The Visible Soul of a Home


We are saying goodbye to Fred today. His confusion about his sudden blindness and the constant pain despite medication have made his life one of endurance rather than contentment. Fred is a mensch of a cat. He’s been quick to express his needs and wants, quick to respond to those of others. He took his work seriously, whether it was upping the harvest of mice and voles when we brought babies home from the hospital, or patrolling the perimeter of the farm for irregularities, or welcoming visitors to the farm, or monitoring the feasts at break time. He gave the best kitty hugs and head boops. We will miss him terribly, at the same time that we are feeling relieved that he will no longer suffer.


“First things first, but not necessarily in that order.” —Doctor Who
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“There are few things in life more heartwarming than to be welcomed by a cat.” —Tay Hohoff
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“I love cats because I love my home and after a while they become its visible soul.”
—Jean Cocteau
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“A little drowsing cat is an image of perfect beatitude.”
—Jules Champfleury
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“Cats are connoisseurs of comfort.”
—James Herriot
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“There are two means of refuge from the misery of life — music and cats.” —Albert Schweitzer
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“Be wary of any influence in your environment which dismisses or judges your enthusiasm. Without it, we would become anaesthetised to life itself. Anyone who demands this smallness of you is in danger themselves and may have contracted this insidious, deadening monotone. Enthusiasm is the vitality of spirit expressing itself through us and its grace in our voice should be welcomed and cherished. The word originates in the early 17th century, from the Greek enthousiasmos meaning ‘possessed by god.’ Now, more than ever, the world needs your enlargement, your weirdness, your fiery crescendos of rebellion from boring.”
—Dreamwork with Toko-pa


Gratitude List:
1. Spontaneous moments of joy: Little voice in the next aisle over in the grocery store: “HAAAAA-we-yu-ya! “HAAAAA-we-yu-ya!” A little bit of Handel, and pitch perfect.
2. Purring, the sound of contentment
3. The way cats teach us Presence
4. Our family in Campbelltown have been visited by a white hummingbird–magic is all around us, if we would care to look.
5. Clearing spaces. We gave away the piano yesterday, and we’re setting up a bedroom for Ellis in the “little room” upstairs. Now other things can shift, and other kids of clearing will follow.

May we walk in Beauty!

Trying to Be Found


Here are three tiny poems from my Creative Writing journal. (I usually wrote along with the students on the writing prompts).

Each day
a new story
of finding my way.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Once there was a little girl
who was trying to be found.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Bluebird on a wire
muttering a gentle question.
No one answers but the hawk.


“I like sitting at the piano. I like the idea that there are things coming in through the window and through you and then down to the piano and out the window on the other side. If you want to catch songs you gotta start thinking like one, and making yourself an interesting place for them to land like birds or insects. Once you get two or three tunes together, wherever three or more are gathered, then others come.” -Tom Waits
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“The poem, I’ve always felt, is an opportunity for me to create an integrated whole from so many broken shards.” –Rafael Campo
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“Which came first, the fear or the gun? The broken heart or the bleeding one? The impulse toward death or the desperate reach for love?” –Mark Morford
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“A journey can become a sacred thing:
Make sure, before you go,
To take the time
To bless your going forth,
To free your heart of ballast
So that the compass of your soul
Might direct you toward
The territories of spirit
Where you will discover
More of your hidden life,
And the urgencies
That deserve to claim you.”
–John O’Donohue


Gratitude List:
1. I think I am homing in on the nest of Our Lady of the Flowers. I sat on the porch for a while last evening and watched. She seems to return to the same general area of the tree. It’s located at a less convenient spot for gazing this year, hidden higher up and further from the house.
2. Weaving stories together. Listening to people tell their stories and talk about who they want to be in the world.
3. How a good stretch that wakes up the spine wakes up the body
4. The people who do good. I get so tied up in knots about the stupid, greedy, and cruel things that the powerful people are doing. It really helps to balance my heart to keep remembering all the good and wise and compassionate things that you and the others are doing. Thank you.
5. Pesto

May we walk in Beauty!

Weary

Today was a hard day. No one was able to adjust well to the heat in Room 206. We just lived through it. The allergy sufferers (including myself) are all in a bit of a pollen haze. But mostly we were in shock today. We heard early in the day that one of our buses had been in a bad accident, and we didn’t know for quite some time how our friends were doing. Kids were extra tender with each other today, quiet and thoughtful, concerned. Anxiety, heat, and sniffling made it a difficult teaching day.

I am left with layers and layers of weariness. Still, in the middle of it all, in the heat that has continued after the sun went down, there are things to be grateful for.

Gratitude List:
1. The way people focus on the important things during a time of crisis. The self-absorption of the daily disappears, and everyone focuses their hearts on the hurting.
2. Most of the students appear to have escaped the bus accident with minor injuries. I suppose one can always say, “It could have been much worse.” Still, it could have, and I am grateful for the grace of so many at home tonight with their parents. We continue to pray for the two who remain in the hospital.
3. Refried beans. That’s true comfort food.
4. Citrus. It’s therapy for an allergy sufferer.
5. Hummingbird! During supper this evening, she came twice to hover outside the big dining room window and look in at us. She has done this for the past several years in her first days back to the hollow. I like to think that she is checking in on us, announcing her return. The first time I was aware of how she (or her mother and grandmothers) seems to look in the windows was the spring eleven years ago when I was nursing a tiny new baby, and a tiny hummingbird repeatedly hovered just outside the window. Perhaps she was seeing her own reflection, but it has always seemed like a greeting.

May we walk in Beauty, in Wonder.

Meet Me at the Bridge

bridge
This photo of this bridge feels like a place of meeting between worlds. I come to it when I am holding people I love, and two of my Beloveds are in the hospital today. If you, too, are holding someone tenderly in the nest of you, meet me here today, and we will spread such a web of care and love that the strands will sparkle around our Beloveds.

I have been thinking. . .
(I think I should rename my blog I Have Been Thinking. . .  So many of my posts include the phrase.)

I have been thinking about how caring for our bodies is a holy task: Feeding and nourishing. Washing and tending. Stretching the spine and walking and exercising. I have been thinking about how this body I inhabit, familiar and creaky as it seems to me, is no less a miracle or wonder than the body of the tiny hummingbird in the nest of cobweb out there on the sycamore branch. How the rhythm of heartbeat, the vast deltas of the lungs, the moving and shifting of muscle, how all of this is miracle.

If I believe–and I do–that my own body is part of the body of Earth, and so is part of all bodies that inhabit the Earth, then each act of self-care–each shower, each stretch, each bite of food–is an act of tending to the whole, caring for this one part of the larger whole that is all of us.  And so self-care can be a prayer. I see to the needs of my own body, and send out energy for bodies in distress.

Gratitude List:
1. Yellow walnut leaves spiraling down breezes, down sunbeams.
2. Doing the thing when the time is right. Second Hummingbird still has not taken flight, more than a day after First Hummingbird flew up a sunbeam. She sits on the rim of the nest, holding on with her claws, and tests her wings, like she’s planning to carry nest and branch and tree away with her. Then she settles back into her cobweb pillows. Not time yet. Today. Perhaps today.
3. Holding the bowl. Casting the web. Chanting and rocking and praying and sending energy and holding the Beloveds in the light. Whatever name it goes by, it is a privilege to one of many people on a web.
4. Staff Development Day. Is that weird? It’s still a work day, but a shift of rhythm, and a chance to be with colleagues.  We spend so much of our time in our rooms with our students (as it should be) or skating past each other in the halls with a quick greeting. It’s nice to have a day every once in a while when we do something different, even if the work ahead seems hard or confusing.
5. Those hours when the boys get so involved in an imaginary game that they can’t stop telling each other the story of it, even when they come to the table for supper.  I want them to enjoy each other’s company, to be gathering these memories for the future.

May we walk in Beauty!

Making a Circle to Hold a Heart

heartstone
A safe circle for a heart.

Is it cold in the house of the hummingbird,
when raindrops patter softly on the sycamore leaf-roof,

when one small bird has dared the day,
flown upward through sunbeams,
trusting to wings insubstantial as mist?

The other no longer sits more quiet than breath,
but turns her head to the thunder,
hunkers deep into her mattress of cobweb,
waits for her moment to fledge.

Gratitude List:
1. One small hummingbird has dared the day and taken first flight. Safe journeys!
2. Anticipating a weekend and time with friends
3. My wise and earnest colleagues
4. A fine collection of Maine island stones, each with a single white line across, each one a little message about pathways, direction, and destiny, about joining up and making a way where none seems to be
5. English grammar. I happened upon a really fun sentence modeling exercise, which I did with a couple of classes yesterday. One student, who struggles to understand the structure of a complete simple sentence, read out the sentence he’d built, which included carefully placed adverbs and adjectives, two prepositional phrases, an appositive phrase, a subordinate clause, and three absolute phrases. He sounded so elegant and well-spoken, but most delightfully, he sounded proud of himself.  Here is an example of a sentence using all of those pieces: In the classroom, one laid-back teenager, a young man who often has no time for grammar, proudly read an elegant sentence from his writing journal as his delighted teacher listened, the words flowing like water, the ideas sparkling in the air, the class electrified by language.

May we walk in Beauty!

Wings Wide

hummer
Just a picture of green leaves, but if you look really closely and squint your eyes and cock your head to the side, about a third of the way along the very bottom of the photo, you can make out the silhouette of the mother hummingbird’s head, her bill pointing down as she feeds her baby.

For the Vulture

When you came to rest upon the pole
and opened your wings
wide to the sky,
were you holding up that cloud, or
warming your shoulders in the sun?

Were you warning the people in the valley
that death will one day visit us all,
or reminding us that all of life
is one great cycle, with no beginning
and no end?

I felt it as a benediction,
the pastor raising her hands toward heaven
and blessing her tiny congregation
gathered under the sycamore tree.

Gratitude List:
1. Hummingbirds. I know. Every day, right? But yes, every single day, and yesterday I trained my binoculars on the nest when the mother flew away and saw two tiny needle beaks poking up above the nest’s rim. Picture a metal bottle cap–the inside of the nest is only millimeters deeper than that, and two tiny hearts beat inside two impossibly tiny winged creatures who live inside that space. My heart keeps falling on its knees.
2. Friday. I love teaching, love my new batch of students, love seeing my earnest colleagues daily. And. And. I am exhausted. The first week is a glorious whirl. At one point this week, I found myself telling one class about another class’s deadline.  One the day when I was orienting all the classes to the use of certain computer programs, I completely missed a step in the last class of the day because I thought I had told them already–I had said it so many times already. That said–I am eager for the weekend of rest.
3. Poetry. My life is so much richer for the beauty of language that surrounds me.
4. Hymn sing. Friday mornings, the faculty gathers before school to sing hymns together. It’s the perfect thing to wake up the spirit for the last day of the week. What a perfect, perfect metaphor for the work we do together, to sit and blend our harmonies once a week.
5. Solitude. (I need to carefully find my moments of solitude in the new rhythm of my life.)

May we walk in Beauty, ever ancient, ever new.

Visitors

IMAG1733
Yesterday, just after Ellis and I got home from school, all four of us were hanging out at the picnic table, talking about our days, when a vulture (I think turkey) flew low above the poplar tree and settled on the telephone pole at the end of the drive. I managed to grab my camera, and just as I  raised it and got into position for the photo, she opened her arms and turned her head like this. Like someone from an ancient Egyptian papyrus.  Holy moment.

If you don’t know me, and only read my daily gratitude lists, I wonder if my life might come across as unbalancedly charmed and positive. Five things every day to be grateful for. Happiness, joy, contentment, satisfaction. It really is all there. But every life has its challenges and pain, too.

If this daily practice of inward-looking is teaching me anything, it is that the examined life must name and engage all the feelings and experiences that enter the heart.  And the practice of intentionally naming the gratitudes isn’t about ignoring the pain, or even simply putting the difficult things into context so that I can look away and only focus on the wonder and the loveliness. Sometimes it is about looking the hardest things in the eye and welcoming them in, too. Friendship and love bring us support and companionship and deep satisfaction, but opening the heart to others means that we share their griefs, carry their pain, open ourselves to the risks of broken relationships.  Noticing the hummingbird nest in the sycamore tree brings falling-down-on-your-knees wonder and daily magic, but it also makes heat waves and storms and predators anxious realities when your heart is filled with the fragile life of tiny birds. And wonder is not only the exquisitely impossible hummingbird, but the ancient bald vulture opening her wings in the sun.

My favorite poem on this topic is Rumi’s “Guesthouse”

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

— Jellaludin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks

Gratitude List:
1. The vulture visitor
2. Yesterday I finally saw a hummingbird baby peeking a tiny head over the rim of the nest after the mother flew away. First a tiny ruffly wing, then the needle beak, then the round marble of a head–smaller than a marble! My heart fell down on its knees.
3. Welcoming it all, open-winged, like the vulture on the pole
4. Challenges that keep me from complacency
5. Fierce and tender mothers. My sister friends, holding each other through difficult times. Hummingbird.

May we walk in Beauty!

Stand Still

garden peach
Garden Peach tomatoes. Sweet, juicy, almost fruity. These two happen to be heart-shaped.

Reading Parker Palmer this morning, I again came across this poem by David Wagoner. I had such a strong reaction to this when I first read it a couple years ago that I can still recall how my skin felt as the words took hold.

Lost
by David Wagoner, from Collected Poems 1956-1976

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. you must let it find you.

Gratitude List:
1. She might not be gone. I was certain that the hummingbird had left her nest, either abandoning her eggs as unviable, or getting too skittish about all the activity below her. This is the sort of thing I worry about. Yesterday, I watched her zip up to the nest, and instead of sitting on it like she usually does, she perched on the rim, and stuck her beak down into the nest. I can’t be positive, but this appeared to be the behavior of someone feeding young ones. Holding out hope.
2. Jumping spiders. They’re sort of like teeny tiny puppies, only you don’t have to worry about who is going to take care of them. Yesterday, I encountered a tiny brown jumping spider who kept leaping from finger to finger. It was like she understood where I wanted her to jump to next. She would race toward me across the vast distance of my hand, and then look up at me, and then when the people at the picnic table laughed, she would suddenly stop and twist her body so she could look at them, and then we would resume our little game.
3. The village that raises the children. My kids hadn’t seen Sandra for several weeks, and yesterday when she came, they raced to her and couldn’t stop bending her ear. She listens to them, she converses at their level, but never talks down to them.
4. Also, the schools. Last night was Back to School night at Wrightsville Elementary. I love the teachers and administration and staff at this local elementary school. I love the friendly, earnest culture of the place.
5. Encountering Beauty–in words, in the visual realm, in the aural realm. Sort of like encountering that little spider–there are moments when Beauty seems to say, “I get you. I am here to play with you for this one bright shining moment.”

May we walk in Beauty!

Hawk and Heart and Hummingbird

Heart

Working with gratitude helps me to situate myself in time and place.

During these times of reflection, I am often hyper-aware of being here in this moment, right here, where I listen to the birdnews of the moment, the sounds of the day waking up, the thumps and bumbles of the smallfolk upstairs waking up.

This moment, where I look around to see the way the sun leans in or yawns behind grey haze.
This moment when I sit in expectation of the bright yellow falling leaf, the flash of birdwing across my window, the way sun sparkles on spiderweb.
This moment, in which yesterday’s movement is written in the aches and quirks of my muscles, the curve of my spine.

From the anchor of this moment, reflecting on the list takes me backward and elsewhere, to the color and shape of yesterday, to the shining white pebbles of moments past. I can pick them up and examine them, say, this one and I remember. I can watch how those pebbles are spun into golden strands sustained over time: The presence of a tiny impossible bird in this span of days. The season of the tang of tomato and the sweetness of basil. The long lazy days spent with the exploring feet and minds of my children.

The dailiness of the list also takes me forward into time. This has become my homework, the job I carry with me into each day. It is one of the anchoring ropes which I hold as I step into uncertain future, feeling my way in the grey mist as I go. Stepping forward with the search for gratitude on the agenda means I must go with an open heart, an open mind, searching not only for things, for items to check off my list, but for connections. It means walking into the future as into a puzzle, looking for five pieces of the coming day that will help me to shape the meaning of the picture that surrounds me.

I have been wondering lately at how this has become a habit, how I feel anxious and unmoored if I miss my daily list. For years, it was a thing I would do on occasion, as the mood hit, but in the past several months, it has become a deeper spiritual practice. I shift it from time to time, asking myself questions, or writing the list as a poem. Still, instead of becoming boring or tedious, it has become ever more a place where I can talk to myself, remind myself who I am, where I am, what I am doing here.

Gratitude List:
1. Getting into the “zone,” that headspace where you get so wrapped up in the work that you don’t notice time passing.
2. Situating myself in time and space.
3. Hummingbird. Please bear with me, but this lives with me as a constant thrill of electric delight in this season. Almost every time I walk outside my house these days, I see her. If she is not on her nest, I can wait and watch quietly, and I will hear her dzipping a zigzag through the air, or I’ll catch a flash of movement through the bright spaces between the leaves of the sycamore. Always. My heart is so full of hummingbird.
4. Hawks. The youngster who lives here in our hollow has begun to settle down and accept her emergence into independent adulthood. Her cries have become more purposeful, less demanding and sulky. She’s finding her way. At the same time, friends of mine on temporary sojourn in a hospital hours to the south of me have been watching a hawk from the hospital window. She has become the Guardian, the One-Who-Watches. In these days, when my heart is here in this place and also in that place, I find comfort in our taloned watchers, a sense of the thread that crosses distances. My heart is full of hawk.
5. The powerful truth of thread, of yarn. How ideas and love and dreams are spun like yarn, twisting people and thoughts together, expanding and lengthening through time and space, connecting, always connecting. How threads are woven and knitted together to make cloth, unifying, incorporating different people and ideas together, connecting, always connecting. How diversity of color and texture within a cloth is part of what makes it beautiful. The image that keeps returning to my mind these days from Madeline L’engle’s Wrinkle in Time, of the distance from one end of the thread to the other, but how a wrinkle brings the ends together–I think this applies to distant hearts as well as to tessering through space. When we tune our hearts to each other (an act which I call prayer), we create a wrinkle that brings us together, no matter what sort of distance in time or space or belief separates us.

May we walk, always, in Beauty.

Instructions to Myself

fort2
Just two kids playing in their fort.

Instructions to Myself:
1. Make eye contact.  Even with the people you live with.  Especially with the people you live with–it’s easy to take their solid presence for granted and forget to look them in the eye.
2. Give people the smile they need.  Only some people need the broad and open smile.  Some need a quiet I-see-you smile.
3. Cultivate curiosity, not only about ideas and facts, but about people.
4. Ask.  Don’t tell. This is hard for me, because I like to tell. Learn to draw people out in conversation.
5. Don’t hide your awe. Sometimes people are just waiting for someone to show them the doorway into wonder.

Gratitude List:
1. (In Tanka)
Impossible things
that actually exist,
like the hummingbird.
how she hovers, how she hums,
how she flies like a whisper.
2. Also bats, which are creatures of impossibility.  How they dart and wheel in the circle of space underneath the poplar and sycamore trees, feasting on the wing, right here where we are, as if they enjoy our company.
3. The crisp, cooling crunch of cucumber.
4. All those owls.  Two or three screech owls whinnying in the bamboo grove, and further off, a great horned owl, echoing through the hollow.
5. The way Beauty surrounds us, taps us on the shoulder, breathes in our ears, wraps us in Her veils of wonder.

May we walk in Beauty.  Beauty ever ancient, ever new.