While I can’t remember for sure who gave me this folding straw, I’m grateful for it. I was early for OT and decided to dash across the road for a chocolate milkshake at the Coaltrain Coffeehouse. I’m grateful for chocolate, and for milk, and for blenders that shake them both together. I’m grateful that as I stood there while the blender growled, and thought about the plastic straw problem, I remembered that I had the folding straw in my purse. As a mentor said the other day, mindfulness is really all about remembering.
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.
Sometimes this is all that occurs to me to say: Mercy!
I’ve spent the entire day working on a 10-minute presentation for a retreat this weekend, except for the time I went to PT or was eating. I’m immensely grateful whenever I get so inspired that a whole day goes by absorbed in a project. It’s a type of mercy to lose myself and all my concerns in the creative process.
One of the ideas that is used in the lineage of mindfulness training that I’m cultivating this year is that of mental hygiene. We spend at least five minutes a day attending to our dental hygiene, why do we not spent at least that amount of time attending to our mental hygiene? The idea has been bugging me for the past six months, as I’ve begun spending far more time on mind training than I have on physical training or fitness, never mind teeth. I tend to clench my jaws during sleep, funneling all the day’s anxiety into the night rather than dealing with it while the sun’s up. As a result, I found out today, the surfaces of some of my teeth are crazed like old china.
But that didn’t really worry the dental hygienist I saw for the first time, with gritted teeth, a bit worried that they were in as bad shape as they felt. In fact, for not having been to a dentist in almost three years, my teeth are in great shape, and I was grateful again today, as yesterday, for the compassionate care of a qualified female medical professional. The only thing Jen was really worried about throughout the teeth cleaning was the “aggressive sound” of her instruments on my delicate dentition. She apologized several times for it, reassuring me that though it sounded bad it really wasn’t. In between jaw stretches, when she had her hand out of my mouth, I reassured her that it didn’t sound aggressive, it sounded like progress.
“You’re doing great,” she cheered me on several times. I felt safe again, from the moment I walked into her office. I used to be not fond of the smell of disinfectant, and normally might have gagged at the scent when I entered. However, in Covid times, I found the aroma comforting, and relaxed immediately after meeting her. No one else in the office the entire time, everything I encountered spic n span (until my muddy shoes touched the chair), and what seems like a solid protocol for both her and her patients’ well-being. It was the most fun I’ve ever had getting my teeth cleaned, and though I kept feeling my body tense up as she scraped gently away, I also kept being able to release, let go, relax. One thing that amazed me is how did she manage to put so much pressure on the scraper, or the floss, as the tartar resisted, and then not let the tool or the floss plunge into my gum when it finally released? I was impressed with her control, and surrendered to her capable hands and the general feeling that I’d chosen well to trust her. I’m so grateful to have finally found again a place I feel safe getting my teeth tended, and inspired to pay more attention to them myself. Her intake questionnaire asks, among many other things, Do you want to keep your own teeth? YES! I answered emphatically. Floss more, was essentially what she said.
I’m grateful for my teeth, that they’re in such good shape 62 years into this life, that they serve me so well, that I know now to be gentle in what I chew to protect their fragile enamel (No ice chewing, she advised), that regular brushing and occasional flossing has been enough to keep them stable for three years, that she accepts ACA insurance so I can go back more often; I’m grateful for my teeth for all they do for me daily, crunching into celery, tearing and chewing a lamb chop, lending emphasis and clarity to facial expressions. And for all they have done for me in the past. May these teeth keep on biting, tearing, chewing for several more decades!
I’m grateful today for mindfulness practice. The simplest definition of mindfulness that I can share after six months of in-depth study on the subject is: mind training. So that ‘mindfulness practice’ becomes ‘mind training practice.’ It’s still and always practice. You never get there, because of impermanence: ‘there’ is no fixed point, ever. It’s always changing, along with everything else including your means of locomotion to get there, the companions you meet along the way, your own fitness for the journey.
Most of us invest five minutes to an hour or more each day in our physical fitness, whether simply brushing our teeth and running hot water over our faces, or more: a weight training workout or a run, or a swim, or a yoga class three times a week, or or or… and a hot shower afterward. How many of us devote ten minutes a day to mental hygiene? I’ve always spent more time each day on introspection than I ever have on dental hygiene. The difference is, now I’m actually training my mind, instead of simply riding it. (Like a horse, right, cowgirls?) I also floss more often.
A key component of mindfulness practice is breath. Of course, breath is a key component of everything. We’re spending a lot of time practicing awareness of breath this weekend in our class retreat, but more about breath another time. Immersed in a weekend intensive, each exploring our own way of being across the four domains of body, mind, emotions, and spirit, the domain of spirit especially resonates with me today. This domain is comprised of one’s sense of purpose, one’s sense of worth, and one’s sense of connection, or belonging. Today, I’ve been examining these three aspects of my way of being whilst teetering on the brink of a yawning pit of existential angst. It’s fascinating. I’m so grateful for mindfulness practice!
His Holiness fled his country the year that I was born. For as long as I can remember, I have been paying attention to his journey in exile in news reports, and later reading his teachings, and later still following them. Buddhism is less a religion than a philosophy that encourages one to examine for oneself to discern the truth of the teachings. I’m grateful for the Dalai Lama, for his teachings, even for the fact that his forced exile enabled him to bring the ancient wisdom of Tibetan Buddhism out into the wide world at large. I’m grateful I got to sit in the audience one year when he spoke at the Boulder Theater.
Because the Dalai Lama had been a beneficent force in the back of my mind for most of my life, I leapt at the opportunity last spring to partake in an online retreat exploring The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. I’m grateful for that opportunity and for Dawn who shared it with me. I’m grateful for the teacher of that retreat, John Bruna with the Way of Compassion Dharma Center in Carbondale, and for his wife Laura, whose curiosity prompted her to ask about the thickness of my house walls which she could see behind me on the Zoom screen. (Grateful for Zoom, and all the connection it has enabled during this year of social distance.)
I’m grateful that Laura’s spark of interest led me to become her student in the Mindful Life Program, and for all the goodness that has flowed from that choice into my life this year, as I pursue a Mindfulness Teacher Training course that will result in my ability to share the benefits of meditation and mindfulness practice as a certified teacher. I’ll be bona fide!
I’m grateful that I’m spending the first weekend of this new and hopeful year in another online retreat with John and Laura, as we explore the possibility of “Bringing our Innate Goodness into the New Year.” I’m grateful to be learning to be a better friend to myself as I reflect on good things I’ve said and done in the past year, and learning to shush the harsh voice of my inner critic who harps that it’s never enough. It’s a helpful skill to cultivate, being your own best friend.
Gratitude practice today begins with SNOW, for obvious reasons. Western Colorado is among the regions hardest hit by climate chaos in the Lower 48. We are in Exceptional Drought, the driest, most dangerous category, expected to suffer both short (agriculture) and longterm (hydrology, ecology) drought. The state has activated its municipal drought response for second time ever. Any moisture is good moisture, and snow is the best. Our fundamental water reservoirs are snow-capped mountains.
I’m celebrating the biggest snow of the year, a really big snow! Compared, anyway, to past years. This morning’s accumulation measured only 5.2 inches, with .38 inch moisture content. I’m grateful for CoCoRaHS, the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network, a citizen-science initiative that began with a few weather geeks at the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University in 1998. Now thousands of regular folks (also, I guess, we are all weather geeks) report daily precipitation from our own backyard weather stations across the Northern Hemisphere.
And I’m grateful for Julia Kamari-Drapkin, who started a now-global interactive climate change platform called I See Change in the North Fork Valley in 2015, in collaboration with KVNF and NASA. As part of her yearlong residence here, exploring climate change through the eyes of local ranchers, farmers, beekeepers, and weather geeks, Julia invited Nolan Doeskin, then Colorado State Climatologist, to do a little workshop at the radio station, where I got turned onto CoCoRaHS and started daily precipitation measurements with an inexpensive rain gauge and special snow ruler. I’m grateful to weather geeks the world over for their citizen science, and for that matter to birders, too, who are in the midst of the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, for their contributions to global climate research.
So much to be grateful for today! Among other things like chocolate, soap, a functional woodstove, and the propane truck that got stuck for awhile in plow drifts at the bottom of the driveway, I’m grateful to Deb for calling me on my dark side in a conversation yesterday, which allowed me to see something clearly and ultimately laugh at my silliness, before I did any harm. Grateful for daily mindfulness practice, which enables me to live each day in better alignment with my core values.
I ate the last fresh peach this morning, and harvested the two remaining apples on the heirloom tree, I’m so sad I can’t recall its name. Are the finches feasting on wild sunflower seeds also marauding the Fuji apple? It doesn’t appear so; the leaves are grasshopper eaten but the fruit is sound, and so much of it, more than ever before, dozens of apples, I’m so happy I thinned them! At least 59 Fuji apples. I’ve got my eagle eye on these, watching for predation by those pesky birds.
September is like the last hill on the roller coaster. You’re near the top, the wild rush of August harvest has unwound behind you, there is that last push of fall fruits and vegetables to get in before the varmints git ‘em. Rosie has a big squirrel in her garden. I’ve got a stray deer here and there reminding me it’s time to put up fences around trees and shrubs whose protective rings I’ve repurposed on smaller plants throughout the summer. Someone ate two fat cheeks off the biggest tomato of the season; just yesterday I thought that’s about ripe, maybe I should pick it, but it wasn’t ready to let go, and I didn’t come back. This morning’s rising sun highlighted the glistening dips in its flesh when I chanced to glance over from the patio, where I sipped coffee and listened to the raucous sound of morning.
Cynthia led a meditation on sounds last week that’s reminded me to cherish more the wild sounds and deeper silence where I’m blessed to live, like the cacophony of finches in the wild sunflower patch that sprang up on the south side. It’s been years since I’ve lived with a constant musical soundtrack, and for the past several I’ve lived with only intermittent music through the course of my waking day. More and more I find myself eschewing external music, to simply hear, and listen to, the music of nature: birds, crickets, wind, bees, coyotes at night, more coyotes this summer than I have heard in many years.
A great-horned owl has come a courting me. It must be me he woos, because I’ve listened long and faraway and do not hear another. And so I croon back to him a few times, though Stellar doesn’t like it and tries to make me stop, and soon I do stop, because it isn’t fair; I can’t give the owl what it’s looking for. But I sure do enjoy exchanging hoots with it for a few minutes on a clear full-moon night, or any other.
This morning, rain-washed and crisp, the golds of autumn jingle forth. Last Saturday we noticed the first hint of aspen turning up on Mendicant Ridge. By Tuesday the yellows were distinct, and after that storm moved over Wednesday night, the golds are glowing bright, clearly delineated patches among shades of greens, siennas and ochres, treed and rocky slopes. Air is brisk and the dogs are frisky.
Fall blows in on these winds that feel portentous. March winds last longer than they used to, and winter winds start early, in late summer. The breeze sometimes is just a bit too strong; I feel the atmosphere whipping up, winding up all this energy, that later, maybe elsewhere, will unwind with a fury. Ever since I watched the film Melancholia earlier this summer, I’ve viewed this world differently, trusting and allowing myself to sense and feel the changes, the subtle shifts in seasonal events, in their timing, likelihood, or nature. Something is coming, and all I want to do is make jam.
At the end of the day, though, it’s not about my garden and what I’ve grown and what I’ve put up and what I’ve enjoyed this summer. It’s about what we’ve all tended and grown and loved and eaten and shared and put up for winter, it’s about what we all do in our lives here on this fragile planet. It’s about not just this apple, but all them apples, too! The change that’s in the wind is about me and you, and the choices we make in the next few weeks. To be continued…
The fruit trees are generous this summer, and none more so than the apricot. Throughout the valley, peaches, pears, apples, all ripen extravagantly. A banner cherry harvest for the commercial orchards, and I’ve enough in the freezer for three pies thanks to Ellie and her prolific sour cherries, tiny shiny scarlet globes best pitted with a simple squeeze between fingers and gentle tug on the stem, too small for the pitter. No one has seen a fruit year like this for a very long time. Everyone is grateful.
Everyone is rolling in apricots. Neighbors are having a cookout to lure people to take away theirs. Suzi is generously drying the first round from my tree, and I’ve just picked the third. As many remain on the tree as I’ve already harvested. I’m staying just ahead of the birds; they peck the very ripest and every few days I pick what’s almost perfect and finish ripening on the counter. I get lucky and find some at their peak unpecked.
The more I pick the more I see I never saw before. Fred tried to warn me: Don’t be greedy, he said, and encouraged me weeks ago to thin them to a fist width apart. I couldn’t do it. I did thin them some, a couple of times, as I did with the peaches both before and after he gave me a hands-on lesson. Eight or ten peaches on a limb this size, he said. Maybe I should go thin them again, if the apricots are any indication. Which, of course, they are. I’m so grateful for his pruning, his advice, his instruction.
I have three times more apricots in one wooden bowl than I’ve ever had on this tree in all its fifteen years. (When did I plant it? Fifteen? Twenty years ago? Somewhere in between? I’m grateful I can no longer remember everything. It makes interacting with people easier, but it doesn’t really help in the garden.) Fresh apricot recipes are stacking up in my recipe folder. The tortoise and the mule deer eat those that drop, or that I throw over the fence if they’re scarred or nibbled or too green, or if there’s a wasp feasting inside.
I’ve harvested three big bowls and one small one in the past week, with more to come. A generosity of apricots. And still they glow in abundance on the bright green tree, strolling grey storm clouds behind them. An uncontrollable satisfaction rises in my soul, the joy of a gardener. Because of me, the time, the water, the help tending through the years, this fruit tree thrives and gives back lavishly this summer.
Another summer tree didn’t fare so well last week, a big juniper. We had a knock-down drag out lightning storm. People were talking about it for days. It was right on top of us, some said. I felt the electricity, said others. It was SO loud! more exclaimed. At Tai Chi, Deborah said The whole sky lit up, you could see every leaf, and there was a bolt through it, and in the bolt a fireball. Twice I saw that. I saw it and thought, Did I really just see that? And then it happened again.
In twenty-four years in this valley I haven’t experienced a lightning storm quite like that. An occasional strike too close for comfort in a wide-spread or fast moving cell. Once while I was standing in my open French door lightning struck a juniper not far in front of me and knocked me back a step. But never an intense cluster for fifteen minutes right on top of the neighborhood, one hard bolt after another, sky lighting up and crashing in the same instant, over and over. The dogs pressed close on the couch where I lay watching a movie. Then it passed, and we all started to relax.
After awhile I smelled smoke. Oh no! From the tower I scanned all directions and could not see flame or flickering, but the strong smell blew on a steady wind from the south. I called dispatch and learned that a truck was on the way to a burning tree somewhere in the next block.
I couldn’t sleep for hours. I climbed the tower again and checked the air before turning in, and found it sweet and pure.
It turned out Cynthia had also smelled smoke, ventured out with a lantern toward the canyon, and found the burning tree, initiating the chain of calls that led the brave fire laddies to it. Grass was burning all around it, she said. It was scary! It could have lit the woods on fire and burned down all our houses if she hadn’t located it right away. It was scary. The volunteer fire department put it out and chopped up the tree with chainsaws to make sure the fire didn’t lie down overnight, to spring up again the next hot dry day with a breeze.
It happens sometimes that a fire lies down in a snag or a hollow and smolders for hours or days before just the right wind ignites it and literally blows it up into a sudden monster fire, like the Wake Fire outside Paonia in ’94. A guy dutifully went out that night and put out the tree, but it blew up the next morning while the whole community was downtown celebrating July 4th at the Cherry Days Festival. The fire burned 6000 acres and three homes in just two days, at that time the fastest fire on record in the state.
Or just across the mesa in ’05 when a ditch burn crept into a stump and lay down for days after the rancher thought he’d extinguished it. Ladies started arriving for a Clothes Exchange, and when I greeted them at the gate after setting up the patio, they said What’s that behind you? A thick plume of black smoke rose beyond the trees. A dozen women ate and drank and tried on each others’ cast-off clothing as a helicopter hauled water from the reservoir and the slurry plane flew overhead. We were half naked anyway and flashed our tops. The pilot dipped his wing. Ellie called to report that a half dozen more guests were turned away at the fork in the road, the mesa was closed at all roads leading in, and we might be evacuated in ten minutes. There was a scramble to load up the Mothership with pets and valuables just in case.
The day after Cynthia’s Tree burned up, a gullywasher, a real Florida frog choker my visitor called it, dumped half an inch in half an hour, with only a few thunderclaps and lightning bolts in the distance. The monsoons are upon us. That evening we went down the road for dessert. It was a relief to know the smoke that greeted us came from the fire in the metal pit that would toast our marshmallows, on a perfect cool summer night in the warm company of our million dollar neighbors.
Sunrise this lengthening-day morning brought a beautiful view full of new snow. Last night as it still fell, Tom our UPS man called to say he’d left a package at the top of the driveway. I tried to push the Honda through but only made it about fifteen feet before backing up to my dry parking spot and waiting til morning. Once the sun was up and the air had warmed a bit, I bundled my snot-nosed coughing self up warmly and strapped on snowshoes to go get the package. I knew what it was, and it was essential.
Why doesn’t the grocery store sell kitten chow in the big bags? I can get it so much cheaper in a 14-pound bag from Amazon, and usually it’s delivered right to the door. If Tom had only come a few hours sooner he could have made it down the driveway! As it happened, I didn’t want him to even try. Christmas week and he was already hours late. Driving must have been harrowing for him all day. The cat food Deborah had donated to tide us over must be far more tasty than the kitten chow; the kittens ate two cups in one day between them, twice as much as usual, and were mewling for more. I had to get them back on track, and I didn’t want any more puking.
So I headed up the driveway. The snow was just deep enough to make it slow with boots alone and tedious with snowshoes, so I kicked those off just beyond the first gate. Just past the skunk culvert where the fence begins I considered turning back, just waiting awhile, in case Cynthia decided to make tracks with her Subaru or Fred came to plow. But I continued: it was so beautiful out, the kittens needed their proper food, and I knew this would be the dogs’ only chance today for a walk; also, I don’t like to presume when or if my kindest of neighbors will come with his tractor and plow.
I love being snowed in. There’s a peace that doesn’t come any other time. Silent snow, secret snow. True solitude. I am cocooned in the warmth of my house with all the potential of the day ahead. My creative juices can flow, wander from one project to another, without external distraction. No one will come. Keeping essential paths shoveled takes time and energy, but gets me outside occasionally to appreciate the beauty of the place I have chosen to live. Shovel slowly, stop often, breathe deeply and look around. I become more grounded in this place when I can’t get out.
Away from here for a month I was a mess. I didn’t recognize myself, in constant fight, flight, or freeze. I realized sometime before I headed home that this journey was a crucial bardo: I had either to recommit whole-heartedly to the challenging rural life I have chosen, or I had to come up with a big change of plan. I haven’t decided which yet, but in the two weeks I’ve been home, the fear and anxiety have receded, leaving a calm gratitude in their place.
In that moment this morning when I considered turning back, I realized there was no hurry. Enjoy. This is the life I chose, these the burdens and the pleasures. The physical exertions that make living here hard seem nothing now compared to the mental anguish I suffer in or near a city. The hike up the driveway and back took almost an hour, pausing now and then to enjoy the view, sunlight slanting through white clouds southeast, a dark shelf of weather in the western sky, Grand Mesa sparkling to the north, unbroken white fields; juniper boughs heavy with puffs of snow, slipping off in shimmering showers, sometimes saddling Stellar with white as he runs beneath the trees. Nine-year-old Raven bouncing through the snow like a puppy, racing, scooting, kicking up powder. I carried the 14-pound bag of kitten chow in a tote over my shoulder, switching shoulders and pole hand often. Just as I reached the door and dropped the snowshoes, the tote bag, the pole, I heard the tell-tale putt-putt of Fred’s tractor in the distance.
I’ll pretend I’m still snowed in. I’ll sit by the woodstove and tend the small fire and read, write, sip hot tea. I’ll wallow in the gratitude I feel for the comfort and security of a community that supports me, through neighborly aide (of so many sorts) and convivial ritual, with friendship and love, in this spectacular place we have all chosen.
Many of our winter rituals could happen anywhere, I suppose. Only here under wide-open skies could the season’s turning be marked with a fire like this one. We all stood looking up and marveled during those magical moments when sparks were shooting up through down-coming snowflakes. Up, down, hot, cold, light, dark. Altogether, life.