Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Stillborn Posts

I often perform housecleaning chores for this blog. After exhaustive and obsessive proof-reading, I still find grammar errors and typos, skipped words and wrong words. I revisit awkward (or downright embarrassing and badly written patches) to try to clean them up. I have found a few instances where I wrote the exact opposite of what I meant. How does that happen?

I also delete the drafts - posts that were never completed - ideas that failed to reveal their moving parts. I am glad to clear away the ill-formed, stunted thoughts but I am not always sure I should exorcise them. A few times I have returned to finish a draft, or the idea transformed into another thing that could be written. Mostly the drafts are stillborn, ideas without volition, and I do not want them littering the work space.

For most of my life I did not write until an idea or thought or emotion became too insistent. Then I would write poetry. I could not write because I was not a gifted writer - not good enough by my own standards. Now that I am old and running out of time, I do not care whether my writing is good or not, whether anyone reads it or not. I simply want to write. I am the only person who sees things exactly the way I see them. I am the only one who can tell my own stories, whether I tell them with skill or not.

Everyone born is an artist of some thing, a creator - a family, a body of work as a career, a gardener, a flute maker, a farmer, a mechanic, a painter, a student, a friend. A life is always of some magnificence even if it is considered squandered or wasted. It is only our addictions to false judgment that places one creation above another.

For a brief time some of my water paintings were for sale in a local shop, at the insistence of my instructor. They were very modestly priced (cheap). I was thrilled when the first one sold, and astonished that anyone would spend money for my paintings. It was impossible for me to value my own work.

One day a local "character" (as if I am not a local character myself!) came into the shop with several of his oil paintings. They were portraits of his friends and the paintings were hideous. They were garish and clownish - a child could easily have done better. I felt very sorry for him. He was so proud of his work that he was trying to sell it. He believed someone would want his paintings. I could not imagine anyone giving him money for those terrible paintings. I swear, fifteen minutes later he returned to the shop jubilantly waving the cash he had received from a tourist for one of his paintings. That one piece earned more money than the combined total of all my sold paintings. For all I know, the painting he sold that day was one of his bad ideas.

"Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom." Ecclesiastes 9:10. Yet one more comforting quote from the Old Testament...

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Orders of Magnitude

Human beings are clever. We understand our limitations. We know we often need help to comprehend or fully appreciate the scope and magnitude of things. We also rapidly acclimate. Extraordinary knowledge becomes pedestrian in a very short time.

The Hubble telescope has been a magnificent agent in our attempt to comprehend the universe. Distances that defy our best imaginations have been reduced to mundane digital images commonly available on the internet - for free. Compare the Astronomy Photo of the Day (APOD) to the grievous history of human censure, silence, ridicule, prison, torture, and death for those brave souls attempting to share the truth in this violent, merciless place.

A Hubble image of a jet of gas arcing into space from the center of a galaxy was published a few days ago. The jet is over five thousand light years in length. It spews from a galaxy a mere fifty million light years away. These are just words. A human mind must slow down to consider their meaning in order to comprehend the reality of fifty million light years. Fifty million light years is considered "in the neighborhood" in our corner of space.

Hubble has allowed human beings to peer deeply into space and into time. Of all the human minds that have existed, a precious few dared to imagine an unimaginable universe. Then humans dared to photograph the unimaginable.

Early in its career, Hubble captured a wall of galaxies as numerous as the stars we see in our own night skies. At first glance, it is an unremarkable image. It requires human contemplation to comprehend.

When I emailed this to Robert Clark, he replied, "It makes all things seem possible."

Every bright object is a galaxy.
1994 Hubble Space Telescope photo Credit: A. Dressler (CIW), NASA

Friday, August 26, 2011

Rumors of Good Ideas

A few miles to the west there was a small herd of camels living in a pasture visible from I-70. I have not seen them for some time. Local folklore has it that a few of the big ranches brought in camels because they would eat weeds and undesirable plants invading the prairie. Once in the bounty of the Flint Hills, the camels chose to eat the same nutritious fare as the cattle. The expensive camels became a liability then - a very bad idea. That was the rumor but I have no honest idea why camels were brought here. The weed theory seems plausible because, despite our best efforts, the true untouched prairie is going.

There is not much of a market for camels in Kansas. I have not seen cowboys riding camels. There are no camel clubs participating in the annual rodeos and parades here in cattle country. There has been no advertising for camel meat or milk. To be fair, I have not been looking for camels or their products, nor have I been to a rodeo in years. I admit that I genuinely do not know what I am talking about when it comes to why camel herds exist in Kansas.

Going east on I70, there are two zebras in the big pastures that are normally full of cattle. Zebras are rumored to protect cattle from coyote attack. Donkeys and large breeds of mountain dogs are also rumored to protect cattle from coyote attack.

I have no idea if donkeys and zebras would defend cattle against coyotes. But why would they? Zebras have no history or evolution with American cattle. Donkeys and zebras would be relieved that cattle, larger and far more numerous, are targeted by the coyotes. Better the cows than us, their equid DNA probably reasons.

If I were a coyote, a zebra would appear to be an easier kill than a 1500 pound cow. A cow could stomp a coyote to death with one leg. But again, I do not honestly know what I am talking about when it comes to zebras in Kansas. It all seems to be a rural myth, another rumor to me.

The large breed of mountain dogs protecting cattle against coyotes makes sense. Dogs have evolved with human beings and cattle. They have the DNA wiring for protecting cattle. And coyotes would certainly recognize those big dogs as enemies. Only the puppies would appear to be coyote food.

But then, I am of the opinion that coyotes do not kill calves in the first place. That shows what I know.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

If Only I Had Said....

When I look back over my small, boring life, some events were intersections, forks in the road. With the cruel clarity of hindsight, (which I once earnestly asserted aloud in a staff meeting was 50:50), the wrong turns, large and small, map my life to where I am today.

If only I had said:

"N0 thanks," instead of "I do." Twice.

"Thank you, Officer," instead of "F**k you."

"Are you crazy?" instead of "Take my car."

"Don't have room," instead of "Stay with me."

"No," instead of "Pay me on Tuesday."

And all those countless times I should have instead said nothing, nothing at all.

Friday, August 19, 2011

A Single Cottonwood

The strange weather patterns brought little rain to Spirit Creek in this hot and terrible summer. Advancing storms disappointingly split at the west edge of the county to rain north and south of here, grudgingly spilling only a trace of rain on my home. Several times I left the dry and dusty front yard to find pouring rain within one or two miles. The weather radar showing an advance of angry green, red and yellow activity verified this unlikely omission as the storms surged around my valley, one after another.

Nothing in my pasture grew tall this summer. The big bluestem only made it to twenty four inches or so. I can see Ginger the horse wherever she is in the pasture - normally not possible this time of the year. The sunflowers grew enormous leaves and thick stalks but are stunted from lack of rain and the punishing heat. But the prairie is not suffering in this lack of moisture. She merely grows deeper roots when it does not rain.

The immigrant trees are dusty and wilted but the cottonwoods welcome the adversity. Waxy leaves and thick bark protect them from the searing heat, their roots deep into moisture beneath the sod. Cottonwood leaves rattle together in the wind to make the sound of running water. When I dream of the prairies that once were, when the noise of men was occasional and insignificant, I walk for miles toward the sound of water, finding the grace of a solitary cottonwood and shade.

Not many lone cottonwoods rising above untouched soil now. They leave the prairie, crowded out by newcomers and plowed ground and herbicides measured in tons dumped from airplanes. They are hybridized for the city because their cotton seeds clog air conditioners. Their wood is not desirable nor their shade. They go because men no longer care to hear their call of running water.

There is not a cottonwood tree growing at Spirit Creek. It was farmed land. There was a natural spring in Ginger's pasture until it was destroyed by human beings, too. I hold a tiny hope that because I planted the prairie again, prayed for it, rejoice in the beauty of its return, because I take nothing for myself from this wounded soil, perhaps the prairie will place a wild cottonwood where the spring once ran. A human heart would listen again for the song of running water in the wind. It is a small hope.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

I Miss My Marbles

Several years ago, I found a computer game online called Zuma. It is a series of colored marbles that roll through a variety of configurations. The object is to blast them all before the first one disappears into an exit hole. A frog situated in the middle of the configuration responds to the computer mouse. You swivel the frog to aim and shoot marbles out of his mouth with a left mouse click. If you shoot a marble of a different color into the line of rolling marbles, it sticks and hastens the advance to the exit. If you shoot a marble of matching color into two or more, they explode and disappear. There is a variety of catchy little arcade tunes that play in the background, as well as bombs, slow-down marbles, fizzies that give you laser aim, back-up marbles, and ones that explode all marbles of the same color. If you are really smart, you can spot line ups in the colors and carefully place the right colored marbles into a long string that causes a chain reaction of truly satisfying explosions. In certain circumstances the frog emits an authentic 'chirrup' or ribbet. I cannot resist its charm!

It may be a total waste of time but I enjoy playing it. I can play Zuma and think. I purchased the game for $19.99 - the best money ever spent for mindless entertainment - until the new, improved Zuma game was released and I spent another $19.99 for even better mind-numbing entertainment. Both games are on my other computer, the one that was attacked with a pernicious fake virus scan so aggressive that the computer has to go to a professional. I only hope my data, photos, and all of my writing can be salvaged. I have not played Zuma for several months now. I have likely lost my finely honed skills after all this time.

That is what happens when you lose your marbles.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Lesson of Abundance

The Indians taught me to use sage, tobacco, and sweetgrass. Some part of my spirit was small and believed in scarcity rather than abundance. I believed there was not enough of anything good to go around. My family taught me to share what I had with a good heart, and to never begrudge another's good fortune, but no one in my family believed in abundance.

When I first went into Lodge to pray, I did not believe I was personally worthy. I had to overcome a tremendous sense of racial guilt as well. My race had taken almost everything from the Indians and there I was, a new generation trying to appropriate what was left of their spirituality. I continued to go despite the guilt because it was profoundly healing. I continued to go because the man in charge of the Lodge believed anyone with a good heart was welcome.

That is where I learned about sage. There are few things in life that go deep, right into the core of your being, few things as necessary and as beautiful as breathing. Sage is one of those incomparable things for me.

It was almost impossible to use the first sage given to me. If I burned any, it was a tiny twig pulled carefully from a stalk, the fragrant smoke hoarded and shielded from dispersal with cupped hands and bowed head.

The man who ran the Lodge said sage was a gift from the Creator. It was medicine to be used and shared. The more it was used, the more there would be of it in our lives. I heard him say these words many times and did not doubt I understood. He was speaking English, my first language. But then came the instant when I at last understood.

I began to burn sage as if the Creator had personally handed me a never-ending bundle of it. I used it joyfully and abundantly, with an open heart. I fanned the smoke into my hair and into my clothes. I fanned it throughout my home. I freely gave it away. I knew there would always be sage in my life, as much as I wanted or needed. I would never run out of the Creator's sage. Abundance came into my life as an idea and as a reality. I learned abundance fosters more abundance in the same way being scared and stingy fosters more fear and scarcity.

My life changed the day I learned to use the Creator's sage with joyful generosity, even if for no one other than myself.

My profound thanks to the "Indins" (as Leonard would say). My profound thanks to the men and women of good heart who opened their Lodges to a scared and suffering white girl. You know who you are.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Packin' for Anarchy

If or when America descends into anarchy, the first thing I am going to do is purchase a shotgun to carry in my automobile. Whenever I have the misfortune to run into one of those drivers who instantly enrages me, I am going to blast holes into his car - maybe two or three huge, gaping holes. Oh my GOD, how much I wish I could just blast away with reckless abandon!

Topeka's city engineers have efficiently chosen to do simultaneous extreme road repair at every major street intersection. The city of deferred maintenance has suddenly realized money might soon be in short supply and elected to finally repair the streets. It might have been the mob of torch-bearing peasants and pitch fork-wielding farmers threatening the city council over pot hole damage that finally instigated this dizzying obstacle course of traffic delay and aggravation across the entire city. No one is happy driving the major streets of Topeka this summer.

There I was, patiently waiting to turn right into a single lane of orange cones and an endless line of waiting cars at one of the biggest intersections today. The cars were bumper to bumper. It was lunch time. No one was going to allow me to cut in line. I was not even watching for a benevolent soul who might wave me in. I glanced at one guy who had his cell phone against his ear then turned my attention to adjusting the mirror. I looked up in time to see Cell Phone Guy angrily shaking his head at me, both arms up in exasperation over the stupid woman who missed his attempt to wave her in line.

Kablooey, fool!

Nothing makes me angrier than a jerk like that. Well, someone behind me honking his horn because I am not getting out of his way fast enough makes me angrier. I have worked since I was 14 years old. I have paid my share in taxes for the construction and repair of every street and road in America - which gives me the same rights to the road as any horn-blaring $%@&** in such a hurry he thinks honking will cause me to move out of his way. Wrong, Asshole. At the sound of a horn behind me, the accelerator in my truck seizes. The truck can only go slower and slower with each horn blast.

There is a wonderful term for this behavior: passive aggressive. No one gets hurt. If I get that shotgun, my behavior will no longer be passive. Cell Phone Guy could be driving around with the rear quarter panel blasted out of his stupid SUV right now.... waving his arms around at me like I'm too stupid to be driving the same streets with him....

Anarchy! Anarchy!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Five and Twenty years Past

Twenty five years ago this very morning, I nudged awake the iron worker peacefully sleeping beside me.

"I think it's time we head for the hospital," I said.

Though he always denied it afterward, he sprang out of bed, still mostly asleep, and cracked his shin against the bed frame. Poor guy.

Somehow, we got around that morning. Made the phone calls. Got dressed. All of us in the car - the iron worker, my 14 year old daughter, myself, and of course the baby on its way into the world, at last.

Both the iron worker and I had been through childbirth before. He had a son from his first marriage. We were not overly worried, not overly anxious. We knew the drill and were patiently waiting for the process to unfold. Things were progressing uneventfully until the nurses began frowning each time they checked the seismic monitor hooked to me and the baby. They glanced at each other. Were they thinking I would not notice? Worry and fear began growing in the pit of my stomach. I repeatedly asked what was the trouble, but they would not tell me anything, making me angry and scaring me.

The nurses soon hustled my doctor in. I was lucky my regular doctor was in attendance that day. I liked him personally and trusted him a lot. He was a gentle man and always seemed happy to be at work - a fine characteristic in an obstetrics doctor. Who would want a depressed, sullen maniac with license to wield a scalpel near her reproductive system, for crying out loud.

To the nurses' relief, the doctor looked at the seismograph read out. He possessed a sardonic wit and wry humor, which I loved. I intently watched his face for a clue as to what might be going amiss. His mouth pulled down on one side in his normal drawling dismissal of all things remotely hysterical in the females he was forced to work with, patients and nurses alike.

"Anyone who had a two hour labor with her first delivery is going to be fine. She'll take off like a string of firecrackers any minute," he assured the nurses. Just as I started to demand to know what trouble they were seeing on that goddamned machine, a big contraction hit. The doctor leaned into the seismograph. Suddenly, and with great authority, he said "Let's go."

Oh, it was on, then. The only thing I knew was that the baby was in distress. As soon as I gave my consent they sprang into action, enlisting the iron worker to roll the seismograph into the surgical room. They moved me from the bed directly to the operating table and simultaneously began hooking me into this, that and the other thing. They tied my right arm to a board and it seemed about a dozen people were bustling around quietly but in a big hurry. The doctor was calmly ordering things to happen. Information was provided to him in short, clipped statements. It was happening so fast that I could not even cry. The doctor leaned over to speak to me, his eyes full of mercy, as the anesthesiologist placed a mask over my face. Someone I could not see was telling me to count backwards. I tried to stay awake but the last thing I heard was, "Don't fight it."

Instantly my body was no longer in the vise grip of heavy labor pain. I was not worried or afraid. I was not in cold, clammy clothes and there were no foreign tubes and wires sticking into my body. I was immersed in a white and comforting light, dreaming that a perfectly formed and beautiful baby boy had been born. The baby was fine. In that dream, a tremendous happiness began cascading through my heart.

In the blink of an eye, reality began tearing into that safe and painless dream. I was being wheeled down the hall, waking into the worst physical suffering of my life. It felt as if that cart was slamming down a potholed road, jarring my scalded, searing innards with each jolt. An impossibly high thrumming joy overshadowed it all. Because of this experience - simultaneous agony in my body and ecstasy of my spirit - I know what dying will be like. Nothing can touch the spirit, not even the agony of the flesh. I could not see yet, but I could hear the iron worker's voice in my ear. "We have a son and he is beautiful."

Suddenly, I had trouble breathing. The doctor calmly told me to breathe through my nose. When I did, the gasping temporarily stopped, but only for a second. In a panic, I croaked, "I can't breathe!" I heard the good doctor wryly drawl, "Anyone who can talk can breathe." If I had not been in such a state on all physical levels, I would have laughed.

Soon I was given wonderful drugs that took away all of that physical suffering and I was left with nothing but the soaring joy. My daughter told me she saw a tiny baby being wheeled down the hall who looked exactly like the iron worker, and she was sure it was her brother or sister. The iron worker was amazed that there had not even been time to smoke a cigarette before the doctor appeared congratulating him on the birth of a son.

The next morning, I was enthusiastically eating my breakfast in bed, still high on the great happiness (and - alright - still high on the drugs) when the world's best doctor walked in.

"So how is my favorite patient? Smiling, as always. In fact, yesterday you were smiling before the anesthesia had worn off."

So, it had not been a dream. Despite the anesthesia, I knew the baby was fine, that I had a son, and that was the happiest moment of my life.

As it turned out, the nurses thought the umbilical cord was wrapped around the baby's neck. Each time a contraction occurred, the baby's heartbeat fell off dangerously low. Whatever the doctor saw in those seismic pen scribblings convinced him an emergency Cesarean delivery was warranted. The doctor later told me, and I think he was bragging, the recommended maximum time for delivering a baby in that situation was 15 minutes. He and his professional team delivered my son in less than six minutes. Amazing.

Happy birthday, my dear son. No matter how long I may live, the happiness you brought into my life the day you were born will never change, never diminish, never fade away. No matter what. I wish the same great happiness for you in your life.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Another Creature of the Flint Hills

Adult Collard Lizard image c Suzanne L. Collins

Coming home last night, a quick scurrying across the dusty road caught my attention. It was a lizard. He had a bluish cast to his skin and he froze at the edge of the road as my truck roared past. In the left mirror, I could easily distinguish his blue skin from the rocks at the edge of the road, so I backed the truck quietly until I was beside him. He is the first lizard I have seen in this area. We passed a pleasant moment in mutual observation and then I took my leave.

It always makes me happy to see another creature in my neighborhood. I wished my camera had been available. Though this is a common lizard, it was the first time I had seen one in all the years I have lived in the Shawnee, Osage and Wabaunsee county area. I hope I see one again sometime.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Officially: 112 Degrees Unofficially: Pan Fried

I will be happy when this extreme weather gives way to more biologically favorable conditions. Yesterday the repair shop parked my truck in the direct sun with windows closed. The steering wheel was too hot to touch with bare hands and remained that hot all the way home. I laid a towel over the wheel so I could steer. The good news is the forecast for tonight is a cool down: 98 degrees.

An expensive and depressing new grinding noise now emits from under the hood of my dependable little truck. This adds to my general happiness and satisfaction with life, you understand. According to the mechanic, it is the clutch on the air conditioning unit, which I have elected to not have repaired. Free will and lack of loose change factor into that election. My son owes me a large chunk of cash and if he does not pay up soon, I am sending Igor in to threaten his knee caps.

The weather will eventually change. Though these temperatures were last recorded in the 1930's, I have faith the weather will turn benevolent again - and far sooner than ten years hence. That is the trouble with faith. When my brain chemistry is balanced, faith is easy and optimism cheap. When my brain chemistry is running on empty, faith must be maintained from memory, and optimism is like the belief in Santa Claus - a brief great happiness followed by a lifetime of residual disappointment and depression.

The reality of building my new home is a fading dream for this year. The stakes with the day-glo flags that decorate the high ground, once visible from a half mile away, the seeds of my new house, are now lost in the tall prairie grasses. All the things that had to be favorably aligned - so promising earlier this year - have been systematically stressed and drained despite my best efforts. The hell with it. It is too late in life to get that far in debt anyway.

This too shall pass. I have been far more disgruntled with life than I am right now. This is a temporary rough patch. I know exactly how to deal with rough patches: lay low and eat chocolate. When my chocolate no longer melts immediately, it will be easier to lay low.