In celebration of my birthday, I finally visited Enchanted Rock State Natural Area near Llano, Texas. I went with a photographer friend, and we spent a night in the primitive camping area – which you reach by backpacking your stuff in.
When the stars came out in the cloudless night sky, we saw satellites and the Milky Way. It was cold and a bit windy so my friend put the rain fly on the tent the better to keep us (or to be more accurate, me) warm. In the middle of the night, unzipping the rain fly and looking out, I saw how the constellations had moved around the axis of the Pole Star, and a shooting star.
We did have a bit of trouble with the local raccoons. When two of them started snarling over their right to plunder our backpacks, I levitated about three feet out of a sound sleep. My wilderness-rated friend put our trail food into the tent stuff sack and suspended it from a tree. Problem solved. I will say I can now better empathize with those of my characters who spend a long, cold night in a wild place or in a wilderness of stars.
And I have never seen the stars like I did that night.
At dawn the rising sun brought out all of the colors of the landscape. We broke camp, hiked back to the parking area, then hiked to the top of Enchanted Rock—a vast granite batholith. From the top we could see for miles across the Texas Hill Country. After that we hiked around the Rock.
After leaving the park we spent a night at a lovingly restored old railroad hotel in Llano, the Dabbs. It’s a sweet old place, located on a bluff above the Llano River, with a lot of carefully selected, vintage train decor.
The next morning, by old railroad tracks nearby, we found a man and his friends putting an old railroad motor car, or “speeder,” on the rails. He was going to be checking out the track for the safety of another dozen or more fellow enthusiasts who were planning a speeder group excursion the following day. He was happy to talk about his speeder and offer a photo op to an itinerant science fiction writer.
It was a happy birthday and I hope for many happy returns to the Hill Country!
A few days after the November 8 election in the US, I found myself at El Pueblo De Los Angeles Historic Monument. This was after taking the Amtrak Sunset Limited train from Houston to L. A. and arriving very early on a cool, clear California morning. So we walked across the street from Union Station to see this park. The colorful vendors mostly weren’t open, but the buildings and works of art were there to tell of the history of Los Angeles.
This spirited artwork caught my attention.
How amazing – this is Northern European and Mesoamerican pre-Christian imagery, wishing well and decorative skulls, intertwined just as these cultures are woven together in the Southwest.
All kinds of public fountains can turn into penny-strewn wishing wells, but that likely dates back to tossing coins into sacred springs as offerings to deities that live there – water being a source of life and a sometimes scarce necessity. The Day of the Dead abounds in sweet sugar skulls and lively skeletons, but that comes from Aztec religion which took death very seriously and graphically – with the skull an image of hope.
This decorated wishing well was an unforgettable reminder that our world has roots that are deep and dark and yet, though not optimistic, profoundly hopeful.
In the liturgical year, January 6 is the day of the Epiphany, and the days from now until Ash Wednesday, when the penitential season of Lent begins, are the Epiphany season. The imagery of Epiphany includes a new and portentous star and the arrival of foreign wise men. The meaning of Epiphany is a showing forth of something heretofore hidden but momentously significant.
This reminds me of my just-published novel Downfall Tide. But oppositely, like a photographic negative. The story opens with a new star in the night sky. It isn’t the kind of astronomical new star the colonists on Planet Green first guess it may be. It’s something else entirely. And soon the not-really-a-star brings the arrival of foreigners who are not only not wise men, but anti-wise men. What follows for my main characters is a time that could be considered a penitential season. And after that, the story parallels Holy Week from Palm Sunday to Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday.
The aspect of Downfall Tide that is a parallel to Good Friday is what made it the hardest book I’ve ever written. Some readers will find that part distressing to read.
But the end of the book mirrors Easter, the day that dawns with resurrected hope.
Memento mori was something of a Medieval motto. How could it not be? They had Black Death and other plagues, climate change and crop failures, and numerous wars including civil and Thirty Years’ and Hundred Years’. Modern American culture, on the other hand, denies death with all the might and main of the medical establishment and the advertising industry. Death denial has a really long run for many of us.
Death denial runs aground on the rocky shore of reality when you have a loved one in a nursing home. Assisted living has more or less graciously given many of the infirm elderly a safe haven. The people who have to remain in nursing homes are very sick, in ways that medicine can’t fix. If every day there isn’t the day of the dead, it’s close.
In that situation, sudden death starts to look good. I’ve heard people who have loved ones in nursing homes, or who themselves are in poor health, say as much. It’s been on my own mind . There is much to envy about people who die doing what they love, pass away in their sleep, or even die in the bosom of an assisted living facility. Less than before, though, and probably less than ever in human history, sudden death is not the norm for the aged in America.
Mom’s nursing home had a Halloween party for everybody in both the Assisted Living and the nursing care sides of the facility. The décor involved what you expect at Halloween and staff were in costume. In the back of my mind I wondered about the propriety of having that kind of party theme in that kind of place, but everyone seemed to enjoy it. One of the nurses told me that it always perks up the nursing care residents to get out of their usual floor to a different area with different people.
Maybe Halloween in a nursing home works like the skeletons in Mexico’s Day of the Dead. As I understand it, the dancing skeletons and sugar skulls reminded people of the inescapable truth, more like the Middle Ages than America, that death was part and parcel of daily life. The Roman Catholic church fused an Aztec death festival onto the Church’s own Days of the Dead – All Hallows Eve, All Saints, and All Souls. Those days existed on the Church calendar for good reason and had European Pagan roots as well. The paradoxical and vitally important effect is that remembering death affirms life.
There are times and there are places where you can’t deny death. A nursing home adds the twist that some of these frail, sick, demented, slowly dying elders seem to be neither fully alive nor finally deceased but some of both. Half dead is one way that can strike the visitor. Another way it can strike the visitor is halfway home. A year from today on All Souls’ Day, many of those old souls in Mom’s nursing home will be gone: out of pain and indignity, out of dementia, rejoined with Mother Earth, returned to the nearer presence of God – however you describe this ineffable hope.
This is a collect for the Commemoration of All Souls from the 1929 Scottish Book of Common Prayer:
ETERNAL Lord God, who holdest all souls in life: We beseech thee to shed forth upon all the faithful departed the bright beams of thy light and heavenly comfort; and grant that they, and we with them, may at length attain to the joys of thine eternal kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Snowy Egrets are elegant shore birds with plumy white feathers and black bills and legs. Bright yellow feet pattern-interrupt the elegant impression only when said feet are visible, and they’re usually below the water. However, I came along behind two Snowy Egrets at the edge of Braes Bayou when they were avidly investigating whatever goodies the recent flood had churned up, and from that perspective the Snowies looked like the business ends of Q-tips balanced on oddly angled black wires!
The last six or eight months have been remarkable for shore birds on Braes Bayou, including White Ibises and a Tricolor Heron. For a while there was a Roseate Spoonbill in the vicinity of the Kirby Drive bridge. Roseate Spoonbills are usually Pepto-Bismol pink; they use their wide-tipped bills to forage in mud flats for little crustaceans, eating which makes their feathers pink. The one on Braes Bayou looked not very pink and rather misplaced. I’ve seen them in tidal marshes and on Clear Creek near Galveston Bay, never this far inland. The drought may have driven brackish water much further up the waterways than usual.
Yesterday was the Twelfth Day of Christmas – the last day of the liturgical Christmas season; today is Epiphany. The days of Christmas definitely had their delights as far as I am concerned.
- The Blue Christmas service at my church, St. Stephen’s Episcopal in Houston, was designed for people who might be grieving, bereft, or just grimly stressed, and was reverent, thoughtful, beautiful and holy.
- Everybody in Houston got what we wanted for Christmas: RAIN!
- An owl in a university tree: when my Rice Alum friends Becky and Marc and their son Beto came to town, we walked around the Rice campus and located one of the Screech Owls that roosts in the trees outside the West entrance of the Library. The treetop was swaying in a stiff breeze. Becky commented, “For the owl that must be just like sleeping in a hammock.”
- My dear friend and former colleague Ola gave me P. D. James’ Pride and Prejudice murder mystery, Death Comes to Pemberly, for Christmas. What a joy to have an enjoyable and distracting book to pick up and read over the holidays!
- My friend Kristin came from Washington DC to stay a few days. She nested in my guest room a.k.a. the better half of my living room. She enjoyed turning on the lights in the Christmas tree at night and when she had to get up early a couple of mornings for meetings. Not many guest rooms come with a full-size Christmas Tree!
- I like my tree too. According to my friend Bethe, whose family came from Poland, a Polish Christmas tree is one so decorated that you can’t see any tree. After upgrading to a 7 1/2′-footer this year, since I now live in a condo with high ceilings, I have a Texas Christmas Tree: bigger than it has to be, with spots of local color and lots of elbow room.
- Another friend, Lila (and there’s a theme here: I am wonderfully blessed with friends!) is recuperating from surgery and, being an industrious person, itching for constructive things to do. She’s proofreading the dark fantasy novel I just finished. Wow! Proofreading a book is a long and detailed job, and almost impossible for the writer of said book, who is much too close to the story to see the typos.
- I read the novel too as a prelude to the last editing pass. I only caught about 20% of the glitches Lila did, but I found a slew of structural fixes to make, and I enjoyed reading it. It’s a dark fantasy set mainly in the 1880’s Nevada and Utah Territories. Now, on about the overall fourth (and in places six or seventh) draft, I think it really works.
- New Year’s Eve was a delight with Kristin and Lila and Lila’s husband Jim and my friend Eileen and her husband Gene at their home in Friendswood. They live in a residential air park and just being there ups the quotient of fun had by all. Jim made eggrolls, Eileen made Chinese dumplings and hot and sour soup, we greeted the New Year on Bermuda time, and everyone got home before midnight and before the local revelers hit the road.
- I made a pecan pie from a recipe in the November issue of Southern Living Magazine. The Holidays are a grand time for modern takes on traditional food; and Southern Living, when it really connects with a New Southern recipe, hits it out of the ballpark. I was wondering about some of the recipes in the December issue which tilted toward more avant garde fare. My eyebrows shot up at the recipe for Sweet Potato Latkes in a section of new Hannukah food. But a good friend and colleague assures me that sweet potatoes make for extremely tasty latkes. Mazel tov!
- For those of us who didn’t have to go out of town, the holidays mean time for home improvements if desired. I tackled a stack of memorabilia, some of it from Mom’s house when we sold the house, and the rest of it remembrance material from my adult life. This was all stacked in a corner with some full plastic tubs holding up part of the stack – meaning no way to assess the contents of said tubs without taking down the stack. That problem is no more. I integrated a small file cabinet and four plastic storage cubes into the stack and now it works (and looks!) much, much better.
- New Year’s Day came with a morning of crystalline coolness and clarity. I was driving back from Church and saw a hawk thermalling over Greenbriar and Rice Boulevard. I had my car’s sun roof open. While parked at a red light I saw the hawk’s flight feathers shining at the edges of its wings and its red-tinged tail glowing in the sun. The hawk thermaled higher and higher. What a great good luck sign for 2012!
Walking to work, I was startled by being smiled at from the branches of a tree. It was two mylar balloons – one of them bright gold with a smiley face. The other balloon had little smileys all over it plus the words FEEL BETTER SOON.
OK, it’s not too surprising, that close to Medical Center, to see a couple of get-well balloons on the loose. On the other hand, it was very apt because Houston has had severe drought for a year. Even on a prosperous residential street like Greenbriar many trees (especially magnolias) look wilted. Over in Memorial Park there are so many dead trees it looks like Agent Orange fell out of the sky. The land itself has dried out to the breaking point. Greenbriar has buckles and potholes that could wallop a small car. And on nearby Braes Bayou the asphalt hike and bike trail developed terrible cracks over the past year. Cracks big enough to break a jogger’s ankle or take out a bicycle. So the city put up warning signs and outlined the cracks in white, after which they looked like a crime scene where dead bodies had lain. Maybe the dead bodies of a year’s worth of hopes for rain. FEEL BETTER SOON is a great wish for the trees and the rest of the natural fabric of our city.
Fondren Library’s most recent Staff Recognition event had an an Owl Recognition element with the screening of videos taken by Jay Gillen of the screech owls roosting in the trees by the West entrance. These have been very exciting owls, seen by numerous Library visitors and Rice people as well local Fox News station viewers. Jay staked out the roost with a video camera on a tripod and caught the owls staring, vocalizing, preening, and falling asleep, as well as having plumage that looks remarkably like tree bark. According to OwlPages.com, “When threatened, an Eastern Screech Owl will stretch its body and tighten its feathers in order to look like a branch stub to avoid detection” – but these two have apparently decided that being detected by humans is OK given such lovely trees in which to roost.