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.”
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.
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 themstubbornly 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.
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.
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.
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. ”
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.
“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 →