Sauntering (To walk in a slow, relaxed manner, without hurry or effort).

I am trying to learn how to saunter. It’s not easy.

Power walking became the default when running became too hard on my feet and hips. I could still feel the rush of energy and maintain the sense of strength and pride in being fit, fast-walking the neighborhood. Heels pounding the pavement, head up, arms pumping … how fast can I do my three miles today?

But that, now, takes a toll too; and in more ways than one. These days, stretching has become far more important (though far less fun) than vigorous exercise. And walking – just walking, is pretty much the extent of my regular aerobic efforts.

Retirement is supposed to bring time and space for doing more of what’s desired and less of what is strictly needed. But my life, and probably yours, continues to move so fast it’s hard to grab a moment as it rushes past.

This blog is called “Pay Attention.” I meant it to be a place to stop and closely look and think about the extraordinariness of ordinary things. Maybe the necessity of walking rather than running is a good place to start doing what I wanted from retirement. So, I am trying hard to find the joy and satisfaction in a stroll, a leisurely walk.

The other day, I found it.

I am fortunate to live in a very walkable neighborhood, with a variety of ‘destinations’ as well as just a diverse collection of interesting houses and people. One morning last week, tired of the same breakfast I’d made myself four days in a row, I decided to walk to the French bakery in the next block over and indulge myself in a croissant and coffee with cream. Spring had sprung and I was interested to see what everyone’s yard looked like on a sunny early morning.

I started out fast, as usual, but was stopped cold by the insanely vigorous bathing ritual of two robins in a neighbor’s birdbath. Sun prismed the cascade of water droplets they fountained through the air and the sparkled shards of rainbow made a glorious celebration of the morning. It was impossible to not stop and watch.

All around, birds were fluting their urgent chips, warbles, trills and other paeans of procreation into the day, and I was caught.  Time to stop, look and listen. And so my saunter began.

There were the usual early spring sights – gorgeous magnolias blooming, lawns greener that they ever will be again this season.  But it was the littlest things that began to catch my attention.

A patch of almost neon purple flowers muscling their way through the tall grass at the edge of the path that cuts through my long block.  I recognized them as weeds I pull from my garden and lawn, but here, en masse, they were a royal’s magnificent cloak, tossed and forgotten across the dewy lawn. Quite beautiful.

I was greeted by the small grey cat I sometimes see in my yard – also sauntering along the path. She stopped and rolled over at my feet, scratching her back on the rough pavement, accompanying herself with very satisfied meows.

And just a few feet further, a wee field mouse, dead; curled and quiet on the rough asphalt. Tiny pink, delicately articulated feet, soft grey and white fur, a black berry eye and a wisp of tail, clear and sharp in the morning sun.  

After coffee and pastry, on the ‘saunter’ home, a small garden, tucked into the tree lawn offered a Wonderland moment; a delicately flowered porcelain cup, filled with rainwater tea amid the early blooms. And further on, in the garden of a large house, a creative re-use of a hobby horse no longer needed by the children that may once have lived there.

I became fascinated with looking for small things beneath my feet that would usually escape notice, like the batallion of ants busily building their first hill of the season in a sidewalk crack. And listening to identify birdsong – trying to discern the sharp metallic single chirps of a cardinal from the maddening, high-pitched ‘alarm chips’ of the chipmunk. And, yes, to stop and smell the mock orange blossoms and lilacs (too early, yet for roses) along the way.

So, am I fully converted to sauntering? Time will tell. But this morning’s outing covered a scant half-block in my large, eclectic Cleveland Heights neighborhood. I suspect there’s a lot of joy to be gathered and savored in the future if I can develop a regular sauntering habit. Wish me luck.

Here’s a poem I wrote another early spring ago when I must have been sauntering another neighborhood.

The Difference of a Day

I like to walk my neighborhood
now the evening hours offer light enough
to safely stroll the broken sidewalks, see
the early evidence another chapter’s
opening, and waiting to be read.

There was this day—and just one day this week—
when all magnolia blooms had yet to feel
the press of rain and sun—lose their grasp
on naked arms. The trees relaxed their hands
and offered up their rose blushed waxy cups.

But then, the next, with just the smallest change
in temperature, or maybe just because
(and who can know what triggers the release
of secret signals in the cells?) the blooms
began to sigh, relax from ecstasy of fullness—
And on my neighbor’s lawn,
the fuchsia petals had arrayed themselves
so evenly across its emerald slope,
where purple Myrtle stars had rocket-shot
above the green and twining ivy hearts,
that no Persian master-weaver would be shamed
to claim this plush and jeweled rug his own.

    © Kathleen Cerveny (2012/19)

Tethered to Wildness

As I walk him back to the raptor barn, through the forested paths of the wildlife center, he tries again to fly. The soft leather of the jesses encircling his sturdy ankles strains but holds, caught fast in the crook of my thumb. Still, he wants to fly, leaping off my glove the few inches the jesses will allow.

One end of a lead is clipped to the ‘D’ ring on my glove. The other is fastened through thin slits in his reindeer hide ankle cuffs. The lead is wrapped tight around the last two fingers of my hand. He settles back on the glove, one sharply taloned foot grasping the base of my forefinger, the other, widely spaced just past the base of my thumb. I am holding a barn owl on my wrist.

He is calm, now, for a while, impassively surveying the daytime world; dark eyes unreadable, imperious. I am beneath notice. There is a chance now, to regard him.

Begin with the talons, gripping. I am grateful for the double-thick elk hide of the glove. Then the feet; two long scabrous toes, the grayed, yellow-green color of lichen, face forward, two behind. (Raptors can rotate one of their forward-facing toes to the rear.) They clamp my hand in an immovable, inescapable hold. Next, the long legs, clad in fine Devon-cream suiting more like fur than feathers.

From the thighs the owl’s body rises, abdomen and chest clean and white as new snow; brilliant. Look closely, though. There are scattered black pixels of night; like a shake of fine pepper on a starched tablecloth, or a photographic negative of the night sky – inky pinpoints against deep white space.  

Tyto Alba

The wings, swept back and down, are the warm sienna and taupe shades of a Ralph Lauren suede jacket – and infinitely softer, each minutely fringed feather flowing down from shoulder to wingtip in a velvet cascade. Longer even than the gathered tail, the wings, relaxed as they are now, hide their deep, broad power; fearsome stealth weapons of silent flight in the owl’s formidable arsenal.

But it is the head, whose beauty deceives us most particularly. A saucer of white feathers, edged in brown frames his face. It is a radar dish, shaped charmingly like a valentine. We smile a little, until we notice the eyes – deep pools of night – and the beak.  Poet Mary Oliver wrote about the tiny screech owl whose beak, she wrote “… could open a bottle.” This owl could easily liberate a magnum of champagne.

What can’t be seen in this brief moment of observation, is the owl’s call. When heard, splitting the night with its primal scream, you understand why this one, above all other owls is the source of countless campfire ghost stories. Among all the varied hoots, toots, trills, whinnies, croaks and whistles of those in the owl family, his is the most fearsome call of all.

Barn Owl in flight

As I approach the raptor barn, he tries again to fly. His wings, each one half again as long as his body, grab the air and surge forward off my glove.  I have his jesses fast in my fist, but cannot restrain my arm from following his leap up and out. He is flying ahead of me, a few inches off my glove, the
backwash of rowed air fanning my face. For a brief moment it is not the owl that is held, but me. I am tethered to the wild urge of this engine of the sky and air. I would give anything to go with him.

Radar is not amused.

The Dark Side of the Canopy

One of the features that sold me on my little bungalow five years ago was its wonderfully deep and wooded lot. Towering silver maples – both mine and the neighbors’ – and lovely tall hemlocks surrounded the house and overhung the fenced yard. A sinuous swath of lawn curved from the back deck into the wooded far end of the property. It felt private and sylvan.

But there are drawbacks to having an established canopy.  Trees get old. Sometimes they get sick. And some trees are invasive imposters that only reveal their nefarious existence after you’re hooked on the greenery.

Shortly after moving in I had to take down an enormous pear that was just a few feet from the house.  It loomed two stories above the roof and its branches were resting on the electric wires coming into the house.  And all day, every day through that first summer and fall, it rained tiny, hard, BB-like pears – not half an inch big, on the roof and deck. Aside from the mess, the noise and the pain of being hit with the lead-shot bombardment quickly made use of the deck impossible. An arborist confirmed that the tree had exceeded its maturity, and I had it taken down.

Another charm of the house was the tall cedar rising through an opening in the deck. But it, too had its problems.  There were hardly any branches except at the very top, some four stories up, and this fall the squirrels began shredding the bark into ribbons, taking huge mouthfuls up to their nests. The cedar looks positively flayed.  I can’t imagine it will last much longer.

Flayed Cedar

And then, there are the Buckthorns.  Native to Europe, where they are kept trimmed as thorny hedges, when left to grow they become spindly, crazily branched understory trees with horrible huge thorns. They are the first to leaf out in the spring and last to drop their leaves in the fall. Plus, they keep growing when other plants have gone dormant, so nothing grows beneath them. They have no natural pests, of course. The deer don’t eat them, and the ‘lovely’ wooded scrim at the back of my yard was full of them.

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Fortunately, they are easy to cut down. Not so fortunately, they are also very painful to cut up and tie into the 18 inch bundles the city’s trash pick-up requires. That was my task most of one summer. But cutting them down does not kill them.  More will grow from the roots unless you kill the stump completely.

Buckthorn Baggie on duty.

Enter, via research and Amazon, the Buckthorn Baggie®. It’s a heavy black plastic bag that you put over the remaining 6-inch stump and cinch tight with a zip tie.  You spread the bag out over the root system and leave it for a year. That’s supposed to kill the stump and prevent any new shoots from emerging from the roots. I bought 100 of them – used about 60 so far. Now, my back yard sports what looks like an army of black-cloaked garden gnomes waiting to rush the house under cover of darkness.

One small ninja gnome battalion

I’ll get to the rest of the buckthorn in the spring, but my suburban lumberjacking has cost me a lot of the privacy between me and my back-yard neighbors. So I’m thinking of what to plant in their stead. 

Eastern Hemlock grows fast, does well in shade – which I have a lot of thanks to the huge maples and oaks on my neighbors’ properties. And Hemlocks are still zoned for this region, even though our growing/plant hardiness zone has changed in recent years from 5 to 6 in response to the warming climate. I have several large hemlocks in the yard already and the soft swishing whisper of the wind through their lacy branches is a soothing summer song.

But, as in all things, there’s never a perfect answer. Hemlocks can grow to be 800 years old. 300 years is a common life span, so long as conditions are right. That means cool, moist soil and hard winters. I am troubled about the possibility of planting these climate-sensitive trees that have a potential long life, only to put their health in jeopardy in a warming future. 

And then there’s the wooly adelgid, lately come from Asia to suck the nutrients out of these lovely trees in particular.

Sigh…  What’s a tree-loving homeowner to do?

Well, I still think it will be another buckthorn removal summer and a hemlock fall here in the little urban forest of my back yard. I’ll let you know how it goes.  For now, here’s the apologia ‘shape’ poem I wrote when I cut down my pear tree.  (Poem format may not work on a smart phone.)

Requiem for a Pear Tree
Forgive me, tree.
I did not want to let you go.
Your leafy crown above the house
was soothing music in the autumn wind,
surcease from summer’s heat, and shelter
for the scurried creatures of the neighborhood.
But ninety years is quite an age for such a tree as you,
and you signaled that your time had come—letting go
a thousand brittle twigs, a million sterile seeds, raining
like a storm of hail on roof, the deck, the garden.
All this summer I could hear your readiness
to let go, see how you were holding on
for one more season.
So I chose to
intercede, to
 act ahead of
clock. So,
forgive me,
tree, if my timing
was out of joint with yours.

K. Cerveny

After the Vortex

Beauty in the Midst of the Polar Vortex

11 above. On the way to 11 below.

The pirouetting force of the polar vortex has returned to its usual realm in the Arctic north. It had spun just briefly south into the mid 30’s latitudes of Northeast Ohio last month, generating in me a kind of pioneer spirit in the face of the unprecedented cold.  It was a time of hunkering down, cocooning and obsessive attention to the thermometer outside the sliding glass door to the deck. It was also a time of reverie.

One of my youthful fantasies was the romantic, completely unrealistic imagined joy of being snowed in, in a cabin in the Maine woods. Plenty of food, a pot-belly stove, a fireplace and wood stacked high enough for months just outside the door. And of course, all the books I ever wanted to read.

I remembered this dream from my 20’s and 30’s as I sat listening to the maddening drip of the kitchen faucet that kept the pipes from freezing overnight. It was 11 below. Three pair of socks and my feet were still cold.

Should have put the storm window in.

But in the midst of the cold, and maybe because of it, as the air seemed clearer through the frigid prism of light, the sun streamed in from its jewel setting in a lapis sky. The shadows slanting across the snow were a deeper blue-purple than I ever remembered. The few remaining single paned windows of the house blossomed with a tapestry of winter lace. And defying all logic, instead of resting warm in their nests, the birds chattered and fluttered around the bird feeder like excited children let out from school. Beauty was everywhere.

Much earlier, before dawn, the stars had shone brighter than usual through the clear, cloudless night. Venus and Jupiter book-ended a luminous crescent. The moonlight, reflecting off the snow, revealed a ghost image of the full orb. Sometimes the moon seems to be more brilliant in winter. Perhaps it’s the clarity of the frigid air, and the reflection of its own borrowed light beaming back from the snow.

Borrowed Reflections

Sun illuminates the waning moon.
      Moonlight falls on a frosted earth.
Sun-lit moonlight ricochets back
     revealing the satellite's
shadowed whole.

As hard as winter can be – especially as I grow older – I would not trade it for a milder climate. There is so much beauty and so many things that give pleasure in the changes of each season.

Here’s a winter poem I wrote some time ago about the simple joy of being the first to drive on a clean snowy road at night.

Late Thursday Night

Do you know the secret pleasure
of pioneering clean-sheeted streets,
spinning wheels pillowed silent
in frozen down - fallen 
soft and fresh in the night?

Ahead, pool after mercury peach pool
lights the comforted trail. Behind,
a wordless calligraphy unfurls;
clean curves the only crease
in the winter-laundered road.
© Kathleen Cerveny

Of Minnows and Safety Pins

When I was a little girl, I lived on a street with just a few houses. There were fields all around, dotted with stands of apple trees, brambles of raspberry and blackberry bushes and patches of wild strawberries.  It was a new planned development on the southwest side of Cleveland.  The street pattern had been cut and paved through the area but ours was one of only a couple of houses built at the time. I think of it now as having once been farmland or orchards, sold to developers to create the suburban homeland for the flood of returning veterans from WWII – like my Dad. In truth, it was also part of the ‘white flight’ out of the central city that helped launch the racial divide in the region that persists.

Not such a Big Creek – but mine.

At the bottom of the street, and all through the world as I knew it then, lay a forest. Or so it seemed to me.  It would eventually become part of the Cleveland Metroparks, and I think it’s still called Big Creek Parkway. Tall trees, heavy underbrush and a tantalizing creek filled with tadpoles, crayfish and water-striders.

The heaven of my young girlhood was spent there.  Long summer days in the ‘forest’ clearing the creek of fallen sticks and leaves, trying to catch minnows with a safety pin on a string, making secret hiding places beneath the arching branches of the underbrush. I would sit in these secret leafy caves organizing a cache of special stones, or just lie, looking up through the tangle of leaves and branches at the underbrush highway, busy with bees and other flying and crawly things.

At the time I thought it was my sacred duty to look after the forest and keep the creek clear of debris. I knew every inch of the several acres I roamed in those days; where the swampy areas were, the best vines to swing on, where the wild raspberries grew fat and unnoticed by all but me.

No one ever came there. The age of jogging and bicycling adults was years away. There was a path through the area, but it was unpaved and not much more than a deer trail, full of stones and tree roots, but passable. Occasionally other neighborhood kids and I played there, but most of the time I was the sole owner of the forest at the bottom of the street. It was years until mothers began to worry every second about where their kids were. It was a time of delicious freedom for a girl.

I’d almost forgotten. But today, as I walked the perimeter paths of the Perkins Wildlife Center at the Natural History Museum, picking up trash from the crowds of visitors the day before, hauling away branches that had fallen across the walkways during the night, the memories of being  caretaker for my little patch of wild came rushing back.

Radar. One of the Museum’s Barn Owls. Saved from euthanasia.

Readers of this blog know I volunteer at the Museum, working as a Perkins Steward (docent) and directly with some of the animals presenting Live Animal Programs for Museum visitors. Monday mid-mornings are very busy with many school groups coming through. So I spend the first few minutes walking the paths, checking on the animals to see who’s out, saying ‘hi’ to the incredibly busy and dedicated professional wildlife staff as they clean and enrich each animal’s environment. It’s a quiet time; just me and the animals and the staff.

This morning, in the midst of my joy at remembering the sense of ownership and responsibility for a small piece of the natural world, I also felt a kind of sadness for something lost. How rare, I wondered, is it now, that a young girl can feel as unconsciously safe as I did in being alone in the forest?

I’m not so foolish as to think I came up in a time when nothing bad happened to little girls. But the flood of information now, about those bad things that do happen, is continuous and inescapable. Predation is a natural part of the natural world. Sadly, it’s become a top of mind concern in raising children, and a factor that severely limits the freedom to experience the world – for young girls in particular.

As grateful as I am for places like the Wildlife Center where children can get closer to an eagle or a bobcat or a raven than I ever did in my youth, I mourn the loss of the semi-wild places of under-developed neighborhoods.

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I mourn a time when the ‘wilds’ of a forested creek at the bottom of the street could be a safe place for a child, on her own, to come to care for a patch of land, discover herself through nature, and fish for minnows with a safety pin.

Looking Through Others’ Eyes; a Question and a Wish

Early morning moon

The moon was still trying to fuzz its way into the morning through the pervasive cloud cover. Its faint light hung over the neighbor’s house like a stray fluff of lint on a gray wool blanket. It’s the morning after we gained an hour, but it still seems like 5 am rather than 6.

My house guest is still asleep and I’m trying not to let the cats’ curiosity get the better of them so she could rest peacefully as long as possible. She has a long journey ahead today – back to England.

Yesterday was filled with art and rich conversation – and food. My friend was here for a conference, traveling from her home in Bath.  She’d been to Cleveland many times and I always loved to hear her praise the riches of the arts here in her plummy British accent. She was one to know, being a prominent consultant in the arts internationally.

We’d spent the afternoon in the Art Museum, wandering the permanent collection. It was fun to see what caught her eye and how she saw things from her professional objectivity and broad experience. I was reminded how easy it is to take the exceptional quality of our cultural community for granted.

It’s a good reminder, and a lesson, in these times, to remember that many others see many things differently than I do. The election looms and I am dismayed at the raw and uncompromising divisions among us. I am also afraid that, with the potential shift in the political environment – however large or small it might be, that these divisions might be deepened and widened, rather than bridged.

How do we, as a nation, make the effort to look through others’ eyes, walk for a moment in others’ shoes? Can we – can I – thin the cloud cover of my own preconceptions and biases to let the light of another’s point of view illuminate the day? Can I hope that others might wish to do the same?

Not Exactly Staying in the Moment

It’s Sunday morning and I’m walking downstairs, my special prescription computer glasses still on.  I’ve just printed out the Times crossword to work on over breakfast. The stairs are a little out of focus as I step down, but I manage. The crossword’s in one hand and in the other I’ve got two pair of dime-store cheaters, my go-to reading glasses, that I grabbed from the nightstand.  As I negotiate the stairs I smile myself a little ‘high-five’ for belaying a trip back up later, when I’ll need a pair to do the crossword.  Thinking ahead, I say to myself quite smugly.

I’ve forgotten, however, that I already have a pair of cheaters on my head; parked there when I found them in the bathroom, earlier that morning. So, at 6 AM I’m already adorned with four pair of glasses.

As I pass through the dining room I notice my prescription driving glasses and my prescription sunglasses on the table where I’d emptied my purse last evening, looking for – reading glasses.

I put the cheaters from the nightstand on the dining room table where they join my prescription specs and the pair of ancient, lens-scratched glasses with broken frames that I keep repairing because … you never know.

In the kitchen, I take off my computer glasses, put them on the butcher block – then pick them up and walk back through the house and put them on the table by the stairs where I’ll see them the next time I go up to use the computer. Thinking ahead.

Fortunately, I remember still have a pair of cheaters on my head, so when I get back to the kitchen, having passed the now five pair of glasses on the dining room table, I put them on so can see well enough to safely chop the peppers, mushrooms and basil for my omelet without incident. I smile myself another high five – especially because I saved myself the embarrassment of wandering the house looking for glasses all the while wearing a pair on my head; a pretty regular occurrence.

You can probably guess that, later, when I go back up to use the computer, I walk right by the glasses on the table by the stairs.  Lost in thought about something I can’t remember now, there’s much internal finger wagging as I do a U-ie on the upstairs landing.

I wag my finger at myself a lot these days, wondering why I can’t remember things.  Or why I can’t seem to develop a routine that, at the very least where my glasses are concerned, makes me take off any pair I’m wearing and leave them in the room I am exiting. The original plan, for all these dime-store cheaters, was to leave one pair in every room in the house.  But somehow, at some point each day, most of them end up collected in one place – and not always the same place, so I never know where my (computer, driving, reading, sun) glasses are.

Maybe not enough glasses

It’s a small thing, I know.  I haven’t really lost my glasses – or my memory, really.  But among all the adjustments we need to make as we get older, this one, for me, is a daily reminder of how hard it is to stay focused – grounded, in the moment. I find this especially true when trying to fully complete one task before getting distracted by another.

Multi-tasking is a vice invented, I’m convinced, by ‘productivity-at-all-costs’ US capitalism. It’s nurtured by our own (maybe women’s in particular) ‘have-and-do-it-all’ expectations that everything is as important as everything else and so we feel we must act immediately on each thing that grabs our attention; no matter the task at hand.

No matter that you are heading for the closet to get the vacuum cleaner out, there’s the mail you haven’t opened yet, or the cats’ food dishes are dirty and it will just take a moment to wash them.  There’s the phone by the sink, which should probably be charged, so might as well check to see if anyone answered your Next Door post. And since you’re on the phone, maybe check the news to see what new craziness in happening in the world, and oh, look, a Facebook post from a distant cousin …

Then tomorrow, while deciding right now is the time clean out the garage, or maybe hem that dress that’s been draped on the sewing machine for the past month, you notice all the dust bunnies in the corners, the cat hair piling up on the rug, and the vacuum cleaner – cord still wound up – sitting by the closet.