Friday, August 18, 2017

Making Choices

Making Choices

There are times when the going gets so rough we have little choice but to go ahead on our own definition of faith. An illness befalls us, a death separates us, our safety or security is threatened, we lose what we hold most dear. We look around for something to hold onto and there’s nothing solid, nothing permanent - only the beliefs we’ve built into our lives to save us at just such times. Here are some principles I’ve come to recognize as sturdy foundations.

We can choose to believe in the continuation of life despite bereavement. If we look to nature and the change of seasons to reassure us, we can see our own cycles of birth, youth, old age, and death. We learn to trust that spring will always come again no matter how hard the winter. For every body that wears out, or falls ill, or is damaged beyond repair, we trust that another will be born somewhere, keeping the great wheel of life revolving. We come to understand that death and loss are part of life, that no one and no thing on earth is impervious to change. When we accept this realization rather than fight it, we step back into the flow of life and are carried along, buoyed by our acceptance, and protected from the harshest blows by our agreement with life.

We can choose to see beauty in the face of ugliness. The two concepts are so personal, so subjective, that often we can’t label them definitively, but there are a few things most humans agree are beautiful—a child’s smile, the dazzle of sun on water, sunsets that paint the sky in brilliant colors, rainbows, flowers that bloom before the last snow has melted away—and a few that many of us deem ugly; the distress of poverty, the pollution of our natural resources, the results of a casual disregard of another’s humanity. We have only to look at our surroundings and at each other to see that our attitudes control what our eyes see. We tout our free will as one of those concepts that raise us above other life forms. If this is true, then it is up to each one of us to choose our definitions with care.

We can choose to see hope in the face of despair. Bad things happen to everyone; there are no exceptions. We get to experience life in all its manifestations. We watch as natural disasters sweep away everything familiar, witness triumph turn to tragedy and fall from the sky, read of accidents and deliberate cruelties. But we also come to know heroes, those who in times of great distress put their own lives at risk, their own fears behind them, to rescue those of us who can’t do it for ourselves.

We choose to see love in the face of fear. It is fear, not hate, that is the opposite of love. When we work to instill fear in others, we seek to rob them of their power to do what’s right. If, as Gandhi advises, we be the change we want to see in the world, if we choose to believe that our love for each other is a greater strength, and a more honest one, we can achieve wonders.

We can believe in the power of memories, those cherished moments we’ve chosen to keep in our thoughts and recall when our souls are loneliest: recollections of loved ones, of happier times, of days when things felt right.


Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A Life of Walking

--> I read that the Tarahumara Indians of the southwest Sierra Madres must, when they die, make a journey to every place they ever lived and collect their footprints. These, along with their hair, they must present to their god. What an interesting concept. I wouldn’t have much hair to present (mine has always been rather fine and thin) but collecting my footprints would be great fun.

I’d start at the place where I was raised in Massachusetts. My footprints are in every room of my beloved homestead. They race up and down the stairs and out the doors, cover every inch of yard, front and back, then venture off into field and forest. They climb the old apple tree that grew beside the berry patch, find narrow, prickly paths between the blackberry canes, stop at the edge of the brook that bordered the property, leap from an old stump at the side of the road. And the road! I’d need another lifetime to collect all the footprints I’ve left on my old home street.

After leaving home as a young adult, I lived in New Mexico. My footprints must still be in Albuquerque and in Old Town, in the arroyos and the desert sands along the Rio Grande River. They must still wander through dormitories, resound in the dimly lit, spidery tunnel that connected the classrooms, trace their way along the sidewalks of Santa Fe, climb the mystical, winding stairs of Loretto Academy.

Having collected those, I would search next in Media, Pennsylvania where I moved as a bride, and in King of Prussia, Philadelphia, and the Amish towns of New Hope and Lancaster. Next, I’d search them out in Kansas City, Missouri, where I spent a few months with my newborn son while his father served in the military, and then in several Connecticut towns - Glastonbury, Bristol, and Tariffville - where we first settled as a young family. My footsteps must still ramble down the winding country roads,
through the cemetery where I often sat and dreamed at the foot of a life-sized statue of the Good Shepard, and along the sidewalks of Simsbury and Avon.
I’d have to drive far north to find the next set, up through the green hills of Northern Vermont. How long would it take to gather twelve years of footprints from Noyesville where we spent our first shivery winter, to Danville where we homesteaded in a hand-hewn log cabin for the next eleven years? How many times did I go up and down the back hill to the outhouse, up and down the front hill that served as a driveway, hauling loads of laundry and groceries during mud season when the car couldn’t make it up? How many times did I climb the drive, hauling countless gallons of water from All Right Springs ten miles away when our well went dry? 

My feet also walked ground in St. Johnsbury, in Greensboro, in Barton and Glover, in Morrisville, Newport, and Montpelier. I’ve left traveler’s prints in fifteen other states, in Canada, and in parts of beautiful, green England, northern France, Holland, and Germany.

Now my footsteps lay themselves down on a new road just three miles from where they first began. They’ve crisscrossed Main Street a million times, left themselves along Giberson in search of daisies, at the Mill Pond dam where I lean over the bridge to watch the chaos theory in action, along Miller to town, and over the bridge up Cook Road on my way to work. They’ve traversed Bear’s Den Road and Berkshire School Road, pattered along Salisbury Road and down Root Lane. Collecting them all will be life-affirming, for in every footprint I know I will also find a piece of my self.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Between Words and Birds

When things go wrong, I always seek solace in two places – out of doors or in the pages of books (and in recent years, online). The beauty I find in one and the wisdom I find in the other have never failed me.

April has been a month of sadness. I attended a memorial for a beloved cousin’s wife, learned that my son-in-law’s stepfather had only weeks to live, and was shocked by a friend’s sudden and violent death as she crossed the main street in town.

Through all this sadness, spring crept, bringing warm weather and violets, birdsong and fresh green shoots. At the same time, I kept running across a singular theme in my reading. Three messages from three different friends who know nothing of each other spoke of acceptance, about loving what was to come before even knowing it was coming, to look for light in the darkest of times. The book chapter I was reading was about giving thanks in all circumstances. It happens like that, doesn’t it? What you most need to know crops up in front of you, forcing you to pay attention.

Just so. I was sitting outside on my gazebo deck this morning, feeling blue about the coming church service for my friend, knowing there would be tears. I ached for the family left behind, people I loved even though I didn’t see them more than a few times a year. I knew I would stand among all those believers and feel afresh the sorrow of not really being one of them. I long ago lost my faith in a deity that cared for humans any more than it did the whole of the universe. Their comfort would not be mine.

That lack of faith is often tested by events for which I have no rational explanation. It would seem the universe conspires to unnerve me in the best of ways. For example, for several summers my mother carried on a whistling conversation with a catbird that nested in the lilac bush at the corner of our front porch. Mama would stretch out in a lounge chair of an afternoon, the catbird would perch on a branch of the lilac, and they’d chirp and whistle daily to each other from May until September when the catbird joined its flock headed south.

When my mother passed away one grim October, I fetched the old lounge chair from the porch, set it on the lawn and sat in it, contemplating the way the house itself seemed to sag as if it, too, were missing her. I closed my eyes and heard a catbird call. I sat up. It sounded so real, so close. And that’s because it was. There in a bare branch of the lilac tree sat a catbird, eyeing me, and calling. In mid-October! I whistled back and the bird flew off. “Don’t go!” I cried, but it went.

When I moved back to the old homestead a few years later, I hauled the lounge chair out of storage, ensconced myself in it and sang to whatever catbird made an appearance. Who could it be but my mother?

In every house I’ve lived in since, a pair of catbirds has made a nest in a nearby bush. Of course, that’s not unusual. Catbirds frequent this area of New England. Still, I talk to the female as it builds its nest, hatches its eggs, raises its young. I tell her what I would tell my mother if she were sitting beside me. And she always, always talks back.

Because of this affinity, when a treasured friend died some years ago and a coal black crow hopped unusually close to me as I sat grappling with grief, I fancied the crow was my departed friend. I spoke to it and it moved to a low branch of a nearby pine and studied me for a moment before flying noisily off. That crow, or some crow, kept close for days. When I went for a walk along the pond’s edge, it followed me, flying low from tree to tree. For the most part it was silent, but now and then, when I directed a question about its identity toward it, the bird would flap its wings and utter a strange rattling sound. I don’t see it as often as those first few weeks of grief. In fact, I have no idea if it’s the same crow that now and then lights in a tree branch close to where I sit to watch the pond in the evenings, but I like to think it is.

Knowing all this, you might not think it strange to hear that today while I was crying on the gazebo deck, a catbird lit on a branch in the tree just over my head and began to call. “Mama?” I asked and it hopped to a lower branch. And a nearer one. And finally it left the tree and perched not two feet from me on the top of the lawn swing. It turned its head to see me from first one eye, then the other.

While I was holding my breath a blue jay flashed its brilliant blue wings, uttered its creaky porch swing call and landed on the branch the catbird had just vacated. The two birds watched me silently. Say what you will, I know who that blue jay is.


I came to an apple tree
on my walk last night.
A fresh breeze blew across the pond
setting the boughs dancing.
The faces of the open blossoms
laughed in the evening sun
and held fast to the tiny buds.
Up and own they bobbed
as merry as children at play.
They would not stay still for the camera,
so when I looked later at the photos
all I could see was a blur
of pink and white joy.
Only the effects of wind
can be captured in a picture;
the wind itself is forever free,
like the wild joy I felt
watching the blossoms dance.
The laughter I heard

may well have been my own.