the light in the water

(I’m not sure where the month of November went. I have been meaning to post this for a few weeks. It has been waiting in my journal.)

Some people are skilled conversationalists, others musicians, teachers. Me? I am extremely good at sitting quietly with a cup of hot coffee and staring out of a window. I think it is my greatest strength. I am not just relaxing, or doing nothing. I am noticing everything – the shifting light in the clouds, the delicately moving leaves of the rosebush, the whirl of an engine, the sheep pacing back and forth. Every moment the scene changes. This is because I am looking outside. It would not be the same if I sat in the opposite direction.

Last year when my grandfather was dying and he could no longer watch TV or read or do much of anything for himself anymore – which was only for the last six months of his incredibly capable ninety-four years – he spent his days looking out of his window, watching the shifting patterns in the clouds and the lake. After he died my aunt recounted how he resisted going. He was sad to die, she said, because he actually really liked living. He loved having his family come visit. He loved watching the water and sky.

His daughters scattered his ashes in the lake where he would have seen them, where he would have seen the glint of the sun, where he would have seen the moonlight dancing toward him.

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heat

A few weeks ago I turned off the propane furnace in my apartment and decided to use the wood stove as my only source of heat. I have always loved fires and I liked the idea of living more organically and more aware of the resources I need to survive. There are so many – food, water, electricity, and all of my stuff – so in the scheme of things, making my own heat is only a small step out of the womb of modern comfort. And saying that is already taking too much credit: all I have to do is carry the wood from the wood pile to the stove, split some kindling and make the fire. I did not grow the tree, or chop the logs, or build the stove itself – so much energy already expended on my behalf! But my small part is still an education and a discipline. I have learned that the wood I am using comes from two sources – the round, grey logs from an unwanted laurel that grew in the yard, and the orange, squarish logs from a Sitka spruce. Most of the spruce was “tone wood,” used to make instruments at a shop upriver. I was initially aghast at the thought of burning fetal violins – but I learned the pieces I am using are the off-cuts: the parts with too many knots and twists in the grain. Still, it is sobering to think that my heat is the cousin of music.

I quickly calculated how many logs it takes to keep me warm throughout each day, multiplied by the number of potentially cold days this winter, subtracted from the number of logs in the wood pile – which, now that I think about, does not seem like very many – which in turn makes me judicious about how much heat I really need. If I have on all my fleece and am drinking hot tea and still feel the need to also put on my woolliest hat, then I figure it is probably time to build a fire. I have become much more aware of temperature: the fact that the 40s and 50s are not as cold as I thought they were, that the work of splitting kindling will sometimes warm me up enough that building a fire seems unnecessary, that the 20s and 30s are intimidatingly cold when you are not sure the fire will last all night.

And I have learned that each fire is different. In general, they start off crackling and popping, making a show of flames without producing much heat. Once I shut down the flue the warmth builds slowly, almost imperceptibly, until I notice that I am taking off layers and cracking open windows. Then the fire seems to die down sleepily, but this is when the real, delicious heat begins – the heat of the coals, radiating into the room, so smooth and luscious you are lulled into thinking it will last forever – until a chill rises, and you realize you should have put on another log before the coals died. It is a learning process. I am still learning, for example, that to keep myself warm without dying of smoke inhalation is some fine balance of wood, kindling, flue, air vents, and luck. Each fire is different depending on the temperature outside and the type of wood I use, and how diligent I am about kindling, structure, and timing. It is a constant relationship, and like all relationships, emotions are involved: gratitude, patience, anger, fear, frustration. The fire is like a living creature in my home that needs my care, making me get up to feed it and tend it, reminding me I am human, that I have a place in the world, a job to do, even if it is only to keep us both alive.

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corn

It has been three weeks. I am sitting in my cozy cottage, where I have been sitting, in front of my computer, non-stop, it seems. Except for when I go for a walk down the dead-straight road about two miles to the river. Large trucks have been rumbling past the last few weeks – this is not normal, J. tells me – but they are polite to cross over to the other side when they see me, a man usually waving back when I look up. The trucks leave muddy quarter-circles on the road where they have turned out of the fields. It was one of our driest, sunniest summers on record when I first arrived. The corn that dominated our view out of the driveway had all dried up, acres and acres sadly pale and brittle. I worried whether there would be anything to harvest. Then one day walking home from the river, I found myself lost in a vista of fields, mountains, sky. After a slight cognitive disconnect, I realized that the corn stalks had been cut down. I looked up and saw a combine in the distance mowing the last rows like a buzz cut. The next day the temperature dropped, the sky went dark and it started raining. It has been like this ever since, with downpours nearly every day as if the weather suddenly realized it was late for fall and is making up for lost time. Now the fields are streaked with stubble and silvery patches of sky where the water has settled. I have been wondering what the farmers think about all this: from drought to standing water in one week. I wonder how they feel. Was there a harvest? What did they do with the stalks? I would like to ask them.

gratitude

And here I am, just as envisioned, sitting in my new little cottage in rural Skagit County, about an hour and a half drive north of Seattle. I moved in on Thursday. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I have been … busy. Not just with unpacking and settling in and figuring out a place for everything and stashing everything else in the loft (thank god for the loft). But also with the art opening in Anacortes (black paper cut intricately into gestures of herons, bears, elk), and picking apples (old trees, old ladder, wondering if I am too old to be climbing up them), and stocking a new kitchen, and going running on the Padilla Bay trail on a cloudless day, and joining a writers’ group (listening to new poetry, drinking beer in a camp chair, shivering while the sun descends behind the slough), and being brought to tears by Kristin Allen-Zito’s lyrics at the local tavern (http://www.myspace.com/kristinallenzito), and paying a visit to Fairhaven and Bellingham (i.e. the nearest bookstore-cafe and university library – it took me only 4 days!), and driving the Chuckanut up and back (torn between the heart-stopping seaside sunset on the one hand and mountain-road curves on the other), and having a friend visit, and dropping in on the Young Farmers’ Mixer (despite being neither a farmer nor young, nor wearing a cotton-print dress); and tomorrow I have been invited (or more like, assumed) to be the fourth member of a trivia team at the Longhorn Saloon. (I warned them – I said, you know, I basically grew up without TV, soooo – and they said, ooooh, we know your type, it’s okay, we’ve played with your type before; you will know other things. Hmm.) (Needless to say, I owe such busy-ness to my good friend who invited me here.)

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Photography-while-driving – probably worse than texting.

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smoke

A few evenings ago I went for a walk near the house where I grew up in Seattle. There is a bike path that runs along the lake, or rather, it runs between the lake-side houses and the houses that are built up on the other side. You walk along and every so often you glimpse the water through a fence of trees and houses. But usually you just see the trees and the houses and the sky, until after about two miles you come to a small park where you can walk down to the water and out along a pier. There the lake opens up to you and the sky in such a vast expanse of silvery grey that you find yourself taking in a deep, unbelieving breath. It is often calmer than I like, light and sound muted by clouds and distance, the calmness broken mostly by the flights and cries of seabirds and crows and the occasional eagle, but sometimes, too, by motors and laughing children. I breathe deeply there, deliberately, appreciating the respite, deliberately noticing the pair of mallards that swim over to me and the sandpiper that traces the edge of water lapping against the sand. Then I turn, also deliberately, feeling virtuous for my discipline, and walk carefully back into the shadows of the trees and houses and onto the trail toward home.

That evening when I was nearing home and the clouds were glowing pink against a darkening periwinkle sky (really), and the air was cooling into night, and the trail had quieted because people had gone in to start dinner, I caught the faint but very familiar whiff of cooking meat. I looked up toward the pale houses. Someone was having a barbecue, making dinner for their family, I imagined, or maybe a group of friends. I kept walking. From the other side, again the scent of cooking meat. With my next breath the smoke came from another place in the world, another time six years ago when I had also quietly observed the coming of dusk. I was in rural Mozambique, staring out at the Oliphants river, crouched at the edge of a plateau and not quite believing that I was watching a blood-orange sun sink, as it did in the nature documentaries, and bleed into the horizon, throwing up halos on the trees and on me. I was at a community-run ecotourism lodge that was about ten kilometers from the nearest town and about an 8 hour drive west of the coast and the capital, Maputo.

I wasn’t sure what to think or how to feel staring out at that setting, sub-Saharan sun. The view felt uncannily and inappropriately familiar since I had never actually been there before. And at the same time, the fact that a sun was slipping behind the horizon as it will anywhere in the world was also extremely reassuring. The evening felt calm and strangely safe despite my feeling that maybe I should not be there, despite knowing that I was very far from anybody I loved. I could hear the gurgle of the river and the stirring of the wind in dry leaves. Then the wind must have shifted so that I heard the sounds of voices coming up from under the darkening groves of trees below me, the sounds fading in and out on swells of moist, rising air. I heard a woman, and the sounds of children playing, and the woman calling, and I imagined how the children ran over to her as they smelled dinner, the scent of meat cooking over a fire that eventually reached me up on the hill, making me sit back, and breathe in.

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coyotes

I stayed at the cottage for a night this past weekend. It was about 11pm, and coming out of the bathroom I felt a strange whine rise up in me. Then I realized I was hearing, rather than feeling, it – a siren of sorts, a wailing, a howling – oh: coyotes. They were so close it seemed they had surrounded the cabin. Their high-pitched yowls and yaps reverberated inside the walls, inside my head. I was sure they would find a way in. A few moments later the noise subsided. J. (my friend, the farmer) came around the back, knocking on my door, wide-eyed. They had never been so close. She thought they might be on the property. But how could they get through two sets of fencing? She went out to count the sheep. I could see the long beam of her flashlight flashing across the fields. I went out to join her. She reported she had seen pairs of eyes gleaming from the bushes edging the pasture. She locked the sheep in their barn for the night and we both headed back to bed.

I lay awake for a long time, listening to the sounds of the night, wondering what it would be like to spend a winter here.

courage

I read somewhere that courage is not the opposite, or absence, of fear. It is doing something – or not doing something – despite profound fear. It is not about willpower, either; it means acting even though you think you aren’t willing. It is allowing something deeper in your body to take over decision-making even though your mind is screaming. It is jumping off the diving-board despite all signals saying this is stupid and dangerous.

So, okay, moving to a beautiful rural valley that is about an hour away from most of my friends and family is not dangerous, but for some reason it feels scary. Starting work on a big project with no formal reason or structure – or income (yet) – is a bit terrifying. So I will take courage in courage. Courage is sitting still despite the fear of dying. For whatever trick of fate this is where I am now. This is what I have to offer the world.