Saturday, January 30, 2010

Auld Lang Syne...

 Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?
Chorus:     For auld lang syne, my dear,
   For auld lang syne.
   We'll take a cup o' kindness yet,
   For auld lang syne.

     Auld Lang Syne means "times gone by" or "the good old days," so when we sing Robbie Burns' famous 18th Century lyrics we are singing, "We'll take a cup of kindness yet for the good old days," and we are waxing nostalgic about old friends and old times that we carry in our hearts.
     This week marks the birth of Scotsman Robert Burns, a rebel with a cause, and a hero of all rebels-at-heart, who was a working man's anti-establishment, singer-songwriter, the Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan of his day. This week also marks the birth of my "old acquaintance," Vickie, with whom I was fortunate enough to break bread and celebrate the occasion on a recent evening (Robbie, naturally, could not join us).

     Vickie and I have known one another since the second grade, not our second grade, mind you, but our sons' second grade. The boys are now 25, going on 26, fine professional young men both, so second grade was quite a few years ago. They certainly have grown and aged significantly from those primary grade years, but we haven't. We ladies have hardly aged at all, in fact, still young-at-heart and youthful in body, mind, and attitude. Our kids grow in dog-years, aging seven years to our one.
     I remember the summer our families first met, sitting on the grass in the rooting section at our sons' T-ball games. Neither of our little blond boys was particularly interested in the game itself, not in swinging at the T-mounted ball, nor in retrieving a flyball that came in their direction. They spent most of game time digging holes in the outfield grass, finding bugs, and making other interesting discoveries.
     Vickie and I share a multitude of lovely times-gone-by memories that revolve around our kids: school events, Boy Scout activities, hiking, camping, skiing, BBQing, and Big Games. And we continue to make new memories both with and without our adult children as co-participants. Vickie is a friend who makes me laugh and will cry with me when that's what is called for.

     Back to Vickie's birthday. We drank a cup of kindness to our shared good old days and to current and future good days, as well, at a restaurant I had not been to before, the Club Car in Auburn. The menu had several enticing choices, and we deliberated long before ordering delicious salmon steaks cooked with fresh ginger. We finished the meal by sharing a light and airy whipped cheesecake. Musicians played old rock-n-roll in an alcove at the back, white cloths adorned the tabletops, and the long bar was beautiful dark wood paneling that looked vintage. Vickie and I talked well into the night and, in doing so, created another fine memory to wax nostalgic about as time goes by.

     Happy Birthday, Robbie!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Close Encounters...

     Speaking of bears, I have a favorite spot in the high country of Yosemite, just off the road between Tuolomne Meadows and Tioga Pass. There's a gravel turnout just big enough to accommodate one or, in a pinch, two cars. I make a point of visiting that spot during every visit to the park, always in time for sunset.
     A few yards from the road is a small, still pond, surrounded on three sides by thick pine forest. To the east towers Mt. Dana, a reddish rocky peak that looms above the line of trees. Just as the sun settles below the horizon, unseen downhill to the west, its last warm rays skirt the treetops to illuminate Dana's naked crown, turning it crimson in an optical phenomenon known as Alpenglow. Viewed from the western edge of the pond, Mt. Dana's flame-colored peak is reflected in its every detail in the mirrored surface of the pond, a scene capable of creating awe in any observer. The intensity of color lasts only a few precious moments, so every year I arrive in plenty of time to set up my camera and tripod hoping to capture the three-dimensional beauty onto a two-dimensional print. Each year I attempt the feat; each year it eludes me. It has become a bit of a quest now, an ever elusive pursuit, to get the perfect photo.
     Several years ago, while I was intently focused on setting up my gear, I sensed a presence approaching from behind me. I turned to find that an older gentleman had squeezed his car in beside mine and was walking towards the pond. He paused near the water and stood silently watching the peak and its reflection. After some time, he spoke. He told me how he had come to that spot every year for decades, always on his last night in the high country, always alone. He described his ritual solitary hike around the perimeter of the pond, yet he made no move to begin that annual walk. After some silence, he told me that age had gotten the better of him. He didn't think he had the stamina, the strength, to make the walk that year, that perhaps, unknown to him at the time, the previous year's trek had been his last. I offered him my hiking poles and/or my company for his walk, but he declined. Then he bid farewell to the pond and returned to his car, heading east towards the park exit. His melancholy longing hung in the air long after he departed. It felt as though I were the recipient, the heir, to his pond and his ritual and his story. When I looked up, the Alpenglow was quickly fading. Without taking picture one, I packed up my gear and returned to camp.
     One year later, I returned to the exact same spot, set up my camera, and awaited the post-sunset light show. Again, I was totally absorbed in the process of composing and adjusting camera settings in anticipation of capturing the elusive perfect Alpenglow photo, when I felt, rather than heard, a presence behind me. Turning, I saw, emerging from the woods fifty feet away, a breathtakingly beautiful cinnamon-colored bear. Backlit by the last of the sun's now horizontal rays filtering through the tree trunks, the bear seemed to glow. A fiery halo emanated from his furry shape. He paused near a fallen log, and we observed one another for several moments.
     The bear and I spent ten or fifteen minutes together that evening. I was never frightened. I was aware and cautious, but not scared. I watched him intently, amazed at his natural beauty, his air of confidence, and his peaceful calm. He moved forward, walking very casually, then inspected the log closely, finding some tasty bites under its rotting bark that kept him busy scratching and eating for some time. Satisfied, he wandered past me to get closer to the pond's edge, where he paused to drink, before setting off to walk around the perimeter of the pond.
     Once again, I missed the peak of Alpenglow color and the perfect photo, but at one point, I did have the presence of mind to swing my tripod-mounted camera around to get a shot of the bear by the log. The camera was set for bright light, however, and I was shooting into the dark forest, so the resulting picture produced a smudge that looks more like the shadow of a ghost than a bear.
     Both Celtic and Native American traditions honor the bear symbolically as a powerful mystical force and a protective spirit. The bear is believed to be a shape-shifter who can move between the human and natural worlds, and as such, represents the merging of intuition and instinct that guides one to inner wisdom. It is quite an honor to receive a visit from the spirit of such an illustrious clan.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Threads of Time...

     When my bed is made, there is a special Teddy bear that sits atop an array of pillows in a place of honor. Despite her rumpled and worn appearance, she is Royalty, a Queen, with a long family history.
     Nearly eighty years ago, when my mother, Louise, was just a young child, she accompanied her mother, my Grandma Edna, on a trip back to Omaha, Nebraska, from their home in Southern California. There they visited Edna's mother, Margaret.
     My Great-Grandmother Margaret's home had a huge screened-in porch, as was common in the Midwest. It was on that porch, cooled by the summer evening breezes, that the neighbor ladies gathered round a large quilting frame, chatting and telling stories, while they worked together on the final phase of quilt construction. Encircling the frame, each woman used her own fine needle to make the tiny lines of quilting stitches that only an accomplished seamstress can create. The quilt they worked on those evenings was adorned with red and blue and green "geese" triangles flying in their triangular formations across a natural muslin "sky."
     Edna joined the ladies in their communal stitching. Though her stitches were not as tight and straight as theirs, she had a steady hand and sharp eyes. Being mostly a circle of grandmothers, the ladies took pleasure in introducing young Louise to the womanly art of quilting. And despite the clumsy nature of her stitches, they left Mom's threads alongside their own, for as every traditional quilter knows, each quilt is unique and must incorporate a mistake or two for good luck. The quilt was finished, the last stitch in place, before the visiting Californians were to depart. Great-Grandmother Margaret made the Flying Geese quilt a gift to her daughter, so it traveled home with them.
     Grandma Edna used that quilt for years; I remember it lying across the end of the bed in her room when I was little. She and I would sit together on her blue-and-white bedspread, propped up on pillows, while she read stories aloud to me... nursery rhymes and fairy tales mostly.
      For years, the quilt was used as a picnic blanket, as a cover for us girls on long car trips, as a lap-blanket at football games, and for building "forts" with the sofa cushions. Washed to the point where the bold colors had faded to mere pastels of themselves, the once beautiful quilt was worn threadbare around the edges and along the seams, with stuffing peeking out all over.
     Twenty years ago, I rediscovered the tattered quilt in an old trunk in Mom's garage and decided it was too precious to discard. Turning thin paper Teddy bear pattern pieces this way and that, after a time, I was able to find just enough usable material left in the disintegrating quilt. Carefully, I stitched the pieces together, body, arms and legs, head and ears. Even more carefully, I stuffed the new bear with cotton batting, sewed on button eyes and a smooth nose of satin stitches, and tied a matching satin ribbon round her neck.
     What a beauty Queen Teddy is. Reborn, resurrected, with a new lease on life, Queen Teddy connects four generations of women. She sports threads stitched by us all... Great-Grandmother Margaret, Grandma Edna, my mother Louise, and me... each of us left our mark and, having done so, are joined by threads across time and space. Great-Grandma Margaret died before I was born, and Grandma Edna passed away while I was in high school. Queen Teddy keeps each of them alive, holding their stories in her threads and joining us all in a quaint version of "string theory."

In The Beginning...

     There's an ancient apple tree outside my window. Gnarled and scarred, she sits, an elegant sentinel in my yard. Now, in the depths of winter, she is stripped of her leafy cover, so stands nearly naked, all her age-spots and wrinkles on full display. It doesn't seem to bother her. She doesn't even seem to be bothered by the fact that scores of bruised and battered apples still dangle from her upper branches. Days ago, snow lay balanced in narrow piles on even her smallest twigs. Today, her gray silhouette stands only slightly darker than the gray sky; rain pelts her outstretched branches and slides down her trunk, soaking into the already saturated earth. In this season, my apple tree shows her antiquity. She is a hag.
     "Sometimes our fate resembles a fruit tree in winter. Who would think that those branches would turn green again and blossom, but we hope it, we know it." (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe).
      When, eventually, spring arrives, I will know it by the millions of bright green leafbuds that appear on those ancient branches. Even before the weather has completely turned, even before the harbinger robins arrive, life will spring forth from what look like dead sticks. Within weeks, leaves and white flowers, growing and blooming in complete abandon, will engulf the wooden skeleton, turning her into a soft and plump picture of virginal youth.
     Summer will follow with the swelling of hundreds of green apples, that in turn beckon a menagerie of deer, birds, insects, and shy nocturnal creatures, gleaners all. Autumn will turn the lady brilliant yellow, the color of lemons and daisies, before she is once again denuded by the elements.
     "Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know." (John Keats). In the course of one year of seasons, the lady is born, grows in beauty, swells with creativity, and dies. Each spring she is reborn; each winter she dies. 

     Grant your blessings that my mind may be one with the dharma.
     Grant your blessings that dharma may progress along the path.
     Grant your blessings that the path may clarify confusion.
     Grant your blessings that confusion may dawn as wisdom.

     Grant your blessings that I may be like the ancient apple tree:
     She absorbs the energies of earth, air, fire, water, and space.
     She uses them to nurture and nourish herself, to grow and develop.
     Then, she transforms the infinite energies in her own unique way,
     Providing food, shelter, stability, oxygen, and beauty to others.
     She does all that gracefully and peacefully, without worry or anxiety.