Searching for daylight

Moving to a new state brings a lot of changes. When you do it for pleasure like we did they should be mostly good. In April we moved from Northern Virginia to Western Massachusetts. Life is definitely slower here, but what’s not slower is the traffic. It generally moves. There are a few predictable choke points. It’s mildly annoying when it happens, but is not one hundredth as annoying as traffic in and around Washington D.C. The good: we now live in a city with a small town feel but with a vibrant downtown and liberal values. Republicans don’t generally even try to run for office around here. Bernie Sanders posters are everywhere.

But invariably there are certain things you miss, some that you did not quite expect. I thought I would miss the ethnic diversity of the Washington area but it’s quite diverse around here too. D.C. is very much a happening sort of city (as evidenced by its traffic) with a general level of affluence not seen around here. Unquestionably D.C. has a much better arts scene, although there is a surprising amount in this area.

One I did not expect to miss was daylight. Moving to Massachusetts meant moving 3.5 degrees north in latitude and 4.7 degrees east in longitude. You wouldn’t think it would make that much a difference in the amount of daylight, but it does. It’s not even Thanksgiving but by 5 p.m. it is already pitch dark here. In fact, the sun is already close to the horizon around 3 p.m. Sunset is this afternoon at 4:24 p.m. The sun rose here at 6:49 a.m. Our earliest sunset starts December 7 at 4:18 p.m. with our latest sunrise arriving December 31 at 7:19 a.m. As you might expect the shortest day is at the start of winter, when we get 9:06 of daylight.

These sorts of short days were not unknown to me. For the first fifteen years of my life I lived in upstate New York at about the same latitude. So I knew what I was getting into by moving north again. After 37 years of living in the mid Atlantic I was used to going home from work when there was still daylight out. The sun may have been setting, but you could still see. For comparison the sun sets in Washington D.C. today at 4:50 p.m. and rose at 6:58 a.m. So it has 9:51 of daylight, whereas we have 9:35.

Strangely enough, it makes quite a difference. The shortest day in Washington D.C is 9:26. (If these sorts of statistics interest you, you might like this site.) In short, in moving I lost twenty minutes of daylight in the winter and because we are further east the sun sets sooner. As a result I am starting to think of daylight as a precious commodity.

The good part is that since we are retired it doesn’t matter as much. If I were still working and living here I’d likely be driving to work in the dark and returning in the dark as well too. I now rise between 7:30 and 8 AM when daylight is just establishing itself. A typical day as a retiree involves a little work, a few chores and daily exercise. Exercise consumes at least an hour and I prefer to do it outside while it is still daylight. As a practical matter this means I have to start exercise no later than 2 p.m. because by 3:30 p.m. it’s already getting dark, with the sun hanging low in the sky. On overcast days like today the streetlights are on around 4 p.m. as clouds drain what little daylight there is. It also means that daylight is slow to emerge. This effectively shortens my period for enjoying the outdoors to about six hours a day.

Part of this problem is manmade. We arbitrarily divide the world into time zones, generally each an hour apart. Washington D.C. is toward the middle of the Eastern Time Zone, so the time of day feels natural year round. Here, an our or so west of Boston, we are not too far from the eastern edge of the time zone boundary. Effectively, I could enjoy more daylight if I would get up sooner.

Oddly enough, I am feeling this pull. I’ve never been a naturally early riser but now I am thinking I should get up around 7 a.m. so I can enjoy the daylight while it lasts. Sunny days are nice but they feel rushed through. With the sun not too far from the horizon all day the sun tends to stream in through the southern windows, making rooms blinding at times. My office faces south. On sunny days late in the year it is too much. I draw my translucent blinds, allowing light in but keeping the sun from shining directly in my face.

Without the bright city lights we were used too, night here feels deeper, darker and a bit foreboding. Streetlights are few. We live in a community where there is usually one bear sighting a year here, generally at the top of our hill. We were the lucky recipients this year when two teenage bears looking several hundred pounds each ambled through our tiny backyard, then across the street right in front of some men running construction equipment. Bears in the light can also be around in the dark of course. These bears are pretty massive. I’m quite sure a sufficiently motivated bear could break into our house through a window. The plentiful darkness raises these fears in my mind.

I don’t feel like I have a case of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). I don’t feel depressed by the longer nights. In a way these shorter days and longer and darker nights are neat. When the skies are clear the skies are amazing! We are fortunate to be away from the city enough to appreciate real dark. No wonder solstice was such a big deal to our ancestors. It’s this that probably makes the daylight feel more precious to me, and which makes me want to get up with the sun and busily engage the world while I can.

Revel in this perfect day

I posted on Facebook yesterday that there is a God because he/she/it gave us the perfect day yesterday. My crazy cousin Ken chimed in, “What about the crap days? Does that mean there is a Satan?” My response: “Either that or God is a schizophrenic.”

Whatever. When a perfect day comes along, you have to be outside so by midmorning I found my excuse to stop working (I was working from home) and walk through the neighborhood. The humidity was low. The skies were nearly clear with a deep shade of blue. There were pockets of puffed cumulus clouds here and there. The winds were moderate but not brisk allowing sweat, if there were to be any, to swiftly disappear. This has been a late spring for us, with a winter that seemed to refuse to quit. Usually by the end of May it feels pretty much like summer here in Northern Virginia. But yesterday and today as well, it feels very much like the perfect spring day I’ve always wanted but so rarely get around here.

The leaves are all out now, largely untouched by acid rain. There has been so much rain these last six weeks that the grass is thick and lush. The lawnmowers have been kept very busy. The highway department simply can’t keep up with the mowing. Most medians have grass nearly two feet high, in some cases blocking the views of incoming traffic. Many of the streambeds are eroded from all the rain, but the rain has subsided enough where nearby Horsepen Run Stream Valley Park was down to running gently, with just a ripple of current on its surface. Strangers on the path smiled and nodded as I passed them. Walking was invigorating. It was one of those days that you realize that makes up for all those other sub-optimal days. If every day could be like yesterday, I would be a happy man. In fact, it would be paradise.

Except, as I suggested on Facebook, God has a schizophrenic nature. Most days in Los Angeles are sunny and clear, perhaps with a heaping of haze and ozone, so how could they be that special? Here in Northern Virginia we tend to get real weather, in that it tends to change a lot. Summer is generally the exception. During the summer it tends to stay unremittingly hot and humid, sometimes dangerously so. Some weeks you don’t care venture outside because the air quality is so poor. There are times during July that you want to move to Miami to escape the heat. You wonder why we don’t have palm trees. Fortunately that season tends to last roughly two months: July and August. May and June tend to feel on the edge of summer, with many days drifting into summer. Our unusual winter though also produced an unusual spring that started later and reminded me of springs I knew when I lived in upstate New York. If the weather could reliably be like this during the spring I’d be happy not to move to more northern latitudes.

Perfect days are ephemeral and thus must be appreciated, and I certainly appreciated it yesterday. Even the pollen count was down, with just a tiny sheen of pollen on my windshield in the morning. It was a day to open the windows and feel connected to the planet. It meant hearing the wind for a change, the feet of the bird scampering across the roof of our deck as well as more manmade noises like airplanes taking flight from Dulles Airport a few miles to our west. It meant smelling the air, and the air was laced with a mixed floral scent that was intoxicating.

Yes, God probably is a schizophrenic, as our weather is such a mixed bag, much of it not optimal and most of it downright annoying. No wonder we tend to prefer to be inside. We get it all from 104 degree heat with killer air pollution to -1 degree bone chilling extreme winter days. We get tornadoes, regular thunderstorms (often severe) from spring through the fall, and sometimes in the winter. We even get hurricanes although by the time they make it this far inland they are usually downgraded to tropical storms, and the damage is usually from water instead of wind. God tends to be most destructive by hurling lines of thunderstorms at us, occasionally with a tornado or two thrown in. It brings down power lines, puts people in the dark and shuts off their air conditioning. God likes to tease us with snowstorms that usually devolve into snow showers that don’t even stick to the pavement. For humor every few years he will throw a massive snowstorm at us that will bury us in two or more feet of snow, sometimes back to back. If you live in the mid Atlantic area, change is likely to be your only constant weather pattern. The weather rarely stays the same for long, except in July and August, which simply must be endured, largely indoors. The more sanguine of us, particularly in neighborhoods where power lines are not buried underground, keep generators and ten gallons of gasoline in reserve to get through power outages. We Washingtonians really resent being uncomfortable.

But happily there are still days like yesterday when God gives you a delicious respite and reveals his majesty. You must take these days when they are given and spend them to the extent you can outside. You must give into its sensuality, knowing it will be short-lived. Find a shady spot under a tree facing into the wind, close your eyes and feel the steady wind course through your nostrils. Feel such an intimate tactile, olfactory and aural connection with your planet. Feel it, hold it in your memory and come back to it often on those days when nature is not so beneficent. It’s why it is good to be alive.

A short walk on Fairfax County’s Cross-County Trail

I live in Fairfax County, Virginia. It’s known for having a million people, being nestled up to the capital beltway (and partly inside it), beltway bandits, clean industries, great schools and well-moneyed people. One thing that doesn’t come to mind when you think about Fairfax County is nature. It’s not that nature is wholly absent, it’s just that nature consists mostly of modest county parks and little asphalt trails winding their way through patches of woods that are overseen by hulking single family houses. Some communities in the county try to celebrate nature. Reston does a good job of it, or at least did before they put the downtown in. Mostly though Fairfax County is about nice houses, annoying traffic, lawns, keeping up with the Joneses and people who think they are more important than they actually are.

In general, if you want nature you go west. The Shenandoah Mountains is about an hour away. Many people from Fairfax County consider a trip to nature to be climbing Old Rag Mountain in the Shenandoahs. (It has a granite face so you can take in a view.)

It turns out that Fairfax County has a trail that almost no one knows about. I walked part of it last weekend. It’s the Cross County Trail and it literally crosses the entire length of the county, from the Potomac River in the North to Woodbridge in the South. It does touch civilization in spots but mostly it cuts its way through remnants of forests and along local streambeds. I had known about the trail for a couple of years and had ignored it. Most Fairfax County residents don’t even know it’s there. But if you are a hiker, it’s right here and a great way to get some exercise. You just have to find the darn thing. At least that was my experience last Sunday walking a stretch of it between Vale and Lawyers roads.

The trail may not be well known because it is not well marked. I had to drive to it and it took me a while to find it. There was no place to park my car, so I pulled off and parked by the side of the road. The entrance to the trail at first escaped me, as all I could see was a gravel road into Camp Crowell, the local Girl Scout camp. There was a hard to see dirt path off on the side, and this happened to be the trail. I was expecting something grander and wasn’t even sure I was on it at all until I saw a small trail marker. Water bottle and camera in hand I headed north. Slowly the noise from cars on Vale Road disappeared behind me.

Horse at Camp Crowell
Horse at Camp Crowell

What appeared ahead of me was pasture, and then another pasture, this one bounded by fences. Inside were two horses for the girls of Camp Crowell looking very bored in the distance. There were prominent no trespassing signs, so I didn’t. I did however come up to the fence just to get a better look at the horses, a rare sight in Fairfax County. The two horses, including one foal, were frisky, playful and curious and came right up to me. “How you doing, fellas,” I said, stroking their heads, affection that they were very happy to receive. I could not recall how long it had been since I had the pleasure of touching a horse. It was likely more than a decade, but it was a welcome, almost sensuous experience. I regretted not having packed a couple of apples, but I had no idea I would be encountering horse on my little four-mile hike.

I wandered past the pastures and soon found myself in the woods, somewhat past their autumn peak. To my right was the sound of gently flowing water, a stream called Difficult Run to be precise. I knew of it not because I have lived in Fairfax County for nearly thirty years but because I manage a web site for the USGS that serves data for thousands of water monitoring sites, including one on Difficult Run. I wasn’t sure whether I would encounter our gaging station or not, but water flow was gentle so it couldn’t be flowing more than a few cubic feet per second. The creek’s banks, covered with sand and gravel, attested to the power of the stream after storms. Today it was moving at a languid pace. I breathed deeply. How wonderful: invigorating autumn air, temperatures in the lower 60s, mostly dry ground to walk across, a mixture of hazy sunshine filtering through the canopy and a gently winding trail to traverse.

And yet it was not wholly unmaintained. I crossed a few bridges the county had put in. I also found one volunteer about my age, with his aging dog sporting a large benign tumor on his right side, maintaining the trail of sorts. He had a little rake and was engaged in the thankless task of sweeping leaves off the trail, but only in spots where they masked hidden roots. I stopped and we chatted for a bit. He spoke of the trail as a hidden gem and said he walked it regularly, but usually alone and sometimes in the evening when the deer came out. It was both sad and nice to hear about its little use. Today, I didn’t mind so much the lack of human company. Instead I hungered for a little nature. I got it with the rustling of leaves, mostly wind driven but occasionally caused by a squirrel in the bush. I heard it in the birds overhead and the occasional call of a crow.

It was not quite just me, this man and his dog on the trail. A little further I found a mother with two daughters and two dogs. Dog lovers know what happens if you put dogs near a stream: they were in it, lapping it, walking in it, prancing through it from time to time, and mostly making a happy but soggy mess of themselves. It’s a natural things for dogs to do, except you don’t see it much in Fairfax County, where leash laws are in effect and where nature like this tends to be far away. Here, hidden in the woods, dogs could be dogs.

Difficult Run
Difficult Run

“Follow the signs carefully,” the trail guide with the broom told me. “Cross the creek to the path on the other side and you can end up on private property. Nothing should happen to you, but it’s best avoided.” Instead he pointed me to the trail marker pointing to the left. It moved me away from Difficult Run and up a small hill. Up the hill I found some tents in the woods, which I first mistook for tents of homeless people. On further inspection I realized that they were there to keep cords of firewood dry. Nearby were some large estates for rich people. Their chimneys would use that that wood when the weather turned colder. I was more than a little envious. I wished I could purchase an opportunity to be so close to nature.

Up to Lawyers Road then back again. My pace back was brisker as rain looked like it might threaten. The horses were nowhere to be found when I past their pasture again. There was no sign of an outhouse, but plenty of nature. When privacy allowed, I let nature be my outhouse.

Finally the distant sound of cars on Vale Road, and suddenly the magic was over. But now that I know the Cross County Trail is so close and often so unused, it is likely that I will be back again soon, and exploring other parts of this largely unknown gem secretly nestled in the heart of Fairfax County. Walking the trail I can renew both body and spirit. And I don’t have to go too far. Call me selfish, but I hope it stays our little hidden natural gem.

It’s better outside

I have a blessedly short commute to work, about three miles each way. The fastest way to work involves driving through a suburban, tree-lined neighborhood. This neighborhood is a lot like mine: single family homes with a third to half acre lawns, streets with sidewalks, trash collected on Tuesday and Fridays (I know because I am often dodging the trash truck), mailboxes on posts along the street, and lots of SUVs and minivans in the driveways.

I have been driving this route for years but only recently have I focused on a particular house I pass. It is peculiar in a way that should not be peculiar, but it is. Pretty much every time I pass it, in almost all sorts of weather except for rain or snow, there is at least one adult in a lawn chair parked in front of the garage. She looks like the mom of the house, and there are usually a couple of other neighbors in lawn chairs chatting with her as well.

If school is out, the kids are outside as well. They are mostly on bikes. The smaller ones are on Hot Wheels or pulling red wagons by their handles. Some are just running around the yard, sometimes with a dog in tow. Some are drawing on the sidewalks or driveway with colored chalk. The parents (usually mothers) sit in the lawn chairs, keep an eye on the kids (but not vigilantly), and chat while drinking coffee or iced tea. The kids, being outside and hollering, attract other kids. In fact, it appears that kids from blocks around are there, driven by the energy of other kids being outside.

Yes, this does happen, even in extreme weather. Northern Virginia gets more than its share of scorching hot summer days, with oppressive heat, humidity and bad air quality too. Those kinds of days drive me indoors. I get sweaty just thinking about being outside on days like that. It helps that this particular street is lined with tall trees that provide plenty of shade. Me? I have a porch that faces south and also looks out onto a street. The tree that used to anchor our front lawn was taken down this year, a victim of age. But even when it was in its lush prime, it wasn’t quite leafy enough to wholly block the sun and provide some measure of coolness under its canopy. This house, and most of the street, sits in the shade, which invites children to be outside comfortably.

To make a real kid-friendly neighborhood like this in the 21st century seems to require a mom, or maybe a bunch of them, plus a few neighborhood dads that I see from time to time, often with a can of beer. They seem to like being out there. And they are out there a lot. Mornings. Afternoons. Occasionally I will drive by in the evenings and I see kids and a parent or two out there. In fact, it seems like the mother of this particular house spends more time each day outdoors than she does indoors, and she is mostly parked in a lawn chair in front of her garage door.

In this environment, kids start playing with other kids who might otherwise be indoors on a Gameboy or zoning out on television. They start riding bikes relentlessly up and down the street, often in small gangs of four or six, getting plenty of natural exercise. Sometimes there is a lemonade stand, sometimes even in 2012 some are wearing roller skates, but they always wear helmets of some sort when they are on wheels. They all seem happy, healthy, whole and gloriously alive.

As for the adults, between their iced teas and cups of Starbucks or other brews they are laughing and chatting in the lawn chairs under the trees. They are interacting too, pretty much every day, weekends included. No doubt they are discussing their children and the issues of the day. Matters great and small are likely discussed, but if I had to guess more small than great. They are quite literally shooting the breeze. They are taking life as it comes, mostly outdoors. They are imbued in nature.

Nature can do that to you. It does it to me, at least when the weather is nice, like it has been this week. My doctor’s office is a short half-mile walk from my office, so there is no reason not to hoof it when I visit him. It takes no more than fifteen minutes to walk there, but the simple act of doing so usually perks me up. The view from my fifth story office window look out on trees and mountains, but it is not the same as simply being outside with nature. I don’t hear it. I don’t smell it. I don’t feel it. I just see it through a pane of thick glass.

Even when the weather is not optimal, there is something to be said about the value of being outside. When you are outside, nature fills your senses, whether you want it to or not. Most of the time, even in inclement weather, I find that being outside actually is preferable to being indoors, providing nature’s pests don’t use me as lunch. These days, if you still want the Internet, it’s not a problem. You take along your smartphone.

I’m wondering if that’s what the parents and kids in this neighborhood near Glade Drive in Reston, Virginia have also discovered. Life lived mostly outdoors can be a connected life: with nature, with neighbors, with children, with gardens, and with life. Perhaps we live so much of our lives indoors at our own peril, tuning out the world and seeing life through a filtered prison.

How would our lives be different if most of us spent most of our days outdoors? On a shady street off Glade Drive in Reston, Virginia the answer seems to be that life is a lot better.

Enjoying the rapture

I woke up this morning, expecting to go to Hell because I had not accepted Jesus Christ as my Personal Lord and Savior (PL&S) ™ only to discover, as I feared, that no rapture was underway. Instead, we have a picture postcard perfect day here in Northern Virginia: blue skies, emerald green grass, birds chirping, with the ground still damp from recent rains. The temperature is 67 degrees Fahrenheit and there are gentle breezes from the West Northwest.

I expected to have forgotten that today was the start of Armageddon, except, surprisingly, a bored press corps took notice of Harold Camping and his followers. So many other End of the World events have come and gone you would think that the press corps would have simply overlooked this latest one. The good news for Apocalypse fans is that in 2012 there is another opportunity, so you can now look forward to that. How do we know? The ancient Mayans said so, so mark your calendar now for December 21, 2012. On this date according to the Mesoamerican Long Calendar, we will have completed a cycle of 144,000 days since the earth’s mythical creation date. My guess is that this end of the world applies only to the Western Hemisphere, so I would definitely move to Europe before then. (Be careful to reside east of Greenwich.)

As a non-Christian, getting my mind around this rapture stuff is hard. This comes from being too left-brained, I suppose. I cannot believe in the personal God that so many people believe in. But if that God exists, then I cannot imagine it being a vindictive God. It seems you have to believe in a vindictive God to accept the rapture. Perhaps the hardest part for me is coming to grips with the idea that so many otherwise sensible people believe this nonsense. These are the same people who will buckle their seat belts because they acknowledge the possibility that some non-deterministic event could cause them to be killed in an automobile, so they best mitigate the risk. And yet they will throw caution to the wind when it comes to something like the end of the world, and orient much of their lives around something that simply will not happen for billions of years.

I also find it curious that so many of those predicting an imminent rapture know that they will be saved. How do they know? Merely through a profession of faith by saying they decree that Jesus in their PL&S? How do they know that their intolerance, bigotry and homophobia won’t keep them out of heaven? Their answer, probably, is that it is simply a matter of faith. Nonetheless, their behavior can be disturbing, particularly when they tell their children that they will not be ascending into heaven with them. Why is it these children are not in foster care? It’s hard to imagine a clearer case of parental emotional abuse.

It looks like I will neither ascend into heaven nor descend into hell today, and neither will those hoping to be raptured. I was sort of hoping those who were yearning for rapture would get their wish. This is because frankly I find most of these people insufferable to begin with, so the world would probably be a better place if they were teleported to a new reality. I’m guessing there is a ninety percent correlation between Harold Camping followers and climate change deniers. If they mysteriously disappeared, perhaps we could take long overdue actions to seriously address climate change. The overwhelming evidence seems to have no effect persuading these people anyhow. Those of us “left behind” have to make the best of the ecosystem that we have, so we might as well earnestly start living in congruence with our natural environment. This can be hard to do when so many people in power are so convinced that the end of the world is imminent that they see no value in protecting our environment.

Meanwhile, I will enjoy the rapture of a wonderful day. Mankind makes its own hells, but Mother Nature provides us with a natural Eden. All we have to do is choose to enjoy it. Today in particular seems to be a day to be outside and surrounded by nature. So that’s where I plan to spend a good part of my day, on my knees pulling weeds. I will be mindful of the nature and wildlife, whose song will ring in my ears, whose earthy smells will invade my nostrils and whose glory is all around me. For me this is the rapture and it is available most days for free and without the need to find it through a holy book. We just have to choose to open our senses and let nature fill us with its wonder.

God as a gecko

Looking for God but having a hard time finding him? Most people claim to know where he (sometimes she, occasionally it) lives and what you must do to know God. They will be glad to lead you to their local church, temple or place of worship so you can find God too. Others will be glad to give you their holy book of choice, whether it a Quran, Bible or Torah and say that you can find God by pondering the words therein.

None of these approaches will render a tangible God. Rather you will find that you need an intercessor or intercessors of various sorts. The intercessor may be Jesus, or Mohammad, or Buddha (although Buddha did not believe in a deity in the classical sense) or a televangelist. You are invited to try to find God through them.

The problem with this approach is that unless you are consumed with an unquestioning faith, you can never be quite sure the God you believe in is the genuine thing. Recognizing this paradox, a number of people have decided they don’t believe in God at all. Christopher Hitchens is a prominent atheist who is inconveniently dying of stage-four esophageal cancer, the same cancer that killed his father. Curiously, his imminent demise has certain people (principally dyed in the wool Christians) busy praying for Hitchens. Specifically, they are praying that before Hitchens passes into the great unknown he finds God and especially for him to accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. (For some peculiar reason, the chance to know God can occur only during life, not in the thereafter.) Hitchens, as you can imagine, is not too happy with these religious people. He has the weird idea that he should be allowed to die in peace and respected for his convictions, rather than listen to a torrent of well meaning religious folks convinced they know the truth and passionately praying for his quick conversion.

Clearly there are no lack of folks that due to their passionate religious beliefs would like to introduce you to their idea of God. However, suppose you want to find God independently. Where could God be hiding? Why is your sight so veiled?

It could be that God is not who you think he or she should be. Humans have anthropomorphic tendencies. If this word does not ring a bell, it means we like to endow on things human qualities. For example, I treat my cat Arthur much like I would like to be treated myself. I talk to him (in English, not in meows), pet him and hug him when he is on my lap. Arthur’s way of communicating with me is to treat me like a fellow cat. Basically, he would prefer to lick me with his sandpaper tongue. For most of us humans, we expect God to have human-like characteristics. That’s why, arguably, intercessors are required to understand God. Could any human have found the Christian God without Jesus? It seems unlikely. The same is true with Muhammad. How were we supposed to know there is but one god and his name is Allah if Muhammad had not told us so? Were we supposed to read it in tealeaves?

It may be, as I believe, that God is indifferent to us as individuals because we are part of an immensely complex universe unfolding according to his plan. In my opinion, if God exists, it is as futile for us to try to understand him as it is for an ant to try to understand calculus. (Understanding nature, however, is a different matter.) We are all trapped within the boundaries of a finite life, our limited senses and intelligence, our culture and our biosphere. By definition, God must be greater than these finite boundaries but those boundaries frame our level of understanding. Some claim that certain practices, like meditation, allow momentary escapes from these constraints. Others claim that certain practices, like prayer, allow us to hear answers from the Almighty.

It could be that God simply does not speak to us at all. Does this mean that God does not exist? If you see God only in the terms prescribed by the major religions, then maybe not. This version of God is authoritarian, and personally vested in human affairs and cares uniquely about you. In other words, this type of God is anthropomorphic. Yet, God could just as easily be remote and hidden. In fact, God could be nothing more than this tableau we are in called The Universe. God may be just the universe and to the extent that we understand the Universe, we understand God.

Or perhaps God is hidden in plain sight. Like a gecko that blends into the brick façade on our house, maybe he is there but we have to look very hard to see him. That’s sort of what I believe. This was brought home again to me last week when I traipsed through the Black Hills of South Dakota. From the grandeur of the stars at night (normally unseen because of our light pollution), to the beauty of Sylvan Lake late on a sunny autumn afternoon, to the light whispering of the winds racing through the pine forests of the Black Hills, to the largely barren lands of Custer State Park where the buffalo roamed, it was hard to escape the feeling of being surrounded, if not by God, then by the sacred. It was like God was pouring out his essence. All I had to do was choose to feel God’s majesty.

Arguably, humans have learned to survive through wearing blinders. Our lives tend to be rigorously prioritized, because if we don’t put first things first, we may not survive. When you live your life this way, it is easy to tune things out. You may find though that if you can move the importance of survival to some corner of your brain, and feel the presence of nature and the now, that you will experience something far larger than yourself. If you ask me, that is God whispering in our ears.

I feel this God. For me God is not personal, but instead God is the entity that simply is and fills up all time and space. It does not speak to me directly, but reveals its majesty through nature and my senses. It has no special message directed at me, but God speaks nonetheless. God speaks in the splendor of creation in all its manifestations, a work of immense complexity and beauty. This God is found in between things and in moments of time when I choose to be aware of its majesty. It is worthy of awe and worship, although it has no particular message to me other than, “Behold, this universe!”

I believe that God is neither a journey nor a destination, but is always around us. Perhaps in order to find God rather than rifle through our holy books, we should put them down, take a long walk, and revel in God’s presence.

A certain buzz about me

If there is still a shortage of honeybees, I think they have all moved into my neighborhood. After a year or two of hardly seeing any of them, they are back, and living life with unusual frenetic intensity. This apparently means they are also being hyper-vigilant. I guess if you are trying to rebuild your colonies then protecting the nest has top priority. What it has meant for me is that I have been stung three times in a couple of weeks.

Yep, something unnatural must be going on. I literally could not recall the last time I had been stung, but it must have been so long ago that I was either a child or a teenager. My memory of being stung must be hazy, because I remembered it as a mild hurt. Actually being stung all these years later turned out to be a very painful experience.

Our neighborhood bees are getting crafty. They took me wholly unaware the first time. Who imagines they could get stung before seven o’clock in the morning? I sure did not, so I mindlessly ambled out my front door to retrieve the newspaper from my driveway. I had just placed one foot on my porch when out of nowhere a honeybee decided to land on my right palm and insert one stinger.

Ouch. I mean ouch! It took me a while to figure out what had happened. I thought maybe a thorn had penetrated my skin somehow, but there was the honeybee on the floor of my porch looking really pissed off and going through its death throes. I do what I usually do when some minor infirmity strikes and tried to ignore it. There was no evidence of the stinger still lodged in my palm. Within half an hour I was not only hurting, I was getting sweaty and short of breath. I Googled what to do about these things and aside from removing the stinger and maybe taking an antihistamine, there was little advice other than to watch for symptoms that might require an antivenin. Shortness of breath was one of them. Fortunately, that passed within an hour or so. Given my acute pain, I expected my palm to balloon up, but instead it was just red. Imagine a sharp needle about half an inch inside your palm and some sadistic person was constantly jostling it around. That’s what it felt like. And so it went for twenty-four hours or so. After that it hurt less, but the whole palm hurt off and on for a week. Meanwhile, I became very careful when retrieving my paper in the morning. I suddenly noted a nest of bees next to the walk by my porch, but felt not inclined to buy something to dislodge them. I didn’t want to get stung again and their season was coming to an end anyhow. I figured, what are my odds of being stung again so soon anyhow?

Apparently, they were greater than being struck by lightning. Last weekend I was out on our deck. I noted a few bees above the deck but paid them little mind. I was on a mission to spray paint a new screen door that I had purchased. I put down a drop cloth, laid the door horizontal on the back deck and started spraying. Whatever the manufacturers put in these cans as aerosols, it is either very attractive or annoying to bees. One of them decided he had enough, and made a “bee”line for my left forearm. I pulled out the stinger, cursed a bit and kept spray-painting. This sting hurt, but not as much as the first one. There must be less tissue on the arm compared to the palm. However, unlike the first one, it itched worse. I tried calamine lotion and then baking soda, but neither did much. My skin did get red, partly from my scratching. I must have scratched off the skin where the bee stung me, because this morning I ended up slathering the area with triple antibiotic ointment.

I figured that stinging was over at least for the season. Exiting and entering the house via the garage kept me far away from the bees. I spent this morning and afternoon doing errands, preparing for my father’s imminent remarriage tomorrow. As best I could tell, I avoided all bees. When I had finally finished the last chore of vacuuming the house and sat down at my trusty computer desk when I felt something irritating my ankle. What the heck? It was yet another bee, this one some assassin bee that had somehow gotten inside. Moreover, he decided to sting my ankle. I could find no stinger my leg is definitely irritated. I am trying a topical analgesic this time for the discomfort. As for the bee, he quickly met his maker.

Now I am getting paranoid. I Googled for recent news of beestings but found no articles indicating more people were being stung than usual. It must be something about me. Maybe it is the feminine deodorant that I have been borrowing from my wife that smells all flowery and makes them think I have some pollen free for the taking. Something about me seems to be attracting their attention, and not in a good way. For anything other than a beekeeper, three stings in less than two weeks seem definitely unnatural.

Maybe it’s a sign of the Apocalypse. Or maybe bees hate progressives like me. Or maybe they wanted to sting Sarah Palin, but I was more convenient. Or something. I think I need a beekeeper suit. The bees are definitely sending me a message.

A belated but very welcome spring

Spring arrived late this year. Perhaps this was because winter itself was delayed. Although last autumn was unusually cool, winter did not arrive in earnest until mid January. Instead, in a pattern that is becoming more common, our early winter came replete with periods of spring. There were a few days in January here in the Washington region that found people out in their shorts and basking in the sun. In early January, the warmer weather tricked some trees into flowering.

Global warming is real but that does not mean the basic weather patterns can change overnight. So when winter arrived in earnest in mid January it left us in its icy grip for eight weeks or so. For several weeks, the temperature only rarely rose above freezing. While we had no major snowstorms, we did have something that was arguably worse: sleet storms. We had two in February alone. The first storm was a whopper, leaving three inches of packed sleet on the ground. I was amazed that I could walk on top of it and my shoes would not even leave an impression. I spent four days clearing my walk and driveway. I ended up using a sidewalk edge trimmer supplemented with javelin force stabbings at the sidewalk and pavement. My progress was excruciatingly slow because it would only yield in three-inch wide or less blocks. I cannot recall any storm in the 29 years I have lived in this area that required more effort to clear. Even my bucket of ice breaking chemicals sufficed to melt no more than the top quarter inch of the sleet.

The winter cold and wind had one good effect: it forced us to pay attention to our house’s windows, which in their twenty years of use had become increasingly drafty. The new windows are on order now and will leave us $7500 poorer. We also had our heat pump’s condition assessed. It too was on its last legs. It has now been replaced with a high efficiency model that set us back another $6300.

Winter’s grasp was tenacious. About the time we figured it had left for good, it delivered a surprise early April snowstorm. The storm left little more than a dusting, but it still shocked us Washingtonians. For a day, it was hard to tell if it was snow or tree blossoms that were on our lawn. They blended in seamlessly.

Still, winter at last yielded reluctantly but not without reminding us of its stay. So far, during April average temperatures are about fifteen degrees below normal. Typically, by early April, I am riding my bike to work every day. I did not resume this habit until just last week. There was too much rain, too much in the way of high winds, and too many days where the highs peaked out in the high thirties or low forties to brave the trip.

Winter’s last gasp occurred a week ago when a Nor’easter barreled through. Aside from dropping copious amounts of rain (which we needed) it brought sustained winds of 30-40 miles an hour for a couple days. My house felt like a ship at sea. Its siding groaned and its windows rattled. My wife and I were glad we had replaced the siding a few years earlier. Some of our neighbors were less fortunate and found parts of their siding sheared off by the Nor’easter’s winds. The Nor’easter left, but it took several days for its winds to diminish. Finally on Thursday temperatures rose into the fifties. The clouds parted. The sun reappeared. Spring had finally arrived to stay.

In our area, spring does not tend to last very long. Perhaps this is why when it does arrive it is noteworthy and irrepressible. One of the joys of being a Washingtonian is to live in this area when spring arrives. Spring around here may drive those with allergies insane, but for a few weeks, its arrival overwhelms the senses. It is far more than the blossoms on the cherry tries on the national mall. It is an insanely colorful time of year. It is like watching a gorgeous sunset, except it lasts about a month. We are blessed with flowering trees of all varieties. The grass, which by summer will require regularly watering to retain its color, is now an insanely vibrant green. Flowering bushes in all their glorious Technicolor shades are omnipresent and seem on fire.

Our whole weekend turned out to have just stunningly beautiful weather. The skies were cloudless and a deep nautical blue. The air was crystal clear. The humidity was low. The temperatures were moderate but rose into the low eighties yesterday. It seemed a sin to stay indoors. We found ourselves out on our screen in deck, sitting in a hammock. Our cat basked in the fresh air and purred contentedly on the floor mat. The mild and gentle breeze rustled through our hair. The purity of the air was an elixir. To be outside was to feel peace, joy and a deep sense of connectedness again with our natural world.

Welcome spring. When I think of the mythical Garden of Eden, I have to remind myself that it is not mythical. We have it right here. Unfortunately, at best it only lasts a couple of weeks. This makes it even more important to revel in it now. Soon the heat and humidity will arrive, along with the requisite air pollution. On many summer days we will need to limit our time outside. For now, we must simply marvel at Mother Nature in all her glory. We are wrapped up in the sacred and we are awed at her majesty.