In Search of the Big-Ass Trees: Everyday Magic, Day 1046

When we went to the Pacific Northwest earlier this month, we had a mission: behold as many big-ass trees as possible. Thanks to our friends Carl and Sara obliging or humoring us, that’s just what happened.

Why the big-ass trees? Why not hang out with big marvels of the natural world at this moment in time when there’s so much human-triggered despair and war, grief and stupidity, encompassing everything from the pandemic to climate change to the big-ass mess in Afghanistan.

Maybe my quest also has to do with my age or old karma, but whatever it is, there are places on this earth that are happy to provide abundantly, particularly in the northwest. Right in Carl and Sara’s neighborhood in Vancouver, WA, there were large bouts of big-ass trees, particularly along a few blocks known as “the grove,” full of sequoias, grand firs, Oregon ashes, and red alders, often well over 80 feet high.

Then there’s Oregon Garden botanical park, a wonderland of lushness and color that also sported a conifer garden full of large, looming trees posing as abstract monsters. We also hiked up and down and down up in Silver Falls State park in Oregon where the trees were especially massive and soaring. I spent a lot of time looking up, then looking down quickly to make sure I didn’t trip on the climbing or winding-down trails.

But the thing about big-ass trees is that there’s a lot to see when you look down. Their root systems are mazes of wonder and time, wrapping around boulders and across hills. In fact, the roots are vivid reminders of how much we need to secure ourselves to something relatively solid to survive and grow (but sometimes it’s easy to trip over our own roots too).

Back home among the more petite trees of our clime, I’m reminded of the vast possibilities all around us, even and especially with cedars and Osage oranges I can wrap my arms around or slim cottonwoods well-schooled in bending in the wild wind. I think about something I once heard about how the trees are just migrating through even if they make their stand for hundreds or thousands of years in a single place. I also think of how sometimes what seems small is far more infinite than we can image. Aspen trees, often just slips of things compared with the largeness of sequoias or firs, are actually the biggest organism in the world, sending forth roots underground to grow another and another and another leg of themselves.

So let’s hear it for the big- and small-ass wonders of this world, no matter where they are, and how much they can bring us home to the shining green and mottled bark all around us. May we, like them, continue to grow another ring around our center year after year, reminding us how we’re big and small all at once.

Loving Aunt Wilma: Everyday Magic, Day 1038

WIth Ron & Wilma in 2017

Sunday evening, we sat on our back deck around an outdoor table and a wedding gift from Aunt Wilma and Uncle Ron 36-plus years ago, a wonky folding table. It was the first in-person gathering in 15 months of KAW Council, our bioregional community, and after a humid, muddy walk together in the wetlands, it was heavenly to to dwell in friendship and a cool breeze, sharing big salads, chocolate-covered almonds, and what we’re learning in the pandemic. When it was my turn, I talked about how much I loved and have learned from Aunt Wilma, one of many vibrant aunts I inherited when I married Ken.

“You’ll need this more than you can imagine,” Wilma and Ron told us when they gave us that folding table along with four sturdy brown metal folding chairs. At 25 years old, I didn’t understand how much we’d use the table, which we’d pull out often for special appearances at Hanukkah parties, Thanksgiving dinners, game nights with friends, graduations or Bat Mitzvah gatherings, and in the aftermaths of big deaths that brought lots of people and casseroles to our home.

Just home with Daniel from the hospital

It was the first of many life-changing gifts from Wilma. When our first child, Daniel, was born at the Topeka birthing center, he struggled for life and ended up in the local Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for a week. The care he received was helpful at first, then over the top as the doctors treated this 7-pound-plus baby as a premmie, not letting us hold him. In between pumping milk and freaking out, I took solace in the presence of Wilma and Ron, who were visiting at the time as they did regularly to spend weeks to help my in-laws Alice and Gene with the farm and house. We told the NICU staff that Wilma and Ron were my parents so that they could join us in taking turns putting a hand through the isolette opening to comfort Daniel. Wilma was also there in a small room with Alice while I breast-fed Daniel for the first time. The NICU staff said he was too weak and likely couldn’t do it, but Wilma just said, “Pshaw! He’ll be fine.” She was right.

Over the decades this is how it went with Wilma and Ron, who died four years ago. They showed up, they cleaned gutters and washed dishes, they jollied our babies along and read them books, and they talked up a storm with lots of accompanying photos about their latest adventures helping other family members across the country. They lived to serve, without ever employing a holier-than-thou attitude (even if Ron was a retired minister) or ever judging us. Instead, they embodied a truckload of humor, patience, fortitude, common sense, and even a bit of whimsy on occasion.

Helping Alice on the farm

I remember Wilma leaning toward a 5-year-old Daniel to show him how to pit a cherry while singing with Alice, “Would you like to make a pie, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?”, a variation of the old traditional song. I see her holding one of our babies on her lap at Furr’s Cafeteria and telling me she really wasn’t hungry anyway so that I could eat unfettered. I see her pinning a corsage on Alice’s dress right before Alice and Gene’s 50th anniversary. I see her and Ron at our kids’ bar mitzvahs, laughing, crying, singing, and chanting along with us even though they’re deep dish Methodists. I hear her interrupting Ron to say she only dated him because she felt sorry for him when I asked them how they met, both of them eager to laugh and reminisce, contradict each other and laugh some more.

Through the years, Wilma modeled service with a smile, grace under pressure, and what it looks like to arrive early with lots of photos and stay late until the last floor was swept. Like any proper middle child — she was the middle sister out of five — she was a born peace-maker and exercised tolerance as an extreme sport.

Ron & Wilma with three of their daughters, a son-in-law, and us

She also gave us, our family, and our community a gift that will go on forever, long after her and our lives are over. Wilma did everything possible to help us save the family land, where we built our home 26 years ago. She and Ron instinctively understood and shared our dream of preserving this land (where her great-parents made a home 150 or so years ago). In her last year of life, she did all they could to support us purchasing the family farm so that we could put it in a conservation easement (preserved for perpetuity). Protecting and continuing to steward this mix of prairie and woodlands has been our lifelong dream, and Wilma made it come true.

The night we fittingly sung Wilma’s praises from the back deck, overlooking a big field leading to forest one direction and prairie we’ve replanted, was also the night Wilma died. She was pushing 97 years, and her daughter Judy tells us she went out after a day or more mouthing the words to old hymns they played her on Youtube. She modeled faith and love even while dying.

For those us still living, there’s the squeaky music of an old folding table that gives me faith. As I was putting it away, after I heard the news of Wilma’s passing, I thought about how I’m going to give my kids folding tables when they get older. After all, you never know what loving presence is going to show up in your life, and you want to make plenty of room for them at the table.

P.S. Here’s what I wrote about gerunds and loving Uncle Ron after he died.

Days of Awe in an Unusual Year: Everyday Magic, Day 1016

The Days of Awe — the 10 days between Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), it’s time to clean up our act. We reflect on our thoughts and deeds, words and actions over the last year which may have hurt others, then reach out to the injured party to apologize and make amends. Based on the premise that only we can fix our own human messes, this stretch of time calls us toward self-reflection and right action.

I speak of “we” here even if, dear reader, you’re not Jewish because I’m thinking that 1) we all could use all the new years we can observe at this point, and 2) in a year when so much is beyond our control (a pandemic, climate change, systemic racism, and escalating polarization between people), it’s helpful to consider what we can do. We can look at our own participation in and perpetuation of what hurts each other (humans and other species) and the earth, consider what small step or few words might help, and step up to do some good.

It also feels to me like we’ve been in the Days of Awe since about March 14th when the pandemic shut down life as we knew it and opened up big fears and spaces, possibilities and dangers about how we live. After all, the “awe” part of these days isn’t just what dazzles and pleases but also what shocks and scares. So often over these last six months, I realized how much less I understood than I thought about everything from the pacing of my day to assumptions I made about racism. There’s nothing like living with a mysterious global threat to wake a person up out of her long inscribed and sealed ideas about her life and the world.

But then again, the Days of Awe are also and always about asking to be inscribed (at Rosh Hashana), and then sealed for a good year (Yom Kippur) in the Book of Life. Traditionally, this is a book God reads to judge our actions, but I see it the life we’re writing ourselves into through all we are, do, and know as well as the life force at large. So why not read over the book of life we’ve drafted this last year to see how to make small repairs, big amends, and deep commitments to live boldly and act lovingly? Or as the Talmud says better: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

I wish for all of us to be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year, and I leave you with a poem I wrote about all this as you move through your own days and nights of awe and so much more.

Entering the Days of Awe

Let us walk unfettered into these days

unfurling in the sun, wide fields of old grasses

bracketed by sunflowers and pebbles.

Let us step into the lapis sky that fastens itself

to the driveway, the sidewalk, the worn leaves

of dying summer under new leaf fall.

Let us give up the wasteful thinking,

the 2 a.m. anxieties over what cannot be changed,

the waking with a gasp. Let us stand in the morning,

the new chill of the air clearing the disgards of time,

fear, reaching too hard or not enough.

Let the wrongs be made right. Let forgiveness

overtake the words we hear and pray, the stories

we’ve made and tilted. Let us remember this dreaming song

from all our beloveds long gone or just over the bend,

each note engraved with lost lands, singing

of how good it is when we dwell together.

Let the peripheral vision in the days of awe show us

the world, the first seeing of the heart, the last pulse

of those we love who travel with us. Let the wind shake

the trees, the tattered leaves shine, the last butterflies

flash their orange, the first dark blue of night

open into a panorama of past and present light

on its way to us all.

Let the next breath we take inscribe us in the book of life.

Let the next breath you give welcome us home.

~ Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg

In the Cave of Winter: Everyday Magic, Day 994

Each day I crave a clear view of a clear sky, but fog, snow, sleet, rain, freezing rain, and variety packs of all this percipitation at once fills the well-hidden vistas. Narrower perspectives of what’s out there push me inside and inward to what’s in here. My technicolor dreams, on the other hand, go go big screen and high speed, involving shadow cities of places I thought I knew and a conveyor belt of swiftly-changing characters, many of whom I don’t know. Then again, I’m also sleeping more, giving those dreams extra room to get wild.

Like many of us, this is the time of year I drink a lot of hot tea, craving little butter cookies to dunk in that tea, and at night, hunker down under blankets and heater cats (real cats, real warmth) surrounded by a herd of animals, now including two dogs, two kitties, and one husband. I’m more aware than usual of the air, sometimes too cold or too dry, and right now, composed of clouds too close to the ground. Last night, I dreamed I looked out a high window that doesn’t actually exist on the imaginary third or fourth story of my house to see the ground, faded into brownish green with small patches of snow, then when I looked again, greening up like it will do in a few months. I looked away and saw a blossoming tree, something like a magnolia, but when I woke into darkness and chill, such a tree seemed preposterous.

Because the scene is so monochromatic, I’m drawn more to black and white movies, last night Mr Deeds Goes to Town, which also has plenty of foggy, soft-edges scenes that even lower the volume of New York City 1930’s lights and action to a whisper. I’m hugging the edge of home more too, forgoing leaving the house with its heart-rushing foray down a drive composed of layered snow, frozen rain, sleet, and more rain. Instead, I bake or ignore the urge to bake, plan sewing projects, talk with friends on the phone, and make a whole lot of soup.

But that’s all for the good because in the cave of winter we’re meant to do some hibernation. Although it doesn’t feel like it, spring will come soon enough with its fast-moving flowers. Now is the time is quiet down and listen to the space between not enough and too much. That’s more than enough.

A Snake, A Wedding, and Faith: Everyday Magic, Day 972

Somewhere in Brazil a bunch of people stopped their car on a highway, got out, and signaled other drivers to hold off so that a very large snake could cross the road. When I saw the video, I was amazed at how calm and calming the humans and, to some extent, the snake were in doing what it took for the snake to arrive at the other side. It also made me happy to see members of my own species, known for how often we get it wrong when it comes to the more-than-human world, get it right.  Such moments help me re-ignite my faith in this world.

Which leads me to a wedding — not of anyone I know personally but of a writer I admire, Anne Lamott, who, three weeks after she got her Medicare card, married writer Neal Allen.  As she told the New York Times, the one thing she still wanted in life was a good marriage. At age 65, she got it.  Shortly afterwards, she tweeted, “So never, ever give up, because God is such a show off.”

There are things happening all the time that can tip us toward greater faith in what’s possible and what’s actually even happening, and most of which don’t involve big snakes or fabled weddings. Despite the horrors and heartbreaks, bad decisions, evil renderings, and apathy resulting in terrible suffering, there’s also this: small acts of goodness or big leaps into love. There’s the incessant smell of lilac all around me right now as I type on the porch, my own marriage giving me so much inspiration and strength for a long time, and a so breeze lifting and releasing the cedars and walnut trees. There’s new green and old green unfurling and a whole lot of bird song.

There’s also the baby snake I carefully tricked the cat into releasing from his mouth so that the snake could live (and live outside our house). Grace abounds, and believing in a better world helps us glimpse it, shepherd it across the road, or meet it at the altar.