Year: 2018

A Strange Amount of Courage

Cascade Head South Trail is a fairy tale staircase of exposed roots climbing though a cavern of giant spruce trees and berry thickets into the meadows that overlook the ocean and a lumpy cloud cover.

The forest light grows dim as I walk back. Swainson’s thrushes are filling the wood with their mystic arpeggios and sometimes it sounds like there is one right next to the trail. I stop and try to spot one in the tall leafy brush to no avail. They are good at hiding, being still, throwing their voices.

Around a bend I startle one into noisy wing beats and watch it fly deeper into the brush. I can’t get a good look at it and eventually move along until one flies up the trail and lands on a tree in plain sight. I spot it in my binoculars long enough to see the brown spots across its breast but it flies off before I can focus. The light continues to fade so I forget about spotting birds and listen instead to the spiraling songs coming from every direction, the water-drop calls traded back and forth.

Once a coworker asked me if I knew what bird made a certain song, before he even began his description I knew he was talking about a Swainson’s Thrush because of the wonder in his eyes. He had clearly been touched by something shimmery, something transcending the roughness of the world.

Down the trail a ways I hear a Varied Thrush sing, the eerie harmonic of its simple one note song drifting elegantly through the woods. If my coworker had been asking about a Varied Thrush his eyes would have held awe, a little apprehensive of the seedy underworld this bird had given him a glimpse of, parting his thoughts into silence like a heavy velvet curtain.

I don’t want to leave.

A few days from now at home in a seemingly unrelated conversation I will learn something about eerie harmonics after I say to a friend, Men are so attractive when they share their expertise.

Humans are attractive when they are in their purpose, my friend replies. He’s right, intellectual prowess is not what I find attractive about my latest muse, it’s passion. This fellow spent his life immersed in the things he loves and now seems deeply imbued with them and with purpose.

I consider my own passions and decide it is not a thing to double check or asses rationally in terms of what I can give the world. We have a right to make our lives and our loves matter deeply to us even if they matter to no one else. It seems like a small thing. But for some of us it requires a strange amount of courage to choose.

I have often wondered over the usefulness of essays about being outdoors engrossed in my own thoughts. To my surprise, each finished piece feels like an important shoot growing out from under a large rock that has long weighed on my spirit. Now that I see how purpose is dependent on passion I can imagine my work as an eerie harmonic floating through the far woods, occasionally touching a dusk traveler who might slip out of their thoughts to love the seedy, unplanned life they so elegantly inhabit.

July

July

Under the Smoke Tree

Hoyt Arboretum is one of my favorite places. A person can walk through a grove of Spanish Chestnut trees, then a section of Elm and through a mini Spruce forest within a matter of minutes and that’s just a smidgen of the collection.
Some days I go there to hike and sometimes I go there to saunter from one scenic bench to another, usually stopping for a nap at one of the meadows.
Yesterday I snoozed under the Common Persimmons. It’s the worst meadow to nap in, poky grass with lots of blackberries coming through. But it’s a secluded part of the park and the Japanese Wingnut trees have the most graceful draping lines.

It was a hot cloudless day and I heard something like rain as I approached the trees. I walked up to the boughs and watched little bits fall through the branches. Small and quick it was only from seeing all the blossoms on the ground that I learned flowers were falling through the tree, each bouncing off leaves like a pin ball. I held out my hands to see if I could catch one and got pelted on the cheek instead.
Then I realized the tree was completely inhabited by bumble bees, buzzing from one bell shaped flower to another. My intrigue with the sound of flowers led me unawares into this dense bee zone but the Yellow-faced Bumble Bees didn’t seem bothered and it was magical to be surrounded by their buzzing, dedicated presence. I stayed and watched the petals fall before I threw a blanket down next to the tree to rest. I love the sound of rain, persimmon flowers have a similar cadence but a dry and woody timbre.

I have spent many hours of my life in this park and still there are new and wondrous things. Once I watched an Oregon Junco hop up on a dandelion stem and pin the head to the ground to eat the seeds.
Today I’m wandering around trying to decide which trees to paint. A Red-tailed Hawk flies up the trail I’m on as if it was made to provide hawks passage through the woods. It lands on a branch that arcs over the path and considers whatever hawks consider when they decide to perch.
This is where I will paint today, not that the hawk is going to stay and model for me. But I can add it into the scene, satisfied that I captured something real, something that could happen on anyone’s walk here.

Having Tea with the Artist’s Existential Dilemma

The other day I was perusing the internet when I read this beautiful quote by Courtney Martin on OnBeing’s Instagram, Make relationships that are reciprocal, not transactional. Makes lives that aren’t easy, but rife with good material. Make art that matters.

Inspired I looked up Martin and read a transcript from a commencement speech she made about the challenges of being an artist.

In one spot Martin talked about self-loathing and—not being the first time I’ve heard a creative person talk about self-loathing as a regular part of the journey—I decided to give the issue some thought.

My goal has always been to eradicate negative feelings toward myself. It’s a fight that emboldens it’s own enemy and becomes quickly futile. But what if this these feelings are just part of the creative ecology? Not that all artists suffer internally, but that there is a required quota many of us have been assigned to. Or maybe an intense desire for honesty gets transformed into a plague of self-loathing for those that carry even a tiny seed of self-doubt.

It occurred to me to try a different approach. Instead of responding to self-loathing by dismantling my entire life and value system down to bare dirt and intently questioning each scrap of wood and nail as I build it back up, maybe I could just invite the self-loathing to tea as I’ve heard some Buddhists do, inspired by stories of Buddha inviting his own demons to tea as an honored guests.

Hello Self-loathing, it is hard to be an artist today, what would you like to talk about?

Perhaps I could have some influence if I take the time to make friends with this state of mind. Eventually I could level with it: I know you’d like to take this opportunity to scour every thought I’ve ever had to see if I am the real thing but I can assure you that it’s not possible to know and doesn’t matter. I am not strong enough to be something else, you are stuck being an artist and possibly a fraud. Is there something less existential you might enjoy doing today?

In the past I’ve benefited from a similar exercise I learned in one of Cheri Huber’s many books on mediation practice. When I became mired in melancholy I would sit down and write from the voices of the sorry feelings. It was quite amazing. Emotions that seemed overwhelming and debilitating would boil down to very simple issues once I let them rant for a while: You haven’t done anything social all week, do you hate me or what? That’s an easy fix once I see it clearly and then I feel like a human again.

Another example: I am really stressed out about that class I have to teach next week and I am dreading doing the prep.

It is easier to negotiate with a voice than a feeling: You’ve gotten a lot of feedback that would suggest you are good at teaching. But also, I don’t care if you bomb this class, I’ll still be here for you. Remember the last three times I avoided doing class prep but once I got started it was fun?

It’s still hard to get started but it’s easier after airing the discontent and worry. I also have more time to do the prep when I feel I can stop planning how to get a loan to build a tiny house in the field at my mom’s as any good failure would do.

I imagine many healthy people have these conversations in their heads automatically before they bog down without really being aware of it. Also, I’m not convinced this would help someone with clinical depression but it works well enough for me to suggest it.

There is a gift, I’m sure, in a propensity toward self-doubt. All of our challenges have the power to make us compassionate, to make us more resilient and capable. But most of all they are the terrain before us and we have a right to be intrigued with our path instead of worrying about how to get to the place we think we should be.

June

Mostly June

Be the Ride

The crows are a riot to watch at Reed Lake today. It’s at least 90 degrees and they are wet, shaggy looking, perched on the fallen branches protruding from the lake watching their cousins play in the shallow water while making their usual ruckus.

It’s the Pedalpalooza* Bird Ride and I am the only participant. Not even the leader showed up. Four other riders came to the meeting point at Woodstock Park but decided to go to ice cream instead of riding to Reed Lake with me. At least we saw a Cooper’s Hawk while we waited. Since none of us were competent birders it was fun to reason out what large bird just flew into the maple by its orange chest, long striped tail, obviously hawkish face and medium size between a Red-tail and a Sharp-shinned.


I wasn’t expecting the Bird Ride to be a large or rowdy crowd but I also wasn’t expecting to be the ride in it’s entirety. The description encouraged participants to dress like their favorite bird. So here I am sitting by Reed Lake alone in a Red-winged Blackbird costume I made the night before by painting red and yellow patches on interfacing and stitching it loosely onto the shoulders of an old black shirt.

I watch a song sparrow belt out it’s territorial song a yard away then walk along the board walk admiring the murky lake. The mallards look in bad shape, their normally shiny green heads mostly white fluff. I assume they are molting. Their ducklings are adorable, fluffy yellow and brown with charming stripes across their eyes. I watch them swim about in their close-knit groups.

The Pedalpalooza rides are some of the few experiences I’ve had where watching humans is as enjoyable as watching other species. The fellow at the Galactic Disco Ride wearing the gold lamé bikini and purple glitter make-up was sure enjoying himself and he looked fab, as did the woman in the gold wings, thigh-high lace-topped stockings and checkered bikini bottoms which she confided needed  to be unwedged every two minutes.

I may be more wholesome than the quintessential Pedalpalooza rider, I tend to be covered and sober. I’ve seen people stash an amazing amount of beer in their backpacks for these events. But a person can develop a certain amount of counter-culture class just by making it to 44 years having never married or had children.

When people ask me if I’m partnered or have kids I answer no and then its quiet and I feel like I’m supposed to provide an explanation. I don’t have one but to be honest but I’m thrilled to be here by this lake alone listening to the calls of a Brown Creeper. It’s the first time I’ve identified them by ear. I spot one and watch it creep up a tree.

This costume-birding-bike-ride has been refreshing even if people are looking at me funny because of my shirt sleeves. It’s sort of like jumping in a lake on a hot day or righting a fabulous bikini costume that tends to slip into uncomfortable places.

*If you aren’t acquainted with Pedalpalooza, it is a month long festival in Portland where people who ride bikes and think more people should get around without cars gather for a variety of events. These often involve rowdy packs of cyclists in costumes with music blaring off bike trailers, disrupting traffic and having a grand party on wheels. Pedalpalooza is most known for the World Naked Bike Ride, but that is just one event during the festival.

Questionable Grace

Of course I want to see Bald Eagles. The last time I came to Smith-Bybee I saw about a dozen altogether. At one point we came around a bend and there were five in trees right next to the trail, one on a lower branch that was so close we could see the texture of its feathers. They did not seem bothered by us, just perched in the trees by the water, in no particular hurry with no obvious wants. My friends were embarking on a new business together, I was planning my move back to Portland after losing my father. The three of us caught in uncertainties were suddenly star struck in the trail staring at eagles with no thoughts of the future.
The birds themselves offered no recompense for our uncertainties, but this awe-inspiring encounter served as a catalyst to move uncertainties to commitments, grief to hope.
Even in a windowless office we are caught in this power of wildness: the steam from one’s coffee rises and swirls just as steam off a lake in the morning sun and each buttoned-up co-worker houses a mystery of blood and synapses. But it usually takes an encounter with an uncommon and undomesticated animal like eagles to catapult us out of complacency into the underpinnings of the universe.
I walk to the same place along the trail knowing the eagles are not obligated to be there again. It’s a different time of day, a different time of year. I would have to visit often to have a chance at predicting when and where I might find them.

No Eagles today but I keep seeing the bright falsh of a Great Egret flying from the other side of the lakes. Great Egrets are another striking bird, leggy, long-necked, brilliant white with an impressive wingspan. The week before my dad died I saw one fly over the house. I stood in the driveway gawking straight up at the white bird gleaming in the blue, loping across the open sky with the same questionable grace my spirit was traversing my dad’s transition from sickness to death.
A week later the egrets starting hunting in the meadow near the house. My mom once saw eight, I only ever saw three moving slowly across the field looking for frogs and mice. Their presence seemed to fill the void my father—the heat of his body leaving in one quick current under my hand after he took his last breath. As if the only thing that could fill the shape of his spirit was a delicate looking hunter, its simple plumage in stark contrast to the complex world, its form both elegant and awkward.
I know the Egrets are not thinking of my father. They are looking for food and would prefer not to be involved with us humans. But this feeling of events connected, this desire to make meaning out of the egrets’ arrival weighted against my father’s departure as a sort of mystical physics feels like an indulgence my heart needs as much as iron and ATP.

I sit on a bench at the end of the trail and watch a Great Blue Heron hunkered down in some brush at the edge of the water just moving his head this way and that while an occasional Great Egret flies over, swallows here and there, a couple Bald Eagles who perch in the pines to the north, a lone duck.
I sketch the lake and notice some white spots in the trees on the far side of the lake that look more like paint blobs than light coming through the leaves. I look through binoculars and see egrets in the trees. All these egrets flying over are coming from this spot and it is probably their rookery where they will return at dusk.

Tender Enough

Sunday morning my plan is to get up at 6 am and spend a couple hours at Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge before I go to the writing group.This doesn’t happen because day dreams are a necessary substitute for snuggles and I don’t actually get up until 7:18.

I make it through my usual routine on schedule to spend forty minutes in the woods. I’ll take it. It’s Sunday morning after all, and a lovely day—windy, rain here and there. The layered chorus of birdsong is full of tunes I don’t know as well as the usual: robins, song sparrows, black-capped chickadees, an Anna’s Hummingbird. The steep trail down into the refuge feels like a cavern under the leafing oaks. The foliage is so dense and shady it feels unfamiliar. When the trail forks at the bottom I know where I am again and saunter along in the spring damp just enjoying that I am there at all.

I sit down on a little cement-block wall along the trail and sketch the trees in front of me, their dark forms elegant against the green. Then I head up the trail, just far enough to watch some chickadees chase each other aggressively through the leaves. It is hard to distinguish mating and fighting with birds. I suppose that would be true of humans too if I didn’t know the language. Everyone is always so agreeable in my day dreams, so mutually interested—what special skills do birds have that they fight and mate and mate and fight and do not need counseling in the interim? Is this just the advantage of an undivided brain?

At the writer’s group I meet a woman who is a romance author. She actually writes one romance after another and they are different enough that people keep reading them. Have I missed my calling? I must have hundreds of quirky running-into-an-attractive-fellow-I’ve-been-pining-for-and-ending-up-together scenarios rolling about in my noggin. That time I was attracted to my counselor and imagined an elaborate Mardi Gras scenario so we could hook-up without sacrificing anyone’s integrity or mental health. The tryst ended with him waking first, tenderly ascertaining my identity while I slept in his bed, glitter-smeared, mask crushed under a pillow. After reflecting on this disastrous turn of events and his deep feelings for me, he slipped into the kitchen to make me gluten-free pancakes for breakfast.

I think about the Chickadees and the fact that I probably wouldn’t envy their relationships if I knew what all went on. Then I realize that this parody my imagination makes of longing and love is the advantage of having a divided brain. I get to reflect upon my true self while she is fast asleep, glitter-smeared, a shoddy costume in disarray but a heart intact in it’s own illogical integrity, gluten-free pancake mix conveniently stashed wherever she goes. It is just so funny, and tender enough to warrant tip-toeing into the kitchen to make her breakfast.

I

A Little in Love

Walking outside after my workday at the restaurant was especially gratifying in the warm rain. The big trees, the gravel roads lined with gardens, crows sauntering across from one yard to another as though it’s too much trouble to fly. If I believe humans are as much nature as the landscape then these things shouldn’t be any more fulfilling than the room full of chatty humans acquiring lunch that I just came from, but it is definitely more fulfilling.

Perhaps it is the lack of expectation, how the landscape doesn’t judge. The crows may very well judge but relationships across languages are rife with convenient misunderstanding of who one really is. Mostly they ignore me and I give them their space but crows are curious. I’m sure they have some thoughts about the tall, wingless creatures that make such great habitat for them unwittingly.

In the evening I sit on the couch with the radio on, working on a few sketches between day dreams. Outside a crow sits in the very top of a fir. It’s raining harder now and this crow is still, just adjusting to the wind and occasionally shaking off the water from its head. There are so many other places to go when one has wings, is this crow enjoying itself in the rain? The possibility, however faint, that a crow may love the rain—that we may have this in common—makes me feel sweet, a little giddy, a little in love.

Grey clouds drift past the crow, I sit and watch until it jumps off the tree and swoops out of view.