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.
Though it isn’t always comfortable, I’m grateful for change; and more importantly, I’m grateful for my increasing capacity to handle it with equanimity. I’m really not crazy about random technical changes that show up unexpectedly on websites like this one, where now I can’t seem to add a caption to an image. But if I could, I’d write under the first picture, above, that where once there stood a lush almond tree, which froze to death last fall, there is now a blank corner for me to design a new planting; change provides unlimited opportunity. I am sad to lose the almond tree, but there was nothing to be done for it. I’m grateful I had helpers come this morning, who cut the rest of it down, and dug out the stump, which was sending up vigorous sprouts from the rootstock, which was wild plum, not almond. I dug up the very first sprout from that rootstock over a decade ago, and planted it: it grew into a beautiful, hardy shade tree (below) that fills with bees every spring while flowering, and even provided half a dozen plums last year.
Where once there was a patch of weeds in the lowly, forgotten dog pen, there is now a beautiful wooden raised bed built by Mr. Wilson, eagerly awaiting the little tomato and pepper plants I started hardening off today, gradually increasing their time outside in real sun incrementally over the next five or six days. And below, where once there were empty beds and tubs (not all that long ago), garden riches are growing. Without change, there would be no growth.
We ambled along deer trails this morning, enjoying new trees and views and some angles we haven’t seen recently. Stellar picked his way zigging one direction then zagging another on the amazing network of narrow trails that criss-cross the forest floor, as I followed amiably. I heard a little buzz from the tree just ahead on the right and knew instantly there was a hummingbird nest nearby. While Stellar investigated smells on the ground, I tiptoed around the tree intently examining limbs but could find nothing. The hummingbird flew to the next tree south, and I knew she was keeping an eye on me. I continued my stealthy inspection around an intertwined tree, then stepped back onto the deer trail. The hummingbird buzzed closer, and I realized I was getting warmer.
The nest was in the tree across the trail from the first I suspected, just above eye level. Mama zoomed past again. I took a quick step close to snap a second shot and then left her in peace. Reaching the camera above the nest blind without getting too close, I didn’t know what I’d get. I was grateful to get this image.
But I was grateful for the thrill of discovery even before I saw the picture. Just knowing that a certain sound in a certain context signifies these tiny treasures nearby brings a sense of joyful satisfaction. Even if I hadn’t located the nest I would have hummed happily the rest of the day, just from knowing I knew there was a nest in one of those trees: I marvel at my good fortune to live here and know these woods so well.
The walk continued to reveal surprise treasures. It’s a very good spring for the claret cups. Their scarlet blossoms, backlit by early morning sun, sparkled like jewels scattered on the forest floor in numbers I’ve not seen before.
Our lovely Sunday morning continued back at the house, where we sat on the patio, I with a latté and a book, Stellar with a big smile, enjoying the flowers, the phoebes’ feeding flights, and the hummingbirds’ frenzy at the new feeder.
After a full day of yarden work, cousins’ zoom, meditation, and coursework, it was time for Zoom Cooking with Amy! Tonight we made an easy smoked salmon taco, following the recipe in this video that Amy sent last week. We both had flour and corn tortillas, and tried one of each. A quick slaw of carrot, celery, and Granny Smith apple, with a basic sauce of mayo, mustard, lemon juice, cumin and salt, some flaked salmon, and a bit of lettuce on top. So simple, so delicious!
After dinner it was still light, and Stellar had the strength to go for another walk, so we strolled again into the woods. We came upon one of the same cacti from a different perspective, and it was new again to both of us.
Then a white glint through the trees caught my eye, a strangely symmetrical shape, and I walked over to examine it. Another treasure: a reminder of impermanence, making all the treasures this day held even more precious in retrospect.
I’m grateful today for witnessing so many facets of the miracle of life. The phoebe babies are big enough to peek over the edge of the nest, and I was stunned to see four yellow mouths instead of three. I watched off and on today as their parents flew more or less nonstop back and forth bringing bugs. The chicks would wake squeaking until one was fed, then their fragile little forms would droop back into sleep, their heads sometimes draped over the edge like the one in back. The central chick is stretching its delicate feathering wing.
I’m grateful I celebrated these tulips yesterday, before one of them got eaten. A couple of others that hadn’t bloomed yet also got – nipped in the bud! And, I’m grateful I heard the first hummingbird today! I rushed inside and boiled some nectar, set it in the mudroom to cool for a few hours, and put the first feeder up. I wish I’d thought to make nectar ahead of time like Deb did, so when I heard that first unmistakable zzzzip! through the air I could have put the feeder out right away. Oh well! It’s out now, that’s all that matters.
I’m grateful for all 745 full moons that I may or may not have noticed in my life thus far. Certainly over the past thirty-few years I have paid a lot more attention to the moon than I ever did during the previous decades when I lived in cities or suburbs. Since I’ve been living in rural America, I’ve been blessed to be tied to the rhythm of lunar cycles. My internal tides flow with the moon’s, rising and extending energy during waxing and full moons, settling and drawing in during waning and new moons. Or so it seems to me. And as Joan Didion famously said, “As a writer, it doesn’t matter how it was – what matters is how it was to me.” I think that’s how most of us feel. What matters is how it was to me.
I sing with the moons, I create with moons, I dance with moons. I used to bleed with the moons (I’m grateful I’m done with that! Fat lot of good it ever did me). I plant with the moons: I plant root crops after the full moon, when energy is pulled downward into the earth; and leaf crops after the new moon, when energy is pulled upward. I walk outside at night in the full moon without a flashlight, with only a dog and his extra senses to guide me through shadows. I’m grateful to live in awareness of the moon as a tidal force, a light source, a constant companion through 745 months of living. Seven hundred and forty-five… that’s not all that many… how many more full moons will I live to see, I wonder. Death is certain, time of death uncertain. Everything changes all the time, just like the moon.
When we made the chocolate éclairs, I knew I’d done something wrong when I ran out of ganache halfway through dipping the mini two-finger, first-time choux pastries; and it was so thick. I froze the un-chocolated ones and pulled them out the other day to thaw, so I whipped up a second batch of chocolate ganache. I used Ghiradelli semi-sweet chips, heavy whipping cream, unsalted butter, and a splash of Grand Marnier from a bottle with a broken cork — it had to get used up.
I had so much ganache left over! But I made it for the éclairs knowing that I’d be baking Lebkuchen shortly. The one incentivized the other. Lebkuchen, cookie of my childhood. I was raised on Lebkuchen growing up in Germany. Back in the States, we got it only at Christmas. It’s the ultimate spice cookie, in my book, and was always completely dipped in dark chocolate, cut in stars and crescent moons, a thick texture with just a hint each of crunch and chew, and (did I mention?) covered completely in rich dark chocolate. Seems like it’s hard to come by these days, but I’m sure I could find something online.
Instead, I searched recipes, and baked first a Lebkuchen cake, and then a couple of weeks later, Lebkuchen Honey Bars. I assumed this second recipe would resemble the cookies of memory, but turns out it’s more of a brownie type treat. No worries, I’m adaptable. The recipe (Joy of Cooking) says “Cover the dough tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 24 hours or up to 1 month.” I set it in the cold mudroom for about 27 hours. Then, the recipe says, “If possible, let the cookies age for at least 2 weeks to allow the spices to ripen.“ What??
It called for a lemon glaze, so I made that too, and poured it over the semi-fallen pan of this delectably flavored – brownie, for lack of a better word. Turns out, brownie defines a particular texture more than a flavor. Huh! Learn something new every day. For that I am also grateful. It keeps life perpetually fascinating. Exciting, one might even say. It could have baked a few minutes longer, though even so it definitely wasn’t a cookie; that will have to be Lebkuchen chapter three.
And still I had leftover chocolate ganache! Looking for room in the freezer to save it, I found apricot cookie dough from a month ago, so I pulled that out to thaw and bake. Cooled, I rolled one side of each cookie in ganache microwaved just enough to melt it completely, not to heat it up; then stuck the cookie sheet in the mudroom to chill and set overnight.
And still there was a cup of chocolate ganache left over! “I like it as fudge sauce,” texted Amy. Like she was reading my mind. Mmmmm, was that good! Just now, finishing a long four days of work and zoom meetings, keeping the woodstove fed, the snow shoveled a couple of times as it accumulated, keeping cat and dog wherever they want to be in or out, never sitting too long at a time so the old sciatica bug don’t bite too hard…
Then suddenly there was a bug, dropped from the sky onto the desktop. I watched it for awhile, til I forgot it was there and almost smashed it with the bowl of vanilla ice cream with chocolate ganache I set down.
Making the most of simple things, in this one precious day that will never come again. I’m not so sure we’ll have chocolate for the rest of my life, either, given the ravages of climate chaos on cacao tree countries. So I’m gonna seize the day, while it’s here, to indulge in chocolate while I can. And now I have a new way to play with it. You can even whip it into frosting. So today, just this moment as its taste lingers in my mouth, I’m grateful for multi-function chocolate ganache.
For more than half my life, I’ve been grateful for a woodstove as my primary source of heat. It’s kind of like meat: As an ethicarian, I eat meat if I know who killed it. I burn wood if I know who cut it. There are complexities and complications around anything that I’m going to be grateful for, and wood heat is just one of many. But I’m grateful for the woodstoves in my life, the three I’ve owned and the several many more I’ve tended at other people’s homes. Each woodstove, practically each fire, teaches me something new.
I’ve learned that the more options for oxygen intake a stove has, the more control I have of the fire. I’ve learned that a top-loading option is a good thing for an older person, and I’ll be sure to get one if I ever buy another woodstove. I’ve learned how to start a fast fire first time-every time with the proper configuration of paper, kindling, and logs: there are more than one way, and I know how to tell with accuracy what will start readily and what won’t; I’ve learned how to resurrect a smoking mess in someone else’s fireplace and, very rarely, in my own woodstove. I’ve made friends with fire.
At least, with domesticated fire. No one really makes friends with wildfire, I think, except maybe some extreme firefighters. I’m grateful for firefighters, men and women who understand how wildfire makes its own weather, and lean into that, season after season. Once I did something good for a slew of wildfire fighters, and that’s one moment in my life I knew I was doing the right thing. I like a small, contained fire, in a cast-iron woodstove, heating my home.
This little Dovre replaced a big Fisher, my second woodstove, first in this house. It was given to me, and you don’t look a free woodstove in the mouth. I’m grateful for the friends who outgrew it, and let me have it for nothing in my new home. It could eat gigantic logs, almost Manor-sized. Imagine one of those six-foot-across fireplaces with an equally gigantic mantlepiece. It wasn’t that big, but could easily take a few two-foot long logs. It kept me warm for several winters, with many fond memories. Then I bought a much smaller, more fuel-efficient woodstove, with a catalytic combustor.
That was complicated, because I didn’t pay enough attention when I bought it to know that it required hardwoods, not pitchy pines and junipers. I’ve made-do for almost twenty years, burning a combination of soft, hard, and pitchy woods, and getting almost-yearly chimney sweepings. And I’ll make-do for a few more years. It’s still a great woodstove, though it’s suffered some ravages of time. One thing I’ll never buy is a woodstove without glass in the doors. The Fisher had solid iron doors, but my first woodstove, in the tiny homesteader cabin in Jensen, had glass doors, and I fell completely in love.
A glass-doored woodstove brings together the best of a fireplace with the best of a stove: you can see the warmth without sacrificing heat. I love my little, efficient, glass-front woodstove for its heating capacity and its cheering warm light. I’m so grateful for this stove, for the wood that fuels it, for the people who have cut and split and delivered the wood, for the saws, axes, mauls and mallets that enable me to feed its fires, for the dead and down trees that lived and died to unintentionally provide me with fuel, for the kindling cracker that makes it safer and easier for me to cut wood down to starter-size, for the men who have taught me about chainsaws and the women who have inspired my confidence in using them. I’m grateful for the friends who sometimes ferry fuel from the woodshed to my front door, and for my ability to fetch it myself; for the wheelbarrows that have carried countless loads of firewood, and for the matches, endless matches struck against the iron or the sandpaper to light the paper, for the newsprint and tissue paper and bank statements that have ignited fires in these woodstoves for more than three decades.
That first woodstove. I’ll be eternally grateful for that tiny woodstove in that tiny log cabin, and for all that I learned about living while using it. Adaptability, for one thing. And how to pay attention. I’m grateful for Mrs. June Stewart, that pioneer Mormon grandma who rented me that little log cabin, and taught me how to use the little woodstove that came with it. I’m even grateful for my first real lover, who lived on the banks of the James River in Virginia, and was the first also to teach me the first thing about building a fire in a woodstove. I’m grateful forty years later that there is still deadwood, there is still a woodstove, still a life that needs its heat, still a house to heat, still a mind and body capable to feed a woodstove. I know this will not always be so.
Ojo cracked me up the other morning. I could tell the day before that he wasn’t feeling well. When he’s constipated, (and also preceding the loss of his first four lives), he contracts in on himself, curls into a tight ball, his cheek fur flares out because he pulls his head in like a tortoise, and he moves sluggishly if at all. He sat on the patio chair for an hour, refusing to come in even when I shook the treat can. Although it’s possible he was just pouting, because he’s an emotional little fellow. Either way, dusk was coming so I picked him up, tight little black ball, and carried him in, whence he disappeared and I didn’t see him for hours.
I mixed powdered psyllium husks into his dinner with extra water, and in the morning gave both cats a squirt of catnip-flavored laxatone instead of their first breakfast before letting them out. An hour later, I fed him his usual quarter can. Shortly, I took the dogs out, and called the cats for a walk. Ojo and Topaz both wanted to come in for second breakfast, but I said, No, you have to walk first, I want to see you poop.
So they came running along behind me and the dogs, sprinting past me in their usual tag-relay game, one or the other shooting up into a juniper occasionally. Ojo plopped down in the dusty trail and rolled, meowing, not unusual for him, but I missed that in this case it was the first sign that he didn’t want to walk. I rubbed his tummy fuzz and walked on.
Around the next curve he attacked my ankle, ran up meowing and grabbed my pants leg and gave a quick bite. I laughed and walked on, as he continued to meow, stomping along angrily behind me. A couple more times he lunged but I kept going; then he grabbed my ankle again, and this time he was very persuasive. He did not want to walk! Still laughing, I turned around and up the hill. He shut right up and walked a yard in front of me the whole way home, where he got another quarter can and so did Topaz, and then they sprawled on the living room rug at total ease.
I draw some firm lines with them. I won’t feed them before first light, or let them out before sunrise; both must be in before sunset. Both those lines ensure my peace of mind in different ways. Experience with numerous cats has taught me that if you give a cat an inch in the morning, you’ll be getting up earlier and earlier to feed it until you’ve lost two hours of your usual sleep. On the sunset line, if these cats aren’t in by dark I won’t sleep until they are. They seem to take turns, one every few months, trying to get away with it.
But in a moment like that morning, when one of them had such strong feelings, I was happy to change my plan to accommodate his need. They ask for so little, and give so much. I still see in them the kittens they were, and also imagine the old cats I hope they will survive to become. But I know cats only have nine lives, and around here those can go pretty fast. So I treasure every day with them, and accept their their little quirks and demands, and do my best to keep them happy.
Ojo and his siblings are four and a half years old next month. They all remain happily alive in four neighborhood homes, although Ojo has been whisked from death’s door four times (that I know of). Topaz has not. She is self-sufficient, often aloof, and sweet as pie. He is a perpetual surprise, a spoiled mama’s boy who wants what he wants when he wants it, and won’t take no for an answer. They still make me laugh every day.