CAN YOU SAY ABACUS?

From Wikipedia. I need one of these babies.

I keep thinking about how I stink at counting.  I mean it.  Counting calories even with a handy dandy fitness app, counting steps – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve grimaced to realise I’d forgotten to put my fake Fitbit on and missed out on getting credit for my grocery store shop (you can really crank up the steps there) or morning stroll through Toys Hill with Winnie.  When friends used to try and share the goings on of their statistics classes at university, my eyes would gloss over as the numbers and calculations just jumbled from their mouths, pinball-ed around my brain and dribbled out, I guess, through my ears…Nowadays I stand in utter fascination as Skyler and his Maths’ tutor, Ms Chapman, confidently discuss SURDS, completing the circle and differentiation – throwing in mental math calculations to quickly identify the answers. I can’t even keep up in my own home.

But I’m actually not bad with numbers.  Give me an event to run and I’m your girl on the spreadsheets tallying up costs and affordability of a ball, an eighteenth or our annual Christmas party.  I guess it’s more that I am uninspired by numbers as much as I am ignited by words.  I can hum along to the Ten Duel Commandments from Hamilton with the best of them (you really don’t want to hear me sing) or recall the Twelve Days of Christmas as sweetly as the true love who received the gifts, but taken out of context, numbers just don’t stick in my head.

If I’m forced to remember numbers,  I physically have to write them down.  Funny enough, though, I do appreciate their importance even if my brain’s not wired to retain them.  I appreciate the numbers in our bank account (for instance) and Nick even more so for working so hard to earn them so we can pay for the incredible life we lead (please see above parties). I appreciate numbers for keeping track of beats of music, monitoring temperatures and speed limits, and for where we are in history. In fact, I’m good at anniversaries and dates. But if I need to start counting numbers on my fingers or a calculator they start to boggle my brain. Numbers counting new COVID cases, COVID tests, COVID deaths.  I get confused how to keep track of them all.  Numbers counting the contributions to furlough schemes.  Numbers counting the days we need to self isolate if we are diagnosed with COVID which differs from the number of days our bubble then needs to quarantine.  Numbers of people in England we are allowed to meet with inside or out (okay I can do that one – 6).  Numbers telling us the time pubs need to close to safely to contain the spread of the virus – which does beg the question can COVID tell time?  I wouldn’t put it past it.  

Funnier still, although I am not so good at counting numbers, I want to be held accountable and not only that I want to count.  I want the way in which I am conducting my life to count for something.  To register in the Big Book of Accounting of Life if there is one.  I strive to be considered an asset and I definitely do not want to negatively impact the world or others. And I don’t just hold myself up to measure.  I want people who can actually do something about the numbers that effect the world…COVID cases, increase in CO2 emissions, balance of Supreme Court justices, Parliamentary, Senate and House votes, Presidential votes … I want them to show some accountability.  I want them to take some ownership for the roles they’ve been given by the highest count of votes they received from us.  I want them to stand up and be accounted for. I want them to take this time in history to do the right, just thing.  To use the power of the numbers they have supporting them in the best way possible.

With honour. With integrity. With the intent for the good of all.

“United we stand, divided we fall” still rings true for me no matter what nation you hail from or live in.  Humanity needs a way to work it out.  I’d argue to find, not only good health for us all, but quality of life including equality of life.  

And while we’re at it, please could we give voice to those who cannot speak(or indeed count) for themselves?  Please, please can we find a way to look after the 1 place we all live on? However you divide, multiply, subtract or add it all up, in the end, don’t we all want the same result?

Balance. Equal share of resources and responsibility. Respect for ourselves and others. Honesty. True guardianship of our planet. Fairness. To be listened to and heard.  Are all some of the factors I’d consider worthwhile outcomes.

2020 has been a year laden with meaningful numbers. So much to count with so much we are counting on…ultimately a vaccine, fingers crossed a new president  – definitely each other.

Perhaps the best way I can make it all make sense is to count one thing I know, big or small, counts the most. My blessings. Even though they are innumerable, taking the time to count and give thanks for them is absolutely worth it. 

WITHOUT WORDS

For Jennifer and Robb

The Hugging Trees

I spoke to my step-mom, Judy, last week.  We had a great conversation.  I especially enjoyed hearing how much trees resonate with her as much as they do me.  So much so, Judy has named the tree outside their house.  The one overhanging their patio, the birdbath and feeder, the wetland waterway bordered by pluff mud and filled with the briney water found between sea and the inland bay of that South Carolina lowland.  Next to the Crowders (the best neighbours anyone could hope for) the tree growing on Broomfield Creek, Lady’s Island. We always say Dad and Judy found paradise as they overlook the waterway running alongside their property teeming with dolphins, rays, sharks, crabs and shrimp caught by the net-full off their dock.  They enjoy the days with bluebirds, painted buntings, hummingbirds and cardinals visiting the feeder, ospreys nesting and egrets strolling, freezing and dipping to feed at low tide.  They watch stunning sunsets over the Sparta grass to see out the evening.  They measure the seasons of the year, not so much by leaves turning red in the autumn and renewed with green buds in the spring, instead, they can tell by the state of grass what time of year they are in. They watch it all through the frame of the dangling Spanish moss swaying in the breeze off the limbs of what Judy calls ‘The Sheltering Tree’.

If you know one thing about me you know how much I love trees; their dignity, their stoicism, the bounty of all they give to us as fuel, as food, as paper, as breathable air!  I love Judy’s connection that trees are also a shelter, physically and mentally, for us.  I can’t but count my blessings I am surrounded by magnificent trees and can regularly walk in the woods with my dog, Winston.  Where the awesomeness of the ocean humbles me in its vastness and power, the intimacy of the woods is one I find so accessible.  A soothing, restoring, hands-on touch with Nature.  The Japanese even have a phrase for it, “shinrin yoku” or forest bathing, which connects for me with the feeling of refreshment we can get from a walk in the woods.

I’ve learned other words like ‘bower’ and ‘dappled’ through walks in and amongst the trees.  You know how you can learn a word from the dictionary, learn it by sight but to really get to know a word sometimes takes an experience to truly understand it?  It took walking to that quiet place emerging in amongst a thicket of brown, grey, mossy trunks to a sacred space amidst the trees, hidden from the world absorbing the sounds and worries of the outside to properly breathe deeply and purely to realise I’d found myself a “bower”. When I first read Keats’ poem, Endymion, at university in Virginia I had to look up the word to appreciate the poem more.  From my strolls around Toys Hill I realise how perfectly Keats choose it.

In those bowers and beyond, the woods have their own soundscape.  They buffer out the pull of the weight of the world filling it instead with birdcalls, rustles in the underbrush, breezes pulling through the treetops to sound just like the draw of a wave across the shore.  Listen and you will hear it too. The squeak of the branches that rub against each others bark, the drip on the umbrella of a canopy in a rainstorm.  It all feels like a filter where thoughts can be examined, played with, fetched like the stick I throw for Winston.  Reminiscing comes easily for me in the woods settled by the pace of my steady walk.  I feel I can tap into my resources but never drain them there.

And it’s nice to know I’m not alone.  The BBC has made 2020 The Year of The Tree covering stories examining “The Power of Trees” in our world on their nightly PM show.  People show the presenter their favourite tree and explain why it is so.  I’m in good company, I reckon.  People getting a kick out of trees’ Spring blossom or Autumn harvest.  I’ll take trees any time full of leaves, evergreen or leaflessly hibernating through the winter.  They find me where ever I go.  Even at Yoga, where Kay has been coaching us to plant our feet in the mat, ground ourselves so we can bend and sway like palm trees.  

And it is good to know we’re not alone.  Especially when those you love and hold as dear as the upright towering redwoods forever strong fixtures in the structure of your life are no longer there.  As strong and solid as an oak remembered best at his home on Oak Grove Lane (believe it or not), my best friend’s father who we lost this week.  When someone like Jim Miller comes into your life and loves you like his own, kids with you and supports you even from afar when your own children grow up.  When a presence like that is felled out of the blue, you feel the tear of his roots exposed from the ground into the air like the shock of a raw gash in a tree snapped at the trunk.  Mr Miller was one of the trees in my stand of friends and family. With him down, I can’t help but feel the gap he has left in our lives.  Just the size and shape of him.

At times like these you wish for the ‘hugging trees’ as I’ve named them.  Especially the pair just above the pond before you get to the horse gate.  A pair of trees that have grown so close they are entwined and hold each other upright even when one is weakened.  It is something to behold.  Unabated, undeniable support.

So I turn to the trees like friends and I hope in touching one, the love and support I feel for those left standing find its way like ‘treelepathy’ and grant them some peace as safe as the haven of an arbour. I search for words to ease and lighten the loads of others but sometimes my own are not enough.  Instead, I thank my friend, Suzanne, for knowing just when to share Mary Oliver’s poem, When I Am Among The Trees with me just when I needed it.

Whatever you are living with or through, may the grace of trees find you and grant you the shelter you seek.  May you bathe in their beauty and peace and emerge renewed.

Grass roots

Growing strong

We’re back from holiday and I’d say re-entry has gone reasonably well.  We found and moved our oldest into a flat in London, dropped off our second down in Cornwall to indulge in the beach before uni kicks in and kitted out our youngest for Sixth Form – suited and booted – no mean feat in the Summer that is 2020.  Re-entry is my best friend’s term from old space shuttle jargon.  It’s that state between finishing a holiday and re-entry to your real life.  Sometimes re-entries are seamless and other times I’m left wondering if my heat shield is gonna hold. Feel like it marks another part of the year – summer vacation done and dusted, tick.  When we got back I was glad to see that all our animals and, of course, our tomatoes are thriving.  Last count I had thirty-five on the vines just waiting to turn red. Not bad from the slice of tomato I placed in some compost back in April.  I’ll keep you posted on what they taste like…crossing my fingers Miracle Gro doesn’t leave a residual flavour… Oh, and there’s beans galore too.  If you want any runners or ‘french’ beans, let me know, they’re coming out my ears.  What really surprised me though was the lawn.  We, and I say this with great gratitude to the gods of weather, have had the sunniest and warmest English summer that I can remember in thirty years.  I don’t like to jinx it. However, as we pretty much swam through late winter into the spring, I guess we were due for something a little drier.  

Anyway, the grass, my goodness, the heat took a toll on it.  If was as brown as it could be two weeks ago. It crunched when you walked on it.  There was literally no sign of life.  Nick couldn’t bear it so he asked me to make futile attempts to revive it with a sprinkler or two in the early morning or evening.  But it was to no avail.  It was as dry as the soles of my feet feel these days of home lockdown, sporting sandals since March and no pedicure in sight.  At any rate, believe it or not our lawn is now looking like the scene from the old Star Trek movie with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.  You know the one that made you cry when Spock sacrificed himself for the good of the Enterprise and then his body got deposited down on the planet, Genesis, which ended up being a planet that was revived from the dead; a virtual Eden? Yeah, that one.  Well, that’s what’s happened to our lawn since about ten days of off and on rain.  It’s glorious.  So luscious. It makes me want to lie down in it, James Taylor September Grass style and just feel its freshness, its softness, its vitality.  The come back kid.  It’s left me wondering if we could harvest whatever it is in grass that helps it revive so well? I mean I’d love to apply some ‘grass’ DNA to my body, maybe my hair, add some water and come out looking all Benjamin Button young. I think whatever is in grass should be modelled for resuscitating anything that is spent and tired and looking like a lost cause.  It really is so inspiring to see the grass taking off in tufts first and then the whole lawn new growth green.  The blades are long enough now to even get a cut now – talk about thriving.  

After these last two weeks especially, it puts my mind to wishing the grass goodness could be bottled and applied not just to me but liberally to my home country, the United States of America.  I feel like it could use some TLC and a good soaking of gentle rainfall to cool it down and refresh it.  The conflagration that is the presidential race of 2020 is becoming inflammatory.  The state of the union, the state of the economy, the health of the population, the nation, the soul of its people is looking pretty beaten up and dried out right now.  Some of the stuff is truly deep rooted.  Some of what’s flaring up (rightfully so in my humble opinion) is like the dandelion weeds, prickly and thriving in the drought.  But, I like to think the majority of the American citizens (like the electorate of 2016) is made of solid-er stuff and hardy grass-like stuff that can be rejuvenated in the right conditions.  I like to think the majority of my fellow citizens want everyone to thrive, want everyone to flourish, want everyone to be able to live up to their fruition.  This time of year I watch on Facebook as all my friends set their kids up in college housing.  I image the on-line IKEA orders they had to do this year instead shopping in-store to stock up on dorm room essentials.  I imagine how they discuss a strategy plan on how to social bubble and distance and remind each other to wear masks and wash hands.  I imagine how even though it feels a bit scary we all want to encourage our kids to enjoy this special time in their lives and maybe even give them ‘the doorstop speech’.  You might have heard of it.  It’s the one that reminds students living together to keep their doors open so they can connect to others maybe even make a friend or two.  I keep thinking about those gray wedges we shove under the door when we’re moving them in.  Suggesting they leave them in place to begin with so they’ll be accessible and able to stay involved with others, not feel too isolated after we kiss the goodbye and tell them we’ll see them come Thanksgiving.  

I like a doorstop wedge.  It’s easy to move and does the trick pretty efficiently.  What I don’t like are wedges forcing people apart.  What I don’t like is what that wedge of a human being, Trump, has done to America.  I hate how he’s done the opposite of keeping a door open of connecting positively with others.  Instead he’s like that wedge a woodsman uses to split a log.  That wedge to break apart something sturdy into kindling.  Kindling for his fiery rhetoric to scare people and blatantly lie to them.  I hate that wedge he’s placed between me and those I love who voted for him and might be considering to do so again.  I hate how his toxic behaviour has stymied conversations about our country.  He’s made them too contentious with his scaremongering tactics trying to convince people that only a country headed by himself will save the country from the very chaos he has created.  He’s a living non sequitur in his logic.  

Believe it or not, it’s hard even for me not to get swept up in the negative.  Luckily, I have this expanse of greens to gaze upon while I settle my thoughts.  It’s the Sunday before Labor Day, the new school year awaits and instead I am deciding to focus my energy on hoping.  I am hoping this time around the popular vote in sixty-five days will match that of the electoral college. I am hoping with a full change of the seasons from the 3rd of November onwards, America will live up to its fruition.  I’m praying America’ll soak up the nurturing it needs and get back to its grass roots.  It’s time for all to flourish. It’s time, dare I say Spock-style, for all to Live Long and Prosper!

CHIAROSCURO

Camber Sands on the English Channel near Rye

I’ve always been more of a stage manager than a star.  Don’t know if it comes from being the third of five children but, especially as a mother, I’m good at getting people in the right place at the right time.  Keeping straight the behind the scenes logistics.  Ever since Mr Trama jokingly cast me as a backstage “slave” in our eighth grade play, I find I’m good at keeping track of the script, providing the required props, and supporting the onstage players with their lines, genuinely applauding those in the spotlight. Talents like Mary Jackman’s Aunt Eller or Paul Tamaccio’s Curly rousing the Radnor Middle School audience with their comedic and singing talents during our 1981 production of Oklahoma! never disappointed.

I don’t hide in the shadows.  I’m just comfortable with helping others get to their place and shine.  It’s nothing to do with humility or lack of confidence, I enjoy being part of the essential team that helps the whole show work.  You need the dark and the light parts of the stage to pull it off in my mind.  

So I found it quite startling this past Wednesday morning to find myself feeling not just the star but the title role of the production.  I found myself stepping out of the tube stop at Parsons Green in London feeling as though I was walking onto a film set or rather a stage set like one from Singin’ In The Rain where surely some director was soon to yell “Roll ‘em!” or “That’s a cut!”.  It was surreal as a Dali painting, briefly I even thought about The Truman Show as it almost didn’t seem real.  Everything was still there.  In the same spot as the last time I’d strolled this way.  The old CNN correspondent, Dick Blystone (my ex-husband’s work colleague)’s brownstone was still overlooking the little triangle of the green, people were queuing to get into the White Horse pub, the outside seating area where I’d lunched with my family the day before my wedding to Nick and hung my dress in the tree so it wouldn’t get wrinkled while I polished off a pint and a “doorstop sandwich” was all still there.  I made my way to the green via the zebra crossing instantly reliving the many times before when I’d trudged home from my temp jobs, head down against a London drizzle, plastic shopping bags in my hand diagonally crossing the park to Peterborough Road, my road, and eventually my flat about a half mile down on the right.  The park benches were still firmly set there. And in the heat of this August, the requisite sunbathers were unabashedly baring it all on their towels in the summer sun.  I had to stop.  To hit pause on the playback.  At the edge of one of the benches, I literally and figuratively had to catch my breath.  Feeling a bit Forest Gump-ish, recollecting the last three decades of my life as I cast my eyes around.  Suddenly recalling it was nearly thirty years to the day that I had moved to this country.  Fascinated by the amazing synchronicity of Life that on this day when I was twenty-three years old I had gotten my passport and residency papers stamped for entry into the UK and now thirty years later I was flat hunting for my twenty-two year old daughter soon to move to London to start the next stage of her life.

Has that ever happened to you?  The coincidence of a moment forced you to stop, to appreciate how amazingly life unfolds and even if you don’t at the moment appreciate it the revelation that it all has happened as it should? I find it remarkable.  For me, it gives me such focus and affirmation that all is right in the universe.  All is as it is meant to be.

A closer look at the scene roused me back to reality.  On my bench another sitter sat at her corner purposefully with her back to me.  The pavement had markers showing how far people should safely stand from each other. My hands, I found reeked of alcohol from the hand gel being dispensed at the underground exit.  I laughed thinking the content of that stuff was way stronger than any shot I’d ever taken back in my twenties at the bar in the White Horse.  

My arrival into London came just days after two weeks at Camber Sands.  A beach an hour from our home in Kent.  There we’d had a true reprieve from COVID.  Maskless, easily, naturally social distanced walks with our dog, Winston, bike rides into Rye and refreshing swims.  It had felt like we got to let our guard down temporarily and, boy, had it felt good.  We hadn’t been lulled into complacency but instead, enjoyed the sense that there will be a time when we can return to the world and engage in it as we remember from ‘the good ole days’ (circa January 2020).  

Like anyone, there have been so many twists and turns in the story of my life since I decided to lock, stock, and barrel move with my then newlywed husband to the UK back in 1990.  The world had seemed shocking even then on the cusp of war with Saddam Hussein’s first invasion of Kuwait.  Some of the guests hadn’t even known how to spell the country’s name at our wedding reception with a soundbite from our video recording asking “Does Kuwait start with a ‘K’ or a ‘Q’?”  What a strange parallel that thirty years on there are again global issues pressing down on our world as worrying as war.  Some could even say we’re living, not watching, scenes from a Superman film primed to be saved by the superhero.

Back in 1990, it probably wouldn’t surprise you to know that I was three credits short of my Masters in Shakespearean Studies and Film.  I’d somehow talked American University into letting me study both my passions – Shakespeare and movies (not to make but to study as a medium).  I guess my thoughts still draw to drama and cinematic references.  I’m no fool to think there’s always going to be a happy ending but I am not cynical enough to dismiss everything to a disaster film. My replaying the highlight reel of thirty years’ worth of memories was closer to Forest and his motto about, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”  My pause on the bench reminded me of just how much I had gotten since I last strolled around Fulham as a resident of Parsons Green; the bad and the good, the dark and the light.  Thirty years’ worth of experiences I can enjoy in their recalling and rejoice in sharing the lessons they have taught me to perhaps enlighten those I know and love, enrich their own experiences or even educate them.  In that moment, I gave thanks for the full, rich, passionate, emotional, caring life I’ve been allowed to lead.

I’ve seen my fair share of ups and downs but just like at the beach I realise along the way you need both the high and the low to get the most out of a stretch of sand.  High tides to provide deep swims in which you can plumb your inner strengths when you need to to see what you are made of, how well you can roll with the waves while keeping yourself challenged and invigorated. Low tides to reveal the broad beaches with their exquisite treasures of shells, stones, and seaglass.  Small quiet gifts to put in your pocket to remind you of what can lie under the weight of the dark, depths of water.

And at sunset in the city or by the sea, did you ever notice how the best ones show themselves when there are a few clouds around?  Something to reflect off of?  Something to give definition to the end of the day.  Wherever we are, whenever we are in our lives may we always manage time to carve out and consider what has come and gone and what promise may lie in the day ahead.

Photo credit to Christy
Photo credit to Nick

Postings prompted from pumpkin epiphanies