Canta, no Llores

Nothing guaranteed to make me fractious like opening a virgin blog page and finding something ALREADY WRITTEN in this sacred space of dogs, morning and coffee? WP what’s UP with you? And what was written here “What are your two favorite things to wear?” Here’s a screenshot of the abomination… Did you get one of these too???

Kind of an interesting question from MY point of view, but who cares what I like to wear? In case you DO… I wear jeans every single day. For the fancy party, I got velvet jeans. Most of the people around me wear jeans. Different brands reflect different worlds, but I don’t care about that. I just found some jeans I like and that fit and I wear them and buy them again when a pair wears out. I also have 3 identical sweatshirts, zipped up hoodies from Life is Good. All of them are gray and all of them say “Stay True.” People might think I never change my sweatshirt, but I do. Otherwise, I have a Patagonia down sweater that says many wonderful things to me like, “Hey, Martha, it’s cold! Let’s go out with the dogs!” and “Remember the times we went Langlauf? Remember? Are we going to do it again?”

Yes, a talking jacket can be a little annoying, but not as annoying as finding a writing prompt RIGHT THERE on my empty blog post, and not as annoying as discovering I’m actually writing TO that uninvited prompt that left me wondering if I’d started a blog and saved it, but no. That’s not my kind of prompt. My kind of prompt is “fractious”. I mean that, literally, it’s my prompt.

When I got the honor of posting prompts for Rag Tag Daily Prompt it was a VERY windy day here in the Bark of Beyond. I didn’t see much was likely to happen, so I sat down and came up with six months of prompts, 26 in alphabetical order. That was the first time I realized our alphabet has half a year of letters in it; 26 letters, 26 weeks, half a year. Whoa. I gave a micron of thought to it and decided it had no mystical meaning (because I could judge THAT, right?), it was just a coincidence, an irrelevant coincidence.

Too much stuff going on in my world at the moment, but sweet things happen, too. Yesterday the dogs and I went to see the vet. It was for the dogs, not me. Ha ha. I got the very last appointment of the day, when all the other customers could be counted on to be gone so I could take both dogs. I learned a lot from the appointment. My first thought was to take Teddy in and leave Bear in the car. That didn’t work. Teddy was WAY over the top excited and difficult to handle. SO I went back out to the car and got Bear who instantly calmed down that hyper little demon from the netherworld.

We have a new vet — a young woman with an Irish last name. Speaking of jeans, she was wearing Wranglers and square toed boots made by Ariat or Frye. That means “I’m a ranch person.” The vet checked over Bear and Teddy and said they are both in great shape. Then she asked what animals Bear guarded making me wonder if somehow I passed as a rancher. I don’t think so. I’d be honored if I did, but, for one thing, wrong shoes.

“Bear’s a rescue,” I said, “she didn’t get that chance. She guards Teddy and me.”

At that VERY moment, Bear had me pinned in the corner. She was guarding. She stood between me and this very friendly, gentle, and kind young vet. Why? Because that young woman had just stuck something sharp into Teddy and then into Bear. By god that woman wasn’t getting near me, not if Bear could help it.

The vet treated Teddy like a pet and talked to Bear like a person. The VERY young assistant just stood there scratching Bear’s back.

Something else, something that might have been totally trivial in 2019… After I paid my bill I hung out. There was once a man working at my vet that I liked very very much. Native American/Hispanic, a giant guy with a heart as big as he was. I asked about him and the news was sad. I said, “I’m sorry. I liked him very much. Besides, he was the only person in Monte Vista who spoke Spanish with me.”

Debbie, the office manager, with whom I’ve shared some OTHER experiences — we had PT after hip surgery together said, “Really?”

“Yeah, no one speaks Spanish with me here.” I have found that strange, but the racial demarcations in this place are pretty firm. In California they were much more fluid and that was good for me because THAT culture feels more like home than my OWN culture, whatever that is. I took the dogs out to the car and when I came back the Hispanic tech was waiting, Mike. He greeted me in Spanish. I was taken back. They’d talked about it. So we spoke in Spanish a little, but after 8 years of almost NEVER speaking Spanish I’m very rusty. I write to “the man” in Italian and that’s another problem with my Spanish now. Suddenly we were all sharing stories from our lives and laughing. My God. So rare in my life now. I felt my cheeks reddening (I’m that kind of person) and I felt happy. My Spanish got a little better, and as I left I was able to wish everyone a Merry Christmas. Somehow saying “Feliz Navidad” and hearing “Igualmente!” warmed my soul.

I’ve spoken Spanish since I was a kid. I grew up with love for the language and the culture. In California I taught at an extension of Southwestern College on the border to people who came up from Tijuana for school. My first students EVER at the Adult Education Tutorial Program in Denver were Mexicans who spoke no English. My neighbors in San Diego were Mexican and when I moved up to the mountains, it was the same, only more. My neighbors and I formed a little family, a situation that doesn’t happen often with Anglos. It isn’t just the language; it’s the culture. Languages don’t exist in a vacuum. In real life, people use them and want to understand each other meaning there’s a lot more to it than grammar. I felt so happy. Nothing here is “just” what it is. I felt — for the first time in a long while — the family that is a small town.

Not the Best Evening of My Life

Ahh… 1993, the beginning of the tattoo craze, and I was there. Tattoo Ted and his wife, originally from Batavia, Iowa, tattoo parlor on Rosecrans Street in San Diego, near the Naval Training Base and the bay. Samples on the wall, not actual SKIN samples, but photos. We’d been planning it for a weeks. My friend was very afraid of needles because of HIV. He was from Zürich where, at the time, heroin was such a problem that public toilets had blue lights so people who went into them to shoot up couldn’t find their veins, so, in parts of Zürich there were used needles everywhere. Because of this he systematically, with the hysterical thoroughness driven by paranoia, researched every tattoo parlor, studying their sterilization processes. We ended up at Tattoo Ted’s because of his autoclave, not because of his skill.

After looking at the wall for a while, I picked out a Celtic Knot — an absurd choice given my appearance, like it needed to reinforced? Everywhere I’ve traveled people have immediately said, “You must be Irish” except China where the consensus was that I was Swiss. I’m both those things and the official name of Switzerland is Celtic Confederation (Confederation Helvetica). My friend got a tribal to go around his ankle, not because he was from a tribe but because he thought it was cool.

I wasn’t young; 41, and my skin had already lost some elasticity, so as I sat there with my back exposed — the tat is on my left shoulder — Tattoo Ted found it a challenge to do well on the loose canvas. “Stretch her skin, buddy,” he said to my friend, who tried with a mixture of horror and hilarity. It’s one of the worst tattoos anyone ever had that wasn’t done by the other kids in high school history or something. It’s like and not like those in the featured photos. And no, you can’t see it.

It’s black. Just an outline. I was supposed to go back and have it filled in with color, but I never did. Why not? Well, there are a lot of things in life more fun than getting a tattoo. There’s even PAIN that’s more fun than that, like falling off your bike and landing on a broken Coke bottle or playing tennis barefoot on an asphalt court on a 95 degree day or being sideswiped by a pick-up truck that tosses your head against a curb.

The boys on bikes were all jonesing for tattoos but no one had that kind of money. NOW a couple of them (in their late forties) sport complete sleeves, from wrist to shoulder. Their first tattoos were done by their friends using a needle and ballpoint pen. When they turned 18, and got jobs, they got tattoos as dumb as mine. One of them got the name of his hometown across his back in Gothic letters — that made me laugh because I figured if he got lost, all anyone had to do was put a few stamps on his back and send him home.

Anyway, that’s $100 I wish I had back.


Just got back from a perfect walk with Bear. Perfect sky. Perfect light. Perfect (chilly) temperature. Silent except for our steps and a few cranes in the distance. Only two cars, one belonging to a guy from Taos who loves Teddy but hasn’t met Bear. We waved. New shoes. Wow. Elizabeth socks. We walked and walked and walked and had a perfect time. Bear smelled many wonderful things (I’m given to understand) and I savored every moment of our time in this amazing place, surrounded by white peaks. Good God, how did I get here? It amazes me almost daily.

I’ve been thinking about the many wonderful things that happen only once in our lives. Just one time. We can’t repeat them. Every single moment is a one-shot deal. For me that list involves things that have happened randomly in nature, or seem to have been random but maybe aren’t. I can’t say. I wrote a sonnet about this, but it only scratched the surface. Fourteen lines is ENOUGH, I’m just not that good at it.

I realized I have been trying to paint some of those moments. I think that’s a good goal. One painting is the cranes flying over Bear and me last spring.

I mean things like (this list is in no particular order and no where near complete) last winter Teddy and I crossed paths in the snow and fog with a black fox. How often does that even happen AT ALL? Crazy. Or the first fox I ever saw, coming out of the fog on a snowy day while a golden eagle circled above us. Bear and Dusty were so stunned they didn’t react; they just watched. The deer my dog Ariel led me to one afternoon; we walked into a thicket and the doe stared right at me, a foot away. The deer and I were both deeply surprised, neither of us frightened, and my wolf dog just proud of how well she tracked? It was something. Maybe the cherry on the sundae is the mountain lion in 2004. It’s hard to say WHAT that cherry might be, there are so many wonders — a blue skink? A rare Laguna Mountain Kingsnake? The rosy boa I carried in a pocket in my cargo pants for most of a hike? The coyote that appeared to run across the hills with the spirit of my dog Lupo? Skiing through two seasons in one day with Molly? Going to pick up my Aunt Martha who suffered from dementia and finding dozens of post-it notes in her apartment all of which said, “Martha Ann Comes Today!” Standing on the EXACT point of the rain shadow that makes the great American desert, one arm in winter, the other in, in, in? I don’t know but it wasn’t snowing on that half of me. A twilight hike to the overlook of the Delicate Arch with a man with whom I share a precious, inexplicable, bond? A spontaneous 28 mile hike with Molly just because it was a godawful beautiful December day and we wanted to see EVERYTHING? A birthday party in a Vietnamese restaurant in Zürich? Granitas in Venice? Walking with friendly, belled cows down from the Eigerwand Station of the Jungfraubahn? Crossing the Zürichberg with the ONE person in the world who is as interested in Gfenn as I am? A heart-breaking hour at a hospital in Billings, MT, returning to my Aunt Jo’s house to find she had fixed my very favorite dinner from when I was a kid? Riding my bike to the Guangzhou Botanical Garden for a picnic with students, being passed by a lorry carrying the students who sing “This Land is Your Land” to me as they pass by? Crossing the stage to get my Master’s Degree and hearing, “YEEEE-haw!” from the back row where my aunt and uncle were sitting, bringing real life and Montana into that stuffy, solemn, moment. Hearing John Bayley recite “The Windhover,” a famous, stuttering English professor from Oxford who, reciting that poem, didn’t stutter at all, watching his hand move like a hawk in flight. Seeing my dad in the coffin, reaching for his hand, touching it, and understanding in that moment what death is, breaking down, collapsing, and feeling the strong arms of my Aunt Kelly and Uncle John who were prepared for that moment and there to help me? My Aunt Martha arriving on the street car for dinner at our house, and little girl me, running down the street to meet her.

A fraction, a tiny fraction of the long catalog of miracles.

Seriously, this life thing. Fuck. As I walked in the beauty with Bear this afternoon, so many of these moments passed through my mind, and, as I thought about them, Bear took a break from smelling things to come and lean on me.


Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver

Martha Walks Her Dog and Thinks about the Tough Question

Yesterday I managed to more-or-less trap Bear (who, it turns out, was somewhat willing to be trapped) and convince her I had no evil motives for my entrapment, evil motives such as taking her to the vet. I DID want to brush her, uh, how to put this delicately, under the tail area, and I succeeded in that. You don’t own 27 shaggy dogs over a 35 year period without picking up a few tricks. She didn’t mind. Then, she discovered my true motive, it was, wait, can it be, REALLY? You’re taking ME? ME??? Just ME??? And no evil aliens from hell? That’s how we sometimes refer to Teddy. Cute though he is, he is an extremely EAGER dog which can make him a menace to life on this planet.

I wasn’t really in the mood. For some reason yesterday I felt blue and fatalistic. I didn’t know why, but what I needed to contend with a less-than-cheery mood was a walk with Bear on a beautiful, Indian Summer afternoon. Who knew? Ok, Ok, you suspected…

The walk itself? Well, we didn’t see “anything,” but in “nothing” is often everything. Bear smelled and marked and enjoyed herself and I watched the changing light and let whatever was on my mind come to the surface.

I realized that I’m worried about my corporeal form when I shrug off the mortal coil. I didn’t know that, but now I do. My Aunt Martha was in similar but not equal circumstances as I am. She had a raft load of sisters and at least one niece ready to take care of “arrangements.” I don’t have that. Even so, she took care of everything ahead of time. As I walked under the brilliant San Luis Valley sky I thought about what I didn’t know and what I needed to learn. I realized it’s been troubling me since I turned 70. I guess maybe that birthday does that to people.

Bear seemed to understand that I was not 100% there, not 100% my usual dog-walking self and when she’d satisfied her desire to smell and mark, she stopped and stood in front of me. This is a Bear thing. Livestock guardian dogs are “leaners,” and Bear is passionate about it. First thing in the morning she leans against me to keep me from moving. “Where were you all night? I’m keeping you here.” On a walk she will suddenly pause in her Bear direction to lean against me. I understand it as “I’m glad we’re here together.” After that, we walked along, and I rested my hand on her back. This is one of the best things in life, to walk beside a big dog you love in a beautiful place, in mutual companionship. It’s not Paris. It’s not a cruise to an exotic south-sea isle. It’s just a walk with a dog, but I realized a little while ago that I would rather walk in a beautiful place with a dog than almost anything else. For one thing, it doesn’t require going through TSA.

With my dog beside me, I found it easier to let myself think about what, apparently, I needed to think about.

So what do you do when you are a solitary person, and you want to make sure that there’s no big mess or chaos when someone finds your dust and clay and has to do something with it? I came home and did some research about that, annoyed as always by mortuary language and all the jingo that goes with it. It’s not the mortuary’s fault. It’s that death is a dark and awful thing in most people’s minds. Most people also have an afterlife idea. I don’t. I don’t know what happens afterward, and I think a service (which I don’t want anyway) based on that would be incredibly depressing for most people. If there were such a service, and it honored my beliefs, it would be “We’re here to honor the life of Martha Ann Kennedy who had no idea at all about anything. She knows you might miss her and she’s sorry, but if it helps at all, she’s OK wherever she is, if she’s anywhere. Here’s her favorite song.” That’s assuming there’s anyone around who cares, and it’s possible there won’t be. That doesn’t depress me; it’s just a fact of the life I have “chosen.”

I’m in no hurry, but I’ve buried enough people to know that SOMETHING has “to be done.” I thought of all the “services” I’ve attended and decided my brother’s was the best. Survivors need something; that the mortuaries get right. What was my bro’s service? Well, some of his friends and I took a handful of his ashes to the Garden of the Gods and put some of him on the ground and some of him in the air. One of his friends sang one of the silly songs my brother wrote. Afterward we had a nice brunch at my friend Lois’ house. How did he get to be ashes — besides the obvious? That’s what I needed to know. I knew it didn’t cost $10,000. I was finally able to find out. Economical, clear, straight-forward, simple. The insurance I have in my retirement plan would cover it. I do not want to lie in a coffin in a carpeted room surrounded by sprays of carnations and ferns while people come and look at me and say, “She looks so natural.” “Way too much makeup.” Fuck that.

Dark though all this might seem, my heart was lighter after I learned all this. All I needed to focus my mind on what was bothering me was a walk with my dog in the crystal-clear world that is this valley in which people have lived for, maybe, 10,000 years? I’m aware of that all the time when I’m walking at the Refuge. I can see the Ice Age hunters in my mind’s eye. It’s all good now as William Cullen Bryant wrote in “Thanatopsis,”

     To him who in the love of Nature holds   
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks   
A various language; for his gayer hours   
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile   
And eloquence of beauty, and she glides   
Into his darker musings, with a mild   
And healing sympathy, that steals away   
Their sharpness, ere he is aware.
When thoughts   
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight   
Over thy spirit, and sad images   
Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,   
And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,   
Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart;—   
Go forth, under the open sky, and list   
To Nature’s teachings,
while from all around— 
Earth and her waters, and the depths of air— 
Comes a still voice— 

                                       Yet a few days, and thee   
The all-beholding sun shall see no more   
In all his course; nor yet in the cold ground,   
Where thy pale form was laid, with many tears,   
Nor in the embrace of ocean, shall exist   
Thy image. Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim   
Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again, 
And, lost each human trace, surrendering up   
Thine individual being, shalt thou go   
To mix for ever with the elements,   
To be a brother to the insensible rock   
And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain   
turns with his share, and treads upon. The oak   
Shall send his roots abroad, and pierce thy mould.   

     Yet not to thine eternal resting-place   
Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish   
Couch more magnificent. Thou shalt lie down   
With patriarchs of the infant world—with kings,   
The powerful of the earth—the wise, the good,   
Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,   
All in one mighty sepulchre.   The hills   
Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun,—the vales   
Stretching in pensive quietness between;   
The venerable woods—rivers that move   
In majesty, and the complaining brooks   
That make the meadows green; and, poured round all,   
Old Ocean’s gray and melancholy waste,—   
Are but the solemn decorations all   
Of the great tomb of man. The golden sun,   
The planets, all the infinite host of heaven,   
Are shining on the sad abodes of death,   
Through the still lapse of ages. All that tread   
The globe are but a handful to the tribes   
That slumber in its bosom.—Take the wings   
Of morning, pierce the Barcan wilderness,   
Or lose thyself in the continuous woods   
Where rolls the Oregon, and hears no sound,   
Save his own dashings—yet the dead are there:   
And millions in those solitudes, since first   
The flight of years began, have laid them down   
In their last sleep—the dead reign there alone. 
So shalt thou rest, and what if thou withdraw   
In silence from the living, and no friend   
Take note of thy departure? All that breathe   
Will share thy destiny.
The gay will laugh 
When thou art gone, the solemn brood of care   
Plod on, and each one as before will chase   
His favorite phantom; yet all these shall leave   
Their mirth and their employments, and shall come 
And make their bed with thee. As the long train   
Of ages glide away, the sons of men,   
The youth in life’s green spring, and he who goes   
In the full strength of years, matron and maid,   
The speechless babe, and the gray-headed man—   
Shall one by one be gathered to thy side,   
By those, who in their turn shall follow them.   

     So live, that when thy summons comes to join   
The innumerable caravan, which moves   
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take   
His chamber in the silent halls of death,   
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,   
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed   
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,   
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch   
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

Beautiful Day

Teddy and I had a beautiful walk. I wasn’t planning on it, but clearly HE was. It was a perfect November afternoon with my new shoes and my new socks. ❤️

I watched two immense ravens playing and dancing and, I believe, courting. Then they were disturbed by something I later saw was a red tail hawk. Great sky, lots of drama and prophecy. UFO clouds (lenticular clouds) forming and breaking announcing the likelihood of moisture in the next few days. The sun breaking through the lined-up clouds over the Sangres creating snow drama. Only a very few cranes calling out from the distance.

On our way there — a road where the speed limit is 65 mph — there was a traffic jam. I slowed down and stopped behind a truck. In front of him was a pick-up and in front of him was something I couldn’t see clearly. Then I saw. Two cowboys were chasing about 20 head of cattle into the gate of a ranch? I don’t know what it is; there is no house there, but some outbuildings and big stacks of baled hay and pastures. Following the cattle was a pick-up truck pulling an empty livestock trailer. All along the road I’d noticed cow poop so my theory is that something happened, the trailer opened, the cows got out and had to be taken home the hard way. It was nice to see c’boys on horseback chasing the doggies into their pasture. I got kind of a lump in my throat.

The only thing that would have made it better would have been Teddy getting to listen to Peaceful Easy Feeling on Mohammed’s Radio but instead we were Riders on the Storm which, I think, is more appropriate. I love this place.

Boundaries in the Bark of Beyond

Yesterday the Christmas season kicked off in my little town with the Holiday Boutique. I don’t know the whole story behind it but I do know a little. Some sisters and cousins got together 17 years ago and decided to hold a holiday craft boutique. They set high standards and were very exclusive in who they invited to join the core group. One of the non-family members is my friend Elizabeth.

It opened at 4 pm. I was there at 4:15, and it was packed. People kept coming. The boutique is held at the Church of Christ, in the church hall, a smallish room for such a major event. The boutique is one of the lovely things about living in a small town.

I had two things in mind — first and foremost, Elizabeth’s hand knit socks. They are the best socks, especially for walking in winter. They’re lightweight and warm. Over this past year, Elizabeth has made — knit! — beautiful animals. I love them. She knits them and their little outfits. I want all of them, but that would be silly. My favorite is the little mouse in the middle. When Elizabeth showed her to me a few months ago, I didn’t want to let go. I hope they find good homes.

One thing I always buy at the boutique is chokecherry jelly. I stood in front of the display, mildly dismayed that all the jars were so large and, frankly, pricey. I contemplated whether I’d eat a whole pint of jelly in a year (the jury is out on that). A tall woman came up and I recognized her as the maker of jelly, a very excellent saleswoman, too. So…here is life here.

“Can I help you?”

“I’m looking at the chokecherry jelly. I love it. I buy it every year.”

“Ah. This might be the last time. My chokecherry picker went to God this year.” She had tears in her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I know when they go to God they usually stay there.”

“I didn’t think I’d have chokecherries this year but someone showed up at my door with a bucket of chokecherries. ‘Here, Tia, for your jelly.'”

At that point I had tears in my eyes.

Until I started writing, I didn’t doubt the truth of her story. But now? I hate that. I want to be the completely gullible person I’ve always been. I don’t want skepticism to enter into my life at this late date. Wow. That was uncomfortable. BUT she talked me into another jar of jelly. Cherry.

People will tell you their entire life story just like that. I love it. It’s one of the great things about living here. But, chokecherries…

No one has asked me my chokecherry story, but I have one. These bushes grow wild all over America, different strains of the same basic plant. Here they are growing in the Cuyamaca Mountains of San Diego County.

One of the best moments I remember with my mom was over an Independence Day weekend in 1980 when I went up to Montana. She didn’t live there yet; she was visiting her sisters and staying with my Aunt Jo and Uncle Hank. They had a “summer home,” a mobile home at Fort Smith which is at the north end of Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, known familiarly as Bighorn Reservoir. Along with a few mobile homes in this little community were Crow Indian tee-pees. The Crow have fishing rights on the Bighorn where the river goes into the reservoir, very prime fishing.

One afternoon mom, my aunt and I took off to pick chokecherries and buffalo berries along the river. We had so much fun. So, to me, chokecherry jelly is THAT afternoon. That evening, my mom’s attitude toward life and me went a little sideways (thanks alcohol) but even that turned out OK. Hearing the changed tone in my mom’s voice, my Aunt Jo, who was sitting on the deck with a cold drink, looking at the brilliant sky, called into the house. THAT is the featured photo, another relic from an old journal.

I guess I can eat a pint of chokecherry jelly in a year.

Quotidian Update Lost Count

Sleepless night until 5:30 and then at 6:00 some neighbor’s car alarm went off — for a long long time. Went back to sleep but? Life is just so weird, and, right now for some of the people I care about it’s tough going. I can’t help any of them, though I would. As for me? After what was a pretty rough year, things seem to have, may have, calmed down a bit. Time will tell. Remnants of Covid hang on, but steadily lessening. That’s just the slog it is, I guess.

So… got up at 8 and wandered to the kitchen while the dogs weren’t looking. It was pretty funny because when they realized I was awake, and came running inside to greet me, Teddy ran right past me. “Wait, you’re not supposed to be THERE!” He looked a little scared when he turned around and saw me where, in his little Aussie mind, I wasn’t supposed to be. Then he was happy. Then began the citrus ritual (pouring OJ into the blender jar for the smoothie) and morning is happening more or less as usual but damn, I’m tired…

Yesterday I was kind of disputing with Fromm, but this morning, no. Aristotle described humanity as a chain of dancers and, thinking about the structure of a chain, that analogy works with Fromm’s ideas. I just get bristly when people write/talk about the Middle Ages as if it were some dark dark time during which semi-humans wandered Europe pining for the great enlightened minds of the Roman republic. Now I think I see better (from his point of view) where he’s going. It appears the problem is fear; fear of individual freedom might have its foundation in loneliness and alienation. But I’m too tired to go anywhere with that, now.

Facebook has reminded me that 8 years ago I made an offer on this house and it was accepted. It’s amazing to think I did that within 3 days of arriving in Colorado. There weren’t many choices, which helped (in a way) and there were/are features in this house that said, “Home” to me. It’s similar in age and design with two places I’ve lived where I was happy, a big selling point. It was in my price range — get this! Under $100k. That was then… and here… It had a fully fenced yard. The downside? The highway in front, of course, the ugly bathroom, but seriously. The seller had to put a new roof on the house before I could move in and that was my first exposure to what is known as “valley time.” I understand that now. The San Luis Valley is an inconvenient place to live. I moved in exactly 4 weeks after I arrived in Colorado for good. Crazy. The three little houses at this end of my street — all Southwestern style stucco — are known in town as “the adobes.” When I first came inside, it was decorated in Southwestern style which isn’t me. Since then I’ve thought about the actual Spanish colonial houses I’ve seen, restored from old photos, and they were not decorated in Southwestern style. Many had Chinese carpets on their floors, so maybe this style of mine (style?) is pretty authentic.

Back to Escape from Freedom

Erich Fromm has wandered into deep water at this moment and he’s really pissing me off (he’s SO worried about that!). He’s stereotyping the Middle Ages and has bought into the myth of the Italian Renaissance. I have to remember that since 1941 a whole lot of archeological science has emerged, and he could not know. But I like a little humility in my philosophers and the factual awareness that most of what we can know about, say, the 13th century is conjecture. He also seems to be floating along on that fallacy that the present (and by association, the future) is/will be more advanced than the past. That depends a LOT on what “advanced” means. BUT we humans have to believe in progress, I guess, but, again, that depends a lot on what progress means, the area in which progress is happening. I’m all for antibiotics and vaccines and the dramatic reduction in intestinal worms in civilized populations, but I’m not sure our addiction to our cellphones is healthy or progress. Progress seems to be always a mixed blessing.

It’s going to be tough going for me with Fromm now because, well, I have a different bias. My bias is that we really don’t know a lot more about the past than we know about the future. Much of what we know is what we have from the words of others and they could be 1) lying, 2) angry, 3) exceptional, 4) drunk, 5) tripping — we don’t know. A little humility in the face of human “development” is, to me, the first imperative of a historian but Fromm isn’t a historian, so I guess I have to cut him slack.

Last night I watched a documentary on Chaco Canyon that blew me away. I’ve been there and it’s strange. I’ve visited many Anasazi sites and most of them feel like “People lived here and did interesting things.” Those things were visible everywhere — from ball courts to theaters to piles of ancient trash, but Chaco? It felt weird. Last night I learned that it is now believed to be a gigantic, precise, celestial, observatory where few people actually LIVED but where people went at certain times of the year to celebrate rituals. I believe that — it’s in an area with a very hostile climate. You can learn more here at The Mystery of Chaco Canyon.

The other thing Fromm is doing that I am very skeptical about is he is choosing facts and creating definitions that “prove” his argument. That’s not cool but we all do it.

All this said, I also read some lovely, intriguing stuff I want to share. Among the good things he says about the Middle Ages is, “Although there was no individualism in the modern sense (I think that’s an overgeneralization, but…) of unrestricted choice between many possible ways of life (ah, OK) there was a lot of concrete individualism in real life.” I’m intrigued by two things in this passage; one is that the modern sense of individualism means “unrestricted choice between many possible ways of life” and the idea of “concrete individualism.”

If Fromm and I were to sit down and talk about this, I’d say, “I’m not sure about that. It seems to me that whatever era into which we’re born, we are born with limitations, the first being the era into which we were born. Humans don’t live in vast swaths of time. We have three days just like we humans have always had three days. And don’t give me that life-expectancy stuff. I’m onto that. Our choices are limited by the culture into which we’re born, our gender, our parents’ views, their level of wealth, the opportunities that exist in our world in the moments of our lives. No human is so free they have ‘unrestricted choice between many possible ways of life.’ Maybe our societies are not as fixed and stratified as most medieval societies, but that kind of freedom of choice? Doesn’t exist. As for ‘Concrete Individualism’? Isn’t that the most important? Do you mean integrity?” I wonder what he would say.

I’m not sure I would tell him I dreamed of playing centerfield for a professional baseball team, but I was not free to “choose” that. I remain skeptical about his dichotomy between “negative” and “positive” freedom, but I’m not him, and I’m mostly open-minded.

Two paragraphs at the end of the preceding chapter struck a chord with me. Here goes…

“…the history of mankind is one of conflict and strife. Each step in the direction of growing individuation threatened people with new insecurities. Primary bonds once severed cannot be mended; once paradise is lost, man cannot return to it. There is only one possible, productive solution for the relationship of individualized man with the world: his active solidarity with all men and his spontaneous activity, love and work, which unite him again with the world, not by primary ties but as a free and independent individual.

And if that doesn’t happen? Fromm is ready…”However, if the economic, social and political conditions on which the whole process of human individuation depends do not offer a basis for the realization of individuality in the sense just mentioned, while at the same time people have lost those ties which gave them security, this lag makes freedom an unbearable burden. It then becomes identical with doubt, with a kind of life which lacks meaning and direction. Powerful tendencies arise to escape from this kind of freedom into submission or some kind of relationship to man and the world that promises relief from uncertainty, even if it deprives the individual of freedom.”

It made me think of the Czech writer, Milan Kundera, whose work I loved back in the 80s. First was the title of one of Kundera’s books, The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera; the title was so intriguing and, to me, pointed to just what Fromm has described, that being itself is so volatile, so “light,” (we ARE light in a sense) that it can be unbearable. “Being” could, maybe, be equated to Fromm’s idea of “individuation”? I don’t know, but… Being an autonomous “self” is difficult. My unmarried Aunt Martha took so much shit from the family just for that choice she had made. Just that. In a way Kundera did reach this in another novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting when he writes about the “circle dance.”

“That is when I understood the magical meaning of the circle. If you go away from a row, you can still come back into it. A row is an open formation. But a circle closes up, and if you go away from it, there is no way back. It is not by chance that the planets move in circles and that a rock coming loose from one of them goes inexorably away, carried off by centrifugal force. Like a meteorite broken off from a planet, I left the circle and have not stopped falling. Some people are granted their death as they are whirling around, and others are smashed at the end of their fall. And these others (I am one of them) always retain a kind of faint yearning for that lost ring dance, because we are all inhabitants of a universe where everything turns in circles.”

― Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kundera’s point is that if you CHOOSE (as he did) to leave the circle you cannot choose to return. The circle closes. He’s writing about the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia (as was), but it could be any social/political system that offers an escape from freedom, as Fromm writes about.

I think we experience this in a lot of ways that don’t have anything to do with politics, anyway, I have. Doors close, another limitation put on our freedom of choice. When that last happened to me, I ended up here. What were my limitations? Money, first and maybe that was all. Within my limitations I had to find a place where I would like to live. I was not “free.” I was “free to choose” within that parameter. Did that make me “free” from having to live in a million dollar home in California?

So far, I don’t know. Fromm has me both nodding and shaking my head. I’m not sure this is anything new. I’m free to think that. 😉

For “concrete individualism” I offer Emerson: These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world.Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.

Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world. 
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance.”

More Discussion of Escape from Freedom

Fromm begins his book — and his argument — with his two definitions of freedom — one positive (Freedom To) and the other negative (Freedom From). I’m not sure I buy those as opposites. Freedom FROM hunger is freedom TO eat. Freedom from oppression is, uh, oh, yeah, freedom. But I’m happy to see where he goes with that (to me) rather arbitrary dichotomy. I know one thing for sure about freedom. It’s difficult to define.

Yesterday the ladies and I went to the museum to see the new exhibit which is all kinds of stuff from the olden days. The idea is to figure out what all these strange things were used for. Lyndsie (the new director) made a guide to go with the objects that are common household tools and objects for farming, things like a cream separator and a seed spreader. We had a good time. It was followed by lunch which wasn’t great.

Elizabeth is Australian and she got up early to watch Queen Elizabeth’s funeral. She’s long held the thought (and frequently expressed it) that the United States needs a royal family. On the drive home, I mentioned I was starting to see her point. That led to a front seat discussion about presidents and who did and did not “act presidential.” They agreed Obama acted presidential; there was dispute over whether Biden does. I was in the back so I had the privilege of listening with Fromm’s book still on my mind. I think a lot depends on what a president inherits when he takes office — and Biden inherited a mountain of shit — divided country, an insurrection, a pandemic and its resultant economic challenges, all followed hard on by a war in Europe.

When I was able to pick up Fromm’s book again — beginning a new chapter, “The Emergence of the Individual and the Ambiguity of Freedom” — I was again stunned.

“The social history of man started with his emerging from a state of oneness with the natural world to the awareness of himself as an entity separate from surrounding nature and men.”

Good god… This was a little challenging for me because I think our separation from the natural world is an illusion. We might THINK we’re free of it, but we’re not and, in this particular case, that is to say it seems to ME, that at this juncture in human history, this drive and (its corresponding illusion) is killing us. The other day, MTG said, “AOC worships the climate. I worship God.” All I could think was, “Uh they are one and the same you stoopnagle.”

Too much abuse of our world, resulting from our freedom to create an environment designed for man, might lead us to a very sinister negative freedom, that is freedom FROM life. But the bizarre end-days cult to which she clings might be all about that, after all Revelations says the world will end in fire. I don’t know. I can’t know what goes on in their twisted little minds.

Fromm went on to discuss the emergence of each of us as an individual, a process he called individuation which is the moment in which a person recognizes that he/she is a separate entity, not connected to parents, but a self of its own. As I read I thought about my own childhood and recognized the moment, though it wasn’t a “moment” so much as a process of self-definition that took about three years. It began on a train crossing Wyoming north to south and culminated in a little movie theater in Nebraska watching Lawrence of Arabia and sucking on sour cherries. The first was the opening of the question, “Who am I?” the end was, “I am no one but myself.” A book was an instrument in the beginning; a film in the completion.

I remembered the numerous times my mom said, “You and your brother were easy as little kids and then?”

Well, mom. I thought of all the times I said, “I’m not you. THIS is what I want to do.” I understood at that point that what I did might not work, but I was OK with that, I was OK with failure. My independence mattered more to me even as a kid than success.

It hurt when friends snubbed me (kids do that) and it wasn’t easy for me to make friends, but after a while that was OK, too. I didn’t feel isolated. I came to understand back then, on some level, that all the kids around me were in this process, too. That was one reason kids fight. That was a motivation behind adults organizing us into team sports where each of us would begin to focus more on a skill than in competing for identity. It seemed to me at the time — and I have no idea if it’s true — that girls were generally less determined to become selves than were the boys. Their playground games were more peaceful and sedentary; their games at home seemed to revolve around role plays of adult life. The boy’s games interested me more; I wanted individual achievement. I wanted to get better at things, run faster, hit more balls, see more, know more.

Fromm then discusses how the moment (process?) of individuation affects people (the process is inevitable). Some people are overwhelmed by the sense of solitude in the universe. Others recognize the solitude, but accept it.

“The process of individuation is one of growing strength and integration of its individual personality but it is at the same time a process in which the original identity with others is lost and in which the child becomes more separate from them. This growing separation may result in an isolation that has the quality of desolation and creates intense anxiety and insecurity, it may result in a new kind of closeness and a solidarity with others if the child has been able to develop the inner strength and productivity which are the premise of this new kind of relatedness to the world.”

Whoa. Person 1 — riddled with anxiety and insecurity — will seek submission to escape that painful solitude. Person 2 won’t, having made peace with freedom, or so it goes more or less. I’m not sure, but this seems to be the argument Fromm is building. Naturally, I brought all this home to people I have known. I saw my mom in a completely different way. I saw that she never made peace with the intrinsic solitude of individuality, never found a way to live productively within it. It struck me that perhaps the foundation of freedom is just that. “I’m alone and it’s OK with me.”

Fromm makes that point.

P.S. This might be tedious, but I don’t have anyone around to talk about this with. Writing about it helps me process the ideas. The book is just under 300 pages so this won’t go on forever 😜

Circus Parvus*

The San Luis Valley Potato Festival was smaller this year than I’ve seen it. I wonder what it was like in 2021? I didn’t go. Thinking about it, a couple of things struck me. One, the little “circus” which was really a few acrobats and tumblers, a couple of trapeze like things (not exactly trapezes…). The acrobats wore bright colored circus clothes; the tumblers wore comfy street clothes. They had a large tumbling mat. There were three rows of folding chairs, and kids filled the front row. They were enraptured, especially when the tumblers did charades.

Those guys would have been in any medieval fair, walking up and down to get an audience, “Jongling” and talking to people — and one girl was doing just that.

Last night as I drifted off to sleep I thought, “The Potato Festival was an echo of the oldest fair in the world, the immortal fair, a medieval fair, not a glitzy Renfair, but the real thing, a village fair.” Cottage business, local organizations with pamphlets, clubs raising money to keep going and to help others. I bought water from the Rainbow Girls. I took a free kids’ book (free meaning no payment, not liberate) from an earnest, beautiful young woman involved with Head Start in one of the small towns in the middle of the farms and ranches, surrounded by fields of potatoes, the soil that yields the tuber that drew us all to the park in Monte Vista two blocks from my house. We chatted about the wonder of being bilingual.

One person I haven’t seen since Covid is farmer and Metal Sculptor, John Patterson, whose work is beautiful, humorous, whimsical and engaging. He designed and built the new bike racks that are now all over downtown Monte Vista. It was nice to catch up a little. We talked about the museum in Del Norte and I let him know there will be a holiday show. Here’s a photo of some of his extremely cool work and a couple of enchanted children.

Photo: John Patterson on Facebook

The fair — historically and now — was a bonding activity bringing people to one place from all over in a kind of reunion. It was that for me, definitely, not only with my own dear friends visiting, but encounters with people as we wandered the vendor booths. I understood it more deeply this past weekend, having had Covid and still regaining “self” from lingering problems of Long Covid. My progress has been steady but slow. It was scary there for a while when I didn’t understand what was going on, before I understood that no one could understand what was going on.

In its small size, its comparative lameness, in its optimism and determination — the Potato Festival was me, it was all of us.

Photos by Lois Maxwell. “Parvus” is Latin for small. I had to look it up, but since the Potato Festival was definitely NOT Circus Magnus…