I’m grateful today for allowing joy, in the face of sorrow, in the simple things: making a batch of salsa verde with tomatillos and peppers from the garden; eating some on a burrito with fresh chopped tomatoes and sour cream. I’m grateful for having the burrito in the freezer from when I made it a few weeks ago, to pull out for a quick, delicious, healthful meal at a moment’s hunger; grateful for all the implications of that gift.
I’m grateful for finding delight in the creative work of others, being joyful for their success. I’m grateful for camp, for British humour, for the return of the Great British Baking Show, and Season 3 of Drag Race UK; grateful to surrender my grasping mind occasionally to the entertaining delusions of being human. I’m grateful also for an increasingly healthy relationship with death, and all the ramifications that carries for a more meaningful and joyful life; and grateful for my soul sister who sent me this article about precisely that. I’m grateful for my growing capacity for allowing joy in this world of impermanence, of constant, inevitable loss.
I’ve really missed Zoom cooking with Amy in the six weeks that my tendon has been healing. I’m grateful for the diagnosis and the therapy, and the home exercises prescribed by OT Marla, and that I have had the dedication to be compliant. I can do so much more with my left hand now than I could two months ago, and with much less pain. Amy was up for spontaneous Zoom cooking, and went out to buy carrots to make the recipe I’ve been dreaming about for weeks.
With the second carrot harvest yesterday, and some leftover store-bought carrots, I needed to use up some, and sent Amy this recipe that looked too good to pass up. I didn’t have yogurt, so made a tomato-herb-sour cream sauce; without enough cilantro in the garden, I added parsley to the carrot-egg-garbanzo flour pancakes. They were delicious! I’m grateful for carrots from the garden, for ranch-fresh eggs, for improvisation; for bacon fat and olive oil, and for all the people and processes involved in getting these staples into my kitchen from where they originated; I’m grateful for the internet, and all the hundreds or thousands of people, and the materials, engineering, and ingenuity that cause the internet to come into my house and open the entire world to my curiosity and appreciation. I’m grateful for Zoom cooking with Amy, who’s been my friend for fifty years.
I’m grateful today for unexpected gifts. A formerly Zoom-only friend arrived in person this morning as she kicks off an indefinite walkabout with her two dogs in an RV. I’m grateful for the string of recent conditions that led to our acquaintance, and for heartfelt connection over a walk, meditation, and morning in the garden. As John Bruna says, “You never know who you’re going to meet today.”
Another unexpected gift, another precious connection, came this afternoon in a delightful phone conversation with one of Auntie’s dearest friends, whom I’ve been thinking of a lot over the past year, knowing she would be missing Rita as much as I do. Another ‘virtual’ friendship turned more real: we’ve corresponded briefly before, mostly over reading recommendations, but never had the chance to just chat. From the moment she answered the phone we were laughing, sharing stories, memories, and opinions, and the spirit of Rita was alive between us. I’m grateful for the unexpected gifts of two bright new friendships.
When Rita was trying to decide where she would move from her last house, and considered leaving Kilmarnock to come up to Knollwood, I said, “But Rita, all your friends are down here!” She wasn’t worried: She told me, “Oh, you make friends wherever you go!” And she was right: She made many new friends here, and she found old friends from as long ago as high school: and here many of you are today.
Rita made friends wherever she went. She kept friends once she made them so that wherever she moved to she carried old friendships into her new ones, building relationships among many people. She was ebullient and generous, funny, playful, and above all, she was authentic. She loved fine things, luxuries, and comforts, yet she adapted with courage and resilience to losses of all kinds, from losing almost everything in a flood, to the death of her son, and so much else in her 93 years.
She loved sleeping late, rum and cokes, taking naps, reading, doing her nails, Jeopardy, creating art… She didn’t like: pictures of herself, chipped fingernails, swallowing pills, being ‘incarcerated’ during Covid, or meanness in any form…
Leslie remembers her creativity, generosity, and humor, recalling that when she was young, her mother happily made all her clothes because she was too small to fit in store-bought; and she remembers her putting cotton balls inside homemade fudge drops to give out on April Fool’s Day! She recalls Rita as ready for anything, any time.
Robin remembers her aunt as giving the most fun and appropriate presents for every occasion, keeping her company when she was sick in bed, and that she was always up for a game of cribbage, any time, anywhere.
Rita taught me so much about how to be in this life, throughout her life. When I was a child, I learned more during one meal at her dinner table about how to treat animals than I did from anyone else: she treated their dog Duchess, who may have been begging just a little bit, with such tenderness and respect. I watched her through the years turn this utter devotion toward all her dogs and cats, toward her friends and family, and even to her houseplants.
When I was a teenager, she modeled for me as no one else, how to be a strong woman: One of the most magnificent things I ever saw a woman do came after a big family dinner at her brother John’s home. John took all the men upstairs for cigar time, and Rita became impatient, wanting to spend time with her new husband Ford. She changed into her tennis outfit, opened the door to the study, and smacked three balls across the room. “Tennis, anyone?” she asked with a sweet smile.
As an adult, she was my favorite drinking buddy—she was many people’s favorite drinking buddy, perhaps even some of you here. One time when I had over-partied at their island home, and she found me in bed in the morning still drunk, she didn’t judge: she comforted and revived. She never judged me, or anyone she loved, fully accepting us with unconditional love just as she did her animals.
When I was an older adult, and helping her sister, my mother, through a grueling dying process, Rita was my strength and my sanity: We provided mutual support during this devastating loss for both of us.
Through my whole life until she died last summer, as she did for so many of us, she provided inspiration, refuge, boundless love and countless laughs. It is a source of lasting joy that I got to spend many months over the previous fifteen years visiting her in the Northern Neck. Some of the happiest memories of my life come from these times: simple lunches, jigsaw puzzles, quiet cribbage games, deep talks, spontaneous adventures, sunset cocktails along the bay or theRivah at the beautiful homes of her many friends, even if her friends weren’t home! She always kept a snakebite kit for emergencies, pulling out a couple of airline hootch bottles as needed.
Her gifts to me, and to others, were boundless, and live on in the values of compassion, unconditional love, joy, mischief, humor, strength, and acceptance that she modeled for me and for everyone whose life she touched.
I’m not alone in my adoration of Rita. To know Rita Wherry Cleland Stephens was to love her. I speak for her daughter Leslie, for her sister-in-law Clara, for her nephews and nieces: Leonard, Bruce, Robin, Gary, Jack, Bill, and Amanda, who knew her all or most of their lives. She made each of us feel special with her love and attention, and she will always hold a singular place in all of our hearts.
After struggling for months to recover from a debilitating stroke, she courageously chose to relinquish her attachment to living. She was at peace with her life ending, and made time to say goodbye to as many of her beloved family and friends as she was able. In death as in life, she was a remarkable person, wise, courageous, adventurous, ready for anything.
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.