable, dramatic, boring, shining, then surprising all in an afternoon.
I’ve always lived in the wind and sky. From my Brooklyn bedroom, upstairs in a narrow triplex somewhere in East Flatbush, I would lean out the window especially during storms, even remnants of hurricanes, just to feel that rush of air and rain on my face. In Arizona, where I had the delight to experience a bit of what they call monsoon season (and what call here an ordinary afternoon), I walked across the retreat center’s rock gardens in the big speed of wind and water until I arrived at a revelation there, for me at least, blossoming jasmine. That’s because I also live in the vivid scent of flowers: lilac, lavender, asiatic lilies, daffodils, hyacinth, wild roses and tumbles of domesticated roses, and particularly my favorite that brings me to my knees because they live close to the ground: lily-of-the-valley.
Like most of us, I live in my senses, and particularly this summer, sound made by the weaving, rising, falling, encompassing, and diminishing songs of cicadas, katydids, tree frogs, birds of many barks and trills. Right now, I lean into the sound of crickets. I live for a great meal when the lettuce from the farmer’s market meets the cucumbers from the garden beside a perfectly roasted sweet potato, grilled corn on the cob, and lemon-mustard-maple chicken. I live in the touch of my husband’s hand on the small of my back and how my daughter melts into me when we hug as well as the feel of the breeze at this moment on my forearms mixing with the air the ceiling fan spirals down. I find life in the vibrant purples of the morning glories and the deep gray-blues of the thunderhead’s edge, especially when the sun shines on or through either.
I live in this moment, then the next one. Yet sometimes a dozen tabs spring open in my mind of what I plan or imagine or what I think happened an hour or decade ago. I live in too much planning and not always enough remembering, a propensity to overly rely on what’s possible rather than what’s likely, and a whole lot of iced water to love sipping along the way. Encompassing so much of my life and work, I also live in writing, where I find my way free from all the biting critters in my mind and angular news inching or powering through the radio or what someones says to me in a parking lot. On the page and screen, I make things, and just doing that makes me feel as alive as I actually am.
I live here, right on the cusp of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, when we go from 5779 to 5780 at sunset. On the other side of sunset, I will be sitting, standing, davening, maybe even dancing a little, and afterwards, eating cookies with my tribe here. I will arrive at the start of a new and very old space to live, time and place always meeting at a precise, and if I remember to take in the miracle of life, luminous home. That’s where I live.
The katydids unify their song, an extended whistle-like tune with small melodic indentations. The cat who shouldn’t be outside is outside anyway, meowing that he wants to be back inside but not really. A motorcycle over the hill and across the field vanishes its song into the higher-pitched hum of the plane overhead. Then it is quiet or at least relatively so.
This has been a summer of porch-sitting, and as eye recovery and associated surprises and lessons continue their roaring hum, I’ve done a lot of porch listening, like right now on this perfect summer evening as the tree frogs shake their maracas in staccato bursts and the fan continues its wind skimming whisper. I pick up my glass of water and take in the brightening and darkening blues of the western sky, rolling quickly toward one uniform color.
Meanwhile, in the backyard, the peaches — sprung from two volunteers trees that came up out of the compost pile years ago — are showing off their fruitful exuberance. An hour ago, I ran outside to take their picture, naked but for a pair of Crocs, while the bathtub filled, picked one small peach, and took a bite. It was delicious and tangy with sunlight while grasshoppers arced around us.
From all directions, summer’w still summering although it’s showing signs, false ones of course, of slowing down and cooling off. But here in the center of this moment and continent, I close my eyes, breathe slowly and deliberately, and land right where the porch, the peace trees, the cat, and I dwell, someplace east of understanding where the earth sings a lullaby to the wounds of the world.
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It has been a time out of time, or perhaps more accurately, a time landed right in time. Unable to use my eyes as much, I realize how most of my waking hours are encompassed in seeing. Like Dracula, I also have to forgo direct sunlight and generally aim my days toward deep shade. Add to this the pain (thankfully very much receding!) of this eye cancer odyssey, and I burrow deeper into the dark, so far from my regular natural habitat. But there’s nothing like pain and healing to guide an anxious mind out of its usual hamster cycles and into the real.
For a writer who loves reading, movies, watching James Corden Cross-walk theater videos, and visually scanning the world for so much of my orientation, this has also been a deal. But for all ills, there are remedies, and the best one I discovered is to go outside about 8:30 p.m. each night to the chartreuse padded chair Daniel once got at a thrift store for his first college dorm room, and sit still on the night porch as dusk travels to dark. It’s taken a while for me to stop resisting what this body has been telling me lately in no uncertain terms: shut up, and close your eyes already. But when I do, the rewards are immense.
In July, twilight comes calling with a cast of thousands. Sitting out there last night with Ken, my eyes closed for an hour, we counted at least six different kinds of cicadas, starting with the low soft click of the green winged cicada, then the back and forth mild buzzsaw of Tibicen bifidus. Eventually, we got to the steady sweet roar of the plains cicada, a sound I describe as he wheels of a wagon moving across the prairie although the wheels, spokes, and wagon are made of cicadas, and of course, the wagon is hauling cicadas. (If you want to hear these and others, check out this site).
Tree frogs leapt into the fray for short or long stretches, and of course, the crickets showed up as they always do when it comes to getting any party started. These thousands of insects and amphibians not only coordinated their wild rushes into circle hums or steady chirps of green joy with their fellow specie comrades, but they also blended their sounds — something beyond and encompassing the essence of music — altogether. The plains cicada stretched their journey song into multiple cycles, then stopped on a dime. The tree frogs jumped in the gap, then paused. Suddenly, everyone from all directions started again.
We listened, my dreams merging me with the sounds as I dosed in the chair. I wanted to lie down to sleep in the house, but Ken urged me to wait for the telltale call of night, heralded by the Katydid. “When will the Katydid start?” I asked, and just then, the Katydid whisper circled over us. “Listen carefully,” he said. “There are two Katydids,” which we quickly named Katy Did It and Katy Didn’t. (Hear Katydids here).
Back inside, I sat in the beautiful healing darkness, serenaded by the hum of the air-conditioner, the snore of the dog, the padded rush down the halls of the running of the cats. From outside, I can hear the barred owl calling. There’s also the drumming of my hands on the keyboard, writing this before I forget, mostly with my eyes closed while the world opens its heart to my ears.
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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.
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.
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.
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.