Leaving the Farm, Part II – Hilary, 21 Years Later

As I drove up the mountain to have my car serviced early this morning, I noticed some yellow walnut leaves lightly fluttering to the ground. They reminded me that in a few months there will be, instead of dying leaves, large snowflakes gently falling in a hushed early winter snowfall.

I’d been thinking about my cat, Hilary, and her more than two decades of life thus far. At my vet’s office, she’s known as the poster child for wellness chec2010-06-03 22.08.20k-ups. Why, you might wonder? Well, four years ago I took her in, expecting the usual good checkup, and learned she had breast cancer. Stunned, I didn’t even know cats got breast cancer. And, as if that wasn’t enough, she also needed surgery for stones in her urinary tract. I asked the vet my questions: what was her prognosis with and without surgery? With surgery, if the cancer didn’t re-occur in six months, chances were it wouldn’t. Without surgery, her life could last a few months more. What was her general condition aside from her current problems? Her blood work showed she appeared otherwise in good general health for a seventeen year old cat. What was the cost? Both surgeries could be done the same day and would amount to roughly $1,000.00.

I asked for some time to consider. Alone, then, with Hilary, I looked into her eyes as she watched me, almost appearing to understand we were going to have a serious talk. A tabby, she has black lines near her eyes that also give her the appearance of a perpetual frown.

“Okay, little girl, we have a choice: surgery or not,” I said in a low voice, still not knowing the decision.

“Remember when Mom’s cat got so sick and the vet did more than a thousand dollars of testing to determine what was wrong, and then Buster died two days later?”

Hilary, feet tucked under her on the gray Formica exam table, watched me, seeming to get the drift of the conversation, if her eye expression was any indicator. I stared at her quietly then, weighing our options: aged cat, costly surgery, would it give her added life or would it put her through discomfort and she might die soon after?

Was I imagining it, or was Hilary staring at me with obvious trust in her eyes? The options silently swirled around in my head until finally the vet’s words stood at the front of the line of the other choices: she’s otherwise in good general health.

I had my answer and it felt exactly right. “Okay, Hilary. Here’s what we’re going to do.”
She listened attentively, her lime-green eyes fastened on mine. “Let’s do the surgery. What I hope you can do is survive the six months cancer-free, okay? Let’s hope that will happen because we’ll do the breast cancer surgery just this once.”

So that’s what we did. She came through the surgery beautifully, passed the six-month cancer-free marker, and we got to share two more healthy years. When I took her in for a check-up last year, she’d been noticeably losing weight and I braced myself. Her new diagnosis was renal failure, quite common in older cats, I learned. “How much time does she have?” I asked the vet.

“It’s hard to tell,” she said. “She’s lost a lot of weight, but she appears to be doing okay otherwise.” She prescribed some maintenance medications which have brought us to today. Hilary’s a little over five pounds now, tips and totters a lot when she walks, yet still seems comfortable as she maintains her usual patterns. She sticks to her routine of waiting by the door each morning for me to let her out on the front deck where she spends her Virginia retirement in warmth, she begins pacing when around 6pm when it’s time for her wet food, and, otherwise, is a bit snippy with my other cat, my son’s cat when she visits there, and my daughter’s dogs who really want to be her friend.

And so, as golden leaves gently spiral to the ground, I do the one thing I can: I treasure each day, aware that the bitter-cold day will come when she and I will have to say good-bye.

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We Don’t Remember Days, We Remember Moments ~ Cesare Pavese

My last two blog posts were about saying hello to my newborn kitten, Hilary, more than twenty years ago and then our present day journey together as she approaches the winter of her life, and I mine, looking more broadly.

Then, quite unexpectedly, my male cat, Button, whom I said first hello to when I discovered him abandoned behind my shed four springtimes ago, has temporarily become my focus. His eyes were not yet open when I found him; the vet said he was about six days old. So I became his mama, giving four hour feedings around the clock and taking him to the vet nearly weekly to keep a close eye on his progress. He thrived, happily, and grew to become what I have long called my uber cat, large and spilling over with good health and singular personality.

A few months ago he developed some breathing problems, diagnosed as asthma; I hoped this would be simply brief springtime and fall events. Last week though, it became clear he was having more than breathing problems. I got up one morning and quickly noticed Button didn’t come in my room to chirp his daily upbeat “good morning” to me, extend his left paw toward me in a huge stretch, open his mouth in an extensive yawn, and lead the way to the bathroom where he hopped on the sink for a long drink of water. Alarmed, I went to the kitchen and found him curled on the soft rug by the sliding door to the deck, where he keeps his bird’s eye view on the nighttime and early morning goings-on out there.

“Button,” I said with concern, rubbing his head, “are you okay?”

He meowed in a cry, stood, growled, and pushed his way into the corner by the bay window. “Something is clearly very wrong,” I said to the vet receptionist a few minutes later. She said, “Bring him right in,” which I did after a brief struggle to get him into his cat carrier.

His temperature was 105.7. Terrifying. For the next two days, the vet gave antibiotics to bring the fever down. It came down one degree the first day, and not quite a degree the second day. She tried broad-spectrum antibiotics when his temp elevated again on day three. Apparently not many conditions cause a cat’s temperature to rise so high, yet Button’s diagnosis remained unclear.

This all happened shortly before the weekend, so by Monday morning, a third vet took on Button’s case. She called me later that morning to tell me Button had Lyme’s Disease. He’d been an outdoor cat until this year; I hadn’t made the change to an indoor cat soon enough, it appeared. I was sick at heart and he was horribly ill and traumatized by being hospitalized for a week. Finally, though, the vet knew the right antibiotic to prescribe: doxycycline.IMG_20150722_115759655

Button came home four days later, still fearful and lethargic and then evidenced a new problem: he couldn’t bear any weight on his left front leg; he limped. The vet advised this was joint pain caused by Lyme’s and prescribed pain medication.

He has slept on my bed each night since he’s been home. Each morning he’s resumed another piece of his usual morning routine. This morning he stood up on the bed, stretched a paw out and widely yawned, then hopped down and led the way to the bathroom sink, putting some weight on his front leg, I noticed, and once again took a long morning drink of water from the faucet.

Caring and concern for my sick animal has been emotionally exhausting. In the aftermath, now that I see him getting a little better each day, I reflect that when he was so sick that I thought he might not live, I treasured every precious second with him. He’s always been my healthy boy and I assumed we’d have long years together, as Hilary and I have. Hopefully, we will. But I’m reminded in this recent visceral way that to assume is to be unwise. My mindfulness principles teach me to live deeply in and treasure each moment, whether with a beloved pet, a family member, a friend, or the IMG_20150812_121335949fleeting moment with the butterfly who stops by the Echinacea plant in the back yard.

Button reminds me, yet again in this year of another critically ill person in our family, to cherish the tiny incredible moments of life for the treasures they are.

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Leaving the Farm – 1994

I trudge from the old farmhouse, my slender arms embracing a worn cardboard box as a light drizzle is misting my bifocals, causing me to look out at a blurred world. On this, my final trip down the hill, I reflect that when Don and I said our vows more than two decades ago, we didn’t know that until death do us part might also mean the death of the relationship.

When I reach the stone wall, I turn sideways and step slowly down the broad stone steps placed more than a century ago by Scotch settlers. As I slide the final box of necessities into my car, I’m startled by a loud imploring meow. There, near my feet stands Harriet, one of the barn cats, whose long hair has, over time, become a massive tangle of burrs and knots. You look like I feel, Harriet, I muse.

The question spills from my mouth before it even forms in my mind. “Do you want to come with me, Harriet?” I say, reaching down to gently scratch her head, She—never in a car in her life to the best of my knowledge—jumps in, meowing loudly.

“Okay,” I say as I slide in the driver’s seat and turn to look at her, “we’ll take this trip together.” As I drive, the car quickly fills with the pungent odor inside the sagging barn behind us. I glance at her wide, apprehensive lime-green eyes, knowing how much she will hate her first bath. Perhaps it’s best that she doesn’t know what lies ahead.

At my new apartment, in tepid bath water, she squirms desperately to escape. Afterward I carefully cut away walnut-sized fur knots. Moments later she vanishes into the apartment and I do not see her again for three days.

A few months later the vet confirms Harriet’s pregnancy. “Just one kitten,” he says, adding, “and that’s unusual.” I smile, noting her bald places are filling with new growth. Her coat is shinier. She’s more peaceful.

I think, Harriet, the courage you gathered to leave all that was familiar is beginning to show good results.

Then, unexpectedly, the night before a painful Mother’s Day, I wake to find Harriet in the circle of my arm. Odd, I muse hazily, she always sleeps at my feet. Then I hear her breathing and suddenly, in awe, I understand she’s in labor.

Wide awake now, I lay still in this darkest of nights, accepting Harriet’s clear invitation to share her miracle. When I hear a soft whimper, I know the new kitten has arrived.

Then I hear Harriet giving the newborn her first bath. With the lightest of touch, I stroke the kitten’s tiny forehead, desiring to communicate a wondrous, warm welcome to the world. I feel the kitten move and intense joy surges into my heart as I whisper, “All is well, Harriet.”

Remembering this, the first story I wrote that was ever published, in the Story Circle Journal in March, 2001. Today Harriet’s kitten, Hilary, is closing out her 20th year of life with me. I’ll post that story in a few days. ~ MJD

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Celebrating Mother Nature: Soil, Seed, Water, Light

High on the list of gifts that retirement has given me is that I have the time to read as long as I want to first thing in the morning. I love to start each day with a book that touches my soul and causes me to reflect on the simple riches in our lives.

This morning I read another chapter of Kayann Short’s “A Bushel’s Worth,” an ecobiography I am cherishing more with each new chapter. She and her husband brought to their relationship a mutual love for the land from varied earlier experiences. Presently they live on a century farm, Stonebridge, which had been operated by many different owners through the years and who left behind clear evidence of their respect and good stewardship of the land. The book is a lovely celebration of our connection to soil, to past traditions, to a community working together on a farm for a healthy, common cause that benefits all, to sharing each season of Mother Nature’s bounty, some years in abundance and other years less so.

I looked up from the book, my heart filled with the richness of Short’s writing and looked over at my bay window. My eyes fastened on the pot with three fragile new seedlings and I remembered the day I found those seeds.

Last winter, I spent some time in Florida with my youngest daughter, Susan. There, one day we went for a lovely walk in the area where she lives, Lake Worth. Later in the day, after she’d gone to work, I walked again by myself and spent time looking particularly at the varied sizes and types of palms. I was sitting near a small lake as I mindfully emptied my head of unimportant thoughts and focused on the palms swaying gently near me, then waited quietly as new words and thoughts entered.

Returning to Susan’s apartment, I strolled on a road divided by a line of palms. Beneath one tree lay an abundance of palm seeds, nuggets about the size of a pecan. They appeared weathered and bruised and I wondered if they’d regenerate as I slipped three into my pocket, hoping at least one would grow into a palm for inside my home.

Palm Tree Seedlings

Palm Tree Seedlings

A few weeks ago, I found the forgotten seeds and planted them in a triangle pattern in a small pot.This morning I smiled yet again as I looked at the three tiny palms that have sprouted. If possible, my heart swelled even further from the earlier riches of my reading, into awe. How wealthy are those who, in their individual ways, treasure Mother Nature’s simple riches. We accept her precious gifts of seed, soil, water, and light and can, with a little care, transform them into yet another generation of new life.

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Breakfast Cheesecake

“Momma,” my daughter, Polly, calls up the staircase, “Can Sue and I eat the cheesecake in the fridge for breakfast?”

I pause as I rinse my face with cool water. Hmm. I wonder: what kind of nutrition does cheesecake give seven- and nine-year-olds with a full day of school ahead?

“Mom?” she calls, a little louder.

“Wait. I’m thinking,” I reply squeezing moisturizer onto my palm, then gently apply the cream as I consider Polly’s question. Eggs are good protein; cream cheese is decent; cheesecake is low in sugar. I think that combination could sustain a whole morning of schoolwork. I walk to the top of the curved wooden staircase in our century-old farmhouse.

“Okay, go ahead,” I say, smiling at the wide, dark eyes that look hopefully up at me. I know she and Sue will be thrilled, though I still feel a bit doubtful.

“Yippee! We can have it, Sue!” Polly shouts happily.

Breakfast is a delight that morning and cheesecake is the main reason. Then, our morning routines complete, we walk down the hill, get into my car, and drive to town, where my daughters hop out to wait with neighbor children for the school bus. When they step up into the bus, I hold up my left hand in the universal sign-language sign for I love you. They grin and return the sign. I begin my twenty-mile drive to work.

Cheesecake for breakfast, I ponder, intrigued. Everyone loves cheesecake, after all; the real problem is fat and I don’t want my girls starting their day with just a lot of fat. Can I create a cheesecake food that would be nutritionally sound for breakfast? I wonder. The late-winter, quiet, Catskill mountain miles pass nearly unnoticed as I continue thinking. I can cut down the fat and still keep good protein but I need to add some healthy carbohydrates.

Hmm, what about granola? I make my own granola each week and quickly tick off the ingredients: old-fashioned oats, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, slivered almonds, and wheat germ, mixed lightly with a little honey and oil, then baked until golden.
Yes! My heart excitedly beats a little faster. I could sprinkle granola on top of the cheesecake mixture and bake it. Or I could make the granola into a crust and bake the cheesecake in it. This idea is starting to come together! I know I’m not quite there though and think of the food pyramid. Of course! It needs fruit… cheesecake with strawberries, blueberries, peaches, and, well, any fruit, when you think about it. Nothing’s in season now, but there are those dozens of Georgia peaches quarts on the sagging wooden shelves in the basement.IMG_20150729_084022377_HDR

Soon we try out an experimental recipe. My daughters watch and help with great interest. I swirl ingredients in the blender then pour the cheesecake batter into four oiled brown earthenware bowls. We arrange peach slices on top and liberally sprinkle granola over each.

Finally, taste time arrives. We love it! The following weekend we change things a little by patting granola into the bottom of the bowl, pouring batter over it, and placing peaches on top. We love that variation, too, and decide it really doesn’t matter if the granola and fruit are on top or bottom. The girls are delighted to eat cheesecake for breakfast and I’m happy because we’re eating a healthy breakfast.

A few months later our daily newspaper advertises their annual cooking contest. Shy though I am, I nevertheless send in my entry and am thrilled when Breakfast Cheesecake is selected a finalist.

On bake-off day Polly comes with me while Susan goes to her basketball game. As Polly unpacks supplies, three of the four bowls I pre-prepared so they can be tasted chilled, fall onto the pavement and shatter. Polly looks up at me with eyes flooded by tears.

“It’s okay, Polly. You are more precious than any bowl of Breakfast Cheesecake,” I say, hugging her. She smiles, wiping away tears with her forefinger knuckle, as I tell her the one remaining bowl will surely be enough.

At day’s end Breakfast Cheesecake places third of twelve places, with a lovely set of Noritake china for eight as my prize. Today, more than three decades later, its value has skyrocketed yet, in my heart, the true gift of the day is the nurturing moment that followed broken earthenware between my daughter and me.

Breakfast Cheesecake – updated 2015IMG_20150729_132333885

Ingredients: 1 pint plain Greek yogurt
2 eggs
1/3-1/2 cup sugar
½ cup milk
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
4 – ½ cup fruit for each bowl
4 – ¼ cup granola for each bowl

Preparation:
o Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
o Place all ingredients except fruit and granola in blender. Swirl briefly to mix.
o Lightly oil 4 ovenproof cereal bowls or an 8×8-inch baking dish. Pour cheesecake mixture into bowls, then sprinkle ¼ cup granola over peaches.
o Bake for 25-30 minutes until set and golden. Serve with 1/2 cup of fruit.
o Serves 4.

(This story was published in the Kitchen Table Stories anthology, edited by M. Jane Ross and published by the Story Circle Network on their tenth anniversary in 2007. The original recipe used cottage cheese; here I’ve substituted Greek yogurt and like it even better.)

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The Bovina Quilt

In 1973 I married and moved to a tiny farming community tucked well off the two-lane Catskill Mountain highways in Delaware County, New York. There, in my late 20s, I joined a community of endearing, eclectic people, a mere few hundred of us ranging from dairy farmers to the US Ambassador to Russia. I made a stunning discovery in my cherished small town: time there had stood still in many ways and my rural neighbors had never ceased to quilt.

I met a dear and gentle life-long friend there, Marilyn Gallant, who delighted in crafts and creativity as much as I. She taught me how to make friendship quilts, a skill I dove into with relish. In our church, Marilyn and I were the two youngest members of the approximately dozen, mature Missionary Society members who had been lifelong members and always did things in a predictable manner. Marilyn and her family had arrived in town about the same time I did and we soon understood that if we lived to be very old, wrinkly, white-haired ladies, we would never become native Bovinians. Yet, after I’d been a church member for a few years, the Missionary Society surprisingly elected me president.

When Marilyn and I learned our church needed a fundraiser, we brainstormed and thought of an idea we were certain the Missionary Circle would love. Using the concept of a friendship quilt, we proposed at the next meeting, “We could make a town quilt. Everyone in town who wanted to could make a square for it…” we explained enthusiastically, then added finer details of the plan. “We could raffle it off. We’d raise a lot of money for the church.”

Several seconds of dead silence followed our words; my heart dropped lower with each passing second. Uh oh, we’ve said something wrong, I thought, wondering what it was.

Finally, one woman spoke, “Well, I think a town quilt is a good idea…”

“But…,” another began.

“We’ve never had a raffle in this church…,” a third woman cut in firmly.

“We’ve always felt a raffle is not the way a church should raise money,” another affirmed.

“And, just think, if we raffled off a Bovina Quilt, it might leave town on the arm of a complete stranger and we’d never see it again,” last year’s president said sadly.

The conversation was a death blow to the fundraiser idea, but everyone agreed we should make the quilt. Marilyn and I took on the project: we bought yards of muslin, pre-shrunk it, cut it into squares, and gave a square to any Bovinian or former Bovinian who wanted to participate.

The Bovina Quilt turned out to be the longest project either of us had ever been involved in. Cranky at times, I felt like we were pushing an elephant up a mountain. Marilyn’s sweet nature never allowed her once to become discouraged though and finally, more than a year later, we’d received all the squares. We moved the project into the tiny community center in the middle of town. There, on a large folding table, several residents planned where to place each square on the quilt; cut strips to join the squares; gave out a stacked row of squares to each woman who wanted to stitch one together. Soon the quilt top was assembled.

The final step arrived: setting up the quilting frame in the center of the Community Center’s floor. One of the ladies brought in her family’s aged frame, a huge contraption, I thought, and assembled it with others who had done this numerous times. Then I watched Missionary Circle members attach the pinned layered quilt (quilt top, batting, backing) to the frame.

In a timeless ancient custom, community members joined together at a number of quilting bees. With short needles we stitched tiny, neat rows with our white quilting thread to fasten the layers together. It seemed like an endless project when we started, but within weeks the quilt was completely hand-quilted. We bound the edges and it was done.

In later years I reflected on those afternoons when we—a small circle of unsMJQuiltophisticated yet skilled, rural women—sat around that quilting frame, talking with each other about all sorts of things. We shared stories of other quilting bees, we shared some of our own stories as they connected with other quilters’ stories, and sometimes we’d simply sit silently, deeply engrossed in the ancient craft of quilting. In those days and weeks I grew much closer to those women as we stitched in our place around the quilt frame, learning from and about them in a way I would never have otherwise. At the time I did not yet understand the deeper significance of our tender work. I can speak for myself only, of course, for the others may have already known what I did not yet perceive: we were creating a tactile, visceral portrait of our way of life in Bovina Center in the early 1970s.

I also came to understand that the wise elder women of our Missionary Circle were absolutely right in their firm belief that the quilt not be raffled. For the Bovina Quilt, through the decades, has silently hung in display in the tiny Bovina Museum, maintained by the town Historical Society. Still there today in the center of town, it is utterly unimaginable to think of the simple, precious story quilt leaving the town on a stranger’s arm.

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On the Kitchen Table – Posh Squash

Zucchini.

Does the word conjure up anything in particular for you?

For me, I always chuckle and slide back in time to 1974, the year I, city girl that I’d been, became a farm wife, the year I planted my first-ever garden. What great fun I had poring through the seed catalog, naively selecting seeds, and finally placing that order: winter squash, zucchini, lettuce, beets, onion sets, tomatoes, green beans, Brussels sprouts, carrots, broccoli, cabbage, beets, turnips, and potatoes. I was, I admit, perhaps a bit overenthusiastic.

By the end of that summer, I’d learned three vital gardening facts. The first two were, in order of importance: one must never plant an entire package of zucchini seeds, and the growing season in the Catskill Mountains was unusually short, so that early ripening tomato seeds were a garden must. My tomatoes ripened late and most tomatoes came into the house green just before the first frost.

I will never forget that zucchini crop. It seemed zucchinis that were about three inches long in the morning grew to the size of toy foam rubber baseball bats overnight. I cooked them, pickled them, froze them, and watched my neighbors hold out their hands in a stop gesture when they saw me approach with an armful.

The next summer and every subsequent summer, I planted no more than six seeds per garden. This has worked out very well.

One recipe, Posh Squash, has remained a favorite through the decades and is on my table tonight. The creamy custard, rich with Parmesan cheese, never fails to taste sumptuous.

Posh Squash

1 pound yellow and/or zucchini squash
2 beaten eggs
½ cup mayonnaise
½ cup plain yogurt or sour cream
1 small onion, chopped
¼ green pepper, chopped
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

Cook squash until just tender; drain well. While squash is cooking, beat eggs together, then add remaining ingredients. Lastly, mix in cooked squash and pour all into buttered baking dish. Dot with butter and crumbs, if desired.
Bake 30 minutes at 350. 6-8 servings.
Recipe from my friend, Deni Drennan

IMG_20150710_204207212_HDR (2)
And the third vital gardening fact I learned that long ago summer? A garden, in order to thrive, requires the basics of any healthy relationship: daily time, attention, and love. A heart filled with gratitude is one of the gifts in return.

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Home from the Desert – A Patchwork Story

I returned home last week after spending ten weeks caring for a friend in Las Vegas who was diagnosed last December with the deadly brain cancer, glioblastoma multiforme IV.

It was early spring when I left my central Virginia home; my outdoor world was quietly bursting into more than a dozen shades of green as trees opened their leaves, grasses emerged from their winter rest, and a myriad of plants and bushes happily sprang to life beneath radiant warm sunshine. I confess it was hard to leave in the midst of such glorious re-birth. As I drove away on Easter Sunday, I gazed longingly at my fallow garden.

An un-traveled woman, I was transported up and away in my plane for several hours to Las Vegas, Nevada for my first visit. As we prepared to land, I gazed down at a desert world that was all shades of brown, even the mountains, and where I could see no green whatsoever. My senses felt bereft: I hadn’t considered until this moment that springtime was not luxuriantly green in every part of the world.

When I entered my friend’s home, I felt as bereft as when I’d seen my aerial view of the desert. She’d had a craniotomy, followed by several weeks of chemo and radiation, and was an exhausted shell of the woman I’d seen last Thanksgiving. Our future weeks got even worse, with life-threatening complications of low white blood counts and then multiple blood clots.

Yet slowly I adjusted to the desert, increasingly appreciating the unique beauty of the outdoor environment while seeking to be a positive part of the critical indoor landscape. As the weeks passed, my friend, still plagued with blood clots, slowly improved. Then, two weeks ago her MRI showed the tumor had not grown and swelling around her brain had decreased; she should return in two months for another MRI. We took time to celebrate this reprieve; I called them our golden days.

Her oncologist promised, however, that the pervasive cancer would return and encouraged my friend to think about her next treatment options.

Meanwhile, it was time for me to return home for much needed change and I boarded the plane again. Yet the seven hour journey, I quickly realized, didn’t just drop me off to pick up my life where I’d left off last Easter. I came home, in many ways, a stranger now to my life on this mountain.

I found myself, for example, aching for bright, colorful flowers. A trip to the garden center revealed my favorite brilliant red geraniums for the mailbox planter were sold out. I purchased others that would do, then remembered the last time my soul felt this depleted, how I’d turned to quilting.

Flowers, my heart pleaded. Grandmother’s flower garden pattern, I decided. I enlarged the tiny petal pattern because I wanted this project to come alive soon, not take months. I sorted out the brightest colors from my fabric stash and started cutting the pieces for what I could now see would be a flower-filled tablecloth for the heart of my kitchen: my table.

IMG_20150630_153245530-2                                             Playing around with flower placement

The project is moving along quickly. As my sewing machine and I create each flower, this activity feels almost sacrosanct as each flower grows into being. I am also, in some mysterious way, renewing as I wait for the desert part of my soul to help me understand other recent shifts in my inner landscape.

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Rising From Dark Places

Recently, a perfect storm of events collided in my life and, stunned, I slid into a dark place I’d not visited for more than fifteen years, when I’d been severely assaulted by a client in the residential program I then directed. That time, anxiety, flashbacks, and a long slide into some old, dark waters kept me home from work for two weeks. The wounds that re-opened this time swept me swiftly back into those murky waters that I thought had been cleared, and again I was on the couch for more days than I would have chosen.

I’m in the end stages of completing my memoir and taking steps toward marketing; have a small, productive garden; more than an acre of grounds, my small home, and my three cats to care for; as well as lots of wholesome cooking and preserving to do. Everything came to a grinding pause for three weeks. (Please know I did feed my pets.)  I resented this precious time stolen from me today by other people’s violent actions long ago.

I think of our military men and women daily: the violence so many encounter in horrific experiences in foreign lands, and the trauma so many have endured. I’m grateful our military hospitals are doing a better job with diagnosing and treating PTSD, yet also know there’s still a long journey ahead with the monumental numbers who need treatment in our overcrowded system. My heart goes out to anyone, particularly our veterans, with this diagnosis; I know good treatment makes an immeasurable difference.

As I slogged around the house in my own aftershocks, I looked for something to do to occupy my hands as my soul worked at healing. My eyes landed on a small pile of fabric pieces I’d purchased months ago to make a small quilt. Listlessly I cut out a few strips, then soon stopped, depleted. The next day I cut a few more, and the next day a few more than the day before. In a pace matched only by a sluggish turtle, all the quilt pieces were finally cut, and I sewed a few together. They looked so lovely; I could feel some energy returning. By the end of two weeks, the quilt top was complete and I was thrilled with the outcome.

I still need to sew a muslin border on the edges, and later this fall, I’ll layer the top with batting and backing. This winter, when I’m homebound on my mountain and it feels so cozy to have a quilt on my lap, I’ll quilt it. Meanwhile the quilt top graces the back of my kitchen loveseat in my tiny reading nook. Each time my eyes are drawn to those beautiful autumn colors, they bring deep appreciation for their soft beauty, and a wave of peace through my body. They also remind me that from dark places, it is possible to bring healing and silent splendor.

Autumn Quilt 001

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What Really Matters?

As you travel on this pathway we call life, have you considered what matters most to you? If you were to develop a terminal illness, do you think your life priorities might shift? Remain the same?

Although I have no life-threatening illness I am aware of, I have for several weeks now journeyed at the side of a friend with incurable brain cancer. I see this virulent, aggressive disease steal a little more of her life each week—loss of mobility, loss of the use of one arm, loss of speech, loss of the ability to live independently, loss of self care skills, loss of cherished leisure skills, and in time, the glioblastoma will pilfer her final possession: her life.

Sorrowed by a serious set-back a few days ago at a time when we were geared up to work at therapies that would help her walk again and use both her arms, I have been ruminating about what’s truly important in life, and about how we use our precious time here on earth together. When we arrive at the end of our days—as we all will one day—what are the things we’ll remember as the things that truly mattered? Will it be the size or elegance of our home? The kind of car or truck we drive? The brand name of furniture we place in our homes? The size of our bank accounts? Or something else? While i felt the above are all nice, I discarded each as not one that matters most.

I thought back to my young neighbor years ago, Louise, who developed colon cancer and soon died. After visiting with her one day at her home, Louise walked outside into the warm sunny Catskill day with me as I prepared to leave. I opened the car door to slide in, when she suddenly said, “Oh, look at the beautiful yellow bird,” and pointed to a young tree close to us, where the bird perched. I looked at the bright, lemon-colored bird and then looked at Louise’s face as she told me what kind it was. Her blue eyes glowed with pleasure from the bird’s presence, her smile was peace-filled and lovely, and her entire face radiated inner joy, a reflection of the gifts the yellow bird had given her.

After Louise died, I remembered that brief moment often and vividly, as I still do today, feeling the cloudless blue sky and sun envelop us all in that brief moment of warmth and profound pleasure. Small perfect moments like these matter so much, moments that can easily slip away unnoticed, yet moments to vigilantly watch for, in order to enter into them fully and deeply.

A colorful kaleidoscope of rich memories like these passed through my mind as I pondered: my children young, completely and happily absorbed into moments of deep pleasure: watching a tadpole swim, opening a birthday gift, swinging high in the park, engrossed in a book. These were interspersed with a slideshow of times with friends, with past clients and patients with whom I worked.

These are the events, to me, that matter most in life: our complete presence with each other. Our willingness to “hold space” with one another.

A Facebook friend recently shared an excellent article about holding space with each other that captures what I am describing. Although it centers on an end-of-life moment, I believe we can hold space with another at any time in life. If you’d like to read more, the link is: http://heatherplett.com/2015/03/hold-space/

As I hold space with my friend each day now, I can think of nothing that matters more in life.

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