A Walk in the Woods

“Said the river: imagine everything you can imagine,then keep on going.”
~Mary Oliver

I went for a walk in the woods a few days ago. I love paths that are a bit wild and natural even in the middle of town. On this particular day, I am on one of my favorite trails; it meanders through  a dense patch of woods next to a big wide creek. The path has been left untouched for decades in many places and I love wandering there. But walking into some sections of this trail brings to mind Dorothy hesitantly walking into the dark scary woods with the scarecrow on her journey to Oz. Or maybe it’s Gretel wandering in the forest with Hansel, looking for her way home. Either way, the path can be a bit unnerving. I find myself humming that old Lou Reed song, “Walk on the Wild Side”, as I walk.

Deep dark untamed woods hold big, scary, archetypal energy for me and lots of other people; all those wild, uncivilized natural spaces where we might just meet something bigger and hungrier than us on the path. It is exciting and and enticing and scaryall at once. I think this is why our ancestors spent so much time trying to tame Mother Nature. Generation after generation of Americans have spent huge amounts of time and energy trying to corral and control Mother Nature;  e.g. clearing away the forests that once covered the northeastern US like they were tidying up a closet by throwing almost everything away. Or The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredging and straightening and pushing around the Mississippi river decade after decade – we all saw how well that worked out for New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina made mincemeat of the Corps’ dykes.

Even logical and reasonable adults plant grass over mile after mile of suburban neighborhoods, then burn thousands of hours of free time and gallons of gasoline every weekend mowing their lawns down with military precision until the grass is a socially acceptable “tidy” length that resembles some perfectly green and uniform man-made carpet. We humans cannot seem to leave Nature to her own devices, can we?

Mother Nature scares the crap out of most humans. Mostof us either hide away in man-made homogenized boxes and pretend Nature doesn’t exist or we head out loaded for bear to try and kick Mother Nature’s butt and make her our bitch. In the end, neither way works very well.

I go visit an old tree every time I walk this path. Her diameter is larger than my wingspan. I remember the golden mean ratio – exactly how tall does that trunk diameter mean she is?  And how many rings does her trunk hold? Her rings must carry the wisdom and the history of this place at the edge of the path, this spot that she has anchored for at least 80 years . This tree has been here at the edge of this path for many, many years; she has seen all this human silliness before.

That’s where true wisdom comes from, being silent and still like an old tree; just absorbing what happens in whatever place I find myself today. And in taking the time to make the connections between what happens today and what happened yesterday on my path – and 2 years ago and 200 years ago. I need to remember to stop; get still, watch and listen to everything happening around me. And to take the time to reflect; to remember and store that longview of history like an old tree does.

I leave grandma tree and move on down the path. As I wander, I look up at the sky and realize that a storm is rapidly brewing on the horizon; it’s time to head for the safety of my house. Once home, I sit by the window in my study and watch the wind and rain thrash at the trees. Lightning splits the skyagain and again. Mother Nature is flexing her muscles. Even my tame garden seems a bit scary now. I watch the storm from a safe perch inside.

The path I choose again and again is not tame and civilized like a perfectly groomed suburban lawn. But it’s also not a solitary cabin surrounded by wilderness; I don’t require a life so wild and scary that I quiver with fear like the cowardly lion every time I venture out into the world.  I seem to constantly be searching for the middle path; in my mind I picture land on the boundary between wild woods and tame suburbs. That feels like the space where I belong.  It is the space where I feel most at home.

There has to be a way of living that is more in synch with my own inner nature. I want be find that way, to dig in and explore that middle path. I wonder if it is possible to live in way that is engaged with Mother Nature, fascinated and respectful of her powers rather than trying to subdue and mow and bend her to my will? And at the same time, can I develop a connection with Mother Nature so deep that I’m not left feeling completely helpless in her storms?

What is the middle path through this landscape? How do I become an actual friend and ally of Mother Nature? There are a thousand different opinions out there about how to walk softly on the earth; go vegan, buy local, grow your own, buy a hybrid, solar power… But I am wondering about diving deeper and making choices where I work with Mother Nature rather than doing things to her.

Whatever I choose has to come from my heart truly connecting with the natural world.  I wonder what will my life look like if I open up and deeply connect with Mother Nature? What would it look like to be close friends with this Earth? This feels like a shiftin my path… like rounding a bend on a trail and seeing a whole new vista opening up in front of me. And just like any great adventure, this new terrain is exciting and a little scary, but not too scary…

Sitting

I sit in Ridgen shrine room

I sit, I breathe

I scrawl words on paper

I feel happy and peaceful

I sit, I breathe

It begins to snow outside

I sit, I breathe

I write word after word

I feel sad, so sad

an old wound exposed

Snow falls

I sit, I breathe

Machinery hums outside

out of sight but still with me

I sit, I breathe

My hip aches, my nose is numb

I sit, I breathe

and wonder, why numb?

the pitch of a roof outside

catches my gaze

I sit, I breathe

My hip aches

I breathe with the ache

the hum, the roof

Snow falls

I sit, I breathe

I feel hungry

the hum, the ache

and the roof go on.

Fading Away

Today’s blog entry is dedicated to my mom and to all the other families out there dealing with Alzheimer’s or dementia…

Mom’s name is Eve and she was born in 1925. Even now in her 80’s, living in a ‘memory care unit’ and suffering from Alzheimer’s, even now my Mom is still feisty and opinionated and a bit of a rabble rouser. My mom may have been born in 1925, but she really resonated with the feminist ideals of the 1960’s. Even though her career was staying home and raising 4 kids, Mom instinctually understood the basic feminist message. Women need choices about how to live their lives, Women deserve choices. My mom understood that even as she allowed herself few of those same choices.

My mom’s name may be Eve, like the first woman in the Bible, but the name NEVER fit her. Mom never fit the mold of the “little woman” who is made from her husband’s rib and is subservient to her man and lives to serve him. No way! My mom complained about the silly rules that dictate proper female behavior from the very beginning; as a kid, she demanded to know why her 5 brothers never had to do housework while she and her sister were cooking and cleaning every week. And how come the boys got to swim in the creek, but she and her older sister couldn’t? Apparently it wasn’t proper in the 1930‘s for teenaged girls to swim in the creek, even when southern Illinois was 95 degrees in the shade. Can you imagine??!

Later on as an adult, my mom wondered aloud why men got to do all different kinds of work while women were expected to marry and become homemakers. And she thought it very sad that an intelligent and beautiful woman like her sister who never married was labelled a spinster and considered broken by this society!

No, my mom was NEVER a mild mannered ‘good little woman’. And I mean that as the highest compliment. Mom was actually more like Adam’s first wife, Lilith. You may not have ever heard of Adam’s first wive Lilith, but she appears in the Jewish Talmud and several other sacred texts. Most references to Lilith were stripped from the Bible. And what, pray tell, was Lilith’s crime? Well, Lilith refused to be subservient to Adam. She refused to “lie beneath him”. And when Adam balked at treating her as his equal, Lilith up and left Adam and went to live by herself. For refusing to cleave to Adam and do what he said, Lilith was condemned by her culture and turned into an evil demoness that ate newborn babies and sucked the virility right out of men. For “misbehaving” Lilith was rejected and labelled an uppity bitch. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? I picture a mix of Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan when I think of Lilith.

Lilith is the original feminist archetype; she’s a powerful female who KNOWS she is complete unto herself and she needs no man to define her or validate her existence. Lilith resonates with that same powerful anger that drives modern feminists like myself; we feminists look around and see how women allow themselves to be treated and we roar with rage.

Unlike Lilith, my mom never left her husband. She never left, but she roared with rage at the inequities of her married life on many occasions. She roared but she really never figured out how to make her own marriage less traditional. It took me years to realize that Mom was actually raging at herself and her own decisions as much as anyone else. I think Mom craved a small space of her own without the needs of a husband and kids drowning out her own desires. Like millions of women before her, my mom craved a space of her own, but never figured out how to take it for herself.

When I asked my mom in her late 60‘s what she had dreamed of being when she was a girl, she had difficulty even answering me. Is it any wonder? Didn’t 1920‘s society just assume that girls would want to grow up and be a wife and mommy? Give them dolls and teach them how to cook and clean, right? What a waste!

My mom must have felt such a conflict within herself for so long. She resonated with the feminist ideals of finding yourself and building a meaningful career and yet stayed in a traditional marriage and spent her days taking care of 4 kids and doing mind-numbing secretarial work.

Please don’t get me wrong; my mom adores my dad. She always did. But she dreamed of something more than marriage for herself and for her daughters. She cajoled and encouraged and pushed me to take a different path; to be more than a wife and mommy, to graduate from college and find work that I could make my own. I have her to thank for this career that I love.

So, after decades of denying any part of herself beyond wife and mommy, my Mom is slowly losing her mind. Is that just coincidence? I don’t think so. Ironically now as the Alzheimer’s progresses, she becomes a lot less like feisty Lilith and more like docile Eve with each passing month.

Today I watch my mom’s brilliant wit and intelligence fade away and I am sad. Sad for the loss of the outrageous woman who was my mother. I am sad that my opinionated mother cannot figure out how to hold onto herself and her opinions any longer. And I am very sad that my 11 year old daughter will never really know her grandmother’s strength or her powerful presence.

I am also sad because I look around the “memory care unit” where my mom lives and I see what the future holds for her. I do not understand why she clings to a life that consists of eating and sleeping and not much else. She is kept safe and fed as every week she fades a little further away, like an old photograph fading over time. And I wonder what the point of this slow fade to death is. Years as a healer have taught me that God always has a good reason for everything. But I really cannot figure out the point of Alzheimer’s.

I watched “You Don’t Know Jack” a few weeks ago on HBO; it’s a movie about Jack Kevorkian, the euthanasia doctor that the press nicknamed Dr. Death. I watched that movie and I puzzled over how some people could condemn and despise Jack Kevorkian for helping suffering people to die. Granted, Jack is an opinionated old coot and he does not make it easy to like him. But his heart is huge and his intent seemed pure to me. I wonder if anyone who has watched a loved one suffer on the edge of living for months or years could condemn Kevorkian?

Is keeping my mom’s body fed and alive while her brain slowly dies a noble, caring act? Or would helping her to die quickly be more noble? At this point, I certainly don’t know what’s more right or more noble. Ironically, my mom was a big proponent of euthanasia before Alzheimer’s set in. She had a living will drawn up years before her illness became apparent. Yet today if you ask her, she will say emphatically that she wants to be resuscitated if her heart stops. Even as barren as her days seem to me, my mom still wants to be here.

Here she stays. I have trouble killing a bug, so there is no way I’m going turn into Kevorkian here. All I can do is watch her slow decline with sadness. I wish that I could somehow make it all better for her – and for me and my siblings. But all that I can really do is turn Mom over to God again and again and again. And try to remember that God has it handled.

Progress?

 

Over the past 2 years I have been watching a huge compound of office space, apartments and retail stores being built less than a mile from my house. It’s called Lenexa City Center, although it lies nowhere near the center of my town. I guess they mean “center” in some metaphorical sense that I don’t quite understand. Here is what the official web site has to say about the City Center development:

“Lenexa City Center is an exciting mixed-use urban development that is being built on all four corners of 87th Street Parkway and Renner Boulevard, in the center of Lenexa.

Born out of the community-driven Vision 2020 planning process, Lenexa City Center will be a key destination area that will combine a mix of shopping, restaurants, entertainment, office, residential, hotels, and public gathering areas such as parks, plazas, and a civic center all in a pedestrian-friendly, high density, new urbanism development.

At build-out, Lenexa City Center is expected to offer about 4.5 million square feet of mixed-use development on 200 acres in the I-435 corridor.”

A slow economy and the overwhelming volume of commercial real estate that currently sits empty all over Kansas City with no tenants in sight has not deterred Lenexa from building a new City Center. And each edition of my city newsletter relays the latest news of this important development. Apparently this is “PROGRESS” for our city and we should all be thrilled.

But I for one have sadly watched their “progress” over many months; first the area was bulldozed and stripped of all trees, bushes, grass – anything remotely resembling life. Then the land was reshaped and reformed until it no longer even looked like its former contours. That phase was rough for me because the old land had been a mix of pasture and trees that I enjoyed checking out every time I passed. And am I the only bleeding heart who wonders what happens to all the squirrels, bluebirds, deer, turkeys, hawks, fireflies, worms, spiders, raccoons, coyotes and other creatures that lived where a new strip mall now rises? Do we humans REALLY want to shove all other life out of the way for ourselves?

My family took a vacation road trip to Wyoming earlier this month. Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks on the western edge of Wyoming hold some amazing scenery and wildlife. It is one of the most beautiful areas in the world. This gorgeous spot was partitioned off into two National Parks over a hundred years ago so we wouldn’t be tempted to try and improve it and civilize it right out of existence (Thank you Teddy Roosevelt!). “Progress” tends to be deadly for wildlife and gorgeous scenery in every part of the country.

To get to Wyoming from KC is quite a haul by car, but I kept imagining what it would have been like to travel the 1,100+ mile distance by wagon a hundred and fifty years ago. Two days in the car is nothing compared to 6 months bumping across roadless prairie. We’ve made “progress” when it comes to fast, safe travel, haven’t we?

We drove through the Black Hills of South Dakota on our way to Wyoming. Back in 1868, the U.S. government “gave” the people that lived in the Black Hills long before white guys showed up (mainly the Lakota tribe) a small piece of the hills and grassland that the tribe held as sacred ground. Our government signed a treaty with the tribes and promised that the land would belong to them in perpetuity. But then gold was discovered in the Black Hills about 5 years later and in perpetuity didn’t mean much. Jeez – talk about indian givers! I felt like personally apologizing to every single Native American on earth after I read what my ancestors did to the Black Hills.

White guys (and I include myself in that label) have a long history of shoving others out of our way in the name of “progress”. If our kids shove others out of their way on the playground or take some other kid’s stuff, we “civilized” adults cry foul and lecture them on the error of their ways. But if our culture does it to another culture (or to another species), or if one corporation does it to a competing corporation, we label it survival of the fittest and claim that it’s “progress” towards a better, brighter future.

I think “progress” may actually just be a polite way of saying we get to do what we want and take what we want because we’re bigger and more powerful and we’re in charge.

Back home at Lenexa City Center, a complex of buildings that looks like offices and retail store space appears to be complete. But the huge parking lot outside the complex sits empty month after month. I ask that you insert Joni Mitchell singing ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ at this point in your reading for the desired effect. Meanwhile the latest city newsletter holds yet another update on the exciting developments at our new City Center.

And what does City Center “progress” look like from here? Well, “progress” is a group of empty buildings, a hideous manmade pond with prefab concrete sides and some spindly trees planted in little islands of dirt in the empty parking lot. But hey, I read yesterday that the developers plan to add a “large green space and walking trails” in the future. This must be to simulate the natural green space they bulldozed to build City Center in the first place…Hmmm. I guess it all doesn’t have to make sense to me. Just as long as I keep paying my taxes…

prog-ress n 1. Movement toward a goal. 2. Development; unfolding. 3. Steady improvement of a society or civilization.
Definition from the American Heritage Dictionary.