Winter Solstice

Today, on winter solstice, I realize that I have been less aware than usual of the encroaching darkness this year. True, I begin my walk home from work each day under glowing street lamps, but unlike other years, I have not minded the lengthening night. Unfortunately, I cannot say that I am happy with this development, because my lack of reaction stems from a lack of noticing. This story is one of preoccupation, not equanimity or acceptance.

Most winters, I have groaned at the loss of daylight. I’ve watched with a touch of melancholy as the darkness crept relentlessly forward and the sun retreated deep into the southern sky. I’ve long loved solstice, however, because it is a literal and figurative tipping point. I go joyfully to the wonderful and thoughtful celebration hosted by our dear friends, who offer an evening of community to reflect on night’s zenith and the beginning of daylight’s inexorable march forward. There, we are invited to let go of something within us that is unwanted, to put it into the past, and to welcome something new as we look ahead to increasing daylight.

I am particularly eager for the celebration tonight.

This past semester of teaching has been among my most difficult, though I am convinced that I offered my students an excellent experience in the legal clinics that I teach. Inside, though, I felt like I was careening along twisty roads at a breakneck pace, just barely hanging on. Week after week was filled with late nights, early mornings, weekend work, and certainty that my life was out of balance with no chance of change within the semester’s demanding confines. It all ended well, to be sure, and this post isn’t so much about work as it is about the importance of noticing and intentionality and balance.

I miss my moaning and groaning about the plunge into ever-longer darkness, because I miss being a person who notices things. For me, ignorance is not bliss. Rather, it signals that I am damped down, preoccupied, closed off. And my failure to notice the lengthening night raises questions of what else I’ve overlooked. What flew by unappreciated? Was I present enough for my family and friends (alas, I’m sure the answer is “no.”)?

This winter solstice is a chance to wake up.

I’ve found myself noticing again the past couple of weeks, probably because classes ended and some big projects came to fruition. Even as my mind was going a mile a minute for the last few months, portions of it fell into dormancy. The lead-up to solstice has been like an alarm clock, and the parts of my mind that have been sleeping are now throwing off the covers, sliding out of bed, and revving up to meet the day. I need these parts to be “on” in order to balance the more work-related parts, the parts that are forced into overdrive every semester, a trend that seems only to be increasing. One sign of my recent awakening is that this month I’ve turned my attention back to writing (more on that in a forthcoming post). For me, that means turning my attention back on, because I am at my most attentive and open when I am writing regularly.

So, what will I welcome into my life this solstice? A daily writing discipline and the increased sense of being present that this brings. Being more efficient during the work day (not that I’ve been lazy, but there’s room for improvement), so I can let go of my work in the evenings and on weekends. More time talking and corresponding with friends and distant family. Richer and more frequent connection with my wife and kids. In other words, as the hours of daylight increase bit by bit, I want to be more open to those things that bring joy and balance into my day to day life.

What do you hope for in your life on this solstice? If you’d like, share through a comment to this post.

I wish everyone reading this piece a contemplative solstice, happy holidays, and a healthy, joyful new year.

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West Wind

image

A west wind has blown for the past three days, stirring up strong currents and whitecaps on the lake. Though it has brought waves of rain and made swimming difficult and canoeing doubtful, no one has minded. At camp, winds from the west bring pockets of passing weather, the kind that’s in and out quick. East winds are the ones that we cluck over here. Weather from the east tends to stay a while, socking us in and making us think about whether to take the kids to a museum in town, or maybe head to the Moultonborough Country Store for a dry diversion. So we look at the flag on the dock and see which way the wind blows, and no matter what the weather, if it’s coming from the west, we don’t sweat it. Even in the past three days, there have been periods of sunshine and stunning, scudding cloud formations. There were a couple of strong storms, too, with thunder booming from walls of gunmetal gray clouds. Those have passed over quickly, and the forest in which the camp is nestled is even more green and lush because of the rain.

Two evenings ago, after dinner, the west wind died down, and the lake calmed. Before long, though, the flag shifted direction before an east wind. There were thick clouds in the eastern sky. A few of us looked at each other, but someone said hopefully that they had checked the weather, and it’s supposed to be beautiful after another day or so. Others weren’t so sure as the east wind blew.

They say in places like the Great Lakes, where we live, and New England, where we visit, that if you don’t like the weather, wait a while, and it’ll change. Sure enough, in the night, the east wind died after a few hours, and the west wind returned, strong and chilly. Our tent faces the lake, which is west on this part of camp’s undulating shoreline, and wind-driven waves pounded the rocks just yards away. The tent canvas rippled and snapped, and the wooden platform creaked. The support poles shivered. Once, last year, an empty tent collapsed in a wind storm. But we’ve had a lot of wind storms here, and that’s the only tent collapse I’ve heard of, so I trust. There’s a lot of trust involved in camp: trust in our tents in all weather, trust that a huge hemlock or pine won’t fall on a tent in the night, trust that the community of campers will work together to overcome challenges. I suppose it’s no different than any significant activity we do in nature, where if we’re honest and smart about it, we acknowledge that we really don’t control a whole lot, so we control what we can, prepare as we ought, and trust that it will be enough. It makes me think about my experiences hiking in the White Mountains. Preparation and judgment are so important there, where weather systems converge and can bring instant winter in the summertime, but deep down, we know that some of the thrill we feel being there is that in the end, getting off the ridges and peaks in one piece partly comes down to luck.

Today dawned cool and clear, the west wind still blowing. The mountains across the lake are sharp against the blue sky. A few puffy clouds slide past, and strong currents and whitecaps race by. When the wind ebbs even a little, the warmth of the sun makes adults take off sweatshirts and children jump off the dock, and there’s a sense that maybe the wind will calm to a gentle breeze as the afternoon goes on. And if it doesn’t, with some luck the wind will remain in the west, and no one will mind.

 

The Day the Trees Fell Down

fallen tree original exposure

Not long after the trees came crashing down in our neighborhood, and roof shingles peeled away and went swirling through the air, and property, but not people — thank goodness not people — was crushed under tons of fresh, wet wood, city and utility workers descended on the scene to wrangle the mayhem back into order as neighbors all around poured out of their houses. Two of these neighbors ordered pizzas, and after they were delivered, they thrust slices toward anyone who passed by. A tired city forester at first declined the offering, but with a little prodding, he gave a sigh of happiness, shook his head ruefully, chuckled, and gobbled down the slice. Everyone on the block looked at each other with wide eyes filled with wonder and relief and dismay.

Our street became a major thoroughfare, the only open connector between two arteries. The city bus rumbled past, diverted from its route, a first for us in over a decade of living here. A stream of traffic to rival that in any big city crawled along. As drivers crept by our house, inevitably speaking on their cell phones — “I’m gonna be late;” “Every road is closed;” “You gotta see what’s happened in this neighborhood!” — their eyes grew wide upon seeing the 40-foot tree stretched across our driveway and front yard, topmost branches poking at the door and windows of the house. Then, the drivers spoke rapidly into their phones, gesticulating while they reported to someone near or far what they had just witnessed. The tree’s roots, massive and torn and jutting crazily from clods of wet earth, faced the street. Some people sat or stood on the trunk or clambered onto the tangle of roots, posing for pictures. Though I understood their revels, I also hated them a little bit as I surveyed the damage and wondered where to start.

Mostly, though, I thought about how lucky we were that the tree had fallen at exactly the right angle to miss most of the house. It had peeled away the side of a gutter as easily as you’d bend a beer can, and it had knocked a planter askew under the front windows, but it hadn’t crushed the place, though it could have.

hoop

After the tree was removed.

I had trouble taking my eyes off of one thing. Our basketball hoop lay mangled under the tree. Metal parts had been sheared by the force. Its base was torn and partially flattened, the backboard cracked, the rim bent. And it was that, more than anything else, that reminded me how close we had come to tragedy. Our kids play basketball out front a lot, so much so that our daughter’s response to the demise of the hoop was, “Oh nooooo! That’s our best toy!” If they had been playing when the wind came, they would have been killed.

When the storm hit, I was at work, arguing in court in another county, but neighbors described it as sudden, flying in from the southwest without warning. One described her friend urging, “Let’s get inside” only seconds before the wall of 75 mile-per-hour wind barreled in and a tree crashed down where they had been. She said that had it not been for her friend seemingly sensing a shift in the air and acting fast, she may well have been killed. Usually her son would have been with her outside. She wondered aloud whether he would have heard and obeyed the warning quickly enough as the storm roared in.

And so I looked at that basketball hoop over and over again, even as I worked with friends to cut away small branches so I could get into the house, even as dear neighbors invited us down the street for dinner in a lovely, burden-lifting gesture, and even as gawkers did as gawkers do. “What if?” went through my mind. “What if? What if?” Would our kids have had time to get away if they had been playing basketball in the driveway? They have played there in nearly all weathers. Before the wall of wind came, the weather wasn’t that bad, people said. Would it have kept the children inside, where they would have been safe? Or was it all too calm beforehand, and all too sudden when the storm broke?

The city foresters, masters of chainsaws and winches, took our fallen tree away before dark, dragging it into the maw of a massive chipper that reduced it to mulch in a roaring, grinding minute. The basketball hoop lay forlorn and demolished in the front yard, giving the place a junky look. That evening, as the light faded and the sky mellowed toward indigo splendor, I took a walk around the neighborhood. Some fallen trees remained; where they had been removed, the earth that had once held them was riven and disrupted into lumpy mounds of damp soil. The small garage of the house behind us lay under a tree, the building twisted and shoved off its slab and looking like it could collapse with a light touch or breath of wind. Around the corner, a massive tree limb lay on a neighbor’s front lawn. It had missed the house and even the cars parked below. Some of the bark was peeled away. Underneath was yellow-tan, raw wood. Its surface appeared silky smooth and shone in the dying light, nature’s perfection revealed. After staring at it for a while, I could not help but caress it, marveling that it felt as smooth as it looked.

When You Were A Lion

You were a lion once.

Your luminous golden eyes could pierce the darkness, and you could leap impossibly far and high. Your body would extend gracefully in the air, supple and sure, and you’d land with hardly a sound. When you were at rest, you lounged with casual, leonine confidence. And when you decided to act, you were nimble and swift, stealthy when the occasion called for it, an athlete and hunter through and through. You walked with grace, and it seemed you could balance on a razor’s edge. You, my dear, could prowl.

When you rubbed your face against us, we called it a “cuddle.” Same with when we would put our heads down at your level, and you would head-butt us with a soft “clunk.” I know that you were claiming us as your own, as part of your domain. But you enjoyed it, too. You even admitted as much with your purr: sonorous, rumbling, guttural, a sound of pure pleasure.

Ah, you could be fierce. The occasional mouse that would venture in was dispatched quickly and quietly, though the mess was admittedly unpleasant. And the meerkat stuffed animal we gave to you and your mother traveled from room to room, clamped in your jaws, you yowling and roaring around it, the sound muffled by its stuffing. It was nearly as big as you, but no matter. Up the stairs and down you went with it, your pride in the “kill” evident in your swaggering walk and flashing eyes.

You were not all ferocity. Indeed, you chirped sweetly as you trotted up to us, and we stroked you, plunging our hands into your plush fur, marveling at your softness as our fingers sank in. You’d sometimes roll over, offering up your belly to be rubbed, but not for too long. You couldn’t stay that vulnerable, and when you’d had enough, you’d grab our hands with your paws, claws out just a bit, just to warn. As loving as you were with us, you doled out your affections selectively. You hissed at many who dared approach, but even your hiss was nonchalant, like you didn’t need to put much effort into warning outsiders to stay away. They’d get the message. You even managed to hiss softly at the vet in your final moments, and although it was appropriate, I was sad that it was the last sound I’d hear you make.

Your life was long, little lion, much longer than such ferocity and energy can last. As the years went by, the meerkat fell by the wayside, mocking you from a spot near your food bowl. You slept more. Any mice that may have come into the house had little to fear from you. You had earned a good retirement.

For over eighteen years you lived and loved. Even the last year had plenty of good times. You weren’t ready to go yet, and we understood that. You were still too full of life and pleasure; your discomforts seemed minor and fleeting, and your golden eyes continued to shine. But then your decline accelerated, life slipping away bit by uneven bit. In your final couple of weeks, as if you knew what was soon to come, you were even more social than usual, seeking us out even as your eyes dulled and your fur became disheveled and you lost weight you could not afford to lose. And when you stopped visiting us as much, and you spent your time resting and waiting, we came to find you in your warm retreats, offering our caresses. Though you leaned into our hands, your purr had fallen silent. There was nothing left to do, the vet said. But that was no surprise to us, because we had known you when you were a lion.

In the end, you held your head high and we put our hands on you one last time, feeling your warm, magnificent pelt. Each of us said goodbye and cradled you as you left us.

There are moments that remind one of the inescapability of adulthood. Deciding that it is time to help a pet go from this life is one of them. The decision was hard, yet it was right, and we made it at the right time. Now we are left with memory.

Making Stuff Up

Writing fiction and finding myself, or is it the other way round?

Indiana Jones: “I’m going after that truck.”
Sallah: “How?”
Indiana Jones: “I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go.”
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

When I was a kid, up through middle school and into high school, I wrote a lot. Short pieces. Long pieces. Articles for the school paper. Stuff for classes. Stuff just for me. Some was fiction, some was not. Most of the fiction I wrote at the time was short stories, but when I was about fifteen I completed a sci-fi novel that went on for over 250 pages and took up at least five 5 1/4-inch floppy disks that I backed up obsessively, worried that my beloved documents would one day disappear — which, sadly, they have. That book was great fun to write. Back then, I was able to make stuff up, and it seemed like I didn’t have to do much to make that happen. Ideas came; stories came; I just wrote them down and tried to make what was written mirror what I was thinking as well as I could.

I was lucky to go to a middle and high school that taught writing in an inviting, conscientious, thorough manner, and I thrived there. In ninth grade English, we spent some time studying mystery novels, and I fell in love with noir classics like The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon. I loved the terse language, the grit, and the human mess of those stories. My teacher assigned us to write a short mystery story, and I cranked out a little noir piece of my own. I don’t remember anything more about it, but I do remember that my teacher wrote only one thing on my paper: “You should be a writer.” I glowed and thought to myself, “Yes! That is all I have ever wanted to be.” I felt understood and encouraged. Her words fit with who I thought I was.

In 10th and 11th grade, my English teacher drilled us in sentence structure and challenged us with literary analysis. She had written a book on grammar and usage, akin to Strunk and White, and she made absolutely sure we knew our way around a sentence. My writing improved. I loved that teacher, and I was lucky to have her for two years right before she left the school for new adventures. As a junior, I joined the student newspaper, which was a serious thing at my high school, and learned new ways of researching and telling and editing stories.

Yet even as I continued to write, my dream of writing professionally was slipping away. It was too unreliable. It wasn’t safe. What if I failed? Safety was valued in my family. Professionalism of a certain kind was valued — a safe, preferably prestigious professionalism. It’s not that the messages were so explicit. Rather, they spanned generations and were transmitted in life choices, family stories, and side remarks, and those beliefs became my own.

I have been in safe professions for a long time now, first as a psychologist and then as a lawyer. I have taught and practiced in both fields and currently teach in a law school clinical program. In the course of my education, teaching, research, and practice, I learned a great deal about technical writing, and I published academic articles. For many years, I wrote little else.

I’ve been privileged to do interesting, meaningful work that genuinely helps people, and I’ve been lucky to do that work with wonderful colleagues. What told me something was wrong was that I still felt stuck and unfulfilled. I was in danger of descending into the doldrums and losing the energy I needed to do my work well and to be happy. I felt irritable and, sometimes, depressed, even as my work went very well by any objective measure.

So I spent some time — well, a lot of time — listening to myself. I would sit in a quiet place, or walk in nature, or go for a bike ride, and listen. I would talk to my wife, and she and I would listen together. What I eventually heard, when I finally let myself hear it, was that I needed to write, that there was a yearning in me that hadn’t been fulfilled in a long time.

I started writing again. Yet for many months after I heeded this call, it didn’t seem that any stories would come, so I wrote short essays for my blog. In writing those, I sorted out some things about my family, my sense of the world, what I most love to do, and where I fit in. Eventually, a colleague and I started a writing group — it’s just we two, over beers, exchanging short stories and essays and fragments that we noodle around with. Every couple or few weeks, when we meet, I like to have something new for him to read. It’s driven me to put words to paper regularly.

In response, the floodgates opened, and stories started peeking around the corners of my mind. I’d spot them as distant, fleeting visions, like seeing someone skulking in an alley and slipping out of sight, but then some decided to come out into the open, inch closer to me, and stay awhile. Many started as fragments of scenes or dialogue or character, and then some of those grew beyond fragments. I started to write fiction again, and in doing so, I welcomed back a part of myself that I’ve missed.

As my stories have grown, I’ve been enjoying my job more, in no small part because it no longer bears the burden of my identity being built upon it. Instead, my sense of identity has become more about what I most enjoy doing and my values, which includes things like giving myself the space and time to be creative and being fully present for my wife and kids. My job, on the other hand, is what I do each day to help clients, teach students, and make a living. This letting go has made me better at my work. I haven’t let go of the need to work hard at it and do it to the best of my ability. Instead, I’ve sorted out what my job actually means to me. It has an important place in my life, but it’s not as prominent a place as it once had. And what I’ve found is a greater ability to focus in my work on what my students need from me in order to grow and achieve while helping our clients.

Meeting my better self, a younger, more creative, more free and loving and whimsical self, has been powerful and liberating. My wife has noticed. My kids have noticed. Friends and other family have noticed. I feel an ease and new sense of energy that shows. In those alleyways of my mind where the story ideas were hiding, I’ve found what is truest about myself, even though I’m making stuff up.