forces of nature

Ben captured an image of me with the dogs while practicing with his new Christmas camera. It was a rare brief moment of all three of us in communion. But as soon as I moved even the tiniest bit, the entire scene would shatter and shift into the usual whirling dervish of attention getting behavior. If only I could sit just like this indefinitely, calm and equally loving for the two canine spirits I share my life with.

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I read recently that “life is a balance between rest and movement” (Osho) We three would soon all be separated from each other, on vacation from our usual ways, me on a two week retreat away from home, Yogi staying with my parents in their home five hours away, and Nora holding down the fort here with a new companion/house sitter.

My parents left with Yogi. Ben, Nora and I ventured part way into the woods for an much needed walk after days of rain and being indoors. It was almost balmy, and very slippery under foot in the soggy snow that would turn to solid ice during the anticipated overnight freeze. It was hard to maintain sure footing. We wouldn’t get far and it didn’t matter. It felt so good to be walking alongside the rush of water now liberated from ice, the sound of beauty living in the force of nature.

Walking in the woods with the snow requires cramp-ons or snowshoes when the snow comes to stay for good long while. I’d had only one such walk before the holidays. It took twice as long for me to negotiate the short loop to the pond and back with Yogi and Nora making the first tracks in our otherwise clear path. In this, they too have become part of my world where forces of nature create context for feeling joy.

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Forces of nature are so erratic these days, and I feel unsettled in the anticipation that a heavy snowfall might be followed by rain the next day, and then a freeze.

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Has it always been this way? Is it my yearning for some level of certainty that has me only remembering the long winters of my youth when the snow came and stayed until spring? It feels like a metaphor for the times. Anything goes, even climate change, extremes one day to the next, never any real time for truly resting with what is there before making the next move, or being distracted by the next influx of information.

I’ve been doing this retreat for four years now. In many ways it has become another certain part of my life. We are asked to arrive with an intention for the work we will all be doing together in meditation and yoga practice and fun. My intent is simple this year. I want to re-learn how to read novels again. I watch a lot of movies and old tv show re-runs like ER. I am writing a lot but I can’t remember the last time I actually read an entire novel or short story. I suppose this will require some re-awakening, some re-membering of the pleasure I used to feel as a younger version of myself during undisturbed hours of absorption with the written word. Immersing in fiction in the past always allowed me to stretch my imagination and occupy new terrain. It’s not just about remembering how to engage and stay present with a good story. It’s about acknowledging, perhaps even accepting, my current emotional need for certainty and stability. For so many years now I have satisfied that need by opening to the certainty of beauty that is always there, in the force of nature in every moment.

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It’s like a drug. I want it all the time. I want to feel the immediate multi-dimensional emotional hit of an image that I can capture with a click on my iPhone. The narcissist in me thinks I am seeing this uniquely through my eyes. That this my movie, even if controlled by nature. I don’t know if this is truth or not.

Discovering order and seeing beauty has become the backbone of my story and a kind of certainty I can depend on. Is it still possible to fully open to and truly get lost in another person’s story without losing myself? Perhaps surrendering my current fixed image of self to the emotional guidance of a good book, if only for a short period of time, is exactly the point.

differently

I don’t realize how rigid I have become, in my thinking, in my ways, in how I see, until I start to mess with tradition. It’s one thing to be flexible when it is my intent to cook a daily meal from what is there, or stay open to how a day might unfold in a magical way. But when I contemplate substituting brandy for anisette in my beloved family Christmas cookies, I actually feel panic. What if the cookies don’t taste the same? It is such a ritual, making the kurebies, the white sugar coated butter almond crescent cookies from my Albanian grandmother’s recipe. The irony is, the recipe calls for either anisette OR brandy. I have always used anisette, always. I always make these cookies on Christmas Eve for my father after he has arrived with my mother for the holidays. He always helps in some way, rolling dough into shape or simply just being a witness to this tradition that I imagine is the embodiment of Christmas magic for him as a child.¬†Making Christmas for my mother and daughter has been in the joy of making stockings each year, creating context for the anticipation of unexpected pleasure in opening so many tiny wrapped things. For Ben it is setting the rhythm of family time spent together, the meals shared. He is a master of saying the blessings each year and we ritually clasp hands and wait for him to speak. He marks time by the events of family gathering. And by the end of this holiday, he will be talking about and counting the months until our annual summer vacation with all the cousins.

This year, everything is being done just a little bit differently.

The break with tradition of the past 20 years started with Thanksgiving. Instead of traveling to my parents, we simply stayed home. And we all had a really good Thanksgiving in our respective communities. It didn’t feel like a loss or a decision made in angst or even a permanent one. We simply had a lovely holiday, truly grateful for the space to feel something differently. On the strength of this bold move, we then decided to change the rhythm of time spent at Christmas so that my parents could attend their own community Christmas Eve service. Ben will spend Christmas Eve with his father this year. Everyone will arrive here Christmas Day instead of days before. There will be no Christmas morning sitting in a circle opening Santa stockings and gifts in the dawning light of the day in front of the ornament laden tree that I usually put up and decorate just days before. Space is being created for the celebration of something anticipatory and delightful in a different way and I am reluctantly finding my way to occupy it, uncomfortable with letting go of the rituals I have initiated all these years.

It feels like something lost, not waking to a houseful to delight on Christmas morning, so elemental and pure that the pain of its perceived loss actually has me here weeping as I write these words. How silly, when people are actually starving and homeless. I realize that letting go of the rigidity around traditions might be the little girl in me letting go of something she thought she needed all these years. Making Christmas has served me well. But in the end, it is the balance of giving and receiving that I really yearn for. When all the stuff is stripped away, it is the people and the love inside each one of them waiting to be discovered that is still there after all. In this, any new thing is possible. That will always be a cause for celebration.

There is a profusion of holly that lives outside at my front door. Huge bushes that are now so overgrown these past few years as to make a prickly passage out.

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It is an invitation to prune and bring the dark green berry laden branches inside, considered sacred in Druid days even before Christianity, I could mix them with light, make new magic. After bringing in a basketful of holly cuttings I realized they would be poisonous for the dogs on the windowsills I want to decorate. So I had to let that image go too.

It is the solstice. On this shortest day of the year, I am led to celebrate with lots and lots of light. I give my awareness to this. Brain scrambling to figure out what to do with what I have, the white corded multi colored lights in the basement won’t do, I need green cords and little white lights. I don’t want to get in the car to go spend more money if I don’t have, receive a fleeting thought of a box in the garage, long forgotten. The strings of lights I used each year to light a tree outside! The box is just where my memory leads. Except it is not the old lights, but four brand new very long strings of brand new little white lights on green cords. It is a thrilling discovery! I don’t remember buying them or using them, but there they were, as if just waiting for my call. There is enough length to double and triple runs on the windowsills, more than making up for the loss of integrated holly now safely contained in a large basket,

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and enough to fill my large picture window facing the street as a beacon of good cheer in the many dark hours of this time.

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And when the lights get turned off, I will be treated to the sparkling display of diamond light from the icicles forming outside in the cold. Light even in the light.

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This year I added lebkuchen** to my usual repertoire of cookies. I gave myself to the effort of making these thick chewy cookies weeks in advance of the holidays and now let my body receive the delicious rich spice of the softening unadorned confection each morning for breakfast. Plenty were decorated though, each with their distinctive candy heart,

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and will await Christmas Day, to accompany the regulars, the kurebies, Swedish butter tarts, and chocolate glazed mostaccioli onto the dessert platter.
**Lebkuchen

(adapted from recipe that appeared in Nov./Dec. 1994 issue of Eating Well
magazine)

8-2/3 cups all purpose (unbleached organic) white flour
2-1/2 Tbsp. baking sofa
1 Tbsp. ground cloves
1 Tbsp. ground cinnamon
1 Tbsp. ground cardamom
2 cups ground almonds (I ground almond slices)
1/3 cup EACH candied citron and ginger, chopped fine
2 cups plus 3 Tbsp. honey
2 cups plus 3 Tbsp. unsulfered molasses
1/4 cup brandy
Confectioners sugar and/ chocolate for icing

Sift flour and spices together, twice, in a large bowl. Add almonds and candied peels.
Combine honey and molasses in saucepan and bring to gentle boil. Remove from heat.
Make well in center of flour mixture and slowly add hot honey mixture.
Gradually stir in brandy.
Cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes.
Divide dough into (3) portions, place each on a piece of plastic wrap, flatten to thick disc, wrap tightly and refrigerate overnight.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees, let dough stand out unwrapped to room temperature
Roll on liberally floured surface to 1/4″, cut 2-1/2-inch rounds and put on lightly greased baking sheet.
Bake 12-15 minutes, until bottoms are pale brown and tops are puffed.
Cool on racks.
Frost/decorate, or not (these lebkuchen are delicious just plain as is with coffee for breakfast). For sugar icing, mix confectioners sugar with whole milk or 1/2 &1/2 to desired consistency. For chocolate icing, melt 6 oz. semisweet chocolate, 2 oz. unsweetened chocolate, and 1/4 cup butter in double boiler and mix thoroughly. Best if spread.
Store in airtight containers, up to 3 months un-iced. They are a bit hard at first and soften in container.

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punctuation

It is usually while I am walking, deep in the woods, that a word or phrase will come to me as a prompt for the next blog post. Most of the time it makes sense, becomes a perfect focus for bringing otherwise random thoughts together and helps maintain the flow of what is there. But in the past week when the word ‘punctuation’ kept appearing, I kept pushing it away. What a strange word. Even saying the four clumsy syllables out loud felt foreign, purposeless, without any redeeming quality whatsoever. I eventually started thinking about all the ways punctuation serves to shape writing and can give form to past, present, and future. If there was no punctuation there would be no way to pause, to take a breath, to let a thought or feeling evoked by the words sink in and settle.

Understanding how punctuation might serve in the visual world was trickier. Perception of a image involved non-hierarchical non-linear movement of the eyes. Where the eye pauses or stops is a function of how color and value and form interact. When done convincingly, it could be considered a form of punctuation. There was even a way to consider how punctuation might serve in the world of emotion. If we felt blissful all the time without the occasional pause or upset, would there be motivation for expressing gratitude, for seeking love, or opening to something new in joy.

I tried to imagine the energy of life as ALL flow and no pause.

I considered where punctuation served in my daily meanders through nature. I was particularly entranced with how the center of the paths were magically present after the two recent brief snows we’ve had, snow melted like a perfectly constructed sentence exactly where we typically walk. If the entire forest floor was covered in a uniform blanket of snow, I would surely need brackets to find my way. Now, the bends in these paths so clearly laid out in front of me like commas. My field of vision could extend just so far, forming a complete thought, until taking in the sight of the next bend.

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Coming to the pond after these first nights of frost and freeze I found marks on the frozen surface that guided my eyes from one place to another.

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I have long believed that the art in these moments lives in the space between my eye’s landings. The landings are the punctuation.

In contrast, the newly flowing waters in the brook after heavy rains and melting snow felt like the absence of all punctuation, where the swift motion connected rock and wood and air once again with it’s exuberant presence.

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Either way, the multi-dimensional quality of experience here in these sacred lands is punctuated in unique ways each time. Spaces in between a sound and a sight, between a feeling and a sound, between the sky and the trees, or the water and the the earth, are entered into continuously. This is where the art of being in nature lives.

It is now morning after a deep freeze. Our walk is punctuated by howling wind above, as if the swirl on the pond yesterday has lifted off, leaving the surface there opaque, harder to read.

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Finally, walking back into the house, I am excited to see if my new website has gone live. After a thirty year narrative of architecture career punctuated with quilt-making, I can finally see how this particular narrative would be completely illegible without this particular punctuation. ¬† It’s taken me a long time to get here.

I invite you to visit http://kathyford.net. See you there!