Perceptions of Spring – V:  Big Birds

First there was the Turkey vulture.

Me: <a sharp intake of breath as the shadow flashes over> “Oh! Hey, Turkey vulture! Look Tess!”
Tess: <she looks up, says nothing, watches it>
Me: “Wow, you're beautiful!”
We stare at it, soaring low and back-lit by sunlight, its silvery-white flight feathers dazzling in contrast to the black “T” of its body. It disappears behind the treetops, and we walk on down the hill.

Next there was the owl.

Me: <pulls on the leash to stop Tess, takes off sunglasses to get a better look> “Oh my gosh. Stay, Tess!” 
Tess: <sniffs the snow, oblivious>
Me: <quietly ties Tess to the stop sign, then tiptoes across the road
Barred owl: <swivels its head towards me, then silently lifts off the snow into the woods behind>
Me: “Oh! Thank you!” <looks puzzled> “Why were you here?”
I walk to where the large bird had been, just over the shoulder of the road. No sign of injury, or a dead rodent. Its appearance remains a mystery.

     Tess and I walk on through this beautiful blue-sky March day. There will be another bird, I think. I feel that the first two have been gifts, and indeed I needed them to help me out of the trough that I had written myself into this weekend. Nothing cures an overdose of introspection like a good long walk outside with your dog.
     In town, we watch the train rumble slowly through the crossing, a horse-drawn carriage clatter by declaring “Bridal Show” on its backside, and a dad playing catch in a sandy parking lot with his two boys. Twice we run into old friends also out for a walk. This is what happens in spring in Maine.
     The final stretch of our loop passes close to a tidal river. That's where I see it: a Common merganser streaking through the sparkling water parallel to us. The third bird.

Doug Brozovsky photo: www.imagesbydougb.com
     I believe that spirit connects us all, that we exist in a great pool of spirit kind of like the way fish live in water. We are held in stillness, connected by the ripples of our movements, caressed, tumbled through rapids, fed; we breathe spirit; and we often forget that it is there.  Today, I had reminders.
<I thank the merganser, and Tess and I walk home.>


Perceptions of Spring – IV: Getting on the Donkey

     Today is Palm Sunday. I'm imagining what it was like to get on that donkey to ride into Jerusalem. I think Jesus knew he was sticking his neck out farther than he ever had before.
     Time out – I know this Christianity seems sudden. Let me explain where it comes from. While I no longer ally with a big-R religion, Christianity was the first major block of spiritual wisdom that I studied.  I grew up going to church, but as an adult I realized I didn't really "get" Jesus. So, I did some in-depth study to learn more about the man in the context of his time. In more recent years I have been exploring other major wisdom traditions, mostly Buddhism and native American; listening to the earth; and – most sacred of all - listening to the stories we share with each other from our daily lives. Now, back to musing about the action Jesus was about to undertake... 
     A little scene-setting from when I studied the historical Jesus will help. Jerusalem was a walled city with several gates. Every spring just before Passover, the Roman governor rode into the city in a display of power via the West Gate - every symbol of Imperialism blazing in gold, and hordes of armed Roman soldiers accompanying him. Jesus knew this. Reading the story of Palm Sunday carefully, it appears that Jesus set up his entry into Jerusalem as a challenge to power. He told his disciples where the donkey would be and how to requisition it. And then he, the peasant radical who preached justice, non-violence and peace, rode into Jerusalem via the East Gate at the same time as Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor. (As we find out a week later, Pilate didn't think much of Jesus' stunt and sentenced him to crucifixion.)
     But I'm not thinking here about Jesus-as-son-of-God. I'm thinking about the man Jesus. What was it like for him when he got on that donkey?
     I got on a bus once. Ten years ago, I left my young children and husband at home, and rode to New York City overnight, coming in at dawn. We fifteen Mainers joined two hundred Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Unitarians, blue blazers, saffron robes, birkenstocks, children, men, and women to march to the United Nations as people of faith in witness to the tragedy of global warming. Drums beat the pace as we sang and carried signs and walked. Police held the traffic at corners so we could cross without stopping. People stared. One man with a big mustache watched us with a bemused look from the top step of his brownstone. A finger tapped my shoulder: “See that man?” the guy behind me whispered. “Kurt Vonnegut.” Oh.
     Outside the UN, we held a Service of Repentance and Renewal. President Bush had refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol. I prayed for him. Afterwards, I and a few others met with Ambassador Enele Sopoaga of the tiny South Pacific island nation of Tuvalu. He told us that changes in storm patterns threatened the very existence of their 4,000 year old culture. He told us that as a nation, they were beginning to plan for total abandonment of their nine-island ancestral home within 40-50 years.
     Twenty-four hours after I left, I was back home in Maine. I wrote articles and spoke to congregations about what I heard. I can't say that my actions accomplished anything; but then again, when Jesus-the-man was crucified, I'm not sure he would have said he had accomplished anything either.
     I do believe that our actions have ripples that carry beyond our knowing. They don't have to be big actions; baby steps are good. Because when we stand in the place of Spirit, and get on the donkey – or the bus – or sign a petition – or say something when it would be safer to stay quiet – or even whisper about love and peace and courage into our children's ears at night when the lights are out, that is when we send ripples of hope into the world.
     Happy Palm Sunday. Happy spring.


Intermezzo - The Slide

     The college responses started to come suddenly and unexpectedly early.  Why is it easier to be going down the slide, picking up speed, butterflies rising from my stomach, than it is to sit quietly at the top, contemplating what is to come?

    Is it possible to be still and present while descending at speed?  What would it be like to inhabit my life one frame at a time?  Would I miss the feel of the air rushing past my face?


Perceptions of Spring - III

"We don't have to let go.  We simply have to not hold on."
-- Joseph Goldstein

     Hours before the vernal equinox – the first day of spring according to the calendar, winter roared back in. Schools closed, plows rumbled over the streets, the brown open fields settled back into white, and we all gave up a little hope and reverted to patience.
     I've been part of this dance before. I know the roofs will drip snow like frosting and icicles won't have a chance under this March sun. Winter can't hold on.

     My mind is getting in the way, though. And it's not the weather that confounds me, it's the calendar.
     The calendar is telling me that spring is coming because it is time now for my younger two to register for fall classes at the High School. It is time for the letters to come from the colleges telling Meg whether she has been accepted or rejected. It is time for me to make hotel reservations for my parents who will be flying to Maine in June for graduation.
     This is where I try to placate my uneasiness by making nice analogies to new beginnings, seeds bursting forth, fertile soil. But I can't. My mind keeps darting around, trying to understand. Acceptances? Rejections? Graduate? These words have a finalness to them that don't belong in spring. I like spring. I love spring. I'm a nice grounded person; I'm not a doting, over-protective, “helicopter” mother; I meditate and do yoga; I don't drink caffeine... Somehow I seem to think that I don't deserve this snowstorm at the vernal equinox.
     But my calendar is showing me that time just keeps marching towards the moment, square by numbered square, when I will be done raising my oldest child at home. And it is happening this spring. Which is now.
     It's a good thing I have a heart to enfold my mind, pouting and stamping its foot at the calendar like a stubborn child. I need my heart to soothe my fears around the coming season. And I will need it to gently make room for the quiet sadness that is taking up residence as the snow melts.


Perceptions of Spring – II

     The geese started it. They surprised me – I don't know why, I guess because I think of their honking as an autumn sound. It was at night when we were out with the dogs, back a month ago maybe. Walking in the quiet dark, my senses are usually stretched to the stars. But that night my ears awoke. Below my human perception was some deeper cue that the geese were obeying, and I heard it through them. The flow has reversed – life is returning to the north.
     The sounds are beginning to trickle in more quickly now, like the loosening of water from ice: the cardinal's sudden clear song piercing a February dawn outside our bedroom window; red-winged blackbirds chortling from a nearby marsh; a pileated woodpecker drumming territorial echoes across the field; the rattley trill of a migrant northern flicker. My eyes have not confirmed any of these travelers, except the cardinal. But I know without a doubt that we are in the midst of what will soon be a stampede.
     So why is all the talk on the street about how bad things are? Here's my theory: what we see is ugly, and we are a visual species. Dirty snow, mud, freezing rain, biting wind, no green only brown, overcast sky. War in Syria, no budget in Washington, saber-rattling in the Korean peninsula, scandals, blaming, victims. Sometimes it feels easier to stay in the darkness, with a friend.
     What world do we choose to live in? My eyes tell me one thing, but I choose to listen as well. And smell. And feel. The earth is unlocking from winter, arching her back and stretching to the sunlight. And singing. Listen.


Perceptions of Spring  -  I   

     I've been cheating. I've got spring in a box.

     Years ago, when I had three children under age 5, and winter was turning into a desperate thing for this former forest ecologist, I had an idea. Somewhere, I noticed one of those cute little glass jars holding a green plant with a red berry – probably a hostess present at a Christmas party. I can do that, I thought.
     So that summer I found a ten gallon aquarium tank at a yard sale.
     One stolen hour in late October, when the woods were ready to freeze, I filled a bucket with trowel-scooped pieces of forest floor. They held mosses of varying shades of greens and textures; hardy green creeping plants like wintergreen and partridgeberry; the remnant of a small fern that looked like it might make it; a yearling balsam fir seedling with its dark green flat needles; some bunchberry with its dogwood-like leaves mottled purple from age. I picked up a stone, some rotting orangey-colored sticks, and looked for British Soldiers – the grey-green lichen with the red coats.
     My kitchen floor was spread with newspapers, knuckle-sized gravel from under the outside shower, the empty terrarium and my bucket. It was a magnet for the toddlers. We put the gravel carefully in the bottom of the glass tank, and I layered in the scoops of dormant plant life like a collage. It was a diorama of the woods. After we watered it to keep the plants alive and put on the lid, we carefully placed it on the sill behind the kitchen sink. There it would get a little natural light in the bay window. My spirit was happy; I could look at ten gallons worth of uncovered forest floor during the deepest darkest snowiest days of winter.
      Then the unexpected happened. Spring began to come to my tank:

     I repeat this ritual every year now, on the eve of winter, when my heart is about to sink. And when it is done, I wait, a quickening like hope beating gently in me. 
     The first mayflower spike bursts me open. I proclaim it to my now-teenagers like a new birth in the family. The best part is that I don't know what will come up or emerge next. Sometimes there are woodland grasses, starflower, twinflower.  The ferns put up tiny fiddleheads that slowly unfurl. Pine seedlings stretch up and put out a new whorl of needled branchlets. It's all green! – the best kind of spring green, the kind that lifts me to life like I was a plant myself reaching for the sun.       And then there is more! Beetles emerge (sometimes they eat my tender new plants, which makes me sad but oh well). Teeny little flies, and bigger ones too. Moths. Snails! (without their shells, but they do have those stalks on their leading end). It is just miraculous, and because it is at eye-level, I get to see it as if I was lying on the forest floor with my eyes open from early May through June. 
     I am grateful for my eyes and the way in which they inhale green as nutrition for my soul. I am grateful for glass boxes. I am grateful for beginnings that happen over and over again.



     I enter the labyrinth but I am not prepared for a meditative experience. Within the small space of this room, we wind back and forth, following the path one after another. It could be a time to practice bringing mindfulness to the routine mindlessness of just getting through it. Instead, all I can do is notice that possibility before I get out my boarding pass and ID for the uniformed agent at the other end.
     We're heading home, leaving the National Indoor Field Hockey tournament and all its massive adrenaline and expectations to wash out with the tide of memory.
     Three days ago, Meg* and her teammates and a support crew of parents arrived, excited, big fish from a little pond ready to play with the best of the best for the first time in her club's history. Ahhh, the Richmond Convention Center: eight courts, one hundred and twelve teams averaging ten girls per team, parents, coaches, college scouts, timing clocks, whistles, air horns, athletic gear vendors, and fried food all contained in a lot of concrete. The girls were pumped. I was overwhelmed. We were na├»ve.
     As Meg's field hockey team began to lose, her teammates began to plummet into shock, self-blame and defeat. Their losses were stunning, especially the first day. I watched as some of them also lost their spirit, shaking their heads in disbelief, keeping their eyes cast down. They shrugged off their parents, sulked, sat alone between games. Somehow, Meg seemed unaffected.
     Meg is studying Buddhism at school. It's her final English class in her senior year. The way she's taken to it is like she's found her country: there are no strangers, and the climate suits her.
     “How are you doing?” I asked her, tentatively.
     “Fine,” she said. “I'm just more excited about playing than winning.” She was clearly out of sync with her teammates. “They're stuck in their heads,” she explained.
     That night in our generic hotel room, as I tiptoed around what I thought was the tender topic of losing, she summed up her take on the situation pretty directly.
     “We analyzed The Life of Pi in Buddhism, Mom, and now I'm kind of analyzing my life the same way. I think 'oh, interesting: I'm being mindful and not attaching to the dukkha here'”. (Dukkha, she explained, is suffering.) “People say 'does that mean you don't care about winning or losing?' Of course I care, but I can't do anything about what's already happened. I can try to play better, and hope we score and even win a game, but I have to live in the present.”
      I have a thing about hope, so I asked her about it. “Hope is not an attaching thing,” she said. “But having expectations totally is.”
     One way or another, most of the girls got to that point by the third and final day of play. They realized they were little fish in a really big pond, and dropped any expectations of winning anything. They played their hearts out that last day, hope flickering with every starting whistle, and they even managed to score a couple of goals.
     The whole weekend was a labyrinth of sorts. When I look back on where we ended up, it's not so far from where we started. But Meg was my teacher as we walked it, and sitting here on our plane to Maine, I am amazed and grateful to have this old soul as my daughter beside me.

*Meg is a pseudonym. I don't want to use my children's names. You understand.