Why Do We Do This?

 

Why do we write? Why do some of us have this urge, this need to find the right words to write on that blank page?

Possible answers: To try to make sense of what we’re experiencing. To help focus ourselves. To encourage others see/experience things they might not have before. To enhance living.Terry 1

These thoughts arise because I’m reading When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams, noted environmentalist, writer, and teacher. It’s a prose poem of a book by the author of the splendid Refuge, both of which are so personal that in my mind she’s a friend. This copy is from the library, but I’m going to have to buy my own.

When Terry’s mother was dying at 54, she told her daughter she would leave her all her journals, but not to look at them until after she died. When Terry could bear to take one of the bound journals from the long row on the shelf, she found it was blank. “My mother left me her journals, and all her journals were blank,” she writes. It was like a second death. When she herself turned 54, Terry wrote this book, subtitled “Fifty-four Variations on Voice,” to explore the messages contained in those blank journals.

Trying to understand, she thinks through her mother’s life, her own life, and the power of the word—its presence or absence. And she says, “To be read. To be heard. … To write requires an ego, a belief that what you say matters. Writing also requires an aching curiosity leading you to discover, uncover, what is gnawing at your bones. Words have a weight to them. How you choose to present them and to whom is a matter of style and choice. Yet the emptiness of my mother’s journals carries the weight of a question, many questions.Terry 2

I am only on page 72 of 208 pages in Terry’s book. Will she decide the empty journals say silently that we waste time by writing instead of living? Was her mother asking why anyone would go bacOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAk to look at written words later instead of staying in the moment?

I think Terry, a scholar in environmental humanities at the University of Utah, will say NO.  And I find that Terry’s clear clean writing makes me want to look more closely, be more thoughtful, study forever. Her writing makes me want to write.

 

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Hawks on the Hill

 

The bad news? I didn’t have my camera. The good news? I didn’t have my camera. The occasion: red-shouldered hawks copulating!

Alerted by their squeaky sharp calls, I searched and found the pair well up in a maple tree on the hill above Bel Pre Creek. As I focused my binos, the birds finished, and the male dropped down to perch beside the female. I’m happy to say he didn’t roll over and go to sleep, but rubbed his head in seeming affection along her cheek and neck. That attended to, he began to do serious preening. She flew to another tree and perched there for maybe five minutes, while he worked through all his tail feathers. (Apparently when he gets that hot and bothered, it takes a while to tidy up.)

hawk habitat

Hawk Habitat–woods and creek

When she flew again, this time toward the creek, I lost her. I went back to watching her mate preen. Suddenly she came winging through the trees, crossing in front of me. She carried a stick in her beak. She flew directly to the biggest beech tree at the left edge of the macadam path up to the school, paused a minute, and then flew away, beak empty.

I scanned the tree and found a cluster of sticks held in a crotch against the beech’s trunk, about 40 feet up. I was exultant. Now I know where this year’s nest is!

Why was it good that I didn’t have my camera? Because if it had been in my hands when the female flew away, I’d probably have stopped observing; I’d have stared down at the camera display, seeking the best photos of the pair and the preening male. Thus, I would have missed seeing the female streaking across my upper field of view carrying her stick to the nest.

Note to self: don’t stop looking!

I Won One!

When my car was T-boned by a woman who ran a Stop sign, the repairs were expensive, but, and I stress this, not my fault. Because of the accident, State Farm raised my rates 25%. When I called my agent’s office in righteous indignation, they urged me to protest to the Maryland Insurance Administration. I did that. Turned out mine was not the only protest of that kind, and a few months later the MIA ruled for all of us against State Farm! My premium increases will be returned, with interest. Amazing. Take heart, all–sometimes the little guy wins one.

Farewell to Zeno-kitty

Zeno adopted us more than a year before we agreed to be adopted. A stray, he came to our backyard and tried to befriend our two cats, who were not amused.

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He  persevered. Soon he would let me get close, even touch him as I offered an occasional bowl of dry cat food. But no, I said, he was not our cat.

On a cold December day in 2010, a bone-thin Zeno wobbled onto the patio. He was so sick he could hardly see. I surrendered; I took him to the vet and I became his human. He lived with us for five way-too-short years. He died this week because we couldn’t get him to the emergency vet in a blizzard. It’s a painful loss, made worse by frustration.

I miss the sight of him on hind legs by my kitchen chair, one white paw looped over the chair arm, head tilted fetchingly to one side, compelling golden gaze fixed on my face. He was irresistible. “Yes, Zeno, whatever you want, I’ll do it.”

I miss his chirrup of greeting when he emerged from under the azaleas, or wherever he was napping or keeping an eye on things. I miss his complaints as he stalked about the house, looking for me. I miss his soft murmur of pleasure when I scratched exactly the right spot.

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At fourteen pounds, he was not as big as our other two cats. His head and chest were broad, his ears slightly chewed, and his tail short and thick. He walked like a street tough, with a tiger’s deliberate pace.

Because he was feral for years, he insisted on being outside at least part of the time, unlike our other two who are usually inside. If I was gardening, Zeno would follow me, choosing comfortable spots from which to supervise. Paws under chin, he seemed to be marveling at my strange choice of occupation. Why pull up plants? He himself claimed a particular patch of catnip in the garden by our patio and often lay beside it, grooving on its fragrance and protecting it from all comers.

The friendliest of our cats, he was usually the first one visible to visitors, and the only one who could be coaxed into letting a small child pet him. He’s the only cat I ever had who always came when I called him. Even when he was heading down our driveway to the street, I could call him home and pat my leg, and he would turn and run to me.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Like all cats, he preferred to find water for himself rather than drink from his bowl. He stood on hind legs to lap from the birdbath or bustled into the bathroom after my shower to lick the remaining drops from the tub.

 

book stack with cat

 

 

Most of all I miss him in my study. He’d sit by the books, or lie on my desk basking in the warm air flow from the computer’s fan, or keep the big chair warm for me, or lean forward to butt foreheads or rub cheeks, or step down onto my lap, forcing me to type over him. In the late afternoon, we often retreated to our big chair. I miss the warm purr that started as he stepped onto my belly, the confiding warmth of his weight nestling against me, the sense of utter comfort composed of book, tea, and cat in lap.Books study

Rest in peace, sweet boy.

Pondering Cicero in Translation

 

With a pending birthday raising my age to an impressive number, I’ve been thinking about things to do “while I can,” before the constrictions of real old age. Not just a bucket list of places to go and things to do for myself, but projects that might assist or give pleasure to others later. I’m hoping I still have plenty of time.Books study

Last fall, I read a mystery novel that used sentences from Cicero as chapter headers. One line held a strong appeal for me. It read, “No one is so old that he does not expect to live a year longer.” I copied it into my journal because it expressed so well my usual optimistic feeling that there’s always at least a little more time for being energetic and effective and enjoying life.

I liked the line so much, in fact, that I bought a copy of Cicero’s treatise that was its source: On Old Age. But in my new purchase, the line was translated as “No one is so old as to think that he may not live a year.” Did that say exactly the same thing? I didn’t think so; it didn’t call forth the same cheerful response in me.

Cicero 1Translators have a difficult task. In this case, each translator started with a two-thousand-year-old document in Latin and tried to turn it into good English understandable by present-day readers. After reading each sentence several times, I decided the chief difference depended on two critical words in the first version: “expect” (more forward-looking than “think”) and “longer” (instead of just “a year”).

Though Marcus Tullius Cicero was born in 106 B.C., he was speaking to me, I thought. But what was he actually saying? I asked my friend Mike, a classical scholar, if he had a favorite translation of the treatise. He brought me two.

In Mike’s university press edition of On Old Age, the line read, “No man ever gets so old that he thinks he won’t live out the year.” This was yet another construction, one that prompted a question. Does “live out the year” mean “till next New Year’s Day” or “till Cicero 2the next birthday”? Those two dates could differ by months, depending on where one is in the calendar. I read all three versions again and saw that “to live a year longer” is the most elastic phrase, because it allows time to keep stretching out, the end point retreating day by lived-in day.

Last, I read the Penguin Classics edition’s version: “No one is too old to think he has another year to live.” This seemed close to the first rendition, though faintly confusing. It tempted me to delete the negative and clarify it (prosaically) as “People always think they have another year to live.”Cicero 3

So. Four versions, all different. Because my Latin education stopped after tenth grade, there’s no point in my trying to wrestle my own translation from the original. Since the chief desire of Cicero throughout the whole treatise was to champion his claim that old age is a pleasurable time of life, I think I’ll make my motto be the line with the most optimistic prospect of time remaining: “No one is so old that he does not expect to live a year longer.”

Of course I will!

A New Year’s Resolution

Yesterday, I retrieved a book from our shelves and found the corners of some pages lightly stained with red. Oops. I know what happened. It’s beef. When I make a batch of meatballs, I prop a book on a stand in front of me so I can read while my hands perform the tedious task of shaping the meat. I turn the pages with careful but meaty fingers. Red stains can result.cooking while reading

I do try. To delay the page‑turnings, I read slowly while my fingers squeeze and roll.

Digression: This enforced contemplative reading suggests a whole new literary category: Books to Shape Meatballs By. Essays and poetry would be the best. Slow reading gives their compressed thoughts time to expand in the mind.

I hope the author wouldn’t be insulted by my activities while reading. I wouldn’t. If a book I’d written so engrossed a reader that she had to keep on reading while she cooked dinner, I’d be flattered.

cooking and listeningDigression: Reading while eating is another way to get food spots on books, and worth the risk. It’s a delightful way to spend a solitary mealtime. What’s better on a day alone than the newspaper with breakfast, a mystery with lunch, and Dickens with dinner?

But as I cleaned those guilty pages, I thought, Okay, here’s a New Year’s Resolution: always and only to listen to recorded books while fixing dinner. IPods forever!  No more meat-stained books!

The Beechen Wood

FullSizeRenderYesterday I walked under the trees in what I call “my beechen wood” for the first time in about two years. My new, reliable, and mostly pain-free knee performed perfectly.  How truly good it felt to be once more amid the beech trees that cluster on the hill above Bel Pre Creek. These giant benign beings, so tall, so silver, always make me happy.

Beechnuts and empty shells littered the old bridge and the ground under the beeches. I picked one up and opened its spiky outer case to reveal the two nuts inside, triangular in their smooth crisp covers. I bit one, mentally apologizing to the squirrels and chipmunks who probably eat most of them. Or maybe it’s the grackles; a huge flock of grackles, more than a hundred birds, congregated under the beeches near the path, snacking and enlivening the woods with their gossip.

Cecily's WoodchuckThe apron of the big woodchuck den, still broad and sandy-pale, was plugged as if no longer in use. Above it on the hill, five more exits attested to a regular “woodchuck warren.” One of the smaller openings came out under a wide stone lintel; another one emerged between roots of a huge old black oak. How lucky I once was to see a young woodchuck peering out at me.

The beauty of the beeches at the crown of the hill refreshed my spirit. My energy revived, dull dailiness turning as bright as the water glinting in the creek below. From the schoolyard near the park, shrill voices of kids on outdoor recess reflected my pleasure in being active outside in fresh autumn air. And when a red-shouldered hawk flew across the creek, my morning in the mystic beauty of the beechen wood was complete.cropped-cecilys-beech-woods.jpg

Cold War With Russia — Again?

Diana gives us some interesting insights into the direction the world might be going and a tip about what might be very important part of our pending Presidential election.

Kiss and Thrill

Since moving to the D.C. area, I’ve become a wonk — yes that is an official term. While it can mean a studious or hardworking person — things I certainly hope I am, it mostly means a person who takes an excessive interest in minor details of political policy. It unofficially means the kind of person — often a female — who likes and remembers all the sticky details of a subject. Said female is often considered boring, overly studious, and generally not sexy in the least little bit.

In other words, a female wonk is the 21st century version of a bluestocking.

So when I was invited last week to Georgetown University to hear Ambassador Linton Brooks talk about the U.S. relationship with Russia, I immediately jumped at the chance.

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Being on the Georgetown campus is amazing. I love surrounding myself with all these intent young people who are…

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Field Guides Forever!

Red-tail closeIt’s the longest day of the year, the first day of summer, and a great time to be outdoors. With books. As a curious naturalist, I have field guides in my kitchen, on my desk, in my car and on my phone. Books on birds, dragonflies, grasses, butterflies, birds, trees, mammals, spiders, birds, ferns, flowering plants, non-flowering plants, insects, reptiles, and did I say birds? I love my field guides for their history (I still have some books that belonged to my parents) and for their up-to-date info and detailed pictures and keys that give me a chance to figure out what the heck I’m looking at. Here’s a link to a lovely essay on the joy of field guides by Helen Macdonald, the author of H is for Hawk.

http://nyti.ms/1GvWEtE