Yesterday there was a bright patch of green plants in the area where I toss compostables over the fence. Today, there were two large bright white mushrooms that must have sprouted overnight. This is the smaller one, about the size of the palm of your hand. You can see the wavy margin on the bottom of the cap, which I expect will grow larger tomorrow.
I learned about mushrooms from my uncle, who used to farm them commercially. He told me I had ideal growing conditions. “Just mix a bale of hay into a pile of horse manure,” he said. “Let it sit for awhile. Then buy your favorite mushrooms at the store, chop them up, and stir them into the growing mixture. Water the pile a bit, but don’t let things get soggy. Before you know it, you’ll be growing exotic mushrooms.”
I do love mushrooms, but I have not yet gotten around to following his growing recipe. Still, I love to see them pop up on their own. He is right, they seem to like the places with horse manure.
Most things in the natural world change gradually, including the things in our lives. Plants grow a little each day. Tiny buds get gradually bigger. Blooms unfold a petal at a time.
Mushrooms, though, appear overnight. They weren’t there and then vavoom! When these vavoom moments happen in our lives, we are often unprepared for them.
Caregiving is a daily process. Our loved one’s condition may progress faster or slower, and we get used to making those adjustments, “I see she isn’t driving anymore,” you notice, and figure out another way to handle errands and transportation.
Sometimes you get mushroom changes that spring up overnight. Yesterday you faced this familiar pattern. Today is wholly new. Big changes can knock us out of equilibrium. Our old plans and coping skills suddenly don’t work anymore. We were so competent and comfortable handling that other situation, but we have no idea what to bring to this new one.
When big changes come be gentle to yourself. Indulge your need to cry or dance or have an extra glass of wine. You may want to be with friends, or you may want to be alone. Listen to your heart’s call and follow it. Your heart’s wish is the beacon you will follow through the maze of confusion until, once more, you can find the light.
The mesquite trees are bare for the winter. When we walk in the morning, the lack of winter vegetation allows me to see the dogs better than in the other seasons, where the foliage and understory are thick. I let them run off leash, trotting down the trail and veering off it to inspect the burrows of small creatures.
Small creatures aren’t out much during the day this time of year. There is not enough cover for them to hide. So they pop up in the garden after dark when the daytime predators don’t see as well.
As a result it is safe to let the dogs run without too much fear they will chase rabbits or armadillos or possums or skunks or porcupines, all of which keep burrows on the property. Ginger is insatiably curious about skunks, not one of her most alluring qualities.
The dogs run ahead on the trail, sniffing the smells and feeling the ground under their feet. They investigate holes and stumps and logs. Their delight is evident in the way they move, tails swishing joyfully as the trot along.
Curiosity is a generally wonderful quality, if you leave off skunks and are only modestly curious about porcupines. If we were not curious we would trudge through the day doing the basics we need to survive and then what? Iron your t-shirts? Life would be insufferably boring.
Instead, you see a lovely beaded necklace on the neck of someone at the grocery store, and you come home and take out your beads and thread them, working out how the artist got the sparkling beads to do that scalloped lacy thing around the cabuchon center fire opal. Art is born from curiosity.
Or you have an innocuous exchange with a friend that for some reason makes you want to slap her. Curiosity makes you dig into your ire, to write a poem about how and why you got so mad. Suddenly you have a new insight into yourself and what makes you tick (and ticked). Maybe you find compassion for your friend or maybe you realize you want a new friend.
When you are consumed with the daily tasks of giving care, you don’t have as much capacity to nurture and develop your curiosity, but keep the spark alive. Smell the smells. Watch for movement in shrubbery. Turn over a log to see what’s under there. When you have a few moments, bound along a trail in the crisp morning air.
If your little dog were here at the Bossy Spa, she would be in the creek. It is sunny, and after their morning romp Annie and Ginger both went in, despite temperatures below freezing. We have been cooped up more than we’d like because of the cold, and no one could wait for summer before getting in the creek.
Your dog might not go into the deeper water, but she is just the right size for the jade green section of creek in the picture. She would wade in from the edge, swim a bit, and even brave the small rapids downstream. She could climb up on the sloped edges to get out of the water and shake herself.
Once she was out of the creek she would look reproachfully at you for having let her get so wet and cold, and you, being you, would carry her back to the house where there is a warm fire in the wood stove.
Even though you are taking care of a human person, you have other things in your care too. I was thinking of your dog, but you also have your friendships, your plants, your work, and yourself.
These caregiving activities are rewarding in different ways. Your colleagues appreciate your intellectual and leadership contributions. Your plants bloom for you. Your friends and dog love you back.
Spend a few minutes looking at your situation through the eyes of someone in these other relationships. Maybe you pick your dog, who visibly droops when she thinks you might be leaving. Her world is less joyful when you are gone, and she knows it. Her whole body lights up, wagging and bouncing, when you come into the room,
We humans have perhaps overdeveloped our capacity for long-term thinking. This can lead to good things, like saving for retirement, but it can also yield massive doses of anticipatory dread that other creatures seem to avoid. I can spend years dreading the possibility that one of my parents will fall ill, and this may happen, but years of dread are big sinkholes of time and energy and enjoyment, whether or not a parent ever falls ill.
A certain amount of dread is useful. It steers you away from situations you don’t want to encounter, but there is no end to what you can dread. Dread is a bottomless pit.
Today zero in on the time frame that your little dog focuses on. Enjoy the warmth of the fire. Cringe if someone tries to brush the tangles out of your hair. Dread just a little, right before your favorite person leaves the room, but quickly recover in time to enjoy the smell of roasting goodness coming from your neighbor’s kitchen.
I know the last thing you need is a kid, but I couldn’t help myself. This is our neighbors’ baby goat, about a week old. He looks like a cross between a goat and a domino. There were a dozen or so little goats and their mamas in this enclosure near the barn. They can go inside and out as suits them. This little fellow decided to sun himself on a bed of straw.
The little goats are more comfortable with people than lambs are. This guy came up to me and sniffed my pant legs, looking to see if I had gotten into anything interesting. I had, since I had been out with the dogs that morning. The little goat found the dog smell intriguing. Or maybe it was the me smell. I’ll never know. In any event he found my pant legs fascinating.
With my neighbor’s encouragement I picked him up and he settled comfortably into my arms. His fur was clean and soft. When I rubbed his head I could feel hard bumps on the top that will grow into horns someday.
Baby creatures are ridiculously endearing. They are tiny, yet almost always perfectly formed. Something about them just makes the heart go squish.
Suppose this guy wanted some of your lunch. Could you refuse him? I think not. This little goat doesn’t do anything productive, yet he is adorable, worthy of care and concern and maybe even your lunch.
You, though, somehow got the idea that you had to be productive in order to be lovable. First you need to take care of this thing, then another. Only when everything is all checked off your list can you take out the fantasy novel you have been saving for just the moment when you were worthy of reading it. How can a baby goat be worthy of love just by being there, but you have to complete your list of self-assigned chores in order to qualify?
You are lovable even with all your chores undone. The only one who believes otherwise is you, and you can just quit that. Yes, there are things to be done, but if you feel like curling up in a patch of sun today, just do it.
Now that it’s winter the creek is full. Upstream is so full that water is spilling over the driveway, making a small waterfall into the pool below. The water splashing into the creek makes a wonderful sound and likely also aerates the water for the fish.
This is obviously no Niagara Falls, but when I hear the water splashing it makes me feel like all is right with the world. Nature runs in cycles of scarcity and abundance, and a waterfall suggests there will be enough water for the fish and other creatures. We will make it through the next hot summer. The sycamore seed balls that I threw in the creek yesterday might sprout, and someday sycamores might grace the creek banks.
Our climate here is hot and dry much of the year. Abundant water doesn’t promise abundant times, but it is a fundamental element of hope for a rich carpet of wildflowers in the spring.
Hope is the thing that pulls us through hard times when we might otherwise despair. Caring for a loved one with a terminal illness is one of the hardest human experiences. Without hope for your patient to recover, you might have a hard time not succumbing to despair.
Life can rob you of hope for your loved one, and living on false hope is generally unhelpful if at any level you know the hope is false. I can hope my leaky faucet will repair itself, but I know that is not realistic. Pasting a happy face on a dismal situation does nobody any good. Sometimes you just need to call the plumber.
If hope is to pull you from despair, it must hold the possibility of some real good. If the big hope of a cure for your loved one is not realistic, choose a smaller hope. You might hope to laugh with him today. You might hope to have a break from her today. You might hope the pink rose bush will bloom in time for a bouquet for your niece’s wedding. You might hope to see a bright red cardinal this afternoon.
If you have a realistic hope of some small, beautiful thing will you share it? Your small hope may spark the hope in the heart of someone you don’t even know. Together we might pull through these cold winter days to a flowering spring.
As I finished writing this, a pair of red cardinals landed in the pecan tree by the porch. Perhaps Glenda, the goddess in charge of minor miracles for caregivers, has awakened from her nap.
I wished to post roses for you today, but the roses are not blooming right now. The next best thing are the fuzzy grayish plants that we call lamb’s ear, which make big leafy rosettes, the flowers of winter.
In spring this plant will send up a tall stalk with pale yellow flowers. When the flowers die back, the stalk fills with seeds, a nice source of food for birds in the fall.
Somehow the beautiful foliage survives the winter cold. Maybe the fuzzy jacket helps. You can buy these plants and find instructions on gardening web sites telling you how to grow them, but ours just come up by themselves, a few feet from wherever they were the year before. If they come up in the middle of the yard, I ask Mark to mow around them since they are so pretty.
I’ve read that the native Americans used the soft leaves of this plant to bandage wounds, and I have wrapped cuts with them, securing the leaf with first aid tape, when I was short of band-aids. They are soft and absorbent and apparently have antiseptic qualities.
Getting wounded is unavoidable. Even if you never leave your house you can be wounded, both physically and emotionally. So it makes no sense to organize yourself around not getting wounded. It’s just not possible to ensure you are successful at this.
Sure, avoid being reckless, but also have a plan for what you will do when you are inevitably hurt. Look for something in your environment that has healing properties like lamb’s ear.
Caregiving comes with a full dose of emotional wounding. Maybe you are looking after your mother, whose dementia has progressed to the level where last week for the first time she didn’t recognize you. Of course you know this is not personal, just the progression of her disease, but in your heart it feels terrible and rejecting. Does this mean she doesn’t know you have been visiting every day? Probably that is just what it means.
Wounds like this run deep, and they crop up unexpectedly. If you are a caregiver you will be wounded again. Have an emotional first aid kit ready. Who will you call when you feel like the wind just got knocked out of you? What can you read that will help you stay centered through this difficult time? How can you staunch emotional bleeding and start to promote healing?
A healing remedy like lamb’s ear may just pop up in your environment. Maybe you discover an emotionally robust neighbor who knows how to be there for you. You may have to go looking for this first aid kit, though, at least parts of it. Check your support network today. If your first aid kit is a bit bare, add a few supplies so you will be well cared for when you need it most.