Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Eggs and Thorns

Judy Spahn is a remarkable maker of fine quilts, all hand pieced and quilted. She lives on a large acreage in the lake country of Arkansas and finds peace and delight in her environment. I’m always enchanted by the significance she finds in the small elements of her surroundings. I'm honored to be her friend and delighted to share this writing from her.
 Today, while returning from taking a few pine seedlings to my neighbor to plant, I stopped along a piece of land that will soon be mine, inherited from my mother, who only recently passed away.  This fence row has been neglected for a long time and has grown up with cedars, sumac, Greenbriar and every other assortment of roadside abandonment. 
I was only pondering how hard it would be to clean all this out when I noticed one tree in particular had huge, nasty thorn spikes.  The locust, while admired in some instances, is NOT a tree that should be allowed to grow just anywhere.  The thorns can injure animals and poke holes in tires.  So, I decided that the moment was right to start my fence clearing, even if it was just this one tree.
I waded into the tall grass, knowing it contained ticks and chiggers, which I abhor, for I was determined.  With only hand clippers and a small chain saw, I proceeded to dive into the task at hand, neatly stacking the limbs with single thorns, into a pile.  Only after I had removed a covering of greenbriar was I able to reach the trunk of this tree where I noticed the thorns were multi-spiked and dark red in color.  They were gorgeous and nasty looking, simultaneously.
I clipped them off, thinking I'll save these and also keep them from injuring me, inadvertently, as well.Then on to sawing the tree down and clearing out all the debris.  Returning home and putting away my tools, I  stashed my new thorns into the china cupboard, atop the robins eggs and nest that were inside my mother's antique bowl, and next to the deceased butterflies and the dried mushrooms I'm often finding and saving.  All my treasures, both natural and man-made seem to be quite happy together in this glass fronted cupboard.
Only several days later, when I was taking photos, did I think to bring out my thorns so I could save their image. The bowl with the nest of eggs seemed, somehow, to work perfectly with the thorns, so that is how I photographed them.  Even later, after looking at the resulting photo did the composition strike me as having a bigger meaning...a message almost....that was saying something to me.
I felt that somehow, the photo with the eggs and the thorns, cuddled into the nest, captured the way life is a two edged sword.  Life is so amazingly full of blessings and new life, but also fraught with dark, pain, disappointment, illness....the dangers, the fears.   But, as with these thorns, being so beautiful in their undisturbed state,  there is still something that dark and sad events bring to our lives that make it important.  I think we all know this, but it is not always acknowledged....or even felt until some tragedy happens and we have to work our way through it. 
The thorns remind me of the pain of my mother's and acute.  But, the beauty of the thorns was also there, reminding me that in life, there is balance of joy and beauty along with pain. 
Here in this photo were these tangible objects that reflected my own turbulent emotions.  Loss of someone I so dearly loved and my own new feelings of returning to the joys of life,....the "thorns" amongst the "eggs".....the difficult mingled with the joys.....all of this is LIFE.

The New Emperor: A Fable

In a land far away and a time not so long ago, gold flowed freely and delicious red apples grew on every tree. Children danced in the streets and cows mooed in the fields. People whistled on their way to work.

Then a whisperer came to town. "The gold is fake," he murmured, "and those apples are genetically modified.

“Take your children inside,” he said, “trolls are on the loose. And, you better build fences around those cows. There’s wolves you know."

The people looked around, crept inside, locked their doors, stopped whistling. They peered out their curtains, watched every stranger and even their neighbors. Clouds darkened every day.

Until one day, a yellow-haired hero arose. “I’ll save you,” he called. “Follow me and we’ll be great again,” he promised.

He waved his huge sword, made of the finest, gilded cardboard, and marched through the streets.

People cracked their doors, peeked out into the streets looking this way and that, then tip toed into line behind him, nodding their heads, beginning to smile again.

Their hearts rose as they sang songs of praise to their hero, raised banners to his promises.

They didn’t listen when one little child asked, “Does his heart look a little black?” 
They didn’t see him kick the cat. They ignored the vulture that rode on his shoulder.

One day, he asked them for the key to the store house ...

                         (to be continued)

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Book: Secret Life of Trees

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I want to read this book ... but know it's not going to happen any time soon, so I'm saving this for a rainy day. In the mean time, the two articles below offer a happy taste.

The first comes from the remarkably thoughtful and rich offerings of, one of my favorite places on the web (host Maria Popova, says, "I'm a reader, writer, interestingness hunter-gatherer, and curious mind at large." This is just a snippet of a longer piece she wrote about the book.

"Why are trees such social beings? Why do they share food with their own species and sometimes even go so far as to nourish their competitors? The reasons are the same as for human communities: there are advantages to working together. A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old. To get to this point, the community must remain intact no matter what. If every tree were looking out only for itself, then quite a few of them would never reach old age. Regular fatalities would result in many large gaps in the tree canopy, which would make it easier for storms to get inside the forest and uproot more trees. The heat of summer would reach the forest floor and dry it out. Every tree would suffer.

The other article is actually a review from

Perfect Excellent Unforgettable
As a young lad in Germany, Peter Wohlleben loved nature. He went to forestry school, and became a wood ranger. At this job, he was expected to produce as many high quality saw logs as possible, with maximum efficiency, by any means necessary. His tool kit included heavy machinery and pesticides. This was forest mining, an enterprise that ravaged the forest ecosystem and had no long-term future. He oversaw a plantation of trees lined up in straight rows, evenly spaced. It was a concentration camp for tree people.

Wohlleben is a smart and sensitive man, and over the course of decades he got to know the tree people very well. Eventually, his job became unbearable. Luckily, he made friends in the community of Hümmel, and was given permission to manage their forest in a less destructive manner. There is no more clear-cutting, and logs are removed by horse teams, not machines. In one portion of the forest, old trees are leased as living gravestones, where families can bury the ashes of kin. In this way, the forest generates income without murdering trees.

Wohlleben wrote The Hidden Life of Trees, a smash hit in Germany. It will be translated into 19 languages. The book is built on a foundation of reputable science, but it reads like grandpa chatting at fireside. He’s a gentle old storyteller explaining the wondrous magic of beautiful forests to befuddled space aliens from a crazy planet named Consume. He teaches readers about the family of life, a subject typically neglected in schools.

Evergreen trees have been around for 170 million years, and trees with leaves are 100 million years old. Until recently, trees lived very well without the assistance of a single professional forest manager. I’m serious! Forests are communities of tree people. Their root systems intermingle, allowing them to send nutrients to their hungry children, and to ailing neighbors. When a Douglas fir is struck by lightning, several of its close neighbors might also die, because of their underground connections. A tribe of tree people can create a beneficial local climate for the community.

Also underground are mycelium, the largest organisms yet discovered. One in Oregon weighs 660 tons, covers 2,000 acres (800 ha), and is 2,400 years old. They are fungi that send threads throughout the forest soil. The threads penetrate and wrap around tree roots. They provide trees with water, nitrogen, and phosphorus, in exchange for sugar and other carbohydrates. They discourage attacks from harmful fungi and bacteria, and they filter out heavy metals.

When a limb breaks off, unwelcome fungal spores arrive minutes later. If the tree can close off the open wound in less than five years, the fungi won’t survive. If the wound is too large, the fungi can cause destructive rot, possibly killing the tree. When a gang of badass beetles invades, the tree secretes toxic compounds, and sends warnings to other trees via scent messages, and underground electrical signals. Woodpeckers and friendly beetles attack the troublemakers.

Forests exist in a state of continuous change, but this is hard for us to see, because trees live much slower than we do. They almost appear to be frozen in time. Humans zoom through life like hamsters frantically galloping on treadmill, and we blink out in just a few decades. In Sweden, scientists studied a spruce that appeared to be about 500 years old. They were surprised to learn that it was growing from a root system that was 9,550 years old.

In Switzerland, construction workers uncovered stumps of trees that didn’t look very old. Scientists examined them and discovered that they belonged to pines that lived 14,000 years ago. Analyzing the rings of their trunks, they learned that the pines that survived a climate that warmed 42°F, and then cooled about the same amount — in a period of just 30 years! This is the equivalent of our worst-case projections today.

Dinosaurs still exist in the form of birds, winged creatures that can quickly escape from hostile conditions. Trees can’t fly, but they can migrate, slowly. When the climate cools, they move south. When it warms, they go north, like they are today — because of global warming, and because they continue to adapt to the end of the last ice age. A strong wind can carry winged seeds a mile. Birds can carry seeds several miles. A beech tree tribe can advance about a quarter mile per year (0.4 km).

Compared to trees, the human genome has little variation. We are like seven-point-something billion Barbie and Ken dolls. Tree genomes are extremely diverse, and this is key for their survival. Some trees are more drought tolerant, others are better with cold or moisture. So change that kills some is less likely to kill all. Wohlleben suspects that his beech forest will survive, as long as forest miners don’t wreck its soil or microclimate. (Far more questionable is the future of corn, wheat, and rice, whose genetic diversity has been sharply reduced by the seed sellers of industrial agriculture.)

Trees have amazing adaptations to avoid inbreeding. Winds and bees deliver pollen from distant trees. The ovaries of bird cherry trees reject pollen from male blossoms on the same tree. Willows have separate male trees and female trees. Spruces have male and female blossoms, but they open several days apart.
Boars and deer love to devour acorns and beechnuts. Feasting on nuts allows them to put on fat for the winter. To avoid turning these animals into habitual parasites, nuts are not produced every year. This limits the population of chubby nutters, and ensures that some seeds will survive and germinate. If a beech lives 400 years, it will drop 1.8 million nuts.

On deciduous trees, leaves are solar panels. They unfold in the spring, capture sunlight, and for several months manufacture sugar, cellulose, and other carbohydrates. When the tree can store no more sugar, or when the first hard frost arrives, the solar panels are no longer needed. Their chlorophyll is drained, and will be recycled next spring. Leaves fall to the ground and return to humus. The tree goes into hibernation, spending the winter surviving on stored sugar. Now, with bare branches, the tree is far less vulnerable to damage from strong winds, heavy wet snows, and ice storms.

In addition to rotting leaves, a wild forest also transforms fallen branches and trunks into carbon rich humus. Year after year, the topsoil becomes deeper, healthier, and more fertile. Tree plantations, on the other hand, send the trunks to saw mills. So, every year, tons of precious biomass are shipped away, to planet Consume. This depletes soil fertility, and encourages erosion. Plantation trees are more vulnerable to insects and diseases. Because their root systems never develop normally, the trees are more likely to blow down.

From cover to cover, the book presents fascinating observations. By the end, readers are likely to imagine that undisturbed forests are vastly more intelligent than severely disturbed communities of radicalized consumers. More and more, scientists are muttering and snarling, as the imaginary gulf between the plant and animal worlds fades away. Wohlleben is not a vegetarian, because experience has taught him that plants are no less alive, intelligent, and sacred than animals. It’s a wonderful book. I’m serious!

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Book Review: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikery

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It’s not fair. 
I wanted this book to go on forever. How could it be stolen away after only 7 short hours of becoming part of the Island Books family? I want to spend the rest of my life dusting dust jackets and connecting through words and books, growing old and wiser with A.J., Maya, Amelia, and Lambiase.

I could talk about the plot, but this book isnt about plot. It’s about the entire world of Alice Island and the specific intersection of books, ideas and people known as Island Books. I don't feel like I've listened to a book. It's more like I've visited another reality.

I love books about books, books about bookstores, books about booksellers. And this is one of the best. As any good book about books should do, this one talks about a LOT of books. Fortunately, here is a list of them that could keep us reading for many years  now if A.J. would just come talk to me about all of them.

This is a shining example of what a book can be even without vampires, superpowers, exploding buildings or fifty shades of anything. When a book can make me guffaw as well as feel wiser, more hopeful, as well as brokenhearted when it ends, I think it has earned its five stars.

Other helpful reviews:

Format: Hardcover
I absolutely loved this novel. A.J. Fikry is the owner of a small, independent bookstore on the small Alice Island in the Northeast. He is cynical, cranky, and depressed...and not without reason. The recent death of his beloved wife has left him a widower at the age of thirty-nine. Their shared love of books seems to have died with his wife and A.J. is left behind with only bitterness.

Enter an absolutely delightful cast of secondary characters who populate the island and A.J.'s life. You're bound to love at least one - if not all - of them.

Next we have the unexpected hope and redemption of A.J. I'm not giving any spoilers here. Yes, it's a feel-good book. But it's more than that: it's a love letter to the power books have in our lives. If you have ever felt changed by a book, this novel will speak to'll "get" it. And if you loved "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" or "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand" you'll find lots to love here, as well - not because the plots are similar, but because of the similar feel to the novels that comes from a good cast of eccentric townsfolk, a small community, and a sense of closeness among the characters.
So I'll leave you with this: if you love reading books, do not miss this one. (I wouldn't be at all surprised to see it made into a movie!)


I always find it hard to review books that actually mean something to me. Books that leave a mark. Books that I've fallen in love with. Books that I close with a heavy heart.

It's so easy to rant and rave when you don't like a book. But what do you do when you love it? There's no amount of gushing and praising that I can do here, because it's not that kind of book. This book speaks for itself, and the story tells itself.

A.J. Fikry owns a bookstore on Alice island, called Island Books. He sells books, that's what he does. He's become grumpy, rude and disheartened since the sudden death of his wife and tries to drink himself to oblivion. He does not care much about anything anymore. He does not care about people, he does not even care about himself. He does not care about his store. Sales are dwindling. He treats people with vulgarity bordering on insolence - and Amelia, the publisher's agent who tries to sell him books, is one of those exposed to his irritable behaviour. But on a fateful night, following another fateful night where a rare book worth tons of money is stolen from his bookstore/home, he finds a baby girl left in his store with a note from the mother, telling him among many things that her name is Maya. With this sudden turn of events, Fikry's life, and his outlook on it, begins to change - and Gabrielle Zevin, along with all of her beautifully crafted characters, take us on an unforgettable journey with Fikry and Maya.

This book is about a bookseller, whose books - and Maya - change his life and that of many others. It is a literary, philosophical, love story. One that will take your breath away, and steal your heart. It is as the title says, a collection of stories from A.J. Fikry's life, and the development of his character and that of others is brilliant.

From Fikry, to Amelia, to Maya growing right before your eyes, to officer/captain/lieutenant Lambiase, and every other character that took part in this story - the character development was wonderful. The changes and growth, the unpredictability of every event. My God, when I remember the ride that Zevin took us on, I feel myself itching to grab the book again and reread the whole thing.
This is an unputdownable book. And I certainly did not put it down until the very last page.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Pieces of Peace

Copyright free for all non-commercial use.

I’ve been "for peace" since Vietnam became a part of my personal life in the mid-60s. I put flower stickers on my car (I was very naive) and took them off when, as a young, Marine wife, I was informed that Camp Pendleton found them offensive. 
I talked peace and backed the movement. I protested Iraq and never believed the WMD line. I thought I was thoroughly grounded in peace.

It wasn’t until Pacifica Graduate Institute sent out a call for submissions for their Pondering Peace in a World of Turmoil program, that I really stopped to think about what peace means. (The Pondering Peace program happens this weekend ... if you're anywhere close to Santa Barbara, check out this exciting event.)

Recently I read an article about what happened in Syria. The article told the story of how four years of devastating drought led to massive shifts in population from ruined farms (85% of the country’s livestock died) to urban ghettos. Homeless, jobless, hungry people are the fodder of revolution. We think of Syria as a victim of politics and religious differences when it is actually an early blow of climate change and what happens when desperate people are deprived of their basic needs. (For more about what happened in this Florida-sized country, read Imagine Florida.)

As I thought about peace, it suddenly became more than the absence of war. When people don’t have their basic needs met … food, shelter, safety, knowledge, work … they will fight to get it. Of course they will.

Those words had to be part of answer. Then, Barbara Gaughen-Muller, a friend and long-time peace activist, told me about a book she’s working on focused on the idea of “peace begins with me.” That makes sense so I began thinking about what I need to embody in order to truly support peace. The words that came included … gratitude, openness, hope, expression, courage.

However, it’s not just about our physical needs or how we are as individuals. Peace is about relationships and our interactions, how we live together. More words were needed for that part of the picture … equality, justice, compassion, forgiveness, generosity.

These aren’t all the words, of course, but, in the process of thinking about all these levels, I realized that peace isn’t something we do or don’t do (war). It’s about who we are and how we choose to be, individually and with each other.

Each of us is … or can be … a piece of peace. What word would you add as a "piece of peace?"

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Love Notes: Barbara Gaughen-Muller

Barbara Gaughen-Muller
Some miracles happen instantly: a call out of the blue, a sudden connection that takes you in a new direction, an insight that greets you when your eyes open in the morning.

Other miracles develop over time, building momentum until you’re finally gobsmacked by their magnitude. Barbara Gaughen-Muller is one of those slow building miracles in my life.

Barbara is a gift to everyone she comes in contact with. I call her a happy pill. She sees the best in everyone and never holds back in telling them how wonderful they are. I hope to someday be the person she thinks I am.

As often happens to people with an attitude like Barbara's, she has led a charmed life. She is a beautiful, larger than life presence who sweeps you up into her energy. She focused that energy into public relations and her talent for connection created magic from Hollywood to New York.

I met Barbara about 25 years ago and had the fun of watching her fall in love with Robert Muller, a life-long leader of the United Nations. Together they toured the world and hung out with a stellar crew of world movers and shakers. She lost Robert a few years ago but still pours her energy into the peace movement and played a key role in the Rotary World Peace Conference 2016 held earlier this year.

Over the years, in all my many zigs and zags, she has always found time to be a cheerleader for me. Talking to her for just a few minutes always gives me an "OMG I can do this” shot of adrenaline. And, sometimes, that’s all it takes … one person who believes in you.

Thank you, Barbara … I love you.

Barbara is also the co-author of Revolutionary Conversations which offers readers the brilliant SHARE model …  Stop-Help-Ask-Risk-Explore, which, once you understand it, becomes an almost automatic way of thinking.

Read more about Barbara here:

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Gratitude for Past Miracles: Diane Walker

Facebook cover art by Diane Walker
Almost seven years ago, a stranger who would soon become a friend, changed my life with four words. She also reminded me of the world of blogging, something that had slipped away during the years of illness that ended with the death of my husband.

This note is for Diane Walker, a remarkable artist/photographer, creative being and generous soul. Above is a small sample of her art from her Facebook page: Contemplative Photography by Diane Walker:

I met Diane at a Miksang photography workshop taught by Michael Wood in Boulder, CO.  The workshop was already in the process of changing forever the way I see and take photographs but it was at lunch one day when I found myself pouring out my story and Diane said the four words that woke me up.

The words don't seem all that magical by themselves, but they were like a key finely ground to fit a particular lock. I told the story in my second blog post on this blog which I started within days of meeting Diane and seeing her blog. You can read it below.

Finding that old post, reminds me that we never know the effect we have on others with our words, our actions, and the example of our own lives. One of my favorite quotes comes from Bali ...
Someone out there needs you.
Live your life so they can find you.

What I want to say today, seven years later, is ... thank you Diane for your words at that critical moment in my life when I truly needed them. Thank you for the continuing example of someone living and growing in creative expression. Thank you for the kindness and beauty that you pour so generously into the world.

Meeting you was a miracle. I knew it then and I look at my life today in all its joy and fulfillment and it has your fingerprints all over it. Thank you so much for being you and for the gift of knowing how to fill my cup!

Blog Post: September 15, 2009 - 
My Cup Is Empty

We are sitting at lunch at Boulder's Pearl Street mall when my new friend Diane says, "Your cup is empty" and the words telegraph through my body and find their mark deep in my heart. And, as tears begin to flow, I realize that I am empty ... broken open, depleted and disconsolate, far from the dyed-in-the wool, rose-colored-glasses, cheerful optimist that I had been.

Three years of loss piled one upon another until I am sitting here in this strange state feeling utterly alone, homeless, rootless, without solid ground to hold onto. I suddenly know that I am an empty vessel and am not completely sure that I am not too broken to ever be filled again.

Mary Oliver's words from "The Journey" echo in my mind, "It was already late enough, and a wild night, and the road full of fallen branches and stones." My path seems confounded and blocked by the fallen branches and stones, and perhaps I will never be able to clear them. Sorrow, fear, pain and aloneness envelop me and I'm not sure I have the energy to find my way out. By myself, I feel too weak to grapple with this challenge and I find myself clinging to a past-relationship as if it's my only hope.

And yet, the simple act of admitting that I am empty seems to let me hear a small, new voice that says simply: "Begin, do what brings you joy, take one step at a time and tend your spirit."

What brought me to this place and introduced me to my new friend, who with just four words stripped me bare of my false-front of strength and independence, was a Miksang workshop about seeing in a new way and capturing those new perceptions through photography. Miksang is a Tibetan word that means "good eye" and is as much a meditative practice as a photography technique.

We had been using the technique for two days and, as always, the act of taking pictures, capturing small pieces of beauty, was bringing me joy but, in some ways, it felt like layering wallpaper over a wall that had not been washed clean of years of grime and debris. The pain was still swirling an indelible pattern below the surface. Admitting to myself my vulnerability to pain and loss seems like a first step in cleaning that surface. Perhaps now the Miksang practice of awareness and perception, the slowing down and taking each step with intention, will allow the joy of each perception to stick and gradually begin to refill my cup.

I feel a great sense of relief. I have been looking around rather desperately for a project, a mission, a way of serving, in actuality, anything that would distract me from the pain. Now I realize that I am not ready to go out into the world. I have nothing to offer because I am empty. Who I was has drained away and who I will be has not made an appearance. So now I am unformed, uncertain of anything except my emptiness and a willingness to walk toward spirit, a willingness to be filled.