Saturday, December 20, 2008

Lessons for the holidays

1. It does not matter whether or not spiders are good luck. When company is coming over, everything must be vacuumed.

2. If you go skiing, you are not allowed to put your wet snowy boots next to the fireplace to dry out until after people leave, so they do not think we live like slobs. (Albeit slobs with warm, dry feet.)

3. Who would be so silly as to gather the pine boughs with the long needles when only the obviously short ones make appropriate decorations?

4. Thou must not encourage the cat to play with ornaments.

5. Only festive cut-out cookies this time of year. Dinosaurs are unacceptable (not just because the Stegosaurus's tail always breaks off when you try to frost it.) No, you cannot just squint and say the Diplodocus looks like a reindeer with really short legs and a long neck and tail. Wreaths and trees and stars only. (Maybe the occasional airplane, for Dad, so long as it's red and green.)

6. Never ever admit to your mother that you're happy to be home, that you too find a sort of joy in fussing over the little absurdities that make the season special. Your job is to rearrange the "N-O-E-L" blocks and steal camels from the Nativity scene.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Landscape in shades of white and brown

White, dark white outside with the faintest shadows of tree trunks fading off into the distance. Although the snow is coming down sideways, pine boughs whipping in the wind, there's an eerie muffled silence -- no cars, no planes, just the clackety clack of this keyboard and the insistent whispers of words in my head.

As Dad said, "a nice day to just sit by the fire and watch the snow fall outside."

Part of me agrees -- the part that took the dog for a walk this morning just so I could come back inside and take off my boots and wipe off my foggy glasses and heat up a cup of hot cocoa and nestle in -- the part that wants to say that winter is so delightful because the cold reminds you to be happy for warmth. Then part of me argues -- the part of me that says ahh, but it's only so pleasant because you know you have enough wood, enough chocolate, enough time to come in out of the storm, to be comfortable. My fingers are cold, out here in this room away from the stove, sitting in this midday darkness, where's the sun? I've been away from the warmth for too long and will tire of the season before it begins.

Dad just came in from snowblowing the driveway, has brushed the blizzard from his coat, is poking at the fire, unloading logs he'd spent so much time piling up. The work that went into those, even with all sorts of tools -- dragging the fallen trees from the woods to the yard, cutting them into manageable sections, then splitting them one by one, wheelbarrowing them over to the pile then neatly stacking them in an orderly cross-cross-layer patterns, the rhythm, the monotony, the backache, the tendon strain, just so we can toss them in and watch them burn. While he was doing all of that work, was he thinking of a day like this, knowing that he would be able to enjoy a day of sitting by the fire and watching the snow fall outside? I didn't do anything to earn this warmth, to earn the hot cocoa and the puppy and this view of white white white wind. Brown eyes, cold.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Science = sparks of creativity

It's that cold, dry time of year when everything just vibrates with static electricity -- sweaters and socks and bzzt I remember getting shocked every time I touched the climbing wall. Last night, watching my blanket sparkle with little blue bursts, I knew that it was just atoms neutralizating their electronic charges, not fairies dancing or elves winking or even lost lightning bugs. But I also knew that the phenomenon can occur on a much larger scale -- in effect, I was creating mini lightning bolts. That made me feel like Zeus in Fantasia, snuggling into a thunderstorm.

"Knowledge" doesn't dispel magic.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Little things should make you happy, no?

Smoothed rocks and driftwood and rich autumn leaves. Puppies and warm socks and piles of wood dry under the blue tarp. The smell of pine trees. Seeing the sun rise, seeing the sun set. Soft rain and softer snow. Chocolate chip pancakes, a warm cup of cocoa, a mug that fits in your hands. A bottle of red wine and bread baking in the oven. A fresh box of crayons, a new book, a letter from a friend, a phone call.

What do you do if these things don't make you happy, if you surround yourself with photographs and quotations and sensations and still feel empty? If you can never feel happy with what you have, where you are, can never be content with contentedness but crave require adventure, are doomed to forever seek something elsewhere? Must keep moving, every few months, pile all of your plants into your car and try out all of those places you've never been, maybe happiness will be there?

They say that happiness must glow from within, that your environment, your possessions, even your friends and family can never illuminate your core. Surrounding yourself with little delights -- nope. Striving ever onward, if not upward -- nope. Asking questions, delighting in thoughts and words -- nope. Reveling in tastes, smells, sights, sounds -- nope. Simply turning inward, thinking like a rock in a stream, letting life flow around you as it will, sometimes cold and wet, sometimes dappled with sunshine, what kind of rock would I be? I wouldn't be one of those giant granite boulders, just a happy little pebble, smooth and grey, swirled with ribbons of color from eons past, sitting a pool of water, watching the fishes and skies dance above, forever wondering what it would feel like to be alive.

(I'm sorry, all of you rocks and branches and leaves, that you're sitting on my desk, removed from your place at the bottom of the stream or on the lakeshore or in the forest's carpet in a futile attempt to make meaning tangible.)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

I feel like breeding chaos. (In the form of a blog?)

This morning, while waiting for class(es) to start, fretting about the confluence between Martian warming, maps of sea-monsters, and butterscotch-flavored coffee, I realized how much I must relish that sense of stress, test of my extemporaneous ability. No time to plan ahead, just discover right then and there what sort of facts are careening around my brain and how well I can extract and communicate them. (Think trying to locate electrons in an atomic "cloud.")(Doing so apparently involves lots of arm-waving, digressions, and diagrams.)

The challenge! the importance! more than just floating along, drifting away, a waterfall! the roar, the mist, the splendor!

It's like insomnia (bear with me, I'm in "synthesis mode," do believe I might actually have just told people that understanding global climate change involves understanding The Grand Theory of Everything) -- really, it's a terrible habit, but when you find yourself waking up at 2 a.m. again wondering about the universe, you can't do anything but smile and shake your head and pick up a book on cognition. Same as when you find yourself telling people that there's obviously some innate human love of moving large rocks (evidence: Stonehenge, Easter Island, your grandfather's perennial battle with concretions on the lakeshore)(scientific theories must always have three examples to make them sound), you again can't do anything but smile and shake your head. Or when you find yourself interrupting your own typing with parenthetical comments. (Sorry.)(No, not really, that's how I think. Abstract references make the point hard to follow, but at the same time are the point -- such delight, inspiration, color in chaos.)

Apparently a significant proportion of humans dream in black and white? I find that sad. I dream in full color, and smell, touch, taste, sound as well. Sometimes makes it hard to separate the real from imagined, but why would anyone want to?

Hooray for the parentheses, exclamation points, question marks, commas, and dot dot dots of life...

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Question I'd really like to leap up and ask instead of sitting quietly in class

Are people really content to just plod through life without thinking about it,
engaging in it,
enjoying it?

So many beautiful mysteries, out there, in the real world, the open sky

Monday, December 1, 2008

Happy December!

Perhaps we shouldn't need a calendar to celebrate a fresh start, just as we shouldn't need a holiday to remember to give thanks, but there's something inherently delightful about starting a new month -- every new month, not just every new year.

Some months are happier to begin than others, though. The first day of November feels heavy, grey, and bleak, trees and animals finally succumb to the cold, prepare to hibernate. January knows it can never live up to its expectations, it becomes too involved, too far into the season, snow already accumulating in salty piles of slush by the side of the road. But December! What balance, December! It's the month for swishing angels, lacing up ice skates, stacking the wood-pile, sipping hot chocolate, frosting cut-out cookies, rearranging the N-O-E-L blocks so that they spell L-E-O-N, decembering!

This month always holds such promise. This first morning is like standing out at the edge of a snowy field, ready to inscribe footsteps across an expanse of pure whiteness.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Really I can think about, talk about things other than sunrises.
(But why would I want to?)


Yesterday, an abstraction: deep blue expanse, morning star high to the west, two jet trails angling in from the east, palely illuminated by the not-yet-risen sun.

Today, just quiet dark fading into light. No opportunity to experience the best moments -- the delicious last pause of darkness, then pure thrill when the sun smiles up over the horizon. With buildings and trees and streetlamps and schoolwork blocking the view, day and night lose all definition.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Little things, and awareness of the big things

Yesterday afternoon: beeeep! And darkness in the lab. Waiting, waiting. People started to gather in the corridor, faces lit by the glow of the emergency lights, then drifted into the main hallway. Word slowly spread (well, not too slowly, thanks to cell phones) that power was out all over campus. No more computers, no more lights. Silence inside, revelry out as students streamed free from classes and campus. Power failure holiday!

I lost a sentence or two from a paper I'd been working on, but I'm sure others were far more inconvenienced (and thus far less delighted by the occurrence). How often do we stop to "save"? More importantly, how often do we stop to think about just how much we rely on that darn electricity, no, expect, even demand it? As I was strolling home, I thought about the traffic signals, the streetlamps, the radio, the stove, the hot water heater, even the plug I need to charge the battery on my laptop. And I just take for granted that it'll be there. So many things, so many big things, are out of my hands in this specialized yet interconnected society we've created. I don't like that. But need to remember to be thankful for each and every little thing that works properly on a day-to-day basis.

Normally it takes a good thunderstorm or blizzard to knock out power to an area as large as the K-State campus, but in this case, it was a couple of squirrels. Squirrels. Thank goodness for squirrels, gathering acorns, reminding us to think ahead, be prepared for winter, or at least appreciative of autumn.

Speaking of autumn and other silly little things that encourage awareness, it's finally cold enough in the mornings that I have to wrap my scarf around my nose. This, of course, fogs up my glasses unless I adopt an inhale-through-the-nose, exhale-through-the-mouth breathing patterns. Inhale-through-the-nose, exhale-through-the-mouth, inhale-through-the-nose, exhale-through-the-mouth... Sharp sting of the fresh air through the nose, humid warmth of the stale air from the lungs, a steady rhythm that I rarely remember to observe, to delight in.
That's what yoga is for, to return to the breath, the ham sa of existence, but I forget to integrate it into daily life, into sitting in front of the computer, into walking along the sidewalk. Until "inconvenienced" by wearing a scarf.

I love my scarf -- it's a rich mustard-yellow color (the color of cottonwood leaves in autumn), extra long (so I could wrap it around my nose twice in Wyoming), and, best of all, it has pockets! Hooray for pockets! Somewhere to put my keys or stow my hat and mittens or stash Hershey bars.

Maybe I should slip some squirrels in there too, just to be sure.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

How to take all the delight out of a sunrise

I hate it when I turn my brain on.

Such a beautiful sunrise, indescribably vast, envigorating, fleeting, the entire redpinkorangegold of the spectrum skittering softly across the base of the clouds. Seen first in the reflection off windows, colors of the sky embracing cold buildings in their warm glow. Echoed in the rustle of the leaves, the breeze that couldn't quite prevent me from sitting outside watching it along with the pigeons who've become my sunrise compatriots here. (The squirrels don't stop to watch.) Lost all awareness of ticktock time and felt moments flow like light, experiencing the wonder of Einstein's equation while completely ignoring the science of it, felt the only way to comprehend physics, science, life is to step outside of it and experience existence like a pigeon watching the sun rise over Kansas.

Then oh the sky literally turned off, blink and it was day. But not just any day, memories can linger? Until I start thinking, then the magic is gone.

By retreating from my body back into my mind, I'm losing something visceral, something real, that sense of poignancy, of time and place and death and life that sunrises and especially sunsets afford. I'm destroying the sunrise with every word I type, the damn clicketyclack of the keyboard eating away at the original sensation.

Yet I continue to write, to write, to try to share something with anyone and everyone. No one reads this blog, really it's for me, but something in me wants to believe that simply by trying to describe this morning, this life, oh perhaps there's some way to make sense of it.

"Make sense." Odd, the words that flow out. "Sense" isn't made. I had sense. Sense is seesmellhearfeel. Not a blinking cursor and serif font. Somebody please tell me to turn my brain off, I need to go sit with the pigeons

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Cold weather and medicine

Maybe I've just overdosed on cough syrup, but the sky seems extraordinarily blue today, the sun extraordinarily bright, the air extraordinarily clean. I either got lost or distracted (really, a little of both) on my way to campus, wandered along rustling sidewalks (or rather, sidewalks lined with rustling trees, I really have taken in too much, feel mildly detached, observant, like I'm floating over myself rather than in my body)(or like I'm watching me as a character in a movie or a play, sometimes it's interesting to imagine that, to script lines then absolve yourself of any responsibility for their utterance) and collected a tremendous variety of leaves -- pale, delicate maple, dark almost burnt-looking oak, old bronzed something-or-other with a small tidy hole in it (think very-hungry caterpillar).

It's autumn. The day should be spent walking a dog, raking up leaves, stacking wood, baking apple pie, oh a thousand things other than aimlessly roaming the streets of Manhattan Kansas desperate to be outside to be happy to find some sort of meaning in this place.

It is not an appropriate day for purpleness. Today is washed in hues of gold amber red brown light, not the light of Vermeer or Turner, but a light of poignancy that I've never seen painted, think perhaps shouldn't ever be painted, described only in poetry, in leaves, in the smell of sunshine against a blue sky.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Headstands at 2 a.m.

They say "turn that frown upside-down." I tried it in the middle of the night, wide awake with little pink marbles whirling. Didn't work, couldn't do it. So instead, I just turned all of me upside down. Indeed, with blood rushing from my toes my heart to my brain, I couldn't help but smile.

Then I realized: when upside-down, isn't a smile a frown?

Baffled by that, I thought of thunder fog. Yesterday evening, I made it home just in time to turn on the radio and hear the weather report -- "thunder fog" in the KPR listening area. ? Apparently, sometimes light, gentle mist at ground level belies more dramatic electricity in the upper atmosphere. If I could be a weather phenomenon, I'd be thunder fog.

That thought made me smile more, though, which technically would be frowning more. So I changed my focus to wet moths. When I opened the door to the Union yesterday afternoon, intent on slipping in out of the rain, I saw a moth fluttering against the glass -- trying to find its way in too. Then it stopped fluttering, just resigned itself to a corner, where it could see warmth and dryness and people people people bustling around, umbrellas folded under their arms and wet shoes squeaking on the shiny floor.

That thought made me forget to smile, but it also made me forget to concentrate on my balance. By the time I'd recovered from toppling over and sat upright, I again had a frown that needed turning upside-down. What can you do? Go to sleep and dream of wet moths in thunder fog.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Anonymous hands

A photograph on the cover of today's NY Times shows John McCain shaking hands with supporters at a rally in Westerville, Ohio. Presumably, you're supposed to focus on him, standing above the sea of faces and fingers. What draws my attention, though, is one arm in particular, sheathed in a sensible-looking beige ribbed sweater. The associated hand is slender, strong, with veins like the roots of an old apple tree. It's a beautiful hand. It has a story to tell.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


5 a.m. Sunday morning and I'm doing laundry. Hey, when you're an insomniac and there's a 24-hour laundromat a block away, it's the best time to wash your clothes -- after the drunken college students have stumbled back to their apartments (or at least passed out somewhere) and long before the donut-and-coffee crowd has woken up.

I always procrastinate on laundry, feel it's too much a waste of time. It seems so much more efficient to me to wash socks in the sink than to head to the laundromat. I don't mind sweeping the floor, though, find it rather meditative, and border on obsessive when it comes to washing dishes/keeping the kitchen excessively tidy, but laundry? enh. Maybe it's because I have to decide what needs to be cleaned, pack it up, actually lug it over there, put the coins in, sit and wait, blah blah blah, probably it's just that I'm not a big fan of doing personal chores in public places.

Especially when some guy walked in just as I began the only enjoyable part -- taking the clothes out of the dryer and basking in their warmth and freshness. Like spring sunshine, courtesy of Maytag and Tide. Oh for all my complaining and procrastinating, there's a delight in the smell and feel of clean laundry, a simple challenge in calculating the best way to fold fabric, happiness in knowing that your clothes look like new. I'm feeling very proud of my domestic initiative, think I'll go home and make a coffee cake while wearing my now-clean apron.

And perhaps tonight I'll be able to snuggle into my clean sheets and dream of beautiful, light things and not wake up until morning.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Red Shoes

I'm wearing my red shoes today. When asked why he sports his red Sauconys, Garrison Keillor once responded, "They help me to keep track of where my feet are." I find that very reasonable. Especially today. I was going to drive to the farmers market this morning, but when I stepped outside something in the air made me want to walk instead. Chilly deliciously autumny morning air. Also very foggy autumny morning air. I was very glad that I'd decided to wear my red shoes; otherwise I might have lost my feet in the clouds.

Speaking of feet on the ground, head in the clouds, I very glad that I decided to walk to the farmers market. Not only was I able to mmm stretch my legs a little bit (oh I miss sunrise walks, sunset walks, walks with my puppy, walks out into the desert, walking walking walking, see Thoreau. Or Pushkin or Tolstoy or Leopold or any number of Zen poets to understand the art of walking), but I saw all sorts of brilliant leaves along the sidewalk. There's such joy in discovering a leaf on the sidewalk -- a leaf with a particular color or shape or attitude that just commands attention, respect, appreciation. Appreciation for such pure beauty, delicate beauty.

The process of leaf-collection has four distinct dimensions: 1.
the serendipity of seeing a leaf 2. the realization that it has some sort of distinguishing characteristic 3. the almost involuntary desire/need to preserve it 4. cessation of whatever walk/conversation/activity you're engaged in 5. the actual act of picking the leaf up, with the associated surprise that such a poignant thing can feel so weightless 6. resumption of the interrupted walk/conversation/activity, but with a half-embarrassed, half-delighted little smile.

I have surrounded myself with leaves, collected from various sidewalks this autumn.

Leaves, and stones and driftwood and all sorts of silly happy things. But each of them would require pages more of description. And right now, my red shoes and I would rather go for a walk.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Meditations on clouds, etc.

So I like to begin writing with "so" because it implies a continuation, a conversation. Assuming that I'm picking up an already understood thread, I thought I'd share some of my thoughts (typed with full awareness of the repetition of thought and thoughts -- I have lots of them, they tumble so eagerly from my mind, moment to moment)

Earlier, for example, while sitting in Advanced Environmental Geography, I realized how appropriate it was that we'd spent Tuesday learning about "hydrometeors" while a cold, dreary autumn rain fell outside. But today, we were learning about clouds under a brilliant blue sky. Perhaps not quite as appropriate, but still inspiring:

  • Western New York suffers chronic stratus and nimbo-stratus skies, which should only be allowed on melancholy November days. Beyond that, they're just tiring. Arizona, alternately, experiences those breathtaking cumulonimbus monsoons, oh that just make you feel alive.
  • Cumulous clouds, meanwhile, are those deliciously white puffs that form during summer, which can be either annoying or comfortable to anyone who's trying to read outside -- either curse or appreciate the alternating sun then shadow then sun, warm cool hot cold.
  • Clouds can only be described with similies -- like cauliflower, like cottonballs; like horsetails, like anvils; like dragons, like turtles.

Moving on from clouds:

  • "Raindrop" and "snowflake" are onomatopoeic -- you can't divorce the word from the sound it makes
  • Great mystery of meteorology (let's hope it stays that way) -- no one knows exactly what makes a raindrop form.
  • Evaporation fog forms when cool air settles in over warm moist ground or a warm body of water. That's what defines the term, but the condition is less a weather phenomenon and more an ingredient for a poem.

So that's what I've been thinking today. Random snippets, flows. While browsing desperately for something to read Saturday, I found the Robert Frost shelves in the library, flipped through his published notebooks, found them filled with delicious half-references, scribbled thoughts. I'll never pretend to even begin to equate my observations with those of Robert Frost (in fact, needed several infinitive verbs to separate myself), but figure he's not a bad thinker to admire.