Watching birds is a habit I learned from my mom and dad at an early age. Let’s say I was born in 1950 and now you know how early….but I am still learning wonderful things about birds today.
It helps to have built my little bird corner, with a comfortable way to watch them.
It doesn’t help to have the squirrelmafia stealing all the good food no matter what I do to foil them…but that is not what I have learned recently….that is just an ongoing soap opera between me, the squirrels and the cat.
The wonderful thing I’ve learned in the last couple of years is that cardinals seem to mate for — if not life — years. And they still court each other.
I’ve had a cardinal pair, whom I’ve dubbed Big Red and Big Mama, in my yard for more than three years now. They make nests in our front yard azaleas, use the side yard azaleas for socializing, eat at all our feeders, and don’t seem to leave at all. They have raised two sets of young that I’ve observed, and probably a couple more before I realized what was happening — I was still on the road and didn’t see them every day.
Now I have put in a flat feeder. A little square hanging platform. Like a plate.
All the birds love it, especially the various sparrows and wrens. Sometimes there will be five or six of them in it. Sometimes they just fluff out and sit there. It’s cute. It looks like they’re chatting.
I got the flat feeder mainly to attract bluebirds. And got some bluebird special food to help. None of them yet. But they are rare here. Maybe rare anywhere. (We had a couple in Raleigh, after I put a house for them in the yard.)
The painted bunting has shown up again. Third time was this morning. He likes the flat feeder, too. He and his wife were always very wary before they ducked down for seeds on the other feeders. His wife has not shown up. Unless she is already nesting and I just haven’t seen her. She is a lovely jungle green. He is bright bright red from his throat to his butt on the front, and blue and jungle green on his head, body and tail. Stunning little birds. They showed up 3 years ago, too; they fly to Central America in the winter. I don’t know if they fly together…
(The hummingbirds fly separately, not in flocks. They each fly alone to southern Mexico and Central America, across the Gulf. And return the same way. I have had some returning outliers at both feeders, but my pair from last year is not back yet. Their feeders have been out for a month. They are late.)
But here is the absolutely best thing about the new flat feeder: I watched Big Red feed Big Mama seeds the other day. Like teenagers on a date. They were both standing in the flat feeder, facing each other. She opened her mouth, and he picked up a seed and fed her. I saw them do it twice. Who knew? Bird experts, I am sure, but I didn’t.
It’s so nice to see that behavior in the wild because we forget that many birds do mate for life. As do other animals. And they still get along. Year after year. They continue to have families year after year, and kick those teenagers out in the late summer. The hawk pair that lives above our corner of the world is still here, too; still together. I watched them the other day. They are undoubtedly the reason I haven’t seen any rabbits….but, hey….life….the circle of life.
Speaking of which, I hope some of these critters are eating caterpillars, because there is a bumper crop of those guys this year. There are three different kinds, all of which look very very much like the little seed pods of the live oak trees, which are also “falling” right now. But the live oak seed pods don’t have iridescent spots. Or weight. We don’t remember them being this thick in prior years. (This is our sixth spring in the swamp.)
An update on the squirrels: they are not going anywhere and they are pretty sure the cat is no longer up to the task of making them – although he has announced his presence a couple times, in a futile show of catness. Pix attached.
The squirrel baffle I got at Tractor Supply would probably work if I could get the feeders far enough away from the tree trunk. Or, I could set up a pole in the center of the yard, but what fun would that be? I couldn’t see the birds. As well, anyway. So it’s a tradeoff. I get the feeders close to the porch, where I can read and be comfortable behind screens. And the feeders are within the squirrels’ ten foot leap radius. A few years down the road, the tree will be taller and the feeder will be further out from the trunk……#justsayin….
I’ll let you know about the painted bunting couple. Here is what he looks like – stock photo — shooting pix from behind a screen is useless, but if I walk outside….well….
I hope his wife shows up. When I was looking for a photo to share with you, I was reminded that there is an illegal trade in these birds. Especially in Cuba, which they have to overfly on their way back and forth……not pets, people.
So, filed under “things I learned in my 70s” …. cardinals are family sorts, and all the critters like the flat feeders. Feed your wife a seed when she asks for one. It seems to be the secret to a good marriage.
in looking for some photos of my son that I had taken with a famous friend, who had just passed away…
….I went down the rabbit hole to 30 years ago, when we all spent a lot of time together…
I found the corner of the box of photos that included the one I was looking for, and found a whole lot of other people, too.
And I looked at myself with those people — what I looked like then. I looked rather hollowed out in more than a couple of them, and it got me thinking about how that particular phrase came to describe someone who’s being consumed by something.
It can be a lot of things that hollow a person out. Health can take it out of you. A traumatic loss. Drugs and alcohol can wear you down, especially if you’re using them to “fix” the health or traumatic loss.
And it made me think of the vines we photographed a couple weeks ago in the woods behind our house. I’d seen some big Tarzan vines a couple years ago, and wanted to try to photograph them in better light. One was this big empty one. It was connected top and bottom, at least 10 feet tall — and there was nothing in it. It was just a large, very uniform, rigid corkscrew of a vine as big as my arm.
It had to have been wrapped around a tree to have grown that big and tall – but where did the tree go?!
I picture it wiggling out and slipping away, but my sister suggested a pine. We have lots of those.
“They’re soft, and they have shallow roots,” she pointed out.
So that means that a vine grew up with the pine tree, circling it over and over as both of them grew bigger and taller. The vine destroyed the host tree, which then rotted from within and fell away, probably in pieces, over the years. Leaving this empty vine still connected to it’s (amazing and persistent) “mother root” and whatever it threw itself on to at the top. We’ve watched these things. It’s rather creepy, because you can see them sending out their feelers, moving in the air, seeking a host.
If that isn’t a metaphor for something that hollows you out, I can’t see a better one. Drugs and alcohol, for example: they start like a little vine nosing around your toes.At first they’re just amusing, or distracting, or they numb some pain, or blank out some nightmares. But as you go on using them, they get like that vine, growing with you, going where you go, influencing what you do.
After awhile, even though you may not even realize it, the drugs are calling the shots, and after that they are strangling the host tree….
If you’re smart, or lucky, or blessed or all of those — you cut off the vine before it chokes and destroys you. If you’re not, you look like a hollowed out person until you figure it out. Or the vine gets you.
So we need to be constantly pruning our lives, like we do the big trees around our yard. The habits you have formed and don’t think about, the crowd you party with, the things you reach for when you are stressed, the stuff you watch on TV, even. It all influences us in ways we may not even realize.
A vine senses an upright lifeform and snags on. Before you know it, it’s 20 feet up the tree. It’s only the size of you little finger, but it’s checking out the opportunity, and putting little suckers into the bark as it goes. When you see those vines sneaking around that long leaf pine, you cut them off, and pull the vine off the trunk as far as you can. Some of them are very pretty. They have flowers and smell nice, but you know what to do.
The vines never stop. I can see areas of the wild woods where they are actually holding up trees, and I am sure they are an integral part of bird and squirrel life. But for healthy trees, we need them gone.
And life is like that. Evil never stops. No matter how saved you are, satan never stops trying to turn you. Sometimes evil is pretty and smells nice. But if you keep the vines off, the trunk has a better chance of survival. And, to continue the metaphor, even taking long-established vines down helps a tree live longer. I have pictures of those, too.
If the roots aren’t pulled out completely, a tree can be knocked over and can grow on an angle, supported by vines that were already there. But the tree that was cut in half and supported by the mature vine around it, finally fell onto the ground. Sometimes standing trees look okay, but you see the woodpecker holes, so you know something else is going on you cannot see.Those might be a different metaphors.
We can look at survivors, too. Like some of us in those photos, who don’t look so hollow 30 years later. (Now we just look old!)
Watch for the vines, though. The ones that start around your feet and keep you coming back to something that isn’t good for your soul. Shake your feet and move away from them. Prune them back into the woods. Pull them out by the roots if you have to.
I love books. I always have. They were my “drug of choice” before I knew what that was, and afterwards.
My family always read. My image of breakfast at our house was all of us with a section of newspaper. (Dinners were for real conversation.) My dad was never without a newspaper, magazine or book. And I became the same way. Before you could read things on your phone, I never left the house without something in my purse to read, just in case. Even my grandfather always had either a newspaper or the Bible in front of him, whenever he sat at his kitchen table.
So, as we say in the South, reading was something “I came by honestly.”
When recorded books showed up, I was on to those in a heartbeat. I listened to books on discs on my Walkman, as I walked. When I gave up drinking, I walked a lot. Then it got more sophisticated, and I could actually download books, which I continue to do to this day. So, I listened to books when I painted, and I listened to books when I drove my paintings around the country. Hundreds of books in the last 20 years.
A caveat here: I soon discovered that listening was not at all the same as reading, so while I might enjoy Bill Bryson’s “A History of Almost Everything” as a recorded book whose plethora of minutiae was entertaining on a long drive, I also found that for non-fiction books like that, I needed to actually read the words, as well, if I wanted to retain any of the knowledge.
So, I read non-fiction in actual print, listen to long, historical fiction while painting and driving, and enjoy reading mild-mannered mysteries and procedurals in bed. Nothing too gory or with too much suspense. Something interesting and character-driven before bed. In an actual book, that I can hold, and then put down on the bedside table. No blue screen or voice in my head before sleep. I have enough colorful dreams as it is.
All of 2020 I spent in Venice, with Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti. I wrote about that here, “My Year-Long Affair with Guido Brunetti.” They were recommended by a friend who knew I loved Venice, and they were so good that I read all 28 books twice. Afterwards, seeking something equally engaging, many reading sites recommended a Canadian author, who had also created a memorable police inspector and a continuing series of characters.
I took the plunge. The first book was good enough. I was a bit put off by the author’s habit of multiple characters’ points of view. That is usually a no-no, but this one did it throughout, often having several character’s insights on the same page. (Usually multiple points of view are at least defined by different chapters, or even named sections.) The author got better at toning that down, and by the second book I was growing fond of the main characters, and didn’t mind so much.
The other conceit was that all the crimes took place in the same little, mythical village. It seemed a bit much to accept. But I did, again, because the ongoing characters were amusing, intriguing and likeable. The handful who continue to show up become like old friends, as does the town itself. So, I ignored the fact that each new book would introduce a new person or persons who had just come to town, and I would know that the murder somehow revolved around them. Occasionally the action moved out of the town, but even then, a well-known character might be involved. Sometimes they were even culprits.
But I slogged along, enjoying the quirks, the local color, the character flaws and insights. And the allure of the magical little town, with its core of interesting eccentrics.
One recurring character is an artist, married to another artist. Theirs is a complex dance of egos. The woman is the better artist, but her husband is more successful — the description of the “why” is something I’ve seen repeated in the art world during my entire tenure: the “”technician” who comes up with a gimmick collectors can’t get enough of. And the artist with real talent and soul, whose work is largely ignored.
In one of the earlier books, the wife’s work is finally recognized and she gets a prestigious solo show. This leads to other problems, and other books about the husband, but in that first solo show it is revealed that what spoke the most to the gallerist who chose her, was a single painting in which the light in a portrait’s eye gave the entire painting its “feel.” In other words, a not-so-appealing portrait subject became utterly compelling because of the feeling conveyed by her eyes. Or as it was described, the single point of light in one eye.
I loved that. In the two decades I’ve been painting, representing and curating art, on the road and in my own gallery, I’ve seen a handful of artists who have created that sort of compelling image, something you might not ordinarily like, but couldn’t get out of your head. It’s a gift, and it’s not anything you can learn or even understand. In fact, often the artist doesn’t understand: he just does what he does and something very special emerges.
And while I have been successful as an artist myself, I have never created anything quite like that. I wish. My work appeals to people for reasons only they understand and I am glad of it, but it isn’t the sort of thing that stops you in your tracks and stays in your mind for days. It is good and interesting and colorful, and I am happy that people like it enough to keep me in business all these years. But I know exceptional art when I see it.
In the last mystery I read by this author, near the end, the woman artist was supposed to have another solo show at the same prestigious venue as before, but due to the dramatic circumstances in their mythical town, she hangs the work in the central pub they all call home. The portraits are of all the local characters, and most of them seem somewhat unfinished, to the casual observers. The clothes are haphazard, the hair isn’t defined.
But the crusty old drunk, an award-winning poet, whose salty observations become plot devices and whose bristly character grows on everyone — goes back to look at the portrait of her pet, and in that single point of light in the eye she sees a tiny portrait of herself. She moves around to each portrait in turn, and sees tiny reflections of the person that person loves. Or who loves them. Soon the others see what she is doing, and they follow suit, all marveling at this amazing detail.
I couldn’t get that out of my mind last night. It’s such a wonderful concept:each of us reflecting the image of the person who loves us.
We’ve seen police procedurals on TV and in movies, where they’ve isolated a still shot and seen something reflected in a window or some sunglasses, and solved the crime. But here was a painter who chose to make each tiny reflection hugely significant in conveying the person: a reflection of the person who loved them.
If I was any good at portraits I would be considering that right now. But I suck at painting people and couldn’t pull it off, so the concept is safe. But isn’t it wonderful? Isn’t that what we all are – a reflection of the people who love us?! Or on a more somber note, a reflection of emptiness. It’s an amazing metaphor and the characters loved it, too. They each went back around, studying each other and the reflections in their eyes.
You’d think that an author with this kind of insight would be a good judge of character, wouldn’t you? This is a person who started writing in mid-life, had enormous success, lost a partner to Alzheimer’s and yet continues to create compelling, intricate fictional people. You’d think that would bring a certain level of perception.
And yet, this author, whose characters are so intriguing and complex, a writer whose perception of human emotions is the source of such rich storytelling, has chosen to write a book with one of the greatest liars on the planet, a woman despised by half of America, whose personal delusions allow her to think she was cheated out of her last “job.” This author, who seems to understand the human spirit so well, is that liar’s “great good friend.”
How does that work? How do you see so many tiny elements so clearly, and something so huge so poorly?
I’ll never know the answer, because I will no longer read this author, nor will I read the book she will make millions from by co-authoring with her “good friend,” a grifter, scammer and liar extraordinaire. And down the road, that successful writer of character-driven mysteries, may even wonder who or what is shown in the single reflection of her own eye. At least I hope so.
Or, how we segued from dinosaurs to Ghostbusters and back!
Thank you to ZUUL – the dinosaur.
Young children run through passionate connections like there is no tomorrow. Which probably seems that way for them. A year of dinosaurs of every kind, shape, format, books, paintings, stuffed toys…..dinosaurs…for a quarter of a four year old’s life. That’s huge. We all got used to it. Dinosaurs were shipped and boxed and unwrapped and recreated into books.
For all we knew, the young dinophile could stay involved in that study for years. Grown men study dinosaurs. Nanas study them. Painting dinosaurs became my therapy for 2020. It was completely outside my comfort zone, but so much fun it just rolled along. It seems lots of people love dinosaurs.
And then, one day, the 4 year old discovered Ghostbusters. I know. I know. But anyway…..a few firehouses, Dr. Vengtman, Egon, Ray and Stay Puft marshmallow men later and…..well, we don’t know what the next passionate discovery will be.
But Nana needs to paint, so…
…Nana came up with the placeholder, the crossover: Zuul, the dinosaur. Named for Zuul in Ghostbusters. An armored ankylosaur the likes of which no one had ever seen. And preserved like no one could have dreamed: armor, scales and all! An armored herbivore with a tail club. Washed into a logjam and covered with sand on the edge of Montana 75 million years ago. You can read about it here: National Geographic
My whimsical version is here.
The very well preserved actual head and tail club are on display at the Royal Ontario Museum. It will take years to unwrap the rest of the monster. Cool, eh?
In July of 2019 I started writing for MEDIUM. It was a little different platform, showcasing articles from big news organizations alongside essays from little people like me. I liked the concept because it gave me a wider audience, almost immediately, and allowed me to monetize my work without having to have ten thousand “followers.”
I wrote there for more than a year, and published some pieces I was proud of. The analytics allowed me to see what was read, and when, by whom, and even how much of a piece got read. It allowed me to continue to earn little bits of money on everything. Each time someone “clapped” for a piece, I got a penny or so. When you write or paint, you generally have no idea how your work is really received, so that is valuable information.
But somewhere during the mess that was 2020, MEDIUM added Colin Kapernaek to their board of directors. I’d always known I was a tiny conservative Christian voice in a big noisy group of leftists, but that was a bridge too far. I’d stopped watching football because of Colin Kapernaek, and I had been a passionate, lifelong fan.
So, when July of 2020 rolled around I didn’t renew my own subscription, but I kept writing the occasional essay. I figured, if they didn’t kick me off for the way I thought, perhaps it was good to be the voice in the wilderness.
But sometime in the fall, when the election was stolen and the lies got louder, I decided that it just wasn’t worth it. I’ve lived in countries where communism had reigned, and it seemed rash to have honest thoughts on a platform teeming with social justice warriors ready to track us down and kill us — even if only figuratively. Besides, as a man who works in the film industry recently said, “the checks are signed by Satan.”
So, I quietly slipped away and came back here. My presence on MEDIUM became a blank page which, according to a faithful friend says “that page no longer exists.” Just as well.
I won’t be as outspoken here. We are moving into a communist era in our country and I don’t trust our so-called leaders now to make even the weakest stand for “free speech.” But in the next few days I will be re-posting some of the more thoughtful MEDIUM pieces, for your consideration.
One thing I will write more of here are thoughts about faith. Our country has lost its way, in the name of political correctness and globalism. Our current leaders have no faith. They mock those of us who do, considering us uneducated and unsophisticated. I mean, really, “God?” Their god is “science,” but they don’t even get that right. So, I will stick my neck out and talk about God, because our country was founded on Christian principles and natural law. We forget that at the peril of freedom itself.
I’ll try not to be too “heavy.” But it’s important to take a stand. When a public school makes a prayer room for muslims and doesn’t allow Bibles, something is wrong.
I might even throw in a book review, here and there. After all, what we now have the most of is time.
Thank you so much for taking time to read. Some day you may not have that freedom.
we have different ways of serving God and we need the freedom to do so
Lest my lovely little bad of loyal readers think I have disparaged worship with my previous ponderings (“Does church get in the way of God?” Oct.13), let’s look at some of the many ways people serve God, and why we all need to be allowed to do so, in our ways.
If you are reading this, you very likely live in the U.S.A., a country founded on the premise of religious freedom. That is no small thing.
Our predecessors came to a rough and tumble wilderness across a dangerous sea — because they had been persecuted for their particular beliefs. Europe in the 1600s was embroiled in the repercussions of the Reformation and the actions of Henry VIII in England. The countries and cultures that had been Catholic now had protestants in their midst, and they didn’t always get along.
So when the Puritans had the opportunity to practice their form of Protestantism in a vast new place, without persecution, they took the risk. They packed their lives into tiny boats and came here and tamed a wilderness.
Our later leaders took the further step of declaring this an independent country, no longer under the laws of England. They had to fight for years to make that a reality, so when they wrote our laws, they made sure that “freedom of religion” was part of our constitution. (That is “freedom OF religion,” kids; not freedom FROM.)
It was very important to the founders of our republic that all of us would always be allowed to worship God the way we choose. They could never have imagined a country where most people worship no god at all, but that’s a topic for another day.
So, even though I do not go to church, as I explained yesterday, I have the right to do so. And so do you. And that is how it should be.
Is one church right and one church not? That is not for us to decide.
Can “churches” be dangerous cults? Certainly.
Can “religions” be theocracies? You bet! And if those theocracies do not mesh with our republic, you can also bet there will be some pushback. (Because theocracies are religions with actual civil laws of their own which supersede secular laws.)
But within the general definitions of worship, in our country pretty much everything is protected. If you are a satanist and wish to burn a pentagram into your own pasture, you are free to do so.
Which brings us to “waving for Jesus.”
We Christians are a diverse lot but one of the things most of us agree on is “service.” Jesus made that pretty clear: one of the best ways we can serve Him is to serve others.
“…as you have treated the least of these…you have done it to me…” (Matthew 25:40) is His way of saying that.
Jesus washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper. That is a very Middle Eastern thing to do, to show respect.
When Tim Tebow’s “Night to Shine” hosts their proms for “other people” every spring, the volunteers polish the shoes of the people with Downs Syndrome and other disabilities as they arrive in their limos. That is his nod to that Biblical admonition, so it’s a good illustration, but Tim’s whole life is service. He got that message loud and clear, and he has practiced it to the detriment of his career. That’s commitment.
Franklin Graham grew up as the son of a world famous evangelical preacher. Billy Graham saved souls for decades with his powerful “crusades,” patterned after the old-fashioned tent “revivals” of early 20th Century America.
When Franklin became an adult he saw the need for a ministry of service. He started small, filling shoeboxes with items children in Third World countries could use, as well as little toys, and a small Bible or New Testament. You don’t win hearts to God with every shoebox, but the ones that result in a child finding faith….you can’t put a value on that.
Decades later, Samaritan’s Purse is a global service organization, providing comfort and relief following storms and other natural disasters. The day after Hurricane Dorian swept through the Bahamas, Samaritan’s Purse was on the islands, with their portable hospital and food tents. That is serving God in the best way, isn’t it?
We could cite examples for days, but the point is that we try to serve in the ways that God has given us.
I try to bring joy with my paintings.
I wasn’t always honest about that. For awhile, in the beginning, it was all about me, and I worked to make a small name for myself in my little art world, and succeeded. I’ve managed to make a respectable living with my work, too.
But in the last few years, removed more and more from the more competitive world of art, I’ve been able to let go of the need to constantly create “new and unique” and been able to focus more on what I want my collectors to receive from my work. What is the feeling a painting gives? How does it change your day? Does it give you a little boost to just look at it? Maybe the colors make you feel better even though you weren’t even aware you looked at it.
And because I have been more open to this little “mission,” God has been blessing me with inspirational images. You may not look at them and perceive that, but there are messages I’m not even aware of in some of my newest work.
The image that accompanies “having faith in a faithless world” (METHOD July 13, 2019) is called “glimpses of heaven.” I love the colors in it. The colors of the sky and the marsh make me happy.
The dog just appeared.
I didn’t picture the dog when I started. I had been painting a series of dockhouses, the little summer houses with amenities that people in the Lowcountry put out at the end of their thousand foot long docks. The dockhouse series has been successful, because they are somewhat iconic to our area. I was thinking about what color the tin roof should be, and instead — I painted the silhouette of a dog, facing away.
For his master to come back in a boat? Waiting for the sunset? Waiting for someone who won’t be back? I had no idea. Still don’t.
When I brought it to the gallery in Beaufort it started generating all sorts of wonderful interactions with people. It often made them cry.
I got that slip “slap up the side of the head” from my angel, that said, “see? Just listen. God won’t steer you wrong.”
So I am more cognizant now of my mission. My small talent can be a gift to other people to remind them of bigger, warmer, more wonderful things. Or smaller blessings. Perhaps remind them of God.
Which brings us back to “waving for Jesus.”
When me moved to our corner of the swamp almost five years ago, I would often pass a man on the side of the road as you drive into Beaufort. It was right after the first bridge onto the islands, and he would be there during morning “rush hour,” waving at the cars.
It was charming, but curious.
I always looked for him. And sometimes he wasn’t there, for months at a time. Then he would show up standing with a crutch. But still waving to the morning cars.
Finally, after we’d been here a few years, the local paper did a little story on him, and it turns out that he isn’t well but he wants to serve Jesus. Asking in prayer what he could do, waving to the rush hour cars was the answer. Just a little bright spot in your stressed out morning, a stranger smiling and waving at you. For no reason. For Jesus.
Once I knew that, I started looking for him more. He’s only there Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays now, and usually only an hour, between 8 and 9 am. And today he wasn’t there at all. But when he is, we smile and wave at each other like long lost friends. I toot the horn and we both point to heaven. It’s his little gift.
His little service to us. A form of worship. A reminder of God. Even people who have no idea why that man stands there and waves have to feel a little better when they see it.
So, I will defend your right to go to the church of your choice. And I will continue to ask God to point me along my path.
And now and then, one of us will perform an act of kindness, for no reason. Or “pay it forward.” These secular admonitions are the same as “even unto the least of these…” When we step outside our own needs, even for a brief moment, we all become better for it.
Because we’re all a little better when we know there is something bigger than us. And that “something” really wants us to work together here. We don’t have to agree on anything else.
I didn’t always talk with people about God. In fact, only in the last few years have I been talking with anyone outside my family about God, let alone total strangers. It’s been revelatory, and maybe not in the ways you might think.
There are a number of caveats in this observation and the first is that I do not proselytize. Ever. I wouldn’t know where to begin to try to convince someone to believe in anything. But I have a personal relationship with God which directs much of what I do, including the way I feed my family which is painting. (You wouldn’t necessarily know about that from my paintings, but I hope they are blessings to my collectors.)
The other caveat is that I am not even close to being a righteous person. I’m as flawed as any person between 50 and 100 has a right to be. And I didn’t always have this personal relationship with God. I spent many decades trying to prove He didn’t exist. It made my self-indulgences easier to excuse if there were no rules. This last, of course, is why everyone wants to believe there is no God, but more on that another time.
One of the joys of age is that you can observe your own life in large segments, and not just as a series of events. And a few years back I began to realize how things which had seemed like strokes of luck at the time were probably God rescuing my sorry ass from another bad decision. Because God always has a better plan for us than we have for ourselves. And if we’re open to that, He likely also has a purpose.
So, along the way, as you think you are living your life making your own decisions, God may now and then give you a nudge in the right direction. Maybe put a person in front of you with an option that, if chosen, will keep your feet on a more solid path. Mike Lindell, the “My Pillow” guy, calls them “pegs;” little legs up to help you not fail. If you’re a secular pragmatist, these “opportunities” are just luck. But if you’re a pragmatic believer you eventually see them for what they really are, little nudges from God.
To what purpose, you ask. What could God ever need from us? We’ve all asked God “what do you want from me?!” whether we believed in Him or not. Right? And some of us have asked it of Him many times, not always in jest or anger.
Thirty-five years ago when my son’s father was dying of cancer I asked that question a lot. And one time, perhaps because I asked in a different way, God told me it was preparation for something in the future. There’s been plenty of “no God in my life” years in between, but that was seared in my brain for a long while, because we don’t always get answers from God.
The other time God answered me was in that same time period, before I knew my husband was dying. He’d become a raging alcoholic and a little psychotic, and one morning I just fell on my knees, literally on the floor, and asked God what to do.
“Nothing” was the word that filled my mind.
It didn’t seem like enough, but it was very clear, so I took that as the whole answer. But I was also still a smartass in those days, so I “gave God 6 weeks.”
If my husband didn’t pull it together in 6 weeks, I’d go to Plan B, whatever that was.
In less than 2 weeks, we all found out that my husband had Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, and 3 weeks to 3 months to live. He lived the whole 3 months. Imagine how horrible if I’d just left, instead of falling down and begging God for direction. I started paying more attention after that.
But after that I also had to deal with being a young widow with a little kid, so I felt sorry for myself. And while I didn’t “blame God,” per se, I nonetheless tuned Him out for a decade, self-medicating instead.
Evidently, though, God still had a plan, and perhaps even a purpose for me yet, because I’m still here. In the ensuing decades I learned to listen to God more and more, and things in my own life now have a simplicity of direction. I just ask God. What’s the worst that can happen? If God doesn’t answer, I trust the skills I’ve developed, and my instincts. But if I listen carefully, I often get “nudges.”
C.S. Lewis was an incredible witness for faith. He was brilliant, for starters. And he was an intellectual in the truest sense. And for a large part of his life, in between periods of faith — he was an atheist. He was able to argue against the idea of a God with his great big brain, and he did. But in the end, he realized he couldn’t. It made no sense at all. There are at least a half dozen of his books which make the case for God.
But he once said something along the lines that people spend lifetimes and enormous effort trying to find something other than God to believe in. Think about that, and about the people you know and how they fill up their lives. And the reasons they give for those things; the things which make us feel good about ourselves. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” as Seinfeld would say.
There’s a reason AA says you have to “believe in a higher power” to kick an addiction. There’s a reason people pray when they’re scared. But a “higher power” is poo-pooed by the intellectual elite. God is for the smaller minds. But we’ll leave that conceit for another day. Or a C.S. Lewis book.
I still don’t know what sort of world God was preparing me for in that earlier time, when I asked and got an answer. But for the present, I occasionally talk with people about God. God just comes up. The gallerist I work with says that’s my calling. Maybe so. Many of my paintings have prayers in them; you can’t see them, but you get the blessings anyway.
You know that unexpected result I mentioned earlier? It’s this: a lot of people believe in God. A lot more than you would think. (If you live in New England or LA you probably think no one believes in God at all.) And if we’re speaking in a general, conversational way they will share this. In some cases, people talk about God like we used to talk about drugs, sotto voce — as if God were illegal. Which, in America in the 21st Century isn’t far from the truth. But again, a conversation for another time.
Our ancestors all believed in God and gods. They fought over them. Fought about how to worship them. Wars were waged and diasporas launched because of them. Crops and health were prayed for, and God was thanked or blamed. But few people questioned the concept altogether.
That came with science. Science has been the anti-God. With a few centuries of science under its collective belt, mankind was prepared to dismiss God. Not needed. Thanks, but no thanks. Science has an explanation for everything. If there is no explanation, someone gets a grant and studies it until there is. Except that science has a funny way of proving God. There is always the part they “just don’t know.”
And, unpopular as He is in the intellectual world, many scientists believe in God. They just don’t talk about it. They don’t want to be ridiculed by their peers.
So why on earth would I ever talk with total strangers about God? It has to do with my art. I feel that my art these days comes from God. I ask Him all the time to guide my hands and direct my work. The results are statement pieces which speak to people. And when they ask me what I was thinking, I have to tell them. So, maybe that is my mission in this godless world. Maybe the gallery owner is right.
The other reason I feel the need to talk about God is that almost no one does, and we have ended up with a society which has few rules, almost no consequences for actions, the idea that a person himself is the center of his own universe, curious levels of situational ethics, and practically no morality whatsoever.
We’re stunned when someone finds a lost wallet and returns it untouched. We are thrilled with good samaritans who risk their own safety for others. We expect police and military to protect us but criticize them if they “hurt” people. Everyone wants to have it all, with no restraints.
So God is simply inconvenient. And so last century.
Except for those of us who do believe. And we are all around you, whether you believe it or not. Just like God.
Back in the 90s, I lived for 7 months on the border of Slovenija and Croatia — and I do mean on the border: I could see the crossing from the house. The Istrian peninsula is an ancient, beautiful place. And it was an interesting time.
Yugoslavia had been “free” for a few years, depending on which new “country” you were in; some, like Serbia, were still sorting it out. I was an American actually living there, so I was a novelty, and got invited to gallery openings, weekend parties at someone’s getaway in the hills behind Porto Roz, jaunts into Istrian countryside to explore medieval towns, and churches from the Dark Ages, boat trips down the Dalmatian Coast, to places like Hvar and Lastavo. I even had a couple part time jobs, writing a column for the Koper paper, and being a deckhand delivering boats back to their owners in Dalmatia, who’d spirited them out before the shooting started, stashing them along the coast near Trieste.
It was very pleasant and congenial, and if the language had been closer to any other language I spoke, I might be there still. But a language as far removed from the romance family as Croat and Slovene was a bridge too far. Besides, I was getting old, and it seemed to make more sense to get old in my home country, where being poor was better than being rich in a lot of others. I was tired of watching TV shows where they spoke in one language I didn’t understand, and put the subtitles in two more which I also didn’t understand. Just little things. I’d already done a lot of adventuring, anyway, and had spent the previous couple years in an equally lovely spot in Tuscany. So going home seemed the thing to do.
About the time I had made this decision, I had the opportunity to crew on a sailboat delivery — to Istanbul. The captain asked me to do it because no one else he knew could take the three weeks it entailed, and I was a good deckhand, and cook. I considered it for about a minute: down the Adriatic, through the Ionian Sea, across the Aegean. Places like Corinth, and Athens, Troy, Gallipoli and Istanbul! I would never get that opportunity again. It was just too good.
It was also a very small sailboat, 35 feet, and it was January. The captain was a man I trusted, and he and I were both no nonsense types. We filled the galley, packed all the warm foul weather gear we each had, and loaded half the deck with jugs of gas for the motor, because wind is unreliable and we had a deadline. We had to be at the boat show in Istanbul, because it was part of the new owners’ deal. We also had to man the wheel at all times, because they were buying self-steering and other add-ons in Turkey, where they were cheaper. Four on, four off was how we worked it. One of us at the wheel while the other one slept.
We sailed south and east on the Adriatic, because we would have to refuel in Italy. Albania was still much too dangerous. Then across to northwestern Greece and through the Corinthian channel, a wonder all by itself. We’d had a few minor hold-ups: we had to wait the better part of a day when we entered Greece, because there was no one at the tiny port to stamp our papers (pre-EU), and we’d chosen to spend a night in Corinth because we’d been told there was a restaurant “up the hill” that we really shouldn’t miss. We had to wait awhile to navigate the Corinth Channel, because it’s boats going one way for awhile, and then the other. But, we were making good time.
We cruised past the busy port of Piraeus (Athens) and on to the edge of the Aegean, where we came to a screeching halt at the tiny town of Karystos. There was a raging storm on the Aegean, and even the freighters were pulling in and anchoring off the little fishing village. When you’re in a 35′ boat and freighters are hunkering down, you don’t take that chance.
I loved Karystos. I explored the antiquities museum, the delightful little orthodox churches; I lit candles to St. Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors, and bought a little piece of icon art, which is in my kitchen today. The mountains behind the town were covered with snow and if I’d been a tourist, I couldn’t have been happier.
There was a big Beneteau yacht coming out of France and headed for the same boat show. They had a 5 man crew and all the technology. They tied up across from us, and we raised many a glass in the little fishing bar that had CNN and the Weather Channel. The owner of the bar was a Greek-American, who spent half the year on City Island, an island that is part of the Bronx. He was delighted to have another American to talk with. It was a good place to be stuck.
But we were working.
The big Beneteau yacht left at the end of the second day, but we had to wait a little longer for the seas to lay down. Then we were off to the coast of Turkey, where lies Troy and Lesvos, which, not surprisingly was full of lesbian tourists. I had a heart-in-mouth moment as I tried to steer into the opening of the little round harbor of Mitilini, when the Greek Coast Guard came screaming up with lights flashing. We were flying a Turkish flag (and a Slovene flag and an American flag, but the Turkish one was the biggest.) Greece and Turkey have always had a bit of a sketchy relationship. The islands of Greece off the coast of Turkey are a natural destination for who knows what, and the Greek Coast Guard want to know what our “what” was. Once we explained the Turkish boat owners, the delivery, showed our Slovene and American passports, we were fine.
More fuel and food and a fast perusal of the amazing little street market in Mitilini and we were off to Canakkale, the Dardenelles Straits and across the Marmara Sea to Istanbul. Canakkale is a rather inhospitable (at least in January) and rather dreary spot, but I learned two things there: a recipe for the finest roasted tomato and sweet pepper spread I’ve ever had, and that American women are identifiable everywhere, even if we’re bundled up in foul-weather gear and hats. “Something about the way you walk,” I was told, again. (Evidently we don’t sashay like European women.)
I was at the wheel when we cleared the top of the Dardenelles. It was just before dawn, in that silvery time I love the best when sailing. The water and the sky were the same magical, metallic hue, and when the dusky dolphins started popping up alongside me on the starboard side, I was so enchanted I didn’t really register that the sun came up looking like a cherry candy…..”red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.”
A few hours later, the wind started to come up too. I stomped my feet to wake up the captain, asleep at the end of his “four hours off,” to let him know we could raise the sail. We’d had such minimal wind for so many days, we were used to motoring. But motoring uses fuel, and a good wind could make us some good time. We were in the middle of what should be our last day before Istanbul.
We got the mainsail raised and started zooming along with the wind at our backs. Perfection. But as the captain got coffee down below, he had me read him the wind speed. 20 knots, 21, 22, 26…..29….35….And that was when we knew it wasn’t perfection. Because the wind kept rising. Pretty soon it was more than unnerving, and then it turned direction. We’d gotten a long ways into the Marmara Sea and had started seeing small Turkish fishing boats. Now those boats started heading back towards the west, and as they did, they started disappearing behind huge waves. One minute you’d see a boat, and the next there’d be a wave in the way.
We didn’t have charts for the Marmara Sea and the wind was now straight at us if we continued in the direction of Istanbul.
In a very risky move, we came around, and now the wind was at our backs again.
“Take the wheel, while I get the mainsail down!”
But I couldn’t hold the wheel. I was 5’4″ and in those days weighed 120 lbs. The seas were so strong and the wind had the mainsail in its grip. Even bracing myself against the bulkhead, I couldn’t do it. Which gives you some idea of what we were dealing with. So I had to crawl up on top, hook one leg around the mast to keep from being blown off, and pull down the heavy sail. The only thing I could do with it was stuff it down into the cabin as I went, so it wouldn’t blow out and cause even more problems.
I managed it, mostly one-handed, and when I was done, I just sat down on top of it, piled in the companionway ladder. I was physically drained, but I was also emotionally drained, so I just sat that way, until I got it together. I didn’t want to look like a wuss, after all. I had a reputation of being pretty fearless. But I was shaking from the effort.
Now we were flying in front of the wind, with a tiny corner of a jib still out to maintain direction. It was the size of a napkin but we were zooming. The wind was howling and there were streamers of spray everywhere. When I felt strong enough to turn around and look at my buddy, the captain, who was somehow maintaining our course — the waves behind him were the size of houses and foam was blowing off the top of them like pennants.
I think I screamed, because he said, in that no-nonsense voice all captains have, “just don’t look at them.”
I put the sail into a more organized pile and prayed. I wasn’t much of a Christian in those days, but I had been, and I still knew how to pray.
We flew along like that for hours: howling wind, air filled with spray and a following sea with gigantic waves. We finally reached the top end of the Dardenelles in inky darkness. We remembered seeing a sheltered harbor on the east side. I had my eyes peeled for the red and green marking lights at its entrance, but there was so much water in the air and the wind was so strong, neither one of us could see it. All we could see was glimpses of masts and a long stone wall with big breakers throwing out more mist.
Then a ro-ro ferry started honking its horn, and I realized it was training its spotlight on the entrance, so that we could see it. It had moved the light back and forth between us and the entrance, and we didn’t understand. But when we did, and started moving in the right direction, it kept the light right there. (It was going to a dock on the outside of the wall and must have seen our confusion.) If there’d been any way to get to that bridge and hug those seamen, I would have done it. But that is what sailors do for other sailors. I’m sure they didn’t think anything of it, and were just glad to help a little boat in a big storm.
Once inside the tiny opening, the water was considerably calmer. These little keyhole shaped harbors are all over the Mediterranean, the Adriatic and the Middle East. They build walls to protect the docks from the wind and then leave a tiny opening to keep the big seas out. But the wind was still howling. So, after throwing out the anchor, making sure it was holding, we still had to swap watches all night. Anchors and ropes can fail in strong winds.
The next morning was clear and cold. The deck was covered in ice but the winds had died as quickly as they’d come up. We motored across the strait to Gallipoli, where, without the benefit of any mutual language (amazing, since we had a half a dozen between the two of us) we managed to refuel, get more coffee and cigarettes, and replace the glove I lost to the wind.
We set out again and made it to Istanbul, where we found out we’d been caught in a Force 9 gale which had taken down 3 boats. The owners were relieved that we weren’t one of them, but I kept seeing those little colorful fishing boats trying to get home.
Why do I tell this story? There are a couple reasons. Most people in their lifetimes will not experience a Force 9 gale in a small boat and live to tell about it. When I got back to Italy, I walked through the living room one day and some guests in my friends’ B&B were watching “White Squall.” It was the scene where Jeff Bridges is trying to get to his wife, who is trapped below decks. I was stopped in my tracks and stood there shaking. I realized I had to continue watching, or I’d probably never sail again. I did and I do.
The other is a matter of trust and the question of safety. Both are worthy of discussions all by themselves.
If I hadn’t trusted myself, I couldn’t have hauled down the mainsail. If I hadn’t trusted the captain, I would have been a wreck, and probably couldn’t have finished the journey. If I hadn’t trusted God’s plan for me — even though I was a lousy Christian at the time — I wouldn’t have believed we would make it. And let’s face it, sometimes believing you will make it is the only reason you do.
But what about the concept of “safety?” For some people these days safety is never leaving their house. For others it is wearing a mask. For many it is a vaccination. None of those things were in play 25 years ago. But for many people 25 years ago, the idea of sailing a small boat across even small seas was beyond their concept of safety. This was not an era of cellphones with maps and GPS. There were GPS available, especially on boats, but it wouldn’t have helped us see the entrance to the tiny harbor when the air was full of seaspray, and the waves were over our heads. And we weren’t completely safe, even inside the harbor. We still had to watch the anchor line all night.
Of course, the type of trip that became, was exactly why my mother still worried about me. Bless her heart.
If I’d been overly concerned with safety, I’d have had an entirely different life. Which is not to say I was “reckless.” There’s a difference. Being too cautious is one thing; being reckless is another thing altogether. I grew up on the coast of Maine, so going out on the sea in ships, in boats of any size, was not considered reckless.
If we had set out knowing there was a Force 9 gale in our future that day, that would have been reckless. But we didn’t know, or we would have stayed put. Our access to “real time weather” was not even close to what I can pull up on my phone these days. We didn’t have the bells and whistles available to the crew of the Benetau yacht, either, which beat us to Istanbul by a day, and watched the storm from their hotel.
Safety is a relative concept. Safety for us was having the best equipment available to us and staying alert. Safety for others might have been to not go at all. But really, we are never actually “safe” until we sit at the feet of God in heaven. Nothing in our lives is guaranteed. Nothing is really safe. The vaccine you take to keep you safe from the virus might kill you. You can’t count on anything but your faith in God.
Years before this particular adventure, we’d been sitting around Henry’s in Charleston, drinking and telling tales, and a woman I knew asked me how I’d been able to do all the things I’d done. I told her I knew when to say “yes.” You get opportunities to do things, and the offer is in the air once. It doesn’t come back around. You weigh the pros and cons, and decide if it is worth the risk.
The voyage to Istanbul is one of the best choices I ever made. I found out things about myself – about trust and danger and survival – I would never have known. I got to travel through ancient (and modern) history. I’ve seen places that I read about in my Bible. I’ve bought cigarettes in Gallipoli. I have been to the capitol of the Byzantine empire. To Corinth. I sailed past ruins that go back 3000 years.
If I wanted to do that the safe way, I could have saved my shekels and taken a Viking cruise. But that’s not how I roll. And, let’s face it: it wouldn’t make much of a story.
“My” squirrels are so fat they can hardly get up and down the tree. This, because I bribed them with corn so they wouldn’t steal expensive bird seed. They still steal the bird seed, but now they are gorging on deer corn.
And there’s more of them now. When I come out the back door, there are five or six who flee to the tree line, instead of the usual two or three.
I know when the deer eat the corn, because the ears stay where they are. The deer eat the kernels and leave. The squirrels try to drag the whole thing up the tree.
It’s really pretty funny.
I have to police the empty ears, or my honey will tell me about them, next time he is mowing. So, as I distribute fresh corn, I fling the empty ears out into the woods. When I can’t find them, I look to the nearest tree. Sure enough, there will be one or two ears, emptied of kernels or still being worked on. They’re so close to the bottom of the trunk, I wonder if they don’t get them part way up and then lose them. They especially like the ears with the husks still on…..
Darn, I’d love to have night vision cameras out there. It’s a wild and crazy place in the back yard in winter. Food is at a premium, even in a mild climate like ours. So even the feral cat looks at the corn.
I suppose I could put it up on deer high “tables, ” with squirrel baffles, but that wouldn’t stop raccoons, or possums. I’ve seen several foxes, too. And we’ve heard the bobcat.
And, while I haven’t seen any evidence for a month or so, we often have armadillos. You can make all the armadillo jokes you want, they are disgusting. And toxic. Christian or not, I am not a fan of every animal.
The last time I lived in Florida was 20 years ago, for two years on Hibiscus Island. Iguanas were already becoming a nuisance, but nothing like they are now. And now iguanas have swum to the Keys, as well. If I’d walked out into my Key West yard 35 years ago and seen an iguana on my deck, I wouldn’t have been nearly as fond of the place. Not to mention the new snake invasion in the Everglades. Jeez. You might as well move to Australia, where nearly everything will try to kill you.
So, perhaps I don’t need night vision cameras out into the far yard….
…There’s probably a critter or two I am just as well not knowing about.