This Too Shall Pass

Rattlesnake master with snow - B&W
Rattlesnake master in my garden today

Well, I sure wasn’t ready for this yet! We got our first snow of the season yesterday, and it wasn’t just a teaser, it was a smack-you-in-the-face-wake-up-call. Of course I’m being dramatic (it’s only four inches), but I really dread the cold sloppiness of a northwest Ohio winter.  I cleaned my gutters twice last week because they were jammed with leaves from my prolific maple trees, and today I shoveled snow. Most years we have time to get through fall before winter comes lumbering into our lives like the proverbial bull in a china shop. It feels unsettling to have a significant snow this early. There’s supposed to be a rhythm to the seasons, gosh darn it, with time to make the mental adjustment to the next one.

Rudbeckia with snow - blog
Rudbeckia with a snow toboggan

I complain mightily now, but I know in a few weeks I’ll be resigned to it and will be able to find enjoyment in (some aspects of) winter.  This morning after I shoveled the driveway, I begrudgingly trudged around the backyard with my phone, taking photos of the native plants in their winter hats and coats.

I remember a day about a decade ago when I went for a walk in the woods one winter and had a sort of awakening, because I’d never done that before. It seems unbelievable to me now, but before that day, I had never gone outside in winter for the sole purpose of taking a walk. Sure, I’d gone sledding or birding, but never just walking and paying attention to the details.  I found interesting ice formations on a creek, wind patterns in the snow, and the stunning sight of bluebirds in the black-white-gray woods. I felt I’d discovered an exciting new world, and now I treasure winter walks.

Fire in woodstove - blog
My favorite spot on a cold day – my Happy Chair

I must admit, though, that one of the best parts of a winter walk is coming back to the warmth of the house and curling up with a blanket and hot cup of tea.

As I write this, the sun is shining brightly, already starting its job as Melter-in-Chief.  I’m grateful for that today; it helps me see the beauty of the snow and not dwell (too much) on the long, dark months ahead. Sophie is making the most of her favorite sunspot, blissfully unaware of the cold on the other side of those windows.  I envy animals sometimes for their ability to live in the moment, without worrying about the future.

Sophie in sunspot - blog
Sophie napping in her favorite sunspot

WInd patterns in the snow - blog

When I started writing this, it was intended to be a sort of venting of my begrudging acceptance of winter. But as I’ve been writing and thinking about it, I’m reminded that we only appreciate the warmth because we know the cold.  We appreciate the flowers and insects in summer because of their absence in winter. And, truth be told, I wouldn’t like to live anywhere that didn’t have the dramatic seasonal changes that we have here. Change is what makes things interesting.

Spring tree birds avatar - blogI doubt I’ll ever be converted to one of those people who love winter, but I can tolerate it, and sometimes even appreciate it. Well…as long as I know there’s another spring at the end of it.

Before I go, here’s a short video I just took looking out my kitchen window, showing leaves falling on fresh snow. That’s just not right, LOL.

Senescent Saturday

Fall foliage at Secor - Kim Clair Smith

Senescence is the process of deterioration with age. We humans like to deny or ignore it in our own bodies, but we’re huge fans of it in trees. The changing colors of leaves in the fall are a result of senescence. As a natural part of the life of a tree, the chlorophyll in the leaves breaks down, revealing the other pigments beneath the green.

Song for Autumn excerptSay what you will about spring and the rebirth it symbolizes, but I’ve always been partial to autumn. The most obvious reason for this attraction is the stunning beauty of the trees draped in splendiferous* robes of gold, red, brown, and orange. But when I’m in a more contemplative state of mind, as I am today, I think of how my appreciation of fall is also driven by the knowledge that it will be so brief. Fans of summer or winter have months to enjoy those seasons, but autumn demands your full attention before it’s gone in the blink of an eye. Or after a day of wind and heavy rain, as we’re having right now in Toledo.

Fall at Secor v2 Kim Clair Smith

I almost let fall slip past me this year, and have only gotten out briefly a couple times so far to take it all in. I fear by tomorrow much of the beauty will be on the ground, leaving us only bare branches to gaze upon for many months.

I’ve traveled to chase birds and dragonflies before, but this is the first time I’ve considered chasing fall. I might take a trip to southern Ohio to get a few more opportunities to capture fall with my camera. It’s a bit challenging up here in the flatlands of northwest Ohio to get interesting angles for landscape photos, but I expect it’ll be quite a different story in the hills down near the Ohio River. I’ll be anxiously watching the weather forecasts to decide if I can manage to fit in a quick trip.

Fence and fall foliage
The rain was just starting to fall as I made this last quick stop at Salamander Flats today. 

Fall foliage with gnome - Kim Clair Smith

Alert readers of this blog will have noticed this little guy before. He seems to show up often when I walk in the woods, and I’m always tickled to see the interesting places he chooses to take his naps. This time he was comfortable on this enormous tulip tree leaf — it was almost twice as big as my hand. I wonder if he’ll show up in the Appalachian foothills of Shawnee State Forest next week?

Gnome on fence - Kim Clair Smith

*Yep, splendiferous is a real word! I had to check, LOL.

Saying Goodbye

I said goodbye to a friend today and am feeling a deep sense of loss.

I spent the afternoon helping him load his moving truck, along with another close friend. For the most part, the three of us tried to focus on the task at hand so we wouldn’t dwell on the emotions we were all feeling. Of course there was optimism about his new life and hope that everything would work out, but there was also lots of sadness and uncertainty. As upset as I was though, I was determined to keep my chin up and not make this day any harder for him than it had to be.

Even though I wasn’t happy about why we were together, I was grateful that the three of us had this special time alone today. Our friendship is partly based on bonding over some experiences that we can’t really talk to anyone else about. If you’ve ever read about the psychology of bonding over shared pain you’ll understand how strong that bond can be. We have been each other’s support system through some very difficult times.

my-two-friends-on-the-lake-erie-beach-800x594
My friends on the beach at Lake Erie a couple weeks ago, as we began saying our goodbyes

As the afternoon wore on and we made a few re-checks of the house, gathering up the remaining last-minute items, I started to feel my emotions welling up.

In the late afternoon we finally finished loading the back of the truck, then the two guys began hooking the car up to the tow dolly. As I waited for them to do that, I walked out behind the house and stood beside the wildflower meadow, watching butterflies and bees flitting and buzzing from flower to flower. Turkey Vultures soared over the house and Blue Jays squawked loudly from the trees. I almost cried then, standing in the sunlight watching the vultures and listening to my friends discussing how to secure the car on the towing rig.

zentangle-chicken-for-lp
A gift I made for my departing friend

After they got that done, the cat was put into her carrier and loaded into the front of the truck. The snuffling little pug dog would go in at the last minute, after our final goodbyes.

When it came time to close the garage door for the last time, my friend stood in his garage and said softly, “Thanks house, you’ve been good to me.” And that’s when my tears started to flow.

I’m not sure why that particular thing touched me so much. I think maybe because I realized the importance of what he had just done: He stopped to acknowledge the happy times he’d had in this place before leaving it.

Because of what the three of us shared today, I’m thinking a lot tonight about gratitude and mindfulness. About how, even in the midst of sadness, we can choose to be thankful for the good in our lives. And about how important it is to stop and appreciate the best moments as they’re happening. And to look forward rather than backward. I’m thankful for the time I had with my friend and for all I learned from him. He opened my eyes to a different way of seeing the world and dealing with challenging times. He made me laugh–hard. And he gave the world’s best hugs. I’m so glad that we took a group selfie today to serve as a memory of our last time together as a trio of friends.

When I was dealing with another painful loss recently, I was reminded of this line from a Tennyson poem: “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”  I suppose that’s the way to look at this too–being grateful that I had the experience of knowing this person who was so special that it hurts to say goodbye.

As I write this he’s driving south toward his new home and new job. I have high hopes that he’ll find what he’s searching for, and that his life will be overflowing with love and friendship.

 

Opening My Mind

Don’t you agree that being open-minded is a worthy goal in life? Have you ever had a sudden realization that you aren’t as open-minded as you’d always thought you were? It’s easy to look at other people and judge them for their prejudices, but it’s very disorienting when you’re confronted with the realization that you have your own biases and prejudices that have been nestled snugly in your brain for years. Most of the time those biases seem harmless, but I’ve learned that they can actually prevent you from experiencing some amazing things.

As I go through the process of adjusting to life in the farm country of northwestern Ohio, I’ve discovered some things about myself that I’m not too proud of. But thankfully I’ve also discovered that I’m not too old to change nor too proud to admit that I’ve been wrong.

Gull taking off from water
Gull taking off from water

During the first couple of weeks here, I found myself complaining about a lot of things. The frequent nighttime train whistles. The lack of shopping choices. The fact that I have to actually use a human teller to deposit a check at my credit union instead of being able to use the ATM. And on and on. I was focused on my prejudgment that everything and everyone in these small towns was “backward” and “behind the times.” And with those thoughts in my head, I was unhappy. Of course I was. Because your thoughts determine your emotions.

I was getting disgusted with my negative attitudes and worried that I was offending my new friends with my complaints, and so I did some soul searching to remember why I came here. And slowly, as I began to go about my daily life, I noticed a shift in my thinking. At first I’d sat up at night timing the trains so I could complain about how often they woke me up. Then one day I caught myself listening to the faint sound of one of those whistles and smiling. I realized that that sound had become part of the soundtrack of my daily life, and that I actually liked it.

Whereas at first I’d whined about having to drive 40 minutes to a larger town for more shopping choices, it only took two trips there to make me realize that it really wasn’t that big of a deal to make that trip a couple times a month. In fact, now it’s become almost a special occasion to go to the “big city” (Sandusky, Ohio) for a shopping excursion. Things that were taken for granted as everyday conveniences before have become something to look forward to and appreciate.

Geese in v formation
Canada Geese in V formation

And my opinions about the starkness of the flat landscape have changed too. The wide open land might not be as interesting as the rolling hills I’m used to, but it sure provides lots of opportunities to enjoy and photograph stunning sunsets. And even though I was well aware of the abundance of wildlife habitat here, I was surprised to find myself weeping the other day as I drove past a marsh and watched egrets and a Bald Eagle flying across the road in front of me. There’s incredible beauty here every day. Lots of it.

Sunset at the reservoir
Sunset at the local reservoir

As someone who has always been a city person, I’m stunned at how fast my attitudes have turned around. I’m a bit ashamed about my assumptions that life here would be “not as good as” my life in the city. Every day I find something new to learn about — “Why haven’t they harvested those soybeans yet? They look like they’re dying…” or, “I heard someone mention putting tiles in a field…what does that mean?” — and so on. I’m beginning to see the world differently. I’m surrounded by co-workers and friends who are happy to answer my questions. My life is enriched when I’m able to learn something new, so this completely new environment is fascinating to me.

And speaking of friends…you know, I’m getting choked up now just thinking about this. I had a dozen or so budding friendships with local people before I moved down here, and those friendships have now solidified through birding walks and various other get-togethers. In the past couple of months I’ve experienced so much sincere kindness that it sort of blows my mind. There’s something special about the people here.  And they make me feel special too. I don’t feel alone anymore. It’s like an entire community has wrapped its arms around me and absorbed me into its big warm heart.

Sunset at the reservoir with fisherman
A fisherman at the reservoir as the day ends

I had a small housewarming party last weekend for a few of my local friends and co-workers who wanted to see my new house. I had been putting it off because I hadn’t done all the painting I wanted to do, and I didn’t have all the rooms furnished yet. And I worried that I would be judged. (Ironic, isn’t it?) But my gosh, when I looked around my house filled with friends that afternoon, my heart swelled with happiness. Just seeing that they would all take the time to drive down here and spend time in my home with me…I know that might not be such a big deal to many people, but it was very big for me. It made me feel accepted on a whole new level. It made me feel more confident that I was going to be alright in my new life here. My house became a home that day. A real home filled with love and friendship–and even a couple of caterpillars!

Great Blue Heron and nuclear power plant - smaller file
What do you focus on, the nuclear power plant or the lovely heron?

This whole idea that your thoughts determine how you experience life is a powerful thing. By consciously letting go of your preconceptions and biases you can open your mind and heart to a whole new world. And I’m living proof that it works.

A Fresh New Year: Why Is That So Important?

If you’re like many people, you place at least some significance on January 1st. Whether you make resolutions or set goals, you feel that something important is supposed to happen because the page on the calendar has turned.

Although I’m not usually one to make New Year’s resolutions, this day is still unlike any other day of the year for me. I have a couple superstitious rituals that I usually follow: I do some type of house cleaning as a way of starting fresh, and I eat sauerkraut to bring good luck in the coming year. But you know what? I eat sauerkraut all year long, on regular old Mondays or Tuesdays, on the 3rd of the month or the 21st of the month. When I feel like having it, I do. What happens to me in the days afterward has nothing to do with that meal. Eating a particular food doesn’t bring good luck, I know that. But the superstitions persist, for me and millions of other people. I think part of the reason is that it’s human nature to try to find cause-and-effect patterns in events so that we feel more in control of our lives. We think that if we just don’t walk under that ladder, we’ll prevent bad things from happening to us. Or if we carry a four-leaf clover, we’ll win the game. We’re funny animals, aren’t we?

This was the sky as I ended my walk today.
This was the sky as I ended my walk today.

Anyway, I was thinking about all this as I took a brisk walk around the city park today, with the cold wind chapping my cheeks and stiffening my fingers. I was there because it was January 1 and it felt important to get outside: I wanted to see my first birds of the year, and I wanted to start my year off right by exercising and getting fresh air.

Paint Creek in city park

But why do we make such a fuss about starting our year off right?  Why not start the next day off right? Or the next minute? Life is filled with opportunities to change our habits or make other positive changes. We can do it whenever we want to.

And for that matter, every moment of every day is a chance to improve our lives. Every moment is a fresh start. I remember hearing this advice when I was trying to change my eating habits a couple years ago. Let’s say you’re having a bad day at work and you indulge in a bag of cookies at lunch to soothe yourself. Then you berate yourself for the weakness and decide that you’ve already ruined the whole day, so you might as well have ice cream and cake for dinner too. Well, if you remember that each moment is a chance for a fresh start, all you have to do is decide that in the next moment, you aren’t going to eat junk food. In the next moment you’re going to drink a big glass of water. That’s all. You don’t have to throw away an entire calendar segment just because you ate some cookies. What matters is what you do now, not what you did in the past.

I’ve been through a great deal of difficulty in recent months, as my regular readers know well. I’m so thankful that, in the past few weeks, I have somehow found the strength to pull myself back out of despair. I’m using lots of different things as tools, and I may tell  you about more of them soon. But one of the most important has been the teachings of Eckhart Tolle, who shows us how to live in the present moment, the Now. Rather than worrying about the past or the future, learn to accept “what is” and ignore the endless stream of thoughts that run through your mind. I’ve been practicing being in the moment, and it really does bring me some peace. I’ve also been learning to meditate better, and that seems to give me positive energy so that I’m more inclined to focus on good things during my day rather than dwelling on fears or negativity. (Here’s a link to one of Mr. Tolle’s videos on YouTube for those of you who aren’t familiar with him yet.)

And here’s a video I shot today. Animals live in the moment; no worrying about past or future for them!

I’m learning a new way of experiencing gratitude and how to be mindful of the moments in life. Most importantly, I’m learning that our thoughts create our feelings, and if we can manage our thoughts we will vastly improve our outlook on life. It’s a skill worth practicing.

So, in the spirit of living in the moment, instead of wishing you all a Happy New Year, I’ll wish you a Happy Now. It’s a very good place to be.

Trees in fog for blog with quote by Eckhart Tolle

 

Appreciating the (Very Very) Small Things

It may be a cliché, but taking time to appreciate the little things is therapeutic. And after my struggles of the past couple of weeks I seem to have regained the ability to see things more optimistically. Thank goodness. There’s nothing like a peek into the blackness to make you run screaming back toward the light, proclaiming gratitude for everything you see.

As I was mowing the yard this weekend I noticed some tiny yellow “weeds” in one area. I realized that I hadn’t played with my macro lens for a while, so I went back outside and took some photos of them. As often happens with macro photos, I was amazed at what I saw. Just look at this — and it’s only about a tenth of an inch across!

This little flower is only about a tenth of an inch across.
This little flower is only about a tenth of an inch across. (I think it’s called Black Medic.)

I can’t count the number of times I’ve yanked these things out and tossed them away without a second thought. But just look at that. And here’s another tiny treasure from the yard — this is common clover, the kind the bees love:

Clover flower, maybe a half inch across
Clover flower, maybe a half inch across

And speaking of our yard, I’ve begun to see our two acres in a new light as well. After our frustrations with the neighborhood came to a head recently, we started browsing the real estate listings for a larger property to cushion us from further construction (aka “progress”). In addition to looking for more acreage, our search was limited by the usual things: commuting distance, budget, type of road (no more dirt roads for us). We found a few promising listings and did preliminary drive-bys to check out the neighborhoods.  Boy, I had forgotten how a real estate ad can neglect to mention the downside of each property. There’s some very creative marketing going on out there, believe me.

Certified Wildlife Habitat sign for our yard (605x800)All of which served to remind me that, even considering all the things we don’t like about our neighborhood and our road, we’ve got a pretty rare treasure here. Two acres of woods in the middle of a crowded and busy suburb, with lots of wildlife and plenty of privacy. Sure, it’s easy to get frustrated and complain about all the negatives. But I’m attempting to have more gratitude for the positives. And it seems that the closer I look, the more positives I can find.

You know that saying that “what you focus on expands”? If you’re always thinking “I hate this place,” your subconscious mind will work overtime finding more reasons for you to hate it. But just today I proved that it works the same way if you tell yourself, “I really love this special place.” Your mind suddenly starts showing you why it’s special. Like this:

Two inch-long tiny toad
Two inch-long toad, another little thing.

And this, a not-so-tiny thing:

Fawn eating my flowers

And this:

House Wren

And this:

Northern Flickers in early breeding season

And this tiny feather:

Feather macro

Every time I try to write about gratitude I feel like people will read it and think, “Yeah, yeah, gratitude journals, mindfulness, count your blessings, whatever, life still stinks.” It’s true that life can be very difficult, but I’m learning that I have the power to control how I feel about some of those things that upset me and how I respond to them. And using my mind for gratitude instead of complaining seems like a no-brainer to me.

And did you know that you can instantly lift your mood just by smiling? Whether you’re with other people or alone, try it now and see for yourself. It really works. And it works even better if you look in the mirror when you do it. You’re welcome. 🙂

Thornton Wilder quote on my photo

Arigato, Mr. Fukumura

By some quirk of fate, our cable provider recently gave us access to the English version of NHK, Japan’s public television network. I was overjoyed when I stumbled upon the channel a couple weeks ago, and I’m hoping it’s not just NHK screenshot 2a short-term teaser to get us to upgrade our cable package. (By the way, right now NHK is doing a series of reports marking the third anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake, the one that resulted in the partial meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor. That earthquake killed 18,000 people and I was sad to learn that there are 2,600 people still listed as missing.)

You may wonder why I’m so excited about getting news from Japan. There are several reasons, but the primary one is a very personal connection: I lived in Tokyo for five years, from 1985 to 1990. My first husband was a journalist, employed by the Pacific Stars and Stripes, the news organization for the U.S. Military. He was a civilian employee, and we lived right in the center of Tokyo, immersed in Japanese daily life. I was 24 years old and very naive when I arrived there. As a young newlywed left alone all day in a country so different from my own, I suffered intense culture shock as I struggled to adapt. There was no email back then, so my two options for reaching my support network in the States were via snail-mail letter or $2-a-minute phone calls. I was a rowboat with one oar, adrift in a sea of kanji, yen, and tofu.

After settling in for a few months, I finally got a job in a German consulting firm’s marketing department. A year later I found myself searching for another job where I wouldn’t be just the token American that they used to convince clients they were a “truly international” company. I ended up selling Japanese and English language courses to corporations in the Tokyo metro area. And that’s where I met Mr. Fukumura.

Mr. Fukumura with me and a couple friends, on a trip to Aoshima Island on Kyushu (Feb. 1990)
Mr. Fukumura with me and a couple friends, on a trip to Aoshima Island on Kyushu (1990)

He was the office manager in charge of supervising us, the foreign sales staff in the company. (The Japanese staff worked in a separate division for some reason.) Part of Fukumura-san’s job description included helping us find our way around Tokyo, a city notorious for not using street names. The blocks in each ward are numbered, so addresses are a series of numbers like this: 4-1-33 Koyama, Meguro-ku, Tokyo 104. (If you’re interested, here’s the Wikipedia explanation of it.) And lest we forget, this was back in the days before the Internet and smartphones with GPS, so we really had to get good directions from the nearest train station before heading out on our sales calls. Luckily I’m pretty good at finding my way around, so I did fine with that.

But Mr. Fukumura went above and beyond his official job description many times. He was such a kind man, tolerant of many things from the foreign staff he managed. Most of us were young and ignorant, but he always treated us with respect. My colleagues were from many countries: India, China, Thailand, the U.K., Australia, France, Algeria, Iran, and Ethiopia, among others. I learned a lot from my interactions with my coworkers of various nationalities, and began to see my own country through new eyes.

But Mr. Fukumura earned a spot deep in my heart when he held my hand as I had to navigate the Japanese court system when my marriage fell apart after little more than two years. I had married too quickly and too young, and moved 6,500 miles away from friends and family, with a husband who worked among other Americans in a gated office complex while I was left to find my way alone in a culture where I couldn’t even read the names of products in the grocery store. (Ask me how frustrating it is to put “sugar” in your tea and find out it’s salt…I had no way to know the difference when I was buying it in the supermarket.)

Fukumura-san with his ever-present smile at an office party not long before I left Japan in 1990.
Fukumura-san with his ever-present smile (2nd from right) at an office party not long before I left Japan in 1990. (I’m 3rd from the left.)

Anyway, Fukumura-san not only went to court with me and translated my divorce documents, he made countless calls trying to find a landlord willing to have a foreigner as a tenant. He went with me to meet the landlord, who wanted to have a look at me to make his final decision as to whether I would be a suitable tenant. Even though I had been in Japan for a couple years at that point, I hadn’t become comfortable enough with the language for certain types of important conversations, so his help was invaluable to me.

Those first few months after my divorce are a blur now, but I remember I was terrified and excited at the same time. Now I would be on my own in Tokyo at age 26. Everything turned out great eventually, and I’m so glad I resisted my initial impulse to run home to my parents and cry about things. The next three years were some of the best of my entire life, filled with parties, travel, and interesting friends. And Mr. Fukumura remained my safety line through it all. He was like a favorite uncle, reassuring and reliable and always looking out for my best interests.

Ice skating with friends in Tokyo, in early 1988.
Ice skating with friends in Tokyo, in early 1988. When you get to know people from other nations (like China and Thailand, represented in this photo), your view of the world is changed forever.

He once told me that Americans had been kind to his daughter who lived in California, and that was part of his motivation to help foreigners in his own country. That convinced me that the world would be a better place if we all had the chance to know people from other countries, because those personal relationships and experiences teach you to think twice before resorting to stereotypes to describe entire nationalities. If I were to make a list of the most important learning experiences a person could have in their life, it would definitely include living in a different culture, even if only for a few months.

When it came time for me to leave Japan after five years, Fukumura-san gave me a photo of Mt. Fuji that he had taken on one of his trips to that revered Japanese mountain. Every time I look at it I smile and think of how one man’s kindness was largely responsible for allowing me to have such wonderful experiences in Japan.

Fukumura-san showing his professional photography techniques
Fukumura-san showing his professional photography techniques

He was about 65 when I left, so he would be around 89 now. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s still living an active life — he was very fit and loved to be outdoors, whether it was swimming or hiking or just walking. And that’s the way I will always think of him: healthy and smiling.

If you’re out there, Akira Fukumura, I hope you know how important you were to this young American girl so far from home. I hope I was gracious enough to tell you this back then, but just in case I didn’t, I want to say it now: Thank you, my friend.