The Background of Life

"classic" NW - ferns & moss growing on Big Leaf Maple

A “classic” – ferns & moss growing on Big Leaf Maple.  A background scene in NW woods.


We all have a background to our lives, that which is not the focus, not the front-and-center, but as in a photo, the setting which makes up the background.  It is like the backdrop on our particular stage of life.  Because it’s so familiar, sometimes what’s in the background becomes unnoticed until it is disrupted and catches our attention, then, briefly, it might move to the foreground.

For those living in a residential or urban environment, the background of life includes perhaps the ‘hum’ of certain noises that are constant, as well as various buildings, empty lots, the neighbors second car that seems to always be parked in the street and the ubiquitous Rhododendron, unnoticed until it bursts into colorful spring bloom. Ever notice that if you leave something in the yard for an extended period, you just don’t ‘see’ it after a while?  Even the neighbors purple garage door becomes mundane after a few months!

We pass these background ‘props’ every day en route to our activities and daily dramas.  If asked, sometimes people aren’t able to identify these ordinary props in their life. (Remember the older Newlyweds game show, they’d ask one of the spouses to describe something in the couples every day life, like the color of a room, and the person wouldn’t be able do it.) Someone unfamiliar to your neighborhood might notice something you barely take notice of any more.  In our homes  it is much the same, the hum of the refrigerator, the knickknack on the corner table you couldn’t describe if asked.

As I sort, delete, and organize photos on my computer today I’m drawn to the photos I’ve taken in the woods.  I have folders for ‘wildflowers’, ‘birds’, ‘butterflies’, ‘garden flowers’, ‘Mt. Rainer’, etc.  but the photos of daily life in the NW woods, the flora that’s here whether flowers, critters or butterflies show up or not, are really just as remarkable as these “showier” facets of Nature. These are of the ‘common’ plants most people in the Coastal region of the Pacific Northwest have in the backdrop of their lives if they live in or near woods.  Some of these are seasonal, most are not. They are the plants that make the Evergreen State green.

My deep appreciation for what makes up the background of life here is obvious by all the photos I’ve taken of the trees and plants I see every day. I never lose my awe of  giant Douglas Firs and Big Leaf Maples, of the lacy needles of Hemlock, or the brown fibrous bark of Cedar.  The ferns, evergreen bushes, and tiny plants that make up the understory of the woods seem the stuff of fairylands to me.

To someone who does not live here, who might be walking in the PNW woods for the first time, or who only gets to do so occasionally, these stalwarts of the woods are anything but ordinary.  It’s nice to see with fresh eyes these remarkable plants that are the backdrop to life on the Northwest stage.

I selected some of my favorite photos taken over the past 7 years to share. Hope you enjoy this walk in the woods. No woodland wild flowers (though most of the plants shown have blossoms), no colorful berries, no birds or critters, no butterflies, no exotics, just native green stuff….plants, trees, and a few fungi (because in a NW woods, fungi are abundant!).


(Click on fern photo to start slide show of photo gallery below, or roll cursor over bottom of each photo to read captions. Not all photos are captioned. Most photos are taken in the woods where we live, a few from nearby walks.)




This is not a love story, or maybe it is…..

Writing about an old boy friend the day before Valentine’s Day may seem strange, and it is, but it’s only the beginning of this tale… please bear with me……..

The theme of the 1986 Vancouver Expo was communication and transportation. In 1986, I was in a relationship doomed to fail for all the usual reasons, including lack of honest communication. The title of the then popular book Smart Women, Foolish Choices was the mantra I ignored playing in the back of my mind throughout the nearly 18 months I tried to help someone with no history of settling anywhere, settle into my life. Mind you, I was not the one who started it all. After a brief encounter over a campfire in a campground, he looked me up, arriving in my front yard unannounced a few months later.  That was early summer 1985.

When my parents gave us tickets to the Expo as a Christmas present in 1985, they apparently had faith in the relationship lasting, at least until the following summer.  Though Gary and I had some good times together, it was a relationship that made me crazy in so many ways. Gary was a hard-working nice guy, with various well hidden addictions, and the unpredictable behavior of walking away from people…..past family, jobs, and a not-so-ex girlfriend. He had already walked away from our fledging relationship when he headed south the day he was to move from eastern Washington to a rental down the road so we could see where our relationship might go if we lived geographically closer. Embarrassing to say, though his behavior and words of explanation at the time couldn’t have been a clearer sign of what was to come if it had in fact been a neon sign, I convinced him to turn around, come back, give it a try. I reminded him he had a rental agreement with my friends who owned the house.

One of the many colorful modes of transportation exhibited at the 1986 world's fair in Vancouver.

One of the many colorful modes of transportation exhibited at the 1986 world’s fair in Vancouver.

We worked at being a couple for months, but by Expo time we’d tried for over a year and knew it was not going to work…..I think we “stayed together for the tickets.”  That September we went to Vancouver and stayed with a kind, witty, elderly couple, aunt and uncle of my mom’s best friend. We mostly went our separate ways at the expo. This was pre-cell phones, and at one point, when he failed to show at an agreed upon rendezvous, I assumed he had split. He hadn’t. I LOVED the exhibits I went to. I finally “saw” the Northwest Territories I’d dreamed of visiting since I was a child, collecting literature for the trip I still had hoped to take. At an African (I can’t remember which country) exhibit, alive with music and color, I bought a little thumb piano made from recycled tin. Gary and I were both enchanted by the brightly painted buses and trucks from Pakistan. When the weekend ended he hitched back to Washington to work, I set off for a solo vacation to the Canadian Rockies.

expo 86032

Which gets me to the reason for this story at this time. Clearly, though it is Valentines Day, Gary was not the love of my life. (I’ll get to him.) No, it’s because this week I am sick with one of those flu viruses that hit ya about once a decade. And in the 80s, it hit me in the Rockies.

Feeling relieved to be away from Gary, I drove northeast toward Banff. This was the year before the opening of the Coquihalia Highway which streamlined the route between Vancouver and Banff.  The older route was longer and I enjoyed the scenery as I looked forward to mountains, camping, and traveling on my own, as I had for 7 years after the amicable end of my previous, one and only, long-term “significant relationship”.

I felt a sore throat the first night I camped. The second day, after a brief stop at Lake Louise Hotel, which was nearly empty (I guess everyone was at the Expo!) for the spectacular lake view, I arrived at a campground outside Banff late in the day. A mixture of rain and snow was just starting to come down. It was cold, and I was hot. I pitched my tent, cooked a meal inside it, and crawled into the back of my Toyota Corona where stormy weather outside reflected the fury raging in my body through a sleepless night.

The next day was one of those blue sky sunshiny days where, at those higher elevations, everything seems crystal clear and so bright there’s a feeling of other-worldliness. I, determined to see something in spite of how I was feeling, rode the gondola for what was indeed a surreal experience given that by then I had a high fever and chills and aches that made dying sound like nirvana and the only possible relief.

I did not have a credit card then. I called my mom, we both consulted the same B.C. guide-book, found an affordable motel just outside the park, heading south. She called, made a reservation, and I left, driving away from my dream vacation of hiking and traveling alone in the Rockies. I was both chilled and feverish, and drove holding to my forehead a wet cloth I would “refresh” from the melting ice in my cooler every 20 minutes. I undoubtedly drove through beautiful scenery, but I was just trying to stay on the road in what was starting to feel like a fever induced delusional state of mind. It was a long drive. I do remember one roadside stop where other cars had stopped to view a mama bear with cubs. When I crossed the park boundary and found the motel, it was evening. I walked into the office, the person at the desk looked up and said “You must be Penney, you look really sick.” They weren’t offering anything more than a room, but after buying night-time NyQuil at the small, and only, nearby store, the room became my sanctuary for five days as I laid in bed, occasionally heating soup or boiling water on my camp stove set up in the shower stall.  Time has not embellished my memory of this story, I was really sick.

I survived. After a few days the fever broke, I gingerly took a few walks nearby. When I thought I could do so safely, I drove home… took four days. I was weak.  And I was late back to work. It was not a fun trip to the Rockies, but it was a break from a crazy time in a crazy relationship. I don’t remember if at the time I reflected on much, the flu forced me to live in the moment. In a weird way, I enjoyed and appreciated the time away with no expectations of having a great time. I was not having a great time. And though it was scary how sick I was so far from anyone and anything familiar (did I mention the nearest hospital or doctor was along ways away), I was having time away from everything and everyone in my life. In that sense it was a true vacation.

Gary left a few months later. Moving on with life, I visited friends in Sweden and Germany the following March. Gary even sent me a nice travel book as I planned the trip. In the summer of 1987 I began a Masters program in psychiatric rehabilitation.  That winter I did meet the love of my life. And our first “official” date was in fact to the Swan School Valentines Sweetheart Ball in 1988.

PJ & Mike 1987030

Mike, a little self-conscious on our first official date to the Swan School Valentine Ball, wearing a borrowed sport coat, attire no one had ever seen him in before. He turned out to be a pretty good dancer, easy to be with, and we’ve been dancing together through life ever since.

As I lay here sweating, every cell of my body aching, coughing til it hurts, head throbbing, throat feeling like I swallowed crushed glass, voice almost gone, (you get the picture, especially if you’ve been there), I know this is one of those once a decade bugs (I hope, as I do to want to repeat this for a long time). The past two years of my life, with the care of mom as she declined into Alzheimer’s, moving her four times, emptying and selling her house, two bouts with breast cancer, Mike’s health challenges….has been the most crazy time of my life. The past several days I’ve been too sick to reflect on anything….or eat, or sleep. I still feel lousy, but the fever has broken, and as my brain begins to function again I recall this past flu story and wonder…… maybe this is a way of “burning up” the past to move on. I hope so.

Though he locked his keys in his truck tonight, my sweetheart did deliver a lovely bouquet!

Though he locked his keys in his truck tonight, my sweetheart did deliver a lovely bouquet!

As for a more seasonally appropriate love story…….I left sick bay tonight, albeit grumpily, to drive 23 miles round trip to where Mike locked his keys in his truck. Driving home in the dark I thought about the myriad ways Mike, in his sometimes bumbling, but always heart felt, genuine way, goes out of his way for me.  Every day. The past two nights he’s come home from work and made me miso soup, the only thing I feel like eating. I do not need to tell love stories for Valentine’s Day because I live a love story.

I wish you all a Happy Valentine’s Day and invite you to read previous Valentines posts. And if you’ve had any crud bugs this winter, perhaps this will help you reflect on the experience as a time of transition, a time out.

other February posts: Animal LoveA Love StoryNature’s Heart

and another love story: Love Child

What’s it all about…..

Remember the song Alfie, from the 1966 movie (and 2004 remake) of the same name?

The movie is a rather dark story of an emotionally detached philanderer who uses and abuses women. In spite of several ‘wake up calls’….the birth of a son to an ex-girl friend; witnessing an abortion, the result of a one-night stand; a mental break down; the possibility of TB…he continues his narcissist ways, ending up lonely and alone. The film won awards…but it was not a happy story.

The song, when later recorded by Dionne Warwick, (original soundtrack by Cher) was a huge hit. Philosophical about life, love, etc., the usual themes of ‘60s songs, instead of short verses and a repetitive chorus, the lyrics of the song flow poetically. I didn’t care for the movie, but at sixteen there was a lot about life and love I was trying to figure out. I liked the mood of the song.


The first bloom today on our early blooming “Christmas” Rhody

The opening lines still pop into my head occasionally when I’m tired of this crazy journey. They did so today as I sat watching the heavy rainfall.

“What’s it all about, Alfie?”

A few hours after my mother’s death I learn I have metastasized breast cancer, later it’s discovered I have three types of breast cancer. Two months later skin cancer. There are psychoanalysts and mystic types who could make much of this…losing one’s breast and mom at the same time, the symbolism is rich and multi-cultural…left side of body, the Yin, or feminine side; breast, that which nurtures us, we begin life at our mothers’ breasts, etc., etc.

I’m big on symbolism and feel we are often offered non-verbal, visual clues to help us understanding life, but this one leaves me disinterested. I’m focused on scar tissue, range of motion, lymphedemia prevention, side effects of meds, and this big, numb, red scar on and above my lip where cancer was scraped out. What’s THAT all about?


The first of our Snow Drops brave the heavy rain today.

“Is it just for the moment that we live?”

This second line of the 60s song has more meaning to me now than at sixteen. Like so many, I live with the specter of cancer, not knowing…Is it gone? Is it still there? Is it somewhere else? Will it come back? This can drive my days, my fears, my thoughts, or I can focus on living for and in each moment. Can I? Does anyone?

“Live for the moment,” “be in the moment”, or as the 70s phrase made popular by Ram Dass puts it, “Be here now”. This is something the mystics have been teaching for eons. I think the meaning in this ‘60s song was not so life affirming, and had more to do with Alfie’s pleasure seeking ways, getting what he wanted in the moment, to hell with the impact on others and the future. But like art, we can interpret the lyrics as we see fit. So in answering the question it poses…

Yes! It is just for this moment that we live. This breath we are taking, this scene we are witnessing, this person we are with, this song we are hearing, or the silence we are experiencing, this is all we can experience, we cannot experience the future, or relive the past…. it is beyond us to know what the next moment will bring, or the next, or the next.  To try to experience this moment fully, whatever it is offering, is a challenge,  yet I believe one with great rewards.

It sounds good, who wants to be worrying about the future or rehashing the past? (During the years of caring for mom I  made this practice an art form in the middle of the night.) But short of ancient saints and rishis, and maybe a few modern day mystics, where do we find examples of living in the moment? The answer is simple. In Nature.

A late summer chipmunk is very focused on eating a blueberry.

A late summer chipmunk is very focused on eating a blueberry.

It is easy to dismiss the seemingly living in the moment practices found in animals and plants by saying they do not think so how could they be mulling over or anticipating the future or worrying about the past. It is true, they may not be ‘hard wired’ like we are to fret. But much research has shown animals not only think, learn, figure out complex problems, have complex communication systems, they also have good memories. Plants, even water, respond to the emotions and ‘vibes’ of those around them and thrive or die accordingly. There is evidence animals worry, in the moment, but I have not read that other life forms sit around thinking about the future or the past. The worried look or reaction of an animal to a person or situation seems to be what is real, not what is imagined could happen. Animal anxiety may be a response to something remembered, but it is not mulled over. Research shows animals exhibit what is called anti-predation behavior,  meaning they are (appropriately) aware of and respond to concerns about predation.  When in that mode, that is what they are focused on. If an animal is anxious, that is their experience in that moment. I still argue animals are wonderful examples of living in the moment. Not all moments are joyful for them any more than for us, but when doing whatever is required, that is where their awareness is.


Tiny fungi, found today growing on this dead Salmonberry, look like tiny blooms.

How do I know this? Well I don’t, it’s just my hunch. I read about animals, and sometimes about plants, but I certainly don’t read the latest so I could be wrong, but when I walk in the woods and watch birds, squirrels, chipmunks go about their ways, or get glimpses of deer watching me from afar, and when I see green leaf buds and early blooms of plants, I feel that is where and when I can practice living in the moment the most. I feel everything around me is showing me the way.

Our human lives, full of responsibilities, require us to plan and think about the future, but there is no requirement to worry about it, nor does that planning have to pull us away from experiencing what is in front of us. Try it, go watch something wild, or even your pet, especially when they are being ‘wild’, allow yourself to “be here now” with the sages of Mother Nature! Focus on what they focus on, if you are not one who meditates, learning to focus as other critters focus is a great way to “be in the moment”. When Abby is watching a squirrel, there is nothing else on her mind, just that moment, and that squirrel!

The lyrics in the middle of the song Alfie don’t resonant with me, I never remember them, but it is February, the month to celebrate and consider love, so I leave you with this last lovely line of the song……

“When you walk let your heart lead the way and you’ll find love any day…”

To me this speaks of how we can fill those moments of our lives, not with self-gratification, as Alfie did, to his own detriment, but through loving and caring for and about others.  That’s what is all about…..Alfie.

(note: Around here lately, when those lines come to mind, I sing “what’s it all about, Abby?” Seems to fit just as well, perhaps better, and she is a much better role model for understanding life and love!)


Tiny ground cover violets seem to ignore winter and bloom most months.