My Family and Birds and the Democratic National Convention

I like this guy and I've been waiting to have a chance to use him.  I used a little Photoshop, just as an experiment.  A nice Blue Heron blending in with the trees.  He seems to have a definite point of view.

So I went to Nova Scotia in July, where my family has a little house and a lot of land on the Bay of Fundy.  My 87 year-old mother and all six of us children were there with some of our spouses and children. 

It’s interesting how we all grew up in the same family and how we manage to have so many different points of view on everything.  I’ll say that if you put the six of us into the same room, you will hear twelve different opinions.  We established a “no politics” rule when we were in Nova Scotia, partly because we wanted to get through the week without throwing anything at each other.  Our rule worked well, but many of us watched the Democratic National Convention at night and then got into little huddles to talk about it.

I have heard it said that every child grows up in a different family.  Well, I would say that everyone in my family has grown up in a different country, where the same things have happened, but they mean different things, are given different emphasis, and laced with different opinions and placed in a different context.  And for some of us, the differences are bigger than for others.

But this is how we're the same.  My grandfather’s favorite song was the French National Anthem.  This was because it was illegal for him to sing it in what was then pre-revolutionary Russia.  I am proud because despite the fact that he was in the Czar’s personal guard, he managed to think for himself.   When he got to this country, my grandfather sang it all the time, and long after he died, the six of us children would sing it, in French and in English, whenever we drove around in our car, while my father listened with tears in his eyes.  (Allons enfants de la Patrie, le jour de gloire est arrivé!) So there was this idea of freedom, what it meant to be able to sing any song we wanted. 

I knew that democracy was important, and I’m struggling now to define what that meant to my father.  It’s so easy to say some words, and we’ve heard them so much that we almost forget what they mean.  All I can tell you is that my father worked very hard.  He was responsible for quality control in a company that made helicopters for the Vietnam War and he went in at six in the morning and came home for dinner and then he went back until ten at night.  He did this for years.  Because he was a supervisor, he did this without overtime pay.  The people who worked for him made two or three times what he made, but as much as he needed the money this wasn’t the most important thing to him.  He said that his sons or his nephews could be in those helicopters and that none of them would fall from the sky if he could prevent it.  It was as if they were all his sons and nephews.  It was as if they were all worth any amount of trouble.

When my dad was in his 90’s, it took my mom several hours to get him down to the polls because it was so difficult to get him around with his wheelchair.  It was a lot of work, but my father had to do this, because this was sacred to him, the fact that his opinion would be counted, the rare and precious chance to choose. 

I grew up with my whole family and my grandmother in her house and I was always trying to make her laugh, because even as a child I knew that she was sad.  She had come to this country from Minsk to New York City, the youngest of several children, all by herself, when she was 18 years old.  She worked in a sewing factory and when she came home at night, she worked in her garden.  She called it her “gardna”, and she said that working there was her vacation, and I knew it was the only vacation she ever had.  There was the Bolshevik Revolution and the Menshevik Revolution and she got stuck here, and then she married my grandfather and there was World War I and World War 2, and all of it hit her people right between the eyes.  My aunt went back to Russia, finally, I think in the 1980’s, after my grandmother was gone, and she could not find any family.  

My father lived through the Red Scare when there was always a danger that as a Russian, he would be branded as a Commie.  He also fought in both World War 2 and in Korea and I didn’t know how bad that was for him until I was with him when he was old, when he said things in the middle of night or when he cried out when he was coming out of anesthesia.

It is strange how this has affected me.  For example, a few years ago, I was taking pictures of my niece and nephews, and I couldn’t get them to stay still for a minute, I could only follow them around.  At one point they happened to arrange themselves against an old barn wall.  I smiled and laughed and took some very nice pictures of their beautiful little selves, but inside I found it hard, I still find it hard, really hard, it makes me sick almost, to think of any children against any wall.

So my idea of what is difficult and what could happen in a country is calibrated by my grandmother’s and my father’s experience, against something that was both explicit and implicit in my family the whole time I was growing up:  “You are so lucky to be here… to have all this food on your table.”  And, “People have died for your freedom.”   And, “You carry our future.” And, “Take care of each other.” 

I wonder what I could possibly add to the conversation, when there are brilliant people who’ve spent their careers engaging in national discourse.  But I feel it’s important to be involved at this time in our history.  So I need to be involved and I can only give what I have, so this is it.

When Bill was sick, there were several months when I didn’t know how bad it would be, and of course I was afraid.  Of course I was focused on the problem and I wanted to do something that matched the way I was feeling.  I wanted to do something radical.   So I wanted to move off the island.  And I thought and thought, and looked all over the mainland, and I finally stopped for long enough to ask myself what I wanted.   And then I thought, “But I love it here.”  And then I started to think of what I had.  I loved the island.  I love my life.  I love my husband and our family. 

So I learned something.   I decided that whenever I have to make a big decision, I will think about what I love.  Because that’s what I need to stand on when I think about my problems.  Because what I have is so much bigger than my problems, and if I remember that, I might possibly find solutions without throwing my life down the drain.  And I also learned that fixing a fear is not the same as fixing a problem.  Because I was afraid that Bill might have stage 4 cancer and he only had stage 1 cancer.  If I had tried to fix stage 4 cancer, it would have taken so much out of us, and that would have been worse than the problem we actually had.

I have heard it said over and over again that if people want to be in politics there has got to be something wrong with them.  But I know how my father felt, how people in my family feel.  We care a lot.  We all want to help.  We won’t be selfish about our country.  I won’t do that to the memory of my grandmother or of my father after all they went through.  It would make me hate myself.  So I don’t think we have to be so cynical.  I think we can call to the meaning of our ancestors’ lives, and to what’s best in each other. 

I have also learned in taking pictures that if life is difficult, it is also very beautiful.  And it seems to me that it’s always yearning forward, seeking and healing and re-making itself.  And it defines what’s real, no matter what we say about it.  It always runs on what’s real.

I think right now, politically speaking, it’s like we are driving in a snowstorm.  And all this snow is falling on our windshields.  Somehow we have to look through all of that and find out how to stay on the road.

The world is has changed just like it changed for our grandparents and for our parents.  Our children are different than we are.  I have been told that they are more like each other, irrespective of national borders, at least in information-laden countries, and more different from us, than we are from each other. 

I say this understanding that people are made in layers.  I mean, when I say our children are different from us and more like each other, I would say that it’s partly on the surface.  There are things underneath, deep things that are learned and hardwired through generations, welded in by our ancestors’ courage and trauma and weakness and love, and those things stay in us even after we forget how they got there.  So here are some questions.  Do we remember what matters?  Do we know where we came from?  Do we know what we have?  Do we know who we are?

Photography for me has always been about another way of seeing.  It’s not that the life or beauty hasn’t been there the whole time.  It’s just that I was so used to it that I forgot to notice.  So photography has helped me to see again.  In some ways, it’s helped me see like a child again, with many surprises and with lots of hope and wonder.  I need that right now, in this situation.

I think that facts will win in the long run, but I hope that they will win soon.  I hope we can remember what we have and not be afraid, and that we can learn, and that we can sacrifice for each other because people have sacrificed for us.  And I know that we are able to be so good, because we are so good, because we are made with the same hand that made the waves and the birds, and because we have come from people who loved us the best that they could.   And because we already have such beauty and so many gifts in our lives.  Because we can do this right, and if we do, this is what our children will remember and how they will behave when it’s their turn to make the world.

 

I went all the way to Nova Scotia and do you know what I found there?  Blue Heron.

Back at the fish hatchery, just before coming home to Block Island.  I have never seen Great Egret there, but this time there were three of them, mixed in with the Blue Heron.

Wings

Our good friend Rich Field runs all over the world doing legal work.  He is also a fine performer and appreciator of many kinds of art.  After my last post, he wrote to say that my birds reminded him of a dance performance he had seen a few years ago.  This performance included the poem, "Wings", by Susan Stewart.  I love this poem very much and I wrote to Susan who kindly gave me permission to share it with you.  So I set myself to take some bird pictures in which I could show that flying is like dancing.  And this morning, while walking with my husband, we saw this great blue heron against a cloudy sky.  So this post is given to you with appreciation for our friend Rich, for Susan and her wonderful poem, for this bird, and for all the ways that so many human and other beings express their courage and beauty in the world.

Bird Study

Miss Elizabeth Dickens, a woman who was born on Block Island in 1877, was the last of a family that had been here since the late 1600’s.  She was also one of the first Audubon teachers in the country.  She taught Bird Study at the school.  As a result, there are generations of Block Islanders, men and women, who grew up learning about birds.  They know everything, can name every bird by sight and sound and behavior.  They know what birds eat, and when they are coming to Block Island.  It’s part of the culture, deep in the culture here on the island, to know about birds, to feed them and love them, to report on their activities as an important part of what’s going on.  It’s a wonderful thing. 

So I was visiting my friend Edie, and on the way down her driveway I passed her son Chris’ bird feeder.  I climbed into the passenger seat and rolled down the window.  The birds, (and this is usually true as long as I stay in the car), accepted my presence and allowed me to take their pictures.

I love mourning doves in particular, with their gentle cooing songs, and their subtle colors so nicely paired with a dash of turquoise, very tastefully done, to highlight their big, black eyes.  So I was happy when they flew down and even happier when this little story happened:  There were two mourning doves, sitting companionably, looking this way and that way, turning their heads in tandem, agreeing on what to observe about the world.  Another bird came down and sat between them, kind of hogging the perch from the left one a little until that one left and then the other one left, leaving the new bird alone.  I'm thinking it didn't work out like he planned.

I try to imagine what it’s like to live through eyes that see more colors, to have magnificent wings, to be able to fly and turn in the air like a ninja, to have no hands, but a beak as my only recourse, to eat worms and seeds, to have so many babies, and to be out there exposed to the elements, no matter what comes; to have a world of experience, of hunger and beauty and birth and death played out in a different kind of body with a different kind of mind.   I can only guess, but photography allows me watch more closely, and pretend that I can know something.  At least I know this, that they’re not particularly worried about the election, and I like to think that they feel their lives as deeply as I feel mine.

When I originally looked at these pictures, I was a little confused.  There were little dots everywhere and it looks like rain, but nothing is wet in the pictures and I don’t remember that it was raining.  It could be the beginning of a light drizzle or it could be pollen, but that’s a lot of pollen, but of course it was spring, so I don’t know.  In any case, I hope you like these pictures and that you can imagine with me, a little bit about the lives of these birds.

 

PS.  I stepped out of the house yesterday and the air smelled like roses.  This is my favorite thing at this time of year, that everything is newly green and the air smells like perfume.  It’s beautiful here.  Beautiful, beautiful.

PPS.  Bill is well, we’re doing well, getting the boat ready and moving out of the house a week from tomorrow.  I just finished making slipcovers, and next week I’m going to make a bimini and some other things for the boat.  Of course.  Some nice giant projects just before we move out.

So Much Better

There is so much to say that I don’t know how to tell you, so I thought I might start and see how this goes.  I want to say that Bill’s experience is his own and I want to acknowledge all that he has done to heal for his own sake and for ours because he has worked very hard and made many changes, and has gotten through difficult things, as he always does, with gentleness, dignity and persistence.  Now I will speak from my experience as the partner of a person who has had cancer. 

I have lived with illness before but I didn’t know about the particular ways that cancer would mess with my head.  There is a “what’s behind door number one?” aspect to it, an uncertainty where everything that matters is waiting on just a few moments when you find out about the tests.  I have always been a person who likes to think of all the possible solutions, but how do you solve problems when you don’t know what they will be?  We were in a new country, with a new language, many procedures, and new rules.  There was so much at stake but we didn’t know what was reasonable, we didn’t know what to expect.  It was hard to find our bearings.   A doctor would throw out, sometimes almost at random, a little morsel of news like, “A few weeks won’t make any difference.” and we wouldn’t know what it meant.  Of course we talked to everyone, researched everything, and made the best decisions we could make as we slowly gained information.  But I felt like a squirrel, crossing a road in traffic.  “Should we keep going?  No.  Go back.  Get another opinion?  Find a cancer center?  Not yet.  Keep going.  Wait.”   

We were off-island a lot… this is a particular thing about where we live because ferries don’t run very often in winter.  And it’s a thing about cancer in general, because there are so many parts of the body that need to be poked at and measured by various specialists… urologists, nephrologists, oncologists, anesthesiologists, cardiologists, pulmonologists, vascular surgeons, and so on.  It only took a few appointments for us to be away from home for a week and a half.  So that happened several times and ferries cancelled and there were snowstorms and the power went out and Bill lost 12 pounds in January alone.  And that was before any procedures.  Then some medicine caused thrush and more weight loss and there were other issues.  Our personal favorite was that Bill had a stent running from his kidney to his bladder.  If you read about these online you will find out that they “occasionally cause some discomfort”.  What that actually meant was that Bill’s bladder was more intolerant of outsiders than Japan in the 19th century; that it freaked out, cramped up and constantly tried to dislodge whatever did not belong there.  What this meant was pain greater than that associated with childbirth and it did not respond, not even to morphine.  And Bill lost more weight.  And we finally got it under control with muscle relaxants and bladder analgesics, but it still woke Bill up every 15 minutes all night long for weeks.

And this, I have to tell you, is what can be described in the world of cancer, as a fairly easy time.  It was all in the context of what finally came to be a very good prognosis.  We could feel that we only had to keep going for a little while longer and that Bill would be fine.  We would be fine.

We learned which doctors and practitioners we could trust, and we learned how important it was to have people we could believe in.  And we had friends and family, some were in the medical profession and some had been through this journey themselves. They helped us again and again, answering questions, doing research, responding when Bill was in pain.

Bill’s children and their partners took time off from work.  They called.  They travelled long distances, sent cards and emails and videos of our grandchildren.  Bill’s son stayed by his side in the SCU for two nights in a row.  They loved.  They worried. They asked careful questions.  They offered to talk.  They faced it. 

I thought about so many friends who have carried their loved ones, stayed with them through every moment of a truly indescribable process.  I realize now, that there is a confederation of people who immediately know, who offer recognition and understanding.  I learned that there are people who will do almost anything for another cancer family.   These are the people who disagreed when I said that I felt crazy.  They said I wasn’t crazy.  They said they had felt the same way too.  They said I was taking good care of my husband.   They said to rest.  They said I could call any time.  This is what I lived on. 

I didn’t write and I only took a few pictures.  I had no big insights.  No doves flew down from heaven.  There was one time however, at about 2 in the morning, when I woke up with a very strong feeling about beauty.  I thought, “What if no one had ever been here to see it?”  It made me so sad just to think of it, a vast unconscious universe filled with lonely beauty.  And then I thought, “That has to be impossible.  There has to be a reason.”  I thought, “I want to see the beauty that I usually forget to notice.”  “And the beauty in hidden places.”  “And the beauty far away.”  And I set myself to feel my way into all that beauty.  What about that clear, deep methane ocean, for example, on that especially calm night, on that moon where the rings of Saturn splay across the sky?  With that the softest distant light, reaching down into that ocean, fading into depths and darkness?   I thought, “Why is everything so beautiful?” and then I fell asleep.  

Bill is so much better.  His stent came out last week and each night he’s gotten a little more rest.  We’re home and he’s eating and he’s gained a couple of pounds.  He’s off almost all of his medications.  Bill has always been a very smart man who has lived in a thought bubble over his head.  Well, now his body has got his attention.  He’s becoming that good habits guy, that water-drinking guy, that vegetable loving guy and pretty soon he’ll be that guy who exercises every day.  I’ve done our taxes, started getting the house ready to rent and the boat ready and I’ve started going for walks and carrying my camera and my backpack.  There are physical sensations - my camera harness across by shoulders, my backpack on my back.  It’s like putting on a favorite jacket, resuming a well-loved life.  

But I do feel a little bit changed.  I recently read an anthology of the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel.  He was born in Warsaw, studied and wrote poetry in Vilna and had begun to write books in Berlin in the 1920’s, when he had to flee through Poland, to England, and finally to the United States.  His life declared the sensitivity, rigor and richness of his Hasidic lineage, and his words reflected both the depth of his Jewish identity and his secular study in Vilna and Berlin.  He said a wonderful thing.  He said that people could let their souls and the sky be silent together. 

Let our souls and the sky be silent together.  Isn’t that perfect?   I mean, the silence part is excellent.  But what I like most at this particular time is the part about being together.  So that’s how I want to take pictures, to understand that what ever it is I’m taking, that we are actually together.  Me and the sky, me and the river, me and the ocean, me and the stones, me and the trees and the birds and the rain on the window and the new spring buds and grasses.  

When I put my mind on something, I turn it in every direction, live inside it, gnaw at it.  I seldom put it down.  I’ve been putting my mind on cancer.  It will be good for me to think about beauty for a while. 

Do you know what I think right now about beauty?  I give myself to beauty and it gives itself to me.  Everything feels intimate when I’m in my beauty.  And where ever I go, I know that beauty will always be there.  It’s a call notice, a call to come closer.  It’s the opposite of thinking that I could ever be alone.  Beauty is here already.  It’s mine whenever I open my eyes, or even when I imagine.  But the way I craft my life from the beauty I’ve been given - that is up to me.  Here is another good quote from Rabbi Heschel, “Remember…that there is meaning beyond absurdity.  Know that every deed counts.  Every word is power… Above all, remember that you must build your life as if it were a work of art…” (1) 

I want to thank you for reading my blog, for taking time out of your life to do so.  I don’t know if I could form my thoughts if you weren’t there to read them.  I have deep respect and good wishes for you.  May we all claim our freedom.  May we all know our beauty.  May we so build our lives. 

PS.  I want to explain to you about these pictures.  I took out a picture from the last blog and I worked on it in Photoshop so that it was half way between a photograph and something I could imagine.  And then I picked out certain sections to show you.  It helps me to do this sometimes, because it removes the fog of what I take for granted... there is underlying structure, the way that light touches everything, the way it all fits together.  And looking more closely helps me see the beauty I missed before.  I've been looking at these pictures all morning, and it's like I've fallen into them, looking at all their little secrets.  It has started to make me happy.  If I had to put words, I would say something like, "I see you.  I see you."  

I'm pretty good at soldiering on, and the harder things become in my life, the less I directly feel about them.  But when I'm returning to this kind of beauty, my heart begins to get lighter.  I can rest from all that we've been through in a context that I trust, where I have learned again and again that there is more to beauty than I think, that it points to even more beauty and even perhaps to ultimate safety beyond what I can perceive.

(1)  This quote is from the book, "I Asked for Wonder, A Spiritual Anthology, Abraham Joshua Heschel".  It was edited by Samuel H. Dresner.   The publisher is The Crossroad Publishing Company, 370 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY, 10017.  The quote is on page ix.   I happen to have an older version of the book but it's still in print and you can get it on Amazon or probably some other bookseller.

Beauty Now

I haven’t been writing because something has come up and I wasn’t sure when to tell you, but I want you to know that my husband Bill was diagnosed in January with cancer.  

It’s been quite the clarifying process as I’m sure you can imagine, and I am going to try to limit myself to saying just a few things about it, with special respect for people who have been through something like this themselves, and who already know everything that I could possibly say about it.

It’s like someone said, “In three weeks, we’re going to give you both a million dollars or else we’re going to blow your heads off.  We haven’t decided.  And in any case we lost your file (because that actually happened).  But, oh wait.  We changed our minds.  In five weeks, or maybe in seven weeks we’ll tell you - a few weeks won’t make any difference.” 

So what could we do with news like that?  What could we do after we had done everything we could do to affect where that most important ball in that giant pinball machine might fall?   After there was nothing left inside of me, sometimes, except for silence?  Well then, I listened to that silence - that is all that I could do, all I wanted to do.

I don’t think that ever in my life before, when faced with anything, I have ever said, in quite this way, “I really can’t do this.”   Well, I can’t do this.  But I have found that there are people who have gathered, weaving themselves into a net.  And some have been through things like this themselves and they are wise and very strong.  It makes me proud, Donald Trump notwithstanding, to be a human being.  Because I see how this is an instinct, how people want to be there for us, how they feel with us, how they actually need to help.  It gives me hope for all of us.

I look at my life and my marriage with Bill and I realize that someday, one of us will bury the other.  And this might be trite, but you know all that stuff that I thought was important?  It’s not important.  Then other stuff is very important, like the ways in which we protect and carry each other, how we both have needed that in very different and specific ways, and how we fit together like pieces in a puzzle. I think we have been gifts for each other, and we have both become more ourselves in the years we have been together. 

And I like to remember that everything that has ever happened between us, everything that’s happening now will always be true forever.

I go around like everything is fine, even when there is a lot to deal with, especially when there is a lot to deal with.  But I was at the fish hatchery and for some reason I just felt like I wanted to see the river, even though I really didn’t have the time.  So I thought, “OK, just for a minute,” and I went down.  And as soon as I saw the river, I started to cry.  Because there it was.  And I was so glad for the many times I have gone to take its picture because I realized that we have gotten to know each other, and that it has become my friend.  And I set an intention right then for taking my pictures.  I said I would never think that anything was an object to be taken, even to show its beauty.  I said that pictures are a way to be in a relationship.  I said that nature deserves this and that a picture taken any other way, at least for me, is porn.

While we were at my mother’s house in Moosup, we had a blizzard and the power went out.  It was getting cold in the house and I had to get Bill to some place warm.  So our niece came to get us with her four-wheel drive just as the snow was ending and we were getting into her car.  And I saw the sun break through and I asked if they minded if I ran and got my camera.  And so I took some pictures of the trees in our yard.  You know, they are just trees.   They aren’t in Block Island where everything is widely known to be gorgeous.   But I used to climb one particular tree when I was a child.  I used to sit on one particular branch and lean my head and feel the rough bark and see the green leaves and I just loved to sit there because it was my place and my refuge.  I realized it had been so long, almost 50 years, since I had spent any time with that tree.  But I saw that the tree was still there and that I still had a chance to thank it and love it properly. 

And when I got into the car I was worried that I had taken too long but both Bill and our niece said, “Oh, we didn’t mind.  We didn’t mind at all.  Aren’t they beautiful?”  And they were, and especially so because they had put on their diamonds for us.  Then I thought how I never have to be in an officially beautiful place to take a beautiful picture, because the beauty is everywhere and it is also inside of us because that’s how we are able to see it. 



Half Dipper River

This is the Half Dipper River, at Eiheiji, Fukui Prefecture, Japan, taken when I was there many years ago, just when we were beginning to live on Block Island, way before I became a photographer.  Lucky I had a camera with me.

So there we were in our business suits, drinking green tea around a conference table in an office building in Tokyo.  We had presented our business cards, which we gave and received ceremoniously, with two hands and a little bow.  We had placed them neatly next to our papers so that we could continue to admire them.  Our colleagues were very kind to speak to us in English, but when I happened to mention that I was going to study at Eiheiji, the founding Soto Zen monastery in Japan, they burst into Japanese, clucked in concerned voices and with grave nods in my direction, concluded with, “Ohhhhh, Eiheiji.”

Eiheiji, I learned, had a reputation for being difficult.  I had already been studying Zen for about five years, so I knew about the practice, but other than that and my friends’ concern, I really didn’t know what to expect.  So with some trepidation, I boarded a train in Tokyo.  It carried me across Japan to Kyoto.  After a few side trips, I intended to head north from there on a less travelled route to Fukui City and then on an even less travelled route to the monastery. 

I could watch out the window and see mountains with startling steep sides, and all the buildings crammed into the valleys.  I could see modern buildings and older buildings that had been cobbled together after the war.  I could see beautiful, tall, old cedars, and fog rolling in from the Sea of Japan, and cranes flying, following the course of the rivers. I could see children in their uniforms playing organized games after school.  Everything was neat, so carefully tended. Despite the fact that I was looking at the underbellies of towns as we passed, as often happens on trains, I did not see one scrap of paper or a beer can or any other example of anyone’s careless disregard for the entire length of the journey, which was about 400 miles. 

There were ladies who boarded the trains at every stop.  They competed to see who could make the nicest meals in wonderful bamboo boxes, lined with banana leaves and filled with rice and seaweed and pickles and seafood.  I bought one of the boxes, and when I attempted to open the soy sauce, which was in a plastic container that looked like a little fish, and I twisted the top, it squirted all over my section of the train compartment.  The Japanese folks around me courteously pretended not to notice as I got down on my hands and knees on that spotless train to clean up the mess I had made.

Other than that, things went well until I got off the main line running from Tokyo to Kyoto.  From that point on, there was no “Romanji”, the Roman-style writing that we use in the west.  All the signs were in Kanji or Hiragana, the customary forms of calligraphic writing in Japan.   I had no idea where to go.  Not a single clue.  I was as helpless and lost as a toddler. 

Inada-san, the president of the company with whom I was working, had told me that all children in Japan studied English.  He had advised me to find a young girl, about 12 years old, and ask her to help me.   I went from one child to another, saying, “Do you speak English?”  Many were too shy to answer, but one said, “arrito” (a little).  She gave directions, and I would go as far as I could, which in some cases was only a few hundred feet, and then I would find another young friend.

Here is a cedar building at Eiheiji.

That is how I made my way, by degrees, to Eiheiji.  I walked through the town, which was full of shops that sold Buddhist tourist items.  I walked up the hill, pulling my suitcase.  And the first thing I saw was the roof of a temple poking up from behind some cedars.  There was a wooden lotus blossom at the peak of the roof.  It had been painted gold, and was precisely positioned so that it caught the morning rays of the sun.  I thought, “Somebody really considered that building, exactly where to put that flower.”  I walked through the gate and what opened before me was a landscape full of many buildings, some centuries old, built into the side of a mountain.  Streams of water were coming down, guided through channels that ran along the equally old stone steps and pathways that connected the buildings.  The buildings themselves had been built out of cedar, and they had been finished, not with any kind of varnish, but with a special technique of scraping and pressing that sealed the grain of the wood.  As a result, some of the buildings were still red, like new cedar, having not yet gone silver with age.

There was a river running along the edge of the monastery.  It is called the “Half Dipper River”, and this what I want to tell you.  Eihei Dogen, came from China to Japan in the 1300’s, and founded Eiheiji.  The story was, he used to go to the river to drink the water, but he’d only drink half of what was in his dipper.  He always put half of it back.  

I like that very much.  I like everything about it.  I like it that he went to the river and took what he needed.  And I like that he didn’t keep all that was in his dipper.  Perhaps it was his way of saying how he wanted to live his life, knowing that the river would always be there, that he didn’t have to hold on to anything, didn’t have to be afraid.

Dogen had come from another country.  He was breaking ground, settling in, getting organized, schmoozing dignitaries, sourcing heat and money and food, building buildings, writing, teaching students.  I have a book of translations of some of his lectures.  It’s eight hundred pages long.  So I don’t think that he just sat there, being wise.  So I hope that the story is true, that he actually did have time to get to the river, to get what he needed, to build his life and his place from the nourishment from the river.  I think he did, because I think that’s how many beautiful and enduring things can happen.  And Eiheiji is beautiful.  And it’s lasted 600 years.

Here’s what I know.  Everything that means anything to me - my sight, my mind, my hands, my cameras, the time I have, the beauty, the light, the breath I take while I’m taking my pictures, my friends, each of you, my husband, our family - every single one of these things is given, given every second, given like a river.

So this is what I remember when I think of this story.  I can care for my life.   I can have what I need.  I can do my work.  I can make things.  I can give.  I have a river.  I stand alone in nothing. 

I play this little game in my head, sometimes.  I think of the rain, and the dark earth absorbing what it needs and sending the rest of it onward.  I think of all the streams and rivers, of the oceans and all of the waves tumbling on every shore.  I think of all that energy, all of that motion, never ending - the moisture and the blood flow and the heartbeat of the world.  And then I think of a little spot at the fish hatchery, just one little spot, where a little stream bends around and in that bend is a log and the water comes up from under that log and it boils the surface.  I remember the water was boiling at that spot in the early spring when I took its picture and also boiling in the summer when I took its picture again.  Something in that stream gets through to me.  I can feel it running right now. 

When I need to know what I can rely on, what runs through and nourishes our lives, Bill’s and mine, I think of that little stream running.  I like to know and feel it in my body, to feel that it’s always there, because that’s what I can use, and that’s how often I need it.

I didn't put my river in because I've already done that, a few times in this blog.  But this is my friend Lisa's excellent river.  Her father used to bring her here when she was a little girl.  She and her husband now have a camp nearby. 


Night Light

The Block Island Ferry, turned around and backing up to get to the dock on Block Island.  See the deck hand, waiting in back, and the line of light defining the shoreline?

I remember when we were building the house on Block Island, that sometimes we would come in the winter and stay at the Blue Dory Inn near Old Harbor.  I would go out at night and walk around by the ferry.  Or I would walk on the beach.  I could make my way with just enough light to see the edge of the ocean.

Here is the ferry, already docked, and some of the lights from Old Harbor.

It was new in my life back then, and something I have only found on Block Island, the feeling that I could be free and safe to walk around outside at night.  There was so much space and emptiness, just enough light, and beautiful, beautiful sounds, with mostly quiet, and just the sound of the water or the wind or a fog horn or something far away.

Here is a long-ish exposure, with extra time to collect the bright moonlight.  This picture was taken on the beach on the way to North Light, facing back to the parking lot.  The big stone next to the scrub is Settler's Rock.

I have a friend, a very fine person, who says, “Reach for a star.”  She says, “You may not succeed, but you will never know until you try.”  She says this over and over, to everyone she cares about.  I think this is her superpower because she’s done this in her own life and she makes people believe that they can do it also.  She makes people want to go for it, to take the risks, to act with passion and commitment, to find something they truly love and give it what they have.  So I've decided to do that.   I know that takes many forms at different times in life, including working long hours, getting turned down, getting turned down again, going to school on weekends, sitting in traffic, being interrupted, being pulled in too many directions, being up at night with elders or with children.  That also includes making conscious choices, becoming more generous in every way, finding out how strong and good you can be, finding out what matters.

For me, right now, it means I’m working on some projects.  It’s all very new to me and it involves computers, so each step is a whole foreign country.  I’ve been spending a lot of time and I don’t know if what I'm making will be successful.  So I’m faced with fits and starts, and often with starting over, but it's OK.  In the years, I've learned that times like this are good, very good, and not something to be avoided.  I remember in work like this, that it seldom feels on any given day, that I've made a lot of progress.  It's only with doing it over and over that patterns emerge.  I remind myself that what I do when I don't know is the most important part of any truly generative action.  It occurs to me that I can only reach for a star at night. 

At times like this, I have learned that I will only know what to do next while I’m in the process of doing it.  I can keep on working, letting each step bring me to a place where I can see a little more.  I remind myself that in the past, my vision when I started anything has always been much too small.  I know that sometimes the best, most interesting things are only accomplished through a process of discovery - the unfolding that happens, as not knows turns into knowing and that in turn, creates something completely new in the world.  And that creates a life that before that, wasn't even possible, a little at a time.

This is taken after sunset, really in the dark.  When there is no light in photography, you just need to set up, use a tripod, keep your shutter open, and wait.

There has always been an impulse, a little hunch, and each time I have taken its direction my confidence has grown a little bit more.  I know that I am being made by what I am doing.  So in that sense, whether I achieve my apparent goals or not, I can at least say something has happened.  It’s hard to say what’s more important - what I am doing, or the effort do it, or the development of courage to know who I am, and do what is mine to do.   

So I’m fine.  I keep going.  That's my current plan.

Same thing here.  A long exposure, taken in the dark.

I’m sending my heartfelt good wishes to all of you, for all the changes and projects and tasks and dreams in your lives.  May we be grateful and happy and bold.   May we do it because of love.  Happy holidays, everyone.

First Frost

We went back to Moosup for Thanksgiving and my brother George came up from Virginia for the week.  While we often met in Nova Scotia, with his job and his family and whatnot, he hadn't spent more than a night or so in Connecticut, in over 30 years.

So it was a good thing for the whole family, but I wanted to tell you a little of my own experience about it.  We went to the fish hatchery almost every morning, George to run, like, 3.5 miles in 20 minutes, and me not to do that.  We still were almost exactly like we were when we were children, when it came to loving nature, for example, but there were some pretty big changes.  For one thing, we both had cars. 

There was this mixture.  We were living our lives together just as we had done when we were children, and we were also living like grownups - old-ish grownups, with separate lives, and with separate stories about the past thirty years, and with our own grown-up children.

It was 18 degrees Fahrenheit on this particular morning, which I found a little disconcerting.  (When I had gotten on the ferry on Block Island, it had been 45 degrees.)  I hadn't even brought a coat.  Everything had frozen at the hatchery, but it was newly frozen.  Things hadn't had time to get pulverized by the winter, so they still had their beautiful fall formations, with just a layer of frost upon them.  The ponds were still warm, and steaming, and that made for a lot of localized, heavy frost and for some very interesting pictures.

I feel compelled to tell you that George is a lot thinner in fact, than he looks in this picture.  It's just that his arms are up and that's stretching out his hunting vest.  That's Molly with him.

George said he liked my pictures, but that was because they made him remember he had been at the hatchery on a beautiful morning with his sister.  Wasn't that a nice thing to say?

Good Ones

Sometimes I think about the fact that I’ve been taking wave pictures, primarily here on Block Island, for more than 10 years.  I go out a lot and on any given day I’ll take somewhere between 400 and 1000 pictures.  I go out when ever I am able.  That’s a lot of wave pictures. 

I ask myself whether I will get sick of them, or whether it would be more fun to take pictures in Hawaii for example, or in the Bahamas.  I’m certainly up for that, but I want to tell you what it’s like, time after time.  Here, in this place.  I go out and it's hot or cold or in between.   The waves are enormous with an impact so deep and powerful I feel it in the ground and against my whole body.  Or not.  They are blowing back.  Or not.  They are coming in orderly rolls, or thrashing around like soapy water in a washing machine.  Their color is grey or black or green or blue or purple or silver or red or golden.  The wind is blasting with sand or it’s lightly brushing my skin and bringing the scent of roses.  Their crests are like soft cotton or they are carrying diamonds. 

I would say that even after all the years, there are times when I get to see waves like I’ve never, ever seen them before.  But that’s not the most important thing… I mean, that’s pretty interesting but that’s not the reason I love them. 

I know there have been a lot of changes lately.  A lot of us have lost things that we dearly love.  I have come to feel that when that happens, when we lose something big, we actually have to disintegrate inside for a little while.  It’s as if we have to reshape our lives, make our lives over again.  I think that grieving is physical.  It’s a time for resting, and for going down as deep as you can and knowing what you love.  You know, it’s like that butterfly thing… the caterpillar actually liquefies inside.  All its organs turn into mush in order to reorganize. 

I think that loss is part of what makes us beautiful and wonderful, makes us true human beings.   It takes time, but I think that life is built for that, we are built for that, and healing forces come.   Sometimes it helps me to be transparent, I mean, to just let the energies of life keep moving in me, as unobstructedly as possible.  Like water.  Like waves in the water.

There is nothing better for me than to see the ocean crashing around, or more to feel it - to let that power and energy get a hold of my body.  It comes to me, it blows right into me and through me.  It gives me something I need.

These are some good waves taken at the end of October, just after a storm passed by.

Great White Egret

We've brought the boat back from the island to the mainland for the winter.  I decided to stay here with Molly for the rest of the week so that we could get used to our new lives together, so that I could give her some time. 

It's quieter now that the season is winding down.  We are in a slip at the dock and that's easier than out on a mooring.  There are certain conveniences, like abundant electricity (!) and running water (!) and heat (!) whenever we want it.  We can look out and see the water and the sky and the boats moving along in the channel.  It's night right now.  There are lights on the docks and those reflect on the water so that everything is softly illuminated.  It's very quiet and I love that very much, but the best thing is there are Great White Egrets that come to fish in the morning.  They come before the sun breaks over the village of Noank, so the rocks are still in shadow, and the egrets, because they're so white, seem to glow on their own, a little. 

An egret can wait for hours without moving but in the first few pictures this one was fishing and moving around.  It's hard to see but there is a fish in her beak in the third picture down from here.  Then she settled down and was preparing to wait, and I was preparing to wait with her.  Then a cat made its way down the rocks, just out of the frame of the pictures.   I realized it would make her fly.  That was handy for me because I wanted to catch her wings open, but I have a general policy of not disturbing wildlife.  If the cat did it, however, who was I to complain?

I pretend sometimes.  It's a game I play with myself when I'm taking pictures, especially with someone like this bird, to see how far I can go in feeling her life... until I can stand on my own long legs, can wait and wait with my yellow eyes watching, can suddenly stab my whole head into that cold water, can feel that fish wriggling as it slips down my throat, can have my strong breasts, can wrap myself up in the cloak of my great wings, can lift them and can fly.  I can imagine myself with her mind, a mind made only to know her things.  I can do all of that just a little bit.  I like to do that very much, to feel and know that there are so many ways of being in the world.  It opens up my way.

I see how much I like the layers of convenience that I as a human being, have built all around myself.  But the egret's body is her only safety and almost all of her shelter.  I see how she's reflected on the surface of the water.  I wonder if she sees herself, and if she knows that she is beautiful.

Because she is so beautiful.  That's the main thing I love to know about her.

Observable Light

I asked myself if it helped Wilson to see me so upset and I decided to try to feel better.   I asked myself if other people hadn’t also done this… made room for some happiness in the midst of the sorrow in their lives.

I figured out that chances are, the natural world I love, the one I feel so close to, the one I find so beautiful, has probably dealt with death before and that it’s probably got this covered.  I decided I would trust it. 

So I put on a smile.   At first I felt that I was pushing my face muscles against a mask of sadness, but then I had a little more courage.  And then I found I could hold a lot of things that I wouldn’t have thought I could hold in the same moment.   Sorrow and love and happiness and beauty and sweetness and careful attention to Wilson all remained together and one did not diminish the other. 

Wilson and Molly and I went out to the water.  We went to Mansion Beach and Wilson was able to walk himself out there.  I made him a little fort to keep him out of the sun. 

The storm from the last four days had passed and light was in the water.  Long rollers were coming in.  Now, I’m the last one to say that everything should be all shiny.  I like dark water very much.  But on this particular day, all that sparkle, all that laughing energy was good for my heart.  After four days of rolling and boiling, the water was still so clear.   It could still carry all of that light inside it. 

We couldn’t stay long.  It was really too hot for Wilson, but I was able to get a few pictures.  I carried him back to the car, and we had a fine day.  We went to Andy’s Way, and we rode around in the car.  He rested against the towel I used to prop him but he smiled and he lifted his nose to the wind.  In the afternoon we went to Ballard’s Beach where the building could give him shade in the afternoon.  The rollers were still coming in.  I had been wondering if it mattered to Wilson, if he or any other dog gets the same energy as we do from big waves crashing.  I’ll tell you this.  He loved it. 

I returned this morning after taking Wilson out for a drive.  He slept the whole time and when I put him by the water, he didn’t lift up his head.  He was working too hard to breathe.  I could feel his heart pounding.  I just got back from the grocery store, and this is one of the things about Block Island, that half the people knew about Wilson.  They said it is one of the prices we pay on the island; that we will not be able to get to a vet in time to prevent real suffering.  They told me their stories.   They said not to wait.  We felt like we were together in something.   I just made the arrangements to get off the island and put Wilson down.  I just walked into the house.

The light is bouncing off the ocean, and is beaming in and shining on the ceiling all the way into the hallway, the darkest part of our house.  I have gone to get my camera and am lying down on the floor.  The light has separated into all its colors and as the sun moves the light across the ceiling, I am content to lie here and watch and take pictures as they slowly merge back together. 

I don’t know, I don’t know at all, how the light that fills our eyes and lives will carry our good Wilson, but I know it carried him to us.  And meantime, this is the situation we’ve got right now, and we know what we have to do and we accept it, and Wilson is ours and we love him. 

PS.  We put Wilson down a week ago last Monday.  Bill was right there also.  Our vet did a wonderful job.  Wilson was so beautiful.  I felt an unexpected burst of joy and gratitude at the very second of his passing.   I could easily have missed it.  It was so small, just like maybe the feeling of the wind from the wings of a little bird flying by.  I don’t know how to say this.  I was overwhelmed at first, when Wilson’s death was in the immediate present, to realize how death is part of everything, how life includes death every minute.   It’s not something I experience all the time, even while I’m writing this now I’ve forgotten.  But what I felt at first was how much of life is given to us, how costly that is.  I saw all the death it takes to keep us going.  And of course these animals come and give us their whole lives.  I saw life gives itself to us all the time.  It spends itself for us, so freely.  It made me feel that there’s more to who and what we are, more to all of us, animal, vegetable, mineral, so much more than we realize.  It made me feel precious.  It made the whole thing feel precious.

I think of him now.  I carry a stone in my pocket for him.  I hold him in the biggest, brightest place I can imagine, and with the most freedom and beauty, and perhaps, if possible, with the tastiest snacks.  I feel love - his love, my love, “the” love?  I don’t know.  But that’s what helps me the most.

Grief is physical.  I think so.  I need to rest.  I feel pretty naked.  But here I am with every other person who has ever lost someone she loves.  

We’ll be alright.  We are alright.  






Wilson

Wilson, eleven years ago.

We were living on the boat this summer.  Wilson and Molly and I had come back that morning from a long swim along the edge of Great Salt Pond, and another walk in the afternoon.  Wilson stumbled at dinner… went right down flat with his legs splayed out.  So we went over to him and he got up and he seemed all right. 

I rowed the dogs to shore in the morning and Wilson went into the grass and faced the hill, away from the ocean.  He had never done that before, he had always looked out to see what was happening.  And beyond that he seemed a little vague.  There was clearly something wrong with him.  So I packed our stuff and we called the launch so that we could get from our mooring to the island.  Then we had to wait for the ferry to the mainland.  Bill spoke to the Chief and he set us up on the car deck so that Wilson wouldn’t have to climb the stairs.  We had to load Wilson on from the freight area and as we waited we saw all the cars and trucks come in to pick up their groceries and building supplies and packages.  Some people positioned their cars so that others could get around them, and others thought that it would be all right to save a minute by blocking somebody else, as if they would be the only one who would do that.  The result of course, was gridlock.  In any case, we got Wilson onto the ferry.   I fixed my eyes on the ocean, steadying my emotions, and held myself like that during the hour ride to the mainland.  Every single young man who worked on the crew came over to see us.  Did I need a drink of water?  Could they wait with Wilson for me so I could take a little break?  Another man came out of his truck.  He did it three times.  Could he do anything for us?  Anything at all?  Was I sure?

 

Our niece Elizabeth and Wilson.

We got to the vet by about 3 in the afternoon.  She took one look at Wilson and immediately sent us to Ocean State Veterinary Hospital, where a whole team of people converged upon him.  His heart rate was 250 beats per minute and they could find no reason, nor could they bring it down.  They gave him three medicines and nothing happened.  Then early the next morning, his heart rate suddenly stabilized.  He was in the hospital for four days.  They did every test you can imagine and still didn’t find the cause.  They sent us home with beta blockers and antibiotics and put us on a waiting list to see a cardiologist.  I decided to stay on the mainland where I could keep Wilson in air conditioning and we made tentative plans to take him to Nova Scotia as soon as we could get that appointment.  So the following week we were all packed up and on our way, and the cardiologist was looking at Wilson.  He was in there longer than expected and when I came in he showed me the ultrasound, and the tumor in the center of Wilson’s heart.  He said it was a highly aggressive cancer.  He said Wilson would be dead in 2 – 6 months.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We decided to take him to Nova Scotia and stay where it was foggy and cool and where we could be together on my families’ land on the Bay of Fundy.  We have a little house so at night we could sleep inside, away from coyotes and porcupines, but for the daytime, we put up a tent on the land.  I was careful with Wilson at first, but when he broke away from me and ran down a bank to get to the ocean I decided to let him figure out how busy he could be.  We sat on the land, saw the waves come in, over and over, never stopping, the big tides washing in and out over rocks that are 350 million years old.  We watched the pine and cedar through the fog in the distance, the grasses bending together in the wind.  That’s what I saw anyway.  Wilson saw deer bones and seal bones, which he dragged from the rocks, up to our camp, until it looked decidedly Paleolithic.  I didn’t care. I thought if he wanted them, he should have them, and I thought that a few probiotics never hurt anyone.  I brushed him and brushed him, and Molly too, leaving massive amounts of fur, until it looked like golden retrievers had been shorn like sheep all over our land.  Wilson was very happy and so was Molly.  I was working to a schedule, trying to be productive, so I would go out every day and write until the battery on my computer ran out.  I was trying so hard, working with so many thoughts and emotions.  I didn’t stop until the great electronic angel of death came by.  It broke the hard drive in my computer and the battery in my car on the same night.  After that I had a little peace and quiet, and I rested, being held in that place, feeling the presence of that place.

This is our land.

 

Wilson (in back) and Molly.

I remembered how I had fallen in love with Wilson when he was a tiny puppy, how my love for him was made partly out of my grief for Mystie, the Samoyed we had lost a year and a half before.  I thought how he and Molly have been with me in every picture I have taken, how they have stayed with me every minute, how important that is when you live on an island.  Sometimes Bill has been overseas for six weeks at a time, and it was Wilson and Molly who made it so I was never alone. 

I remembered how it seemed like such a miracle, this puppy who didn’t exist at all just weeks before I met him.  I felt like all the bouncing, joyful, curious, loving, playful energy in the universe had gathered into this furry little peanut.  I wondered if he had gotten a tumor in his heart because he thought I didn’t want him and at those times, I thought that my heart was going to kill me also.  Then I wondered if I could learn something, if I could find something in being with Wilson at the end of his life, that was as close and dear as all the times I had with him when he was small.

We stayed in Nova Scotia for the rest of July and part of August, and leaving was quite a transition.  I had seen the reliability in nature, with the waves coming, the grasses bending, the birds in formation, the sun setting, the dark night sky and the Milky Way so bright and clear.  I had felt the patterns, taken them in.  Then we rode the ferry from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.  Then we drove off into a Saturday night in downtown Portland, Maine.  Headlights beamed.  Music blared from every restaurant.  People popped out suddenly, into the street.  Cars cut me off in the dark, in the rain, in fast moving traffic.

 

 

Wilson and his good friend, Star.

I hadn’t realized how random people are, how within a group of people anything can happen at any time.  I saw all those people, all with their own agendas, all at the center of their own perceptions.  Hurrying, trying to get in first, pushing to gain some ground.  I felt like an Eskimo coming out of the tundra, battered in staggering chaos.

It’s been almost three months now and Wilson has started fainting. At first, he’d try to run away from it, and that would knock him out cold.  Now he’s smarter about it.  He starts to stagger and he stops and waits.  He wants to ride in the car, front seat by the window, in the coveted spot.  I’ve made a sling for him so that he won’t fall if he faints while I’m driving.  We take walks.  We take a step and wait, take another step and wait. And sometimes he stops and won’t go any further.  I have found that I am able to carry him.

 

 

 

 

 

While this has been happening, we’ve moved, and had a photography show, and then we moved and then moved again, and we had a wonderful little grandson, and now we’re back in the house, and putting our offices together, and unpacking the kitchen, and so on.  But this is what I want to tell you.  In the middle of all of this, I still feel like I have so much time.  I’ve had all this slow walking with Wilson, all this sitting by his side, and even though everything has gotten done in its time (more or less), I’ve done none of my usual rushing around.  It’s been making the days feel long, like the way they were when I was a little girl.  It’s made me think I can do as much by going more slowly, or do as much that matters.  It’s made me wonder if being so busy is only for people who think they will live forever, and if there are times in life where time deepens and stretches, when time gives itself in a different way, when all that matters is being together.

 

Wilson and his very good friend, Edie.

I was sitting in Great Salt Pond with Wilson.  Molly was running up and down on the beach.  It had started to rain.  I was up to my chest in the water and Wilson was on my lap.  A man was walking on the beach with his black lab.  I explained about Wilson.  He said, “That’s too bad.”  The sky cleared just enough and he said, “I think there will be a rainbow.  Then he said, “Yes.  Oh, there it is!”  I didn’t tell him that I couldn’t see it from where I was sitting, because he was so happy to be able to say something hopeful.  But then while it was still raining, the sun came through the raindrops and they started to shine like diamonds. They were hitting the dark water.  It would have been a quite a picture.

I can’t take pictures right now.  I need my hands free for Wilson.  But I still have my eyes and I can still see the beauty.  I still trust this beautiful world. 

Bill is here and we’re going through this together.  There are times in life when you see what your husband is made of.  When Wilson started fainting, I would drop right down next to him, all hover-y and upset.  Bill decided that Wilson needed happiness.  So he pulled himself together, got down on the floor all excited when Wilson opened his eyes.  He got Wilson smiling, got his tail thumping on the floor. 

 

 

 

The vet says that Wilson is not suffering.   I can feel myself getting ready.  It’s getting harder for Wilson to eat.  Today he refused both chicken and steak.  I finally got him to take some hamburger by showing him that I would give it to Molly if he didn’t eat it.

I have lived this summer on the big hearts of others, on beauty, on cool fog, on a growing sense of a palpable presence in nature.  I realize how much we need each other.  Now I’m all wrung out from telling you this story, but I’ve taken my computer outside and everything has immediately gotten better.  My dogs know this.  They have shown me how to know it as well.  Nature is intimate, personal.

Wilson is still strong with a beautiful coat and with clear eyes.  It’s just that he needs his heart.  It’s made me see how fragile life is, how we’re held at the very margin.  It’s a good thing that nature meets us because we’re totally dependent upon it.  Because we are made out of it, made by it.  It is who we are.

Wilson and his friend, Sondi.

The grief and strain caught up with me, the other day, on Water Street.  There was a lot of very poor automotive behavior all compressed into the spot where the folks drive out of the freight area by the ferry.  That was intermingled with three sets of jaywalkers, taking advantage of a one foot opening to plow between the cars and into in the road.   One particular woman was starting to cross the road at Chapel Street.  She couldn't make up her mind.  She was smiling and laughing, changing her mind and and going back and then starting again.  She may have been the only pedestrian on Block Island in an actual crosswalk, but she was holding up the car that was letting her do this, the one that had been the third to squeeze out in front of me when I had the right of way.  And that car was holding up cars in four directions.  I started yelling and bouncing around.  The poor woman who until that moment, had thought she was being adorable, looked like she was going to cry.  Then every other jaywalker in the universe came out in the next hundred yards.  I had to pull over because after brief but careful consideration, I realized I was in the mood to run them over, or perhaps just to bump them a little bit.

Then I remembered how those people could also be good to Wilson.  That’s what we’re like, we humans, capable of a range of behaviors that luckily for me, at least in my life, at least for now, are expressed in very small ways.  I'm not in a war.  I'm not running for my life.  I'm not starving.  I just have to get through this one fine day, and possibly enjoy it.  Because I won’t live forever; because all the small things matter; because it is enough just to be here; because we're not alone; because I don’t have to hurry; because Wilson and I belong in this world.

There is a light drizzle.  I can hear the waves.  There’s a big storm coming up the coast but the clouds have broken a little to the west and it’s pink way over there, just for a minute, just in a small spot.  The clouds are low and smudgy.  Most everything is grey but the wind is soft and cool.  The sound of the ocean is beautiful.  Wilson and Molly are lying on the grass, facing the wind together.

I am here, right now, with Wilson still alive.  I’m so lucky.  There has never been a better dog than Wilson.  

PS.  When Wilson stopped eating completely and the boats were not running for the foreseeable future on account of the storm, and there was no way to take him anywhere, I talked to Bill and to my sister Cathy who is a pharmacist.  We made a decision to slowly cut back on Wilson’s beta blockers.   He’s down now, to about a third of the dose he was on.  His heart rate might be at risk, but I believe we’d be putting him down if we hadn’t done this.  Now, he’s eating.  He’s walking.  He’s not staggering or fainting.  He’s wagging his tail.  So maybe we have another chance for some time with him, at least for a little bit.  I’ll take it.

60

I thought this might be interesting for you, just for something different.  You'll see a picture of grasses below.  This picture is the same one, only with just the heads of the grasses picked out.  I like the purple color of the grasses that I might not have noticed in the mix with everything else.  I like it that such small things can be as elegant and beautiful as anything else.  I love it that nature doesn't measure out its bounty.  It doesn't look for anyone to notice.  It makes the beauty anyway.

We moved out of the house on my 60th birthday.  I had tried to plan so it would not be a heavy move-out day but there is a law of nature that applies especially to summer rental.  It takes exactly as much time as you have. 

When people asked me what I did for my birthday and I said we moved out of the house, they said, “You must be pretty good at it by now.”  Well, that’s true, more or less.  We’ve been doing this for 17 years.  We now have a whole system of boxes that go into the basement, out to the studio and onto the boat.  The dogs have learned that the most important things in our lives are boxes.  They know that we love and follow our boxes.  They have learned this so well that they plant themselves in the car as soon as the boxes come out because they know that big things are happening and they don’t want to be left behind.  They actually refuse to go back into the house until they see the boxes come with us.   

Our lives have a seasonal and nomadic quality, which takes planning and energy.  I keep trying to learn how to do it better.  I have developed a habit of watching how people work.  We have a friend named Larry, and he is without exception, the most productive person I have ever seen.  One time, I asked him to build a little display table for me for the Gallery.  I came back 15 minutes later, and he had materialized a beautiful little pedestal table, with beveled edges and finely fitted pieces of wood.  Judging from that, I’d say he could build a kitchen full of custom cabinets in about a day and a half.  The thing about Larry, and this is what amazes me, is that he never appears to be trying. I think he has worked so long and hard that he carries his knowledge in his whole body.  He doesn’t push himself.  He never hurries.  He doesn’t waste a motion.  The energy seems to well up in him, matched to whatever he is doing.  He organizes everything, down to the way he keeps his van, the way he eats, the way he packs his clothes.  He just turns on his music and off he goes. He rests well, at the beginning and middle and end of each day. He doesn’t get side tracked.  He paces himself.  He does only so much, which is plenty.  I asked Larry to tell me how he works and he doesn’t have a philosophy about it.  He said he used to run around like a crazy person.  He said he never got much done and he never made any money.  He said one day he just decided to make things as easy for himself as possible.

Larry’s work is always fine and clean and beautiful and it’s beautiful to watch him.  I’ve learned from him, the way I’ve learned from photography, that the greatest gift is the ability to pay attention. I think that skill and balance and order and energy and integration and beauty are connected to paying attention; that if I pay attention, all of these things can follow. 

After we finished moving out, we went to the mainland and stayed with my mother and brother.  My mom loves to watch “Fox News”.  I also read a book called “Zen at War”, about Zen’s ideological participation in World War II, including that of esteemed patriarchs in many of the major Zen lineages that have now come to this country.

I thought a lot about whether the role of these teachers made any difference, whether they were leading or following the charge.  They were in a military dictatorship after all, and the emperor was absolute Lord.  There were some Zen folks who opposed the war and they were imprisoned, beaten and killed.  But both the Japan story and Fox News got me all worked up about how ideology and power can work together to create such spectacular suffering, about how it can happen in any culture, about how it distorts the best things, about how it takes so much from people and always betrays them in the end.  It didn't make me feel any better when I learned that the people in Japan starved for another four years after the war was over, primarily because of corruption. 

I thought of a time about 16 years ago.  I was working in Japan, and I took some time to visit and stay at a number of Zen monasteries, including Eihieji, Hoshinji and Myoshinji, some of the founding monasteries in the Soto and Renzi traditions.  I also stayed at one small monastery, a wonderful place that was also a sort of youth hostel.  One day, the head monk had us all dress up in monk’s clothes and go into town for a traditional Japanese begging excursion.  I had been specifically instructed not to say anything, especially not to say “Domo arrigato goziamus”, one of the few Japanese phrases I used all the time, which means, “Thank you very much, indeed.”  But an old woman came out from behind her house to give much more than the small change that people normally gave.  She was sobbing.  All I could do was thank her and imagine her life, imagine what had happened to her in the war, imagine what it meant for her to give so much to an American Zen student.

So after I worried and pondered and enlightened my husband about all of this I went out to the fish hatchery to take a few pictures.  I told myself this was not the time to analyze the problems of the human race.  I told myself to slow down.  I said it was time to rest.  I said I was going out, not to hunt for pictures but to gather them to me, not to spend energy but to restore it and take it in.

Here's the whole picture.

Here are new leaves reaching.

I liked the morning.  I liked the cool, dewy light.  I liked to see the shoots curling and reaching, the tiny leaves unfurling. I liked that all the green still looked as new and fresh to me as it did at the beginning of spring.  I went back to see where the river had been boiling out from under a log the last time and I knew it would still be boiling.  I took its picture five different ways to see if I could match the speed of the camera to the speed of my sight.  I liked what was happening in nature. I liked what would burst out in big and small ways in every possible direction.  I liked how it was closer to the truth of everything.

And the same stretch of river that I put in the blog this spring.  This time, the leaves have filled in and the river is reflecting more green.  This picture was taken at 1/1250th of a second.

Here is another picture of the same river, except this one is taken at 1/10th of a second.  This is more accurate to the way my eyes know the fast moving river... a little more blurred together.

A blue heron in flight at the fish hatchery.  I usually feel fine about taking pictures of these heron because all the fish at the hatchery keep them happy and fed all the time.  Also, there are so many people that come to the hatchery, fishing or walking through, often with their dogs, so I assume they are used to us.  But I've been worried about the heron and their diminishing numbers.  I've wondered if they've had to defend themselves against the Eagles or the Osprey.  This is the first time I've seen a heron with so many missing feathers - the signs perhaps, of a fight.  When I saw that, I stopped taking pictures.  I stopped walking toward the trees where they were resting.  I wanted to leave them in peace.   (As an aside, that blurry smudge at the end of the heron's wing is a swallow, out of focus in the distance.)

I need my times when I can dwell in all the beauty, to see it again and again until I finally decide to trust it.  This is how I rest.  It’s better for me than anything else I do.

I like that it doesn’t belong to any institution, but that it does belong to me and to everyone else, equally and without qualification.  I’m 60 years old now.  I’ve have studied a lot of things and lived a lot of lives.  No one can tell me that I haven’t meditated long enough or that I don’t believe the right things.  No one can tell me that I’m not saved or enlightened or good enough or ready or that I don’t have the right politics or the privilege of knowing what I  know or feel or need.  I know enough about things that can’t be twisted or betrayed or broken.  I know that I belong on this earth and that my life and life itself are the same thing.  I know that life will always care for itself, yearn for itself and make itself into beauty.

Early evening and light fog in Rodman's Hollow.

The Hollow and the dimming light beginning to glow in the fog.  Wilson and Molly need this too.

The Hollow that night.



 


A Place to Stand

What if nature makes no judgments, has no worries, carries no regrets?  What if everywhere, in everything, all the energy from the sky and earth goes into making life happen?   I look out my window at the shad and the blackberries and at all of the scrubs and vines that densely intertwine in our maritime climate.  Where they were bare and frozen just over a month ago, their shoots are suddenly shining through all the tangles and prickles in all of their new, green glory.  That’s where the energy is going.

I, on the other hand, forget this.  I habitually put my energy into forming extraneous concerns.

For example,  I mailed the big lens back to Canon a week ago, this past Monday.  That is, the $11,000 lens I had borrowed under the Canon Professional Services Program with the promise to get it back to them on time.  I used priority, registered mail.  So the lens got to Boston (it was going to Virginia) and sat there for a day and a half.  I went on line and tracked it, sometimes every five minutes.   I called the US Postal Service customer “help line.”  I encountered one of those automated phone systems carefully designed to be a blank wall.  I got mad.  I called again.  Called again.  Called again, until the system finally hung up on me.  I drew conclusions about the entire federal government and the direction of everything in general.   I voiced my opinions to my husband, painting a picture of a future where everything will exist at the pleasure of an infinitely obstructive and impersonal machine.  I considered moving to Alaska and living off the grid. 

The lens was still in Boston on the day that it was due. I called our postmaster who carefully explained that registered mail is secure enough to carry gold bullion; that each package is handled like a precious child of the universe and kept under lock and key; that the 2 – 3 day promise in this context or should we say, "estimate," means… (she said this more professionally but this was the gist of it)… nothing.  Our postmaster went out of her way to care about my problem, even to the extent of researching and calling me back with more information, but could not do anything about it.   I finally called Canon.  I explained the situation and they understood.  In fact, they were extremely nice about it.  They looked at the tracking number and said that it was clear I had mailed the lens in plenty of time.  They said not to worry.  They said (exact words), “no harm, no foul.”  They gave me an extension.  

Problem?  Solution.  I could have skipped all those hours, all that head banging, all that smoke and steam in between.

So I set an intention to preserve and protect my precious state of mind.  I thought of the pure life energy pouring and running through everything.  I said, “It is there for me as much as it’s there for the blackberry bushes in my yard.”  I said, “As vast as it is, it’s completely generative and completely intimate and personal, exactly the opposite of the electronic call-in system of the US Postal Service.”  I said, “I will be calm.  I will skip all the fretting and stewing.  I will match the world.  I will put my energy completely into life-affirming action.”

So do you know what happened next?  I got back to my car with my dogs, in the rain, and could not find my car keys.  I reminded myself that my life was not at stake but I got upset anyway.  I cleaned the car, combed the brush and grasses around the car, re-hiked the entire hike I had just finished.  I finally found them in a strange spot where I think Molly, my golden retriever, had put them.  I also got upset about something with the summer rental of our house.  Then got upset because a good friend is sick.  Then my cousin was upset so I got upset for her sake.  Then I got upset, just because I was so upset about so many things at once. 

Then I worked on my pictures.

I saw how this blue heron let the wind pass through and ruffle her feathers to slow her down for landing.

And how she landed in between the branches without poking her eyes out or skewering her wings.

And how she flew through the shadows with the open field and the luminous leaves in the distance behind her.  And I thought that seasons have always changed like this, that light has always shown through new green shoots, and that birds have always flown like this, since primordial days.

And that is how I calmed down. 

I know it is one thing to aspire to a state of mind and another to achieve it.  I'm glad to have found this practical, physical thing I can do that works for me, this thing that brings me to such peace and wonder.  This doesn't change my circumstances, I mean, we all have things to be upset about, but it does give me a foundation of trust in the natural world, and that gives me a place to stand. 

PS.  These pictures were taken with my regular equipment because the extra special super amazing lens was already glacially working its way back to Canon.  I had been to this same place with that lens the week before and the heron were nowhere to be found. 

I don't want to talk about it.

 

 

 

Big Picture

I took this picture at Patchaug Forest from very far away.  I was surprised to see how the watery light bounced up onto their yellow bellies. 

I borrowed a giant super telephoto lens from Canon Professional Services again this year.  I waited for what I thought would be the best time, like it was this time last year.  I was very excited.  I have been enjoying the way that photography has been letting me see so much more about animals.  I wanted to see the looks on their faces and find things about them that I didn’t even know. 

I went to the fish hatchery.  If you saw my blog last year, you’ll remember  there were eagles, and ducks and heron and turtles.  But, this time?  Nothing.  It was like an abandoned city.  It was like there had been a war.   I went the next day.  There was one heron in one pond.  There were none in the trees where they always wait, sometimes by the dozen. I finally went to Patchaug and found a few turtles.

One blue heron in the shade.

Then I went to the island, hoping for great white egrets and swans.  But it was hot on the mainland and the island was socked in with fog…fog so thick I could stand on the beach and not see the ocean.  Fog like I’ve never seen.  Fog for four days, and still counting.  I went out again and again at all different times and all over the island, hoping to catch moments where I could see something.  I got an occasional shot, but it wasn’t what I had hoped for. 

Have you ever wondered what fog looks like when you take its picture with an $11,000 lens?   Now you know.  This is a picture of North Light, taken looking over the water, from the parking lot at the end of Corn Neck Road. 

This was taken near Beach Road, when the fog had cleared a little.  This small egret is there all the time and is used to people.  But he saw me with the lens and his head snapped up so fast, like, "Who are you and what is that thing you are pointing?!"

I had to send the lens back yesterday.  I never got the pictures I had imagined.  And because of the way the program works – the loans are actually equipment evaluation loans, you only get to try each piece of equipment one time - I’ll never be able to borrow that particular lens again. 

That lens was so tightly, smoothly made.  It could focus so fast and reach to such a distance.  It was made with a fluorite lens element (made out of super expensive man-made crystal) and other high tech "ultra low dispersion optical glass".  That means that light didn’t break apart into its prismatic colors when it passed through.  That means there was no distortion.  That lens was a wonder.  My father, an engineer who worked in the aircraft industry, would have gone crazy over that lens.

But there is a balance to strike between the power of your equipment and what it takes to use it.  If a bird suddenly flies for example, you’ve got to lift your camera.  When you’re using extreme magnification, there’s a lot of space in which to find one bird.  You’ve got to get that bird in the view-finder and track it as it flies and keep it in focus.  You can do it, but it’s not easy. 

Sometimes it’s good to not to try so hard.  You can get good pictures that way too, because it's unpredictable anyway, and when your chance comes,  you'll have your lens with you, the one that you can realistically carry where ever you go.

Getting close is wonderful.  Wonderful.   I’m going to keep on striving to get the look in those eyes, or perfect wings of birds in flight, to the best of my ability, with the best tools I can afford.  But equipment isn't everything.   The picture is also about the whole situation, the whole context.  It’s even about you, the one behind the camera, being out there in it, because it’s where you meet the world and it meets you.  It’s about what you choose from all the myriad things in your field of vision, it's what the picture makes you feel and understand in that very moment. 

 

 

 

 

I was at the fish hatchery, having not gotten all my amazing bird pictures, and the dogs and I went deeper into the forest.  We sat by the bank of a stream.  The spring-swollen current was hitting a log, pushing under, coming up and boiling the surface.  There was something that I couldn't see happening under the water, maybe stones on the bottom and smaller branches that vibrated in the current, because the water was coming up all complicated to where it looked like sound vibrations.  And that thrumming surface was  reflecting the new green leaves and many naked branches and the old blue sky above.  Something about it connected, told me about all the things that are always happening all together all the time, and I felt that they would always keep on happening.  That current is still running, for example.  That water is dancing.  Now. 

I want to make sure I tell you that I didn't see all of this detail at the time.  I didn't know it looked like a map of a landscape, a range of mountains, the trunk of a tree.  I couldn't take particular delight as I do now, in the way that nature seems to repeat the same patterns from different materials, over and over.  I simply couldn't process fast enough an image I took at 1/1000th of a second.  (I had to show it to you the long way to make it big enough for you to see.  You might want to hold it sideways, to see how the river was flowing left to right.) 

I just saw the boiling, roiling water, the colors more merged together, but I did feel something about it.  For a second, I felt like I was part of it, or that it was part of me.   I think that is something I will remember from now on.  So photography can be like that, the chance to bounce off the surface of that, to notice that, stay with that, take a picture of that, learn from that, and then to see it after, in ways the human eye can't normally see, to see it new, to take a moment, to feel what is actually going on in this world.

So much of photography is for me, about being available for what ever happens. I couldn’t change the weather and couldn’t make the birds come, not even to their regular places. I was upset about the fog,  but then I had to laugh at myself for holding on so tightly to what was out of my control.  Maybe a good thing is not so hard to find.  Maybe I don't always need special birds or special weather or special equipment.  Maybe it’s under my nose.  It is.  I think so.  At the end of it all, I had some pictures that were new and unexpected and I learned  and now I am very pleased.

Well, if life gives you fog, you can make foggy pictures.  I liked how the cormorants lined up in formation.  They only did so, west of the Boat Basin dock where I was standing.  There were none on the corresponding piers on the east side of the dock.  That soft grey smudge on the horizon is Champlin's Marina.  These piers will anchor the floating docks that I'm sure are going in any day now, and soon they'll be a few more boats, oh, like a hundred more boats in this marina.  That is, if the fog lets up.

PS.  At 7:15 this morning, the National Weather Service cancelled their dense fog advisory.  At 7:16 they put it back in place.

PPS.   The more I work with wildlife, the more I feel I should leave them alone.  Their lives are hard enough.  It's one thing to take pictures of birds whose natural habitat includes people.  It's another when they are nesting or forced out of their natural range, like snowy owls.    If you chase them around, you could actually help them starve to death.  I had some great white egrets in sight yesterday, and I took a few pictures, but they flew to another spot and I knew it was because of me.  So I stopped.   I just have to wait for my moments.  A lens with big reach will help, and I'm looking into cheaper alternatives now.

PPPS.  No offense to myself, but I got a little dizzy looking at that river picture, especially up and down like that.  I had to rest my eyes on the last picture.

PPPPS.  I did see blue heron in some of the other ponds and rivers.  I saw them in pairs at the far ends of hidden places.  So they are not gone, just moving out.  Maybe they have to be more careful now, because of the eagles.  I saw one, flying at speed, staying low, threading it's way through the narrow spaces above a small stream, twisting and turning like those big birds in the movie, "Avatar".  A wonderful sight.  Impossible to get a picture with that big lens.

 

 

 

Perfect

I went to the inner ponds of Great Salt Pond and a Great White Egret had come.  I watched as she stood waiting in the grasses, and then stretched, and stabbed, and got her long narrow fish for breakfast.  Every time.  She never failed.

When I watch the birds, I see how perfect they are for all that they have to do.  Their eyes, their beaks, their legs, and of course every feather. They open their wings and the feathers just follow, perfectly formed and fit and open and working together.  They know what to do, simply by being in their bodies.  Should they fish for a living or take up photography?  They don’t ask those kinds of questions. 

It’s different for us humans.  What if a long time ago, someone just built us and dropped us off and said, “We’ll leave you all here on this winter day.  All the other animals will have bodies suited to their survival.  They will have claws, and strength and speed and teeth and wings.  That will be enough for them, but not for you.  If you go out in this weather you’ll be dead in no time.  So you’ll have to figure it out.  Have a nice day, and I’ll be watching to see how you make out.  It should be quite a show.” 

And it was.  It is.

This was taken this past January, at dawn, from Corn Neck Road, looking toward the breakwater in Old Harbor.  With the windchill, it was 35 degrees below zero.  I had trouble getting out of the car long enough to take the picture, but if you look closely, you will see birds flying above the breakwater.

Or maybe we emerged, step by step, changing or being changed in imperceptible ways that added together to make big ways, just like any creative project.  Something moved us, chipped away at us, placed us in a merciless world and then worked out in us, a way to survive.  We became exactly as smart as our physical weakness required us to be.  And as a result, we have options.  The egret had her fish but I had my camera and I could get into my car and go home.  I could cook my dinner with fresh produce from California. 

Whenever I see the birds, I put more faith in my body.  I see I must be perfectly built for something.  So I ask myself:  “What is inherently human?  What is mine to do?”  And then I make lists.  Short list:  “To stay alive.”  Long list:  “To see, to feel, to walk, to speak, to think, to seek and wonder, to love, to learn, to rest and to build.” 

So I try to do that, and sometimes I’m surprised.  I take pictures I didn’t expect to take.  I watch thoughts I never had before make their way onto the page. Things fit together and organize themselves into concepts and patterns, as they just did right here in this unexpected sentence.  They unfold like feathers when a bird reaches out with her wings. 

Perhaps the same principle that operates in nature also operates in me.  Like, nature creates itself in birds by making beaks and feathers; in me through what happens with my hands or in my mind.  The egret is so good at getting those fishes.  I’d be good at it too if that was all I could do.  I think we make a lot more mistakes than birds, because we’re in a different experiment, pushing forward into things that haven’t been done a million times before.  If the world changes, it will take my beautiful egret a long time to make a new beak, but all I have to do is make a new idea.  This egret can stay in a certain habitat, and only at certain times of year, but I’m so flexible, so generic, I can go anywhere.  I’m free as a human, you know?

At some point, and a long time ago, someone took a saw and cut this tree down.  And the spring floods came, I'm guessing, to the Connecticut River, and this tree trunk floated on the currents and tides across Long Island and Block Island Sounds.  All those forces, all that time, and the random chance that it landed on this island.  But here is something unmistakable.  There is nothing like it... the mark of a human hand.

It makes me happy to make things.  Sometimes it feels like, “This is me.  Everything I’ve ever learned is here in this creation.”  And it might not be the best thing, but it’s true in the sense that it’s authentically from me.  Well, it’s from me and from whatever-it-is-that-moves-and-breathes-me.  It’s what we have invented in our making dance together.  Maybe it won’t be a Thing That Changes Everything, but at least it can join in the vast project of making a world that is constantly being born because everyone and everything is making that happen every minute all day long.

I know we have problems, and it’s hard to imagine what the solutions will be, but I think it is very human to solve problems, and we’re not alone in this, not alone at all, and the best solutions seem to come out of nowhere, and necessity calls them out, and I think that all of nature is behind us in this, being perfect like she always is, and because there is such need, specifically because of that need, there is no telling what will happen now.


Eleanor

Elva, a friend who lives on Block Island, likes to read my blog.  Every so often, I see her in the grocery store or she sends me an email and she tells me what she particularly wants me to do.   Last time we spoke, she said that she loves pictures of doors and windows, because they always tell a story.  That made me think of Eleanor’s painting.

Eleanor Garrett was a member of the Spring Street Gallery on Block Island.  During her time there, she grew from making and selling crafts to tole painting to watercolors and other fine art painting.  She retired from the Gallery, only two years ago, in her early 80's.  For many years, and even after she left, she was a reliable presence.  She bustled around.  She helped at the cash register.  She said that the tree roots in the yard made a bumpy walk for an older person.  She gave her opinions freely, complained freely and just as quickly let things go.  She connected us to our history and purpose.  She enjoyed her life.  She cared about everyone.

When I think of Eleanor now, I remember her courage in the last weeks of her life and think of how her children so beautifully honored her at her service.   I remember how Eleanor told them to tell us that she would always be our friend.  I also remember the time that a woman came into the Gallery and bought every single one of Eleanor’s paintings.  Edie and Eleanor and I celebrated with champagne that night, and Eleanor said, “My mother did not raise me to put on airs.  I am still the same person I was this morning.”   And finally, I remember (and this pleases me), that if you go into the Gallery, you will see a picture that Eleanor painted on the inside of the bathroom door.

I’m glad I got to know Eleanor.  I’m glad the Gallery was there because that is how I knew her and that’s where we grew together as artists.  I remember how she stayed connected, how she didn’t let the changes in her life prevent her from being a friend to all of us at the Gallery.

Eleanor’s painting proudly hangs in my kitchen, and like Elva said, it does tell a story.  It shows the chair and table where her mother sat every day, and the window where she looked out, and the Block Island landscape beyond.  I liked this picture when I bought it, but now that Eleanor is gone, I love it, because now my sight is layering on Eleanor’s, like pages.  I see through Eleanor’s eyes and remember Eleanor, just as Eleanor saw and remembered her mother.  

I grew up thinking in practical terms.  I could only spend time on the luxuries of life, like rest and connection and beauty, when everything else was done.  But there were a thousand things, and I was never done.  Now I think it’s exactly the opposite, that these are the necessities; that if you find one thing in your life that helps you, you have to lock it in.

For the first 50 years of my life, I didn’t know I could be an artist.  It was the island and the Gallery that taught me what was possible.  By being an artist at the Gallery, I saw myself and others grow, gain confidence and courage and skill.  I’ve seen art help with great losses.  I’ve seen it show what matters.  I’ve seen it bring people together. 

I try to imagine my life without the work I do now, or without having known Eleanor and the other people I’ve met through art and through the Gallery, and I don’t think I’d be the same person.  I look at the walls in our house that are covered now with my own pictures and the pictures and paintings made by my friends.  That feeds my heart.  I think of my friends and family and I realize that by showing them what I love, they can see me better, and I can see them. 

It’s so funny because sometimes people think of Block Island as a place to come and party.  I remember being on the boat one time and a young man had left his wallet in his car.  His friends said, “Get off the boat, Dude.  Get off the boat!  There’s nothing to do on Block Island if you can’t drink!”  Well, I’ll just say Block Island is a place where you can come and live deeply.  And art can help with that.  I’m glad Block Island is a place where people can grow as artists.  I’m grateful the Gallery has been here for us at the center of what art has meant on Block Island for a generation and that it made a way for Eleanor and me.  And now many other places are here as well, in part because of the Gallery, and art is alive and well on Block Island.  So it’s all good, and everything is moving forward and meantime I have Eleanor’s picture and it will help me to remember.

P.S.  With regret, I won’t be showing at the Gallery this year because it’s a co-op and I won’t be here enough this summer to do my part.  I'm also getting organized.  I have thousands and thousands of pictures.  I very much want to take some time and look at all I have and the best way to offer it to you.  I will have a show in the fall at HeArt Space on Block Island, and people can contact me through this blog for more information about how I’ll be handling orders.  My "Wave" book is available at HeArt Space and at Island Bound.  I'll let you know as I work out other venues for the book.

Reach

I am interested in this picture.  I am so used to working for good pictures of birds – sharp focus, good light through their feathers, good wings in flight.  But I used a higher ISO and so this picture had greater depth of field – good focus on the trees as well as the bird.  Maybe it was the way the shapes in the heron’s wings mirrored the shapes in the reaching branches.  It made me feel that the heron was in its natural home, that this landscape and this bird fit together, that their lives were entwined, inseparable.

 

The camera allows me to see much more than I can see with my own eyes and this is how I come to these conclusions… this heron’s tongue for example.  I never imagined it would be shaped like that.  What a delicate tongue to be protected inside that long beak, to poke into the mud.  How perfect to wriggle out those little morsels. 

The heron settled into its tree in its classic heron pose.  I waited with my telephoto lens at what I hoped would be a non-disturbing distance across a little pond.  I was preparing to stay, like scores of other mornings, with a heron who wasn’t moving and who might not move for hours.  I’ve always admired the ability of birds to wait.  I think it is important to their survival, as important as their ability to hunt or fight  - their ability to rest, to wait, to collect their strength.  So as always, I sat there, trying to match her, wondering what she saw and thought and felt, wondering what was it was like to live her life. 

It was a cold morning, but I could feel that spring was coming.  I considered this.  I mean, after I forgot all the extra stuff, like the fact that taxes were due in two days, after I forgot all the other things in my constructed life, there was how it felt after a long winter when the air was cold, but the sun had just risen and I could feel it warm on my face.  I thought, “We all know this.  We know it across the human race.  We’ve been knowing it, whether we’re humans or other creatures.   We’ve been knowing it together for hundreds of thousands or millions of years.” 

The heron and I were at the hatchery together, she with her instincts and I with mine.  So we waited and I want to tell you that what happened next was something I’ve never seen.  The heron reached, turning and craning her neck, tracking something across the sky.  I turned also, and there was an eagle circling.  The eagle passed and she immediately settled down, groomed her feathers, and went back to her rest. 

Then my dogs began to tussle and the heron turned and looked at us.  If you ever have a large wild bird look at you, something will happen. I’ve felt this a few times, once with a hawk, once with a snowy owl and now this time.  Something in the oldest part of my brain woke up.  There is no word for this that I know of, this I’m-being-studied-and-measured-and-thoroughly-seen-by-a-large-wild-bird feeling, but there it was.

There have always been dozens of heron at the fish hatchery, but I’ve been there all week and I’ve only counted three.  It could be the exceptionally difficult winter, or it could be the eagles are eating them or driving them away.

I learned some things this week:  (1) That the heron have pointy tongues.  (2) That everything reaches, that the trees reach and the birds reach in very similar shapes and for very similar reasons.  (3) That the heron and the landscape are inseparable from each other.  (4) That it’s important to rest, to really rest, to practice resting as a necessity for life.  (5) That the heron reach first with their eyes, like photographers do, and that their whole bodies follow.  (6) That now that the eagles have come the heron might be gone from the fish hatchery, and soon. 

Rescue Operation

This picture is called "Now". 

I went out to West Beach last night (I hate to admit this because I had decided to leave them alone.), looking for a Snowy Owl.  And just at the end of the path was a seagull struggling, wrapped in fishing line.  I called Chris Blane, who had another commitment but gave me good advice.  Then I called Kim Gaffett, who left her dinner on the table to come and help.  We caught the gull by wrapping it in a towel.  We tried to cut the lines but we didn’t have the right clippers with us.  We had to bring it back home.  We discovered the fishing line was more like a fish net, actually, with a large open weave that had wrapped itself under the bird's wings and around its head, and particularly around its foot, where it was tangled and knotted, cutting off circulation and wearing right down to the bone.  We tried to keep the gull’s head covered to keep it as calm as possible, and we turned it one way and another, working in little sections, carefully clipping, like clearing a thicket, until pieces fell away. 

I wondered what the seagull thought of this, being abducted by aliens, squeezed in a towel, carried in a box and a car, clipped at and turned and handled.  We talked to it softly, stroking it a little bit, and I wondered if that would even matter, if our human gestures of comfort could possibly mean anything to a bird.  We felt under its wings, following with our fingers when the line cut under its feathers.  I was amazed at its body heat, how it was soft and fragile and very warm.  The gull seemed relatively calm under the circumstances, or was in shock, one or the other.  When we finally got it free, Kim set it on the ground.  It tried to fly.   Its wings seemed fine but one leg dangled.  It went a few feet and then set down, then it tried and failed again.  We decided not to subject it to another capture and left it where it was for the night.  I brought water and upon consideration, dog food.  By then it was dark.  It was cold and windy.  A little sleet was falling.  When I went to check it during the night and again before dawn, it hadn’t moved from its spot.  I worried.  I wondered how long it had been caught like that, how long it had been struggling, how long afraid, how long without water or food.  I thought about how everything wants to live, and how good that is, how it’s life itself that wants that.  I thought about the forces at work in the night to heal the gull and the other forces bearing down.  I hoped the scales would tip in its favor. 

I considered how it had flapped and struggled, how the wings seemed strong, and how maybe it just needed some peace and quiet. I hoped for time because I know that life always heals in slow motion.  In the morning the gull was up and standing on one foot, delicately pecking at the dog food, sipping the water and looking around.  It objected loudly when some ducks came by to get the food but it gave ample room to the crows.  Some gulls came to visit.  I went out with clean water and more food, and it seemed resigned to my presence, but then I went to take its picture.  I wonder if it thought my camera was a gun, because that did it.  It gathered its forces, spread its wings, caught the wind, and flew away.  Bill said, “Good for you.  After all, ‘What you do for the least of my creatures…’” I said, “No.  Not the least of creatures.”  I had come to love it a little bit.  I said, “The best of creatures.  Really.  It is the best of creatures.” 

Chris called and I saw Kim on the ferry this morning and I was happy to give them a good report.  It’s only one bird but hope it’s OK. 

I can't say this is the best picture I have ever taken, but I was very happy to take it.  That's our gull, flying away this morning at about 7 o'clock.

A Good Person

This is a picture from Patchaug.  The man's house in this story is to the right of this picture, out of the frame, and the waterfalls are behind me.

I went to Patchaug State Forest on the way to work on the boat this week.  I went in the back way.  There was a big marsh with many birds, and two waterfalls, and bridges over the falls. There was a parking lot next to a little cottage.  The cottage was modest but nicely kept. There were signs of careful attention, and of the particular French Canadian esthetic that came with the workers who once filled the textile mills in Eastern Connecticut.  Everything was clean and freshly painted.  Every leaf and blade of grass was in its place.   There was a lighthouse, about five feet tall, with pilings and real dock lines neatly wrapped around them.  On the pilings were wooden pelicans.  There was a black metal eagle over the garage, and four large concrete lions were sitting on their haunches, guarding the sidewalk that led to the front door.

I got out of the car and I thought that Wilson and Molly would stay with me, so I was organizing my cameras and lenses.  I looked up in time to see the dogs scampering straight to the man’s front door.  He was there with his little grand-daughter.  I hurried toward the dogs, but the man called out, “Don’t worry!  Don’t worry.”  I knew I was in the wrong, but the man’s kindness made me more willing to admit it.  I said, “I should have been paying closer attention.”  He said, “They’re wonderful.  This one is older isn’t he?”  I said, “You have a beautiful spot here.  You’re very kind about the dogs.”  To aerate the point, Wilson chose that moment to pee on the man’s perfect shrubs.  I said, “I’m sorry.”  He said, “They have to do that, you know.”

So I left the man, liking him so much that I wanted to buy the house next door or buy him a house on Block Island so that I could have him for a neighbor, and I thought about the times when it is very important to fight for something and times when it is not important at all.

I have never gotten a bird landing quite from this perspective.  I didn't realize how the feathers in his chest spread out and flatten to slow him down.

I went off to see the birds, and I love the earliest days of spring, when the birds are full of electric energy.  I saw this big guy coming in for a carrier landing. 

I liked the simplicity of this one, especially the little grasses, the texture on the bird's wings and their reflections in the water.

I used my telephoto and got a few more pictures of birds, but then I decided to use my close-up lens, because there were these leaves.   I love these also, these remnants that have stayed through a brutal winter, getting thinner and more transparent, but still holding on.   All this fragile strength, all this staying to the very end with the light coming through, all the beautiful ways in which the beating they have taken has changed them, this is what I wanted to show you.

I can’t show this in a picture but I want you to know that these narrow leaves were trembling, almost vibrating in the breeze.

And then I got interested in the waterfall.  It was yellowy brown from all the tannins, from decaying leaves in the water.  I take so many pictures of the ocean, and I’m not used to water this color.  I considered making black and white pictures, but then I thought, “This is the clear, clean color of a living system.   How can I think that’s not good?”  In any case, I thought it would be interesting… I never get this close to crashing water, not with my camera in my hand.  Here was my chance to see what was happening right inside.  I set the shutter speed to 1/2500th of a second, just to see what that would do, and then I switched to much longer exposures. 

Here's the waterfall, looking across the marsh to the forest.  Those two legs are part of the bridge.

Here's a close up, with me just inches from the water.  The shutter speed is 1/2500th of a second.

This shutter speed is 1/15th of a second.

I realize that living next to the state forest the way he does, that man must get a lot of people, right there next to his yard.  Some of them might not be watching their dogs the way they should, and some of them might leave litter, or misbehave in other ways, and it would be reasonable to expect the he would have gotten a perfectly justifiable attitude about it by now.  He could have put “no trespassing” signs all over the place.  But he didn’t.  Not at all.  In fact, I get the feeling he enjoyed seeing us. 

I’m still thinking about him, because he made me see how it was in this particular case, how it can be when someone decides they can just relax about something.   I took a nice picture from across the pond, with the light on the water, and his yard and his lions and his pretty house.  I thought I’d print it for him and drop it off some time, to thank him.

My beautiful trouble makers.