Posted in Daily Writing

Restless

This is a screech owlet I rescued. My neighbor cut his tree down and asked me to save him.

The following did not happen. Since 2019 is the year I write, I need to write, and this is where I’m starting… fiction that is more truth than fiction, and the person in the story is very much me, doing things I do, but this particular sequence of events is out of sequence, and fictional. But I guess I’m hoping there are struggling Polymaths out there who, like me, struggle with rotating obsessions and wondering at midlife or later what they want to be when they grow up.

I was sitting in a coffee shop, sipping a double latte, extra cream, and nothing much was going on. I felt like I was sitting in a bubble of voices, carried on them, but not really understanding them, not part of them, not even looking at their owners. I was looking out the window at a glorious blue day, but I wasn’t really part of that either.

Being a polymath is a long string of triumph and frustration with yourself. You get really, really good at learning new things, and at failing and being cool with that. The next thing will get better. If you do a next thing; you might just as well decide that you’re done with that activity and obsessed with something else today, and sometimes it’s like a switch flipped and you’re just not in love anymore. Thanks for the good times, Photography, but I’ve met Poetry and we’re… well… in love. It’s not you, it’s me. It’s always me.

Anyway the blank page sits before me again, and I feel like this is where I live my life, on the edge of the greatest idea I’ve ever had. This is it, I think, my life’s mission. Only when I’m not on the edge of that eureka, I’m worried that I don’t have a life’s mission.

I sighed and put my too-hot latte down. How do you know, you know? How do you know what you’re supposed to do when one day you’re so fired up you can’t sit still and the next day you’re bored out of your mind with the same thing? In my mind I am having this conversation with a meet-me-at-the-coffee-house friend that I don’t have today.

I clapped my poetry book closed without so much as a new mark on it and trudged back to the counter. “On second thought,” I said, “I’ll take this to go.”

“Sure thing,” the barista said cheerfully, and dumped the cup into a styrofoam (ugh) mug with a cardboard cuff and a plastic lid. I’m part of the problem, I thought glumly as I accepted today’s contribution to the local landfill enveloping that sweet, milky, caffeinated addiction, and walked out into the street, which seemed quiet after the buzz of coffee house conversation. The poem about conversation buzz and caffeine buzz lands in my head not ten steps out of the door, naturally. Should I find a park bench and write it anyway? Nah. It’s not that good.

I wonder sometimes how many of these ideas I let go might have been The Epiphany if I gave them time and nursed them. I just know for sure that I’ll see a bald eagle sitting ten feet from me in a tree, or a perfect rose, or some other thing I’ll curse myself for not having my camera for. Any one of them could have sent me running back to my photography obsession, if I caught the shot, if I was focused on one thing.

Sometimes I’m here, in flux, in between obsessions and worried I’ll never amount to much because I’m all over the place. On the other hand, I know something about a lot of things, and we need people in the world like that, too, right? Right?

It turned out, after all, not to be an eagle or a rose, but a baby bird, in the middle of the sidewalk, its paper thin, translucent throat stretched out in supplication, its peeping faint but audible half a block away. I stopped close to him, peering up into the just-budding branches of the tree above me. The nest was a mess and there was no putting him back in it.

Luckily, feeding baby birds is on my long list of things I know how to do, because I once worked for an avian veterinarian, fostering baby birds and syringe feeding them. I am not a certified wildlife rehabilitator, because that would have taken focusing on a thing for a long time and it’s not that high on my list of obsessions, but I know some things, and I know some people. I dumped the remains of my latte, carefully wiped out the inside of the cup with a pocketed napkin, lined the cup with more napkins, and scooped the little fellow into the cup while his head bobbed, hoping mom would find it and regurgitate him some food. “Sorry, my dude,” I told him, wrapping my hands around the cup to warm him against the spring chill. “I haven’t eaten any worms today.” I’d take him home, get him some food to syringe-feed him, and then find someone who could legally raise him. I get questions like this all the time, from my friends. I rescued this baby bird, what do I do with him? I just got a new crock pot, you have some good recipes I can make in it? I need photos taken for my son’s first birthday, would you do it? I rescued this kitten, I’m planning a protest, I’m painting my bedroom, what’s a good app to meditate…

“You know, Harold,” I say to a baby bird newly christened Harold, “maybe being a Jill of All Trades isn’t the worst thing in the world.”

If I’m willing to find a way without a crop, gizzard, or worm breakfast to regurgitate for him, he could not agree more.

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Posted in Sermons

Manifestation and Letting Go

The following is a sermon I gave yesterday for Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cookeville‘s Burning Bowl ceremony. This is a ceremony in which each person writes on a piece of paper something that they would like to let go of, that is no longer serving them. Then we light a candle in a big ceramic bowl and ceremonially burn the papers. I really wanted to use flash paper this year, or flying wish paper, but I didn’t get the Amazon order in time. Maybe next year.

Burning Bowl Ceremony

The only constant is change, said Heraclitus of Ephesus.

Question: how do we bring more of what we want into our lives, and let go of the things we don’t want in our lives? In other words, how do we direct the change?

In Pagan and New Age and other spiritual circles, this concept is discussed using the term “manifesting.” This language entered the mainstream about 15years ago with the popularity of The Secret and Abraham-Hicks’ message about the Law of Attraction. The concept is this: If you ask for something, and you focus on it without fear about it not happening, without framing it in a negative — “I don’t want to get sick” — then it will happen. Because of your focus, you are attracting what you wish to you. By doing this you can heal your sickness, you can be rich, you can have whatever you want.

Needless to say, this concept is wildly popular. It got celebrity endorsement, and its proponents made millions explaining to people, sometimes claiming to channel otherworldly entities, how to ask for things so that you get them. The problem is that when the wishes fail to come true, people who prayed for God to make something happen or expected the Universe to provide wonder whether the fault might be in them. So, Is it true? Can we wish our futures into existence?

Like most things, it has a grain of truth in it. What you focus on, you will draw to you, but maybe it’s not because of some universal magic. Or, maybe it is. But most often, you don’t get what you want because you wished for it. That’s much more likely to work for someone who was rich, white and privileged in the first place. But when we give something our attention, it does make us more likely to look for connections, relationships, and opportunities that will draw those things to us. It makes us more likely to put our efforts into making it happen. And if there’s some universal law at work, so much the better, but the need for the work doesn’t go away. You still have to show up every day to make the thing happen.

But sometimes we get blocked. We get in our own way with negative self-talk, or fear of taking the next step or of failing, or lack of faith in ourselves, or lack of support from those close to us, or any other number of reasons. So the first question I want to ask you is this: what do you want to manifest? What do you want to be the focus of your year, what do you want to draw to you or accomplish in 2019? Put another way, I’m reading a book called First Things First and it asks the question: What is the one activity that you know if you did superbly well and consistently, would have significant positive results in your life? And the obvious follow up question is: why aren’t you doing it? Put more poetically, by Mary Oliver, what are you doing with your one wild and precious life?

So ask yourself, what is holding you back? What pain are you holding in your heart that it would better serve you to let go? As you ponder this, bear in mind that not all pain should be let go, just yet. Sometimes we need to hold it, and love it until it is ready to depart on its own.

The Buddha liked lists. One of the lists he gave us was Five Hindrances. He identified them as five mental states that hinder us in meditation and in our daily lives. For some of these things, we don’t have direct translations in English, so I thought I’d give each of them some attention.

The first hindrance is sometimes translated as greed, sometimes sensual desire. I like to think of it as Grasping or Clinging. We humans don’t like change, and yet all things change. Sometimes we cling to things out of habit or fear of sacrificing comfort, but those very things might be what is holding us back. They may even be relationships sometimes. Or they may be attachment to things. Maybe we can’t clear space in our mental lives because we have too much literal clutter in our houses, but we cling to those physical possessions for one reason or another.

The Second Hindrace is Aversion, and it is the flip side of the first. We cling to good experiences, pleasant sensations, and the other side of that coin is, we often push away what we have judged as bad or negative, or things that are unpleasant. In doing this we often lose a valuable lesson. One I like to share is, when I began meditating, every time I took a breath one of the vertebrae in my neck would click. Every inhale. Breathe in — click. Breathe out. Breathe in — click. Breathe out. It drove me insane. I could not focus on my breath or being present because of that damned click. So I went online, because I figured, I can’t be the first person to have dealt with this, how do I get rid of it? And somewhere in the middle of all of my online searching, I suddenly realized… sitting with this thing is no different than sitting with leg pain, or sitting with grief. You allow the experience, thank it for what it has to teach you, and let it be. The crazy thing was, it seems likely that I was causing the click because of some tension somewhere, because when I took this advice, it quite often stopped happening. And that’s true of aversion in a lot of cases… when we push something away, when we are saying to ourselves I HATE THIS, I CAN’T STAND IT, we are giving it attention and still holding it, just in a different way.

The third hindrance is Sloth and Torpor. These are translated pretty accurately, and I think you get the idea. Another Steven Covey phrase is “mind over mattress.” Often we have so much resistance to something, say for example, exercising, or getting started on a cleaning project. And then we get started and realize that getting started was 90% of the battle.

The fourth hindrance is Restlessness, Anxiety, and Worry. I don’t have to explain to you what these are, and if you’ve ever had an anxiety attack or worried about something you know what I mean when I call it a hindrance. For a Buddhist the answer to these things is the same as the answer to all of the others: sit with it. Let it be. In our modern day we often identify too much with things. We say I AM depressed, or I AM anxious. I want to ask you to watch your language and stop BEING things that are hindering you. Say instead, I am feeling anxious, and then, if you can make space for it, sit and ask why you might be depressed or anxious. This is not to say that you should not get help for these things if you need it. If this is a chronic problem for you, professional help might be needed.

The fifth hindrance is Doubt. Hindering doubt is not the same as questioning doubt. Questioning doubt leads us to greater understanding. Hindering doubt is occasionally failing to trust those who have our backs, but most often hindering doubt is self-doubt. Fear of failure, failing to trust ourselves, wondering if we’re strong enough to deal with something. So I want to tell you, not only are you strong enough, but you are Enough in every way.

Returning to our theme of how to manifest something that we want in our lives, and letting go of something else to make room for it, I want to read Thich Nhat Hanh’s words about Impermanence.

Impermanence Makes Everytghing Possible

We are often sad and suffer a lot when things change, but change and impermanence have a positive side. Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible. Life itself is possible. If a grain of corn is not impermanent, it can never be transformed into a stalk of corn. If the stalk were not impermanent, it could never provide us with the ear of corn we eat. If your daughter were not impermanent, she cannot grow up to become a woma. Then your grandchildren would never manifest. So instead of complaining about impermanence, we should say, “Warm welcome and long live impermanence.” We should be happy. When we can see the miracle of impermanence, our sadness and suffering will pass.

Impermanence should also be understood in the light of inter-being. Because all things inter-are, they are constantly influencing one another. It is said that a butterfly’s wings flapping on one side of the planet can affect the weather on the other side. Things cannot stay the same because they are influenced by everything else, everything that is not itself.

When we think about manifesting things in our lives, it’s important to spend some time thinking less about I want this NOT that, and more about How can this become that? Our lives are not a series of switches to be flipped, I no longer want this, I want more of that, but instead, we are all living on a continuum of inter-being and inter-becoming. Going back to Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching:

Conditions

Looking deeply into a box of matches, you can see the flame. The flame has not manifested, but as a meditator you can see the flame. All the conditions are sufficient for the flame to manifest. There is wood, sulfur, a rough surface and my hands. So when I strike the match ad the flame appears I would not call that the birth of a flame. I would call it manifestation of a flame.

The Buddha said that when conditions are sufficient you manifest yourself. When conditions are no longer sufficient, you stop manifesting in order to manifest in other forms, with other conditions.

— Thich Nhat Hanh, No Death No Fear

I encourage you to sit in silence and meditate on these things, especially the concept that what you want to manifest is not a thing that doesn’t yet exist, but something that the conditions have not until now been right for. What would it take to make the conditions right? Perhaps, light a candle to gaze at, as you think on these things for at least a few minutes, or however long it is comfortable for you to meditate.

Following the meditation, if you want to do the ritual portion of this exercise, take two pieces of paper, perhaps different colors . On one, write whatever you think you need to let go of, in order to make room for more of what you want in your life. On the other, write whatever you want to call to you. Light a candle and have nearby a large ceramic bowl or perhaps a large clay flower pot. I find this ceremony most powerful to do near dusk. You can fold the paper in some way that seems significant to you. Carefully light the paper with the candle, and drop the paper into the bowl. You might spend a moment watching the edges curl, blacken, and become something else: ash, embers, a chemical reaction, carbon dioxide, and then dissipate to become part of something else. After our congregation’s Burning Bowl ceremony, I took the ashes and put them in my compost pile, so that they literally could become part of something else, so if that feels right to you, you can do that too. Some people empty the ashes into a running stream of water to be carried away symbolically, again.

What you do with the other sheet of paper is up to you. You can put it somewhere you’ll see it in your house, or on your altar at home if you have one, or you can bury it in the earth or fold it into a paper boat (please use environmentally friendly, degradable paper) and release it into that stream of water with the ashes of the other paper. Or, do some other symbolic act of releasing your desire into the universe.

My friends, may your goodbyes be gentle.

Posted in Big Questions

Write Your Friends’ Eulogies While They Are Still Alive

A Single Rose

A few days ago I had lunch with a friend. Because we are both pretty deep thinkers (and maybe a little morbid), we started talking about death. We both knew, we said, what we didn’t want at our funeral, something we’d seen too many times at the funerals of friends and relatives: a minister of a religion the deceased belonged to only nominally, someone that didn’t know the person or only barely knew the person, giving a sermon that was more proselytizing than celebration of an individual’s life. We talked about friends doing readings, no sermon, just a swirl of memories capturing what we had been and what we meant to those dear to us.

You’ve thought about this, right? I’m not sure why our society thinks it’s strange and morbid to think about death, but I think planning for your death is as important as planning for your life. You’ll be dead a lot longer. You’ll leave an onerous financial burden on your family if you don’t think about it and plan for it. They’ll argue about what belongings you leave behind. Seriously, think about it. Think about end of life decisions too. If you need a guide in this process I highly recommend you check out Five Wishes and that you purchase their workbook for end-of-life-decisions. Don’t leave them guessing what you would have wanted at a time that is very stressful anyway.

The friend I was having lunch with said, “I’d like for you to say a few words at my funeral.” Obviously we can’t both speak at each other’s funeral, but that got me thinking about what I would say. There’s as lot to say: she’s as unselfish a person as I know, deeply involved with and caring about her family, and when you speak with her you know you have her full attention and she is interested in who you are and what you think, where you have been and what you know. She is easy to talk to and easy to be with, and I think it would be difficult for me (introvert me, even) to spend too much time in her company.

You hear, sometimes, “make sure people know you love them while they are still alive.” But really, it’s one thing to tell your friends they are loved and appreciated, and another to tell them all the things that you love and appreciate about them. And I thought, it might be awkward to hear that, and anyway, I could do a much better job of it in writing. I imagined myself at a funeral, saying “I wrote Heather’s eulogy in 2019, and handed it to her the following week.”

In a eulogy, you celebrate memories of a person, bits of ephemera like snapshots in a photo album gathered as commentary on the wonderfulness of the life they lived and the energy they brought to your life. “He was always doing things for others. There was the time my car broke down and…” It’s the essence of a person, or at least the essence of the ways their beingness intersected with yours, distilled into an essay.

Tell me, would you not want to hear your own eulogy? Wouldn’t you love to hear the way you’ve made the lives of your friends and families better? I’m suggesting you tell the people whose lives have impacted yours, before it’s too late for them to hear it. If it’ll embarrass them or you for you to say it out loud, write it. At the same time, let it be an exercise in mindfulness for you. When you’re with them, really listen to them,really hear them. Be hearing their dreams and motivations. Don’t just enjoy their company, really think about why their company is so enjoyable.

And then tell them.

Posted in mindfulness

Now Is a Gift; That’s Why It’s Called the Present

Different geese, prettier day.

My eyes snapped open at 6:18 this morning. I’d considered, last night, maybe I’ll get up early and try for some sunrise photography. Then I thought, nah, it’s after 11 and I probably won’t get up. But I got up. I glanced at the slate blue light coming in my predawn window, then checked my phone, when is sunrise? 6:52.

If I thought that was photographic destiny, I was wrong. Bandit and I packed up in the van and I headed up Spencer mountain, hoping for a vantage point to overlook the pretty farmland below, lit by a sky-blue-pink sunrise. Instead, it rained a little, and the sky was an undulating grey, and three minutes to sunrise there was no hint that I was even going to see the sun. My confused dog was looking at me with deep concern.

We ducked down a road or two marked “Dead End”, hoping for a view off the mountain anyway, for future reference and more attractive mornings, but mostly what we saw was a lot of trailers and some country that would’ve done Deliverance proud, and teaser glimpses of distant registers of mountains (there wasn’t even a decent mist this morning!) through trees silent, gray, and shorn of leaves. Bandit put his paw on my arm. “Fine,” I said, “we’ll go home. I want to look at one more thing.”

I’d seen a blip on my kayaking app that said you could put in at Spencer City Lake, a place I hadn’t known existed before that. I thought I’d check that out for more future reference and as a potential place to put the kayak in, before we headed home. The road was in fairly poor repair, ending in gravel-mud that looked like the denizens of Spencer had used it for mudding (driving a four-wheel-drive vehicle through wet mud). The put-in for the lake was gravel, not a bad spot to put a kayak in, but it didn’t look like there was much to see on a paddle. I may try it for a quiet drift some time anyway.

There was a gaggle of Canada geese not far from my van as I grabbed my camera and hopped out. Maybe, I thought, I can at least get a few wildlife shots. My wildlife lens, a 75-300 mm for you photography geeks, is okay but really woefully inadequate for wildlife photography. At least, it’s not the $9000 camera-dwarfing zoom that I’d really love to try out some day. I don’t expect to ever actually buy one unless I somehow strike it rich on a picture I take with this one. The geese were uncooperative, paddling to the other side of the lake with honky geese-chuckles. They’re awfully shy, I thought, remembering the noisy, gregarious flocks that shat all over my elementary school playground with little to no regard for the small, equally noisy humans who coinnhabited it twice a day, sliding on goose guano while trying to play hopscotch.

Bandit bee lined out of the van for a pile of leaves and promptly did his business. Ohhh, I thought. That explained his look of concern. Poor dude, I rushed him out of the house in the dark and into the van before he’d even had a chance to let his bowels wake up.

Once that was taken care of, since there was no one around, I unhooked his leash and let him explore. I must say, it is a glorious thing to have a dog who will come when he is called, that I can trust him to enjoy himself in the woods. He zigzagged from smell to smell, and I wondered if he was searching for other dogs or small, interesting, furry thing smells. There was a trail up the bank and around the lake, and I thought, what the heck, let’s stretch our legs. Maybe I’ll even get a critter to take a picture of.

Sometimes, when you are looking for The Photo (or, really, anything else), you forget to just be present. I found nothing photo-worthy at 6:53 a.m. today, but there will be snapshots in my mind. Bandit, still not really awake but joyfully exploring the smells in the woods. I heard a noise and stopped in my tracks, looking up. The tall cedars above me nodded their heads at one another, discussing the gray dawn, perhaps, making delightful creaking noises that called to mind other forests, other evergreens. I stood dwarfed by them, admiring them, for several minutes. No photo could hold them, or their voices. I walked on to a different edge of the lake and stood, listening to the lap of waves against a reed-forested shore. A kingfisher called in the distance, teasing: I’ve never been able to get a satisfactory shot of a kingfisher. I never saw him, but by now, I had come back to the present and it didn’t matter. Bandit gazed over the water with me, and eventually, we made our way back along the little trail to the canoe ramp. The geese called excitedly to one another and I knew they were going to take off, but my camera settings weren’t ready for flight speed and I missed that, too. I have’t looked at the pictures yet but I think the only photo I’ll probably bother with is an abstract one of the reed patterns in the water, distorted reflections dancing on the surface. I don’t mind. There are other mornings and this one reminded me how exquisite quiet mornings can be, in full living color or in grayscale.

Posted in Creatures

The Limits of Love

Rascal as I will always think of him, enjoying and glowing in the golden hour

Spoiler alert: there aren’t any. Love has no limits.

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved y our beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

— W.B. Yeats

Rascal is not my dog. When my son Brandon was four, he saved up his money and bought a puppy. “Get a shih tzu,” my mom said. “I love collies,” I said. We opened up the newspaper and found shih tzu/sheltie mix puppies for sale. That felt like destiny calling. We got the pup.

That was almost 19 years ago. He has always been Brandon’s dog, a dude’s dog. I’m the one who messes with him, trimming nails, brushing (he requires a lot of brushing, but I have let it go except for what is necessary for his health), cleaning up his messes. Brandon loved him, snuggled with him, trained him, adored him.

And then went to college. When he was six months old we bought another pup to ease his separation anxiety, his half brother, and it wouldn’t have been fair to Rascal to go with Brandon and spend a lot of time alone. So he stayed home with me, wriggling with joy when His Boy came to visit him, covering him with kisses. If I get a kiss I count it a rare treasure.

Still, he is an old soul, and he had a lot to teach me. I think he still does. That’s a story for a longer blog post probably, the one I will sob over when he leaves us. It’s not time for that now.

Right now it’s time to cherish every moment he is still in joy. He still loves that golden hour, lying in the yard. He wags for snow. He wags for His Boy. He wags for Christmas presents. He wags.

He has had degenerative hip disease since he was two years old, so I am astonished that he is still plugging along. His brother Dink left us late in 2017. We lost bladder control last year, and he can’t hear too well or read the newspaper anymore. I have to pick him up to take him outside, and snatch him up when he’s done peeing to make sure he doesn’t fall over in it while he’s trying to walk when he’s done. He needs diapers. He gets diaper rash. His appetite isn’t the best and most of the time I have to fight with him to get pills down him. But the vet is astonished that his bloodwork looks so good for a geezer his age, and, well, he still wags.

He was always a Rascal. If he wasn’t tied, he’d run away, daring someone to catch him. Unbelievably, he still tries to run away. If I put him outside and don’t put him on a leash — this crotchety old man who sleeps with his face practically in his water dish so that he doesn’t have to get up and walk to it if he gets thirsty in the middle of the night — he will “run” away, by which I mean he hobbles 2 feet, looks around to see if I am watching, and if he is lucky, he makes it to the edge of the neighbor’s yard, feeling supremely pleased with himself for outfoxing me. If I’m not careful he will make it to the garden and get stuck.

He loves Christmas. He finds his present (he always knows because it’s the soft one that’s not in a box), and he pokes it with his nose excitedly while Bran helps him open it. Bran sleeps over on Christmas Eve. We had to wake him up this year, but he was still excited about his present, which was a bed and not a dog toy for the first time ever. The last three Christmases I thought would be his last with us, and he keeps surprising me.

He’s a lot of work. Loving an old geezer is a lot of work. I fight with the pills, I change his diaper, I carry him outside, I have to watch because often the only indication that he needs to go is that he tries to get up and move. I try not to diaper him all the time because he gets rashes, so he has accidents in the house sometimes, not getting up too fast, and we head to the bathtub to clean him up, one hand under his belly because he has a hard time standing for very long. I have to hand feed him sometimes when he is being picky. One of the hardest things about this past very difficult year was when I had surgery and couldn’t take care of him the way he needed me to, couldn’t pick him up.

But as long as he is still wagging, I do not mind. I find so much joy in his enjoyment. He likes his new bed. He loves the big glass door, lying on his bed looking outside, hanging out with Russ, and especially when The Boy comes. He does not love nail trims or brushing or me fidgeting with him. I do not doubt that he will let me know when the joy is gone and it’s time to let him go, when he has one last lesson for me. But we are not there yet.

So I want to tell you this: when love is a lot of work, that’s when you should hold on to it most dearly and with the most joy, but with a gentle grip, because it is fragile, and because when it is time to let go, you should not hold any more. That is the paradox and challenge of love. Can you cherish without clutching, do the work without resentment, be present without demanding?

Lessons in love so often come with paws and fur.