Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Tails of Two Dogs

Meet Hunter. He is the puppy from next door. Hunter is almost a year old, but in a dog's life, he's still a lanky, busy, rambunctious kid. Hunter has funky ears. He can't quite decide if he wants them both up or both down. So sometimes, to avoid the work of having to choose and to nurture his inner Zen, he does one of each and lets the decision go. 

Hunter likes to meander over from time-to-time to say hello and perhaps find a new experience for his daily constitution. Secretly, he always really hopes Dog-Dog will join him for some fun and games while he's visiting. 

This is Blue, aka, Dog-Dog. He's ten and a little grumpy in his old age. (Not that I can blame him. I'm getting kind of cranky in my old age too.) Dog-Dog was adopted when he was five. He had five whole years of multiple owners and a previous covert identity being a dog-in-training for prison convicts before he came to live with us in the mountains.He's an old and grizzled dog. Wise to the world. 

Blue came from the life of hard knocks and never learned how to play. He's mellow (mostly) and likes other dogs (for the most part), but he just isn't "into" other dogs. (Come to think of it, he's an awful lot like me.)

Sometimes Hunter walks to the very edge of his property and sits a spell to stare at Blue. Hunter is a laid-back kind of dude-dog and would never dream of just intruding without an invite. 

Blue doesn't miss a thing. He sees the kid and studies Hunter, nailing him in the spot with his steely eyes. He wants to make sure the new kid on the block understands his place. 

So Hunter sits, waits and stares and occasionally let's his attention wander to meditate on a moth, or an ant on a blade of grass. He switches the position of his ears then remembers why he's there, and begs with his little brown eyes to please, please be allowed to come over and play. 

But Blue is not one to succumb so easily. He remains on his porch, like the unflinching Clint Eastwood of dogs, and steadies his gaze. It's a stare down, a scene right out of the O.K. Corral. The wind blows, kicking up dust, and the dogs, mano-a-mano, lock eyes. Somewhere, a hawk screeches a lonely call. 

Blue cocks an eyebrow, "OK, Dog. C'mere. G'head. Make my day." 

Hunter gulps, screwing his courage to the wind, and makes his move. He stands. Blue stands. They continue... the stare. 

Hunter, sensing an opening in Blue's demeanor, takes a few tentative steps into the yard. 

Suddenly, the strain gets to Blue. He dumps his tough Clint persona and becomes the Archie Bunker of canines. "Do I have to, Mom? Do I have to play with the new kid? He's such a meathead!"

With a sigh, Blue Bunker takes pity on the kid and approaches. Tails wag and panting and mutual sniffing ensue. The skies clear. A friendship is born and all is right in the corral. Miss Kitty can come out. On second thought, perhaps she should stay hidden. Then, in an unexpected softening, miracles happen, and Dog-Dog actually plays a little. Until....

Until he decides he has had enough of this young, over-exuberant whipper-snapper. Then all bets are off. "Get off my property, kid."

"He really, really bugs me, Mom. Make him leave now."

Thursday, August 15, 2013

In The Midst of Storms

Life's been rough lately. I needed a writer's get-away. Truth is, I just needed to get-away. Escape. Change this rut of sadness I seem to be in. I packed a half of a peanut butter and jam sandwich, a cheese stick and a thermos of something to drink. I grabbed my notebook, pens and camera and off I went. Desperately seeking quenching for my soul, I headed to a river park fifteen minutes from my house.

I jumped on to the highway, accelerating to keep up with the speeds when a moving shape caught my eye. From out of the pasture along the side of the road, a young doe gingerly stepped out. I slowed the car down, hoping no one was following too closely behind. I know these gentle animals; they are skittish and nervous, and can without hesitation, fly right into an oncoming car. She started across. My windows were down and I could hear her hooves clipping along the road. As I watched, a van coming in the opposite direction headed straight towards her. I cringed. With a scratching of hooves on the road, she danced nervously, darting in random directions. Fortunately, the oncoming car slowed down in time to let our pretty lady cross, finally, in safety. I sighed with relief. She seemed to barely escape her disastrous fate. I was glad the outcome hadn't been inevitable.

Finally, I pulled in the drive to the park and got out to stroll along the path. All around the parameter of the sky dark clouds hovered, threatening, but above me it was still blue and the sun shone, warming my skin. I breathed deep trying to let my stress go and with my camera in hand, headed down the path. My senses were heightened to the sounds of robins and screeching magpies, to the buzz of the bees on white and purple thistles, and to the smells of rotting leaves and the pungent perfumes of plants. I let my eyes guide me and focused the camera and my vision on the wonders around me.

After a while, the path led me to a rocky ledge overlooking a pooled area in the river. I sat down, pulled out my notebook and lunch and stared into the slow currents of the water, gazing into the swirls and flow of its repeating patterns. As I ate, I noticed a few concentric circles forming on the water surface. I peered into the murky depths, trying to see their source. There had to be fish, probably trout of some kind, swimming beneath the surface. I stared so intently into the water, I was startled when a silvery form jumped out to snack on a bug, returning with a soft plop. I was watching for fish swimming and jumping, when I noticed an s-shaped disturbance across the water's surface. I sat still and mesmerized on my perch and spied a small nose sticking above the water, followed by an undulating rope-like body. A water snake of some kind! I watched until it disappeared into the grass on the opposite shore.

I was in awe. I had left the house so agitated and here, sitting quiet by the river, I felt opened up to miracles. I would have missed the bees and berries, smells and sounds, fish and snakes, had I not been still and quiet and watchful.

Soon, I noticed the heat was no longer on my shoulders. The dark clouds had finally grown together, choking out the sun. Sighing, I put away my wrappers and screwed the lid on my thermos. Somehow in this solitude, alone with nature, I felt cared for, a tender presence in my heart. I laughed a little at myself as I put a closing thought in my notebook: if only I had seen a deer walk out from the tall grasses of the shore to drink from the river! What a sign that would have been!

I lifted my small pack to my back and headed back towards my car. Again, for the third time that day, a movement caught my eye. On the opposite side of the river, a tawny shape walked out from the grasses--not just a deer, but a lovely buck. He stared at me as I raised my camera to snap his majestic image. Then, slowly, in no hurry, he made his way across the river. My heart felt truly felt gifted and hugged.

Later that same day, after I was home and still glowing from the beauty of my morning, my son's chemotherapy doctor called and we set up his first treatment appointment. When I turned on my computer shortly after, I received a rejection on a freelance job I had applied for. In short, life hit again.

Sometimes I feel like that sweet doe trying to skitter my way across life's highway, avoiding the onslaught of impending disaster, barely escaping collisions with fate or like my sun is being crowded out by an impending storm. But my time at the park reminded me there are gifts when we have given up hope for them and miracles in the ordinary if we are still enough to see them.

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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Who Was Jane Lea Nixon?

I'm quite sure it's the lighting, but check out the blur at the
top right of the picture. 
The area, like most the hills and open space in Pittsburgh, is lushly green. I walked quietly through the red doors of the old building feeling a need to be silent and reverent. There is little air circulating within the stone edifice. The walls are thick with hand-cut stone. Up front there is a stained glass window and to the left, an old pipe organ from 1823 that was said to be carried over the Allegheny hills by cart.

I am standing inside Old St. Luke’s Episcopal church, a building whose roots go back to 1765. The current building isn’t quite that old, probably rebuilt in the 1800s. The land surrounding the church originally belonged to Major William Lea, as a grant for his service in the King’s army during the French Indian War. Major Lea was born in 1749 and later served in various forts during the Revolutionary War. He was married to Jane Welch, but as is typical of that time period, there is little mention of Jane’s life.

In the male-dominated history of Old St Luke’s one person stands out, not for her unique contributions, but because of her unusual birth circumstances. At the back of the church is a steep set of narrow steps. I negotiate my way down the dark, stone cellar, wondering if I will be confronted by the ghosts of people who once piled coal into a furnace or a bride in the wedding room waiting for her signal to go upstairs. Indeed, as I turn the corner into a room carefully reconstructed with time-period pieces, I am confronted by a faceless ghost wearing a cloak and bonnet. I stare at the eerie mannequin dressed in its bleak costume and read the small plaque: Jane Lea Nixon, first white child born in the Chartiers Valley.
The startling apparition of Jane Lea Nixon.

Outside in the historic graveyard, bodies are said to have been buried sometimes four-layers deep. On the far side of the small cemetery sits an old stone that reads: Jane Lea Nixon, Born 1774, Died 1859, the first white child born in Chartiers Valley.
Some of these stones are so old a special laser
process was used on them to determine the names and dates.

Other than her cloak and bonnet and the apparent point of her unique birth, very little is known about Jane. We know she was 16 when the church was initially reconstructed in 1790.  Upon her father’s death in 1827, her three brothers were left equal division of the land surrounding the church and the two daughters received 25 pounds sterling. And we know the church was a part of her life, as evidenced by the Book of Common Prayer that is still part of the possession of her descendants who remain in Pittsburgh.

Most likely she lived the life that most women lived, participating in quilting bees, gardening, sewing, but one wonders if she was allowed the company of other little girls who didn’t share her skin color. Did she have a lonely existence or one that centered on her family and siblings? We can assume there was a sometimes peaceful and sometimes tenuous relationship with the indigenous people of the area. One story tells of an Indian raid that occurred during church services. Apparently guns were immediately drawn and poked out of portholes.

Jane Lea eventually married Thomas Nixon at an unknown date, and they had three children. Thomas died at the young age of 45 and Jane remained an unmarried widow until her death at age 85.

Who was Jane Lea Nixon? What contributions did her unique birth mean for the area? Her birth may have very well signified a change in the population that inhabited the rolling hills and rushing creeks in the area. The life of the Indians soon faded from Pittsburgh as more and more white children were born, no longer significant enough to make note of, staking claim in land for farms, townships and counties. In a dubious remembrance of history, a single female “the first white child in the Chartiers Valley” became a part of the history of Old St. Luke’s church.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

When Tourists Descend

I love how the sun feels on my skin: hot, almost burning. I rub my shoulders; they will be red tomorrow. I forgot sun screen. But for now, I sit on the large, flat rock, hypnotized by the rushing water of the river. It runs, fast and smooth, over a ledge of rocks, tumbling a short distance down, before brewing into a bubbly foam. I close my eyes and listen to the roaring sound. I sniff the clean air. White water rivers have a smell, pleasant, but distinct. I try to give the scent words: fresh, green, like corn, clean.

I’m writing in my journal. I’ve needed the solitude and quiet—too much going on emotionally and with my time lately. This was a perfect plan. I had an hour between appointments and headed to the local white water park to hang out. It’s quiet except the occasional boat that drifts by with people casting their lines in a rhythmic dance on the water, hoping the lure will look like a bug skittering on the water, tempting a fish.

A couple walks along the shore also casting their line. It’s peaceful to watch— art imitating life, hoping a fish won’t know the difference. The man snags a Kokanee salmon; its orange, silvery scales glint in the sun. He proudly hauls it out while his wife snaps a picture, before he gently unhooks it and releases it back into the rushing, cold water.

I relax into the sun and nature. Suddenly, without warning, six, then ten people, all wearing orange, commercial life jackets, descend on the area in which I have peacefully settled. It is a four raft tour, filled with vacationers of all ages, enjoying the river and our little mountain town. At first I watch, amused, as they take turns body surfing down the small falls. But they keep coming, one dozen, then two. They stand, crowding around me, seemingly oblivious to my presence. And my peace starts to disintegrate and turns to annoyance at their rudeness. Not a single, “excuse us” or “we’re sorry” as they drip and intrude on me. I finally get up and move away, struggling to find my peace again.

After splashing, laughing and taking pictures, the guides call them back to their rafts to continue their float down the river.  I go back out to the rock and open my journal, but now the sun feels too hot and I am unsettled and disgruntled. I stare into the deep pools of water caught between the rocks, still and calm in the otherwise bubbling current.

Tourists. I sigh. In our little town, we can’t survive without them, but sometimes it feels overwhelming. My daughter used to work out at a marina on the big lake on the edge of town. She came home daily with stories of vacationers, some kind and tipping her well, others rude and haughty, demanding accommodation and satisfaction for their financial investment in their vacation. I try to think if I’ve ever been like that when I visit a tourist destination. Did I act like I had the right to expect to be catered to and a sense of ownership for my dollar?

On the other hand, it gives us locals a bonding experience to talk about how the tourists don’t know what the middle turning lane is for, or how they like to drive really slowly to take in the sights, or why is it all their hair is really big and they talk with twangs? This is the stuff that we can chat about as we meet up with friends at the local bistro and sip wine on an outdoor patio. “Boy, it’s crazy in town this summer,” we can lament together. And our friends and neighbors who own the shops and restaurants along Main Street remind us that these paying visitors help keep their businesses open and surviving. By summer’s end, if they’ve hung around long enough, we'll even get to know a few, howdy with them in our churches and feel sad when they leave.

So I guess, really, their fun and raucous visit to “my” rock was all right. I drop a small leaf into the pooled water and watch it make lazy swirls on the surface before it finds a slow current and rushes over the rocks. 

Even the leaf finds a new current to follow after a little respite.