Feeling Absolutely Useless

I was on a short retreat last week in Homer with 2 friends who I’ve shared writing with for 30 years. One morning did a writing prompt after reading a poem by David Ignatow. We chose a word or idea from his poem and wrote our own. The line I chose said, “When I die I want it to be said that I wasted hours feeling absolutely useless and enjoyed it, sensing my life more strongly than when I worked at it.” Here is what came to me.

Feeling absolutely useless

is not the void I thought would arise,

not the dark canyon where I would

have to crane my neck up to  regard 

 my failings and tryings

and sink down to my knees in regret. 

There comes a funny freedom now

not expected but intriguing,

like tentatively having a conversation with 

 a new person who might become a friend.

I feel my limbs grow longer feeling useless,

as if they could drag down to forever and 

just dangle there, swinging, keeping time

with a new rhythm of soul.

Feeling useless chops off any need anymore

to be responsible to or responsible for or responsible 

of all those things I was told to honor or respect

or most of all not question, even a little bit.

I’m lounging inside being useless, stretched 

out on a chaise of my long ignored timelessness

if I’m of no use, perhaps I will be used by 

that thing called grace, used up of all volition,

just suspended, just watching the trees, counting

leaves. I have never 

counted leaves.. 

But long ago I would kneel close to the ground 

and spend hours looking for a four leaf clover,

getting distracted with bugs who wandered by

or giving up and turning on my back, 

out of luck, looking at clouds. 

It was a useless thing I later learned to spend a day 

this way. There were chores to do, beans to walk, 

hay to bale, feed to grind, pigs to sort, cattle to feed,

eggs to wash, fences to build, fences to repair, tires to 

change, manure to scoop. So useful I was. 

But in this getting older time, as I slide to things more 

youthful inside, I want to take up the art of being 

useless again. My hands growing softer, my eyes focused 

on the thing right before my eyes and the time without 

a clock. 

Feeling useless, feeling a languid freedom, feeling 

A rewrite coming, a new draft, a blank page. 

Living and Giving and Living Again

Oxalis on a fallen redwood

There is a line in the book The Overstory by Richard Powers that describes “the curved light sinking through the branches” of the redwood forest in Humboldt country, California. 

And of the “giving trees” that replenish the woods as they die, giving back nutrients so that fungi and moss and bugs and birds and other trees live and in turn give back in that gorgeous and wise cycle. 

 I walked through that redwood forest last April thinking about living and giving and living again as a way of being in my own time on this earth. I couldn’t help but crane my neck back to see the very tops of the soaring redwoods, lifted up with them in the sky, a little dizzy with the height. As I bent my aching neck back down to earth,  I was captured by what the author had noted—“the curved light sinking through branches” onto the fallen redwood right beside me. I had almost walked past it with my eyes to treetops. But its presence reached out to nudge me and an insistent voice said, “Stop.” My husband wandered on ahead. I was left with the quiet companionship of that granted moment.  Just waiting. Just looking. Just being. My chest opened up gently then like a split in a trunk of tree. I took in the truth of what I was seeing. There it was. The small green plants were already springing up, already opening to the sun, already saying yes, already giving thanks to the majestic one that had fallen and died. In that moment I was held tenderly in the embrace of our reality—the giving that can arise naturally when things fall down and the living that can spring forth. With no regrets or rethinking things or resisting what the deeper wisdom of earth knows. 

My body is of this earth. At it’s most elemental level it knows I belong. Even when I die I will belong and will still be part of the cycle of living and giving.

 I’ve already done a lot of both in my life. At 68, I’ve a thick portfolio of experience. I can’t say I’m middle aged anymore.  As I contemplate this rich last expanse of my living, I want to be like this old tree, where I just do what comes naturally, without thinking about how I give, but knowing if I am true to myself, it just happens. No more trying. And when I fall that last time, any greening that arises, arises true. True as tiny green plants in the rays of sun.

Curved light sinks through the branches whispering to me of mysteries I will not uncover just yet, but assuring me—this green, this light, this returning to life.  

Passing the Baton

This weekend I watched the “Dirty Dozen” relay running team come over the finish line in Seward on Saturday afternoon. Each of the team members had run 3 legs of the 180 mile course starting Friday afternoon and running through the night.  Although I was there to support my son-in-law, Brandon, who was on the team, nine of the twelve were women, most of  them with children and active professional lives.  As they milled around the fire at our campsite after the race, talking about their times and lack of sleep and what they would do differently next year, I was impressed with their confidence and resolve.  They were all members of Crossfit, a gym program that focuses on strength training, and many of the women didn’t have the usual runner physiques. My daughter, Karrie, reported that some of them didn’t run much at all. She said in an almost casual aside to me, “Strong is the new skinny.” 

I felt some relief wash over me with that simple statement. Sometimes it seemed that this next generation had forgotten about the fact that women got the vote only in 1920, that I still had to have a man “sponsor” me when I  wanted to get a credit card or open a bank account in 1977. I worried they were taking for granted all the ways women of my generation worked to change the narrative of what it means to walk or work as a woman other than as a nurse, teacher or secretary—my supposed options when I went to college, all to prepare me as well for motherhood. I sometimes thought they had forgotten why women burned bras and sang “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar.” And sexual harassment in the work place was tolerated to keep the job while “boys will be boys.”

But I should have never forgotten the deep sisterhood and the new feminine spirit arising. They are doing it their way, rising up in all professions, taking hammers to the glass ceiling, no longer silent about harassment and abuse. “Me too” but no more.

There is a long way to go before the  balance of the masculine and feminine arrives. but I know the next generation hasn’t forgotten, that it is including women from all over the world and they will create their own initiatives so their daughters know better equality and respect. While many of my generation tried to gain power by becoming more like men, wearing our version of suits to work, this generation are becoming more like real women. The girls on the team wore brightly colored sequined short skirts to run their race! And they aren’t burning their bras but letting those bra straps show, something my mother taught me was bordering on wonton. 

They have taken the baton from us (although we keep running alongside) and continuing this relay to uncover, explore and celebrate being female.  And the males on the team like my son-in-law, are running with them too, also working to be men in a new way in a world that expects them to be strong but not vulnerable. That’s a tough race for them too. but let it be noted that the men on that team were wearing sequined head bands too! It is one where we need to support them  as they support us, not ourselves falling back to the old stereotypes of what we thing men should be. Brandon said he was teased by his women teammates about ‘not losing to a girl’ in jest, of course, yet it highlights an old way of thinking by women too and we need to listen for that. 

 And then there is the new race of what it means to be transexual and bisexual that is has just crossed the starting line and getting its running legs. But from yesterday, it is my daughter’s quote that sings to me.

“Strong is the new skinny.”  I’m going to start lifting more weights. 

Going Dutch

It all started when I asked my friend, Linda, what she wanted to do for her 70th birthday. “I’ve always wanted to take the ferry to Dutch Harbor and see the Aleutians,” she replied. “Oh, I’ve never been there!” I replied. “Can I go?”  In the same way, others jumped onboard and soon there were 7 of us signed on. Our original idea was to take the ferry from Homer to Dutch Harbor but even 3 months ahead of time, the berths were already reserved. And although you can camp onboard, having a berth seemed like a requirement in these later years. So Linda had the idea to see if there were berths for the return from Dutch to Homer. Bingo! We tacked on three days in Dutch Harbor for  hiking, another of Linda’s favorite things. And the birthday trip was on . 

We had low expectations for the weather and the seas. The area is famous for horizontal rain and seasick crossings. But we must have been under the karma of a 70th birthday. Our days in Dutch Harbor were a mixture of morning fog and afternoon sun. The first night set the tone with the Wednesday seafood buffet in the fishing capital of the world. Piles of king crab, prawns, scallops. Halibut, swordfish, salmon. Endless salads and desserts. We gorged on plate after plate as we sat at our round table overlooking Mag Bay. 

We were surprised to find that Dutch Harbor has a huge Safeway store and what can’t be found there is available at the nearby Alaska Ship Supply. We hiked Bunker Hill, a visible reminder of how this area was under Japanese attack in World War II. The next day we ascended Ballyhoo Mountain where we signed the buoy at the top (so appropriate for a fishing town) under a Russian Orthodox Cross. 

It’s a working town with few frills. There’s no cute  dress shops or places to browse books. The street where we walked advertised for welding and rope and tire repair. Fish and Game and the Coast Guard have offices there and there are huge boxlike structures where the cannery workers live. There’s not the usual small boat harbor either. Here the fishing vessels are massive, big enough to take the weather of the Bering Sea. We were so intrigued by the functional artistry of the long line nets stacked everywhere. Appropriately, they are called ‘haystacks” as that is what they look like. And there is a local drink and a local pizza named after them in town. And a famous Norvegian Rat Bar monikered after the infestation of rats that came ashore from whaling vessels long ago.

It is the king crab fishing capital of the world evidenced by the stacks of pots so high and vast, they could be hotels. Eagles become almost commonplace, perching on any tall projections, nesting in the hills and cliffs above town and soaring overhead in the heat thermals. What was strange is that there were no sea gulls in this harbor town. I don’t think I have ever seen that!  

ds of haystacks

We rented a car and drove the Overland Trail that looped seven miles above the town to a height of 1600 feet. Narrow and graveled, it snaked beside lakes and waterfalls with a few hairpin turns to the crest where we could see to the other side of the island.  

At the crest

We ended our trip with a 3 day Alaska state ferry ride back to Homer. May post on that ride later–but the treacherous Kodiak to Homer crossing was like crossing a lake!