I’ve chosen that double-dip name for my blog (Sophy-wisdom), first because Sophy is my Christened name, spelt like that, with a “y,” and then because all my life I’ve been straining and struggling to find wisdom.
All Creatures Great and Small
Today I saw a fox pattering along the edge of the forest, nose down, intent on its journey to catch mice in the horse pasture a quarter mile up the road. The birds are twittering, a single crow cawing, and, high above, a vulture sways on the wind looking for voles and other small dead carrion in the fresh mown hayfield. As the pandemic slows and shutters human activity, the hidden animals are coming boldly out.
This spring I found a huge hole in my flower bed, so deep I could put my entire arm in up to the shoulder. “Groundhog,” I thought, though I’d never stuck my arm in a groundhog hole in my life. I rocked back on my heels wondering to do about these stubborn creatures who were surely eating the roots of my peonies.
I couldn’t imagine killing it even if I owned a gun. I would have to trap it. I bought a Have-a-Hart trap, a cage big enough to hold a smallish dog. I baited it with cantaloupe, which I’m told is groundhog ambrosia, and some carrots and lettuce leaves, and I set it carefully that night.
The next day to my dismay I discovered something crouched in terror in the cage, surrounded by dirt that it had scraped and thrown into the cage in its frenzied efforts to escape. It was a skunk. A small and beautiful black-and-white skunk, no bigger than a cat. Her little paws must have been bleeding from the heavy wire bottom of the cage, where she’d tried to dig her way out. Now, exhausted, defeated, she lay there, unable to move for the dirt that held her in place on all sides. The hole she’d dug was so steep that the cage had settled half into it weight.
Carefully I lifted the cage to level ground, heart twisting and opened the door. I would never have hurt her, given pain. She stared up at me with huge sad eyes. I backed away to give her space to run, and after a few moments in which I could see her gauging the situation, wondering that escape had miraculously opened before her or if it was another trap; she put one tentative foot before another, then shot out of the cage and down the hillside away from the house to disappear into the woods
She was never seen again. I could imagine her later describing what had happened to the other animals: “Don’t go up the hill to that garden.” I imagined the groundhog taking it seriously.
I put the trap in the garage.
So, all summer we fought, the stubborn groundhog and I, about who owned the petunia blossoms on my deck. Once, when I was reading there, the groundhog came right up onto the deck to eat petunias before seeing me. I screamed at him, which made him twitch his whiskers and waddle clumsily (and quickly – they are FAST!) away. In the end, you see, I surrendered. I don’t have petunias or even bitter marigolds in my pots anymore. Just little green stubs, gnawed down. But it pleases me to know that down there, somewhere in the woods, a wild groundhog snuffles and lurches in its search for food — as do the bear that came into my yard last winter, the deer, the rabbits; and I rejoice at how fecund is nature, how rich, how inexorable, how bursting with reproduction, all the things that crawl, walk, skip, skulk, fly, hop, skitter, all of them stubbornly alive.
Bears, groundhogs, squirrels, chipmunks, foxes, owls, bats, mice, birds, butterflies, hummingbirds, coyotes, deer: my woods, even here in the middle of a town, are overflowing with life, not to mention the ticks, spiders, ants, beetles, worms, maggots, flies, wasps and god knows how many billions of insects that dwell in the hidden darkness underground, feeding, chewing, laying eggs, spawning young. Why? Because of plants. All this vegetation. Because of the abundance of plant-life for some to feed upon and of flesh for the others, and of decaying, rotting matter for the hidden creatures in the dark earth. It’s because the pandemic skies shine clear and clean; and because the moonlit nights seem silent now, except for the scurrying of the whispered hunt.
Now, the animals trudge up the wooded hillside to partake of my flower garden, and I think – Yes, Come. Eat. This is Eden, where God walks in the evening to view his garden. This beauty is what our great, great, great, great grandparents knew, and what we moderns have hardly known since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Come into the garden of Eden.
I find myself singing praise. Praise to the beauty. Praise to the groundhog and the skunk and the beetles chewing in the dark; praise to life, to death, to the eternal cycles of seasons, and to the trees and plants of this Eden that sustain us. Praise to the sorrows that draw us together, and the longing that shows we, too, are still alive.
I want your story of your animals, dog, cat, birds, skunk. I think our animas are like angels, come to teach us how to love. For example: Sixteen years ago I prayed to God to bring me a Relationship, the companion of my heart. I was lonely. I wanted a man to share my life. I thought a man would heal the ache in my soul. Instead I got a horse.
A horse? I didn’t want a horse, but once having ridden this young Arab mare (only three years old, just a baby), I was captivated. I’d never met a horse so smart. Or so courageous. One day we were riding with a group out on the spacious New Mexico mesa under that huge Western sky, when we came to the carcass of a cow. The older horses shied, balked, twisted, lunged, refusing to walk past the carrion smell. It was my little girl, Spring, who at my urging stepped daintily past the corpse, leading the others in her wake.
I won’t go into my refusal to buy her. But one morning I woke from sleep with a sudden clear “knowing” that Spring was going to be sold and moved to Portland, Oregon— that I would never see her again. I telephoned the stable in New Mexico. “If Spring is ever for sale,” I said, “please let me know.”
“That’s strange,” said Katherine, the stable owner. “Only yesterday her owner called to tell me she’s moving to Portland, and she’s putting Spring up for sale.”
When God is in charge, there’s nothing you can do,. I put an option on the horse, and flew to New Mexico for a month to make a decision. But I’d already made up my mind. It made no sense for me to own a horse. I lived on the East Coast, with a vacation cabin in New Mexico. I’d always be in another state, far from my horse. And horses are expensive! How could I afford a horse?
But all that month, every time I sensibly decided to deline, I’d feel that little tap on my shoulder that I think of as the voice of angels: “Try again.”
There is a character in Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice, who “talks only of his horse. That’s me. (Actually that’s every horse owner that I know.)
I won’t bore you with her beauty, the way she lifts her head or tail when she steps out in her long walk, the way she moves into the bit, or she lowers her head to make it easier for me to latch her bridle, or thrusts her head into her halter; and if she could, I think she’d probably buckle the snaps.
Moreover, she loves me. Non-horse people don’t think that horses love. Once I was brushing her beautiful hind quarters when she swished her long tail—and held it by muscular force draped over me. I was veiled in her embrace. After three or four seconds, she relaxed, letting her tail fall free. I was shocked. That takes effort. She deliberately held her tail over me, in a kind of touch.
We have been together now for 15 years. I brought her East. We have fox-hunted, done dressage, won ribbons in horse shows, but our favorite is jumping and trail-riding, and we trust each other enough that she will even go out alone on trails we’ve never seen before. I say this because some horses I know will hardly leave sight of their stable, they get so nervous all alone.
Now with the pandemic, she has become even more significant. My sister has a lap dog. One child has budgies. I have a horse. Masked and isolated in lock down, I went for months without touching another human or being kissed or hugged. I was avoided by grandchildren and daughters and friends. At the end of four months, I felt myself going bonkers. Humans are pack animals. We are supposed to touch, relate, not live in sequestration, like a prisoner in solitary. Few can live like hermits or a yogi in a cave. (And this has given me new rage and indignation at how we throw prisoners into solitary confinement, letting them out once a week to walk outside one hour: some confined to solitary for months and years! Cruel and unusual punishment: that’s torture.)
Intellectually, I knew this sequestration was enforced for my safety, but my Unconscious mind had other ideas: that my children, grandchildren and friends wanted nothing to do with me— that I’m old, worthless, useless, unwanted, unloved. It was a message I fought and often lost. Still, I had my horse.
Every day I could drive to the stable and brush my horse, or give her a carrot or apple. Even if we didn’t ride, I could run my hands down the smooth muscles of her beautiful neck, rub her ears, kiss her soft muzzle, breathe into her nose, so that we exchanged breath in an intimacy as deep and calming as sleeping with a lover. She would nuzzle my neck, gazing at me with her enormous brown eyes. The eye of a horse is the largest of any land mammal, exceeded only by that of an ostrich, whale, or seal. A horse is so sensitive that, even through layers of a heavy leather saddle, it can feel the blood pulsing in your thigh. She knows, therefore, when you are excited, angry, frightened, irritable, and likewise when you are quiet and calm. Being flight animals, a horse responds to your emotions as she would in the herd, so that she jiggles or jumps in appropriate fear, according to your emotions, or else she walks calmly along, trusting you even in danger (a cow, for example, or smelly pig or goat, if she’s never seen one). On the other hand, you learn to trust your horse as well. She snatches the scent of bear long before you, and tells you with startled hooves and ears of peril. Believe her. She knows more than you.
Sometimes I would go to the stable anxious and upset, but in only a few minutes of brushing her, I would grow calm under the influence of her love. I think I could feel her sending out waves of loving tranquility.
Lockdown is easing now. Restaurants are carefully opening outdoors. People still wear masks, stand apart, careful not to touch. My grandchildren still will not come near me, fearful of infecting me. But when I go to the stable, my horse out in her pasture pricks her ears and lifts her head at hearing my car. She steps out in her loose long walk, approaching me, and she lowers her head for her halter. Then we walk along together, companionably, to the stable, where she will be brushed and touched and massaged and then ridden, she and I out for an adventure together. I will feel her muscles moving under me in a walk or canter. I come home, take a hot shower, and all is well with the world.
I had wanted a man. I got a horse.
This is a story of how our needs are met. It’s also about an angel, but mostly about how Spirit, the Guiding Principle, the Universe, God, whatever you choose to call this incomprehensible Mystery, works invisibly to heal our pain. The solutions are not what we’d impose if we were in charge, but the quiet, almost unnoticeable outcomes work miraculously not only for ourselves but for people we never even thought involved.
I felt I was managing the pandemic pretty well. I have it easy: a cottage, a garden, a car, the internet, TV, radio, a phone with which to call a friend. How could I complain?
But one morning, after 12 or 13 weeks, I woke up exhausted—at end of my rope. I was undone by loneliness. I felt I couldn’t go another day without a hug, a hand on my shoulder, just human touch. My two daughters live nearby with their families, but they have carefully avoided coming close. Intellectually, I knew they’d withdrawn to protect me. But, unconsciously, the interpretation that pounced that morning – like a lion— was distaste. If I were loved, said the primitive brain, I would be touched, hugged, kissed. I knew it wasn’t true, but I pitched into a hole of despair.
A recent article in the New York Times confirms our need for touch. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/04/well/family/coronavirus-pandemic-hug-mask.html
It’s so powerful that babies left untouched, uncuddled, don’t develop properly, and surely we adults, left alone for too long, fall back into mire of “not good enough,” “unloved,” “useless,” “undesireable.” Indeed, scientists now find the stress and isolation of the pandemic has created a historic wave of mental-health problems.
Looking back, I felt I’d been infected. Continue reading
If there is one benefit to this coronavirus isolation, it’s in offering the luxury of time. But when, like me, you live alone, the days are sometimes long, especially on dark, rainy, soggy, sad days like today— which gives me time to watch what I’m thinking about.
Here’s what I’ve found: 90% of what’s in my mind is none of my business. It involves things I can’t do anything about: gossip, daydreams, politics, ecology, past disasters or future ones to fear. But the other 10% is my business, and this is where it’s interesting. I wouldn’t talk to a dog the way I talk to myself. When I meet a dog, I burst into happy smiles: “Oh, look at YOU,” I say, bending down to stroke his ears and face. “Aren’t you beautiful!”
I never talk like that to myself. I say, “What nonsense!” and, “Well, that was stupid.”
I read recently about a little girl, maybe four years old, perched fearfully on the top of the BIG sliding board. Finally she took the dare and SLID. As she hit the bottom, she raised her fist in the air and shouted, “YAH, ME!”
I never do that. I never say, “Yah, Me!” I say, “Ok, you’ve done the dishes. Now for the laundry. ”
Yesterday I decided to say, “Yah Me!” all day long. Continue reading
A few weeks ago I “pulled a muscle.” You’d think at my age that I would know better than to shovel snow; but it was such a pretty, blue-sky day, and I felt so good, that I simply didn’t think. Two days later my back ached. By the end of the week I couldn’t walk, and soon an old sciatica, reignited, was shooting pain down into my foot.
I’ve done everything imaginable to get well again, including doctors, chiropractors and PT, heat, cold, back brace, and prayers by wonderful Silent Unity, plus energy work like Reiki and Cranial Sacral. It’s just going to take time. Meanwhile I would find myself falling sometimes into such self-pity that I started scolding myself for the pity-parties I despise.
“If self-pity hastened the cure,” laughed one friend who has her own problems, “I’d have an amazing recovery!” And yet the pity is not wrong. Instead of critical self-pity, though, why don’t I call it self-compassion? When I acknowledge my sorrow, my low spirits shift, move off. Let’s talk, therefore, about loving ourselves with all our frailties and failures.
Last week as I lay on the massage table for a long and luxurious cranial-sacral treatment, drifting in and out of awareness, I found myself praying to my body. All my life my body has done whatever I asked of it, and I don’t think it had ever occurred to me before to give it thanks. Continue reading
Oh boy, here we are in January. The new year. This time the new Decade. January is the month when we make Resolutions—and usually forget them in a week. Instead of resolutions, I offer myself one word, an Intention, that I can muse on and meander beside throughout the year.
One year I took the word Gratitude.
Another year Generosity, and a third Beauty and Bounty, which I liked so much that the following year I repeated it as Bounty and Beauty.
An intention requires no effort, no demands for success. It is simply that throughout the year I remember my word and pause to look around, especially in challenging moments, reminding myself of gratitude or the beauty and bounty and goodness and generosity that lies about me, that fall as blessings with mercy and grace, unearned.
An intention is similar to an affirmation, but different. Continue reading
We all know Christmas is about giving. We forget that receiving is another gift. It’s hard to receive. It’s as hard as asking for help. Some people naturally know how to do it: They open the present slowly, shaking the box, pulling off ribbon with delighted attention, mischievously examining the paper, wondering what’s inside . . . followed by a cheer of delight. But others—I know a man who just can’t manage it. As the son of an alcoholic, he was never taught to break into a smile, eyes crinkling with pleasure, much less leap to his feet and give the giver a kiss at receiving “just what I wanted!”
It takes some of the pleasure out of giving. Not everyone is by nature exuberant. But this man is an extreme example. Another person might cast down her eyes in shy embarrassment, or slide the present under a pillow in an effort to take the attention off herself; and still you know she liked the gift. Sometimes a gentle smile, a quiet nod, is enough to tell you that your gift hit home, and moments such as these are treasured as well. On the other hand I know a little girl who, without any training at all, knows everything about the gift of receiving. “Oh!” she cries, her face lighting up. “This is the just the best!” And even if you know it isn’t, that you had to buy a less expensive version than you wanted, her pleasure is so infectious that you feel the warmth lift up your frozen heart.
But giving is hard too, and fraught with perils, like sunken shipwrecks ready to stove us in. Once my former husband gave me a whole set of cooking pots for Christmas. I burst into tears. I wanted something related to my work. A typewriter ribbon would have done. Continue reading
“Writing is a form of therapy: sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in a human situation.” Graham Greene
October, and again we have the pleasure of frightening ourselves with witches, goblins, ghouls, and ghosts; with skeletal hands reaching from the grave, or zombies clunking heavily toward us with sightless eyes to drink our blood.
Why do we like to frighten ourselves? Most animals find life quite scary enough without adding in imagination. We court fear. We pay to watch horror films (there is always a girl who descends the basement steps in the dark where you KNOW the murderer lies waiting!). When I was just a little girl, I remember reading Dracula late one night in my father’s study, and being so frightened that I couldn’t leave the lighted room to go to bed! Such is the thrill of being afraid—when it’s safe.
Then there’s unsafe fear. Once when I was a young girl I met a man who confessed that he saw a therapist for his anxiety—and my innocent response, “What’s anxiety?”
I don’t think I ever heard the word as a girl, but as I grew older, a wave would wash over me sometimes, boiling me like an ocean breaker. I’d be sitting at a swimming pool watching my little children play, and suddenly I’d be overwhelmed by the sense that I ought to be somewhere else, except I didn’t know where— Continue reading
“Look, the trees are turning,” she said, glancing out the picture window toward the New Hampshire woods, and everything in me wanted to cry out: Not yet! Too soon!
September marks the beginning of the new year. The children are back at school, anxious or excited, happy with their new classes, or disappointed. You see them on early mornings at the side of the road waiting for their yellow buses. The little ones are so brave, their enormous book bags towering over their heads, almost taller than their tiny legs. The big kids jostle and push, overflowing with energy too strong to allow just standing still. My garden, too, is in transition. The grass grows slower now, needing less mowing. The straggly, leggy plants have given an explosion of defiant berries and bloom, as glorious as springtime but more beautiful somehow, yet moving inexorably toward decline– as leggy as my teenage granddaughter, who is also in transition, but in her case toward young womanhood. The squirrels dash heedlessly across the roads and spiral up the trees, as if there’s no time left to relax in late summer heat. Burrs fly onto our clothes if we take a walk, clinging to be carried to new environments, and all of life—bees, moths, chipmunks, squirrels, children, grass, trees, and, yes, we adults too—feel the planet tilt in its orbit, sharpening and shortening the light: Time speeding up.
We are all in transition. To be closer to her children, my sister has sold her house and is moving to a city where she knows no one. Continue reading
Summertime, and the living is easy. Our cultural memories are rich with summertime: the slap of a screen door to the excited calls of children; of dozing in a hammock over a good book, or casting a fishing line onto the black river; of days on the beach, ice cream cones, and iced tea sipped on the porch; of just slowing down; baseball games, and barbecues, or cold suppers served in a long, sweet dusk that extends for hours. More recently it’s remembering to snatch a sweater as you step into the heat, because of the freezing air conditioning at the store.
Summertime. And in this period when we are assaulted—barraged—by our culture of FEAR and the constant recording of inescapable grief, anguish, sorrow and suffering . . . I think we need reminders of the bubbling, playful, lighthearted side of life. We need to remember that all is not lost, and it is our heritage to laugh and play. I don’t know who first coined most of these sayings, but here I offer to you, little bubbles of happiness: Continue reading