Tuesday, December 30, 2008

getting out of a rut

In the late-1970's, while I was in graduate school, I began a tradition of recording all the "first" things in my life over the previous year. In the beginning those lists were quite long. I was traveling to and living in new places, doing new things, meeting new people, experiencing new relationships, learning new skills.

Then at some point in the mid-1990's I stopped. I don't remember why -- although it wasn't because of a lack of new things in my life. In the mid-1990's I got married (and acquired a dog as well as a husband), was denied tenure, got a very different type of new teaching job, moved to a different state, became a co-author of a textbook, bought a house, went from having 3 cats to having 15 cats. Thinking about it in retrospect, I suspect that what happened was that my attitude about new things changed. While most of the changes in my life were positive, I began to crave stability and routine. I stopped experiencing change as an adventure, and started experiencing it as disruption.

So now I find myself, more than a decade later, in a rut. It's not that new things don't happen -- quite a few new things have happened (many of them in the form of challenges to health and well-being), but I've lost some of my mental and emotional flexibility for accommodating and adapting to change. I find that it much too easy to slip into mind numbing, addictive activities (simplistic computer games, watching familiar, formulaic television), rather than engage in the kinds of human interaction, and creative activities that once absorbed me. [Blogging has been one of the few exceptions to this -- thank goodness].

My concern about breaking free of this rut has grown, over the past six months, as I have observed (through daily phone calls) my mother's descent into senility. She has growing difficulty retrieving the names of common place things (the other day she could not remember "TV") and familiar people; she is unable to remember huge chunks of her past (and has constructed odd stories to replace what she has forgotten); she has lost skills and knowledge about things like food and cooking that were once her primary area of expertise (she will ask me how to prepare a common food, and I find myself telling her the things I originally learned from her); but most troubling of all she cannot cope with new situations and new people, cannot remember new information; so she becomes paralyzed in the face of the health and daily life crises that now beset she and my father on a weekly basis, then, angry and frightened of people who need her to make decisions -- yet refuses to relinquish any decision-making power to her children or doctors.

However, avoiding change, being intimidated by the new and different, retreating to a life of routine is nothing new for my mother. She has always been the kind of person who avoided challenges, and clung to the familiar. When faced with the necessity of travel, she dealt with the experience by obsessive planning, rigid schedules, and carefully mapped itineraries.

I have read that keeping the mind active, experiencing new things, accepting challenges, engaging in social interaction and creative activity are ways to slow, if not completely prevent, the loss of cognitive function. So this is my resolution -- to get out of my rut. I vow to do new things as often as I can (even if its just to drive through unfamiliar neighborhoods); to spend my evenings on creative tasks (and if I must watch TV, then let it be with a crochet hook in hand as I did when I was younger); to turn away from the computer when possible to interact with humans face to face; and when at the computer, to use the time for creative writing, exploration, and interaction rather than mindless game playing; and to go back to chronicling my new experiences (both positive and negative) accepting them as adventures and challenges rather than obstacles and trials.

I've already made a good start in the past four days: I took a road I've eyed for 12 years and discovered the county golf course (beautiful!), cooked eggplant for the first time (was always intimidated by the instructions), contacted a neighbor to borrow a pot and took time to chat, crocheted a nice cap for a friend, called a friend I don't talk to nearly enough, and wrote a poem to post.

sycamores in winter 2

white limbed advance guard
emerging from winter's dull forest;
ghostly army
of twisted branches
fingering grey skies.

poem and photographs ©sgreerpitt, December 30, 2008

"garden of cosmos"

A wonderful poem by Tumblewords for this weeks OSI prompt "stardust" reminded me of a painting I did more than 30 years ago. The painting is entitled "the sun and the cosmos." It was inspired by my mother's garden, just outside my bedroom window, and a rather fumbling attempt at combining realistic observation with fanciful imagination. So I retrieved it from a dusty corner and took a photo (right).

stardust -- literally

I received a nice gift today from OSI participant Jim -- a link about star creation that lead me to image gallery of the Spitzer Space Telescope which uses infrared imaging to capture objects that have not yet passed into the visible spectrum of light. One astounding example is RCW49 a stellar nursery pictured to the right.

I'm just going to quote from the website: "Located 13,700 light-years away in the southern constellation Centaurus, RCW 49 is a dark and dusty stellar nursery that houses more than 2,200 stars. Because many of the stars in RCW 49 are deeply embedded in plumes of dust, they cannot be seen at visible wavelengths. When viewed with Spitzer's infrared eyes, however, RCW 49 becomes transparent. Like cracking open a quartz rock to discover its jewels inside, the nebula's newborn stars have been dramatically exposed.

This image taken by Spitzer's infrared array camera highlights the nebula's older stars (blue stars in center pocket), its gas filaments (green) and dusty tendrils (pink). Speckled throughout the murky clouds are more than 300 never-before-seen newborn stars....This image was taken on Dec. 23, 2003, and is composed of photographs obtained at four wavelengths: 3.6 microns (blue), 4.5 microns (green), 5.8 microns (orange) and 8 microns (red)."

Sunday, December 28, 2008

One Single Impression -- Stardust


initial instant
incomprehensible light
--everything stardust.


universe explodes into being
blinding brilliance,
every molecule birthed
from starry furnaces,
driven ‘cross space and time.
we are but the dust of stars.

December 27, 2008

As I thought about this prompt during the week, the only thing that occurred to me were snatches of songs (particularly Joni Mitchell's "we are stardust, we are golden.."). Finally I realized that it had been a very long time since I'd looked at the stars. So last night (the night of the new moon -- darkest night of the lunar cycle) I bundled up and took a sleeping bag outside to spend an hour or so just watching the stars.

Even though I live in a rural area there were street lights, house lights, and passing vehicle lights that dimmed my view of the stars. Modern society seems to be doing its damnedest to blot the stars from view. Who sleeps beneath the stars today? Who lies awake and finds pictures in the stars and makes up stories about them? We hide inside caves of light, making mirrors of our windows. What are we hiding from?

For other poems on the theme of "stardust" see One Single Impression.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

One Single Impression -- A Winter's Day

Today is the beginning of winter, the winter solstice, shortest, darkest day of the year in the northern Hemisphere. This evening at sunset is also the beginning of Chanukah, the Jewish festival of lights.
"The lights of Chanukah are a symbol of our joy, in time of darkness, our ancestors had the courage to struggle for freedom: freedom to be themselves, freedom to worship in their own way. Theirs was a victory of the weak over the strong, the few over the many, and the righteous over the arrogant. It was a victory for all ages and all peoples." (Gates of Prayer: The New Union Prayerbook, Central Conference of American Rabbis)

against winter’s dark-
Baruch ata Adonai
-we light the first light

light of triumph, light of life

in the cold, a sacred light,
-lazeman hazeh.


against the winter’s dark-
Blessed art thou, oh Lord
-we light the first light

who has given us life-
light of triumph, light of life,
-and has sustained us

and enabled us-
in the cold, a sacred light
-to reach this season.

Photo of first night Chanukah menorah from Wikipedia

For more poems on the theme "A Winter's Day" see One Single Impression.

a winter's day

Today is the beginning of winter, the winter solstice, shortest, darkest day of the year in the northern Hemisphere. It is also the day my father, Carroll Lee Greer, was born, 97 years ago in 1911. He was born in a small town called Troutdale, "the highest incorporated town" in Virginia, at a time when the town had a booming economy based on timbering and furniture factories. His father, my grandfather, Charlie, was mayor of Troutdale at that time, and a small entrepreneur with a farm implement store and a sawmill.

My father had the misfortune of being a senior in high school in 1929-1930. The stock market crash meant that instead of going to college like his brother and sisters, he stayed home to work in Charlie's sawmill. He drove logging trucks, and dreamed of a day when he would learn to fly. His hero was Charles Lindbergh. He did eventually learn to fly, and to repair airplanes, and earned his living as a gypsy mechanic moving from airfield to airfield. In the 1930's he found work through the Civilian Conservation Corps (like lots of young men in Appalachia), and enlisted in the army air corps, to pursue his dream of flying. Unfortunately, within months of enlisting he dislocated his shoulder and was given a medical discharge. So instead he turned to the Boeing School in the San Francisco Bay Area and learned to be a machinist. When the war came in 1941, he tried to enlist again, but the propensity for his shoulder to dislocate caused him to be declared 4F -- highly stigmatic in the 1940's. He worked as a machinist manufacturing planes for war instead.

My favorite story: In one of the airplane factories that Dad worked was an inspector with the last name of Kilroy. When Kilroy signed off on a plane or a part as okay, he wrote "Kilroy was here" in chalk on the part. To poke fun at him, some of the guys started adding a little sketch over his name. When the parts and planes were shipped to the war zone, the sketch and the phrase "Kilroy was here" went with them. [From the Internet, I've learned that most people attribute the origin of the phrase and sketch to an inspector in a shipyard, rather than plane manufacturing plant.]

After the war, he returned to the life of a gypsy mechanic until he met my mother in Virginia 1949. After a brief fling with work in Florida, fatherhood compelled him to accept a steady job in 1951 as a machinist with United Air Lines at their maintenance base in south of San Francisco. He remained with United for twenty-five years. Through completing his Associate of Arts degree, he worked his way into the position of engineering technician where he turned the engineers' conceptualizations into real prototypes.

He has now been retired for more years than he worked for United. [Photo of my dad in his late 80's taken by my cousin Scott Crittenden.]

Saturday, December 20, 2008

my first winter

The current president of my alma mater, Oberlin College in Ohio, sent out a nice holiday e-mail today to all the alumni who've registered e-mail addresses. The e-mail was lined with little thumbnail photos which linked to the college website and a wonderful slideshow of winter images. The most beautiful, magical photo (below) caught my eye because it brought back intense memories of my first winter.

I grew up in California, in the San Francisco Bay area, where it does not snow at sea-level (or more properly Bay-level) where we lived. One spring break in high school my family went up to the ski areas of the Sierra Mountains, but although there was snow on the ground, it was warm in the sun and we ran around in shirt sleeves making snowmen for a day. Not exactly "winter."

One of the reasons that I went away to college in Ohio was because I wanted to experience four real seasons. My freshman year (1969-70) the first snow flurries appeared in late October, but the first real snow that accumulated was in mid-November. I remember so clearly walking across Tappan Square (a huge open tree filled area at the edge of campus) towards the buildings in the picture (above), it was not late, but after dark, a light snow was still falling, and snow covered the ground and trees just as they do in this photograph. At night, with building and street lights shining on the snow, it was magic, a fairytale kingdom.

I also remember, four days later, when the snow was still six inches on the ground, the cold wind stung my cheeks, and my feet were wet in shoes unsuitable for snow that it had never occurred to me that there was more to snow than just the beautiful fresh falling moment. I'd never thought about the unpleasant realities of having to go to work and classes in snow (and in college to slog through snow just to get something to eat in the dining hall). My first winter was a very snowy, and very cold winter, and I had plenty of opportunity to learn the realities of life with snow.

To this day, I still am overcome with wonder at the first real snow. But am glad I live further south, and can expect it to disappear again with in a few days most of the time.

The beautiful photo is by Dale Preston, Oberlin Class of 1983.

seven pounds

A new multi-screen theatre with comfortable reclining seats and excellent sound systems opened in Norton, Virginia replacing two much older shabbier theatres in the region. This places more movies within a reasonable driving distance for us (40-45 minutes depending upon whether or not you hit all the red-lights as I did today). We celebrated the end of term and the holidays by taking in a film this afternoon.

The ads for Seven Pounds starring Will Smith had been intriguing me for a week. This is one of those movies (like The Sixth Sense) that you really do not want to know what the secret is before you see it. So I won't spoil it. But I will say that the movie is not scary, that there is sadness and anger in it, but also great joy, love and hope. It is a 'feel good' movie, which features good people, doing good things. Will Smith is exceptional. I highly recommend it. Just be sure to have sufficient tissues with you.

Friday, December 19, 2008

sycamores in winter

John's car is on the temporarily disabled list; a rock or piece of coal made mincemeat of the driver's side of the windshield. So I volunteered to drive him to Whitesburg so that he could run in comfort on the track instead of having to slog through the mud running around the neighborhood. Gave me an excuse to go on a quest for sycamores to photograph.

The rest of the year, the sycamore is a nondescript tree, but in winter it becomes the light of the forest. Found mostly on the edges of the woods near streams and rivers, one sees thousands of sycamores as one drives around eastern Kentucky. Unfortunately today's quest was interrupted by rain, so didn't get all the shots I wanted, but here are a few.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

the human eye -- additional thoughts

Opponents to the theory of evolution frequently use the human eye to suggest that it is simply not plausible that such a complex structure could evolve through random mutation and natural selection. One of the many Internet sites that puts forth this argument against evolution begins thus:
The human eye is enormously complicated - a perfect and interrelated system of about 40 individual subsystems, including the retina, pupil, iris, cornea, lens and optic nerve.

And in this one sentence lies the key problem with the anti-evolution argument. Because, as billions of people on earth are aware every day, the human eye is far from perfect. For example, in the U.S. and western Europe myopia (nearsightedness) affects between 30 to 40 percent of adults (and approximately 20 percent of young primary school children), but in some Asian nations, myopia among young school age children is between 35 and 45 percent, and among adults is from 70 to 90 percent. (Reference: http://www.laser-eye-surgery-statistics.com/page/page/5961885.htm).

As for the farsightedness (hyperopia), the rate for young children ranges between about 6 percent to 15 percent around the world, and increases with age, so that the over 65 population, suffers from farsightedness from fifty to 60 percent depending upon ethnicity.

In addition to myopia and hyperopia there are (as one medical site states) "a vast array of hereditary eye disorders." Among the more common are congenital cataracts (one out of 250 infants is born with a cataract) and retinal degenerations which includes retinitis pigmentosa (RP), which affects one in 5,000 in the United States. Glaucoma and strabismus, or crossed eyes, are two other commonly inherited conditions.

Given the wide array of congenital problems with eyes, and the extent to which those problems are found in the human population, it would seem to me that an evolutionary explanation makes more sense than design guided directly by some omnipotent being.

I do believe with an implacable, unswerving faith, in G-d, divine power, transcendent power, unknowable power, infinite power, incomprehensible power (to us finite humans) and in the role of that divine power in the initiation of the universe and the processes through which it has unfolded for billions of years. But it seems to me, that if there was a direct, conscious, hands-on designer of the human eye, he/she/it could have done a much better job.

On the other hand, as a consequence of billions of years of accidental mutations and fortuitous benefits for enhancing survival, the human eye is pretty damn miraculous.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


So many meanings contained in one little word "vision." We may use it to refer to the act of seeing, the physical quality of sight ("does she have good vision?"). We may also mean the things one sees, both the manifest which we see with our eyes ("she was a vision in white") and the not yet manifest, which we see in our minds ("he had a vision that foretold the future"). Too, we may mean a quality of character possessed by a person ("he has vision"), that they have insight, greater perceptiveness, lofty goals, and a clear mission.

We use the words related to vision in so many different ways as well. "I see" may mean that we perceive some physical thing in front of us, or that we believe we understand or comprehend something.

When I was young and very silly, I romanticized physical blindness. The play/movie "The Miracle Worker" (Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke) was so dramatic and inspiring. I mistakenly believed that what made Helen Keller special was her blindness and deafness, not recognizing that many people have been blind and deaf, who did not share in the special spirit that made Helen Keller the hero that she is. Helen Keller's specialness came from her vision (insight, perceptiveness, goals and mission), not her lack of seeing.

Even as I romanticized blindness (learning Braille for example), I took the physical ability to see for granted. True, I had poor eye sight, and had to get glasses by the age of 10. But I always assumed that technology could compensate for any vision problems I had. My cavalier attitude towards my vision ended abruptly four and a half years ago, when I got a tear in my left retina, and learned how fragile the human eye and human sight really is. Now the same thing is threatening to happen again, and there is very little to do but wait and watch, and seek help immediately if a tear or detachment occur.

Human eyes are far from perfect mechanisms. Some human eyeballs are too short, resulting in far sightedness, and other human eyeballs are too long, resulting in nearsightedness (myopia). Most people know these basics, and know that both nearsightedness and farsightedness can be corrected with glasses or contact lenses, or even with surgery like Lasik.

What few people realize is that extreme myopia or nearsightedness places one at greater risk for blindness from retinal detachment. Here is what the Mayo Clinic has to say on the subject:
If you're significantly nearsighted, it's possible that the retina of your eye is thin. The thinner your retina, the higher your risk of developing a retinal tear or retinal detachment. If you experience a sudden onset of flashes, floaters or a dark curtain or shadow across part of your eye, seek medical assistance immediately. Retinal detachment is a medical emergency, and time is critical. Unless the detached retina is promptly surgically reattached, this condition can cause permanent loss of vision in the affected eye.

The greatest risk for retinal tear and retinal detachment among the severely myopic comes in the fifties and sixties. Part of the normal process of aging causes the interior vitreous jell that fills the eye to contract and shrink away from the outer edges. This by itself has little impact on our sight, but for those with thin retinas, the pulling away of this interior fluid can have just enough force to cause a tear or hole in the retina. The tear or hole becomes a place where the fluid of the eye can seep between the retina and the wall of the eye, pushing the retina loose, causing it to detach.

Warning signs of a retinal tear or hole that almost always precede retinal detachment include:
  • The sudden appearance of many floaters — small bits of debris in your field of vision that look like spots, hairs or strings and seem to float before your eyes
  • Sudden flashes of light in one or both eyes.
Retinal detachment itself has very obvious symptoms:
  • A shadow or curtain over a portion of your visual field
  • A sudden blur in your vision

So take heed. Although the greatest risk is to people with severe myopia (nearsightedness) who are in middle age, retinal tears and retinal detachment can occur to anyone at any age. Immediate, emergency eye surgery can repair both retinal tear (making retinal detachment less likely), and can usually (but not always) reattach a detached retina especially if caught within hours.

Monday, December 15, 2008

One Single Impression -- Distraction

This week's post is "distraction" which according to Wikipedia is:
"the diversion of attention of an individual or group from the chosen object of attention onto the source of distraction. Distraction is caused by one of the following: lack of ability to pay attention; lack of interest in the object of attention; greater interest in something other than the object of attention; or the great intensity, novelty or attractiveness of something other than the object of attention."
This weekend was the end of the semester, and was filled to the brim with papers to grade, and student phone calls and e-mails to field and answer. [Why is it when students read the phrase "The deadline is X. No exceptions!" at least three or four of them always conclude that certainly an exception will be made for them].
So my "object of attention" was suppose to be grading, in which, unfortunately I had a considerable lack of interest, and the world outside brilliant with snow provided an object of much greater intensity and attractiveness.


brilliant frozen hill,
branches shimmering silver,
enticing the mind.

Monday December 15, 2008

One Single Impression: Prompt 42: Distractions#links

Saturday, December 13, 2008

fauna in the yard

A pileated woodpecker just landed on my dying American elm looking for lunch. It is rare for us to see them down from the deep woods this time of year. Normally we only see them in early spring. However, over the last few years, strip mining and mountain top removal has deforested most of the nearby mountains -- not as much deep woods are left in this area. Unfortunately, for me, by the time I got my camera and got the front door open, Mr. Woodpecker decided to fly across the holler to the opposite hillside looking for better eating.

Here's an image of a pileated woodpecker from Associated Press used by FoxNews.com

winter morning in the holler

Froze my tuchus running around in my nightgown to get these. Totally worth it! This is what I see from my yard -- you can see why I love living here (most of the time).

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

dogs, marvelous creatures

Albert Einstein is said to have defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." I would submit, however, that this is also the definition of "dog."

As usual this morning, Rosie dog, woke me just before seven to be let outside. As usual I got up, put on socks and Crocs, and sleepily led her through the still dark house to the back door. I opened the door, commanded Rosie to sit, then opened the storm door to let her out. She stuck her nose about six inches out of the door, discovered it was pouring rain, and backed up looking at me as if to say "are you nuts who in their right mind would go out in that?"

So I closed the door and settled into my big chair in the living room to await what I knew was coming. Within two minutes, Rosie began to scratch urgently at the back door, looking at me, begging to be let out. I got up, opened the door, commanded her to sit, then opened the storm door. Rosie's nose got about six inches out, felt the rain, and then she backed into the house.

Over the next twenty minutes we went through this little dance a total of five times. Each time, Rosie dog hoped that the door would open and there would be no rain. Each time she was disappointed. Finally on the sixth try biological necessity overcame reluctance to get wet, and slowly she exited the house to relieve herself. She was, of course, back within seconds, to get out of the rain.

Dogs are also extremely obsessive and compulsive. If human, we would probably diagnose them as having OCD. There is a spot in the kitchen where the floor is slightly raised and has new floor tile, that Rosie must walk over (she can't walk around it), but when she does, she must stop briefly each time and stretch and sniff before moving on. My theory is that she slipped on that once on one of those rare occasions that I mop the kitchen floor, and now goes through this obsessive little routine to avoid slipping again. A human would simply walk around the spot, as the kitchen is plenty wide enough to avoid it entirely, but Rosie never does that.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

One Single Impression -- Doodles

reformed perfectionist

when young, each task
a masterpiece must be;
no master, my path was strewn
with half-filled canvases,
till lesson learned,
in life as well as art,
sometimes a doodle
will suffice.

Sunday December 7, 2008

For other poems on the theme of "Doodles" see One Single Impression.

Friday, December 5, 2008

over the mountains and through the woods...

...to faculty meetings we go one Friday a month. Most of the time faculty meetings are held via interactive television, but once a semester all five campuses must converge on one location, this Friday was the one. The goal not neither fun nor interesting merely obligatory, but the trip was stunning.

The route from Whitesburg in Letcher County to Cumberland in Harlan County, goes up over Pine Mountain ridge, a elevation rise of more than 1700 feet. A warning sign sits at the bottom of the mountain, telling motorists that the weather on the mountain may be significantly different. Today, that difference was clearly visible in the snow frosted trees above 2500 feet. The mountains looked like chocolate treats that had been dipped in powdered sugar.

Because the sun warmed air was slightly warmer than the snow, wisps of mist clung to the snowy woods on the mountain top.

Pine Mountain marks the very edge of a major change in geology and geography. North and west of Pine Mountain -- looking back towards Whitesburg -- one can see fifty to a hundred miles, across low rolling mountains. But when one achieves the summit, and looks out east and south one can only see the next, much higher mountain ridge marching off in the distance. I always have the sense of leaving one world and entering another one every time I go over Pine Mountain.

small stones

By way of Four Winds Haiga a poetry and photography blog that is always beautiful and inspiring, I learned about a poetry/prose concept called "small stones" developed by Fiona Robin and gathered into a lovely blogzine called "a handful of small stones."

The idea behind "small stones" is to create more mindfulness (a wonderful Buddhist concept) of the world around us, to make us more aware and more attentive to life, and then to attempt to distill insights and observances into small verbal packages of poetry or prose.

Something to try for in the future.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

One Single Impression -- Welcoming

My first thought at this week's prompt is a book by Kate Wilhelm Welcome, Chaos which I highly recommend. Sometimes we need, desire, welcome, "bad" things, because they are a gateway to something better.


she will not speak its name,
cannot ask directly, or say aloud
her fearful hope,
but she murmurs occasionally
of ‘a way,’ ‘a means,’
to choose the end,
control that final moment,
say 'when' and ‘welcome.’

November 29, 2008

Today's photo "Last Light in Autumn" was taken by me, early November 2008.

For more excellent poems on the theme of "welcoming" see One Single Impression Sunday November 30, 2008.

more random thoughts

Let's get this straight -- I am not complaining. Wanted to be clear about that up front. Because I consider myself extraordinarily lucky; always have been lucky. Bad things almost never happen to me, and on the rare occasion that they do happen, they turn out in the best possible way, or put me on a new and much better road.

For example, when I got cancer (melanoma on my arm) twenty-six years ago, it was completely self contained, and removed completely in the excision, with no radiation, no chemotherapy. Plus, the experience made me so grateful just to be alive, that when I went on an interview the week after the surgery, I couldn't possibly be nervous about something so trivial as a job. My calm and poise so impressed them that they hired me immediately.

Or there was the time that a piston in my VW beetle exploded, cracking the engine block bring the car to a faltering halt on a really empty looking stretch of I-77 in rural West Virginia. But I was extraordinarily lucky, because I was in Braxton County, where the woman who was sheriff required all her deputies to be on the look out for stranded motorists, and it was departmental policy to offer whatever assistance was necessary. The engine was destroyed, and I had not money, but it turned out that the officer who rescued me, needed a VW body for a dune buggy he wanted to build, he paid me cash (more than it was worth) and took care of all the towing costs, found me a motel to stay at, and the bus schedule that would get me back home to Pennsylvania. Plus, during the month I was between cars, it created an opportunity for the man who would be come my first husband to give me rides and get up the nerve to ask me on a date.

The problem is, that I became to comfortable with the idea that I was lucky. As a result I've not taken care of myself the way I should have. I've been overweight my entire life, sometimes by just a little, and for the past twenty years by quite a lot. The term "morbidly obese" applies to at least the last 10 years of my life. But I paid little attention, because I was 'lucky.' I had 'good genes' (almost everyone on both sides of the family live into their late 80's and 90's) -- another form of luck. And I was healthy, I didn't have high blood pressure, I didn't have diabetes. Every time I got a new doctor, they always assumed I had those things, and was surprised when I didn't. So I ate whatever I wanted and was cavalier about exercise. The few times I felt it was necessary to lose weight (like for job interviews) I never had any trouble dropping 40 or 50 pounds in a few months through diet and exercise. But I never kept the weight off for more than a year or so.

The first chink in the armor was my blood pressure. I started having trouble with it after I married 14 years ago. But I rationalized that it was only because of the birth control pills. It had nothing to do (in my mind) with my diet or weight. Then beginning at age 54, everything began to unravel. My blood pressure did not go back to normal when I went off birth control pills. Being morbidly obese made recuperation from a hysterectomy more difficult, made it harder to deal with osteoarthritis and then rheumatoid arthritis, contributed to plantar fasciitis. Suddenly I needed to lose weight to feel better, but my primary tactic for losing weight -- lots of walking and exercise -- was made problematic by the very conditions that the obesity was exacerbating. I found myself virtually immobilized by pain in my feet, in all my joints, for several months, and the weight went up even more.

The Rheumatoid Arthritis diagnosis brought me the right kind of medicine and some physical therapy, and my mobility improved, but my weight didn't. I was stuck in this cycle of destructive eating. I knew something was wrong with me. I was always out of sorts, cross and crabby all the time. I knew I had a good life, a good job, and good husband, but I didn't feel happy any more.

Then Nino the cat was diagnosed with diabetes. Suddenly I saw the parallel between his symptoms and my symptoms. I went to my doctor and got tested. I am still lucky, I don't have diabetes -- yet -- but I am "pre-diabetic" and if I want to continue to be lucky, if I want to avoid ending up a diabetic, then I'm going to have to take action: major changes in diet and eating habits, much more exercise. I've only been living with this for four weeks. It's not easy to change all the bad habits of a lifetime.

So understand, this is not a complaint, it's a warning, a cautionary tale, if you will. If you are in your thirties or forties, and your health is good, it is easy to think that you don't really need to make changes, or that you can always make them when the time comes. The problem is, that when the time comes, you may find that you face a lot of obstacles, pain and disabilities, that make changes a whole lot harder. I don't know if I would have listened at age 45, but I wish that someone had told me this. Sure lots of people warned me about diabetes and high blood pressure and arthritis, but no one ever really explained it this way -- that your body can start to gang up on you when you pass a certain age (it's different for everyone). Just because you can easily drop 50 pounds at age 45 just by walking a few miles each day, doesn't mean that you will always be able to do that. The day may come when walking even a half a mile is painful and difficult, and yet you'll still need to lose weight.

Friday, November 28, 2008

random thoughts on a November afternoon

It has been sunny today, with the kind of brilliant blue sky you only see in late autumn. The bare white branches of the sycamore make a dramatic statement against the sky.

While it was warm in the direct sunlight, the air was cold, even at noon when I took Rosie dog for a short walk. Both she and I need more, longer walks. We both need to lose weight, and get more exercise. Dogs, unlike cats, seem to sense their human companions moods and share in them. Both John and I have been in something of a funk lately, and poor Rosie has gotten droopy too. No real personal reasons for our "funkiness," although the general economic gloom of the nation is contagious.

We may be doing less discretionary spending this fall, but only because we have been hit with large veterinary and human medical bills. I am very lucky in having relative economic security of a tenured academic position.

A more personal source of funkiness, is the nearness of semester end, but not the end yet. Everyone, students and teacher alike want it to be over. Motivation flags.

For reasons that seemed logical and rational at the beginning of the semester, my college decided to combine a few vacation days normally scattered through the semester with the three days allotted at Thanksgiving, to give us the entire week off. Unfortunately, my mind has taken the notion of vacation (vacating) all too literally. Not a good thing when I still have a pile of papers to grade, and the last week of classes (next week) still to prepare for, and on-line classes that did not pause for the holidays.

I wonder what kind of attendance there will be in my SOC 101 class next week. With only one week left of the term before finals, how many of my students will stretch the Thanksgiving week off, into Christmas break? This has been a semester of poor attendance and disappearing students. I began the term with 26 students, at this point there are only 16 left, and of those, about 10 to 12 actually show up on any given day.

Can anyone explain why, when there are only 10 students in a room large enough for thirty, they decide to sit in two clumps in the opposite far corners of the room? They seem to be trying to get as far away from me as possible.

The spare open landscapes of late autumn and winter, are linked in my mind to how the cold, hard times in human lives and societies strip away the soft coverings -- as the leaves are stripped away -- and we are left with a starker hard-edged social landscape, that has its own beauty. The beauty of some trees, such as the sycamore, are only revealed when all the leaves are gone. The beauty of some people shines most strongly in the cold times.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

the end of autumn

First snow illumines
rusty red oak sentinels
--rear guard of autumn.

November 25, 2008

One Single Impression -- Childhood Memories

Some how I confused the prompt for September 21, with the prompt for November 23...and put my energy into writing a haiku for "Autumn." Then got distracted with preparing for a colonoscopy on Monday -- the test itself is nothing at all, but the preparation -- UGH!!! Nuff said. So I'm going to do two off beat things instead of write a new poem at this point in the week.

In the summer of 1965 I was 14 and visiting my grandfather in tidewater Virginia; my 16 year old cousin Lucy introduced me to the idea that any one could write poetry. I loved poetry, read tons of it, memorized my favorites. But it had never occurred to me that any one, even 14 year old girls, could write poetry.

I immediately sat down and over the next few days wrote two poems. Here they are my first poems from 1965:

Alone, all alone I sit by the sea,
Alone yet not lonely, here by the sea.
The wind sweeps by tousling my hair
It whips the waves, splashes the sea lions lair,
Then all is still, nothing stirs
Till behind from a tree a locust whirs,
For I am alone down by the sea.


Remember those sweet days that have passed away,
The grasses of soft green in the wind would sway,
The trees by the river, those old weeping willows,
Children swinging in hammocks or old men with pillows.
Long summer days of childish laughter,
Days to remember long every after.

Recently in an e-mail I reminded Lucy of how she introduced me to poetry a quarter of a century ago, and she replied with the following poem, that came to her as a result of my e-mail. Here is Lucy Bickley's poem about childhood memories -- because I remember it exactly this way!

Where Is Youth?

I remember Grandad's swing that creaked and groaned
As we swung up to the roof of the porch
Chatting and eating penny candy we bought
Out of the bins at the corner store.

Watermelon at the well, fresh from the field
throwing off seeds, sprinkling on salt
laughing, enjoying, gorged to the point
We could eat no more.

Sunshine, barefeet, cantaloupe, Tomato, fresh milk,
Eggs and toast, breakfast at the cottage
While waves lapped at the shore,
No first meal was ever so great.

Swing on the rope swing, the seat worn from weather and wear.
Swinging high up in the clouds when I closed my eyes
And dreamed eternal dreams until Mom called
"Come on or we'll be late".

Standing tall in the back of the truck
To see over the cab and wave at who was passing.
Dust rising from the back wheels as we bounced over the
Dirt roads on our way to there.

I can't help but want to go back over the dusty roads
Through the years to find the timeless
Innocent dreams we once had
When we had youth to spare.


Saturday, November 15, 2008

One Single Impression -- Courage

In our culture we normally think of courage as related to action, as overcoming fear to do something. As society we value individualism, or as it is frequently called "rugged individualism." The two things -- courage and individualism -- are frequently linked in our cultural mythology, so that courage is often mythologized as actions by individuals often struggling against the flow of society or their own social group. This emphasis on individualism and action, means that most Americans come to fear the inactive reliance on others. Acting to help others is good, while being helped by others is bad and shameful. Thus, often our greatest fear is of becoming helpless, by illness, circumstance or age, and having to take a passive role dependent upon the help of other.

Over the past year, I have observed (through daily phone conversations) the struggles with fear of my 85 year old mother, as she has to let go of doing things and accept (reluctantly and with much rebellion) the assistance of others in caring for my 96 year old father. If courage involves overcoming fear, than sometimes the most courageous path is inaction and acknowledging dependence.

winter courage

learning to let go,
accepting help from others,
work-worn hands at rest.

November 15, 2008

For other poems on the theme of "courage" see One Single Impression Sunday November 16, 2008.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

evening sky and science myths

I love the change to standard time in the fall, because it means that I end up making my trip home from work or running errands right about sunset, and I get to observe the sky.

Right now we have two brilliant evening "stars" or actually planets, Venus and Jupiter, that are brilliant gems in the west/south/west in the early evening sky. These are not always visible from my home, deep in a holler with hills surrounding us, but at this time of year I can get wonderful glimpses of brilliant Venus and Jupiter on the trip home.

The past two days, I've been taking a (long) detour from work to home, over the mountain to Virginia to the Pound Veterinary Hospital where Nino the newly diagnosed diabetic cat has been staying. The one major plus of the trip is the spectacular views from both the Kentucky and the Virginia side of Pine Mountain, and at sunset the view is particularly stunning.

Yesterday, on my way to the vet, in the late afternoon light, the moon waxing towards full (but not quite there) hung low in the sky just above the edge of the mountains and seemed huge (I think the old saying is "as large as a dinner plate"). Later on the trip home after the sunset, the moon seemed so much smaller. I have often observed this phenomenon, and always assumed that it had something to do with the "magnifying" qualities of the atmosphere. But, lo I was wrong.

I googled "why moon looks bigger" and learned that the atmosphere has nothing to do with it. Moreover, I learned that if one were to use some objective measuring device, the visible surface of the moon is identical is size at the horizon and higher in the sky. It is only to the human eye and human brain that it appears larger. Our brain believes that things on the horizon are further away than things straight over head. For example, a cloud over our heads is nearer to us, than a cloud on the horizon (which could be as much as hundreds of miles further away). So our mind plays a trick on us, it says, hey, that moon low on the horizon just above the trees is further away than the moon straight over our head, and so our mind mentally adjusts the size of the image so that we think the moon is larger. When it is overhead we think it is nearer so our mind adjusts the image smaller. But of course, the moon is the same distance from us, whether it is above us or at the horizon.

This explains, finally, for me, why I will see the moon just above the tree tops and think "wow! how huge that is" and rush in to get the camera. But when I see the photograph, suddenly the moon seems so much smaller. That's because the lens of the camera is not fooled like our brain is.

Two neat websites that explain this with diagrams are:

Sunday, November 9, 2008

One Single Impression -- Paradox


precious life
intense sensation revealed
--in mortality.

crave security
raise barriers, stock weapons
--feel anxiety grow.

What an interesting prompt this week. I was astounded to realize that I didn't really know what the word "paradox" meant. I could think of examples, like that old chestnut about the man who travels back in time and kills his grandfather before his own father is born. So it was time to do some research. I was astounded to discover that there are several definitions of paradox, and hundreds if not thousands of examples of paradoxes from the sciences, philosophy, and even literature. I was most astounded to discover that the original meaning of the word from its Greek and Hebrew roots -- something that is contrary (para) to the received wisdom or orthodoxy of the day -- is the least common usage of the word today.

It was fun to try to list all the things that seemed like paradoxes to me.

For more poems on this theme go to One Single Impression.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Dona Nobis Pacem

Grant us Peace.

In the spirit of the day I offer up a poem I wrote forty-two years ago, because despite being "adolescent" in tone, it is just as relevant today:
Man has built to rival God's mountains,
spires of concrete and steel,
reaching higher, higher toward the sky
man has built to out fly the birds,
always reaching upward toward the stars.

But below the skies the earth is troubled,
man against man, brother against brother,
for under God all are brothers.

Need you fight one another?
There is so much to be had--
Let us fight ignorance, poverty, disease,
not one another.

O my brothers stop your useless strife.
Shoulder to shoulder, heart with heart,
let us fight together
for the world that could be.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Yes we can

"This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment. This is our time - to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth - that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people:
Yes We Can."

--Barack Obama, 44th President-elect of the United States of America

If you missed it the full transcript of the acceptance speech is available on Yahoo News along with video footage.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed (UNITED STATES)

Monday, November 3, 2008

peace on earth

I saw the most wonderful bumpersticker today in the grocery parking lot in Wise. It said

"God bless the entire world without exception."

Elsewhere on the car was a small mandala made up of symbols from all the world's religions.

Check out the link to the Blogblast for Peace to the right, and consider participating! Give peace a chance.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

One Single Impression -- Disguise

There is something about November that stirs me to commit poetry. Something clean, crisp, bleak and real about November. I have been trying to write the perfect November poem since 1967. This is certainly is not it, but it is I hope a worthy effort.


nature drops her disguises,
forest opens to the sky,
rock cliffs are bared,
sheltering leaves fall away,
wind whistles through
tenuously touching twigs.

walking the forest floor
ones sees further, more clearly,
steps more surely
among rocks and fissures.

Sunday 2 November 2008

This weeks photo of the Pine Mountain Trail in November was taken by my husband, John E. Pitt.

For more poems on the theme of "disguise" see One Single Impression.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

and now for something completely different...

...and if you are a Monty Python fan, you know that what ever follows this line is more of the same and not at all different.

It is shortly before 10 PM, which is very late for me, especially these days when every day requires me to be up in time to give Nino kitty his morning insulin shot. The occasional weekend days of letting John get up to feed cats and dog while I get a couple of extra hours of sleep are gone for the present. I have had some thoughts knocking around in my head for several days, so despite my need for sleep, I'm going to try to capture a few of them and try to pin them down in linear fashion.

We (John and I) have become campaign junkies, turning on the cable morning shows when we get up, and watching the cable prime time shows each night. In between we read stories on the Internet between work tasks. I am filled with both hope and fear. This is I think a moment in our country's history when big changes could actually happen -- changes that could reverse the trends of increasing inequality and a thinning of the middle class; trends that, as a sociologist, I have tracked with concern for three decades. It is also a time when subterranean rifts of race, ethnicity, religion, and culture, could come to the surface in disruptive or even violent ways.

In spite of -- or is it because of -- my preoccupations with matters politic, I find that these last two weeks have been filled with moments of great peace and awe as I drive back and forth to work through our glorious, gold and scarlet autumn mountains. Every October, I have the same thought -- this year is so beautiful, so much more intense and colorful than last year. I think that this is because the human mind is not sufficient to hold on to this glory of nature; of necessity it must fade in our memory to something less than it is. So each year it appears as new and miraculous and more beautiful than ever.

We humans try, through photographs, paintings, poetry and prose to capture the color, the light, the awesome beauty of autumn in the eastern United States. But none of it is quite as rich, as warm, as thrilling as the real thing. How extraordinary it is, that what we humans cannot quite capture or remember fully, nature is able to reproduce exactly, perfectly, with out error year after year.

I think that I am lucky to live here at this moment in time. Seventy or eighty years ago most of these mountains were timbered, and it was decades before the forest grew back. In the present day strip mining is taking more and more of the forest cover, leaving behind bare grassy mounds, that take decades to regain any shrubbery much less trees. Also a century ago, even before the timbering the forest was different, with American elms and chestnut trees, where now maples with their flaming scarlet leaves fading to yellow, deep red oaks, yellow poplars and buckeye dominate. If climate warms and summer lengthens, and winters moderate, perhaps these trees will be succeeded by still others. This would likely change the autumn palette. So I am thankful to be here now, to come around a bend and see rising before me hillsides banked with scarlet, flame and gold.

The politics is important, it matters, but one must keep things in perspective.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

keeping the faith

A reminder, coming across the electrons:

From the Talmund
"Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it."

Thanks to Brian at HummingBunny for the reminder.

One Single Impression -- Gift


this day, wrapped in gold
and scarlet leaves on the wind
beneath the gray sky.

gold and ruby leaves
banked on hillsides, dancing light
pure incandescence.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

John’s gift

your love, unstinted
enfolding me forever
only gift desired.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

For other poems on this same theme see One Single Impression.

Friday, October 24, 2008


Moments of serendipity this week:

Wednesday morning, coming over the rise on U.S. 119 past Kona, just a young male buck with a first year rack stepped out of the shadows of the forest, into the sunlit meadow along the road. I slowed down (from 55 to 40) to get a good look, as did the car who came over the rise next. The buck stood still as a statue for thirty seconds (it seemed like so much longer), then tossed his head, spun around and ran, his white tail flipping, back into the dark of the forest.

This morning, traveling west on U.S. 119 over Pine Mountain on the way to Cumberland, KY, just as I came over the crest of the mountain and had this huge autumn panorama laid out before me, my iPod shuffle hit George Winston's recording of Pachelbel's Canon in D. Perfect moment. I've probably heard two dozen different recordings of the Canon in D over the years, but it never fails to lift my spirits and inspire me. Combined with the extraordinary vista of red and gold forested mountains took my breath away.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

One Single Impression -- Gold

This weeks One Single Impression cue is "gold." For other poems on the same theme check out One Single Impression between Sunday October 12 and Saturday October 18.

Hearts bound by links of gold
grow as one, a living sculpture
carved by the years.

Photo of my mom and dad, photo credit goes to my best friend of 45 years, Betti Christensen.

Sunday, October 5, 2008


I've been telling people that I feel like Alice (Through the Looking Glass) when the Red Queen tells Alice "here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else you must run at least twice as fast as that!"

So I decided what the heck, I might as well do something fun. John had a 5K race today, that was, for once, in the afternoon instead of first thing in the morning and quite near by in Wise, Virginia. [We met in Wise, both teaching at what was then called Clinch Valley College). So I went with him. It was interesting to watch the whole process, from registration through the race and then afterwards to the award ceremonies. The participants ranged in age from about 9 or 10 to well over 60. There were lots of middle school and high school kids in their school track uniforms, and lots of middle aged people. The middle aged men and women were seriously warming up for the thirty minutes before race time, while the kids stood around and chatted.

This race was typical, based on what John has told me about other races. The first ones to cross the finish line are usually young men in high school or college, then a mix of middle aged men (John among them) and teens mostly boys with the occasional young woman or two, then the rest of the race is a mixture of ages and genders. It was a 5K, so those of us at the starting point, only really saw them at the beginning and at the end (19+ minutes later). In between I enjoyed talking with some old friends from when I taught in Wise, whose son was one of the high school boys that finished just in front of John. I also saw a few of my former students, among both racers and observers. It was a really nice afternoon. John won his age category (Male 40-44), and brought home yet another small trophy, and the ubiquitous t-shirt.

When we got home, I still had papers to grade, but I felt a lot more refreshed.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Elul 28, 5768

Had I not the assurance
that I would enjoy the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living...
Look to the Lord;
be strong and of good courage!
O look to the Lord.
Psalms 27:13-14

Elul comes to an end with sunset tomorrow (Monday) and Rosh Hashanah begins. Rosh Hashanah is a day without work -- a joyful day, a new year beginning. I end my thoughts about t'shuva, repentance and atonement, about choosing a better path for the future, by contemplating the last two verses of Psalm 27:13-14.
Noticing my sins, examining my failings, experiencing the regret, rejecting those actions and resolving to avoid them, to do better in the future is difficult work. And it doesn't end today, or with Yom Kippur. It's an on-going task, that just becomes more salient for Jews at this time of the year. It would be an overwhelming impossible task "had I not the assurance that I would enjoy the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living." For that is what I think that verse, unfinished, hanging there in the air pregnant with possibility really means.

Judaism is not about finding eternal life (although certainly some ideas about life after death exist within Judaism), but rather Jews are focused seeking connection to G-d, to the divine, to the goodness the divine in this life. Judaism is about the sanctification of life here and now. Sin and wrongness dull our experience of the divine, so we must strive to reconnect and eliminate those things that tarnish that connection. So I will look to the Lord.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

One Single Impression -- Fleeting

The kernel of the idea for this poem emerged in September 1988, twenty years ago, but new experiences, new imagines, new rhythms have resulted in a new poem for the prompt "Fleeting."


Deepest rose: a leaf, a branch, a single tree
flaunts its flame within the green,
a day, a week, then fades to golden brown.

Crystalline light: the sky a frosted mauve,
highlights black lace silhouettes,
a sunset moment slips to shadowed night.

Golden pathway: sparkling ocean, setting sun,
an avenue of light, rocked by rolling waves,
extinguished in the evening fog.

Fragile joy: a face, a smile, a warming voice,
the touch of hearts within the crowd,
drawn on to different fates.


For other poets' poems on the same topic, see One Single Impression for September 28, 2008.

The photo entitled "ghost house" taken by me in early fall 1988, from the Moxham neighborhood of Johnstown on Grove Avenue.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Elul 26, 5768

Do not subject me to the will of my foes,
for false witnesses and unjust accusers
have appeared against me.
Psalms 27:12

While this is not a story that I wish to go into detail at this time, in this forum, I was once denied tenure in large part due to "false witnesses and unjust accusers." Despicable lies were told and retold so often that despite any evidence to support them, they came to be believed by a number of people who were influential in recommending that I be denied tenure.

I spent many years being angry about the unjustness of this decision. I was particularly angry with one individual who knew full well that the accusations were lies, but had other reasons to want me gone, and used the lies to accomplish that.

For years, ten years to be exact, I allowed my anger with this one person to poison my life. Every year at the High Holy Days I would think about this and pray over it, and recognize that I needed to forgive this person and let go of my anger. But was unable to find a way. I knew that I needed to forgive the person who wronged me, but that I could not offer this person a simple "I forgive you." This would only anger and antagonize him, because he believed himself to be in the right and I in the wrong. To gain the repentance I needed to move on, I had to do something that was genunine and sincere, yet would not be taken as hostile or a put down, or showing off.

Finally two years ago, I found the right action to take, that would allow me to let go.

The fact was that being denied tenure was the best thing that could have happened to me. I left a college that had a poisonous atmosphere, and found a new college with a supportive culture. I left a college that talked about the importance of teaching but did not honor or reward it, and found a new college that genuinely focused on quality teaching. At my new college I had opportunities to write, to be creative, to learn entirely new forms of pedagogy that would never have come my way had I remained where I was.

So two years ago, I wrote a simple, genuine, heartfelt letter of thanks. This freed me from dwelling, over and over again on the injustice, and allowed me to face situations where he was likely to be present with equanimity, rather than avoid them. In fact, I had not thought about the whole situation for the past two years until reading today's verse brought it to mind.

The verse says "Do not subject me to the will of my foes." What I make of this, based on my own experience, is that G-d cannot make the false witnesses and unjust accusers disappear from our lives. G-d cannot prevent them from doing us certain kinds of harm. But turning to G-d and divine inspiration can free us from the corrosive affects of anger, resentment, fear and anxiety. It is the inner harm, the psychic, emotional and moral harm that our foes will upon us from which G-d can protect us.

saying good bye

Many years ago, I read something -- don't remember where or who wrote it -- that suggested that one of the reasons G-d gave us pets was so that we would learn how to love and how to deal with death and loss, and go on and love again.

Late this afternoon, with the assistance of my kind veterinarian Donna Stidham, Miss Minnie kitty was gently eased out of this life. Miss Minnie's condition had slid down hill in the last couple of days. Today I came home from my weekly grocery shopping (a nearly four hour excursion) to find that she was in dire distress and laboring to breath, and I knew it was time.

So we said good bye to Miss Minnie, age approximately 14 years; good bye to Minnie with the "evil" ear tufts, "the minimum cat required," Minnie the psychotic cat, Minnie the ferocious, Minnie our cat mama and protector. Good bye to Minnie who used to be black but whose color changed to a soft brown, almost fawn in places, because of the steroid shots she took for her allergy to fleas. Later this weekend, after the rain ends, we will bury her in our small pet cemetery in the front yard under the pines.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Elul 23, 5768

Show me your way, O Lord,
and lead me on a level path
because of my watchful foes.
Psalms 27:11

When I first read this verse, I thought -- these days most of our "foes" are internal rather than external. These internal foes are things like fear, jealousy, greed, sloth, indifference, callousness. But as I look at the notes I jotted down yesterday (the actual Elul 23), with the MSNBC running as background noise in the other room, I have re-evaluated.

There really are real, flesh and blood, foes that people must face these days. In many places in the world today, ordinary people have to worry on a daily basis about real, flesh and blood armed foes. Earlier today I read a compelling piece on Rickshaw Diaries about the most recent suicide bombing in Islamabad, Pakistan. Last week, I read an extraordinary poem by Gautami Tripathy about a suicide bombing in India two weeks ago.

Gratefully, such terrorism is not an on-going experience in the U.S., but that does not mean that people here do not face external foes. These foes are more abstract and harder to grasp, like a meltdown in the housing market, waves of job layoffs, a crisis in the financial institutions, rising prices, unaffordable health care, and so forth. However, they are no less real, and no less threatening to us and our families, to our livelihood and security.

We can turn to the divine, to ask for help in finding our way amidst these dangers and foes. These external foes (like the internal ones mentioned above) will not be vanquished by prayer alone. Prayer, meditation, contemplation and other "level paths" of the divine help us gather the emotional and psychological resources that we need to take the actions that are needed to repair our troubled world (tikkun olam).

A phrase reverberates in my memory, one I came across it first in Gates of Prayer (the Reform prayer book) but it certainly has older roots: "Pray as if everything depends upon G-d, and act as if everything depends upon you."

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Elul 21, 5768

What constitutes t'shuvah? That sinners should abandon [their] sins and remove them from [their] thoughts, resolving in [their] hearts never to commit them again....One must verbally confess and state these matters which have been resolved in one's heart.
Moses Maimonides Laws of Repentance 2:2

The rabbis of ancient times had, as mentioned before, many different views about both faith and practice. Different teachers and sages offered up different approaches or systems for repentance. The one thing that all of them shared was that they viewed t'shuvah as a process that takes place is stages or steps. As I read and learn more this season of Elul about t'shuvah, I am struck by the similarities between the ideas of my chosen faith and those of twelve step programs like AA.

Judaism does not treat addictive behaviors like smoking, drinking, substance abuse, as sins in the same way that some other religions do -- focusing more on the damage we do to others than on that we do to ourselves. But there is a strong connection in Judaism between the process necessary for ridding ourselves of self-destructive addictive behaviors and stopping the sinful behaviors (such as those listed on Elul 18) which may also arise from deeply ingrained unconscious motives such as fear.

Verbal confession and verbal commitment are emphasized in twelve-step programs, and emphasized in Jewish texts on t'shuvah. Saying things out loud, even when we are our only audience gives power to our resolutions.

So I resolve and state for myself that I will work to pay attention and try to recognize and understand where the fear, panic or impatience is coming from before I open my mouth to say something harsh and hurtful, before I shoot off that e-mail with ALL CAPS, that will hurt someone.

One Single Impression -- Autumn


Oh golden leaves
whose greatest beauty
is in the falling.


For other poems on this same theme check out One Single Impression

Photo was taken by me, September 1987 on Grove Avenue, in the Moxaham neighborhood of Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Elul 19, 5768

Do not hide Your face from me;
do not thrust aside Your servant in anger;
You have ever been my help.
Do not forsake me, do not abandon me,
O God, my deliverer.
Though my father and mother abandon me,
the Lord will take me in.
Psalms 27:9-10

I sit in the quiet of my study, looking out on our neat green lawn shaded by huge maples and sycamore, the late afternoon sun hides behind the trees casting shadow across the yard. But it is not the sun that hides from me, any more than it is G-d that hides from us. Both the sun and G-d are there, hidden by the things that get between us.

It is easy to sit here, my work done for the evening, no children demanding my attention, my husband and dog out for their evening walk, and write about faith and practice. But most of the time life is not like that, most of the time the forest of our responsibilities to family and work, and the thicket of modern distractions (television, Internet) plunge us into shadow where the divine is hidden from us.

Human beings are often faithless and desert us, as the Psalm says even our father and mother may abandon us. It is hard for us to imagine that there is a force, a presence in the universe that is more constant, that is always there to be sought out.

It's easy for me to recognize the divine spark in the world as I drive to and from work -- looking out over our deeply wooded hills. It's the hours in between during which I have problems, and yet when I most need to be mindful of the divinity, to see past the shadows and the trees.

My most frequent sins, are the sins of impatience and intolerance with people who don't "get" things as quickly as I think they ought, who don't listen and don't read, and don't pay attention, who hold a piece of paper with big bold print that says "this test is due on..." and ask me "when is this test due?" This is really bad in a teacher. It is a form of arrogance and pridefulness. I have achieved the first stage of t'shuva -- I recognize these sins and regret them. I haven't yet found the way to successful break this habitual sins. I need to find a better way to interject a moment of reflection between the thought and the heedless action (the sharp tongue, the harsh tone).

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Elul 18, 5768

There are sins that can be atoned for immediately and other sins which can only be atoned for over the course of time.
Moses Maimonides, Laws of Repentance 1:4

There are many levels of repentance through which one draws near to the Holy Blessed One. And although there is forgiveness in relation to each kind of repentance, the soul does not become completely purified...unless one purifies one's heart and properly conditions one's spirit.
Rabi Jonah of Gerona (1200-1263) Gates of Repentance, The First Gate

I decided that I wanted to become a Jew when I was 15, but did not act upon that decision until I was 30,twenty seven years ago. Shortly after I turned 30 I began studying with Rabbi Leffler of the Reform Congregation in Lexington, Kentucky. Those weekly conversations we had made an indelible mark on my life and my soul. In one of those conversations Rabbi Leffler drew a diagram on the chalk board that sat in his office, like the one to the right. He said that some religions place their emphasis on the leg of the triangle between "me" and "G-d" with the idea that if one "gets right with" G-d through faith and prayer, that relationships with others will fall into place. But, Rabbi Leffler said, Judaism places its emphasis on the base of the triangle, the connection between "me" and "others," and that by working on our relationships to others, through following the mitzvot, that through building those relationships we will build our relationship with G-d.

So what does that have to do with the passages from the medieval Jewish thinkers (above) about repentance and atonement (t'shuva)? The vast majority of sins for which Jews must repent and atone are sins against others. I have mentioned previously the beautiful Ashamnu ("We have trespassed") prayer of Yom Kippur. Here are some of the sins listed: "we have dealt treacherously; we have robbed; we have spoken slander; we have acted perversely...we have done violence; we have practiced deceit; we have counseled evil; we have spoken falsehood...we have oppressed...we have dealt corruptly...we have led others astray." These, the majority of the sins in the prayer deal with acts against our fellow humans, not acts against G-d.

For the sins we have committed against G-d (such as blasphemy), our regret, rejection and resolution to sin no more can bring immediate repentance and forgiveness. But our sins against others often require us to perform acts of atonement, of restitution and restoration; not unlike in 12 step programs (Alcoholics Anonymous for example) where in order to change the individual must make amends to those they have wronged (unless to do so would bring further harm). Repentance and forgiveness can only come over time, as we work on our relationships with others.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Elul 16, 5768

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud;
have mercy on me, answer me.
In your behalf my heart says:
"Seek my face!"
O Lord, I seek your face."
Psalms 27:7-8.

In Judaism some prayers, such as the Shema, should always be uttered aloud, and other prayer is silent, internal, like the silent Amidah in services. It is not for G-d's ears that prayer is aloud, but our own -- it focuses our own attention on our words, our plea, on our reaching out to touch the source of power, the divine.

One of the traditions of Judaism is that in the beginning G-d created the universe as a material container into which divine light and spirit were poured; but the material container could not contain the G-d's infinite divinity, and ruptured in a great cataclysm, creating the dispersed universe of space and matter that we know. But G-d's light and divinity clung to the shattered shards of the universe. Every molecule, every bit of matter in the Universe (including living beings) carry within the spark of divinity.

Our prayer goes out through that spark of the divine within us, and the answer comes back to us from that spark within. Notice how the Psalm says "In your behalf my heart says..." G-d speaks to us through our own heart, and through the hearts of others that carry that divine spark.

I think that there is no question that G-d hears us and has answers for us. What is questionable is whether or not we can hear that response that vibrates in all of nature, in all the people around us, and in ourselves. We seek G-d's face, yet it is all around us, just waiting to be recognized. Prayer is an opportunity to draw upon the power of the divine that will help us see and recognize G-d's face in all it's manifestations.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Elul 14, 5768

Now is my head high
over my enemies roundabout;
I sacrifice in His tent with shouts of joy,
singing and chanting a hymn to the Lord.
Psalm 27:6

Today's verse from Psalm 27 reminds me immediately of one of my favorite books -- not just in childhood -- Pollyanna. Pollyanna's father (dead before the story begins) was a minister who emphasized the "rejoicing texts" of the Bible -- the ones that say "shout for joy," "rejoice greatly," "be glad in the Lord, " and so forth. Pollyanna tells the local minister (a troubled man) that once when feeling low her father counted all the rejoicing texts and found more than eight hundred of them. Pollyanna's recounts that her father said "if God took the trouble to tell us eight hundred times to be glad and rejoice, He must want us to do it -- some."

The book Pollyanna was first published in 1912. In the decades that followed through the first World War and the great depression, the book continued to be extraordinarily popular with both adults and children. However, the word "pollyanna" came to be used by many during those decades as an pejorative label to describe someone who was blind to reality, living in an impossible dream world in which every thing had a silver lining.

Nonetheless, I still find this book whose charming heroine unself-consciously transforms those around her through her postive outlook to be refreshing and inspiring.

And I will sing and chant a hymn to the Lord.

Friday, September 12, 2008

One Single Impression -- Seeds


What dark fruit will grow
from mountains stripped bare of green
chasing the black fire?

12 September 2008

Photo is of mountain top removal strip mine less than half mile from my home in Letcher County Kentucky.

View other poems on the "Seed" prompt beginning Sunday September 14, at One Single Impression

Elul 12, 5768

"He will shelter me in His pavilion
on an evil day,
grant me the protection of His tent,
raise me high upon a rock."
Psalm 27:5

Judaism is a religion that allows for a wide range of personal interpretations of Torah and G-d. Indeed alternative interpretations are enshrined in the Jewish tradition through the Talmud and Mishnah, which record and pass down the debates of Rabbi's and scholars through the ages. Every issues is discussed and argued, and all the points of view are recorded for Jewish posterity. In Judaism "orthodoxy" is not orthodox belief but orthodox practice.

In my personal view, G-d initiated a universe designed to evolve and give rise ultimately to creatures of self-awareness, self-consciousness and free will (we humans being the only example of which we are currently aware, but that does not preclude others else where in G-d's universe). Such a G-d in such a universe does not intervene in the unfolding of events that result from the choices of free-will. But for those willing to open their hearts and minds, willing to reach out to the divine power of the universe, G-d provides shelter in which we can rest from the storm, gaining strength and courage. The divine power of the universe is found in the principles of nature, including basic principles that underlie human interactions, seeking that power and those principles, is seeking the rock or foundation on which the world stands.

In my personal view there is more than one path to achieve this shelter and find this rock. For me the path is through the Jewish scriptures and traditional practices and prayers. But I see my husband finding the same thing in a different way through the Buddhist scriptures and the practice of Buddhist meditation. He also finds the sheltering tent and the rock on which all is built.