Brimming with Emerald

This time of year is always an odd transitional period for me. My mother and many of my friends who refer to me as Greenman do not do so lightly. I am connected to my very marrow to the green world and all of its cycles. So when the days shorten, the sun goes into hiding and the nights become cold, it takes a considerable amount of effort for me to remain active, outgoing, and energetic, at least at first.

The instinct that comes upon me first is to sleep. To curl up in the dark and await the coming of the spring rains and lengthening days, but I, sadly am incapable of hibernation and so soldier on I must. Many things keep me delighted, alive and focused during these grey days and among them are gatherings with friends, adventures, laughter and peaceful times with my loved ones, the enjoyment I get out of the animals I keep and my houseplant jungle.

Every available piece of sunshine in our home is populated by plants, odd mixes of flowers, trees, greenery and strange visitors inhabit tables, windowsills and the floor, anyplace that the light can reach them.

We currently keep begonias, cacti, aloes, palm trees, a fiddle leafed fig, two Malabar chestnuts, a lime tree, two clementine trees, an avocado tree and six species of orchids, along with a tillandsia or two and a small group of rescued African violets.

I have lived for short periods of time without plants in my homes, but in truth, the lack of them has made those places more aptly called way stations, or temporary dwellings than actual homes. I need them, I need the air they share with me, the scent of them, the clean, green, beautiful joy of their presence and like many of my predecessors, I talk to them, commune with them, checking in daily to see if they need to be repotted, watered, spun to balance their time in the sun, or just if they need a bit of attention.

Yesterday I was lucky enough to be invited to do something amazing and I wanted to share it with you.

Gypsy and I belong to the Orchid Society of Western Pennsylvania and contrary to what you might think, the Orchid society is not filled with stuffy rich people who take every opportunity to look down on others with some kind of horticultural elitism. No, these people are loving, caring, knowledgeable fanatics who are in their own maniacal way, the most devilish enablers I have ever come across in any hobby.

I obtained my first orchid over a year ago from the bargain rack at Lowe’s. It cost about $2.00 and looked like it was almost ready for the dumpster. It was bone dry, the leaves were droopy and its solitary flower spike looked pathetic and I couldn’t resist it.

For all of the hundreds of varieties of plants I had kept, I had never tackled orchids because their care intimidated me. Gypsy and my good friend Barb make fun of me for saying that, as they have seen what I am capable of with plants, but even so, I had avoided orchids for nearly forty years.

So, having gained my first orchid, I needed, wanted to know more and so we jumped into the orchid society and were promptly swept into a world of flowers that made even my vivid imagination feel inadequate. There were varieties, colors, configurations and sizes of blooms that I still have trouble wrapping my brain around. We have seen blossoms ranging in size from as tiny as the head of a pin up to ones that hung ten or twelve inches in spread and looked like something from an alien landscape, we are thoroughly hooked!

Returning to yesterday, our orchid society regularly sends members to volunteer to help the Master Orchid grower at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Georgia Wahl, and realizing that offering to help would get me behind the curtain at one of my favorite places on earth, I jumped at the chance!

So, from 9:30 until 12:30 yesterday, I, along with three other members of the society worked on orchids for the upcoming Orchid and Tropical Bonsai show which will kick-off on January 14th. I won’t tell you what we did, because I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but it was an awesome, educational experience and we laughed a lot! This is something I notice among garden people, we seem to be more alive, more willing to let loose, be free and immerse ourselves in joy.

Working on the project put us back in the growing, working greenhouses where few members of the public ever are permitted to venture and I took full advantage, wandering during breaks to look at their vast and varied orchid collection, the leftover poinsettias from their winter show and greenhouse after greenhouse filled with thriving, beautiful and rare plants that had me very nearly needing a drool bib to keep my shirt clean.

For the life of me I cannot imagine why people don’t immerse themselves in the exquisite pursuit of life and attempt to cement their relationship with the rest of the life on the planet. Exploring the diversity of life in those long glass houses was like being gifted with three hours of summer, or a brief morning in some tropical Eden, where the very air was infused the Earth’s breath.

Do you keep plants, do you love them, and does their infinite variety interest you, fascinate you, draw your eye, heart and mind? Consider joining a garden club, buying a field guide and learning what grows around your neighborhood, or seeing what you can grow on that lonely little windowsill that seems perfect for something green.

I will leave you with some pictures that will give you a minor glance behind the curtain… Want to see it for yourself? Find a way in. You will be glad that you did… We green people are a lot of fun.

 

Looking down the length of the Orchid Greenhouses

20161129_094223

 

So many beautiful plants!

20161129_124146

 

A tiny dendrobium orchid with leaves smaller than a pencil eraser…

20161129_120158

Bridges

Bridges are sacred.

As a child, anytime we crossed a bridge on foot, and I mean anything that spanned water, my mother insisted on mindfulness. She talked of bridges being representatives of the three pathways. You were standing on a path, with a path above you (the sky) and a path below you (the water) and that was a powerful place to be, because in that spot, infinite possibilities, times three had access to you and allowed the gods, goddesses, the spirits and the universe itself to notice you and in her estimation, it was a good thing for me to be noticed by those things. Her? Not so much. She went out of her way to avoid being noticed.

Bridges had many forms, from ones that spanned mighty rivers like the Ohio down to simple logs that had fallen across tiny rills and brooks. I think perhaps it began as my mother’s influence but with me it developed into an addiction/obsession. Soon, any time we were out walking or exploring and we came across a bridge, especially small ones, handmade ones I needed to cross it, slowly, reverently and if time permitted, to clamber over it and explore it from below as well.

This came to pass more than it might have as my father had an interest in covered bridges and we would often drive hours to see them, photograph them, commit them to memory and I crossed them all.

I remember an incident that happened to us when I was just a small boy. We were on a wildflower hunt down along one of the streams that runs parallel to state route 30 in Beaver County Pennsylvania. It was early May, perhaps even late April. The toad trilliums and dutchman’s breeches were in bloom and dad was collecting saxifrage from the shale hillside to plant in one of his miniature landscapes at home. Mum was cataloging species and locations in one of her little notebooks and I was using a small net to catch Sculpins, crayfish and darters in the stream. We spent about three hours playing about in the woods and then gathered for sandwiches on one of the fallen logs that crisscrossed the bottomland.

Dad suggested we change locations and perhaps go up along Tank Farm Road to look for young sassafras saplings to harvest for tea, and we all rose, dusted ourselves off and began crossing the distance to our orange Datsun station wagon.

Just as we had begun to walk, a crack resounded across that small patch of forest that sounded like a rifle shot, only deeper and more resonant, like a small explosion had gone off underground right behind us. We turned toward the hillside in time to see one of the massive 100 foot tall London Plane trees leaning out toward us as it wrenched its roots free from the ground and began to fall. Its shadow found us first and my father, for the first time in my experience screamed, “Run!” and pushed my mother and I upstream while he turned and ran in the opposite direction.

We ran, tripping over the branches and stumbling through the leaves and stones until with a sound like a bomb going off behind us the huge tree struck the ground, burying part of its massive trunk deep into the spring mud.

We had narrowly escaped the assured death of the trunk but mother and I were caught by some of the branches and battered to the ground with scratches, bumps and scrapes. There was no sign of my dad.

The moments ticked by as we tried to get our wits about us, and then I, and soon my mother, began to call out for my father.

For what seemed like an eternity, but was in all truth, maybe two minutes, we got no response, just the deathly silent woods that was still shocked into a vacuum by the event that just occurred.

But then, just as I began to read panic in mum’s eyes, my father began to cough and sputter and then swear up a blue streak. In kind of a post traumatic haze, mum and I found this hysterically funny and laughed until our sides hurt.

One of the large branches had caught dad on the shoulder and had driven him face down in the mud, shattering his glasses, cutting his ear nearly free from his head at the top and knocking him out for several seconds. But he arose, bruised, bloody and grateful to be alive I think.

It took a few minutes for him to get his wits about him and for all of us to survey the scope of what had happened. The tree now lay, spanning the entire bottomland where we had been exploring and reached almost to where our car was parked in a gravel pull off along Route 30.

Mom and I started looking for an easy way to climb over the downed behemoth, but dad stopped us and called me over to the trunk and he said, “Lance, use one of those heavy branches and climb up on the trunk and then wait there for a second.”

I did as I was told by the voice coming to me from the other side of the tree. I sought out and found a good, stout limb and using my toes (I spent much of my childhood barefoot.) I climbed up the branch until I stood, rather proudly on top of this gigantic being.

I looked down at dad, a little shocked at how beaten up he looked, and worried about the amount of blood on the side of his face. But he paid it no mind and let me stand there for the length of several breaths, before saying, “Okay, now climb down this side and when you are on the ground, wait before you do anything else.”

And so again, I curled my toes and fingers around the wood and climbed down until my feet sank back into the forest mast.

I did not move, waiting to hear what my father might say, and for a minute there was nothing and then in a quiet, reverent voice he told me, “Unless man comes along and interferes, this tree will lay here for decades, it may be a part of this valley for a man’s lifetime, and in all that time, no other human being, no other creature will be able to say that they were the first one to cross it, except for you. This tree is your tree, it is our tree. It took blood from each of us and left us alive and now it will change this place and we were here to witness that and I am grateful for all of that.”

It took me by surprise, the significance of it and the mystical nature of it, coming from a devout atheist who thought of my mother’s paganism as quaint and superstitious but never disrespected it. His words had the ring of a Druid’s or a Zen monk’s, it spoke of us as part of nature, not in dominion over it and I couldn’t do anything but turn around, walk over and put my hands on “my tree.”

For almost a decade following that, whenever we decided to go out there, it was no longer the “wildflower haunt on 30”, it had become a trip to see “Lance’s tree.”

Over the years I walked the length of that tree, running along its trunk like some poor American Tarzan, I slept on it, ate my picnic lunches on the flat side of its trunk and carved little symbols in hidden places on it with my little Barlow pocket knife, purchased for me from Mellinger’s Nursery in North Lima Ohio.

It became a bridge for me, it was a day that I crossed over from being a human child to a creature that is a part of nature and as integral to her balance as the sharks in the oceans, the crows in the air or the bats, sleeping in the beams below the covered bridges.

Be mindful in your practice, be aware of the sacred in the everyday, cross bridges, both real and symbolic, it will help you find your way…

 

Be good to yourselves and each other until next time…

Walk the Earth ~ Meditation Part 2

Yesterday dawned chilly, with a dense fog that laid across the land, heavier in the valleys and woodlands and clung to the hillsides until mid-morning.

Today, the temperature is climbing steadily toward the low 70’s and by tomorrow night into Sunday, we are told to expect snow.

Welcome to November in Western Pennsylvania.

I embrace these changes, the constant flux is to me, an invitation, a calling from our mother to walk out into the world and breathe.

Yesterday morning I spent about thirty minutes wandering the fringes of the woods behind the local library, watching the fog ebb and flow from the trees like waves, gentle on a grey morning shore. I snapped off a tiny sassafras branch and drank in that most magical of scents as I marveled at the colors of the leaves laying in the still green grass and it reminded me of the lyrics of an old tune called October Song, written by Robin Williamson

“The fallen leaves that jewel the ground,

They know the art of dying,

And leave with joy their glad gold hearts,

In the scarlet shadows lying.”

~

This afternoon, after I have finished writing this and before Erych is due home, I will go out again, I am not sure where yet, perhaps the local park, where I will walk along next to the London plane trees and see if the geese have left any spectacular feathers for me to collect, but mostly I will just walk, gathering the day into my lungs and expelling all of the processed air, along with the poisons of worry, sadness and pressure that accumulates in the system while trapped inside, locked to the computer or to a phone.

 

We forget, I think that the earth has the power to heal us, that there are compounds in the soil, medicines in the plants and vitamins that enter our bodies from the very light of the sun itself. And so at times I walk, mindful, slowly observing, stopping, looking, touching, pausing to allow myself time to truly see what surrounds me and that is how I spend ten minutes, thirty minutes, or an hour.

One of the things I look forward to each year is the first snowfall that actually lays on the ground. There are a list of places that I love to go when that happens, magical stretches of railroad track, or forest paths, or small bridges where it is beautiful to just stand in rapt amazement of the undisturbed snow. But any street, field or parking lot will do, any place where you can have even a few moments to appreciate the beauty before it becomes marred by footprints or tire tracks.

I had a Kung-Fu instructor once that told me that if possible he liked to be walking through nature at the hour that the seasons shifted. Yuen Sifu did not mean on the hour of the Solstice or Equinox changes, but at the hour when there was the first truly warm day in spring when you can smell the soil breathing into the air, or on the evening when the first snow comes to lay on the ground and make the world winter. I have tried to follow his example and while I have not always been able to manage it, I still strive to be mindful enough to look for those moments.

So, what does all of this mean?

I began last week to speak to you about meditation, this is your lesson for this week, walking meditation disguised as observation and enjoyment of the outdoors.

I challenge you to go out, with no other agenda other than to move, breathe, observe and simply be present in the place where you walk. Find something, someplace green and go out and walk the earth, she is waiting for you.

His name is Luther

luther2

His name is Luther.

I cannot have a dog.

I love him none the less.

On Sunday afternoon, Gypsy, our dear friend Barbara and I stopped in to a pet store not far from where we live. We were stopping mostly because we heard that they were carrying reptiles and I was interested in seeing the collection and if there was anything interesting.

We stopped by and visited the ferrets, I prefer to call them Weaselmonkeys. And we spent a few moments playing with the hand raised birds and marveling at the beautiful fish, and then as we wandered past the wall of enclosures containing dogs and cats for adoption, I was stalled in my tracks.

The information sheet on the window said that Luther had not had a very nice start to his life and had been chained in a yard for almost all of his three years and that he needed to be fattened up a bit and needed some tlc. But what I saw was a pair of huge brown eyes that practically screamed “Love me!”

We are unable to have a dog where we live, which is sometimes difficult for me, as I was raised around dogs, as a matter of fact, I was pretty much raised with a dog, a Siberian Husky named Tris that my dad bought the year before I was born and who was my brother through the first twelve years of my life.

My parents laughed for years about the fact that my first word wasn’t “Mama” or “Da” but “Tris.” said quickly, almost like a sneeze.

Tris shared my fondness and he watched over me, guarded me, even shared his dog biscuits with me, much to the horror of family friends. But my pediatrician said that it was fine and my parents let it go on. Dad would toss Tris a milkbone and Tris would crunch it up into manageable pieces and nudge a couple of them over my way.

We did everything together, played in the snow, swam in rivers, lakes and the ocean, we even slept out on the porch together on warm summer nights. Those that know me will readily tell you that I am at least as much dog as human and sadly, I even smell like wet dog when it rains, but that could just be because I am fuzzy.

I began my pursuit of deeper understanding of dogs not long after Tris’ death when I was twelve. I began reading every book on dog training and history that I could get my hands on and my father used my connections to get me into classes to learn dog training, classes where I was the youngest student by at least a decade.

By the time I was sixteen I was training dogs in the evenings after school, volunteering at two shelters and fostering dogs for a local rescue. I was convinced that there was an entire language that existed that if we could just learn to speak it, we could accomplish seemingly impossible things with dogs as partners, not servants or underlings.

Over the years I have never wavered in my love for our four legged brethren. I have attended seminars, programs, confirmation shows, including Westminster, obedience trials, and every other kind of competition that dogs can be involved in. I personally have had three titled dogs and have helped about a dozen others reach that status, but still, every time I encounter a dog, I learn.

On Sunday, Luther was my teacher.

Even though I did my best not to let him worm his way into my brain, I kept circling back to look at him, to see what lay behind those huge, liquid eyes. Eventually Gypsy and Barb joined me as I was watching him, curled up shivering. I knew the movement, it wasn’t cold, it was anxiety.

I was summoning up the strength to head for the car and put him from my mind when Barb said, “You gonna ask to pet him?” I started to shake my head when Gypsy added, “Yes, you are.”

Now one thing that I am very aware of is that Gypsy often knows what is better for me than I do myself and so with that thought in mind, I sought out one of the young ladies working there and asked if I could spend some time with him. She seemed delighted, even though I told her that I was unable to adopt at the time. She said, “He could use the company.”

And so we ended up in one of the small six by four foot cubicles with Barb sitting on the bench, Gypsy leaning over the door and me on the floor with forty pounds of wiggly pitbull in my lap.

Luther is underweight, shows signs of scarring around his neck from prolonged improper use of a collar and has a massive scar down his ribcage to his belly and another around his front leg that the clerk was unsure of the origin of. It was known that he had had little to no interaction before being taken from his owners and had not been properly cared for in much of his life.

Luther had every reason to be aloof, stand offish, angry or even sullen but he was none of those things. Luther was wiggly, silly, extremely gentle and completely open to being loved. He would gently relinquish his rope toy if you asked him, would not lunge at it if offered and even when he used his mouth to play, it was so soft and caring about it that it was touching.

He rolled on his back, lay quietly while I checked him for other injuries and gave his belly a good rub and scratch. I found that his tail was broken and healed crooked but it did not seem to bother him at all. He was thin, but otherwise healthy and outside of needing a good diet and a bath, he seemed in good hands.

For over an hour we sat with him, he played with each of us in turn and when a german shepherd across the aisle began to act up, Luther inserted himself between us and the dog and rumbled deep in his chest. It was not at aggressive fighting sound, it was a warning, “These are my people, be nice or you will be sorry.”

He was quick to learn, eager to please, sweet and easy going and would have made an excellent companion, working or possibly even therapy dog, and all of it after a lifetime of neglect and possible abuse.

I sat there, with my heart in little pieces, knowing, and I mean KNOWING that I had to leave there without him but wanting beyond want to take him home and give him the life he deserved to make up for those first three years. To reward his forgiveness of us as humans for how we treated him and have treated so many of his brothers and sisters and so many other species.

We humans have had dogs with us forever, they have evolved to fit our lifestyles, we have changed and modified them into thousands of shapes, sizes, duties and personalities. It is entirely possible that it was the domestication of wolves and their evolution into dogs that was responsible for us going from being strictly hunter gatherers to agricultural.

Dogs have been companions, guardians, heroes, friends, livestock protectors, and active members of our militaries and police forces, among a hundred other jobs. But the first and foremost accomplishment of dogs is loving us, unconditionally, even with all of our failings, even at our worst, our dogs have watched over us, comforted us and at some points, given us a reason to get out of bed in the morning when everything else in our lives was screaming to just, give, up…

As far as I know, Luther is still available, if you are interested in going to see him, let me know and I will tell you where he is. But it doesn’t have to be Luther, it just has to be something, someone who needs love. We have done a lot of harm in our time here, and we can begin healing it by being kind. Consider adopting a dog and showing him what we can really be like.

I would be most grateful…

And so would Luther.

luther1

Sit for an Hour

You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day. Unless you are too busy, then you should sit for an hour. ~ Buddhist saying.

Do you meditate?

If not, why not?

If you do, has it made your life better?

I have meditated most of my life. I began meditating with my Aiki-jūjutsu Sensei before I was ten. I would arrive an hour before class and sweep the Dojo and dust if needed, then water the plants.

Takeda Sensei would then come out from his office and we would approach the Butsudan (Buddhist altar) and we would kneel before it and I would match my breathing to Sensei’s and for the next twenty minutes, I would wrestle with my thoughts, dragging them, sometimes kicking and screaming toward quiet.

I did not notice it at first, but it changed me. My parents both remarked on it within a couple of months of me beginning the practice. I became slower to anger, I lost much of my childhood anxiety and my happiness levels shot up to a place where I laughed more than anyone I knew.

Takeda-Sensei was not a purist, so we meditated while sitting, standing, walking, even while doing movements around the mat, his belief was that if you could truly focus on being there, in that moment, with minimal distractions, that you could overcome anything from anxiety to the strongest opponent.

I was about nine. And now, as I close in on 50, I am seeking to re-immerse myself into that world.

I have meditated, as I have said most of my life, but since a prolonged illness a few years ago, I have become lax and my practice has become spotty and inconsistent. I will be returning to it on Monday. Gypsy will be joining me and I am hoping we can bring Erych on board, because at 14, he needs the break and space that a quiet mind will give him.

Over my time practicing meditation I have had hundreds of discussions with people who just don’t get it at first and their arguments all reflect a fear of rigidity I think. But I tell them, as I will tell you, that as my Grand-da used to say about a completely different subject, “It isn’t about the kneeling…”

Let me begin with saying that meditation is a secular activity. Your religion or lack thereof has no bearing on your practice of meditation. Meditation appears under different names in almost all of the world’s religions and many of the techniques transcend them all.

Meditation also does not require complicated or painful contortions and in many cases, such things actually impede good practice.

Lastly the benefits of a meditation practice are not purely spiritual ones. In the last decade, modern science and medicine has begun seeing health improvements such as lowered blood pressure, improvements in breathing, lowered stress levels, improved heart rate, elimination of some digestive issues, and in some cases it has eliminated chronic headaches and other conditions that had been lifelong with people.

There is also evidence to suggest that meditation can improve clarity, memory, usable intelligence, cognition and lessen depression, and there are some remarkable results being shown in its effectiveness as a treatment for ADHD.

The latest studies are beginning to discover that consistent prolonged practice can also lessen or eliminate altogether symptoms of some inflammatory disorders and asthma, and lessen the felt effects of premenstrual syndrome and menopause.

Another new development is that meditation has shown to boost the immune system and science is currently not sure of the mechanics of it, but are sure that it is happening.

I will not load you down with links, but the information is out there. Look up MRI scans taken during meditation and you will be amazed by the changing landscape of the mind during practice.

Meditation can and has saved lives.

And while most people view meditation in the traditional idea of a shaved headed monk, sitting in lotus position, his saffron robes lying in perfect folds around him, there are in truth as many types of meditation as there are people seeking them.

Over the next couple of days, and perhaps weeks I will be discussing types of meditation from the simple on into the more complex, and also I will chronicle how my return to practice is going and what noticeable changes occur to myself, Gypsy or Ercyh.

I would like to challenge you, though challenge is a bit confrontational of a word to use, I would like you to join us in this. Try it, if only for a few minutes, once a day.

Find a comfortable place, free from distractions, sit with your feet on the floor and your hands on your lap, palms upward.

Inhale deeply through your nostrils, hold that breath for a count of three or five and then exhale until your lungs are empty. Breathe in again, hold it and release. For five minutes, focus on nothing but your breathing, the sound it makes, the feeling of the oxygen powering your system, the natural rhythm of your breath as it flows in and out of your lungs and each time you feel your thoughts drift elsewhere, gently guide them back to your next breath, and the one after that.

Set your timer for five minutes the first day, but make the timer quiet so as to not jar you out of the state of quiet.

Do this every day for a week, and if it begins to feel good to you, extend it to ten minutes, or five minutes in the morning and five minutes in the evening.

~

“If you have time to breathe you have time to meditate. You breathe when you walk. You breathe when you stand. You breathe when you lie down.” – Ajahn Amaro

End of Part 1

Take care of yourselves…

This is not a political post…

This is not a political blog.

This is not a political post.

It is a human one.

I have a warm cup of tea, the light is diffused through November clouds as the sky cries intermittently like many of those I care about are doing this morning. It is as if Autumn held its breath for today, and having felt the despair of its children, began to weep raindrops and dead leaves in sympathy to our sense of loss and betrayal.

During the countless invasions of their homeland in China, the members of Shaolin Monastery declared no allegiances to any political or national parties, choosing instead to care for the people, to live a life of mindful compassion. They chose to heal the sick, care for the wounded, feed the hungry and defend the weak. They made their bodies into savage weapons, not for their own glory, but for the singular purpose of protecting others.

They burned and buried the dead of wars that were not their own. They sacrificed their own comfort for the good of those around them, they put others first.

As I sit here, thinking of those that I see hurting, of those that I know are scared, and lost, as I feel, with my open heart the uncertainty that is smoldering in the underbrush, ready to burn down the forest, I think that I am ready.

Are you?

There was once an idea, an idea that our government was doing what was best for us, not just for our bank accounts, but truly to help us find our way to becoming better people. But as with most things, money became involved and where that raises its head, few can resist the thrill of stuffing their pockets at the exclusion of all else, both moral and ethical.

The loudest voices of the followers of Jesus have just voted that the love that he preached is secondary or even tertiary to the size of their wallets.

There was once an idea, it exists still, with some of us, that our fellow human beings deserve as much happiness as they can have without our interference. There is a thought that who you love, what color your skin is and what you have between your legs are of your concern and I will judge you simply on your behavior and how you treat others.

Perhaps we should rejoice, because the undiagnosed disease that was making us rot from the inside has come to the surface and we can begin, slowly to excise it, cut it away, and educate it out of existence. Perhaps we are better now, knowing the truth about those who have done this, knowing it about them instead of wondering, suspecting and denying, because now we know.

We are a bright, caring, clever tribe of compassionate, sharing, giving people. Over the next years we will need to leave our temples and fight for those whom we claim to love. And the truth is that our willingness to help will determine the reality of our convictions. Are you someone who just speaks of doing something, or will you leave the house and join the battle?

What will you risk to give someone else a chance at a good life?

I see many people posting that now that the election is over, we can just go back to the way things used to be, but I am sorry, for me that is impossible. I now have new knowledge, wisdom that has come through observance that has taught me who cares for the only thing that matters, which is their fellow man, and who does not. We saw them, we know who they are and where their hearts lie.

I am done, for the moment, talking to those who have chosen this, instead I speak directly to those who woke this morning to a world suddenly darker. You are the best of us, the women, those in the LGBTG community, those of a myriad of ethnic origins, you are what makes us great in our diversity, love and compassion and I for one will not let you down and will stand firmly between this threat and you.

This is no longer political, it is a human problem and we have watched as some of those closest to us have thrown us into the path of an oncoming train. But as this battle ends, we will rest a day, lick our wounds, lift each other up and beginning showing up for the fight wherever it breaks out.

I love you guys. I know that that is easy to say, but I love easily, and have my heart broken a lot, but you have always been there to stitch it back together again. We have learned in the last 24 hours, a very harsh lesson, and that is that there is a vast difference between what we believe is right and what many of our brothers and sisters want most. They are not our enemies, they are insignificant, we will show them how we take care of each other, how we stand up for each other and how much love we have, even in the face of such brutal disregard.

~

Let the night come, we are not afraid, for we, after all, are the light.

Hedgewitch

I have been dreaming about my mother.

I often do at this time of year, for many reasons really, but she loved autumn and I choose to believe that is reason enough.

My mom was a Hedgewitch. She did not use that term, she probably would have loved it though. She never really labeled herself, but when she did, it was always something vague, like, “I am a green-woman.” or on one occasion I heard her call herself a woodwife which I found out is the name for a type of supernatural creature that often cures the sick in Germanic mythology. The description fit as my mother was a slender, ginger, milk skinned woman with fierce blue eyes and a gift for making herself invisible in even the most crowded situations.

The kitchen in our little bungalow was possibly my favorite indoor room in the whole world when I was a child. For much of the year, bundles of herbs hung drying from colored strings. It was her habit and later on mine to walk through the room and brush our fingers through the hanging bunches to release that intoxicating aroma. It could stop you in your tracks if you let it, the scent of warm summer, wild, green, alive, a drug that no pharmaceutical company could duplicate and an odor that no incense maker could best.

The herbs were coded by the colors of the string, but mum truly didn’t need the colors. I think she did it mostly to teach me and to make her selections of them faster if someone came calling, needing something.

Mint in a dozen varieties from tiny bundles of Corsican mint with leaves the size of a ladybug to the newest hybrids that smelled of chocolate, pineapple or lemon.

Lemon balm, Blue Vervain, Great Mullein, Rosemary, Betony, Lemon Verbena, Thyme, Basil, Wormwood, Sage, Saint John’s Wort, Yarrow, Nettle and my beloved Pennyroyal, all hung in row upon row with dozens of others, both medicinal and culinary. Below them on the top of an old bookshelf sat a row of paper plates with blossoms and seeds drying on them. Morning Glory, Moon Flower, Lavender, Honeysuckle, Violets in spring, rose petals in the summer, apple seeds and orange skins in the fall. The scent of that room still comes to mind any time I think about it and brushing up against a rosemary plant in a garden center or touching mullein plants in the wild can whisk me back to that space in an instant, much to my continuing joy.

In the early days there was only one restriction and that was that I was not to meddle with any bundle tied off with purple string, any seed or flower on a plate with a purple leaf drawn on it with magic marker and I was not to tamper with the herbs, tinctures and compounds in the purple bottles and jars. These were from mothers Bone Garden, or Black Garden. It was a difficult rule to adhere to because often the flowers from those plants were the most intriguing and beautiful. I never broke those rules, but I was always drawn to those plants, as she was.

The Mandrake, Belladonna, Datura, Monkshood, Henbane, Digitalis, Mistletoe, Yew and Hemlock were not things that mum had a need for on a regular basis, (or at all) but she grew them, tended them, talked to them and cared for them like she did all of the others. I can still see those dark purple bottles and jars, standing in rows on the top shelf of our herb closet, like dark sentinels, watching, and waiting to be needed.

The other herbs went into bottles of blue for healing, green for tisanes (or teas) and yellow and red for culinary uses. The sound of those jars clinking against each other was one of the most comforting noises of my young life and I had not realized how much I had missed it until beginning to type this paragraph and finding my eyes wet.

I remember once when we were on an overnight trip up to the Allegheny National Forest, we were visiting friends and my mother happened to see an old wooded wheel that had originally belonged to a spinning wheel but the rest of the device had long ago been broken and discarded. The wheel had nine wooden spokes and had been made easily a hundred years ago. My mother’s eyes caught fire and I watched her talk to Vaughn and his wife for over an hour about what they knew of its history.

That wheel went home with us, Vaughn was the son of a midwife and knew about healers and so he loved and respected my mother and so it had seemed pre-ordained that it should work out this way as the wheel had belonged to his mother.

Mum had me hang that wheel from the ceiling in the kitchen, horizontal to the floor and that became her favorite drying rack. She would tie the strings to the spokes each one a little closer to the hub so that the bundles became green spirals. Each fall when the last bunch of herbs had been dried, mum would have me take down the wheel and would have me rub oil into the wood. The oil had been steeping all summer with mint and rosemary in it and by the third year, the wheel smelled good enough to eat.

In the last few years of her life, (mum died of emphysema at 54) her ability to grow and keep herbs and her desire lessened, and I deeply and heavily regret not taking on the mantle of it then, but I am fairly certain that I was not in any way ready.

She sent out letters and in response, envelopes came from all over the world, each of them with stamps, small amounts of cash, little hand written notes and even empty baggies or pouches in them. And little by little, I helped her empty the cabinet. We mailed bags of seeds, dried herbs and flowers to people in New Mexico, Washington state, Canada, the UK and France and even one to a lady in the Dominican Republic. All of them herbalists, Hedgewitches, midwives and healers and a few hardcore botanists, all of which mum had kept up hand written correspondence with through much of her life.

Eventually it was all gone, except for one huge green jar with a cork stopper that held Pennyroyal, my favorite herb, and though many of you have probably read this story, it bears repeating…

~

Pennyroyal Tea

~

It was a July afternoon, half way between my birthday and hers, the rain had been falling heavily for an hour and I could not find her in the house.

The apple tree was old, gnarled and broad, stretching to shade most of the back yard under its gently fluttering leaves. Wind chimes hung from its thick branches, playing sometimes singly, sometimes in concert, always beautiful and magical. Beneath that great canopy of music and green, my mother sat, bent and wizened even then in her early forties. Her copper hair, silver at the temples, unkempt, littered with blossoms, twigs, the flotsam of a summer afternoon in the garden. She had eyes the color of robin’s eggs, always narrow as if the world were too bright, and hidden behind peach tinted lenses.

She was waiting for me, two wrought iron chairs set with their backs to the tree’s scarred trunk, a tiny circular iron table with a cement top, inlaid with geometric tiles in earth tones. On a dark green tea towel rested an ironstone pitcher, ageless like she, and two mismatched but elegant tumblers, already filled half way with soft green mint leaves and irregular chunks of ice, chiseled off with a pick.

I picked my way carelessly through the raindrops, heavier still now beneath the tree laden with all that it had captured during the storm. She saw me coming and was pouring before I had even found my seat.

I had no need to ask, one had only to allow the scent of the Pennyroyal to invade the skull through the nose and all else seemed to mute and become indistinct. It was July and her first seasonal jug of Pennyroyal tea would not wait until the end of a rainstorm, it would not wait at all.

Sweet with raw sugar, with a scent like mint gone wild and drugged with lemon balm, it leeched coolness from the ice until mother decided that the alchemy was correct. I did not reach for my glass until she did, but did so with a hand visibly shaking for this was ritual, ceremony, as powerful as any Catholic or Heathen rite, this was magic and mother was the crone bringing her wisdom to offer and allowing you to choose to accept it, or not.

I accepted and I drank, eyes closed to allow the tongue and the nose freedom to take over, while behind my lids, colors exploded with the wash of the tea over my taste buds, resting a moment in supplication before sliding down to begin its work in my belly.

Mother giggled at the rain, dripping through the leaves and into the pitcher. “Each glass will taste a little different because the rain will make it more wild.” she said. She was right, and we tested the theory until every drop had been taken, every sip, every gulp, and every sigh, its wild taste coursing through us, healing and quickening our lives.

I knew how the play must be carried out, how serious my sadness must appear, how sullen I must become in that one moment, so that she would be free to huff in theatrical exasperation, rise slowly from her chair, take pitcher in hand and make her way to the kitchen to carefully infuse another batch for her son who was struck so melancholy at the end of the jug. She never knew that I could catch her secret smile, but she knew I knew, as I knew she needed this, even more than I did, which was a lot.

By evening, soaked to the skin and laughing at anything that should strike our fancy, poems and tales traded freely and a third pitcher almost down to the dregs, dad would arrive home, come out on the porch, shake his head in almost king like disdain, grab his folding chair, his mug and a bag of ginger cookies and join us beneath the still drizzling apple tree.

Only once the fireflies had begun to alight on the lavender and butterfly weed, did we rise, hang wet clothes on the line and wander into our unlit bungalow to resume our pantomime as everyone else.

Mother made pennyroyal tea. I hope someone makes it for you. I will, if you are willing to sit outside and drink it with me.

~
I am taking up the mantle now, the growing will begin in the spring and her legacy will live on…

Tradition.

Take care of yourselves…

The Price of Division

With the election coming up tomorrow, I am in a strange space emotionally.

I guess that my sensitivity to the pulse of humanity is such that I watch the hatred and name calling going on and all I can think of is, “Can’t you see how ugly you have all become and how it is staining people’s perceptions of you?”

There can be no going back after this. We will have to move forward and this election will have changed us. At least it will have changed those of us who care more about each other on a family, personal circle, tribal level. It has made us aware, sometimes brutally so, who the closeted haters are. It has brought them out, proud and loud, big and happy to finally get to have their say. But they part they don’t get is, that right along, they have been getting their say and what they are afraid of is someone else being able to have the same right.

Some people are not happy unless they have someone, something to hate, someone to call names when they are with their buddies, someone to condemn because of color, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or economic class.

And each time we come up to an election, these haters, these fear mongers rush out of their little bunkers screaming, “Don’t vote for that person that doesn’t look, think or act just like me because if you do, they will take away your _______!” insert whatever paranoid object of conspiracy fits the situation in the blank. Guns, Jobs, Religion, Money, Property, Bullets, or what have you. Then invariably that cold, evil, different person gets elected and none of that doom comes to happen, but that doesn’t stop the fear mongers from continuously trying to scare everyone at how very much their freedoms are in danger.

The truth is that these people are doing far more harm to our country, our communities and our kids than any candidate we have ever seen. The kids are scared, they are afraid of what happens if he becomes president. They are afraid of what will happen if she becomes president. They are barraged by this all, in every waking hour and whether you think they are or not, the kids are listening to you. They are listening to your name calling and your hate and they are doing one of a couple of things. They are either judging you to be animals, bigots and losers, or they are learning to hate just like you do.

Which of those options appeals to you?

The system is flawed. The system is corrupt. Things need to change, but they need to change from us on up, not with our presidency. Did you forget that the government of the United States is supposed to be ours? Our representatives to the world.

None of them is worthy to lead us. None of them has our best interests in heart to the exclusion of their own welfare and wealth.

And so what are we to do?

We are supposed to take care of each other. On every level that we can. We are supposed to feed our hungry, clothe our cold, love each other and not judge…

We are supposed to teach our children to be better people than we were. We are not supposed to make sure that they don’t struggle but make sure that they are equipped to handle the struggles they face.

We are supposed to comfort each other, protect each other, talk to each other and become Americans again.

The American motto is E pluribus unum and it means, Out of many, One. Out of many races, creeds, beliefs, nationalities and personalities, we are meant to be one people.

Stop worshipping division.

When people of the same political affiliation as you say things filled with hate, ignorance and disregard for others, don’t just say, “We aren’t all like him.” The rest of us are watching and wondering why, if you aren’t all like him, why you are letting him be your voice.

If you stand with one kind of protestor and claim that they have the right to rebel, but speak out against others, just because your viewpoint differs from theirs, then you are part of the problem and need to re-think your stance.

If you blame the media for not telling the truth but yet you will share any political post if it agrees with your point without doing your own research to see if it is true, honest and fair, then you are part of the problem and we see you for what you are.

I am the step-father of a beautiful, brilliant fourteen year old boy who is both a transvestite and bisexual. He thinks that a large part of the population wants him to just go away, or worse that they want to hurt him because of the hate he sees boiling over in our country. He is afraid of who he will be “allowed” to love if the haters get their way. He is afraid of what the world will think of us if we put the haters in charge. He is fourteen years old, he shouldn’t have to be afraid of his homeland.

And I will state this, no matter what comes of this election, and how crushed some of you will feel, I will take care of my family, my community and my fellow man…

Will you promise the same thing?

Library

I often write in the library.

I am there now, the quiet room of Monroeville Public Library is my office, my sanctuary, the place where I can lay aside the distractions and let my fingers drum on the keyboard as I drain one reservoir in my mind after another.

Taking a moment, I let my eyes drift over the room and I find a full house. People at each other tables, most with computers but some curled up with newspapers, magazines or even real, honest to goodness books.

There is John, who comes to watch movies on Netflix and eat snacks from his seemingly bottomless bag of chips, nuts, cheese crackers and trail mix.

At the table in the center of the room, two college aged girls are studying for a nursing exam and arguing over what they are going to do over the weekend.

Shaun and his brother Miguel are using the free wifi to study Spanish in preparation for a trip to meet their cousins in Huatulco in April. They have been coming here faithfully three or four days a week for months.

The cast of characters is ever changing, but John and I are usually the first ones here in the morning when the library opens and he and I are similar in that we talk to everyone, finding out their stories, questioning them about their existence and trying to remember their names.

I know every librarian by name and most of them know me as well. The ladies that work the main desk know that I drink tea, never coffee and that I love coloring and carry my own colored pencils around with me. They will often give me a head’s up when I come in to let me know that a particularly nice design has been put out on the coloring table, so that I can snag one and take it home to work on it there.

At this time of day, it is around 1pm, there are people on many of the library’s free to use computers and they are doing everything from printing college homework assignments to playing online roll playing games.

Once school lets out, there will be an influx of teens and pre-teens looking to use the computers to complete online homework assignments or to kill time until mom or dad can get out of work and pick them up. At times they can get kind of rowdy but the librarians generally keep a pretty good house and keep them at least down to a dull roar.

There is an unspoken rule in the quiet room, and that is the bathroom rule. If anyone has to get up and trudge to the other end of the building to use the restroom, the rest of us watch over their computers, books, backpacks, what have you. I do it for them, they do it for me and the worry and inconvenience is much lessened.

In a myriad of ways, this building is invaluable to me. Not only does it have the space for me to write and create, but it has an impressive collection of books that are mere feet away. And the books that they do not have, they are more than happy to request in for you from any of dozens of other libraries in the county. Most of which arrive within a couple of days. I have read some books that would have been out of reach to me if it had not been for that system.

They have programs for children, teens and adults, ranging from a Lego club, to book clubs and crocheting groups. They have a small art gallery that doubles as a presentation space where they offer a wide variety of programs from animal rescues to music and art discussions.

There is magic here. All libraries contain this sort of magic but this one is, in a sense, a hub of the energy of this area. The elderly here rub elbows and make jokes with the college kids, the high schoolers help their young siblings find books, young entrepreneurs use the internet to discover ways to make it big and you can buy a cup of tea or a bag of Cheetos at the front desk if you get snacky.
If you open yourself up to possibility, there is an endless amount of fun you can have in this place. There are books on origami, dog training and African American history. There are comfy chairs that no one minds if you nod off in. There are huge floor to ceiling windows that have massive trees rustling next to them. There is a noisy old elevator that sounds like it is going to shake itself apart (they are raising funds to replace it.) There are folks just looking for a conversation and ones that won’t even acknowledge that you have spoken.

I read all the time about libraries closing due to lack of funding and that makes me sad. I see a hundred people a day that would have a large portion of their lives hollowed out if this place were gone. I am one of them.

There is currently an elderly woman, using a walker and she is going up and down the aisle past Chemistry and Life Sciences as if she is on a mission and across from her a young black man is sitting crosslegged on the floor reading a book on rebuilding motorcycles. They exchanged a pleasant greeting and went back to their pursuits.

John just pulled out a bag of sour cream and chive sun chips and the smell of it has made my stomach attempt to speak whale and so I will close this with a suggestion. Go, visit your local library, see what magic you can find there. It might not be a variable village like this one but I promise you, you will find something amazing in those walls, on those shelves, in the people that gather there.

Take care of yourselves…

Dia de los Muertos

ofrendafull

In the last two days we have passed beyond the veil on the Celtic new year of Samhain and emerged into Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

This has been a hard year, with heroes, inspirations, leaders and friends crossing the veil, making the journey, going into the earth and simply slipping beyond our grasp. We have lost many, I have lost many, but they remain with us, or so say our old traditions and I am all about old traditions.

Within a ten day stretch this year, I lost two absolutely amazing friends.

The first, Kevin was a kid when I met him. He was a young, enthusiastic, funny and caring guy who loved nothing as much as he loved magic, illusion, the thing that he chose as his path, his career and his calling. I was managing the Funnybone Comedy club in Pittsburgh at the time and a hobbyist magician myself.

Kevin and I met at a shop called The Cuckoo’s Nest, a local magic shop that always had one or two magicians working behind the counter that could demonstrate tricks for you before you purchased them. Kevin was a demonstrator and his enthusiasm was infectious.

He was a gifted kid, with great hands for magic, and he was funny, created clever banter and had a gift for improvisation that set him apart from many of the socially awkward young people who fall in love with magic.

Kevin and I became friends quickly, and over the next few years I worked very hard to see that he got noticed in the industry. I did not make him famous but I introduced him to some people that helped him find his way in and in return, I was lucky enough to watch him blossom and become Kevin Hurley: Magician!

After I left the Funnybone, Kevin and I lost touch for a while. I was pleased to run into him here and there and we would catch up, always picking up conversations as if we had never left off and he always was most understanding about my obsession with beautiful decks of playing cards and would always have new ones to tell me about.

Over the last couple of years, we had taken to exchanging emails through facebook and I noticed that he did not seem to have the same enthusiasm, and in the final months before his death, he seemed to be ready to give up on magic, a decision I tried to guide him away from, explaining to him that he had discovered his bliss and to love that thing and it would find a way to provide for him.

I had no idea that it had gotten so bad.

No one did, but isn’t that what we always say?

“I didn’t know…”

On July 30th of this year, Kevin took his own life and the world lost magic.

Not just the sleight of hand kind of magic, but the making strangers laugh kind of magic, the making children gape in wonder kind, the drawing people together kind, and the distracting people from the pain of life kind of magic.

I attended his viewing and moved among the mourners quietly, finding his mom and letting her cry on my shoulder. I gave her the only gift I could, a story of her son that made her smile, made her laugh, made her remember something other than the hollowed out image of her son that lay in the box in the front of the room. That wasn’t Kevin, Kevin had moved into all of us, all of us that carry stories and memories of our loved ones. Because after all, that is all we ever really have of them to begin with, their stories and their memories, which are also stories…

Only a few days later, I learned that another friend, one of the greatest storytellers, poets and personalities that I had ever known had decided to go into hospice as his body was shutting down on multiple levels.

Oscar Carpenter was one of “those guys.” A larger than life guy was a booming voice, a laugh that could bring down walls and a mad love for his family and for all things Irish. There were few if any folk songs he didn’t know the words to, he lived to be in a pub atmosphere with a band singing and playing the songs he adored and he wrote poetry that shined with his love for his heritage.

I had known Oscar since I was a child and he had been a huge inspiration to me as a storyteller. He and my dad would bring Mac’s Donut shop in Aliquippa to a standstill as they traded tales of a hundred subjects and you never left those meetings without either having learned something or laughed yourself sore.

We gathered around Oscar, asleep under the influence of pain meds, and we told stories about him. Musicians came, storytellers, family and friends and we surrounded him with the things he loved most and eased him along.

We visited Oscar on August 6th and he slipped quietly, painlessly into the dark on the afternoon of the 7th.

My heart ached. I was still in pain from the loss of Kevin and though Oscar’s was timelier, as he was 88, the scars were open and I was in tears quite a bit for a few days there.

Oscar’s funeral was a less solemn affair as was his wish. We laughed, we sang, we traded stories, we joked about him watching us, making sure we weren’t moping around, but I am pretty sure that was actually the case.

The service itself was filled with poetry, music by the amazing Terry Griffith and a priest who was as big, loud and raucous as Oscar had ever been. We sent him off well, and then all retired to his favorite pub where the musicians that loved him played for hours and we all got a little wobbly and remembered…

There is a shop near here, one owned by a lovely woman named Lisa. It is called Mexico Lindo and it stands in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh and it is an amazing and beautiful place to visit.

Each year Lisa (with a lot of help) erects a huge Ofrenda, which is an altar which is used in the celebration of the Day of the Dead. The ofrenda is built as an offering to those who have passed on and exists as an invitation for those restless spirits to come and visit us. The altar is typically covered in orange flowers, as orange is the color of death. It also contains things such as cakes, cigars, alcoholic beverages and photographs of those who died in the previous year. It also may have sugar skulls, statues representing death and masks, all brought together to act as gigantic celebration of those we have lost.

Lisa allows people to come in and write the names of loved ones on paper monarch butterflies, which are then added to the ofrenda, and thus adding the invitation for our departed to visit us. This is an important event for me, because remembering Kevin & Oscar allows me to assure their immortality.

We can never own a person. No matter if we give birth to them, love them, are lovers with them or any other imaginable scenario. We cannot possess another person for even a moment, and so in truth, all we ever have of them is our memory and our stories of them, and so as long as we re-tell those tales, as long as we re-visit those memories, then we truly own as much of them as we ever have.

Tell the stories of your parents, your loved ones, your friends, tell me and tell each other about them and as long as those stories exist, those people become immortal.

It is within our power to grant that amazing gift.

But with the passing of Samhain/Halloween and Dia de los Muertos comes something else, the darkening of the year. In a week we will set the clocks back, the temperatures will fall, the days will shorten and for many this brings on a bad time of the year.

Seasonal depression, piled on top of a nation already tearing itself asunder with hate and disorder and coupled with higher financial struggles make autumn/winter one of the hardest times for some people to get through.

I am asking you, begging you, look out for each other and for yourselves. Find reasons to gather. Let’s start doing potluck dinners again, let’s get together for movie nights, let’s find excuses, or make ones to simply be together as families, tribes, whatever you want to call it but let’s return to warm nights filled with laughter, stories and life.

Remember life?

At one time people used to gather together for more than just the hallmark holidays. We used to gather for birthdays, made up holidays or just because everyone had a free Thursday. We would all cook or bring things, we would share, we would taste new dishes, we would all help with the clean-up and we would talk. No television, no big game, perhaps a card game or a board game, but they were incidental to the act of being together.

Those kinds of gatherings have become rare, and as they have become ever more rare, we as people, even with all of our options for communication, have become terribly lonely. That is one of the saddest things about us. We have become pack animals with no pack.

We need each other, so let’s be there, before we have to do it only through an altar and a story…

I want to know more about you.

Until next time, take care of yourselves, and each other…