Summer afternoon, summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language. ~ Henry James
This month, I’ve been “working ahead,” so I won’t fall too far behind as I heal from a foot surgery that had been scheduled for this Friday. But, after a long talk with the surgeon this morning, I decided against the surgery, as it seems the procedure he now feels would be best would also be more complicated than we first thought. Since it is not-yet-necessary, I’ll continue to deal with the relative discomfort, for now.
I feel a bit like a ship that just missed an iceberg; all the engines have been thrown into reverse and I’m about to start forward again, but my heart is saying, “Wait.” My mind and spirit haven’t caught up yet. All the tasks I’d normally tackle are already finished, and all the speculations and decisions I’d cast forward around the weeks to come have suddenly vanished. Part of me was almost looking forward to lying on the couch with a raised foot, watching all the episodes of Game of Thrones and being cared for by my darling husband. But I also feel relieved that the riskier and more complex surgery can be put off, for now.
And now I can take time to smell the flowers, change my course from being so future-oriented to entering the present more fully, as I realize (again…sigh) I should have been doing all along.
I’ve also thought about all the people facing surgeries they can’t postpone; by contrast, my need to undo plans and schedules that my over-organized mind has arranged seems insignificant. I’m grateful for the time I’ve been given to wait and discern my course, and hope for less invasive procedures to be created.
So, I’m heading out on my bike to relax and let go of all the anxiety and calculations, the planning and imagining, the endless detritus collected when the calendar boxes are filled, circled and underlined…back to the blank pages and the healing openness of a glorious summer afternoon.
Peace to all those facing diagnoses and surgeries that can’t be removed from the calendar; may the sleepy green and fragrant peace of a summer afternoon surround their hearts and spirits, and bless them through their healing course to a new wholeness.
It’s that lovely, lovely time of year when the gardens have begun sharing their blooms and are so pregnant with the promise of more, that life feels lush indeed. The slugs are tiny and the Japanese Beetles haven’t yet arrived. We’ve hosted a multitude of the dragonfly called “Widow Skimmer,” and Monarch Butterflies are fluttering around the gardens here and there. The succession of blooms, from peonies to irises and poppies, continues, and it’s hard to believe how much delight I derive from this always-surprising flow of color and texture year after year. A lifetime of gardening certainly keeps one reliably childlike!
I’ve been checking my Baptisias every day; in addition to last year’s drought, they were devastated by Genista Broom Moths, usually found in Texas. The Baptisias have been my faithful garden anchors for 15 years with never a pest or disease and their suffering was especially distressing following the damage from the drought. So far, they’re egg and caterpillar-free.
Along the trail (which we’re back to traveling, now that the new bridge has been completed), the wild honeysuckles’ heady perfumes have given way to phlox and wild roses. The garlic mustard is back with a vengeance, but I’ve learned to keep it out of my own gardens by harvesting and blending it in salads: The best way to defeat your enemies may be to make them your friends, but I’ve discovered that eating them also works, at least in this case.
Phillip’s vegetable garden is planted, and daily watering is calling forth shoots and tendrils that make me dream of beans and tomatoes and all things delicious. We enjoyed a huge asparagus yield this spring, and the gooseberries, raspberries, and cherries are equally plentiful this year; within a few weeks, their fruits will be converted into our summer energy as well.
Little Murphy had a visit to the vet last week, and Clancy needed a visit the week before, so we’re grateful for our wonderful veterinarian and happy that the prescribed medicine is helping both heal from their diagnosed (minor) problems.
Phillip completed another school year and is remodeling a kitchen for a colleague this month. He received a lovely letter from an appreciative parent, not a common occurrence these days, and so, dearly valued for the encouragement offered.
Next Monday, I’ll celebrate my 58th birthday, and I’m scheduled for surgery on the 21st, so posts will be slow in coming for a while, but I’m hopeful the gardens will remain healthy and enhance my own healing.
Every so often, we reach these mysterious intersections of time and place that offer perfect peace, contentment, and comfort. Moments of enchantment that can last for days. Our hearts seem to say, “I know this place; it is my home.” I’m finally able to listen to my heart and detect, name, and cherish such times, which wasn’t always the case, and I know they will transmute into new days of discontent, discomfort, and less beauty. Their transitory “now-ness” makes them all the more precious. The river of time will continue to flow and carry my little “life boat” along to new adventures, times, and places…and some will feel, again, like home.
So I drink deeply and promise myself, again, that this time, I’ll keep this holy peace in my heart and carry it forward to the next “now-ness.” Whatever surprising flow of color and texture is offered, may our spirits rest in peace.
Namaste, my friends.
A Parent’s Letter:
Just wanted to take a minute to thank you for all that you have done over the years in teaching my kids. When someone asks, “Who is a good teacher in our town?” I think of you. Thank you for always putting up with my texts and in-person visits. Thank you for being patient with my son over the years and helping him out as much as you have. I am truly glad that he had a teacher like you who was willing to work with him so that he could graduate. I’m sure there were times that he shouldn’t have, but thank you for making sure he did. Best of luck to you in the next years of teaching…
We’ve been experiencing regular rainfall—so far—this past month, and that means the winds have blown from the southeast at times. It’s startling to gaze out the window and see the river flowing north, against the current, kind of a “what’s wrong with this picture?” puzzle until it’s named and understood.
I couldn’t help but see the metaphor this presented for the resistance, or blocks, we encounter on our journeys through life. Our minds, bodies, and spirits resist change, challenges to our status quo, surprises to our routines, and threats to the directions we’re headed, and our wiser companions (dead and living) consistently invite us to notice our resistance, name it, and move along.
However, I’ve not often encountered the idea that I should honor my resistance, be with it fully and unpack its messages with gratitude before setting out again. Prompted by the river’s seeming ease while flowing in either direction, I’ve been pondering the value of acknowledging my resistance and its partner, denial, with hospitality, rather than responding to them as unpleasant messes I need to scrape off my shoe, quickly purging them from my spirit while apologizing to the Universe for being such a dim-witted gob, before zooming brilliantly on towards enlightenment, unencumbered by such glaring hesitancy.
So many gifts and blessings on our spiritual—and emotional—journey seem to derive from an acceptance of “what is,” a constant adaptability and reframing that, ultimately, lead us to enter the unity of all, and join our energy with that of the Love/Creator generating reality, that I’m not sure why a more gentle handling of our reluctance to take the next step isn’t more greatly emphasized and kindly embraced. She who hesitates may sometimes be found. Discernment shouldn’t be about merely overcoming resistance, but about listening, in stillness, for its wisdom as well.
I’m not advocating Better Living Through Prolonged Avoidance. As a spiritual director, I know that a tight embrace of our denial ultimately leads to illness, a breakdown of the mental, physical, and spiritual health that nurtures our stability and growth. Long years of forcing our minds, bodies, and spirits to conform to beliefs, systems, relationships, and patterns that we’ve outgrown or that were never “true” to begin with causes us to project the shadows ever-outward. Refusing to recognize our complicity in hurting others or ourselves and declining to take responsibility for making peace and asking for forgiveness are forms of denial that are destructive. In a real sense, our health is dis-eased and we’re (often largely unconsciously) infecting the energy around us with our illness as well.
These shadows require a deeply honest encounter, often assisted and guided by a trained professional, for healing to be possible. Without this, we can’t and won’t even recognize and name the “monster” we’re denying to begin with, or our resistance to seeing it for what it really is, and the resulting diminishment of its power—from monster, to human, to only a facet of our multi-dimensional selves—is inhibited.
Instead, I’ve been pondering that initial “No, thanks” we offer to transitions or insights that have been forced upon us, or sometimes even those we desired, worked towards, or chose. Our behavior, practices, and patterns might regress to a time and place we knew to be “safe,” or we might reach for the ice cream instead of the yogurt, or indulge in procrastination rather than productively tackling whatever re-ordering is necessary to adjust to the coming (or already-assuming-residence) change.
We’re far enough along on our life’s journey to be aware that these responses indicate our resistance; we catch ourselves, and…
What then? Do we berate ourselves for back-paddling? Do we feel like spiritual losers and shame ourselves for not embracing transformation and gliding peacefully into the offered enlightenment without missing a beat? Do we call ourselves names other than Beloved?
I think we do, and too often.
Instead, I wonder if we should welcome and embrace our resistance as a necessary partner on our journey, a wisdom voice we ignore at our peril and an integral stage of authentic transformation. Resistance can offer a kind of respite, like winnowing through our possessions before moving to a new home, pulling off the road when we’re too tired to continue driving, or taking a “mental health” day to renew our spirits. It’s as though we’re saying, “I need to mend, or re-weave my tapestry here; I need to gather more information about where I’ve been and who I’ve become before I step back into “becoming” with mindfulness.”
Usually, after a day or two flowing north, the river shifts and runs true to her orientation. What I’ve noticed is that either way, she flows peacefully along; she doesn’t seem corrupted or disturbed when the winds blow her northward. Neither, perhaps, should we resist our resistance, but instead welcome the lessons it has come to share.
Hello again, dear reader. The human who calls herself my mother has dashed out once more to weed and mulch gardens between our current, intermittent thunderstorms. While I do not know precisely what these tasks entail or why they must be accomplished, I have seized upon her frenzied behavior as a welcome opportunity to once again share my wisdom with you.
This time, I do not address fellow felines, but seek to widen my ever-increasing circle of devotees by directly addressing humans and instructing you, from my superior vantage point as a rightly-adored member of the species felis silvestris catus, in the fine art of napping, something we cats know about and practice deeply and intensely.
I deduce this to be due to humans’ lack of sleep, observing as I have that it is both a pleasure and spiritual practice you largely avoid. Thus, if I can successfully remedy your need and capacity for sleep, your training as better servants to cats everywhere can resume.
Using my siblings—and, of course, myself—as models, I will illustrate approaches to restorative slumber that you may not have previously considered or attempted. While some human scientists encourage napping as a method for recuperating one’s mind, body, and spirit, I instead encourage you to consider it as an art form, and the highest calling one might pursue, for true Art, in itself, is rejuvenating.
And, please, banish ideas of “power-napping” and other such obscenities from your vocabulary and mind. These are euphemisms used by “success-oriented and managerial” types to suggest a nap is something accomplished quickly and with the utmost strain, in order to achieve the most beneficial results regarding your increased productivity. (Their gain, your loss; such is capitalism, my friends, and believe me, you derive no nap-like benefits from buying into its tireless resolve to suck your body and soul dry…but I digress.)
I will return to my political ideologies in another post, but, for now, I must again emphasize that you eradicate such filthy terms and faux practices as “power-napping” from your mind and life. Instead, I would submit that the neophyte napper must accept that the fine art of napping requires sustained periods of self-accepting but resolute practice, resulting, one hopes, in up to 16, perhaps (I can dream) 20 hours of sleep every day.
Behold: a photograph of my mother “napping” in an automobile many years ago, captured by my father, who may have better used his time focusing on the road before him.
While I would hardly recommend a moving vehicle as the most welcoming spot to pursue one’s naps, we shall see that location is best designated through personal preference. At this time, mother’s method, as you can plainly see, lacked delicacy and the controlled “athlete in repose” image one aims to achieve. Still, for a beginner, there were aspects of her approach that might have encouraged a professional tutor of my distinction, but, sadly, her apparent need for a drool cup–an unfortunate lapse in mother’s style and form that continues to this day–made problematic the likelihood she would ever attain a true mastery level in her napping, a forecast many (many) years have proven true. Study and learn from this, dear reader.
Here, then, a Beginner’s Guide to Napping, today covering the basics of location, form, and duration.
Location: Sun-puddles are the finest places for napping, wherever they are found. Rugs, window seats, boxes, sinks, commercial cat-beds (if one must), and, of course, human beds are recommended, but please explore your unique napping preferences and be willing to experiment. One of my favorite places to nap is atop the clothing and blanket dryer when it is running full throttle, and Murphy (although I cannot recommend the general sloppiness of his postures, save for Pose #3; see following) often naps high above the living room, on top of the TV cabinet.
I would caution you to refrain from napping anywhere in the kitchen, especially on a counter or tabletop, as our mother (if her acknowledged odd behavior can be extrapolated to other humans) pitches a royal hissy fit when we dare to attempt this. I have responded with my keenest “Calm yourself, woman” glare to no avail, so have abandoned this location as acceptable. For now. (As I have referenced, she is aged and I will likely outlast her.) You may have better luck with your family members, or may live alone, so I say have at it, if your kitchen counter is calling.
Posture: This is where the true artist emerges. The first position I would suggest is the casual magnificence demonstrated here, by moi, in the Crossed Paws Pose. Note the peaceful maintenance of the head’s position.
Alternately, but with greater practice, for it is much more advanced, one may hold the head just so, at a jaunty angle.
As you progress in your art, you may attempt the following: Moving from position one, above, a yawn (still napping, of course) is executed, and then one drops, almost imperceptibly, to the “Perfectly Prone” position. A trifecta of nappage postures, as it were. Do not try this too soon in your learning; you are bound to be discouraged when you fail.
Sometimes examples that demonstrate the antithesis of a lesson best teach:
Sadly, and once more, no.
Another pose to master is to rest on one’s ventral side, casually, the One Paw Extended Pose. (Casual to the beholder, of course; one’s focus must be riveted.) You can see my attempts to teach Murphy (a.k.a., “The Ham”) are ruined by his relentless inability to focus on anything but the camera.
The third pose, however, resting one’s head like an infant upon one’s forward, sweetly-curled paws, The Neonate Pose, is one of Murphy’s specialties. It makes adult humans say, “Oh, how cute! How precious! How darling!” If one goes in for that sort of childish thing, this pose may be your favorite.
The fourth and most challenging “solo” position is to execute a perfect circle of contentment, as I am doing here, in the aptly named Circle of Contentment Pose.
This cannot be forced, but rather demands elegance, the perfect coiling of the tail completing the circle, the head resting on all 4 paws…Mulligan comes close; when he is not licking himself, he can be a most surprising student in mastering what would seem far beyond his troubling intellect.
Sadly, the new sibling, Fergus, falls far short of the circle pose, but we are practicing diligently and daily.
Lastly, I would say a supreme pinnacle, a “mountaintop” you may want to hold in your napping dreams, is the Happy Family Nap Pose, which, as is plainly apparent in this photograph, my siblings cannot yet grasp. Here, I am almost at wit’s end trying to elicit cooperation in this most strenuous of poses. As you can see, Murphy has positioned himself far too closely to my posterior and then immediately fallen asleep. Synchronized sleeping is key in the HFP. Fiona and Mulligan are clearly seen to be out of alignment; in addition, Fiona is looking scornfully at the camera, while, again, Mulligan’s fascination with licking himself has robbed him of focus entirely.
Finally, I must address the duration of napping that a true artist would demonstrate. To aspire towards anything less than 10 hours would reveal one’s permanently amateur status. Begin, I caution, with the stated 10, and build up your endurance to the Mastery Level of 16 hours, and then 20 hours (the latter conferring the status of Supreme Master). I humbly admit I have achieved this level, and seek to guide my siblings towards similar perfection. Mulligan, if I can deter the licking, may do well. Fiona seems to be developing her own system of napping. We shall see: these secondary schools of form and content are so often drenched in inferiority; for example, consider Pantanjali and then Iyengar, if you catch my drift. The mind quickly turns from such blatant perversion. Perhaps Young Fergus, if he can vastly improve his form, may be most likely to succeed as the next Master, but he has years of practice ahead of him.
May my silences become more accurate. ~ Theodore Roethke
When I was younger and my body, or mind, or spirit shared its weariness, my response was usually to resist such silliness and work harder. I suspect this was the equivalent of “leaning in.”
Now I listen attentively and grant myself Sabbath minutes, or hours, or days, or weeks—whatever is possible in proportion to the emptiness I detect—if these will restore my creativity and re-balance my energy.
I have spent years offering my creative energy to Full Moon and her gardens; it’s nice when I allow these places and spaces to gift me in return with their beauty and energy, allowing love to flow both ways and deep re-creation to restore me with peace and new insights.
So, weary to the bone, I’m taking a week off to be still and to listen; to plant and ponder, weed and wonder…to allow my silences to become more accurate.
I began the day with a breakfast of asparagus freshly harvested, in gratitude: barely cooked, lightly buttered and generously peppered…my Sabbath has begun.
My husband and I have begun the long discernment regarding where we’d most like to retire. We have several years of regular employment ahead of us, but think it best we start the conversation now, in case other opportunities present themselves, or health issues arise that would require a more sudden shift. So, what shall it be? “Up North” on a lake? A condo in the city? A different state? In the U.S.? Another country? We know that, at some point, the maintenance of Full Moon and its four acres will become more physically demanding than we can manage, but what are the signs that will tell us the time has come?
We can’t know what’s ahead, of course, but I’ve known people who have reached their retirement without ever truly having considered their needs, desires, and possibilities regarding the next (and, let’s face it, the last) stage of their lives. The following years proved more challenging for them than a dedicated time of planning may have created.
Even beginning these conversations has proven interesting, as we each consider leaving Full Moon Cottage, sit with our feelings, come back to reconsider possibilities and then go out to work in the yard, take a canoe trip, walk on the path, or sail down the trail on a long, meditative bike ride.
Full Moon has been a lovely and deepening home, generous in its gifting, and we’ve traveled through a good bit of our lives here. Every season has offered so much beauty and so many lessons. This past week, the orioles, red-breasted grosbeaks, purple finches, goldfinches, and hummingbirds returned to the feeders with their great appetites and vivid presence.
The shy and solitary green heron who lives beside us in the woods has returned; like the owls, he struggles to find peace among the raucous crows, and I’m grateful he does, for his annual reappearance and heartbreaking calls each spring anchor the new season for me as surely as the oriole’s song.
The tulips have begun blooming, at last, and we’ve been working to edge and mulch the gardens, just ahead of the weeds, especially the vigorous garlic mustard, which suffered no setback from the drought.
A mourning dove couple has chosen to build their nest above my pullout clothesline. I guess I’ll be using my dryer for a few more weeks. We’ve never seen mourning dove newborns, so this is a rare treat for us.
There are nests all around our home; every day more are apparent. We noticed a sandhill crane nesting in a marshy area, “hidden in plain view.”
It looks like we’ll have a very brief spring; temperatures could be in the 90’s next week, and summer will open wide. I can’t help but wonder how many more springs we’ll be here to welcome fox kits, to set out seed and oranges for returning birds and their newborns, or to tend the gardens’ rebirth. I wonder how many more autumns we’ll bid them each farewell and settle in for another winter.
But Full Moon has taught me that wherever we are, there is possible beauty and the rhythm of cycles that elicit love and call forth our gifts to co-create. We’ll be sad when we finally have to leave, of course, but I hope we’ll be looking forward to new adventures on other sacred ground, and quiet places to bow down to the beauty before us.
My beloved Aunt Mary died several weeks ago, early one Sunday morning in February. She was my mother’s younger sister, but not by much, and their close bond throughout their lives always made me long for a sister, too. It often surprised the three of us how much more I resembled my aunt in attitudes and preferences than I did my mother. And in the years since my mother died, Mary and I had become even closer, sharing e-mails and phone visits regularly.
My aunt was a remarkable person, utterly funny, charming, intelligent, and alive to the society, interests, and amusements that paraded through her days, the kind of person who had many lifelong friends, enamored children, nieces and nephews, and beholden strangers who benefited from her kindness and acts of charity. She was someone whose wit, wisdom, ready listening and encouragement were vital to making others see that a better world, or just a better day, is always possible. She had a vital spark most lack. She breathed greater life into those around her than they sustained alone.
I write this not as a eulogy, for I cannot do her gifts or influence on my life justice in such a brief forum, but by way of sharing that my grief in losing her has been gentle and so coupled with relief at her peace that it’s traveled with me these past weeks more like a soft grey cloud than a terrible storm, as my parents’ deaths engendered. I am grateful for her gifts and presence in my life and I am grateful that she is no longer yearning to be with her husband or suffering from ill health.
But I sure miss our e-mails, visits, and shared laughter.
I was thinking of her one morning when spring beckoned more than chores and I’d wandered outside to see what the world could tell me. I saw this daffodil, so earnest in its reaching for light that the dead leaf circumscribing its leaves couldn’t restrain its rising momentum.
That is how the dead can be with us, how grief can restrain joy…The next day, the leaf had fallen away, joining others that surrounded the plant, becoming food for its continued growth. In death, still the breath of life.
Grief takes its own time—and must—but what a gentle reminder that winter leads to spring, and death to life. Just the kind of message my Aunt Mary would send me.
Another gift of spring has been these darling fox kits, just emerging from their den to smell the world and take a few tentative steps into its songs and mysteries. They make every pore of my being tingle with maternal instinct, but, like everything wild, including my own nature, they also teach me over and over again to respect their boundaries and not interfere with instinctive patterns followed for centuries. So I observe from a distance and leave them to their necessary dance. I hope they will know peace, and comfort, and joy, in whatever form these may be known by foxes. I breathe a prayer and send it to their den at night.
I read about a wealthy inventor, futurist and engineer who believes people will, eventually, live forever, and who has hopes that his dietary, vitamin, and exercise regimen will allow him to remain healthy until this is possible.
I have no desire to live forever; I just want to be alive for all of the life granted me, and, if I’ve done it well, maybe I can feed the growth of others in their reaching for the light after I’ve gone, breathing still through their lives and the ways they love the world.
Our goal is an environment of decency, quality, and mutual respect for all other human creatures and for all living creatures. . .The battle to restore a proper relationship between man and his environment, between man and other living creatures will require a long, sustained, political, moral, ethical, and financial commitment- -far beyond any effort made before. ~ Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson , founder of Earth Day
If we don’t have certain outer experiences, we don’t have certain inner experiences or at least we don’t have them in such a profound way. We need the sun, the moon, the stars, the rivers and the mountains and the trees, the flowers, the birds, the song of the birds, the fish in the sea. All of this evokes something in our inner world, evokes a world of mystery. It evokes a world of the Sacred and gives us that sense of awe and mystery. ~ Thomas Berry
The wealth of the nation is its air, water, soil, forests, minerals, rivers, lakes, oceans, scenic beauty, wildlife habitats and biodiversity… that’s all there is. That’s the whole economy. That’s where all the economic activity and jobs come from. These biological systems are the sustaining wealth of the world. ~ Gaylord Nelson
When I worked as a teacher, I looked forward to spring and the enjoyment offered by the poetry units I shared with my middle school students. This poem, by Elizabeth Coatsworth, was always a favorite of my sixth graders, and the spring poems they created and illustrated in response to the many we studied were equally lovely.
Yearning for blue skies, birdsong, and sweet green earth is nothing new after a long Wisconsin winter, but this year our winter-weary hearts have been sorely tried, indeed. We received snow last Sunday and are told “a dusting” will return again Friday, accompanied by another week of rain.
After last year’s long thirst, I’m only happy for the moisture in whatever forms it arrives, but today’s sunshine and the chance to inspect the gardens and see (hooray!) that last year’s tulips and daffodils survived the drought, has been pure gift. The river is high, the birds are singing, and—even though we’re sliding towards the end of April—spring, I can tell, is finally winning.
Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. ~ Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
The spirit of spring, for me, certainly includes the divine discontent Grahame mentions, but perhaps it feels more like a sacred and welcome effervescing than a discontent. It is a readiness to emerge…I wonder if it’s felt by butterflies as they pierce the sheltering confines of their cocoons?
I yearn to muck about in the gardens and to co-create with the earth, to honor my winter’s rest by cleaning the house from top to bottom. This is the time I listen for the river’s spring song, familiar yet always new, as though my Creator is calling me forth into the new season’s green dance.
Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. ~ Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
Phillip was home from work last week, and we decided to tackle some home improvement projects, but also planned daily adventures that took us out and away from home. Last year, temperatures in the 80’s allowed us to get all the gardens cleaned, weeded and mulched. This year, they’re still sleeping beneath the snow.
The river was barely open at the beginning of the week, then gradually the ice retreated and at dawn, returning ducks and geese floated dreamily down the river. By Friday, most of the ice had melted, so off we went on the year’s first canoe trip.
The pictures, I think, make it look like we had a chilly ride, but it was really quite pleasant, though utterly absent of green. Still, the spring smells of thawing earth and the glorious birdsong bathed us in promises the next few weeks will keep.
We met some men fishing for walleyes and another pair using a seine, probably for carp.
Sandhill cranes and Canada geese called and flew overhead, red-wing blackbirds chimed along the bank, and we met the pair of ducks that nested in our garden last spring. This year, our fox has a new hole very near the “duck garden,” so I hope they’ll nest elsewhere.
The rest of our week together was happy: we took a day to go antiquing, and spent our Easter Sunday with family, but it’s the lovely time in our canoe that consecrated the week most profoundly for me, leisurely paddling and listening to the waking earth and river sing our spirits back to life.
By the river and with it and on it and in it…It’s my world, and I don’t want any other. What it hasn’t got is not worth having, and what it doesn’t know is not worth knowing… ~ Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
Phillip returned to school today and I started the housecleaning after he left this morning. A crew has come to the bridge to pull up and replace the old planks and side rails. The incessant beeping of their front-end loader as it backed up, over and over, initially made the pups bark protectively until they were sufficiently reassured and accustomed to it, a good thing, since the bridge repair is scheduled to last the month.
The temperature is near freezing, but I stepped outside to shake some rugs and watch the light dance over the river. A few last pieces of ice floated by and I watched two male cardinals battle for a nesting site. I noticed a female waiting and watching. I wonder if she favors one or the other? I wanted to stay outside, but the air was cold and my indoor chores called me back.
I hope I’ll have time again this afternoon to walk down near the riverbank and listen to the river’s music, singing over and over, “Come; join the spring’s green dance!” Winter muscles need practice to get back in shape and I want to be ready to dance up a storm when spring comes to stay.
…when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea. ~ Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again. ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
In my meditation times during this lovely season of soul-clearing and house-cleaning, I’ve been sitting again with the concept of balance. For years when the Lenten (spring) weeks circle round, I focus on practices of intentional breathing, reviewing breath exercises and wearing a ring that reminds me to “take time” and turn my noticing inward to monitor my breath as often during the day as I’m able. After all these years, it’s still not easy for me to maintain rhythmic breathing naturally. I hold my breath at times, or tighten my throat and jaw, or breathe less deeply than is truly nurturing.
To me, it seems that the spring equinox blesses us with the invitation to return, again, to sacred balance. I’ve written about balance many times, I know, for the simple reason that the energy of the world is stronger than our own individual energy, and humanity still does not—if it ever has–honor the balance that nurtures and sanctifies our earth, our spirits, our bodies, or our minds. We pull ourselves and each other into imbalance when we lose our own commitment to the sacred equanimity to which we—and all life—naturally cohere when we enter and honor the rhythm I believe we’re called to by Love, a kind of dance that co-creates compassion in our hearts which waters and feeds our spirits, and empties, simultaneously, in an out-pouring to the world. Love becomes the food that’s most needed, in myriad forms, and we the gardeners that feed our own and each other’s well-being.
I felt this so deeply when Phillip and I went to a “home and garden” show in Milwaukee last weekend. Instead of focusing on sustainability, or new gardening techniques and plants that conserve and honor life, it focused solely on products and excess, the conspicuous consumption we’ve become so accustomed to that we don’t even notice the grotesque imbalance we accept as “natural.” The simple and glorious beauty and sustenance a garden provides was lost in all the false glamour of “must-have” purchases few could afford and all were meant to desire. All ego-food and no true soul-food.
But it was an excellent reminder to return to my own balance and monitor my energy for the balance required to live with equanimity. In/Out. Give/Receive. Endeavor/Rest. Create/Surrender. Action/Stillness. And all sailing on the sea of Love.
Peace to your equinox, and may the blessings of spring enrich your spirit, your self-care and care for the world, your creativity and well-being.
Wakan Tanka, Great Mystery,
teach me how to trust my heart,
my mind, my intuition,
my inner knowing,
the senses of my body,
the blessings of my spirit.
Teach me to trust these things
so that I may enter my Sacred Space
and love beyond my fear,
and thus Walk in Balance
with the passing of each glorious Sun.
~ Lakota Prayer
As a poet I hold the most archaic values on earth . . . the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals, the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying initiation and rebirth, the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe. I try to hold both history and the wilderness in mind, that my poems may approach the true measure of things and stand against the unbalance and ignorance of our times. ~ Gary Snyder
Snow, ice, fog, and rain: within a week’s time, we’ll experience all of these in massive doses: March in Wisconsin. The juxtaposition of winter and spring is marked and remarkable, and painted with water in all her varied media.
Two days ago, we received 8 more inches of snow and today, icicles are melting and birds are again energetically singing their spring songs. Rain is forecast for the weekend, and snow returns on Monday. After a long season of drought last year, we’re very grateful for water in any form, as well as the music, smells, and images each form creates.
I’ve been contemplating the gift of water these past few weeks. Turn the handle of the faucet and out comes water fit to drink, or bathe, or clean our food, or wash our clothes. The quality and availability of fresh water is a gift to be treasured and conserved.
Our state is bordered by two Great Lakes, including Superior, the largest fresh water body on earth. Just south of Lake Superior is the Penokee Range, which runs southwest from the western Upper Peninsula of Michigan to southeast Bayfield County, Wisconsin.
A 22-mile iron ore vein runs through this range, and was mined with shaft-mines from 1868 until 1965, when they were closed, due to the advent of the cheaper open-pit mines, such as those in Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range and Michigan’s Marquette Iron Range. The competition from inexpensive foreign ores also contributed to the closing of the shaft mines. Wisconsin became, over the next several decades a leader in environmental protection, nationally and at home, creating stringent laws to ensure our precious resources would be safeguarded for generations. Or so we believed.
Running along the surface of the Penokee Range, for example, are lakes, trout streams and the head waters of many rivers. Downstream is the Bad River watershed and the reservation of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa Indians. The Bad River watershed contains 40% of all the wetlands in the Lake Superior watershed.
This land provides essential habitats for bald eagles, wolves, plants, songbirds, fish, and humans, and is regarded as some of the most environmentally-sensitive land in the state.
The current Republican majority in our state government have chosen to prostitute the Penokee Range, however, selling it to Gogebic Taconite (a subsidiary of The Cline Group owned by billionaire Christopher Cline, and headquartered in Florida. His mining operations in Illinois have pillaged and polluted the land and water.)
Our noble politicians rushed a bill through the legislature, holding only one, brief, public hearing, that allows this corporation—one of the nation’s largest mining companies—almost free reign in destroying the land, the habitats, and the groundwater, so it might extract taconite, at great profit to Mr. Cline, called “New King Coal” by Bloomberg.
Long-standing and environmentally-sound mining laws have been re-written by our current legislature so Chris Cline can hurry up and start extracting taconite; he’s paid for these exemptions, after all.
I don’t know how much more abuse our mother earth can take, and it saddens me, deeply, that the state I was once so proud to call home will be complicit in her further destruction. The legislature is calling it a “job-creator,” but I’m not sure people will want to work in a place where the land and water are poisoned.
Year ago, I was teaching my 6th graders various literary terms and concepts, and asked them to incorporate some of these into a short written piece. One of the boys created a story about prisoners in Alcatraz painstakingly plotting their escape. One, “Pierre,” had dreams of tap dancing. When they finally broke out and swam towards freedom, a shark sidled up and devoured Pierre’s legs. The story ended with the line, “There’s irony for you.”
February has been so watery and pale that on many days the horizon has eerily disappeared. The snow and ice-covered land has seemed to dissolve into a sky emptied of color, as though some cosmic vampire has sucked all the earth of its blood. Even the birds evidence their ennui. The shortest month has become the longest
February has become Life as a Swedish Movie. Everyone moves about in his own little sphere of tortured suffering: Hand to forehead; deep sighs; endless gazes into the distance; depressing non-sequiturs about spoiled grain, virgin springs, strawberries and dying butterflies exchanged without eye contact. Everything black, white, somber and funereal. If Max Von Sydow entered the room and ignored me, it would seem entirely predictable.
I headed out for an eye appointment yesterday afternoon and my little VW Bug slid and ricocheted off the icy rims of the endless-as-February driveway, heedless of my efforts to steer. I began to doubt reaching the road in one piece was a likely goal. I was navigating some nightmare carnival ride and damn near gave up to plod back to the safety of the house and resume gazing out the window and sighing.
But I forbore, steadfast in my determination to give myself a change of scene.
But the scene changed not. Except that the endless hills of white and gray gave way to the dirty puddled streets and buildings, and cars corroding from layers of salt.
I entered the optometrist’s office and my own forced smile was met by the receptionist’s frozen grimace; brittle attempts at dialogue were made, briefly, before we lapsed into silence. I may have choked on a sob or two.
Across the street, I saw a woman half-heartedly try to talk a man down from a window ledge. It was only a foot or two above the street, but I understood his despair.
I was summoned to the back room for my eye exam, conducted in mutual and muted grunts, varied only by long sighs. I looked at the gray carpet and thanked my doctor, who stared at the white wall and muttered that death is our ever-present companion.
But then, as I reached for my coat, and scarf, and sweater, and mittens, and hat, and boots, a strange light filled the sky. I looked out in wonder. Shadows, colors, and the illusion of warmth magically swept across the cityscape. Pedestrians ceased plodding and their steps became buoyant. I heard music. I turned and smiled towards the receptionist and she smiled towards me. Light bounced back and forth between the lenses in our glasses and we laughed and spoke of gardens.
Across the street, the desperate man leapt down from the ledge and executed a complicated but nonetheless merry Swedish folk dance. Melting snow fell from the roof of the building, covering all but his feather-tufted Tyrolean hat.
This morning, I heard the weather forecaster mention that we’ve met or exceeded another meteorological record, having received snow each of the past nine days. While not as immediately dramatic as the storm hitting the east coast today, still, it has added up in increments and made scooting around in my little VW Bug tricky enough to be avoided, if possible. Yesterday it wasn’t, and I paid the price of getting stuck and having to shovel the car free.
So, I’ve stayed inside to write, read, cook, work with photographs, and write some more, taking breaks to gaze out the window at the birds and squirrels, and darting out to refill their feeders when they need replenishing.
The cats and I enjoy the view and each other’s quiet company.
These slow winter days take me deep within, and my gifts, meager though they may be, seem urged by the solitude to express themselves. I’ve been struggling with a story that has perplexed me regarding its evolution. The plot has jiggled like liquid mercury, shape-shifting and eluding me. When my writing immobilizes, I use the great picture window in front of my desk to escape the confines of words.
The mystery of where this impulse to create comes from and to what end, irritates me at times. Why be gifted with the impulse and not gifted as well with the path it’s meant to lead me down, towards some perceived outcome? When the way is clear, of course, engaging in creation is utter joy, but when I’m lost in a hall of mirrors I willingly chose to enter, believing inspiration and talent would lead me out, I wish I were instead someone content to watch soap operas, ponder nothing, and remain a stranger to creativity.
The other morning I sat at my desk diligently editing, staring, and wondering why, when a great and sudden onrush of darkness sent all the birds scattering with a single and furious beating of wings. Something immense tore down past the window, blocking the light, and just as quickly rose up to the birch tree beyond the feeders.
It had all happened so quickly. The Cooper’s Hawk faced out towards the river and from the back, its feathered cape emanated malevolence. Or such was the ancient archetype it conjured in my mind, as it huddled and seemed to curse the mourning dove that got away.
And then the hawk turned and faced me, almost daring me to judge it for trying to harm one of my guests. “Don’t I also need nourishment?” it seemed to ask.
And after a few days of brooding over this experience, because I knew it had come to teach me, the path of my story–or at least the next chapter–came into focus.
So, while others may lament long days of snowbound tedium, I’m grateful for the chance to watch the drama right outside my window, and to be led by its inspiration.
In the past four days, we’ve had a snowstorm, a thunderstorm, temperatures in the upper 50’s and today, another snowstorm. This morning, chickadees have been flying back and forth to the feeders, singing their spring songs, but that’s changed again in the past hour. They seem to have adapted to winter’s return. I wonder if they can tell that tomorrow the temperatures will dip once more below zero, or if this will surprise them?
Everything changes: not always in a day, or even a lifetime, and rarely all at once, but as we revolve through life, it seems every cycle brings us back to a place that’s similar but never the same as it was. Companions have left our side and new ones now walk the path beside us; our physical capabilities or our views have altered; the degree of hope we perceive in our hearts and the encouragement offered by the world around us varies.
We may be surprised by loss, tragedy, or reversals, changes that cause the geographies describing our relationship to self, others, place, and spirit to evolve or regress, or dramatically alter, and we either adapt or do not, depending upon our finesse and willingness to regain our balance and accept these changes that were unsought and undesired.
But even changes we’ve planned for and worked towards demand our willingness to discard elements of our current situation, boundaries, or relationships that were once rooted in the earth of our existence.
We devise systems to manage change: education, healthcare, government. We create “news programs” to discuss the changes collectively experienced over 24 hours, and share phone calls, or posts in social media, or text messages to update each other more intimately and frequently regarding changes in our “status.”
It seems, societally, we’re addicted to insignificant change and hasten its rhythms to keep us engaged in life. Until substantial change threatens our sense of security, the way we “want” things to be, or the direction we desire to move. Then, we resist, argue, deny, or retreat, often to our detriment, though certainly stillness, discernment, and speaking our own truth are valuable companions as we navigate the flow of this ever-changing energy we call life.
I’ve been reading another book on the spirituality of change, specifically as it relates to aging. This is a topic that fascinates me and that I’ve been asked to address in presentations to those who care for geriatric patients or to those who, like me, are interested in exploring changes that are specific to aging humans and our physical, emotional, and spiritual health.
Over and over, I’ve encountered the understanding that the happiest individuals are those who have used their intelligence and gifts to the best of their abilities, but who resist grasping too tightly to any outcome, and instead nurture a willingness to let go and to flow with the greater current, looking for unexpected blessing and the potential for creativity in forming one’s response.
The central change we face as we age is our death, and our health as elders may depend upon the degree to which we embrace our death as friend, foe, inevitability, or a fearful possibility we can avoid through the “magic of medicine.”
I know of a woman who is 89 and considering a heart valve replacement. All of her organs are somewhat compromised and the surgery, if successful, will require a lengthy stay in a nursing facility for her convalescence. She has said, “I’m afraid to die.” I hope she is aware that hospice is another choice, and that patients served by hospices often live longer than those who instead choose aggressive medical interventions, but her fear is driving her choice to undergo this surgery. Family members often disagree about such choices and thus another level of chaos and distraction can intrude upon our end-of-life choices and experiences. Answers are elusive and, in the end, each person has to choose and, hopefully, be at peace regarding these choices.
Over and over in my work as a chaplain I met people at these crossroads and tried to be a listening presence as they navigated their way to peace, or battled through final breaths to the change that came anyway and inevitably. Regardless of my inclinations, my job was to support them through theirs. Certainly, a patient who said, “I am afraid to die” indicated an obvious need to dialogue, and in conversations with a chaplain or other trained caregiver, the patient often reached greater peace as his fears, his beliefs, and his sources of strength were opened, explored, validated and employed creatively to face the days ahead.
Rituals sometimes helped ease deterrents to dying peacefully, but so did the hard work of asking forgiveness, or extending it to another, reviewing a life that proved more light-filled than first admitted, re-connecting the dying to loved ones who had become distant, or to a faith community that affirmed its willingness to become involved.
It taught me to pay attention to my own dying: to choose responses to possible scenarios; to designate my power of attorney, complete a will, and file the legal forms with my physicians and loved ones; to discuss with my husband, relatives, and friends, what treatments and care I would desire at the end of my life, and to clarify how I want my body to be returned to the earth. Such tasks completed, although unforeseen change may cause their revision, I’m better able to turn back towards the amazing mystery and ever-changing dance with my ever-changing life. Whatever it brings, storms or halcyon days of mellow sunshine, I hope I’ll go with the flow.
When Phillip and I bought Full Moon Cottage in 1997, most of our friends thought we’d been bespelled. The 4 acres were promising, but the house was hideous. It had been built in 1969 and had passed through two families without any modifications to its design or decoration, and came to us with a complete lack of landscaping. The couple who sold it to us admitted they “had no idea” where exactly to place a garden, and had avoided any remodeling because, to them, the property was just an investment.
But we had a dream about the home it could be.
Our first night in the home was spent ripping up carpeting in the living room and then setting down one of our own rugs and then our mattress, because the bedrooms were even creepier. The second day, we began taking down walls, pulling up more carpeting, and ripping off wallpaper. Within the first year, Phillip had painted the house, laid wood floors, rebuilt the kitchen, added wainscoting, and begun to replace windows, doors, ceilings, and cabinetry, opening the east side of the home to the river as much as possible.
Over the next few years, we’d tackle each room as we were able, discussing how we wanted to modify it. Phillip was able to manage the carpentry, electrical and plumbing work, and I was the delegated painter and designer, although we tend to team well on problem-solving and innovation. I designed stained glass windows and Phillip created them. We’d get ideas from magazines, movies, memories and old photographs, and then incorporate these into our plans and dreams.
In 2005, we hired builders to “rough-in” an addition to the house for my mother, but her death and waning finances prevented us from finishing it for a few years, so we used the addition as our “summer escape,” until we’d saved enough money to convert to geo-thermal heating and cooling for the house, and Phillip tackled the huge job of finishing the addition.
By 2010, we had our home the way we’d imagined it, with just a few touch-up’s and minor remodeling jobs left. The gardens were looking good and Full Moon Cottage began to match the dreams we’d imagined all those years ago.
I was thinking about all these adventures over the weekend, when subzero temperatures set in and we gathered in the living room to read and sit by the fire. I looked around the sweet room and lingered on all the work Phillip has done to make it beautiful.
Of course, now I vacuum and cover all the furniture with clean blankets every morning, then wash and dry the blankets at night, so the 4-leggeds can relax and, at the same time, the furniture can be protected and perhaps last a few years longer. Some doors are closed to the 4-leggeds, so dander and fur are prevented from spreading, and a section of the kitchen floor is clearly a feeding zone.
So yes, the house is finished, more or less. And it’s probably loveliest to see when it’s company-ready. But it creates the loveliest memories when we’re gathered together on weekends, sitting on fleece blankets, cuddling with cats and dogs and enjoying the love that makes Full Moon Cottage a better home than we ever dreamed it would be.
One day last week I reread Paula D’Arcy’s moving spiritual memoir, Gift of the Redbird, in which she shares her lost-and-found relationships with the Holy over the course of many years, and how her sacred encounters, whether prompted by the utter depths of grief, illness, or yearning, always led to her willingness to notice, attend, and surrender images of the Holy that no longer held meaning for her. The gifts yielded by these journeys—hard-won, as the best gifts often are—seemed to be greater expansiveness and deeper evolution regarding her capacity to love and to perceive connection with all creation.
And so I’ve been traveling with the book’s wisdom in the time since closing its covers. (All art, for me, requires this time to be with my atoms and energy, rearranging my understanding of life’s big questions before I can even begin to speak about its effects on my spirit. And, of course, these alterations change when I revisit a work of art, even a book that’s slim and a deceptively quick read.)
I’ve been thinking about all the significant relationships in my life, from the openness and intimacy shared with my own spirit and sense of the Holy, and then rippling out from there to include my connections with my husband, family, friends, 4-leggeds, and even my home. It seems all of them have followed the pattern described by D’Arcy’s relationship with her God, in that the connections are at times deeply intimate and lively, and at other times, somewhat flat and stagnant
It’s good to be reminded that ongoing discernment and faithful checking-in can help us recognize the degree of effort and attention we’re offering these relationships and how well we’re tending them. But there is also the need for the field of each relationship to have its fallow time for deepening; what may, at first, feel stagnant may more truthfully be the sacred period of stillness necessary for the rigors of the relationship’s evolution, its next stage, requiring re-commitment and patience as this unfolds.
The dark nights our spirits experience, as do each of our relationships, may be accepted and unpacked as gifts, although at times they feel so antithetical to anything desired, supportive, or helpful. But traveling the circle as many times as I have, I’ve begun to see these places of dark blessing are like the silent depths beneath the earth where seeds are loved into growth.
And to realize that my partners in relationship, perhaps even the Holy, have their own steps to dance, their own needs to withdraw, to be renewed, and to evolve.
And how lovely when we waltz together once more, embrace, and fall in love again, not only with our past adventures and the relationship we have shared, but with the shining place we now find ourselves in and all the steps we have yet to dance together.
“Music is the space between the notes.” ~ Claude Debussy
The long inhalation of excitement and joy that begins in September and lasts through the Christmas holidays has been exhaled over the past week or so. The decorations are almost all put away—a few are “wintry” enough to last through February, along with a few that foretell Valentine’s Day—and my energy has settled deep within.
We attended a post-holiday-holiday-party and several guests mentioned their dislike for the months of January and February.
I nodded sympathetically but remained unengaged with the conversation, because I tend to love the months for their stillness and gifts of time for sifting through recent experiences, re-gathering my spirit, noticing little regressions and evolutions, and seeing clearly where I am on my journey, before heading into the new year with renewed energy. Each new year is like a musical composition my little spirit co-creates with Spirit. Twelve measures of music, or possibly 52, or 365; each a movement of its own. I’m grateful it begins–somewhat non-traditionally, I suppose–with a long rest, so I can hear the music shape itself and its themes for the coming year.
Many of the other guests at the party were teachers, however, and I could empathize with their post-holiday weariness and return to classroom routines.
January and February can be cold and the days are still brief. Their passage can be slow and uneventful and they’re rather anticlimactic, following the long season of holidays and traditional gatherings with friends and family. The crescendo diminishes to silence.
But what an invitation to be creative and start some new traditions!
Phillip and I tend to use these slower winter months to get out of the weekend routine and go on day trips. Last weekend, we traveled to the Wisconsin River area and combined an eagle-sighting adventure with a visit to a well-established and award-winning winery.
We have a few more adventures planned between now and spring break, and I’m looking forward to them. Sometimes we’re surprised by the fun a new place or experience offers and even if it’s less than stellar, we’re together and, usually, laughing.
This week, I was surprised with a visit from my nephew and his family, a true boost to the spirit. One of the gifts of working at home is being able to say yes (or, as we say in Wisconsin, “You betcha!”) to spontaneous visits.
I’ve always thought it would be fun to schedule gatherings with close women friends during these months, to share spiritual stories, practices, books, and films, and to reinforce each other’s spirits and affirm our journeys. We become so busy when the days grow longer. It might be helpful to get together once or twice a month in January and February to transfuse each other’s spirits with renewed energy and share a very-mini-retreat, helping each other get our spirits in tune for the months ahead.
Traveling through the year’s music, its rhythms and beats, its familiar melodies and new improvisations, invites greater intentionality and sensitivity from me than I was prepared or wise enough to offer when I was younger. Letting Spirit be the conductor is easier, however, and I welcome her gift of an initial multi-measure rest, because it allows me to hear her deeper song, the one she sings in my heart and bids me to dance when the music of the year continues.
(Murphy says, “I crawl under my blanket, watch Downton Abbey, and take a two-month retreat.”)
A glorious blizzard has kept us home for the past two days. I walked out early yesterday to enjoy the snowfall. The air was warmer than I expected and the snow was heavy and wet. The woods were magical and the trail deserted.
The sky told of the blizzard to come.
By the time I’d turned back, high winds were causing very low visibility and the snow stung my face and hands.
Phillip started plowing early, but eventually stopped to let the winds have their way.
We decided to watch movies, eat Christmas cookies, and enjoy our snowday. The winds howled furiously throughout the night. We were both awake until after one o’clock and then dropped off, despite the wind’s wailing. We woke to find a lovely old ash tree had fallen across the drive.
While Phillip removed the tree, I watched feathered visitors bob up and down in the birch tree, risk flights to the feeders, and then fly quickly back their perches.
Tonight, the winds have quieted and we’re all hoping for a peaceful Solstice sleep…after more Christmas movies, a toasty fire, and popcorn to celebrate.
Wishing you all a season of light and eruptions of joy…