Sunday, September 30, 2007

3 feathery amigos give wing to hope

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel September 30, 2007)

A well-known saying suggests, "Birds of a feather flock together." But what about birds that aren't alike; do they "flock together" too?

In my lake, they do.

Every morning I see them -- a white ibis, a little blue heron and a tricolor heron -- three totally different water birds with little in common except for a diet dependent on aquatic life. Yet, day after day, these three long-legged fish-eaters flock together like the best of friends.

Are they? Can wild birds be best friends with birds of a species different from their own?

I don't know why not. Dogs do it. Cats do it. In practice, these domesticated animals take "flocking together" to the extreme. They not only become fast friends with members of different breeds but also are often "friends with benefits," creating completely new breeds in the process.

But that's not what the birds in my lake are doing.

These three water birds are simply spending their time alongside each other doing what herons and ibises do in the wild -- hunting for fish.

They're not fishing in conjunction with each other -- there's no team effort involved in an attempt to channel fish into one section for easy capture by all.

They're just being feathery critters companionably working alongside one another in an independent but decidedly congregate fashion.

When one bird flies to a new stalking ground, its two cohorts spread their wings and follow. I've watched this happen over and over.

The lake I live by covers about 12 acres. There's plenty of room for these three predators to pursue their prey in separate areas, but they choose not to. Instead, they gather in one tightly clustered space until one of the threesome decides it's time to find new hunting grounds.

I wonder about this as I go for my morning rows. As I'm paddling, I watch the trio shift from one area of weedy shoreline to another. No one bird seems to dominate. There's no obvious leader and yet, there's a bond -- some mysterious bond -- that connects these three feeders one to the other.

Usually a great blue heron is fishing at the same time and, on occasion, a great egret will stop by to pursue a meal. But these larger birds seem to be loners. They demonstrate no attraction to the three smaller birds in their search for food.

If my observations are any indication, the bigger blue heron and white egret seem to prefer hunting on their own.

Is this decision to congregate a size thing? A competition? Or does some less honorable emotion, such as greed, envy or jealousy, motivate the little blue heron, the tricolor heron and the common ibis to spend so many hours in close proximity to one another?

I'd like to think the answer to that question is none of the above.

Like their human counterparts, I imagine the three birds to be friends who frequent the same watering hole each day.

Putting their differences aside, they have chosen to focus instead on what they have in common -- a love of fresh fish and a desire for a safe place in which to hunt their prey.

Maybe the birds silently communicate while combing the shallow water for edible tidbits.

Perhaps their conversations, if they have them, revolve around the weather, the diminishing water level or the preponderance of people overpopulating their habitats.

Who knows if my imaginings are true or merely the anthropomorphic ramblings of a bemused mind?

What I do know for certain is that watching these three different birds coexist so harmoniously in the lake fills me with hope.

We humans are an intensely diverse group. We come in a seemingly endless array of sizes, shapes and colors. Our backgrounds are as varied as our preferences and needs.

Like the birds in my lake, some of us are more at ease at the water's edge while others prefer the high ground. There are those who plunge forward eagerly regardless of the water's depths and others who hold back, timid and shy.

Despite these disparities, we have much in common. We all need food and a safe place to hunt for the things that matter.

If only people could put aside our differences and stand side by side in compatible silence with those who look different from us. If only we would learn to follow our separate paths while being respectful of others seeking different truths.

A lake is not the universe at large but a microcosm of the bigger picture.

Observing the birds that frequent the aquatic world outside my front door gives reason for pause. I can't help but wonder -- if birds of such different feathers can find a reason to flock together, maybe someday people will too.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Ignore old guilt, pick up a book and read

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel September 23, 2007)

Guilt is a nasty emotion. It's a draining, limiting, self-deprecating waster of time, and everyone knows time is too precious to waste.

I wonder then, why do I squander so much time feeling guilty for things I have no reason to feel guilty about?

Like reading.

There are few pastimes I enjoy more than sitting down with a good book. Reading ranks high on my Favorite Things To Do list, jockeying for position with writing, rowing, cuddling and spending time with my family.

It doesn't matter if it's fiction or nonfiction, classic or chick lit, biography, mystery, short story, poetry or historical novel -- give me a book that catches my attention and I am cheerfully hooked.

But when I sit down during daylight hours to indulge in this literary passion, my conscience -- guilt's eager emissary -- fills my head with chatter before the first page is turned.

"Should you really be spending your time on such a solitary, self-indulgent activity when there's so much else to be done?" it questions. "Rather than indulge in a book, shouldn't you occupy yourself with something more productive and useful?"

Evil taskmaster that it is, the persistent voice inside my head reminds me of dishes still in the sink, weeds waiting to be pulled and laundry to be put away. It even taunts me with images of "little extras" I could do with that time instead of reading. "Use those minutes productively to benefit others," it suggests. I could bake a pie for dinner, pen a handwritten letter to a friend or help my husband in the nursery.

"Instead, what are you doing?" my inner voice insists. "Sitting inside on a perfectly lovely day, feet propped on an ottoman, a steamy cup of tea on the end table and a book in your lap. You should be ashamed of yourself."

Or should I?

Is reading really a nonproductive, useless activity?

I don't think so.

Every book I've ever read has added to my personal storehouse of knowledge and experience.

Reading broadens horizons, opens the door to creative thinking and introduces us to new concepts, diverse perspectives and unexpected ideas. It allows us to entertain fantasies, explore options and exercise reason.

Through the printed word, we learn to compare and contrast different points of view, travel to faraway places, reach back in time or jump ahead to the future. Reading is as much a gateway to understanding as it is passive entertainment.

When I read, I reap rewards immeasurable.

Tell that to my conscience.

For some unfathomed reason, my conscience thinks reading is only justifiable at specific times or for a specific reason. For instance, according to some unwritten moral code, my conscience thinks it's OK to open a book at night before going to sleep or during those rare occasions when I'm home sick and unable to do little else but pick up a book or watch TV.

If I'm waiting in line or stuck somewhere with nothing else to do, it is deemed not only sensible but also an efficient use of time to have something to read.

And as a reward for work well done, reading tops the list.

Example: I've just completed a writing assignment, the house is clean, dinner is in the oven and I've helped several customers at the nursery today.

"Good work, Sherry!" my conscience applauds. "Now you can read."

No! That's not how it should work.

I want to be able to read anytime I feel like it without enduring pangs of guilt. I don't want my reading time relegated to reward-only moments or a pre-sleep activity when my eyes are too weary to finish more than a chapter.

I want to be able to say, "Shoo! Leave me alone!" to that nagging voice inside my head when it tells me to put down my book and pick up a sponge. I want to be able to prioritize reading and remain firm in my stance.

Do other people have this problem? Has our society's Puritan work ethic forced many of us to think fun can only happen after all the work is done? If so, perhaps it's time for some mental reorganization.

I'm not campaigning to diminish accomplishments, just to reshuffle them. Setting goals and making lists are important parts of my daily life, but I feel just as strong about downtime. Playfulness is an essential element of healthy living that we adults all too often disregard. Somehow we've allowed ourselves to believe we don't deserve to feel good, to have fun, to relax until after "all the important stuff" is completed.

Well, what's with that? Fun is important too. It has just as much right to happen before the toilet gets scrubbed as after.

In addition to being mentally stimulating, reading is a playful, relaxing, rejuvenating and fun activity. It's a stress-buster, pure and simple.

So, here's my plan -- next time I sit down in the middle of the day with a good book and my inner voice begins to chatter, I resolve to ignore its annoying rants and needling missives. I shall concentrate instead on the pages before me.

Hello, book. Good-bye, guilt. End of story.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Just breaking bread with longtime hero is fulfilling

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel September 16, 2007)

Each of us has someone - if we're lucky, several someones -- we look up to.

It could be a personal hero or role model -- a person who, by his or her own example, has been as an inspiration, a driving force in our life. Our relationship to them may be very personal. They could be parent, teacher or close friend.

For others, there may be no relationship at all. A hero could be a historical figure, a distant relative, a modern-day celebrity or a fictional character from a book.

Whoever they are -- real or imaginary, from the past or the present --something about the way they live their lives has touched us in a way no one else can.

This summer I was in close proximity to one of my personal heroes, Pete Seeger.

A folksinging legend of world renown, Seeger's persona is as closely interwoven with social, environmental, political and labor concerns as it is to his music.

In mid-June, my husband, daughter and I traveled to Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.,to attend the Clearwater Festival, a celebration Seeger initiated more than 30years ago to raise public awareness about the sorry state of the Hudson River.

In the 1960s, the Hudson was a mess. Ripe with raw sewage, toxic chemicals and garbage, the river was unfit for human use. Dead fish littered its shores.

Seeger, who lives with his wife, Toshi, in a riverside town, was determined to make a difference. In 1966, he joined forces with a small group of friends and neighbors to build the Clearwater, a replica of a 19th century cargo boat that once traveled the river. It was Seeger's hope that the beautiful wooden sloop would attract attention and help raise community awareness of the Hudson's problems.

It did. Today treated water from the river is drinkable and fish once again swim in its depths.

Much of the river's recovery is attributed to the efforts of Seeger and a dedicated team of supporters. A few years after the Clearwater was built,Seeger launched a music festival on the shores of the Hudson to further the cause. This year's festival drew more than 15,000 people who came to enjoy song, dance and a wide range of educational programs.

Some, like me, came to get an up-close view of the man behind the movement.

At 88, Pete Seeger, is as much the beacon of hope and inspiration today as he was in his earlier years. Although his voice is weaker than it was 30 years ago, that hasn't stopped him from singing. He still goes onstage to share songs with the audience, encouraging them, as always, to sing along "in harmony."

During the festival, when he wasn't performing, Seeger mixed with the crowd, cordially chatting and shaking hands with those who approached him and standing in line alongside festival volunteers at the meal tent.

I got my moment on Saturday afternoon when Ralph and I found ourselves unexpectedly seated next to Seeger and his wife for our midday repast. I was literally rubbing elbows with my hero.

It's an odd feeling to suddenly be physically close to a stranger who has been so important in your life. Ralph encouraged me to take advantage of the moment.

"Tell him how much he means to you," he urged.

But I was suddenly struck shy.

I didn't need to talk to Seeger to feel fulfilled. It was enough simply being in his presence. By watching him do everyday things like eating a meal and chatting with his wife, I felt as if I had already gained a small insight into the man behind the legend.

Seeger was just a person, a regular person, eating lunch. No different than you or me, yet so much more.

Through his music and longstanding mission to live harmoniously with nature and all of humankind, Seeger has influenced many. Songs such as "If I Had a Hammer," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" and "Little Boxes" have become apart of our cultural heritage.

His tune "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" found its way into dictionaries as a slang reference to the Vietnam War while, to this day, oppressed people around the world sing the hauntingly beautiful "We Shall Overcome."

Despite his age, Seeger has a voice that continues to resonate with passionate concern for the environment, the Earth and all creatures that live on it. There is something about the simple lyrics he sings with such gentle strength of conviction that never fails to move me. I find his relentless optimism inspirational. His steady faith in the essential goodness of people always lifts my spirit when daily events do their best to bring it down.

All too often, we wait until people die to sing their praises.

I don't want to do that with this man who has meant more to me than any stranger I know. Though I was too shy at the Clearwater Festival to tell him so, I had much to say.

So here's to you, Pete Seeger: Thank you for showing me how one person can make a difference. It's a lesson I live daily and believe in wholeheartedly. I remain ever grateful for having learned how something as simple as a song can change the way people seethe world and for realizing, by your example, that harmony is not just a way of singing. It's a way of living.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

With crisis past, it's time to get back to the water


(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel September 9, 2007 )

I haven't been out on the lake in my boat for more than a week, and I miss it.

Sometimes life gets in the way. When patterns get broken, it's often hard to restart them.

Things come up -- serious issues that take precedence over seemingly less urgent tasks and rituals. Too easily, the truly important matters take a backseat to the moment's crisis.

I miss the lake and my morning rows through still water. I miss watching the mist rise as the sky brightens and watching the birds hunt for food at the water's edge. The turtles that surface alongside me have always been as much a part of my joy as the changing skyscape.

Beautiful views wherever I look -- upward, downward and to every side.

My morning rows enable me to start the day with calmness and pleasure. Time spent alone surrounded by so many natural wonders yields a lightheartedness and ease that linger for hours. For me, rowing has always been a mood-enhancer and confidence-builder. It's a sure shot in my arsenal of weapons for whole body-mind health.

I don't know why I haven't started again. The crisis that caused me to put those much-loved patterns on pause has abated. There is no longer an excuse keeping me inside during those mystical post-dawn hours. Still, I resist jumpstarting the routine. Why is that?

Why deny myself something I so obviously crave and enjoy?

Maybe because it is so much desired. In bygone days, I found it difficult to accept pleasure. Sure, I could dish it out, but allowing myself to receive delight was a whole other matter. A dedicated giver, I was the first to offer a soothing touch, a kind word or a helping hand. But accepting pleasure was untested territory.

"Me . . . worthy of excessive goodness? Goodness, no."

That's how it used to be. Fortunately, I worked through that silly stage and came to appreciate not only my worth, but also my value. I recognized and came to believe that I deserved to feel good as much as the next person.

"Accept pleasure" became my mantra. I even went so far as to post those words as hand-lettered affirmations in places where I was sure to see them. I remember placing one placard right by the kitchen sink during the period when my three oldest children were toddlers. Back then (did I mention this was ancient history?) the dishwashing arena was the center of my domain. If a sign was to be noticed, no real estate was more suitable than the sink backsplash.

Although I eventually outgrew the need for constant visual reminders, I occasionally slip back into old patterns. I forget the importance of pleasure-yielding activities such as taking a walk or working in the garden. Sometimes, the very things that make me feel most fulfilled are the ones I have the most difficulty initiating.

Like going for a row.

My rowboat has been so long unused that water from the few brief downpours we've had has formed a stagnant puddle in the boat's bottom. Before I can push off from shore, it will need to be tipped over and emptied out.

Similarly, my mental state has filled up with stagnating thoughts. Anger, hurt and hard feelings have settled like scum upon my mental floor. They need to be poured out, my thoughts washed clean and refreshed.

When a boat is launched, it's called "casting off."

I can't think of a more appropriate term for what I need to do. The time is ripe for some casting off to happen on these home shores. I'm eager to return to rituals that gave me peace and cast off unwanted feelings of worry and fear.

A new dawn is breaking. I'm eager to welcome it again with the steady beat of two oars being drawn through still water.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Prolific wildflower has beauty of cosmos


(First appeared in the Sentinel September 2, 2007)

What is it about wildflowers that makes them so alluring?

Is it their hardiness and tenacity, their practicality or unpretentiousness? Whatever it is, these dwellers of roadside ditches, sidewalk cracks and untamed fields are special.

Wildflowers are take-charge plants with a perpetually positive can-do attitude. No half-heartedness for these bright bloomers. Wildflowers are nothing if not willful. They have one job to do and they do it with passion -- self-propagate.

About 20 years ago I drove by a yard flush with orange-hued flowers. My reaction was immediate and intense: I wanted some.

Not only was I awe-struck by the beauty of these bright-faced bloomers, but I also was bowled over by the informality of the floral-strewn lawn. The yard had a casual, no-fuss look -- the exact effect I was seeking for my own landscape.

Unable to rein in my enthusiasm, I knocked at the homeowner's door to proclaim my appreciation of and admiration for the yard. I was rewarded with smiles and a handful of seeds to take home and plant in my own fertile ground.

One thing about wildflowers, they are designed to survive.

The seeds of these particular plants look like thin brown spikes. Stiff and pointy and about half an inch long, they are perfectly suited for transportation by wind, water or the fur of a passing animal. But I made it effortless for these purveyors of future life to grow. I tossed the seeds onto rich organic soil and kept the ground moist.

Without any further encouragement, every seed I was given germinated.

Within days, multiple sprouts had emerged. Once begun, there was no stopping them -- not that I wanted to. Less than a month after being haphazardly sown, my yard yielded an eye-popping display of blossoms.

At the time, I had no idea what the flowers were called. The blooms looked similar to cosmos, but they were bright orange. Cosmos blossoms are typically white and shades of pink. Where cosmos leaves are lacy and delicate, these flowers' leaves were long with narrow lobes. The leaves, as well as the flower hue, bore more of a resemblance to marigolds, but the flower face didn't.

Responding with the witty inventiveness writers are famous for, I labeled them: orange flowers.

For years afterward, orange flowers dominated my (then) Kissimmee landscape.

Fast forward to 1992.

Our family moved to a location about an hour north of Kissimmee. Recalling my earlier germination success, I gathered a bucket of orange-flower seeds and took them with me.

With the exception of a few trees, our new property's landscape was barren. Years of citrus farming and mining for peat by previous landowners had left the ground devoid of most nutrients. Eager to correct the situation, we began an aggressive campaign of soil augmentation. As a result of our ambitious efforts, we had lovely pockets of humus, soil rich enough to support a variety of large and small plants.

It took many years to fully enhance the soil. During much of that time, I was too busy rearing children and working or too tired from rearing children and working to do much gardening.

The bucket of seeds I had saved from our Kissimmee garden sat on top of the spare refrigerator in the garage for years. Many years. By the time I finally got around to sowing them, the seeds were no longer viable. Not a single one sprouted.

Even wildflowers have their limitations.

It wasn't until this year that my son Timothy reintroduced orange flowers into the landscape. During the 20 years since I first discovered them, my favorite wildflower had become domesticated. Timmy found the plants not by a roadside or in someone's flowerbed, but at a garden center. They were even labeled with an official moniker: Cosmos sulphureus.

Thanks to Timmy, my garden is once again flush with flowers. Placed in combination with purple Mexican petunias (Ruellia brittoniana), my orange cosmos make eye-catching maintenance-free foundation plantings.

As they did in Kissimmee, these vigorous bloomers thrive on neglect. They grow. They flower. They self-seed. The cycle is repeated with or without human intervention. Of course, with a little extra attention -- mulching with grass clippings, the addition of compost to the soil and the occasional deadheading of spent blossoms -- they do even better.

Sometimes it takes a bit of absence to appreciate something special. My garden was without orange flowers for 16 years, long enough for me to truly treasure their reappearance.

Now that they're back, I don't ever want to be without them again. Considering the powerful urge of wildflowers to self-propagate, I doubt if that will happen. I hope these willful wonders will be an essential element of my landscape for many years to come.