"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Monday, April 27, 2009


This dapper fellow has formed a serious attachment to our little gray cottage. More specifically, he seems to think the downspout just outside our bedroom window holds some mystery that he must unearth at all cost.

Woodpeckers' beaks are amazing feats of engineering, designed to drill and chisel into wood where delicacies of all sort await. Our new house guest, the Red-breasted Sapsucker, dines primarily on sap. He also likes fruit and ants and other insects quite a bit.

Not one of those things can be found on, in, or near our gray metal downspout.

He arrives after daylight and before noon. He is not fazed by window pounding, yelling, or loud window opening. The first day I barefoot tiptoed into the front yard to investigate, I got within six feet of him before he decided to scram. He was back at his post before I got back to the bedroom.

My wonder and amazement at this avian intrusion is not shared by Walt. I have to admit, being awakened early on a Saturday by a noise that might have been a car driving through the wall, a noise that brought Toby to full flag and woofing alert, a noise that pulled the cats from deep mousy dreams to feral fight mode - that's enough to knock the awe out of anyone.

To make things even weirder, after several days of being probed violently for  impossibilities, the downspout isn't even scratched. 

Animal behavior is always purposeful. Human behavior is, too, but it's not always so simple to divine. I have seen unbalanced birds before, but Red really seems to know what he's doing. 

It turns out, after a bit of research, that Red does indeed know the difference between wood and metal. He's claiming territory, and metal is louder than wood. One site I read said that sapsuckers will return to the same metal signs repeatedly to declare their manhood. It didn't say manhood exactly, but as soon as he's established territory with the metal drumming, there's a whole new kind of drumming to attract a mate.

Which means a nest nearby. And fledgling sapsuckers later in the season. And an abundance of hummingbirds who hang around to snitch the sap Red and his bride will release from our trees. All of that, plus the chance to watch him up close and personal, is worth living with a little extra noise and a little less sleep for a while. Right?

photo by Walt Shucka (taken from our front porch)

Thursday, April 23, 2009

In the Balance

Walking away from the river with Toby this afternoon I became aware of a certain quality of light that made everything around us glow. When I looked up to see what was going on, the first thing I noticed was how vivid the new greens seemed. The second thing I noticed was the sky. 

It was split almost perfectly in half. One side blacker than the end of love. The other side full of story book clouds glued to the best blue an imagination might create.

I'd been pondering my day. 

I spent the morning at a doctor's office for a consult for a procedure that every responsible adult with health insurance is expected to have when they turn fifty. It's no accident I'm seven years beyond that time. I'm terrified of anything medical. This is my year to overcome that fear and to reconnect with my body. However, overcoming and extinguishing are not quite the same thing.

I rewarded myself with lunch with a fairly new friend. A wise and wild and wonderful woman whose friendship is a measure of my healing and my ability to be the friend in return of such a person. Three hours of nonstop talking left me feeling light and happy and full of power.

As I watched the sky later, yin and yang without the curls, I saw with such beautiful clarity that it's only in witnessing the presence of darkness that light reaches its full glory. Darkness cannot be healed or wished or prayed away. It is. Light cannot be full enjoyed without the contrast darkness provides. 

For a moment, in that field, I stood in perfect balance. And that's when I noticed the third thing. At the demarcation of light and dark, a rhododendron bush in full bloom. The red blossoms throbbing with a lusty light that was the perfect child of life and death, love and loss, joy and fear.

photos from Flickr

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Out With the Old

The low growling noise coming from the washer last weekend was odd enough to bring Toby running from the kitchen. He cocked his head one way, then the other. He backed up, sat, and stared. I was aware of the new noise, but ignoring it. However, I decided if it was getting the dog's attention, I might need to check things out. 

I lifted the lid. The agitator was wiggling. Not agitating but wiggling. The water rippled a bit, but the clothes barely moved. I thought maybe the agitator just needed a boost, but instead of getting into gear when I twisted, it spun loosely in my hand. Uh oh.

Seventeen years ago next month, a beautiful new washer and dryer set was delivered to our new home before we even moved in. I took a day off work to wait for the truck, and spent most of it sitting in my new back yard reveling in the abundance and ownership of five acres, a cute two story cottage, and the sound of the river. Home.

The washer and dryer made my life easier for all those years, kept our clothes clean, and never once complained. In almost no time at all though, they went from shiny and new, to reliable and worn,  to touchy and old. 

Clothes didn't spin as dry. The dryer sometimes needed two full cycles to do its job; it sometimes nearly fried the clothes and still left them wet. It seemed like things weren't getting as clean, but it was hard to tell. The handle of the lint trap broke. A scratch mysteriously appeared on top of the dryer. And then the agitator stopped.

After some serious discussion we decided the best thing to do was to get a new set. Walt did his regular thorough job of researching, went shopping with my blessings, and made arrangements for our new washer and dryer to be delivered on Saturday.

I said goodbye to my old set on Saturday morning before anyone else was up. Told them how grateful I was for their help, and how sorry I was to see them go. It often takes me a while to warm up to new things bought to replace worn out things. I get attached. It never seems quite right to just replace appliances (or cars or furniture) when they get tired. Even when the time for new is clearly now, it's hard for me to release old.

So when my brother and I got back from our walk on Saturday, and the new set was already installed, I anticipated needing a day or two, if not weeks, to warm up to them. 

This time it was love at first sight. 

Where the old set was boxy and angular and utilitarian looking, this set is round and soft and feminine. The fronts protrude in beautiful baby bellies of glass. The multitudes of buttons sing soft songs to communicate various needs. Where the old set sloshed and rattled and growled, this set purrs and whirrs and gurgles. 

Clothes come out cleaner, smell better, dry softer. I don't have to think at all until one of the machines gently reminds me it needs my help. I'm pretty sure if I asked nicely, the dryer might even try to fold my clothes.

And although we went from a top loader (which I've spent my whole laundry life using) to a front loader (for energy efficiency), the learning curve was short. This new set is kind and shows me exactly what to do, and how long it will need to do the job I've given it. It makes me feels smart and savvy and green. It even whispers if I'm offended by a loud voice.

I feel a bit disloyal, letting go so quickly of my attachment to the set that served me so well for so long. I might even miss the familiarity and comfort of its steady presence. But mostly I'm grateful, happy, and looking for clothes to wash to see what the new set will surprise me with next.

photo from Flickr

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Common Wildflowers

The day could have been a disappointment. The reddish purple Grass Widows we went to see were already past their prime, and the lush golden blanket of Balsamroot had not yet unfolded onto the rocky landscape.

As we began what has become our annual pilgrimage to the see the wildflowers at Catherine Creek, it appeared that other than a nice hike in the windy sunshine and the pleasure of each other's company, the day would not offer any uncommon splendor.

While Walt stopped to shoot some Gold Stars, sweet but common little things, I wandered slowly up the trail looking for something uncommon. More Gold Stars. Buttercups. Prairie Stars. All as familiar as the daffodils growing in my yard at home. Off the trail, up a slight incline, I noticed small patches of faint pink. With watchful care (this is poison oak country) I worked my way in for a closer look.

I nearly shouted my excitement, but instead breathed in the extraordinary, and for me the first, sight of Dutchman's Breeches. In my explorations of wildflower field guides I've come across pictures of these wild relatives of the Bleeding Heart many times. And here they were, right in front of me in all their soft weird glory. Looking for all the world like little rows of Hans Brinker pants lined up on willowy racks.

As we continued our hike I decided a first like that sighting was probably enough uncommon for one day. I also believed there had to be more. And I searched with hopeful eyes.

Patches of Yellow Bells were the next surprise. Not so exciting or showy as the Dutchman's Breeches, but new for me, so deserving of special attention and uncommon status. Their tiny drooping heads in shades of orange and yellow blended into the surrounding grasses and would have been easy to miss. Once we saw one, however, others nearby revealed themselves in a sort of magical uncloaking. For the rest of the hike we saw patches of these fairy flowers mixed in with other blooms.

We began to see Shooting Stars amongst the Yellow Bells, and that's when the day shifted for me. 

I've seen Shooting Stars before. Every Catherine Creek hike has given us at least a few. I have vague memories of seeing them as a child. They've made appearances on other hikes in recent years. So even though I stopped to admire the alien beauty of the vivid magenta petals trailing away from black and yellow and white centers, I was not willing to grant them uncommon status.

Even farther along the hike when I spotted the first large patch of Shooting Stars, I was happy to see them, but still not convinced that anything extraordinary was going on. I'm not sure if it was the third, or fourth, or fifth explosion of bright pink that began to change my mind. But at some point I realized that we were in the midst of Shooting Star prime time. They were everywhere, so vast and plentiful that they had to be considered common.

We stopped at every patch, our admiration growing deeper and more detailed each time. The sense of reverence only grew with the increased abundance. The uncommon became common became extraordinary. And into that open-hearted sense of wonder many other common extraordinary flowers revealed themselves:

White Plectritis, Camas, Filaree, Rigid Fiddleneck, Upland Larkspur, Desert Parsley, Sierra Snake Root, Small-Flowered Blue-Eyed Mary, Chickweed Monkeyflower, Naked Broomrape, Great Hound's Tongue.

When we got back to the car, I looked Shooting Stars up in my field guide, and was reminded that there are seven varieties that grow in the Columbia Gorge. The one that blooms at Catherine Creek in April is the Poet's Shooting Star. Absolutely nothing common in the magic of that gift of words.

Photos by Walt Shucka

Sunday, April 5, 2009


I spent three nights and the most of four days alone this spring break. At the Oregon Coast in a really nice two-bedroom condo. Alone. I drove myself there, checked myself in, and settled myself in. Alone. I looked forward to this getaway for weeks with a mixture of glee and apprehension.

At 57 this is the first time I've gone away by myself to be with just myself. Alone. I've been alone before in my life. Not willingly though. Alone meant failure to be pleasing enough that someone might want my company.

I left home at 17, and lived in a variety of situations involving other people until I moved to Portland at 22. I lived alone for a year, but made sure not to be alone for any significant length of time. Male company was my drug of choice. Then I moved in with a roommate who in turn took me to the cult that became my home for the next decade. I first lived with another couple in the cult, then with the husband who was my reward for obedience.

When I left the cult, I moved into an apartment. Alone. But there was this really great guy who lived next door. A teacher. Single. Outdoorsy. Spiritual. Sexy. We'll celebrate 22 years of marriage in August.

Granted, there were times in the last couple of decades when I seriously considered the benefits of the great permanent alone. There were times when I felt more alone in my marriage than I ever did not married. Walt even left a couple of times for family events, but I always managed to fill the time and space with anything but alone.

We're still married. More happily than not these days. I didn't go to the beach to get away from Walt this week. I was glad to come back home to him.

I went to be with me - and my book. Alone. I went because I needed some uninterrupted time to get to the meat of this latest revision. I went to see what it would feel like. Alone. I didn't get online once. I only called home once. And I didn't go hang out somewhere to find company (although it was on my radar that the nearest Starbucks was only ten minutes away).

As I told a friend today, alone was both easier and harder than I expected. 

I did fine in the world on my own - even if I might have seemed a bit over-friendly to the waitress who sold me clam chowder my last night there. I loved occupying space alone, especially such nice roomy space that included a huge jetted tub. I had fun walking alone, and eavesdropping shamelessly, somehow feeling both invisible and connected in my aloneness.

The hard part was being alone with my book and the task I had set for myself. It might have been a tad unrealistic (doing an entire revision in three days), but I gave it my best shot. I'm terrified that it's not good enough. I can't tell any more. I'm afraid anyone who says it is good enough, is just being nice. Being alone between that rock and that hard place is daunting.

But I didn't let the nasty little voice stop me. I was alone with it and overcame it. That may be the biggest gift I received this week. Oh, the revision isn't done, but the first fifty pages are as polished as clean windows in June. And I'm on a roll. 

I hope the next time I choose to head into the world alone, it will be to meet a deadline with this book, for publication. Whenever it is, whatever the purpose, I look forward to the company I'll be keeping.

Photo from Flickr - Old poster that would be placed in train stations around Canada in the past.