Afraid to die

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Every now and again, and often, it seems, when I’m most discouraged, I’ll suddenly get an email from a total stranger, telling me how much my books have affected their life. As if the Universe is trying to encourage me. It’s always surprising. And humbling. I’m made aware each time of how the angels, spirits, guides, gods and goddesses, totems and devas, are manipulating time and space, to bring us our dreams and the desires of our hearts. “Buck up,” they say.

    I don’t think I was the only little girl to have pondered unanswerable questions:  Who was I before I was born? How did I ever end up on this planet of suffering and sorrow and joy and love? Or, most often: What happens when you die? Now I have to tell you I know a number of people who announce with conviction that the answer is “Nothing.” Nothing happens. The corpse is tossed underground or onto the fire, and that’s it.  It’s over. Think black void.  

     But even as a child I could see that my beautiful cat, now dead, was no longer inside her body. Something had “left.” Walked out. The Greeks called it the Psyche, George Bernard Shaw called it the Life Force, and most western religions name it the Soul. Or maybe it’s the Buddhist “I” that is observing our beautiful world and noticing the miracles and marvels around us (a tulip thrusting up in spring, the hawk in flight, the wind in the high branches of the bare winter trees that hardly touches you walking down below. . . . Such beauty.) And also that observes ourselves. Who is this “I?”  Is it possible that we really are cared for? Are there truly spiritual guides loving and adoring us, who think we are beautiful? 

     Well, here is one recent letter, and you can decide for yourself where you stand and how much you trust that cavalries of angels are riding to our help, that we have some purpose to our lives and that we go somewhere when we shed the body and (so-called) “die.”  The fact that communication so often comes in the shape of butterflies or birds should not surprise us: Don’t we, too, remember when we once could fly?  (I’m sorry I can’t find how to insert “read more.” I can no longer find the icon that allows it, much less how to add a photo, now that I’ve been upgraded mysteriously.)

Dear Sophy ~

Having worked as a doctor in a New York City hospital for 30+ years, I have been around death a lot – especially during the AIDS epidemic, when I sat at the bedside of many dying children and teenagers, and the mystery of dying has always intrigued me.

If I may, I’d like to share two near-death stories with you.

The first one is about my husband Charles. He was scheduled to have a titanium “stent” placed in his heart to increase his heart’s longevity. This is usually a simple and speedy procedure, and the surgeon who was to perform it, knowing that I was a fellow physician, had invited me to “scrub up” and observe the proceedings, which I was delighted to do. But minutes later, things went terribly wrong. Charles’ heart suddenly stopped beating, and the overhead monitoring devices began screaming their loud alarms.

I was immediately asked to leave the room so that resuscitation activities could begin. Out in the hallway a strange silence seemed to hang in the air. It felt as if time had stopped, waiting for an irreversible decision to be made.

And then, suddenly, the sound of the cardiac surgeon’s voice echoed down the hall. I leapt to my feet with joy! My beloved husband was fine! In fact, he was more than fine, for while his medical attendants were working on his body, he had gone on an adventure of his own, being drawn down a dark tunnel, at the end of which he was greeted by several “advisors” who told him that it wasn’t his time to die yet, for he still had important work to do on Earth before his final departure. And indeed, Charles has acquired a strong desire to assist others in many different ways.

The second story is about my parents. My father was a surgeon, and I grew up hearing him rushing out the door in the middle of the night, again and again, to help people who were seriously ill or injured. Meanwhile, my mother was a kind and caring person who enjoyed helping our many neighbors, and I loved her deeply.

When she developed pancreatic cancer, I took a leave from my hospital work to be with her, as I knew she didn’t have long to live, with such a serious diagnosis.

Then one night, she called me to her bedside, where I found her in tears. She reached for my hand, and, holding it tight in hers, confided that she was afraid to die.

I wanted very much to reassure her that there was nothing to be afraid of, but she was clearly overcome by her fear. Suddenly, an intriguing idea came to me. “Maybe you could send me a sign of some kind, to let me know if I was right about not needing to be afraid, Mom. I’ve heard that birds can sometimes deliver messages, and you’ve certainly been a friend of birds, what with all the bird-feeders you’ve maintained in your yard. I bet one of them would be happy to do that if you asked!”

She looked at me oddly, not knowing whether to take me seriously or not. “We’ll see,” she murmured. Then my mother closed her eyes, and that was the last thing she said. She passed away that very night. And, interestingly, my father, who liked to boast that he’d never been sick a day in his life, died the very next night. Out of nowhere, he suddenly developed acute lymphatic leukemia, and in two days he was gone. I couldn’t help but feel that he was rushing off to catch up with her!

When Charles and I finished taking care of their affairs, including selling their house to some neighbors who were delighted to acquire it, we got on the next plane we could find that was going close to where we currently live. In a short time we were tumbling into bed, and minutes later we were sound asleep. 

But not for long. Just as dawn was breaking, we were woken up by an 

insistent tapping on one of the two windows that flank our queen-sized bed—to be precise, the window on my side of the bed. There, to our amazement, was a small bird fluttering repeatedly up and down and pecking on the window with its beak, stopping occasionally to sit on the sill and peer into our bedroom, as if to make sure we were paying attention. After about ten minutes it departed, only to reappear the next morning for a repeat of this performance – and then the next morning, and the next and the next. Each time, I couldn’t help but exclaim, “I can’t believe this is happening!”

As days turned into weeks and then into months, with no apparent intention of the bird to stop these visitations, we began to worry that the poor thing might exhaust itself in its efforts to get our attention, so we tried taping a large beach towel over the window, preventing the bird from looking in and theoretically dispelling whatever odd fixation it had. But this strategy did nothing to deter the bird: the determined little creature simply flew to the window on Charles’ side of the bed, where it continued its determined tapping. One day, the bird even brought a flock of friends who perched in a tree close by, chirping excitedly as “our” bird perched on our window sill and tapped away.

And every day I repeated the same six words: I can’t believe this is happening! It became like a mantra for me.

Finally, some friends to whom we had been describing this mysterious behavior suggested that we try speaking with an “animal communicator”, and though we had never heard of such a profession before, we immediately set up an appointment. When the day came, we said nothing about my mother or ourselves, not wanting to influence her perception of what was going on.

She listened closely, then asked us to wait while she “connected” with the bird. A moment later, she exclaimed, “Why, yes, I can feel how strongly this bird is drawn to you. How strange!”

She paused, then continued with surprise in her voice, “But wait, I’m sensing another presence here too – a human presence! I’ve never dealt with humans, but this presence is saying that she’s your mother! Could that be true?

Astounded, I said, “Well, yes, I guess it could. My gosh, I can hardly believe this is happening. But can you tell me this: why is the bird still coming after all this time? I don’t want the poor thing to get totally exhausted and not be able to live its own natural life.

The answer the animal communicator got was immediate: “What you just said is exactly the issue. The reason the bird is still coming to you is because you haven’t fully believed what is happening!

Suddenly, I was flooded with an overwhelming sense of my mother’s love. My heart opened wide in response, and all my stubborn doubts melted away. I was finally able to take in her amazing gift of reaching out to me from another dimension to let me know that all was well with her. Tears of joy ran down my cheeks, and inwardly I heard myself saying, “Thank you Mom, thank you! I love you!”

The next day, I awoke just as dawn was breaking and found myself automatically listening for the familiar tapping, but alas, it didn’t come. Sadly, but rightly, the little bird never returned. It’s mission had been accomplished.

As an expression of thanks, Charles and I maintain several bird feeders in our yard, where many different kinds of birds partake of our offerings on a daily basis, just as they did in Mom’s yard.

If you have any thoughts about these two stories, I’d love to hear from you.”

And if you, dear reader, have any thoughts or want to share your own experiences, I, would love to hear from you.  I have no doubts anymore: but I admit I’m not ready yet to die. I don’t want to leave this beautiful planet or the people that we are given to care for, and to love. Sophy

Sophy means wisdom (as in Philosophy, the “love of wisdom,”) and wisdom is “experience coupled with thoughtfulness of what was learnt.”

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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.

Keep My Sheep

  Occasionally I get a letter (imagine that!) or an email so evocative that I can’t stop thinking about it, like the one I’m about to tell you about concerning sheep. The only thing I know about sheep is that my horse refuses to step one hoof into a  pasture that contains these white, strange-smelling aliens that dash nervously away, ears pricked and tails twitching, as they scramble into the safety of their flock, bumping deeper into the middle at sight of my threatening horse.

   Or I think of the Bible, both the Hebrew and the New Testament with its images that we are the sheep of a loving God. Who does not love the 23rd psalm, in which the shepherd leads his flock into green pastures beside still waters and even safely through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, guiding them with his shepherd’s rod?  I used to sit in church, even as a child, comforted by this image of myself, the lovable lamb.  In the National Cathedral in Washington, my favorite Chapel of the Good Shepherd is so small that it can hold only two or three people; and it’s best if you are all alone in a one-person pew to gaze at the stone carving of Jesus cradling a lamb in his arms,  looking down at it, loving it. 

    It’s metaphor for how we, too, are loved and cared for by the Shepherd. Until we remember that the lamb will be slaughtered in the springtime, as was the Lamb of God, His Son, Jesus.  A tremor runs through me, therefore, considering sheep and my associations with lamb chops and butchery.  So it was a pleasure to receive the following letter, inspired by my blog, which the writer has kindly given me permission to reprint.  I had no idea that being with sheep, like therapy horses, helps heal the traumatized and lost. I had no idea that sheep were affectionate, or smart.  You see I’ve never known a sheep. There’s so much I don’t know.  

    I too, have loved an Arabian horse, thank you so much for your (as usual) lucid, helpful writing. Although I am not a very good rider (My husband is the horseman–we had won him in a raffle and trained him as a young colt, then a gelding, then sold him to a family who would love and appreciate him because we lost our nearby boarding stable.) Blowing air gently back and forth and the grooming, leading, talking, feeding, formed a strong attachment and I still think of him nearly 30 years later, long after he died. For this past 10 years we have bred and shown Shetland Sheep. They are every bit as smart and loving as horses. It is a scientifically proven fact that herd animals have larger brains relative to their body size than animals that are not as social. The theory is that they need more brain to store and use all the social cues to function in a flock or a herd.

     Our sheep adopted us into their flock. They come to us voluntarily and they talk with us in the same gentle chortlings that lambs and ewes only use for each other during their bonding process. As we age and grow too sore in body, we must downsize and quit keeping rams and quit breeding and showing. We have young granddaughters miles and miles away in San Francisco and older grand children in Colorado and Wyoming whose lives we need to be part of, too. So we are very carefully downsizing the flock, trying to make sure at least two go together and that they go to loving homes that will give them good care. Dispersing a flock of sheep is a huge responsibility, at least in order to do it well, in a way that the sheep will thrive–they cannot be healthy without being part of a flock. For us as well, as adopted members of their flock, it is very hard emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, to part with them. 

     Friends sometimes bring us loved ones who are in a streak of bad luck or illness, just so they can spend time with the sheep. They report that their loved ones spend a huge amount of time talking excitedly on the way home about how good, how healing, it was to be with the sheep.    

     So, we have pretty much decided to just stop breeding them, not to keep rams, and to keep the sweetest older ewes around for pets and therapy. Recently some of our sheep have won some big, competitive shows; we show to learn and to make sure we are in compliance with the breed standard. Although my husband is competitive and enjoys handling them and winning shows immensely, I consider my greatest achievement as a Shepherd was being smart enough to sell a ewe lamb and donate another to a ranch in Western Wisconsin, near the Twin Cities, that keeps Therapy animals of all types. Kids from the Inner City as well as disabled people come to visit them and the sheep are among their favorites. We have tried to tame and halter-train most of our lambs before they go to their new homes, because one never knows who they will end up helping. A friend of ours, another Shetland Sheep breeder, had grand-daughters who raised an orphaned Shetland bottle lamb in the house in diapers.  Now they dress her in a tutu and take her to nearby nursing homes, where the sheep loves being petted and socializing. Most commonly asked question when their now grown-up but still small ewe in her tutu first meets someone is, “What kind of dog is THAT?”

    Her letter shifts my distrust.  I remember the comfort I’ve always taken from the psalms, and from the words Christ spoke in the Gospel of John, “Keep my sheep,” he admonished Peter before leaving his gang for the last time. “Feed my sheep.” Meaning us. Meaning me. Meaning all of us who need to be loved so much. Meaning become the shepherd, all of us sheep. 

Grief

I haven’t written on this site in many weeks. I had nothing to say, as I reeled from the loss of three people in three weeks. Grief is so close to depression, you hardly know what’s come over you, and it takes time to heal. I say “you.”  I mean me, of course, but maybe it relates to you, too.  You have to tell me, because right now I feel the ground still rocking, unstable, underfoot.  What have I to share? In grief, one sees through a veil; everything seems dulled: color, music, friendships. I have to remind myself to laugh, and all the time, I beat myself up for not feeling upbeat, happy, optimistic, and especially for having lost my way spiritually.  Where is God? The best I can do is to comfort myself that all things change, that everything is temporary, including life itself. 

      “Out, out, brief candle,” says Macbeth, on the death of his wife:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
that struts and frets its hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

    Is it true? Is there really no meaning? That’s what it feels like, and where is my generous spirituality in this?  Sometimes you cling with all ten claws to faith alone, trying to remember those times when you saw and heard the angels sing, when your heart leapt up with joy at the beauty of a tree or horse or the eyes of a friend. That’s what faith means.  That you can’t see “IT” anymore (whatever “it” is) — but you remember having seen it once (or many times!), and you cling to hope and faith.  You cling to faith that you are still loved, and that you still love, even when you don’t feel loving. You return to the cold comfort of intellect.  “We do not see things as they are,” according to the Talmud, “We see them as we are.”  Perhaps you remember St. Paul, “We walk by faith, not by sight.” You remember that grief itself is a poignant expression of love, and the deeper the grief, the deeper the love. I say you. I mean me. 

    When signs of the spiritual are absent, I walk by faith alone, by the memory of blessings poured upon me earlier, or of felix culpa moments, in which terrible things turned out serendipidously in my favor.  In grief, I walk by faith, praying, and then one day, I know, I’ll begin to blink my spiritual eyes again.  

    It just takes time. Grief is just another of these life-long journeys into love.  

My angel crow

For a year and a half, I have tried to attract birds to my garden. I put up a birdbath, and grieved when no bird came to drink.  I put up a bird feeder, and watched the squirrels hang upside down, feeding at leisure on what had promised to be a squirrel-repelling mechanism .  And then this spring, a single crow swooped onto my bird bath.  

   I was thrilled. I love crows. They are smart, social, observant, cunning.  And black.  They warn other birds and animals of peril. They caw at any illicit movement in the forest; they attack or deflect a hawk. But what my crow was doing baffled me.  Sometimes it drank the cool, clean water, but without tilting its head to swallow, as most birds do.   Apparently, it could swallow without tossing the water back into its throat. Sometimes, it bounced around the edge of the bath, dunking its beak and head. What in the world was it doing?  When I cleaned the water, I found a tiny bone and a tuft of gray fur swirling in the water.  

    The crow had come to wash its food!  I watched in admiration. They rarely kill for meat. But they’ll scavenge carrion, and now my crow appeared several times a day to shake and wash the dirt off her food. Sometimes, afterwards, she washed her gleaming black feathers in a spray of glistening waterdrops.

    A few days later a second crow appeared.  Evidently, my crow had brought her mate.  And a few days after that, a whole murder of crows settled noisily on my birdbath, four, five, six, flapping, cawing, scolding, socializing and raising holy hell on the birdbath edge or running along the fence.

   It was hilarious—a parody. I had expected my garden to attract a St. Francis image of pretty little bluebirds flitting about the feeder. These were rascally, raucous, rebellious juvenile delinquents, taking over the local swimming pool, terrifying the little kids. 

   And then something extraordinary happened. 

   One morning, no crows came.

   Instead a cardinal appeared, a swallow, some nuthatches, two American goldfinches, and woodpeckers. Birds were flitting and flying at the feeder, dipping to the birdbath, disappearing into the woods, skimming smoothly away.  But no crows. No cawing, noisy marauders , no gunslingers, strutting on the fence.

    I miss my crows.  

    But I wonder about them, too.  Why did they come?   Where did they go? They were like angels, leading the little wood birds to the clean water in the birdbath and to a feeder that had attracted only squirrels for a year. You’ll think I’m nuts, but I see angels everywhere. Angels come in many forms. They play hide and seek with us poor humans. Now you see them, now you don’t.  Sometimes they even appear as black birds, dark forces, posing as disaster, yet bringing with them, joy, hope, beauty, change.  

 

to Do or to Be

    So, my masked-bandit daughter came over to visit and we started talking about how  the pandemic has thrown all our values into question (not to mention 6 planets then retrograde), because what can else you do while social distancing and washing obsessively except move toward the deep, inner reflection and introspection that this pandemic has inspired?  

      She said, “We’re taught all sorts of values, but what if they’re wrong? There’s aesthetics, for example, being beautiful (hair, clothing, lips, eyes, body). And then there’s the value of how to enter a room, or make an entrance. You were taught to make an entrance,” she added. “That was a value for you.”  And I had to admit that entering a room was taught to my generation the way we were taught waltz or tango steps in dancing school. We were taught which fork to use at a dinner party, and how to make the hostess feel comfortable when her party goes off the road.

    “Not to mention,” my daughter continued, speaking as much to herself now as to me, “the value of accomplishments and achievements—and all that stuff we’re judged on, like keeping up with the New York Times, knowing about politics, and art, or theater, and the latest rage:  that’s another value.  

    “And what,” she mused, “if all you had to do was be yourself?”

    “What?”

    She lost me there.  No accomplishments? No doing?  Just being?  My whole life has been a search for approval. ( If I write a book, will my father love and notice me? If I’m more tactful, will I belong?)

    She said, “Look, you don’t have to do anything to be noticed.” At which I began to preen myself, until she added to my astonishment that she’d be happy just to go away with me for a weekend, where we wouldn’t have to do anything.  “Just being with you is enough,” she said. “Why do we have to do something all the time?”

    I was stunned. Is that true?    

    Now I keep wondering—What would it be like just to Be? Certainly, it releases all obligation of accomplishing anything (like vacuuming the living room right now, which it sorely needs). 

    It had never occurred to me that someone might want to be with me, except perhaps for my quick mind, and the quirky way I see the world. But when I think of those I love, I realize I don’t really care about their achievements or what high-wire act they perform, if they will simply let me bask in their presence. I’m happy watching them (and also my grandchildren, I might add, who are infinitely fascinating, like watching a lovely waterfall, without their having to say or do or perform in any way). 

     Is that what love is about? Just being? Mindfully. Observing without judgment. Or, put another way, just allowing, accepting, admiring, in the same way that I attend to a tree or to that bird that stopped at the birdbath to dip its beak and drink at my offering.  

     Can I allow myself to Be?

Easter: Christ Risen

Easter. Rebirth. Resurrection. Spring. It is also the time when we celebrate the Resurrection. Or, if you’re like me, puzzle over it, filled with questions and doubt: did Jesus resurrect bodily, or was it a mystical return from the dead? Had he fully died? Maybe he went into a trance or coma in those last hours on the Cross, and once buried came out of it – although how he got out of the closed tomb with its great stone rolled across the mouth of the cave, to be seen by Mary in the garden— that gives one pause.

    I know people who are waiting for the Second Coming, convinced that He will return in bodily form, mature, having somehow skipped a childhood.  I’m not sure what happens then, but I imagine, as the Grand Inquisitor says in Dostoyevski’s “Brother’s Karamatsov, that we humans turn on Him and kill that exotic Other all over again.  Meanwhile, I understand nothing.  

     Yet twice I have seen Christ, and nothing can convince me the visions were not real.  Perhaps the Second Coming is happening to all of us all the time, and what is missing is recognition alone. Perhaps Christ is coming to us again and again, in tiny moments, reminders

of kindness, in bursts of laughter, or enjoyment of wine and social company. He must have been fun when alive. I’m inviting you all, dear readers, to confide your own experiences. I need to know them. I want to know I’m not alone.

    Some spiritual encounters are so fragile that you hardly know what’s happened. I remember one Easter slipping into Christ Church, Georgetown, onto a folding chair at the door, and suddenly bursting into tears, overcome by . . . what? Beauty? Flowers? Spiritual ecstasy? This, too, brought me no closer to church devotion. (I’m a hard case., it seems.) 

    Both of my Jesus sightings were similarly memorable. That is to say, I can’t forget them.  Yet, curiously, both were so ordinary that nothing changed. I didn’t fall to my knees in worship of the Son of God. I didn’t become more devout, or  churchly or “Christian.”

    Here is one.  I was living in my cabin in Taos, N. M.  For weeks I had been praying to see Jesus. You see, I’m not a very good Christian (always doubting, arguing, ready with contemptuous and critical inner commentary).

    So there I was that Easter morning, reading in my green tattered armchair by the fire, when I glanced up from my book , and out the window — I saw Christ walking toward me across the lawn. He was dressed in a long, white robe, like in the pictures, and he looked sort of as he’s depicted :  a face, a beard, though I don’t remember his face, merely his arms  opening  in welcome and the smile of greeting as he strode toward me. The next moment he was gone. The whole vision couldn’t have lasted more than an instant, less than a second, and it left no effect on me whatsoever., “Oh, that was Christ,” I thought, and went back to my book. As if I’d seen my brother.

      The problem was, the memory kept coming back, as now, writing about it.  Was it real? I have no idea.  But jut thinking of it fills me with joy. Did it change my life?  Make me go to church more regularly, stop arguing, found hospitals, build orphanages, give all my worldly goods away and join a monastery? No.  

   But I can’t forget that sense of being loved. Or His joy, the absolute delight, at seeing me.

   The other experience was totally different, and you can make of it what you will.  I was walking up the hill on the street in Washington D. C., where I lived, when I noticed a man walking slowly on the far side of the street.  He was young, perhaps in his twenties, dressed in dark, somewhat dirty and ragged clothing ,and carrying a backpack. He was pulling up the hill, slightly hunched, deep in thought, staring at the sidewalk at his feet, but what made him unusual was . . . some ineffable quality that drew me to him. He was utterly absorbed in thought (prayer?) eyes down, impervious to his surroundings.  I hurried across the street behind him, hastening to catch up. Who was he? Why did I want to stand beside him? He looked destitute, orphaned, and content in lonesomeness.  To  speak to him. would be an intrusion. He didn’t need me. He didn’t need anyone. But my heart poured out toward him.  I wanted to help.  All of these thoughts occurred so quickly I was hardly aware of them. Walking past, I reached out to offer money. He pulled back, shook his head. “No, no.” Did he say the words aloud? I don’t remember, but certainly the message received informed me that he didn’t need money.  I walked quickly on, forging uphill, curiously disturbed by him but careful not to interrupt his meditations.  After a few moments I turned to look behind. He wasn’t there.  Maybe he was someone’s son, who had just reached the front door to his own house.

   Why do I think he was the Christ?

   I would love to hear other experiences. Here was a man, or prophet, or Son of God, who has been worshipped for 2000 years; who never wrote a word and yet influenced more people than anyone on earth.  Have you too had experiences? Did they change you? Do you dare to share them with us on my blog?

Read, Pray, Watch

When I was in college I remember making a “Great Discovery.”  I was so pleased with myself! I don’t remember what it was anymore, but I remember being thrilled by  my own wisdom, and proud of myself— until I found that Plato had said it first.  Such a letdown. I remember a few years later during my Junior Year Abroad in Italy, going skiing with my cousin over Christmas break at a place he’d found called Cervinia.  I arrived in dead of night and the next morning, when I looked out the window the mountain, so majestic with its high crags and peaks, took my breath away.  “Why has no one ever talked about Cervinia? This place ought to be famous! “ I was all set to report on it.  Then I discovered that on the far side, in Switzerland, the mountain was called the Matterhorn!

    Everything I’ve ever learnt or seen in my long and interesting life, has already been discovered, usually millennia before I was born. And nothing that I know is unusual.  Do you know what I mean?  Do you remember the first time you fell in love?  Do you remember thinking, “No one has ever felt like this before!”  And of course it is true; no one had felt it before because no one had been you before, and therefore the experience you were feeling was the first for you, for the first time ever. We are all like Eve in Eden opening her marvelling eyes on the first day of her life. Again and again in our lives we get to experience what others have discovered before, and in no way is the experience diminished by use: each time new, each time fresh. Each time Eve, stepping out on the dew-shining grass, marvelling, in awe.

     Today, instead of some illusion of insight, I point to other people’s sayings and lovely thoughts. Thank God for the rest of you! Thank god for the beauty and bounty of this earth, and the wisdom dropping generation after generation.  

As in this Inuit song:

I think over again my small adventures,

… My fears,

Those small ones that seemed so big.

For all the vital things I had to get and to reach.

And yet there is only one great thing,

The only thing.

To live to see … the great day that dawns

And the light that fills the world.

Or this, from the beautiful spiritual teacher Ticht Naht Hahn:  “We have to walk in a way that we only print peace and serenity on the Earth.  Walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet.”

   Listen to the media and it’s dog-eat-dog out there, and we’d best cower under the covers and never get out of bed.  While all the time, the planet is revolving round our sun and all over the globe mothers are cooing to their babies, and fathers are helping their neighbors or protecting and playing with their families.  Goodness surrounds us all the long day, if we can only recognize it.  Thousands of spiritual essays and personal posts sweep the internet, encouraging us.    

    Earlier I mentioned the spoken-word “Blabs” of Margaret Dulaney’s Listenwell.com.   Look also for the postings of the author and Franciscan friar, Richard Rohr from Albuquerque, who was called by PBS,  “one of the most popular spirituality authors and speakers in the world.” Look for his daily meditations from the Center for Action and Contemplation. 

       “Once we know that the entire physical world around us,[he writes] all of creation, is both the hiding place and the revelation place for God, this world becomes home, safe, enchanted, offering grace to any who look 

deeply. I call that kind of deep and calm seeing “contemplation.”

Or check out FaithShapes, in Alabama, at ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Faithshapes.com/new/category/words-of-wisdom,                  which is the site of a lovely spiritual woman just wanting to send out encouragement and love. Or Zencrunch by Christina. Or one of my favorite organizations, Silent Unity, based in Unity Village Missouri, whose sole purpose for 150 years has been to teach, heal, comfort and pray. Anyone can call (800-Now-PRAY) and ask for prayers, some which are answered before I have even put down the phone.  Or simply go on the internet and type in “wisdom.” You find such quotes: “Silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom” by Francis Bacon.  

    I’m amazed at the numbers of inspiriting and inspiring videos on U-Tube. It is good to remember that the Universe is pouring blessings onto us, anointing us with goodness, even  in the midst of sorrow and fear and grief.  It is good to recognize that gratitude and humility bring serenity beyond our wildest dreams; that angels surround us, with nourishment, warmth, comfort, caring; and that love springs up like the grass in springtime, even in our old age, and nothing we can do can keep out love.  We are loved, loved, loved.  At the very core of our being, the cells of our body, we are made of love, and we love, love, therefore, throbbing and radiating out of us even when we don’t feel it, even in the midst of fear and grief.

The poets are there to tell us, like this by Adrienne Rich:

“My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.”

Or this much beloved piece by Mary Oliver:

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

….

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things. 

As for myself, in the face of such wisdom, generation after generation, what can I do but move into silence, hoping as Francis Bacon promises, that “Silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom.”  Read, pray, watch.

My Birthday Present from God

Every month, as I sit down to write my blog, I think, “This will be my last post. It’s time to stop. Too many people are creating, publishing, and screaming for recognition, for me to add one more word.” (As if anyone is actually reading my posts, itself perhaps an illusion.)   “I’ll just stop. Give everyone a break.” But then some uplifting or fascinating story grabs my attention, and I want to pass it on. It happened this time, too:  a Christmas present from the Universe, as I call the majestic, expansive, divine, unknowable energy we call God, a gift from Spirit, or spirits plural, from that pulsating mystery that we catch occasional glimpses of before the windows slam shut.

    This story concerns my work, but it’s not interesting for that. It’s intriguing for what it says about fate, kismet, predestination, about life after death, and the importance of the most insignificant of actions, events that we dismiss as imagination, or “fun,” but certainly not necessarily “real.”

Continue reading

YOU HAD A LIFE!!

(Parables of Sunlight by Margaret Dulaney)

Every now and again I come across a book so luminous and lyrical, that I find myself telling everyone I meet – “Oh, I’ve just read the BEST book!”  in fact, I gulped it in two evenings, even though clearly the reader is supposed to open it at random, read a few pages, and put it down to reflect on and to allow the gentle aroma to lift your spirits with a tender smile.  It says something about our culture that these books are not the ones to receive awards or reviews.  In fact, The Parables of Sunlight, by Margaret Dulaney, is self-published.  (What a world! What a world!). 

     The book is about death and how we relate to dying, and also about the way we treat our animals and the humans on the journey of our lives. She is, as she admits, casual, even glib about this serious topic, (except when it comes to her beloved animals).  It’s an attitude, she writes, that none of us could have adopted “if we weren’t convinced that everyone on earth will one day enjoy their own otherworldly vacations.”

   And then she tells a story so lovely that all week I’ve walked around with a little smile at the corners of my mouth.  I keep repeating it to every poor person who makes the mistake of crossing my path.

    I’ll quote it, and then you’ll see why I ‘m so delighted by this book and by Margaret Dulaney, who deserves the widest audience.

I have a library (she writes)  full of ecstatic visions, near-death experiences and the writings of the mystics. And, though I am no longer looking for descriptions of heavenly landscapes, if I am able to find in a story of return from death even a morsel of new truth, I feel it is worth the attention.

  There is the man, for instance, who learned during his brush with death that none of his grand accomplishments—awards, successes, career advancement —could outweigh a small moment in the grocery store when he was particularly kind to the harried woman behind the checkout counter. There is the young woman who was reunited with (and could understand the thoughts of)  a bird that she had as a child. Given the opportunity to communicate telepathically with this old friend, she took the opportunity to apologize with great remorse for the times when she had tossed the bird to the ground after it bit her. ‘Can you ever forgive me?’ asked the young woman of the bird.

            ’Are you able to forgive me for biting you?’ the bird replied.

            ‘Of course,’ answered the woman

            ‘Then I hope you will forgive yourself for tossing me to the ground when I did so.’

            There was another woman who was greeted on the other side by an enthusiastic group of friends, none of whom she had known on earth, but whom, she understood, she had left behind when she had taken her plunge into her life. These dear ones raced up to her, apparently against their better judgment, which would have allowed her time to find her footing, and surrounded her. They couldn’t wait to hear about her life, eager for every detail.

            The woman told about her life thus far, without sugarcoating the details. She had not always behaved as she would have hoped. She had hurt people. She was no saint. But interestingly, as she outlined the details of her life’s journey, the faces of her friends did not alter from their original anticipatory delight. Bright and fascinated, they would respond, “but you had a life! A life!’

            They regarded her as if she were the bravest of the brave, an award-winning astronaut returned from a solo circumnavigation of the moon.

            ‘You had a life!!’

All Creatures Large and Small

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, skitterall 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.