Wednesday, December 31, 2014

on this year's dying day

on this year's dying day
a yearling doe laid down in the woods
on three legs to die

I'm scanning the trail closely, uneven with frozen muddy tracks strewn with trip sticks. Easy to turn an ankle. Everywhere, an earthy palette of browns and grays. Suddenly, a patch of white. I squat to examine what looks like a mesh of white plastic fibers. But when I touch them, I realize it's deer fur.

Looking up I finally see, just an arm's length away, a dead deer, a small yearling doe. She's lying on her side, her neck curled around a small bush, three legs stretched out as if she's running. But she's missing her right hind leg, the bare hip bone protrudes from her fur.

          Fur everywhere. Some animal has been at work on the hind end of the corpse. Hard to know the cause of death. Perhaps she got hit by a car on the nearby highway and managed to hobble into the woods to die. Or maybe this small one got hamstrung and brought down by coyotes.
          The words of an old Shapenote song come to me: "And am I born to die, to lay my body down." Certainly birth is a death sentence. But life is a rare opportunity to experience this material world, in all its messiness and glory. Then when it's time, the body wants to go back to the earth from where it came, while the spirit, well, the spirit doesn't go anywhere. It's where it's always been and always will be, just no longer attached to the physical body.
          This little one didn't live long in the world, but she must have learned a lot, enough to move on. So I leave her flesh to be consumed by wild animals until only her bones are left to lie among the decaying leaves and fallen trees. Then I too move on down the trail.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

ICONic desserts

ICONic desserts
in the study, coats upstairs,
art in every room

I almost had to beg Bill Teeple, my art teacher and director of ICON gallery, to let me donate something for the annual art auction. He graciously explained that he doesn't like to ask his students, but I wanted to make a contribution to keep the gallery financially afloat. Since I'm not among the many professional artists in the show, we were both pleased that three of my four pieces sold, a small gouache painting and two Peruvian photographs. I guess that makes me, what, semi-professional?
          As a result, I've been invited for the first time to the traditional thank-you dinner for donors. My husband and I arrive at 7:20, a time I feel is reasonably on time and fashionably a little late. However, when we pull up to the house, lit up with a big ICON auction sign by the front walk, no cars are parked on the street. Inside, no one in sight, except a dour lady in a painting on the hall wall. 
          "Hello?" I call.
          A short lady wearing an apron and a page boy haircut bustles out from the back of the house and gestures toward the narrow black staircase. 
          "Randy's upstairs changing."
          "Are we early?" I ask, knowing the answer.
          "Well, it's supposed to start at 7:30," she replies, then hastens to add, "but everyone will be glad that you're here first."
          I'm staring at the neatly lettered signs with arrows directing guests: ICONic desserts (right), Food (left), Coats and Lavatory (up).
          A slender man with a long face topped by short grey hair bounds down the stairs and stops in surprise.
          After introducing ourselves, I explain that we thought the dinner started at 7:00.
          "No problem. Put your coats upstairs, then come have a drink in the kitchen." 

          At the top of the stairs, more signs point to two bedrooms for coats. Everything is so scrupulously neat, it looks like a Bed and Breakfast. In the bedroom to the right, John opens the closet. Empty. Not even any hangers. So we put our coats on the bed. I'm looking at the art work on every wall, each piece neatly labeled with the name of the art piece and the artist, all Iowa artists. 

          Our host is waiting for us at the bottom of the stairs when we come down.
          "Are you an artist?" I ask. 
          "No, I just collect art."
          We're still the only guests, so he escorts us to the kitchen along the hallway, lined with small pencil drawings in large black frames.
          "Ah, I see you collect Bill Teeple."
          "Yes, that's six of the nine."
          More artwork on all the walls of the kitchen, as well as the counters. On one counter, buckets of bottled drinks, each labeled, but Randy rattles off the contents: spring water, fizzy juice, beer, wine. On another counter, stainless steel urns for coffee, decaf coffee and hot water, labeled of course. There's also a can of cocoa with instructions for how to make hot chocolate. And two tiny exquisite paintings of a pear and a cluster of rose hips.
          I choose a bottle of pomegranate juice, pour it into a clear plastic cup and wander off to explore the rest of the house. In the dining room, two 18th century paintings of what I assume are family portraits stare across the dining table at one large abstract collage. A floor lamp in one corner wears a red scarf around its neck.

          I feel like I'm in an art gallery rather than a home. The walls in every room in the vintage clapboard are painted with rich colors, contrasting with the cream colored woodwork. An antique wooden desk in the study holds a large Chinese porcelain platter. In the corner of the living room, an antique Chinese screen. Even the front window looks like abstract art, the white lines of Venetian blinds hovering over the blurred lights in the darkness outside.

          Every table in every room holds either a plate of cookies and chocolates or cheese and crackers arranged like a still life: a large wedge of Camembert, a square of Blue cheese, a roll of cheddar studded with bits of pecan, thin crackers, a bunch of white grapes, a jar of fig jam with a paper cover and a silver knife and spoon. 
          Seeing me eye the cheese in the small parlor, Randy says, "Try this. Put a bit of Blue on a sesame cracker and top it with a dab of fig jam. Delicious!"
          Finally, other guests begin arriving, so I stop taking photographs. When Bill arrives I follow him into the kitchen, where he takes up a station in a chair in front of the kitchen sink. It's an odd place to sit, since the lady in the apron and a woman from the restaurant are busy setting up for the catered dinner. 
          "Randy is quite an art collector," I comment.
          "Yes, that's a piece by a well-known Washington artist in the dining room. His mother owned a horse farm in Virginia. When she passed on he sold the farm.
That's where the money comes from. Then he moved to Fairfield."

          "Thank goodness there are people like that who support local artists."
          Bill tells me that my photographs went to two local people, but my painting was purchased by a couple in Wisconsin, one of whom is an art collector. Bill took photos of all the artwork in the show with him when he went to visit them in November, and out of a couple of hundred pieces, they chose mine. I'm flattered. When it comes to art, you never know what's going to appeal to people. 
          After a while, it's clear that we're in the way of the food servers, who are trying to get silverware out of a drawer and use the sink. Dinner is ready, so we move into the dining room to serve ourselves from the warming trays: curried chicken, curried tofu, steamed vegetables, rice and beans. Then I look for a place to sit and eat. People are sitting and standing to eat everywhere. Finally I find a large chair in the living room.
          A tall girl with cafe au lait skin and long matted brown locks sits down next to me. She's wearing a low cut sleeveless top which reveals graceful spiral tattoos embracing her neck and a pink lotus floating between her breasts, the green stem disappearing down the cleft. I wonder where it ends up. Maybe it emerges from her navel, or perhaps the root chakra.
          But instead of voicing that question, I ask, "Are you an artist?"
          "No, I'm here as a guest of an artist."
          "Well, you're a walking piece of art," I reply. 
          "Yes, I like to wear my art."
          With or without clothes . . . .
          Her artist friend arrives, a short man with a round face dressed all in black. As he sits down next to the lotus girl, his eyes travel to that cleft and pause a moment before he turns his attention to his plate of food.
          The house is teeming with people now, chatting in little groups in every room and hallway. I hardly know anyone. I recognize my photography teacher and her husband, our neighbor across the road whose handmade book graces the mantle, and an artist who has her own little gallery. I'm not good at small talk, so I wander around people-watching, an art show in motion.
          In the kitchen a big man dressed like an old hippie in loose layers, lots of beads and one thin gray braid hanging over his shoulder is talking animatedly to a young girl in skin-tight purple jeans who sports a ring with a turquoise stone almost as long as her finger. She's wearing a long sleeve black bolero jacket over a green tank top. When she moves her arm to sip her drink, a small crescent of bare skin shows between the jacket and the tank top. The man flicks his eyes to the exposure and talks faster.
          In the parlor a man wearing a vest, a 19th century frock coat and a tweed driver's cap is talking with a woman in a hand-painted chiffon dress who owns another art gallery. She's getting ready to close up shop. So many artists but not enough buyers in this small town.
          In the study the apron lady brings out a silver tray piled high with chocolate eclairs and cream puffs, which she deposits on the desk like a tray of gold bars and coins. A large man sits behind the desk, like a broker presiding over the distribution of commodities. I take one of each and retire to the hallway.
          While I'm nibbling on my treats, a man breaks away from another group and comes directly up to me.
          "Do you remember me?" he asks. "We used to work together many years ago."
          "Yes, of course I remember." I also remember that he was a programmer and is married to one of the artists.
          "What was it you did at that company?" he asks
          "Whatever they asked me to do," I reply vaguely. "I worked at so many different jobs over the years . . . ."
          "Well, do you remember what you told me once about Contra dancing? We came a few times and I was having trouble with the dance patterns, so I made a computer program to show the moves. And you said, 'You're missing the point. You have to get out of your head and into your body.' I never forgot that and I've told that story many times over the years."
          "Oh dear, I'm embarrassed," I said. "It is important to understand the pattern, especially if you have a sharp intellect, and then learn the steps with your body."
          "Still, what you said back then made a big impression on me."
          "Why don't you and your wife give Contra dancing another try? We have a dance the first Saturday of every month, and we do English country dancing every Friday except the first Friday."
          I'm ready to leave, so I go looking for our host to say goodbye. Apron Lady is quick to notice that I need something. 
          "He's out there," she says, pointing through the kitchen window to the deck.
          Randy is standing with a small group of men. All of them are smoking.
          "Oh, I wouldn't want to bother him," I say.
          But she taps on the window. Randy looks around and comes to the back door. When he opens it, he puts his lighted cigarette in his pocket.
          It takes me a few seconds to realize that it must be an electric cigarette.
          "You're leaving? Thanks for helping out ICON. I've seen you around town, but didn't know who you were, so now I'm glad to know you."
          Though we've barely spoken, it's true that now we know each other's face. And wouldn't you know, the next evening when we go to the Chamber Singer's concert, Randy is sitting in the row behind us. When he sees that I see him, he waves.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

in the leaf bare woods

in the leaf bare woods
the only Christmas color --
green moss with red spores

No white Christmas this year. The day dawns clear and warmer than usual for late December. After a big Christmas dinner with family, I go for a walk in the woods. The only spots of color among the duff and gray trees are clusters of dark red rose hips in a big brier patch and plush clumps of fluorescent green moss sprouting red spore capsules on hair-thin stalks. 

Pilgrim Creek is half full and the trails are wet. I stop to look at a tree on the edge of the cliff, its roots sticking out in the air. It will be the next to fall, taking with it the moss pillow at its base. This is the way of the wandering creek, to cut into a bank on one side and deposit mud on the opposite side as the water makes its serpentine way toward its faraway home in the ocean.
          There on the far bank, I appear as a shadow cast by sunlight, more ephemeral than the old tree or the regenerating moss.

unasked for presents

unasked for presents --
two mice in a tin cat on
Christmas morning

Have you ever been given a present you didn't ask for and don't want? What to do with it? On the first day of Christmas, we awake to find, not a partridge in a pear tree, but two mice in a tin cat. I can't believe Santa Claus would leave them for us because they were definitely not requested. Though not unexpected. We've been trapping two, three, four mice a day in our three humane traps since the weather turned colder.

Usually, we relocate the mice much further away from our house, but it's Christmas Day and we're having a family dinner in half an hour, so I take these two out to the fallow corn field adjacent to our property to release them. When I open the lid, I only see one mouse, cowering back in the shadows.

It freezes in fear, but then leaps out and scurries away. So where's the other one? What's that hanging down from the entrance tunnel? Aha, a tail!

This little mouse feels safe inside its small cubbyhole. When I rattle the trap, it turns and buries its head in the corner. So I turn the trap upside down and shake it, and finally bright eyes jumps out and scampers off.
          Recently I read an article in Mother Earth News, "How to Keep Mice away This Winter without Hurting Them," by Kayla Matthews. She says that mice are as intelligent as dogs. Well, that I believe. I actually witnessed one in broad daylight, drawn by the smell of wet cat food in the kitchen, push the cover off the bowl with its head and crawl inside to eat, something a sneaky dog would do. 
          Matthews claims that mice are able to recognize their given names when called by humans. Now, I think she must be talking about pet white mice here, not field mice. We would certainly never encourage one by giving it a name let alone keep it as a pet. A friend told me that she caught two mice in a humane trap one winter. Not wanting to release them while it was cold, she put them in an empty aquarium with a lid and fed them for several months. She didn't clean out the cage, just kept adding more sawdust. When she finally released them, she counted at least 25 mice. This might have been only one litter, since a female can birth up to 24 pups in 3 weeks.
          Matthews also says that mice are able to empathize with one another, communicating vocally with squeaks that human ears can't hear and using facial expressions to convey moods. The two mice I released today certainly looked terrified, and maybe they were squeaking, but I couldn't tell.
          The author emphasizes that mice are extremely organized and tidy, designating areas within their homes for food, shelter and toileting purposes. The part about food I can attest to, having found stashes of dry cat kibble in the bottom of my camera case, in a drawer in the bathroom and under the mattress in the guest bedroom. 
          However, I've found tiny black turds all over the house, from kitchen counter tops to living room tables to closet shelves. But I do know of one incidence of a designated latrine. For years I kept smelling a bad odor in one corner of the bedroom, which got worse in the winter. Sometimes I could hear squeaks, a sound that even my human ears could detect. Finally, we pried the wood off that corner and discovered that mice had excavated a space in the clay/straw wall and were using it for toileting purposes. They may be tidy in that regard, but to me it was a huge, smelly mess to clean up. Now I frequently spray that area with peppermint oil in the hopes that it will deter them from returning. Ammonia soaked rags are also supposed to be a natural deterrent, but that would also deter me from sleeping in the bedroom.
          Like burglars, mice are notorious for being able to enter anywhere. They can fit their bodies through holes as small as a dime, balance on a wire and climb vertical walls, as long as the wall has some gripping texture, which they detect with their whiskers. No wonder we find evidence of them all over the house, from the top of the cupboard to the bottom of the clothes drier to inside kitchen drawers.
          Typically they stay with 9 to 24 feet (3 to 8 meters) of their nest, Matthews says, even when searching for food. I wonder about that, since our house is bigger than 24 feet. But I have noticed that when we keep the cat food in the refrigerator at night, we find evidence that the hungry mice have been gnawing on our soap and beeswax candles.
          This gnawing business is one of their most annoying characteristics. They gnaw to eat, of course, and to make nests, but they also must gnaw to wear down their teeth, which continue to grow their entire life. One year we discovered to our horror that mice had gotten into the hall closet and chewed holes in our good coats and leather shoes. This kind of destruction makes them most unwelcome guests.
          We do use humane traps, but Matthews maintains that the captured mice should be released within 100 yards (300 meters) of the trapping site. "Taking mice further away often results in their deaths," she says, "as they're unfamiliar with the area and are less likely to find food and water sources quickly." Since we live in the country, sources of food and water are abundant, and we don't want them finding their way back into the familiar area of our house, so we normally release them further away.
          However, this is Christmas, so those two mice got an unexpected, if unasked for, present today, freedom in a nearby corn field. I hope they don't come back!

Monday, December 22, 2014

nestled among bare thorns

nestled among bare thorns
an old bird nest spilling red 
fragments of rose hips

On the shortest day of the year, I go for a walk in the winter bleak woods, shiny wet from a slow misty rain. Bare gooseberry and multiflora rose bushes stretch their thorny branches out across the open space of the trail, catching my boiled wool jacket as I pass. At one huge multiflora bush sprawling along Pilgrim Creek, I stop to pick clusters of red rose hips to decorate my evergreen wreath. I don't have a knife, so it's tricky sticky business, reaching among the wicked briars to break off the bracts. 
          As I try to extricate myself from the impaling thorns, I notice an old bird nest, tucked safely away back from the trail. From the loose, twiggy construction, it looks like the work of a Robin. The nest is filled with the red remains of rose hips, the half-eaten fragments deposited perhaps by the same birds who hatched from that nest last spring. 
          Hanging vertically in its thorny cage, the nest looks like the red heart of winter.

holiday shopping

holiday shopping -- 
a girl in a red cap watches
a red toy train go 'round

Hurrying into Everybody's grocery store, I'm trying to remember my mental list for holiday meals. Each family member and friend has different tastes that run the gamut from carnivore to gluten-free to vegan. I rush through the entrance, decorated with artificial Christmas trees, Santa and Mrs. Claus, elves, lots of lights and glitter. 
           But as soon as I enter the store proper, I slow down to walk around the three-level electric toy train display. Every year it gets bigger and better. There must be at least a half a dozen trains in different colors zipping past miniature houses, stores, churches, trees. 
          I'm not the only one fascinated by the trains. A little girl with a cherubic face under a knit red cap gazes with rapt attention while her parents go shopping. I can hardly wait until my grandchildren arrive so I, too, can take them to Everybody's to see the wondrous electric trains.

Monday, December 8, 2014

red and gold dragon

red and gold dragon
with cape and fan magically
shape changes faces

The masked figure -- is it a man or a woman? -- prances around the stage, flourishing a large red fan and red cape embroidered with gold dragons. In the blink of an eye, the mask changes, now blue, now black, now red, now yellow -- a dozen times. Finally, the last mask comes off and we see that the illusionist is a woman. 

The National Acrobats of the People's Republic of China has been mesmerizing audiences worldwide with stunning displays of acrobatics, balance, juggling, contortions and illusions for over 60 years. Our little town of Fairfield, Iowa, was are fortunate to be part of their 2014 North American "Cirque Peking" tour for a sold-out performance at the Sondheim Center.

Vibrant costumes and music add to the spectacle.

Juggling a drum end over end is more difficult than spinning the drum on its side. Each act progresses from difficult to seemingly impossible.

Spinning five plates on long poles in each hand is quite a feat, but how about keeping them going while doing the splits on someone's shoulders?

To literally top it all, a woman keeps her plates spinning while doing a hand stand on another acrobat's head, while that acrobat stands on top of another acrobat's shoulders. It's simply unbelievable. The upside down acrobat's feet are at least 15 feet (3 meters) above the stage and the plates almost to the top of the curtains. Lots of spotters for this stunt.

Riding a tall unicycle is hard enough, but balancing a pile of bowls on top of your head at the same time is even more difficult. Then add to that, one lady catches bowls tossed from one foot by each of her companions, who manage to keep their unicycles in place with the other foot.

A whole group of men perform stunts on unicycles, but this one is the most amazing. The tall unicycle consists of two parts, a large "wheel"and a "fender" with attached seat and pedals balanced on top. At the end, the acrobat leans forward and jumps off, holding the top section.

Two men holding up three ladies, another man and a boy. The troupe has a training program with 50 teachers and 500 students, many of them quite young.

Amazing to see someone doing a complete back bend, let alone holding up someone doing a handstand.

A pair of men display tremendous strength and balance in a series of graceful poses.

Another couple show not only strength but incredible flexibility.

And then there is the woman who turns into a pretzel inside a giant green slinky. At one point she walks her legs all the way around her body. Must have a spine like a snake.

Twirling a lariat ain't easy, but this "cowgirl" is doing it upside down on one foot.

Two men tumbling through a lariat.

That's four ropes the woman in the middle is jumping. We used to jump rope in grade school, but the most I ever managed was two ropes at the same time.

Then there are the men who do somersaults while jumping rope.

Also somersaulting over a flag.

And jumping through higher and higher hoops.

Balancing on a flexible bamboo pole takes skill and focus.

But how about doing it on a mono-stilt, then execute a somersault and come down with that tiny foot on the narrow pole. A spotter keeps his eye on her the whole time.

This colorful clown demonstrates how fast he can switch hats.

I've tried juggling ordinary bean bags. Not easy. But juggling hats? At one point he has five high in the air.

Five little worms turn into one big caterpillar and amble across the stage.

A dazzling display of costumes and spinning yoyos lit by black light. The performers do fantastic tricks with the Chinese tzuh-ling, also known as empty bell, pulling bell or wind bell, using the sticks to toss the yoyos in the air and all around their bodies.

All too soon, the grand finale. One young man top right demonstrates that it's not as easy as it looks.

欢迎再来 Huānyíng zàiláiHuānyíng zàilái  ! Please come again!
Goodbye and come again!