The Sensuous Art of Plum Picking

Plums from our backyard tree are incredibly sweet and juicy. I take them to church and put them in the kitchen, where we munch. If you stand outside the room you’d think they’re having an orgy in there. “Oooooh…ummmm…OMG this is sweet…ahhhhhh…just one more… ”

I wait for the Magic Moment.

It sounds like they’re making love, but they’re just in the kitchen eating plums I hand picked. Actually, “pick” is too crude a word. I don’t just pick them, I caress them. I fondle them. I squeeze each one very gently and if there is a softness, I tug it ever so slightly, tenderly, away from the branch. If it doesn’t come off with this gentle grope, I leave it on the tree. It is not ripe.

My husband is annoyed by all this. Frank is a no-nonsense, just-get-it-done kind of guy. He goes out with his bag and just indiscriminately grabs every plum he sees hanging. He pulls them forcibly, with lightning speed. “You’re coming with me!” I can almost hear him say. He’s done in a jiffy, and comes in the house with a big bag of hard, slightly green plums.

It’s easy to tell whether people are eating plums that Frank picked or that I picked. When they’re eating Frank’s, it doesn’t sound like there’s an orgy going on.  

A beauty goes missing.

“It was just here! Where the heck did it go?! Oh, there it is….”

Was I in a Stephen King novel, I wondered?  I was walking by the plants along our backyard fence when a single leaf moved. Only one. Spooky. The day was perfectly still, no wind.

I tiptoed up for a closer look. The moving “leaf” was slightly lighter than the dark green leaves that surrounded it. It was a praying mantis. I was certain, even though I know zip about entomology and I had never seen one. But I recognized the elegant and poignant beauty I’d seen in pictures—the elongated body, the small head (like E.T.’s) on the long skinny neck, the tall antennae, and most of all the spiky, folding forelimbs. It was a 2-inch-long work of art.

The exotic creature was moving very slowly. Eventually I went inside and when I went back a little later I looked everywhere but it was nowhere. Of course it was somewhere, I just couldn’t see it.

It looked so fragile, but the mantis is equipped with ingenious survival skills, mainly the mighty defense of camouflage, and strong front legs lined with spikes for gripping prey. And an inner guidance system for locating nutrients that brought it to our insect-rich yard. My husband grew up in Hawaii, where insects are accepted, and uses pesticides very sparingly. Our yard was no doubt a tasty smorgasbord for our visitor.

I didn’t see it for a few weeks, then one day a small piece of greenery moved on a fern in the shade. If it hadn’t moved I would have never noticed it, it blended in so perfectly. All summer I would see its loveliness now and then, unexpectedly, when a leaf twitched or greenery moved.

A little while after summer ended, so did my glimpses of the mantis. I’ve learned that a year is its average life span.

It was a mystical, magical summer of playing Where’s Waldo? It was always a thrill to see the mantis in the rose bushes, among the ferns, nestled in the geranium leaves.  I miss my strange, beautiful, exotic Waldo.

Grace shows up in clever disguises.

Trees are cherished friends. They shade us, produce oxygen, shelter tender baby birds. Their green beauty relaxes us. Our grapefruit tree went above and beyond to help me. It saved my ear.

I was picking up fallen grapefruit from under our big beautiful tree one morning. When I was done and stood up from my crouching position, my head bumped a branch and I caught my ear on a nasty thorn. There was a lot of blood. I never knew how large a grapefruit tree thorn is until I looked at it after it attacked me. Huge! And nasty.

I washed, disinfected and bandaged the wound. A few days later I removed the bandage and it seemed fine. But over time I noticed little spots of blood on my bath towel after drying myself. Then it started seeping and I went to see my dermatologist. The doctor couldn’t take a biopsy of the sore because it was too contaminated with blood and ooze. (Sorry for the gore.) I was very careful not to wet or touch it for a few days and it dried out.

The doctor then did a biopsy, and it turned out that the source of the blood was a basal cell cancer growing under the skin where the thorn pricked me, tucked into and following the curve of my outside ear rim. It wasn’t yet visible to the naked eye.

Two weeks later a surgeon removed the cancer. He put it in a jar and showed it to me. It was more or less the size and shape of a medium-size garlic clove, although it was longer and more slender which was why it hadn’t been obvious. 

If that thorn hadn’t snagged and wounded my ear, the cancer might have gone undetected until it grew large enough to be noticed. And then I would have been in trouble. A large part of my ear might have had to be removed.

In noble beauty, that tree has graced our backyard for 30 years. It has serenaded us when the wind rustles through its leaves, and yielded the lovely gift of its fruit to us. Now it has saved my ear from being ravaged by cancer.

I am deeply grateful. I thank the tree, I thank the thorn, I thank God, and I wear a hat and sunscreen when I’m outside.  

Believe

One day my minister saw his beloved Maine Coon cat, Marcus, staring out the window intently. Wildlife sometimes wanders close to their apartment building, at the foot of a range of hills.  Marcus was meowing and agitated. Dr. Jay went over to look out the window and saw a feral cat in the process of patiently moving four kittens, one at a time, that were hidden under shrubbery. She returned after moving the second one and then left the yard with the third one in her mouth. She never came back.

Straightaway, Dr. Jay went downstairs to the bushes from his second-story apartment, and carefully picked up the tiny kitten. Mewing, eyes still closed and ears still folded, it fit in the palm of his hand. Holding it gently, he started up the stairs.

He had no idea what he was going to do with it. He had never taken care of a newborn kitten. He mentally took inventory. He had some milk in the apartment, and possibly a dropper around, somewhere, to feed it with. He wondered how he could get the kitten fed often enough. He remembered vaguely, from some conversation somewhere, a schedule of every two hours. It would be a challenge with his busy life. But those were details. He knew he would figure it all out.

Then he saw a young couple who lived a few doors from his apartment coming down the stairs. “What have you got?” the young woman asked. Dr. Jay told her the story and held the kitten up closer to her. 

“Oh,” she exclaimed, delighted. “Can we have it? We know what to do, we’ve taken care of feral kittens for shelters. We have all the supplies.”

“Sure,” Dr. Jay said. They tenderly exchanged the precious cargo and the young couple turned around to go back home and begin caring for their little lump of new life. Dr. Jay returned, alone, to Marcus.

My friends and I think this story is incredible. What an amazing and miraculous coincidence, we all agree. But Dr. Jay doesn’t see anything unusual about it at all. He has the most confident, unshakable faith I’ve ever witnessed.

He simply knows that if you expect good to happen, it will.

Main Coon

Silicon Valley Girl

I’m a stranger in the Bay Area, though I was born right in the midst of it in Silicon Valley. That was a long time ago. It was Santa Clara Valley back then, and you wouldn’t recognize it. Unleashed dogs romped. Kids played gloriously unorganized softball in vacant lots. Orchards were everywhere. I didn’t know my gentle world was the future birthplace of technology, and that it would be invaded and covered with freeways, malls and business parks. 

You could say I’ve kept up with things. I telecommute, I network, I’m linked-in and hooked-up and hands-free. But I don’t always like it. My life, perhaps like yours, is stressful and upgrade driven.

It seems I’m always upgrading to something—new software, faster internet speed, blue tooth, GPS, Alexa, iPhone 7…. On and on. But there was a time here when things didn’t need upgrading because they were perfect. The lovely orchard next to our high school yielded its gifts when we burst into its stillness after school, needing spending money. I cut cots—that’s apricots—for 50 cents a tray. Now the orchard is a condo complex; our high school, a strip mall. Graceful pepper and oak and fig trees that once grew everywhere, welcoming climbers, are gone, victims of street widening and development. Little running creeks I followed for hours with my dog are concrete flood control channels. And the friendly people who chatted with each other in the grocery store have been replaced with a new breed. Self-absorbed, they wear funny ear gadgets and talk to themselves. 

I’ve learned to accept things as they are. I stay pretty current. But sometimes, in front of my flat screen monitor pushing my mouse, I daydream. I’m cutting sweet ripe cots in the mottled sunlight of the orchard, thinking that when I’m done I’ll go find a softball game somewhere. It’s like going home. 


This commentary originally aired as a KQED Public Radio Perspective.   

The Right Connection


hummingbird-1041323_1280I have a hummingbird feeder hanging in the patio that I keep filled with fresh sugar water all year round. The other morning I was having one of my dark moments, feeling isolated, unconnected, lonely…just generally down. I ate some breakfast so I could take my anti-anxiety pills, which have to be taken with food, then wandered into the living room and walked over to the sliding glass door that looks out on the patio and backyard.

When I looked out, the first hummingbird I’d seen that year was perched on the feeder. I watched as it sucked, and sucked…and sucked…and sucked. And sucked some more. It just wouldn’t stop sucking. As I watched I became more and more amazed. Then I became alarmed, afraid it would pass out or explode or something. Finally it stopped sucking. Then it sat there for several minutes completely motionless, as if sleeping. But when it became active again just several moments later I knew it hadn’t been asleep. When hummingbirds sleep their metabolism slows down so dramatically it can sometimes take 20 minutes to wake back up. This little hummer woke up much faster than that.

I stared at it for a while. I was stuck in my mental funk, having an anxiety episode that even my mighty medication couldn’t ward off. Mental patterns established way, way back have become deeply embedded in my mind. My father was mentally ill before I was born, in a schizophrenic world of his own. When he was 48 he committed suicide, ending our relationship of occasional visits over my 21 years. My brother was a heroin addict. I have fuzzy memories of being close to him when we were toddlers but I can’t really remember anything back that far.  When he hit his teens he frequently disappeared, often for a year or more during which he would be in jail or drifting in a drug haze. I missed him and worried about him in silence. My mother never talked about him to me. Not even once. In later years she and I became estranged.

I long for connection. My one remaining family connection is my half-sister and her daughter and family. I treasure her, and them, and make the long drive as often as I can.   

Back to the bird. My dark mood began to lift as I watched it. Either that or my medication had kicked in. The hummer had been clearly ravenously hungry and utterly exhausted. I began to wonder about it. It took my mind off myself. I’d be starving and exhausted too, if I had gone through what my little guest might have survived to get to my feeder. For many hummers, their annual migration is an incredible journey. How could something three inches long, weighing about a tenth of an ounce, survive the arduous journeys these birds undertake? I’m not sure where the hummer on my feeder came from. I’m not very scientific or methodical about studying and identifying the hummers who visit my yard. I just enjoy them. But, incredibly, some of them migrate all the way from Panama in Central America. Let’s assume the little beauty resting on my feeder came from there. Here’s what its journey might have been like.

My wild guest would have covered more than 3,000 miles to reach my yard and perch on my feeder. It lives alone. It also migrates alone because it knows with ancient wisdom that in a flock, it and its kin will be dangerously visible. Tiny and defenseless, they could be eaten en masse by predator birds. It departs yearly from Central America on a schedule mysteriously coordinated with its fellow hummingbirds, so that they stagger their departures over a three-month period. This way the entire population won’t be wiped out by a single catastrophic weather event.

My little visitor didn’t fly very high off the ground, probably around treetop level so it could keep an eye out for feeding opportunities on the way. It flew through wind and cold and other harsh weather conditions, over cities, mountain ranges, deserts, lakes and inlets. It may have flown 500 miles over the Gulf of Mexico—nonstop, because there is no place to land. This flight lasted about 22 hours, straight into 20 mile per hour headwinds. After it cleared the Gulf and landed in North America anywhere from southern Florida to Texas, it flew 20 miles a day to get to my little Perky Pet feeder in Fremont, California. A deep respect welled up in me as I watched it rest in perfect stillness. I was blessed and highly favored that it had chosen my yard over all others. It very possibly came to this same feeder every year, my feeder, always following the same route. Realizing that, I felt loved and worthy.

The nectar I supply is not its primary food. It is used as fuel for hunting its survival diet of insects and spiders. That dainty, sweet-looking little jewel is a ruthless carnivore. Its trip from Central America to my backyard was so strenuous it had likely lost half its body weight and it needed protein. Suddenly I no longer felt unconnected. Rather, I felt deeply connected to the entire universe to think that I had helped this brave, resolute, delicate bird survive just by keeping fresh nectar out. I helped sustain it on its courageous journey. I matter. I have important work. The hummer resting on my feeder and others to come would need nutrients, especially in the fall, to build up energy for the arduous journey back to their winter homes.

And so, I quite possibly have a direct connection with Central America. And with other hummingbirds besides this one, seen and unseen, from different regions. All those I have helped, as well as those I will help in the future, are widespread over the earth and they are a crucial part of a vast and complex ecosystem. They are food to many other species—cats (not mine I hope), snakes, praying mantises, other birds such as blue jays, hawks and crows, and sometimes even bees, wasps and spiders, all of whom in turn are food to other species, up to the top of the animal food chain. Hummers are also important pollinators of our earth’s flowers, shrubs and trees. I am a partner in a mega-connection with the entire universe.

Added to that, my personal story has become a lot more cheerful. With a lot of psychotherapy, some good friends, my sister and her family, my husband, and lately the support of members of the church that, to my amazement, I recently joined, I’ve managed okay. And then there’s my writers group, my counselor, my pharmacist, my interests like reading and writing…and let’s not forget shopping. How can I possibly think that I don’t have connections? The fairy-like, delicate being in my patio had made me realize that just by mixing sugar and water, pouring it into a container, and hanging it in my yard I am connected with a vast cosmos beyond my personal world. I’m never alone.  

milky-way-1023340_1280If you want to expand your connection to the cosmos and feed hummers, go to hummingbirdsociety.org/feeding-hummingbirds/

A rare and lovely garden guest

poppy-356323_640 - CopyAs I rushed out the front door one morning, late for an appointment as usual, I saw a single leaf up ahead on our white walkway. It didn’t look like anything that grew in our garden, yet it seemed strange that it would have blown in from somewhere else. It was a very bright mint-green, about three inches long.

Then it moved, though there was absolutely no breeze that morning.

I slowed down and walked up close. I’m not much of an entomologist, but there was no doubt in my highly untrained mind that it was a praying mantis. I’d seen pictures and recognized the elegant and poignant beauty of its distinctive features—the elongated body, the small head (shaped like E.T.’s) on the long skinny neck, the long antennae, and most of all the long, spiky, folding forelimbs.

praying-mantis-868420_1280The exotic creature was moving, but very, very slowly as the mantis does. It seemed so out of place as it inched along: it belonged in soft foliage, not on the hard, barren cement. I was afraid for it because it was so green and visible on our white walkway, and many neighborhood birds would have loved to make a meal out of it. No doubt they were lurking close by, unseen. The mantis was far away from the only foliage that offered any cover, inside our brick-lined planter area, and it would have had to climb up the foot-high brick wall to get into it.

I wanted to move it to safety, but didn’t have a clue how to go about it without harming it, it looked so delicate. And I had to get to an important doctor appointment. All I could do for the beautiful creature was pray (no pun intended). 

I left for my appointment, and when I got back a few hours later, the mantis was nowhere to be seen. Our walkway was bare again. I looked all around in the planter area, scouring geraniums and spider plants and poppies and impatiens, and a six-foot-high densely foliated bush that I don’t know the name of. The mantis wasn’t anywhere. It must have been some bird’s meal.  The next day, hoping against hope, I inspected the planter area again. I didn’t see it. I looked morning and afternoon for a few days and saw nothing. I felt regret, along with guilt. I should have moved it, doctor appointment be damned. Sad but resigned, I stopped looking

A few weeks later I was watering the plants one still, breezeless day and a geranium leaf moved. The other leaves remained perfectly still. I tiptoed over and looked closely and there was the mantis. If it hadn’t moved I would have never seen it, it blended in so seamlessly with the green foliage. For a few months after that I saw it every now and then in the planter area, then I didn’t see it anymore. I haven’t seen it now in over a year. I’ve since learned that a year is the average mantis life span.

Though its graceful presence in my world was fleeting, the mantis changed my outlook. For one, I worry a bit less since I saw it sticking out like a bright-green neon thumb on our white walkway, inching slowly over to the planter area, in a neighborhood dense with hungry jays, crows, mockingbirds, even a falcon now and then—and surviving. You may disagree, but I’m convinced an unseen force had been there protecting it on its journey to the safety of the planter area, helping it over the little brick wall to the camouflaged safety of green leaves. It was the same force, which I call God, that protects us on our journeys, and that had guided the mantis to the bountiful smorgasbord that is our yard. My husband was born and grew up in Hawaii, where insects are accepted as a fact of life, and out of respect for them he uses pesticides very sparingly. Our yard is insect rich. The creature had been led to live out its days in a small paradise of nourishing abundance in a modest blue-collar subdivision.

My ethereal visitor, my guide from beyond, taught me that a magnificent order in the universe is always in place…even when we can’t see it because it’s hidden in the secrecy and safety of green.

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