My mother gave me and my sister a mountain when we were young. Chairlifts and an aerial tram under the Christmas tree promised cold days and clear fun. A T-bar baited us with an independence we hadn't yet known. You see, two precious passes wrapped by my mother in vision and reindeer paper lay under our tree. The Little Drummer Boy hanging from a thin branch announced our new place in the world: my sister and I were to become skiers.
Every Saturday morning, then, and for many years after, my mom left us at the foot of Jay Peak with lunch, each other, and seven hours of snowy bliss. At eight years old, I had Saturdays and my sister to myself. The mountain was ours. Hot shots in our own heads. We screamed down slopes beyond our ability, riding icy nerves that were sharper than any black diamond. We pushed boundaries – both our own and the mountain’s, learning something about strength and humility as we crashed into trees, took wrong turns over moguls, and grew, eventually, into decent skiers. We knew how to get to the secret runs and the good hot chocolate. We practiced our French with folks from Quebec and pretended we were from Quebec ourselves. We could do or be anything with those long slender sticks stretching out in front of us, propelling us toward the possible, binding us to each other and a cold joy. Eight years old, and on top of the Green Mountain world.
I skied for six years before life took me away from the mountains. After nearly a double decade of doing mostly other things, two years ago, I once again snapped into my bindings and rode the snow. Sometimes, usually when I'm on a lift or stopped by the sun setting on the Cascades, I wonder how someone born into the snow on a cold edge between Canada and the United States, how someone who skied both sides of the map, let it go so easily. How did I step out of my skis one day and let twenty years slip by before I thought to put them on again? What else have I given up with such little fight?
I think, how from an early age we learn to hang Do Not Enter signs on our bodies. My sister and I wrapped, buttoned, and zipped up to protect what lay beneath. Mittens, hats, and protective layers keep the unwanted from entering. So much care taken to safeguard what lies within, yet winter, like so much else, finds our unguarded openings. Openings big enough for an entire season to fit through. More if you dare.
I think of my sister at six or seven years old tackling the steeps. She used the same style then that she uses today in her skiing or with her children - fast, fun, fearless, and feet first. No, that's not quite it. Her style is heart first; the rest follows. At seven years old, her boldness on an icy run called the Green Mountain Boys revealed a glacier-sized courage that still makes mountains and older sisters proud.
When I was eight, my mom gave me a a cold, icy, and perfect present that has spanned decades, countries, and circumstance. I hope one day to give such a gift to someone; a gift that endures time and encourages the unconsidered.
These days, I ski a different mountain and my sister lives too far away, but as I load my skis into the truck, reflect on the past and remember the future, I think: what a cold, icy, and perfect present.
In his essay Joyas Voladoras, Brian Doyle instructs his readers to consider the hummingbird for a long moment. Four days ago, I spent the morning following his direction as I photographed these smallest of birds with the stoutest of hearts.
If you have a moment today, consider the hummingbird. If you have more than a moment, consider Doyle's essay. The pictures are mine, but the words are all his.
A hummingbird's heart beats ten times a second. A hummingbird's heart is the size of a pencil eraser. A hummingbird's heart is a lot of the hummingbird. Joyas voladoras, flying jewels, the first white explorers in the Americas called them, and the white men had never seen such creatures, for hummingbirds came into the world only in the Americas, nowhere else in the universe, more than three hundred species of them whirring and zooming and nectaring in hummer time zones nine times removed from ours, their hearts hammering faster than we could clearly hear if we pressed our elephantine ears to their infinitesimal chests.
Each one visits a thousand flowers a day. They can dive at sixty miles an hour. They can fly backwards. They can fly more than five hundred miles without pausing to rest. But when they rest they come close to death: on frigid nights, or when they are starving, they retreat into torpor, their metabolic rate slowing to a fifteenth of their normal sleep rate, their hearts sludging nearly to a halt, barely beating, and if they are not soon warmed, if they do not soon find that which is sweet, their hearts grow cold, and they cease to be.
Consider for a moment those hummingbirds who did not open their eyes again today, this very day, in the Americas: bearded helmetcrests and booted racket-tails, violet-tailed sylphs and violet-capped woodnymphs, crimson topazes and purple-crowned fairies, red-tailed comets and amethyst woodstars, rainbow-bearded thornbills and glittering-bellied emeralds, velvet-purple coronets and golden-bellied star-frontlets, fiery-tailed awlbills and Andean hillstars, spatuletails and pufflegs, each the most amazing thing you have never seen, each thunderous wild heart the size of an infant's fingernail, each mad heart silent, a brilliant music stilled.
The price of their ambition is a life closer to death; they suffer heart attacks and aneurysms and ruptures more than any other living creature. It's expensive to fly. You burn out. You fry the machine. You melt the engine. Every creature on earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend in a lifetime. You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise, and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old.
So much held in a heart in a lifetime. So much held in a heart in a day, an hour, a moment. We are utterly open with no one, in the end -- not mother and father, not wife or husband, not lover, not child, not friend. We open windows to each but we live alone in the house of the heart.
Perhaps we must. Perhaps we could not bear to be so naked, for fear of a constantly harrowed heart. When young we think there will come one person who will savor and sustain us always; when we are older we know this is the dream of a child, that all hearts finally are bruised and scarred, scored and torn, repaired by time and will, patched by force of character, yet fragile and rickety forevermore, no matter how ferocious the defense and how many bricks you bring to the wall.
You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman's second glance, a child's apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words I have something to tell you, a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother's papery ancient hand in a thicket of your hair, the memory of your father's voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children.
No living being is without interior liquid motion. We all churn inside.
Hey diddle diddle, the cow ran away with the spoon. As the cow deserted, the dish lamented not for the lost spoon, but for a lost answer. Who will now jump over the moon?
The Little Prince knew the importance of such a question. “Look up at the sky,” he said, “Ask yourself, 'has the sheep eaten the flower or not?' And you will see how everything changes..."
I’ve been waxing crescent for years, partially illuminated,
a slender fraction of what could be.
Gripped by a phase in perpetual orbit, circling a
point in space that really isn't mine anymore.
Full illumination hangs visible; a watery light that attracts moths and me.
Courage is needed, the moths say patiently and repeatedly until one night it’s understood. One night, the daring that has built in your belly and strengthened in your diaphragm demands release. One night, uncontrollably, your hands funnel your mouth no longer able to muzzle what must be surrendered. One night, a mournful, untamed cry fills the air. Mockingbirds on dead branches call for you; crickets rub their wings in your honor. Octaves your ears no longer believed possible are heard. An aria so courageous the ground shakes. This is a cry the night knows. From the earth, a new moon rises illuminated. Illuminating. Slowly, eventually, quietly, the crickets still their wings; the mockingbirds leave for fresh perches. And finally, you know.
Did the sheep eat the flower?
No gravity on the moon? Ha. I’m pulled toward it every night.
Bite your tongue, silence is golden, if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all... Each a cliché, a worn out adage, that has no life on this blog. I appreciate every time somebody somewhere takes a moment out of their world to add something to mine.
This is a post, a quick tutorial on commenting, for those of you who have emailed or texted asking how.
Begin with the writer's words. If it's winter, do they heat your rooms slowly like a potbelly stove with adjectives simmering on top? Overspilling when they get too hot, requiring an oven mitt to touch? Do the icy adverbs grip you with their strength? Tease you with their slickness? If it's spring, do the words walk with you down a dirt road, no more or less traveled than any other, as difference already surrounds you? Are you stopped cold by perfect phrasing in the sweat of summer? Cooled more by a syntax only you and the tall trees understand? Is there a paragraph in autumn, written by someone unknown, that makes you wonder how that is? How someone unfamiliar knocks you on your ass with their words, takes your breath away, and leaves you to wonder when you'll get it back... question if you want it back?
Guess what? These aren't the writer's words anymore; they're yours.
Between stimulus and response there is a space, wrote Viktor Frankl. Within this space, we exist. Within this gap, live our experience, knowledge, purpose, and promise... except it's not a gap at all, is it? These are the very things that connect us to all matter and energy if we dare show what lies in our breast pocket, the one internal to our heart.
Click on the two cent section, the peanut gallery, the comment section at the end of the post. As if our thoughts are worth only two cents. Pull out what hides in your heart’s pocket. Lay it down with things others have said, or be the first. Choose an identity, even if it’s anonymous. The most beautiful words have been written by the anonymous. If you want to include your name, know an address in space isn't needed. Be published.
In other words:
1. 1. Click on the comment section at the end of the post
2. 2. Write a comment in the box
3. 3. Select an identity (don’t be dissuaded by the Name/URL choice; a URL is not needed)
4. 4. Click on ‘Publish Your Comment.’ don't keep your comments to yourself even if your voice shakes
“No one changes, but instead becomes more of who they always were,” an English teacher told me. As a high school student, I held closely those words armed by their promise. At a time when kindness and backbone lay crumpled at the bottom of my locker suppressed by insecurity, I hoped my hidden, more honest parts were a better indicator of who I truly was and may more become. I hoped for change, became more honest, kinder at times, and slowly understood that becoming isn't really a change at all, but instead, a slow reveal, an uncovering of oneself.
The trees and the leaves have always known this. Each fall, the nights grow longer, the temperatures colder, and slow mountain roads become filled with leaf peepers looking for change between Dairy Queens and roadside rest stops. Except leaves don't change. They too become more of what they always were. The colors we photograph, the aching heart reds and rusted out oranges, were always there present within each leaf since bud break. It's not until the lengthening nights of fall when photosynthesis is stopped and chlorophyll recedes into darkness do our color blind eyes see more than green. But those colors, those gorgeous colors, were always there. Invisible, but existing beauty waiting to be revealed, wanting to be uncovered, and only the darkness could do it.
This fall, as you toss on the lights at 3 pm or remark how much shorter the days have become, consider your own beauty unrevealed. Let whatever is covering it lose its fight. Feed it to the darkness. Allow your slow reveal to unravel the life you were meant to live; become who you always knew you were.
Vermont is coming for me. Each October, her long branches point west across Lake Champlain and into the Catskills of New York. From there, she rides the thermals across the Great Lakes regions of Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Migratory birds call from the shores, but Vermont has her own migration and will not rest today.
She tumbles into North Dakota with the sagebrush, causing a buffalo standing on the prairie to gaze into the sky wondering why her coat, already thick for winter, twitches on a still afternoon. Later, closer to twilight, a solitary wolf in Montana howls although there is no moon and a tree frog sings the hummingbirds to sleep. Vermont is on her way, and aren't I the last to know?
She tiptoes across forest floors, skips stones to cross streams, holds her breath over bridges. She splashes into Coeur D’Alene, and trails an apple orchard into Washington. Three peaks, Three Sisters, point her to Oregon. Meanwhile, I long. I long for early mornings with my mom and sisters, family pets long gone, and cold mornings that call for homemade blankets. I long, too, for afternoon drives with Dad through the countryside as my sister and I point out the fall foliage and say things like, “that hill is on fire” or “that tree is solid gold.” Early attempts at metaphor; saying one thing, but meaning another. Go ahead, fill your cup with apple cider if you want; mine gets filled with nostalgia this time of year.
By now, I've lived out of Vermont longer than I lived in it, but it's where I first breathed. Maybe all that we inhale in those first few breaths settles within, mixes with our blood and genes, and becomes another part of us, like shoe size, temperament, or balance. No matter where I am on the compass, every October Vermont comes for me, tells me I’m hers. Reminds me I was born on her turf. This year she finds me on a college campus. She wraps her branched arms around me as her crisp air slinks down my back. Air that's scented with mulch, sweetness, and the promise of winter. For a moment, I'm with my dad again in his orange van, the family cat, Gracie, is back on top of the fish tank, and the old kitchen table where my mom and sisters and I had tea in the morning has milk and spilled sugar on it once again, the way it did more than twenty five years ago.
And I think, wherever we are, wherever we were born,
Biked through the sunrise this morning with a headwind so stubborn it seemed to push me backward even on the long downward hills of Terwilliger. Was it trying to tell me something? Go back to bed maybe!?!
The float plane landed on remote Anan Bay with some surprising words from the pilot: He'd be back for us in four hours. WHAT? We were supposed to go into the woods, the woods with grizzly bears and black bears, alone? I mean, what if we saw one? Forgetting that was exactly the reason we were on this northern shore of the Cleveland Peninsula, somewhere south of Wrangell and north of Ketchikan. In fact, bear watching was our primary purpose for being in Southeast Alaska at all last August, but still, what if we saw one? "Make noise, sing, look big, and I'll see you at 1," he answered.
With that, he swung the nose of the plane south and piloted his three-seater down the watery runway toward Ketchikan and other adventurers eager to be dropped into their own Alaskan stories. We had four hours to write ours, and all that separated us from our story was a bear trail, one well-liked and well-used bear trail.
The trail to the LowerFalls at Anan Creek is an ancient bear trail going back perhaps 500,000 years. The Tlingit Indians used the path to reach their summer camps into the late 1800s, and Ronald Reagan walked it in 1992 when he visited Anan. As Reagan hiked to the falls, he fell, prompting a boardwalk to be constructed over the bear trail for easier access. Thanks to Ronald Reagan and his fall, Alaska bears received their first ever presidential boardwalk! At first, the boardwalk appeared to impact bear behavior; they wouldn't use it or cross it to access their fishing grounds. However, bears are adaptable. What's a boardwalk when your 15-20 million year history includes adaptations that allow you to eat a variety of food, hibernate when that food disappears, have excellent night vision, a sense of smell so keen that carrion a mile away is yours, and an ability to run up to speeds of 35 mph? Yeah, they had this boardwalk thing covered, and the bears were soon back to using their trail every time the salmon ran. The path in the picture to the left is a bear trail coming out of the woods down to the boardwalk. These smaller trails were everywhere; used regularly by bears on their way to and from the salmon.
Walking with bears awakens some internal, but dormant thread; one that backstitches patterns of today with yesterday's weavings. Anan is old, ancient in fact. Maybe it's this long passage of time that gives it the palpable energy felt by present day visitors. Wondering if the rustling in the high grass behind you is the wind or something wilder than yourself demands a presence of mind that is sometimes dulled in today’s plugged in world. Yet, despite nerves being on full alert, walking with bears is also peaceful, restorative, and at times, comical. I think it's because bears are all of these things and more . They are playful yet fierce; courageous, but shy; stalwart, yet yielding. In four hours, the bears at Anan gave me a story. They also gave me this: be more than one thing in any given moment, be dimensional, and know balance when those dimensions appear to oppose.
I'm still learning, so sorry about the layout of the pictures, but here is some of my story:
I worry about paddling through life with my head in the mud wondering why I'm getting water up my nose, but not really knowing how to right myself either. Suffocation comes easily for those of us pata allegres, wanderers with happy feet.At the wildlife refuge today, flocks of geese landed and departed, honked their hellos and good-byes, as I thought about Mary Oliver's poem Wild Geese. These lines specifically: Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Later, and deeper into the refuge, I stopped to review my photography notes. I wasn't getting any pictures, and was beginning to lose focus of my project. I simply wasn't seeing anything. Who knew I was being watched?
Mantids are able to turn their heads 180 degrees to scan their surroundings. They have three simple eyes located between two large compound eyes.
Isn't that the kindness of the world sometimes? To be seen when you can't see.
As it goes with wildlife, we eyeballed each other for awhile. With its five eyes it clearly had the advantage, and soon determined there was nothing more to see. With that, this three inch predator blended into its surroundings so perfectly, so seamlessly, that all that was left was a picture and a question.
Welcome to Split pea for me; I hope it turns out to be something for you too. Split Pea Traveler is a name that came to me, like so many things, in a cardboard box from Amazon. A few weeks before the Amazon box though, I paid more money than I had for anything in years and bought a MacBook Pro. The joy my mac brought to me every time I opened it was a joy that called for protection. You know what I'm talking about. This thing, the finest piece of machinery I owned, demanded a case. And not a clear case either because when is joy clear? Remember a campfire on a misty fall morning, an Orca cutting through the blue water as she travels north to feed, or a rainbow crossing the sky daring you to pickpocket it for gold. Don't we think in color? Dream in color? No, a clear case clearly wasn't worthy.
Hello Amazon.com. In 2007, the choices for cases were much more limited, so it didn't take long to find a lime green case that from the looks of it, promised to not only protect the joy my mac gave me, but increase it. Then it arrived. Lime green? No way. Sea green? Not even close. Split pea soup green? Totally. And in 2007, well, I hated split pea soup!
For some reason, I kept the case and even came to like it (the soup too). A year later sitting at my computer, which is named traveler, and dreaming of other places, I created a blog - splitpeatraveler.blogspot.com. Three years later, I'm actually doing something with it.