Despised Scent

Have you ever tried to describe a smell? Either a favorite one or one you detest? It’s hard. How do you describe a scent without mentioning the scent itself. That’s what you’d have to do to describe it to someone unfamiliar with it.

Because it’s such a hard thing to write about, writing instructors often require their students to do just that. Our Wednesday writing workshop leader has done it a couple of times. Most recently, I observed that the majority of us chose to write about a distasteful smell rather than one a favorite one, I guess because the power of a detestable smell evokes more powerful thoughts.

It’s what prompted me to write about a loathed aroma. At first, I tried to write about something sweet and beloved, but as I attempted to think of descriptors, I came up blank. Calling up bad smells, however, was visceral. I chose to write about—you guessed it—skunks.

* * * * *

I rather like the musky evidence of skunk—from a distance. It leaves a hint of citrusy lemon aroma in the air. A little fresher skunk scent is more that of burnt coffee—the same smell that makes me wrinkle my nose when I get to close to a coffee shop in the late afternoon. Even that doesn’t bother me too much.

But fresh skunk spray up close and personal—say on my deck—is another matter. My eyes are attacked by a burning sensation that makes them water uncontrollably. My nostrils close up from the stench. I can neither see nor breathe. I choke.

It is the smell of diesel fuel, cigarette smoke, burning meat, and cat urine all rolled into one, as if all those smells are simultaneously stuffed up my nose and down my throat.

Bottle it and that scent would make as powerful and effective a weapon of war as it is a protection from skunk dangers in the wild.

 

“Everything I Need”

Have I mentioned I have the most amazing mom? Really, I do. This woman, 95 today, has never ceased being my mentor and teacher. And I’ll bet she doesn’t even realize it. She’s no longer trying to mold me; that work is done. Yet, her daily, living example does influence me.

I recently came across a March 19, 2018, New York Times article by Jane E. Brody: “Finding Meaning and Happiness in Old Age.” She references several experts in the field of geriatrics with observations such as these:

  • Even when physical decline and losses restrict one’s options, there remains the capacity to appreciate and approach each day with a sense of purpose. It’s all about how you frame what you have.

  • Positive aging is “a state of mind that is positive, optimistic, courageous, and able to adapt and cope in flexible ways with life’s changes.”

  • older people, knowing they face a limited time in front of them, focus their energies on things that give them pleasure in the moment,” not on a future that may never be.

That sounds a lot like Mom, now classified as among ‘the oldest of the old.’

Five years ago, my mother lived in a six-room house filled with antiques and family heirlooms. She and my dad had already downsized once or twice. Today, widowed after sixty years of marriage, she lives in one room in an assisted living facility. She no longer drives. She shares her small room with all her possessions—a chest, a rocking chair, a couple of bedside tables and lamps, a small bookcase overflowing with books and word puzzles, a television set, and a few pictures and pieces of needlework adorning the walls. Aside from her clothing and a bed furnished by the facility, that’s about it. Talk about downsizing!

Having suffered a broken hip, a fractured pelvis, severe osteoarthritis, and several fractured vertebrae that shortened her height by at least five inches, she moves slowly, painfully, and infrequently—with an aluminum walker as her constant companion.

Some people would look at her circumstances and be overcome with sadness. Not Mom. Sometimes when we’re on the phone, she’ll randomly say something like, “Not many ninety-four-year-olds are as lucky as I am,” citing her long and happy marriage, her children, the mountain view from her room, the resident cats that come for daily visits.

On my most recent visit, I asked if there was anything I could pick up for her. She took a cursory glance around, looked me straight in the eyes with a tranquil smile, and said, “You know, I have everything I need.”

I’d say she’s mastered the art of finding meaning and happiness in old age. Now, if only I can be as good a pupil as she is a teacher.    

Mom through the years

 

One Life

What if someone were to curate a museum exhibit of your life? What objects would you want included? What would they say about who you are and what matters to you? How would the accompanying plaque interpret the exhibit?

Here are some vignettes I picture as part of my “One Life” exhibit:

A seed picture, a macramé wall hanging, and a handwoven basket depicting a childhood of craft-learning at my grandmother’s feet which morphed into my would-be-hippie-street-fair-vendor period and morphed again into a more nuanced appreciation of handiwork and an unending need to work with my hands;

A shelf filled with books by the likes of Annie Dillard, Mark Twain, Mary Oliver, Robert Fulghum and more, some of which prompted me to read more while others influenced who I became and still others led me to become a writer myself;

A table holding a pencil, eraser, and notebook symbolizing my love of writing, an urge  that visited me randomly and infrequently until recently, when it became a near obsession;

A collection of LPs and CDs: classical—Mozart, Chopin, Mussorgsky, Beethoven (there was a time when I fantasized about becoming a concert pianist. That time was sandwiched between my Debbie Reynolds period and delusions of being a race car driver); folk—philosophical storysingers the likes of the Kingston Trio, Christine Lavin, John McCutcheon, and Carrie Newcomer who prick our consciences and prod us to action with thought-provoking messages, sometimes with some quirky humor thrown in; the Gaelic melodies of Enya and kin which, through their sheer ethereal beauty, transport my mind to the shores of my heritage;

A hammer, a saw, and a scattering of nails on a 2 x 4 piece of lumber portraying our once-in-a-lifetime homebuilding adventure;

A grouping of family heirlooms—perhaps a chair, a plate, a crocheted doily: items that tell the story of my attachment to family and family history;

A tent, a canoe, and a campfire all in the midst of a small square of outdoor space, testaments to my love of camping, water, and nature;

A collection of photo albums—more proof of my strong sense of family as well as my love of photography, nature, and wildlife;

A corner filled with bumper stickers, protest posters, sit-in images, and a couple of rabble-rousing speeches representing my passion for human rights, all sorts, and my years as an activist and leader in social change movements;

A few fruit- and vegetable-filled canning jars next to some colorful seed packets resting atop a small mound of well-composted garden soil—evidence of my gardening and food preservation heritage and interest.

All of this would, of course, be displayed against a backdrop of the Blue Ridge mountains while the sounds of bird songs and a waterfall are piped into the exhibit space.

Looked at as a whole, such an exhibit speaks to me of eclecticism (or perhaps the inability to settle on any one thing). I like to think it also speaks of an enthusiasm for life, a certain joie de vivre. But I see what isn’t there, too—in some cases, things I wish I’d had a chance to experience or was passionate about, but in truth am not; in others, things that once mattered and have been cast aside. I see the absence of objects that are critically important to other people but don’t matter a whit to me.

(Conspicuously absent is anything about my family—other than the references to the photo album and family heirloom exhibits. Make no mistake: they are, every single one of them, central to my life. But with this kind of exercise, it’s all too tempting to focus on other people and to turn the whole thing into a cliché, so I resist the urge.)

Chances are, there are also things that have simply skipped my mind in the moment. If I were to write this piece next week or next year, an entirely different collection of objects might appear.

I wonder what my exhibit would say to the casual observer? What about yours?

On Living Well

One of the important writers in my life is Robert Fulghum. In case you don’t recognize the name, the easiest way to identify him, though it’s far too limiting, is to say he’s the author of Everything I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I never fail to be moved by his thinking and his insights. So, today, I’m cheating a little bit.  Instead of posting my own thoughts, I want to pass along something he wrote on his website not long ago because it speaks to me, because it’s important and I want to share it. (He even gave me permission. See?)

* * *

Please Note: This journal contains a wide variety of stuff — complete stories, bits and pieces, commentary, and who-knows-what else. As is always the case these days, the material is protected by copyright. On the other hand, I publish it here to be shared. Feel free to pass it on. Just give me credit. Fair enough?

Pack Creek Ranch, San Juan County, Utah.
The second week of September, 2018
Cooler weather, mix of sun and clouds, with occasional rain showers . . .

BED MAKING

A man I know well makes up his bed every morning.
He wakes up around 6:00, rises, puts on his robe, and – weather permitting – carries his duvet and two pillows outside to hang in the sunny morning air.
Then he turns on some music, makes coffee, takes a shower, and dresses.
The last act of this daily ritual is taking his sun-infused duvet and pillows
back inside to arrange on his bed, ready for his return at night.

Why these morning habits?
Why does he bother making up his bed every day?
Even he wonders sometimes.
Who cares?

After all, he is a single man, living alone – with no next-door neighbors.
His house is twenty five miles away from the nearest town.
He seldom has visitors – and he rarely entertains house guests.
Therefore, nobody is likely to have access to his private environment or witness his early morning rituals.
Nobody is going to know whether he makes his bed or not.
And yet . . . despite his solitary privacy – reliably – day after day, week after week, year in and year out – he makes up his bed.

Well . . . almost always . . .
But there was one exceptional week – three years ago.
When he fell into a deep black hole of existential despair.
And he just let go of the reins of his life.
He thinks of it now as The Week of Living Like a Loser.

The dirty dishes piled up in the kitchen sink for days.
The garbage cans were filled to overflowing.
In the refrigerator, moldy hair began growing on the leftovers.
The laundry accumulated in unwashed heaps.
The bathroom became a grotty mess.
And his bed was left unmade – a stale snarl of gnarly sheets and blankets.

And nobody – nobody – ever witnessed this fall from grace.

“Who cares – who gives a damn about how I live in my cave?” he thought.

And then . . . one morning . . . he finally crawled up out of his dung heap,
and looked around in dismay – a man living a homeless existence in his own home.
He dressed and drove away – fled to spend a day hiking along the river.
And stayed in town in a motel overnight.
The next day he came home to his house and himself – to put them back in order.

Who cared? Well . . . he did.
He could not live like a loser for long.
His daily morning ritual resumed, and has remained in place until this very day.

You might say the man has OCD – Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Perhaps. But that’s a speculative negative view.
Besides, if you witnessed the higgledy-piggledy unpredictable way he goes about
most days and weeks you could hardly say he is set in his ways.
One useful morning habit is not the sign of pervasive neurosis.
You might say the man simply learned something about his need for self-respect — in his environment and in his own skin.

The man I know recently saw a video of a commencement address by the Admiral who leads the U.S. Navy SEALS – the toughest, most highly-trained combat unit in any armed forces in the world.
The Admiral said that the first thing required of SEALS is simply to make their beds to a high standard every morning.
He said it was a matter of self-discipline, self-respect, and personal pride in paying reliable attention to a small, ordinary task.
Moreover, he explained, making your bed in the morning meant that no matter how arduous, dirty, or awful a day of training might be – a SEAL would have a personal place to come back to at the end of the day that was rightly welcoming.
The day would at least begin well and end well.

The man I’m writing about hasn’t applied to be a SEAL, but if he did, he could at least meet the first basic requirement – making his bed just right every day.
He, too, understands the pleasure of coming to the end of the day to a bed prepared as if he was an honored guest in his own home.
Part of that pleasure is lying down on sheets and pillows rinsed in the morning sunshine. And then closing his eyes in the deep quiet dark sleep of contentment.

I’ve been writing about a man I know quite well.
The man, of course, is me.
We are on very intimate terms.
I meet him in the bathroom mirror every morning and at the end of every day.
There he is – again and again.

Sometimes I think and write about him in the third person in order to consider his life objectively, and help him stay in touch with his better self.
Because he gets lazy and sloppy at times – in his house and in his mind.
He needs to be reminded that the truth of his character lies in what he thinks and does alone – in solitude, when nobody else is watching.
He needs to be reminded to be a special guest in his house and in his life –
even though that’s not always easy or simple or required.

But if he makes his bed every morning, the day will at least begin and end well.
And he can drift off to sleep knowing he has at least the most basic requirement for becoming a Navy SEAL.

Plato wrote that Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living.
Yet the man I know often goes about his life without examining it –
he doesn’t have time to be relentlessly, thoughtfully, reflective all the time.
He’s too busy just living through the tasks and opportunities of a given day.
If it is true that the unexamined life is not worth living, it is also true that the life not lived well is not worth examining.

* * *

If you want more of Fulghum, click here.

 

Delighting the Senses

I’ve mentioned my writing group before on this blog. I get so many great writing ideas from our two-hour Wednesday sessions. A few weeks ago, we were asked to select from a pile of phrases our illustrious leader had torn from the pages of magazines. I chose “Delight all five senses.” The assignment: in ten minutes, write a poem inspired by our selected phrase. Here’s mine:

Delight in All Five Senses

The taste of homemade ice cream with homegrown blueberries
The smell of a dying midnight campfire
The sound of a baby’s laughter
The touch of a cat nuzzling my sleepy morning cheek
The sight of a long lost friend

The taste of a snowflake melting on my tongue
The smell of spicy ferns as they brush legs on a woodland walk
The sound of a mating wren’s melodious song
The touch of a mossy stone caressing my toes
The sight of fireflies on a moonless June night

Here’s to New Chapters

I’ve been thinking about momentous occasions lately. The end of summer brings a lot of them. One grandchild began 3K just about the time another officially became a college freshman.

Just a few boxes filled with essential items for college life

I shared some thoughts about the start of college about this time last year. You can read those here and here. It suddenly got a lot more personal this year as one of those college freshmen is my eldest grandchild. Her life is about to change in ways she nor her parents can imagine.

. . . and in a flash, the younger sister becomes an only child, so to speak.

Naturally, my mind hearkens back to my own graduation summer and college freshman fall. Letters passed between three soon-to-be roommates. Who were we? What clothes should we pack? How should we decorate our dorm room? I was nothing but ecstatic and expectant. For years, I’d spent most of my summers away at one 4-H camp or another, so the notion of homesickness never occurred to me. I was only looking forward. My mood didn’t alter all summer.

Then came the big day, our family of five and all my luggage crammed in my parents’ car for the four-hour trip to the college of my choice. I sat on the right-hand side of the back seat in the soft pink shirtwaist dress trimmed with deeper pink hand-embroidered stitching on the collar edge and both sides of the collar-to-hem button placket. All hand-made by Mother. It was one of my favorites, a dress to help me put my best foot forward as I entered my new life.

It was only when directional signs to my school appeared, just a couple of miles from our destination, that I started to freak. Totally unexpected, my tummy brimmed with butterflies. While I was still mostly excited about what the future held for me, a tiny but powerful part was ready to turn around and head back home. Had I been on my own, I might have done just that.

I’m so glad turning around wasn’t an option. Even as the heady anticipation of that summer evolved into all-night exam cramming sessions, even as the grades I was used to in high school eluded me, even as idealism turned to reality and sometimes cynicism, even as I endured the agony of heartbreak, I had found my place. Not once did I consider giving up.

At most, I traveled home for school holidays and summer breaks. On occasion, I even stayed at school during shorter breaks. I appreciated the solitude of a dorm and campus empty of the hustle-bustle of daily student life. I could read for pleasure, reflect, organize, take solitary strolls through my favorite spots, daydream. There wasn’t much time for those things the rest of the school year.

I discovered new passions during my college years. I set out on a career path, though it morphed and morphed again in my post-college years. I learned what mattered to me. I discovered independence. Ideas jelled into philosophies. I found love. I lost love. I found it again. I survived. I learned that I could.

It’s not that I think college years are the best years of one’s life, a sentiment I’ve heard so many times. How depressing to hit twenty-one and think all the best times are behind you. No, I see those college years as a unique time, a time to grow, a time to explore, a time to discover what you’re made of. If all goes reasonably well, it’s a time to look back on with fond nostalgia, not as the best time of life but as one that holds sweet memories and provided important building blocks for the life to come.

As we said I goodbyes, I wished I could find the wisdom and the words to give my granddaughter the most brilliant piece of advice, the pithiest sentiment. In the end, all I could do was give her a hug and say, “I love you.”

I wish my granddaughter and all her fellow college freshmen the very best college has to offer, hopefully with only a few disappointments, though those are important to growth, too. Sometimes it’s our mistakes that define us; hard as they are, we need a few along the way. It’s what we do with them that matters.

Here’s to you, Starshine!

 

 

Bear Sighting

Have I told you about our late night bear visits? That’s right. We’ve had a bear in our front yard, on our wooded hillside, even on our deck. We named her Shadow. I tried to capture the tale in a rhyming story for the grandkids.

Okay, not the greatest shot, but hey, I was staring at a bear!

SHADOW

It was late, late one night—
I woke up to a crash!
A Kapow! And a Bang!
I jumped up in a dash!

I wandered outside
and what did I see?
A great big black bear
staring at me!

That bear was so black,
that bear was so big
with her cinnamon nose,
I just flipped my wig!

But why was she there
in my yard late at night?
She was eating my birdseed—
every single last bite!

What could she think
of seeing me now
peeking out in the dark
and watching her chow?

I thought she might run,
but I found that instead
she sat on her haunches
slowly turning her head

To give me a stare.
So I stared right back
till I suddenly thought
I ought to backtrack

Or she’ll give me a whack
with her giant bear paws,
or carry me off
in her great big bear jaws.

I tiptoed inside
and called Grampa Ron.
“Come here to the window!”
But the big bear was gone.

And so was the birdseed,
and the bird feeder, too!
We found it next day
at the edge of the wood.

Can you picture that bear,
feeder swinging from mouth
like a big picnic basket,
traveling south?

The next night and the next
she did not come back,
but the following night
what a thwack, whack, and crack!

A tree limb she broke.
Another bird feeder gone!
And where do you think
we picked up this one?

Right! Right you are—
at the edge of the woods
just where she left
the first of her goods!

She was so clever,
that great big old bear;
She gobbled her food
with nary a care.

She hasn’t returned.
I do not know why.
Maybe she’s patiently
waiting for pie!