I am a freelance, nonfiction writer who cares about the environment, individuality, creative expression, and simplicity. I'm glad you've found my blog, and I hope you'll join in the conversation by leaving a comment. Disagreements are allowed, even encouraged, but cruelty, vulgarity, and slander is not.

Quiet Achieved

June 21st, 2013

In my last post I wrote about a desire for peace and quiet. Then, I took a weeklong vacation to a very quiet place: the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I had plenty of time to think about why it was I cherish the quiet so much. I found it wasn't about what I couldn't hear; it was about what I could.

My husband sometimes calls me Jaime - the character with robotic hearing in the old TV show, "The Bionic Women." Having spent a lifetime respecting and protecting my hearing around loud noises (such as concerts or machinery), I've preserved my ability to hear. This likely contributes to my sensitivity about which I wrote last week.

Plus, I listen. And having heard the silence before, I know what exists within it, and that makes me desperate for more.

So what are these sounds? Here are a few heard on my trip:

Foremost were the ones that rung in my ears, the loudest often coming from the birds. Scientists believe deep-forest birds and city birds avoid each other because the volume of their voices is not compatible. Whether this is true or not, I don't know. I did find that wilderness birds didn't need to shout. Even the Robin's late-day goodnight – one of the last and loudest, warm-season birdcalls from both backyard and backwoods each evening – was softer in this quiet place.

Then there was the sound of the trees. Without voices, they most certainly were not silent. The leaves of the paper birch had a certain rustle, which I often mistook for heavy rain or a waterfall. (In Colorado, my friend has a nickname for the Rocky Mountain's active leaves: Waving Aspens. The aspen flutters so easily and often, it appears to wave when you look at them.)

But the sound of pouring water wasn't just coming from the trees. Spring rain and snowmelt turned every ravine, gorge, and channel into a rush so loud, you could feel it in your chest.

Flume Brook in Dixville Notch

At Beaver Brook Falls near Colebrook.

For instance, we stopped for a picnic in Pinkham Notch along the Peabody River. My husband was cooking lunch at the table near the water while I wandered away to look at some flowers in a nearby field. At a distance of 80 feet, I couldn't shout loud enough for him to hear a single a word.

Away from the rustle and rush, quiet let me see things, too. There was life wandering between the trees, hidden from view. Bear, deer, moose, turkey, porcupine, beaver, bobcat, and more. My husband and I were on the move, making noise of our own as we hiked. As a result, we didn't spot much wildlife during our trip (not a single moose sighting to take home). But the sounds told us something was watching. The occasional crunch of a step or a whir of retreat reminded us we were never alone.

More abundant, though, were the sounds imagined, such as a mountain talking to a lake...

At the Willey House Site in Crawford Notch

or to a poet..

The view from Robert Frost's bedroom near Franconia notch.

to each other...

A view from Mount Washington including Wildcat ski area.

or to the sky.

A view from the Mount Washington summit.

And with the pleasantries came the dreaded sound of insects. The buzz of the black fly or mosquito was like a drill sergeant. It kept me moving, for standing still only made me easier to bite. However, during the entire trip, one insect proved to make the noisiest racket of all. Heard not in the White Mountains (thankfully) but along the edge of the Catskills in New York as we made our way home, the Periodical Cicada en masse could be heard above all road noise – windows closed, radio on.

And so we aimed for home. The volume increased with every mile toward man. The quiet of the wilderness was behind us; the vacation for my hearing was over. It was up to my brain now – with its remarkable ability to tune out or tune in – to keep me calm. Benefited by a six-day reminder of what to listen for, I'll find it easier, for a while, to block out the noise and make room for sound, now with bionic focus.

Then, when my strength runs low, I'll return to the woods to be recharged again.


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Quiet Please

June 6th, 2013


Is it an alarm clock or a reversing trash truck that has pierced my silent morning?

How did all this noise start? I'll never know. The truck signal became necessary – I can guess – after some kid got run over by a commercial rig, and the authorities got together and said, “We must prevent this.” They came up with a universal safety symbol, always played as an E on the musical scale, always loud enough to be heard above a roaring diesel, always required on any work-related vehicle that might possibly run over a blind spot.

It’s just one of the many once-new, now-commonplace noises that fills our days and nights. There’s always more; there's never less. Noise, noise, noise, and noise. Car alarms, cell phone rings, seat belt reminders, fireworks on the final night of every carnival in the state.

But we can’t have festivities end without some sort of climax. We certainly can't have children crushed or vehicles stolen. So we add layer upon layer, stressing our internal sensors harder and harder until what? The sound of my emotional breakdown gets added to the mix? Is there any hope that quiet will come back to commonplace?

Will there be any places left where the alarms of natural voices and the climaxes of joyful singing can still be heard from the treetops? Where are the places where the human artificial is silenced so we can hear the rhythm of life again, a rhythm where nests are robbed but life continues; where rains come, waters flow, stars rise, soils crack, flowers blossom, and leaves unfurl? A place where humans intertwine, quietly, making sound only when warranted, instead of just because something could happen, something like a truck running over a kid or an adult showing up late for work, prevention of which only ever seems possible by adding a little more noise?



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A Moment of Silence

May 24th, 2013

To hear piano music while listening, click here. The song will open in a new window. Song Title: Grandfather's Clock; Composer: Henry C. Work; Pianist: Ruth Heil

“We will never forget,” the people said. It’s a common phrase, declared with intention, its meaning heartfelt and deep. After each tragedy, we see the images of those left behind, tears streaming down faces, hands grasping for something to hold on to, memories woven together to create a single, fragile thread that comes to serve as the only remaining connection to the loved one just lost.

"We will never forget." Memorials may stand to honor the deceased, but they also comfort the grieving. And for the case of the fallen veteran, they serve a third purpose: They remind us to be grateful. Acquaintances and strangers -- standing side-by-side -- can acknowledge the contribution made so that America-as-a-country can prevail.

“We will never forget.” Ah, but we do. Life has a funny way of filling our thoughts with other things. Death may bring time to a grinding halt, but time always gets moving again. With each moment, losses and gains are witnessed and felt. It’s a cycle we shall not feel guilty about; it’s just the way it is.

“We will never forget.” Time has softened our memories of a brutal civil war and all the wars that followed. Knowing this reality, holidays such as the one upon us were made. In 1971, Congress declared the last Monday in May an appropriate time to decorate a veteran’s grave with the plentiful flowers of spring. Three o’clock in the afternoon was set as the appropriate time to pause for a national moment of silence, taking a break from the parades and picnics and official launches of summer in order to just remember.

We don’t have to agree with wars or even know the details of the battles, but for the freedoms we enjoy, the least we can do is maintain that thread of remembrance and keep the American promise to never, ever forget.


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How Words are Like Ribbons to Me

May 17th, 2013

Have you ever had your attention repeatedly captured by a single word? It happens to me over the course of a few days, weeks, or even months. One keeps popping up in the news, movies, and first-hand conversations. Society sometimes uses these words in the same way it wears its clothes -- as a trend -- and since I love words more than fashion, linguistic forms are like shiny ribbons to me.

This image is for sale from Shannon Miller Photography

When it comes to fashion, what you wear has a direct effect on how you act, no matter how much a teenager may try to deny it. Relaxed in jeans and a t-shirt, you'd be comfortable sitting on a rock wall, watching the crowds pass. Dressed in your finest silk suit, you wouldn't go near a rock wall.

Such is true for words; Our speech impacts our actions. I'm not just talking about the you can do it and the Little Engine That Could's I think I can talk. I'm referring to the single words which come and go, the one's that are neither slang nor jargon but get thrown around as such.

Heinous was once a trendy word. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, it was hard to find a news story that didn't use it. I think it was first uttered by a dignitary after which the media picked it up and thrust it into everyone's lexicon. It was as if there was no better choice in the 600,000-word dictionary to adequately describe the hideous, gruesome, revolting, vile, gross, monstrous, horrid, loathsome act. Nope, the media deemed the 9/11 attacks heinous, and that was that.

World Trade Towers

Considering the size of the 9/11 story, the word didn't really change how we acted, though. The deeper issues, sinister motives, unselfish heroism, and continued resolve also received due consideration. But most news stories are just a blip, they come and go. And they leave behind a scattering of buzzwords that society picks up and tries to piece together for clarity.

Today, the word on my radar is marginalized.

Artists are said to be painting pictures of people living in the margins. Charles Ramsey, the Cleveland man who helped three kidnapped girls and a child escape their captor, was a man from the margins. People who aren't on Facebook are in the margins. Old people, black people, poor people, sick people -- they're all hanging out over there, in that white space on the top, left, bottom, and right sides of this and every page, in the margins, the place we don't read. Funny though, as far as I see it, if you expanded your margins wide enough to accommodate all those people, you wouldn't have much room to write.

Unlike 9/11's heinous, there is no one story that has laid claim to the word marginalized. It's everywhere. I tried to find out when it came onto the scene -- sometime around the 1970s -- but I gave up. Marginalize isn't in my 1983 Random House Dictionary (Google isn't either). Its definition is to push aside or relegate to an unimportant or powerless position within a society or group.

It's root, however, is supposed to be marginal. It took on the space outside meaning, but I also found this in my dictionary behind the word marginal: marked by contact with disparate cultures, and acquiring some but not all of the traits or values common to any one of them.

If you stretched marginalized to include that definition, we'd all be marginalized, even the stars, politicians, and billionaires.

But even under its proper use -- being pushed aside -- there still is no margin. There is no aside. There is only what gets press and what doesn't. Throw in a trendy word such as marginalized and it becomes acceptable to cover poverty, inequality, and disease. Otherwise, it's just a story about plain old life. And therein is where the fashionable word changes our actions. Publicists will write press releases about the stories and painted pictures of everyday people like you and me or the struggling guy down the street, and because of the word marginalized, it will seem like something special. Studies will be done on an underachieving segment of society, and when it is shown that they've been marginalized, we can all point and say, "oh, that's what's wrong."

Not much room in this one room shack, but its shelter from a trying winter. S.E.R.A. Photo, 4/17/35, Contributing Institution: UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library

Meanwhile, aside from extreme cases of poverty or abuse, plenty of us will either be perfectly happy hiding in the white space or unaware we ever fell out of print. Furthermore, as a verb, marginalize needs a subject. Who is doing the pushing? Not me. You? Aren't you and I society?

This is the power of language, greater than the emperor's finest clothes. When we lock into only a few (remember quagmire?), we miss the broader picture, a challenge for deeper understanding. Do the broadcast editors know this? Did they intentionally strip away monstrous and gruesome from the copy in exchange for heinous, because that was the approved word, restricting communication like a Catholic school restricts student attire? I don't know. I'll never know. But my filter is always on, trapping out the clumps of trendy words, if for no other reason than because they catch my attention.


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And the Living is Easy

May 9th, 2013

Money. When you have it, life is fine. Right?

I'm going to challenge this notion, but before I do, I want anyone who has been suffering in the unemployment lines or working too-long hours for too-low wages to know that they have my condolences. There is a stress that comes from this kink in our financial system, one that can eat away at a person's health, self esteem, and quality of life. Conditions in America have been down for a LONG time, and it's taking its toll. I know that; food-on-the-table-hardship is not what this is about.

For the rest of us, a need for thrift can yield good results, and it helps to be reminded of that from time-to-time. Think of a royal palace filled with opulence and waste, scandal and pretentiousness, and a general misperception of what's important in life. Every one of us is subject to the corruption that money can bring, no matter how small the purse. Meanwhile, every one of us has a natural instinct to respond to a challenge when it presents itself. We may wish we could be lions laying the shade, but even the king needs a little chase once in awhile. It is in the challenge that we find -- and often get -- what we really want.

Here are a few positive things I've seen come out of the challenges since the 2008 financial downturn:

1.) Renewed interest in our cities. I would suffocate in the city, but I'm an advocate for city life just the same, especially for the folks who want convenience, stimulation, and activity.

Philadelphia, PA

In the 1990s, thousands of such people fled the streets for the promise of safety and a new home in a field, and as suburbia filled up, they seeped into the rural zones, too. Natural areas turned into housing developments as the locals kept asking, "Who is buying these monstrosities?"

Because the transients were accustomed to shopping frequently, developers were happy to feed them shopping centers and grocery stores. Gyms popped up in the places where farmers would have otherwise gotten their workouts just by living life. All the while the city -- with its existing buildings, roads, infrastructure, and amenities -- crumbled from a lack of infusion. This was bad for the environment. It was bad for the rural families that gave up pieces of their generational roots. It was bad for the once-proud and productive cities. And it placed significant hardship on every suburban town's ability to build and maintain infrastructure. It was just bad.

But that has changed. The pressure to protect suburban land has subsided as people have figured out their lifestyle and their pocketbook is better suited for a clustered community. Small towns and some big cities are revitalizing. I still cringe when the market reports on "new home starts," as if growing more houses in the midst of so many abandoned buildings is a good thing, but at least the attitudes and the demands of the consumer have shifted. And most of that change was driven by the high cost of fuel and the need to be frugal. (I'm much better at frugality in the country, but this part's not about people like me.)

2.) Renewed appreciation for the simple things. I love to go camping. Yes, there is an initial expense for a tent and sleeping bag, but after that, camping is a low-cost way to spend quality time with the people you love or quiet time by yourself. So is a walk in the park. Or a visit to a local museum. Or a bike ride down the trail. Or a Frisbee catch in the back yard. With such activities, you challenge your mind, your muscles, and your senses, often without spending a dime. We've been led to believe that we must buy our experiences, and that's simply not true. A tough economy forces us to recognize that.

My husband after a fun game, at the park, in February, with yard-sale-bought discs.

3.) Greater attention to the money path. You probably haven't been in favor of the trend wherein jobs keep shipping overseas. You probably don't like the idea of buying asparagus from Peru when the farmer down the road has some growing in his field. For a long time, we've grumbled about this "global" situation. However, now there is a desperation in our voices as well as a deeper appreciation for just how much that farmer needs your business or your kid needs a job. We've reached the end of our rope, as my mom used to say. More and more of us are putting aside the foreign-made product in favor of the local one, and we're learning that the choice isn't just better for our community, it's a better product all the way around. And with less money to watch, it becomes easier to see where it goes.

The faceplate on my old, Betsy Ross spinet piano indicated it was originally made in Philadelphia. Like cars, pianos were once made in American cities everywhere. Now only a few remain...Steinway's the only one I'm truly sure about. How great would it be if the tides turned back?!

Those are just three examples. I've got more, but you get the picture. Sure, we've still got a long way to go. Our cities are still in trouble, we still spend way too much money on nonsense, and there are no new piano companies moving in yet. But thanks to this financial hardship, we're realizing the true meaning behind the idiom, "money isn't everything." That gives us reasons to be grateful for this prolonged state of woe. We humans are slow learners; we need time to let our habits to sink in. The longer this goes on, the better chance that, when the abundance returns, we won't frivol it away on opulence and waste. Besides, life can be easy or hard -- regardless of our financial condition -- because fine is just a state of mind.

ps. If you are looking for a job -- one that aligns with your environmental intentions -- check out the links here.


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