Mostly Today

Christmas Eve view from my front porch, late afternoon. Frozen pampas grass fronds in the amazingly cold temperatures.

Where I live, the recent weather has been challenging. The skies for days, mostly gray and sullen. Then a lashing wind and snow event, with temperatures falling below zero, windchills in the inexplicable range of -35 degrees and the like. Getting back to positive numbers is a palpable improvement for which all living things are grateful. I haven’t seen a squirrel at my bird feeders in days which is telling – they’ve all chosen to protect themselves from this bitter spell, rather than scavenging the bird seed from my feeders. The birds themselves were sparse as well although today, they were finally out in force to gorge themselves.

In one of nature’s demonstrations of life’s fragility, juxtaposed against the ways of the living there is also sudden death. Last night when my daughter was stepping out onto my back porch, she interrupted a perched bird, which was startled, flew up and subsequently startled her. The bird was near one of its mates, who’d been killed by an unknown predator, perhaps a hawk or a feral cat. The body was lying outside atop a storage cabinet. I swept it into a bag, unable to make out its features, dim in the evening light. I set it aside with the intention of trying to understand what had caused its death the next morning. As an aside, roaming cats are responsible for between one to two billion birds deaths annually, worldwide. I am not a fan. When I woke today, I checked my email before getting out of bed. Tucked in between the usual daily announcements I receive, was a personal message from an old friend, sharing the news of the death of another old friend who succumbed to a heart attack during the previous night. I was so sad and stunned, as I’ve been for too many deaths of my peers during the past year. I honestly am considering writing down all their names before I lose track of the increasing numbers of people who once were part of my life, now suddenly gone. I sat awhile, just thinking and absorbing this latest loss, thinking of long ago. Then I went downstairs to recover the bird’s body to investigate what had happened to that little life.

All I could glean was that there was swift violence. In the morning light, I realized that this bird had been decapitated, its head a short distance from its body, something not discernible in the darkness of the previous night. After that discovery, I assumed that a hawk wouldn’t have left the prey, so I suppose a cat was the culprit. Regardless of what happened, when that little bird landed on my porch, no doubt avoiding strong winds, picking at the seeds I’d strewn close to my house, it most certainly wasn’t pondering its demise. At least I don’t think so. I imagine my old friend didn’t suspect, as he’d started his last day, that it would be his final one. Would he have done anything differently if he knew it was?

The return of the sun

Just today. Today is what there is and I always know that, even when occasionally, I lose my focus. I’ve learned to forgive myself for being imperfect as my own standards of staying present are sometimes a bit out of reach. For the most part, I can stay in today. I’m not a person who thinks about I might possibly be doing five years from now. Too many family illnesses and deaths appeared early in my life. Tomorrows vanished. Sometimes even the thought of “next year” seems like a bit of a reach. Spontaneity is much more alluring than long-range plans these days, at least for me. I’ve had to cancel more dreams than I care to remember. But, as the year draws to a close, I think it’s customary for people to look back, evaluating what they did during the last 12 months. I’m included in that group. Many will sit down to make a list of resolutions for the coming new year. I’ve never gotten into that particular tradition. I operate within a daily benchmark system of how I measure my personal success. Before I lay my head down for the night, I need to know just a few things which are relatively simple. Was I kind? Did I make sure that the people I care about know how I feel? Did I make use of my skills? Did I help? Did I remember what’s important? Did I find a small but beautiful moment? Did I learn anything? Those things are my bottom line. If I didn’t wake up tomorrow would anything else matter? I think not.

I baked a banana bread to share with my kids. Small gifts.

I suppose my little list of questions isn’t generally considered to be too challenging. Still, it suits me. Even when I was younger, I didn’t have long lists of fabulous goals like climbing Mt. Everest or being an astronaut. Up until I was sixteen I wanted my own horse. But after getting dumped off of one on a jaunt through Jackson Park in Chicago, I let that one go. When I was little I thought I might read all the books in the world. That aspiration was dashed when I read that thousands of books were published daily. Oh well. I was disappointed but not despairing. On the less personal, individual scale I have a more complicated wish list. I wish I could eliminate poverty. Or wipe out inequities. Or stop wars. Or ban weapons. I would love to have big power to employ for the greater good. In my life, I’ve done many little helpful deeds. But long ago, I realized that I was unlikely to fix those massive problems. I looked instead for smaller things to do which would blend well with my needs and desires. I mostly I just wanted to be okay. To feel safe, to feel loved and to satisfy my busy brain’s thirst for information of almost any kind. And of course to have some positive impact on the world. I guess I was standing behind the proverbial rock when the major ambition genes were being distributed. I’m okay with that.

In order to make that little impact, I have had to make an exception, to go beyond my living in the moment philosophy. On those frigid days, when my outdoor time was limited, I pulled out my garden books. These books contain the history of the plants, shrubs and trees I’ve planted during my long residence in my home. What started out as an enjoyable hobby has become a more serious mission for me. I used to simply love digging in the dirt, laying in bulbs, roots and rhizomes with the hope of creating a little shareable beauty. I still like that, especially the connection I feel to nature. However, now what I do is connected to the greater issues of the world, which have gotten much more complex and oppressive as I’ve aged. At least I feel that way, especially as the primary existential problem of climate change has become demonstrably obvious everywhere, with drought, floods, fires and unimaginable “century” storms. I can’t fix all of that. So now I am always focused on my garden, no matter what the season. I may be powerless to affect the overarching scale of what’s happening. But there is my garden to think of, despite what is happening beyond my tiny universe. I’ve found that having agency over this one small spot on earth, where I can make even a tiny impact on a tiny piece of this massive problem of my lifetime is meaningful to me. So I plan and tweak, getting rid of more lawn every year, adding plants and shrubs to create a habitat for all the creatures I’m enticing to this space. I can’t save every butterfly, every bee, every insect or every bird. But I can save some.

Hummingbird and zebra swallowtail
Beetle going for nectar
Sphinx moth
Giant swallowtail
Cardinal fledgling
Cardinals feeding each other
Baby house wrens
Thirsty wasp
Downy woodpecker

Looking ahead for the purpose of making a difference is about hope and optimism. Uncertainty dominates much of my consciousness as I wend my way through this latter part of my life. But even the most stoic person has to believe in leaving a small legacy in this daunting universe. My garden will be mine, even after I’m gone. I hope…

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