Grendel’s story

8 Nov

This is the tale of a cat who was lost for six years, and then found again. His name is Grendel, and he lives with me and three other animals in a red barn house in Asheville, North Carolina.

IMG_1943I was one of those English Lit students who actually liked Beowulf. I loved the alliteration, but I was also strangely sympathetic to the monster, Grendel, and tried to look at the situation from his perspective. He was a primal predator and he needed to eat. What better to lunch on than a bunch of drunken he-men acting like primordial heroes!

Later, when my mom went to college in her mid 60s and studied the Anglo-Saxon epic, she, too, liked Grendel. In fact, her best buddy in the class was a young football player who came in one day having just finished the reading assignment, and voiced the sad, sincere complaint, “They killed Grendel’s mom!” She and I always laughed about that phrasing, the thought that Grendel had not just a mother, but a mom.

We were equally delighted by John Gardner’s novel, Grendel, in which the monster tells his side of the story, one of isolation and, ultimately, nihilism. From Gardner’s perspective, Grendel wanted to be heroic like the men he preyed upon, but because he had been exiled from society, his values were, of necessity, not human.

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In the year 2000, I adopted two littermate kittens that were found in an abandoned barn. The fluffy calico I dubbed Chickadee, and the beautiful classic black cat was named Grendel. He was shy, but loving, the kind of creature who accepts affection somewhat apologetically and often slinks away from too much human attention.

As a kitten, Grendel had a normal mewing voice. During his “teenage stage,” he once stayed out in the woods on Mountain Springs Road for several days, perhaps undergoing some feline rite of passage. Upon his return, the guttural cry that emanated from his vocal chords seemed to herald some mysterious transformation into a semblance of his literary monster namesake. He now sounded like a combination of a Siamese with a sore throat and what mountain people call a “painther cat.”

DSC03546Grendel lived with Chickadee, Belial and Jimmy, in a timber framed shed on the property of my Kentucky cabin in the wilderness on Furnace Mountain, near the Red River Gorge. Belial and Jimmy were truly feral cats, and barely touchable, while Grendel and Chickadee were somewhat tame, but still held a distance from most people. They could all come and go as they pleased, and returned to the shed when their automatic feeder dispensed their food three times a day. Theirs was an idyllic life. I recall long walks along the forest service road near my house, trailed by two or three of the shed cats, meandering through the woods at their own leisurely pace. I loved them all, but felt the strongest connection to Grendel. He seemed a bit smarter and more refined than the others.

Changes came to Furnace Mountain in the form of unsustainable logging on adjacent properties. I sold the cabin in 2006 to live for a few years in a city – and the shed cats were not city material. So they went to live in the country with a friend, who eventually ended up taking them to Boones Creek Camp, where I had grown up in the tiny community of Trapp, near Winchester. Jimmy, who was the most skittish, vanished shortly after leaving the mountain. The other three settled into a mostly feral life, holing up like refugees in some abandoned buildings across the road from the camp, but visiting the parsonage and office for regular feedings on the porch of the house I had grown up in.

IMG_2447From early 2008 until the fall of 2010, I lived in Costa Rica and Canada working with a kayak tour operator. I thought of the cats many times, but was not in touch with anyone who knew how they were. Then I returned to Winchester, Kentucky to live with my mom, whose health was beginning to fail. With the stress of adjusting to being a caregiver, it honestly did not occur to me until February of 2012 that some of the shed cats might still be at the camp. I drove the 15 minutes out there one Sunday afternoon, and what I found amazed me. Grendel, Belial and Chickadee were all still alive and well, feasting regularly on the porch of the camp residence/office, and living across the road in the dilapidated remains of an old homestead. They looked great, and they knew me!

The next few months were hectic because by now, my mom was very ill and I was with her round-the-clock. But I would manage to bring a bag of food out to the camp once a month for Angel, the woman who now fed them. Angel had evidently been left instructions from the previous camp director, Jim Smith, in no uncertain terms: something to the effect of, “Whatever you do, do not ever abandon the responsibility of feeding these cats!”

A few months later, mid June, I got a call from Angel. She said coyotes had been seen in the area, and she suspected they had gotten two of the cats, as she now only saw one of them. “Who is left?” I inquired. It was Grendel.

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I went to see him soon as I could get away for an hour, and he walked me all around the premises of his dwelling, making his raucous bellow all the while, as if in mourning for his lost mates. He was all alone now, like the beast in Beowulf. He would not let me touch him, but he seemed to enjoy my companionship.

Since Angel was now his feeder, I instructed her to catch him when possible, and bring him to me in Winchester, where I lived with my mom. I would take him to the vet, and if he checked out fine, I’d bring him into our home to be a companion for our kitten, Oki.

Oki was incensed that another cat even existed, much less was in her home. But inside of two weeks, the two were cuddling and grooming one another. We had a monitor in my mom’s room so we could hear her calling out when she needed something, and I recall hearing Grendel, over the roar of the oxygen machine, emitting his guttural roar as my dying mother tried to sleep. She asked me once, politely, “How long will Grendel be staying with us?”

Sadly for Mother, Grendel would be staying much longer than she could; she died in late July, only a month and a half after he arrived.

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Nine months after Mom died, Grendel moved with Oki and me to North Carolina. The move was rough for him, and included an embarrassing stop at the Tennessee border to clean him up along the way. My friends Mary and Joe helped out, and when Grendel was ready to travel again, Joe said, in what has become an infamous metaphor, “Let’s get this rock star to the show.”

Now our family has gained three more beings: John, Dukkha Dog and Puppy Ivy. Grendel takes it all in stride. He loves his cushy indoor life, with Havarti cheese cut into 14 tiny cubes at least once a day, a dollop of vanilla ice cream late in the evenings, and a sunny window seat with comfy cushions for his throne. He still slinks away from affection, but always purrs when being carried or sleeping on my feet at night. He and Oki spend hours every day in their outside cabana, and go for walks in my big fenced-in back yard. Occasionally Grendel will jump the fence and stay out on his own for several hours, but he always comes home.

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Six years he was a shed cat on Mountain Springs Road, and six years he was feral and survived, thanks to Jim Smith and the camp Angels, and his own cat smarts. Now he is almost 15, and is in great shape.

Sometimes in the wee hours before dawn, he lifts up his raucous voice to the heavens and bellows out a sound that I’m sure would make even Beowulf wonder: Is he giving thanks? Does he miss his mates from the old days? Does he want to prey on a mouse? Or does he just want more of his dry catfood, NOW!

Belial (back) and Jimmy (in front) on the porch of the Mountain Springs Road cabin circa 2004.

Belial (back) and Jimmy (in front) on the porch of the Mountain Springs Road cabin circa 2004.

Belial having just moved from the mountain in December of 2006.

Belial having just moved from the mountain in December of 2006.

Chickadee when I first saw the shed cats again at the camp in Feb. 2012.

Chickadee when I first saw the shed cats again at the camp in Feb. 2012.

Mary and me, bringing food to the cats at the camp, Feb. 2012

Mary and me, bringing food to the cats at the camp, Feb. 2012

When I first brought Grendel home, Oki was incensed.

When I first brought Grendel home, Oki was incensed.

Grendel on his first day back in a home, dealing with Oki's growling.

Grendel on his first day back in a home, dealing with Oki’s growling.

Within two weeks, Oki and Grendel were close friends.

Within two weeks, Oki and Grendel were close friends.

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Oki says, so long for meow.

Oki says, so long for meow.



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Paper dolls, flow and the art of … whatever!

7 Nov

I first penned this essay back in 2008, but never published it myself. This is a slightly edited version to bring it up to the current date. Pottery by Cindi Cusick; digital painting by Kathleen Farago May.

UnknownIn his best-selling 1990 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “chick-sent-me-high-ee”) defined and explored the concept of “flow” as our experience of optimal fulfillment and engagement. Flow, whether in creative arts, athletic competition, engaging work or spiritual practice, is a deep and uniquely human motivation to excel, exceed, and triumph over limitation.

Csikszentmihalyi gives me a form of self-confidence through his concept of “flow” that I confess I never gained from the term “art.” As a society, we tend to think of “art” as primarily the creative arts – music, visual art forms and creative writing being the three that most readily come to mind. But those of us not blessed with talent in one of these areas are often left feeling like the ugly duckling or the Cinderella in a world full of artistically graced swans and stepsisters.

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From childhood, I recall the many lessons (piano, ballet, tap, violin and voice) my mother was enterprising enough to involve me in – all of which gave me my true appreciation for music, but none of which “stuck” in the sense that I ever felt from them “optimal fulfillment and engagement.” Instead, I felt sick on the curvy roads to and from the lessons, mortal fear at recitals, self-consciousness about my too-thin body at dance reviews, and basically overwhelmed by what I call the perfectionist’s script for self-defeat: with so many things to do, how could I ever do any one thing well?

simplicity-8153To escape from the pressure, I’d retreat to my bedroom where hundreds of paper dolls waited to come to life under my direction. Silly as it sounds, for an only child with a vivid imagination, the world of girls and boys cut out from Simplicity magazine – evenly matched in size and each with his or her own intricately developed emotional and psychological makeup, set of academic skills, and personal history – was the key to power. This game cast me as the director, organizer and creator. I set up detailed schedules for each person and then watched with glee as my random schedule-making schemes placed Janice in a science class with Tom, a boy she had a crush on, or Jeff in choir with Candy, a girl he had broken up with and no longer wished to see.

il_340x270.661762228_od2hAside from the social element, students gained skills that helped them determine their future careers; they made friends who would be with them for life, and siblings supported each other through difficult family issues. So empowering was this “flow” that I played with these dolls long past the “appropriate” age, and can vividly recall nervously throwing the covers down to hide all my dolls in their classrooms (individual squares on a quilt, actually) when my father unexpectedly knocked on my door when I stayed home from school with a cold as a high school freshman.

That very year, another form of flow superseded that of the dolls. My English teacher, Debby Douglas, was handing me back my umpteenth paper marked with an A++ and she must have seen something in my face that betrayed a certain disappointment and realized that I needed encouragement that defied expectation; I was used to getting these A’s no matter what I did. “Other students get A’s,” she said, “but you need to understand that what you do is in a whole other category: this is something you do like no one else. You should really pursue it.” From that moment on, I had my flow. I knew where I wanted to go, what I wanted to do – the world revolved around words, writing, communication: that was my music, my “art.”

And yet, still that word “art” did it’s best to make me feel left out. Because, save for bad lyrics written during some romantic squabble, I was never a creative writer. In college, I won contests for critical/analytical essays dissecting the language of Spencer and Shakespeare poems, short stories by Hemingway – even the lyrics of songs by Joni Mitchell. I was a nerdy writer, while those around me were poets, painters and potters, violinists, vocalists and artistic visionaries.

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And then one day, years later, when I had my own business as a freelance writer, I decided to face the challenge. I knew I’d envied my friends who were musicians and artists too long. But why? Was it because I had not yet found that “deep and uniquely human motivation to excel, exceed and triumph over limitation”? “What is my art?” I asked myself. What is it that truly puts me into the world of “flow”? My writing did it, yes. But often, in order to make a buck, I was forced to write about topics for which I held no real passion. So what was my passion? How could I make a difference?

It was then that I remembered the paper dolls. And through a good, hard look at the nature of that experience, I realized that I had not just been playing a game; I’d been grooming myself, teaching myself, preparing myself for my future contributions to the world. My true gift was bringing people together, connecting and directing them to do great things, allowing them to support one another, and providing them a means to learn their true callings.

This realization took a shape that rapidly sprung to life in the form of a non-profit organization, Greater Opportunities for Women, to help low-income women in Kentucky learn about their talents and develop better job skills while supporting one another in a group, attending classes together for ten weeks. While developing and implementing this complex program, I felt like “an artist” in the truest sense, staying up all night in a rush of inspiration to finish creating an aspect of this intricately detailed work. I was like the conductor of a symphony, directing a team of volunteers to work together to pull off complex pieces of the “music” that I could not perform alone. It was near the end of my four-year endeavor that my dear friend Paul Ramey pointed out that unlike that of a writer, musician or visual artist, my social form of art was four-dimensional because it touched the realm of possibility and actualized people to realize their dreams.

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Once when one of the 60 women who attended the program decided to drop out, my mother remarked, “Unlike the paper dolls, GO Women don’t always stay where you put them.” Always perceptive, my mother hit the nail on the head with this statement. And ultimately, control freak that I was, perhaps that’s why I eventually handed the executive director role off to someone else. Perhaps I just couldn’t maintain that level of artistic intensity for longer than four years; after all, artists have their “periods.” But I probably learned more from the adventure than anyone else; I learned that art, for me, is whatever gets me “in the flow,” whatever challenges me to go beyond my limits, and to excel and triumph in new ways.

Today I have the privilege to work in publishing, bringing my writing, editing and organizational skills to bear on a variety of publications, both in print and online. I feel that familiar sense of optimal fulfillment and engagement when I am organizing materials for a story, writing e-mails to sources explaining the kind of quote I need from them, helping another editor create a framework for their publication, or proofreading a magazine to ensure it is as error-free as possible. I love working with words, I always have, and this is what gets me in Csikszentmihalyi’s flow. This is my art.

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Watching my fiancé, John, build our new house, and hearing his thought processes as he develops his plans, reminds me precisely of the mental steps I go through to create an essay or an article. I can tell he is entering into his flow when he is planning to build, and fully immersed in it while carrying out those plans. It’s a joy to experience.

I will never cease to be inspired by friends who deliver truly creative writing, stirring pieces of music and awesome visual arts that communicate a unique personality and artistic sensitivity. I know carvers, dancers, quilt makers, film directors, photographers, potters and pianists, gourd painters and guitarists, sculptors, singers and songwriters – who all make me feel awe and amazement. But I am just as inspired by those who express their art in non-traditional ways. One friend creates art through yoga, another through massage. I know beekeepers, camp directors, financial analysts, hair dressers and hikers, mentors and mothers, pastors and pharmacists, who all make an art of what they create when in their flow. Some even make an art out of helping others to die gracefully and with dignity.

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“Come, my friends. ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.” These words from Tennyson’s Ulysses, some of the few that stick in memory from my studies in English Literature, continue to send chills up my spine each time I hear them. Just as Ulysses rallied around him his old sailing buddies to go upon a new, and perhaps final, quest, we are never too old to set out on a new voyage, and see the world in a different way than we ever could before.

We all have to challenge ourselves to go beyond our limits – limits we have largely, though often unwittingly, set for ourselves. Whatever challenges you, whatever you wish that you could do, but fear you can’t – I encourage you to give it a try. You might just become a new kind of artist – with a whole new sense of flow.

Watch a neat video about flow.

22 Easters gone: Lessons from my dad

19 Apr

IMG_5064Legend has it that, as a child, I slept through a lot of my dad’s sermons. In fact, I can remember doing this. I’d curl up beside my mom on the padded pew and drift off into the deep slumber of an active preacher’s kid growing up at a camp, lulled by the rich and familiar tone of my dad’s stentorian voice.

Even in my sleep I believe the structure of the sermons reached me on some level, as when I consider the way I construct my own essays today, I believe they are derived somewhat from the sermons my dad so eloquently delivered, speeches that were essentially essays themselves.

Dad had a great formula. He’d start on a personal level, relating an everyday down-to-earth anecdote to establish a bond with his listeners. Then he’d read a passage of scripture and do some analysis of it, bringing to bear on the text the words of contemporary scholars, professors and his own insights. To me as a child, this part seemed to go on and on.

But then came the part I liked best: some story or illustration that, at first, would seem completely out of the blue. When he’d start telling this story, some compelling, magical quality came into his voice that usually caused me to wake up to listen to it. I learned that the tale would have pertinence to the topic beyond all expectation. As the voice of Francis Ross Figart, Jr., built up into an insistent crescendo, it suddenly became clear to all that the point of this analogy was exactly what the scripture was saying.

I remember two such illustrations in particular: one about not judging and one about trust.

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The first story was about how my dad went to the airport in Louisville in the late 60s to pick up a “summer missionary” from some other state who would be working with the small churches in Eastern Kentucky to help them run programs like Vacation Bible School. I think her plane was delayed and when he picked her up they basically had to drive directly to a church service up in the mountains.

When Dad met the young woman at the airport, he was startled to see that she was dressed impeccably from head to toe in an expensive white suit that was the fashion of the day. Dad worried on the way to the hollers whether this gal knew what she was getting into, and was concerned she might not be well suited to work with the people in the impoverished area they were driving to.

As they made their way up into the foothills of the Appalachians, it was evident that recent rains had brought flash flooding and creeks were running high. When they got to the small mountain mission, the people from the community were also arriving and a group of little children were playing in the churchyard.

KY - two girlsUnlike the new summer missionary, these kids weren’t wearing their Sunday best. Families in that area often did not have running water, kids were usually covered in coal dust, and in fact, Dad said, they had gotten pretty muddy playing on the soggy grounds of the tiny church.

Dad held his breath and watched as this woman who was dressed so impeccably got out of the station wagon, and immediately went toward the little kids, getting down on her knees to greet them with hugs and smiles. They instantly loved her because she talked differently and was so beautiful and interesting. She paid not one bit of attention to her attire, nor did the kids, and she turned out to be the best person for the job he could have ever imagined.

lrc-87-451x300The other story was set on the campus of Kentucky’s Georgetown College, my dad’s alma mater where he was number one dude on the debate team. One of his good friends was a fellow student who, if my memory serves, was named Ernie. The fact that Ernie was completely blind didn’t prevent him from being totally self-sufficient. He walked all over campus by himself because he had learned where everything was; he didn’t let his disability slow him down.

One fall, Dad had just arrived back on campus to go through registration for the new semester. He was walking out of the admissions building and looked across the quad and saw Ernie, striding rapidly as usual across the courtyard. At the same instant that he saw Ernie, Dad also noticed that during the summer break some construction had begun on the main campus thoroughfare: where normally there had been a sidewalk, now there was a gaping pit, taller than a person. Ernie was confidently pacing right toward that huge hole!

imagesErnie was pretty far across the campus, but my dad had this booming voice that those who knew him distinctly remember. He called out the command: “Ernie, STOP!” And as Dad’s voice echoed across the quad, just one step before disaster, Ernie did. He recognized the deep voice of his friend, trusted it, and obeyed. Dad went running over to Ernie to explain, and the two had a good laugh.

Just before my mom died, she and I talked about these illustrations and she remembered them too. Maybe she recalled the details a little differently than I do – and even knew the scripture that went with them – but that doesn’t matter to me. What matters is, the messages behind these modern day parables got through – to both of us.

My turn to pull it all together.

One of the big reasons I came to Western North Carolina has to do with the adage of not judging a book by its cover. Here in Asheville, it’s common to see stereotypes of dress defied; often the person in a crowd who most resembles a homeless vagrant may be the one who has the most money; I have seen it over and over again in the retail store where I work. Conversely, it’s not unusual for those who appear in the most fashionable attire to be the nitty gritty, hard working volunteers who help needy animals and children with deep commitment. Grubby Appalachian Trail hikers walking into a mountain town may just as well be doctors or lawyers as students or “trustafarians.” I love being in an area that has this equalizing factor.

My dad would probably call it the voice of God, but I think of it as my intuition when something tells me I need to slow down lest I fail to notice a gaping hole in front of me. Whatever it is, when it says, “stop,” I trust and stop. And when it says, “go,” well, as Daddy would say, you better believe… I go!

Trusting that intuition once again as part of an almost two-year long transition to a new place and new life, I’ve become engaged to an amazing person who defies many stereotypes and possesses wisdom and balance that I haven’t encountered for about 22 years.

Dedicated to Ross Figart, Sept. 30, 1926-April 10, 1992.

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50, here I come: 11 lessons from my 40s

24 Feb

Tomorrow I turn 50. This afternoon I got a birthday message from Laura, a younger friend I met in Switzerland around the time I turned 40. Over the years I’ve known her, Laura has had many ups and downs and now has created a successful culinary business for herself on a Swiss farm. We have only been together twice, but shared a deep connection and enjoyed comparing notes about how to deal with life’s challenges. After an initial greeting, her opening words were these:

390864_352805314794540_1782318286_n“I often think about you and imagine you are happy. 50 now… I remember last time when you were 40. Loads of questions and thoughts about life: How is it today? How did these past 10 years help you find peace and answers?”

Wow! These immense, broad questions came to me at just the right moment, as I’d already been formulating the vague idea for a blog to reflect on the past decade in some comprehensive way.

My 40s were incredible, and I migrated through many changes, the culmination of which was the death of my mom, and the realization that she was the true love of my life – even as I was flitting about on several continents during my stint in the travel industry. Finally going home to Kentucky to help her die was the best decision I ever made and although I didn’t do it perfectly, I was strong and I helped her live her last days the way she wanted to.

IMG_0909In 2013, I sold a house, moved, rented for six months, got a part-time job, and then bought a house and renovated it… all of which have led me to my current situation, a new resident of Asheville, NC, still recovering from loss, but growing stronger as I connect with my new community, and find my niche socially and professionally.

What follows is a collection of salient lessons from the past decade, each supported by a favorite quote.

LESSON 1: LOVE YOURSELF

“The most important relationship you have in life is the relationship you have with yourself.” ~Diane von Furstenberg

IMG_2646Last year’s birthday came at a time when I was still grieving the loss of my mom so heavily that I expected others in my life to somehow compensate for the internal void of having no parent left to celebrate my life in the way that only parents can. I learned then the final lesson of independence: that I really needed to only have expectations of my own self, and to face the fact that I was truly alone – and be OK with that. And that helped me to focus on my relationship with myself more in the past year than I ever had previously.

LESSON 2: LOVE OTHERS

“The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.” ~Thomas Merton

This is only common sense, but with those expectations mentioned in the first lesson always creeping into relationships, keeping the right attitude toward love of any kind can be a challenge. It’s good to be reminded day after day that what we love about others is what makes them different from us and it our not our job to shape them or mold them into something we think is best for them – or for us. I think I finally learned this lesson during my 40s and am ready to practice it well in the next decade.

My last Friday morning

LESSON 3: ACCEPT WHAT IS

“Stop resisting. So much of our anguish is created when we are in resistance. So much relief, release and change are possible when we accept, simply accept.” ~Melody Beatty

During my 40s, I think I adopted a more natural acceptance of reality, learning more about not pushing for things but allowing them to come to me organically. A huge lesson of grief is the acceptance that you cannot change what has happened, what is. Learning to relax into the “luxury of grief” and allow it to consume you for a period of time is actually healthy, and takes you on a tour through all of your emotions so that none is left unvisited – and then you are ready to move on, to move forward.

LESSON 4: BE HERE NOW

IMG_6134“If you no longer want to create pain for yourself and others… then don’t create any more time… realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have. Make the Now the primary focus of your life.” ~Eckhart Tolle

I can’t stress enough how much reading Eckhart Tolle helped to shape my outlook during my 40s. It was like a homecoming finding his writing, because so much of what he says, I feel I’ve always operated on, and just thought that no one else was like me. These were lessons hard-learned and I made plenty of mistakes, but meditation and focusing on the Now helped me prepare to help my mom die, and live through it and on beyond it with a new enthusiasm for life.

LESSON 5: BE STILL

“It is said that all you are seeking is also seeking you, that if you lie still, sit still, it will find you. It has been waiting for you for a long time. Once it is here, don’t move away. Rest. See what happens next.” ~Clarissa Pinkola Estes

As a natural progression of learning not to push so hard for what you want and to accept what is, there comes a realization that you are moving toward things as they are also moving toward you – that its not up to you to facilitate getting there yourself; the movement is one greater than you can orchestrate. This doesn’t mean do nothing; it means be open, listen and conserve energy in preparation for what is coming rather than spending it all. A great convergence is occurring and things are being worked out that you cannot imagine. So be still.

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LESSON 6: BE IN NATURE

“I have passed the Rubicon of staying out. I have said to myself, that way is not homeward; I will wander further from what I have called my home – to the home which is forever inviting me. In such an hour the freedom of the woods is offered me, and the birds sing my dispensation. In dreams the links of life are united; we forget that our friends are dead; we know them as of old.” ~Henry David Thoreau

Time in nature I always find to be my greatest teacher. Moving to Asheville was largely about connecting to natural areas and a sustainable lifestyle that values the environment. From my base in my new home here in the mountains, my intentions are set to contribute personally and professionally to the health of our natural resources, our true home. Through moving in this realm I know I will be comforted and cared for in many ways yet unforeseeable.

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LESSON 7: BE ALONE

“To make the right choices in life, you have to get in touch with your soul. To do this, you need to experience solitude, which most people are afraid of, because in the silence you hear the truth and know the solutions.” ~Deepak Chopra

I remember at a younger age a feeling that for any experience to be truly meaningful, I had to share it with someone. As I’ve aged, I’ve become more and more comfortable with having amazing solo experiences, and enjoying them just for me, not even telling anyone about them. But this took a long time for me. As an only child, it was a hard lesson; I wanted to always be with others. This past year I’ve been alone more than ever before, and now I even have my own house. I confess I’m happier when others are visiting, but my alone time does provide many answers and insights. I feel I have more balance in this respect now than ever before.

LESSON 8: GROW

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” ~Albert Einstein

As we continue to evolve into higher consciousness and greater awareness, we find ourselves able to tackle challenges that previously seemed beyond our grasp. Lessons learned become the foundation for new ways of taking care of our self, interacting with others and moving through our sphere of existence. Suddenly some things that always seemed hard in the past are now parts of everyday life. This is growth.

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LESSON 9: EMBRACE SURPRISES

“So hold your head high
and don’t be afraid
to march in the front
of your own parade
If you’re still my small babe
or you’re all the way grown
my promise to you
is you’re never alone

You are my angel, my darling, my star
And my love will find you, wherever you are.”

~Nancy Tillman from “Wherever You Are, My Love Will Find You”

Whenever I have extra time at my job at The Compleat Naturalist, I take a moment to read some of our wonderful children’s books. Many of them remind me of the love of my parents, and none more so than “Wherever You Are, My Love Will Find You.”

I had thought that once I found romantic love again, I would be so sad that my new partner could not meet my parents or know them that it would make the relationship somehow impossible. But something happened that I could never have imagined.

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I met someone who loves me in so much the same way that my parents did, that it is as if this person was sent to continue that deep connection – and that through him, their love has found me. So what I thought would be a desire for them to have met each other is transformed into a serendipitous feeling that they are the same energy, and know one another through understanding and loving me. This is a form of being surprised by joy that I could never have anticipated. I feel that all the other lessons somehow prepared me to be open for this one!

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LESSON 10: KEEP MOVING FORWARD

“Inner strength comes only to those who move forward in the face of adversity.” ~ Phil Stutz & Barry Michels in “The Tools”

The Andean Torrent Duck spends its entire life swimming upstream against a strong current. You can see some cool video of it in the PBS nature movie “An Original Duckumentary.” This species, now in decline due to pollution, forest destruction and hydroelectric damming, really inspires me! No matter what your passion or intuition, it’s all about picking a path and moving forward on it… whether you’ve got the perfect plan or not. Sometimes going out on a limb will create adverse situations, but learning to persevere through the storms will make us stronger – and help us appreciate the calmer days.

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LESSON 11: DON’T FEAR MISTAKES

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something. So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life. Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it. Make your mistakes, next year and forever.” ~Neil Gaiman

IMG_0804_2My closest girlfriend in my new town I met through my time in Costa Rica with Bruce Smith of Seascape Kayak Tours. Nina is a constant inspiration and has given me a great deal of emotional support in my new life here. She posted this quote before the dawn of 2014, but it is apt for the eve of a new decade for me as well. It sums up much of the feeling behind this blog, in that I intend it to be helpful to others, and in no way to say that I have not made tons of mistakes along the way. I have made them… and I encourage you to make them too. And then forgive yourself, and move forward.

50, here I come.

Photos by Joe Lamirand, John Beaudet, Frances Figart

Healing hearts through genetic comfort

10 Feb

As an only child, I understood sibling relationships vicariously through the way my parents each related to their brothers and sisters.

262144_1782171397263_2141167_nWhen my dad passed away suddenly at age 65 back in 1992, I was particularly empathetic and curious about how this shocking loss might be experienced by his younger brother, my Uncle Jack (shown here with me and his wife, my Aunt Mary Nelle).

I was reminded of this when, recently, a close friend lost her older sister, age 64 when she died. My concern for my friend has caused me once again to be struck by the contemplation of a sibling loss.

Some of the books I’ve read on grief since losing my mom in 2012 suggest that the loss of one’s brother or sister can be more difficult to deal with than that of a parent. There are many reasons for this, one of which is that society doesn’t expect it to be so tough and therefore peer support is not as strong. Another reason is the light a sibling death can shed on one’s own mortality. A huge reason is all the memories that only a sibling shares. I’m glad that my friend has two brothers to provide her with “genetic” reminders of the sister who is now gone.

fireplace_grill_company565063When I was a kid, my parents did a lot of special things to “make up” for the fact that I didn’t have a sibling playmate. On winter weekends, they let me “camp out” on the living room couch near the fireplace. I loved this arrangement because I knew my dad would get up and put logs on the fire a couple of times a night. While half asleep, it was comforting to hear him tending the fire, and I’d often wake completely up just to watch him shifting the logs with the fire poker. When morning rolled around, Dad was the first one up, and I’d hear him in the adjoining kitchen, quietly and methodically pacing about, opening first the fridge, then the drawers and cabinets, taking out a bowl and utensils, and cutting up fruit as he prepared his cereal.

Some years after my dad died, I visited his little brother Jack and wife Mary Nelle at their home in the beautiful pine forest of Bastrop, Texas, near Austin. I had always loved hanging out with them as a child, so being there was a treat. I spent the night on the living room couch just off the kitchen. When morning rolled around, I slowly became aware of an eerily familiar and somehow immensely comforting sound: the quiet pacing, the opening and closing of drawers, cabinets and fridge, the same methodical dicing… a morning ritual performed as it could only be done by someone who had some of the same genetic makeup as my father.

Because he was like my dad in some small ways, my uncle represented a healing presence.

IMG_0724Just last month I visited my home state of Kentucky over a four-day weekend, stopping in to see many of my closest friends there. I also called on a few friends of my late mother’s, not so much because they wanted to see me, but because they longed to be with her again, and I could bring them some small and comforting piece of her – almost like the genetic code could allow my mother to visit them through me.

308123_282943175064098_202550860_nIn early September of 2011, more than 1,500 homes were lost in Bastrop’s pinewood forests due to wildfires spread by a “perfect storm” of weather conditions. Jack and Mary Nelle lost their home, most of their possessions and all their trees. They moved forward in the face of adversity and, as a testament to their inner strength and good sense of humor, their attitude was invariably, “Well, it was easier than having a yard sale.”

542445_447718408586573_811013158_nAlthough it was a tough decision, Jack and Mary Nelle decided to rebuild on their decimated land. When my uncle came to Kentucky for my mom’s funeral in August of 2012, the construction was already under way. Now they are in the new house and volunteers have just this month reforested the property with seedlings to begin the long process of nurturing it back to health. The healing has begun.

I haven’t seen Jack’s new home yet. And so, on Wednesday, I’m leaving for the Lone Star State with my new friend John, who grew up in East Texas and lived in Austin for many years. I’m hoping to enjoy a bit more of that “healing genetic comfort” that comes from being with my uncle, and I’m hoping I can provide him some small reminders of my parents as well this Valentine’s Day.………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

1794577_733948516630226_1862585834_n“Hooray!!! We now live in a pine forest again! Volunteers with treefolks.org planted over 1000 pine seedlings on our property this week! Check back in about 30 years to see how they’ve grown and matured!” ~ Jack Figart, Feb. 2, 2014

Image 4Presenting my friend Nina with a heart rock that I found for her while she was attending the memorial service for her sister Robin, Feb. 2, 2014.

IMG_0812My Aunt Mary Nelle has designed and made elaborate quilts for many years. I have at least four of them. She lost dozens in the fire. When I moved into my new home in September 2013, she sent me this handmade Mola, my first house-warming gift.

IMG_7397My Uncle Jack with me at my parents’ grave in Kentucky in August 2012. Most of my mother’s ashes were scattered in the Kinniconnick Creek in Lewis County, Kentucky. Some were mixed into the dirt here.

Hike #10: Coontree Loop

10 Sep

512DbD3pegL._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_Several weeks ago I visited a trail that I learned about from a great new book collecting 35 trails in and around Asheville. The author is Jennifer Pharr Davis, who took on the entire Appalachian Trail solo at age 21; since then, she has hiked the AT twice more, setting endurance and speed records. She is going to be a guest of The Compleat Naturalist (where I work) Friday, Nov. 15, to speak as part of our “Meet the Naturalist” series.

The trail I chose to explore is called the Coontree Loop. It’s actually what Pharr Davis calls a “balloon,” which means there is a “string” that you hike in on, and then the trail divides into two directions. I went left, at the book’s suggestion, so that the grade would not be as steep heading up to the ridgeline.

One of the great things about this little hiking guide is that it shows a diagram of each hike’s elevation gain. This one is basically a typical bell curve: the hiker starts out going up up up, and finishes going down down down.

Something else that sets Five-Star Trails: Asheville apart from other area guides is that all the trails are rated for scenery, condition, difficulty, solitude and appropriateness for children. Also provided is a list of which of the 35 hikes are best for: convenience, geology, history, kids, scenery, seclusion, waterfalls, wildflowers and wildlife.

IMG_2156Pharr Davis divides her book into geographical sections: Central, North, East, South and West. Coontree Loop is in the South section and is part of Pisgah National Forest not far from the town of Brevard. It is accessed across US 276 from the popular Coontree Picnic and Parking Area, which is right beside picturesque Coontree Creek, also visible from much of the loop itself, along with another small mountain stream.

The weather was perfect for mid summer and the dense canopy on this trail provided a natural cooling system that comforts the ascending hiker. However, I was thankful that I had chosen to bring along my Camelback to stay completely hydrated during the somewhat strenuous climb.

One of the mild disappointments of hiking the Coon Tree Loop in summer is that after one has ascended approximately 1,000 feet, the reward of a sweeping view of the landscape below is never delivered. The upper part of the trail is a wooded ridge, whose overlooks of Chestnut Knob and Black Mountain are only easily visible during winter.

Going downhill is always easier for me than up, but for those with knee concerns, this trail may not be the best choice. Pharr Davis warns that during rainy periods the descent can be tricky due to some erosion; she suggests bringing hiking poles.

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While I’ll never have the endurance of a Jennifer Pharr Davis, I am thrilled that I can tackle a trail with the short but steep elevation gain of Coontree Loop. As I write this, exactly 30 years ago this week I was on a respirator in an intensive care unit in Kansas, having had a code blue – I stopped breathing following an asthmatic episode. For years after that I was on many asthma meds and rarely walked far. Today I take only seasonal allergy meds, keep a mostly unused inhaler on hand and get out in nature and hike as much as I can.

I’ll remember Coontree Loop as a beautiful short trail providing a nice, steady workout. Wading in the rocky Coontree Creek at the picnic area is an exhilarating way to cool off and relax after the hike.

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Distance traveled: 3.7 miles

Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous with some erosion

Flora of note: sycamore, beech, hemlock, mountain laurel, rhododendron, several fern and moss varieties, oyster mushrooms, red brick top mushrooms, Heal All or Prunella Vulgaris

Some photos by Nate Miller

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Hike #9: Pink Beds Trail

13 Jun

As I suspected would happen upon moving to Western North Carolina, my hiking is starting to get ahead of my blogging. I hiked this trail the last day of May, and want to return soon.

The Pink Beds Trail is in “The Cradle of Forestry in America,” not far from the Blue Ridge Parkway. The name is derived from the fact that there are many mountain laurel and rhododendron plants here, which, when in full bloom, make the trail pink. I, however, prefer to think of it as the land of ferns.

IMG_0144I first visited the trail two years ago, almost exactly, and I think I need to return in a few more weeks when the pinkness should really be happening. So I’ve never seen it in its full hue.

My favorite thing about the trail is that it’s a 4.3-mile loop around a high-elevation valley, but with only a 500-foot elevation gain – so it’s a good one for a group with people of varying endurance and hiking experience. If you want to cut the loop short, there is another trail bisecting Pink Beds (Barnett Branch).

The trail passes through several different micro-ecosystems, the fern haven being the most picturesque. I’ve never seen so many ferns together in one place. It’s like the forest is carpeted with them and you can see into it for miles, it seems.

It also passes through mountain bogs, which are pretty rare from what I understand – and there are rare plants here: Swamp Pink, for one. Beavers have done some damage to the forest here by damming the river. You’ll also stay close to streams most of the way, which is refreshing and convenient if you have a dog for a companion (which I don’t, yet, but I’m thinking ahead for my future hound).

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The Hike WNC web site, which provides an amazingly detailed description, a GPS map and directions, ranks this as one the best hikes in Western North Carolina. I plan to bring several friends on this trail later this summer when they visit me. If you are reading this and you want to go, just let me know. From where I’m living, I can actually drive to it along the parkway at elevation without going through town!

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Distance traveled: 4.3 miles

Difficulty: Easy with some roots and water crossings

Flora of note: tall pines, oak, tulip poplar, rhododendron, mountain laurel, ferns

Some photos by Nate Miller

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Oh, and a bonus, just after you turn right out of the Pink Beds Trail parking lot, there is a cool gravel road (Mills River) on your right that you can explore before heading back up to the parkway. One section along it has very tall older pines planted in perfect rows (shown above).

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The inseparable nature of sorrow and joy

20 May

When I first arrived in at my new place in Asheville mid April, I met a new friend – an articulate, sociable, industrious, healthy and accomplished retiree in the community where I live. A few weeks ago, I happened into a conversation with this person and learned that, like me, he too had lost a family member recently.

I shared how my 81-year-old mother and I had worked very hard together to make her impending death the best transition that it could possibly be, both of us knowing full well that the outcome we were moving toward was, indeed, her death – which knowledge only barely, I think, prepared us both for the final separation.

Joel and IQMy new friend then shared how he received a call on May 21, 2011, informing him that his only son, a vibrant, successful and extremely athletic 38-year-old, had been tragically killed in an accident.

My friend also shared a tenderly compiled scrapbook chronicling his son’s life from early childhood through his teens and on into adulthood. The numerous pictures spoke volumes: the curly-headed boy smiling with his family, the dreadlocked teen playing with his sisters, the mature athlete excelling in extreme sports, the affectionate uncle hanging out with both hisjoel and ella nieces (shown here), the professional young man traveling the world, playing golf with his dad in Ireland… This person was obviously a larger-than-life character, someone who embraced living fully with each and every day he was on earth.

Amid the tastefully intimate collection of photos, mementos, magazine articles, obituaries and memorial program was a Father’s Day card given by the son a few years ago. A section of its hand-written personal message struck a chord because I recognized some of the same sentiments I had written to my own parents when they were alive:

“Colorado, California, Oregon, Washington – I got to see them all, but not without your enthusiasm and support. A lot of fathers of my friends don’t talk to their children or don’t have much of a relationship with them. It’s very sad and every time I meet someone on the road who is out of touch with their parents, I feel so fortunate. I have a father who is curious and active in participating in my life. I want you to know how much confidence that gives me and how lucky I feel.”

As I wiped away the tears, I hoped this card with its precious message could somehow comfort the grieving father, who surely knows that the connection he shared with his son – transcending so many of the material world’s distances, distractions, trials and trivialities – made both their lives richer and fuller.

Joel and dad, Anniston AL 2009

This experience came to me at an amazingly relevant time because just the night before, I had come to an important decision to embark on a journey that will undoubtedly reconnect me with my own parents.

As children, we tend not to listen to our parents. It’s one of the universal ways we learn to think for ourselves. But when our parents are gone, we wish we could know all the things they were trying to tell us, and we wish we could hear their voices speaking to us again, if only just one more time.

Over the months since my mother’s death, I have made countless decisions about which things to keep, and which to sell or give to special family friends. Now that I’ve sold the family home and moved to a new state, the suitcases, boxes and tubs have dwindled to one particular group of clear plastic containers that I have carried with me for many years – within them, thousands of pieces of paper. And it has slowly dawned on me that what I’ve dismissed as a packrat obsession with all things written is now actually the key to hearing my parents’ voices once again: I have kept every single card and letter either one of them ever sent to me.

So, on July 24, 2013, the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death, I plan to begin to re-read the letters written to me by my parents throughout my life. And, as you can probably guess, I will write the story of what I learn.

We can never know the full extent of suffering of those around us. Nor can we comprehend the depth of another’s joy.

Joel- photo of self- snowMy new friend Steve’s son, Joel, died in an avalanche two years ago while fully immersed in the outdoors sport that he loved the most, backcountry skiing. In a memorial to Joel, Steve shared part of a familiar quote from Kahlil Gibran, which had been shared with him by a sensitive 18-year-old hotel clerk where the family was staying to attend Joel’s funeral. I think it contains great comfort for those who are grieving – which, when we have lost a parent or a child, I believe we do to some degree for the rest of our lives.

“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven? And is not the lute that soothes your spirit the very wood that was hollowed with knives? When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight. Some of you say, ‘Joy is greater than sorrow,’ and others say, ‘Nay, sorrow is the greater.’ But I say unto you, they are inseparable.”

Joel on top of mountain

In honor and remembrance of Joel, an indomitable spirit.

Hike #8: Laurel River Trail

18 May

A week ago, I found myself alone in my new town on Mother’s Day weekend, and decided to do a solo hike to a place I’d been before, the Laurel River Trail.

IMG_9851When I left Asheville around noon, it was starting to rain, but I decided to think positively and by the time I’d passed the turn for Marshall and reached the gravel parking lot near the intersection of Hwy 25/70 and Hwy 208 in Madison County, I’d made it out from under the clouds.

Not long after you set off from the parking lot, a string of out-of-commission train cars can be seen resting peacefully through the trees on your left. Converted from an old railroad, this trail follows the tumultuous Laurel River as it reaches the larger French Broad River, for which many things are named in Western North Carolina, including my favorite chocolate lounge.

What’s most energizing about this trail is one’s proximity to the ever invigorating river. Not only the sights, but the accompanying constant rushing sound of water gushing through the rocks, keeps one feeling perky and quite alive!

When I visited here two years ago, I saw highly skilled and experienced kayakers making their way through the awe-inspiring rapids, which are ranked at Class III-IV at normal water levels. But on this day, if I’d seen a paddler, I would have considered them “loco,” as the water level was very high from recent rain and the current extremely swift through the boulder-strewn passes.

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I usually keep my camera in my pack until something comes along to prompt me to get it out. Last Saturday that something was a cute young garter snake, which I watched glide off into the woods and into a hiding spot from which she peered out at me curiously for quite a while. I thought how many times we are probably watched as hikers by a silent and camouflaged resident that we’d never be able to spot unless we happened to see them retire to their hideout.

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The Laurel River trail is ideal for families or groups in which someone is moving slower, as it’s fairly level and there is little elevation gain. However, low areas can retain mud and in many places your path is covered with thick roots, and in others laced with embedded rocks. Footing can be tricky in these sections.

IMG_9864After about two miles in, the sky began to turn dark and I took this as a warning sign to turn around. About a mile from the trailhead, the rain did come – and I was prepared with my trusty Patagonia rain jacket, in which I stayed dry and warm. I kept a slow pace in the slick mud, made my way out while watching the water beside me slowly rising, and headed for the French Broad Chocolate Lounge.

Distance traveled: 4 miles

Difficulty: easy with some mud, root and rock obstacles

Flora of note: rhododendron, mountain Laurel, pine, maple, oak

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The elusive white squirrel

30 Apr

When I started visiting Western North Carolina, I was enticed to consider moving here by the notion of living where more wildlife viewings are possible – a value that has driven my choices all my life. Over a couple of years of visits, I was fortunate enough to see a mother bear and two cubs, a bobcat and – on one visit to Brevard – white squirrels!

Legend has it the first two white squirrels in Brevard were escapees from an overturned carnival truck back in the 40s – and the dominant gene prevailed among the squirrel population of that region. During the past year, I’ve heard locals mention having seen them closer to Asheville, in Hendersonville and Candler.

So imagine my delight upon hearing from my new landlord that there are a couple of white squirrels that make Town Mountain their home. Figuring it might take quite a while to see the elusive creatures (they seem to know they are easy targets and shy away from movement), I settled into my apartment in the clouds two weeks ago without giving too much thought to the prospect of spotting them.

And yet, on the morning after spending my first night in my new place, no sooner had I driven around the first bend out of my driveway, than I suddenly saw a furry white flash dart in front of my Prius. Looking to the right, I could just make out a flamboyant tail the color of Edgar Winter’s hair disappearing over the bank and into the terraced yard below.

Since then, I’ve seen the squirrels several times, and even been lucky enough to point them out to my friends. On one recent stroll I confirmed that indeed at least two exist here, as I saw them simultaneously, vigorously digging up hidden nuggets in the dirt and cautiously staying out of range of my camera.

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Yesterday I took a walk around my neighborhood with the express purpose of capturing one with my zoom. I did succeed, although my evasive subject preferred to be photographed ass first, as you can see in this short series.

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I’ll attempt to get more and better photographs of these charismatic yet timid beasts. And I’d like to ask you to e-mail me at ffigart@gmail.com a photograph of your favorite member of the animal kingdom that you see within a mile of your home along with a short caption about your sightings. I’ll collect and post these in a blog after May 15.

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