DSCF0750On this day thirteen years ago, I wrote the following entry in my journal.

“I love the winter landscape when the eye of God seems to be everywhere, and snow is a white backdrop for the dark forms of trees.  I see things I never notice in the summer … fallen trees, leaning trees, trees growing up tall and straight. The tension in the patterns. When there is no snow, we see only gray on gray, brown on brown, black on black. The smallest details fade, melt into the background. Today would be a perfect day to go for a walk in the woods, to pay special attention to the visual structures the snow provides.”

DSC01859While I love bold colors and the warm seasons, when the garden is filled with flowers over a lengthy span of months, I also love the contrast of winter. It is when there is snow on the ground and the trees are bare, that I become aware of black, white, and the multitude of grays in between. I consider the composition of the landscape that I miss during the other seasons when it is hidden by foliage.

At no other time of year is the structure of the natural world so observable. Just a few days ago, when the sky was an ashen gray and rain splattered through the gutters along the roof’s edge, I examined the silhouette of a trees dark branches against the colorless sky. From my window, I marveled at the way the limbs spread out into empty space. I was reminded of blood vessels in the human body or the bronchioles within our lungs, that branch out from larger vessels, then taper off, narrowing into the smallest of twigs where buds burst forth as spring unfolds.

As I work on my memoir, I read through old journals … words that I wrote long ago, during other seasons of my life.  I am struck by the patterns and structure … the way my thoughts form on the page. Though time speeds by and I am miles from where I was thirteen years ago, the footprints and observations I chase after remain as they were and the mysteries I follow never end.

Do you keep a journal?  Do you go back and read them again, years later?  What do find that has changed?  What has stayed the same?

Chasing Ice

© 2007, Joan Z. Rough. August 15, 2007, off the coast of Greenland.

It’s November. Halloween is over. Americans spent eighty billion dollars on candy and costumes this Halloween. When it comes to money, what we have spent on the current election is unspeakable. Christmas carols will soon be echoing throughout every mall in every state of the union. The big push will be on to get the biggest and bestest gifts to put under the tree, so that we all can have more things that we want but don’t really need.

There are millions of our fellow citizens still without power, water and food after the visitation of Hurricane/Super Storm Sandy.  Many of them have lost everything and are homeless.  On Tuesday, we will all trek to the polls to vote (I sure hope YOU do), making decisions that will affect how life will unfold during the next four years and beyond.  The big decision we make together as a nation will have consequences one way or another for all of us.  We all need to rethink what we value most.

I will be seventy years old this month.  I am not as concerned about my own welfare as I am for the children of this world and this beautiful blue orb we call home.  I have grandchildren ages nine and twelve, as well as a step-granddaughter who is twenty-four.  I think about how they will fare in the upside-down, topsy-turvy world they will be inheriting from US.  Yes, from you and me.

What will it take for them to reach their seventies as easily as I have? Will our nation be continuously at war, trying to keep peace around the world, while we ignore our own citizens? Today we argue about the issues we have with the economy, unemployment and health care. What about our infrastructure?  There is much of New York City that will need to be rebuilt in order for it to survive the New Normal that Mother Nature has in store.  There are bridges all over our nation that need rebuilding. Our ancient power-grid will not last forever.  Almost every aspect of life will need to change if we are to continue living here on this planet without destroying it and ourselves.

I could write pages filled with the things we need to do in order to keep us all safe and comfortable as we move into an uncertain future.  I could climb on a wooden crate on a street corner and yell and scream about the alarming rate at which glaciers in the far north are melting and that water levels around the world are already rising.  Would you listen if I told you we are running out of fresh water?  That the air we breathe is full of toxins that will eventually bring death and suffering to all of us?

Most of us don’t like to think about those questions. Who wants to consider painful scenarios in which there seems to be little hope. Some say we have no problems. They believe that we can live just as we are. If certain plants or animals become extinct, they won’t notice or care. But fifty-eight percent of us agree that we do have some major problems.  The rest deny that anything is changing and if it is, it certainly isn’t being caused by human activity.

Every November, Charlottesville hosts the Virginia Film Festival.  This is it’s 25th season.  Yesterday, I had the privilege of seeing, Chasing Ice, a film that will be released to the general public in the near future. I urge all of you to see it, the creation of world-renowned photographer, James Balog. In 2007, he founded the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), a photographic project in which the rate of ice melt is being visually recorded in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska and Montana. Using the art of photography and the known science around global warming, he presents moving, visual proof that the glaciers are melting at a rate so fast, that it is almost unimaginable.

The stunning beauty of this film will take your breath away, as well as raise questions that all of us must consider. Through recognizing the tragedy that we are all participating in, and speaking about it openly, I believe we will find ways to adapt our behaviors in a changing world.

Reid’s Barn, A Hint Of What’s To Come

The front of Reid’s barn, June, 2012. Photo by W.H. Rough

I often mention that I’m working on a memoir when I publish a post here.  I’ve been thinking that it’s time to share a little bit of what I’ve been working on.  The following piece will most likely be included in the final manuscript along with other stories about my brother, Reid and my family.

Reid, in 2006.

It’s a hot and sticky July night. The clock on the nightstand reads 2:15.  I get up to use the bathroom.  Five minutes later, back in bed, I’m more awake than I want to be. I can’t get comfortable and the sleepy, middle-of-the-night brain fog that usually pulls me back into deep sleep is nowhere to be found.  I search my mind, trying to uncover what I’m worried about so that I can tell it to get lost and that I’ll deal with it in the morning. But nothing rises to the surface. I close my eyes, breathe deeply, and pray for sleep to return.

A few minutes later, the deep rumbling of a truck outside on the street, gets my attention.  Our neighborhood, though only blocks from a major road and the University, is always extremely quiet. It’s not a place you’d normally find a big truck beeping it’s way up or down the street during the wee hours.  It’s not trash day and besides, they make their rounds during daylight hours.

When I open my eyes, I’m instantly aware of flashing red lights reflected on the ceiling, giving the room a surreal look. Anxiety begins to flood my core.  I always have an eye or an ear out for danger and am ever more on the alert since I live across the street from a frail, elderly gentleman, in his nineties. I can’t help myself.  I seem to be wired for worry.

Bill stirs. Opening the shutters, we see no activity, except for the disturbing sight of a fire truck parked in front of the house next-door. Its swirling red lights sweep through the night. Several firemen, dressed in full firefighting gear, emerge from the dark, get back in the truck and drive off.  Whatever the emergency was, it’s over.  I go back to bed falling into a restless sleep.

The next morning a call from my neighbors, away for the summer, explains the fire truck mystery. Their security company notified them in the middle of the night that their fire alarm had gone off and that the fire department was on its way to check it out. They found nothing. The alarm had apparently malfunctioned. George tells me the problem will be fixed in the next couple of days and sends apologies for waking up the neighborhood.

Later in the morning, checking my email and Facebook page, I stumble across an alarming post from my nephew’s former wife, and gather that there has been a fire at her ex’s home, but that everyone is okay. That would be the house that my brother, Reid, built and considered home when he was alive.  I try calling Jesse, my nephew, who lives there now, but no one answers the phone. I try to rest in the knowledge that everyone is supposed to be okay.

Jesse finally answers the phone at 9 PM.  Blessedly everyone is fine and the house was never in danger of catching fire. But the story he tells me is hair-raising. It seems that around 2:30 that morning, just about the time Bill and I were up and watching the fire truck outside our window here in Virginia, a thunderstorm went through the area of New Hampshire where he and his new wife are located. The big barn, I always referred to as Reid’s barn, was struck by lightning. Fifteen minutes later, when the fire department arrived to contain the blaze, the barn was fully engulfed in flames.  All that is left is a large, charred patch of ground and a hole, where the barn once stood.  That the fire department was checking for a fire next door to my own home, at the same time that Reid’s barn was burning sent a chill down my spine.

My grandfather’s workbench hidden beneath piles of Reid’s stuff. Photo by W.H. Rough.

Because there was little to no storage space in the house, Jesse and his new wife, Lisa, had stored most, if not all of their belongings in the barn, including clothing, family photographs, books and Jesse’s extensive collection of vinyl records.  All of it was lost, along with the remains of Reid’s things, his art work, several 12 string guitars, some clothing and the carpenter’s workbench our grandfather had built when he came to this country from Poland in 1912.  Lisa and Jesse had just begun putting the finishing touches on several horse stalls on the ground floor for her horses that were due to arrive the following weekend.  Thank goodness they were not yet stabled there.  They would have most likely perished in the fire. Both Lisa and Jesse, feel sad, but that no one was hurt makes all of us feel better and fortunately, the barn and its contents had been insured.

I don’t know when that barn was built, but it was a fixture on the property when Reid bought the place over twenty years ago.  After he built the house and his second wife died, he moved into the barn so that he could rent out the house to bring in some income.  It was there that he lived until 2008, when he was diagnosed with Esophageal Cancer.  He then moved in with his lover, Lee, who took care of him until he died in June of 2010.

Prior to that, on my occasional visits to New England, Reid never invited me into the barn to see where he was living.  Bill had managed an invitation once when he was visiting there alone. He told me that the place was a mess. He described the barn as filled to the rafters with all manner of junk from scrap metal to cork floats that Reid had collected. There was very little room to move about because the stacks of lumber, tools and whatever Reid took a fancy to, just kept piling up. A number of old, dead Volvos were parked in the field next to the barn from which Reid removed parts to keep his ancient, Volvo sedan on the road.  Reid was a hoarder.

He lived in a quasi apartment he put together on the top-level in the barn. There was no running water. A wood stove tucked away in a corner kept the top floor, his living space, warm in the winter.  But in order to get up there, one had to make his way through unmarked passages, past piles of junk and then up a ladder.  After hearing this, my mother, who was by that time living with Bill and I, complained of repetitive nightmares in which the barn caught fire and Reid was unable to escape.

The first time I was ever inside the barn was just a few months ago on a visit I made to Vermont and New Hampshire. I’d last been up there in 2010, for the memorial celebration after Reid died. I’d been planning to make another trip to New England for over a year after that, but all kinds of excuses would present themselves and I’d sigh with relief that I didn’t have to do it just yet.  I apparently wasn’t ready to revisit my past life in Vermont, which was loaded with issues that I knew one day I’d need to address. As I began slowly writing and examining stories about my life for my memoir, I felt I needed to go, but lacked the courage to move forward until this year. Reid’s life and death were among the major items on my list that I needed to revisit.

During his last months, when Reid was very sick, but trying to make the most of his remaining life, Bill and I were moving into a new home.  I was dealing with severe anxiety and depression. Just a year earlier I had discontinued taking Paxil, and was still struggling with the effects of withdrawal. My deep sleep patterns had ended when I began weaning myself off the drug and I had been sleeping for only three hours a night, for almost a year. I was also seeing a therapist who was helping me explore the trauma I’d experienced as a child.  That I was losing my brother, with whom I’d had a deep love/hate relationship, didn’t help.

I was unable to be with him when he died.  The rushed, two-day trip Bill and I made to New Hampshire to celebrate his life was too short a time in which to wrap my head around the fact that I would never see him again.  Between bouts of tears, I walked my way through those two days feeling numb and unable to digest what was happening.  At home again, I blindly dove into each day, getting settled into my new home, and planning my first trip alone in years. Two months later my diagnosis of endometrial cancer sent me reeling.  I had set aside no time to mourn the loss of my brother or to connect with the deep compassion I had once felt for him, but was unable to express during the last year of his life.

Walking into the barn this past June, I was struck with all that I hadn’t known about him. For the first time, I accepted that Reid was a hoarder. Though Family members and friends had repeatedly told me about the way he was living, I couldn’t take it in until I saw it with my own eyes. Though Jesse had already begun getting rid of what Reid had collected, it was impossible not to feel Reid’s presence. I felt as though he had just gone out to do a few chores. There were notes he had left for himself on scraps of wood left over from his various woodworking projects. Lists of things he needed to buy on his next trip to town, to-do lists, and a list of friends and their phone numbers, that he needed to call.  On one shelf sat an unopened jar of mayonnaise, which over the two years since his death, had separated into two parts, a small glob of white solid matter, submerged in a pool of thick yellow oil.  His clothes still hung in a makeshift closet. A collection of tiny rodent bones and arrowheads he had found nearby were displayed in small baskets.  Pieces of his artwork and the whimsical birdcages he built were hung from the walls and rafters.  I was overwhelmed.

After leaving the next day on the next leg of my journey, I realized I had taken no photos of what I saw in the barn and had neglected to take a small memento. I had planned on taking one of his lists written in his big, bold handwriting, feeling that if I kept it in a pocket, I’d be able to connect with him, because for the first time, I understood who he was.

Though my visit to Reid’s barn helped my grieving process, I still find it difficult to comprehend that my brother, Zed, and I are the only remaining members of our family.  It was a family larger than life in so many ways.  The hurt and pain we caused each other has followed me through the years, scars that never completely fade.  The barn is gone, as is Reid and both of my parents, yet I continue searching for the love our family so rarely offered each other. Sometimes I feel terribly alone, wandering through the scene of a crime I will never understand.

I am convinced that the burning of the barn was not just an accidental act of Mother Nature. To me it is more than coincidence that on the exact night, at the exact time that the barn burned to the ground, a fire truck drove its way into my sleep. Within the flashing red lights, I can see Reid, in full rage, casting bolts of lightning with his hammer, breaking the shackles that bound him to his earthly existence. He is now at peace and has also freed me from the myths we created together as we grew into our lives.

Power, Loss, And Impermanence

Loss is a fact of life.  Impermanence is everywhere we look.  We are all going to suffer our losses.  How we deal these losses is what makes all the difference.  For it is not what happens to us that determines our character, our experience, our karma, and our destiny, but how we relate to what happens.    

Lama Surya Das

 A week ago last night, Central Virginia was hit with a Derecho, a wide-spread, straight line wind storm associated with a fast-moving line of showers and thunderstorms.  We were not alone.  Maryland, the DC area, and West Virginia also were hit hard.  Trees fell on houses and cars, killing two in our area and thirteen people statewide, leaving millions without electricity for days and days.  Some are still making do in their unlit homes.

My son, Mark, lives out in Ivy, a small community about seven miles west of here.  He finally got power back this morning.  He, his wife Jane, along with Max and Fergie, their two Scotties, stayed in a motel for a couple of nights and then went home to their cool basement.  Jane has since gone out-of-town to visit a friend.  We invited Mark to come and stay with us, but he just likes being home, even though he had to read by flashlight and couldn’t cook much except on the grill.  I understand.  I’m the same way.

Bill and I, on the other hand, were watching a movie when the storm hit.  The wind seemed rather wild, but not as terrible as it apparently was.  The lights and TV flickered on and off for about half an hour before we gave up and went to bed.  In the morning, we discovered that the power had been off for about an hour during the night. There were lots of leaves and branches down in the yard and one huge branch from a nearby Sycamore was blocking the road.  It was removed a couple of hours later by the City work crew, and we went about our lives, doing what we normally do, feeling extremely fortunate.

We’ve also been living through a heat wave for about two weeks, with temperatures in the high nineties or over the one hundred degree mark, with the heat index at one hundred and five to one hundred and nine degrees. It’s not comfortable to be out or indoors if you have no power.  People up and down the East Coast, as well as throughout the Midwest have been suffering.

While we were comfortable in our air conditioning, out in the county, acquaintances of ours hunkered down through the storm.  He was in the last stages of life because of cancer and Hospice would be arriving to help keep him comfortable as his body slowly shut itself down.

The storm had wreaked havoc in their area, blocking off their driveway and the roads to town.  They couldn’t get out and nobody could get in.  With no electricity and air conditioning, and with the situation being what it was, friends arrived and cleared a path so that they could get to town.  Our neighbors, good friends of theirs, and ours, away for the summer, gave them access to their home as long as they needed to be there.  On Thursday, the power at their home was finally restored and they went back.  Within a few hours, Jay died, peacefully in his own bed.

It’s interesting that we call the electricity that warms and cools our homes and lights the dark, Power.  Perhaps it is one of those things, along with bombs and rockets, that has made our country so powerful in the world.

But we really don’t have power or control over much.  We can make threats to take out those who wish to disrupt our way of life, but in the end everyone loses.  To me, the only real power exists in the forces of nature.  No matter how much wealth we have, nature will have its way with us, bringing destruction in the form of tornadoes, fires, and earthquakes.  It can also bring rebirth in a gentle, soothing rain that waters the crops that we depend on for food and sustenance.

In the end, the only power we possess is in the way we respond to the destruction and loss we all, in one way or another, experience. To step forward in a time of crisis and help those in need is power.  To fight the fires now burning throughout the west is power, whether there is loss of  life or not in the fight.  It is nature’s way.  We are all born into the blood and gore of life and we all die the same way, whether we have ten million dollars in our pockets or not.  A starving child in India is no different than Donald Trump.   The only difference is in the way they spend their time between birth and death.

I send blessings and thanks to all of those who have and will always help in times of need.   I live amidst a large group of heroes.


There is no friend as loyal as a book.
Ernest Hemingway

I love books.  You might say I’m addicted to them.  I have a long list of books at Amazon ready to be purchased.  Right now they are mostly memoirs and books on writing.  I try to order only three or four at a time, but that’s very difficult for me.  They are as tempting as my favorite locally made chocolates or a quart of freshly picked, June strawberries from the farm down the road.  I often tell myself, “I’ll never have enough.” or “I’ll buy it now, because I REALLY NEED it. ”

I also tell myself that my addiction is harmless because books aren’t narcotics or contain alcohol. I’m not into buying diamonds, furs, or private jets.  I don’t need those things and I don’t have that kind of money.  If I did, I’d probably spend it all on books, with a healthy dose of traveling and clothes thrown in.

I’ve been told by those who frequent AA meetings that thoughts like that are called, “Stinking Thinking.” Well, I’m guilty.  And though I’ve known that I’m a bookaholic and do a lot of stinking thinking for a long time, I am in the middle of confirming it as official. We moved to this house almost two years ago.  In the frenzy of the move, my husband and I got rid of a lot of books.  I can’t speak for him, but for me it was difficult.  I chose books that I remembered as not being engaging … that no longer drew me and/or that obviously for one reason or another,  I never should have bought in the first place.  After the move and unbeknownst to me, Bill asked a friend who was helping us to unload all of the boxes of books onto our bookshelves.

I discovered a problem a month or two later when I was looking for one in particular, a favorite poetry book.  All of my books had been unpacked and in some cases packed in such a way that they were all mixed up and out-of-order. You might think I’m a bit anal, but I’ve always grouped genres of books together.  Poetry, Gardening, Nature, Novels, Memoirs, etc.  The only ones I keep in alphabetical order are the poets. There are too many to do otherwise.

So, as wonderful as it seemed to have all of my books unpacked for me, it was a nightmare. I had my work cut out for me.  Just after Christmas, Bill and I decided to finally get our downstairs “Tornado” room put together and unpacked.  It’s underground, where all of the bookcases are located, along with a TV, puzzles, games and a fireplace.  It’s cozy.  Warm in the winter, and cool in the summer.   A perfect place to ride out any storm.

It’s where one night last summer, while Bill was having a meeting of associates, we made everyone go when a tornado warning came across on our emergency weather radio, telling us to take shelter immediately.  We flew to the basement, glasses of wine and crackers and cheese in hand. We sat amongst unpacked boxes and moving rubble for about thirty minutes waiting for the tornado to hit or move on.  One friend laughingly realized she was a “Tornado Virgin,” never having gone through a warning before.   Thankfully, the tornado passed us by and we were safe. No damage had been done, except for the embarrassment of having everyone see the mess and the boxes still needing to be unpacked.  We swore we’d get the room organized.  Reshelving the books was mostly my job since most of them are mine.

Since Christmas I’ve been working a little bit at a time to get my precious tomes in order.  First, I did poetry.  Then came gardening, cooking, and books on using herbs as medicine.  I’m now at work on my books on religion and spirituality, which are many.  I know I could get it all done in one day, but I’m enjoying the slow pace.  Books feel good in my hands.  They smell um, booky. They are filled with wisdom and some actually seem to glow.  No, not like a kindle. Like a real book that’s offering itself to me.

I have discovered that I have many books that I bought and have never read.  As I place each one onto it’s new shelf, I flip through a few pages and immediatley want to sit down and read it from the beginning. There are others I consider to be “old friends” that I’d like to read again or that I simply could never part with.  I started out making a pile of books that I wanted to read for the first time.  I gave up.  There are too many.  And there are three more on their way through the postal system that will be added to the stack by my bedside.

I’m trying to be honest with myself.  I am an addict.  I need to get my problem under control.  Someone suggested that I start going to the library instead of buying books.  That’s all well and good for some, but I like to write comments in books and I’m afraid that wouldn’t do if it belonged to the library.  Maybe I just need to read faster.  Maybe if I stay up later than I normally do and get up earlier I can get them all read.

And just maybe I shouldn’t buy any more until I’ve read the ones I’ve already got … Ah yes, books.  They’re a problem.