My Shopping Cart

If I had a blog, today I would write about the oddity that is my shopping cart.

It never fails. Every time I go to the store the cashier comments on the contents of my cart. Usually the comments are curious, but friendly, and I can see why my cart draws attention. Even in a world where you can by Twinkies and horror movies in the same store, my shopping habits are a little out of the ordinary.

In the top basket you will find fishing worms: Big, fat Canadian nightcrawlers, no wimpy red wigglers here. Their presence usually results in the comment, “Gonna go fishin’ this weekend?”

Mr. Turtelle

Mr. Turtelle

“No,” I reply, “they are for my box turtle.”

Blank stare, possibly accompanied by a, “Uh-Huh.”

“You see we have this box turtle that got run over in our garage a few years back and although we saved his life, he can’t use his back legs properly and can’t go back to the wild. He lives in a big terrarium in our spare room.”

“Uh-huh.”

Out of the bottom of the cart come four big bags of  dried mealworms.

Male and female cashiers alike  handle the vacuum sealed bags with their fingertips and say something to the effect of, “Eew. What eats these?”

Ferdinand

Ferdinand

Since there are bluebirds printed all over the packaging, the question seems rather unnecessary, but since the answer isn’t bluebirds, I proceed with, “They are for my pet duck.”

“Pet duck?”

“Well, we used to have a whole flock of ducks that were free range, but three years ago, a coyote family ate all but one and now he lives in the barn with our rooster and the mealworms give him good protein.”

“Uh-huh.”

Sawyer - Mr. Sensitivity

Sawyer – Mr. Sensitivity

Then I extract two bags of dry cat food, different brands, and a box of wet cat food.

“Wow, you must have a lot of cats,” says the cashier.

“I have four, but one has an environmental sensitivity and can’t eat cat food that contains wheat gluten or corn.”

“Uh-Huh.”

By the time we get to the more banal pet items, the cashier’s interest has waned. She scans the cat litter, dry dog food, wet dog food, and black oil sunflower seed without comment.

At last we come to a few packages of human food: Ice cream, bread, milk, and the like. It accounts for about one-quarter of the grocery bill.

I try to make light of the situation, “I spend more on my animals than I do on myself,” I say with a self-deprecating smile.

“Uh-huh.”

My mission complete, I wheel my cart-full across the parking lot and heft my purchases into the car. Occasionally an older gentleman will ask if I need help loading the 50 pound bags of bird seed and dog food. By the time I’ve thanked him and politely declined, he can see the rest of my purchases.

“Gonna go fishin’ this weekend?” he asks.

“Uh-huh,” I reply.

Why Not Me?

If I had a blog, today I would write about the question: “Why not me?”

Thunder in the Valley

Thunder in the Valley

Yesterday afternoon I was wakened from my nap by the most glorious sound: Thunder rumbling through our valley. I looked out the window and the west was dark, a gusty wind pushing white scud clouds ahead of the storm. Then came the rain: A “real gully-washer” as my Grandmother Ruby would say. It rained for over an hour, giving us an inch of life-restoring water. Rain came again in the night, giving us another inch which brought our weekly total up to three inches. I have been on a rain-high all morning, reveling in the muddy barn lot, the wet dog prints on my kitchen floor, and the diamond drops that fell on me when the wind moved through the trees. It is a good day to be alive.

I don’t know why the rain chose us; why the little storm cells conspired to build over our county and not some other. I know for sure it isn’t because I made some big paradigm shift or overcame a spiritual barrier because I was as imperfect yesterday as I was any day during our drought. I suppose it is arrogant of me to think anything I do can influence the weather, but it seems to be human nature. We want someone to blame for disasters and someone to reward for their surcease. That would mean there is a control mechanism within our grasp, a way we can protect ourselves from the things that threaten us most, but I’m afraid we must accept the hard truth that there are things we do not understand and there are things over which we do not have control.

Nannah & Grandad circa 1955

Nannah & Granddad circa 1955

When my granddad Atkinson was dying of cancer, Nannah told me a story that has shaped my life ever since: When d was diagnosed with cancer in his late 50’s, Nannah responded as most of us would, by asking God, “Why him? Why us? Why me?” Then one day, another thought came: “Why not me?” Why were Tom and Zelle Atkinson more deserving of good things than anyone else? It changed the way Nannah and d faced the hard days ahead and it has changed the way I look at life too. From little things like, “Why did the rain pass us by?” to the big things like, “Why did I have a brain tumor?” I have tried to turn it around and ask why I was any more deserving of relief than the other good people in the world. It’s a hard philosophy to live and, often as not, I fall into the clutches of self-pity before Nannah’s wisdom helps me put things into perspective.

Rainy Afternoon

Rainy Afternoon

I am overjoyed that we got the rain. It was a gift to us, to our animals, to the land we love, but it was truly a gift; a bit of serendipity given to us by The Universe for reasons we cannot, and perhaps are not meant to, understand. Life isn’t all about us as individuals. We are part of something much greater: The living being that is the Earth. If she does not survive, neither will we, and sometimes we must do without so a need of a higher order can be met. I will give thanks for the rain, but I will not take credit for it now or chasten myself should the drought return. When good times come, I will marvel and ask, “Why me?” When life is hard I will muster the courage to say, “Why not me?” And whatever happens I will have faith in the wisdom of The Universe, in Nannah, and in me.

Day of Sloth

If I had a blog, I would write about my Day of Sloth.

Lazy Summer Days

Lazy Summer Days

Last week, my ten year-old niece, Anna, was here. She and I are soulmates in every sense of the word, so her visits are more about two old friends catching up than me babysitting my niece. We rode horses, went rock-hunting, swam in the river, did chores together, and talked, talked, talked. I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world, but since I’m an amateur in the world of child-care, I find myself more than a little tired now that Anna has gone home. After a week of go,go,go, I restore my energy by treating myself to  a day of complete self-indulgence, which I call my Day of Sloth.

Technically, the word “sloth” refers to one of the Seven Deadly Sins (or to a charming, if slow-moving, South American mammal), but I figure I can afford a single day’s dalliance without risking my mortal soul or having moss grow on my my furry back, so yesterday I did a whole lot of nothing.

My day started with coffee and toaster waffles. I lingered at the table, enjoying the news on NPR. After a short run to town for groceries, I settled in on the couch and started “Castle Fest.” I love the TV series Castle and I have all five seasons on DVD, so my afternoon was set. I had an ice cream cone for lunch, followed by a peanut-butter-on-a-spoon chaser. I curled up with my full-body fuzzy-pillow and let nature take its course. I napped, and watched, and even did a little sketching. Even the weather conspired to give me a break from the labor of chores. It was cool and cloudy, so I let the horses stay out on pasture. They felt a little disenfranchised, but none of them are at risk of starving and it gave my back a chance to rest from cleaning stalls, lugging hay, and spreading sawdust. All I had to do was care for The Chick and The Duck and gather eggs from the Lady Hens. I could feel the cells in my body regenerating by the minute.

The icing on the cake, so to speak, was watching a good movie with my brother and sister-in-law. We had coffee, ice cream, and cherry turnovers at intermission, and a little wine to cap off the evening. Sitting in the cozy living room with David and Kindra, surrounded by our three big dogs, sharing a rare moment without to-do lists or deadlines, I felt utterly restored. I think a little sloth is good for the soul.

 

Dancing in the Rain

If I had a blog, today I would write about the coming of the rain.

A Perfect Morning

A Perfect Morning

It has been a dry summer here on The Greenwood. Since the first of June, we’ve only had a quarter-inch of rain and its absence has left our green-world crisp and brown. Since then, I’ve tried every rain-dance, rain-prayer, and rain-spell in the book, but nothing has worked. The weather, it seems, is a force beyond my control.

Summer Evening

Summer Evening

Last night, with a forecast that promised rain, I was tempted to beg, plead, dance, cry, and threaten any deities who would listen, but then I stopped. I had been down this path so many times before and my cosmic temper-tantrums never worked. Maybe it was time to try something new; something radical. Maybe it was time to trust the wisdom of The Universe over that of my fragile human mind.

When I said my prayers, I skipped my traditional “begging-prayer,” and instead, said an “I trust you” prayer. As much as I wanted rain, I would trust that The Universe knew better than I and would provide what the Earth needed instead. I went to sleep with a lighter heart, though I was unsure what the morning would bring.

Mist on Hawk Ridge

Mist on Hawk Ridge

At 2AM I was was awakened by the sweetest sound imaginable: The sound of thunder rolling down the valley, followed by the sound of pouring rain. At last, the time had come.

We had half-an-inch of rain in the night and it continues to fall as “a gentle hickory” this morning. There is mist on Hawk Ridge, the air is pungent with the smell of damp earth, and none of it is thanks to me.

Although it goes against my nature to surrender control (or the illusion thereof), I find there is relief in the knowledge that I am not allowed to control everything. It is a lesson I am sure I will have to repeat, but for now I will rejoice in my epiphany: The realization that, hard as I may try, I cannot see all ends. As the raindrops splash on my face and run rivulets down my arms, I see the beauty in trusting a power greater than myself, one that allows for miracles in the most unlikely places. I can put away my pleas and bargains, my threats and bribes, and revel in the words of an unknown author when he penned: “Anyone who says sunshine brings happiness has never danced in the rain.” That’s the only kind of rain dance I need.

Where No One Stands Alone

If I had a blog, today I would write about my journey towards faith.

The Rose Window

The Rose Window

Faith is not an easy get. People who as been part of any religion or spiritual path has been confronted by this five-letter word and it seems like a simple one, but throughout the ages, no one has offered a concise definition of the word. Our family is one part Episcopalian and one part Baptist, so growing up, I got a full range of Christian doctrine, all of which admonished me to have faith in God. As I matured, I wanted more that the Sunday-school version of Abraham and Issac to guide me. I wanted to know how I could have the kind of faith that would relieve my constant struggle with fear and give me confidence in the face of life’s uncertainty. I couldn’t find these answers in The Bible, so I widened my search to to include other religions and spiritual paths.

Table in the Wilderness

Table in the Wilderness

I found many uplifting, soul-healing perspectives in the spirituality of Buddhists, Native Americans, Druids, and Pantheists. I drank deeply from the nature-wisdom of Thoreau, Emerson, John Burroughs and Sigurd Olson and had powerful experiences in the wilderness, but I still couldn’t find the key to unlock the concept of faith. I prayed, meditated, journaled, and went on vision quests; joined churches, left churches, and very nearly entered seminary, but with middle-age fast-approaching, my quest seemed to be in vain. Maybe I just wasn’t supposed to crack the code of this mysterious concept. Maybe I was not to be a “person of faith.”

As often happens, I started to find a trail of breadcrumbs soon after my frantic searching ended. Once I decided to accept my “failure,” things began to happen. In July, I was running the farm for two weeks while Mom and Dad were on a horseback-riding trip out west. My first week alone was fantastic. I had energy, creativity, and tons of motivation. I cleaned and organized the storage room in our house, cleaned six months of bedding out of the chicken house and cleaned it stem to stern, and did a deep cleaning of the horse barn. I was on fire. In the midst of my power-surge, synchronicities abounded. The Universe was speaking directly to me, leaving me no doubt that whether you call it God, Yahweh, Allah, The Goddess, Nature, or The Great Spirit, there is a divine being out there somewhere and it knows us as individuals. I was on a spiritual high. Then I came the crash…

Over that first weekend, the Ego, the inner voice that gives rise to my doubts and fears, got the better of me. I can’t say exactly what triggered my fall, but by Saturday evening I had fallen back into my old, fear-laden mind-set and my body responded in kind. It was utter gastric rebellion for thirty-six hours. As soon as I was well enough to contemplate, I tried to uncover the source of my illness. I compared my thoughts and moods over the last week to those of the weekend. Somewhere along the way I lost something, something essential. Late Sunday evening the answer came: I had lost faith. I’d had seven days of trusting The Universe, conversing through signs and dreams in a way that told me, “Whatever happens, you will have the resources you need to meet the situation at hand,” and then I let the Ego take it away. If I could have gotten off the couch, I would have leaped up and shouted, “Eureka!” Not only did I start feeling better, but at last I had a clue to the meaning of faith. I had finally struck gold.

I don’t want to be a zealot who proclaims they’ve been given the secrets of the universe, but I think I have a small piece of the cosmic puzzle: To be a person of faith, you must believe that there is a divine being that knows you as an individual and wants to communicate with you and it is saying, “I’ve got your back.” It doesn’t mean nothing bad will ever happen, or that you’ll get everything you want, but it is an assurance that when the hard times come, you’ll be given what you need, not only to survive, but to find peace, comfort, and joy in the days that follow.

No One Stands Alone

No One Stands Alone

The synchronicity that finally pulled this together for me was a gospel song that kept coming up on my Pandora radio station. For three days, every time I was in the car, I heard the song Where No One Stands Alone. I was familiar with the song, but had never really listened to the words. When I did, I knew I was on the right path at last.

Once I stood in the night with my head bowed low
In the darkness, as black as could be
And my heart felt alone
And I cried oh Lord
Don’t hide your face from me

Hold my hand all the way
Every hour every day
From here to the grave
I know
Take my hand
Let me stand
Where no one stands alone.

 

The Best Bad Luck

If I had a blog, today I would write about my having the best bad luck in the world.

Halloween, the year I was ten.

Halloween, the year I was ten.

I used to think I was the unluckiest person in the world. There was some basis for my assumption, after all, my medical record read like (and looked like) a textbook on unusual medical conditions: At age ten I was diagnosed with insulin-dependent diabetes, I had brain surgery when I was sixteen to remove a tumor that destroyed my pituitary gland, found out I have a rare blood-clotting disorder when I was thirty, discovered I have Asperger’s Syndrome in my early forties, and have suffered from migraine headaches for more than a decade. When it was all said and done, I had trouble finding a specialist to help me manage my kaleidoscope of conditions. I was a medical marvel. To say I was angry at God would be the understatement of the century.

Me and my horse, Jamil, just before my surgery

Me and my horse, Jamil, just before my surgery

I wore my anger like a badge for close to thirty years. Counseling helped a little, maturity balanced things here and there, abut I was nearly forty years old before I had my epiphany; before I realized I didn’t have common bad luck, I had the best bad luck of anyone I know.

My lightning flash of insight came one night while I was journaling. I was doing a retrospective of some sort when I saw a pattern emerge in the events which caused me so much angst: Yes, the events were unfortunate and unpleasant and maybe even unfair, but in every case, there were occurrences that were really pretty marvelous. For example, when I was diagnosed with diabetes I knew I would be giving shots of  insulin for the rest of my life, but if I’d been born even fifty years earlier, before insulin was discovered, my prognosis would have been grim. Today, Type 1 Diabetes is not a terminal illness. I could have been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, cancer, or worse. All in all, if I had to have a serious condition, diabetes wasn’t a bad way to go.

My epiphany expanded when I thought about my brain tumor. Not only was it benign and fully operable, my second cousin, Dr. Don Long, was chief-of-staff of neurosurgery at John’s Hopkins Medical Center, the place where the surgery I needed was developed. Don would perform the surgery alongside the specialist who invented the procedure. Talk about spectacularly good-bad luck!

My Girl Rain

My Girl Rain

These realizations began a change in perspective that is the center of my life today. Whatever happens, it is now second-nature for me to look for the good fortune in the bad. Yesterday was a case-in-point: My beloved horse, Rain, turned up lame yesterday morning. Her leg was swollen and hot and she couldn’t put any weight on it at all. My first instinct was panic. It could be blood poisoning, some kind of infection, a fractured bone, or even a snake bite. It was Saturday and although our vet will make weekend house-calls, he isn’t always the vet-on-call. The voices in my head told me I’d have to wait until Monday, then try to get an space in Dr. Berger’s very busy appointment schedule. It could be two or three days before Rain would be seen. At that point, I had a few moments of meltdown behind the barn. Once I’d composed myself, though, I decided to give fate a chance. I called the emergency phone number for the vet clinic and wonder of wonders, not only was Dr. Berger on call, he could come right out. Good Luck Number 1. After a thorough exam, Dr. B diagnosed Rain with a bruised hoof. He gave me a daily regimen of foot-baths, poultices, and bandaging, but he assured me my Rain would make a full recovery.

If I had a dime for every time my brain predicted gloom and doom, then was proved wrong, I would be in the Fortune 500. I don’t know what defense mechanism makes us think assuming the worst is helpful, but it seems to be hardwired into the human genome. The good news is: There seems to be a treatment. Like my diabetes, it is more management than a cure, but approaching the fearful things of life with the intent of finding the best of bad luck does work miracles.

I am a little nervous as I head to the barn this morning. Rain should be better, but the committee in my head say, “No, no, things could have gone downhill over night.” Nevertheless, I will take the high-road and dare to hope for the best, not expect the worst. After all, I want to maintain my title. I want to remain the human with The Best Bad Luck in the world.

Down By the Riverside

If I had a blog, today I would write about my life on The Little Piney.

The Little Piney

The Little Piney

Our Gravel Bar

Our Gravel Bar

Of all the rivers in Missouri I have known, and there are many, my life has intersected with The Piney in the most personal of ways. Technically, the Little Piney is a creek, not a river, but since she’s large enough to have deep swimming holes and offers sanctuary to bank beavers, river otters, and beautiful rainbow trout, the Little Piney will always be a river to me.

I first met the Piney when I was seven. Dad had a farm on the river after he and Mom got married, we spent our summer Saturday afternoons on her shores, eating Kentucky Fried Chicken and and feeding Cheeto crumbs to the minnows. My brother and I learned to swim in the Piney where we perfected the frog-kick, backstroke, and sidestroke until we cruised the swimming hole as easily as did the minnows that nibbled at our toes. On those summer afternoons we learned to love the water; to respect the swift current and delight in the slow eddies. The Little Piney became part of us as we became part of her.

Baptism Day

Baptism Day

When I was nine, my brother, sister, and I were baptized in the Little Piney. We were members of the Episcopal church and invited the entire congregation to share in our big day. People brought every kind of picnic food imaginable and we feasted under the shade of the great sycamores and river birches that grew along the river banks. Our priest had just returned from the Holy Land and after he immersed us in our river, he sprinkled us with water from the river Jordan. I’m not sure which water I would consider the most mystical, water from the river where Jesus was baptized or that of the river that has run through my life, even when I was far from its banks.

Not long after our baptism, we moved from the farm to a little house in town, but we took some of The Piney with us. In our new kitchen was a large aquarium, stocked with wee friends from our river. In the weeks before the farm sold, Mom, Dad, David and I scoured the river for fish small enough to thrive in our self-designed “marine park.” We collected darters, crawley-bottoms (banded sculpins), hognose suckers, bleeding shiners, and even a few crawdads. One fine afternoon, we found a baby smallmouth bass and a slender madtom catfish. Both were rare finds and were the crowning glory of our collection.We spent many happy hours watching our little microcosm flourish and we spared no effort to keep our charges well fed. The little bass needed live food, so we raised Indiameal Moths in a dedicated bag of flour for “Bassy” to dine on and we cultivated native algae to keep the suckers and sculpins going strong. Memories of those aquatic friends stayed with me in the years that followed and telling stories about the crawdad who escaped and tried to “nest” behind the couch and of the night our house cat nearly got hold of our catfish always brought a laugh from my friends. It was an experience I will never forget.

Natural Sand Painting

Natural Sand Painting

After the time of the aquarium passed, I was away from the Piney for a long time. High school, college, and career took me far afield, but the Piney wasn’t done with me yet. In 1995, she called me home. I was living 100 miles from her shores by then, working in the business world, when Mom and Dad invited me to share their new home and work on their farm. They had purchased a piece of land just two miles downstream from the place of my baptism and they build their dream home a half-mile from the Piney. I said, “Yes,” to their offer and in 1996, I returned to the river of my childhood.

Down By the Riverside

Down By the Riverside

Since that time, I have spent countless hours at the river: I’ve gone alone, to revel in the music of the waters and bask in the warmth of the sun; I’ve been there as part of church gatherings where we built bonfires and had Eucharist at the water’s edge; and with family, sharing old memories and making new.

Today, my sister and her family are visiting and we spent the better part of the day at the Piney. We searched for fossils on the gravel bar, grilled hot dogs over an campfire, and my ten year-old niece, Anna, and I braved the icy water and plunged to the bottom, letting out a primal scream as we came back to the surface, our chests tight and teeth chattering with cold. Once we had acclimated to the temperature of the water, we swam a long time, another baptism of sorts for me, washing away my cares for the entire afternoon. When our fingers started to wrinkle, Anna and I went back to the shore and all of us basked in the late summer sun. It was the perfect day.

What does it mean that the Little Piney has been the river of my life? It is hard to say, but when I think of this little river and its ceaseless journey towards the sea, I take heart. If the waters of The Little Piney can find their way over rocks and roots, eddies and falls until they emerge in the vastness of the great oceans, then perhaps my one, little life makes a difference. Perhaps the hopes and dreams I have set free upon her shores will join with those of my fellow human beings, becoming a part of something greater than us all.