‘Neath the Blue-Black Sky

I take the dog out for his bedtime walk and pause in the driveway to look at the blue-black sky. It is not as spectacular a night sky as I would like – there are too many city lights for that – but there are enough stars scattered across the heavens to evoke memories of the best night skies I’ve ever seen. Many of those I took in with a particular friend.

I’ve just received hard news about his wife, whom I am fortunate to also call my friend of many years. She is among the bravest and most thoughtful people I have ever known, and I think as I look at that blue-black sky how much she would have loved to share with us some of those wonderful stargazing nights. She is a great lover of beauty, and those nights were spent in some of the most beautiful places anyone could ever visit.

I walk the dog around the block, and he thrusts his head into the crumbling snow, sniffing for whatever he might find there. Looking up and down the street, I see no one at all. There are only the stars in the blue-black sky, my jolly dog, and me. No animal skitters, no insect hums, yet the weather is warming, and those sounds and many more are just around the seasonal corner. Spring, the season of new life and rebirth, is nearly upon us – a poignant counterpoint to loss.

I stand with the dog on a corner lit by a bright street lamp that steals from the sky all subtlety and leaves only blackness. I think about my friend’s illness and am struck by conflicting instincts. Part of me feels urged to reevaluate my life, because my friend’s illness has reminded me that life is unpredictable and short, perhaps even shorter than you imagine it will be. Questions fly through my mind: am I doing what I want to be doing? Am I living the life I want to live? Are there changes I should make? Yet there is another part of me that says that nothing I do in my privileged life is as hard as what my friend is doing now and has done over the past two years, so I have no right to complain, no right to reevaluate. It’s time to buckle down, suck it up, or whatever motivating-yet-limiting phrase you’d like to apply. I mull over this conflict between the urge for change and the demand for acceptance, and how these opposing instincts are triggered so powerfully by the hard news of how my friend’s illness has progressed.

Stepping out from the glow of the street lamp, I look up again. There is something about the night sky that comforts me. In its vastness is inherent possibility. The vast and unknown can make us feel small and afraid, or they can fill us with a sense that anything can happen. I suppose “anything” includes the bad, but it also includes the wondrous. Standing there, I think of both for a few minutes. Then the dog and I head home.

I spend the night hovering between sleep and wakefulness, unable to tell where one ends and the other begins. I dream of my friends – fragmentary, photographic dreams, vivid and confused.

The next morning dawns with a stripe of salmon pink on the horizon. The stripe is topped with thin, elongated clouds the color of a bruise. Above the clouds is a band of brilliant light blue, which shades into a high sea of dark blue-grey. Soon, the clouds blush pink, and as the sun breaks the horizon line, the eastern sky glows golden, but only for a short time.

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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.

Happy Industry

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My son whistles to himself as he bends his head over a piece of paper, colored pencil in hand. Alternately tuneless and melodic, always cheery, the whistling is the sound of a child doing what children love to do most: being creative, meeting the world with his own imagination, reflecting his discoveries in what he puts on the page. His cheerful bird call signals to the world that he is drawing at the table by the sunny window and enjoying the moment.

Children love to make stuff. They are industrious. It’s not the adult version of productivity, which is so often marred by anxiety and pressure, banality, repetition, performance metrics and high-stakes outcomes. Instead, children pursue happy industry. They eagerly seek ways to engage fully with the world. They turn a box into something to play with; create a small book of drawings; glue together sticks to make a little house; fall into a great book; play school with stuffed animals or dolls; create entire imaginary worlds – it’s all about making something, transforming one thing into something else, learning and engaging, pretending, and being active, not passive. A great deal of what they do most naturally is inherently creative. Unfortunately, our school systems, schedules, and expectations seem to be interfering more and more with the beautiful, happy industriousness that children bring to the world. When children’s version of productivity is devalued and forced to look more like that of adults – e.g., with an over-reliance on performance metrics, high-stakes outcomes (i.e., testing), repetition, banality, pressure – we are getting in the way of their healthy development.

The trailblazing psychologist Erik Erikson conceptualized psychosocial development as a set of stages, each framed as a contrast between a healthy developmental step and what happens if that stage is not completed successfully. His theory, unlike other psychoanalytic theories of the day, extended the concept of development across the lifespan and was concrete about what people are trying to accomplish at each stage. The fourth stage of psychosocial development, from ages 5 to 11, Erikson called “Industry vs. Inferiority.” Healthy development in this stage is marked by increasing pride in one’s accomplishments, active engagement with the world around oneself, and a blossoming sense of oneself as competent. In college and graduate school, studying child psychology, I was particularly taken with this view of children as industrious. Their form of industry is fun and creative and both inspiring and humbling to see.

As a parent, I’ve noticed that my children and their friends appear to be especially nourished emotionally, socially, and cognitively by being outside. They spontaneously create games in the yard – ball games, imaginative scenes, treasure hunts, “nature studies.” They explore the nearby ravine, sometimes for hours. They climb trees or squat together to see something small, perhaps an interesting bug or a brilliant fall leaf or a beautiful stone, their heads close together as they peer at whatever it is. I love to hear their high, clear voices outside expressing delight or wonder, solving problems, identifying something new, making guesses, trying out ideas, and I love the questions they sometimes have afterward about their discoveries, or how they run inside to get one of us to show us whatever they’ve found. There is nothing as potent as experiencing nature for stimulating children’s imaginations, and I hope that more parents and schools and organizations can facilitate just that. These experiences need not be in nature writ large, on nature’s grandest stages – though those are lovely and wonderful and I hope that more children can enjoy them. On a smaller scale, a neighborhood scale, experiences in what we might call “everyday” nature are important for children to have and should be made as accessible as possible.

Historic site: former fort

Historic site: former fort

Under the evergreen tree in the front yard, shadows move in the twilight. My kids and two of their friends are building a fort out of logs. They move about, staying low under the boughs, pausing and squatting and placing logs, spider-walking around their developing creation. Walls take shape; conflicts and compromises get worked out; gravity is reckoned with when some logs topple and have to be placed carefully anew. Plans are laid, attempted, and reworked. Their discussions are barely audible through the house window. My son occasionally whistles. I’m aware of all of these sounds as the hum of contented kids doing what they love to do most – it’s the hum of happy industry.

Eagle’s Cry

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I awoke yesterday morning to an eagle’s cry.

“Are you still asleep?” I asked my wife. Her eyes opened a crack, and I said, “It’s the eagle. I can hear it.” She lifted her head from the pillow to listen, and the eagle cried again. We both rolled out of bed and pulled on our swimsuits. It was 6:20. The wind was nearly still, and the lake was the quietest it had been this trip. The air was cool but weighted with a touch of humidity. I got to the beach first and high-stepped into the water until it was up to my waist, far enough out to see the eagle if it was perched in its usual tree, a towering hemlock just south of the camp property. The eagle wasn’t there, but a moment later, it glided overhead, wings held wide as it flew south and then banked eastward around the point. My wife arrived after it had gone, and when I told her where it was headed, she set out that way with a strong crawl stroke. She went perhaps a hundred yards and then switched to backstroke so she could look up at the trees as she swam. Soon, she rounded the point and went out of sight. I used to worry when she swam far away, alone in open water, but she’s a powerful, relaxed swimmer, and my anxiety has faded over the years. I swam up and down the length of the beach for a little while and then stood in the water, looking across the lake. A fog bank had settled over the low hills. Though it appeared static from where I was, I imagined being up close and watching it creep over the peaks and down their slopes, a slow, vaporous waterfall.

I returned to the tent to dress, and my wife joined me perhaps fifteen minutes later. Swimming around the point, she had seen two eagles in flight, and she thought at least one of them may have come back toward camp. I went outside, and pretty soon, I heard the same, plaintive cry that had awakened me. I couldn’t see the eagle, though I could hear that it was high in a tree nearby. Then the cry changed to a gentler, chittering call, and I looked up to see another eagle glide toward where the call had originated. It was as if the perched eagle had called to the other, “Here I am. Come home to me.” The one that flew over was huge, its great brown wings stretched wide. Its white head seemed preposterously small, stuck on the front of its massive body like an afterthought.

imageIn the camp hall, there is a list from 1899 of the birds that were spotted around the property that year. It is written in a fine, looping hand and is meticulously alphabetized. It has common as well as Latin names, including which taxonomic system the writer used for each – most are Linnaean, but not all. There are four varieties of sparrow and three swallows, two types of woodpecker, bald eagle, phoebe, bobolink, purple martin, kingbird and kingfisher, and many others. I don’t know if all of the birds are still found in this area, and of course there’s no way to verify the accuracy of the list today, but it makes me think about the people as much as the birds that were at camp then. Was it one birder who compiled it? Several? How many bird experts were in that early bunch of campers? Was the list a special project? Or did people just mention their observations over the course of the season, and someone thought to write them down? If we made a bird list today, would it be so long and varied? Or have many of those bird species disappeared from this lake and these woods, victims of climate change, environmental degradation, and habitat loss?

Last night, the barred owls called again and again from points all over camp. I’ve heard them almost every night this trip, but this was the most active they had been. I remarked on hearing one when I was sitting in the hall in the late evening. A couple of campers cocked their heads, listening through the open windows, and when it called again, they nodded their satisfaction. No owls appear on the 1899 list. It skips from “ovenbird” to “pewee, wood,” but whether that means no owls were heard is a question to which the answer is lost to time, much like the species that disappear daily today.

West Wind

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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.