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?

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

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!

The Tyranny of the Garden

Last week I extolled the virtues of gardening, and here I am saying the garden is a tyrant. I know. I’m a bundle of contradictions.

It always happens about this time of year—when the garden’s productivity turns into excess and demands more time than I have to give it. And I’m not talking about weeding and watering. For the most part, the Gnome takes care of those chores. I’m talking about harvesting the results of all the labor that has gone before. I’m talking about the next steps. This is the time of year I begin to reevaluate my relationship with the garden.

When the Gnome and I purchased our first home, we couldn’t wait to plant a garden. A few years after we moved to the diagonal, we tried gardening again. But we were too busy with child-rearing, house building, and jobs to keep up with it. When we retired, we took up gardening yet again—it was a natural extension of the simple lifestyle we were after. He liked working out of doors, doing something where he could see results, connecting to the earth.

I had my own reasons. Gardening is a huge part of my heritage; it ties me to my ancestors. Besides, I wanted to prove to myself that I could. If we were to find ourselves in the midst of a worldwide food catastrophe, I wanted to know I could still make food happen.

I like the smaller footprint we make by growing and eating our own food. Getting food from thousands of miles away costs the environment and decreases food’s quality and flavor. It doesn’t get much more local than taking a few steps from door to garden.

I like knowing exactly what’s going into my body. When I grow my own, I do. And there’s something almost magical about realizing the food I prepare and eat is mine! I made this happen. There’s nothing quite like looking at a plate of lima beans, broccoli, squash with onions, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, and cornbread cooked with meal ground from our own corn and realizing that everything on the plate is fresh from the garden.

Gardening is primal. It’s healing. It’s hope. But it also takes over my life for about half the year. In the dead of winter, that’s a good thing. I need a break from winter’s tedium. But I have more in my life than gardening. At least I want to.

At this time of year, the garden is a demanding taskmaster. Food that isn’t harvested at the right moment gets tough and seedy. Failure to pick inhibits further growth. (Sometimes I could do with a little growth inhibiting, but it feels almost criminal to let it go.) Or it rots. Heartbreaking.

If it were only the hour or so of picking beans and squash, digging potatoes and garlic, pulling up beets and carrots, it wouldn’t be so bad. But that’s only the beginning. There’s the rinsing and scrubbing, there’s rearranging the fridge to find a few more square inches of space for the day’s gleanings, there’s the meal planning—what needs to be eaten right away and what can wait a day or two or three (when there will be yet another kitchen full of fresh produce filling kitchen counters), there’s the search for recipes to learn how to prepare that weird new veggie I just had to plant and for other recipes to keep yet another meal of green beans or summer squash from becoming boring.

There’s the pickling and root cellaring and dehydrating and freezing and canning so we’ll have food from the garden all year long. Cleaning the kitchen and emptying it of everything nonessential, because processing food takes a LOT of space. Getting out equipment and supplies and cleaning them. Filling huge pots with water and waiting for it to boil. Sweating in a kitchen that was hot even before I turned on the stove. Setting timers, watching pots and gauges, adding ice to already icy water to chill freshly blanched foods. Labeling freezer containers, filling them, and finding space in a freezer already bursting at the seams. Cleaning up. Putting away. There will be no time left today for those other things I hoped—or needed—to get done.

There’s figuring out how to distribute the excess. Harvesting on a day my donation spot will be open and able to take my offering, on a day I can afford to leave the garden and kitchen to make a delivery.

There’s postponing vacations and family visits until after gardening season ends and before it starts up again.

And there’s the refrigerator-full of vegetables crying out to be eaten. Squash and beans and tomatoes last night, eggplant and peppers and carrots tonight, beets and chard and zucchini and cucumbers tomorrow night. Yes, it’s all good, an embarrassment of riches for vegetarians like us.

But every once in a while a person just wants some chips and a ‘Not Dog.’

So Beautiful It Changed My Life

What an amazing concept—something so beautiful it could change a life. Most of us, if we’ve lived long enough, have had at least a couple of life-changing experiences. But by nothing more than beauty? That was the writing challenge I was presented recently: a time when something was so beautiful it changed your life. It took me aback for a moment. But only for a moment. As I scoured my memory, it came to me.

Driving from Kentucky to the mountains of North Carolina in 1979, after the Gnome and I had made the mental decision to move but before we had actually taken action to make it happen (in other words, it would be easy enough to back out), I looked at the mountains on the horizon with new eyes. It was as if they were cloaked in blue-green velvet.

Their apparent softness overwhelmed me. Though I didn’t have words to articulate it, I sensed something magnificent. Those ancient rocks, some of the oldest in the world, had been worn down by eons of rain and wind; in the process, they had been reshaped from the haughty cragginess of youth into the gentle wisdom of age. Their strength lay in their graceful endurance. I didn’t want to back out.

We spent a week searching for a spot to call home Discouraged by all the not-right-for-us places we’d been shown, we were about to head back to Louisville with unfulfilled dreams. At the last minute, our realtor recalled a secluded piece of land tucked away on a mountainside, and our decision was made. In early April, things were still pretty barren; still, we were confident we’d found what we were looking for. We signed some papers and went back to Louisville to prepare for the big move.

When we returned to our mountain with all our worldly goods not quite three months later, my heart stopped as we drove into a meadow bursting with daisies. (How did the universe know to greet me with this outsize bouquet of my favorite flower?) 

It stopped again the first time I looked over a cloud-filled valley, mountaintops peeking out like islands in a sea of snowy foam.

I knew I’d never leave.

pict0068

(To read more about our adventure of moving and building a home with our bare hands while living in the wild, begin here.)