The many layers of veganism

People have different reasons for becoming vegan. The plant-based eaters tend to come at it from a health standpoint, much like the whole-fooders and the clean-eaters. Others go vegan for medical reasons. Most of the vegans I know do it for the love of animals and their desire to not play any part in animal cruelty. I fall in with this last group, but also, because I can’t divorce my passions for conservation and environmentalism from veganism. Kindness to animals, for me, goes hand in hand with kindness to the earth, to the land, to the water, to the air. With this belief that we all belong to each other, which is engraved with ink on my skin.

When I first made the decision to adopt a vegan lifestyle about nine months ago, I knew giving up meat was the easy part. I’d already lived quite happily without meat for a year and half as a vegetarian. What was going to be hardest, I thought, was letting go of eggs and dairy. I ate eggs almost every day, in some form or another, for protein. I loved egg dishes of all kinds, especially for breakfast. I loved my whole milk lattes and, dear lord, my half and half. No tofu scramble or plant milk I knew of could come close to replacing those.

. . . . .

What I didn’t see coming were all the micro decisions within decisions that would shape my lifestyle, challenging me to expand my concept of being vegan. How many warm socks have wool in them. How many warm boots have leather. How many food items contain sneaky, ambiguous ingredients such as “natural flavors,” which generally involve an animal. How many artificial colors in products – products I sometimes splurge on, like candy for a movie or Mexican soda at a taco truck – come from an animal, or a byproduct of petroleum, which is toxic not only to ingest, but also to the earth and the habitats of who knows how many living species.

And this one, most recently, which makes my insides simultaneously ache and cringe: palm oil. It seems, though I’m slightly exaggerating, this is in most of the vegan products that I purchase. From the soymilk creamer that has satisfactorily replaced my half and half, to the Earth Balance butter I use for much of my baking, to the cashew milk ice cream I treated myself to today. It can also be found hidden in laundry detergents, cleaning products, toothpastes, cosmetics and shampoo.

And what’s wrong with palm oil, you may wonder? It certainly sounds vegan. On one level, it is. It does not contain, nor does it come from, any animal. No, but the majority of palm oil does come from rain forests in Indonesia and Malaysia, and mostly not with sustainable measures. Rain forests that are fragile, disappearing ecosystems, home to more animals and living things than I can name. According to the World Wildlife Fund, swaths of rain forest the size of 300 football fields are cleared every hour for the purpose of setting up palm oil plantations. That large of a territory is beyond my imagination. And they accomplish this largely by setting fire to the forest.

This is where I start to weep as I write this. I can’t type these words without seeing images of ancient trees consumed by fire; birds and reptiles and mammals fleeing their homes in terror at the hands of human oppressors and machines. Or more specifically, orangutans: running with their hair or limbs on fire. Some of them cruelly beaten to death by the ones evicting them from their home and eviscerating the land. I didn’t know how vital orangutans are in maintaining a healthy ecosystem in the rain forest; how certain seeds can only germinate in the forest after they have been ingested by and passed through an orangutan. As of now, it’s estimated that over 90% of the orangutans’ habitat has been obliterated in the last 20 years, constituting them as “a conservation emergency” by the UN. Somewhere between 1,000-5,000 are killed each year for the purpose of palm oil production.

To me, orangutans, or any living thing – large or small, simple or complex – are as vital to this planet as humans. As much as I love the taste of my vegan creamer and vegan ice cream and vegan butter (and the convenience of buying them versus making my own), I know I could never stand at the edges of a burning rain forest and shrug my shoulders; look away; stare at the violence and still come to the conclusion that my taste preferences and convenience are more valuable than these lives. If I saw it in person, I don’t know what it would do me. What it would compel me to do. I think the images of the horror, the sounds and smells, could possibly traumatize me for life if merely looking at pictures and reading an article can leave me with my face in my hands, sobbing.

. . . . .

Yes, it’s hard to see. To feel so much. To know ugly truths. People might label you a fanatic. A kill joy, a downer. Someone who always has to rock the boat, make things difficult, take all the “fun” out of life. A tree hugging hippie (which, for me, is a compliment). They might roll their eyes and say you’re an idealist, or accuse you of judging their choices. But who gives a damn what these people think or say about you when the world and so many living things you love are suffering, endangered – and increasingly disappearing – over human ignorance, selfishness and greed and you cannot bear to be a part of the violence any longer?

I will never forget the words of my counseling supervisor as a grad school intern: “You can’t unknow what you know.”

How these words have haunted me since I first heard them ten years ago. How they’ve come to influence me at crossroads in my life, where I am asked to choose between doing good or keeping peace with the status quo. How they’ve shaped who I am continuing to become; shaped my art, my yoga, my relationships or loss of them, my eating and my buying and my repurposing, my volunteering and my marching and my writing, my daily rituals. And that, essentially, is what being vegan boils down to for me.

 

For more on palm oil, the industry and its environmental impact, read here.

 

 

 

Paying homage to my tribe

I’ve heard it for awhile now, this message to “find your tribe.” You know, find your people, the ones with whom you are wholly free to be you. The ones who are constants in an ever changing landscape. Who make you a better person, make life better, even more bearable. As I think of this, those good ol’ lyrics of Bono are echoing in my mind: But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. I’ve searched my whole life, and still, I can’t seem to find my tribe of people. I’ve got individual people whom I adore and have adored, whose friendships often ebb and flow, and I’ve learned to accept this. Sometimes, even embrace this.

It’s been hard for me to learn to put down roots with people when I’m afraid they’ll be yanked out. Perhaps this is one of the many reasons I have found my tribe elsewhere.

. . . . .

It was a rough morning, to say the least. Everything in me was itching – no, aching – to get out into the woods. Not the woods near our home with their slender, dry, domino-esque trees that carry a sense of death suspended, but older forests with evergreen boughs that sway rhythmically with the wind and wrinkles etched into mammoth trunks. If there is one thing I miss the most about our home in Seattle, it is the old growth forest four miles down the road from us. So I found the closest thing to me here in Bellingham, and I rode my bike like a woman on a mission. A weary woman heading home for rest and comfort.

I rolled out my yoga mat on a gravel island beside a creek, lay on my back and stared up at the clouds as they shape shifted and danced across their blue palette. Watched a red tailed hawk soar in circles high above my head, the feathery green fingers of the trees reaching for her, absorbing the song of the water and the steadiness of the earth holding me up. And then, I noticed that the tree rooted to the embankment beside me seemed to have opened its arms to me, for I saw there a space carved out just big enough to hold my body. A space where the curvature of my spine melded to the curvature of the tree. And I jumped up and ran to her, this tree, surrendering to her invitation to rest and be held.

I rested here awhile, in the presence of this old soul, relaxing into the mystery of non-human companionship. There is much to be said for the presence of old trees, but words often fail to capture what cannot be described as much as experienced.

Walking through these woods, I stopped for handstands and poses and the art of seeing angles, relishing dirt on my hands and sap on my skin. This whole forested park leaned in as a canopy, as if whispering, we are your tribe. I was overcome. Joy leaked from my heart out my eyes and down my cheeks, too much to contain, this gift of being at home among others, even if those others are trees and gurgling creeks and red tailed hawks and black squirrels.

And this is one of many, many reasons I am compelled to advocate for our woods and wildlife, our waters and parks. Because without them, a large part of me would be lost, adrift without a home, without a tribe. These are and always will be my ‘people,’ the ones I belong to. The ones who light a fire in my soul.

 

 

 

Together we rise: So it begins

Yesterday I marched with thousands of women, men, children and dogs through downtown Bellingham, and then I dreamt last night of Trump. A group of consultants were trying hard to tweak his public image by taming his combover, his hair color, the orange tint of his skin. As if these were the biggest hurdles he had to overcome publicly; as if adjusting these would magically make him acceptable to roughly half the American population. In my dream, the tone was lighter than real life, even somewhat comical, but I still stirred restlessly. Because this wasn’t a dream, a joke, or even a nightmare. This was day one of the Trump regime.

. . . . .

I walked and caught the bus downtown in the morning, where I was greeted by a sea of colorful signs and pink pussy hats. It was my first march, and I didn’t even think to bring my own sign, nor did I know the significance of the oddly shaped pink hats (blame it on not being on Facebook), but I showed up, wearing my love trumps hate earrings and my emotions so near the surface. I showed up, desperate not to feel alone in the wake of the world turning upside-down.

Yesterday marked many firsts in my thirty-six years – including my first tears shed during the National Anthem – but more so, it marked a beginning. A beginning of being asked to fight for something dear as a citizen of this country. True, as a woman, I’ve fought quieter battles throughout my life. But as a white person, I’ve never been required to struggle. Collectively, white Americans don’t know how to do this in our generation. To struggle for the long haul. The stamina, focus, determination and resources that will require of us. Do we have what it takes? Do I have what it takes? Are we up for the challenge?

Because this is no longer about politics. Indeed, it hasn’t been, for most of the election season. It’s about fundamental human rights, dignity, respect and global care for not only humankind, but all life on this planet. Perhaps this is why the divide between Americans feels more pronounced, more deep and raw and toxic. It goes way beyond politics.

I’ve heard so many people say, “But what can one man do in four years?” It blows my mind that anyone who has studied world history can ask a question like that. But we’re not just talking about one man. We’re talking about a cabinet. A congress. Ones that have already removed dedicated pages for LGBT rights, civil rights and climate action from the official White House website. That want to do away with funding for public arts, such as NPR and PBS. This is only day two, and everything inside me is stricken with fear and grief and insecurity.

So yeah, I showed up yesterday, and it felt empowering. To see photos of the crowds that turned up from Alaska to Antarctica, and all across cities in the U.S. filled me with a measure of hope. But my bigger hope is that these signs and chants and hours taken out of a Saturday will not be isolated events, tucked away as memories of “where we were” the day after Trump’s inauguration. My hope is that this is the beginning of a movement that will not lose steam, lose focus, or become disheartened after a month or six. We’ve got a long, hard road ahead of us. Who knows, really, what will be asked of us.

Will we continue to show up with our lives, to fight for what we hold dear?

God, I hope so.  Because only together will we truly rise.

As the clock turns

I don’t recall at what age I began muttering about how much faster time seems to be flying. I think it must have been in my late twenties. And here I am at the ripe old age of thirty-six, still cradling my head in my hands and wondering how life has slipped through like a million grains of sand.

At what age did I realize the picture I had of my life resembled a Picasso painting far more than it did the idyllic Thomas Kincaid replicas that hung in our home growing up? Maybe when I turned thirty, and finally began tearing the proverbial timeline of my life into tiny pieces and relinquishing it, bit by bit, to the wind. It takes years to let go of a lifetime of programming – “THIS is what your life will be!” – and embrace the wild unknown. At least it has for me.

Still, I wasn’t quite prepared to turn thirty-six. For some reason, this downward tip toward forty felt like Bill Murray in Groundhog’s Day, reliving the same perceived “failures” of my youth to arrive at my imagined destinations in a timely manner. I didn’t measure up to how I thought I should look at thirty-six: Not mature enough. Not successful enough. Not financially stable. Not accomplished in any of my vocational or artistic endeavors. And damnit, those crows feet around my eyes aren’t going away, ever.

As the story goes, life has not gotten any easier since I gladly slammed the door on my twenties and welcomed a new decade with exhausted, open arms. I don’t know why I thought it ever would. Yet another myth of getting older, that life somehow softens with age. But it’s only me who softens – my skin, my soul. Perhaps the challenge, then, is learning to celebrate these softenings; to lean in and discover in them their curves of strength. The reserves inside of me, where I find a pillowed landing among the jagged rocks of the trail.

. . . . .

The afternoon and evening before my birthday, I literally could not stop crying. For a dozen reasons, both conscious and unconscious. And I woke up the morning of turning a year older to puffy eyes and a somber face. What, exactly, was I celebrating today, I wondered?

I glanced over to a photo on our dresser. The one photo print we bought from a portfolio of boudoir images, which commemorated one of many brave things I stepped out of my comfort zone to do in my 35th year. Me, photographed nearly naked, or standing in my underwear and cowboy boots on a high balcony overlooking downtown Seattle, is not something I ever, ever imagined I would consent to. Let alone do for myself, of my own volition. Before heading out to this photo shoot, I’d spontaneously scribbled words on a sign to take with me. To remind me why I was doing this crazy, uncomfortable thing.

I am worthy.

I knew then, back in April, I would need this reminder in the days and years to come. To look upon myself, at ease in my own beautiful, flawed skin, boldly proclaiming a truth which life wants to beat out of us from the day we are born. I am worthy. And sure enough, the morning of my 36th birthday, I stared at myself in that photo, holding the words I needed again to digest, and began slowly refocusing my eyes and heart. To see myself, at thirty-six, with kindness. With compassion. With respect. With love.

I took to Instagram, posting this boudoir photo and these words, feeling I’d earned the right at my age to be just a little risque.

I will not be defined 

by a number

Or look in the mirror and 

hate those wrinkles around

my eyes, the loosening

of skin,

the ways my body announces

its slow graduation 

from youth.

I may not be everything

I thought I would be

by this day

But let me celebrate

what I am

and the unpredictability of life,

the evolution of a soul

 through the fire of years,

the unplanned beauty,

the strength that remains.

I am more —

we all are —

something that defies

containment.

 

Because this is the truth I want to live into this year, and each year I have to come. I am beyond containment. We all are. So let’s live that, shall we?

 

An update, in which love wins

A new year has turned, like the crisp page of an unworn book, and with it has come a flood of unmaterialized words. I can feel the words shifting and gathering inside me, and still they are vaporous clouds.

That is, the flow of prose and creativity in storytelling that I aspire to in my words, those are vaporous to me. Instead, I have plain, concrete, chronological words; words that feel clunky and dull in comparison. But in a show of faith that perfection is not the goal here, I share them anyway.

. . . . .

This week has brought birthdays, new business, and gratitude. And it’s brought flu, scarcity and stress. We often live, it seems, in the tension of these two extremes, as is the rhythm of life for many. But first, birthdays.

Tarzan, our first sugar glider, turned one this week. I throw him a party, of course, which consists of Pepita, Ninja, one friend, Ricardo and I. It’s a humble, modest party thrown with extravagant love. The boys’ birthday treats consist of a bug-shaped pasta noodle with bits of dried mealworm poking through. Birthday presents are carefully selected from the local farm co-op, dollar store and Value Village, wrapped in an old towel in the middle of our kitchen table. For an hour, we drink tea and wine and watch as the boys nibble their treats and explore their new toys, taking video and photos like any proud parents.

These sugar gliders have deeply enriched – and saved – my life this past year.

And then, the flu hits. Timing is everything with these sorts of things, and I’m relieved, at least, that I’ve already made my first of two weekly plasma donations before I’m down for the count. I rest and try to keep away from Ricardo and the boys. We don’t need Ricardo sick and unable to work, let alone sick on his birthday at the end of the week. And in the midst, I receive my first custom order for nine necklaces through my Etsy shop. The next several days become a scramble of where to find all the materials I need locally in order to complete the necklaces on time for the customer’s wedding the following week – and to do this with very little money. Somehow, it all comes together, and I rejoice with each provision.

Come Thursday, we’re at an emotional low point, struggling to keep each other’s spirits up. Ricardo’s arm pains, which began several months ago, have only gotten worse and we have no health insurance; the cold weather has impeded some of our abilities to get business done; our beater car, Basurita (my translation, affectionately: “little garbage heap”) is taking longer to start; we stretch and stretch resources to pay rent on time; and Ricardo’s birthday is two days away.

Thursday night, I call him while he’s out with a friend, who kindly asked to celebrate his birthday, nearly in tears, “Tarzan’s stuck under the dishwasher!” Of all the bloody things. I’d let him out for his nightly roam after three nights of being “cooped up” while I was (more) sick, plugged all the necessary places with blankets, but apparently not well enough. He’d gotten through, and I could hear his desperate scratching in the metal workings beneath the dishwasher. I try to entice him out of a small space with a trail of mealworms, but he squirms and squirms, unable to squeeze through. I grab a screwdriver and begin taking the dishwasher apart at the bottom, reaching my arm and hand any place I can touch inside to feel for him.

I can’t lose Tarzan. Not like this. Not now (not ever, let’s be honest, but that’s not reality). I sit back, thinking, and continue to listen for the scritch scratch of his nails on metal, until I think I detect a shift in the sound: beneath the kitchen sink now. I open the cupboard and, sure enough, there he is! I snatch him up, just in time to tell Ricardo to stay put with his friend. All is well on the home front.

Friday rolls around, and I’m still not feeling great. But we need the money from that second plasma donation. I turn to yoga to help with sinus congestion and pressure, and after thirty minutes on the mat, I’m surprised by how much better I feel in comparison.

I shower and slip out of the house, praying I’ll be well enough to donate, breathing a sigh of gratitude when they clear me. I make it through the hour and a half without so much as a cough or fit of nose blowing, which in itself is a miracle. And I leave with funds enough to buy a few groceries. I feel sorrow that I can’t celebrate Ricardo’s birthday with much fanfare, but I return home with bacon, pistachios and chips to make him smile.

That night, we enjoy a rare meal out, courtesy of Red Robin’s royalty club, which means burgers (garden, for me) are on the house for our birthdays (mine is also in January). And then, with a gift card to the cinema, we finally see the showing of Rogue One. By the end of the evening, my head is pounding and I feel the energy drained out of my body, but we’re so grateful for a night out. A night partially away from the daily stress of survival.

Until in the parking lot of a grocery store on the way home, Basurita won’t start. It’s late, freezing cold, I feel ill and we don’t have jumper cables. As I watch an SUV in front of us pull out and drive away, a nice truck with two Mexican guys pulls in and I know this is our saving grace.

“Ask them, Ricardo. They’re Mexican.” In my experience, Mexicans are almost always more inclined to help their own than Americans are. He’s not sure they’ll have jumper cables. “They will,” I say with blind confidence.

They do. We thank them profusely and drive home with the relief of a small crisis averted.

Ricardo’s birthday comes the next day, and thankfully, without the flu for him. He enjoys a delicious breakfast with mariachi music serenading us in the background, and then spends the day happily relaxing and watching his shows, while I putter around baking a pie, doing dishes and laundry and cooking dinner. We try starting Basurita, on the chance we could drive to a park to walk, but the battery is clearly a goner. Ricardo, in his typical good humor, shrugs it off and says, “Oh well, we have each other.”

So we stay home, eat pie before dinner, and later cheer the Seahawks on to victory over the Lions, advancing to the playoffs, a birthday gift all in its own.

At the end of the day, we’re sitting on our loveseat and Ricardo says this was his happiest birthday he could remember. With tears in my eyes, I listen to him share his thoughts and feelings of gratitude, and marvel that with so very little material wealth between us – true our entire marriage, but even more so now – we are the richest and happiest, simply because we know we can get through anything with each other.

The challenge is keeping that rich soil of gratitude and love fertile as each day brings new seeds falling: bills, life hiccups, business fallouts, sickness, discouragement, fears, losses. And if planted right, those can only enrich the soil. Or, they can dry it out, stripping life and strength and causing us to fall forward in a withered bow.

“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” ~ Frederick Buechner

And so, we step forward into a new week, one day at a time, holding each other’s hand.

The family that’s never complete

I step out into the bite of the morning wind on our balcony to hang the hummingbird feeders, and I hear him. We call him Capitan, or Captain, because he loves to perch between the two feeders and defend his territory from any other hungry hummer. This morning, he’s hovering in the corner among the bicycles, making his chip call, as if to say, “Here I am, but where have you been?” I hang the feeders with an apology and slip back inside, a smile on my lips.

. . . . .

This last week it snowed, and we decided to decorate the balcony for Christmas in a bird friendly fashion. Ricardo strapped two of our nice birch branches with willowy arms to the rail, then wove two strands of lights through the rail and the branches. We noticed Capitan immediately claimed an outpost on one of the branch’s stubs, and there he resides a good portion of the day. I moved our hanging nesting pouch from a tree in front, where it wasn’t being used, to a branch on the balcony. Yesterday we watched in delight as a black-capped chickadee landed on the branch supporting it and hopped inside for a moment.

One morning, I awoke to a blanket of snow outside, including most of our balcony. Crouching low by the window, I looked upon a trail of bird tracks from the balcony ledge to our door. I wondered if a feathered neighbor hopped over to say hi, perhaps in need of food. So I took down the platform bird feeder and planter from the front, again not in use, and replaced the old grub in it with the only suitable food I had around: sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, dried cranberries and mealworms. Then I set it on the balcony among the foot prints, an offering to our friends.

. . . . .

Pepita has been climbing the walls of her enclosure, incessantly, this past week. This always happens, but usually in the summer. She’s not generally active during this time of the year, preferring to be burrowed deep in a pile of dirt night and day. I wish I understood tortoise behavior so much more, but it’s still so full of mystery and wild. All I know is something is causing her to feel restless, perhaps even anxious. So I’ve been plucking her out and setting her down to roam in small intervals of time.

This night, we’re watching football and I have the gliders in a pouch down my shirt. I pick Pepita up and wrap her in a towel, hugging her against my chest as I sit back down on the sofa with my family to watch the game. Her body relaxes and she is still, resting against me in the towel.

This moment, all five of us cuddled on the sofa watching football, is a snapshot of pure contentment.

. . . . .

I cradle the fleece pouch in my lap, feeling its tiny warmth against my belly, and slowly unzip the top. Inside, my two boys sleep, and I can barely distinguish one from another in the tangle of tails, arms and legs, their rabbit soft fur slowly rising and falling. One of them, I’m guessing Ninja, peers up at me for a moment with a chiding look, crabs a moment, and tucks his head. I reach my fingers in slowly and stroke that head, and the body of the one next to him. Tarzan’s back legs are tucked up, impressively, by his face. I envy his effortless flexibility. His little pink nose is a beacon in a sea of feet and fur, and I lightly stroke it while he sleeps unstirred.

My heart expands, I swear it must, as look upon these two gliders. I remember the puppy, Tegan, I fell in love with this afternoon while volunteering at the humane society, and it also aches. I can still feel her fluffy body, flopped in my lap. Her soft, eager tongue covering my neck and face. The warmth of her hugged close to my chest. How badly I wanted to take her home. I also knew she would be adopted before I left, preferably by someone who could afford caring for her more than we could.

The cost of volunteering at a shelter is the pain of loving animals you must say goodbye to at the end of the day.

. . . . .

I tell myself in this moment, my little family is enough. Ricardo and Pepita and Tarzan and Ninja and our bird neighbors outside. But my heart calls to me in the quiet, a paradox to contentment. How can it ever feel like enough when my heart’s capacity for welcoming more animals into our family is limitless?

I wonder if this is something like what friends who are growing their families with children have described to me. That gratitude and contentment for what is, coexisting with a nagging desire for more. More children. Their family doesn’t feel complete yet, they explain, though they can’t really explain why. I’ve never, ever felt this with children. But I know it like a fire in my bones with animals.

Our family isn’t complete yet.

The thing with animals, though, is I don’t think it ever will be.

The soul of my art

I sit down this morning to write, and I can’t. It comes stilted, mechanical, dry – three things the content of what I’m writing are not. So I shut my laptop, throw back the remainder of lukewarm coffee and run out the door for my plasma donation appointment.

I always bring a book. What I should know by now is that a good fiction story is the best for an hour with an IV in your arm in a room full of strangers. I do know this, but I don’t heed my own words of advice, and I bring along one of my favorite collections of nonfiction essays. As I’m lying on my back, my fist pumping like a racing heart, I notice my eyebrows furrowing intensely. My eyes are fixated on the words I’m reading as if I were a child staring at my own reflection in a well, leaning further and further forward, on the verge of plunging in headfirst.

In this essay, Barbara Kingsolver describes her visit to the last remaining acres of a rainforest in Hawaii, so she could come back and tell the story of a faraway place we all need to care about. She writes,

I could already see the ghosts of the place; it was that near death, and that willfully alive. White mists rose through the curved spines of blue-green fern trees. A single scarlet bird with a sad, down-curved bill spoke its name, iiwi, again and again, like the eulogy a child might sing for himself if every last relative had died of the plague. I want that place to be, forever. I will never step on that soft moss again, I don’t want to leave any more footprints, but I would give anything for that scarlet iiwi to find a mate and produce two small eggs and a future of songs among those ferns. I felt sorrow for being human there and ached for the ignorance of my kind, who seem always to arrive in paradise thinking only of our next meal.

Oh, my heart.

I want to plunge in. But, wait. I’m still at the plasma center.

. . . . .

Many of the trails around my home are surrounded by wooden fencing, and metal sign posts with a subtle plea: These are protected wetlands; please leave them alone. Of course they don’t come out and say that directly, but even if they did, I know the forest behind those fences would still look the same. Foot paths worn in over time by children playing, adults exploring, homeless campers, social groups of teenagers, and anyone in general who thinks they’re entitled to tread anywhere they can reach. As I walk the path parallel to these wetland forests, I see bottles, plastic bags, scraps of garbage stuck in bushes and at the base of tree trunks.

Why can’t we leave things untouched, even just a little slice? Why does our kind tend to live as if anything and everything can be acquired for our own pleasure, our own purposes, our own possession?

. . . . .

3

I collect branches from fallen trees, even trunks that have snapped at the top. On the one hand, I am deeply grateful for the abundance of the natural world around me, the opportunities that come for me to repurpose the trees that I love and value. And on the other, a part of me wonders if I am exploiting them. Many of these trees have fallen because of the changes in soil due to drought, changes in climate that are increasingly taking their toll.  Fields and forests are continually be cleared and sold for development around here, a sort of human plague that shows no signs of ceasing. Am I really entitled to be a benefactor of these natural places, bringing their beauty home with me, when it’s my kind who is systematically destroying this world?

. . . . .

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img_20161130_084237

On my drive home from the grocery store this afternoon, I pass a house with an exquisite Alaskan birch in the front yard, whose white papery branches have recently been trimmed and stacked in piles. I pull over as soon as I can and impulsively hurry from the car to the house, down their driveway and up the front steps to their door. The woman who answers the door regards me curiously as I apologize for my boldness, but wonder, does she have any plans for those beautiful branches?

She steps outside and we begin a conversation that lasts twenty minutes, sharing a love for protecting and preserving the natural places where we live. She tells me of the three-legged mama raccoon and her babies that she feeds; of the two raccoon babies buried in her backyard, on separate occasions, whose mamas came back to visit until they were no more. The twin fawns born every year in the woods behind their home; the blocks of food they purchase each winter to set by the creek for the deer to eat; the beaver in the creek. The beautiful Alaskan birch, around 40 years old, dying from recent years of drought.

We talk about how she lines her yard with these birch branches as a way of natural landscaping, letting the trees decompose and give back to the wild habitat around them. I tell her of my new Etsy business, my art  and home projects, my love of the land. And she kindly offers me the smaller branches, as many as I can carry.

“You’re welcome back, any time you see something in our yard you may like,” she offers with a cocked grin.

. . . . .

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Christmas came early to our home, two nights ago, when our two sugar gliders finally spent the night in the same cage. Tarzan, our first baby, came home with us last February, when we knew nothing about sugar gliders and what they need to thrive. What they need, for one, is the companionship of their own kind. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to bring another glider home until Ninja came to us, from a Craigslist ad, in desperate need of a different home in the middle of August. What we didn’t know is how difficult it is to introduce new gliders to each other, especially males.  How territorial they can be. The vicious fights they can have, which could become fatal. It quickly became evident that there were no guarantees of them ever accepting each other, let alone living together in harmonious companionship.

Three and a half months later – and many, many small, slow steps of acclimating them to each other – we had the joy of catching them asleep together in the fleece tunnel hanging near the top of the cage.

And let me tell you, there was GREAT rejoicing in the Cadenas house.

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But even so. I find myself regularly back at that well, staring in at my reflection, tipping forward. I see how much I love these boys, the joy they bring to my life. I feed them better than I do us humans and have arranged a habitat in their cage as pleasurable and species appropriate as I can. I spend time with them, care closely for their needs, know them individually. And still, I am keenly aware that they are not living purely as sugar gliders. They are sugar gliders created in the image of domesticated pets. We’ve required of them that they never know their natural environment, never know what it’s like to be fully and freely who they are in the wild – all so we can have the pleasure of possessing (and I loathe this word, yet cannot get around it) a piece of them.

I’ve cradled them close to my chest numerous times, whispering apologies they can’t understand through my tears. What does love look like when it comes to these animals? I’m not sure most of the time. Surely I can’t travel across the world and release them in the jungles of Australia or Indonesia. They wouldn’t survive. So I live with the tension of grief and gratitude, the messiness that comes with unanswered questions and answers that bring pain.

. . . . .

I ask a lot of questions, have few answers and an abundance of opinions. Some days, it can be exhausting, overwhelming, discouraging, even paralyzing. But most days, this keeps me awake, continually sanding and sharpening my soul, pointing me toward what it means to be alive. To be human.

I can only hope this seeps out of my soul and into my art, into my care for the ones in my life, human and not. Into my eating and creating and purchasing. Into my relationships with the land and community around me, my respect and commitment to wild places, near and far-flung, preserved from human hands and feet for the others who share this earth with us.

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. . . . .

If you haven’t already visited my shop on Etsy, opened last week, I want to invite you to come look around online: Beautiful Rubbish Designs.

In which I weep

The creek flowing through downtown Bellingham is swollen, teeming with salmon and rain water. All day and after dusk, people line the banks in their waders, casting their lines in the water to win the salmon lottery. It is a spectacle unlike anything I’ve seen in Seattle, organic and simple, the excitement of drawing life from the water, a meal caught by ones own hands. Ricardo and I pass through the park in the biting wind of Saturday afternoon, and he is like a little boy, eager and enthralled. I’m enthralled by the sleek bodies of the salmon in the churning waters, the roar of the creek, the gladness of the people.

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As always, conflicted by my respect for these fish and the arduous journeys they have faced getting here; my sadness at their short lives, the blood streaming from their gills, their wide unblinking eyes; and the tangible appreciation of those whose bellies will be filled with fresh salmon. I understand the rich, complex role these salmon play in the ecosystem, for the many beings who feed on them. And I am deeply moved by their deaths, I cannot deny this.

. . . . .

Like millions of others, I have teetered this past week between shock and disbelief, despair and hope, rage and determination. What is settling over me this day, though, is grief. That place of rawness, where you look out and see the world through filtered eyes, see it beyond the curtain of the daily mundane to the vulnerable pulsing of a bigger world beyond. I cannot say, exactly, what I carry with me, except a sorrow that has lodged in my bones.

This is not sorrow for the loss of my political candidate, or even a political party. It is, as a friend described to me, an existential grief. A feeling of being uneasy and uncertain with the world and our place in it. Where this all is heading. Our refusal to be carried along with it. I’ll jump in the river and swim upstream for the rest of my life before I submit to the ideologies of hate, fear, racism, sexism, extremism, fascism and nationalism that have led to the election of a man like Donald Trump to any kind of office.

So yes, it has filled me with rage that I am seeking to channel into resolved action.

But today, it is only sorrow.

. . . . .

Wednesday morning following the election, I woke up with a subdued de ja vu. That feeling of being in a nightmare and wishing you could wake yourself up from it, followed by the sinking sensation in your whole being that this is not, in fact, a nightmare. It’s reality. The last time I woke up with that feeling was the day after my dad died.

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I have been talking with people who share my grief, wishing so badly to be among the peaceful protesters in Seattle, painting earrings to sell, reading the news, playing with dogs, venting with Ricardo, continuing to practice yoga, listening to Andra Day’s anthem, Rise upon repeat. And I returned to one of my favorite books for comfort, Small Wonder, a provocative collection of essays written by Barbara Kingsolver after 9/11. Her words hit my raw places in a way that hurts so good, for they are every bit as timely for our nation and world now as they were in the wake of that act of terrorism fifteen years ago. I read them today with a large needle injected in my arm, collecting blood plasma, and I wanted to weep there in a room full of strangers.

And when I passed by another field near our home with four for sale signs in the earth; when I saw the gulls and geese flying overhead, the bald eagle perched in a tree; the slivers of protected wetlands lodged between housing developments; Mt. Baker in the backdrop, a distant elder; the tears began streaming down my face. How can I face this world as a human being without a burden of shame? I feel the inevitable coming, like the death of an aged loved one, and I want to stop time, bargain with the universe, anything I can do to shield this earth I love from the terror of our human agendas.

. . . . .

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I pass by a rally  downtown this afternoon, across the street from the people fishing for salmon in the creek, and promptly pull over in our recently acquired, free ’93 Geo prism. I’ve been searching for my people, any people, who are standing up and saying no to this agenda. I’d hoped to see a group of anti-Trump protesters, but what I saw was a group of people organizing in a show of support for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe of North Dakota,  opposing the construction of a crude oil pipeline from North Dakota to Illinois that would have a devastating effect on the tribe and their livelihood, their land, the natural water supply, and the environment. Local activists, students and Lummi tribe members spoke out with emotion, many with choked voices, of how native people have always had to fight for their land, for their ways of living on this earth. People held signs saying “Water is life” and “No earth, no jobs.” And though I knew almost nothing of this battle waging across the states, I felt my eyes again fill with tears.

“The earth is suffering,” a Latina activist spoke to the crowd, in Spanish and English.

And I felt, for the first time in Bellingham this past week, that I was among my people.

 

 

 

 

The day after

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We woke up to a different world this morning. The world is reeling from this election, not only the United States. For roughly half of America’s population, most of Russia, and possibly Israel, this is a world of new possibility. For the rest of us, it’s a world of too many terrifying unknowns.

What words can I say here in this inconsequential place, this small corner of the internet, that haven’t already been thought or uttered or spread like flames across the media? What consolation, what hope, can I offer that is substantial?

I don’t know, friends. Maybe nothing. All I can speak is what I know to be true for me.

The outcome of this election changes nothing I stand for; but it reinforces everything.

Even as the world will react and change in ways we can anticipate and many we cannot, in the coming months and years, I have one clear choice in front of me each day. They’re the words I read in a friend’s post earlier this week. And though they carry for her a different meaning than they do for me, I grab hold of them like a lifeboat this morning:

Struggle forward.

I know this, that no matter what a Trump presidency will bring for our country, our world, I will continue to struggle forward as a person who will do everything in her power to live a life of love, respect and advocacy for the future of our planet, for our changing climate, for all living inhabitants who call this place home. A person who supports same-sex love and marriage. Who supports a woman’s right to her own body, and in her most private grief, to decide without the imposition of government on her personhood what she will do with her body. A person who will not live a life of fear, building physical, social, racial or personal walls against people of differing ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations or skin colors. A person who will not succumb to the pull to nationalism, to American-centrism, to the navel gazing of concern only for our own well being.

Maybe I don’t have a lot of faith in our country right now; hopefully, I will see some of that restored with time. But I do get to choose who I will be in this country, in this world.

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I get to choose, everyday. Have courage, and be kind.

This may feel like an end, and certainly that’s one way of looking at it. If I look at it as an end, first and foremost, I feel myself pulled into the jaws of fatalism, the dark helplessness of there’s nothing I can do. And if I accept that verdict from day one, it’s a lot harder to shake it off.  So, no. It can’t be an end for me. It must be the beginning of a clearer resolve to choose hope over despair in the ways that I live and inhabit this earth. I get to choose not to take anything for granted, as perhaps has been my birthright as an American.

I didn’t choose this president or the world he endorses. But I choose, as an American and a citizen of this world, to rise above.

On the eve of election night

A few nights ago, we sat on our love seat watching Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary on climate change, Before the flood, feeling ourselves swept up. The force of the film was its own flood: a terrifying wave after wave of cinematography and sorrowful beauty. And in the churn of it all, a flicker of hope. Nothing certain, that is, but the fragility of choice shaping the course of history; of possibility, that dim spark in need of a poker stick and the strong rush of breath to fan it into flame.

I don’t usually choose to watch films like this. Not because I don’t care to know, but because my knowing already keeps me awake at night. The images, sometimes, are too much to bear on top of the weight I carry daily for what’s happening to our earth.

Yet, it’s works like this film that also stoke my fire. And try as I might to tame it, I can’t always help the soap box that follows.

. . . . .

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It’s the eve of election night. I know I’m not alone when I both dread and long for the end of this election season. We’re all fatigued from this unprecedented onslaught of political warring. I sit here and cannot even fathom waking up in two days to the announcement of our country’s next president being one who believes climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese. Everyone has their pressing issues, the ones they deem of greatest importance. The ones they vote by. For me, climate change stands above every other threat to living things (and we all define “threat” differently). Above terrorism, immigration and border control, tax increases, unemployment rates, abortion, Planned Parenthood, the supposed moral decline of our nation, or whether or not our future president is married to someone who has had affairs or been impeached.

Nope, whether or not we all can continue living and breathing on a planet whose temperature continues to rise; whose sea levels continue to swell; whose oceans are becoming wastelands above and below the surface; whose species are dying off at increased rates; whose human inhabitants are becoming climate refugees; whose air, in places, is not fit at times to breathe; whose land is laid waste raising cattle for food, poisoning streams and atmosphere, pushing out farmers who would tend the land for indigenous crops. These concern me the most. Call me blunt, but we don’t need terrorists to threaten our safety, our lives, our future. We’re doing a fine job of that ourselves.

But it seems we don’t want to pay that extra five cents for a paper bag. Or bother with carrying in our own bags to the grocery store. Or invest our tax dollars in a better public transportation system if we ourselves drive cars. Or, God forbid, pay a small tax on gasoline or cigarettes, or anything else that causes further damage to our environment. Maybe we’re so stuck in this one moment in time, this one day, too overwhelmed to scale back and look at the ramifications of our daily actions ten or fifty years down the road.

Who wants to tell their child or grandchild twenty years from now, “I’m sorry for this mess, but I didn’t want gas prices to rise.”

What I do know is I can’t live on a planet that doesn’t have rain forests, polar bears, honey bees, manatees, songbirds, clean drinking water, glaciers, fresh air, coral reefs, salmon or the Hawaiian islands, to name a few.

. . . . .

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Forgive my impudence. I know I sound like a fire and brimstone preacher right now, and so I step off my little pulpit, down to the earth where I belong. I have no desire to preach, to scold, to pass judgment. I only have this fire, you see, and so I ask for your tolerance for any grating quality in my voice.

I went and got myself tattooed, back in January. And since then, I swear I feel these grievances against the earth like needles etching my skin. “We belong to each other,” they say in blood across my wrist. Not just family to family, loved ones to loved ones, humans to humans, but all of us – human and nonhuman – to this earth.

On my arm above these words, a great blue heron flies in prehistoric beauty toward a wooden door set in a forest of birch trees. Whether or not she flies through that door is up to us, and I wear this reminder daily on my skin.

And though I often fight the pull of despair, I crane my neck like the heron toward that door, leaning forward in the wind. Let’s choose hope. 

Day 31: Eye to eye

 

October 31, 2016

5pm, Downtown BELLINGHAM

 

It’s the last day of October, the last day of this series. While I failed as a writer to post my words every day this month, as a human being I’m coming away from this month with a deep satisfaction. The discovery that my values and my lifestyle are finally merging in a beautiful partnership, no longer a list of circumstances or excuses as barriers to their union. This is how I experience and define success. It’s not on a resume; it’s on the pages of my daily life.

It takes imagination to envision a different life than what I’d known. That’s the first step. Carrying out the vision, I’m finding, takes a great deal of perseverance and commitment.

. . . . .

I left a steady, albeit modest, income in Seattle to move here and become self-employed for the first time alongside my husband. Each week, each month, is a creative challenge to survive financially, and still, it rarely feels like survival. It feels more like thriving.

We ride our bikes, walk and take the bus to get around. I donate plasma twice a week to pay for groceries. I’m learning graphic design and bookkeeping, how to wrap taco trucks in vinyl, and also creating art that I hope to begin selling soon. We are members of the local co-op down the street. I delight in recycling new glass containers each week for buying products in bulk. I love my vegan lifestyle and the daily challenge of finding new ways to enjoy old favorite foods. I love supporting our farmer’s market, even with just a purchase of radishes and sunflower sprouts from my favorite farmer, Rocelyn. I collect birch wood and rocks from my walks to use for art, decoration around the house, and for our animals’ habitats. I relish the newfound time to invest in caring for our family, our apartment, our hummingbird neighbors, art and writing, volunteering with the Humane Society, and eating meals with my husband (a rarity in our previous life).

My life is so, so rich.

This past month of writing about the intersection of nature with my life has helped me see this.

. . . . .

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. . . . .

Last night, we made vegan lemon sugar cookies together, a first in baking for us. Then we set up a worktable in front of the tv and carved the small pumpkins we’d bought from the farmer’s market while the World Series game played in the background. When we were finished, I set my pumpkin on the windowsill by the sugar gliders and let Tarzan loose to explore. It didn’t take long for him to scurry over to the pumpkin, where he grabbed the sides with both hands, and set to work carving with his teeth. Little pumpkin shavings fell at his feet as he attacked it with a vengeance, and we stood by shaking our heads in amusement.

Life here is simple, which I’m finding, is the best kind of life for me, indoors and out.

. . . . .

 

Day 27: Eye to eye

 

October 27, 2016

9:15 AM, Cordata Parkway

 

Since the first time I watched Disney’s version of the Swiss Family Robinson, and certainly the first time I explored its rooms and bridges and magical details at Disneyland, I wanted to live in a tree house. It’s no surprise that, years later, one of my favorite shows on tv is Tree House Masters.

Thirty-five, and still dreaming of living high in a tree.

I don’t think I’ll ever lose this dream, and who knows? Maybe one day it will be fulfilled. I’m crazy enough to hold an ounce of hope that this dream may come true: that we’ll wake up to the gorgeous trunk of a tree baring its chest in our bedroom as it extends skyward, holding the walls of our house in its arms, smell its earthy fresh aroma as we brew coffee, sit outside on the deck and watch the birds from where they nest.

But until then, if I can’t live in a tree house, I’ve decided to bring the trees into ours.

. . . . .

This morning, I saw Ricardo off on a bus to Seattle for business. Having spent the last two days holed up at home in an effort to deter a cold, my lungs hungered for fresh air. Fresh air, on which rides the scent of hay, decaying leaves, wood and imminent rain. So I chose to walk the mile and a half home, savoring the cool wind playing against my cheeks. I didn’t get very far, however, before I saw something I couldn’t pass by.

The top half of a birch tree, snapped off in a patch of tall grass, beaten down.

I pondered, for a moment, if it was too big to haul home on my shoulders. Truth was, I didn’t know. But I wasn’t going to settle for no.

I made my way through the grass to the tree and began snapping off extraneous branches, from top to bottom. I couldn’t tell exactly, but it looked to be around fifteen to twenty feet long. I had a lot of snapping to do. Ten minutes later, I figured it was good enough to haul. I struggled a bit under the size of it, but managed to heft it onto a hip and carry it up the grass embankment to the sidewalk.

And then I started walking.

I must have looked like I was getting ready to storm the gates of a castle with a battering ram.

I made it about a half mile, shifting it from one shoulder to the other, stopping occasionally to change my hand grips. I could feel the sweat starting to glisten around my temple, my shoulders slightly burning, my breathing coming a little heavier. I watched as truck after truck passed by, wondering if I would actually make it all the way home without a single one stopping to offer assistance.

At that moment, a large black truck pulled over in front of me, its passenger window rolled down. “Hey,” an older man called to me, leaning over from the driver’s seat, “do you wanna toss that in the back?”

Boy, did I.

I thanked him warmly and climbed in the truck bed with my tree, directing him toward home.

. . . . .

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I think I’ve found a birch tree jackpot here in Bellingham. I’ve got a pile of branches on our balcony, several branches and a piece of a trunk inside for decoration, a branch nailed to our homemade hummingbird porch swing, a huge glass jar full of strips of peeled bark, and now – a mammoth piece of tree in our living room. By the time I got it up the steps to our apartment, through the front door and into the living room, I was winded and determined. Lo and behold, it was too tall even for our high ceilings. I had to lean it against the top of our loft staircase, holding onto the rail with one hand and the tree with another, hammering and stepping on the top of the tree to break off a final three branches. Finally, I propped it against the sugar glider cages and stood back to admire it, catch my breath and wipe my sweat.

Holy cow, we have a tree in our living room.

As an artist and environmentalist, I couldn’t be happier. We have plans in the works for crafting our own alternative Christmas tree.

As caretaker of two sugar gliders, I’m giddy with excitement over the prospect of an indoor jungle gym.

And as a thirty-five year old woman with a child’s dreams still inside, I feel one step closer to that tree house.

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. . . . .

This post is part of a 31-day series in October. To see other posts, follow me here.

 

Day 25: Eye to eye

 

October 25, 2016

11 AM, Corwall Park

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Trees are kin to me.

At least, they have become so in the last few years, perhaps for no other reason than I began noticing them as others. They live in our world, yet seem to occupy their own as well, as if those gnarly roots that attach them to the earth also reach beyond our realm of knowledge, to a place beyond our senses.

I can’t help myself when I walk among them and beneath them, reveling wholly in the mysteries of their lives; the door to another realm I cannot cross, even as I try. It is hard to put into words, what is evoked in me when I’m in their presence.

It is something like longing. Curiosity. Wonder. Delight. Fondness. Peace.

And respect.

It is something, too, wild and uncontainable by words.

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I love to place the palms of my hands against their bark and rest there for a moment, as if in doing so, I might invite them to speak. Some may call this sentimentality (or just plain mental), but I don’t give a damn how crazy it may look or sound. It goes back to faith, how it is not interchangeable with belief. If pressed, I may not actually believe the trees are communicating with me in their own way. But I cannot shake the faith, that this is possible, and that possibility keeps me coming back with open, hungry hands. I am here, impart something to me.

It’s the closest I’ve come to experiencing the beauty of namaste. The spirit in me salutes the spirit in you. My hand on the tree is a namaste.

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. . . . .

This post is part of a 31-day series in October. To see other posts, follow me here.

Day 23: Eye to eye

 

October 23, 2016

10:30 AM, Cordata neighborhood

 

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In our little part of town, within a twenty foot radius of our home, is a neighborhood within a neighborhood. These are the neighbors I am coming to know and love, the ones who are part of our day to day lives.

A rowdy, feuding band of hummingbirds.

An assortment of songbirds.

Two sugar gliders.

One tortoise.

And a puppy named Winston who lives below us.

Winston spent the weekend with us while his humans enjoyed a romantic getaway in Victoria. It was a rough transition, mostly for me, because while I adore dogs, I have spent very little time with puppies beyond cooing over them in passing. I needed a day to orient myself to the sharpness of puppy teeth, the constant licking, the paws in my face, the incessant chewing. By the second day, we hit our stride, Winston and I. We wrestled and played tug-o-war with his braided rope, cuddled watching cooking shows, chased monsters at night in the dark parking lot, kicked leaves into the air. I gave him belly rubs and he followed me around the kitchen, sitting close to my feet as I cooked and washed.

As soon as I open the door of his house to let him out in the morning, he races up the stairs to ours. And I smile, calling him back to go potty, as if to say, “Our home is yours now, too.”

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Saturday afternoon, I caught him fixated on the hummingbirds at the feeders. Ears perked, he crouched in quiet observation below and peered up at these feathered strangers with rapt attention. I stood some feet behind him, watching him watch them. Trying to imagine what they looked like through the eyes of a puppy.

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Later that afternoon, Ricardo and I meandered through the farmer’s market downtown and spread out to several local shops. At my favorite, the feed and seed, we found a woven nesting hut to hang for our songbird neighbors, and I fell in love with a pair of miniature quail.

Saturday night, I searched for Ninja in his cage and found him laying inside his wheel, perfectly still, with eyes wide open. I recognized this body language, after two months with him in our home, as his trauma posture. Having a puppy in the home must have triggered his memories of spending the first year of his life with two large dogs sitting outside his cage, staring in at him, barking. Of him never feeling safe. I reached in to stroke his back and he didn’t move. Cupping him in my hand, I transferred him to a pouch and zipped it shut, tucking him under my shirt, near my heart. And then I rubbed his back for the next hour, whispering, “You’re safe here, buddy. This is your home.”

Sunday, I climbed the young maple we consider “ours,” though it’s just beyond our complex along the sidewalk, and hung the nesting hut from a branch. After the leaves are stripped from the tree, the birds will be searching for a warm refuge to call home, even just for the night.

I’m finding this is how I want our home to be. A refuge.

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. . . . .

This post is part of a 31-day series in October. To see other posts, follow me here.

 

Day 21: Eye to eye

 

October 21, 2016

3:30 PM, Cadenas household

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There’s something about fog that endears itself to me. It may be along the same lines of reason for why I often prefer a cloudy day to the bright clarity of clear skies.

They add texture to the canvas of sight.

They remind me of the beauty of mystery, of ambiguity, in ways that ignite my imagination. They fill me with appreciation for all the nuances of being a finite human in a world that is infinite.

There is a comfort I’ve found in not-knowing, not-seeing “all.” Of not living in a black and white worldview, one with absolute truths that cannot evolve. Once we see everything clearly, isn’t it an indication we’re done with this life? For one of the joys of being human is that we constantly evolve as individuals. Our brains, our thoughts, our perceptions, our preferences, our emotions, our beliefs, our experiences. To be alive is to be fluid, not static; always malleable to the waters of change.

A fog can be a liberation, not a hindrance, to a life of faith. And by faith, I mean faith in the possibility of things we cannot see, even if we do not necessarily believe. For some, this is a contradiction. For me, it is a wonder.

Much like fog.

. . . . .

This post is part of a 31-day series in October. To see other posts, follow me here.

Day 18: Eye to eye

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October 18, 2016

2:30 PM, North Bellingham

 

The young tree in our backyard has changed clothes overnight; a late bloomer, now exchanging summer for autumn attire, green for smoldering orange. It seems the storm magnified the beauty of the trees with leaves remaining, while others were stripped bare. The way all manners of storms can do for all manners of living things: enhance the beauty that was already there, or lay bare.

But maybe it’s not so either/or with storms – meteorological or metaphorical – rather, both. For there can be a stark beauty in barrenness, in things being stripped away to all but the essentials of a life. And storms can also enhance inherent beauty, leaving it intact.

I can’t help but lean toward reflection in this season, where trees die a thousand deaths in a parade of glory. I can’t help but pause, sometimes kneel, before the altars of storms that have passed through my life, and remember. Remember the stripping bare, the holding fast. Honor the losses. Celebrate the beauty that has not only remained in spite of, but perhaps, because of, these storms.

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In this season of Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead as non-Spanish speakers know it, I always look forward to crafting the display of my altar to honor our dead. My dad, Ricardo’s grandpa and grandma, two of his cousins. Usually I do this at the beginning of October, but this year, over this past weekend, during the storm.  It sits in a corner of our open living room and kitchen, vibrant, colorful, aesthetically comforting, therapeutic, commemorative, a testament to what is sacred. Not in the religious sense of the word, but in a personal sense, the way certain traditions weave themselves into the tapestry of who you are.

In some ways, it’s reminiscent of the trees during autumn.

And it’s not only the deaths of people I love that I remember. It’s all the private storms endured through thirty-five autumns of life. I look back on these times – the relationships and friendships lost, the homes lost, the beliefs and religion lost, the hopes and dreams lost – and I see that I’m still standing. Sometimes adorned in vibrant colors, other times completely bare, always beautiful in an enduring kind of way. The way trees only get more lovely as they age, as their bark is weathered and knotted and stripped, and still they stand taller, ever expanding.

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. . . . .

This post is part of a 31-day series in October. To see other posts, follow me here.

Day 17: Eye to eye

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October 17, 2016

Cadenas kitchen

Tarzan is sleeping on my chest as I type, wrapped in a towel he’d crawled into during his frenetic exploration around the house. The air in the house is cool and silent, nothing but the sound of an occasional car or the call of a bird outside, and I relish the warmth of the towel against my shirt.

The thing about entering into the world of nonhumans – mammals and birds, reptiles and amphibians, forests and fields and streams – is the risk of not wanting to leave.

I am keenly aware these days of how it comes more naturally for me to connect with the natural world than the human world. I am more at ease among nonhumans; more accepted and known, if not because acceptance and knowing are not veiled or nuanced or dishonest here in this world, but primal. They do not force you to jump through social hoops, feign one thing and present another. Indeed, they are almost indifferent.

. . . .

Every so often, especially at night, the loneliness is palpable. A gnawing in my gut, or the tears leaking down my cheeks. I, too, am a paradox. Content with solitude and undone by it. But even writing is a lonely venture, when after months and years, it seems I am only speaking to a screen, staring into a mirror, undressing only to crawl into bed alone.

And still, I keep on.

. . . . .

Halfway through this month, I’m not entirely certain what I’m supposed to be writing. What the hell “31 days in nature’s classroom” really means or if I’m even writing from this perspective. Turns out to be no surprise to me that I don’t enjoy writing-to-publish daily on my blog. It always ends up feeling presumptive, this attempt to produce words that are worthy of being sent out into the world on a daily basis. When in reality, it’s as if every day I’m asked to make breakfast and all I know how to make is oatmeal. Oatmeal with dried cranberries and walnuts. Oatmeal with banana. Oatmeal with blueberries. Oatmeal with cinnamon and brown sugar. Thirty-one days of oatmeal.

All I know to write is how I observe and interact with the natural world; how I am found here. Day after day after day.

. . . . .

This post is part of a 31-day series in October. To see other posts, follow me here.

Day 15: Eye to eye

 

October 15, 2016

11 AM, Cadenas household

We’re in a lull, between storms. Yesterday I boiled three batches of sugar water for the hummingbirds to keep the feeder full. Between the wind and the bungee cords pulling the sides down, it leaked water much faster, creating a need for me to venture out to the store for more sugar.

Meanwhile, as we’re holed up indoors, I’m holding Tarzan and Ninja close, nestled against my chest in their respective pouches. Tarzan, by far the more mischievous of the two, begins waking up around 9:30 PM, as I stick my fingers in his pouch and tickle the white pillow of his belly. He grabs hold of my fingers with his intricate little hands and nibbles and gnaws at the edges, wherever there’s dry skin, interspersed with licking. Call it a sugar glider manicure, if you will. It never, ever fails to make me laugh.

Eventually, he tires of manicures and finger-wrestling-tickle matches, and wants out. Now. I place blankets down in strategic places to cover entrances to appliances in the kitchen, close the doors and closets, and set him free. As he bounds around with his clickety clackety nails, reminiscent of a Looney Tunes character, my heart is bursting with delight and affection for this little animal. He is for me what a toddler must be for many parents: curious, active, independent, capable of disappearing in the blink of an eye, into EVERYTHING.

I find him at the end of the hallway by the front door, peeking out from Ricardo’s boot. I sit cross legged and watch him, taking pictures, smothered with gratitude for the fact of his existence, for what he means in my life.

In my world, family is a generous term, my life enriched by a smattering of diverse creatures.

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. . . . .

This post is part of a 31-day series in October. To see other posts, follow me here.

Day 14: Eye to eye

 

October 14, 2016

7:30 AM, Cadenas balcony

The winds have whipped themselves into a wet fury. Out on the balcony, our hummingbird feeder flails like a tetherball circling an invisible pole. I hear a bird chirping, what kind I don’t know, but this sound pierces through me, solitary and urgent. No one answers its call.

In the sky, I watch three geese attempting an erratic V; then I see only two. The two are careening downward in a feathered mayday, and the third appears, joining them as they dive below the treeline.

A hummingbird is hovering near the feeder, but it can’t conquer the wind and the flailing feeder at the same time. Too many variables. It tries to reach the holes to drink, time and time, and finally disappears in the wind.

I run inside, searching for bungee cords. After several attempts with cords of different lengths, I find two that attach to the perimeter of the feeder’s perch and the balcony rail, anchoring it in place. Over in the young maple, a male hummingbird is holding on to branches as he’s tossed about.

Inside once more, I huddle on the floor in a blanket by the window and watch the feeder. Minutes pass. A tiny dark body emerges and maneuvers its way to the feeder, resting in the gale before dipping her head to drink. Another appears, settling on the other side of the perch, and for a few moments, they both drink in peace.

. . . . .

This post is part of a 31-day series in October. To see other posts, follow me here.

Day 13: Eye to eye

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October 13, 2016

9 AM, Cadenas balcony

Extreme wind, high wave and flood warnings gone out across the Pacific Northwest. A storm’s certainly brewing here, and I’m watching it from our balcony. Watching the young maple in the shared backyard of our space, as it flails whiplike branches and tosses its leaves about. But my eyes are fixed on the small dark body with the magenta head, riding a branch as if its his hundredth rodeo. How someone who weighs almost nothing can hang on is beyond me.

He leaves his perch, speeding to intercept and chase away any other male from his feeding source. Anna’s hummingbirds have been known to be particularly territorial, and while I see this played out on our balcony stage every day, it is more pronounced today. More urgent. In this type of weather, it is important they don’t expend precious energy flying farther than necessary for their calories. They are, after all, always only a few hours from starvation, and flying into the wind and rain must take its toll.

I look up at the feeder to note, in surprise, a different hummer drinking while the male watches from his perch. This hummer, however, has no magenta hood. She is a female; his female, perhaps. When one or the other of this pair are not at the feeder, it swings abandoned in the gusty air, three-quarters full of nectar. There is nothing I can do to assure these birds that they can rest from fighting: there is enough sugar water to go around because the one who fills the feeder will not let it run dry.

No, they do not know this. It is in their nature to defend, to survive, in plenty and in lack.

Indeed, when I step outside in a few hours to walk several miles to an appointment, I will once again marvel at how ones so small remain so fiercely upright, flying headlong into the wind, while I, in my large mass, struggle not to be untethered.

. . . . .

This post is part of a 31-day series in October. To see other posts, follow me here.

Day 11: Eye to eye

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October 11, 2016

4PM, Cornwall Park, Bellingham

Since I can remember, I’ve always been prone to explore. Setting out by foot from home, wherever we’ve lived, I would seek to know the nooks and crannies of the place. The hidden trails, the parks, the woods, the creeks, the fields, the best climbing trees, even the old cemeteries (we lived next door to a pioneer cemetery for a few years, long ago). In the city, the same applied, while  including all the side streets and main thoroughfares, shortcuts, lookout points, and of course, best coffee shops within walking distance (which for me, is generally within five miles). Doing this by foot – walking or running – or by bike, marked physical places in my memory, perhaps in a similar way dogs mark their territory. It laid the groundwork for cultivating a sense of place, a framework for home. Home has rarely been the physical buildings I’ve lived in. When we left Seattle, after I’d called it home for fifteen years, I left behind parks and forests, lakes and birds, that felt more like family than most of my blood relatives.

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New beginnings often start with the thrill of exploration, the intoxication of fresh experiences.  As time passes, it tempers this excitement, opening an ache for familiarity, for something tangible to anchor or root you to a place. As much as I am relieved and grateful to be starting over in such a place as Bellingham, three months has passed and it has yet to feel like home.  Oh, it will, with time. Parts of it remind me of home, or at least, home as I’d known it in Seattle. But I am in that place of transition between worlds, between homes, searching for a sense of place here. It’s one thing to appreciate the vast natural beauty and find comfort in its reminders of other places I’ve loved. It’s quite different, however, to love trees in general than to love specific trees. I knew the trees in our neighborhood, with my specific favorites. The ones I’d pass regularly on walks or make trips to visit in the forest. Here, the trees I pass are beautiful strangers.

. . . . .

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I set out to explore a new park this afternoon, and as soon as I entered, it reminded me of walking through the campground in Yosemite. That sensation of being dwarfed by old evergreens, creating a tent canopy with yellow light filtering through the rooftop. I find great comfort in the sensation of smallness, in the company of trees, but these great woods also engendered a sense of homesickness. Not for Seattle itself, but for the places there where home had imprinted itself on me. Where, in some illogical way, I had been reciprocally known by the natural places I called home.

Somehow, giving voice to that homesickness feels like a step in the direction of home.

. . . . .

This post is part of a 31-day series in October. To see other posts, follow me here.

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Day 10: Eye to eye

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October 10, 2016

3:51 PM, Cadenas home (yep, still)

Today is a funk kind of day. The kind of day when your insides are like exploding popcorn kernels of anxiety. When you want to scream at the wind to stop trying to blow you over as you bike into it head-on. When you arrive home, with ice cubes for ears and shaky hands, and treat yourself to another cup of coffee and two slices of leftover crumb cake for lunch. When you sit and think about what you could possibly have to say on the topic of “nature’s classroom” on this day, because last night’s second presidential debate replays in your mind like the train wreck it was, and you can’t seem to tear your eyes away from the plethora of news articles strewn across the online highway to report it the next day.

Know what I mean, anyone?

It’s these kinds of days, and let’s be honest, many other kinds of days, that make me feel I’d love to trade my humanity in for the life of a sugar glider. For one, I envy the absence of Trump in Tarzan and Ninja’s worlds.

But then, I remember enough of these days in high school and college, the ones where the last place I wanted to be was in the classroom. So I drag myself to the computer anyhow and tell myself it’s ok to have a funk-writing day. Even on those days, just showing up was the lesson, and indeed, it still is in the classroom of life. In the classroom of nature.

Maybe even for sugar gliders.

. . . . .

This post is part of a 31-day series in October. To see other posts, follow me here.

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Day 9: Eye to eye

 

October 9, 2016

11 AM, Cadenas balcony

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At breakfast this morning, we stare out at the hummingbird feeder and the hanging wooden bench beside it, and smile.

With the deluge of rain yesterday, I’d decided our hummingbird neighbors needed a shelter. Often I saw one flying to the feeder, only to perch on its chain and shake off the water. I searched online and read that, unlike numerous birds, they won’t use houses to roost or nest, neither do they hide in the hollows and crevices of trees. What they needed was a platform.

I set out in the rain to meet Ricardo’s bus as it pulled in from Seattle, coming home from a quick business trip. As I walked past a field, I saw a small, sturdy wooden box in pieces, held together loosely with rusted nails. I’d found my platform material.

Later at home, with the door swung open to the balcony and the rain continuing to pour, we set up our makeshift work station. We pulled apart the six squares of wood, tossed the nails, washed the wood, and chose the best four to reassemble. Outside, the hummingbirds dive-bombed each other as they each made plays for the feeder, filling the air with their distinctive buzz-whistle-chip notes.

“We’re coming, we’re coming,” we called to them, not that it mattered.

We had to get more creative with rigging a way to hang it, borrowing a chain from a decorative bird house, a bungee cord, a leftover bit of chain in the tool box, and a zip tie. For the final touch, I picked out a piece of a birch branch I’d recently brought home as a treasure. We nailed it to the platform, stood back, and declared it perfect.

As the day slipped to darkness, we brought cups of coffee and slices of crumb cake fresh from the oven outside, sat in our camping chairs and listened to the rain and the fading calls of our feathered neighbors.

Relishing this open door between our home and theirs, the meeting of the two in moments of contentment.

. . . . .

This post is part of a 31-day series in October. To see other posts, follow me here.

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Day 8: Eye to eye

 

October 8, 2016

10:30 AM, Cadenas house

You’ll have to beg my pardon for yet again staying indoors for this classroom. The skies are weeping tears of joy, I presume, and I am content to stand at the door to the balcony with a cup of coffee in hand, watching the hummingbirds take turns at the feeder for shelter and sustenance. The day is dark, and I, too, weather my own storms today. It is all I can do to focus outward.

I am mesmerized by the fierce, diminutive birds coming and going outside my window. Their long, slender beaks and elusive tongues siphoning sugar water. Their bodies, dark in the shadows, with a flash of magenta here and there at the throat. How they shake the droplets from their feathers and rest without sitting still, like the rain battered leaves still clinging to the trees in the wind.

I sit at the kitchen table, rereading a passage from my latest book last night, where I had to close it and rest with my eyes shut, absorbing the words. Somehow, this speaks to many places at once – spiritual and natural, political and personal, creative and mundane – providing me with plenty of fodder for the day:

I refuse to call closure on hope. Not blind, delusional hope, but conscious hope against the odds – the kind of hope that allows me to speak, to act, to not cave in to the stone wall of the impossible. If I have to, I will keep banging my head against that wall rather than sit numbly at its foot in the cowed inertia of despair, because despair is the inability to imagine oneself into the future. It is the failure of the imagination – of the human ability to conceive of a different reality, and to act accordingly.

Lesley Hazelton, Agnostic: a spirited manifesto

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El Dia de los Muertos is one of my favorite holidays in recent years. I anticipate it months in advance, and this year, am compelled to make my own art. Yesterday, I painted rocks for hours, my brave attempt not to give into anxiety. As I stare now at the faces smiling bizarrely at me, I can’t help but smile back. Without knowing it, I had been creatively resisting my own failure of imagination.

. . . . .

Day 7: Eye to eye

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October 7, 2016

9:15 AM, Cordata Parkway Trail

I’m full of contradictions. The other day, while sitting at our kitchen table, I watched a yellow jacket antagonize our hummingbirds as they tried to reach the feeder. This did not bode well with me, to say the least, so I rolled up a magazine and went outside swinging at the bee and yelling for it to stay away. I did this three different times, like, Ain’t no yellow jacket gonna bully our hummingbirds, foos. 

But I’ll admit to a twinge of unease. I purport that no life matters more than another, on the one hand, and yet I clearly have my value system. I know we all do. In these seemingly either/or situations in nature (or with mammals, insects, reptiles and amphibians in general), we make our decisions, because we have to pick sides.  Hummingbirds before yellow jackets.

Is that really the case, I wonder? I’m still sifting through the ambiguity.

. . . . .

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On my walk along the trail, I’ve begun noticing the small ones on the path. Depending on the time of day and the season, the walkway becomes a highway for slugs, snails and worms. Or, more like a pilgrimage. If you’re not looking down, you’re likely to squash them beneath your feet or the wheels of your bike. A glance down could mean sparing a dozen lives.

But how often do slug or snail or worm lives matter to us, let’s be honest.  Or a spider, or ants, or rats, or crows, for that matter. We usually have another name for these creatures: Nuisance.

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I crouched down and admired a snail the size of a nickel as it made the perilous journey across the sidewalk. Its shell was intricate, stunning, really. It’s not easy being this small in a world full of giants, I thought, with a newfound respect. The trail and sidewalk where I walked were littered with casualties.

I think back on all the times as I child, and even young adult, when I went out of my way to step on ants and spiders and the likes as I saw them on the sidewalk, just because I didn’t like them. In my eyes, they didn’t really deserve to be alive. And if they were found indoors, it was automatic grounds for killing them. Nowadays, I make an effort to scoop a spider in a cup if found indoors, and drop it outside in the grass. Sure, I don’t want it in the house and I don’t want it biting me, but I’m also ten thousand times its size. It sure as hell doesn’t want to be under my foot, either.

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At another spot on the trail, I saw the tiny body of a wooly caterpillar. Once more I bent down, hoping it was still alive. I’ve always had a soft spot for these fuzzy guys. I gently poked its black and orange body, and it didn’t move.  Lifting it between two fingers, I placed it over in the grass and stood for a quiet moment before walking away.

. . . . .

Day 6: Eye to eye

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October 6, 2016

11 AM, Cadenas home

If I could pick two women authors and activists I could be like when I “grow up,” without a doubt it would be Terry Tempest Williams and Barbara Kingsolver.

Especially Ms. Williams, who has captivated me since I first encountered her in When women were birds, and later, in Refuge. The way she comes to know herself in the capacity of her geographical landscape, and in the natural world as a whole, and then channels that into her writing, her advocacy, her activism and her living, is nothing short of inspiring. Her words find a resonant note with me, so deep, few have claimed this place of kindredness.

Between the two of these authors, I have dared to reach for higher aspirations with my writing. It’s not so much the role of writer I seek these days, but writing as a medium through which I hope to advocate and inspire thought and action to care for this earth and all its inhabitants with urgency, with respect. When I read these authors, I feel their lives and writing are building a legacy they will one day leave behind, which I am already a beneficiary of.

I want nothing less than that for my life and writing and art. These are huge shoes to fill, too huge for my small feet, I know. And still, the little girl in me stirs my thirty-five year old self, as if to say, Why not try?

With that said, I picked up my Sierra Club magazine today and opened, at random, to an article with a picture of a hand pressed against an enormous tree trunk. The caption beneath was a quote from the author and made my heart pound. I was delighted to learn the author of this quote, this entire article, was Terry Tempest Williams. Today, I want her words to be the parting reflection from this humble little classroom:

To this day, my spiritual life is found inside the heart of the wild. I do not fear it. I court it. When I am away, I anticipate my return, needing to touch stone, rock, water, the trunks of trees, the sway of grasses, the barbs of a feather, the fur left behind by a shedding bison.

In this article, she writes of the history of our national parks, the necessity of their evolving preservation in our world, what they mean for us in America. I carry these words with me the rest of the day:

Our national parks are blood. They are more than scenery. They are portals and thresholds of wonder, an open door that swings back and forth from our past to our future…This is the Hour of Land, when our mistakes and shortcomings must be placed in the perspective of time. The Hour of Land is where we remember what we have forgotten: We are not the only species that lives and dreams on the planet. There is something enduring that circulates in the heart of nature that deserves our respect and attention.

Day 5: Eye to eye

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October 5, 2016

9AM, The woods

How does a forest look and sound and smell on a crisp autumn morning, in the northernmost part of western Washington? I’m back to the fallen birch, sitting once again on its trunk and gazing up into the treetops.  A soft breeze plays through leaves in various stages of decay, different notes in each, depending. The colors of the trees are punctuated by the sky and the sunlight through autumn’s filter, both vibrant and muted.

A deep inhale, my lungs drink in an earthy musk and I sigh in contentment. This time of year, the forest is scented in paradox: old and new, fresh and decaying, wet and dry.

All through the woods I hear the songs of tiny birds, rasps and squeaks and trills. A pulsing chorus I cannot translate. Most of them elude my eyes, at least in distinction, though I see the black cap of a chickadee here and there. I wonder if part of their song includes a warning about the giant creature sitting on the fallen tree below.

A squirrel ventures out on a limber branch, plucks a bunch of seedlings in its hands and shimmies up the trunk.

Many of the trees, tall and lean, are stilted sideways, as if in the process of falling in slow motion. Plenty have already fallen, taking down one or three others with them. The grass is lush green, but the evergreens are still dappled with brittle orange from two consecutive, dry summers.

And that’s how much of the Pacific Northwest appears to my eyes. Deceptively green on the surface, dry upon closer inspection.

I see the changing times of the climate in my neighborhood forest, and in the withered stream I cross on the trail to this spot, and in the leaves prematurely dried and fallen in piles to the ground.

Sitting here, it’s hard not to wonder how many of these trees will still be standing five years from now.

. . . . .

This post is part of a 31-day series in October. To see other posts, follow me here.

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Day 4: Eye to eye


October 4, 2016

9:45 AM, Cordata Park Trail

Since I first found this fallen birch in the woods near us, I was determined to return with a gas powered chainsaw. Even a handheld bow saw would suffice. Anything, really, that would help me preserve a piece of this tree for my artwork. I collected strips of thick, curly bark from another fallen birch nearby, and I continued coming back to check on the trees. Three weeks passed, the rains came, and I started to lose hope that my wish would be fulfilled. Even if I were able to cut it, how would I get it home without a car?

On my walk this morning, I passed two gentlemen outside working the landscape along the trail leading into the woods. They glanced up at me and smiled, and I seized my opportunity. What I wasn’t expecting was for one of the men to offer to cut a piece of the tree for me with his chainsaw.

Welcome to Bellingham.

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It took about ten minutes to complete the cut. Ten minutes of gas fumes and bark dust flying, covering the ground beneath in a fine powder. “There ya go,” he said, as it fell to the ground with a thunk. “Are ya gonna be able to get that home?”

I nodded, my eyes shining. “You betcha. I’m strong.” I winked at him, thanked him profusely for the fifth time, and asked if he’d be around the next day. He nodded. “Well, I’ve got some baking to do, then,” I said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

. . . . .

The door was locked when I returned home, slightly out of breath, having hauled the wood home three-quarters of a mile on my shoulder. Ricardo answered the door, blinked in a moment of surprise, then shook his head laughing.

“I got my tree,” I said happily.

. . . . .

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It’s nearly impossible for me to deduce the age of this tree. The rings are soft, faint, as if traced with pencil on paper years ago and left out in the rain. The bark is light colored, healthy in appearance. I count one section as best I can, about fourteen. Judging the remainder of the sections, I suspect this tree can’t be much older than me.

Sage colored lichen clings to the trunk in patches. Some parts of the bark are dark and weathered, while others are light, almost rose tinted and translucent. It sits to dry, upright the floor by Pepita’s home, eighteen inches tall and ten by eight inches wide. I still need to find a way to cut it into smaller rounds, but for now, I’m content with its presence alone in our home. A piece of the forest that will live on in other forms, a life extended.

I sit cross-legged in front of it and simply take it in.

Day 3: Eye to eye

Perhaps because we’re social animals and thus crave company, we tend to humanize as many things as we can. We see ourselves reflected in household pets, cars, clouds, the moon, even something you’d think defiantly inhuman as stone. Friends who’d occasionally join me in the course of the year I spent wandering the Sinai Desert would delight in picking out human and animal shapes in rock formations, seeing them as reassuringly familiar presences in a landscape they experienced as threateningly empty. I kept wishing they wouldn’t.

“But you’re not seeing the rock itself,” I’d protest.

Lesley Hazelton, Agnostic: a spirited manifesto

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October 3, 2016

9:30 AM, Cadenas Kitchen

I’ll be the first to confess my propensity for humanizing almost anything. Starting with naming most of the living and non-living things I’m attached to. I have taken comfort in the numerous “reflections” of my life experiences I’ve seen in nature. And I’m not conceding these are bad or wrong or any of those value-laden words we like to attach to things; they were reflections of what was happening on my insides at the time, assurances I wasn’t alone in the world. I needed that. I still do sometimes.

But there’s been a growing part of me enamored with studying the otherness of nature’s inhabitants. The very fact that we’re not the same. As I’m drawn to delight more in paradoxes, I smile at the paradox of my searching for the points of intersection between human and non-human experiences, while seeking to maintain the inherent mystery of their otherness in my sight.

To see the rock for itself, not something created in my image.

. . . . .

This morning, Tarzan poked his head out of his sleeping pouch as soon as I walked down the stairs from our loft bedroom. Being that gliders are nocturnal, he’s normally settling down for his night by the time we’re up in the morning. But not today. Today he wanted to play. He jumped up and attached himself to the cage door with his four hands, pleading silently with me to let him out.

It’s nearly impossible to resist those eyes.

Once free, he lost no time bounding around the room with nails clacking like the keys of a tiny typewriter. Under Pepita’s bookcase-converted-to-tortoise-table, up the legs of the sawhorse, onto the wood post rigged to hold her heat lamp and back down her table shelf, climbing into the metal watering can, and onto the window sill, to stick his head between the blinds. In a matter of seconds, it seemed, he was on the floor once more, scurrying over to the kitchen, between the blankets stuffed to prevent him from crawling under the oven or refrigerator. Then, he disappeared.

I coaxed him out with a piece of dried mango, grinning at his curiosity and boundless energy, cursing his ingenuity.

A glance at the door that opens to our balcony reminded me of our weekend visitors. An old friend and her almost one-year old girl, whose nose, finger and cheek imprints were all over the bottom portion of the door’s window. I smiled, replaying scenes of her scurrying about much like Tarzan, curiosity driving her into everything, pulling out baking pans and trays, clanging them together joyously. Returning again and again to the staircase, determined to climb it. Playing peekaboo beneath the blanket covering Tarzan’s cage. Cramming food in her mouth, only to spit it out a moment later, possibly returning to try it a second time.

Indeed, it was clear all weekend how much this delightful, energetic girl reminded me of the animals in our family in some way. And by choice, these animals are most likely the closest  to children I’ll have, therefore, the closest association with my friends who are mothers. Our common ground, if you will.

It takes a conscious effort, sometimes, to sit back and see them as sugar gliders, first and foremost. Not as animals that remind me in some ways of humans. Seeing Pepita like this requires almost no effort. In this way, caring for a reptile has been stimulating, as there is little in her behavior to associate with humans. She is pure tortoise, reptile, mystery, an alien in our midst.

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She compels me to deeper curiosity, more expansive wonder and respect. A being existing entirely independent of me, yet due to captivity, also dependent on me for her livelihood.

This is who I call family, the “nature” living under the same roof as us. Creatures I can never fully know, and still, I try to plumb the depths, apprehend their many angles. My longterm enrollment in nature’s classroom.

Eye to eye: Day 2

October 2, 2016

3pm, downtown bellingham

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I imagine when people see the words “nature’s classroom,” the first images are often of wilderness, mountains, lush forests, off-the-grid living, hiking trails, camping and the likes. Am I right? Living in a densely populated urban area for so many years, this is what I usually associated with nature. Somewhere, something far away from the city. Of course, in the Pacific Northwest, we’ve been royally spoiled with nature at our fingertips wherever we turn. Still, as a whole, we tend to think of the outdoors as removed from our human environment.

So, what does it mean to you to step into nature’s classroom? This would have been a good place to start, I suppose, but getting around to it on day two isn’t so bad. Maybe you’re reading this and thinking, That’s nice and quaint, but I don’t live near nature. Or, I don’t have the time to get out into nature every day. 

If you don’t mind, I’m going to push back on that.

Do you have grass outside your door, even growing in the cracks between the sidewalk?

What about crows or pigeons lining the telephone wires?

Potted plants on your porch or balcony?

Dirt, sand, desert?

Grasshoppers, dragon flies, moths, ants, butterflies, spiders?

Birds nesting in the beams outside your door?

Then guess what? You’ve got nature within reach.

But that’s the easy part, honestly. Identifying the nature around you. The hard part is slowing down, listening to it speak, recognizing it has something it can teach you.

. . . . .

I’d be lying if I said this came easily to me, at all times. I’m perhaps more aware of my surroundings, tuned in, observant, than the average person. Who knows. I’ve been on an urban hike with a group of gals, trekking through old growth forest, and I could not keep myself engaged in the conversation about dating and relationships with all the bird calls and stunning trees surrounding us. At one point, I stopped and pointed up to the tops of a tree and identified birds to no one in particular. One of the women paused her steps, glanced at me as if seeing me for the first time as not-quite-normal, and commented, “You’re… observant, aren’t you?” Rhetorical question, I assumed.

But easy, it is not.

It’s like learning the discipline of meditation. Sitting still and quiet for long periods of time, even for ten minutes, is incredibly challenging for me. I’ve gotten better in my yoga practice this past several years, at least the physical practice of yoga. The spiritual practice is far less developed. I usually fight the urge (and lose) to fast forward through the slow parts. Let’s keep it moving, eh?

And this translates outdoors as well. I love to walk and bike and explore the natural surroundings near me. I have a much harder time allowing myself to pause and sit and rest. It’s kind of anti-American, you know? This concept of being versus doing. We’re uncomfortable, as a culture, with stillness.

Don’t get me wrong, seeing and learning doesn’t necessarily depend on stillness; and stillness doesn’t automatically lead to seeing and learning. But I wonder how much I miss in my hesitation to pauses, to slowness. I’d wager, a lot more than I know.

We also see the natural world around us through our own specific lens. It’s not easy to change or expand that. My lens is honed in on the environment, and so it’s nearly impossible to detach from that when I peer at the natural world. I automatically focus on the damage caused by humans, the effects of global warming, the threats of development, the fragile places in need of protection.  I can be prone to anger, despair, and disillusionment with my species. I see the beauty, the strength, the transcendence and resilience of nature, too, and the humans who care for it.  But I’ll always see these in the same frame as the vulnerabilities. I accept that. And also, I want to deepen and broaden my scope.

This month of being in nature’s classroom isn’t all that different from what I do every day. But for me, it’s another step in the practice of meditation. Peeling back another layer, opening myself to new things.

What is it for you?

. . . . .

This post is part of a 31-day series in October. To see other posts, follow me here.

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Eye to eye: Day 1

You know how it seems the universe often conspires to throw a wrench in your well laid plans? Yeah, well, here’s the truth of today’s post: I sat down at our home computer to prep early this afternoon, because for some blazing reason, I can’t access my own web hosting site on my laptop. Thirty minutes later, I’m on the phone with some guy with a heavy Indian accent in a loud crowded office, who claims to be working in technical support for Microsoft; because, apparently, our internet has been hacked on all levels. Long story short, an hour later – and one other guy with a voice sounding remarkably the same as my first guy, helping me from an “IT company” in Las Vegas- I hang up frustrated and pull the plug on the computer. Plan B means riding my bike to catch a bus to the downtown library, where all the computers are taken, and as I finally sit down at my reserved spot, it moves at a speed circa 1990, informing me I have 38 minutes remaining.

Which is a lot of words to say, I have little time to devote to this first post.

But, I digress. Let’s dive in, shall we?

. . . . .

 

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October 1, 2016

10 am, North Bellingham

Our spot in the quaint college town of Bellingham, WA is in the northern part of the city, where suburbs begin to collide with rural landscape. Development stretches like a northern-growing inkblot, commercial and residential developments swallowing fields, leaving patches of forest and trail in between. If it weren’t so peaceful and picturesque in parts, I would denounce this part of town as suburbia. But, those fields, the fog blanketing them in the early mornings; the sun tinting them orange in the evenings. The forests of birch trees and rows of maples along the main road. And Mt. Baker rising in the east, towering like an ancient behemoth over the distant skyline. The deer darting to and fro from the fields. I’m drawn to them as a moth to a flame.

It feels like a flame, much of the time.

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Which is where you’ll find me on this morning, standing in the open expanse of one of these fields, craning my neck in all directions. Flocks of geese overhead announce their passing, as they do twice a day on this flight path. I stand here and wait, straining to hear the land speak.

Did you know that land speaks? Call me crazy, but it’s true. It doesn’t take long for me to hear it, which is more an impression in my bones than an audible hearing.

Its voice is sorrowful, perseverant. It grips at my heart like the hand of an aging grandparent, weathered and soft, reaching for mine beside the bed. I am filled with its hopes, its pain, its fate.

Yes, there is this sense of fate, of wanting to store up these moments and images and smells before they disappear forever. To hold onto this legacy.

. . . . .

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At the farmost perimeter of the field, where forest and wetland sequester, there was a fire not long ago. I saw it, on my bike ride home one afternoon. The rising flames, the smoke, the firefighters in the distance. Thankfully it never consumed the trees, but the field bears its scars. I step on charred earth and poke the toe of my shoes at blackened branches. Shoots of new grass dot the area in sporadic pattern. A small, lone tree stands in the field, bearing witness to the days of drought.

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It is often a question on my mind, What will happen to the inhabitants of these fields when the land is sold for development? Humans are not the only displaced ones, the only refugees on this great earth. But there are people, too, finding refuge in the trees here for now. I step cautiously through a trail and stop at the sight of a tent, a campsite. I turn back, hoping not to disturb.

I wander through woods that bear more signs of human dwellers. A sweatshirt here, a water bottle there. Letters graffitied on a trio of trees. A star pinned to another trunk, as if to mark an intersection between worlds, tree and human. I sit on the curve of a bowed branch and watch the life of this little forest.

This is the beginning of my days in the classroom.

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. . . . .

This is part of a 31 day series in the month of October. You can read the intro here.

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Coming to an inbox near you in October

Among writers, and those who wish to try their hands at writing, November is well known as NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. The basic goal is to write a 50,000 word novel in one month. In October, however, a newer and lesser known challenge rolls around for bloggers: Write 31 Days. It’s simple and self-explanatory, with the commitment of writing each day of the October on a specific theme of your choice. Bloggers link up with the community at Write 31 Days, and there receive encouragement and the opportunity to explore other blogs throughout the month. I’ve had numerous writer friends participate in this event, while I’ve been content to sit back and cheer them on from the sidelines of the interwebs.

This year, being newly self-employed, seemed as good as any to jump in and write. The topic will come as no surprise to anyone who has visited this blog, for it seems I now have one thing, and one thing only, I care to spend my time writing about these days.

My theme for October is simply this: 31 days in nature’s classroom. For short, I’ve named it Eye to Eye, as this is how I wish to spend the month as a student of nature, asking in what daily ways I can see and value the smallest of lives.

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{P.S. You can grab this button for social media or your own blog if desired. Find it at the very bottom of my webpage.}

As a student, I’ve got a few objectives as I take on this challenge; not only for myself, but perhaps for any one who reads along:

  • Gather seed: Before seeds can be sown, they must exist. This time spent observing as a student will be a rich time of listening and responding to the natural world, gathering my “seeds” to sow in writing.
  • Reflection: Asking questions and leaving most unanswered, with the hope of spurring others to their own questioning, listening and reflecting on what they see in the natural world.
  • Connection: Looking for the places where the natural world and the human world intersect.
  • Engagement: As we interact with the natural world, understanding what ways we’re drawn to respond; identifying the tension between hope and heartbreak and investing ourselves there. Finding our places of everyday activism.

Will you consider joining me on this nature walk through writing in October? If you haven’t already subscribed to my blog and would like the convenience of posts directly sent to your inbox, please add your email address here. I have no social media platform, no large audience to share with, no books authored as of yet on my resume. But I do have a deep, abiding passion. A conviction to keep putting these small observations into words and sending them out into the world, regardless, for the hope of where they may land and how they may grow. I used to think of myself as first, and foremost, a writer. I’m beginning to see that writing is merely a piece of art I utilize in the overall expression of my life’s work, much like photography, painting and cooking. It is not the whole package. Somehow, knowing this frees me to write whether or not it catches anyone’s attention, though here and there, I hope my words fall where they can be useful.

The truth is, there is little visible reaction to the action of my writing, which is often the measurement of success. Because I wish for my writing to be a form of activism as well as art, I find comfort in these words by American activist and writer Rebecca Solnit:

History is shaped by the groundswells and common dreams that single acts and moments only represent. It’s a landscape more complicated than commensurate cause and effect. Politics is a surface in which transformation comes about as much because of pervasive changes in the depths of the collective imagination as because of visible acts, though both are necessary… Writers need to understand that action is seldom direct. You write your books. You scatter your seeds. Rats might eat them or they might just rot… Some seeds lie dormant for decades because they only germinate after fire.

And that’s what I intend to do with my words on nature: scatter seeds, and let them run their course in time.

. . . . .

follow along with the series here:

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 5

Day 6

Day 7

Day 8

Day 9

Day 10

Day 11

Day 13

Day 14

Day 15

Day 17

Day 18

Day 21

Day 23

Day 25

Day 27

Day 31

Who I am, below the iceberg’s tip

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I like to find things. Tree branches, peelings of birch bark, leaves, pine cones, old bicycle wheels, scraps of cool cloth, glass jars. Anything, really, could be a treasure if looked at with an artist’s eye.  I also love to find lost or injured animals. This week, I found a dove.

She was lying on her belly beneath a pine tree on my walk home from the store. It was a blustery day and she looked out of sorts. I took off my jacket and decided I couldn’t leave her there, but it took a few minutes crawling on hands and knees underneath the tree to catch her. She couldn’t fly, but she flapped her wings in a mighty effort, propelling herself on her belly to and fro like a speedboat on land. Finally, I draped my jacket carefully around her and scooped her up in my arms to walk home.

In these instances, I tend to think on the go, reacting initially from the heart and working up toward my brain. It’s just my M.O. So I got her home and quickly constructed a habitat for her with the sugar gliders’ travel carrier, towels, a basket, scraps of cloth and a heat lamp. She was rightfully freaked out and hopped around on her belly in the carrier. I gently cupped her in my hands, pinning her wings to her sides, and lifted her to check for injuries. Something about her legs didn’t look right, but I’m no specialist. I knew specialists would advise the least amount of handling, but as I felt her heart pulsing against my hands, I confess I couldn’t put her down quite yet. I wanted her to know she was safe.

So I continued to hold her snugly in the cup of my hands. Within a few minutes, her beady obsidian eyes began to flutter, slowly shuttering closed. All I could do was provide a place for her to rest. I confess, I’m in no hurry to move on from these moments, the way the religious devout linger in cathedrals, their sacred spaces, and feel their souls laid bare.

That’s what animals do to me. Unpeel the layers of my soul and make me feel more at home than I ever have, all at once.

. . . . .

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Of course, I did put her back, away from human contact, within a few minutes, and soon after called up the local wildlife rehabilitation center. The girl on the phone said I could bring her in. “Let me figure out if we can get a ride there,” I said, and I’ll call you back. Ricardo came home, shaking his head affectionately when he walked into the living room and saw the bird in the carrier, the two sugar glider habitats and the tortoise table, taking up half the space. “This place looks like a zoo,” he said. But he doesn’t mind.

We called one of Ricardo’s few pals in town and he generously offered us the use of his car, if we dropped him off at work first and then returned it to work that night. This would require us catching the last bus from downtown and biking the rest of the way home from the bus station in the rain. We didn’t think twice.

“I just want this bird to have a chance of making it,” I said. And Ricardo wouldn’t argue. He gets me in this way, never complaining about the effort required to lend help to a bird or a baby squirrel or a lost dog. They all matter to me, and he knows this.

. . . . .

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I confess, most of the time I suspect I am not entirely human. By that I mean, I sense a connection with the natural world that makes me feel more alive than being around humans. Like maybe I’m part tree, part bird, part sugar glider, depending on what connection is needed in the moment. It’s a vulnerable sort of confession to put out in the world, wide open for criticism: too sentimental, wack-a-doodle, not scientifically supported, anthropomorphizing nature, blah blah blah. I used to care more about those potential criticisms. But now?

Well, I think that’s obvious.

I came upon several fallen birch trees in the forest where I regularly visit near us. It’s unclear why they fell, these stunning giants, but I approached them with my head bowed, a reverent sadness. I sat on the trunk of one for awhile, feeling as I often do with fallen trees, a presence all its own. And I determined to try to come back with a saw and save a few pieces of the tree to channel into artwork, a sort of life out of death. The tree deserved that much, I knew this.

As for the other downed birch, I saw it further in the woods, strips of white peeling off its trunk. Wading through the foliage, I came to the tree and carefully peeled strip after strip of its beautiful bark and tucked it in my backpack. This, too, I would turn into art. And share with the sugar gliders.

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. . . . .

Finding people-friends is not as easy for me as one might think. I’m friendly and connective, warm and compassionate, genuinely caring, I’m told. And I can be downright funny. But this whole other part of me, the iceberg below the surface, so to speak, has a much harder time finding folks who understand. I’m an introvert who requires much less social time than perhaps the average person. Quite content alone with my environment, I don’t often want to come out in the world. I don’t generally have a difficult time finding people who like me, or whom I like for that matter. The challenge is finding people who make me feel as welcome and drawn out as I make them feel.

So, I stick close to my animals, and trees. I hold my gliders in their pouches while they sleep, running a finger softly over their heads and down their spines, grateful for the opportunity to care for lives so small and dear. And I relish time with people as it comes to me, for what it is, for who they are.

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A miniature portrait of family

One of the joys of having sugar gliders in the family is getting to see their personalities unfold over time.

When Ninja arrived, he was all Wild Savage. Now he’s more Calm and Civilized, and it’s hard to say if it’s because he feels more at home, or if he’s silently reciting the Serenity Prayer in Glider-ese each time I stroke his back. He’s still enough of a wild card that when I open his cage and stick my fingers into his hammock, I’m never certain which side of him I’ll encounter: Anti-Government Extremist defending his territory, or Quivering Peanut. Either way, I think we’ve made progress this past month, and in general, he seems to think I’m a little more than tolerable.

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The first few months with Tarzan, he was like a Teenager Oscar the Grouch, crabbing at me as if he were scolding my every intrusion. But he’s always been responsive to my voice. Upon hearing me call his name, he’d move around in his nesting pouch until inevitably a little pink nose would emerge, sniffing with an air of disdain. Depending on his mood, he might pop his head out of the pouch and grab the sides of it in his teeth, jerking it down and repeating until he’d effectively ‘pulled the covers’ over his head. I’d burst into laughter.

And they have their different routines. Since they’re nocturnal, they tend to wake up around 9:30 pm. Tarzan heads to the top of his cage where a foraging toy hangs from the ceiling (basically a round hollow ball with a teething ring over the top and a little tinkling bell). At this point, his behavior is Pavlovian, I’m sure. Upon hearing the bell, he knows he can reach in and pull out a treat (usually a piece of dried mango or a dehydrated grasshopper). He’ll grab it as efficiently as the world’s best pick pocket, and in a second, be hanging from the side of the cage cradling his treat in both hands. Ninja, on the other hand, goes straight to his wheel. He perches inside for at least 30 minutes, often with a leg up, bathing himself, or simply staring at us with an unreadable expression. Next, he crawls over to his food dishes, where he nibbles daintily at a nugget of dried food or licks his bowl of wet food. At this point, Tarzan may have noticed and begun aggressively scaling the sides of the cage nearest to Ninja’s, making little clicking or crabbing sounds, while Ninja mostly ignores him.

We don’t seem to have made any progress in the area of nurturing a friendship between the two gliders. Tarzan is perplexingly unappreciative of our attempts at an arranged companionship, and has faithfully defended his turf. Ninja seems open to the idea, but can’t yet convince Tarzan of its potential merits and spends most of his time dodging Tarzan’s hands or teeth swiping at him when they’re in close enough proximity. Hence, the separate cages.

But one routine I’ve upheld with Tarzan is allowing him at least a few minutes, if not more, of free roaming time at night before we humans head to bed. I close all the doors, stuff one blanket under the oven and another under the fridge to plug the entrances, and remove all edible things from the ground. He’ll climb around Ninja’s cage for awhile, attempting to chase him, before jumping to the ground and taking off like a remote control race car with a jerky battery. I wish I had this captured on video: the sound of his nails clicking, his tail straight up in the air like an antenna, half gliding, half bouncing across the wood floor, forward and sideways. He loves to check everything out. In that way, I suppose he’s like an infant crawling around, poking their fingers into light sockets and picking up anything on the ground to stuff in their mouth. In other words, he requires supervision.

The other night, however, he got his lucky break.

. . . . .

It took me a moment to wake up, to realize this wasn’t a dream. I think I’d been hearing strange noises subconsciously for awhile. Then, the distinct sound of tiny nails clicking on the wooden end table near my side of the bed. I shot up, reached over and snagged a furry ball with arms and legs in my hands. If sugar gliders have an expression of shock, Tarzan wore it. I remember it, even in the dark of pre-dawn.

How in the world….What are you doing up here? I mumbled, unable to suppress a chuckle at the Squirming Renegade in my hands. I knew it was Tarzan. Just that night, he’d figured out he could scale the railing up to our loft bedroom. And if it were Ninja, he’d be puncturing holes in my hands right about now.

When I got to his cage, I saw the upper door had been left unlatched and uttered a prayer of thanks for whatever guardian angels kept him out of the bathroom.

I had one hell of a time wrangling him off my back and into his cage. He’d apparently loved his hours of independence. In the morning, I found little evidences of his escapades around the house. A dropping in the bedroom. Tree shavings from a birch branch I found this week. Mail scattered on the floor, the corner nibbled off my newly-arrived business license. And when I sat down to breakfast and stared at the bowl of apples in front of me, I nearly spit out my cereal.

Behold, the teeny tiniest bite ever taken out of an apple.

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. . . . .

Besides the much needed joy and laughter he’s brought into my life these past seven months, I still have to say my absolute favorite thing about my relationship with Tarzan is holding hands.

At the end of the day, while he’s still sleepy and curled up in his pouch, I love to reach inside. We long passed that place in our relationship where I wondered if he would bite me. He knows he’s safe, and so do I. I cup a hand around his little body and stroke his rabbit soft fur. Sometimes, I hear him making little clicks and sighs of contentment. If he’s partially awake, he might groom my hand with his tongue, ever so softly nibbling the rough edges of my fingers as he goes. But most of the time, my fingers find one of his hands, microscopic and dexterous, marveling at each of his fingers. He’ll curl a hand around my finger and hold it, while I sit and hold my breath, wishing time stood still. Alas, it does not, so there we sit in the beautiful mystery of companionship that crosses the boundaries of species.

In these moments, we are just family.

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Philosophical musings of all the ages I am

It happens like clockwork every summer, as the season transitions to autumn: I crave the coziness of bookstores and libraries, the scent and feel of bound pages, the thrill of being transported to a different world. While nothing will ever top the summer and fall of reading the Harry Potter series for the first time (unbelievably, only three years ago, and I re-read it last summer), I find I’m drawn toward fantasy. Magic. Adventure.  Generally this leads me to a “children’s” book, where I’m apparently on a mission to make up for all the lost years without this genre in my life.

So this year, it’s Wildwood.

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It fits all my criteria. Thick and long, whimsical artwork, quirky and precocious characters, multilayered themes, beautiful blend of realism and fantasy. Bonus points for being part eco-fable, set on the outskirts of industrial Portland. This, combined with a strong cup of coffee, leftover vegan chocolate walnut cake with salted caramel frosting from my mom’s birthday and a sugar glider snuggled against my chest, is a recipe for pure bliss.

I’m ready for autumn.

. . . . .

Living in Bellingham seems to be bringing my childhood self full circle, joining at last with my grown up self in a sense of completion. Prior to this, my selves were disjointed, displaced, always searching for each other. The irony of it all – perhaps a universal irony – is that the more in touch I am with the essence of who I was as a child, the more alive I am in my adult skin. It’s the opposite of what we’re taught, no? Growing up into adulthood = loss of imagination, wonder, adventure, fantasy, simplicity, mystery. If these qualities are present in the average adult experience, they are often counterfeits, muted, detached from everyday life, sterilized. Not for everyone, of course. But adults are not encouraged to nurture childlike qualities (not to be confused with idealism); those who do are often labeled immature, uneducated, or socially inept.

The thing is, I flat out refuse to accept that equation any more. It is the antithesis of my experience.  My abiding belief as an adult reunited with who I was as a child is this: There is infinitely more to life than what meets the eye. 

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On the surface, this sounds obvious. But we have a way of conflating the obvious with simple-mindedness.

Somewhere along the way to growing up in a conservative religious culture, a tree became merely an inanimate object; a thing of beauty; a natural resource. An animal, woefully inferior to humans; an ingredient; a pet. And land, well, that became property, real estate, investment; resources belonging first and foremost to humans; beauty to inhabit, explore, enjoy.

They lost their mystery. Their separate identities, their inherent worth apart from us. In effect, they became two-dimensional.

The retrieval of the essence of childhood, merging seamlessly with adulthood, means the world takes on more meaning. More possibility. Dare I say, even more responsibility.

It may be the things I love most in these fantasy stories are the things that blur my neat and tidy sense of what’s real. How they make me question and imagine things I never dared to ponder before. It’s not so much the specific acts of magic I love, for instance, in the Harry Potter stories, but the world of possibility bigger than what meets the eye.

Perhaps, I think, a tree is more than a living tower of wood and leaves. What if it has a language? A soul? A world that I know nothing of?

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. . . . .

The mystical side of childlikeness is only one part. The other part is a sense of partnership and accountability with the natural world. If life is more than what meets the eye, than it follows that life is also more than humanity. Life is every living thing, interdependent. What affects one, affects us all. That tree is alive, is a participant in providing oxygen, is home to birds and insects and fungus, is part of a forest, is growing on acres of field that is being sold for residential development.

Suddenly, that tree is vulnerable.

That field is vulnerable.

The ones that call the field and the forest home are vulnerable, rapidly being displaced by humans building homes.

We call this progress. What do they call it?

 

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I cross the field with my bike this morning, itching to explore. To find answers to questions. My suspicions are confirmed: this lovely land is for sale, slated for development. It is a small, small consolation that a tiny piece of it was fenced off for a wetland.

At the edge of the field, a slice of forest remains. Walking through the canopy of filtered grey light, I feel as I normally feel in the presence of woods: hushed. I swear, I feel the presence of something more than wood in those beings. At this point, I don’t even care to define what it is; only, that it does exist. Yes, that is enough for me.

I sit in the crook of a branch, a sort of wooden octopus tentacle rooted to the earth, and I listen. A different kind of field lays beyond the trees. A meadow clearing, populated in part with dead trees, is pulsing with bird song.

This place, tucked between one development and another, hums with a life of its own.

Not knowing what else to do, I sit and watch, a witness to its life. It’s the kind of seeing and hearing that I know will end up breaking my heart, piece by piece, through the years of my life. Still I would choose this breaking over the not-hearing, the not-seeing. In this sacred space of communion between all the ages that make up who I am, I am right where I belong.

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In which I live a little (and veer from my theme)

Ok, I’ve been fighting this post for awhile, but I’m going to cave. Does it go with the overall theme of my blog? Not in any way. It’s total randomness, at least with regards to everyday life among nonhuman beings, per the tag line of my site. But, what the hell, let’s live a little, eh?

So, where was I?

Ah yes, football.

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That may have been one of my few contingencies about the timeline of moving up to Bellingham. If you recall, Ricardo moved a month and a half before I did, and we didn’t have a clear idea when I’d follow. What I did know is I wanted to be up there by the beginning of football season. This was for two reasons:

  1. My mom doesn’t get channels on her tv (which was where I was staying)
  2. Football is more fun to watch with Ricardo

I’ve actually grown to the place of legitimate football fan, y’all. It used to be I had no interest watching football, unless it involved Ricardo being glued to the tv and I had nothing else to do. Those days have passed. Three seasons later (scoff all you want, die hard fans), I’m in, all in. And not just because I love the Seahawks. Get this, I’ll actually watch football just for the love of the game, other teams included.

One of my favorite parts of last football season was sitting in the breakroom at lunch and talking football with the guys. I admit, I was a tad proud of myself for knowing the names and corresponding numbers of at least half our players, as well as their positions and notable plays they’d made in previous games. Not to mention, I became that person who only reads the sports section of the newspaper. Well, mostly if it was related to football. The rest of the stuff going on in the world, at least reported by the newspaper, was far too depressing for me to stomach at the time anyhow.

Suffice it to say, I’ve been counting down to football season since right around February 8th.

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Thankfully, I’m here, in time to kick off the long-anticipated 2017 Season with Ricardo and fellow Bhamsters. There are no shortage of Hawks fans here, not surprisingly, being only two hours from Seattle. That’s one of many things that makes Bellingham feel like home.

But there is one thing that makes me, well, cringe, if I’m being honest (and, let’s be honest, I usually am). I’d say it more than makes me cringe; It feels akin to culture shock. Before I go any further, let me set the stage by giving some cultural context for those who aren’t as familiar with Seattle, in three words:

Progressive

Bernie

Blue

Imagine now my shock. I move up to good ‘ol Bellingham, college town, not too far from Seattle in the most western part of Washington state. I expect to see Bernie signs, Bernie bumper stickers, I admit. Nope (well, one). Hilary, perhaps? I’ve seen two. I may have been riding past the person’s yard on my bike at the time and let out a triumphant cheer (and I’m not all that fond of Hilary). What I have seen, far too often, are TRUMP signs.

There. I typed it. I think it raises my blood pressure a little just to write that.

I was like, Wait-what???! What planet am I on? My neighbors in the development across the street have a Trump sign in their yard. I’ve seen his name etched in dirt across an old pickup truck by the highway. Plastered on huge billboards in multiple locations. On bumper stickers. A booth at a festival. I kid you not, there was no sign of Trump anywhere in Seattle, except for a prop for public ridicule.

Yeah. Shock is a good word for it.

And I’ve always been an upstanding citizen, never one to advocate for vandalism. But I’ve gotta say, I’ve got a plan to alter some of the signs here in town, on my bike, in the middle of the night. Though, I was pleased that someone beat me to it (I’d have left the “P” myself, for added effect).

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So, there are some kindred spirits in Bellingham after all, when it comes to politics. That’s a relief.

Go HAWKS!!!!

 

On common ground (an update on Ninja)

I love those points of intersection, where animals and humans have more in common than not. Such as when first impressions turn out to be deceiving.

My initial assessment of Ninja, our new sugar glider, was, WHOA. He’s totally wild. He came out fighting, jumping, biting, crabbing (a.k.a., scary-sounding sugar glider noises). He did not want to be touched, let alone picked up. It seemed he’d had little human interaction in the one year of his life.

We’re going to have our work cut our for us, I decided, if we take him on. And for the first several days, we did.

He wanted little to do with me, continuing to make himself as big and scary as any furry animal weighing less than a pound possibly can. I kept sticking my fingers in as bravely as I could, trying to will myself not to pull back as soon as he chomped. I failed a few times. In those moments of reaction, I saw something across his face that I wasn’t expecting: surprise, followed by fear. As in, he didn’t appear to bite for any other reason than he wasn’t aware how much it hurt. When I pulled away quickly, I startled him. With that in mind, I began re-offering my fingers immediately after pulling them back, slowly aiming for the top of his head. He ducked a little, but stayed put, allowing me to stroke his fur.

Finally, a connection.

. . . . .

We took both boys to the vet on the bus last week. That was an adventure, let me tell you. I had a little taste of what a mom feels when her baby is screaming on public transportation and everyone’s staring, except my baby sounded like a nonverbal, cranky old man trapped inside a small mesh carrier. Tarzan was a breeze in comparison, snuggled soundlessly in a pouch strapped to Ricardo. All bets were off in the examination room, however, when each boy was caught in turn and held in the hands of an unknown human giant, their mouths pried open to see the sharp little teeth that were threatening to bite. Tarzan fully doused me in pee as he ran across my back and shoulders, to the top of my head and down my arms, sprinkling droppings all over the floor, which I resourcefully picked up and handed to the vet to add to his fecal sample.

The good news is, both boys are parasite free and healthy. And even though I’m confident I knew more about sugar gliders than the vet, who was very kind and approachable, I left feeling huge relief at this affirmation.

Which is another thing I misjudged. When Ninja came to us, his cage was grimy and stinky. His wheel looked like a child had finger painted inside with poop. I wondered how often, if ever, these people had cleaned his cage. So I gave it the good ‘ol scrub down and returned the wheel, sparkling clean. The next day and every day following, his wheel resembles a toddler’s art project with their feces when I check on him in the morning. Turns out, he’s probably not been kept in chronically unclean conditions. He just poops, tons.

After that visit, I knew we’d keep Ninja. I just had a feeling about him. And the next day, he didn’t struggle when I reached in to lift him out of his hammock, a sleepy ball in my hand, and nudged him into a pouch. He made a little fuss, but soon quieted down, settling in his spot against my chest. For a few hours, he slept and I stroked the outline of his body. Every now and then, he’d emit tiny sighs and clicks, which I’ve come to associate with sugar glider contentment.

It dawned on me, it had probably been since he was a few weeks old that he’d been carried like this. Except then, by his mother. The sugar gliders sold by Pocket Pets (the ones you see at fairs, expos and malls) are taken from their mothers around eight weeks of life. The company sells them with heat rocks, cleverly, because the only reason a sugar glider would ever need a heat rock is if they’re too young to be away from their mom.

I wondered if Ninja had any memory of his mom, of what it felt like to be carried like this.

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In the days following, I’ve continued our ritual of carrying him in his pouch for several hours each evening. Back in his cage, he crouches very still as I run my finger softly from the top of his head down his back, under his chin and around his ears. Not once has he tried to bite me while I stroke him. I check on him when he’s in his hammock, cupping my hand underneath it and lifting it up to peer in. He peers back with his dark saucer eyes. I can feel his tiny body shaking and I gently apply extra pressure, as if to say, I’ve got you, little dude. 

So you never really know, with humans or animals. Often the ones who are hyper vigilant, seemingly aggressive and wild, may be the ones who have to work harder to protect themselves. To disguise their fear in a facade of toughness. With a little bit (or maybe a lot) of patience, tenderness and attention, you might just find that facade crack.

In which Joni Mitchell sings my anthem, among other news

My heart is so much larger than our wallets.

This can be a problem, you see, especially when my heart processes at ten times the speed of my brain. This is how we ended up with a tortoise two years ago that we had no idea how to care for. It’s how we brought home a sugar glider spontaneously from a home show (I so do not endorse this, by the way, even though I wouldn’t trade Tarzan for any amount of money in the world. Any company that sells exotic animals as impulse buys is not an ethical group). And it’s how we ended up with a second sugar glider, on a trial basis, from an ad posted on Craigslist.

I’ve been so focused on the literature that says sugar gliders are colony animals (read: they need at least one buddy) that I skipped over the literature detailing the process of introducing new sugar gliders to each other. Whoops. All I’ve wanted is to offer Tarzan a life in which he is happy, healthy and thriving. The same goes for Pepita. It’s the least we can do for our naturally wild animal companions who are in captivity. “Bare minimum” are not words in my vocabulary when it comes to the care of animals, much as the same applies to folks with kids.

So when a nice couple brought over their son’s sugar glider, whom he’d bought on impulse from a fair last summer (same horrid company), I entertained high hopes for this arrangement working out sweetly for all of us. Tarzan would be happier; this other little guy would be happier; the family would be happier providing their sugar glider a better home; and I, in extension, would be happier.

So. Much. Happiness. 

Yeah, it didn’t work that way. Not exactly.

What really happened is that Tarzan tried to attack the other glider, defending his territory, then retreated in distress to his man-cave. The other glider, being more wild and adventurous of a personality, jumped and flew all over the house, climbing things I didn’t know gliders could climb (i.e., the smooth wood railing up to our bedroom loft). Any time I tried to pick him up, he bit me, really hard, and flew off my shoulders as far as he could fling his tiny body.

We soon learned that he’s not been handled very consistently in the year they’ve had him. Mostly to jump around on his own outside his cage. He reminded me of Tarzan in the very beginning – times ten. In a few minutes, he’d drawn blood on my fingers three times. I knew I’d have my work cut out for me if we adopted him, and we had no guarantees the two boys would ever become pals.

But I looked at him and that same tiny little cage Tarzan came with, caked in gunk, smelling of feces, and ached for something better for him.

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So we asked if we could pay a deposit to keep him on a trial run, and they said sure.

After they left, I gingerly picked up little Ninja (as we’re calling him) and zipped him into a pouch, stuffed nice and cozy down my shirt. I could tell right away he’d never been in this position before, and he verbally let me know of his displeasure. I threw his blanket and hammock into the wash, detached his wheel and water bottle, and put them in a bucket of soapy water to soak. Then I hauled his cage onto the balcony and spent a good half and hour scrubbing it down. While his things were drying in the sun, I went to retrieve Tarzan, who was clinging like a paranoid statue to the side of his cage. It took a good ten minutes for me to coax him out of the cage and another five to get him into a pouch, he was so amped up.

At this point, I sat down to read the literature (finally) on introducing new gliders to each other, noting it can be a long process. Beginning with a 30-day quarantine, vet visit and fecal samples to make sure the new glider is healthy. Gulp. We’ve been trying to save to take Tarzan and Pepita for wellness checkups for months, but moving costs and loss of one steady income has not made that possible. We don’t even have health insurance any more. Or a car. How could we afford to suddenly take three animals to the vet?

And then my brain began to kick in (took it long enough), lecturing my heart for being so impulsive and impractical. What if your actions cause Tarzan to get sick? What if one of them injures the other? What if Tarzan, who’s already got high levels of anxiety, is further traumatized? What if it takes months to figure out whether or not they’ll even be compatible? How will you afford the vet if there’s an emergency? What kind of irresponsible caretaker are you?? (the brain likes to team up with shame as much as possible, though we’re working on changing that).

So I made a double batch of new food for the boys, reassembled Ninja’s cage with clean(er) accessories, positioned it across the room from Tarzan’s, and toted both boys around in separate pouches, one hanging inside and the other outside my shirt (yeah, I don’t even try to be cool).

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I honestly don’t know how this will play out. I keep thinking I’ll get better at leading with my brain. Then again, I seem to learn more in life the other way around.

. . . . .

Speaking of my heart being outside the realm of present reality, I’ve taken to dreaming of rescuing not only animals, but land. In these parts, I’ve mentioned there are abundant fields. Most of which have For Sale signs. As I ride past these natural habitats, I’m overcome with both the urge to shout for joy and to cry. It’s a two-edged sword. I can’t believe we’re surrounded by such beauty; and I can’t believe most of it’s going to bulldozed eventually and turned into residential or commercial development. Silly as it may sound, I almost don’t want to love it so much, so it doesn’t hurt so bad to see it disappear. The theme song running through my heads these days is Joni Mitchell’s Big yellow taxi, because yeah, it’s kinda my anthem/soapbox:

They took all the trees
Put ’em in a tree museum 
And they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see ’em

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Hey farmer farmer
Put away that DDT * now
Give me spots on my apples
But leave me the birds and the bees
Please!

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Mostly, it makes me want to fight. By fight, I mean, fight in the small way that I know how: purchase as much land as we can to live on as soon as we’re able and save it from being paved and developed. Maybe we’d live on one acre and five or ten acres would be untamed. I can’t imagine another legacy I’d like to leave behind as a human being than preservation of our wild, natural spaces and inhabitants. An ecosystem undisturbed. I don’t want to be party to displacement of wildlife if I can help it. I’d rather live lightly and peacefully among them.

This move has certainly reawakened the dreamer in me. But for the first time, these dreams don’t seem so far out of reach. We may not be able to afford the vet at the moment, but we’re working hard to start a new life up here, and one day, we’ll adopt some land. And more animals. And provide a safe place for the ones who live in the fields and woods and streams around us.

But for now, we’re working from a home office. We’re scraping and pressure washing old taco trucks together and wrapping them in shiny vinyl, hours each day in the sun. We’re biking to the store and to downtown and to meet customers and to work sites, and we’re learning our way around on the bus. We’re making as much as we can from scratch at home, instead of eating out, and selling or repurposing whatever we can.

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And also, continuing to lead some days with our hearts, instead of our heads, wondering where the next turn will take us on our adventure. It may not work for everyone, but I guess it’s how we roll.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In which I geek out on photos

I’ve taken to pinching myself daily.

Really, I can’t believe we live here. Finally. And I’m geeking out, you know? I’m in danger of becoming That Person who blogs and gushes over and over about the same things: fields, mountains, forests, less traffic, quiet, yoga, vegan cooking, farm animals, 25 cent/hr parking meters || Repeat. Ad nauseum.

I don’t know if I’m more homesteading hippie here, or a la Laura Ingalls running through fields of prairie wheat. I guess I don’t really care.

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The point is, I find myself in the somewhat foreign quandary where I don’t know whether to stick strictly to my “wild family” theme or tell you about the vegan tamales and champurrado we made the other night with my sister-in law.

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Or our drive about an hour northeast to Mt. Baker, wandering along the Nooksack River and through old growth forest with mossy crepe branches.

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Or my bike ride (read: photo shoot) through the fields near home.

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Or my research of the laws and regulations for selling homemade salsa, chiles in vinegar and guacamole.

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Or my continued attempts to find Tarzancito (a.k.a., El Principito, or Little Prince) a suitable cagemate.

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Or my new favorite location for practicing yoga: in the forest by our home.

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Or my first trip to a walk-in clinic here in town, hoping the bullseye rash that showed up on my wrist wasn’t anything serious (possibly related to my aforementioned yoga location).

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So, you’ll have to bear with me for awhile. I’m not accustomed to having so many things to write about.

Call it the honeymoon phase of a new beginning. Or the resurrection of some of my youthful idealism. A much needed break from chronic stress. An intentional lifestyle shift toward simplicity. Finding my muse. Or, perhaps, a symptom of being more fully alive.

Whatever name to call it, I’m going to geek out on it as long as I can.

 

She treads barefoot

Pepita and I took a stroll through the woods today. Or more accurately, I strolled while she pooped inside her carrier within the first three minutes, per usual, until we reached the meadow where I set her free to roam. Most folks haven’t encountered a free-range tortoise on their walks, so she’s always a hit with humans.  But she could care less about us. All she wants is to disappear in the brush and hope I don’t find her (for a few hours, at least).

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One lady saw me and pulled her headphones out, “Taking a rest, huh?”

“Uh, walking a tortoise, actually. Pretty much the same thing.”

She smiled and nodded like I’d just referred to my imaginary friend, “Ok, then,” and proceeded to politely excuse herself from further conversation.

“TOR-toise.” I repeated, nodding toward Pepita. She turned back and looked, then did a double take.

“Now that’s a first!”  We shared a laugh and she turned away chuckling.

So, I’m the weird Tortoise Lady.

I can live with that.

. . . . .

This place evokes the child in me, as well as long forgotten memories. The creek trickling under the bridge. Old wooden fence posts and amber waves of grain. Bare feet leaping through clover and green meadow. Nothing but the calls of birds, elusive in their branches. Time blurs and I’m back twenty-something years in the summer, the hours passed traversing fields and creeks, climbing trees, running barefoot.

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I kick off my sandals and begin practicing handstands, headstands, crow pose. We have the run of the place. I’m filled with gratitude for this forest’s hospitality.

. . . . .

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I can’t remember this weightlessness. It feels foreign, delightful, nourishing. I know her by name, and now I recall her from some time ago: Contentment.

She’s not a magical place, void of trouble. And it’s not that I did not feel her presence briefly, in and out, through the last years. But depression. Anxiety. These have not left my side long enough to sit in the presence of contentment and rest. Until now.

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Oh yes. I know the naysayers, how they say contentment is a choice. A state of being. Perhaps it’s not so simple, I’ve come to find. Perhaps she is always present, yes, but her voice is soft and she wears no shoes. And when we are weary and life is heavy; when we are doing our best to put one foot in front of the other and smile at work and listen and not let our pain leak out; other voices are so often louder than hers. Other steps so heavy. It can be hard, no, to tread barefoot with contentment?

Perhaps, sometimes, life is kind and lifts the weight and invites us to slip off our shoes. Even for a few moments. And we remember how to run through soft grass, how to come home with dirty feet, how to walk with a tortoise.

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Where I find myself, again

I found a corner of heaven.

It was there on my left, calling to me as I drove past fields on the way to Mount Vernon. A field of miniature donkeys. I hit the brakes and pulled off on the shoulder, leaving the car running with my husband and sister in-law gaping inside, as I skipped across the road to get as close to them as possible.

I also found a corner of hell. It’s called an electric fence surrounded by barbed wire, separating me from a field of miniature donkeys. Did that stop me from reaching my arm through and rubbing the muzzle of the nearest donkey? Hell, no.

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I have no concrete idea, no brilliant entrepreneur-ish plan, how we will fund this dream of providing sanctuary for a growing number of animals on a plot of land one day. All I know is, there will be a herd of miniature donkeys, alongside the goats and chickens and cows and…

In the meantime, I must figure out how to work my way into starting a nonprofit or winning the lottery. Or both.

. . . . .

I woke up this morning with a gnawing anxiety. I’m no stranger to anxiety, so I can often discern the source. This felt like my body flagging me down as if I’ve been sprinting down a gravel road in a cloud of dust. Which I have. And my body’s saying, Hey! Remember me? I think you need to slow down before you leave me behind. Because, really, I haven’t slowed down to digest the last several months. The move from our home in south Seattle to Bellingham. My move in with my mom in Ballard. My last day of work and saying goodbye to a 7 1/2 year era. Starting completely over in a new city.

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My inner introvert was pleading for me to take her away to a quiet place, where she could find herself again in the midst of this whirlwind of change. So I set out on my bike with a limited knowledge of the streets of Bellingham, determined to ride from north to south and sit by the water to write.

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All I’ve wanted since the (partial, for me) move to Bham in June was to ride my bike for hours around the city. I’m fairly certain I rode with a cheesy smile plastered across my face, this crazy ex-Seattleite with the short spandex that kept creeping up, riding on the street with a helmet (novel idea, Bham-ites!) instead of the sidewalk like the majority of the cyclists here. I rode fast and furious, a horse released from the corral, speeding my way toward Chuckanut drive. Toward water and trails and forest.

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My legs were wobbly by the time I dismounted at a trail, but my lungs soon found their rhythm with the sigh of the wind in the forest treetops. And I set out exploring, listening, observing, with not a care for direction, because how can one get truly lost in the place where they are found?

My soul must be made of bark and leaves, for I’m always found here in the forest. No matter where I am.

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I may not have a career to be my compass, but I have this: I know myself. After thirty-five years, I am at home in my skin, and I wouldn’t trade the identity of a career for the comfort of this acceptance. For the first time in almost a decade, dreams feel close enough to touch. And I am finding the courage to reach out into the unknown.

But first, my bike, the road, the wild woods, and words.

 

 

 

The evolution of consciousness

“When you feel the suffering

of every living thing in your own heart,

that is consciousness.”

~ Bhagavad Gita

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It shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who has known me that I’ve finally committed to a vegan lifestyle. Several years ago, with what I knew, being a vegetarian felt like enough. I learned the horrors of the factory farming industry as they pertain to the animals who become our meat, but somehow, escaped realizing the complicity of the dairy industry in horrific animal suffering. Maybe I wasn’t ready to connect those dots. Maybe I knew if I followed the trail of blood, it would lead me to the inevitable conclusion: giving up eggs and milk, two things I felt I couldn’t live without.

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Maybe it took nurturing the deep love that comes with sharing my life and home with animals; or the deep love that comes with internalizing a more expansive view of home, in which I share earth with all living creatures.

But those who know me well also will not be surprised to learn that it took a book, in the end, to shake me up. To wake up my consciousness.

For several weeks, I sat absorbed on the bus, in the break room at work, on the couch at home, reading with a horror that threatened to swallow me, story after story of animal suffering. Of brave and compassionate humans. Coworkers and friends naturally would tease me and tell me, “Put that book away. Stop reading. You don’t want to know that stuff.” I must have looked like I wanted to throw up.

We have that well-worn American idiom, “Ignorance is bliss.” Perhaps there is a shred of truth in this, but in my overall experience, ignorance is hell.

Ignorance is privilege.

Ignorance reinforces injustice.

Ignorance provokes suffering.

Ignorance perpetuates violence.

Ignorance is saying one thing and living another.

Ignorance is self-serving.

Ignorance damages body, soul and planet.

Ignorance is grief.

In the words of JoAnne McArthur, “To face animal suffering is to face our responsibility in their suffering.” It finally sunk in. I knew too much to feign ignorance, so I could either turn a blind eye to suffering, willfully choose that my own desires were more important than an animal’s right to a full life, or more fully change my lifestyle to reflect my values.

In the end, it didn’t feel like much of a choice, but a natural evolution. An acceptance of who I am (someone who values all life and doesn’t want to cause harm to any living being). More of a stepping into the joys of daily activism – and compassion – in my eating habits, than a sacrifice or inconvenience.

The belief that animals are individuals, not ingredients, and I don’t need any of them to die for a snack or a meal on my behalf.

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What I’ve found is joy. Freedom. That feeling of peace and pleasure that comes when the parts that make up your life begin to align with greater fervor.

The irony is, this is what I expected to experience in all my years invested in Christianity. It took leaving religion to know the wholeness and satisfaction of a life lived in harmony with all living things – of all faiths, of all species, human and animal, plants and trees. A life committed to kindness and compassion, to ever expanding as a person, to recognizing and honoring the spirit of God in all living things.  It’s so simple, every bit as sacred as my years spent inside a church. Every life matters, not because of a religious identity that imbues value based upon a narrative, but because of the inherent belief that every living thing exists for a purpose connected to, but distinct from, one another.

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Because of this, “going vegan” does not feel like giving up the foods I love as much as daily reaffirming to myself the value of the ones I love, the earth I love and the way of life that feels tailor made to who I am.

 

 

 

 

Sunday musings on what now

North Lake Union is the gateway to downtown Seattle in this aerial view looking south along Fairview Avenue.  A new development plan for KeyArena has emerged that proposes to build a new NBA arena on its site.

In my twenties, I never imagined I’d want to leave Seattle. Not for a smaller town, with dreams of a slice of field and forest my own to tend and a brood of nonhuman family. For a Nairobi slum, yes. Or, at one point, Minneapolis (a step in my route to Africa). I fancied myself a city girl, through and through, as perhaps many young people do. And not necessarily because I loved everything about city life, but for me, because of a certain amount of evangelical guilt.

The thread of logic was this: If God loved people above anything else and most people live in urban areas, the best way to live in step with God was to fully embrace the city. And this belief ran so deep, I couldn’t permit myself to admit that my love for nature and animals and trees and birds ran just as deep as my love of humans. There simply was no place for it in the life of a Christian. Humans always came first, and Others always came before the Self.

Now life never runs in straight lines, from Point A to Point B, so there are many lines that can be traced from that point in my life to now. Suffice it to say for the purpose of this blog, that I have (and in all honesty, continue to) shed those beliefs in my growth as a person. And thank heavens, really, for living in the tension of so many either/or beliefs no longer suits me. Either humans or animals, urban or rural, love or selfishness, other or self, Christian or not.

Wild or tame.

. . . . .

“What now is not just a panic-stricken question tossed out into a dark unknown. What now can also be our joy. It is a declaration of possibility, of promise, of chance. It acknowledges that our future is open, that we may well do more than anyone expected of us, that at every point in our development we are still striving to grow.”

 ~ Ann Patchett, What now?

. . . . .

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Wild and tame live next door in urban areas. It is somewhat of a love/hate relationship for me. Us tame ones tend to encroach upon our wild neighbors as if we alone own the place, until they are pushed farther to the fringes, their needs swallowed by our own interests. It’s not always that blatant, for certain. There are many, many tame ones who love the wild and are committed to caring for and preserving it. Even so, the wild ones and their advocates seem to be outnumbered, unable to keep up with the expansive needs of the city.

In the neighborhoods throughout Seattle, there are numerous green spaces and parks, little refuges from the city to tuck away in for a few hours and forget exactly where you are. I adore this about Seattle. And also, green spaces are rapidly disappearing in urban sprawl. Fields and wooded lots are replaced with high rises, Amazon buildings, condos and Apodments (which Ricardo ruefully refers to as casitas for ratitas). Restaurants pop up and disappear as quickly as fashion trends. It is rare, here, for people with houses to have a yard, though people are admirably ingenious at urban gardening. It’s becoming less unusual to walk past chicken coops in neighborhoods, perhaps a goat here and there. But all in all, the feel of city living leaves me overstimulated, anxious, tense, and longing for quiet, open spaces.

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One of the first things I noticed on our drives up to Bellingham was the way my body visibly let down the further north we traveled. It felt very much like the practice of breathing in yoga; the deep inhales through the nose and forceful exhales through the mouth. I could feel myself releasing tension as the towering evergreens on either side of the highway reached their branches upward in salutation.

One minute from where we live now in Bellingham, there are stretches of fields, willowy and verdant. Driving past them, we are offered a long, silent pause. Instead of a view of Mt. Rainier on clear days, we have an ever present panorama of Mt. Baker and the Canadian Cascades. Fifteen minutes south of downtown, we are transported on a snaking road with vistas reminiscent of Highway 1 along the California coast. We pull off along the way, drinking in sights of an oyster farm, cliffs, beach, open fields at the foot of mountains where hang gliders descend.

This is a place where there is space enough to breathe in and engage my neighbors, human and nonhuman. Space for my soul to unfurl, to fill, to love. Whether it’s urban or not is no longer the point. Wherever we find ourselves most alive is where we are most able to show up and love whoever, whatever, is around us.

 

 

 

 

Tangibilities of home

 

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If it’s not my yoga mat first thing when I walk in the door after work, it’s Tarzan I reach for. Both are grounding for me. Both are soothing to my soul, slowing down my breath, my pace. Yoga draws my gaze inward, teaching me to listen to and love myself. Tarzan draws my gaze outward, toward another focal point of love.

Tarzan captivates me.

And for me, right now, I could use a little captivation in the form of a feisty, warm fuzzball. You see, what I didn’t clarify in my last post is that I’m living in limbo. I leave my husband and tortoise (and part of my heart) in Bellingham each Sunday afternoon now and return again the following Friday or Saturday. Those days in between, I go to work and crash on the floor of my mom’s cozy one-bedroom apartment living room with Tarzan. It’s a complicated move. An open-ended pause between chapters. And as grateful as I am for the welcome and warmth of my mom’s home and company, I crave grounding.

Hence, my yoga mat and Tarzancito.

. . . . .

fuzzy-face

I think I understand now (at least a little) the tension of yearning in some new moms who return to work. Tarzan lingers at the edge of my thoughts, always, and sometimes, a familiar scent makes me smile. I was bustling around the kiosk this week, doing eight things at a time, when I thought I caught a whiff of Tarzan. He has a syrupy musk, you know, like agave nectar, rabbit and earth. For a moment, I wasn’t preparing coffee, and I felt the glow of his palm-sized body in a pouch, pressed against my stomach. Of course, coffee timers and customer voices and beans grinding snapped me out of my reverie. But I relished, too, the thought of being home.

It’s amazing how quickly home gets shuffled around, expanded, redefined. Two weeks ago, home was near Lake Washington in our apartment with Ricardo and Pepita and Tarzan. Now, home is in Bellingham, and home is in my mom’s Seattle apartment. Home is wherever I find tall old trees and birds calling, and home is wherever Tarzan is with me.

. . . . .

I don’t sleep much these days. Probably for a number of reasons, one being that Tarzan’s cage sits less than five feet from where my head rests. Did I mention he’s nocturnal? Right as I’m settling down for the night, he’s raring to go. But I love it, I really do. The sound of his wheel (which was supposed to be “silent”) and his tiny feet pounding the plastic in bursts of frenetic energy make me grin, no matter how tired I am. And he often wakes me at least once, if not three times, barking in the night. That’s right, I said barking. This little guy makes a sound uncannily similar to a chihuahua. It’s unclear what it means, though I’ve read it can have many meanings, one of which is loneliness. The thought of him calling out to me, or for other sugar gliders, in the middle of the night never fails to tug at my heart. So I get up. And I bark back.

As I’m lying there on the floor at 2am, it’s easy for my mind to overthink things. We’re on Wheel Number Two in this ever-unfolding, trial-and-error journey of caring for Tarzan. Just last week, I heard from a reputable source that the wheel I last purchased for him could lead to severe injury. So I lay there and I worry that his sporadic running on the wheel is evidence of said predicted injury, or a loose bolt, or a lack of energy indicative of illness. I hear a thud and imagine he has fallen off the top shelf of his cage or sprained one of his delicate feet. I wish to God I knew what all his noises meant and fear I’ll find something terribly wrong if I don’t get up and flip on the light to check on him. Last night, I confess, I gave in . I coped with insomnia with some good ol’ online shopping therapy.

Tarzan’s new wheel should arrive next week.

. . . . .

tarzan-sleeping

I’m certain a degree of this anxiety is shared by parents and animal caretakers of many kinds. And I’m also fairly certain a degree of this anxiety is bound up in a dozen other sources. After thirty-five years of life, I finally figured out I’ve got some attachment issues. Moving around every three years or so for the first twenty years of life can help that along. Even though I almost always made friends quickly, I spent a great deal of time alone. When we left one place, it was mostly “out with the old, in with the new.” As an introvert who hates talking on the phone and can only correspond with a precious few at a time, I never mastered hanging onto old friendships.

What that adds up to is nothing simple, but one thing it does mean is that there are very, very few people who I can actually feel I miss or fear losing. Somewhere along the line, I learned that people come and go and probably always will. It’s best not to get too attached.

And that’s where Tarzan comes in. He blew past every learned pattern with humans, every subconscious self protecting, and stuck like a dart in my bull’s eye. It’s not exaggerating to say I would do almost anything in my means to protect him, keep him safe, create a happy environment for him to live. Realistically, he’ll be in my life longer than most humans. I want to keep him around as long as possible, for I am already filled with dread at the thought of saying goodbye to him.

Right now, he is my lifeline to joy. And being one who is not of the mindset that joy is a continual state we live in – rather, can be painfully, mysteriously elusive – joy has not been a companion for quite some time.

So what do I do? I take up a determined search for more sugar gliders to expand our family, naturally. Tarzan’s family. Because sharing living space and breathing space and heart space with this wild little sugar glider has already further illuminated what lights me up on the inside.

My wild family.

Welcome, fledglings

In the end, it felt that the place that I’ve known and loved for the past fifteen years did us a favor and pushed us out. Like a mama bird whispering in our ears, “Hey, you’ve been in this nest long enough. It’s not big enough any more to hold you. One of these days, you’ll learn to fly.”

But first, falling.

And oh, the falling. It doesn’t feel good to be pushed out. Nothing about it feels safe, secure or certain. For a breath, the exhilaration of wind through outstretched wings; then, the plummet, the stomach-in-your-throat terror, the slap of the earth. The stunning of senses. Desperate flapping in search of lift, nothing quite clicking into place.

Mama bird watches from her perch above, seeming altogether too distant while you flail below. How did flying ever look like a possibility?

. . . . .

We left Seattle as if the whole city was in flames, and we, refugees. We left it in the manner we’d been living the past four years: frenzied, chaotic, dramatic, exhausted. Right down to being stood up by our first moving truck company and the last minutes of frenetic cleaning of our apartment to vacate before our morning deadline. We had one friend and our next door neighbors helping us to load our truck. And then, we were gone. I don’t think I began to unwind from my knots until sixty miles out of Seattle.

When we arrived in Bellingham, we had one person to call to help us. He wasn’t available. But fifteen minutes after parking at our condo rental, we met our new downstairs neighbors. Five minutes later, they showed up at our front door. “We’re ready to help,” they announced. We couldn’t believe our ears. They sweated with us up and down the two flights of stairs for the next hour, then graciously agreed to let us take them out for pizza and beers.

. . . . .

The closest neighbors in proximity to us are musically inclined and comfortingly wild. I have yet to see how many swallows live in the rafters outside our door, but they sound like a choir. I begged Ricardo to hang our birdhouse, which I’d painted and set for the time being in our last apartment on a shelf. One of the first statements I hoped to make in our new home I’d painted across the front months ago, Bienvenidos Pajaritos.

Welcome Birds.

. . . . .

fledglings welcome

Yesterday, we carried groceries up the stairs and stopped. A fledgling crouched at the top of the stairs, regarding us. One movement from us and its wings outstretched in anxious flapping. It half flew, half bounced to our front door and perched for a good five minutes. I watched its tiny chest rising and falling as it stared at us from the corner of an eye. In a tree behind us, a bird shifted from branch to branch, watching.

Ricardo finally broke the silent pause, stepping toward the door, sending our young friend shooting out down the walkway and over the railing. Its wings flapped as it bobbed and spun toward the ground, landing safely, albeit ungracefully, on the sidewalk. I breathed a sigh of relief. Or two sighs. One for our little friend. And a smaller, more uncertain one, for us. We may not know the Hows or the Whats or the Whens, but perhaps all of us will make it after all.

After a time of falling, flapping, bouncing and resting. We’re testing out our wings here in Bellingham.

 

In which I discover that “exotic” and “easy” are a myth

My nonhuman family, Pepita and Tarzan, eat better than I do. It occurred to me recently that I am more apprehensive about what goes into their bodies than I am my own. I only serve Tarzan filtered water (I drink tap) and shop for almost all of Pepita’s produce at stores I cannot afford for our own groceries. Is that something to do with being a caretaker, some instinctual drive? They depend on me for their sustenance. If I don’t feed them an appropriate, balanced diet, I shorten their lifespans. That feels like a hell of a lot of power, far more sobering than contemplating how my diet affects my quality of life.

I don’t think I even have language for all the love coursing through my veins for them. But, whoa, I feel it.

. . . . .

One thing I’ve learned in my two year foray into the world of exotic animal care is that, by and large, they aren’t easy creatures to care for. And by care for, I mean responsibly and well. A russian tortoise – and now a sugar glider – both seemed deceptively easy from the outset. I mean, just feed a tortoise fruits and vegetables, give her some dirt and a heat lamp and soak her once a week, right? How hard could it be. And a sugar glider, according to the company that sold him to me, was supposedly one of the easiest pets for anyone! Here’s a cage! Some glider chow and vitamins! A bonding pouch and daily informative emails! Piece of cake!

Ohhhhhh. How little I knew.

I’ve come to see my personal style, for better or worse, with animal adoption (and I’m not necessarily recommending this) is to jump in with both feet and do the research as I fumble my way through. If I had been fully debriefed on all that would be required of me prior to bringing either one of them home, I’d have had an anxiety attack, or at least talked myself out of it with self doubts (or practicality). Thankfully, I was relatively unaware of all this, but fully committed to providing them with the best care.

So I quickly learned, from endless internet research and forums, that neither fruit or vegetables are good for russian tortoises, rather selective greens. Ideally, wild greens that one can’t usually find at a local grocery store (go figure). And of those greens, a varied selection, providing a balance of the right kinds of nutrients and vitamins. Some of those vitamins need to come from the proper light and heat source, if said tortoise doesn’t live outdoors in a desert climate, so I had quite the time researching how to create a microclimate in her enclosure. One UVA/UVB light bulb, a ceramic heat emitter, a regular light bulb, a temperature gun and a humidity gauge later, and I’m still not confident I have it right.

As for the dirt, well. One of my biggest challenges, believe it or not, has been finding places to buy “plain ol’ dirt.” Nothing added. Sounds simple enough, huh? Not in Seattle, amateurs. Then, there was the matter of housing. Even smaller tortoises, like Pepita, need a great deal of living space. We upgraded her habitat three times in the first year, finally settling her in a 6 foot long bookcase converted to tortoise table that takes up one wall of our living room. For two weeks, our apartment was a construction zone while we attempted our first DIY project together. We finally found plain topsoil, dumped two bags in her table, and drove across town in search of flat slabs of rock to set up as her feeding and basking spot. And half a log for her hide, and peet moss stuffed inside. And river rocks framing her water dish. And a fake plant for ambiance. And a ceramic planter half buried on its side for another tortoise cave.

Yep, once this is all set up, she is an easy one to care for. Piece of cake.

pepita_nap

. . . . .

But Mr. Tarzan the Sugar Glider is another story.

May I pause here a moment and insert my own public service announcement? If you ever see sugar gliders being sold at a mall, fair, expo, etc. by a company called Pocket Pets, please do your research and think very carefully before purchasing a baby from them! [And if you do, know that your baby comes with greater health risks and likely more traumatic start to life. Do not religiously follow their instructions for care, no matter what they insist. Their biggest concern is profit].

Ok.

Even being the passionate animal lover and advocate that I am, I’m still as vulnerable as the next person to a well polished marketing ploy and, more so, a painfully adorable baby animal. This is how, without doing any research on sugar gliders or the company selling them, I ended up bringing one home from a home show. On impulse. Again, would not recommend this. My saving grace, once more, is my fastidious research after the fact, stubbornness and the love driving my commitment to provide animals with the best life I can.

So, I bring this little guy home with strict instructions not to look beyond the resources of Pocket Pets for information on how to care for him. I know how overwhelming it can be (from Pepita) to parce through hundreds of sources on the internet, claiming opposite things on what’s right and wrong or best for an animal, and so I took some comfort in having this one All Knowing Source guiding me on the journey (in retrospect, coming from several decades in organized religion, I can’t believe this didn’t raise my suspicions from the get go). But I listened to them. And read diligently, every bit of information they provided. And sent emails to customer service with my questions. And followed their guidelines with some fear and trembling.

Until they couldn’t answer my questions. It all started sounding like a recorded loop of information, and my experience with Tarzan was veering more and more from what I was reading was “normal.” I finally shook myself out of the Pocket Pet hypnotic stupor and began researching on my own. What I found immediately freaked me out. Numerous stories of people buying gliders from the company, only to have them die within a month. An Association of Sugar Glider Veterinarians, which is owned and created by Pocket Pets themselves, in a deceptive attempt to provide credibility to their practices. Pocket Pets being compared to a puppy mill for sugar gliders. Of joeys (baby gliders) being separated from their mothers far too early and sold in this vulnerable condition to unsuspecting people. The detriments to the long term health of a glider, if following the diet prescribed by the company. The imperative that gliders not be sold alone (they are very social). The marketing of sugar gliders as the “perfect pet” for just about anybody, compromising the animals’ care for the ease of selling.

I was sick. And furious. And when I’m sick and furious, I fight back.

Since I’ve discovered this information, I’ve gradually transitioned him to a natural diet. And different vitamins. I feed him mealworms and grasshoppers from a can, barely flinching, because he’s family and I’d do just about anything for him. I pureed a mixture for him last night, called the Pet Glider Fresh Diet (or Exotic Diet), and so many ingredients were spread across the kitchen counter, I could hear Ricardo chuckling at me from the other room: blueberries, banana, mango, pineapple, kale, spinach, peas, plain yogurt, applesauce, chicken, scrambled eggs, orange juice concentrate and ground flaxseed. Let me tell you, I’d never have believed you if you’d told me ten years ago this is what I’d be doing to feed my animals.

But this, too, is what I’m learning as I fumble along: if I want exotic animals, I have to be willing to feed them exotic diets. If I want easy, I should stick with a mouse or a goldfish or a cat.

. . . . .

It’s going on three months since Tarzan has been in my life. I think he’s finally settling in to life with us, finally letting down his guard to let me close. There’s nothing that compares to the surge of awe and gratitude that comes when an animal finally trusts you.

He sleeps in my hand.

tarzan_asleep

I had my hand resting in the bottom of his pouch last night, his little body curled up inside it. After an hour of this, I slowly extracted my hand and held him cupped with both. He continued to sleep, curled up like a miniature rug in the palm of my hand, while I just stared at him for twenty minutes. Completely smitten.

And yeah, he still bites. But it’s playful. And familiar. And mischievous. And curious. His biting and licking and curled up sleeping, his games of peekaboo and grumpy chatters, all settle deep inside me, whispering, we belong to each other. These exotic ones and us humans. For better or worse.

. . . . .

If you want to learn more about sugar gliders and care, or are interested in finding a breeder, I suggest you check out these places: Suncoast Sugar Gliders, SugarGlider.com, The Pet Glider, Suggie Savers.

 

Imprints of home

I’m certain it hasn’t sunk in yet. We have only two weeks left in this home. Three years we’ve spent here; one of the longest times I’ve ever spent in one home. And I’ve loved this place, ya know? Loved it the way a child traces the lines on her grandmother’s face with her fingers. I’ve traced its lines.

I know my favorite trees within a five-mile radius. Know the best spots on the lake to catch sight of heron. Know the beaver’s lodge and the inlets where they roll lily pads into burritos at dusk. I know the places where garbage piles and how much I’ve hauled out in bags and buckets, bathed in sweat and dirt and scratches. I know the water levels in their different seasons, what’s normal and what’s not. The geese with their goslings that emerge in May. The bald eagle nest.

I know the sound of the hummingbirds in trees and bushes throughout the neighborhood. Know the neighbors’ cats in our complex. Know the best places to pick dandelions for Pepita. Know the swing on the tree on the lush strip of green running through Mt. Baker Boulevard. I know it takes me less than fifteen minutes to walk to the library. Know the large, beautiful trees that have fallen since we’ve lived here. Know the trails through the old growth forest in Seward Park by olfactory and auditory memories: the musk of aged douglas firs and the complicated web of bird song.

I know the guy named Chris who rakes leaves, sometimes daily, in the parking lot of our complex, and has been doing so voluntarily for decades. I know the spots to collect fallen cones from magnolia trees. The sets of hidden stairways through the streets of mansions down to the lake. I know the house with the fifteen chickens in the coolest coop I’ve ever seen, where birds perch on suspended old bicycle wheels. I know the free library boxes. The best swimming spots. The place where I spotted the one and only white egret I’ve seen in Seattle.

I’ve sat in the company of wild things, drunk in their peace as if my life depended on it. I’ve leaned against the trunk of trees and felt their mass upholding me. I’ve immersed myself in the lake’s water when I felt the weight of loneliness might swallow me. I’ve watched the sun set like a broken egg yolk from my front porch, walked in the rain, chased down the moon, sat quietly outside listening to the bird choir before dawn.

Yes, I’ve loved this place. And I’ve felt it love me, too.

Maybe we’re never ready to say goodbye, even when we know it’s time. And maybe, for the first time, this place has imprinted home on me so that I know I’ll carry it with me wherever I go. Wherever we go.

 

In which Tarzan teaches me about being human

Most days, I prefer the company of nonhumans. I think introverts who also happen to be animal and nature lovers will get this. The same goes for those who have lived with depression and anxiety as longstanding companions. There is a soul comfort, beyond words, in the presence of wild things and creatures. An invitation to be, without scrutiny. Without translation. Without judgment. Without depleting emotional resources. Without needing to be the same.

The longer I’ve lived in crisis, the deeper in I’ve pressed to this companionship. I am often called a private person. It’s hard to know what to do with this label, what kind of statement it’s making about who I am. I suppose it means something different to each person who uses it. In my mind, it means closed, unwilling to share, self-conscious. The funny thing is, if I were to describe someone else as private, I might consider them more cautious about sharing self revelations than self-conscious or withholding. Perhaps more judicious with words, so that when shared, they are received as a gift and valued as sacred.

To some degree, I am cautious about how much I share and what I share and with whom. A lot of that has to do with my personality. I’ve never been the person who takes ten or twenty minutes to tell a story or embellishments of my day. I’m good at summarizing, paraphrasing, editing. I’m also quite good at reading people. How much vulnerability people can handle. How comfortable people are in the presence of suffering, of honesty. How much I talk often correlates with how attentively someone listens; how proactively someone asks questions and invites me to share who I am. Whenever I encounter someone like this, I might chatter as if the floodgates have opened. But it all depends on my energy level, whether there is physical and emotional space for intimate conversation, whether or not I feel a pressing need to share with this person, or how my experiences have gone in the past sharing with this person.

Out in the natural environment, or in the company of animals, none of this matters. Communication happens on a different level, one where my introverted self can rest from conversation and my artist self can come alive in curious engagement. If I feel as comfortable around a human as I do around an animal, this is high praise. I know a lot of folks may find it demeaning to be compared to animals, but for me, it is the exact opposite of an insult. In fact, when I am struggling to access compassion for a person, it helps me to imagine how I might interact with them if they were an animal. The result is almost an immediate softening, an Aha! moment where I can see them through a lens that pans my vision further back, allowing some distance from emotion.

I can more easily see people as scared. Anxious. Trying to survive. Injured. Lonely. Mistrusting. Tired. Hungry. And not that this is all that someone may be in a moment, or that it needs to be a negative association. Only that animals can inform us, sometimes, how it feels to be human. It helps me to remember that, like animals, we humans are all doing our best to navigate what is often a harsh and hostile environment. It’s hard to be human, no matter who you are or where you live. A little gentleness, kindness, patience and empathy can go a long way.

. . . . .

2016-05-06_13.29.02

When I first brought Tarzan home, he was freaked out. He’d make noises that sounded like an obnoxious cell phone ring, which I later learned to identify as “crabbing,” whenever I reached into his cage to pick him up and transfer him to his pouch. For the first ten minutes, at least, of wearing him in his pouch around my neck, he’d make these alarmingly large noises for such a small creature. If I even dared to put my bare hand near him, he’d lunge to bite my fingers. It helped tremendously to remind myself each time I interacted with him that I was a big ol’ scary giant to him. He wasn’t mean or aggressive. He was terrified. He had no reason to trust me yet.

It wasn’t hard, with this perspective, to adjust my expectations for how long it might take to win his trust. To fully bond. For the first month or more, it felt like two steps forward each day, four steps back. No matter how gentle and patient I was with him, I couldn’t speed up the process for him to decide that I was safe. That I was even family.

Two months later, he still bites and crabs, but much less. He generally lets me pick him up without fuss and even sleeps in my hand if I slip it in the bottom of his pouch. He takes food from my fingers and lets me stroke his back. And he lets me know, as he always has, when he’s upset or unhappy, anxious or hungry, in need of a potty break. I’m learning slowly what his different noises mean.

And his facial expressions. I swear, he has them. My particular favorite reminds me of a stare an adolescent boy might fix on his mom for trying to wake him up too early on a Saturday morning. Those dark eyes, how they glare at me, but in a way that inevitably tickles me because of its familiarity. Like, I’m an annoyance to him, in a way only those we live closely with can be.

I sat in front of his cage the other night with my electric toothbrush humming and saw his hanging pouch quiver. A moment later, a furry head with two beady eyes popped out and glared, then disappeared. I chuckled. The head re-emerged with the glaring eyes, he chattered at me a moment, then pulled his head back in hiding. And I laughed, like I hadn’t laughed all day.

Later on in bed, just around the time my eyes are closing, I heard a scuffle and whir. Little nails scratched against plastic as he spun in his wheel. This signals the beginning of his waking hours. Ricardo groaned (half-heartedly) and I snickered and settled deeper into the covers. No matter how heavy the day, his nighttime noises are a therapeutic soundtrack for me as I fall asleep with the curve of a smile.

And if I’m lucky, I have sugar glider dreams.

2016-05-06_13.30.19

In the language of Pepita

I’m a physical touch kind of person. Not as much as I was in my younger years (oh, the joys of getting to the ripe old age of “mid thirties” and now possessing the urge to wax philosophical about When I Was Young). I’ve grown more cautious of human touch, I’d say, for a number of reasons. But one thing that’s also grown is my tactile curiosity in the natural world. This insatiable desire – need, even – to physically connect with other species.

To not only see a wispy feather or gnarled bark, but to feel them on my skin, beneath my fingertips. This is why I place my hands on the trunks of trees and linger for a few moments. Why I collect feathers and leaves and cones, finger delicate tree blossoms, stroke Pepita’s shell and weathered arms and legs. Lay my hand in Tarzan’s fleece pouch for him to curl up in, relish the silkiness beneath my fingers.

All these are not things to me, but living things. And, contrary to what I was taught all my years in church, living things with souls. There is a holy exchange in our touch, something that cannot be outlined in words. A presence that brings me home to God, home to myself, and far beyond myself, in one set of breaths.

Like a child, it takes all my self control to see an animal within reach and not approach it, slowly offer a hand to it. I want to know it, to somehow be invited beyond the threshold into its existence, past the guard of its alertness to my presence. To observe in this capacity, alone, is gift. Anything beyond that, to the intimacy of touch, is invitation. A bridge to another world.

. . . . .

I heard about results from a study in Canada recently, looking at dogs and human touch, which concluded that most dogs do not actually enjoy being hugged. This was gathered from the body language of several hundred dogs observed receiving hugs from a human. Like most Seattleites, I don’t know what to make of this shocking find, except to suspect these findings were very wrongly interpreted. How could one study speak for eighty percent of the dog population? What’s next? Dogs don’t actually enjoy sleeping in their human’s bed? Whatever.

So, I get that we humans tend to project our human ways onto the animals in our lives. And I get that this is often inaccurate, sometimes quite detrimental to the animal’s well being. The problem is, it’s like I’m genetically wired this way. I can’t not touch. I love them in a variety of ways: how and what I feed them, the habitats I keep for them, deference to their natural cycles, respect for their inherent wildness, time spent interacting with them. And also, touch.

For Tarzan, this is a legitimate and important need in his development and care. A large part of our bonding happens through touch. For Pepita, it’s a lot less clear. More than needing my company, I often get the sense she tolerates it.  Accordingly, I’ve become more hands off with her over the two years she’s been with us, honoring that her need for more independence should overrule my desire to encroach on her space. I kind of let her do her own tortoise thing.

Yet there are days, prior to bringing Tarzan home, when I’ve come home to an empty apartment with an unspeakable ache for presence and no one around but her. On those occasions, I’ve reached in and gently pulled her out of her dirt burrow, wrapped her in a towel, and stretched out on the sofa with her on my stomach. I watched her rise and fall with my breaths, otherwise in utter stillness, holding my gaze with her piercing eyes. Where normally she would be clawing her way out of the towel, she laid in one spot, as if she could feel in the skin beneath her a palpable loneliness. A plea. And so, she honored it.

I have a hunch a study cannot prove that, in these moments, we are communicating. And in her own way, she is giving back the love, and I am a grateful recipient of her presence.

But, since she is a tortoise, I guess this little hunch will have to remain in the mysteries beyond science. Just between she and I.

 

 

An introduction, of sorts

Confession: I have this thing – call it an aversion, if you will – to referring to the animals in my care as pets. This isn’t a judgment on others using this term for themselves. I’m quirky, yes, and introspective about many things, language included. When it comes down to it, “pet” feels inadequate to convey how I believe and feel toward and interact with the animals who live with me. I respect them too much to reduce them to possessions.

Something about ownership when it comes to another living creature makes my insides squirm. Like, technically, if we’re talking about possessions, I suppose they do belong to me. Then again, just because parents often pay hefty hospital bills to birth their children and more thousands in the years to come to raise them, doesn’t mean I hear them (often) claiming to own their kids. Children are not possessions.

Neither are these animals. We belong to each other.

. . . . .

Pepita is, to me, an old soul. An ancient yet ageless creature that lives side-by-side with us. She is more of an equal, in many regards. A quiet, fascinating, aloof friend, almost like having another introvert in the household. She is also clearly an Other. Tortoise and human are two very different species, and I often stand observing her in awe, wishing to God I knew what was playing out in the reels of her brain, what lay behind those focused eyes.

Tarzan, on the other hand, is a baby. I am drawn to mother (as in, nurture) him. He is energetic, playful, mischievous, intelligent. And he is vulnerable, small, infantile, anxious. He thrives off the warmth of another body, the comfort of tight spaces, gentle massaging pressure, the company of others. I carry him for hours each day in a fleece zippered pouch around my neck, tucked carefully into my bra. When I take him out and return him to his cage, a small chill fills the hollow of my chest where he was moments before.

We are bound to each other in different ways, the three of us. I might need them more than they need me.

. . . . .

It’s mid April and the evening is still lingering in the seventies. I push the laptop aside and pack Pepita in her travel carrier with the top unzipped like a convertible. Tarzan occupies his usual space under my shirt. We set out on a walk as the sun lazily slips behind the last trees. I head toward a grassy strip, populated with statuesque maples, oaks, dandelion and clover.

And there’s a swing. I never noticed it before.

I lift Pepita out and set her by a tree, where she makes haste to scale the side, flailing tiny dinosaur arms and legs and nails against the bark. Ever the face of determination, that one. And then there’s me, never one to say no to a good nostalgic tree swing. I straddle the wooden disk seat, surprised it holds my weight. Surprised the tree branch doesn’t buckle. Pepita climbs; Tarzan and I glide. Back and forth, back and forth, the tree rocks us in rhythm, and my memory rolls back in time.

Back to the days on McPherson Street, the tire swing hanging from a towering sycamore tree. I don’t remember if Papa pushed me, or if I ran and jumped on, swinging myself to and fro. I remember the gigantic leafy fronds, the sturdy branch, the balls that fell from the tree and looked like golden shag carpet when crushed beneath my feet. I was eight or maybe even ten swinging from that sycamore, and here I am thirty-five, rocked by a maple as if no time, and a lifetime, had passed.

Hummingbirds clicked from branches above, crows made their evening calls, a breeze rustled the tree leaf canopy and the moon hung three-quarters full in a dusky sky. And I, swaying like a baby in the arms of the tree, felt myself re-orient to these points of the earth’s compass – bird, tree, moon – in this neighborhood I call home, at the end of a day when this moment of belonging to others is what I needed most.