Sunday, June 19, 2016

Letter TO Birdland: LONG DAYS ON A TEMPERATE ISLE

Bathers on a brisk day in the Irish Sea.
IN IRELAND THE SUMMER DAYS ARE LONG. I don't even think about going to bed until the long twilight comes, and it's way after ten before it gets full dark. I've been waking up a little after 4, and the sky is already light, but the sun doesn't actually rise until about 5. Although we are pretty far north, the climate is temperate, and we see palm trees mixed in with thistle and poppy and rose and hazel. Our guide tells us that the bedrock collects solar energy and keeps the soil warm year round, and the acid in the rain leaches minerals from the limestone, so that although the soil is shallow, it is quite fertile.
Strange triangular rock formation.

I thought I came here to study the intersection between setting and fiction, or maybe how characters interact with their landscape. But almost immediately I began to realize that politics needs to be in the equation, too. Maybe it's because I have studied so little Irish literature before, and because we're looking at it in context (which I already knew coming over that context was the point, but I didn't know know it) so when we started reading and learning more about the history, especially of the Rising, I began to see more layers of everything.

I'm loving the connections I've seen already—mostly just serendipitous. For example, in our first day history lesson we learned about the strength of feeling of Irish Nationalism, to the point that you could be banned for life from the Gaelic Athletic Association if you were caught playing, or even going to foreign games, like Cricket or Football.
Michael was over the moon when we
found a cricket match at Trinity College.
He would have lost his GAA card for sure.
(That’s what they call soccer over here.) Then, on the way to the Guinness Storehouse our cab driver talked about the very same idea. He told us that he didn't think you could banned for watching, but playing for sure. Still, his sense of Nationalism clashed with his independence. "I played both," he said. "You're not going to tell me what to do.
Sport is mean to unify; not divide." He told us that you couldn't find an Irish person without English relatives, and told us that he, himself, has nieces and nephews and in-laws who are English, as well as a good friend. He did admit to some national pride, though. He said that his English friend calls to congratulate him when Irish teams are in the championships. But when the English teams do well, he says he will root for them all the way up, and then at the top hope for them to lose. He called it a "sibling rivalry." He said, "Big brother is great. Big brother can run like the wind. Big brother can kick the ball. Big brother wins this, wins that. Big brother is a pain in the arse." He told us that sibling rivalry is always a deep and emotional rivalry.

We are in Galway, an artistic town with a brisk tourist trade. Michael has gone home to tend to Birdland. My husband loved his time in Ireland, but he has work at home too, so I wandered the Latin Quarter with my school friends. Pub meals have been so delicious here, but my favorite so far was a salted salmon sandwich on a flatbread with slices of some kind of red jelly and capers as plump as blueberries.  It was served with a tiny ramekin of coleslaw—just a taste—and dressed greens in a cup. The Irish brown bread is quite nice, too. Even when you buy it from a shelf in the store it has a moist, hearty, nutty flavor. After lunch we wandered in the shops, winding through the narrow roads, listening to street musicians.

Next time I’ll tell you about our tour of the countryside, but for now I’m thinking about Birdland. Wondering whether my daylilies are blooming, or whether the brown dog, Cullen has slipped away to run with the coyotes. Wondering whether the black dog, Ursula, has managed to steal anyone’s breakfast.
Wander in Beauty; Ramble in Peace; Blessed Be.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

LETTER TO BIRDLAND: DUBLIN

The View from the Ha'Penny Bridge
THIS MORNING WE WOKE UP AN OCEAN AWAY FROM BIRDLAND. I am studying abroad in Ireland, and Michael is with me for a little while. My husband is adventurous, and he came along for the bangers and mash and the Guinness Stout, which somehow tastes better here. Smoother. We are here to learn about Irish Literature in the context of history. Reading about it in a book is pretty different from standing in the spot where historical events happened, but more on that later. We are staying in a dorm in University College Dublin (UCD). It's pleasantly chilly, and the campus is green and trim, with manicured hedges, which look like regular suburban hedges, but Michael noticed that they were actually stands of bamboo, cut like a privet hedge. We haven't been to the countryside yet, but the flora and fauna catch my eye. 
Magpies have long tails.
Rather than lawns with scattered dandelions like we have at home, tiny daisies crop up. I don't know if the Irish consider them weeds. A couple of unfamiliar birds strut and scratch and fly up into the trees on campus. It took me a few conversations and some web research to find that they are Magpies (the ones with the long, slender tails and striking blue-black and white

Rooks looked at us curiously whe
 we tried to take their pictures.
patterns on their shoulders and wings) and Rooks (Crow-like black birds with intelligent eyes and grey heads and shoulders).

We spent time our first day in St. Stephen's Green. Now a lovely park full of Saturday picnickers, it was a battlefield of the Easter Rising of 1916. We walked along and found placards and sculptures outlining the history and literature of Ireland. A peaceful lake lies in the center of the green, and one sign told us that during the Rising both sides observed a truce twice a day, so that James Kearney, the Superintendent of the Park could go in to feed the ducks.
These ducks are actually from the little
lake on the UCD campus.
We walked along on a lovely, sunny day and read descriptions of the trenches the Irish Volunteers dug outside the park, and the barricades they made from furniture and cars. We stood at the edge of the park to look at the Royal College of Surgeons, where the Volunteers raised the Tricolor flag after securing the building.
Also at UCE, a couple of protective swans guard their cygnets.
The history placards are written in both Irish and English, side by side, and our history teacher and our Irish language teacher both talked about the importance of reclaiming the Irish language and culture that was lost with colonization by the British. Studying the connections between language, culture, art, music, labor, and politics I'm beginning to realize how crucial these connections are for us at home. We seem to be on the verge of losing our public university system in Illinois. Already we have gotten away from the original mission of the Land Grant Universities—to enrich our state by educating the daughters and sons of the workers and farmers. Now those same sons and daughters cannot afford this education without going into crushing debt. How much worse will the situation be if our state continues in its failure to fund this public treasure? If our Universities close (as one alreadyseems to be doing) will the private corporations that take over guard this mission? Or will they guard their profits?
Dubliners are friendly, and yesterday a man struck up a conversation with us as four of us waited for the bus back to the campus. As soon as he ascertained that we were from the United States, he asked the question I had been dreading: "What about that Donald Trump? What is going on over there?" We four looked at each other, and some of us mumbled some excuses and assured him that not everyone is going to vote for Trump. But the answer I liked the best came from my friend, Ryan, who talked about how people are feeling angry and disappointed, and when Trump expresses that anger, many people relate to it, and that brings him support. It was evening, and the buses were about 30 minutes apart, so we had time to talk. We speculated with our new friend about whether Trump’s plans will take us nearer or farther away from the dreams of the people. Our bus came then and as we rode I thought about how I’d better get serious, when I get back, about working towards preserving our culture, our education, and labor.
Michael's first Irish Supper: Bangers and Mash

Mosaic on the floor of Kiely's Pub.
Sing in Beauty; Harp in Peace; Blessed Be.


Sunday, March 27, 2016

RECOVERY SOUP IN THE BIG CITY

Sister Spring in the Big City
SPRING HAS ALREADY COME TO BIRDLAND. The grass is greening up and daffodils are blooming. The velvety buds of Maple give just the lightest blush of red to the still leafless branches. Lilacs are pushing out their bright green leaves and the blossoms will soon follow. The Ornamental Quince has tiny buds, like rose colored capers, dotting the bush. The Sedum still has last year's russet bouquets, but it's time to cut those away to make way for the green leaves coming up at the base of the plant. I've got work to do in the yard today, but just now, standing at the kitchen window, waiting for the milk to boil for yogurt I see a parade of White Tails run across the still barren field into this broad morning. The dogs are sleeping at my feet, and good thing, or they would take off after, and follow the deer to the next county.

daffodils trumpet the dawn
Yesterday Michael and I went up to Chicago to visit our middle boy, Dylan. He was having an event, a "pop up" he calls "Recovery Soup at The Dinner Table." He hosts this monthly meal at a neighborhood bar, called "The Double." For just six dollars you can get a cup of soup and a hunk of a crusty hearth bread. For every cup sold, $2 will benefit a local organization. This month's was the Greater Chicago Food Depository.  


We went up early, to spend a sunny day walking around with our red-haired boy. We didn't have a plan, just walked around the neighborhood. We happened upon an art show at the Logan Square Comfort Station, the only one remaining. The web site tells us that nine identical comfort stations were built in the 1920's for use as a "warming buildings/public restrooms." I like the term, "comfort station," and the hospitality it suggests. I like even more that this was a public building. Rich and poor alike need a place to get warm and use the restroom. This one escaped demolition, and is now an art space. A Tudor style cottage with, yes, public restrooms, but also an art and performance space. We narrowly missed hearing live music—happened by just in time to see the musicians packing their cases. Next time we'll check out the website before we decide just how to spend an afternoon. At least we got to see the art, some interesting concept pieces made from various residues. We walked around and chatted. 

When we were hungry we found a place for a little lunch (saving room, of course, for the main event of the evening, Dylan's soup). We discovered a new brewery, and tried some of their beers. People met friends and played Scrabble and Jenga at a brewhouse called Hopewell. A group came in with a trio of Corgis on leashes. Another group greeted the dogs, and their people too. We went back out to discover more of the neighborhood. When we found an interesting shop we went in and browsed. We saw locally produced artful jewelry and clothing. We found a bike shop still open a few minutes after its posted closing time. "Sure! Come on in," they said when we asked. I bought a tiny brass bell for my bike. It gives one, clear, zen-like peal when I pull back the action. Dylan pointed out a shop window with a funny sculpture. I didn't see a title, but I think of it as the Goddess of Spring. She had feathers and flowers in her multi colored hair. Her arms were made of slinkies, (a fun, visual pun) and her hands were rubber gloves (spring cleaning, anyone?). In one hand she held a nest, in the other a snowman peered out of a cloud of puff of polyester fiber, suggesting a cloud or a snowbank. Her body was branches wrapped in colors and blooming in flowers. Birds perched on various parts of her. Dylan said that the sculpture in the window changes occasionally, and that it's fun to see what's new. It was a friendly kind of wandering on a sunny day.
Wander in Beauty; Sup in Peace; Blessed Be
Next it was time to pick up the soup for the event. We made ourselves useful by driving and then watched Dylan set up. Soon the soup was hot and friends and strangers alike were coming in for a hot cup. This month's was a hearty vegetable. Big chunks of still slightly crisp vegetables, plus a garnish of parboiled bitter melon and carrots, gave the soup a spring-time crunch. Chunks of something with a citrusy flavor intrigued me, and I had to ask Dylan what it was: daikon. We ate our soup and then headed home, but we'll be back next month. I can't wait to taste what Dylan will make next time.
Wander in Beauty; Sup in Peace; Blessed Be.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

GREETINGS FROM JEKYLL ISLAND

The Dunes at Jekyll Island
LAST WEEK I WROTE ABOUT MY SOJOURN IN NORTHERN GEORGIA, but after a very nice evening in LaFayette with my friend, Emily's brother, David, I turned my little car south once again and drove all the way down to Valdosta in the southern end of the state. I came down out of the mountains to a familiar flatness, but I also saw for myself what they mean when they talk about the red clay of Georgia. Another difference from my beloved Prairie was that I started seeing palm trees and palmetto bushes. I arrived in Valdosta and saw my dear Emily, and we picked up right where we left off. I had seen her up in Chicago a few times, when she was at a conference, but my old office mate has been gone for nine years, and this was my first visit to her new home.


Flowers Bloom in Salty Sand

We caught up, and then Em's husband, Gardner, came home and fixed us a delicious shrimp dinner, and the next morning I was back in the car to visit Jekyll Island. I told Emily I didn't mind the drive as long as I got to be the passenger for a while. It was a three hour trip, but very relaxing on a small highway with little traffic. We passed through little towns and stopped for lunch at one of them.
Jekyll Island is a state park, and though it does have some development, it is limited and tasteful. They do have a little shopping district with some high end shops, but they were mostly under construction. I didn't see any chain stores or restaurants.
But the real attraction for us was the beach. The beach was so clean and the sand so soft. I spent some time on the Jersey shore and remember the sand there as being much more coarse, and of course, lots of garbage washed up on the beach. Here we didn't see much of anything washed up—only a few small shells here and there, maybe a piece of driftwood. Certainly no garbage. At one point we approached something large. It looked like a black helmet from a distance, but when we got up close we discovered it was the shell of a horseshoe crab—the biggest one I've ever seen.
The color palate was soothing--just the blue, blue sky and white clouds and the sea a little blue-grey. There were some sea grasses and a few flowers and palm trees in the dunes, and fences, like our snow fences, against erosion.
Fences Protect the Dunes from Erosion
 We went in the water and it was perfect—just cool enough to be refreshing, the pull of the surf just enough to let me do my old lady side stroke without really going anywhere. We got into a rhythm of swimming, then walking along the beach until we were hot again and needed to swim some more to cool off. It was lovely, but finally we had to admit that we couldn't simply stay on the beach forever, and so we went to find some supper. We crossed back to the mainland and found a seafood restaurant where we split a plate of shrimp and then each had flounder stuffed with crab meat. I'm afraid I indulged quite a lot in the hushpuppies, since I don't often get them up north. 

We stayed overnight off the island and returned the next day for more beach and to see the sea turtles. Jekyll Island is home to the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, which is a museum and hospital for injured sea turtles. The hospital had lots of swimming pools with injured turtles, some the size of a manhole cover, some as large as my dining room table. They had mirrors above the pools so we could see the turtles swim as they gain strength. Some turtles were there because of an imbalance—weighed down by so many barnacles they had a hard time surfacing; some had been clipped by a boat. The hospital can even help a turtle with a broken shell by packing its wound with honey and keeping it safe while it heals. They rehabilitate turtles and releases them back into the wild. This is important work since very few turtles survive to adulthood even under the best of circumstances.
Dinner at the Seafood Restaurant

Outside of the hospital was a pen with young box turtles, which reminded me of my childhood pet, a box turtle, with the highly original name of “Myrtle.” We watched the turtles a while and then went back to the beach for another lovely day in the sun and sand.

Bask in Beauty; Heal in Peace; Blessed Be.


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

THIS IS WHAT COMMUNITY LOOKS LIKE!


Hard to wrangle the phone for a selfie in the cold, but our sign says "Black Lives Matter."
THE SKIES HAVE BEEN OVERCAST IN BIRDLAND. Fog for miles, but in the fog was quite a ruckus because starlings had come down to roost in our trees. Thousands of them. In midmorning I heard a shout from Michael. "Come quick!" said my husband. "Come right now." And I ran to join him at the window. Something had disturbed the flock and they had lifted off like one organism. They formed into a synchronized cloud of birds and flew like a dragon or a snake out over the field and lit in the grass waterway. It took several minutes for them to land, and it was hard to believe that all those birds came from the trees surrounding our little house. Then they startled again and flew back, winding in another lovely shape through the foggy sky. I was mesmerized and by the time I ran for my camera it was too late to capture the murmuration.The show went on for 10 minutes or more.



Last Friday I drove into town to join in a community event. I had read about it: Folks were going to stand together, lining the sidewalks along Springfield Avenue for two miles. We were going to profess our belief that black lives matter. I think most people would agree that the lives of black people matter just as much as any other people's lives, but recent events show us that we can't take this idea for granted; therefore, the obvious needs stating. Students, teachers, and community members were going to stand out in public and state the obvious. As usual, I found little things I needed to do at the last minute. When I realized that I would be late, I decided to change my habitual route and drive right down Springfield. I was headed to the far east end of the demonstration, where our church was providing hot chocolate and parking. On the west end of town I saw a few squad cars sitting quietly in parking lots, facing toward the street. I wasn't exactly sure what the western boundary of the march was, but didn't see anyone until I got to downtown Champaign. And then I saw only pockets of people, standing bravely on the sidewalk with signs. I honked my approval and kept driving east. I was a little sad that the streets weren't lined with people, as I thought they'd be, but I shouldn't have worried.



When I arrived at Lincoln Avenue where our church offered hot chocolate and parking to the demonstrators, the crowd was beginning to gather. There was a chill in the air, but faces were bright and hopeful. We held signs and chanted. I ran into friends and we chatted and marched. Nancy and I ended up together, both of us mothers, talking about our hopes for a peaceful, just world. More marchers gathered and we continued walking west. We passed Uni High and the students came out and joined us. Nancy's sons showed up and it was so heartening to see her youngest spontaneously lead us in a chant, his young throat straining with the strength of his words: "Tell me what community looks like; THIS is what community looks like."



Then it was rush hour and cars passed with people on their way home. What I didn't anticipate was the level of community support! People honked and waved. Not everyone, of course, but many, many people.



Afterwards, I picked up my youngest, who was in the midst of finals. My elation spilled over and I told him about the march as we drove home. He asked me, "What are you protesting?"



I looked at him. It was an honest question. I think he wanted to make sure I wasn't just jumping on the bandwagon. I said I could only speak for myself, but I was convinced that the fear that some police officers feel about black men coupled with the tendency to use lethal force was a very bad mix. The failure to indict in many cases means that too many sons, husbands, fathers, and brothers lie dead in the street and are then denied their day in court. I told him that I think the answer lies in better police training to deal with a very real (whether justified or not) fear in a way that deescalates the situation. We drove home, each mulling over our conversation. I hope that next time he will join me in marching for justice.



March in Beauty; Work for Peace; Blessed Be.

Friday, November 28, 2014

BLUE RIDGE THANKSGIVING

Ursula is the Queen of all she Surveys
YESTERDAY WE TOOK A SUNDAY DRIVE—ALL THE WAY TO VIRGINIA. We picked up Ellis early early in the morning. Our youngest slipped out of his house and into the car. Ursula lay quiet in the way back, her tail thumping when she saw her boy descend his front steps, carrying his bags to the car. We drove across the flatlands of Illinois and Indiana and on to the hills of Ohio. We turned south at Dayton and continued on to the mountains. If only we'd left earlier, we would have seen some lovely scenery. But the sun set on us and we drove through a dark rain up and down winding roads. I learned how to use the braking gear. At home I forget that it's even there, but it came in handy as I was driving down the mountain roads. The fog descended and we made it to the last little town before our road home to visit Michael's folks. My in-laws live in a cozy hunting lodge on a mountain, and that last road was treacherous in the dark and the wet, but we made it.

A Clear Blue Day

This morning I woke to a clear blue day, but the wind blew in some weather from Charlotte and we were treated to changing skies, but finally settling on a clear sunny day with an occasional breeze. The whole family piled into two or three cars and drove into Floyd, where we walked up and down the main drag, going into the artful shops to look around and soak up the mountain culture. In the hardware store we found some lovely cutting boards, strips of warm wood making rosy stripes. The knitting store was unfortunately closed, but we will try again on Friday, when we go to the Friday Night Jamboree at the General Store. They have a cute lunch counter and barrels of old fashioned candy, and lots of kitchen gadgets. Last time I visited I came home with a pie bird. Now my covered pies are vented with a ceramic blackbird, reminiscent of the nursery rhyme.
Candy at the Country Store
 On Fridays they have live music with clogging and country dancing. I can't wait to go back in a few days to see the show.
 
We came home to walk around the mountain and see what projects Babs and Jack have worked on over the past year, building projects and landscaping projects and excavation projects involving a little backhoe that has Michael drooling. We walked up a path and found the stone chimney—all that is left from a long ago homestead. A tall chimney rises several yards in the air, a rustic arch frames the firebox below. A hearth of tan-colored stones sticks out in front. I got to hear again the story of how Michael's family spent the afternoon clearing away brush and ash from the old fireplace, building a patio of flat stones carted up from the stream below. When they finally finished they built a fire and no sooner did the smoke rise up the chimney, but the poor snakes who lived there decided to flee. Everyone was lined up for a picture with their backs to the fireplace, and the designated photographer cried in alarm. Everyone turned around to see a large family of snakes slithering from all the cracks and chinks of the chimney. To hear it told, the snakes were as big around as my wrist and taller than me, but there were baby snakes too.

Ellis in the 7 Sisters

The stone patio was covered with a layer of leaves and Ellis grabbed a stick and used it to rake the leaves off of the patio. We all joined in, and Michael's sister, Kelly found some logs and tossed them into the fireplace. We are all ready for our woodland picnic.

Ursula Climbs the Mountain

We followed the trail down to the stream and meandered with the rushing water back up to the house. Ellis throws a stick into the stream and Ursula dives in after it, her legs paddling. She grabs the stick and scrambles back up the bank. They do this over and over again, as if there were nothing else important in the world, and I guess there isn't. The sun sets early in the mountains in November, and we are gathered in the warm kitchen. I sit a little off to the side, typing into my little computer. I look over at my family, gathered around a came of cards. Danielle is beating her uncle Mikey, and several conversations are tossed around the table. I'm thankful for my mountain family.
Climb in Beauty; Rise in Peace; Blessed Be.

Monday, August 18, 2014

TALISMAN OF HOPE

Naked Ladies
 














IN BIRDLAND WE CONTINUE WITH BRIGHT MILD DAYS interspersed with mild drizzle. A highly unusual summer. I made a joke and Ellis rewarded me with a half grin: "Seattle called. They want their weather back." Any grin, even a half, from my youngest is precious, especially these days when I find so much to despair about: wars erupting; the specters of racism and apartheid; our children being gunned down; challenges in our country to our dearest held principles, freedom of the press and academic freedom; a great, generous heart succumbing to sorrow; and even small despairs, like the predation in Birdland which has decimated my flock this summer.

Trumpets of Hope

A friend introduced me to the idea of a "talisman of hope," an idea that he discovered in Scott Russell Sanders’ book Hunting for Hope. These help us keep hope alive, like an ember from a fire that can be passed on to light another hearth. I look around and find one, right here in my yard. The annual visitation of Ghost Lilies is almost over, but I am gleaning some hope from this talisman.



One stereotypical sign of aging is that we repeat our stories, and if you've read this column for a while, you know that I return to the topic of Ghost Lilies again and again. But the stories my grandmothers repeated over and over are those that I remember best, and now retell to my own children, and the children of my sisters. If we listen, we will find that each telling is different. With time each story gathers detail and perspective. Just yesterday I picked two stems of these Naked Ladies (one of my favorite things about them is how Ghost Lilies (like the goddess of wisdom, or the god of war) have gathered so many names. I grew up calling them "Ghost Lilies," but "Naked Ladies" makes my yard seem like a party) and they perfume my living room even now. I cut two stems to put in a simple bowl of blue glass. Their long stamens curl upward, like eyelashes on a cartoon bird.



Pipping Eggs: Talisman of Hope

Ghost lilies first come in the spring. Sideways stacks of flat leaves push up from the earth. In the first days they look like tiny green books with fat pages emerging. The leaves grow quickly and become long blades arising from a central point, like a giant grass plant. Knee-high, they gather sun for a while, adding a vertical green to the garden, and then one day we find them collapsed in a heap. They yellow on the ground, and then just disappear. Now they are quiet. Gathering time is over. I don't know what happens underground, in the deep, cold earth. But above, we go on with our lives, mostly forgetting about the Ghost Lilies. But they are at their quiet work and patient waiting.



In mid summer, when we least expect it, we'll see the buds rising on crisp, bright stems. Again, they grow quickly, magically, and unencumbered by leaves. The buds are clustered at the top of the stems, and push up towards the sky. In the beginning they are a dark, dusky pink, almost maroon. But as they stretch and open, they lighten until they look like little, pink lamps, shining in the morning. Each stem has 6 blossoms trumpeting outward from a circle. They call a variety of pollinators with their perfume, but what interests me the most is the bulb below. What kind of magic does it hold down there in the darkness? How does it take in June sunlight to light lamps in August? What calls those trumpets back up to the sky?

Seeds of Hope in Decay


Here, now, the flowers are fading. They are tattered and the petals are bruised. Some stems have already flopped over. They are at the end of their cycle. Some of the blossoms have created new seeds—we can see swollen ovaries where the petals drop off. Again, they will fade. Again they will disappear.



But I have dug deep into the earth to find the source of this loveliness. The bulbs are big and crisp and deeper than we think—deeper than we planted them. The bulbs themselves are growing beneath the ground, dividing and creating more colonies. And here is what gives me hope: That growth and planning and gathering and waiting is all going on beneath the surface, without our help, without our attention, maybe even without our knowledge. They will go on, with or without us.



This is not meant to be an argument against action. Now, more than ever, we do need to work for peace and justice. But I do offer it as an offering of hope, a talisman against despair. May the trumpets call us to our urgent, peaceful work.




Perfume Beauty; Trumpet Peace; Blessed Be.