Michael and I hung out together for about a decade, between his second and third wife. He was smart, funny, sensitive, deep, spiritual, thoughtful, and many other superlatives, in addition to being globally known as the Father of Conservation Biology. He was naughty and mischievous, also, and great fun to be around. I’m grateful to be able to call him friend. He suffered a massive stroke last summer, leaving his bereaved bride of ten years, a valley full of friends, a beautiful extended family, and a world full of friends and colleagues, all of whom miss his warmth, brilliance, humor, and dynamite smile. Tonight, a few of us, finally able to during this break in the pandemic, gathered at my house to celebrate his life.
I’m grateful for everyone who helped put together the party, and contributed from afar. I’m grateful for all the stories and insights that were shared to celebrate and honor him, helping each of us know him just a little better through the eyes and hearts of others. I have a soul full of history with him, and few words to share it.
Michael and I frequently discussed death in its many incarnations, including ‘the coming plague,’ which he lived to see the beginning of with Covid-19. He practiced Zen Buddhism, and inspired me to deepen my study of the philosophy that became my guiding light. I told him several times that when he died, I would shave my head in his honor. The opportunity arose this evening. I’m grateful for all our friends who took a swipe at my pate with his electric trimmer, and I’m grateful to June for offering it to me afterward. I was honored to accept it.
Above all, I am grateful today for the support of my friend who came to help me pack my old cameras and accessories, to ship to B&H Photo in New York. They take trade-ins of certain models, it turns out, and not just any old thing. I’m grateful that the sorting queen lives down the road, and she came to help me pack these trade-ins. It was a lengthy and complicated process, during which we enjoyed coffee and conversation, but finally she had the box packed perfectly. Every single camera I owned from the past 80 years or more was securely bubble-wrapped and precisely fitted into a large cardboard box. With the last of the packing tape, we sealed it and she hauled it to my car, for me to drop off at the PackShak in town.
Stellar helped, of course. And then I went online and shopped for the new camera system. I called to talk about my order and the trade-ins, and learned to my dismay that they only take certain models, not any old thing. And so I have to unpack the perfectly packed box, sort again into acceptable and not acceptable trade-ins, then re-pack a smaller box. But that’s OK!
She said when I told her, “It doesn’t diminish my satisfaction at having packed it perfectly at all that you have to unpack it.” And I said, “It doesn’t diminish my gratitude at your packing it, at all, that I have to repack it.” Despite the fact that it needs to be undone, it’s already half done; and I’m grateful for her cheerful, generous, efficient support.
Some days make me feel just as wide-eyed as these little dogs; in fact, most days do, practicing gratitude. I’m grateful today for the opportunity to do chihuahua for a little while; for clearing the air despite the smoke; for getting my hands on some chicks that are all named Dinner; for perspective on some of my less healthy habits; for connection with family and friends; and for the courage to open and play my dusty piano again after years.
I’m grateful that last night’s fireworks over the reservoir didn’t go rogue and cause a blaze, and that no one was stupid enough to celebrate Pioneer Days with home pyrotechnics; I’m grateful that wildfire smoke remains distant and we can still breathe here, albeit with extra sneezing, coughing, and just a hint of nose blood. I’m grateful for each day with breathable air, knowing that fire is certain this summer and location of fire uncertain. A new fire south of Salt Lake has consumed more than ten thousand acres in less than a day, and another four-day old fire near Moab exploded today. Seeing a sky like this evening’s reminds me not only of last summer’s horrendous smoke, but of the tragic summer of 1994, when the Wake Fire in our valley burnt three thousand acres in a couple of days; its impact was quickly eclipsed on its third day by the Storm King fire near Glenwood Springs that blew up and killed fourteen firefighters. Everything we hold dear is so tenuous.
Not only because of wildfire, of course, or the slow-moving catastrophe that is climate chaos, but because impermanence is the nature of all things. Our evening walk was especially poignant in the coppery glow of the smoky sunset: Not only from the oppressive weight of the big picture, but the looming loss of the very personal was readily apparent in dear Stellar’s feeble gait. We turned around before the first gate and he hobbled back in to his comfy bed for the night. I’m grateful for each day that we both wake up alive, and I don’t have to make that horrible decision to call his time. I’m grateful for the mindfulness practice that allows me to enjoy our remaining time together, to recognize that one bad day is often followed by a few good ones, and to accept the inevitable end of both our lives. I’m grateful for the inspiration and motivation that comes from knowing that “Death is certain, time of death uncertain.”
Those mom and pop phoebes are indomitable, like Mother Nature herself; constant, though not as sure as the sunrise. Anything could happen to any one of them on any day: a peregrine falcon, for example. But in general, they’re pretty safe here. They put up with me coming and going underneath them, and I suspect en evolutionary advantage to those phoebes who nested near humans: their risk pays off in having fewer (more cautious) predators.
In no time at all, they are climbing out of the nest, stretching their wings. Where is the fifth one? I’ve been watching the houseplants below the nest, no one has fallen out. I can’t really see them from the patio table, my outside office, without binoculars or the zoom lens, so sometimes I take pictures and only know what I’m looking at later.
I’m just grateful they’ve made it this far. Grateful that I have the opportunity to live in such close proximity, grateful they trust me, grateful to first hear their first wing stretches fluttering, and later witness ‘first flight,’ the first time both feet left a firm surface and this baby bird experienced the sensation of flight.
There seems to be a jay nest just north of the birch tree, possibly in an old abandoned magpie nest. It was here I think I heard the screeching from yesterday, before imagining the worst case scenario for a titmouse chick. I flustered a lot of them this evening just before I came in from the pending, blowing storm. Nothing has happened so far except some lighting and thunder, but overnight we got 3 one-hundredths of an inch of rain. I’m grateful for every milliliter of it.
It was interesting to observe: lying in bed around midnight hearing the first drops coming down on the metal roof, and then a steady thrum. Watching my mind attach with relief to the sound of rain, and immediately begin to constrict with the assumption that it wouldn’t amount to much, that it would end all too soon. The rain intensified, and for a moment I almost believed it would last, but then, over the course of a few minutes, the volume dwindled, and then shut off. Oh well. At least I have phoebes.
Though I know I won’t have them forever, I treasure them while they’re here: a healthy approach to every joyful thing in every day. So many things I’ve been grateful for during this one precious day that will never come again, including the opportunity to teach a mindfulness class to two dear friends, a delicious lunch, a hot shower, access to stream a film about the Dalai Lama, and the recommendation to watch Ballerina Boys, a fascinating documentary about an all-male ballet troupe that’s been showcasing a scintillating blend of classical ballet and drag comedy for 45 years. Literally every moment, every breath, is an opportunity to be grateful for something.
I’m grateful for so many things today, including hot running water, cold drinking water, and water in hoses for the yarden. I’m grateful that the Say’s phoebes are happily nesting right over the living room window and the juniper titmice are nesting in the hollow tree in the tortoise pen. I’m grateful that the redtail in the Smith Fork nest is clearly sitting on eggs or possibly even chicks the way she was poised on the edge of the nest when I drove by this morning. I’m grateful for another day alive mostly at home, mostly with Stellar, working, resting, walking, and eating good food. And I’m grateful for every little green thing that sprouts and grows in the garden, including the eight red-potato plants breaking through, six tiny new carrot cotylodons first up in the tub, and the radish sprouts in the tire. I’m excited every morning to go out into the yard-and-garden, the yarden, and see what’s new. I’m grateful after another full day to sit down in the evening with a relaxing adult beverage and a long conversation with my people, the Dog People, in Florida. And that unspools another long, circular thread of gratitude in my thoughts for all the years of love and growth, adventure and comfort, dogs and more dogs, these dear friends have brought into my life. So many good things come in circles, including potatoes in a bucket, cocktails, seasons, friendships, and the days of our lives.
Of the numerous things I’m grateful for today, including wise teachers and more tulips, I’m grateful for Boyz Lunch. I didn’t raise a family or even marry. There was never anyone I always had to cook for. Without cooking for children (the hasty routine breakfasts day after day, the packed lunches, the weeknight dinners week after week after week for years), I never got in the habit of three meals a day. I’ve just recently learned to cook for myself consistently. But I’ve always loved to cook for other people.
For about five years I’ve been cooking lunch for two friends, older gentlemen, or as they would say, geezers. They were meeting at a restaurant once a week; things changed, I started cooking, and enjoying the meal with them. The last time we dined together without masks was March 11 last year, the day before the country shut down. We put it on hold for a few months as things settled out, and in June we resumed lunches at a distance outside. At our first lunch back, our dear friend Michael was supposed to come too, but he’d been by then two days in the hospital; our next lunch we spent processing the news that he’d died that morning.
We met the rest of the summer two or three times a month and into the early fall while we could still eat outside. But then the big freeze came, killing so many fruit trees in the valley (as we learned this spring) and Boyz Lunch ceased for winter. What a difference a year makes: Many of our trees are dead from that fluke October freeze, including my almond tree. Some of our friends are dead. Many of my beloveds are dead. So much has changed, and I think, I hope, in a beneficial way. We need to learn to live more lightly on the planet, and this novel coronavirus woke many people up to that truth.
We zoomed sometimes through the winter just to stay in touch, and today I am so grateful that we finally got to gather again outside, around the table, without masks, all of us with some supposed level of immunity. Recently our zoom conversations have focused on drought, and we circled back to that again today. Where would we choose to move if we had to leave here because of no water? John said, “I don’t have to think about it because I’ll be dead.” Philip and I concluded there’s really nowhere on earth we’d rather be. Where will the climate refugees go when it starts being the US southwest? They’ll go northwest, or northeast, north for sure where there will still be water. But we’ll stay here because it’s home, and take our chances. Then we started talking about The Water Knife…
I’m grateful we still have water. I’m grateful that we all made it through Covid – thus far. I’m grateful for the conversation, which is always interesting, and reassuring to me in an odd way. I’m grateful for the friendship, support, and help with firewood. And as much as anything about these lunches, I’m grateful for the opportunity to make delicious food and serve it to people I love who thoroughly enjoy it.
I don’t know who she is, but I’m sure grateful that her recipe for sponge cake came to my attention. Kim made a cookbook of her great-grandmother’s recipes many years ago, called Rosalie’s Kitchen. When she texted a picture of this amazing cake a few weeks back, I knew I had to try it, and was grateful she’d given me a copy of the cookbook. (I’ll be taking a crack at Rosalie’s biscotti pretty soon.) I was excited to try a genuine Genoese Sponge for the first time, grateful the Great British Baking Show had given me courage and incentive to try it, and grateful I had enough good Bad Dog eggs, milk, whipping cream, and everything else I needed to make it.
I’m grateful to have most of my mother’s ancestral recipes. One I hadn’t made in at least forty years was Granny’s Fudge. Granny was my dad’s mother, but my mom adopted many of Granny’s wonderful traditional Tennessee recipes as her own signature dishes, and fudge was one that only came out at Christmas. Along with May’s sugar cookies that we’d decorated that day, these were the two things we left out for Santa on Christmas Eve. I don’t know how the fudge lasted til Santa came, honestly; I just made my second batch in a month and have already eaten so much my teeth hurt.
It seemed so complicated and time-consuming when I was a child. I’m grateful that years of experience have shifted my perspective on fudgemaking, as on so many other and more vital subjects. It’s pretty simple, but it requires close observation and finesse to do things like “cook to soft ball stage” and “beat until just right.” It requires attention and skill, just like living mindfully.
I modified the recipe just a bit. It calls for oleo. I’m sure this was my mother’s substitution because I’m sure Granny made this for decades before oleo existed, so I used butter, of course. You melt the butter in a heavy pan, and mix together the sweeteners and milk, then add this to the butter and bring to a boil. Gradually add the chocolate til it’s all melted, stirring the whole time. I remember as a little girl peering over the top of the pan and being cautioned. One splash of this molten candy, I realize now, would cause a serious burn. I’m grateful I’ve learned to back away from dangerous heat.
I made a couple of mistakes with the first batch, resulting in a tasty hard candy rather than the creamy fudge I was expecting. A perfect example of impact bias. Impact bias describes how “our mind consistently misjudges how much happiness or how much suffering (and its duration and intensity) a future event will bring us.” I expected a certain level of delight in the finished fudge. I was very particular, using a candy thermometer to take it up to 235º with constant stirring. Well, at high altitude, I figured out (too late), soft ball stage is at a lower temperature: It was pretty much hard ball when I dripped a drop into the ice water. Then I made the mistake of scooping it into a cold metal bowl to beat it, thinking that would make the beating process shorter, and it did: the fudge suddenly set as I was beating it and I barely managed to spread it in the pan before it was hard. Too hard. So this thing, that I though would taste so delicious, whose texture I craved, and I was sure would make me so happy… it let me down. I wasn’t nearly as happy as I expected to be as I stood there crunching on hard candy with the right taste and completely wrong texture.
The second batch, however, has made me happy all day! And I know it’s made some other people happy, too, since I sent some home with the Bad Dogs after they delivered groceries. I’m so grateful to these dear friends for continuing to deliver groceries and other necessities, long after many people may have given up on humoring my self-imposed isolation. Their consideration gives me a strong measure of peace in this fraught time. After ten minutes in the post office last Friday I was traumatized for the whole weekend. Out of five men who entered the tiny space while I was shipping packages, only one wore a mask. Three lingered and chatted right behind me, one of them huffing and puffing with forceful exhalations. I couldn’t find the words to simply turn around and say, “Excuse me, can you all please wait outside? I’m at high risk for the virus.”
I couldn’t find the words because I assumed them to be Covid deniers, based on the absence of masks. Unskillfully, I couldn’t give them the benefit of the doubt, nor trust my own voice. My head fills with static sometimes under stress. I couldn’t stay there another minute with the big bad wolf three feet behind me audibly spewing whatever microbes he was harboring into that tight little space. I wrapped up the transaction without mailing my last parcel, which required a customs form. Skillfully, I left. The grocery store’s not much better, with a pretty consistent rate of at least 50% of customers unmasked. I get that my risk threshold is extreme compared to most people’s. But so is my familiarity with devastating chronic illness. So I’m grateful for friends who will shop for me, and eager to reciprocate their generosity.
Yes, the second batch delivered, just solid enough with the perfect creamy texture. After looking up my hypothesis, I recalibrated the temperature and pulled the fudge off the heat at 225º, then “beat like hell until just right (thick and not glossy).” I got it poured into the buttered pan just barely in time to smooth the top before it started to harden. I had to leave more in the pan than I would have liked as it set so quickly. These timing and texture details are what makes it seem like a difficult recipe, I guess. You have very short, very specific windows in which to accomplish essential actions for a successful outcome, as one often does in threading a day. I gained just a wee bit more experience that will improve my next effort.
I’m grateful for this day that brought me kindness from friends, success in my culinary venture, and a mouthful of insights about how these human minds, with their expectations and biases, yank us around like a powerful untrained puppy straining at the leash. And then, outside for a work break, I cried out in wonder and delight as I spied the first crocus blooms! I shared that joy with a friend that I knew was also waiting for this harbinger in her yard, and she replied with a fitting quote:
"A single crocus blossom ought to be enough to convince our heart that springtime, no matter how predictable, is somehow a gift, gratuitous, gratis, a grace." ~ David Steindl-Rast
Granny's Fudge Recipe
3 squares unsweetened chocolate
1 ¼ cup white sugar
1 ¼ cup packed brown sugar
¼ cup white Karo
⅔ cup milk
½ stick butter
Melt the butter in a heavy pan. Mix sugars, Karo, and milk, and add to melted butter, stirring. When this boils, gradually add chocolate. Keep stirring. Cook to soft ball stage and remove from heat. Add one pinch salt. Beat like hell until just right (thick and not glossy). Pour in buttered pan, and cut before it hardens.
I am grateful that I made it to 62. Grateful that my parents, despite their challenges, raised me well and with plenty of love, and raised me to hold certain values among which number … well, another time for elucidating those, but they definitely did their best, and I turned out pretty OK, and for that I’m grateful. I’m grateful to live this part of my life in this part of the vast world, surrounded by natural beauty, supportive community, and kind friends. I’m grateful that even in the social distance of Covid, I was able to celebrate my birthday all day long in many and wonderful ways.
I didn’t get done half of what I’d hoped to today, but that’s OK. I did connect with a lot of people, and allowed myself to receive their generous wishes for a happy birthday. I made connection a priority this day that comes but once a year, this precious day that will never come again. I’m grateful for all the warm wishes that came on Facebook, in the mail, by phone, text, email, zoom, and by special hand-delivery. For most of my life, I confess, I have not felt myself to be lovable: I must concede to the majority today, and acknowledge that all these birthday well-wishers can’t be wrong. I’m grateful, in this moment, to feel lovable, and loved. And loving.
Going into this new year, I’m grateful for friends who have traveled this life with me, those I met just last year and those I’ve known since childhood, those who came into my life along the way and those who may arrive this new year. Thinking of friends this morning, I imagined writing a rhyming ABCs like Edward Gorey’s: A is for Amy who once saved my life, B is for Bethie a multiple wife, C is for Carol who lived in the parks, D is for David who fishes for sharks….
That silly imagining got me to reread “The Ghashlycrumb Tinies,” because it always makes me laugh, and besides that, it reminds us that death is certain, time of death uncertain. That recollection motivates me to wake up every day grateful, and determined to live this one precious day to its fullest.
All the little children in Gorey’s story meet a creatively untimely end. In my ABCs my friends wouldn’t die, they’d live each day in genuine happiness, and get plenty of sleep. Auntie told me once that when she couldn’t fall asleep she did what her grandmother taught her: instead of counting sheep, she would name her friends, starting with A, all the way to Z. I asked her about X. She said she was usually asleep by the time she got there. I’ve used this trick a few times to fall asleep. Sometimes I make it to the end and start the alphabet over with different names. I’m flexible: they don’t all have to be alive still, or human, or even actual friends as long as I’ve actually met them. I once shared a house for awhile with a grandpa named Q, so he’s always my go-to there. Once I met Marla’s granddaughter I had X covered.
Human or animal, girl or boy, F is for Friendship that brings me great joy.