Category: Nature

Escaping the Labyrinth

It’s my sister’s birthday. Soon she will open the card and presents we sent her. I will call her later today to wish her well. To tell her I love her.

Like every relationship, ours has had its ebbs and flows. But Diane and I are the only ones left from our family of origin. The only ones who remember the best sounds of our St. Louis childhood–Dad slurping his breakfast beverages through the overflowing Coffee Hound cup we gave him or Mom sifting red and green sprinkles on sugar cookies shaped liked reindeer, candy canes, stars and Santas.

After our mother died in 2013, Diane and I each retreated into our individual darkness. We had worked together closely to care for her during her final years and months, but after Mom was gone I wasn’t sure we would escape the labyrinth of pain and grief or come out the other side whole. It wasn’t that I doubted our love, but we both had to find our personal paths to heal from the devastating loss.

For me that meant writing about it and sharing my observations in From Fertile Ground. Diane wasn’t keen on the idea. She preferred privacy. This difference between us–and the resulting grief-induced friction–was unexpected for me, but with time I realized I needed to respect my sister’s point of view. To this day, she rarely reads what I write.

In June of 2017, right before Tom and I left Illinois and moved to Arizona, Diane drove from her suburban Chicago home to visit with us on our backyard deck in Mount Prospect. I decided to give her the concrete birdbath that had been Mom’s, hoping it would remind her of the shared love we had for our nature-loving mother.

A few weeks later–on the way west–I landed in a St. Louis hospital after a heart attack. I called my sister to tell her what had happened. To hear her voice. To hear her love. That conversation was the turning point toward greater understanding.

In early September, Tom and I received a card from the American Heart Association in the mail. To acknowledge Tom’s and my sixth wedding anniversary, it told us Diane and Steve (my brother-in-law) had made a donation to the organization.

After I opened the card and wiped the tears from my eyes, I realized Diane and I had escaped the labyrinth of grief. Our relationship had emerged on the other side of the shadows. There was light on the horizon.

Rain

On the first morning of autumn, September’s long-forgotten-and-seldom-seen sister dropped in from beyond the buttes.

Unreliable rain interrupted an eight o’clock swim. She had ghosted us all summer. Promised her return. Teased us with phantom forecasts.

She stayed for ten minutes. Long enough to soothe freckled shoulders, heal parched souls, and cast a creosote cocktail over the palms.

Her intoxicating personality was the change we needed to silence the sameness. To swim and dance again under the clouds of our desert dreams.

Harsh Elements

Though September’s seventy-five-degree mornings are beginning to offer cooling relief from the Phoenix-area heat, the fire barrel cactus outside our back door is sunburned.

Fortunately, it’s still spiky, spunky, and nosy–always leaning to one side to eavesdrop as neighbors walk to the Crosscut Canal for an early morning stroll.

But the normally green skin of my old friend has turned to yellow. Matching the pot it resides in. More than fifty days of summer sun exposure in one-hundred-ten-degree heat will do that to you.

It isn’t practical for me to rub Aloe Vera gel on my plant with the piercing personality. That’s an especially bad idea for an avid gardener on a blood thinner. The spurting blood from my fingers would splash on our sidewalk.

Instead, Tom and I have shrouded it with two pieces of gauzy black cloth. This cactus shield of sorts (like a veil for an old Italian woman in mourning) should help it recover over time.

If I could, I would wrap the whole warming world and the body of every person in this protective material (along with a required mask, of course).

My scheme would give everyone a chance to breathe, grieve and heal away from harsh elements: devastating fires, thick smoke, high winds, swirling hurricanes, global pandemics, crippling anxiety, and one particularly- problematic-and-pontificating politician.

If only it were that simple.  

September Morn

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I was ready to turn my back on August. Forty widths of the pool under a dramatic partly cloudy sky helped me kiss the hottest month ever in the Valley of the Sun goodbye.

September began swimmingly.

In the 1960s on the first of September, Dad would shout “September morn” gleefully when my sister Diane and I walked into our suburban St. Louis kitchen for breakfast. It was a greeting his grandmother bestowed on him as a child. He loved it so much he embraced the tradition. Years later Mom adopted the practice when she woke us from our teenage slumber.

Dad thought September was the most beautiful month of the year. I believed him. The mornings and nights were cooler. The afternoon shadows longer. The hues and possibilities deeper.

If you followed September’s signs, they led you to the land of beginnings. Back-to-school shopping with Mom. A fresh supply of spiral notebooks, unopened boxes of crayons, striped shirts, blue jeans, and high-top Keds from Sears. A new teacher with new ideas in a new classroom. A mix of familiar and new-in-town classmates.

As a kid, I always envied Diane. She had a late September birthday. In my crew-cut brain, I fused it with the happy memory of a rhyme we chanted together: “September wears a party dress of lavender and gold.”

Even at sixty-three, seeing the first light in the Sonoran Desert on this September morn made me giddy. As Tom and I glided through the water,  back and forth across the pool, it helped me to realize that newness is never far away on the horizon.

Sometimes we just have to search a little longer to find September’s first light peeking through the clouds.

Birdland 2020

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When Nick called on Wednesday afternoon to tell us the air conditioning in their Tempe, Arizona home was out, I could hear the desperation in my thirty-six-year-old son’s voice.

He and girlfriend Aida had found a hotel room nearby for themselves, Aida’s teenage children (Mia and Tony) and Yorkshire terrier (Bella). But they needed a cool space for African grey (Zumra) and colorful conure (Kiki) to mark time until a wayward AC replacement part could be identified and shipped in the middle of a pandemic.

“Bring ’em on over,” I said. Tom, the ever-loving animal lover, nodded in agreement. “They’ll be comfortable here in our sun room.” We couldn’t imagine two exotic birds toughing it out, panting and squawking in a ninety-seven degree house in this endless, torrid Sonoran summer.

Without a hitch, we shouldered the feeding and watering responsibility. Surrogate parents (or possibly grandparents) to a couple of feathered gremlins who gazed at us through the bars of their cages and produced an errant squeak here or a flurry of acrobatic activity there. Simple, rhythmic reminders of where we were living for three days and nights: Birdland 2020.

Our featured performers dazzled us by carefully plucking multi-grain wafers, plantain chips, and sliced green grapes from our palms (without severing our fingertips with their impressive beaks), while balancing like circus performers on high-wire perches.

The only sideshow acts missing were a shouting ringmaster, dancing bears, freshly-spun cotton candy, and an oily carnival barker manning the carousel, as calliope music blared from the boombox in our living room.

Of course, the complete circus spectacle described here existed only in my storytelling imagination. Though on Thursday night, extra-curricular activities DID include a monsoon storm raging outside as Zumra and Kiki twirled and Joe Biden unfurled a  passionate speech. All of it summoned the rain and hope we had missed for months. No … years.

Now we are empty nesters again. Nick and Aida picked up Zumra and Kiki on Saturday evening. Their entire entourage is holed up in a larger, more comfortable apartment for the remainder of this week as they wait for permanent resolution on their uncomfortable AC odyssey.

All isn’t lost. Tom and I have the marvelous memory of two exotic travelers. Flapping, but unflappable. Unaware of the mayhem in the human world, Zumra and Kiki flew in and out in August, graced us with their plumage, and stole our bird-loving hearts.

While outside hummingbirds, mourning doves, mockingbirds, finches, desert wrens, and lovebirds brighten our world in Arizona every day. If we remember to look and listen, they remind us that nature is king, no matter who lives in the White House.

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Last Light

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“The desert, to those who do listen, is more likely to provoke awe than to invite conquest.”

Joseph Wood Krutch–author, naturalist, and conservationist

Quote adapted from The Voice of the Desert, 1954

Photo of Desert Botanical Garden by Mark Johnson, 2014

Between the Leaves

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I wait and watch for a streak of color. Darting from orange trees to palms, teasing me with a burst of playful chatter an octave higher than the rest.

In early mornings and late afternoons their love is on patrol. Campaigning for an end-of-summer fling before racing past the pool, back to school, purely from a distance.

Their tweets are the only ones I care to hear or ponder. For they live unencumbered, flying above the fray, pausing briefly to whisper true stories between the leaves.

Garden Shadows

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It’s become one of our beloved desert traditions. For the past three years on July 26th, Tom and I have walked to the Desert Botanical Garden.

Actually, we visit this physical and psychological oasis, tucked inside the easternmost edge of the Phoenix city limits, a few dozen times in a typical year. Because of the pandemic, only recently have we been able to return.

Twice in the past month–early on Sunday mornings–we arrived at a reserved time, stood as an electric eye scanned my phone confirming our tickets and membership, and entered behind our protective masks.

We love the stillness of the garden. The proximity to our home. The majesty of the saguaros and cardon cacti. The exotic succulents. The spiky boojum trees. The dazzling desert roses. The prickly pears in bloom. The tranquility and color of the wildflowers in spring. The harvest of the herb garden in summer.

The chatter of desert wrens, thrashers, woodpeckers and hummingbirds. The playfulness of the ground squirrels. Lizards pausing to do push ups on the trails. Bullfrogs croaking from a pond. Plentiful cottontails in the thicket. Occasional coyotes, long-eared jackrabbits, and road runners scurrying by to say hello and goodbye. Yesterday we spotted the latter two.

Most of all, it’s the connection to the natural desert landscape–and memories of those we’ve loved and lost–that draws us back. That’s where July 26th becomes significant. Yesterday would have been my mother’s ninety-seventh birthday.

Helen, a lifelong gardener and lover of nature, never joined us here. But it was a place she would have enjoyed for all of the reasons I’ve listed.

It’s a natural choice for Tom and I to come here each year on her birthday to acknowledge her past place in the world. To remember her shadow. Her legacy. The love and lasting positive impact she had on my life. Tom’s life. My sons’ lives. My sister’s life. All of our lives.

Of course, her physical shadow disappeared seven-and-a-half years ago. But Tom and I have carried the gardening mantle forward here in Arizona. Just as my sister Diane does at her home in Illinois. At this point, it’s our turn to appear at the front of the line in longevity, visibility and vulnerability.

So there Tom and I sat on Sunday. Casting our shadows in the garden on July 26, 2020. Pausing under the trees to reflect on how many we’ve loved and lost … four parents … and how far we’ve come together.

Doing our best to enjoy each day in spite of the turmoil that surrounds us. Taking cover from the pandemic under the shade of our broad-brimmed hats. Absorbing the comfort and magic of nature just outside our door.

 

Iridescent Scales

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You survive … no, thrive … scampering from shadows to shade, shimmering across scorched soil, ignoring what lies and lurks before you, replacing fears and pitfalls with truth and tenacity, imploring less reptilian ones to follow the flicker and flight of your iridescent scales.

 

Advanced Degrees

It’s July. It’s hot. It’s dry. It’s the Sonoran Desert. No surprises there.

But one-hundred-eleven? One-hundred-eleven again? One-hundred-thirteen? One-hundred-fifteen? One-hundred-seventeen?

These are the forecast high temperatures for Scottsdale, Arizona for Wednesday through Sunday of this week.

I’m not sharing this information to inspire pity or compassion. After all, I chose to live here.

Plus I won’t ever have to worry again about snow removal. Or icy sidewalks. Or digging decaying leaves out of gutters.

Or shoveling two-to-three feet of drifting snow. Or the cilia in my nostrils freezing solid in winter. Or driving down the street to discover that the snowplows have come through and blocked our driveway.

These are Chicago memories. November. December. January. February. March. April can be cold too. So can May.

Anyway, back to July in Arizona. It will rain again in the Valley of the Sun … some day.

Probably a vengeful monsoon or two in late July and August. The washes will fill up. And when they do, the thermometer will dip below 100. Sweater weather?

The local weather forecasters will have another monsoon story to tell. How to prepare for the next storm.

They’ll send their TV news crews out on the roads. To show us that actual rain is falling.

That the pavement on streets is wet. That windshield wipers are swooshing back and forth across glass. Only in Arizona will these ever be considered newsworthy.

Tom and I have figured out ways to manage in the Arizona heat. Early morning walks or swims or masked trips to the store. Reading and writing and yoga in the middle of the day in the AC of our condo.

Lighter meals. Fruit smoothies for lunch. Complements of the new Ninja we bought.

Scrabble. Game shows. Reruns of old sitcoms. That Girl and The Brady Bunch are our latest fixations.

Quiet dinners at home. Late evening strolls to the canal after the sun is down and the temperature is closer to 100 again.

This is the life of a desert rat. Living under the radar. Thinner. Tanner. Dryer. More tolerant of our advanced degrees.