Scribbles

I used to be an open book, held out for the world to read.

Then people scribbled all over the pages. They wrecked the story I was creating, the art I was living.

So I began to hold my book closely, closed, clutching it to my chest. Protected.

Eventually, I began to feel lonely. What is the point of a story if no one reads it? How interesting is art if no one contributes to it but the artist?

My freshman year of high school, a classmate, a known prankster, took a notebook of mine and scribbled on the first twelve pages; he wasn’t being malicious, just being a freshman boy. So, I started taking my notes on page thirteen.

Over the course of the semester, my dear friend, who is a wonderful artist, drew an picture out of every scribble. They were creative, inspired, and delightful.

I still have that notebook thirty years later. And it still makes me smile when I look through it.

That is how I am going to live my story.

I will no longer hold my book close to me; I will dare to open it up to the world again and revisit the freedom, the innocence, the exuberance of youth.

There will be hurt, that is guaranteed, but I will take each scribble, whether it is malicious or unintential, and see what shapes I can find within it, discover what can created from it, and make my own unique art out of it.

And when I doubt myself, I’ll pull out my old freshman notebook and smile, remembering something inspired and delightful can be created from every scribble.

Fireflies and the First Dance

We didn’t see them coming. They surrounded us as we lay in lounge chairs on the beach, wrapped up in sleeping bags–because even though it was late June, nights were still cold on the sandy shores of Lake Superior.

We had been too engrossed in laziness, watching the horizon change colors, melding from pink to red to dark blue. We had been too captivated by the lights of the ore boats gliding across the surface of the lake, following them as they crested the horizon, then faded away into the distance, listening for the soft hum of the engines, and actually being able to hear them from miles away in the deep silence. We had been too focused on spotting the first few stars as they revealed themselves in the moonless, darkening sky.

The first fireflies that flitted about on the periphery of our eyesight–before the great horde enveloped us–had seemed like nothing unusual. They’re a common sight in the northern landscape on summer nights. They’re something all children, at one time or another, has chased across their backyard at a late night barbecue, or has captured in a jar to ponder for a while, marvelling at the magic of the odd, cold light until their parents made them unscrew the lid and set the winged creature free. Although fireflies make an appearance every summer, it is only for a few, short weeks, and it was a lucky night when we saw two or three in the yard.

They affirmed for me, as a child, that there really was magic in the world.

This magic of the firefly begins when they hatch from eggs in late summer into larvae, known as glowworms. They live in the soil for a few years, then construct a mud chamber in the soil into which they settle. In this little mud chamber, their larval body is broken down and they transform into their adult form, emerging when the conditions are right as the twinking firefly, ready for its first sky dance. This stage of flickering light lasts only three to four weeks while the fireflies mate. There are many species of fireflies around the world, and all of them undergo this metamorphosis on their life journey.

Although my husband and I both enjoyed fireflies in our childhood, the great swarm that surrounded us so swiftly and silently was not our usual experience. We discovered, as we looked behind us at the wide expanse of beach to the tree line, that instead of one or two lights, the entire pine forest was alight, as if hundreds of strands of lights had been strung while we were watching the sun slide behind the lake. Thousands upon thousands of nature’s strobe lights danced in the night sky around us, twinkling and bobbing erratically down the vast sand beach stretching for miles in either direction.

It was a firefly dance party on the beach, and we had crashed it.

As the stars appeared, one by one, or in two or threes, the sky began to mimic the beach. I would  look away for one momenyt, watching a spectacular firefly dance move, and when my eyes returned to the sky I would find three new stars were out, as bright as if they had been there all along. The Big Dipper appeared directly in front of us over the lake, poised to scoop water out of the great basin.

As it grew darker, the Milky Way revealed itself, stretching across the sky from the lake horizon,  sweeping over our heads, then disappearing behind the treeline. When it was full night, we could no longer see the line between water and sky. All that remained was darkness and light.

The firelies did not radiate enough light to make it brighter, but held a light that was self-contained, like the stars. Their biolumenescence, which is caused by a chemical reaction, is the most efficient in the world, with all of the energy being emitted as light and none as heat. But to me, it just seemed like the stars had come to Earth to spend the evening on the beach with us.  And they were dancing.

I have thought about that night many times since. It is my happy place, where I go to reaffirm the dream that my life can be whatever I make of it…and to remind myself that there really is magic in the world.

I have seen the stars dancing.

It was the night I began to metamorphise as well. I had been in my mud chamber, burrowed in the ground, being broken down. I was ready to begin transforming, springing forth wings and learning to sparkle and fly.

I brought home two rocks from the beach that had been rounded by the waves. They have embedded stones and swirls within them. Though they are gray and somewhat drab, the amalgamation reminds me of the fireflies, the swirls, the milky way. They sit on my writing desk as a reminder of that night; a reminder that perfect moments do happen, and that I have to cherish them, hold them in my thoughts, continuously smoothing them, remembering.

Since then, I have made many changes in my life–at times fearlessly, and at times merely pretending to be fearless.

I’ve found it works either way.

There are many more steps to go before I can say I danced without abandon on the beach under the Milky Way on an inky black, summer night. But I keep working towards it. I have felt a few flickers of light within and my wings are getting stronger every day…

The Apple Tree Whispers

The apple tree in my backyard has not been well cared for. It is diseased and weak, and when overburdened with apples, branches often come crashing down. The apples are no good to eat.

I can only assume that in the years before we bought this house and moved in, no one took the time to trim the tree, to care for it properly. No one attempted to stop the spreading black fungus which crept along, year after year, eventually covering many of the larger branches. No one tried to halt the invasion of boring insects.

It won’t survive for many more years, this old apple tree, but we’ve done our best to save it by fertilizing and watering it often, applying treatments to heal its ailments, and trimming it back in the spring and fall.

This apple tree will be appreciated in its final years, for I believe there are many lessons to be learned from it. On quiet days, the tree whispers to me with the wisdom of an elder.

I look out over my backyard as I write, towards Lake Superior and this craggy apple tree. It resembles a bonsai tree, with a Zen quality that can only be attained through time. It is still beautiful in its old age, and in the darkest days of winter when the sun rises behind it, the creeping red over the lake horizon casts the tree in a celestial glow.

Clearly visible in that halo of light are the stumps where branches have been sawed off in the distant past, and long, spindly new shoots, jutting in every direction, which must have been hidden behind leaves and apples when we trimmed in the fall. We will cut most of them back in the spring. Those that are strong and straight we’ll leave, to balance the tree where a branch may have broken the year before. When a healthy shoot rises next to a sickly one, a choice will need to be made.

My life often feels like this tree, overburdened, with new shoots coming up every year. There is so much that requires my attention, my time, my life energy, that I must continuously try to determine what to keep and what to cut. If I don’t trim back some branches, I will get diseased and weak, like the apple tree. I cannot sustain them all.

Choices need to be made.

Some shoots fill in areas that are bare. They stretch toward the sun and even out the places where I am vulnerable. They make me whole. They are keepers.

Some shoots are harmful, unnecessary, demanding or negative. They need to be trimmed. Those are the easiest decisions to make.

At times I must cut away branches that I have nurtured and loved, though it hurts terribly to do so. When something has become so toxic that it causes distress, I know in the long run I will be healthier for it. Sometimes a part of the branch remains as a reminder. In bonsai this is called jin, signifying that the tree has had to struggle to survive. How fitting.

When the saw makes the cut–back and forth, back and forth, back and forth–it is a long and tortuous, painful task. Often it’s better when the axe does the job. There’s an abrupt end with the axe, very finite, with little time to ponder or contemplate. The pain is quick and intense, then passes.

Other times the branch simply breaks, splits under the pressure with a resounding crack, and falls to the ground. Afterwards I feel lighter, never realizing until then how much that branch had been weighing me down. Unfortunately, the breaking usually leaves fragments, splintered remains, or pulls off more than it should, tearing away at the bark of the trunk. I have learned to remove those branches before they fall; they can do a lot of damage on the way down. Sometimes they break other branches on the way that I had intended to keep.

In the fall, trimming helps the tree to conserve its resources so it can survive the harsh winter.  After trimming in the spring, the apple tree blooms. It has more to give to the branches that remain, more energy to thrive. It stands taller, is less weighed down, more balanced. Healthier.

And really, isn’t life all about staying healthy and finding balance? How much can we handle? How much can we give? How much can we ask for? How much can we take? How much can this small bit of matter we inhabit actually accomplish in a lifetime?

With each trim and each new growth, my energy changes, what I have to give changes, and similar to the silhouette of the apple tree in the sunrise, the way I am perceived changes.

Looking out over that tree I have realized that there will always be new growth and letting go of the old. And it is good. It’s okay to accept that something doesn’t work in my life anymore. It is okay to move on, to leave behind that which is toxic, to let go of an old dream and create another, and to keep what I need for myself. Because in order for me to thrive and care for what I love, I must be also well cared for. I must be balanced and healthy before I can be fruitful.

“It’s up to you to choose what is important and worthy of your precious life energy. It is up to you to decide the things you need to let go. It’s up to you to be bold and keep only that which will help you grow healthier, find balance, and become a beautiful, craggy tree in your own way, with your roots firmly planted in the Earth, and your branches dancing in the wind, joyously reaching for the sky.”

That is what the old apple tree whispers to me.

 

The Traveler

In my hand, I hold a traveler.

It is a traveler who has not been exposed to sunlight in thousands of years, who has come a great distance along the bottom of a cold, cold lake. It is a traveler who has been continuously dragged and pushed and beaten upon by waves, sand and stones, finally making its way to the light, rolling upon the shore and showing its color to the world, its uniqueness, its beauty.

All along Lake Superior, as waves caress the beaches, tumbled stones are swept and hurled out of the water and onto shore:

The basalt, perfectly shaped into blue ovals, so zen, so serene, lying in the sand as if they have nowhere else better to be, as if they have arrived at their destination and are now on a long vacation.

The colorful agates, swirling of reds and oranges and yellows, well hidden in plain sight, rare, created in the formation of the land. They are so hard that only diamonds will cut them.

The Kona Dolomite, with its soft pinks and reds, nearly fading into the colors of the sand beneath them.

The milky white quartz, those perfect ovals with hidden shadows and streaks of gray smoke, containing unknown treasures within.

And the granite, easily overlooked, grey flecked, impenetrable, rounded like eggs, fitting perfectly in my palm.

Some have deep cracks. Some are irregular, rolling randomly, zig-zagging across the sand. Some are perfectly round. Some have holes right through them. All of them are unique, and together they create something even more beautiful than the individuals alone.

The stones on the shore have been scraped and shaped by other stones, their corners rounded and their edges softened through the long passage of time. They have been smoothed by the gentle caress of waves and polished by sand over countless years. Their rough edges are gone and they roll easily upon the beach.

Some people are like that. They are easy to spot; they maneuver effortlessly through every situation, even when things don’t go the way they had planned. They roll with it. They have softness in their face, especially around the eyes. They shine with unique and beautiful color. Their mouths curl up a little in a sly smile, as if they know a secret — a secret which even if they confided it to the rest of the world, we wouldn’t understand. When we’re around them, we’re calmer, more content. Their smoothness rubs off on the rest of us, almost as if they were polishing us, smoothing our rough edges, pulling us farther upshore and away from the tumultous waves.

There are some people who crack and chip. They are forceful, too large, too hard, or too strong. They leave a path of destruction in their wake that will take time to wear away. Yet sometimes they can be helpful, crafting the shape of other stones in a way the gentle polish cannot. They can be exactly what was needed.

What kind of a stone am I? Cool colored or warm? Small or large? Am I rounded, flat, oval or irregular? Am I uniform? Am I cracked? Do I have a hole that goes straight through me? Do I have a secret shadow within?

How I long to be smooth! How hard I work at it. How long will it take me to become that way? How many trials, tribulations, storms and tumbles? Rather than chipping or cracking when hitting another stone, I want to be more like those rounded stones at the lake, with each scrape, with each rub, I become smoother, more well-rounded, and help the other stones to do the same. I want to roll easier with the waves. I want to be smooth enough to be kept as a good luck charm in someone’s pocket, or on their desk as a reminder.

But I lose my temper, lash out, smash others, causing chips and cracks which leave marks on them, and on myself as well. I always regret it.

I also allow others to chip away at me, breaking off pieces that are well-worn, having to start over with fresh edges to soften.

Yet I keep on trying. I have to. A single stone on the beach seems so lonely. The chance meetings with other stones craft what it becomes. And so it is with us.

I rub the traveler in my hand, then put it in my pocket. It will not be a worry stone, but a reminder to keep going, to keep trying, to keep learning from nature and that perhaps one day, I, too, will be able to just roll with it.