Archive for September, 2015

Stars, stars, stars, stars

September 14, 2015

Over the past few weeks, a bright star in the east has been shining higher, brighter and longer in the hours before dawn.  That’s our closest neighbor Venus who on August 15 met up with and then slipped behind the Sun and who will be gracing our morning skies all through the winter and spring until next June.  Last week I saw her shining with Mars and the waning crescent moon as I headed to work at the unreasonable hour of 6 am.  This morning I was able to watch her hang alone above the tall poplar trees in the yard until over thirty minutes after sunrise while I stood, cozy in my pajamas, warm cup of coffee in hand, marveling at her persistence in the brightening daylight.

All my young life I lived with a “Morning Star.”  My younger, and only, sister’s name, Danica, is the Czechoslovakian version of this phrase.  Only recently did my mother tell me that it had been the title of a Czech newspaper she’d seen during her brief residence in the heart of downtown San Francisco.  By then, presumably, my name had already been chosen from a Russian novel, so Danica was reserved as a possibility for the next baby, a girl born 2 weeks before my first birthday and 3 days before my mother’s twenty-third.  My sister grew to hate the uniqueness of her name, adding it to a growing list of injuries her mother had committed upon her.  Moving often made such a different name even more onerous, since each new person would mispronounce it, wonder at it, demand an explanation.  As an adult, my sister decided to rename herself “Jane,” a version of her middle name her parents had not given her, one plain and simple enough to require no explanation.

It’s probably not this slight coincidence of having a sibling named for a planet’s morning apparition that makes me love the night sky (does she feel a closer affinity for palm trees?), but it does remind me how closely we are kin to the universe, a helpful reminder since often I feel deeply separate from the lives of everyone else.  I derive such pleasure from seeing Orion’s belt from my front door or charting Sirius’s arc across the southern sky that I tremble to think of the day when I might return to an urban life and be unable to chart our planet’s turnings without the aid of the celestial globe.  As it is now, a long run of grey cloudy nights can leave me feeling unmoored.  As we turn from late summer into fall, it’s still possible to get outdoors at 3 or 4 am and lie back on the stone wall to gaze at the traces of Milky Way, the Great Square of Pegasus, and the beautiful cluster of the Pleiades and allow the anxieties that have awakened me to sift back down into the cosmic dust.  It’s comforting to know that Venus will be shining in the east before dawn, reminding us that we are in some deep way knitted together, making our various ways beneath the light of the stars, bits of stardust scattered far from home.

Here’s a Youtube link to a beautiful poem by Jo Shapcott about Callisto, the nymph turned into a constellation.  Punished for her pregnancy by the chaste and wrathful goddess of the Moon, Diana, Callisto was turned into a bear and torn apart by her own dogs.  Seeing her plight, the gods placed her in the sky as the Great Bear, Ursa Major, one of the few constellations that in the Northern Hemisphere never falls below the horizon.  Thanks to pbs.org which placed the fabulous National Gallery by Frederick Wiseman for free viewing on its site where I first heard this.

In the park

September 3, 2015

At some point this spring, when securing a job at Shenandoah National Park began to appear possible, I made a wish.  Making wishes is something I rarely do these days.  I tell myself that it’s because I have so little control over what will eventually transpire that I’m no longer eager to set myself up for being disappointed.  Nevertheless, I gave voice to this modest one:

“I want to work at the park, and I want to say here for the summer.”

At certain times in the intervening months, this wish has vexed me as much as it has pleased me.  When I agreed to work the job, for instance, it was with the understanding that the entrance station I’d be staffing was approximately 70 miles away from my apartment.  A certain admixture of hope and delusion were at play as I considered solutions such staying at what turned out to be a mountain man’s squat just beyond the park boundary and later camping in the park’s campgrounds.  It wasn’t long before the commute began to fray my small margin of sanity, but just in time, management switched me to a slightly closer station.  Even that desired improvement threw another wrench into the idealized scheme, as the only full-time staffer is a 70+ year old woman who’s now plainly unable to perform most of the job’s functions but remains stubbornly “retired on-duty.”

Most obviously, I’d wanted to stay in Ivy to avoid the stress and strain of moving, both for me and for my feline companions.  But another motivation was the anticipated pleasure of swimming.  Last summer, the pool had soothed the aches and pains of a physically demanding job at a nearby gardening center.  What a perfect way to rejuvenate after a 90 minute drive home through some of the most congested traffic in Virginia outside of DC.

Again a delicate interplay of hope and delusion were at work in forming this modest expectation.  With my 92 year old landlady now in assisted living, the two of her four children who were most proximate to the estate were making it clear that a minimum of expenditure would be used maintaining the property.  Within two weeks of opening the pool (performed in a  Tom Sawyer-like manner with me finally jumping in to do most of the physical labor so I could get a swim in on Memorial Day), the  second son succeeded in turning the pool into a disgusting soup of algaecide that foamed the surface like a warm Budweiser.  Over the next two months, the weeks when I could swim coincided with his profound neglect.  It was his attention I feared the most as his idea of pool maintenance seemed limited to opening bottles of crap (gallons of chlorox and more algaecide) and pouring them in, a technique I maliciously enjoyed tracing back to his facility for opening liquor bottles (Alcoholic Tony became his nickname ’round here).

I won’t pretend I’ve handled with serene gratitude all the irritations that arose as my wish manifested in a way completely out of my control.  Some of the rage of the past few months has lessened, but I continue to skim Craigslist for better housing options and attempt through my meditation and yoga practice to heal my lack of compassion for the 70+ park ranger who is making my job more difficult.  Much of the time, in fact, I’ve allowed my anger to blind me to the fact that my simple wish has come true, and even now I can swiftly shift to being disgusted that I didn’t drum up a more substantial wish,  something more lasting than a seasonal job and a half-way decent, albeit highly tentative rental situation.

Maybe it’s just these baby steps that will give me something to build on, no matter if it seems improbable at the moment.  One day last spring these two small things – working at Shenandoah and swimming until the end of the season in this beautiful pool – seemed improbable too.  Maybe one day I will fall in love with a man who’s kind and honest; maybe one day I’ll discover a creative endeavor I want to pursue no matter the obstacles.  Maybe I just have to make a wish and then hold on through the wild ride of it coming true.

All summer, working in the park and commuting back and forth from home (having to get back to feed my two kitties who have been as patient and forgiving as can be), I’d been unable to do anything more than to gaze out at the woods from my entrance station booth.  Finally, this past Monday, rather than sending me up to park headquarters to our remittance office to count money, my micro-manager allowed me a roving day.  Although I had to hike in my polyester uniform and the day was late summer sticky, I got three short hikes in, all up to exhilarating views.  As I peeled my uniform off, I comforted myself with the thought that once I got home, I could jump in the pool.  True, the pool water was still cloudy from the last treatment, this time by a competent maintenance man, but eventually I did take a dip.  On the final day of August 2015, I felt the full realization of my spring wish which my friend Frank had articulated so succinctly:  “a summer of parks and pools.”