All About the Sky

Cloud of the Day. May 1, 2024, from the Cloud Appreciation Society. Cumulonimbus spotted over Bluff, Utah, US by Paul Martini (Member 27,060)

Anticipating the eagerness of so many people to view the April 8 total eclipse, officials and commentators sent out warnings. In New York, the police advised eclipse tourists to put plenty of fuel in their cars, since they might be stuck for hours in traffic. People in Vermont, where the eclipse was predicted to be spectacular, worried about the surge of visitors. “Three minutes of darkness were a harbinger of an overcrowded and unsustainable future, unwanted by most Vermonters,” grumbled one newspaper afterwards.

It’s true that all those people driving or flying to what were predicted to be prime eclipse-viewing spots added a lot of carbon to our overloaded atmosphere and caused inconvenience to residents whose roads they blocked and shops they crowded. But it was much more than “three minutes of darkness” that all those people were seeking. It was hope of witnessing a cosmic spectacle. It was a desire for awe. It was a yearning to be part of something rare and magnificent.

And, really, when you think of it, isn’t it wonderful that so many people would decide that they simply had to risk the money, time, and possibly the disappointment, for the mere possibility of witnessing this celestial event?

Just four weeks after the eclipse, a solar storm bedazzled half of Planet Earth with displays of the aurora borealis. Radiant curtains of pink, jade green, and purple lit the skies and lit up social media from Maine to Tasmania.

The internet keeps us posted about such events and even, as in the case of the eclipse and unusual alignments of planets, offers helpful maps and schedules that allow us to pinpoint pretty much exactly when and where we can witness wonders of the sky. But I’m pretty sure it’s more than accessibility that has caused increased attention to unusual displays of sky.

I think that the excitement about the eclipse and the Northern Lights tells us something about humanity and about our desire to belong in the universe. The deep anxiety that so many of us feel about climate change, war, and threats to democracy have enhanced our appreciation for the beauty and mystery of the skies. On Earth we face so many difficulties, personal, local, and global. Yet still the moon reliably rises and rounds out from a tiny sliver to full golden splendor and back to a sliver again. Still the sun rises and sets according to its ancient patterns. Still the stars shine, even through much artificial light. Such regularity brings comfort.

A couple of years ago a good friend gave me a subscription to the Cloud Appreciation Society, and I have kept up my membership. Every day you receive in your email a photograph of a cloud formation, along with a short, always lyrically written description of what the cloud is doing and why. It’s made me even more curious about the clouds, and I look at them more closely than ever before. Whether the sky is doing something of exceptional beauty or just being its grand, mysterious self on an ordinary day, when our eyes look up, our breath rises in a gasp of wonder and our spirits soar.

Shadows dark and light

I’m pretty open about my life and my opinions. Not everybody knows everything about me, of course, but I don’t think there’s anything that somebody doesn’t know. I feel like me in all circumstances, whether I’m alone in the wilderness, or interviewing a lama or bishop at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, or having lunch with a good friend.

But the other day I found myself twice revealing aspects of my life that I usually keep hidden, not out of shame, but out of an unspoken concern that they’ll make me seem either too little or too much.

Carl Jung defined one aspect of the personality as the Shadow, that aspect of ourselves that we prefer to keep hidden. The Shadow is not necessarily some murderous part of you. It could be—an example I give in my book, The World Is a Waiting Lover—that an artist instinctively scorns business people because she thinks being methodical and orderly is antithetical to being creative. In reality, that Shadow could become an ally if the artist began to befriend the business person of herself.

Jung also believed that we fear our golden shadows as much as our dark ones. Or, as Marianne Williamson famously put it, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

So—my Dark Shadow and Light Shadow emergences from the other day.

  1. Dark Shadow. At breakfast with a good friend I mentioned—knowing full well that I’d never mentioned it before—that I get facials every few weeks. Facials! She was shocked, as I think many of my other friends would be. They—and I—like to think of me as a serious writer, someone often considered a wise elder, a person who leads workshops on grief and trauma and the inner beloved. And yet—horrors! I regularly seek out a service that would likely prove that I am vain (admitted), superficial (not at all), and wish only to attract men (nope, or women either).

Well, so now it’s out in the world. I get facials.

  1. Golden Shadow. Later that day, on a Zoom conference call with colleagues, we were all sharing what’s “blooming” in us this springtime season, in other words, what’s engaging our attention and passion. I talked about my Italian lessons. Many people know that I’ve been learning Italian for the past couple of years, but I rarely elaborate on how much I love this pursuit. I raved to the group about how learning languages is, to me, like doing a puzzle. (I also speak French, German, and a little Indonesian.) If you’re trying to communicate something in a language other than your own, it’s like having to make your way from one place to another, as if you’re on an interesting, unfamiliar trail. You have to use the words you know, even if they may not be as precise as the ones that would arrive so easily in your own language. I talked about how, after every conversation I have with someone in their language, I try to come away with at least two additions to my vocabulary, how wonderful my Italian teacher is and how excited I was to have found a two-hour weekly Zoom Meet-up called Gruppo Italiano. I was fiery with enthusiasm.

At the end of this day of admissions, I felt like a couple of places in my soul that I previously kept private had suddenly come to light. One expressed something I was embarrassed about it because I thought it showed me up as superficial. Another revealed something I tended to tone down, because I thought expressing myself with genuine enthusiasm might sound like I was showing off.

None of my friends or colleagues has abandoned me, I should add—and I am no longer embarrassed, but rather delighted to have welcomed into the open air these two aspects of me—vain enough to get facials, smart enough to relish learning Italian.

What an interesting challenge. Let us all open up more and more and more of ourselves and see what happens—not only to others but to ourselves as well.

(Photo above: my Italian study materials stacked up next to my chair.)

On Being Back… Without

Have you had this experience?

You go back to a place you know well and haven’t been to for a while. Your circumstances have changed, and the feeling you get being there is both excruciatingly familiar and utterly strange.

It is such a complex experience, and since it happened to me yesterday, I’ve been trying to come up with some way of describing it.

For more than 30 years my husband, Andy Gardner, and I lived at the edge of a small village in rural northeastern Pennsylvania. We were both self-employed, so we were able to work from home. We had friends there, and each of us was active in several organizations and projects. But the place was remote and conservative, and for me it never truly felt like home. We had to drive 45 minutes to get to the supermarket, office supply store, doctors, etc.

When Andy died in August 2020, I knew I didn’t want to stay there. A few weeks later, I started looking for a new place to live, and in mid-November I found a little house in Ithaca, New York that I knew was mine.

I go back every now and then to Pennsylvania—to see friends, to go to my eye doctor or tax preparer. Every time I drive toward the village on those familiar roads, that strange feeling begins to overpower me. This is too familiar. And yet it is not familiar at all, because Andy is no longer here. My body thinks I’m going home, but I’m not, not at all. Am I the same person? I feel like someone who was mortally wounded in battle, was unconscious for a long period of time, and yet, miraculously, have awakened. I have the sense that my previous life has become a small, condensed, precious thing encased in glass.

Yesterday, I came back to the area for a doctor’s appointment. Afterwards, I had a couple of hours to wait before meeting a friend for tea, so, since there are no nice coffee shops in that area, I decided to go to the Wegmans supermarket. For many years, Andy and I would do our shopping together there. I always loved those conversations about our shared needs that took place in the aisles: “Do we need coffee?” “Maybe we should get some salmon.” Once, another shopper approached us and told us we looked like a really interesting couple.

I went to the Wegmans café and read for a while. Then, before it was time to meet my friend, I decided to say hello to Andy’s and my favorite cashier, whose aisle we always went to. She wasn’t there. And something about her absence made me feel as if my entire life back had been sucked away, leaving only the blasted-out warehouse that was this bustling supermarket.

Here’s how I can best define that feeling of going back under new circumstances: it’s as if only a tiny little pipette emerges from the glass casing of memory to connect my present to my past. And yet, because that thin channel is the only route through which who I was can encounter who I am, the strangeness and loneliness of the present flies backwards, and the familiarity and sweetness of the past rushes forward. They collide, and I am uprooted.

Photo: Andy in Malta, 2017

A Pearl Lost to Nature: Synchronicity?

What could it mean? Two tales of pearls lost to nature, both of which I encountered within one day. A mystery. And an invitation?

As inspiration for some writing I’m working on, I’ve been reading elegies, poems of mourning for the lost or dead. The oldest one I found is by Sappho, who lived in the sixth century BCE. Other poets of notable elegies include Shelley, Milton, Katherine Philips, and W.H. Auden.

One poem that struck me was by an author whose name is unknown, but  who is believed to have also been the author of the Sir Gawain tale of Arthurian literature. This unusual elegy mourns not a person but a pearl that the poet has lost in the grass and now mourns. At first, I thought maybe the pearl was a metaphor for something else, but, no, he really is mourning the loss of his pearl.

The next day, Boulevard Magazine arrived. An essay of mine appeared in Boulevard years ago, and Andy had a subscription which has not yet expired, three years after his death. As I flipped through the issue, the name Keuka Lake in one essay jumped out at me. This lake is about 40 miles from me, one of the New York Finger Lakes. (I live in Ithaca, at the southern tip of another Finger Lake, Cayuga.) Curious, I started reading. The essay begins with the story of the author’s grandmother losing her pearl ring in the lake.

Two stories of lost pearls in one 24-hour period. As a writer and a person intrigued with signs and symbols, I’ve been pondering this coincidence ever since. Or is it more than a coincidence? Could it, in fact, be synchronicity? C.J. Jung coined this term to mean “the coincidence in time of two or more causally unrelated events which have the same meaning”. The critical factor, I would add, is that these events must happen to the same person or group of people. It would not have been synchronicity event if Boulevard had arrived and I had never opened it and seen that essay.

Have I lost a pearl recently? Not a real pearl, certainly. A metaphorical pearl? Can’t think of one. Or must I now become willing to sacrifice a metaphorical pearl? And not just to any random person or spot, but specifically to nature.

One answer keeps recurring. I keep feeling the call to give up a bit of my very valued solitude and become more public with ceremonies and art events related to climate change. This shift has been on my mind for more than a year… and I keep postponing acting on it.

Or maybe these two lost-pearl events really were only a coincidence!

Images above from (l-r) Fred Rocko on Unsplash, the Times of India, and Keuka Lake on Google Maps.

Gifts from August during a very hard time

My husband, Andy Gardner, died three years ago August 12.

During the last few weeks of his life, I felt like I was being flailed physically and emotionally. And yet, especially during the very last days, I received from the month of August, as manifested in nature, some truly precious gifts.

A very short reflection/poem about those gifts, “11 Interventions in the 10 Days of Your Dying” is now featured in Orion.

Transcending downward with a magical owl

Last week, at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, I watched adult human beings become transported by art, ceremony, and magic.

At times we are all weighed down by the world at large and the world in us. Debt, an unhappy marriage, climate change, problems with children, the challenge to democracy, a bad situation at work, a scary medical diagnosis—we sorrow and worry and wish things for relief.

We think, If only this one thing were different, my whole life would be different and I would be able, finally, to live as I was meant to. Even if circumstances can’t be different, we’d at least like to be different ourselves: to take more risks, pursue our visions, be less afraid of the judgments of others. We long, in other words, to transcend.

When we think of “transcending,” we usually think of being lifted to some higher realm: coming closer to God or attaining enlightenment. But in my new book, Fierce Consciousness, I show that a more accessible way of shift our state of mind is to “transcend downward”. In other words, to lose ourselves and temporarily rise above our woes by letting the beauty of the everyday world seduce us.

Sometimes the beauty that grabs us comes from nature. Sometimes it’s in the action of another person. And sometimes it’s in a combination of art, people, and ceremony.

I’ve been attending the Parliament of the World’s Religions since 2009 when it convened in Melbourne, Australia. For several days, panels, lectures, workshops, worship services, films, and ceremonies bring together people of diverse faiths and spiritual practices to try to resolve some of the world’s most grievous problems.

This year, one program I really wanted to attend was Matthew Fox’s Cosmic Mass. On his website this pioneering theologian, author, activist, and spiritual DJ describes the Cosmic Mass as an event that “replaces pews with a dance floor and replaces reading with taking in the spirit while dancing.”

The event took place in a large room of Chicago’s immense convention center. First Fox asked us to honor people around us with a word of greeting. We next took a moment to consider what it is we consider sacred. Fox then asked us to get down on what he called “all sevens” (feet, knees, arms, and forehead) and express our grief with a single tone. We were to listen to our own tone first and then begin to hear and respond to the sounds of others. Sobs, moans, and wails erupted instantly. Grieving isn’t hard, it turns out, when you’re immersed in it with five hundred others. Gradually, miraculously, the sounds of sorrow began to soften, open, lighten. We moved from loneliness to togetherness.

Then it was time for a few of us (a last-minute shift and pure luck got me involved) to take up the beautiful animal puppets that Minnesota artist Mary Plaster had made. Transparent, with tiny white lights illuminating the insides of their bodies, the puppets included a bear, a fish, a deer, and a fox, each one suspended on a pole. I was handed the owl, which was attached to its pole by a springy cord that made the bird bounce up and down.

We puppet carriers circled the large central altar as Fox and his co-facilitators, an indigenous woman, a Black woman, a Latino man, and a male rabbi, offered communion. Then the music began and we were invited to dance for life. Several of us puppet bearers now began circling through the crowd.

I soon saw how people’s eyes lit up when as this great bird came to hover over them, lit from within, twice as big as a real owl, and moving as if on its own accord. I began then to play with the bird and with the people, deliberately making it swoop down close to their heads as they looked up with delight. Some people raised their arms, as if to embrace this cosmic being or be touched by it.

The moments when we are able to transcend downward don’t last long. We’re lucky if they last a full minute. But they are reminders that beauty, life, creativity, and plain old perseverance persist, no matter what is going on in the world or in our own lives At the Cosmic Mass, the transcendence happened with shared grieving, shared ecstatic dance, and animal puppets that glowed from within and made humans glow in response.

Photo above: Cosmic Mass at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, by Mary Plaster



The last time I traveled from one coast of the United States to the other and back again was in 1971, when I hitchhiked the whole way (except for hopping freights from Colorado to Sacramento) with my boyfriend. Now, more than fifty years later, I’m going on my own, undertaking a tour for my new book, Fierce Consciousness: Surviving the Sorrows of Earth and Self. In 23 cities I’ll be doing readings and discussions at events organized by my friends, many of whom I haven’t seen in years.

As this event, which I have been planning with increasing attention to detail, has gotten closer and closer, I have watched as excitement and anxiety crash back and forth in me like waves splashing onto and rolling off of the shore.

It all starts in two days, March 10, my 75th birthday, with a reading here in Ithaca at Buffalo Street Books.

Anxiety is a sneaky visitor. It wants your full attention, so it vexes you by tossing the same hypotheses at you over and over again, demanding answers to questions that either cannot be answered from a far place and time or else don’t really matter that much anyhow. For example:

      • What happens if there’s snow in the Rockies and I can’t get across?
      • What if something goes wrong with the car?
      • What if I don’t have enough books?
      • What should I wear to the book launch in Ithaca?

One night, after tussling with anxiety instead of sleeping, I got up in the middle of the night and started making a very detailed day-by-day itinerary, including where I’m staying, the events of the book reading, how many books I’ll need, and approximately how long it’s going to take me to get from one city to the next.

That helped. Slowly excitement began taking over. Excitement, too, has its own personality. It appears to us more like a beguiling mystery than uncertainty. As I have, in fact, written in the book:

I sense that the unknown is beckoning me ahead, rather than threatening me from behind. I don’t know what may occur, but I’m not impatient for it, or at least not too impatient. I might feel some anxiety, for I know that if I step into new and untried ground, I may be tested. And yet, if I follow the allure instead of the fear, let the glimmer of mystery shine brighter than the fog that’s shrouding it, I feel excited. I know that things will emerge that I just haven’t noticed before.

No doubt anxiety and excitement will continue to splash in me once I’m on the road. One thing that would certainly be exciting though, would be if some of you, who read this, would come to an event near you! Here is my complete itinerary.

Luxuriating in the Moment

The sensations of the moment give us a little jolt of happiness. But how often do we take the time to dive in and relish them?

Even those who have never read Marcel Proust’s immense In Search of Lost Time are familiar with the famous scene in which a bite of madeleine pastry dipped in tea ricochets the narrator’s memory back to his childhood, and the sounds, sights, and smells of the country village of Combray.

I have read Proust, but right now I’m thinking of him and that “Proustian” elision between present and past, because I’m reading a book of essays on translation by Lydia Davis, who recently translated Swann’s Way, the first of the seven-volume novel. In fact, I was sitting in bed on this pre-dawn first day of the new year, reading Davis’s book, when I slipped into a reverie of my own. I had put the book down and laid my head back against the pillows to reflect on something I’d just read. I felt very cozy, my bare feet warm in the flannel sheets and a large mug of hot tea on the table beside me. Outside, silence curled in the dark trees, yard, and street. The lamp made a circle of light around the book and me. Another faint brush of light emanated from beyond the bedroom, for I had left the lights of my little Christmas tree on throughout that last night of the year and, though I could not see the lights themselves, I saw their warm, radiant glow.

And I was acutely aware of my own contentment. I was reading a book I liked. Today was a holiday. Usually, I get up very early and begin my writing immediately, but today, was special, so I was lingering in bed. I had no appointments until a call with a friend at noon. Later in the day I planned to make a big pot of split pea soup. I would probably take down my little Christmas tree. The day stretched ahead, leisurely and capacious. But right now, it was the moment that felt spacious—warm, interesting without being taxing, and roomy enough to accommodate all my physical and and mental pleasures.

I vow to continue not only to be aware of the pleasures of the moment, but also to luxuriate in them.

My First Tattoo: What and Why

A few years ago a friend asked me, “If you were ever to get a tattoo, what would it be?”

I had never thought of getting a tattoo, but as soon as she posed the question, I knew. “A book with wings,” I said.

And then, a few months ago, I began to realize that I wanted to do it. I know a lot of people with tattoos, but I’d never seen any as beautiful as the ones my friend KiRa has. I contacted her tattoo artist, Phoebe Aceto, and made an appointment.

In preparation, I searched the internet for images of the right kind of book, the right kind of wings, and I sent them to Phoebe, so she could render a design.

So I was going to do this thing. I felt compelled to do it. But I really didn’t know why. I was pretty sure it had something to do with reclaiming my body’s new direction in the world two years after Andy’s death. I also felt it was a way of marking my body with a new kind of beauty at this time in my life, at age 74. I make most of my decisions intuitively, rather than logically, but this one continued to feel both very big and very mysterious.

On August 9 I arrived at Phoebe’s small studio, Here’s to You Tattoo. I told her I was nervous, not about the possible pain but about the permanence of a tattoo. She began to work. It wasn’t painful, just a little scratchy. Soon I was paying close attention to the movements of the needle, trying to guess which parts of the image she was drawing.

Mostly we sat in silence. At one point she asked, “I wonder what the story [of the book] might be.”

I had asked myself the same question several times. Now, all of a sudden I knew.

“I think it’s all I’ve ever written and all I ever will write,” I said.

And in the saying I felt close to tears.

My love of books and my wish that my own writing will continue to take wing after I am gone is now a permanent part of my body.

The Comfort of a Weather Report

I never used to listen to weather reports. When my husband and I first married and lived in Brooklyn, New York, he would wake up first, turn on the radio, and get into the shower. I would get up a few minutes later. Often, as he made breakfast, he’d ask me if I’d heard the weather report. I never had. Even if someone on the radio had made the announcement, it had simply passed me by. My theory was, you looked out the window to see what the weather was and then, if something unexpected happened later in the day—rain, snow, sun—you dealt with it.

But in the past two years, I’ve come to find comfort in weather reports. So much has been alarming and unpredictable during this time: the global Covid pandemic, the state of the American democracy, the failing health and then the death of my husband, the ever-more-tangible advance of climate change. It seems impossible to make plans for next week, let alone a whole year from now.

But then comes the weather report, bearing the gift of reliability. This afternoon, says the forecaster, there will be rain. Tomorrow will be sunny and warm. Even if the predictions do not suit my own personal preference—sun when we could really use some rain, rain on the day of the picnic I want to attend—I feel consoled. I feel as if, in at least one sphere of this scary, mixed-up world, there is, if not certainty, as least a strong likelihood that a particular phenomenon will occur. There will be a future after all, and it will include things happening in the sky that will affect those of us who live in a particular region of the Earth. The weather is impersonal and cares nothing for the health, wealth, or preferences of individuals. It will do what it must do, and we must adjust to accommodate it.

Even knowing full well that climate change is influencing weather patterns all over the world, I am soothed by the knowledge that the weather is and will continue to be alive, insistent, and relevant.