Please don’t be still my heart

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“Never worry about your heart till it stops beating.” – E.B. White

Be still my heart … it’s a common expression.  Even if it is not of one’s own generation, it’s used often enough that when you hear it you know what it means. What you don’t often think about is how ridiculous an expression it is.  Because the truth is that a heart doesn’t stand still out of love, or even out of fear … not really.  It stops because it has died, and the person whose heart it is has died along with it.

Like anyone past the age of about six years old, I’ve contemplated my own mortality more than once, but recently I had a health scare that landed me in the ER and then was admitted and spent a night in the hospital.  I didn’t enjoy it.  Not the hours in the ER in the curtain next to a crying child with a broken arm while waiting to go up to my room once they decided to admit me.  Not the monstrous headache I got from the nitroglycerine they administered.  Not the giant, ugly bruise on my stomach from whatever injection they gave me there.  Not the scratchy hospital sheets or the drafty, hideously unattractive gown.  Not the nuclear stress test I received the next morning, which, for the blessedly uninitiated entails being injected with a substance that makes your heart feel like you ran a marathon at cheetah speed.

To my immense relief and good fortune, I do not have any issues with my heart, other than a mild murmur that the on-staff cardiologist said has gone undetected my entire life because (a) it is so mild as to be undetectable with the average stethoscope and (b) because it is not causing me any issues that would have caused me to register a complaint with a physician that would have led to its detection. I do have to have a sonogram of my gallbladder, because apparently the chest tightness I was experiencing is often a sign not of cardiac issues, but of possible gallbladder or GI problems.

Yet, the experience did leave me feeling a bit more aware than usual of my eventual mortality, and I have resolved to be better about taking care of myself.  Not that I’m usually bad, but still, there’s always room for improvement.  Also, it’s a good reminder to be present, to be aware, and to remember to take it all in.  After all, we are all dancing on this earth but for a short while, and even though we all know how much I hate to dance in public, I may have to start one of these days.  You know, just because.

Railroad to Nowhere

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I have always loved railroad tracks, as far back as I can remember, really, but looking back I think it actually started in the first grade. As a young grade-schooler the bus ride home, though only a couple of miles, often seemed interminable. I enjoyed school, but I couldn’t wait to get home at the end of the day, see my mom and baby sister, play outside. (This of course was back when kids still played outside, built tree forts, got into all manner of harmless trouble, and didn’t spend every waking moment staring at some screen or other, though we still enjoyed feeding endless quarters into the Miss PacMan machine at the bowling alley.)

For the entirety of my elementary school years, my bus driver was Mr. Williams, and I will always remember his deep baritone voice singing out “Railroad crossin!” as he stopped the bus at the tracks. Arriving at the railroad tracks meant I was halfway home, that the freedom I’d been anticipating all day would soon be mine.

Now that I live several hours from the town where I grew up and where my parents still live, I cross those same railroad tracks in the final miles of my homeward journey, and often I think of Mr. Willams, not a young man when I knew him, and long since gone to his reward. More often, though, I think, simply, “home.”

Or at least that’s the only reason I can think of that makes any sense when it comes to explaining why my heart seems to gladden when I catch sight of a set of railroad tracks. So when I found a set of rusty, long unused ones on a random drive-about close to home, I had to come back with my camera (and my trusty photographer’s assistant – aka my dog, Tucker) and spend some time there.

There were also these big hunks of metal and old concrete tunnels lying around nearby, and there was something beautiful and poignant about them to me in the dying light of a winter afternoon a few months ago. I’d like to go back again and shoot them again in a different light.

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Memory as diary

Oscar Wilde said “Memory is the diary we all carry about with us.”

He was right, I think, but memory can be a tricky thing, which is why I write things down. Because often it’s the things you most want to hold on to that are most prone to slipping away.

When I was a child and I would be on family vacations with my mom, dad, and sister, I absolutely hated the obligatory “Let’s stand in front of this sign or this landmark or this whatever and ask a stranger to take a picture of us smiling brightly into the camera” moment. It wasn’t because I wasn’t having a good time. It was because I usually was, and all this stopping to pose for pictures seemed disruptive to me. Plus, I’ve never like having my picture taken. I didn’t as a child, and I still don’t, but as an adult, at least in the last few years, I’ve discovered a way out of it, which is to be the person taking the pictures. I’m not any great photographer, but I do dearly love taking photographs, and perhaps even more the editing process that follows. There are some photos that I prefer straight out of the camera, but I love to play around with different edits, trying to match the end result to the way I remember the scene in my mind.

I have been to the Napa Valley three times, twice in summer, and once, most recently, in the fall. I loved Napa in the summer – I mean, really – what’s not to love? Gorgeous scenery, scrumptious food, and wine for the tasting just about everywhere you turn. Plus your hair and your skin always look amazing. But Napa in the fall was a sublime experience. Part of it was, I’m sure, the reason I was there in the first place, which was because my aunt had won a trip to this amazing event called Live in the Vineyard and I was her guest. We got private tours of several wineries, plus two nights of great music by some amazing bands, like Jack’s Mannequin, Safety Suit, Daughtry, and many more. I got to stick my hands deep in a vat of fermenting grapes, amid numerous bees who were too drunk to sting.

On our last morning, we were treated to an intimate acoustic performance by Michelle Branch, who was lovely. My aunt and I also had dinner at Bottega, in Yountville, and if you ever go there, order the risotto. Just … order the risotto. It will change your life. It is worth a trip there all by itself. And then go to the Culinary Institute of America at Graystone and buy some lavender chocolates. They, too, are life-changing.

Michelle Branch at Beringer Vineyard

Michelle Branch at Beringer Vineyard

I was, I’ll admit, a tad camera happy on that trip, to the point that once I even caught myself snapping photos of a grocery store. Which was crazy, but the flower beds out front were such a riot of exquisite and varied colors that I just couldn’t help it. I love flowers, but I have a black thumb, and the varieties of flowers that grow well in Florida just don’t excite me all that much. Bougainvillea and hibiscus are not exotic, they are ho-hum. Give me hydrangeas. Give me peonies. Give me snapdragons. Give me lilacs.

Anyway, yesterday, I was going through some of my filed photos, tying to purge some and free up some space on my hard drive and I came across some of my photos from that trip and now I can’t wait to go back again. Here are some of my favorites. (It is no accident that I am not in any of them.)

Monticello Vineyard

Monticello Vineyard

Fermentation vat - Monticello Vineyard

Fermentation vat – Monticello Vineyard

Red Truck - Monticello Vineyard

Red Truck – Monticello Vineyard

Wine barrels

Wine barrels

Somewhere in Yountville

Somewhere in Yountville

Gourds - Yountville

Gourds – Yountville

And more gourds

And more gourds

Bottega - Yountville

Bottega – Yountville

Brick wall

Brick wall

Trees on fire in Yountville

Trees on fire in Yountville

White lanterns in the Beringer Vineyard garden

White lanterns in the Beringer Vineyard garden

More flowers

More flowers

Bride in downtown St. Helena

Bride in downtown St. Helena

Leaf on the path

Leaf on the path

 

Chef at Graystone (Culinary Institute of America)

Chef at Graystone (Culinary Institute of America)

Committing to Paying Attention

Swing Set in Summer

Swing Set in Summer

The prolific and much-lauded poet, Mary Oliver, whose writing resonates deeply with me, wrote, “Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”

Which is, for my money, pretty good advice, as good as any I’ve ever gotten on how to live. It’s also really hard to do, at least consistently. We get so wrapped up in existing, in surviving, that we forget to really live, to really pay attention, to be present and aware. Or at least I do.

In some ways, I think, that is what this blog is about. I want to try to pay better, more mindful, attention to what surrounds me. There is a lot of beauty out there in the world, and I want to remember to see and appreciate it. I want to be astonished. And as much as I can’t write even the first word on this electronic page if I let myself think that anyone might actually read it, I do want to tell about it, even if only to myself.

One of the ways I process just about anything is to write about it. It’s almost as though I can’t really know how I feel or what I think about something without writing about it first and then reading back to myself what I’ve written. In my teens and early twenties, I journaled incessantly. I wrote everything down. Everything. Periodically, I would destroy the journals or throw them away, because having them around was unsettling. When it is just you and your thoughts, recorded in pen and ink in a black speckled composition notebook, things can be pretty raw, pretty unfiltered. Which is the point, of course. It’s a tremendously effective outlet for powerful emotions. It’s just that all that truth and honesty and unfiltered raw emotion can be hard to go back and read later without cringing and wanting to crawl in a hole, or at least getting a little blushy.

Going back and reading old journals is a stark reminder that the voices we use to speak to the world and the voices we use to speak to ourselves are often very different. I remember when I was about thirteen, I accidentally stumbled upon the journal of one of the mothers I babysat for. It was an innocent mistake – the journal was a spiral bound notebook sitting out in plain view on the counter next to the phone. I was looking for a place to jot down a phone message, and there it was, and almost before I realized what I was doing, I had started to read it, and then couldn’t stop. I remember the ringing in my ears, the heat in my cheeks as though I’d been slapped. It was highly personal stuff, written by a woman in a considerable amount of pain, and it was information I never wanted, had no business knowing, but then, once I knew it, could never forget.

It was fear of something like this happening with one of my journals accidentally, or on purpose, falling into other hands, my naked thoughts out there for anyone to read, that spurred me to routinely purge the physical evidence of these thoughts from existence. I still journaled, almost obsessively, but just as obsessively I would go back later to destroy and eradicate the evidence. Not much from that era survived, but I am glad to have the little that did, even if it makes me blush to go back and read it. And who knows, I may find myself cringing ten years down the road at some of what I write about here. But I am going to keep trying to pay attention, to be astonished and aware, and to write it all down.

I love Mark Twain

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Let me just say – I didn’t care all that much for Huckleberry Finn when I read it in high school, but I love Mark Twain. In fact, I think he was brilliant. Read a selection of his quotes sometime, and just let the wisdom in. For example.

“To succeed in life, you need two things: ignorance and confidence.”

“It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.” Yep, I’ve learned that one the hard way.

“It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”

And my favorite, at least today: “Under certain circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.” Amen, Samuel. Amen.

Now, this last, I admit, probably rings so true for me because I am an accomplished swearer. In fact, the original title of this post was going to be “I Say Fuck. A Lot.”

Which I do. I’m not proud of this, mind you. I’ve heard it said that people who resort to profanity do so because their vocabulary is insufficient to express themselves otherwise. I happen to take offense to this, because I actually believe my vocabulary to be excellent. I love words. I love certain words for the way they sound in my mouth, others for the way they look on the page, others for what they mean. I would rather say turquoise or lapis or cerulean than blue, (and yes, I stole that example from Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, but who cares? it’s late, and I’m tired. so sue me). The point is, my vocabulary is not lacking. I have more than enough words at my disposal to adequately articulate my thoughts, ideas, and emotions. But sometimes nothing quite does the job like a well-timed four letter word. And no four letter word in existence has quite the same impact as the one that begins with an f and ends with a k.

A friend of mine once expressed the idea that one could not be a truly accomplished curser (as he was) unless he or she could use the word fuck as a noun, a verb, and an adjective. Something which, I should point out, I can do quite well. As I said, I’m not proud of it. Not really. In fact, rarely does a New Year arrive that I don’t jot down “stop cursing so much” on my list of soon-to-be-broken resolutions. But the point is, as I said earlier, that I say fuck. A lot. And I did so more than usual today. It was just one of those days. You know those days. They happen to all of us, and today it was my turn.

The details are irrelevant, but suffice it to say it was the kind of day that ended with me Googling “how to get diarrhea out of carpet.” Which is now on my permanent short list of “things I never want to do again ever, but especially after a long day at work, and even more especially when the carpet is the palest shade of cream possible, which is to say essentially white.” (I didn’t choose the carpet, I should mention – it was already here when I bought the house last year, and my plan, seeing as how I have two dogs and three cats, was to get rid of it immediately and install wood floors, which is what I had in my previous home. Lovely, hundred year old, original heart of pine floors to be exact. Oh, how I miss them. That is, until the estimate I got for the hand-scraped hickory I had picked out was fourteen thousand dollars, so the wood floors are waiting awhile.)

Fortunately, I don’t have a terribly weak stomach, but cleaning up liquid shit (calling it diarrhea doesn’t change the fact that it is, in fact, liquid shit) is still not my idea of a roaring good time. Also, it’s not easy. Google, for the record, wasn’t much help. In the end, I literally scraped as much of said shit as carefully as possible off of the carpet with a steak knife that is now in the garbage can out in the garage, and deposited it in a plastic grocery bag. Then I treated the carpet as best I could with a solution designed for pet stains on carpet/upholstery, and I’ll be calling the carpet cleaners first thing in the morning. God willing, they can come out tomorrow, so that, hopefully, I don’t have to be faced with either biting the bullet for the wood floors, replacing the carpet, or living with three large brown spots that will never be able to be mistaken for anything other than what they are smack in the middle of my (God help me) almost-white (at least before the Night of the Liquid Shit) carpet.

So yeah. I’d say fuck just about covers it.

I don’t mean to be sacrilegious, but …

“The horse is God’s gift to mankind.” – Arabian Proverb

I should probably mention, I am a somewhat fallen-away Catholic. As to why I feel I should mention it, I’m not exactly sure, except that for just about anyone I’ve ever met who has been raised in the Church, being Catholic is kind of a big deal, in that they are either birth-control-eschewing fish-on-Friday folk or they are the kind who, when the subject of religion comes up, will often say something like “well, I was raised Catholic.” The implication here is that they might have once been Catholic but no longer consider themselves to be. The point being, very few Catholics I’ve known, be they practicing, or fallen-aways like I largely consider myself to be, are ambivalent about Catholicism.

Anyway …

I myself was raised Catholic, but I don’t go to mass very often. When I do go, I enjoy it … the familiar prayers and responses (well, at least until the bishops of the Second Vatican Council decided to change them a couple of years back), the incense, the slant of morning sunlight through stained glass. It’s grounding, comforting. I go to mass not so much because I am such a devoted Catholic, but rather because it is what I know. The familiar rhythms of the mass lull me into a state of near meditation, and in rare moments I do feel that sense of communion with my Creator, my belief in Whom has never wavered, even when I’ve struggled and rebelled against the teachings of Catholicism, which has been often.

I do have another church, though, one which feeds my soul every bit as much, and that is the church of Stable. When I attend this church, I don’t wear dresses and high heels, but breeches and paddock boots. In place of incense my nose delights in the signature accord of warm horseflesh and molasses, alfalfa and dung. Instead of hymns, the transporting three beat music of a cantering equine in my ears. In lieu of Communion, and a wafer of unleavened bread on my tongue, I offer my mount a peppermint candy with much ceremony, and breathe in his minty breath. Some might consider it a sacrilege to say that I feel as close or closer to my God in the church of Stable than I do at mass, but I would remind those people that Jesus himself was born in a stable.

As for the stained glass … well, this church has that covered, too.

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