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Parting

I lost a friend two weeks ago.

I have, of course, been thinking about her. She was a friend from my past, a part of my past. I had not seen her or even spoken with her in some time, but she remained in my memory as part of the place I called my home before I came here to Maine.

Photo by Andrew Montgomery on Unsplash

Death. The axis around which our lives pivot, and yet what can we say, or think, or even react with that isn’t entirely banal?

Starting, beginning, changing our surroundings and jobs, meeting friends and lovers, having children, reaching milestones, are all obvious, and loud, and exciting. We look ahead to such experiences, strive and work for them.

We forget that all of these involve parting, too. Parting can be so quiet, like a canoe sliding from the land into the early mist on the lake. Hardly a ripple. No fanfare. Just floating soundlessly away into the unknown, while we stand on the shore, watching it disappear.

Sometimes we lie asleep in our beds during the moment of parting, oblivious. We rise, and brush our teeth, and make breakfast, watching the mist burn off the water through our kitchen window, and we realize suddenly someone or something has left us. They’re gone. We didn’t know this was the morning. We didn’t say goodbye. The inescapable moment of parting came and went without us.

Then again, parting can be so subtle we don’t recognize it’s begun. Our gaze is ahead, at the next task, the next goal. But behind us, or off to the side, out of our awareness, the time of parting, long or short, is upon us. The flow of connection has turned to an ebb, and, inexorably, we drift apart from what once moored us.

Someone put my friend on PostHope, an online place for people to schedule visits, write messages, and update on a loved one’s condition. She was unable to communicate herself, but PostHope gave us a place to send our love and support to her and follow her progress.

This was a great gift to me, so far away. I snail mailed a card she will never receive. I posted a message. I read all the updates as they came in, and there was reason for optimism, a possibility for at least partial recovery.

Then, in an idle moment I checked my email and found a message that she had died. I felt all the things we do feel in such moments. Disbelief and denial. Grief. A little later, a sorrowful peacefulness, because she would have been unable to live independently after her illness, and she was a fiercely independent woman.

By Vladimir Gladkov on Unsplash

What do we leave behind when we are gone? We talk about legacies, and children, and brilliant achievements of art or science or service, but what do ordinary people leave? My friend had no money. She had no children or close family. She lived alone. She was not famous.

In the days after her death, many posted words of sorrow and comfort on PostHope. I did not. Her place is no longer my place, and I am a different woman than the one who left. Many of her friends were strangers to me, or nothing more than names I remember from my time there. My heart is too full, and I was not ready.

I do not want to talk about her. I want to know she is still there, teaching art to children, taking a spin class, working in the art gallery, painting, dancing, and caring for the homeless cats who came far and wide for food, shelter, and love. I want to know she’s giving massages, making her herbal salves, wildcrafting sage for smudge sticks, and cooking.

But she’s gone now. Her house, which was the house in which I raised my sons before she bought it from me, is empty. She’ll never paint another picture or make another jar of salve.

I did not know, the last time I saw her and said good-bye, that it was forever. I still have a picture of that evening, but it’s color on a flat sheet of paper, and unsatisfying.

My memories are better. I still smile when I remember how we danced together, whooping and laughing, and how she tore off her shirt and danced in her sports bra as we gave ourselves to the music and our blood ran swift and hot.

I remember, too, how fascinated I was with her authenticity. She liked to talk. She was loud, and opinionated, and without tact. Her blunt honesty made people around her squirm sometimes. As a lifelong people pleaser, peacemaker, and soft-spoken fawner, she appalled me frequently, but she also amused and amazed me. How could anyone risk being so real? She taught me about living unapologetically true to oneself.

My friend had a big, soft, generous heart. She was a woman who loved and worked tirelessly for the community. That community will be less vital, less challenging, less interesting, and quieter without her.

Death is banal. But life isn’t. Hers was a beautiful life. She gave what she had to give without counting the cost. She loved. She lived without holding anything back. Now we have parted. She’s gone into the mist, beyond my sight.

Good-bye, my dear friend.

Photo by Erik Stine on Unsplash

Broken

Photo by Aimee Vogelsang on Unsplash

I recently reread Broken For You by Jan Karon. The last time I picked it up was years ago, when I was living a different life in a different place. I loved it then, but this time it spoke to me more profoundly. I was captivated by the suggestion that things, including people, might be more valuable broken than whole.

 

 

Then, in an idle moment, I picked up one of my Mary Oliver books and read this:

Landscape

Isn’t it plain the sheets of moss, except that
they have no tongues, could lecture
all day if they wanted about

spiritual patience? Isn’t it clear
the black oaks along the path are standing
as though they were the most fragile of flowers?

Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.

Every morning, so far, I’m alive. And now
the crows break off from the rest of the darkness
and burst up into the sky – as though

all night they had thought of what they would like
their lives to be, and imagined
their strong, thick wings.

Again, the theme of breaking, this time breaking darkness into black wings.

I’ve been thinking about breaking as I harvest from the garden this weekend. The tomato plants are heavy with fruit, bent and sprawling above the basil and parsley, straggling over the garden borders into the grass. The tomatoes on the ground are gratefully received by slugs and beetles, as well as some kind of gnawer – no doubt a rodent. Our resident chipmunk is my prime suspect.

Photo by Sven Scheuermeier on Unsplash

I don’t mind, though. I have an abundance, and it gives me pleasure to share. I picked everything that was ripe, harvested oregano and basil, and made a crock pot of spaghetti sauce yesterday, discarding the spoiled tomatoes in the compost, which will, in time, feed other gardens in other years.

As I chopped the herbs into thin, fragrant ribbons and the tomatoes into juicy chunks, I thought about broken things. Well, not things. Not objects. Things are just things. They’re not life. They’re not real identity, although we try hard to make them so.

I thought about broken hearts, shattered dreams, disillusionment, loss of innocence, disappointed hopes, violated trust. I thought about broken promises made to ourselves and others and fractured relationships with ourselves and others.

Objects break, but the more painful breaks are intangible. Objects can be replaced. How do we manage intangible breaks?

Sometimes a broken object can be pieced back together, but it’s never quite the same again.

But what if we made something new with the broken pieces? What if we let go of the old shape of whatever broke and spent the night thinking about what we want to make or be now with the broken pieces of what we were yesterday?

Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash

Some things endure: a seed, a bone, love, life, and death. Death most of all, because without it there can be no seed or bone, and no life. In time, everything breaks, and then breaks down, and then becomes something new.

Breaking then, need not be a catastrophe or a message that we are victims of malign fate, but an invitation to reshape ourselves and our lives into something greater, something wiser, something winged.

Fractures, chips, and cracks are inevitable in life. Nothing stays young and unblemished. Time and entropy sweep us along. As I approach my sixties, I find myself more and more grateful for all my broken places. From those places I write, and from those places I love. Each of those broken pieces has made me into a juicier, more complex whole.

Thinking of what I would like my life to be and making it with the broken pieces. My daily crime.

Photo by Nick Grappone on Unsplash

Meditations From the Garden

I tried hard this week to come up with a way to write about racism and hate in general, but I just couldn’t get a creative, thoughtful grasp on it. No wonder. Hatred is not creative, unless in a negative sense. How many ways can I hurt or murder someone because of my judgement about their worth? Not the kind of creativity I’m interested in.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I’ve been sitting out on the front porch in the sun, relishing the breeze, watching the thumb-sized bumblebees plunder the lupine and the hummingbirds zoom around the feeder after a couple of hours of mulching, weeding, watering, trimming and planting. I haven’t been reading or writing, just drinking a large glass of mint and lemon iced tea and feeling happy, absorbing the peace and beauty of this day, enjoying the wind chimes and the sun on my skin.

Alongside the driveway we have a lupine bed. It wasn’t planned. It started, years ago, with one plant that now has become countless plants. There’s also echinacea, several kinds of wildflowers, and this year we put in pink poppies, two cleomes, lilies, sunflowers, and a starflower.

As it wasn’t a formally planned bed, the first clump of lupine went into a hole in the ground and grasses and other native growth mingle with the flowers. I’m building a border out of dead wood from our downed trees. The flowers have self-seeded and the bed sprawls, in no particular shape, most of it with undefined boundaries.

Yesterday, my partner and I were looking closely at the lupine, which is in full bloom.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I have learned, since I came to Maine, about holistic gardening and land management, and I’ve understood effective gardening is not creating a concentration camp for plants. Nature is a gardener, and a bed like ours, organic, dynamic and without any kind of fertilizer, pesticide or other chemicals, demonstrates the diversity necessary for the health of the whole system.

As we looked closely, we found a cluster of juvenile Japanese beetles on a low, sheltered leaf, and another cluster of tiny ticks. Obviously, the bed is a good nursery. A variety of bees were present. We saw a lacewing, an excellent predator, and aphids. Yellow jackets zoomed around, along with dragonflies (another welcome predator). Immature grasshoppers were plentiful, and spiders. Several kinds of butterflies floated above the flowers.

We didn’t see slugs, ants, praying mantises, caterpillars, earwigs or ladybugs, but they’re probably all present, along with mice, shrews and perhaps a mole.

Photo by henry fournier on Unsplash

 

The lupine and some of the grasses are now quite tall and thick. Other, later-blooming plants like echinacea are coming along, but not as high yet. As the lupine fade and lose height, the echinacea will come into its own. The bed is filled with wild low-growing plants, too, like clover, basil, grasses, dandelions, chamomile and violets. With any luck, there’s a grass snake or two under all that growth, and maybe a toad or a lizard in the cool, damp shade.

Milkweed grows there. When it blooms it will feed the endangered Monarch butterflies.

We don’t water the lupine bed, aside from giving the new seedlings a little drink when it hasn’t rained in a few days. We don’t cultivate, weed, or really mess with it in any way. The logs I’m using for a border are to help my partner when he’s mowing and keep the self-sowing lupine in check. Now and then we use our sharp little hand scythe to keep the tall grasses from overshadowing the seedlings.

Photo by Gabriel Jimenez on Unsplash

Mostly, though, we just enjoy it. It’s perfect. It doesn’t need much help from us. I’m very aware the life we are able to see, both plant and animal, is dwarfed by the life in the soil, which is full of bacteria and other microorganisms, including viruses. The bed is at the foot of a tall maple stub that was more than 200 years old when it fell a couple of years ago. I would not, for any amount of money, rototill or otherwise disturb the soil, the roots of the dead tree or the layers and layers of leaves and other vegetable matter.

I will never rototill again. The best way to build soil is to build soil with layers of organic matter, all kinds of organic matter from all kinds of animals and plants. Rototilling disrupts microorganisms, mycelium and roots binding the soil together.

Diversity is balance. Diversity invites symbiosis, “a mutually beneficial relationship between different people or groups.” (Oxford online Dictionary) A diverse garden is a healthy garden in which predator and prey are balanced. Diversity includes a variety of colors and textures, growing patterns and flowering times, nutritional needs and abilities. Diversity means what we deliberately plant is just as important as native plants, otherwise known as weeds. Diversity supports the food web and the web of life.

What a concept, right? What lovely, elegant wisdom. I could never, in a million years, come up with such a complex, thriving garden as one lupine plant has created over several years at the base of a dead maple tree.

A healthy garden is filled with life and death; natural cycles and seasons; growth, blossom and decay that seeds and feeds the next cycle.

What a garden is not filled with is hatred, politics or pretence. There are no riots. There is no outrage. If one population gets out of control, either the host plant dies or the predators increase until balance is once again achieved. This life-death cycle is not personal. Viruses, insects, trees and dandelions don’t hate. They’re too busy living and reproducing or, in the case of viruses, replicating and looking for hosts.

A garden is honest, true to itself.

Dirt under my fingernails. Mosquito and black fly bites. Grubby knees. Wonder. Peace. Gratitude. Reverence for diversity. I’m in the garden.

Thursday: The Storm

Thursday morning, I went to town with my mask, met one of our egg suppliers and bought several dozen eggs, visited the grocery store and thanked the young man sanitizing grocery carts and controlling the number of people allowed inside. One of my sons is doing the same work in Denver, and as I went back to the car with loaded plastic grocery bags dangling from my hands, I thought of him.

On the way home it began to rain.

April 10, 2020

An hour later, snow was falling in thick, wet clumps, filling the air and coating every surface it touched.

Six hours later, as night fell, we had several inches of snow and the air swirled with flakes, smaller and harder now as the warmth of the day faded. The power began to flicker as we watched TV. We turned off our computers and unplugged them.

At bedtime, I cracked a window open and crawled under the covers to read. The power stuttered over and over, making our carbon monoxide detector beep and my office electronics in the adjoining room click and clack.

I turned out the light and thought of the smothering weight of the snow on the roof above me, how quickly it was accumulating and how typical that an April storm just before Easter would be the worst of the season. Plows passed by, their lights shining through my unshielded windows, illuminating my room in flashes and moving stripes of light.

Sometime around 10:00 p.m. the power went out for good. The house was abruptly silenced, but the night outside was filled with sound and movement. The storm was like an immense creature padding around the house, breathing in erratic gulps, thumping, pawing, scrabbling. The trees groaned and soughed in their wooden throats, the merciless blanketing snow pressing down on their bodies and limbs.

At 12:40 a.m. a long, slumping crash filled the night. I lay, tense and fearful, listening. Was that part of our roof? Had the deck torn away from the house? I turned on my small LED reading light, thrust myself into robe and slippers and went downstairs.

Dark. The lights we usually leave on in the kitchen and living room were out, of course, along with the bathroom nightlight. Outside the large window over our dining table, nothing but soft, formless white, except for a great black shadow between the barn and the trunk of a 200-year-old maple alongside the driveway.

A black shadow, taller than a man and longer than a car. A black shadow in a white night. I strained to see clearly, but it was impossible to make out any details. I let my eyes move up the tree trunk. Was the top of the tree still there, or had it fallen away?

I went back up the stairs, feeling sick and pretty sure we’d lost the tree. Had it hit the barn? If so, there was nothing I could do about it.

Pond, April 10, 2020

I lay in bed, listening to the storm and the beleaguered forest. It was like a battle between the violent, inexorable snow and the patient, giant trees. Creaks, cracks, booms, explosions, and the muffled sound of crashes and heavy bodies falling filled the night. I knew some of what I was hearing was transformers blowing and electrical noise, but I couldn’t tell how much. I wept for the trees as the storm rent and tore at them, bearing them down with its cold, white weight.

I checked my small battery-operated clock at 3:30 a.m. Dawn was not far away. I felt calmer, and now I heard only the hush of heavy snowfall. The weight on the roof above my head felt less ominous. I blew my nose, flipped over my pillow and turned onto my side, finding sleep at last.

At 6:30 a.m., my partner and I looked out the front window at the shattered maple, which had fallen onto an old apple and snapped it like a toothpick, as well as tearing all the limbs off one side of a younger, healthier maple near it. The fallen tree did not hit the barn, or our cars, or the house.

Downed maple, April 10, 2020

Fourteen inches of heavy snow had fallen, and it was still snowing, though lazily. We went from window to window, seeing trees split, snapped and torn in every direction. Several had fallen across our pond. Our favorite swamp maple, every year the earliest to turn and the most intensely colored, had split down through the trunk, each heavy branch peeling away like a banana peel until it rested on the ground. Shrubs, branches and wires hung flat and low, bowed with the terrible weight of the clinging snow. Many trees were broken but still clasped in the arms of their neighbors.

My partner called the power company on his cell and got a recorded message saying the estimated time of power returning was 11:15 p.m. the day before! Not encouraging.

We spent most of the day in the living room, near the wood stove, each with a blanket and a book. Clouds surged across the sky, bringing periods of heavy snow interspersed with lighter showers. Plows and sand trucks went by, but we saw no tree service or power trucks. We boiled water on the wood stove for tea, scrambled eggs, heated soup, fed the fire. I felt thick-headed and wretched — too much crying, too much devastation, too little sleep. We had no power; no Internet; no more than a trickle of water, inadequate to flush the toilet. Our cell phones were not fully charged.

I felt utterly cut off and isolated, and too tired to make any sensible plans to help myself.

Before it was fully dark, I went to bed, lit a candle, and reread Rosamunde Pilcher, the most comforting author I know. After blowing out the candle, I lay absorbing the quiet. The storm was over. The injured, dead and dying trees were silent, now beginning the long work of rotting or healing. I knew we had months of work in front of us, too, with chainsaw, hatchet, splitter and wheelbarrow. We will not need to buy firewood this summer.

I turned onto my side and fell into a dark well of sleep.

April 10, 2020

Just Deserts

Sometimes the inside of my own head astonishes me. It’s amazing how much of our internal framework is undetected bullshit that runs our lives. For example, this is a belief I’ve always accepted without ever thinking about it:

I get what I deserve
I deserve what I get

I have it,
therefore I deserve it

I deserve it
because I have it.

You have not got it
therefore you do not deserve it

You do not deserve it
because you have not got it

You have not got it
because you do not deserve it

You do not deserve it
therefore you have not got it.
R.D. Laing, Knots

This piece of nonsense masquerades as a Universal Law, and I believed it!

So, what does it mean to deserve something?

Interestingly, the word “deserve” comes from the Latin word “deservire,” meaning “serve well or zealously” (Oxford online dictionary). Serve as in servant? Serve as in slave?

Serve, as in somebody else has the power to judge the value of our service, regardless of how we evaluate it?

Now, there’s a slippery slope of disempowerment!

The more I mull this over, the clearer it is to me that being judged as deserving or undeserving is a human construct. It’s not real. It collapses when I try to examine it. Do we really believe we get exactly what we deserve? Children are starving because they deserve to? People die of cancer because they deserve it? One percent of the population has most of the financial resource because they deserve it and the rest of us don’t?

No. I don’t believe that.

Photo by Luca Bravo on Unsplash

My reading of current complex systems science (please see my Resources page) teaches me life is defined by living. Life wants to live, be it a bacterium, a fern, a woodpecker, or a human being. Life is persistent, adaptive, and depends on the passing on of genetic material and energy gradients. Life is solely occupied with meeting its needs for life, and most successful life teams up with other kinds of life in complex systems.

There is no deserve in all that. There is no implicit guarantee of rights or resource. Successful life often leads to population overshoot, at which point the successful species uses up its resource and predators of the overshoot population increase their population to take advantage of the abundant food and energy supply.

Photo by Manuel Barroso Parejo on Unsplash

I did nothing to deserve the circumstances of my birth as a white female in the United States. I’m no more or less deserving of life than a mycelium spore. If I die of some kind of drug-resistant organism, my death is nothing more or less than the inevitable consequence of my species being in overshoot.

We humans spend a lot of time fighting with one another, as any overcrowded population will. There’s current buzz about hate, oppression, immigration and white supremacy. My own view is that all those issues are not the root of the matter, but distractions. The real issue is our unconscious and false sense of ourselves as human supremacists, superior to the sacred cycles and processes of life and death. Most of us believe, behave, and act as though our needs are more important than the needs of other human beings, and certainly more important than the needs of all the other countless and magnificent forms of life with whom we inhabit this planet.

Photo by Seth Macey on Unsplash

We will discover — we are discovering — we cannot stand alone, however. In fact, most life on the planet can do much better without us than we can do without it.

Life and death are the context in which all our experience is embedded. We’ve only begun to identify some of the laws governing the way they work together. We’re only now realizing how interdependent all forms of life are, even as we actively destroy other species we depend upon for food and water.

As human beings, we have needs. If our needs don’t get met, we die. This is so for every form of life. We either live as part of a sustainable complex system or we die as a species. As individuals, we are born and live because of those who have died before us, and our inevitable death gives life to those who come after us. It’s really very simple. Debating whether we ourselves or any other form of life is deserving or not is an idiotic waste of time and energy.

The concept of deserving is one more piece of mental clutter, along with pleasing others and arguing with what is, I’m ready to let go. For years I’ve hurt myself with it; it’s limited me and been a heavy burden to carry. Without it I feel lighter, freer, and I notice an increased sense of reverence and gratitude for my life and all the life around me. I am not supreme. I’m a child, a student, and one small life among many others, all of which have equal value to my own and much to share and teach, if I can set my human arrogance aside long enough to listen.

As Loren Eisley writes in All the Strange Hours: “Life, life for the purposes of life, and is that then so small?”