Lichen pom-poms

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, April 5, 2015

When birthdays roll in, and eye rolls to go with them, I like to remember what a friend of mine says with every yearly groan of every one of her middle-aged friends.

“Well, what’s the alternative?” she says. “It’s a privilege to have another birthday.”

At the moment, I am staring at a chickadee wiping its beak with lightning speed in the trunk branches of a fir tree, preparing itself for another eager, chipper, industrious round at the bird feeder. There is not a spec of irony or sadness or frustration or irritability or mania in this fabulous creature, nothing but the requirements of the moment and doing what has to be done, everything in the context of lacing itself delicately like a ribbon through the fabric of the natural world. Can I somehow, right now, take this birdie into my heart as a birthday gift?

Because, like roughly 19 million other Earthlings sharing my entry date into the world, I’ve just marked another lap around the sun.

Born in late March — a child of spring — I feel inherently called upon — instinct-bound, in fact — to be one of its cheerleaders. Hooray, life force! And winds of change! And dust that blows! And hooray for the beginning of thaw and underground movement so bold and dedicated the once-frozen earth starts to thrill in a softening mass, soft enough for a slew of primal activity to happen beneath it. There is a world of micro-activity here below me, one armed with the force of a hurricane, only tiny, tiny, tiny.

Now: if I am quiet, reverent and seat myself in the moment squarely without a trace of irony or any other squinty-eyed view of things, I can feel it all singing, stretching, beneath my feet, pulsating, shoving up to try to meet the air and sun. Our noses can smell life in the soil and water and air. Our eyes can be arrested, won over by the sheer force of a willow bud on our path, arcing down, first in a tender bud and then coated with fur. Fur! We can touch anything newly, greenly fresh with our fingertips or our lips and feel a crushing tenderness and happiness for the sheer force of life.

It’s not that I don’t ever longingly recall other springs in other places — especially places where spring itself seems to spring eternal. Places like dewy Seattle, where daffodils herald February instead of sneaky snowstorms. And Hawaii, where the spring flowers, trumpeting in their loud and psychedelically tropical way, constitute only one of four boisterous, brilliant seasons. And New York City, where cherry blossoms in the park burst into candy-floss snowflakes, and then fall lightly, landing on people’s heads, brushing their cheeks with the lightest of touches, rising to meet their noses with the most delicate of smells. I’ve had spring in Paris, too, where sweaters are timidly shed and floral scarves vie for attention with the real flowers, and where, briefly, the slate gray of the city fades into the background as exuberant pops of foreground color rise up. All of it is sweet and special and speaks to the spring-born in me.

But it’s from this perch in the San Juan Mountains that I wave my little lichen pom-poms around with the most enthusiasm and abandon; because though spring may come in fits and starts, the stop-and-go reawakens me to its glory over and over, until, silly dense human that I am, I start to get it.

Here, during a March thaw, you might see a butterfly, a single black-winged one moving in that haphazard way they do, like shards of night sky, then see it disappear into — what? And to come back — when? Then another storm will invariably blow in, bringing with it a wet, white blanket and the ensuing days will drip with spring melt, rivers will swell and red-winged blackbirds will arrive in force, perching themselves in bushes and indulging what seems to be a bodily need for constant singing.

I like the way the newborn calves down the road drop to the earth with little thuds and curl up, whether it’s snow or bright green grass beneath them, as their mothers hover. I like waiting and waiting some more for all the green-tipped aspens to blow open and unfurl, millions of green leaves quaking in unison. I like the surprise of spring in the mountains, the fickleness of it, its force and its gentleness. Like reeds, we profit most by bending in the gusty winds, and going along.

Above us, and far, far away through an eternity of black space, there are Red Giant Stars that make our planet seem miniscule — literally. But in the spring, when tiny pinpoints of life begin moving the earth like bulldozers, I feel the might and power of life force, and feel in my bones that it’s bigger than I can know.

Once upon a time, New Year’s Eve 1945

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, January 4, 2015

My mother and father met at a New Year’s Eve party in Paris 1945, at the end of World War II, at the Pierre Hotel in Paris. She, the 24-year-old eldest of three girls who had been working to help support her family for eight years already, was on leave from her duties with the U.S. Army in LeHavre (where French women had been recruited by the American army). He, a U.S. Army lieutenant, was brought to the very same party by one of my mother’s platonic American escorts, which were numerous, as she had not yet met the man of her dreams.

The encounter was some sort of extreme, war-born form of romantic thunderclap and lightning. She fell for his American good looks and blue eyes and “slow, devastating smile” — none of which would have succeeded without the requisite smooth moves on the dance floor. She speculated that he was probably swept off his feet by her loose and wavy dark hair, vivaciousness and lack of “war paint,” as she called it. She also attributed her conquest to a sprinkling of freckles, something she evidently considered essential to that wholesome brand of withering beauty she ascribed to.

Whatever the mysteries of timing and circumstance, chemistry and karma, after meeting only half a dozen times, there they stood on March 13, 1946, before the deputy mayor of Paris’s 16ème arrondissement, joining two 180-degree live wires together, touching and sparking themselves into the velvet dark of the quantum field, where the creation of stories — and of life itself — happens.

Under the laws of the last days of the Third Republic, they were united. They ran down the steps of the Hotel de Ville and into the open jeep my father had secured for the occasion and made their way to her parents’ house for the wedding dinner of leg of lamb, bombe glacée (an ice cream cannonball, popular back then) and champagne. Her family, impoverished like so many other families during the war, was stunned by the union, by the notion that their Jeannine would be leaving them; but the reality of the situation was plain to all: bowled over, in love and determined escape the reaches of poverty, there was no stopping her.

When she finally got her travel orders, however, she panicked. “I was passionately in love but I really did not know the man, and I intended to spend my whole life with him, come hell or high water. I took my luggage to the railroad station and did not sleep much that last night at home, believe me.” (This is all recorded in an unfinished 75-page memoir she was writing, the last sentence left original, half completed, and hanging by my oldest brother Gael, who published it for the family after mom died in 2002.)

On May 7, Jeannine Curry, née Moulignier, boarded the Zebulon Vance, a liberty ship, with 200 other French women she claimed to have had very little in common with (!), since many of these women were obviously pursuing hasty marriages of convenience. On a journey of 12 days, like many of the others, she spent five dry heaving. When the ship finally arrived in New York harbor, the Statue of Liberty gilded by the late afternoon light, the girls were kindly given an extra night on board to rest and recuperate. At 4 a.m. the next morning, they began making themselves presentable, and, after breakfast, each was called alphabetically from the deck of the ship, luggage in hand, to greet their men and begin another life.

According to my mother, her Jim, handsome and elegant in his blue suit, starched white shirt and “sedate necktie” drew numerous wolf whistles from the other girls. He wore, she said, a face as happy as hers and a “long, very affectionate greeting” ensued for two very modest people. They had three perfect days in New York — Empire State Building, the Radio City Music Hall, lots of walking hand in hand and Lord and Taylor for a few items of chic, American clothing.

This brief period of not even six months was the magic crucible from which the rest of my mother’s not-so-easy life was born. So when people ask if I believe in fairytales, I have to say that my very life — to some extent — was born of one. Well, the beginning of one, anyway.

Silent Night, Holy Night

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, December 21, 2014

The holidays have crept up from behind swiftly this year, like an army of elves waving alarm clocks in one hand and jingling bells in another, chasing after me. You’re late! Where’s your spirit of the season?I am?? Just moments ago, the aisles were full of bite-sized Snickers!

Seems like there used to be more time at Christmas. The space-time continuum would yawn and create time-warp wrinkles for things like pomanders, and popcorn strings, and lone peppermint sticks sucked on while the snow fell.

A pomander really takes no time at all, you know. An orange or a lemon, a toothpick, and a stack of clove nails are all you need. There is the pre-drill of a Victorian design into the juicy flesh of the citrus, and then there is the shoving of the cloves in one at a time. Thus is born for the mantle a refashioned fruit, redolent of holiday cheer and mulling spices, and representative of something sweet and simple and old-fashioned.

Yes, and every holiday season used to bring me time for batch after batch of biscotti, the two classic flavors friends and family got to know and ask for. A cookie so hard and crunchy you could stir your coffee with it. One year, early on, I made the mistake of adding four times the amount of anise seed — nailing the current more-is-better version. A year later, I found an electric knife in the Free Box and had an epiphaniscotti. Perfect slices every time. Time + serendipity = personal tradition.

Some Christmases, I actually had time to hand write cards I’d actually thought to buy early in December. My sincere — if minimalist — attempts were a weak semaphore response to the yearly newsletters that would appear in my mailbox, the ones with collage insets accompanying timelines, news of children, countries visited, accomplishments achieved. The ones I would stare at, thinking, wow, nothing but, wow.

Years ago, I used to build gingerbread houses with lifesaver windows and ice them and light them from inside. And even though the engineering and construction were crude, we made up for it with ornate candy detailing and yards filled with snow. Best of all, we’d stare it into real-ness, wondering who might live at such an address, who might be lucky enough to nibble on sweet walls instead of simply leaning on them.

Well, this year, I can’t keep the birdhouses full. The biscotti are not made. There are friends whose December birthdays I’ve missed and family I’ve not yet sent cards to. I’m behind on presents, bookkeeping and home-keeping. In fact, the uttermost apex of my current Christmas-keeping skills is watering. Watering the poinsettia, narcissus and amaryllis. Is time going faster every year, am I slowing down, or both?

Amidst all of this, I keep thinking of my father, who, somehow clueless to the fray of Christmas, used to do his own thing as my mom figured out the nuts and bolts of making it all happen. Dad would always and invariably get each of the kids dried fruit. Every year, trays of fruit from Harry & David. Apricots, dates, figs, pears, prunes, a few cherries and a little plastic two-pronged fork all mandala’d under Cellophane. Sometimes my sister and I would get a silk scarf or perfume. He would spend an entire night making bows out of curling ribbon, and wrapping boxes with the precision of a machine.

I never considered my father anything remotely resembling a peaceful man; but there were moments like these when, preoccupied by a small but mindful task, one could feel peace, unmitigated and expansive, emanating from him, through the walls, even, and into other rooms in the house, washing over everyone like a golden wave.

So, here it is, back again in the blink of an eye, the season of PEACE and JOY spelled out everywhere, from cards and pillows, to hand towels and welcome mats, to blinking lights strung across houses and yards. Everywhere we step, we are asked to step more lightly, more presently into the next moment, to honor slowing down and to take time to be present for whatever meaning exists for each of us at winter solstice. To smile even as we wince at the task list. To reprioritize, possibly pare down. To attempt to feel the deep peace we give lip service to, and to pass it on to the next person.

Here, now, as the sky darkens into black night, big fat bright flakes fall from the sky, aware of nothing, attached to nothing, quietly laying an immaculate blanket of peace onto the earth. Deer and elk bed down and bunnies burrow. Rivers freeze and the world glistens. And here, too, from the window, as we witness winter’s mystery, there is space-time – freshly created! — for wonderment, and thanks, and the true spirit of the season.