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Here is a poem for a winter day– written by a man as in love with the ocean as I and a great deal older. 

 The Old Swimmer
by Christopher Morley 

I often wander on the beach
Where once, so brown of limb,
The biting air, the roaring surf
Summoned me to swim.

I see my old abundant youth
Where combers lean and spill,
And though I taste the foam no more
Other swimmers will.

Oh, good exultant strength to meet
The arching wall of green,
To break the crystal, swirl, emerge
Dripping, taut, and clean.

To climb the moving hilly blue,
To dive in ecstasy
And feel the salty chill embrace
Arm and rib and knee.

What brave and vanished laughter then
And tingling thighs to run,
What warm and comfortable sands
Dreaming in the sun.

The crumbling water spreads in snow,
The surf is hissing still,
And though I kiss the salt no more
Other swimmers will. 

The everlastingly rhythmic, incessant, living and breathing ocean!  It doesn’t change.   And so Christopher Morley was realizing as he watched the medium he used to be a part of. 

And why shouldn’t we feel a part of that saline wonder?  We are mostly salt water ourselves!  Was it of this stuff we were formed to begin with, with a bit of silica and barnacle cement added for bone and tooth? 

On a wet and chilling winter day near the bottom of the year, I offhandedly decide to look myself  (Old Swimmer) up in Google, and this is who I find: a tan man having a solitary adventure in the fringes of the giant sea that covers most of our planet.   Or the no-longer-tan man looking at the tan man…as I am.

What a compliment that “The Muse “( I call Him God) chose to have me look at this tonight!   He thought it would warm my cockles, I guess, as I sit this late November night tapping on my little netbook, with a chesty cold and some aches and chills bogging me down.

My Muse wants me to smell the summertime ahead.  I suppose I may be more like the no-longer-tan man watching the tan man, because it will be chillingly unswimmable northern Pacific surf that pounds the shoreline in July, but this poem changes that tonight.

…the warmth of the sand in this poem and the churned up suds of the sea are precisely what I have always wanted most from summer. No picnic or cold drink or dance or honeysuckled evening holding hands could rival the fierceness of the wonderful salt water that tossed me around with such strength and vigor– that pushed so against me as I tried to struggle against it.  More erotic  than this it doesn’t get!  Even to the very young swimmer I was when I first met this kind of water!  I didn’t know why, but it was more than wonderful; and still as strong a force today as it ever was then, and as delicious.

Thank you, Christopher Morley, for bringing me memories of a First Love on such a wet and soggy November night when the meadow is ankle-deep  in fresh water and the slanting rain looks like sleet shards against the light outside the garage.  You have made me lie again in the sand, exquisitely relieved as the heat brings my limbs back to sensibility with prickling and darts of pain.  I will thaw in a moment and then bake in the summer sun, with salt lines forming on my brown arms.  I will taste the white powder and be in heaven.  And the surf will call for another go-round before my hair is dry!

Old Swimmer

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“…Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread
Our eyes upon one double string; …

Source Link:–John Donne, The Ecstasy

I’ve been watching from a place beyond the windowful of sunshine in the kitchen so the birds won’t notice me watching them.  They are feeding avidly this morning, as always, but clearly more frantically because I was late in replenishing the feeder.

In the next room, on the landing of the steps leading to the second floor, our cat also watches.  He is not hungry like those birds.  He is just full of genes that cause a cat’s tail to twitch, teeth to chutter, and eyes to narrow on something he is certain is born to be caught, torn apart and eaten.  It is just his job, he believes, deep in his bones.  He is keeping a low profile as he peeks over the window frame moulding.

kc-watching

(The cat of whom I speak in his kittenhood, practicing.)

He and I both are avoiding the intertwining the “eye beams” spoken of by Donne — those invisible tracks between my eyes and those of another creature.  Neither of us wants the birds to know we are watching.

The intelligence that comes in through eyes is instant, undetectable, unique to the moment, and trackless! As an artist, I have thought a lot about seeing, and since childhood, have been really charmed by the truth that you cannot know when one’s own eye beams are  intersecting another’s. Unless that other is using the same tracks as you, there is nothing to tell you that someone eye beams are making tracks a thousand thousand places in the air!

I am unaware when another creature has me in its sights.  I walk the dogs in the woods at night and know there are creatures in the trees watching me simply because I have read that night-seeing creatures do a LOT of looking at anything that moves in the dark.  (Sometimes I hear them chuckle. That’s an auditory trackable clue.)

In the morning I walk the same dogs before I take out my bag of sunflower seeds.  I am announced!  Someone with a raucous cry is yelling “She is here now,  food is coming next.”  I can’t find that jay, no matter how I look, and would not know I had interrupted his line of sight except for his outcry.  Squirrels chuck chuck at me and very tiny tinkling noises tell me the golden crown kinglets are sharing news.

I looked in the eye of a young robin several springs ago.  His claw got caught in a bit of netting I had put around the blueberry bush.  His mother was having a fit and he was jumping around in terror.  I went inside and got some small scissors while figuring out how to do this rescue in the gentlest way.

His eye was round and shiny, and his eye-beam direct and vital.  Birds don’t look at you straight on, like people,  but from one or the other side of their head.  So it is a bird profile that you see, with one eye showing.  I looked at him and called him “little fellow” in a soft voice, and put my hand over his back very gently but firmly so he wouldn’t struggle.  I could then see how to fit the scissor points so that I would cut only the plastic net to release it.   It took only a few seconds, really, to save this bird’s life.  I opened my hand and he scrambled away and up into a bush.  I left so his mother and he could settle down to regular business.

It is such a privilege to look into another creature’s eye.

I have loved and used the saying “A cat can look at a king,” (attributed sometimes to Lewis Carroll, but I haven’t yet found out for sure), for describing the freedom the cat gives himself, the privilege the cat takes for granted, and no one can stop him– i.e., to look at whatever he pleases for as long as he pleases, whether the object cares or not.  And he may refuse to look if he wants to, and often does when someone tries to line up eye-beams with him.

The Finest

The Finest

The finest would be
if any cat  a sealpoint
stretching legs together overlong–
taupe stockings against
thighs of ancient watered silk–
no
offwhite velvet with a nap of heaven.

Now curl cat
orderly just so
and let me own a statue.

No.

Your satin swiveling signals
not-a-perfect-fit
and one point’s left unfurled.

Primp just once.
combed line now abreast your prow
you yawn your face
a toothful chasm
nearly inside out (very like a snake!)

Then circle once–
yes make your mask serene
to gaze in azure–

no
to blink your slow cadence.
Will you sleep?

Not now as you are watching me.

(I wrote this to another cat in 1997.  copyright SGH aka Old Swimmer)

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2009-with-eyeballsAnyone see some hoping in this image?

Well, 2008 was not my favorite year.  Really it was not.  And we seem to be on some sort of a national downslide right now.  I picture us all on one of those playground slides that go around and around, slowing the speed some, but making you dizzy and maybe a little bit nauseous,  but one thing is sure, you are not going UP.  Grabbing at the side rails may stop you temporarily,  but DOWN is where you are going, no question about it.

spiral-slide-trip

What does DOWN mean?  For plain folks who are not in litigation about what part of our fleet of airplanes will be done without, and who are wondering whether they will end up at Lompoc’s so-called “Country Club”, for plain folks like me, it is a matter of thinking back to what my parents told me about the depression years. 

They were just teens then, my parents.  They remember the pulling in of belts,  the conservation of food– not wasting– making do.  And my parents were not hit like some during the Great Depression. They did not participate in the Dust Bowl, or stand in bread lines in New York City. 

I worked once with a man whose father kept their large family fed during the Depression by selling apples or potatoes from a box in the streets of New York City.  He just got out there with his box and peddled pommes.  People bought them, and I guess the father bought some bread and milk with his earnings and added them to the potatoes and apples he had left to feed those mouths.

My two daughters find themselves suddenly out of work.  It’s like finding yourself riding a bike and suddenly there is no bike.  Huge bad effect.  Very bad.

The kids and I have been  through some bad stuff in the um..40 something years I have known them.  And we did things to get through, and we learned from that.  Two things come of that history.  1. We know we can knit together and move through really tough stuff, so we are not about to jump off skyscrapers.  and, 2.  We know it will be very hard, and will almost certainly mean real losses.

One of my daughters is renting.  The rent is really high.  The landlady needs that rent to keep paying the mortgage.  So she is not about to lower the rent and lose the house.  On the other hand, she may need to let the house go into forclosure (we don’t know), and in that case, the house may move into other hands and …?  who knows.   This is so unsettling for my daughter.  She has just lost her job and where would she get money to start over anywhere? 

My other daughter and her husband have watched their once thriving business fail completely.  Their house is totally invested in the business.  Their set-up doesn’t protect them from losing their assets.  They are in desperate trouble.  They do own a shabby trailer, which is what they are looking at, realizing that their expertise at recreational camping will probably become a way of life.  They could possibly park it in some kind person’s driveway or back yard until times get easier. 

That kind person may or may not be my son whose business still seems to be good, and whose wife works as a medical professional and is sure to have plenty of business in her line of work.  But they don’t have a driveway or anything like a flat back yard.  Could everyone end up living on the road in front of their house, and using their bathroom for potty and shower runs?

And what about food?  All these kids are fabulous foodies.  They can make a feast out of a bone, and they will have to do that skill now.

And what about me?  I don’t know. I am three thousand miles away in a relatively (so far) safe set-up, wishing I could open my doors and make room for them, as I used to do when they were children, and also when they were young adults just starting off.  But they will not be coming here.

Ours is a relatively (so far) mild dilemma.  I keep thinking about families who were caught  hanging on by their fingernails to minimal life structures– people who will be evicted and whose children will get sick and who will not have insurance and will have to rely on an overloaded welfare medical system for help.  People are going to suffer, and are already suffering.

A poignant sign of the sadness is the news item that comes up more frequently every week about people having to drop their beloved family pets (cosseted, groomed, fat, and so beloved) at the SPCA, which is announcing that they are euthanizing such animals at some phenomenal number (like 200,000 per day) because there just is not enough room or food for such an influx.  This is really hard for me to think about– my animals are like four-legged family members.  They are very much integrated in what I consider HOME BASE.

What will happen as the new year moves in?  Maybe we could try some kindness — that’s not expensive, and it seems to get easier with practice. It’s like a sort of oil that keeps the cogs from grating against each other.  I’m really not a “Pollyanna” type, but I would like to think that the duress of living in this sort of scrunch would squeeze out some kindness that we have not had time for lately.  Maybe some generosity that somehow rises out of the need around us. 

What can I do to help that happen?  Maybe I can just LOOK for it a lot and mention it when I notice it.   And give someone a “leg up” when I have opportunity, like that ad for coke, or whatever it is, on TV.  It does get passed along.  We could do this.

 

Old Swimmer

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WINTER FUEL

I’ve been told the Black Forest of Germany is clean and tidy.  No rubbishy underbrush under the trees, and the grounds are clear of twigs and branches– at least that was true back when I was told it,  and it probably is still true.

This tidiness not from a fastidiousness of the  Germanic nature or a strict German version of Smokey the Bear!  This is because of the “poor man” mentioned in Good King Wenceslas who “…came in sight, hunting winter fuel.”

These wintery days when I walk the dogs in our woods, I pick up dry twigs as we go– just a fistful of branches that are dry enough to break cleanly– to take back to the house for tinder.  Nothing works better, my fire-tender tells me.  Not even those flammable “fire-starter” chunks we try to use when the wood is not all that dry and the chimney is not all that receptive to letting smoke go up.  I find myself worrying in a slight sort of way when it seems that there are not many of the brittle twigs.  Not to worry, though– there are plenty under the leaf cover and more will come down from the trees over the winter.

It occurred to me a couple of mornings ago that this tinder hunting was a life or death necessity for that old “poor man”.  He did not have natural gas piped into his house that could be turned on by turning a knob on a thermostat.  He had ONLY a fire in the  fireplace in his house– and it had to heat a house with no special insulation and probably more than a few leaks.  He might have kept his cow in the basement to add some heat (and perfume) coming up through the floorboards.  If he had a cow, or a basement, that is. And if he wanted to eat something warm, or at least thawed, it was the fire that was key.

“Pollarding of trees began hundreds of years ago(in Holland) as a way of producing annually renewed stove wood and weaving wood for baskets and brooms… ”

Pollarded (see link above) trees abound in Europe–not just in Holland.  I sat down against one of a line of such trees in the small and ancient (fifth century or earlier) walled French town of Viviers, along the banks of the Rhone, and made a painting of the tree-lined street.  It was April.  No leaves in sight.  These nubby things are beautiful in their own way,  but it was not until I read more about them that I understood the significance of that sort of “landscaping.”  Below is the total sum of the town much of which I walked through.  Part of my painting is at the right.  That tree stood against the wall that surrounded the lock-keeper’s house.

about-viviers-and-pollarded-trees

The lockkeeper explained why the doors of the houses were placed so high from the street level.  Flooding had overwhelmed the town twice just during his lifetime.  He was in his eighties.  How many floods had come over the many years of Viviers’ history?  See: http://www.flickr.com/photos/81763705@N00/126756885/ for a great picture of the high doorways.

And, to get back to the original subject, how many trees had been carefully pruned — for CENTURIES  so that the tree would be preserved while still providing fuel for a winter season?  Imagine the preciousness of that wood to sustain life, and how carefully they tended the young new replacement trees when the old ones would die from ravages of weather and/or time!

The Fellowship of the Hearth is how I romantically label it in my head.  When I get down in front of my little wood stove with my twigs and wood cut-to-size for the door by the main fire-making person here,  and put a flame to the tinder and watch it catch and see the draft begin to draw the smoke up the chimney, I am part of a ritual of life that connects me with fire-builders of countless ages in countless wintery places. The status of the woodpile can make a difference in my day.  It made the crucial difference to that “poor man!”

My woods is wealth!

And how is the poor man faring?  I know of one dear person who is quite ill and whose neighbor is coming every day to her place in West Virginia to bring in firewood to stoke her stove to heat the house.  King Wenceslas, as the song goes, was like that neighbor.  May we all be more like him.

good-king-wenceslas

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We have a tyrant at our house.   About three winters ago we spent a ton of money thinking we would be conserving energy.


blog post photo

This is what our tyrant looked like when we first had it. (I think there is a reason the photo is so skewed.  Not only was our fireplace not ready for this new gadget, but it sort of threw us for a loop too! )

First of all it was HEAVY.  We had to build a ramp to extricate it from the back of our Odyssey!  We had to rig a block and tackle!

This was not the way to conserve energy. 

Conserve energy?  No no no.  Don’t think a wood stove is going to be efficient and fun all the time.  Think hard about how much you really want to get warm, and in which ways!

If you think the stove comes with a fire included, you will soon find that it is not included. 
If you think it comes with split wood included,  you will also soon learn that it is not included. 

If you think the chimney is ready for this new gadget, you will likely find that you have to call a chimney man on Christmas Eve to rescue you from a living room full of the bits and pieces of chipped out masonry innards, jerry rigged hearth stones, tools, and instruction manuals from DIY efforts that lasted for literally weeks before we threw up our hands. 

 This wonderful handsome thin young guy named Tom came and whipped things together in a couple of hours.  Where we had struggled with a horrible, heavy, rented scaffolding that turned out not to reach our soaring chimney top after all, Tom ignored the scaffolding and just propped up his ladder, climbed up fearlessly and strode around on the steep rooftop installing a liner and chimney cap.  Then he came in and charmed the woodstove into the fireplace, connected all the fittings,  set a little fire in it, and told us the funny new stove odor would be gone in a few hours.  Then he packed up his stuff and a check (no, that was not a Christmas gift to US…it was one for HIM), and left us to dig our living room out so we could sort of use it for Christmas! 

We used such a lot of energy in just getting that thing rigged up.  Heat. 

Then there was the wood.   We have trees out back.  They stand fifty to a hundred feet high, and now and then they fall down.  When they fall down they lie there whole. We had some whole trees lying there waiting for just such a time as this!  We got a chain saw for Christmas.  And an axe and a splitting maul and wedges.  (Using these sorts of Christmas presents is heartwarming! Especially if you are doing the work in spring or summer.   Heat again.)

Fallen trees don’t last forever when you whittle them up for fire wood.  I say whittle because the wood has to be SMALL to fit into this little stove.  But even the biggest fallen tree eventually gets consumed.  Earlier this year we knew that to avoid having certain of our trees fall down on neighbors’ houses, we really had to clear the overgrown woods of a lot of dead and dying trees.  After three days (this was also not a gift) of big cherry-picker activity and the dragging, grinding and hauling machinery creating lots of noise, the arborist and his helpers had provided us with — ta da…
blog post photo  The Eastern Log Pile  and…
blog post photo The Western Log Pile.

 

These are the SMALL logs. They are maybe 12 to 18 inches in diameter.   The Tree man had pity and (for a lot of money) carried away the monster logs that were way too large for our chain saw.    His machines gobbled up truckload after truckload of branches and roots.  It was quite a circus.  I loved watching.  High priced entertainment, though.

We get warm while sawing up and splitting this stuff, and we also get heated up sitting in front of the stove persuading its fodder to ignite!  While doing this, the heat is usually coming from our state of mind much more than from the matches, butane lighters, fire starters, or blazing newspapers held inside the stove to heat up the flue. The smoke which is confused about which way it is supposed to go does make your eyes burn, though.    Oh, I forgot to mention the energy needed to clean off the sooty glass window of the stove before we get started with the above procedure.

 Right now, as I write, there is a nice glow inside that glass.  It is because someone has been sweating over a hot stove, literally.  The whole time I have been composing this blog today my faithful fellow traveler has been reasoning with our tyrant in thought, word and deed — not all of them sweet and friendly. It’s like the stove has a servant! He got it going.  And will keep it going. 

And The Tyrant will keep him ( and me ) going and going and going.  Going out to the wood pile.  Going out to split more wood.  Going out to empty the ashes.  Going out to get more wood.  Going out to cover the wood pile so it doesn’t get wet.  Going out to the store for a new chain for the chain saw. I will help.  I do help, but he does better at it than I do. 

Are we enjoying our Tyrant?  Yes.  It is cheerful usually.  It is quiet and a little kettle on top makes some moisture in the air.  This year we got one of those little fans that sit on top and run on the energy from the stovetop. It blows the heat around some and doesn’t need to be plugged in.  The cat thinks it’s his TV.  The ambience is lovely.  I heat up soapstone “bed warmers” that I wrap and tuck into the dogs’ crates on cold winter nights. 

But the stove does not conserve energy.  It DOES keep the heating bills down. Definitely! It will pay for its initial cost in a year or so more in gas bills that we will not have to pay.  But it will use energy of another sort relentlessly, every winter day,  and many of the summer days to come. 

 


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  toys-for-tots-snip1

Hey Buddy– Got a Buck?  (a related page about the Toys for Tots Bin)

Well it’s that season again — the one that happens right after Thanksgiving and begins with Black Friday, you know?   When we watch the little kids in shopping carts crying and whining and getting reprimanded by their parents who are shopping shopping shopping for toys for the miserable little child who just needs some serenity and a bottle and his own bed.

Do we have time to read blogs, never mind write them, at this season? I think we need to re-assess all this frenetic, joyless, “have-to-ism” during the holiday season.

One of the best decisions our family ever made was at one Christmas gathering where we all sat around before opening the stack of gifts and looked at the stuff sitting by the tree.

It filled up a quarter of the livingroom! It was all lovingly wrapped. One gift from each person to each other person. Oh, and several gifts to each child from each person. And extra gifts to certain others who were surrogate family. And the neighbors. And to whomever might stop by and might expect a little something.too-many-gifts-copy

We were all tired! We were all broke and worried about it.  And sort of embarrassed by the muchness of stuff we were about to tear into.  And we said so to each other! (That was the beginning of lucidity.)

Then, after the stuff was opened and adored and sorted into each person’s pile, we talked. We said how much we liked getting nice things, but that we liked even better just being together around the tree.

We decided that Christmas that NEXT year we would do it differently. ONLY CHILDREN get presents from everyone. And the grownups (you know, those broke individuals with credit card bills that would stretch maybe even until next year before paid?) would come to the party with only ONE gift for a grownup. It had to be under, say $20.00 and could be something that was suitable for anyone over 18. It should be wrapped, and surreptitiously placed in a pile of anonymous parcels. This pile would be “auctioned off” by drawing names– everyone having put three slips with their name on it in a basket. You could “take” someone else’s selection if you wanted, or you could take a gift from the pile. When all the names were used up, that was your gift. (you could swap later if you wanted.)

This turned out to be so much fun! The gifts had to be cheap, so they often were very funny. The little kids were jealous, the adults were having so much fun. They could hardly wait to grow up enough to play this new game.

We still do this. It means we can go to the toy store, or order toys on line for the kids. Then we can find one thing for the drawing. We can cook nice food. We can put our babies in for normal naps, and stay away from the sniffling, weeping, cranky- sounding stores with people coughing and snarling and looking like death.

We arrive at our party feeling…well, happy! We go away feeling good, and also smart. We have licked this oxymoron “Merry Christmas”.

Plus, we have time to read and write blogs!

Writing instead of shopping,

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hightop-section-1high-top-section-2

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